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Photographing a Tragedy

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.

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Neil Creek
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.

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