Asian Tsunami of December 2004: A moving moment frozen in time

An Indian woman mourns the death of a relative killed in the Asian Tsunami

An Indian woman mourns the death of a relative killed in the Asian tsunami. The picture was taken in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, on 28 December 2004 (REUTERS, Arko Datta)

From every disaster, conflict or tragedy emerges a single photograph that captures its essence in a way that becomes iconic. This image, showing the sheer haplessness of those who survived only just barely but lost everything they had, could well be that for the Asian tsunami of December 2004.

It was taken by Indian photojournalist Arko Datta, who won the 2004 World Press Photo Award for this image.

Indian journalist Max Martin (editor of recently interviewed Arko Datta for a chapter in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by myself and Frederick Noronha, and just released). The chapter is titled ‘Stop All the Clocks! Beyond Text: Looking at the Pics’, which argues that disaster photography needs to break away from the constraints of time and space.

Excerpts from that interview:

On frames
I actually do not plan a frame. I am merely a messenger and do not try to bring in subjectivity or my priorities (in my photographs). I have to be very objective when I am covering any event. I leave the viewers to interpret the pictures according to their perspective. However, of course there are certain parameters I like to follow.

I do not like showing corpses or any (image of) morbidity unnecessarily. In natural disasters it is mostly unnecessary; however, in a war, one may need to show the victims as that may be the strongest way of making people aware of the fallout of wars.

In a natural disaster, the story is generally about the survivors — their struggle to cope with the loss of their near and dear ones, their struggle to get back to normalcy. It’s the story of their grit and determination to survive and live.

On emotions
The first viewer of my pictures is myself. When I am touched by a situation, I plan to capture it in my camera and show it to others too. So, definitely, as any other human being, I react to every situation too. However, while on work one has to control and restrain one’s emotions, as no productive work can emerge during an emotional state of mind.

Arko Datta
While covering an event, and covering several events over the years, these emotions keep getting suppressed and bottled up. One needs to know how to tackle this in the long run, or it can deeply effect one’s mind. And everyone has his or her own way of tackling it. I do so by talking to my family and very close friends about my experiences.

On interfacing with humanitarian workers
I feel, on the field, humanitarian workers have their own work to do and the press has its own. The humanitarian workers should not get concerned about the press, as definitely the victims will be their top priority. The press can surely manage on its own. In fact, the press should not come in the way of relief and rescue work.

Here’s his profile from World Press Photo:

Arko Datta started his professional photojournalistic career in an Indian dailies in Madras and Calcutta. He then worked at AFP, and joined Reuters in 2001. His awards include national photo competition prizes from the Indian government, a prize in the Canon International photo competition, a Publish Asia award in Malaysia, Best Photojournalist of the Year award from Asian Photography magazine in India, the Picture of the Year award in Bombay and awards in the General News and Daily Life categories of the Indian Express Photo Competition. His publications include “Lost Childhood”, a book on child labor sponsored by the International Labor Organization, and his pictures are featured in a coffee table book of the most memorable pictures of India in the last 100 years and in the Reuters picture book “On the Road”.

Download the full book chapter by Max Martin, titled: Stop All the Clocks! Beyond Text: Looking at the Pics

Read or download the full book’s contents at TVEAP website

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “Asian Tsunami of December 2004: A moving moment frozen in time”

  1. The photo by Arko Datta…as I glanced up at it….I thought…this cannot be….then as I look closer I can feel how helpless the person was. Tossed by a force of nature …without a chance…without hope…so much was in that photo.
    It was very moving for me…thank you Arko…and thank you Nalaka for showing us how small we truly are.
    Dave Damario

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