Sat April 2, 2011

Japan And Haiti: Picturing The Unimaginable

Originally published on Thu February 14, 2013 10:01 am

Photojournalists travel the world, using their cameras to tell stories about how we live and who we are. Their tales are often of war, famine or disease; sometimes, of triumph and joy. The disasters in Haiti one year ago and now in Japan challenge even the best photojournalists to compose a shot that helps us get a sense of the horrific scale of destruction that nature has visited upon both countries. NPR photographer David Gilkey takes us on a tour of these forbidden landscapes and the people who are left to inhabit them. Though their respective tragedies are half a world apart, the stories these pictures tell of destruction and loss are eerily similar.

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We've seen so many images from Japan since that earthquake and tsunami hit; bare landscapes after entire communities were just washed away within minutes. We've seen faces taut with grief, and others just dazed and blank.

NPR photographer David Gilkey just returned from Japan. And he joins us in the studio to talk about some of those images that he captured while he was there, and also to talk about other natural disasters he's been assigned to cover in the past.

GREENE: And David, you've brought some of the prints here with you, from Japan. Is there one that really stands out in your mind, that you just won't ever forget?

DAVID GILKEY: Well, I was walking around and it was literally obliterated. I mean, it was just - foundations were gone. I mean, everything was gone. And this guy goes riding past me on a bicycle and I just kind of watched him go off into the distance. And he went sort of climbing up into the remains of this house. And I went over and the translator was actually working with the reporter at the time.

But he picked up this shoe. And he just held it up, and he started crying. I wasn't taking pictures. And he said, this is my mother's. This is all I have.


GILKEY: The man's name was Mr. Oshita(ph). And eventually, the reporter I was working with, Jason Beaubien, came over, and they started talking. And he was crying, and I just took a couple frames.

GREENE: Does that capture what you went through every day - I mean, spending time with people, and sort of keeping the camera off and by your side until you gained some sort of comfort level? Or was every day different?

GILKEY: I think anytime you're working somewhere and you don't speak the language, you're absolutely relying on the people you're working with to bridge that gap. You know, I think it was the same in Haiti. You have to be mindful of your subjects. And if you're becoming a distraction, you're also destroying what's going on in the pictures.

So walking in quietly, most of the time asking permission before you take pictures, and just respecting - sort of what's going on.

GREENE: And David, you mentioned Haiti. And we should say that that's another disaster - the earthquake there last year - that you were assigned to cover.

GILKEY: I got into Haiti very, very early - you know, sort of one of the first people in. And what was going on was really noisy. And...

GREENE: Like people screaming and people...

GILKEY: People screaming, the outward pouring of grief, and just a general chaotic sense of things. Now, be it - neither one of these are right or wrong. In Japan, things are very orderly. When I went into these towns that were just sort of gone for all practical purposes - dead silence.

The horror is the same, but the tone of it was very different. You know, when I went into these towns, there's a picture of a building - and this is in Rickosan Takata(ph) - the town was just, literally, gone. It's a picture...

GREENE: It's a landscape with just one, small building left.

GILKEY: It's a landscape photograph. So I climbed up the hotel that was sort of right on the coast, and looked back towards the city out of the - one of the hotel room windows. You know, there it was - you know. It was a peaceful in a very surreal way. And it led to a series of other pictures after that, looking out windows and looking at the destruction - out through windows.

GREENE: Some of the images that I remember were watching television - I mean, the video of these waves, you know, the cameras following the wave coming through, and destroying towns and communities. How is your job different? I mean, I suppose it's more of a challenge - since you're capturing still shots - to try and bring that sort of event home to people, but with no motion.

GILKEY: As a photographer, how do you actually make this something that people can wrap their arms around? It's with emotions of the people, like Mr. Oshita; it's with showing a landscape with some perspective and scale to it. It's very difficult to - you know, for lack of a better term, translate something on this scale into something that you can look at and actually relate to.

GREENE: Thanks for spending time talking about this.

GILKEY: Hey, thank you.

GREENE: That's NPR photographer David Gilkey. And to see a slideshow of some of David's photos from both Japan and Haiti, you can visit our website, NPR.org.

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