OK, so I’m a few days late with the whole ‘look back at 2010/look forward to 2011’ blog-post thing.
But for my first post of the new year, I can’t help but write some more about the two big natural disasters of the past 12 months – the earthquake in Haiti and the flooding in Pakistan – and how photography and photojournalists are playing a part in telling some of the many complicated, tragic and inspiring human stories in both places.
I visited Haiti in late June 2010, nearly six months after the devastating January earthquake. It was deeply disturbing to see at first-hand the destruction that the quake had caused, and the conditions that it has left over 1 million people living in. But it was also hugely humbling to meet some of those people and realise their absolute determination to rebuild their lives, to not be defeated by the disaster that had befallen them.
I also met with some of the many humanitarian workers with international charities such as Oxfam, Handicap International, Merlin and ACTED, working in Port-au-Prince, Leogane and Petit-Goave. Some of them had been in Haiti when the earthquake struck; others had arrived in the days and weeks following. They had all clearly been working tirelessly since then to try and help alleviate some of the suffering – in the face of aftershocks, desperation, fear and the threat of disease. Many of them are still there now, trying to help contain the recent cholera outbreak. They too have my utmost respect and admiration.
But photojournalists, photography, video and the internet have also played a huge role in telling the story of Haiti over the past 12 months – stories of both those who survived the quake and of those who are trying to help them. Some of the first images to emerge of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake did so via Twitter, taken by the Haitian photojournalist Daniel Morel. This simple act of trying to get a story out would in itself have potentially huge repercussions for the relationship between photography and the internet. See my earlier post on this here.
Morel’s pictures were followed swiftly by the world’s media descending on the country, and staying for a few weeks, maybe a month. But after the search and rescue phase had finished, when there was no more chance of any miracle survival stories, the media quickly moved on, for a while at least. Two months, three months, six months-on ‘anniversaries’, quickly became somewhat macabre dates in the media calendar.
But some (many, even) photojournalists have stayed in Haiti, or repeatedly gone back, and have done great work in trying to keep the story in the news, as it so rightly should be. Many of them have worked with charities and NGOs, documenting the work that they are doing. Some of those NGOs have been trying to empower Haitians themselves through using photography, trying to give them a direct voice to the world and a rightful say in how they are represented. The Citizen Haiti Voices of the Voiceless project is one such example. Peter Beaumont and Mustafa Khalili’s multimedia presentation for the Guardian was another standout report. As we approach a year on from the earthquake, we will hopefully see other similar approaches. The story in Haiti is far from over.
Pakistan: a ‘slow-motion tsunami’
In late July, just a few weeks after the six-months-on point from the Haiti earthquake, the world was facing up to the flooding in Pakistan – a new, slow-motion humanitarian challenge that would dwarf Haiti many times over, as 10 years worth of rain fell on northern Pakistan in just a few days. Over the next few weeks, as the flood waters moved south through Pakistan’s rivers, overwhelming them, more than 20 million people were affected – most of them forced to leave their homes, many of them losing everything they owned in the process.
Fast forward to December and I found myself in Sindh province, surrounded by a seemingly endless lake – a lake that is in fact thousands upon thousands of fields that are still flooded, some five months on from the initial rainfall. Although many people have now returned to their communities, the reality is that hundreds of thousands of buildings have been destroyed, simply washed away by the power of the water. Vital land for growing rice, wheat and other crops is saturated and still flooded. It is almost impossible to convey the scale of this disaster in words – or pictures for that matter.
But the need for photography to bear witness to Pakistan’s plight is arguably greater than even in Haiti, and photographers such as Alixandra Fazzina, Asim Rafiqui and Gideon Mendel are trying to do just that. In particular, Mendel’s powerful seven-minute film, produced in conjunction with ActionAid, stands out here for the fact that that it features not one single human voice, but still holds your attention, demands it even. I’ve embedded a slightly shorter four-minute long version above.
I’ve written previously about the ability of photography and intelligent multimedia storytelling to empower people and give them a voice. But Mendel’s film cuts against that notion, and is somehow all the more powerful for it. I hope that some of the material that was gathered on my Pakistan trip to look at UK-funded relief work will give a platform to some of those people – watch out for more on this in the next couple of weeks.
You can see my photographs from Haiti here and here, focusing on some of the help that the UK gave in response to the earthquake. The majority of these pictures are posted under a Creative Commons – Attribution license, so they’re free to re-use, as long as you credit the source.
Let’s hope that 2011 doesn’t bring the same kind of humanitarian challenges that we saw in 2010 – it’s the last thing we need…