Keeping safe in a quake-hit zone

September 17, 2012

By Jason Lee

Around noon on September 7 two shallow earthquakes struck the mountainous area of Yiliang county of Yunnan province, China. I received my assignment to travel to the area at around 6 p.m. when the death toll reached 60.


As you can imagine, it is never easy to get to an earthquake-hit area. I had only 20 minutes to pack and prepare before a 3-hour flight. After that, I traveled another 8 hours by car followed by a one hour ride on the back of a motorcycle before reaching my destination. Along the road I didn’t see many collapsed buildings, but there were lots of giant rocks that had probably rolled down from mountains as the quake hit, as a result, many cars were smashed into pieces.

My memory of covering the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake gradually came back — apart from the damage that had already been done, I needed to watch out for possible landslides and other dangers. Every aftershock brought with it more risk for the residents and rescuers in the worst-hit area, as they were at the foot of several huge rocky mountains.

On my third day in the field, I decided to go to the quake center. There was an approximately 500-yard-long road at risk of landslides. I, and others, cautiously but quickly crossed the road guided by military soldiers. I soon realized it was only a matter of luck whether I could pass or not. It was different from many other scenarios when you need to run as fast as you can — I had to keep my head up at all times to monitor if dust was coming down the hillside as I most certainly did not want to bump into a falling rock.

What comes next was even more challenging. In order to get my job done, I had to stop from time to time, and turn back to take pictures. People always say you don’t shoot well because you aren’t close enough. But when you are close enough, it takes a lot more courage to stop and raise your camera for several risk-taking but precious frames. I believe many photographers, just like myself, can’t resist taking these shots. However, my experiences allowed me to focus on the job at hand as well as keeping myself safe. Firstly, I wore my helmet at all times. Secondly, every few seconds I checked on the soldiers next to me, their behavior would tell me immediately what was happening. Last but not least, don’t get greedy, get a few frames, then get out of there!

As a photographer who has witnessed many disasters, I still believe that it is never easy to “bring the audience to the scene”, as the dangers and risks vary from case to case. Overall, this trip was smooth although there were some breathtaking situations. My supervisors constantly checked with me for my status, and every time I went online to send pictures, the first sentence I received from our global desk in Singapore would usually be “Hi Jason, are you alright?”

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