It is indeed ironic that manipulating photographs of a natural disaster and resulting in personal tragedies into a cartoon, photographs or illustrations serve a purpose of artistic technique. thus, the photographers have to take a more honest, more respectful, and, much more self-effacing photographic approaches to the disconcerting idea of horrific beauty. Suddenly happens a hurricane, a flood, an earthquake, an aeroplane crash or a fire. And you must document disaster with pictures. Perhaps you work for a newspaper or news magazine. Possibly a photo agency or an insurance company needs images from the scene.
Disaster coverage is never pleasant. Most people in our well-ordered society give little thought to unexpected violence beyond the 6 o’clock news, yet these things do happen. They happen across the nation and across the world on a daily basis, and someone must record them in a professional manner. Disaster strikes with alarming frequency without regard to life or geographical location.
When catastrophe strikes, you’ve got to ask, “What’s my next move? What should I take with me; what can I leave behind? How can I safely cover a hazardous situation and still deliver useable and timely photographs?” Every assignment differs, but the following examples may prevent your news assignment from turning into a personal disaster. You should always keep the film in your cameras and the exposure set to ambient lighting conditions. Every news photographer can recite a dozen examples proving how these few seconds can make the difference between capturing a shot and returning empty-handed.
Similarly, many news photographers keep a change of clothing, several major credit cards and a current passport in the trunk of their cars. An emergency rarely allows time to pack, and no one wants to scrabble through drawers trying to find a passport when they need to catch a plane. Not every assignment demonstrates the need for preparedness so vividly, but disasters like an earthquake when an earthquake needs fast footwork to beat the competitions.
A scene of destruction is, by its very nature, an unexpected event. Confusion reigns supreme. It can be difficult to create visual order from chaos when nobody knows the full story. experienced news photographers know to gather local maps, emergency telephone numbers and information on the run. If the emergency is still working, an AM radio news station and a programmable scanner can help keep you current. Late arrivals should buy the local newspaper and contact the police, Red Cross and city hall for updates about evacuations, emergency shelters and clean-up operations.
Be careful to conform to local ethical standards, however. Some countries allow the media surprising access to emergency scenes. In others, you can suddenly find yourself looking down the wrong end of an automatic weapon while performing routine documentary work! But to be honest, luck also plays an important role in crisis photography. One photographer can come back with spectacular images from a scene while another returns with nothing. The difference may be measured in feet or seconds. Your only defence is to gather information on the run and be prepared for any conceivable eventuality.
Many photographers believe that they need special press credentials to enter an emergency zone. True, press credentials make reassuring, but they frequently serve little useful purpose. Worse, they may target photographers for unwelcome police attention; you may achieve better access by acting as a bystander! Never, but never, argue with a police officer as tensions run high during a tragedy. When you remain sensitive to the subject, though, most police officers will ignore or even assist a confident and fast-moving photographer.
Fast-moving doesn’t mean careless, however. Even a simple warehouse fire can be extremely hazardous. Seemingly sturdy beams, walls and floors can collapse without warning. And fires frequently produce explosions, toxic smoke and caustic chemical runoff. The best rule is to stay close behind emergency personal and watch their actions. They may suddenly evacuate an area with no warning or explanation: just as you expect them to know their jobs, they expect you to know yours.
Any major fire produces both spectacular and terrifying results. At a refinery fire, columns of flame shoot hundreds of feet into the air and dozens of acres may be ablaze. Unfortunately, company officials typically seal a plant when something goes wrong, ostensibly for public protection, but mainly to minimize press coverage. Trying to shoot through chain-link fences, trees and buildings from half a mile away is maddening. Similar problems arise when documenting any remote, restricted or widespread disaster. The key, of course, is to charter a flight or hitch a
ride with emergency personnel into a disaster area. A helicopter makes a superior, if costly, shooting platform since it can move slowly and even land in unlikely locations.
Generally, the public does not view disaster objectively because these experiences are alien to them. This explains why “eye witness accounts” yield such notoriously inaccurate information. People who confront these scenes routinely learn to react professionally, placing them into perspective from earlier experiences. News photographers can no more afford the luxury of panic, confusion or emotional involvement at disasters than can police, firemen and doctors. They must react calmly to a crisis. Some even make it their responsibility to attend first aid classes, since news people sometimes arrive at a scene before emergency personnel.
The public’s right to know deserves this calm expertise. News photographers have the difficult task of being the eyes and ears of the public. But they must also be responsible for their actions in the field, presenting an image of restrained behaviour and sympathy, balancing this against the seconds they have to capture an image before it disappears forever. But always remember that you are a human being first, a photographer second. Nothing you do should aggravate the situation or hamper emergency personnel. If necessary, be prepared to drop your gear and help in any way you can. No photograph is worth a human life.
Disaster photography is never pleasant, yet it frequently serves an important purpose beyond the simple, but vital, documentation of an event. The work may force you to work for days without rest, a decent meal, or sleep, but it also provides certain rewards. There is tremendous excitement on being on the cutting edge of an important news story, and sometimes the pictures you take will elicit sympathy and aid for those touched by tragedy. We live in an information age, and distant events often have a great impact on diverse elements of our global society. Whatever else happens, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your role fits into this information network, recording history and allowing readers insights into events that they will hopefully never experience.