Nothing and no one between us
By Umit Bektas
At 13:41pm on Sunday, October 23 an earthquake measuring 7.2 magnitude hit the eastern Turkish province of Van. Minutes after the quake struck, first reports heralded large numbers of collapsed buildings with many people trapped under the debris. The first available flight to Van was on Monday so I decided to fly to Erzurum instead and from there take a four-hour drive to Van. When I arrived at Ercis, the town which had taken the brunt of the quake, it was just past midnight.
It was difficult in the dark to form a clear picture of the disaster and decide what to look for. I began to walk around the town. I photographed rescue workers making efforts to pluck people from under the rubble, but I could not spend more than a few minutes at each spot as I still had to get an overall picture. I had decided to look around for 45 minutes at the most before starting to transmit my first pictures. That was my plan until I came upon that one collapsed building.
A large crowd had gathered around a big pile of rubble on a small side street. There were many rescuers and a distinctive hum was rising from the crowd. Frantic work was going on around the building which had totally collapsed and was now level with the ground. I came closer. A person shouted, “There is someone alive!” They were trying to bring out a person whose dark hair I could see. I began to take pictures. Then I moved to the other side to try and get a different angle. And then I saw Yunus’s face for the first time.
In the following days Turkish newspapers carried Yunus’s story extensively. That is how I learned he was the 13 year-old-son of a family with nine children. No one in his family was hurt and the quake had not even seriously damaged their house. The building which collapsed over Yunus housed an Internet cafe and Yunus was there early on a Sunday morning to browse the net and check his Facebook account. The newspapers later went through his Facebook account.
When I moved to the opposite side and he raised his eyes and looked straight at me, I had my zoom lens trained on his face. He certainly wasn’t aware of it but at that moment there was nothing and no one between him and my camera. It was as if the two of us were alone, like two people chatting intimately. His eyes were wide open and he seemed calmer than all the rest of us outside the rubble. He never cried. As he was carried to the ambulance, he reportedly said, “I’m late for home. Dad will be mad at me.”
Someone’s hand was resting on Yunus’s shoulder. At first I thought it was the hand of a rescuer who was trying to comfort him but when I looked closer I realized that it was the hand of another man who was crushed under the collapsed building. Someone said it was his father’s hand, then it was said it wasn’t. Papers later reported the hand belonged to a married adult because it wore a wedding ring. This was all they could learn of that victim. I could not tell if Yunus was aware of the hand resting on his shoulder but my worry during the time it took to bring him out was that if he turned his head that way and saw the hand, it would scare him. I never worried that he would die, because I was very sure he wouldn’t.
He had been given a pillow. One of the rescue workers had pushed the pillow under his head so he could rest on it. It was apparent he felt better when he rested his head against the pillow but I found that pillow somewhat disturbing. Maybe because when Yunus craned his neck and looked around him, it showed that he was hanging on to life. The rescuers dug and dug for a long time. I thought of the person to whom the dead hand belonged. I looked around to see if there was anyone who knew Yunus. And I kept looking at him with great attention. I was acutely aware of him and he was totally unaware of me. An hour went by. Finally they pulled him out and I gave a sigh of relief. Yunus was saved. As he was carried to an ambulance on his way to the hospital, I took my last pictures and slipped out of the crowd to find a quiet place where I could set up my computer and transmit my pictures.
I had begun to take my first photos in the early hours of October 24. As day broke the gravity of the destruction Ercis had suffered became painfully apparent. The worst destruction of the quake was here. TV were transmitting their coverage from the region but they were also showing one photo. This was the picture of Yunus with the dead hand on his shoulder. I continued to take pictures until night fell.
On the morning of October 25 almost all of the nationwide newspapers featured big pictures of Yunus on their front page. Messages on my mobile phone, entries on my Twitter account and many other messages congratulated me on the impact of the photo and gave me the latest news of Yunus. He had died! His heart gave out while he was in the ambulance and regrettably he could not be resuscitated. Everyone extended to me their condolences, as if I was a member of Yunus’ family.
When I take pictures, I feel as if I am disassociated from the chaos around. This is one way of concentrating on your job but it is also a reality that your concentration can give you. Your camera is a shield behind which you take cover. It will not break your link to reality but instead gives you a space where you can receive the reality. Another effect of this solitude is the interaction you can experience with your subject. This interaction is generally one way and is generally directed at you. In a brief moment of time you may not feel this interaction but it is easily recognizable through long durations. A bond is formed between you and your subject. This tie is difficult to understand and/or describe, but contains so much, including responsibility toward your subject, human emotions and professional concerns. That is why those individuals who saw Yunus’s photo felt the need to express their condolences to me because they probably felt this bond between the photographer and his subject. They felt I was a part of the story. I did not object. I was sad. I was sad for Yunus whom I photographed as he was hanging on to life, as well as for the 601 people who died in the quake.