Photographers' Blog

Chile: The earthquake picture I never sent

Caption for an unchosen picture:

Constitución, March 1 – An earthquake survivor carries the dog that he rescued from the ruins of his home, along a street devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.

“Take my picture with the dog,” the survivor tells me. I take it as if ordered to, and see that his face shows tremendous pain. “I lost my home, the sea took my son and my wife, and this is all that was left. I can’t leave the dog here. He was my son’s.” He pauses. “I found my wife (alive), but my boy is still missing.” Before he finishes speaking I lower my camera and cry. I walk together with him thinking what to say to lessen his suffering, but there is only silence.

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I never sent this poorly-focused photo of the earthquake survivor. The preconception of what makes a good photograph, the aesthetics, the layers of composition, and the sharpness or lack of it, all became reasons not to choose it. It was some time later when I realized that the sadness of the out-of-focus man with his pet is still transmitted as pain and devastation even through the picture’s technical defects, and banishes all the photographic concepts I hold true in my own little world. I blame Reason for overcoming Emotion.

Technically the photograph isn’t good but, all modesty aside, I think it’s the best photo I took. Today, it’s clearer than ever to me that in editing a story we don’t always show all we’ve seen, and that we never stop learning in the process.

I feel fortunate that this was the only person I encountered who had suffered a death first hand in Constitución.  I like to believe that we never met again while roaming the same streets because he eventually found his son. 

Slow change in Haiti

In the weeks since I arrived in Port-au-Prince to cover the earthquake, the streets have been cleared of debris and thousands of bodies have been removed from the rubble. But in many ways, the changes seem incremental.

QUAKE-HAITI

In Cite Soleil a small improvised camp looks a lot the same, only it’s grown in size. Thousands of families continue living under blue plastic tarps, and they receive food from aid groups fighting against time as the rainy season approaches. When I left, on March 1, the food distribution at least was much more organized, watched over by American soldiers. The food just goes to women now, in an attempt to get aid to nuclear families instead of those who shove the hardest.

QUAKE-HAITI/FRANCE

About a month after the earthquake, on a trip to Titanyen, the site where some 100,000 were buried in mass graves north of the city, I saw a small group of Haitians with sticks and stones. They were trying to mark off land in order to build there in the future. There was nothing else, just gravel. No services at all.

Haiti, destroyed and desperate

I crossed the border into Haiti from the Dominican Republic 36 hours after the earthquake hit. As we drove closer to Port-au-Prince, we began to see scenes of destruction and suffering, which only multiplied as we entered the city covered in smoke and in shock.

Residents walk at a destroyed area after a major earthquake hit the capital Port-au-Prince, January 14, 2010. Troops and planeloads of food and medicine streamed into Haiti on Thursday to aid a traumatized nation still rattled by aftershocks from the catastrophic earthquake that flattened homes and government buildings and buried countless people.  REUTERS/Jorge Silva
 
My first sensation was of absolute powerlessness; the pain, chaos and destruction were so overwhelming it seemed impossible to register it all. It was hard to know where to start, to find the exact words to describe everything that was happening and continues to happen. To translate all that it into images is a huge challenge.

Corpses of earthquake victims lie in a mass grave located on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince January 15, 2010. Thousands of people left hurt or homeless in Haiti's earthquake begged for food, water and medical assistance on Friday as the world rushed to deliver aid to survivors before their despair turned to anger. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
 
I had never been in a tragedy of this magnitude, or seen anything close. Every day that passed we realized the dimension of the destruction was even greater. Every time I explored what was behind a wall, in a garden or a plaza, inside a field hospital or in the ruins of a house, there would be more children who urgently needed food and medicine, more desperate men and women with no hope for the future.

Scenes from Haiti

The numbers from Haiti are staggering. Authorities say the death toll is likely to be between 100,000 and 200,000. Already, 75,000 bodies have been buried in mass graves. 1.5 million residents are homeless . Families have been torn apart. Neighborhoods have been flattened. The government has nearly ceased to exist. But numbers can tell only a small part of the story. Scenes of the devastation in Haiti are filling airwaves and newspapers around the world, triggering a flood of compassion and donations.

Click here for a selection of some of the most striking images captured by our own Reuters’ photographers. An injured child receives medical treatment in Port-au-Prince, January 13, 2010.  REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

An injured child receives medical treatment in Port-au-Prince, January 13, 2010. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Disaster follows disaster

Erik de Castro is Chief Photographer for Reuters in the Philippines. A veteran of disasters and hot-spots across Asia and other parts of the world, he was also Chief Photographer in Baghdad, Iraq from 2006-2009. In the past three weeks he has covered floods and landslides in the Philippines and a huge earthquake in Indonesia.

On Sept. 26, I was driving back from a holiday in the northern Philippines when I heard radio reports of flooding in Metro Manila and nearby provinces. At around 4 p.m. I was in Bulacan province just outside the capital when traffic slowed down due to waist-deep floodwater on the expressway.

Along the side of the highway, I saw residents on the roofs of their houses pulling up others to safety.  Others were taking shelter on the elevated highway. Wet and cold, scores of women and children were cramped in a makeshift tent on the roadside.

Be prepared!

“ALWAYS get to the scene as soon as possible”, is a mantra for the Tokyo picture team. It is advice which features prominently in the pocket-sized guide to emergency coverage procedures produced by our boss Michael Caronna - a guide which has also become indispensible in everyday coverage too. 

