Their scars, our scars
May 1, 2011
I’m on a plane from Los Angeles to JFK. About an hour before we touch down, the word goes out that the U.S. military has found and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. I land, make a few frames at baggage claim of people watching television while I wait for my bag. Then it’s talk my way to the front of a very long taxi line and make my way to Times Square and the site of the former World Trade Center towers, which many now refer to as Ground Zero. I notice an air of celebration.
People are cheering, waving American flags. There is quite a bit of media. I wonder what this must look like to the rest of the world, here we are celebrating the killing of a man. True, he came to represent the war against terror in the United States, but it seemed to be a celebration of death, at a place that had come to symbolize the death of many at the hands of extremists. Remembering the scenes of some burning American flags and cheering after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the outrage it caused, I make pictures of the scene. This is a historic milestone in a war that had begun nearly ten years earlier, and this is a turning point in the psyche of America.
Less than 24 hours later, I’m behind a barricade at the Met Gala, an event that is on par with some of the more high profile celebrity events in the United States. It’s sort of an Oscars for the East Coast, with a high level of star participation. But it’s a grueling parade of celebrities, all walking past a long line of photographers. There is Beyonce in a dress that rendered her nearly unable to walk up the stairs, there are Tom and Gisele, there is Rhianna, and there is the last minute arrival of Madonna.
The next night I’m at an event that was focused on preventing teen pregnancy, with the highlight of the event being a private concert by Aretha Franklin. Moments later Franklin walks onto state, living up to her legend. It was truly an honor to hear her perform live. I make pictures and listen, knowing that I am truly in the presence of greatness.
Three days later and I’m on a plane to St. Louis. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had blown up a levee in Cairo, Illinois after an unusually high level of rainfall had swollen the Mississippi River and its tributaries to record levels. I start in some farm towns in Missouri, downstream from Cairo, where the river levels had caused the flooding of a few small communities, and some communities north and south of downtown Memphis.
Flooding of this nature is usually slow, in fact, it was referred to as a “slow moving disaster”. I spend some time in the flooded areas, then make my way through Arkansas, down into Mississippi, and eventually into Louisiana, where I come upon Butte La Rose. A tiny town of homes that locals refer to as “camps”, Butte La Rose is in the bayou, along the Atchafalaya River. It’s a small place, but there is history here.
After two weeks, 3622 miles on a rental car, half a dozen boat rides, a plane ride for aerials, one pair of sunglasses lost, one 24mm lens broken, and one crawfish boil invite, and numerous hotels, towns, people; I’m on my way back to St. Louis to make the decision whether to catch a flight west to California or east to New York.
But then I’m in Joplin, Missouri, it’s pouring rain, and people are walking through, dazed and looking for possessions, I see a group and walk over to them as they dig through the rubble of a home, a woman stands nearby crying. Someone asks who we’re looking for. Another person says we are looking for her grandmother, who isn’t able to get out of bed. The house is unrecognizable as even being a house. People try to figure out a floor plan, trying to determine where each room ended up, that way they can find her bed.
It’s dawn, about 36 hours since the deadly tornado struck. I’m in what’s left of an apartment building, the force of the wind caused the second floor to collapse onto the ground. I’m with a group of volunteers, and they are digging through the rubble, looking for survivors – or bodies. It’s one of those moments you want to drop your cameras, kneel down and dig through the rubble and help. It’s tough being there, feeling like you aren’t physically helping. At one point someone said that “maybe if someone weren’t taking pictures we could all lift this wall.”
It took every ounce of strength I had not to put down my cameras and dig with my bare hands to try to find someone, anyone. But I knew I was there to do a job. Recording the moment in some cases is just as important as digging. I knew that the world needed to see this moment, and that my photographs are my way of helping. Few people understand that, but when the images are out there, and people look at them and feel something, the way I feel something, then I have done my job, then I have fulfilled my purpose in something like this.
I’m in the other hospital in Joplin, the one that didn’t get hit, and I am photographing a nine year old girl who was on Range Line, one of the main streets in the town, in a car with her mother when the tornado struck. I walk into a hospital room, and her father is there, and she’s curled up in bed.
“Don’t be shy,” her father says. “I’m not,” she responds, pulling the covers up around her bruised and scabbed face, “I’m cold.” Her father lifts the covers and reveals her legs, which are the most wounded part of her, her tiny legs bruised, cut and bandaged. “The wounds are bad, but they are clean, which the doctors say is good news,” he says, showing me graphic images on his cell phone camera of the open wounds. I make a few frames of her bandaged legs, then move to the back of the hospital room.
Some relatives show up with a bag of gifts. Looking into her eyes, I know that all the stuffed animals, all the music players, all the portable gaming systems in the world won’t take away that fear. It’s in the eyes now, it’s a part of her, and it will be a while before she’ll be able to be a normal kid again. There’s a mixture of fear and defeat; of terror from being in a car that was tossed a hundred yards; of being torn away from the safety of a passenger seat, where she sat next to her mom; about being discovered laying in the street by a stranger who took her to a hospital, something that saved her young life. It’s not supposed to happen to a nine year old. It’s not supposed to happen to anyone. But it’s especially not supposed to happen to a nine year old.
I’m walking out, head down, that look in her eyes burned into my conscience. I’m making my way through the lobby when someone calls my name. I look up and it’s Kyle Gordon.
My second day in town, they were the second set of people I came across after the team looking for survivors. Alicia was eight months pregnant and rode out the storm in her basement, about a quarter mile from St. John’s Hospital. Most of the house was destroyed, and they were gracious enough to let me spend some time with them while they looked through their home, trying to find what they could in the rubble.
They walked around the home, Alicia crying, and at one point, they ended up in their son’s room, which had been torn apart by the massive tornado. Alicia cried, and as she looked at what was left of her son’s room, she fell apart. She leaned back on Kyle, and as he pulled her close, her tears streaming from the weight of seeing her home destroyed, he began to cry.
And now here we were, face to face in the hospital lobby. He said that the day after I saw them Alicia had been at the house and had been in pain. They went to the hospital, and a few hours later, the doctor removed Korbyn Storm Gordon from his mother – 11 weeks premature.
At the end of the day we’re photojournalists. This is our job. We walk in, we document. We show the world. Then we leave. But their pain is our pain. Their scars become our scars. Their fear our fear. We live in their world, but at the end of it, we get to go home, while they stay, picking up the pieces of their lives. We experience it, we see it for what it is, and in some cases, for what no one else sees from it. Whether it’s a couple going their flooded home, or worse, their destroyed home. We walk with them, we feel their sorrow, their loss, their pain. We experience their best and worst. We laugh with them, we cry with them. Those pictures that manifest, they are only fragments of time. They will never truly tell the whole story, they are tiny windows to the world, to a world that many will never understand. We try our best to show what we can of the people we meet, and their experiences. Their fears, their loss, their tragedy, their dreams, their laughter, their coping, their grief, their hope, their perseverance, their strength. We stand before them, camera in hand, a small light gathering buffer between those people and the rest of the world, and try our best to tell their stories.
And then we move on.