…is for good men to do nothing.
Holocaust Memorial Day.
…is for good men to do nothing.
Holocaust Memorial Day.
In the normal course of our lives we meet thousands, if not tens of thousands of people. We do things for them, and they do things for us. Or, perhaps, we get in their way, or they get in ours. We may only exchange a few words, but we impact upon each other.
Today the news is focused on Anne Kirkbride whose sad death has affected so many, and yet the irony is that the vast majority of those distressed by her passing will never have been in the same building with her, let alone exhanged words. Meanwhile faceless people slip away everyday, their passing noticed only by the few with whom they were initmately connected, and yet it is just possible that they will have had a more profound, more lasting impact on a great many more people throughout the their lives. One such person is Gail Swann.
I met Gail twice, I think. The first time she was caring for my critically ill son, Phineas, then three weeks old while he was at the Evelina Children’s Hospital. My only recollection of her at that meeting was that she was calm, warm and professional. The second time was when she sat for me for my project Phineas’ Friends. Again, she was calm, engaged, polite and professional. I am not entirely certain that she was sure what I was trying to do, but she knew that my intentions were honourable and she was keen to be involved.
I found out today that Gail died from cancer last month, and I was struck by just how saddened I was to learn of this. Perhaps it is because I could so readily put a face to the name, that I could recall exactly how she influenced my life – the lives of my wife, my other children, my family and friends – and most especially Phineas himself. Gail may not directly have been the one who saved his life, but she was utterly instrumental, and as a part of that team, as a part of Phineas’ Friends, I am eternally indebted to her.
In some respects I am lucky. I know who Gail was and I could say thank you. But there will have been thousands, tens of thousands of people whose lives she will have touched over her career, who would have wanted to say thank you to her but never thought to do so until after she was no longer involved with them. They may not have known her name, or the specific role she played in treating them or their children, but if they had I have no doubt that they too would have been upset to learn of her death. They too would have mourned her and wanted to say good bye and the “thank you” that escaped them when it was appropriate. They would have wanted to express their sympathies to Gail’s own daughters.
Perhaps I can do it for all of us: Gail, thank you. You will be missed.
Sometimes life can be ever so cruel.
My last post was published on January 26. A fairly mundane article about the cameras I have owned, I chose to title it “So Long Old Friend”. The following day, the 27th, quite unexpectedly one of my closest friends dropped down dead.
I spoke with him often about the idea of photographing funerals, and he had agreed that in this country our relationship with the death of friends and family is too introspective and not celebratory enough. He thought it was something I should push.
In honour of him, I photographed his funeral, and the response of his family and friends has been overwhelming. It is perhaps best summed up by his oldest friend, Connal. The two had been friends from the age of 6, and Neil was 51 when he died. Connal wrote to me yesterday:
Thank you for your incredible photograph. You found beauty and grace beneath a flat grey sky and captured all that was special about a day of sadness and love. Neil always said you were a brilliant photographer and he was right.
So long old friend.
BOOK REVIEW: Marcus Bleasdale – The Rape of a Nation
I started to write this review a long time ago, but somehow never managed to find the right way to pitch what I wanted to say. Recent events in India have brought the subject of rape to the fore of international consciousness, and now seems a particularly apposite time to finish what I started and bring this important book back to people’s attention.
Some people labour under the misapprehension that rape is about sex. Indeed, there have been a flurry of ill-informed comments on social media sites discussing the subject which peddle the tired notion that women have to take some responsibility for the way they dress. The suggestion is that if a woman is just too good looking some men cannot help themselves. If that were true, as a generalisation, then it would stand to reason that the majority of women who are raped would be glamourous, long haired and with beautiful figures.
They are not. They are not because rape is and always has been about subjugation. Girls, boys, babies, women, men, young, old, able, disabled, ugly, beautiful. All are and can be victims of rape. Rape is about power. It is about destroying a person mentally and leaving them diminished to live with what has happened to them for the rest of their lives.
