The KISS that ended in tragedy

February 13, 2013

Santa Maria, Brazil

By Edison Vara

It was early Sunday when my cell phone began ringing nonstop. Reuters called to inform me of a tragedy that was happening in the Kiss nightclub in the city of Santa Maria, with more than 70 known dead initially. That number would soon rise past 230. After more than 30 years as a photojournalist I was still jolted by the news, grabbed my equipment, and left for the site three hours away.

When I reached the gymnasium in Santa Maria where the bodies were being taken for identification, I was shocked to see the parents, children, brothers and sisters of victims searching for information, but I had to photograph all these moments of desperation, with respect for those who didn’t want me to.

The gym’s courtyard was soon transformed into a two-way street of coffins entering and leaving, difficult scenes to photograph. Four soldiers passed by carrying a body barely covered with a white sheet, without a coffin, to a waiting hearse.

That was when the emotions really got to me. I was beginning my coverage of the story that would last three days, with scenes of families collapsing over coffins in the collective wake.

When I tried to transmit photos I couldn’t get an internet connection because the unexpected demand in a small city made it difficult. It was the solidarity of the people, when I asked in the only delicatessen near the nightclub, that made it possible to get my pictures out. The shop didn’t have internet, but a local boy overheard me asking and offered his home to work out of.

The night following the tragedy, relatives began to leave flowers and posters in front of the nightclub, and pray very emotionally.

The next day in the cemetery there were impressive scenes, with the demand on the few workers too much for their capacity. Many coffins were set to wait in the shadows of trees, out of the strong summer sun. My prior experience of this type was back in 1995, in Uruguaiana, when more than two dozen children, aged seven and under, perished in a school fire.

We photographers are human, even if many people think we are there to photograph with great coldness. It’s moments like these when I most think about my own family. My children are also journalists and my wife lost a young cousin in a car accident a year ago. If it’s possible to say that our job brings us satisfaction, it’s upon seeing our photos published, not over the grief of others.

Photojournalists live with constant tragedy, but that does not make us less sensitive to it. Our trench is the place with the best angle, and our arm is the camera. We will always be witnesses, but rarely protagonists.

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