Photographing a Tragedy

Photographing a Tragedy

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The following post is from Australian photographer Neil Creek who just launched a free background image site featuring his photography, and is developing his blog as a resource for the passionate photographer.

Nothing Left

Last weekend I did one of the most difficult and emotionally tiring photo shoots of my life. I photographed the country town of Kinglake, Victoria, which had been devastated by bushfire, with the loss of much life, just one month prior. I want to share with you my state of mind on the day, and what I learned, so that if you ever find yourself photographing a tragedy or disaster you may be more able to keep your head above water in such a difficult and delicate situation.

Pre-Shoot Nerves

The severity of the bushfires that destroyed Kinglake, and several other communities, was so great that the recovery has been slow. When I went to Kinglake, there were still police roadblocks in place to keep away sightseers and looters. The locals are still taking stock of the damage, and the loss of so many lives in very close-knit communities is keenly felt by all.

If I hadn’t been invited, I would not have even considered the shoot until at least a couple of weeks after the roadblocks come down. I was however, invited by my friend Erin, who was until recently a lifelong town resident, and whose brother lost his house in the fire. This was a rare opportunity, as much of the rubble of the destroyed houses would likely be gone before the public were allowed to return.

Burned Bush Near Kinglake

Despite the invitation, I still felt very much like I was intruding, that I might be seen as a casual sightseer, that I might get in the way of those grieving for their losses. Even though I had these reservations, I still wanted to document what had happened, and to show the rest of the world. Erin encouraged me, and with her mother and my wife, we drove together to Kinglake.

Utter Devastation

Passing through the roadblock was very much like the scene in The Wizard of Oz, when it went from black and white to vivid colour – only in reverse. One moment we were in leafy green countryside, the next it was like we were in an alien world with ash-grey ground, and blackened pillars which were once trees as far as they eye could see.

I was a bit taken aback, and took a while to get my camera out. I just stared at the views out across the black valley. I would have liked to stop the car and taken a panorama, but the road was too narrow. I should have just photographed through the open window, but I thought to myself “I’ll get it later”. I should have known better. I’ll get it later is the photographer’s worst enemy. We ended up returning via a different route, and I wasn’t able to get the photo I wanted. My first lesson learned: never ever think “I’ll get it later”.

Melted Swing

We first met Erin’s brother, who was at his post at the CFA (Country Fire Association) station. When I was introduced to him, it was a little awkward. I was thinking “what do I say to a man who lost everything while risking his life to save others?”, and I had no idea what he was thinking, but he looked exhausted from fighting spot fires that are still regularly breaking out. Fortunately Erin helped and broke the awkward moment. If you want to meet or even photograph people who have been involved in a tragedy, it’s very helpful to have someone to introduce you. Erin was wonderful the whole time we were in Kinglake, as a guide, as a liaison and as a friend.

Difficult to Shoot

Driving and walking around the streets of Kinglake was an awesome experience. I was humbled by the power of nature and anguished at the loss. House after house lay in ruin, and gutted cars wereeverywhere. Erin’s running commentary, from the perspective of a local was both incredibly informative and heartbreaking: “Two people died in that house, I taught the two kids who died there with their grandmother, the woman who lived in that house lost her son to illness last year…”

If you are photographing a disaster for documentary purposes, having someone with local knowledge is extremely valuable. Not only can they take you to the most interesting places, but they can also tell you the back story of what you’re shooting. Even if you’re not putting descriptions with your photos, as I did, knowing what happened can still inform your photos and help to make them a better record.

Tragic Loss

Probably the most difficult moral dilemma during the shoot was when Erin showed me where her brother Ben’s neighbours’ house had been. Two cars sat destroyed in the driveway, and she told me how Ben looked for them in the car when he first returned home, as they had been listed as missing. He didn’t see any bodies in the car, and moved on. Later, when the police went through, searching for victims, they discovered what little remained of their bodies in that car after all. When I was there, the scene was surrounded with police tape, so I knew it was likely that they were still there. “Should I shoot, or not?”

After agonizing over the decision, I photographed the scene. I was there to document what had happened, and the tragic losses were very much a part of that. One might say they were the most important part.

What Would You Do?

