Photographers' Blog

Five years without Justin

By Jason Reed and Larry Downing

America’s military commitment in Afghanistan has been long by any count. Ten years of bloody war fathered by an angry country seeking revenge after it was blindsided in deadly attacks on September 11, 2001. Innocent souls vanished forever inside the flames that day in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.

Since then thousands of combat GI’s from willing countries have answered their nation’s call to hunt down those thought responsible for that day who are still hiding along the dark footpaths snaking the dangerous countryside.

Every time a soldier, or Marine dies in combat, he, or she is quickly flown home to be buried by a grieving family.

Mother’s shattered hearts and fresh tears point the way to their own child’s gravesite; they soon discover they’ve passed the initiation into a painful sorority bound forever by the death of a child killed during war. A reluctant sisterhood living with sad stories and broken memories called “Gold Star Mothers.”

Paula Davis lost her 19 year-old son, Justin, while he fought in Afghanistan in 2006. He had vowed to his mom he’d never forget his childhood memories of September 11th and enlisted in the U.S. Army one week after graduating from high school.

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.

An outsider’s view inside Tucson

People and law enforcement personnel stand at a parking lot where U.S Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was shot along with others at a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona January 8, 2011.  REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Arriving at the scene of the Tucson shooting, I really didn’t know what to expect. There is always a nervous energy driven by adrenalin. You know you have to be there. You know it’s going to be bad, but you know you have to be there. Someone has to tell the story. Someone has to show it to the rest of the world.

The first couple of days were spent in shock. The whole community was in shock. How could this happen here? Details that will later emerge are largely hidden at this point. The why and the how – that’s for later stories. Right now, the pressing issue is to document this. Right now is the time to photograph what the community and its people are going through. No time to think, no time to react, I need to do my job and show this for what it is right now. It’s still chaos. You try to make order from the chaos. Later the images will have context. Later you can place them into a framework, but for the moment it’s all reaction. Cover that one piece, then move on. Those fragments will all make sense later on, but for now just keep moving.

Mourners take part in a prayer vigil in response to Saturday's shooting of U.S Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) among others at a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona January 9, 2011.   REUTERS/Eric Thayer

I’m an outsider, but the community has embraced their responsibility in the wake of the tragedy. There was a reaction, and then they came together. The people had opened themselves up. They let me in and let me photograph them during a horrible time in their city’s history. I didn’t experience any negativity in covering anything related to the shooting. In fact, the only time I felt unwanted was when I photographed the gun show. They did not want me there. They did not want photos made.

A town of grief

BRITAIN-AFGHANISTAN/
The coffins of six British soldiers killed in Afghanistan are driven though the streets of Wootton Bassett in southwest England November 10, 2009. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Since the early 2000′s, the bodies of fallen servicemen and women from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places have been repatriated to RAF Lyneham. They pass through the town of Wootton Bassett on their way to the coroner in Oxford. This has led to family members, friends, locals and mourners from further afield assembling along the route of the funeral cortege. It is an emotionally charged event that garners wide media coverage every time.

BRITAIN/
A man cries as the hearses carrying the coffins of five British soldiers are driven through the streets of Wootton Bassett, southern England March 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

Choking back the horror

Five years have passed and I still find it hard to talk about the tsunami. When the subject comes up my throat still constricts, choking back the horror and raw pain that I saw and more shockingly, the way the rest of the world seemed to carry-on with daily life. Relief came – sometimes too much of it, but nothing prepares a photographer for the shock of returning to normality from a disaster zone.

I was in Phuket the day before Christmas, dodging the bullet perhaps as my ground floor room would certainly have become my tomb. Back in Singapore the news broke and I flew to Sri Lanka, arriving at the center of the destruction 24 hours after the waves. My first stop was a hospital outside Galle. Hundreds of bodies lay on the damp concrete floor, children in fetal positions next to what rescuers assumed were their parents. Some of them had bandages and IV’s telling the story of the pathetic struggle to save them, others just looked like they were asleep, still in pajamas but slowly bloating.

QUAKE LANKA

Blood and bodily fluid and the stark stench of decomposition. I worked the scene like a vulture, the lenses my shield; my shock at the scene my helmet; technical adjustments on the cameras my distraction from the horror. I edited on the fly, transmitting a few images via satphone and moving onto more death. It is only that night as I look through my day’s take that the tears come, as the reality of what I saw hits me – there is no lens now. Only the hard truth in 2 megabyte files on a dusty laptop screen.

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.

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