Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: Remembering the Quake


Today marks the one year anniversary of the earthquake that struck China's southwestern Sichuan province last year. Above is a slide show of some of my work from my coverage of that natural disaster.

I spent a lot of time in the earthquake zone last year and I didn't blog at all, and I feel a lot of guilt for that. In a way I feel as though I left myself down. I always feel I have a contribution to make, either visually or via blogging, but I was suffering from some intense exhaustion during my quake coverage. Read on and you'll get a better idea of what I was witnessing, and my personal experiences, covering the natural disaster.

I was in the air when the actual earthquake happened, flying from Shanghai to Beijing for an assignment. When I landed, about 30 minutes after the quake had hit, I immediatly got a phone call from my friend in Shanghai telling me what had happened.

When the quake actually occurred it took a few hours for the full extent of the damage to be revealed. I remember getting to my hotel in Beijing and turning on the news and hearing reports of 10 people dead and damage limited. I didn't think too much of the disaster at that stage, as these small quakes happen all the time in China. So I went out and shot my assignment without given the quake a second thought.

When I got back to the hotel after dinner that night I flipped back on the news and reports were still coming back saying that the damage was much more severe than thought, and this 8.0 magnitude quake is thought to have demolished a hand full of towns and at least 20,000 people. Things had gotten serious very quickly.

To be honest I should have known better. China's Sichan province is the countries most populous province with around 90m people. I've been there several times and have seen the poor quality construction in the towns and villages as well as the mountains and rivers that dominate the landscape. If a strong quake were to hit, things would be disastrous. And it now appeared to be a major disaster.

Sitting there in front of the TV that night I decided that I was going to get myself to Sichuan as quickly as I could. I began contacting a lot of the editors I knew who might be interested in covering the event; but there was little interest initially. While my emails fell mainly on deaf ears, as they often do, I decided not to let that deter me. I actually had a few emails from editors telling me that the quake was so small that they wouldn't cover it at all in their magazines, but in the weeks later they actually ended up running full features and cover shots from the disaster. I had a very strong feeling, given the dense population and the mountainous landscape, that this would just continue to get worse as the days unfolded. I also felt strongly that given my experience in covering China and my style of photography that I was really in a strong position to cover this natural disaster.

That night I slept poorly. Woke up early and flew to Shanghai to pick up more equipment and grab some rain gear, because Sichuan province in May, June and July can really rain down. I wanted to be ready for anything. Upon trying to get a flight ticket from Shanghai to Chengdu on 2 day of the earthquake I realized that I would have to sit on my hands for another day, flights were impossible to get and even flights to ChongQing, a large nearby city, were full. So I sat and worked through on a map the area hit and how to get around in the region. I found it near impossible to sit idle, but that was what I did. I tried to rest up, because I knew when I landed things would become overwhelming very quickly.

On day three I was able to get a ticket to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province, and the largest city near the epicenter. By the time I was getting on the plane, a lot had happened. One the first day of the earthquake the Chinese government had issued a notice to all domestic media indicating that they were not allowed to cover the earthquake; which was a very odd thing to do. My understanding of why they did this is still not clear. All I know is that this government request was not listened to. The domestic media in China were on the scene very quickly and provided a lot of excellent coverage within the first 72hrs of the disaster. Also, Wen Jiabao, China's PM, was in Sichuan, and in heavily affected areas, within 24hrs. He was there putting on a strong face and showing that the government and the military was in control of the situation and wouldn't rest until every person was rescued and re-housed. It was a brave face indeed, but his presence on the ground was a huge PR win for the party; which often appears aloof of hardship in the countryside.

My experience in the quake zone was difficult, both professionally and personally. And I'll try to walk you through that here in this space.

I had arrived in Chengdu at around 1030am on the 3rd day of the quake. I had booked a room at the Holiday Inn, which was a cheap and comfy little hotel, near the airport in Chengdu. My plan was to sleep every night in Chengdu, where it was safe, and make long day trips out in to affected areas. That way I could file every night and at least I wouldn't have to worry about my hotel collapsing from an aftershock.

