In a personal account, Dennis M. Sabangan, epa’s long-time Chief Photographer on the Philippines, reflects upon covering super typhoon Haiyan which has hit his country so brutally.
It was the day after the Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the country when I trooped to the Villamor airbase to catch a C130 flight to Tacloban. Typical of journalists, it is when everyone rushes away from a disaster, that we scramble to get close. It was such that when I arrived at VIllamor, there already was a long queue of journalists waiting for a flight to ground zero of the disaster area.
Only 15 passengers were allowed in on a first come first served basis and I was at the bottom of the list. It was only after endless negotiations with authorities that I was finally included in the manifesto of passengers.
Yet if physically getting to Tacloban was difficult already, just imagine the situation we had to contend with when we got there. From the airport, we had to walk four hours to reach the city, which didn’t look like a city anymore. Quite frankly, it looked as if a bomb had dropped. Nothing was spared. It was at that area that we shot some of the most heart breaking pictures.
A Night Under The Impression Of The Super Typhoon Haiyan
When night came, we all had to walk back to the airport. We slept inside the dilapidated office building of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAAP). It has four rooms and there, packed like sardines on the muddy floor, we tried to sleep.
Air traffic officer slept beside army men who slept beside us journalists–all of us enduring the cramped space, the humidity and the constant fear that the damaged ceiling might soon collapse. Fearing pneumonia, I slept instead on top of a 2ft by 3 ft table.
But it wasn’t just the fear of collapsing roofs and boding illnesses that plagued us. There was something more basic we had to fight with in Tacloban: our hunger. The food supplies we brought from Manila lasted all of two days. Once at the Tacloban airport, we befriended Air Force Lt. General Roy Deveraturda, former chief of the Central Command based at Mactan airbase. He gave his lunch to us to share with three other media colleagues.
As food and water were scarce, it took the cunningness of a street urchin to survive. To find food to feed the epa crew, we would get rice from one Air Force unit, and then go to another Army unit to get some more viands.
Francis* and I came in first along with other journalist friends, but our group soon grew.
Eventually, the epa crew grew to comprise of Mast Irham (Indonesia) Nic Bothma (South Africa) Bagus Indahono (Indonesia) Ritchie B. Tongo (Filipino) Rolex dela Pena (Filipino based in Beijing) and two more photographers, Joseph and Romy. Just imagine eight hungry men sharing four cups of rice placed on a banana leaf.
And then there was the time when we chanced upon an abandoned barangay** hall (office of the village chief) where three families took shelter after the storm. They shared their food with us which they said they found in a store. For a moment, I debated with myself, wondering if I should accept the food they offered knowing most likely that it was not paid for. But what the heck, I was hungry. I took the food only to realize grimly that the dead bodies we passed to enter the barangay hall were intentionally placed there by its occupants, “to ward off looters”, they said.
A few days after we arrived in Tacloban, I had the chance to go with a SOKOL chopper to take aerial shots of Samar. The SOKOL helicopter airlifted sacks of rice, to give relief to the survivors. While on the plane, I observed how hardened pilots had to hold back their tears as they avoided the survivors rushing towards the chopper. They knew as well as I did that heads will be chopped off by the tail motor if they did not. But I saw how much they wanted to help. The moment we landed, survivors scrambled to get inside, to have a share of the sacks of rice. In their eyes I saw hunger and pain.
Yet, somehow we can still manage to tell jokes and laugh – a Filipino trait perhaps or a way to cope with the crises we face. Like when a survivor asked me if I had any medicine with me for his pus-filled wounds. “As much as I would like to help but the only medicine I have with me is for heart ailments. You might die of heart failure instead of your wounds”, I told him. He laughed.
I came to Tacloban as a photographer. But this experience has taught me important life lessons and skills for survival such as resourcefulness, building friendships and the true meaning of camaraderie. Yolanda (Haiyan) has given me the most humbling of experiences as I learned to swallow my pride to ensure the welfare of the epa team; that we would all survive the day and not sleep hungry so as to have the strength to start the next day and do it all again.
Just as I knew the mission of the soldiers and pilots we slept and ate with, I knew ours: to bring the images, and the stories behind those images to the world, and to show the realities of what this disaster has caused my country. Only then can the true magnitude of the displacement and suffering it has caused be seen, so we can help the victims regain their dignity and rebuild their lives.
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*Francis R. Malasig, epa staff photographer on the Philippines
**A barangay formerly called barrio, is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines and is the native Filipino term for a village, district or ward.
Nic Bothma, regional chief photographer at epa european pressphoto agency, reports from his assignment on the eastern Philippines devastated by super typhoon Haiyan.
Landing in Tacloban airport at night to join the formidable Philippines crew of Dennis, Francis, Mast, and Ritchy* was like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie. I was the only one on a late night US C-130 flight. After the cargo was unloaded I jumped out the back of the plane carrying 4 backpacks of gear and supplies to find crowds around the aircraft trying to board being pushed back by soldiers. The propellers of the plane were still going and it was dark, people were everywhere and I picked my way around the plane making sure I was not to become chop suey by the props. I was sure someone was about to be. There did not seem to be anyone in control except a few soldiers running around.
