Contest Entry. Written about the tornado last fall in my college town.
|The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words is what led me to photography as a career. It’s only now that I’m majoring in Photojournalism and actually working for a local newspaper that I’ve begun to reconsider that premise. For every moment I capture with my camera, a thousand more pass unremarked by it, not because they do not mean anything but because I am only one person and I cannot capture everything. Their significance is lost to all but human memory. And how much more is a memory worth than these photographs I work so hard to obtain? The worth of my photographs is truly measured in their ability to evoke memories, or at least understanding or empathy, in those who view them.
I considered this while working on various projects, documenting athletic events, the county fair, the farmers’ market, and theater productions. But then the tornado hit town, and nothing was the same.
It was devastating. I knew it had to be, in this area where the only sign of prosperity is the university itself. The town around it is pretty small, and once you get out of town you are in rural America. I currently live in one of the poorest counties in the country, and I’m one of its richest members, which is why I was able to go out the morning after the tornado and document the destruction with a $3000 camera.
I started at a local high school, where the playing fields were torn up and part of the school’s roof was missing. A huge air conditioning unit was embedded in the centre of the football field. Cleanup workers told me that there had been a game last night and that the players and spectators had barely gotten out of harm’s way in time. I was torn between empathy for these people and a wish that I had seen it first hand and gotten pictures of this terrible, destructive arm of Mother Nature.
Then I travelled through the surrounding area, photographing poor families standing outside of the remains of their houses. Some are missing only sections of the roof or windows, but some have been completely obliterated. How could this have happened? What did these people do to deserve such hardship? Was it not enough for them to be under the poverty line? Did they have to lose so much?
I asked one family to try to describe what they were feeling to me. What was it like to lose your home in the space of a few minutes?
“We never lost our home,” the youngest daughter replied, face etched with confusion. “Our home is still here.”
I realised then that they had only lost their house. A home is an idea formed by a sense of love, community, safety, and belonging, and in her family she had all of these things.
It was also then that I realised that taking pictures was not enough. I marvelled at my stupidity for not seeing that the best thing to do was to help them in any way I could.
Of course, my pictures might well rouse others to action, once they made it into the newspapers. But that did not excuse me, or indeed anyone, from fulfilling the human duty to help others. I rushed through the rest of the project, turned in my photographs, and skipped class in the interest of helping the people I met. I came laden with food, sleeping bags, and toiletries from Wal-Mart, which in this area was the equivalent of the mall. Supplies for three families cost less than $200. And I’m a “poor college student.” Official aid organisations had not yet made it to the scene, but I was pleased to see that a few other students were around, doing what they could to help the displaced and hardship-ridden people in the damaged areas around our school, but I could not help but wonder that more people did not come.
But I suppose that should not surprise me. Our culture has fallen into a state of apathy, a place where people are more concerned with documenting disasters than helping those hurt by them. And I have no room to judge, because I initially came out here to take pictures, not to help anyone. However, it didn’t take long to be convinced that this is more fulfilling than any photography career. Just seeing the gratitude on people’s faces was more satisfying than any praise or reward I’ve ever received.
“How can we thank you?” one woman asked me as I gave her family enough food for a few days. They planned to stay with their neighbours, who were miraculously spared by the terrible storm.
“You don’t have to thank me,” I replied. “This is common courtesy. A truly good person would rebuild your house for you. But I don’t have the resources for that, and it will take time for me to accumulate them. I wish there was more I could do.”
“We expect this from neighbours. But you’re a college student. You should be worried about your education.”
“That’s why I was here taking photographs of the damage for the local newspaper this morning.”
“So everyone will see this?” She gestures to the damage around us, the torn-up houses here and there along the street, the path carved into the ground where the tornado touched down.
“If they publish my photos.”
“Then you have done more than many.”
“How do you figure? I’ve barely done anything.”
“You may influence others.”
“But I might not.”
“Isn’t it better to hope for the best?” I paused, wondering how she could possibly see the class as half full with her home in ruins behind her, while I who have everything saw the glass as half empty. I still have much to learn, I realised with shame for my own ignorance and short-sightedness.
“You’re right. But precious few people have the wisdom you do.” She smiled.
“I am old and have seen much,” she answers, pushing her grey hair out of her face. “Wisdom is earned. It doesn’t just appear, and as young as you are, you should not expect much of it. But you have more than most your age.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You already know that it is better to help others than to help yourself. Some people live all their lives without learning that.”