Photographers' Blog

Japan’s nuclear crisis and my life

As a Reuters photographer, I have covered many disasters and incidents over the last ten years but these things had little direct affect on my life. Just like the saying: “The photographer must be taken out of the picture”, I was a third party in most of these cases. By and large, those catastrophes had nothing to do with my personal life. Once my assignment was over, I used to go back to my normal life and switch from emergency mode.

But last month’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that sparked the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in Japan was different. I am not exempt from the fear caused by the disaster nor am I immune to the threat of the invisible nuclear radiation.

Since I deployed to near Fukushima prefecture to cover the nuclear crisis story last month, two palm size radiation monitors have been added to my MUST-carry items along with my camera equipment. The first thing I have to do after waking up in the morning is not drink a cup of coffee but instead check the radiation level. The number on the device has been the main criteria on whether I can get out of the car once inside the 20km evacuation zone from the Fukushima nuclear plant.

A radiation monitor which was placed by a photographer is seen next to a damaged house and flower at a devastated area hit by earthquake and tsunami, which is about 18km from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, in Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, April 11, 2011. One thousand microsieverts make 1 millisievert.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Regardless of the level of background radiation, our white protective suits were mandatory to wear inside the evacuation zone. I also stood in line to receive radiation screening with other evacuees at a radiation check-up point whenever I had the opportunity during my assignment.

Photographer Kim Kyung-hoon wears protective clothing while working at Minamisoam's devastated area hit by earthquake and tsunami, which is about 18km from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, in Fukushima prefecture, April 11, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Meyers

Photographer Kim Kyung-hoon is tested for possible nuclear radiation at a check-up point, which is about 70km from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, in Fukushima prefecture, April 12, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Meyers

Even though the background radiation levels around my assignment zone recently have been very low, including inside the 20km evacuation zone in Minamisoma, I found myself getting a bit nervous about possible radiation contamination in food, water and in the air. My knowledge and the facts that I have gathered throughout this assignment tell me there is nothing to worry about yet, but negative rumors and gossip are always close at hand.

Two faces of the same drama

A year ago, I was part of the Reuters team that covered Haiti’s massive earthquake, which claimed some 250,000 lives, and left a million people living in makeshift camps. This year, I was part of the team that covered another natural disaster– the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s northern coast and brought on a nuclear crisis.

The two events were very different. They occurred on opposite sides of the globe, in completely different countries, in different cultural contexts. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with a turbulent political history. On the other hand, Japan is one of the richest and most modern countries in the world– the third largest economy and, actually, one of the first to send help to Haiti.

But in covering these two catastrophes, I was struck by a few similarities.

Walking through the rubble of Kessenuma, in Japan, looking for a way to convey the scale of the destruction, I found myself almost in a situation like one year ago in Haiti.

Chile’s tsunami: a victim and his ghost

“I made the wrong decision,” was the first thing Emilio Gutierrez told me the first time we met. That was the day I took a photograph of him carrying his dog, just two days after the tsunami. I didn’t get to know him well enough then to even learn his name.

A combination photo shows Emilio Gutierrez, who lost his father and son during a tsunami brought by the February 2010 earthquake, (top) carrying his son's dog after rescuing it from the ruins of his home in Constitucion, March 10, 2010, and (bottom) holding his 2-month-old baby, Emilia, at his home in Putu town, near Constitucion February 25, 2011. Gutierrez continues to search for 4-year-old Jose who disappeared in a huge wave spawned by the tsunami last year. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Minutes after the earthquake in his hometown of Constitucion on February 27, 2010, Emilio made the decision to escape the looming waves with his family by boat upriver, away from the river’s mouth. In the dark of night and the panic of the moment his father and son, Emilito Jose, were the first to climb into the boat. But before the rest of the family could follow them the mooring ropes snapped and they were dragged away by the current.

Emilio trusted his father’s experience and was sure that they would be fine. Together with his mother and wife, Sofia, he climbed into their other boat and headed upriver. “The noise was like helicopters hovering above us.” That was the noise of the advancing first wave as it destroyed everything in its path.

Adrees Latif wins ICP Infinity Award for Photojournalism

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.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Pakistan chief photographer Adrees Latif has won the prestigious ICP Infinity Award in Photojournalism for his outstanding coverage of last year’s Pakistan floods. Working under the most difficult of conditions he led the Reuters pictures team to tell the story from every possible angle. His images were published daily across international front pages, bringing attention to the enormity of the catastrophe from its early stages. Latif’s work has received numerous industry accolades including the Pulitzer prize for Breaking News Photography in 2008.

