The VICE Channels

    How We Visualize Disaster

    Written by

    Nadja Sayej


    Image: © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

    When natural disasters hit, they're often met with an avalanche of support and press coverage—and then things peter out. Less documented are the months, years, and even decades of healing, repairing, and rebuilding, whether it's post-Katrina New Orleans or the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. "Unintended Journeys," a new exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, sheds light on the consequences of human displacement long after the media storm has calmed.

    Resilience in the face of adversity is the star quality of the show. From the plights of environmental refugees left devastated by the Haitian earthquake to the Japanese tsunami, the pictures tell a story about challenge and global community. Co-curated by Joshua A. Bell and Gwyn Isaac, the show highlights the works of 13 photographers from the award-winning Magnum Photos agency (see the VICE loves Magnum series) who have shot natural disasters throughout the past decade in Japan, Bangladesh, Louisiana, Haiti, and East Africa.

    The show is not only based around people and their immediate environments, but also on the relationship between photography and the press. The show is a reminder of the impact of natural and environmental disasters, following those who have migrated away from their destroyed homes. I spoke with Bell and Isaac about survival, the deep need for humanitarian aid, and what it's like to curate an exhibit dedicated to disaster.

    Motherboard: How did you select shots the shots to reveal the impact of natural disasters?

    Gwyn Isaac: Our first selection of images was based on the decision to show how these disasters affect a wide range of cultures and environments, which led us to choose Japan, Bangladesh, East Africa, Louisiana and Haiti as our focus for the exhibit. One of the considerations we also took into account was scale—both of the subject and then later, the size of the print exhibited—exploring how these shape the relationship between the viewer and photograph.

    We chose images that allowed the viewer to consider the vast scale of these disasters and how they have affected whole communities. At the same time, we carefully chose close-up portraits of people, printing these to a larger scale to initiate a connection between the visitor and these individuals. The result is an exhibit that considers how the enormity of these events is individualized.

    Somali refugees arrive at Kakuma, part of the Dadaab camps in Kenya—the largest refugee complex in the world.
    Image: © Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

    We felt it was especially important not to alienate visitors, but to provide a developed sense of scale between the magnitude and intimacy of these events, helping visitors to comprehend these as fellow citizens, not as voyeurs. We also included photographs depicting the solutions people found to cope with environmental disasters, such as the floating schools in Bangladesh, including stories about how people deal with these issues over the long-term.

    Can you give us a few highlights of what to expect at the show?

    Joshua A. Bell: As Gwyn notes, the show's photographs overall shift from large-scale images to intimate close-ups. Each section seeks to convey the impact of the specific event and the resolve of local and the global community to address these impacts.

    Within the Kenya section there are images of the buses bringing Somalis to the Dadaab camps, the processing of newcomers, and images of the surrounding environment. A particularly poignant photograph by Dominic Nahr shows the feet of a newly arrived Somalian child next to a stack of empty plastic water jugs. The image highlights the scarify of water in the region, and the realities of camp life.

    The Haitian section, besides conveying the devastation of the earthquake, shows the relationship Haitians have with the United States, the role of international aid in the immediate wake of the earthquake, as well as the successes and failures of this aid, and the Haitian resolve to keep going. Peter van Agtmael's image of a father resting in a tent city with his two children gives visitors an intimate perspective on the brutal realities of the earthquake.

    In Japan, the devastation of the tsunami is perhaps best illustrated in Steve McCurry's large scale image of destruction in a coastal town. A lone man can be seen walking along a road while a fishing ship lies among the ruin in the photograph's background. Other images convey the immediate and on-going efforts a year later to relocate communities, what conditions were like for evacuated individuals and families, and ongoing health concerns in the wake of the nuclear reactor being damaged.

    The NGO Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha runs a fleet of over 50 floating schools and libraries, in an effort provide basic education in a severely floodprone area. Pabna. Bangladesh. 2010. Image: © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

    The section on Katrina has a moving video by Larry Towell in collaboration with Ace Atkins of their trip on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina. This section possesses iconic images of residents of New Orleans waiting to be, and being evacuated from the Convention Center, along with images of community members cleaning up their houses, and playing music. Peter van Agtmael's portrait of a man named Herman in his car in 2009 signals the ongoing problems with reconstruction, renovation and relocation of people displaced by Katrina.

    In the Bangladesh section, the images chosen convey a similar range of impacts as flooding disrupts coastal cities, necessitates the relocation of communities, and their resolve bolster river banks. A set of images by Jonas Bendiksen document local innovations in the face of flooding. In particular, his images highlight the floating schools and libraries that the NGO Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha maintains to help alleviate the disruption of ongoing flooding.

    What are the most recent photos taken?

    Bell: The most recent images in the show were taken by Dominic Nahr in 2012 on the clean-up post-tsunami in Japan. Most of the photographers were taken in the immediate aftermath of the events documented.

    What was the biggest challenge to overcome when curating this show?

    Isaac: We spent a lot of time discussing our desire that this exhibit not encourage voyeurism or alienation towards the challenges people face with environmental disasters. Most images taken during and following earthquakes, hurricanes and droughts focus on devastation, but many of the photographers we chose for the exhibit were telling a more diverse set of stories. 

    Our challenge was then bringing these images together in such a way to provide more in-depth perspectives on these events and how they play out over time. This meant we included images from follow-up visits by the photographers long after the event, as well as images that showed the enduring mechanisms people put in place to cope, such as prayer meetings in Haiti or floating gardens in Bangladesh.

    What is the message you are trying to convey in Unintended Journeys?

    Bell: The show seeks to convey three interrelated themes. Environmental disasters remind us that humans live in relationship with the environment, and though vulnerable to nature's unpredictable power, are resilient in the face of adversity. Also, human displacements and migrations are long-term processes with far-reaching consequences that continue past media attention and the choices societies make in response to natural disasters and migrations greatly affect the lives and futures of the people who survive them.

    Unintended Journeys is on show at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History until August 13, 2014.