It was just after 7am when I awoke in our vehicle. Looking out the window, it was as if I had died and gone to hell. Buildings were torn, ripped apart, left to slowly crumble in the aftermath of natures fury. It's truly surreal to see such destruction with your very own eyes--naked to the truth, privy to nothing.
Acknowledging my arrival at the epicenter of the quake, my heart began to pound, my palms sweaty, my camera turned on--finger ready at the trigger. I was excited,anxious,proud to be one of the few foreign photogs allowed access to this area. My translator and I had worked effortlessly through the night--weaving our way through back channels of communication,trying desperately to convince our Chinese officials to let us into the restricted zone. After a few rounds of rice wine, phone calls and hand shakes, we finally received the go-ahead.
Stepping out of the vehicle, I ran for my tripod, quickly dropped its legs to the ground and mounted my camera. It didn't matter to me where I was, what I was doing or who was looking. All I wanted was to capture the destruction, the turmoil, the loss and devastation of a country that neither clung to my heart nor mattered much to my psyche. This is China--and for all I cared, what I was filming was epic news, heart wrenching, television at its best. Journalists from all over the world yearn for this moment, they dream of this chance--and here I am, deep in the midst of tragedy, soaking in the rays of light that entered my lens. I'm lucky, I know.
I zoomed in and out, close ups and wides. No matter where I pointed my camera, a kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns formed images of loss--of pain and displeasure--ultimately feeding my appetite with what I had longed to taste.
Broken chairs littered the ground. A single shoe, a child's hat. Calendars hung from wall to wall, slanted--stopped in time, motionless in space. A cloud of white dust glistened my shoes as I walked about--scanning my surrounding like a vulture waiting for the dead. Looking up, I noticed a chalk-board stood half broken. Zooming into it, I pulled-focused on a line of scribbles that resembled a child's hand writing. Small finger prints littered an empty black surface.
Putting my camera down, I viewed the room for the first time with my own bare eyes. A haze of white smoke danced in the light as I stood still. And within a synapse of a moment, my world had stopped spinning. Motionless. Barely able to breathe. Barely able to come to terms with myself as I realized where I was standing. Putting my head down, a teddy bear on a child's lunch box stared back at me. My stomach churned. My throat caught in rapture. I walked out of that school room with out taking another shot.
I've been in this type of situation before--when I use my camera a shield of honor, of valor and faith, courage and distinction--only to find myself caught in my own array of guilt and shame. Sometimes, when caught in the moment, I lose sight of who I am, the morals instilled within me and the respect for human life I've learned to value. I guess, after working so hard to gain access to this area, I had forgotten the true purpose for why I perform the task that I'm given.
By the time I had made it back to the meeting point, my translator was already waiting for me in the car. Her eyes were stained in tears. Running her hands across her face, she tells me that over 200 school children were buried at this site. Alive.
Looking around, I noticed I had drawn a crowd. Local elders, parents and children were there to greet me. Some shook my hand, not knowing exactly why. But as I locked eyes with them, I saw their pain. It's an image I can never forgive myself to capture, nor will I ever try to. I spent the rest of my time shooting from afar, creatively finding other angles to tell this story. I didn't want it to look like a piece you'd watch on CNN or some low budget TV station glamorizing the loss of human life. It's the least I could do.
I didn't sleep that night. I tried to keep myself busy by spending hours returning emails back to HQ, writing scripts or Christmas shopping online. Some how, I felt the need to humanize myself again, replenish my soul, apologize for what I'd done. I didn't want to close my eyes--for I feared what dreams may come.
Blogger Note: I apologize for my lack of posts lately. Frankly, I didn't know how I was going to write this story. As always, I'd love to hear from you. Currently safe in Bangkok, Thailand.