My driver and local assistant met me at the hotel and within an hour of arriving we were off to Juyuan and Dujiangyan. These two towns were heavily hit areas just an hour or so from Chengdu and they were where most of the quake coverage had come from already.

By the time I had arrived in Juyuan much of the chaos and commotion had disappeared and there was nothing left but a shattered building and some curious onlookers standing around. It was overwhelming to see how this 4 story building had just collapsed on to itself, nothing was left standing except the stairwell, you can see the image HERE. Classroom after classroom folded on to themselves, blackboards still had lesson plans from the time the quake hit. Children's notebooks, shoes and clothing were scattered all over the place. The mood was heavy. I visited and shot several schools and also worked my way through the back alleyways and neighborhoods that had fallen to pieces.

It was on that first day that I was able to capture one of, in my opinion, my strongest image from my quake coverage which you can see HERE. I felt it was my strongest image because it showed the extent of the damage and conveyed the hopeless of the situation, with a young boy wandering through a completely smashed lane-way, alone. The vantage point were I was standing was in fact a collapsed building that I had climbed to the top of, the time was just around dusk. That night I got back to the hotel and frantically edited and got everything uploaded and captioned and began sending it out to several magazines and newspapers that I work regularly for. But there were still no takers. I was on my own this time.

My second day I was becoming a bit more confident about being in the quake zone and decided to get up at the crack of dawn and do a long day trip to Beichuan, about 3hrs from Chengdu. I remember the drive up because for most of the highway drive you couldn't tell that a massive quake had hit. But the last 40km or so before we arrived at the city, as we twisted through the mountains, the damage was incredible. Massive boulders had broken away from the hills and left giant sized potholes in the roads, some rocks had broken loose and destroyed homes. There were landslides visible throughout the region. I wondered how many people had died trapped below the mountain that had broken away.

We had to park about 5km from the actual town of Beichuan because they wanted to keep the roads clear for rescue vehicles. So my driver parked and I made my way in on foot. There was a security checkpoint but I rolled right on through with no document checks, at this stage in the disaster the military and authorities were very welcoming to foreign photographers and writers. They really believed in the need to show the outside world what had happened to this little remote region of China. It was a real breakthrough moment for me personally because, after having so much interference to deal with on the job, it was so refreshing to just work freely and be able to get close to the military and the rescue efforts. It was a working environment that I had never witnessed before, and it was one that I haven't been in since.

The road to Beichuan is a winding one and you approach the city from above, before following the road down in to the valley where the city/town actually is. I remember walking in with massive groups of security staff and rescue workers and my first glimpse of the city itself was so overwhelming (see HERE) I had to sit down and take it all in. The mountains surrounding the town had all broken away and much of the town was covered in a landslide. There were few buildings left standing and I'd never seen anything like it. Walking along the road in to the city there was an army base and a morgue to the left, rows and rows of body bags were lined up. Upon entering the city I followed the rescue workers and found one of their bases and decided to try to document this aspect of the recovery effort. On day four they were still finding people alive. There was one image I was very fond of from these moments and it might allow you to understand the access I was granted when I was working that day. The military rescue workers were all huddled up having a meeting and I was able to stand in and listen and shoot as the group leaders mapped out their strategy (see HERE), it was access I didn't dream was possible. For actual images of the recovery efforts see the slide show above.

From there I began climbing up crumbled buildings and I was pretty nervous at first. There were cracks in the rubble and there was smoke filtering up from some places. I couldn't image how many fires or gas leaks might have been below us. I stayed close to a search and rescue team because they looked like they knew what was going on; and when I talked with one of the soldiers he mentioned that it was his second day here and reckoned I should just stay with them. So I did. When we reached the top of the rubble we had an incredible bird's eye (See HERE) view of the destruction.

