Photographers' Blog

Catastrophic lessons in a quake zone

Ya’an, Sichuan province, China

By Jason Lee

It was 8:02 am on April 20th, 2013, three weeks before the fifth anniversary of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake which killed nearly 70,000 people, when another strong quake hit the city of Ya’an in the same province. More than 190 people died, 21 others are still missing, and more than 11,000 people have been injured.

I must admit when I first heard about the disaster, I was a little reluctant to cover it, hoping that this time it wouldn’t be very serious. The catastrophic images from five years ago were still lingering in my head. However, when the death toll started to climb, I quickly cleared my thoughts and got on the next flight to the quake zone.

I don’t want to use too many words to describe how much I overcame to get there because my difficulties mean nothing compared to every victim’s face I saw and every cry I heard on the way.

I want to write about something else that I witnessed there, something I believe is worse than the earthquake. This quake struck a mountainous area where most inhabitants are local farmers. I studied construction engineering in college and it didn’t take me long to notice that many houses in the area were constructed so poorly that they wouldn’t even be able to withstand a much smaller quake.

After taking some pictures of people crying in front of their destroyed houses, I stepped forward to interview them for the captions only to find out that many houses, even schools, were rebuilt after being damaged in the 2008 quake. I couldn’t believe how the lessons from what had happened had not been learned.

Keeping safe in a quake-hit zone

By Jason Lee

Around noon on September 7 two shallow earthquakes struck the mountainous area of Yiliang county of Yunnan province, China. I received my assignment to travel to the area at around 6 p.m. when the death toll reached 60.

SLIDESHOW: QUAKE AFTERMATH

As you can imagine, it is never easy to get to an earthquake-hit area. I had only 20 minutes to pack and prepare before a 3-hour flight. After that, I traveled another 8 hours by car followed by a one hour ride on the back of a motorcycle before reaching my destination. Along the road I didn’t see many collapsed buildings, but there were lots of giant rocks that had probably rolled down from mountains as the quake hit, as a result, many cars were smashed into pieces.

My memory of covering the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake gradually came back — apart from the damage that had already been done, I needed to watch out for possible landslides and other dangers. Every aftershock brought with it more risk for the residents and rescuers in the worst-hit area, as they were at the foot of several huge rocky mountains.

Inside Haiti’s condemned National Palace

By Swoan Parker

More than twice the size of the White House in Washington D.C., Haiti’s National Palace in Port-au-Prince lies in near total ruin. The palace was designed in 1912 by Haitian architect Georges H. Baussan, and was destroyed by fire in an assassination attempt against then-President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in 1915, while still under construction. After the construction was restarted, it was finally finished in 1920 with U. S. naval engineers overseeing its completion after that coup attempt.

Since then, the palace has headquartered such controversial presidents as François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and Jean Bertrand Aristide.

Minutes before 5pm local time on January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck with an epicenter near the town of Leogane, approximately 25km (16 miles) west of the capital. The disaster killed around 200,000 people and destroyed many important buildings, including the National Palace. President Rene Preval was not inside at that moment.

Angels of Parmesan

By Stefano Rellandini

It all started one night as I looked for some Parmesan cheese to add to my pasta at home. I wondered what the situation was two weeks after an earthquake struck the area of Emilia, the home of Parmesan cheese. After dinner I searched online for some news on the subject and found a lovely story about a team of firefighters who went to the affected areas to help recover the damaged cheese.

Around Finale Emilia, the epicenter of the latest earthquake, there are many factories producing Parmesan which, alongside agriculture, is the core business of the region.

When I arrived at the factory I saw that the situation remained difficult for the owner as all the cheese lay on the ground or had collapsed on the counter. Firefighters were constantly working to remove the cheese. Looking around the warehouse I wondered why the farmers had waited for the special team of firefighters to remove the cheese and not used local volunteers instead.

Empty spaces

By Carlos Barria

A year ago I went to Japan to cover the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the country’s northern coast.

At the time I was shocked by the scale of the destruction and felt I needed to show the magnitude of the disaster. I tried to fill my pictures with as many elements as possible. I even took a series of panoramic-format photographs, for a wider view.

My pictures at the time showed spaces filled with pieces of houses, twisted cars and people’s belongings– the debris of daily life.