If ever there was a country that could be paired with the word rape, it is the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the few remaining taboo subjects in the Twenty First Century, rape is so endemic in parts of Congo that statistically it could almost appear as a national passtime. But that is to make light of it. A weapon that is cheaper than bombs and bullets, it may not leave the victim dead but it certainly kills their spirit and robs them of a life they knew. Rape is recognised as a part of genocide when it is used specifically against an ethnic group.
Marcus Bleasdale’s most recent book is not about that kind of rape, although clearly it forms part of the background of the subject. The Rape of a Nation is about something more shocking, more horrific and beyond comprehension. It is about the defilement of an entire country; systematically; day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade. And we are all culpable. In his excellent foreword John Le Carré writes that “the continuing human tragedy of the Congo is not a statistic. It is a continuing human tragedy”. A simple statement – a brutal truth.
You don’t have to work as a photographer for long to know that for the uninitiated the job has an air of glamour about it, and this is particularly true for photojournalism. The poor cousin to being a Hollywood actor, Hollywood itself has done much to perpetuate this fallacy through movies like Salvador, and Under Fire. The reality though is far from glamourous.
With increasing frequency photojournalists have found themselves targets for protagonists who do not want their stories told, and even when they do not find themeslves directly in the line of fire, getting a story of consequence is often a lengthy and lonely affair. This might be worth while once the story is published, but that has often been harder than getting the story in the first place, something which has never been more true than now. Indeed, Neil Burgess famously stepped forward to call the time of death of photojournalism as 11:12 GMT on August 1st, 2010, although to be fair the late John Szarkowski called it around 1960.
So what is the relevance of this to Bleasdale and his book? It is two-fold: firstly the story itself is of enduring consequence. The problems so sharply conveyed in the book are as real and pressing now as they were when it was published. For that reason alone the delay in publishing this review is oxymoronically both irrelevant and relevant, since the story is still current and because the book is still available, and anything that can promote it to a wider audience can only be a good thing. Secondly Bleasdale himself is a photographer of consequence, and deserves to be taken perhaps more seriously than he has been in the past.
I once had a conversation with a commentator well regarded on both sides of the Atlantic in which Bleasdale was dismissed out of hand as “not to be taken seriously” for having been of independent means. It struck me as a remarkably stupid statement, and on the handful of occasions I have heard similar notes of dissent from others I have wondered why this myth perpetuates that for a photographer to be taken seriously they must be seen to be the starving type.
It is reasonably common knowledge that Bleasdale left his high-flying job in the city because he couldn’t bear the flippant attitude of traders to the misery and suffering of millions. When one of his colleagues openly wondered what the effect of a disaster would be on gold prices, Marcus had had enough. He walked out and changed his life for good. The fact that he has gone on to become one of the most highly respected photojournalists in the world and a full member of VII is a testament to his determination and skill. Frankly, if a man will stake his life and all that he has on something he believes in then it is worthy of our respect, and it is easier to stake everything if you have nothing to lose. That Bleasdale had so much to lose makes his choice the more remarkable.
His first book, One Hundred Years of Darkness, now out of print and very expensive if you can find a copy, paired his early images of the Congo with quotes from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to celebrate the centenary of that great novel. It was a masterly piece of work, and a high-brow artistic endeavour: brilliantly conceived and universally well regarded, but also an exercise in historical introspection and literary allusion.
Where his first book was a Conradian journey of self discovery, The Rape of a Nation is unequivocally about the DRC, and in particular the people themselves. Just as importantly it demonstrates a breathtaking journalistic maturity. The images are undeniably Bleasdale’s, but he vanishes from the work itself, and allows the subject to be everything. Many photographers talk of wanting to give a voice to their subjects, and it is questionable how many succeed. In this case the success is emphatic.
