Shaking My Naivety
April 25, 2011
On an ordinary night in 2003 at midnight, I took a shower and relaxed in my parent’s living room. Suddenly, I heard a clatter. My family and I thought that we had had another little earthquake so we turned on the TV as usual. However, we found out that a small village near my parents’ house was the epicenter of much larger earthquake. I called to my office to see if I needed to go to work. I was sleepy and did not expect my boss to actually ask me to come, but he told me:
“Catch a taxi, and get here quick!”
“Yes, sir. I will get ready and come to the office as soon as possible.” It must be a really big disaster, I thought to myself excitedly.
I arrived at the office, a newspaper company, and joined the other photographers. We waited for two hours before sunrise and headed over to the village. When we got there, I was terrified to see the village in the dim light of sunrise. It was a disaster. I was stunned and looked at the other photographers, and they looked back. Their faces revealed they were as unprepared as I was. My excitement quickly disappeared in the chilly morning air.
Everything was beyond my expectations. Roads were cracked and showed deep inside of the ground. Mosaics of bottles were smashed on a floor, releasing strong scents of alcohol in a liquor store. Graves were broken and knocked over like a line of ghastly dominoes in a cemetery. Books covered the floor of a library like a field of dead butterflies and some of the bookshelves fell to form arches. Old houses bowed deeply in surrender with their roofs almost touching the ground.
We tried to capture whatever we saw, but we were not sure our pictures were telling the full reality of what we felt there. That reality was far beyond ordinary life, so it looked almost surrealistic. I had never felt this feeling until that moment. I tried to photograph contorted houses or broken windows as a true representation but, as a result, they looked like warped caricatures. I listened to the news from a radio and looked at the place with my eyes, but I could not digest how the natural disaster affected people in the village yet.
People had fled to an elementary school gym for safety. I went to the gym to take pictures for next day’s newspaper and I saw many people wrapped with blankets and sitting on the icy floor. It was July but they had a cold summer. People wore thick jackets and tried to warm their hands up around a couple of oil stoves. Many children, seniors, and adults got together and talked about how scary it was.
“My family Buddhist altar almost fell down on me. I was sorry for my ancestors, but I left it on the ground.”
“I was sleeping on a futon mat at the time, but hurried to escape my house in my pajamas.”
“I doubt that the ground is still shaking.”
Writers collected their stories and tried to find the scariest among them. Those would make dramatic horror stories for news readers the next day.
I walked around the gym and met an old lady praying so hard on the cold solid wooden floor. I asked what she prayed for and she replied sincerely, “I prayed for everybody’s safety and health.”
I photographed her praying and I felt that I did something wrong. However, I could not pinpoint why I felt awkward at that time.
I sent my pictures to headquarters with a laptop computer and a radio phone. My boss complimented me on my photos. I was happy and satisfied with my effort and returned to the gym. I started to capture how people spent time in the gym at the night after the earthquake. Adults were eating small dinners and children were tired and already asleep. They could not go back to their houses and had no privacy in whatever they did. After their supper, some people hid their head with blankets and others just looked towards the walls. They cared about each other, but they were also tired of other people’s eyes. At that time, I finally noticed why I felt awkwardness when I took a picture of the old lady. I felt guilty to sell their privacy and their fear to the mass media.
I sighed and looked around the gym again. Suddenly, I heard the big groaning sound: yet another earthquake. Everybody ran to the wall to avoid falling objects such as the big lights hanging down from the ceiling. A grandmother tucked her granddaughter quickly into her chest and held as tight as she could. Other companies’ photographers and I moved to photograph the grandmother and her granddaughter for a cover page of the newspaper. It was an instinctual move, made without malice or sympathy.
That was the shot which I always remember with a puzzled mind. When we captured the grandmother and her granddaughter, they noticed that we took their photos and they even made sure that we could take nice shots of them. Amid all the confusion and drama, these people were actually helping us forge our stories of fear.
That photo was the next day’s top news story. It looked so dynamic and frightening, just like a candid shot should. However, it was actually posed. Looking at the photograph, I felt like a fog of naivety had suddenly cleared. While people from all over the northern region looked at a shot of a frail grandmother and granddaughter cowering in fear and wondered how horrible it must have been for them, I alone could smile and reflect that sometimes people are much tougher than you think.