Visualising disasters

yolanda book

Recently I was asked to visit Palu and document the aftermath of the recent earthquake and recovery efforts. Unfortunately I couldn’t accept the assignment due to commitments but I was reminded of one of my previous assignments covering a disaster area. I thought it would be a good time to write a short note about covering disasters and its aftermath.

In 2013 I visited Leyte right after the deadly super-typhoon swept across the Eastern Visayas. Exactly a year later, I visited again to document what has changed.

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To visit a place right after a natural disaster is to visit a moment of absolute stillness. Everything comes to a halt. In the midst of chaos is a surreal period of silence and calmness. As if waking up from a long slumber, people are trying to make sense of what had happened and the authorities scrambling to assert some sort of control and plan for the eventual recovery. For an observer, every waking moment is a conscious attempt at grasping the past, present and future of the nation and it’s people at the same time. A state of confusion where nothing else matters but survival of the body and spirit. This is the time to strike.

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As outsiders parachuting in, we the members of the media are inadvertently in a position of privilege. Unlike those at whom we are pointing our lenses, we have a choice to stay or leave. We are mobile. We are detached from the reality of the place, unlinked from it’s culture and history. We are free to roam, observe, and curate the experience that our photographers convey. We ultimately have complete power over how the image of these places are constructed in the eyes of the viewer, and subsequently re-constructed in the eyes of the locals.

It is in such times that the exploitative nature of the media rears its ugly head. Highly paid professionals fly in at the drop of a hat, hunting for the next cover photograph of children crying, mangled bodies, of misery and despair. These prized photographs are then destined to end up on the cover of a magazine or newspaper, or better still, matted and framed on an off-white white gallery wall.

As much as we would like to claim our work to be objective and truthful, reality is a subjective construct. For the rest of the world who are going to consume these images that we create, their reality is based on what we see and tell them. They are not there to see what happened before and after what is captured on a single frame of photograph. We have a responsibility to be human and humane in our coverage.

We can do better.

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