Photographers' Blog

Scars and stories on Joplin’s landscape

By Eric Thayer

More than three months ago, a massive tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri, killing almost 160 people and destroying nearly 8,000 homes and businesses. For a week the story garnered national and international attention. A community of 50,000 people was thrust into the spotlight.

Images of destruction dominated newspapers and newscasts. Stories were told, lives shown fragmented, a bruised and battered community rallied, despite being in a collective state of shock. Then, slowly, as the pools of rainwater dried up, the residents dug through the deep wound cut a mile wide into the landscape, picking out pieces of their shattered lives. Slowly the attention faded, though work quietly continued.

Almost three months later, I returned to Joplin to get a sense of where the community had come since the tornado. The wounds are healing. But they are healing slowly. Most of the residents have left the damaged areas, much of the debris has been removed, and although there is still much to be taken away, whole blocks have been cleared, leaving only the occasional foundation. Most of the work crews are gone; there is an occasional home under construction, but there aren’t many.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has built trailer parks on land next to an airport, about 20 minutes from the bulk of the destruction in a small piece of Joplin that juts into Webb City to the north. Stark white trailers on gravel streets, with beige interiors and blasting air conditioners are now home for many residents. They are allowed to live there rent-free for 18 months.

I spent some time with a couple and their son. The woman said she had returned two days earlier from California after battling cancer and winning; at 26. They had lost their apartment, and a representative of FEMA was there with papers to sign. He handed over the keys to their new home, and some semblance of normalcy began to return to their lives.

Flashback to Baidoa, Somalia: 1992

By Yannis Behrakis

It was the beginning of December 1992 and the winter had settled into Athens – the big story was the civil war and the famine in Somalia.

I volunteered to cover the story, as I’m sure many others did, but I was one of the “lucky” ones selected to go. Tom’s distinctive voice on the phone sounded both reassuring and worried. It was my first trip to the region and I remember running frantically to get malaria pills and a Yellow fever vaccine. I had the other vaccines a year earlier before covering a massive earthquake in Iran.

After a long flight via Cairo I found myself in Nairobi, with all my clothes lost somewhere in Africa. The most valuable part of my kit was fortunately still with me: two analogue camera bodies, the usual collection of lenses, a portable darkroom to develop color films, lots of chemicals and the latest in transmission technology, a 35mm film scanner and a T1 PC (the first Reuters photos portable PC) capable of filing a color photo to our London desk in about 22 minutes! This, of course, only if you succeeded in sending all three color separations.

Clearing the rubble but not the sorrow

By Kim Kyung-hoon

In 2004 I was in Indonesia’s Banda Aceh covering the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster which killed over 230,000 people in several south Asian countries. I met a tired-looking man tackling huge piles of rubble created by the tsunami in a brave effort to clean it up. He had only a shovel to use on the debris stretching on all sides as far as the eye could see. He stopped a moment and bemoaned to me that it would take more than several years to clear the rubble in his country. He also added that a rich country like Japan could clear it quickly with giant heavy construction equipment if a similar disaster happened in Japan. When I left Banda Aceh after my one-month stay there, the scenery going from the Reuters temporary base to the airport was almost the same as what I had seen on my first day there, and dead bodies still lay on the streets.

Last weekend, I traveled to Japan’s tsunami–destroyed towns again with my colleague to cover Japan’s traditional festival obon, when families welcome back the spirits of the dead.

It was five months after they had been struck by the March 11 magnitude 9.0 quake and huge tsunami. I could see that the Indonesian man’s insight was correct.

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.”

Me and the man with the iPad

By Barry Malone

I never know how to behave when I go to write about hungry people.

I usually bring just a notebook and a pen because it seems somehow more subtle than a recorder. I drain bottled water or hide it before I get out of the car or the plane. In Ethiopia a few years ago I was telling a funny story to some other journalists as our car pulled up near a church where we had been told people were arriving looking for food.

We got out and began walking towards the place, me still telling the tale, shouting my mouth off, struggling to get to the punch line through my laughter and everybody else’s.

Then there was this sound, a low rumbling thing that came to meet us.

I could feel it roll across the ground and up through my boots. I stopped talking, my laughter died, I grabbed the arm of the person beside me: “What is that?” And I realized. It was the sound of children crying. There were enough children crying that — I’ll say it again — I could feel it in my boots. I was shamed by my laughter.

Beefing up radiation checks

Since covering the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March, I have photographed various radiation scenes in the months that followed.

Starting with shocking scenes of people who were actually contaminated with radiation being cleansed and scenes of people being isolated into a building.

I covered many people who had possibly been exposed after their evacuation from areas near the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Imagining what it would be like to be in their shoes it was difficult to ask for permission but surprisingly, almost all the people allowed me to take pictures as a Geiger counter ticked beside them.

