Why I became a news photographer – continued

May 17, 2008

 China Quake 1

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.  

China Quake 2

 Picture captions:

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)

Thanks Paul.


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[…] Viggers of Reuters posted a thoughtful article on disaster coverage. Choice […]

Posted by I’m back | SnapperTalk | Report as abusive

Bravo, David, you’ve said it in a few words. It is a very touching piece. Today that we hear so many criticism of the media. It is nice to read something like that to remind us why we do out job. And how we should do it.
And then we remember that all the critics of the media would surely like us to live in the Middle Ages again.

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[…] Photographers » Blog Archive » Why I became a news photographer – continued | Blogs | Reuters.com David Viggars on how he let people down by not taking photos of their suffering (tags: Photography Ethics) […]

Posted by links for 2008-05-19 « Mediating Conflict | Report as abusive

[…] qué me he convertido en fotógrafo de prensa?  El fotógrafo de Reuters, David Viggers, responde a esta pregunta en dos post, a raíz de su trabajo cubriendo el terremoto en China. La respuesta se condensa todo en […]

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“I had an editor once tell me ‘If you’re going to wear your heart on your sleeve, you’re probably in the wrong business.’ Maybe he had a point, but I think there is more of a balancing act to what we do instead of his all or nothing mentality.”


Posted by Laura | Report as abusive

What a brilliant read and invaluable advise.

Posted by Pauline Askin | Report as abusive

Suffering whether man-made or natural must have human faces to it to send the message home and tell the scale of disaster whether people want to see it or not. I think its the only way the human race is moved to help.
I agree David, in such circumstances if you’re not doing something to help, you’re definately in the way of those doing so. Real and honest post

Posted by Diana Ngila | Report as abusive

Hello David,

This is a great little article, it conveys what the photojournalist is faced with very well. It was my first time in China a few weeks ago. I somehow just felt I knew what I had to do and I started doing it as well as I could. I still have loads to learn and I still had great difficulty in a few situations, like photographing mourners crying. I just wonder what the photojournalist means to them.

Now, I am going to go back to Yingxiu a little town that was very much destroyed by the quake. I would like to pursue a project there. Do you have any links or adivice on other work I can see that involved going back and doing a follow up pohoto story on a place destroyed by natural disaster?

My shots from the quake can be seen here by the way: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickkozak/c ollections/72157605176803729/

Thank you,

Nick Kozak

Posted by Nick kozak | Report as abusive

everyone of us must come into an experience to find out our true calling.

Posted by photography in Albuquerque | Report as abusive

what a heartbreaking experience. but at least, you’ve found your calling. good luck!

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