Marking the Loss

I came away from the mere two and a half hours that I spent in Kinglake with many stories of loss but also of courage and determination. I saw things I will never forget, and the memory of which still knots my stomach. And I came away with a memory card full of photos. On reflection there are shots I wish I could have taken, angles that I thought of later that would have looked good, and difficult decision over which of the many powerful images should I choose to show, but I am so glad I had the opportunity.

You can see the photos I took in my blog post on the Kinglake visit.

I hope you never have the occasion to photograph tragedy or a disaster, but if you do then I hope that my experience can help prepare you and maybe show you what’s most important in such a situation – at least to me. I’ve tried to summarise my thoughts and advice below:

  • Respect is of utmost importance. Your presence there is a privilege and the people around you are suffering.
  • If you are asked any questions be forthright, sincere and open. Be honest about your intentions and show that you are not merely a sightseer.
  • If you are asked not to photograph someone or something, respect that wish. Maybe this isn’t in the strictest tradition of journalistic photography, but the last thing a decent human being should do is deepen anothers’ suffering.
  • If possible, travel with a local. They can provide you with context, a liaison with others and practical advice.
  • If you see a great shot, don’t put off taking it. The rare privilege you have been given may never happen again.
  • If there is still a state of emergency, stay out of the way! Do not put peoples lives or property in danger, and let the authorities do what they need to do without obstruction.
  • Never Give Up.

  • Do not put yourself at risk. No matter how good the shot you’re after, if you’re putting yourself in harms way, it’s not worth it. Besides the risk to your life, you could be risking those who might be required to rescue you.
  • Finally, once again because it’s so important, show respect at all times. This includes what you do with your photos. I have chosen to make my photos available under a creative commons license, because I feel it’s important to spread the message of what happened as widely as possible, but that’s your own choice. I have also chosen never to make money from these photos, as I believe that would be unethical, again that’s up to you. But whatever you do, please do it with respect.
  • A disclaimer: This was my first time shooting this kind of event, and I am no kind of expert. What I’ve said here today is only my opinion and based on very limited experience. I may have given bad advice, and it’s important to do what you feel is right. So, please don’t take what I have said too much to heart.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Neil Creek is a professional photographer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been shooting with a DSLR since 2004, and blogging about his experiences since 2006. Neil has authored five ebooks and a video training course, all designed to help others improve their photography. View Neil's folio at his home page. Learn about his publications here.

Some Older Comments

  • William April 4, 2009 11:28 am

    This was a fantastic article and personally helpful. Tomorrow i will be putting myself in this spot, this morning in upstate new york there was a horrific tragedy. 14 shot and killed including the shooter in a local immigration center. I am a local student of photography and when i transfer will be attending school for photojournalism. This will be my first time going into a situation where the model is not only a stranger but under such stress. The entire area has been devastated by this and I feel obligated to document it as one of the most important events in our recent memory in the area. Thank you for all the suggestions and some hints. My hopes go out for the families and victims who were so greatly affected by both of these tragedies.

  • Neil Creek March 27, 2009 01:13 am

    I'm sorry if this commentcomes across as too hostile or defensive. I've tried to be even-handed, but I am not happy about the accusations and insults thrown my way by joseph:

    Lets think for a moment what would happen if photographers "respected" victims of tragedy and never took photographs of any event where a life or property was lost. No one would know the extent of the damage, beyond what they could imagine from descriptions. The flood of support would be a tiny fraction of what it was. The importance of treating natural or artificial disasters with respect would be diminished. Beyond this, the huge benefits forensic photography for understanding and preventing disaster would be lost.

    We are visual animals, and we need to see things to understand them. "I'll believe it when I see it" is very true. Wars became less deadly and romanticised when people at home could see some of the horror in the newspapers and on television. Natural disasters become better understood and more easily managed from documentary photos. Victims receive more support when those who escaped the disaster connect with them emotionally. Many of the most important photos in history, which have changed the world, would not have been taken if your idea of "respect" was adhered to by all photographers.

    I have made it very clear in this post that I intended to make no personal gain of any kind from my photography of Kinglake - except perhaps to satisfy my curiosity. If no one was allowed to take photos, imagine how many sightseers would be there now, satisfying theirs? I took every reasonable measure I could to eliminate any suffering I may cause others by doing so. I don't think you could point to anything I did that directly caused pain to another person.