The Rape of a Nation is meant to be absorbed. Just picking up the book you get a sense of the seriousness of the subject matter before you open its blood red cover. Gone are the artistic sensibilities of large format tomes, Bleasdale and his publishers Schilt opted instead for something the size of an academic text. There is no writing on the cover (excepting for the title and his name blind-embossed on the spine), instead the writing is saved to a black banderol which stands in stark contrast to the red board embossed with the stylised face of a leopard as seen on the coat of arms of the DRC. There is a particular irony in this choice of cover adornment, since the coat of arms in its full form also includes the national motto, made up of the three words: Justice, Paix, Travail. Justice, peace and work: the contents of the book suggest that there is precious little of the first two.
The reader opens the book to almost unremitting black. 240 black pages with 117 duotone images printed one per spread. While the images are captioned, there is another, more powerful, body of text. Lest the reader become too absorbed by his photographs Marcus chose to punctuate them with half pages of testimony from some of the people who feature. While writers might be given to rhetorical flourishes in an effort to introduce drama, they would fail utterly next to the simple statements of Bleasdale’s subjects which hit you like a brick. Choosing one at random:
The enemies attacked my village. They forced me to go with them, I stayed with them for many months. I was as a wife to them. Anyone could sleep with me. When I became pregnant I did not know if the time I gave birth was early or not. There was no hospital, no clinic, no doctor. When the baby came out the soldiers were using their hands to pull it from my womb. It was divided into pieces. They made me leave them after that and I had to find my way to the hospital fifty kilometres away. It took me many days.
Mushaki Miss P. Twenty three years old
Many great photographers produce work on hugely important subjects. But how worthwhile is it if most of the people who see that work and appreciate it are already in the know, or are photography junkies? Given the scale of the story in The Congo Bleasdale concluded it would be a spectacular waste of time, not to mention a pointless conceit, if the story was not placed directly in the hands of those with the power to affect change: the politicians, and the people who elect them. But targeting these two disparate groups poses different problems.
Bleasdale eschewed the bright lights of the mainstream and chose instead to work with Human Rights Watch, an organisation with which he has developed a close working relationship, and which has the capability of putting the work in front of decision makers. He personally put a copy of the book in the hands of Nane Lagergren, the wife of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and herself a UN lawyer. His thinking was simple: if you want to bring a story to the attention of the most powerful politicians, then bring it to the attention of those closest to them. It’s not that Marcus has anything against newspapers and magazines, on the contrary versions of the story have been published all over the world. Rather it is that he recognises the limitations of relying on them as the only means of disseminating his work.
As a consequence Bleasdale has come to question more directly why he does what he does. What is it for? Who is it aimed at? What difference can it make. Photojournalism may not be what it once was, and though a entire treatise could be written on that subject alone, there is one element of that perception which is worthy of deeper consideration, and there is no doubt that Bleasdale gave it plenty of thought. That element is knowing your audience.
While politicians and industrialists may read papers and magazines and meet with representatives of pressure groups, the people who elect them and buy their products increasingly do not. Bleasdale was struck by the numbers of young people who do not read papers, but do consume their news in other less traditional ways. Always looking to find new methods of expanding his audience, he took the unusual step of collaborating with Christian Aid’s youth collective Ctrl+Alt+Shift and artist Paul O’Connell to turn his images into a powerful comic strip which was published in Ctrl.Alt.Shift Unmasks Corruption. He collaborated with Mediastorm to create a multimedia publication which is also available as a DVD. These are not distractions: to put it simply The Rape of a Nation is one of the most powerful bodies of photodocumentary of the last decade, and whatever format you use to absorb it, the story is searing and shocking, but it is conveyed with skill and empathy by a talented man who clearly cares for and about his subjects.
