Photographers' Blog

Cherry blossoms spring smiles in devastation

Cherry blossoms in full bloom are seen at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, April 18, 2011.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Even this year, cherry blossom season bloomed in Japan.

The lives of us Japanese have changed completely in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and the constant fear of radiation following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. So much so that we forgot the coming of spring.

Cherry blossoms on a tree damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ofunato are seen next to fish near a damaged fish-processing plant in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture, April 18, 2011. The fish was likely washed up from the nearby plant.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

I returned to cover the stricken area again at the beginning of April. The huge piles of debris that were visible immediately after the quake and tsunami were slowly being managed. Roads had appeared again and gradually I saw that there was a town.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom are seen at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, April 19, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

The town which appeared was still a world of monotone. But light pink flowers, that elicit a feeling of excitement within all Japanese, appeared in the black and white world.

Cherry blossoms grew from trees destroyed by the tsunami little more than one month earlier. Branches that were swept away when cars whistled by were now full of vitality as the cherry blossoms bloomed wonderfully.

Cherry blossoms in full bloom are seen in an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, April 19, 2011.  REUTERS/Toru Hanai

The revival of Japan has only just begun. I cannot help but hope that a day will come soon when we will be able to regain our smile in Japan; a smile such as the cherry blossoms bring.

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.

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.

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