Capturing Nature’s Fury: Revisiting Asian Tsunami memories through photographs

Tsunami survivors look at an lbum of family photos in Telwatte, Sri Lanka - Photo by Shahidul Alam

Today marks the 6th anniversary of the Boxing Day Tsunami of December 2004. The occasion is being marked solemnly in many locations hit by the waves all along the Indian Ocean rim countries.

Among them is Peraliya, close to Telwatte, where the worst train crash in railroad history occurred that day — when an overcrowded passenger train was destroyed on a coastal railway in Sri Lanka by the tsunami. The government-owned Sri Lanka Railways will never be able to live down their day of infamy when a packed train headed to disaster with no warning… They have the gumption — and insensitivity — to operate a memorial train today along the same path that led more than 2,000 passengers to a watery grave six years ago.

After six years, most survivors have moved on and rebuilt their shattered lives. Memories are also beginning to fade a bit, but for those directly affected, they will remember 26 December 2004 for the rest of their lives. And we who shared their tragedy and misery will keep reliving the memories through photographs, videos and the growing body of creative writing that the region-wide disaster inspired.

Photographs stand out as possibly the most enduring memory aids of a disaster. As disaster survivors sift through what is left of their homes, family photo albums are among the most cherished possessions they seek to recover. Why are snapshots of frozen moments so powerfully evocative to individuals, communities and the world?

I posed this question in the introductory blurb I wrote for my friend Shahidul Alam‘s chapter on disasters and photography in our 2007 book, Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.

Titled Capturing Nature’s Fury, the chapter drew on Shahidul’s experiences not only with the tsunami, which he covered in Sri Lanka, but also the earthquakes in Bam, Iran (December 2003) and Kashmir (October 2005), and cyclones and floods in his native Bangladesh.

Shahidul Alam. Photo: Rahnuma Ahmed/Drik/Majority World

Describing the circumstances of the above photo, Shahidul wrote: “In the ruins of Telwatte, where the fateful train disaster had taken place, I came across a family that had gathered in the wreckage of their home. I wanted to ask them their stories, find out what they had seen, but stopped when I saw them pick up the family album. They sat amidst the rubble and laughed as they turned page after page.”

Zooming out, he further reflected:

“I had seen it before. As people rummaged through the ruins of their homes, the first thing they searched for was photographs. Years earlier at a disaster closer to home, I had photographed a group of children amidst the floods of 1988. The children insisted on being photographed. As I pressed the shutter, I realised that the boy in the middle was blind. He would never see the photograph he was proudly posing for. Why was it so important for the blind boy to be photographed?

“Though my entry into photography had been through a happy accident, my choice of becoming a photographer had been a very conscious one. Having felt the power of the image I recognised its ability to move people. The immediacy of an iconic image, its ability to engage with the viewer, its intimacy, the universality of its language, means it is at once a language of the masses, but also the key that can open doors.

“For both the gatekeepers and the public, the image has a visceral quality that is both raw and delicate. It can move people to laughter and to tears and can touch people at many levels. The iconic image lingers, long after the moment has gone. We are the witnesses of our times and the historians of our ages. We are the collective memories of our communities.

“For that blind boy in Bangladesh and for the many who face human suffering but may otherwise be forgotten, the photograph prevents them from being reduced to numbers. It brings back humanity in our lives.”

Read the full chapter: Capturing Nature’s Fury, by Shahidul Alam


Photographer Chuli de Silva’s memories of the Tsunami, recalled six years later

Dec 2007: Asian Tsunami: A moving moment frozen in time

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