For years the Democratic Republic of Congo has been systematically raped of its resources while the rest of the world looked the other way. A country which ought to be by virtue of its abundant natural resources one of the richest in the world has been reduced to a kind of hell on earth. Thousands (not an exaggeration) die every day in the DRC as a result of disease and malnutrition, wrought by unending corruption and warfare. And yet, what shines though Marcus’ images is a lust for life in the people of this country. Caught in the crossfire of warlords and corporate greed, the Congolese have a spirit that shines through the darkness that affects them daily. It is a spirit which Bleasdale also gives voice to, and in so doing demonstrates that the richest resource of all for the Congolese is the people themselves. We in our cosseted lives in the West owe it to them not to turn our gaze, however much it pains us.
The Rape of a Nation – Marcus Bleasdale, Schilt Publishing, 117 duotone photographs, 240 pp, 36 half-size text pages, Hardback with banderol, €39.90, ISBN 9789053306710
It’s A level results day. One way or another thousands of school leavers will feel that what happens today will determine their futures for good or ill. Here’s wishing that you all have a reaction like this young lady, whom I photographed this time last year as she opened the dreaded envelope!
For the first three weeks of his life, Phineas was a model baby, but on the Friday night of that third week something changed. By six o’clock in the morning his mother was sure that all was not as it should be. She took him to the local hospital A&E (Accident & Emergency department). Unknown to her, that particular A&E had recently gone to a twelve hour opening as a prelude to being closed altogether. As a consequence there was only an on-call GP. His verdict? “It’s just a virus, take him home. He’ll be fine.” Up to a point he was right.
Three hours later Phineas’ mother trusted her instincts and took him to another hospital to get a second opinion. He was admitted immediately.
What followed was a battle to save his life and diagnose the problem. By the Sunday afternoon his condition had deteriorated so much that he was retrieved to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) of the Evelina Children’s Hospital in Central London.
Phineas’ Friends is a photographic study of the doctors and nurses and clinicians that were involved in treating him during his six days at the Evelina. It is a study that forces the reader to challenge naturally held preconceptions about the size of modern medical teams, and indirectly asks the question: if all these people are necessary to a treat one baby with an infection, who in this new age of austerity can we afford to do without?
* * * *
Phineas is my third son. His mother, Laura, is my wife. Any parent who has ever asked a doctor if their child is going to die, and been met with a long pause and a non-committal answer, will have some idea of the emotions that were raging for us at that time. We were lucky. Although his condition was life threatening, he was in the best hands. Laura travelled to ECH in the retrieval ambulance with Phineas. By the time I got there the PICU team were hard at work stabilising him, and Laura, though still beside herself with worry, was comforted with the feeling that he was in the best place to get better.
The doctors in PICU were able to stabilise him sufficiently that he was moved out of intensive care onto Beach Ward on the Monday afternoon. From then on it was about supporting him as he got better, and trying to establish exactly what was wrong with him.
From the outset the doctors were fairly certain that he had a viral infection. The problem was that without knowing which virus, it was difficult to know exactly how he should be treated. At his worst Phineas had been cannulated to all four peripheries, his blood sugar was perilously low, his temperature was dangerously and stubbornly high, and he was on a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to help him breathe. He was having bloods taken every hour or so, he had chest x-rays, and at one point they attempted to put a long line into him because his blood sugar was still dropping and he was on the limit of what could be given to him as a peripheral infusion without burning his veins.
Laura never left the hospital, only leaving his bedside to wash and eat. Over time it became clear that he was improving, but still the tests continued. Lumbar punctures, electro-encaphalographs, ultrasound brain scans. More infusions, more drugs.
On the Wednesday afternoon I was sitting with Phineas while Laura got some lunch. Staff nurse Fatima Meho was attending to him while I flicked through that week’s Sunday Times Magazine. The cover story was about a patient in the renal ward at Great Ormond Street Hospital. I held the magazine open for Fatima to see and remarked how ironic it was that the story should be published just I was sitting in Beach Ward (the Evelina’s renal ward) with my son. “No one ever writes about us,” Fatima replied. I asked her what the difference was between Great Ormond Street and the Evelina. “Nothing,” she said. Both hospitals have the same specialisations, only the former is world famous and leverages that fame effectively to raise funds. I have to admit that I had never heard of the Evelina until I needed it.