Japan is one of the world’s most seismically active areas and the Tokyo Pictures team’s emergency earthquake coverage plan is well-developed and paid off recently when we covered a powerful earthquake in Northern Japan. 

The guide suggests a very clear and concise principle: “Have equipment and photographers in place at all times and just go when it happens.”

Walking with survivors: Audio slideshow

Shanghai-based photographer Nir Elias tells of his hike with survivors of the Sichuan quake.

Aftermath of a quake: Audio slideshow

A showcase of David’s Gray images of the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake are set to music in this audio slideshow.

Earthquake in China – a photographer’s view

1. Dujiangyan, 2: 30 am, May 13th.

In misty light I arrived at Chongqing Airport with my TV colleague Royston. We drove straight toward Dujiangyan, with rain spitting gloomily and the air damply hazing my breath. The city seemed as though the Big Bang had just happened, everything had stopped. The crying and sirens all around made me dizzy and I cannot really remember how I arrived at the ruins of what had once been a school, with its 900 pupils buried in the rubble. A rescue team was desperately looking for anybody still alive, while I stood on the mountain of dust and the dead, shooting pictures. The sound of the shutter seemed to me to be like death itself scratching away.

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2. On the road

Go to Wenchuan.

Go to Wenchuan.

Go to the epicenter of the earthquake .

But how on earth? All roads were damaged and all gas stations controlled by troops. A 500 ml coke bottle filled with petrol was priced at 20 yuan (2.88USD) on the black market. On May 14th, I fuelled a rented motorcycle with several of these and began my long journey to Wenchuan, all off track. 10 kilometers later, I was stopped by police, so Ibegan to walk. Half way there I was offered a lift by Wang, an emergency  worker, driving a bulldozer. In return I had to promise to check on his good friend Tan, the headmaster of a primary school inside Wenchuan town.

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At first on a handsome motorcycle, then on an awesome bulldozer, and finally on foot, I reached my destination seven and a half hours later. It was May 15th. The first living being I encountered as I arrived at the primary school was Tan the headmaster, soaked head-to-toe in blood. He told me that all his family had been killed, only he survived and he could not even estimate how many of his pupils were dead. The news of Tan’s survival was delivered to Wang the bulldozer driver via satphone and my editor in Beijing.

Earthquake in China – a view from Beijing

It happened and it just happened, quietly but tangibly …  it only lasted 5 seconds…
 
May 12, 2008, 2:28 pm on the button, I was stooping to pick up a gift before rushing off to visit a client with two colleagues. The sudden dizzy feeling made me mentally rebuke myself for skipping breakfast and lunch; in those 5 seconds, I swore to myself never to do it again if I had to attend a formal meeting. But of course, my expressions remained calm. 
 
It’s an earthquake“, a sharp yet clear voice from the corner of the office broke this temporary silence which instinctively ignited my relief of being faint. “Hey buddy, maybe you are not so bad”, I said to myself.
 
So, that is how it started … on a normal working day, it just happened.
 
No worries, we had already had contingency plans…
 
Photographers immediately  rushed to the airport, we skipped the client visit and began to tackle the breaking story. From that moment, for the first time ever, the Beijing Pix Desk began running 24/7 with three editors: Grace Liang, Reinhard Krause and myself.
 
The first pictures of white collars wandering downstairs after escaping from a shaking Beijing office building hit the wire 10 minutes after the quake struck while we continued moving pix from around China showing general damage like burst water pipes and cracked walls.  

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While the mobile phones of all our local friends’ and stringers’ remained unreachable, the story escalated. “A middle school building collapsed in Dujiangyan, near Chengdu, burying 900; another toppled in Chongqing…” The snaps just kept coming - who knew at that time that it was just the tip of the iceberg of a much worse tragedy.
 
The local stringers had already headed to these two spots before I got their first SMS which had been delayed for almost 4 hours.
 
“Stay safe & fast ftp,” I replied in hopes that a short message would move more quickly.
 
Shortly after 9, the first image of real damage landed on the desk – then the second, then the third, and then the fourth … By midnight, we had already moved 40 pictures from the worst-hit areas of  Mianyang and Dujiangyan, with half of them exclusive stuff. And so it continued …  
 
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 By 7 am, 61 pictures earthquake-hit Sichuan province had been sent and by 2:28 the next day, 24 hours after the shock, 100 Reuters pictures had moved to the World… And then our staff photographers also began filing from different spots.  
 
 3rd
 
 
So, that was the first day after the earthquake,  then the second, then the third - it was a sleepless fortnight until the story began to quieten down a bit…
 
I can barely remember how many packages we moved from this terrible news story and all of them telling heart-breaking stories, ”relatives mourn near the body of their dead children”, “a 61-year-old survivor is rescued after being buried for 164 hours”, “a girl has to have her left leg amputated to save her life”…… There were too frequent heart warming moments as people all over the nation donated money and blood to the sufferers, 66-year-old premier Wen Jibao crying while visiting the area, exhausted young soldiers resting around their camp fire…

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 5th

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We received more and more images  from an ever increasing area including the epicenter and remote villages. In Beijing we tried to take an overview of the pictures file and ensure it was relevant and comprehensible, making  best use of the images we had and respecting the dignity of the victims. It took professionalism and a degree of detachment while deep inside our hearts we were shocked and crying. Now things are calmer we have time to think back over that time and the images frozen in our memories - so it’s blogging time.

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