Retracing my steps in Pakistan
On August 7, 2010, with a camera in hand, I dropped into a flooded village on an army helicopter that was delivering food aid to marooned villagers. As a crewman slid the door open to find solid ground, I leaped out, took some photographs, and managed to get back on before the chopper departed.
Time stamps on the images show the hover-stop lasted less than the length of an average song. For those three minutes, my thoughts were focused on finding an image that would bring the Pakistan floods story to life.
After getting back to base, I worded the caption, “Marooned flood victims looking to escape grab the side bars of a hovering Army helicopter which arrived to distribute food supplies in the Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan’s Punjab province August 7, 2010.”
I never got a chance to speak to the villagers in my image. Trapped in the belly of the chopper, I did not even know where we had descended. All I could confirm was that I had leaped onto a graveyard, where the winds from the propellers threw me from one dirt mound to another.
On July 30, 2011, nearly one year later, I found the village and my subjects.
I raced towards the elevated graveyard where I had captured this moment. My heart, in disbelief, started beating faster than it had the first time. Amongst the graves, I sought forgiveness from the dead below, for soiling their resting place with my boots a year ago for the sake of capturing a moment.
As a second source, I pulled out the printed images I carried in my bag to confirm I was in the same exact location and slowly villagers gathered around me and started pointing themselves out. Answers I thought I would never have started to be revealed. The village once again gathered on top of the graveyard that had given them refuge one year earlier.
The idea to revisit the site of my images came to me in Bangkok while covering the red-shirt protests in 2010. Intersections, which were set ablaze one day, would return to normal working condition the next. I felt the only way to remind us of what really happened was to place images of the same exact locations next to each other. As I am based in Pakistan, I transferred the idea to the Pakistan floods story.
To start the before and after series, I went through every single image I shot over a three-week period in 2010 and chose key moments that I would attempt to revisit. Then I printed a wide selection of images around the moments to assist in locating the sites.
For the August 7 before-and-after images, every single image from the original take was printed. Images, including aerials, from other photographers on the helicopter were also printed, to find key markers that could help me locate the villagers.
I knew we had taken off from a helicopter pad in Kot Adu in Muzaffargarh district on August 7, and time stamps proved we were in the air for seven minutes before descending. I used that information to plot a 10-mile radius around the airbase in Google Maps to start my search. Some of the images showed two mosques, key markers near the graveyard as we started descending during the floods. I enlarged certain images to help with the identification process.
On July 30, driving about 10 miles out of Kot Adu, I began stopping every 15 minutes to question locals at roadside stalls. On my third stop, I found a man who said he knew one of the villagers in the photographs. I asked him to come with us to identify the man. Minutes later, only about 500 yards from the main road, I stood facing the cemetery.
To give coherence to the series, all images have been shot using the same lens, at the same focal distance, with the same aperture and shutter speed that the original images were shot with. Only the ISO in the images has been changed, to compensate for differences in exposure.
The handful of extra prints were handed to the villagers as the shoot ended.
(View the combination images in large format on Full Focus here)