SKIN DEEP: Courage and Hope Against the Odds
by Susan Markisz
For The NY Times

Meet Sara Haghbin. At 14, her skin once again retains the softness and translucence of a newborn. Although the contours of her facial features are unlike those of any other 14-year-old, Sara's emotions, like any other teenager's, surface one moment and retreat to the recesses of her soul the next. The color of Sara's skin has the bronze richness of her Persian ancestry, while it also bears the imprint and color of her inherited new home: Scarsdale white. But any other similarities to Sara's privileged contemporaries end where Sara's story begins.

Bagher Harandi and his adoptive daughter, 14 year old Sara Haghbin, in the garden of their Scarsdale home.
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times

One afternoon when Sara was three years old, in a small Iranian village, a man harboring a vendetta against Sara's mother threw battery acid at her and her young daughter, forever altering the landscape of her face into a topographic map of injuries. While his vicious attack permanently killed Sara's mother's spirit, who is institutionalized, and injured herself, he blinded and physically damaged Sara's countenance, but he did not destroy her courage.

Last July, after languishing for years in a boarding school for the blind in Mashad, Sara became the adoptive daughter of Scarsdale residents, Bagher and Kojasteh Harandi, who had seen her two years ago, while on a visit to their native Iran.
Sara Haghbin and her guardian Bagher Harandi share a light moment in the kitchen of their Scarsdale home.
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times
Sara holds a greeting card which she just received from her village in Iran. At right is her guardian Bagher Harandi, who has adopted her.
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times

When I arrived at the palatial home of the Harandis, Sara was upstairs in her room studying. I knew little of the girl's story, only the brief summary of the assignment sheet which had described her as disfigured, and that she was living with her adoptive family in Scarsdale. Bagher showed me an article that had been published in the weekly community paper a few days earlier. The paper had run a photograph of Sara, which was meant to shock, rather than to convey something of her personality.
14 year old Sara Haghbin was injured at the age of three when a neighbor threw battery acid at her and her mother during an altercation in their Iranian village. Sara has been adopted by the Harandis who will see to it that Sara gets the appropriate medical treatment she needs, including some 30 operations to help her breathe, and restore her sight.
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times
Suddenly, Sara bounded down the stairs into the kitchen where she introduced herself to me. Her face, framed by a hijab, a Muslim head covering, didn't look anything like the photograph in the paper, and yet it almost defied description. We chatted for a few moments while I studied her face and thought about how I was going to make a portrait of her that was sensitive to her physical characteristics, yet true to her character. We often use soft diffused lighting when photographing certain older folks, women mostly, to maximize society's concept of beauty and minimize perceived imperfections, usually just nature's imprint denoting age and experience. But in this case, there was simply no getting around Sara's unique features. The face she had been born with had been all but obliterated by a cowardly act. She cannot breathe through her nose and although she is blind, she may be able to have corneal transplants in the future, allowing her some vision. Her skin, once wrinkled and dry, has become soft once again because of improved nutrition. Kojasteh and Bagher and several surgeons donating their services, have arranged for Sara to have the many surgeries she will require over the coming years, to reconstruct features of her face.
I felt I needed to get to know Sara a little better so I asked her to show me her room. She bounded back up the stairs and played a few notes on her electric keyboard. A short time later, she sat down on the floor and showed me some large books and a machine resembling a typewriter, a Perkins Brailler. Sara, who had practically taken the stairs by twos, was almost completely blind and I hadn't even realized it! As she began making letters on the paper, with large tomes spread out before her on the floor, including books by Helen Keller and the Koran which she reads every day, she explained that there were still some phrases she didn't understand in English.
Sara plays an electric keyboard in her new Scarsdale home. 
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times

"Here," she said, gently taking my hand and placing my fingers on the tactile Braille words, as she read me the words she hoped I could help her understand. Sara loves photographs, although she can't see them. "Susan is such a beautiful name," she told me, and I said: "Yes I like my name too, it's kind of old fashioned" and she added: "Like Sara."

She asked me if I had children and was excited to learn I had a daughter about her age. "She must be in high school," she said. When Sara asked me what she was like, my heart kind of skipped a beat as I skipped over details like Katie's cover girl face, gray-green eyes and long blonde hair. "She likes to ride horses," I said. "Oh," exclaimed Sara, "I love horses," and I told her that she would be right at home with Katie at the barn where she works and rides.

Our conversation was interrupted by a family friend, who came into Sara's bedroom to give her a stuffed Easter bunny. Delighted, she hugged her friend and the stuffed animal and I started to take some pictures. But the woman insisted she didn't want to be in the newspaper. "Better the parents," she had said. But Kojasteh had already said that she did not want her picture in the paper either, so I was kind of at a loss as to how I was going to show the relationship of this child to others in her new family.

Writer Lynne Ames had arrived and I knew she would want to talk to Sara. We had been upstairs for quite awhile, so we went downstairs where, surrounded by her new family, a reporter, a photographer and a family friend, she recounted some of the horrors she had experienced as a young child. In English and Persian translated by Kojasteh, she told of people running from her in horror, stories of cruelties and insults, which she has endured throughout her life. Her stories were heartbreaking except for the fact that somehow Sara has been able to accept people the way they are even if it's not always mutual. "There is always hope," she said, "that's what keeps me going," as she segued into her future career plans, as an attorney "to help people". She attends the New York Institute for Special Education in the Bronx, where she has many friends.

I still didn't have any photographs of Sara with anyone from her adoptive family. The Harandis three daughters, all in their twenties, were at work or away at college. I felt impeded by Kojasteh's modesty about appearing in the photographs and the reticence of their family friend to be in the photographs as well, even as I noted their keen interest in her welfare. Perhaps it was a cultural thing that I didn't understand. I don't know, but it was hard not to wonder. After several hours, I realized my photograph would probably be one of Sara alone. There simply was a missing piece to this picture and I keenly felt the absence of the kind of emotional connection that is an intrinsic part of what I look for when photographing people.

Finally, I had promised that I would take a few pictures of the family and their family friend, as they had requested, out in Kojasteh's lush botanical garden, filled with splendid orchids and exotic plants. I first photographed Sara with Kojasteh's friend who had given her the Easter bunny. There was genuine affection between the two and I felt conflicted---happy to have observed this emotional interaction, yet somewhat resentful and deprived at not being able to use the photographs illustrate it.

Childlike delight. Sara Haghbin with a gift from a neighbor. 
(c) Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times

Just before Bagher and Kojasteh came into the garden to be photographed, Sara picked up the Easter bunny and tossed it gleefully up in the air several times, catching it and hugging it tightly each time. Although I had managed to capture Sara's youthful enthusiasm and playfulness, in some ways, I felt sad that one of my best pictures depicted Sara with an inanimate object.

Sara had told me earlier that being interviewed and photographed for the newspaper was exciting. "It must be a very big newspaper," she laughed, referring to the amount of time Lynne and I spent there, and the number of times she heard me press the shutter. She loved the attention. I couldn't think of any single person that I've ever photographed in my entire life, less concerned about how she would be portrayed in the photographs. Sure, she is blind. But she also understands the meaning of the words: skin deep.

© Susan B. Markisz
May 1, 2001