    If seeing a photo of a place a loved one was lost causes pain, it is because of the loss, not because of the photo. However, if I were to see a sign on a property requesting no photography, I would respect that, as I said in the post - I saw none, however. I did learn the lesson that some residents are unhappy about photography, as you will see in the comments on the post on my blog. I've also learned that the people who object to my photos - at least the only ones so far - also are very angry and feel personally insulted by me, so much that they wish to return the favour with unfounded accusations and name-calling. I think it's sad and unfortunate that their anger has been misdirected to me, but I will not argue with them about it, as it solves nothing.

    I am very disappointed that you lowered yourself to insult me in the last line in your comment. I resent and reject your implication that I got some kind of enjoyment from others' misery. You lend your argument no credibility by stooping to such a low level.

  • Sime March 27, 2009 12:40 am

    Joseph? Who is "Nelly" - You clearly mean Neil

    "Photographing a tragedy" happens every day - watch the news? Neil's portrayal of the devastation is very modest by comparison to some of the coverage. As editorial photography, there is no requirement to remove the photos. If you would like to discuss, please get in touch: simon@digital-photography-school.com

    With respect,
    Sime

  • joseph March 27, 2009 12:28 am

    Ummmmmmmm I hate to sound like a negative Nelly but I don't think your friend had the right to ask you to photograph Kinglake as other residents object to photographers going there, I was invited to go see what was left of Roundstone winery and the surrounding damage, I thought that even if i was invited by one person that didn't give me the right to photograph other peoples misery, I did visit one friend up that way but I left my camera at home, I would like to ask anybody reading this post............. the residents think it is disrespectful and have installed signs asking for to be respected and no photograhps to be taken. Unless you had specific permission from the owners of the properties that you photographed then please show some respect and remove the images. I don't think you have posted them to offend people but please show some respect.................................... one lesson from photographing you are lucky to not have learned is that there are alot of unresolved emotions up in those hills and i wouldn't want to be on the recieving end of sombody that has lost loved in those ruins.
    anyhow i did enjoy driving around and seeing the damage it was awesome a real enjoyable days drive in sombody elses misery.

  • Donna March 23, 2009 06:54 am

    Neil:

    Great photos and article. I am a newspaper reporter/photog and end up at fires and such several times a year. You had good tips. I may share they w/ our newsroom. I also agree with the person who said talk to the victims. I have had people who dont' want to talk to me, but others have given me great comments and made the story more human.

  • Deb March 22, 2009 05:16 am

    Hi Neil

    Thank you for writing an article that reminds photojournalists that they have a role in supporting the emotional well being of those affected by disaster. Your sensitivity and sincerity is very much apreciated.

  • Mike Minick March 20, 2009 10:17 pm

    Very much akin to being a news or combat photog. It changes you as a person...if you're lucky, you become impassionate.

  • John March 20, 2009 04:20 am

    Thanks Neil for the article. Here is the opinion of another firefighter... photographing tragedy is not for everyone. Thanks for emphasizing the physical risks of doing this type of work however there are also emotional risks. The experience can leave some people traumatized. Professionals (firefighters, photograpers etc.) have Critical Incident Stress Management resources available to them. Most independant photographers won't. Photographers may not know what they are getting into. Hopefully though, photographing tragedy will be rewarding.

  • Tracy March 20, 2009 02:38 am

    I work for a newspaper in a small southern town. Many times we are called out to photograph fires, car wrecks, and other devastating events. I appreciate the fact that you advised the reader to consider the wishes of those most effected by the moment. There is a thin line between doing your job and remembering that often we are dealing with living beings.

  • Sime March 17, 2009 08:50 am

    Neil, brilliant work my friend. Well done

    Sime

  • JD March 16, 2009 09:48 pm

    Wow. This would be an extremely powerful experience. Thank you for sharing your guidelines and for having the heart to go and document this event.

    Peace.
    JD

  • Phil March 16, 2009 03:08 pm

    Good article Neil. As a fire fighter who was involved in the events of Saturday 7th Feb, and the ensuing weeks, I thank you for documenting the aftermath with dignity and respect. In 12-24 months time, much of the destruction will have grown back to be fresh, green and leafy again. Photos will preserve the memories of that day, not to prolong the heartache and pain, but hopefully to ensure it doesn't happen again.