About 35 meters from the tarmac was the epa office/accommodation of the crew who had been living amongst the rubble of the airport control tower for five days with very little water or food. Ritchy spotted me in the crowd and we made our way through throngs of refugees. Stepping over families trying to sleep and people standing almost everywhere amongst rubble and debris. I was sweating like a pig in the hot and humid tropical air, the mosquitos behaved like kamikaze pilots, the smell unforgettable.
Meeting the crew was awesome and we began joking and laughing and have not stopped. It’s a great way to get perspective rather than getting sucked in and too serious.
The first few days of this story were covered by Dennis and Francis who are my heros. They did unbelievable work in some of the worst conditions imaginable. When I arrived there was a shortage of food and water. We had brought some in so were ok for a bit till more could arrive. The coverage started turning and broadening from its original focus of corpses, rescue, evacuations to starting to tell more of the human stories.
I seem to gravitate towards children when I am in a country covering something. After a few days it dawned on me that the portraits would be a great way to simplify the story telling and try make something unique. There are a plethora of images surging through the wire each day between the five big agencies all very well represented here.
Photographing the Children of Haiyan portrait series these last few days during coverage of the aftermath of the Typhoon was extremely rewarding for me. I find children are pure, honest and unencumbered with ego and baggage that adults carry. They bring hope and reflect light in dark places. None more so than in the eastern Philippines where these kids survived the world’s biggest storm with most losing everything including relatives but continue to smile in a lot of cases.
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*epa photographers covering the typhoon aftermath on the Philippiness: Dennis Sabangan, Francis Malasig, Mast Irham, Nic Bothma, Ritchie B. Tongo, Bagus Indahono, Jay Rommel Labra and Rolex Dela Pena
Matt Campbell, Director and Chief Photographer – North America at epa, is sharing the story of how he got into the european pressphoto agency and what it was like to open up epa’s editorial operation in the US. Thank you, Matt Campbell, for sharing this story with us!
When the european pressphoto agency approached me, Matt Campbell, in early 2003 about coming on board to launch the epa office in New York City prior to the company’s May 1 global launch, I could not have been happier! The timing was perfect and the job description sounded almost too good to be true.
I gladly applied for the job and was shortly thereafter hired on March 1, 2003. It is almost impossible for me to fathom that a decade has passed since then! Those first few months were a frenetic challenge of trying to quickly establish a theretofore almost unknown company name in the US (epa content was previously distributed in the US via another agency so an epa byline was a rarity in the States). Being in NYC, I was in a place to sit down with many representatives from organizations ranging from the NBA to the United Nations to explain who the european pressphoto agency was and obtain credentialing recognition.
Matt Campbell about the european pressphoto agency in the US
In mid-2003 we were five full timers in the entire US and Canada. A staff photographer in NYC, LA, Washington, DC and Miami plus a Director in Washington, DC. Many of the freelancers who began working with epa at that time still work closely with us today and more importantly many of those original stringers are now employed as full-time staff photographers.
epa now has full time staff in Boston, NYC, DC, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and LA with multiple full timers in three of those cities. Our office in Washington went from a literal closet in a partner agency’s office in 2003 to an office which we recently doubled in size from the one which we had moved to in 2007 from that previous closet! epa’s global picturedesk operation which had run only in Frankfurt for many years, now expanded to Washington, Cairo and Bangkok and a full-time desk editor now works in DC as part of the US operation. Indeed sixteen full time employees from that original five is amazing growth for a media company, especially considering the turbulent economy of the US in the past six years and even more turbulence within the media industry!
In ten years, the european pressphoto agency has lived up to my original image of a flexible and creative company looking to approach photojournalism from a different view. I have often said I would rather a photographer miss the ‘standard’ photo because he or she was trying to make something different and better than to just line up with the pack and make a copy. The approach of tight, talented groups tackling event coverage rather than big teams of blanket coverage has been a successful and rewarding approach to so many things we have done.
It has been said that the person who wakes up every day excited about what they do at work is ahead of most people. The past ten years has been actual proof for me that this adage is true. I have worked alongside some of the most talented people in the business at epa since 2003 and like waking up on a new day, I’m looking eagerly ahead to another decade of enthralling images and friendship from my colleagues at the european pressphoto agency. – Matt Campbell
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For his first ‘Visa pour l’Image’ exhibition epa photographer Abir Abdullah returns to the photojournalism festival after twelve years. Abir shares his impressions now and then.
It was 12 years ago when I visited for the first time the photojournalism festival Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France. I just completed my diploma course in photojournalism at Pathshala South Asian Media Academy and scored first. So our principal and mentor Shahidul Alam arranged my visit to the festival. The French embassy in Dhaka sponsored the trip.
I was excited yet nervous because I didn’t know French and heard that French people don’t like to speak English. And of course the food was unfamiliar. So I was counting the days of my trip with a little bit of anxiety but couldn’t share it with anybody! My family was excited about it and my wife and me were expecting our first son in October. My elder sister gave me some money to buy perfumes for the family. I arrived in Paris on 06 September and a French gentleman received me at the airport and we changed airports for the flight to Perpignan. This official gave me money for the hotel bill, foods and managed my accreditation card.
