Why I became a news photographer – continued
I covered the aftermath of an earthquake years ago as a new-comer to the business. I was living in Rome and we had felt the quake as it struck a moutainous region of Southern Italy just before 8 o’clock on a Sunday evening in November.
It was first light by the time we got to the village of Balvano. As, I drove down into the valley, the village was blanketed by cloud. There was no sound, there were no lights but as we passed through the cloud, we became aware of an awful noise – the terrible wailing of the survivors.
Did my pictures convey the horror of it all like the ones we are seeing from China? Did they eloquently tell the story of the men, women and children of the village crushed when the roof of the Third Century Roman church fell in on them? No, I blew it. I was so completely overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering, by the death, destruction and misery that I blew it. Never having experienced anything remotely like it, I felt a complete interloper ashamed to be pointing a camera at people who had lost everything.
When I finally got to sleep my nightmares were full of people but my pictures were not. They showed wreckage and desolation but failed to give it a face. In the misguided belief that I needed somehow protect what shreds of dignity the victims had left by not exposing them to wider scrutiny, I not only completely missed the point of my being there but also let them down.
Luckily, for me I was disabused, while there was still time to redeem myself, by veteran UPI (ultimately Reuters) photographer Luciano Mellace who, in the middle of all the chaos, took me under his wing and set me straight. He is still doing it.
In such circumstances if you are not doing your job you are just in the way.
There is no way reporting the deaths of thousands of people can be made palatable and without a human dimension there can be no concept of scale. Pictures like these are ‘upsetting’ for everyone who sees them because the circumstances in which they were taken are ‘upsetting’.
The subject matter is awful but these pictures from China brilliantly convey something of that awfulness. They are not snap shots or random images plucked from the ether by picture editors, but the considered product of consumate professional photojournalists working in appalling circumstances to the very best of their abilities in order to communicate to all of us, the plight of the the victims of this terrible disaster, whether it is what we want to see or not.
1) A father waits for his child, who has been buried for 33 hours in the rubble of a collapsed school, in the earthquake-hit Hanwang town of Mianzhu, Sichuan province, May 14, 2008. His son was found dead in the end. Picture taken May 14, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA).
2) A butterfly flies around the feet of dead students buried in the ruins of destroyed classrooms at a school in earthquake-hit Beichuan county, Sichuan province, May 15, 2008. The death toll from China’s massive earthquake could reach more than 50,000, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday, quoting rescue headquarters. REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA)