I covered the aftermath of an earthquake years ago as a new-comer to the business. I was living in Rome and we had felt the quake as it struck a moutainous region of Southern Italy just before 8 o’clock on a Sunday evening in November.
It was first light by the time we got to the village of Balvano. As, I drove down into the valley, the village was blanketed by cloud. There was no sound, there were no lights but as we passed through the cloud, we became aware of an awful noise – the terrible wailing of the survivors.
Did my pictures convey the horror of it all like the ones we are seeing from China? Did they eloquently tell the story of the men, women and children of the village crushed when the roof of the Third Century Roman church fell in on them? No, I blew it. I was so completely overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering, by the death, destruction and misery that I blew it. Never having experienced anything remotely like it, I felt a complete interloper ashamed to be pointing a camera at people who had lost everything.
When I finally got to sleep my nightmares were full of people but my pictures were not. They showed wreckage and desolation but failed to give it a face. In the misguided belief that I needed somehow protect what shreds of dignity the victims had left by not exposing them to wider scrutiny, I not only completely missed the point of my being there but also let them down.
Luckily, for me I was disabused, while there was still time to redeem myself, by veteran UPI (ultimately Reuters) photographer Luciano Mellace who, in the middle of all the chaos, took me under his wing and set me straight. He is still doing it.