It was Fatima’s response which set me thinking that I should document Phineas’ story and get some publicity for the hospital. But what was the angle? I did not want to rehash a story that has been done many times before. The fact was that although it was important to me, it was not significant to anyone else. If I was going to publish his story, it needed an angle.
The following afternoon Laura and I got a visit from three doctors from the Infectious Diseases Directorate. At first I was struck by how different these three characters were. Nuria Martinez-Alier, Ian Plumb and Emma Aarons seemed at first an unlikely trio, but it quickly made me reflect on all the different characters we had come across during Phineas’ time in hospital. Not simply the diversity of characters, but the sheer numbers of people involved. I had my angle.
Over those six days Phineas was treated by about one hundred clinical specialists, about four fifths of them at the Evelina. There were doctors, consultants, registrars, nurses, matrons, ward sisters, students, phlebotomists, radiographers, metabolic specialists, virologists, and these were just the ones that actually saw him. There were as many, if not more, clinical scientists and technicians analysing and interpreting the various tests he was subjected to and samples taken from him. There was the ambulance technician and the retrieval team who collected and treated him on the journey to the Evelina. There was the counsellor who was there for us as parents.
As a photographer I found myself thinking about all the hidden talents within this huge team of people – the unsung men and women whose work as technicians and scientists underpin the decisions that the doctors make and the nurses carry through. The doctors get the plaudits, but the reality is that all these different facets of modern medicine need to work together to produce the outcomes that we as patients and parents yearn and pray for.
The more I thought about all these people, the more I kept thinking about Richard Avedon’s seminal work The Family, and more recently of Nadav Kander’s Obama’s People. Both these projects used portraits shot against plain backgrounds to highlight the differences in character – the repetition of style and of people was the motif, and yet it is this approach that highlights the enormous differences from subject to subject.
It is a form of typological study that was perhaps made famous by Bernd and Hilla Becher and their studies of blast furnaces, and taken up by other photographers including Donovan Wylie and his study of the Maze Prison. The difference is that with people the subject has the capacity to introduce its own character and agenda to the way that they are recorded; it is necessarily a two-way process. Certainly these are “my” portraits and they reflect something of my intention, but as each individual sits for me, they have control over the face that they present. For a good portrait there must inevitably be a balance in that “dialogue” between the subject and the photographer.
Avedon chose to shoot in large format black and white, with a simple white background. His subjects were the men and women who ran and shaped America. From Gerald Ford as President to Roger Baldwin, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Kander chose to use a similar approach to document the nascent administration of Barack Obama as he was about to take office, but in this case he shot in colour, with a creamy background. The images have been digitally worked to some extent, putting a shadow close in behind each person, and emphasising the texture of each person. There is a kind of hyper reality about them which makes each face fascinating to look at. Although the work was regarded by some as something of a departure from Kander’s norm at the time, it was nevertheless imbued with his artistic sensibilities. It had his “signature”.
Both of these bodies of work were successful for the combination of simple, arresting portraiture and the fact that the subjects were either household names, or held positions of power that made their faces worthy of closer inspection.
For Phineas’ Friends I felt certain that a similar approach would be ideal. To the best of my knowledge no one had taken this approach with a medical documentary before, and the strength of the story would reside in the fact that as the reader moved through all of these portraits it would dawn on them that the common link for all of them was a single patient – a baby. None of these people are famous, nor was the patient. But the pull of such a small child as a narrative element is undeniable. Perhaps more importantly, we are all able to see ourselves in that baby. And when we do Phineas’ friends become our’s. These are our doctors and nurses and technicians and scientists. These are the people that keep each of us alive if we need them. As Phineas is a metaphor for all patients, so too his friends are a metaphor for all the clinicians working in all the hospitals around the world. Once we realise that, the old narrative beloved of dramas and documentaries seems a pale approximation of the truth – modern medicine is not a doctor and a nurse, it is a vast team of specialists.
