The Challenges Of Photographing Disaster
TONY COX, host:
Perhaps more than any other means of connection, the oil spill images we've seen, starting with the gushing oil to down and out fishermen and women, to oil covered birds, theyve put us in nearly direct touch with the effects of the spill. But the catastrophe can be difficult to digest when put in the larger context of recent disasters that have hit the Gulf Coast, including the devastation brought on by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
To talk about photographing this disaster and how it compares to others, we've called on two seasoned photojournalists, Keith Jenkins is the former photo editor at The Washington Post, now supervising senior producer for multimedia at NPR. He's here in our Washington studios. Also with us by phone, Ted Jackson, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Gentlemen, welcome to the show.
KEITH JENKINS: Thank you.
Mr. TED JACKSON (Photographer, New Orleans Times-Picayune): Thanks for having me.
COX: Ted, I'm going to start with you, the present situation in the Gulf, and talk about some photographs that you have taken. Now, I'm looking at one in particular. This disaster's indelible image, and it is of a pelican soaked in brown oil. By the way, we're going to post these images so our listeners can see them on our website. But talk to me about this particular photograph.
Mr. JACKSON: Well, this is a pelican we found in lower Barataria Bay. And it was soaked in oil, as you see, and was having a very, very hard time flying. He wasn't totally drenched that he couldn't move, but the pelican is our state bird. It's very emblematic and heartbreaking to see. Even looking in the eye of the pelican, you realize how scared the bird is and how he has no idea what has happened to him.
COX: Keith, as a former photo editor, put in context for us what this picture says and the effect that it has on people who see it.
JENKINS: Well, I think that this becomes the prototypical image, that image that really sums up this particular tragedy, at least at this point in time. It's a tragedy which really is directly impacting nature, impacting animals, impacting the water and that's the most visual representation of it right now.
COX: Ted, another image of yours that I'd like to take a look at is one where we actually see some of this oily water - there are a pair of airboats in the background with this pattern of oil that is both striking and heart-wrenching at the same time. What story does this image tell us about the spill in the Gulf?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, this was the day that the oil first reached the wetlands and the - in the airboat in the background is parish president Billy Nungesser and the governor, Bobby Jindal. And they were seeing it for the first time themselves. And everybody was just, I guess an easy way, just everybody was kind of freaked about it. We knew if it hit the beaches and the sands, you know, that's fairly easy to clean up, but getting into those grasses meant that it was going to stay there.
And how do you clean that up? You really don't. You can make attempts, but it's going to stay there. And what that does to the estuaries of south Louisiana is anybody's guess. But everybody can kind of guess that it's going to just kill the wildlife and that's where so much of our seafood, you know, breeds and creates the nursery for so much seafood that is shipped out around the country and represents the lifestyle and the jobs of south Louisiana.
COX: Do you find, Keith, that pictures of nature like these two that we have seen, that Ted took in the Gulf, oil birds, for example, or oil patterns, do those images sometimes, if ever, trump the images of people in getting emotional reaction from viewers?
JENKINS: Well, I think to some extent they're apples and oranges. I think in this crisis the images of the inevitable nature of the oil overtaking the land and overtaking the water have an impact. It's something that we don't often see and I think it does, you know, as Ted said, freak people out. I think it's really, you know, an overwhelming image. And it may come into your psyche a bit more subtly than the anguish on a human face. But I think it's no less powerful.
COX: Now, what do you say about that, Ted? You took some pictures that we are also putting up on the website from Katrina. There's one obviously flooding, we see what looks to be a family, perhaps, trying to wade through chest-high water. There's a second one of a woman who is clearly in agony in the street on her knees crying. Crying doesn't even really describe it. The impact that those kinds of photographs have versus what you have seen this time is what?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, it's - the human agony is very powerful. I mean, when I shot those pictures I was in agony myself. I mean I was, you know, I remembered the great quote that you can't photograph through tears, a photograph once said. And those were images that I would shoot and had to put the camera down for a while and process it in my head.
And, you know, the wildlife and the grasses, I mean, they're tragic in themselves in the moment, but they represent what is about to happen in my mind. Because this is - the oil spill is going to affect people in many, many ways up the line. And we're very concerned about the wildlife and the environment, but we're also concerned of what it's going to do to the people involved, and there are so many that are involved.
And Katrina it was immediate. You saw and you knew what the storm had done. The levees had broken and the city was destroyed and ruined and that was immediate, palpable and you knew you had to figure out how to deal with it in the moment. And the oil spill at this point is sort of like a lurking monster off the coast that is hitting in waves and you get it a little bit at a time and you try to see into the future what it means for the people. And the differences are powerful, but it's tragic all the same.
COX: Ted Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Keith Jenkins is the supervising senior producer for multimedia at NPR. Thank you both very much for your time today.
Mr. JACKSON: Thank you.
JENKINS: Thank you.