The mystery of suffering: A before-and-after photo story

I’m often asked how I’ve been able to photograph human suffering for so much of my career and still maintain my sanity and belief in the goodness of God.

Suffering is a mystery. I’ve met many good, righteous, faithful people who have lives full of misery. My dear sister-in-law, Karen, passed away last week after years of battling cancer. She volunteered with orphans in Haiti and gave to people in need in India. She made sure her home was always open to visitors, both family and strangers, even during her illness. She was generous to a fault, wonderfully kind, encouraging, and selfless. Her life of service was lived to the glory of God. Yet she died painfully and young. Suffering is a mystery.

One thing I do know: In the midst of the worst of the worst situations, God is still there.

When Layla Mohamed, 23, brought little baby Zam Zam to me at a camp in Somalia, she was confused and on the verge of panic. Her baby was dying, and she didn’t know what to do. She said, "I don't sleep enough because I am so worried. I wake up in the night and give drink to the baby."

Layla and Zam Zam in Somalia. ©2011 Jon Warren/World Vision

Nutrition and health staff with me measured Zam Zam’s upper arm circumference and confirmed what was obvious to see -- the baby was severely malnourished.

I only had time to ask a few questions and take some quick photos before dashing off to the airstrip. But I was tortured by what I had seen.

I have children, too. I can’t imagine the emotional and spiritual pain of watching your child suffer like this. Suffering from famine is ugly and horrific.

But it is a mystery.

You can imagine my relief and excitement several weeks later when I saw a Facebook posting about Zam Zam by my co-worker, Mindy Mizell. World Vision's staff members in Somalia had made sure Zam Zam was regularly fed high-nutrition Plumpy'Nut.™ Her face had filled out, and she was sitting up. And Layla was smiling again.

Layla and Zam Zam just a few weeks after Jon's original photograph of them in Somalia. ©2011 World Vision

This was a mystery of God's work -- hope made possible in the midst of the most desperate circumstances.

It’s too early for me to see how God will use Karen’s suffering for His glory. I’m still in the pain and grief stage. But I’ve already seen how humanitarian aid can help save lives like Zam Zam’s.

In the midst of the suffering in Somalia, God is at work.

Help bring hope to those who are suffering because of drought and famine in the Horn of Africa.

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Read related posts about the food crisis in East Africa.

See more photo blogs from Jon Warren.

Listen to Jon's interview on American Public Media's The Story: "Somalia: Through The Lens"


    True, it is a mystery indeed... sometimes God allows things like this to happen to show His power... this took me to this Scripture in John 9:
    1 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. 2 “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?”
    3 “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.
    We have seen the power of God in Zam Zam's life :)

    When Jesus said we should take up our cross and follow Him, was He speaking about the suffering that we would encounter as His disciples? Or was He speaking about giving up our personal comforts for the glory of God? The cross is a symbol of suffering. Maybe He was warning us of the suffering that we would encounter in this world and that as His followers, we have been called to suffer with one another? Paul did say we were living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2) and maybe suffering teaches us that our comfort and rest was never meant to be in this world but in Jesus who suffered so that we might rest in Him for all eternity.

    AMEN! Well said.

    This is so amazing and so touching. In my personal prayer time this morning, God showed me that life is truly good when you are dedicating your life to him, whether you are wealthy or poor, or healthy or sick, God is always good.
    May God bless you all for your service.

    Thank you for posting this. I had wondered what happened to Zam Zam, as I had read earlier about baby Tipen. What a remarkable difference in his face. Thanks for your good work and praise to God for His continued work Somalia and the East African countries.

    This is a great story, as a former employee of world vision, I know WV and their great staff give up their personal time for the cause even though they don't need too, they do it because its in their hearts. We see great stories all the time having worked with undeveloped countries around the world and donating berkey water filters for berkey water purification. We would love to donate water filters to Please contact us at for the best water purifiers in the world, we donate to red cross and unicef. The berkey water filter has the unique ability to turn stale stagnant untreated water into pure healthy water in minutes, its gravity fed so it requires no electricity, I come to tears writing, becae we all need to give more. Please contact berkey shop, we would love to help you in the battle to educate the world about healthy water filters, the big berkey is among the most popular , thanks and God bless us. -- Trenton

    I know it's a bit off subject, but I have had the privilege of spending time with WV in a few places on earth and I have the utmost respect for this organization. Jon, if you ever read these comments, I was just retelling the wonderful story of taking off late one night with you to try and capture hyaenas in photos circa addis ababa, Ethiopia. Thanks for taking the time, your free time, after a long day of capturing orphans with aids and families living in mud huts. I hope to see you again, friend. Your job changes the way in which millions see the world.

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