Nevertheless I was conscious that for the project to work, the standard of the portraits needed to be high. Each image had to work individually while they all worked together as a set. The choice of background, the style of lighting, the choice of lens, and the subtlety of any direction I gave would have to complement the image and the intent. I wanted very much to give viewers something of the experience of the parent or the concerned relative. Hopefully I have succeeded.
* * * *
I decided on a whim to enter the book of Phineas’ Friends in this year’s Photography Book Now Awards. Although it did not win, it was shortlisted in the Documentary Category, and as a result was eligible for the People’s Choice Award. To have been shortlisted by the jury in the first place is a tremendous honour. But more importantly it gave me a glorious reason to push the work in front of people as I tried to garner all the votes I could. I was able to enlist the help of a great many influential people around the world, and that in itself has helped in my quest to raise the profile of the hospital. All of you who voted, thank you. Your support means a great deal. But it does not end there.
As I intimated earlier, my motivation from the outset has been to help publicise the work of the Evelina and perhaps raise its profile just a bit. As a part of that process, Blue Filter has published Phineas’ Friends in three formats: as an iBook for the iPad and iPhone, as a small format paperback, and as a limited edition signed hardback. All of these can be ordered from this site, and the profits from the sale of these books will be donated to the Evelina Children’s Hospital.
Please, buy the iBook or the paperback. If you are feeling flush and want some exclusivity, buy the hardback. But whatever you do, encourage all your friends, family and acquaintances to read this post and buy the iBook too. If you just want to donate with nothing in return, you can do that as well.
* * * *
If you would like to support the Evelina Children’s Hospital, some of the Evelina Team recently undertook a sponsored climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, and you can still donate now. Their target was £400,000, with the current total raised standing at £396,616.63. It is to this fund that monies raised from the sales of Phineas’ Friends will be donated, but if you would rather donate directly, please click here.
There are a great many photographers that I admire as photographers, but for the most part it is simply the quality of their output that attracts me. Simon Norfolk is a rare exception, someone who admire not only for the quality of his images, but as much (if not more so) for the thought, reasoning, personal politics and agenda that they are embued with.
I came across this short film today about a new body of work that he has been creating in Afghanistan, that references the work of Eighteenth Century commercial photographer John Burke.
Simon has a very clear idea of what he feels about the events going on in various parts of the world, and whereas many photographers drop in to a place “report” and leave, his approach is to make a statement about his views. It is less the supposedly objective reporting that others may (often incorrectly) believe they are undertaking, and more the subjective response as reporting. As a younger photographer Norfolk was often considered quite militant in his pronouncements. With age and experience his methods have become more nuanced and precise, but he has lost none of his anger and desire to hold a mirror up to the follies of the west. Long may he continue in this vein.
Note: The soundtrack does not start until about 45 seconds into the film.
Look at any forum dedicated to photographers, and photojournalism in particular, and you will find a thread asking for suggestions as to what movies there are about photojournalism and its protagonists. The films are for the most part little more than war porn – action filled adventures full of death, guns, booze and sex, usually with one or more attractive and glamorous heroes toting cameras in the thick of the action.
Well there is a new one about to be released, with the subtle difference that it is based on a true story. The Bang Bang Club is due to have its cinematic release in the United States on April 22 (as yet there is no date for release in Europe). The trailer (see below) promises everything that we have come to expect from these films.
I have no idea, it may actually be very good, but I would hope that it places plenty of empahsis on the fact that of the four members, one was killed on assignment, one committed suicide after finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the fame that came with his Pulitzer Prize with the public opprobrium he faced for the photo that won the award, and a third has recently lost both his legs in Afghanistan.