In the face of famine

Thursday, July 21, 2011 was supposed to be like any other night shift here on the pictures desk in Singapore – selecting, editing, and captioning pictures as they came in from around the world. On the menu would be coverage of National Day in Belgium, Eurozone summit, Tour de France, Europa League soccer, golf, and the daily file from Libya, Yemen and the rest of the Middle East, just to name a few.

In my close to four years working as a pictures sub-editor I’ve seen a large variety of what the world, and life has to offer. The rise and fall of politicians and regimes, tsunamis, earthquakes, athletes celebrating and hanging their heads in scandal-ridden shame, conservative cultures covering up in the name of modesty and liberal cultures baring all in the name of expression, fashion, entertainment, or just for the sake of it.

Through my photographer colleagues around the world, I’ve also witnessed a lot of bloodshed, violence and death. From a little girl clutching her dead mother’s body with her intestines spilling onto the road after a bomb explosion, to relatives reacting following gangland executions, heads and genitalia severed. ‘Soldiers’, ‘rebels’, ‘freedom fighters’, ‘terrorists’ – all killing each other in the name of one ideology or another. All of this, as a news organization we’ve presented to you.

Tips on the fire line

My rental SUV smells like a junior high school locker room manned by a chain-cigar-smoking gym instructor and I am standing on the side of the road with my pants and shirt half off cleaning myself with baby wipes and I am itching in areas that are not suppose to itch like that… yeah, I am in the field covering a wildfire.

Luckily I keep a “go” bag with all my own fire gear in it. I got the call in the evening and had arrangements to fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the next morning. I was being sent to cover the Wallow Wildfire, which has turned into Arizona’s largest fire in history, and was right on the border with New Mexico heading to the community of Luna, New Mexico. Thankfully I had editors that trusted me and knew I had been to a few of these rodeos before and would let me make the calls as to where I would go for photos and take the risk of getting out ahead of the fire.

Much of the media had headed to the northern edge of the wildfire and the towns of Springerville and Eager, Arizona. I had heard nothing but horror stories about trying to get any work done up there. The stories I had heard included hordes of media descending into these small towns making it very difficult to find a unique story. I had also heard from media about how hard it was to work with local enforcement and that even the Public Information officers (PIOs) were taking media nowhere near any real fire action and at times took them away from the visuals and stories.

Their scars, our scars

May 1, 2011

I’m on a plane from Los Angeles to JFK. About an hour before we touch down, the word goes out that the U.S. military has found and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. I land, make a few frames at baggage claim of people watching television while I wait for my bag. Then it’s talk my way to the front of a very long taxi line and make my way to Times Square and the site of the former World Trade Center towers, which many now refer to as Ground Zero. I notice an air of celebration.

People are cheering, waving American flags. There is quite a bit of media. I wonder what this must look like to the rest of the world, here we are celebrating the killing of a man. True, he came to represent the war against terror in the United States, but it seemed to be a celebration of death, at a place that had come to symbolize the death of many at the hands of extremists. Remembering the scenes of some burning American flags and cheering after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the outrage it caused, I make pictures of the scene. This is a historic milestone in a war that had begun nearly ten years earlier, and this is a turning point in the psyche of America.

Less than 24 hours later, I’m behind a barricade at the Met Gala, an event that is on par with some of the more high profile celebrity events in the United States. It’s sort of an Oscars for the East Coast, with a high level of star participation. But it’s a grueling parade of celebrities, all walking past a long line of photographers. There is Beyonce in a dress that rendered her nearly unable to walk up the stairs, there are Tom and Gisele, there is Rhianna, and there is the last minute arrival of Madonna.

A daughter’s last goodbye

Six-year-old Wakana Kumagai began to run from the car when she arrived at a temporary mass grave site in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture.

She had come to meet her father.

On that day Wakana attended an entrance ceremony for her elementary school. Afterward she went with her mother and older brother to the grave site. She showed off her dress and bright red school satchel as she described the entrance ceremony to her father. But her father, Kazuyuki, slept in the soil.

He was only 31 when he died.

On March 11, Wakana’s mother Yoshiko received a phone call from husband, Kazuyuki, just after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. “A tsunami is coming. Take the children and go to the elementary school (shelter). I will go later too” he told her. Yoshiko picked up her two children in the car and, as they made their way toward the elementary school, the car was swallowed up by the first wave of the tsunami. Miraculously the car doors didn’t open with the force of the tsunami and the three family members arrived at Omagari elementary school. The school was a makeshift shelter for those who had survived in the town that was now covered with seawater. The family awaited the arrival of Kazuyuki.