How the earthquake in Sumatra affected me

October 6, 2009

Write a personal blog on an earthquake where thousands have been killed. Spot the contradiction there… but here goes – how the earthquake in Sumatra affected me.

So usual drill (1) Get a call. (2) Pack my bags, too much, too little, unpack, repack – I know I’m missing something. (3) catch a flight – London, Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Padang. (4) Take pictures. (5) Transmit pictures. (6) Repeat (4) and (5).

Directly from the airport I go to the local earthquake-damaged hospital. I see a grandmother comforting the bravest nine-year-old girl suffering from two broken legs. She reminds me of another brave little girl, my eldest daughter, 10 years old. Heartbreaking.

From there, I head to a hotel where at least 100 are thought to have perished. The smell hits you straight away. You know when you are ill and you can’t remember what its like to be well? The smell of death is similar to that. When you smell it you think you’ll never smell anything nice again. It’s distinctive and, of course, totally unpleasant.

Now how do you show death? Tough one. Although numbers are not yet confirmed hundreds if not thousands have lost their lives. A fundamental part of the story, no?

I do understand that people might not want to look at dead bodies as they munch their breakfast and read their paper or while they surf the net sipping on a semi-skimmed-decaf-mocha-cappuccino or whatever.
BUT our (my) job is to find ways of conveying the stark, tragic reality of what is happening here. The dead most obviously deserve the same respect the living do so, me, I go for details; hands, fingers, feet, hair, arms – elements that show the truth as subtly as possible. Things I find acceptable may not be to others. It turns out not all my editors agree with me on what is and what is not ok to show our global clients and readers. There is no right or wrong answer – just shades of gray in a world where nothing is black and white.

The evenings are spent crammed into a hotel room – last count eight sharing our space – very generously given to us by the owner who has moved himself and his family into the restaurant. There’s the ever smiling Enny Nuraheni, Chief Photographer Indonesia, the unflappable Erik de Castro, Chief Photographer Philippines, the scarily young Nicky Loh from the Taiwan bureau, Dadang Tri from Jakarta and finally Crack Palinggi; who has not been seen for days as he sleeps rough covering the story through the eyes of remote villagers. Anyway, we have water, electricity, a semi-decent phone line and I always pack music. Coltrane and Davis waft through the air; I hope the other guys and girls like jazz.

A couple of days into the story, it’s early morning and I’m hiking through the bush looking for a village which we hear has been completely destroyed by the quake. I’m hot but juiced and love the thrill of searching for the truth. Eight hours and maybe 15 miles later I’ve seen destruction on a biblical scale, I’ve stepped on something I can’t mention and have fallen into mud bath up to my proverbials. Luckily my pathetic appearance cheers up the homeless locals who are happy to find a light hearted sight. Let’s face it what’s more amusing than a foreigner draped in cameras and looking like he’s just done ten rounds with a wild boar fighting over a clump of mud?

Despite the mudslide destroying nearly all their village and maybe 300 of their neighbors losing their lives they all still take pity on me. I’m offered their precious water to clean up, I’m offered their scarce food, and a place to rest. Their generosity is simply heart warming.

The get-up, get-over-it and move-on way in which the people of Sumatra, who have lost so much, have dealt with this catastrophic earthquake will stay with me forever.


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I have to admit that, for the sake of the blog, I wish Mr. Martinez had asked someone to turn the camera on him. I can’t be the only one reading this wanting to see it…

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

Great blog, even better pictures…..let’s see more

Posted by Russell | Report as abusive

excellent words to go with the pix

Posted by toby melville | Report as abusive

I want so much to read more from you and see more photos of your experience of Sumatra. Such a little bit in the news of something so enormous. Is there any way I can find more from you? Cassandra

Posted by cassandra stevens | Report as abusive

What a moving description of a few days in the life of a
journalist/photographer doing his job after a natural disaster…was left wanting to read and see more.

Posted by Sonia | Report as abusive

Well written. Too few photos. Please share more so that we can appreciate the scale of the disaster. More importantly, what is being done for the survivors? What is being done about building codes so that future occurrences will yield lower death tolls?

Posted by Nigel Romano | Report as abusive

Thanks for the pictures. It’s important to spread the word so we are all in the loop on what is going on around the world. Thanks again.

Posted by Emergency Survival Guy | Report as abusive

Hi Mr. Martinez, I’m an italian filmmaker and I’m making a documentary about GENOA 2001. I would like to ask some information about Piazza Alimonda and Carlo Giuliani.
Can I have your contact?
Thanks a lot
Best of luck
Danilo Monte

Posted by danilomonte | Report as abusive