I know that the surviving photographers have been involved in the making of this film, and it is based on the book of the same name written by both Greg Marinovoch and Joao Silva (the other two members of “the club” were Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek), so one hopes there will be rather more accuracy than is often the case when Hollywood is let loose on the truth. Having said that, it would be folly to suggest that there wasn’t something inherently glamourous about the life the club led. The problem, therefore, is how to convey the story without spurring ever more young and naive wannabes to pick up a camera and head for a war zone in the hopes that some of that glamour might rub off on them. Most of the time it won’t.
I confess I am looking forward to seeing the film, but I would urge anyone not familiar with the story to read the book first, and if possible see the Oscar nominated documentary The Death of Kevin Carter too. At the very least that will give some scope to strip the truth from the good yarn that the film must almost certainly be.
Without doubt the best thing about making your living as a photographer is the opportunities it gives you to witness things that might not otherwise be possible.
I have to confess that I am a nosey sod, so I find most things interesting, but I was thrilled to be invited by Ben and Cathrine to document the birth of their second child following some pregnancy studies I had made of Cathrine in December.
While I was present at (and to some extent, photographed) the births of my own three children, I always felt too close to the event emotionally to do it any justice. In the case of Ben and Cathrine I was able to be an impartial observer, but it was still a magnificent experience. Here’s a taste of what I caught. Oh, and if you know of anyone else who’s expecting and would like to have it documented let them know that I am looking for more subjects as part of a larger project.
There is, apparently, no season for earthquakes. They can and do happen at any time of the year. But with the news pouring in from Haiti, I can’t help but think this time of year is when earthquakes happen, January in particular seems to be “popular”.
I have to confess to a personal interest. Fifteen years ago today, a matter of weeks after giving up the day job to pursue photography full time, I was in Japan working on the research for a picture story I was going to do on the A Bomb survivors. It was coming up to the 50th anniversary and I wanted a counter in the western press to the stories that were inevitably going to run. I had interviews set up, access to the archives and museums, and a great many people eager to help. What I lacked was an innate understanding of what it was like to be in a city that is destroyed in a matter of seconds. I was based in the Kansai city of Kobe.
At 5:46am local time an apparently dormant fault under the northern tip of the island of Awaji, about 20km from Kobe, ruptured at a depth of 14km. The resulting earthquake was measured at 7.3 on the Richter scale, and was the first recorded earthquake in Japan to reach 7 on the Japanese Closed Scale which measures the intensity of the tremor as experienced by people and objects on the earth’s surface, as opposed to the Richter Scale which is concerned with the seismic energy released at the epicentre of an earthquake. In terms of how it felt for people in Kobe, it recorded an 11-12 on the Modified Mercalli Scale; that is “Very Disastrous” to “Catastrophic”. It was, and remains, the first major earthquake to strike at close quarters and a shallow depth relative to a major metropolitan conurbation. Japan is used to having earthquakes, and for years buildings have been built to “withstand” them.
Nevertheless, the violence of the earth’s motion was too great. Nearly 6500 lost their lives, with thirty thousand requiring hospital treatment and almost a third of a million rendered homeless. The final cost of the quake has been estimated at as much as US$200 billion.
I got what I was missing and discovered what it was like to be in a city flattened in seconds: it has coloured my view of everything ever since.
On the face of it, the quake in Haiti is similar, a shallow hit. But Haiti isn’t built to withstand it, and it does not have the resources to pick itself up. Japan, despite its considerable wealth struggled, and to some extent through misplaced pride, it paid the price. Haiti asked for help right from the start, and it needs all the help it can get.
In the end, the size and place of this kind of disaster is incidental. Only those who have experienced it first hand can ever truly understand how terrifying it is when the ground – that one thing that we all take as a constant – turns against you.
Today, of all days, my thoughts are with all those who have been scarred by earthquakes, and in particular it is with those in Haiti.
These are some of my photographs from Kobe, and form part of a very long term project called Shikata ga nai 仕方がない, a very common Japanese expression that translates as “It Can’t Be Helped”.
If you want to help the people of Haiti click here and donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee Haiti Appeal.
Panorama theme by Themocracy