The place that adults fear

By Toru Hanai

March 11 is here again in Japan.

A year after the tsunami devastated Higashi Matsushima city in Miyagi, seven-year-old Wakana Kumagai visited the grave of her father Kazuyuki with her mother Yoshiko, brother Koki, and her grandparents.

I first met Wakana last April, just weeks after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and huge tsunami devastated Japan’s northeast Pacific coast. The school year begins in April here in Japan, and Wakana was carrying her new, shiny red school backpack as she visited her father at a temporary graveyard that housed those who died from the tsunami. She gracefully bowed to her dad, showing off her new bag and her dress she wore for the first grader’s ceremony as if she were at a ball, and told him that she just attended her school for the first time. Her graceful bow struck my heart.

The next time I saw Wakana was on September 11, half a year after the disaster. Seeing her pray at the spot where her father’s car was found, Wakana looked like she had grown up a little bit. I heard that she was writing letters to her father, saying “Daddy, I want to see you but there’s nothing I can do about it, right?”, then placing them in an urn containing her fathers’ ashes, which was still at their house because there were not enough spots for graves. Her message for her father sank into my mind.

Clinging to life in a tsunami zone

By Toru Hanai

Choufuku Ishisone of Miyako, Iwate prefecture, owns a convenience store.

On March 11, 2011, Ishisone was driving to see his store after checking on his house following the earthquake and saw a black tsunami wave roar over a seawall. He made a U-turn, but the tsunami struck him from multiple directions, sending his car afloat. The engine stopped. He jumped out of the car in a hurry but lost his footing in the tsunami and was swallowed up in the thick, black water.

He managed to avoid cars, ships and other debris carried by the tsunami but the water level continued to rise steadily. Grabbing onto a power line pole as he was swept past, he scrambled up so desperately that he was about five meters high before he knew it.

“I want to be saved! That one feeling kept me climbing,” he said. “Then I thought I had to get off the pole somehow, but the water didn’t go down, which was very irritating.”

Strength born of calamity

By Swoan Parker

Everything was in its place. Knick-knacks of varying shapes perfectly lined the dresser as the dearly loved treasures from a literally broken home.  Aline Deispeines’ concrete home was destroyed in the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12, 2010.  Her new home, spotlessly kept, was a tent. Her life, like that of so many who survived the calamity, was changed forever.  She, like so many other Haitians, had lost her home, her loved ones, her business, and all feeling of security for her future.


I came to know Aline, 44 and a single mother to daughter Tina, 13, and adopted daughter Herby, 24, after hearing about OFEDA, the Organization of Dedicated Women in Action.  OFEDA is a grassroots organization of women in support of women. It is run by Aline, who against incredible odds formed the group just weeks after the quake. OFEDA, I would later learn, is a symbol of strength, hope and endurance.

When I was asked for story ideas related to International Women’s Day, I immediately thought of her.

One year from that day

By Toru Hanai

It will soon be one year from that day – March 11, 2011.

Greetings among friends who meet after a long absence begins with, “Where and what were you doing on March 11?”

On March 11, 2011, I was photographing Prime Minister Naoto Kan during a committee session at the Parliament building in Tokyo.

At 2:46 p.m. the world started to shake really slowly.

I felt fear as the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck, not only because of the intensity of the shaking but also the duration of it.

Healing power of photography

By Yuriko Nakao

The 3.11 Portrait Project brings smiles to the victims of the triple-whammy disaster through the power of the photograph

After the magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked Japan in March 11 last year, as a photographer for a newswire service, I had many chances to document reality, which was often depressing and shocking. However, at times, I would feel rewarded when my work brought positive results by inviting support and compassion from around the world to those who were suffering. However, still, the support was often not directed specifically to the person pictured in my shots, which often made me feel helpless.

Japanese photographer Nobuyuki Kobayashi, 42, had experienced a similar feeling. His main field of photography was mostly to shoot commercial photos but past assignments included regions in conflict, and disasters such as the earthquake which hit off the coast of Sumatra, the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the attacks on 9/11. As what many Japanese photographers did after Japan experienced the worst catastrophe since World War Two, Kobayashi went up north to take photographs after his friend in Iwate prefecture asked him to. He shot pictures of the disaster and rubble in northeastern Japan, but came to question whether that was the role he should play.

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