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Story of the "Fetal Hand Grasp" Photograph
As a veteran photojournalist in Nashville, Tennessee, I was hired by USA Today newspaper to photograph a spina bifida corrective surgical procedure. It was to be performed on a twenty-one week old fetus in utero at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. At that time, in 1999, twenty-one weeks in utero was the earliest that the surgical team would consider for surgery. The worst possible outcome would be that the surgery would cause premature delivery, and no child born earlier than twenty-three weeks had survived.
The tension could be felt in the operating room as the surgery began. A typical C-section incision was made to access the uterus, which was then lifted out and laid at the junction of the mother's thighs. The entire procedure would take place within the uterus, and no part of the child was to breach the surgical opening. During the procedure, the position of the fetus was adjusted by gently manipulating the outside of the uterus. The entire surgical procedure on the child was completed in 1 hour and thirteen minutes. When it was over, the surgical team breathed a sigh of relief, as did I.
As a doctor asked me what speed of film I was using, out of the corner of my eye I saw the uterus shake, but no one's hands were near it. It was shaking from within. Suddenly, an entire arm thrust out of the opening, then pulled back until just a little hand was showing. The doctor reached over and lifted the hand, which reacted and squeezed the doctor's finger. As if testing for strength, the doctor shook the tiny fist. Samuel held firm. I took the picture! Wow! It happened so fast that the nurse standing next to me asked, "What happened?" "The child reached out," I said. "Oh. They do that all the time," she responded.
The surgical opening to the uterus was closed and the uterus was then put back into the mother and the C-section opening was closed.
It was ten days before I knew if the picture was even in focus. To ensure no digital manipulation of images before they see them, USA Today requires that film be submitted unprocessed. When the photo editor finally phoned me he said, "It's the most incredible picture I've ever seen."
- Michael Clancy
The Controversy Behind The Picture
I had been a photojournalist in the Nashville, Tennessee area for 12 years. I dearly loved every minute of it. The last four years I was a freelancer. I was paid a day rate and considered a subcontractor. I supplied all my own equipment (cameras, film, etc.).
I mainly freelanced for The Tennessean Newspaper in Nashville. They recommended me when USA Today called them needing someone to photograph the surgery.
I was honored to be shooting for USA Today and wanted to do the best job possible. I never imagined the child could possibly reach out during the surgery. But that is exactly what happened. As I write this four years later I'm still in shock that Samuel reached out like he did. But I am also in shock as to what has become of the moment I captured.
USA Today and The Tennessean Newspaper both published the picture initially September 7th, 1999. With my cutline stating Samuel reached out on his own.
Several very prominent people at The Tennessean Newspaper had said to me,"if that picture doesn't win a Pulitzer Prize something is wrong."
Almost a week had passed since publication of the picture and I had not heard from Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I called John Howser, Head of P.R. at Vanderbilt.
"You nailed it," John said. "Look, I'm in the middle of something I don't want to be in the middle of. Your picture is very good but it has already been done."
"What are you talking about, John?" I asked. He proceeded to tell me that Life Magazine had planned and posed a very similar picture a month before I captured the picture of Samuel reaching out.
He said, "For their Millenium Issue, Life Magazine wanted to show how far medical science had progressed in the twentieth century, in utero fetal surgery. It was intended to be the cover, December 1999. But they are not sure now."
I asked John how old their baby was. "24 weeks," he replied.
I said to John, "Surely Life Magazine would rather have the real thing rather than a posed picture." John did not seem happy with me.
The next morning Susan called me from Dr. Bruner's office and stated that Dr. Bruner would like to obtain a color slide of the picture for a presentation he was giving the following evening. I told her I would check with my lab and see if it was possible to rush the order. I called Susan back with the estimate of $145 to have the slide by tomorrow afternoon. "Let me speak with Dr. Bruner," she responded. She came back to the phone and said, "he's not going to pay anything."
"I'm sorry I have offended Dr. Bruner," I said.
Susan said, "not at all, I just found out you scooped Life Magazine." I paused a minute and let that sink in. I then told her that I could not afford to pay for it myself, and said I was sorry.
I pondered the
information I had and realized the position I was in. I knew about
the Life Magazine picture and story for their December 1999 issue.
I knew their baby was 24 weeks and their picture was posed. After
three days of pacing the floor trying to decide whether or not to
use this inside
"Bad choice of words, there isn't enough money in the world that would allow that to happen," I said. I told Brian to tell Life Magazine that if they did not use my picture I would find an agent to aggressively market my picture, and the story about in utero fetal surgery would be old news by the time their December issue could hit the streets.