As I walked down and made my way around the city I was amazed at how destructive mother nature can be. There were bodies in the streets, rescue workers hammering away on roofs trying to get through the top layer so they could probe inside looking for survivors. When I left Beichuan that night I sat in the car for three hours on the long drive back to Chengdu editing and captioning my work from that day in the back seat. I had a lot of difficulty associating my images with the real life that they represented.

On a personal note, for the first few days of working in the quake zone mobile phone access was patchy because the quake had caused so many of the phone towers to collapse and fall. So there were large stretches of time I was unable to communicate with my wife in Shanghai, and I can remember that being a particularly painful process for her; and me to a lesser extent. After about 4 or 5 days I was able to keep regular contact with her because various repairs had been made. It was much better when I was able to exchange even simple text messages with her at various times of the day to let her know I was safe. It was a terribly emotional experience documenting these schools that had collapsed, these families that had been torn apart and much of the time I couldn't image what my feelings would be if I had lost a child in a school or my wife in a quake.

My third day in the quake zone was an effort to rest and recover after two very exhausting days I decided to self assign myself to look in to the Chengdu #1 People's Hospitals. It is where all the most severely injured survivors where being taken and I was amazed, again, at how open and welcoming the doctors and hospital staff were when I began shooting survivors. I spent time focusing on both adults (See HERE) and children who had survived school collapses (See HERE). It was a tearful day as I spent time with children telling me their story of how there were tossed out of school windows, falling in one case three stories to the ground, as the buildings began to shake; which was the only reason they were still alive. The physiological challenges that many of these children would have in their future were very apparent in the little time I spent with them. Almost all of the children had no idea where there parents were. An aunt or uncle was with them at the hospitals. In many cases their entire school had collapsed and almost all of their friends were killed. It was a difficult day, but an eye opening experience to what the survivors where going through.

My forth day in the quake zone was very much wasted as I had planned to visit the Mianyang Football Stadium, apparently housing some 25,000 homeless quake victims. But I had heard a rumor from some other reporters that they had sealed off the place because there were afraid of illness or disease striking the people in their weakened condition. So I had called up a friend working for an NGO and told them that I had a car and I could offer to fill it up with medical supplies and food and take it up to the Stadium, where I knew they had operations. They had agreed the night before but in the morning when it was time to go they opted not to use my wheels in order to maintain independence from the journalists that were covering the disaster. I thought that strange considering I had given a fair amount of lifts to doctors and even military soldiers on trips to Juyuan and Beichuan. So, thinking I was unable to make it to the stadium without the help of an NGO I opted to visit Shifang, a city about 2hrs from Chengdu that had been badly hit. But when I arrived it realized that it had been hit but not nearly as bad as Beichuan, which was flattened. There was tent city on the main football pitch in the city (See HERE) but it mainly consisted of people who were affraid to return to their homes, not people who had lost their homes.

But when I did return back to the hotel that night I was amazed to see all the guests at the Holiday Inn sitting out in the parking lot. I had no idea what to think until the manager told me that the government had issued an earthquake alert and we all had to sleep outside tonight. I was stunned. I had just been on the road for about 10 hours and all I wanted was to file and get some food. But now, because the government could all of a sudden predict earthquakes, I had to sleep in the parking lot. F*ck that. I snuck past the manager and took the stairs to the forth floor, collected my bags and just left (the bastards billed me for an extra night). I made a bee-line for the Shangri-la in the center of Chengdu where most of the foreign media were staying. Luckily when I arrived that night no one was sleeping in the parking lot. There was no earthquake and no aftershock that night but the town was sent in to an absolute frenzy by the quake warning and there was a mass exodus of the city, which has about 8 million people. It was bizarre and strange and all of the chaos was completely unnecessary.

