I feel privileged to have experienced my 'school of journalism' at The Associated Press (AP). On any given day, more than half the world’s population sees content from The Associated Press, impressive...
Working as a producer on the features desk often involved working under pressure, it helped me gain invaluable skills that I continue to use on every shoot. I also made amazing friends, many of who regularly put themselves at high risk in order to provide us with our daily news reports. The physical effects are often visible, however some of these camera operators, producers and editors suffer hidden mental distress and I have the deepest respect for them. I left the AP to become freelance and it was during this time that I received, probably my most challenging assignment to date.
I was sitting in the peaceful English countryside enjoying Sunday lunch with my grandparents when I received a phone call. There had been a devastating earthquake in Chile measuring 8.8 and I needed to be on a plane out of Heathrow by 8pm that evening. Grabbing a last mouthful of Yorkshire pud I travelled the 150 miles back to London on the next train, grabbed my pre packed kit that is always ready to go and made it to my flight with barely any time to spare. I did however catch a brief news report on the lounge TV and I knew that I had to prepare myself for the worst. This was to be the first disaster that I would cover as a producer and the impact on me would be long lasting.
As the Airport in Chile had been damaged by the quake we flew first to Buenos Aires and then on to Mendoza in Argentina on the eastern side of the Andes. I met up with my fellow producer and we travelled almost 1800 km through Argentina and Chile (by car) and finally arrived at our destination of Constitution suffering from extreme exhaustion.
We awoke to scenes of utter devastation. Roads and buildings were reduced to rubble and rescue workers were working ceaselessly, searching desperately for signs of life. My emotions were in turmoil as I struggled to distance myself from the horrific scenes unfolding. I realised that the only way that I would be able to work effectively would involve my shelving all normal human responses and I attempted to do just that with varying measures of success. My camera lens proved to be a very poor defence against the horrors that I was to witness.
I filmed houses torn from their foundations, cars tossed about like toys and areas devastated by the tsunami that followed the quake. Sewage, trees and personal belongings littered the streets and the death toll of 708 people on our arrival continued to rise.
I sat on a wall outside a sports hall that was serving as a temporary morgue, in a village that had suffered 75% destruction. Every bone in my body was resisting the next move that would take me through the doors into the building. Under pressure from my fellow producer I entered and immediately encountered the sickly, all pervasive stench of death. An ever increasing crowd of desperate friends and relatives were scouring the hundreds of bodies laid out in lines on a basketball court. Desperately fighting an overwhelming sense of intrusion into private grief I began to film.
As I filmed the bodies the local's understandable hostility towards the press became palpable and I became increasingly desperate to escape the hell that I found myself in. As my camera scanned the seemingly endless lines of bodies I came across the terribly crushed body of a small boy. Stopped in my tracks by shock, grief and nausea, I suddenly became aware of the child's mother by my side, hysterical with grief and rightly outraged by my presence. As I tried to move away I experienced the full force of her anguish both physically and verbally and I staggered from the building and collapsed on the grass outside. After some time a young sister from the local Catholic Church arrived at my side to comfort me and helped me back to my colleague. The much more experienced producer told me in no uncertain terms to pull myself together and get on with the job in hand, so there was nothing else for it.
Our next assignment was to film the rescue efforts in Conception. As the city was on lockdown due to violence and looting we collected our press passes and entered the city in an armoured vehicle. The next seventy two hours would prove to be some of the most challenging. The after shocks were regular and strong. Streets fell silent as buildings collapsed around us, possibly extinguishing the lives that rescuers were desperately trying to save.
I feel very lucky to be able to write about my experiences. Our crew could have easily have been counted amongst the victims of the earthquake. Six days into the assignment we found ourselves accommodated on the third floor of a local radio building when a 6.8 aftershock hit. The building bounced and it was incredibly difficult to keep our balance. The terrible injuries sustained when buildings collapse, so recently captured by my camera flashed through my mind and I wasn't sure that we would get out alive.
Months and years have gradually passed and back in the safety of home I have had time to reflect on the terrible events of 2010. Thousands lost their lives but relief efforts finally arrived to ease the pain of the survivors.
In no small part the efforts of journalists bringing news into our homes promote fund raising efforts. Incredible bravery on the part of rescue workers who risk their own lives in order to save others is, truly inspirational. My lasting thoughts however will always be with the mother of the little boy whose life was so cruelly cut short when the ground beneath his home shook.