I took the above photo in Pakistan’s Sindh province in towards the end of last year. I was there for the Department for International Development, looking at how humanitarian aid from the UK was helping some of the 20million people who were affected by the unprecedented monsoon flooding.
In some parts of western Sindh around the town of Dadu, the flooding had been so extensive, and so prolonged, that every single tree for mile after mile had become cocooned in spiders webs. It was an extraordinary sight, really quite spooky and surreal. Seemingly endless lakes of mill-pond-calm water, with cotton-candy trees reflected like mirrors. It was both beautiful and disturbing. As we talked to local people, dozens of tiny spiders were dropping out of the trees, onto our heads, over the camera. I think they were white crab spiders, just a few millimeters long, and not harmful – almost imperceptible.
We were in the area just a few weeks after the flood waters had receded enough to allow people to start to return. Some of the tens of thousands of families who used to live there had been displaced for several months. At their peak, the floods had been 15 to 20 feet deep in places. At the time of our visit, the water had receded to maybe just 3-4 feet. Roads were re-opening. People were coming back to where their villages used to be – but sadly, in most cases, to find their homes had been simply washed away, along with their livestock, their crops – their livelihoods. Entire communities had lost everything.
It was heart-breaking to witness the difficulties people were facing, but at the same time humbling to see their resilience. This is a part of the world where life is hard at the best of times, even without the trials of natural disaster. Western Sindh makes up a large part of Pakistan’s ‘rice-bowl’, the heartland of the country’s agricultural economy. But it is a predominately flat, arid, landscape that is artificially irrigated, vast fields and paddies watered by an ingenious system of canals fed by the mighty Indus river. An agriculture system based on controlled flooding and what used to be predictable monsoon rain patterns.
But, in spite of the obvious hardships they faced, everyone we spoke to was simply amazed by the phenomenon of the spider webs in the trees. No-one had seen anything like it before. And almost everyone was pleased about it. Time after time people said that it was a good thing, because they weren’t being bitten by mosquitos. Everyone believed that the mosquitos were being trapped in the webs.
It was an extraordinary side-effect of the floods for sure, but it was the least of people’s worries. Much more important were shelter and access to clean drinking water. Homes had been washed away, sink wells contaminated with flood water. So the priority was providing tents, building new wells and water pumps, and making sure people had access to basic services such as healthcare and sanitation. So we talked to people, to make sure that they were getting these things, and to find out what else they needed. We recorded interviews and took photographs, listening to peoples stories. And I took some photographs of the bizarre trees. We all knew that somehow they were part of the story.
A few weeks later back in the UK, we began the task of editing hours of footage and hundreds of photographs. You can see the results of this here and in the video below. But the photographs of the trees somehow didn’t fit into the story then. Yes, every time I looked at them, every time anyone saw them, the reaction was the same – a mixture horror and amazement. But the story we wanted to tell was about people and how they’d been helped. Eventually we realised that maybe these ‘freak of nature’ pictures did tell the story as well.
The six month ‘anniversary’ of the start of the flooding in Pakistan fell at the end of January this year. Tens of thousands of people were still displaced, and hundreds of square miles still flooded, even though the ’emergency’ phase was deemed to be over. The media’s gaze briefly returned to Pakistan, but then was quickly distracted again by events in the middle-east.
But fast-forward to just two weeks ago. Lonely Planet magazine picked up and ran this one photograph (above). The Guardian newspaper followed suit a day or two later, quickly followed by New Scientist magazine who featured it online. And what’s happened since then has been little short of extraordinary.
In the last two weeks, these two photographs, and a couple of others, have been published by National Geographic, Wired magazine, Reuters, CNN, the BBC and even the Huffington Post. They have been tweeted about and shared on facebook by tens of thousands of people, appeared on the Sun and Daily Mail websites, been broadcast on NBC and the Canadian Discovery channel, and printed in magazines in Italy, Portugal and Brazil.
Part of the reason for this extraordinary pick-up is the fact that we published them on Flickr under a Creative Common licence. We wanted them to be seen and shared by as many people as possible. I’m not sure I’ve yet come to terms with the financial implications of this; to-date, they’ve had approaching 400,000 views on Flickr alone. The numbers of people who’ve seen them elsewhere must surely run well into millions.
But how many of the people that have seen these images are being pulled in by them enough to stop and think about the far bigger problem that the images are just a symbol of? Of course its hard to say. The typical reaction is borne of the widespread human fear of spiders, of course. Literally hundreds of comments from around the world have been along the lines of ‘eeeuughh’, ‘makes my skin crawl’, and just simply ‘wow’.
I wrote in my previous post about how photography can be said to explain everything and yet reveal nothing. And now I find myself realising that I may have taken some photographs that illustrate precisely that characteristic. I can hardly believe the reaction that these pictures have generated. I’ve even had a request to reproduce them in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
I suppose my hope is that at least some people will see these images and see beyond the amazing natural phenomenon, and want to find out more about what is really going there. The people of Sindh still need help. I hope these pictures remind us of that as much as they remind us of the strange ways of nature..