Choking back the horror

December 28, 2009

Five years have passed and I still find it hard to talk about the tsunami. When the subject comes up my throat still constricts, choking back the horror and raw pain that I saw and more shockingly, the way the rest of the world seemed to carry-on with daily life. Relief came – sometimes too much of it, but nothing prepares a photographer for the shock of returning to normality from a disaster zone.

I was in Phuket the day before Christmas, dodging the bullet perhaps as my ground floor room would certainly have become my tomb. Back in Singapore the news broke and I flew to Sri Lanka, arriving at the center of the destruction 24 hours after the waves. My first stop was a hospital outside Galle. Hundreds of bodies lay on the damp concrete floor, children in fetal positions next to what rescuers assumed were their parents. Some of them had bandages and IV’s telling the story of the pathetic struggle to save them, others just looked like they were asleep, still in pajamas but slowly bloating.


Blood and bodily fluid and the stark stench of decomposition. I worked the scene like a vulture, the lenses my shield; my shock at the scene my helmet; technical adjustments on the cameras my distraction from the horror. I edited on the fly, transmitting a few images via satphone and moving onto more death. It is only that night as I look through my day’s take that the tears come, as the reality of what I saw hits me – there is no lens now. Only the hard truth in 2 megabyte files on a dusty laptop screen.

The destruction was complete – nothing within a few hundred yards of the beach was untouched. As we drove into Galle, a few miles out of town, life was normal. Schoolgirls walked to school, mothers hung laundry outside modest homes and markets were open. The sheer contrast from the normal Sri Lanka I love and the damage was instantaneous and merciless. We moved north, meeting a diving buddy who had lost his dive school and all his staff; some Swedish friends who had lost their hotel and thousands more bodies. The Sri Lankans were stoic, burying the dead methodically, guarding their emotions – numb with shock.

Further north we entered a community of Muslims that has been completely flattened. Muslims buried Hindus, Christians and Buddhists – praying for them, hoping their onward journey was complete wherever they go. A stern-faced army general arrived to assess the damage and the security situation. The bodies were extracted from huge piles of concrete by hand and the mass graves were in shallow beach sand. “They are all Muslims now” said one of the grave diggers.

In Batticaloa we hitched a ride on a Sri Lankan army helicopter – unsure of its destination. My seat had no seatbelt and the old Huey had no doors. I hung on for my life while trying to shoot. Below us the land was flooded by heavy rains, adding insult to injury and a new toll of casualties. We landed at Ampara Air Force base and spent the day going up in helicopters, yelling passport details to the ground controller before each flight in case we went down. We delivered body bags, water and rations to several small villages. The Indian Air Force arrived in big Hinds helicopters to help the relief effort. It all seemed futile.


Ten days and one shower later I was back in Colombo. Journalists flooded the five star hotels – an army of beige photo vests and cameras. I was tired, heading directly for my flight to Singapore. I stunk, I had a throat infection, my shoes were moist with blood and old rotten water. At the airport I saw one of my pictures on the front of the Financial Times and thought back to the old man in the picture who lost most of his family, his head cradled in his hands, an IV plug still in his hand. My problems were nothing. They were embarrassingly trivial, but I was not getting onto the crisply sanitized Singapore Airlines 777 with my bloody sneakers. In Singapore an immigration officer saw me bare footed and broken. “You have been in Sri Lanka? Welcome home.” I broke down briefly – all around me people were buying duty free booze and watches. It didn’t seem right.



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Tom, thank you for giving us an honest and heart-wrenching glimpse into the experiences and emotions a photographer must face when capturing the horrific images of disaster and destruction. I have often wondered how photographers are able to cope with such situations. I suspected that the camera would act a a shield and buffer during the shooting, but at the end of the day, the camera comes off and the reality must surely set in. Thank you for taking photos that enlighten us, and for writing about what must have been a very difficult story to re-visit.

Posted by denisekmckinnon | Report as abusive

I, too, dodged the bullet and feel your pain. Your pictures told a thousand words for those that parished, injured and paralysed, orphaned, widowed, and traumatized by the tsunami.  

Thank you Tom… I’m humbled to be alive. Your pictures brought back memories of the horrific moments and how fragile life is. Most importantly, it provided closure to those that have lost their loved ones to the tsunami.

Posted by jenpev | Report as abusive

thomas, hats off to u that in such conditions u were able to not only create images that honestly speak to me as if ON BEHALF of the people that suffered, as well as telling ur story wonderfully thru ur compositions at the same time…

as importantly, i was moved to read ur sincere, matter-of-factly report of the devastation and the human emotions u faced while doing ur job as a photographer. as one myself, i have new found n deep respect for what u folks do- with courage, risk, sincerity.

we do indeed live in a selfish world n it takes images n reports like urs, to make one believe things are worse of for so many than our own menial issues…

Posted by shootsam | Report as abusive

Great piece, particularly the poignant pen portrait of you walking back through Customs at Changi airport “barefooted and broken” – what a contrast of our times.

Posted by auskearney | Report as abusive

Very moving piece. “To the point” writing. It really puts everything in perspective. Unlike Katerina, Phuket did not allow the businesses and homes to be rebuilt in the same vulnerable site. It is hard to imagine 225K people parished in one day.

Posted by Johnmatus | Report as abusive

Thanks for sharing this with us Tom. Your words convey the horror of what you saw clearly and its good to hear what the voice behind the lens has to say..although your pictures give a very good narrative on their own.

Posted by EMS | Report as abusive

It was a painful disaster, and reading what you’ve gone through reminds me of the fear. The first photograph of a crying lady and bodies of children, it leads me imagine that it’s happened all over the place. Each of your photographs and writing tell us a lot of stories. Thank you for sharing.

Posted by khiromi | Report as abusive

This is brilliant mix of writing and images. To see it all, even the stuff you didn’t capture on a film, but then synthesise it, is the mark of a great news photographer. Well done.

Posted by Adro | Report as abusive

Beautiful piece Thomas. I feel new respect for you guys.

Posted by blileycontactpi | Report as abusive

Tom, I am at awe at reading your article. Your observations are descriptive as well as poetic. I too want to thank-you for putting yourself in harms way. Thanks and prayers for your safety. Your stories will impact the world.

Posted by aaroblue | Report as abusive