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 indiadisasters.org) 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:
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.
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.
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.
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”.