I didn’t know anyone from the festival authority. I didn’t know any venue of the exhibitions so I was kind of lost. And of course there was this language problem! Anyway, I was getting to know the city slowly, found the exhibition venues and attended the evening presentations with the huge screens. But I was very isolated from the festive people and was thinking when would I do my show here? Could I ever do it in my life?
After spending seven days I went back home via Paris and Robert Pledge, president of Contact Press Images, invited me and Shahidul Alam for lunch and showed me the office. I was very impressed to see the Contact Press office in Paris! I went back home safely and after three weeks our first son was born.
Abir returns for his own ‘Visa pour l’Image’ exhibition
My son is now 12 years old and I was selected for the show in Perpignan. So it happened after 12 long years. I grew older, experienced and know lots of friends. I was told that the european pressphoto agency will have a stand at the venue. When I got the news from Visa pour l’Image festival director Jean-François Leroy, I was almost crying in joy. Later, Maria Mann, my colleague and mentor who gave me great inspirations, phoned me and congratulated me saying everyone at the agency is happy about the exhibition. Joerg Schierenbeck, epa’s President & CEO, wanted me to visit our head office in Frankfurt before I go to Perpignan. I went to meet other officials including our Editor in Chief Hannah Hess and other editors in Frankfurt. I spent three days there – learning more about the strategy and future coverage plans from the editors.
I arrived in Perpignan with the start of the professional week on September 2. The following night I joined a fantastic dinner with colleagues at the seaside in Collioure. What a wonderful location and evening! The next day, I had my presentations in the Palais des Congrès and delivered a very emotional speech about my work which is featured in the ‘Visa pour l’Image’ exhibition on Death Traps.
I had a fantastic week this year meeting such legendary photographers as David Douglas Duncan, Jon G. Morris, and Don McCullin. I was no more isolated this time, especially my epa colleagues invited me to dinner and lunch and were good company. So today was the last day of my stay in Perpignan, I went to my exhibition and very happy to talk about the photos. They showed their reactions for the safety of the garment workers and I think I am successful in a way that I could create some sort of emotion with my photographs.
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Two Years ago a photo hit the front pages around the world. It was the picture of the grieving dad Robert Peraza, who lost his son Robert David Peraza on 11 September 2001. The picture was taken at the North Pool of the 9/11 Memorial during tenth anniversary ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center in New York, 11 September 2011. We asked epa photographer Justin Lane to think back and describe the moment when he shot this picture.
9/11 Grieving Dad Robert Peraza Photo – The Story of Justin Lane
The 10th anniversary of 9/11 was obviously going to be emotional for the families. I think for many it was the first time they were experiencing the magnitude of the 9/11 Memorial and seeing the names of their loved ones etched into the metal that rings each of the giant pools in the spaces where the towers stood. The president was attending. Past presidents were attending. It felt like a major milestone for the city and the country.
I was lucky enough to be a part of the group of pool photographers covering the ceremonies. Personally, it was important for me to be there. I had covered the 9/11 attacks in New York and being there 10 years later was really important to me. I was positioned next to the North Pool. We arrived early and it was pretty quiet as most of the families of victims and dignitaries had not arrived yet. It was during this time that I saw Robert Peraza walk up to the spot were his son’s name is engraved, take a knee, and say a prayer. He was alone. He stayed there for less than minute and then stood up to walk away.
I knew it was a strong image. It was quiet and peaceful and simple but clearly it was a father in pain remembering his son. I certainly had no idea that that picture was going to be used by the media so widely. There were so many talented photographers there that day and so many other powerful images. It meant a lot to me to be able to make an image that made people stop and remember the horror of that day and the pain that so many have endured in subsequent years.
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This powerful photograph was taken by Ali Ali, one of our photographers at the european pressphoto agency and is part of our Gaza Photos series on this blog. We asked him, if he could tell us the story of how this photo was taken.
Gaza Photos – The Story of Ali Ali
“This photo was taken a few days before the Gaza eight-day war, everyone on the street was talking, saying the war is coming, the war is coming.
This is in a hospital in northern Gaza, a dangerous place because it is on the outskirts of the city. I heard that two people were killed by an Israeli air strike and went to the hospital to find out what happened.
Then I learned that the family of the people who were there had been killed. The relatives were fighting with the photographers, pushing them out but I had the chance to be there, I don’t know…
I had a small Canon 5D camera with just one lens, working quietly inside. These people were the most enraged I have ever seen in all my work in Gaza. Then the brother of the family started crying. I was hesitant to photograph him, because I didn’t know what reaction I would provoke. I could only take two or three photos, although I was frightened.
But the reason I did this is because I also hurt so much inside. I can feel for him as though he were my brother, thinking how this man will be after a few days. Will it go from his mind or will it stay like this? I cried.” – Ali Ali
Below we have attached a photo of him with a printed version of his famous photography that was taken during a Ali Ali’s visit at epa headquarters in Frankfurt am Main, Germany in March 2013.