Captured on film
Kiyose Etsuko, 29, photographer, Kobe-shi Tarumi-ku
Thank you very much for the relief materials you sent during the Great Hanshin Earthquake. They were much needed. The quake has destroyed my house completely. Lucky for us, we can stay at my uncle’s unoccupied condominium. Please do not worry for us.
On the eve of the quake, my husband and I (both photojournalists) were having a project meeting till late at night. After settling some issues, we took a break, had tea, and engaged in casual chat. Looking back, it seems such a coincidence that, of all topics, we had to talk about earthquakes!
We talked about the prediction by a certain fortuneteller about an imminent earthquake. My husband, an Italian who had experienced a major quake back in his hometown in 1980, felt uneasy, and moved the cameras, lenses, and a set of working tools from the shelves to under the desk.
I glanced at him from the corner of my eyes and laughed, “Come on! Kansai has never had an earthquake.” When I hit the tick, it was two o’clock in the morning, January 17th. A few hours later, the nightmarish moments struck.
The furniture had collapsed, and the floor was so full of broken objects that we could not move about without stepping on them, but the camera my husband had put under the desk were perfectly intact. Was that a hunch or what?
We sent our mother, who was injured, to the hospital amidst the aftershocks. Then, we went back to the site with that camera. On the way, I kept turning back to look at my house, now severely inclined, and wondered how long it would stand against these aftershocks. Maybe it would be there no more when I returned the next time. No matter how important our job was, surely there were other more important matters to attend to? The image of my mother trembling with fear suddenly crossed my mind. I forced myself not to dwell on that and walked on, camera in hand.
As we approached Mitsumiya, we began to realize the scale of the disaster. It was no more the Kobe I had known all my life. Capturing the scenes of destruction of where I lived was difficult for me. Although I am a journalist, I too was one of the anxious, frightened and angry victims. I found it hard to press the shutter button.
I felt as if I were taking photos of the suffering of the people, and earning a living out of it. I had a serious sense of guilt and felt my heart aching. Seeing that I was rooted to the spot and apparently stirred, someone from the French news agency, who had come to meet with my husband, said to me, “This is our job. We have to face the reality however curel it is, and convey it to the people. This is the only thing we are capable of, and only we are capable of doing this!”
Months later, I was sent a magazine from a publisher in Thailand, which published my Hanshin Earthquake photographs. I can calmly accept these photos now, but that they should be my overseas debut is an irony to me.
Looking back, after working as a photojournalist for about two years and having captured various scenes on film, the photographs I took for the Hanshin earthquake were a turning point for me. A good photojournalist must not get too close to or too far away from the target object. He must always thread this thin border and capture the objective truth. However, in major catastrophes, such as the earthquake, nobody could act his usual self. I panicked too. But if I had not pressed the shutter, I would never have remained a journalist.
With the destroyed buildings demolished, Kobe is on its way to recovery. But new problems are emerging, such as temporary housing, land readjustment and mental fatigue. I think the media must not just report what happened immediately after the disaster, but also the follow-up developments after the immediate shock. Otherwise, people would not learn anything from this incident and would only think of it as no more than a catastrophe.
Therefore, I personally feel that individuals, the municipal administrative organs and the nation as a whole must have as much knowledge about such disasters and be as prepared as possible. Individuals should at least exchange amongst themselves such information as the gathering points and contact details of the family, and reserved ration, etc., to prepare for future natural disasters. Our administrative bodies should consider redesigning the use of our traffic and networks so that fire engines will not be delayed like they were in this earthquake.
Many of us had never thought of the possibility of a Kansai earthquake. I feel sorry for having laughed at my prudent husband at the eve of the quake. As a photojournalist, I intend to observe closely the recovery process and the new issues that come out of this process.
J, please work hard at your Mass Communication course in the US.
I heard that earthquakes strike California frequently too. Do take care.