The images published in the Commercial Appeal’s “Born to Die” series awoke a sleeping community to an alarming problem. They also caused photographer Karen Pulfer Focht many restless nights.
“I have three children of my own,” said Focht. “I would often come home at night and hold them tight. I lost hours of sleep thinking about those little babies fighting for their lives, or being buried in wooden boxes and trenches with no one there for them.”
Focht’s photographs accompanied a three-part story about Memphis’ unimaginable infant mortality rate. The Southern city ranks No. 1 amongst the 60 largest cities in the United States in percentage of babies who die before their first birthday.
To get the pictures that fueled the feature, Focht traveled to the area where the problem was most prevalent: the desolate streets of Memphis ZIP code 38108.
“Most of these families lived in poor, dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhoods,” Focht said. “Once, we were greeted at the door by a drug addict wielding a butcher knife. … It was the most intense project I’ve ever done. I cannot say it was fun; it was actually very depressing.
“Seeing the pain of death and grief (was most difficult). It hurts to see so much of the dysfunction that leads to the poverty and prematurity, seeing the hardship that is such a part of many of these women’s daily lives. Many Americans are shielded from the reality of poverty in our country.”
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen was one such individual surprised by Focht’s findings. Because of her work, Bredesen is preparing to enact a “One for All” program to help more babies reach their first birthday.
“It’s easy to brush aside numbers in a speech, but what made this real was a picture of little caskets lined up like shoeboxes,” said Bredesen. “It’s journalism at its best.”
Others shocked by the photographer’s snapshots included the SPJ judges.
“(It was) a story we didn’t expect to see in the United States, images we can’t shake from our minds,” said the judges. “The row of tiny coffins in a trench, a baseball signed by a dad who didn’t get to play catch. The story is so beautifully documented it brought tears to our eyes.”
Reactions like these have helped Focht to rest assured.
“We have sown the seeds of change in our community, and now I am watching them bear fruit,” Focht said. “If this story can bring about change, all of my sleepless nights will be worth it.”