An Army helicopter drops relief supplies to flood victims in Pakistan's Rajanpur district in Punjab province August 15, 2010.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Resident Ikramulla, 37, stands near a pen where he lost a handful of water buffalos to floods in Nowshera, located in Pakistan's northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province August 1, 2010.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Residents being evacuated through flood waters dodge an army truck carrying relief supplies for flood victims in Pakistan's Muzaffargarh district in Punjab province August 11, 2010.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Flood victims crowd the back of a trailer while evacuating to higher grounds in Pakistan's Muzaffargarh district in Punjab province August 11, 2010.   REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Adrees recounts how he took the award-winning image of marooned flood victims grasping on to an army helicopter as they tried to escape.

Heavy monsoon rains in late July 2010 caused widespread flooding across Pakistan, sweeping away entire villages and killing at least 1,600 people and displacing 10 million. Water submerged around one-fifth of the country and led to the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis in decades. A week into the crisis, flooding had submerged areas of southern Pujab province while leaving a trail of death, damaged infrastructure and an uncertain future in the north of the country. As the flood waters ravaged villages and towns along the Indus River basin, I too followed its trail of destruction. After spending days wading through flood waters to tell the story, I arrived in Multan on August 6 in the hope of getting a seat upon a helicopter taking part in relief efforts. My goal was to bring light to the vast amount of landmass the floods had covered, the same viewpoint that made U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon note the Pakistan floods were worst disaster he had ever seen.

My date with Yasi

So, I was sitting on a plane flying from Sydney to a town called “Townsville” before I had a moment to consider that I was going north to intercept a huge cyclone, try and hide somewhere in the middle of it and stick my head up and start shooting as soon as it passed over me. In the end I was fully equipped, located and psyched to deal with a storm “roughly the size of Italy” but it was cyclone Yasi that blinked first.

When the decision was made to go I had 60 minutes before leaving for the airport. Photographers talk about a “go bag” or how they have a permanent disaster kit next to the front door or that they’re such legends, who have covered an untold number of natural disasters, everything they need is burned on their memory. I have a list. I have a number of lists but I still stand in the middle of the lounge room asking my wife what I have forgotten. She always comes up with something. Surprisingly, the flight (the very last one to this impending natural disaster before the destination airport closed) was packed. On it were a few other media types but also a bunch of paramedics, emergency workers and prison guards all going for the same reason.

Local resident Selwyn Hughes (C) sits with his daughter Roseanne, 13, outside an emergency cyclone shelter after it was declared full and the gate locked in the northern Australian city of Cairns February 2, 2011.  REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

First stop for my text and TV colleagues and I was the first gas station we found still trading as we headed still further north to Cairns – right into the path of the cyclone. Just about everything was closed with taped up windows or boarded up doors. We netted $250 worth of bottled water and the kind of food you’d only ever buy at a gas station.

Always on alert among 17,000 islands

A google map shows Indonesia.  REUTERS/Google

Monday, October 25, 2010.

As I sat in Jakarta’s traffic for five hours, trying to rescue my daughter stranded at her school after the worst floods in Indonesia’s capital for years, I thought about how serious a volcanic eruption at Mount Merapi in Java could become. It was coming at a bad time – Jakarta-based staff photographer Beawiharta was also stuck in the jam trying to get to the airport to shoot it. Then I got a call from regional pictures editor Paul Barker. He told me there had been a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia. Wow!!!

I read on a local disaster monitoring agency via my Blackberry that it was a quake on the Mentawai islands, off the western coast of Sumatra. Being a photojournalist and editor for a news agency, I have to act fast. I contacted a stringer who lives in Padang, West Sumatra, the nearest town to the epicenter, and residents in the Mentawai region.

I had to put all my attention on the quake. It struck at around 9:15pm and I tried to get more details until 3 am. I tried calling the local police numbers, hospitals or locals who live there. But none of them picked up the phone. I had a strong feeling that something was seriously wrong in Mentawai. It was very unusual that not a single telephone land line or mobile phone could be reached. I decided to go to bed. It was 4 in the morning and I knew that I had to wake up at 6am.

A hurricane named Katrina

Elton Driscoll, Jr. carries a U.S. flag that he removed from a hotel down the deserted and boarded-up Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans August 28, 2005.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

While covering Hurricane Katrina ripping through New Orleans five years ago, it struck me how the individual events that unfolded in the aftermath echoed similar tragedies I had photographed around the globe.

Cynthia Gonzales runs through the rain with a stray dog she rescued from a destroyed gas station (background) in Gretna, Louisiana, as Hurricane Katrina hit August 29, 2005.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking

It was like several stories in one – a hurricane of course, but there was little typical hurricane damage in the city. In fact, before the levees broke and it turned into a flood story I was close to leaving to move further east along the coast to cover the near-total devastation in Mississippi.

Two men push their truck in flooded New Orleans August 30, 2005.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

It was a huge human tragedy story, reminiscent of 9/11 in New York in some ways with dazed, confused and distraught people wandering the streets.