Interview with PDN Magazine's Daryl Lang on 5th night: CLICK HERE

While all this chaos was happening, and I was switching to a more sane hotel establishment, I was contacted by a writer who wanted to hire me for a job the next day. Awesome. It would, after working for 4 days in the quake zone, be my first assignment. My nightly emails to editors with my stories and links to images from my day didn't pick up much notice at all, and I had a real difficult time getting response from people as to whether I might be able to cover something for them; but there was nothing but silence. I really felt like I was out on my own for this one. To make matters worse when I woke up on my fifth day my sure fire job that had been organized the night before had fallen through and they had left me hanging until almost noon the next day, meaning that much of the day was wasted and I hadn't had a well thought out back up plan. The publication in question mentioned that I wasn't in the budget and it wasn't possible for me to work them on this project, so both myself and the writer were left hanging and the writer wasn't allowed to hire a photographer for his story. We were both fuming.

In a bit of heated frustration called up my driver and went straight to the Mianyang Football Stadium, just two hours from Chengdu. It was the only place I could visit that was close by, that I hadn't already been, and it meant I could still salvage a day. As it turns out I was able to literally walk right in to the stadium without anyone asking me for any credentials or ID. When I arrived I was floored by just how many people where living in the stadium. Most of the survivors from the Beichuan area ended up here, some 25,000 of them. Kids were in school (see HERE), people were getting food handouts (see HERE) and everyone seemed to have a place to rest (see HERE). The football stadium was an incredible exercise in scale. And I was amazed at how well organized it seemed to be. The children went to school in shifts, there were medical staff, mobile phone stands, basketball courts and even a little playground for the kids to play on. The government had turned the stadium in to an apartment complex and people were getting, in my opinion, great care. China in the first week of this disaster responded very quickly and got a lot of good things done. Of course there were mistakes and problems but in a disaster of this scale, over 5 million homeless and 80,000 dead, I don't know how any country could have performed better. One only has to remember New Orleans as an example of how not to respond to a natural disaster.

The next morning no assignments had materialized and no one seemed to have any interested in purchasing my images, I packed up my bag, checked out of the hotel and went to the airport and got on the first flight back to Shanghai; much to my wife's pleasure. I had spent six days working hard with no backing and I had just had an assignment fall through. I had visited most of the worst hit areas, Wenchuan the epicenter was only accessible by helicopter so that wasn't an option. I visited four towns in four days, as well as the football stadium, and thought that I had seen much and documented a lot. Wondering what more I could visit or get access to without further resources left me guessing. My experience had been positive, giving the horrific circumstances of what I was witnessing. The government and military had been very helpful providing access to sites and the rescue workers and doctors and nurses behaved with selfless determination. It was remarkable to witness. I was proud to have made an effort.

I was back in Shanghai for all of 24hrs when I got a call from MSNBC.com asking me if I was still in Sichuan; they had been getting my emails but were slow to pull the trigger on an assignment. I said I wasn't in Sichuan but ended up back on a plane that night. After spending one night with my wife in Shanghai I was back in the Shangri-la in Chengdu awaiting further instructions. At least these time I would have more of an agenda and be working with a writer and my expenses were covered. This was a huge relief, and I was more determined then ever to get cracking.

The writer I was working with was keen to get the epicenter, and we hired just the right four-wheel drive SUV to get us there. The first destination was Yingxiu and the journey to get to this town was about four hours and it was a treacherous ride as much of the road had been destroyed from land slides, even several bridges and expresses ways had collapsed (see HERE). Upon getting to Yingxiu we were told that there was no way to go further by road, landslides had blocked the access. So we reported from Yingxiu and explored this devastated city. It was in much worse shape then Beichuan and had been much harder to reach. I had seen little reporting from this city and it was obvious why, because the road had just opened and there wasn't much left to report, it had become a ghost town. An image from Yingxiu can be found HERE, I feel with this image I was I was able to capture the helicopter the solider and the mangled buildings all in one; hopefully providing the image viewer with an idea of the devastation. The piece published by MSNBC is HERE.