Brian negotiated with Life Magazine for rights to my picture for the next four days. The second day of negotiations, I was talking to Brian on the phone, and I told him that I knew the baby in the Life Magazine picture was 24 weeks, and Samuel was 21 weeks, the youngest even considered for the surgery. I could hear a woman scream on another line when Brian told her that. He must have had a phone at each ear. I asked Brian who I was negotiating with? "Vivette Porges, a photo editor at Life Magazine," he responded. I knew when Brian asked me,"They want to know what speed of film the picture is on?" They were actually considering using the picture.
Around lunchtime on the fourth day Brian called and said, "Negotiations went on late into the night, and were very heated at times. But Life Magazine decided to pass on your picture."
Now it was a race
to have my picture published before the December Issue of Life Magazine
could come out. It was nearing the third week in September 1999.
I listened to the advice of a man I respect very much and hired
Marcel Saba to represent the picture for me. He was owner of Saba
Press, a very
The story about the groundbreaking fetal surgery was old news and Life Magazine buried their story,"Born Twice" in the last few pages of the December 1999 issue.
It must be stated that it is Dr. Bruner's hands in the Life Magazine Picture, and also in the picture of Samuel reaching out. Different surgeries.
Then it happened. The January 9th, 2000 article by Bill Snyder for The Tennessean Newspaper titled, "Photo of fetal surgery still stirs emotion."
Dr. Joseph P. Bruner stated, "Depending on your political point of view, this is either Samuel Armas reaching out of the uterus and touching the finger of a fellow human, or it's me pulling his hand out of the uterus ... which is what I did."
Four months earlier
the picture was first published with my cutline stating that Samuel
had reached out on his own and now Dr. Bruner was stating that he
had posed the picture for me. For all practical purposes his statement
ended my career in journalism. When my editors at The Tennessean
Newspaper came to me and asked me why the doctor would be saying
that he posed the
In the article, May 2, 2000, by Robert Davis for USA Today titled, "Hand of a fetus touched the world." Dr. Bruner made these comments:
Dr. Bruner's statements have stripped any credibility this moment in history might have had.
The words...spoken by the nurse in the operating room, "They do that all the time, " haunt me. They were said to me twice during all this. Immediately after Samuel reached out, and a month after Dr. Bruner claimed to have posed the picture for me. In the hallway at The Tennessean Newspaper, I passed a dear friend and fellow photographer, Delores Delvin. Delores said, "Do you remember my friend the nurse, you met her at the surgery, she said, those children reach out all the time."
The one thing no one counted on was the people of the world. The people that have embraced, emailed, shared this picture with their friends and loved ones. The people kept this picture alive. The popularity of the picture and story propelled their publication in the June 9th, 2003 issue of Newsweek, four years after the picture was taken. What a great thing it was, to see pictures of Samuel at 3 1/2 years old and to read he liked bugs.
That issue of Newsweek was displayed, to show the picture of Samuel reaching out, during the Partial Birth Abortion debates on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and the House of Representatives.
September 25th, 2003, Samuel, his parents, and I testified before a Senate Committee about the surgery and the impact of the picture. Samuel actually answered questions from Senator Sam Brownback.
I went on to
freelance for four years after the picture. It was very difficult
after Dr. Bruner's statements questioning my credibility. Eventually
I could not continue and stopped photojournalism in September
the three frames that were taken in sequence in the
. These frames were taken at 1/60th of a sec. as fast as my
Canon 1N motor drive could shoot. The motion blur in the third frame
explains what is happening. Watch Dr. Bruner's fingers, compare
the first two frames to the third frame. The doctor's fingers are
blurred because he is shaking them up and down in the third frame.
The motion blur on Samuel's hand transfers to the upper part of
his wrist as he grasps the doctor's finger. The only
Notice in the third frame, the right side of the surgical opening. The edges are smooth. Now notice above Samuel's hand. You can see the surgical edge was damaged as Samuel thrust his hand out.
I didn't count
on you before......now.......I am counting on you. The people of
this great country. Study the three frames carefully. If you believe
what you see, demand answers. From Dr. Bruner, Dr. Tulipan, the medical
staff at Vanderbilt University Medical Center that was present
during this procedure
I am a dreamer...an
idealist. I believe that people are good. I also believe that a
nurse or someone will come forward and feel the moment that Samuel,
an unborn child, gave to us is much too important a gift to the world
to have it denied. You may remain anonymous, please email me. You
After testifying before the Senate Committee hearing in Sept. 2003. I would not put a congressional inquiry into Samuel's surgery completely out of the realm of possibility. Film holds multitudes of information.
Perhaps anesthetizing a child in utero is the most experimental aspect of this procedure.
Someone please, ask Dr. Joseph P. Bruner if he truly did pose the picture that caused him to lose the cover of Life Magazine?
by Michael Clancy
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