Disaster deja vu

A view shows the landslide-hit Zhouqu County of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, Gansu Province August 9, 2010.  REUTERS/Aly Song

“Zhouqu” in Tibetan means the Bailong River, which runs across the once peaceful county. Surrounded by hills, this small settlement was where just over one week ago, a landslide charged through the main street. 1100 people were killed and more than 600 remain missing – who are presumed dead.

Having returned from covering this disaster, I find it difficult to resume my normal life. I think back over the last 7 days, and I cannot stop feeling how similar the towns of Zhouqu and Beichuan are. (Beichuan was almost entirely destroyed during the 2008 earthquake that left more than 86,000 people dead, and over 12,000 missing). Both these towns are similar in the following respects: landform, residents, architecture, and the arrival of thousands of rescue workers and soldiers. I can say this, because I have now been in both places covering similar disasters. The only difference is, horribly and sadly, the number of victims.

Rescuers remove a victim from the debris in the landslide-hit Zhouqu County of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province August 10, 2010.   REUTERS/Aly Song

ON THE WAY
As soon as I was told about the disaster on August 8, I began to search for the nearest airport to Zhouqu, of which there are four: Lanzhou in Gansu province, Xining in Qinghai province, Chengdu in Sichuan province and Xi’an in Shaanxi province.

Spitting into the sinkhole

It’s not the first sinkhole the size of an entire block in Guatemala City.

A giant sinkhole caused by the rains of Tropical Storm Agatha is seen in Guatemala City May 31, 2010.  REUTERS/Casa Presidencial/Handout

I had covered an even bigger one in 2007. Two seemingly bottomless, perfectly round holes, swallowed up an intersection and buildings, and in one case a family eating dinner at their dinner table. They both happened at night, both in the rain. On May 29, 2010 I was transmitting late night pictures from the last two sleepless days, covering a volcanic eruption that blanketed the city and country with a cloud of black sand-like ash. Then came Agatha, the first tropical storm of the season, which pounded Guatemala with so much rain that hillsides collapsed on villages and overflowing rivers washed houses away. More than 150 people are counted as dead so far, but they are still searching, digging through the mud to find more.

Workers clean up ash from the Pacaya volcano during tropical storm Agatha in Guatemala City May 29, 2010.  REUTERS/Daniel LeClair

The night the hole was created, it was still raining heavily. We kept the news blaring on the radio. “A giant hole has opened up in Ciudad Nueva!” Again? This time it was closer to my house — less than 2 miles according to the city map. I jumped on the back of my wet motorbike. It would be tough to stay dry. I was there quickly but the police line was already up.

Struggling under the weight of the cameras, tangled with duct-taped plastic bags, a backpack with a laptop in it — all covered with a heavy rain poncho — I ducked under the yellow emergency tape. Standing about 100 meters from the hole, I could tell from the look on the ranking police officer’s face I wasn’t getting anywhere near that thing tonight. I couldn’t even see it. But, what I couldn’t see, I could hear. A great rumbling sound followed by a crash. The sides were crumbling. The hole was unstable and I would be allowed no closer until it settled. Neighbors and evacuees huddled under their umbrellas in the rain. Their faces full of astonishment and worry.

Oil from all angles

From the moment the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico made headlines, Reuters has provided extensive coverage. Below are accounts from six of our photographers who have been sent at various times to document the story.

LEE CELANO

Reuters photographer Lee Celano photographs oil in a marsh near Pass a Loutre, Louisiana, May 20, 2010.  REUTERS/Matthew Bigg

Covering the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster as a still photographer for Reuters has brought unique challenges. Although the volume of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico is huge, relatively small patches of oil have landed along coastal Louisiana. It’s like a monster who hides most of the time and lashes out quickly, withholding its full strength. But it has been important to show that oil is in fact having an ecological impact here, and to find areas with visible proof.

On Thursday May 20, I accompanied a Reuters TV crew, correspondent Mathew Bigg and Maura Wood of the National Wildlife Federation on a boat, looking for heavy concentrations of oil in an area at the very southern tip of Louisiana. We headed for an area which had just begun being inundated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak. After hours of searching, a broken propeller, and an unexpected lunch aboard a work barge, we had found the spot. As Wood prepared to take a sample of the water to check its toxicity, I suited up in chest waders and slowly got into the murky water, one camera and lens stuffed into my waiters. Maneuvering in the soft lagoon floor was tricky; I sank down as I tried to walk and was concerned I might loose my balance and get myself and camera wet. So I held onto the drifting boat long enough to get into position, cautiously letting go so I could have both hands free to shoot. Wood leaned over to get samples and I was able to shoot it from from the perspective of the oily water.