    Aside from this particular disaster, the same rules apply to any kind of emergency scene. Our fire brigade runs a Rescue unti for Road Accidents, and the amount of people from the general public who run around an accident scene while we're trying to work is unbelievable. These people are using everything from their mobile phone to the latest and greated DSLR, but the common line is that there is no respect for the victims involved. Yes, our unit takes photos occasionally, but ONLY after all the victims have been removed from the scene, or permission has been sought.

  • Lou March 15, 2009 01:30 pm

    Very good article. I heartily agree with what you've written. I had the opportunity to go to New Orleans after the Katrina storm. I went with a relief group called Friendships. While most of my time was spent with relief work, I was able to do some photo work also. Respect is definitely the highest priority. One thing about my situation was the fact that my main purpose was to offer assistance. People will give you much more leeway when you are there to serve them first. Even in a situation like yours, when you offer to lend someone a hand, even just some fresh water and a prayer, it can help build a rapport which can lead to some photo opps. But please let it be genuine, not just a cheap payment. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • margaret chaidez March 15, 2009 10:55 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience. The photos and the stories behind bring the reality home. What horrible things the survivors have endured and so much loss.

    I appreciate the tips. I am filming a documentary on a rare condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. Some of the families have lost their children within days of the birth. It is always hard to make that call when to turn the camera off and when to let it roll. I think it is a fine line to cross. I am continuing on with a photography exhibit at Shriners Hospital and many of the tips you mentioned above are extremely relevant.

    More inspiring was your decision to share the photos and not make a profit from them. If more people had that mindset, the world would be a better place.

  • Becky March 15, 2009 12:33 am

    My thoughts and prayers go out to the people and your country. Thank you for sharing your tips. While I hope I never have the "opportunity" to photography such a tragedy, I agree with you (and the other posts) that it is important to document them via photos. When I was young, we victims of a flood. We remembered to take a few photos of the destruction. Now, many years later, I'm glad we have those photos as they are indeed part of our history and show that you can recover. Your post was very-well written and bought tears to my eyes while at the same time sharing your valuable insight and experience. Thank you.

  • Emil March 14, 2009 06:17 pm

    Great post !
    Sorry to hear about everything.

  • Don Dailey March 14, 2009 03:49 pm

    Hi Neil,
    Great photos. As a newspaper reporter, I've covered many tragedies. (I've even photographed a few in addition to my writing duties.) I've seen dead bodies, burned homes, tornado destruction, and grieving friends and relatives. I think the tips you've given are right on the money. Something that happens to many people is that a notebook or camera becomes a kind of shield that protects you from feeling the highly charged emotions that appear during these situations. That can be good and bad. I would also say to not be afraid to talk to the victims. I've found that the great majority of the time these people want to talk about what has happened to them. They can often give you excellent information or lead you to areas to photograph that you would have never known about.

  • LisaNewton March 14, 2009 12:26 pm

    I've never thought about this idea before, but your article definitely gives great advice about to carry yourself in such a situtation. Respect is so important. I think one of the important aspects of photographing such a tragedy is educating the public about the people involved, the depth of the events, the real pictures of the events.

  • Tom B. March 14, 2009 08:02 am

    I volunteer for the local Red Cross chapter and have been going to a lot of house fires. Part of what I do is take photos for the website. It is on a much smaller scale than what you experienced, but the tragedy for the people that have their homes destroyed is just as great.

    I do not take photos of the people who live in the houses, it is against Red Cross rules, but your points about staying out of the way and not risking yourself are very important. Whether it is a one house fire or a major disaster, you do not want to make things more difficult for the firefighters and rescue workers.

  • Jeremy Brooks March 14, 2009 07:41 am

    Excellent work! While it may be difficult to photograph disasters and tragedies, I think it is a very important thing to do. People can read about a fire or hear about it from a newscaster, but seeing the photos is what brings it home and gives it real meaning.

    Thanks for shooting the scene, and for sharing your experience.

  • Lee Milthorpe March 14, 2009 07:33 am

    This is something I've never even considered before but it was a very interesting read. I guess it's such a different thing to photograph that the usual techniques just go straight out the window!

    It's definitely one of those types of scenes where capturing the emotion is more important than anything else.

    Great tips Neil.