‘Visual images help recreate historical reality more directly and vividly than verbal narrative’, writes James Z. Gao — and despite our academic comprehension of the construction of images and our dispensation with the idea that photographs are unmediated reproduction of reality, there remains a strong sense of relative indexicality produced in a visual image, that the written word doesn’t quite capture. It is this ability of photography to freeze moments for close inspection, that make it an essential source, as well as an important subject, for the study of modern history — and provide it with required gravitas to function as a document of its times.
Dr. David Perlmutter, who has written extensively on the nature of the image, its construction and the role of photojournalism notes that, “very few verbal descriptions of major news events survive the fading of newspaper pages. [Only] pictures can become mnemonic shorthands, whether as icons or in the stream of familiar pictures of the past.”
In a changing world, where traditional media such as newspapers are no longer the only, or even primary sources of events and news, the validity gained by the visual image has only grown by leaps and bounds. With Facebook and Twitter, Flickr and Instagram, the immediacy of communication that is expressed in a photograph has been exponentially amplified. Not only has the development of social media then been a larger jump than the advent of the television in terms of instant reporting, but it has produced a state of unprecedented access world-over to this information, and further, most importantly, has blurred the lines between consumers and producers.
With phones doubling as cameras, the world it seems, is only a click away — and with the proliferation of sharing platforms online, these images themselves are in turn, only a click away from the world. What is interesting then, is the manner in which the newer digital and social media tools alter not only the nature of consumption and distribution of current information, but also the evolution of form and format within this changing landscape, including for instance, the use of hashtags, or geo-tagging.
When it comes to the reporting of crises — environmental and humanitarian — this increasingly enables us to hear directly from affected communities themselves, with and without the help of the mainstream media and other aid agencies. This not only completely shifts the existing frameworks when it comes to questions of representation and identity, in such instances, but also the tone of this visual communication, which in turn deepens the ethical responsibilities of the media and other agencies to focus on the ways in which they — both collectively and individually — choose to represent people who have suffered, or are suffering, appalling hardship, and who often have little left but dignity and their ability to define themselves. This greater ability to publish what we want, at will, then brings with it a greater responsibility towards the people being communicated about, and to keep constantly in sight the ethical issues around representation and permission. It allows for a space that produces better context for these visuals, and encourage an an increased functionality and personal engagement with the reality at hand, rather than a mere overproduction of “devastation porn” or a spectacle of destruction. It also enables a larger reach for the other sides of disaster as well, the positive and human stories of hope. It re-emphasises the thinness of the line between documentation and exploitation, for as Doucet writes:
Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. The same rules of good journalism still apply. The same rules of humanitarian aid still apply. It’s about storytelling – and storytelling is not just a timeline of tweets or a stream of YouTube videos. Is there a future for humanitarian reporting? Yes, of course there is – if the reporting is done in the best journalistic tradition and as long as the human remains at the heart of humanitarian aid.
Thousands of people lost their lives and thousands more were injured in a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal’s capital Kathmandu and its surrounding areas on 25th April 2015. The earthquake was followed by a large number of aftershocks, including one that measured 7.3 on 12 May.
Among the worst-hit districts was Sindhupalchok – where more than 2,000 died. In the capital, Kathmandu, more than 1,000 perished. Thousands more were badly injured by falling debris caused by the quake or powerful aftershocks that rocked the region. Mount Everest was also struck by deadly avalanches after the quake on 25 April. Many of the country’s historic sites were severely damaged, including temples and monuments, and survivors battled fear, hopelessness and shock, even as they helped clear rubble, rescued victims and confronted their incalculable losses. Swastik Pal’s photographs nicely combine the big and the small, the macro elements of the destruction with the micro histories of the affected people, to produce an insightful commentary of their plight and their resourcefulness.
– Swastik Pal
I went to Nepal on an impulse. It was almost an immediate response to the strong aftershocks I had experienced, sitting in my room in Calcutta. I felt fear and uncertainty, but also a strong urge to get myself to the place where disaster had struck. And all this while, only one question kept running through my mind: what would I do if everything I ever had, my home, my city, came crumbling down like a house of cards right before me?
It was on 25 April that the first earthquake, measuring above 7.8 on the Richter scale, hit the Kathmandu region. And only a couple of weeks later, on 12 May 2015, another calamitous 7.3-magnitude aftershock followed. Numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and many thousands of homes throughout Nepal were destroyed. Thousands died buried under the rubble, and millions were left homeless.
I boarded an Air India sortie aircraft from Calcutta to Kathmandu. We hovered above the Tribhuvan International airport for five hours before getting clearance to land. It was dark by the time we touched down, and on my way to the hotel, I could see towers of smoke rising out of the mass cremation grounds near the Pashupatinath temple.
Since the first earthquake struck, there have been more than 120 aftershocks recorded here, stoking panic and fear, but all the same giving occasion to the resilient human spirit to reveal itself. In this series of photographs, I have tried to capture that spirit. While the tragedy to have hit Nepal was immense, and rebuilding the place will take time, this spirit of resilience is all we are left with for now, it’s our only hope for a better future.