By Thomas Peter
It was a sunny and calm Monday afternoon when I flew in a German army transport helicopter above a flooded region north of Magdeburg, the capital of the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. The Elbe river had swollen to over seven meters (yards) above its normal levels and broken its banks and a dyke near the village of Fischbeck. Farmlands, forests and whole villages were inundated by its waters. Hundreds of people had to flee their homes.
Strapped to a bucket seat I sat beside the helicopter’s open sliding door and surveyed the water landscape below me: sunken buildings, tree tops and the tops of abandoned cars dotted the glistening, caramel-colored surface of the deluge. Here and there a street or a pristinely groomed hedge rose above the water as a reminder of the human order that had been submerged by the force of nature.
One week earlier I had waded through flooded villages upstream. Up to my waist in water I photographed the efforts of rescue teams and volunteers trying to contain the rising river and evacuate trapped inhabitants. When covering a natural disaster of this kind you have to be in the middle of it to capture the emotional dimension of the tragedy.
Yet a bird’s-eye view is equally as important. For only from above can you show the extend of a flood. Or as in the case of the picture below, by picking certain graphic details, bring the absurdity of the situation to the viewer’s attention. When the world in which we are ensconced so happily with all our man-made facilities becomes submerged by dirty water, everything assumes an unreal quality. When people’s homes turn into forlorn boxes surrounded by a freak lake that stretches to the horizon, you understand that the order we take for granted is a mere illusion in the face of nature’s caprices.
At some point the helicopter made a right turn, dipping the side I was sitting on deep below the horizon. And there it was right below me, the epitome of the absurd flood picture: the baby-blue oval of a swimming pool evenly surrounded by muddy water. I trained my 300mm lens straight down and composed as well as I could, which was a challenge in the soaring air stream that nearly snatched my camera out of my hands. I fired off some 10 frames before the chopper leveled out. The picture was gone. No one else on board had seen it.