While were in Yingxiu, and for two or three days prior to that, it had been circulating that schools throughout the whole region had collapsed and some 10,000 children may have died as a result of shoddy school construction. In many towns and cities schools had collapsed while other buildings in the area had stayed standing. Our next assignment was a memorial at a middle school in Juyuan. An image from Juyuan can be found HERE, the emotion of the day was simply overwhelming. The piece published by MSNBC is HERE

One image that didn't make publication can be seen HERE, a disinfectant truck had shown up at the exact same time as the memorial for the grieving parents and a man in a white coat, seemingly in charge, had try to usher parents away from the collapsed school. He gave up trying to move people but it was a despicable attempt to brush aside the memorial, and if you think it was just an honest coincidence that a disinfectant truck had showed up at the exact same time as a memorial, then you haven't been following China long enough.

I completed other mini-features on the Ziping Dam, which I blogged about a few months back (see HERE) and an ancient temple that was completely smashed by the quake. And that was pretty much the extent of my experience in the quake zone. Now I also visited tent cities and temporary housing centers, which you can find above, but most of the fuller essays were completed in the first few days.

I can say two things about my experience covering the natural disaster in Sichuan. The first is that the freedom that I moved around with the first week was severely hindered the second week as the shoddy school construction story broke. All of a sudden people didn't want to talk to us. The government was threatening parents who had lost children not to talk to us. There were new road blocks emerging in certain zones of the disaster area. The working enivornment really turned from week one to week two; and I was saddened by that. It is just another example of the government not being able to deal with the truth in any way shape or form. My hope is that they'll be able to overcome this at some stage of the country's development, but I'm not holding my breath. The second lesson I learned is that as a photographer you can never, ever wait for the phone to ring. Wow, I learned that in spades on this story and I take that experience to heart. The wheels of publications move slowly and a freelance photographer should never let the lack of funding stop them from working, some stories need to be told and even in a situation of media saturation, like a natural disaster, I still feel there is space for freelance story telling. It's true that having the funds may often hold us back, but if the money is there and the story is something your passionate about you just have to go. I don't know who coined the phase "95% of life is just showing up", well that can't be more true for a photographer. If you get yourself to where you can make interesting and emotional images, then you've done the hard part. Squeezing the shutter button is often the easiest aspect of working in situations like this.

One year later what exactly have seen happen? Well several Chinese photographers were rewarded with World Press Photography awards in the most recent competition for their coverage of the quake, there work was incredible. The AP staff team won a pulitzer for their coverage of the quake, also very strong images. Ai Wei, a famous Chinese artist, as spoken out against the corruption in the region on his BLOG and this ARTICLE in the New York Times explains that situation. Basically Ai Wei is China's most famous artist, helping design the Olympic Stadium or the Bird's nest. He comes from a famous linage of poets and artists and he has been disgusted with the coverup of the school collapses and shoddy construction. He is in the process of trying to collect the exact names of all the children who died so that he can use it to create a project or memorial; these attempts hit a road block when in mid-April some of his researchers were arrested in the quake zone for asking too many questions.

The Chinese government has closed off the region for the one year anniversary, only those with official press credentials are allowed to visit and I'm sure those foreign journalists will be restricted in what they can see or do. A recent report indicated that journalists from several major news organizations had been harassed and intimidated while trying to report on the school collapses, and still grieving parents. The fear is that too many survivors will open up and talk of official corruption and the slow moving recovery efforts. I'll be watching the news and looking for blogs that report from the zone, it'll be interesting to try and gauge the frustration of the local people.

My plans are to return to the region, at some stage. I'll be looking for the right story or the right moment and while I don't know what that is, I know that the one year anniversary just isn't the right time.

Ryan Pyle
Website: www.ryanpyle.com
Archive: http://archive.ryanpyle.com

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Ryan Pyle