Floods and landslides: A global view
In recent months floods and heavy rain have affected many different parts of the world, from Australia where an area the size of France and Germany combined was under water to the devastating landslides in Brazil that killed over 500 people.
Here are three stories from photographers, Tim Wimborne in Australia, Tom Peter in Germany and Bruno Domingos in Brazil, detailing how they overcame the challenges they faced to get pictures on the wire.
Huge floods have wreaked havoc across the globe. Australia has experienced some of the worst of it with headlines dominated by an “inland tsunami” killing many around the town of Toowoomba. The much larger flooding however was far more passive in its advance over millions of hectares and into the heart of Australia’s third largest city.
You can’t beat wrapping your camera in plastic and getting your wet feet to get great flood pictures. After all, papers are filled with images of people wading through the brown muck where once steps led to their front door but this story was a lot more about helicopters and social media.
The Toowoomba flash flood came and went in a matter of minutes. There were no press photographers on the ground for us to source pictures from. Organizations like Reuters instead rely on you. Within a couple of hours we had sourced over a dozen great pictures on social media sites and were able to track down the originator of the material, verify its authenticity, pay for it and then transmit it for publication on the wire. At such an incredible natural occurrence people are very anxious to get their own pictures out and show the world what they have seen. And there is a huge appetite out there to see it.
Down river in Brisbane the water level rose inch-by-inch. Those not affected turned up for some sightseeing. Migration to high ground was calm and orderly. However, Australia has bureaucracy and officialdom to match India or Singapore, and even the hint of potential harm, no matter how slight means access is denied to all media. Waiting until the day the Brisbane River peaked I made use of a helicopter to show just how the city was inundated.
“If you are just standing around, get in line and help!”, the policewoman yelled at me from the other end of the human chain. The tone of her voice left no doubt that this was not a request. Granted, a photographer watching police officers lugging sandbags onto an embankment fortification must have been an annoying sight.
I wasn’t exactly idle though. I was waiting for an army helicopter that delivered sandbags to this swampy stretch of land along the Weisse Elster River at Germany’s border with Poland. But the lady in uniform had a point. For an outsider I was just hanging about in fishing waders. So I stepped into line and helped in passing the heavy bags. We had to move fast. Pools of water seeped through the muddy earth, a first sign that a dam is close to breaking.
When covering floods along Germany’s border with Poland I have often come up against a cultural divide that is far greater than would be expected for the two hours it takes to travel from Berlin to the villages in Brandenburg and Saxony. People here are suspicious of strangers as it is. But when water has spilled into their basements, swamped their farms and flooded their streets, an inquisitive stranger is sometimes met with open hostility. No one has the time for rubberneckers.
I understand that and hence spend a lot of my time talking to people to gain their trust. Many are convinced the rest of the country has become tired of endless flood stories. Whether it has, I cannot say – but I try to explain that someone needs to show what it means to live in a flood-prone area, otherwise their plight will indeed be ignored.
This simple argument often works – people have showed me a pool of knee-deep murky water that used to be their living room. I photographed nuns in the Marienthal monastery in Ostritz who scraped thick mud off the floors of their convent. A farmer showed me fields where last season’s crops were rotting in smelly puddles.
It is this sense of perseverance, this communal spirit that defies the regularity with which their businesses and homes are destroyed, that has always impressed me. When I am done with my day’s work I drive back to my top-floor flat and take a hot bath. The people here are left with the water that seems to come from everywhere. And when it is finally gone, they know that it will return all too soon.
So I don’t mind occasionally being yelled at. And when the policewoman shouted across the dike whether that “journalist guy was still loafing” (she couldn’t see me from her end), I left it to my new-found friend, the police officer to my left, to put her at ease: “Don’t you worry. He working, he’s a good lad.”
Brazil’s worst-ever natural disaster began early January 12 in a mountainous region an hour and a half north of Rio. When I heard that a rainstorm had dumped a month’s worth of rain in just three hours on Teresopolis, one of the region’s largest cities, I knew we’d have a serious problem. I had hoped to buy some early photos from a colleague who I learned had headed to the area, but when I couldn’t reach him and the only TV images being shown for many hours were aerials, I began to search for a helicopter to hire myself.
With one of the world’s biggest helicopter fleets, Brazil is normally an easy place to rent one, but this time was different. Together with a Reuters TV producer we searched high and low, only to discover that they were all rented, mostly by relatives of residents of the disaster area who were trying to rescue their loved ones. We finally found one free for a couple of hours and managed our first aerial images over Teresopolis. Prohibited from landing, we returned to Rio to transmit and as I was sending my own aerials a stringer who had managed to reach the disaster site began transmitting to me as well, eight hours after the landslide.
With no sleep I left home by taxi before dawn towards Teresopolis, thinking of how I would get around the smaller landslides blocking the highway and where I would base myself in the city if and when I arrived. I knew that most of the hotels are built into the hillsides, so I searched on my laptop for one on flat land in the city center for my own safety. The road was passable and I reached the hotel around dawn and headed straight out to the disaster area. It looked as if a tsunami of rock and mud had covered a hillside neighborhood.
Dazed, speechless survivors were there not knowing what to do nor who to ask for help. They walked aimlessly around and I began to photograph. I walked and walked and found a hillside where an entire neighborhood had disappeared under rock and mud. There was a maddening silence through which I walked for nearly two hours until finding the taxi again to transmit more images. This was to become my routine for the next five days.
Dealing with the death of children and babies has always been a great ordeal for me. The little coffins were the most difficult thing I photographed on this story. When I tried to vary the focus from the destruction I went to the cemetery where I came across the burial of a baby and his mother by their neighbor. There was no crying family because they had all perished. I tried my best to tell the sad story of the worst disaster in Brazil’s 511 years of independence.