Photojournalist: Hazards Photographing a Cyclone

 

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Photojournalist, news photographer Craig Abraham on the hazards of photographing in a cyclone disaster zone

PHOTOGRILL: What does it mean to be a general news photographer?

PHOTOGRAPHER: It means my photography is reactionary. I am given little or no warning of upcoming assignments. I can be assigned to stand outside a court-house for hours on end or fly to distant locations at a moments notice. News waits for no one, it is continuous and news photographers strive to capture what’s visual in the news. The single biggest obstacle facing news photographers is gaining access. There has been an industry created in recent years in the belief that news can be controlled. During a recent event, a large natural disaster, Government agencies were being obstructionist by refusing media access to the disaster area. It resulted in the government agencies being redundant to news gatherers. Pictures were still made and the public’s reaction was enormous, resulting in a record amount of money being donated to help the victims.

PHOTOGRILL: What are the traits of a good news photographer?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I was hired at the age of 18 years as a cadet photographer. My first picture Editor said to me that although my photographic cadetship was 4 years he would not regard me to be fully trained until I’d been in the job for 10 years. News photography relies on a sound knowledge of all things photographic. It also relies on the photographer’s ability to be a good communicator, to cope with witnessing horrific events, to work long hours while deprived of sleep, and to deal with verbal and physical abuse. But most important, is to know the difference between fearlessness and stupidity.

PHOTOGRILL: Tell us about covering Cyclone Yasi?

PHOTOGRAPHER: Yasi was a category 5 cyclone approaching far North Queensland Coast. It was Wednesday 2nd February 2011. The Bureau of Meteorology had been following Cyclone Yasi for 5 days. I was up at 5:40am for an early shift. About 7am I was assigned to North Queensland to cover the cyclone which was predicted to hit the far North Queensland coast between Townsville and Cairns. The first thing came into my mind was “SLOW DOWN your mind. What’s important right now? Don’t worry too much about the job. You can do that when you are sitting on the plane.” First thing I did was to check my grab-bag and necessary items. I checked my rain gear, camera equipment, and made sure I locked the house when I left. I checked my phone for incoming emails with flight confirmations, accommodation and car hire reference numbers.

PHOTOGRILL: How did your travel arrangements work out?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I had over 2700kms to travel. Cairns and Townsville Airports were closed because of the impending storm. So I flew to Mackay, some 390kms south of Townsville and 600kms south of where the eye of the storm was predicted to cross the coast. Reaching Mackay at 5:30pm I picked up a rental car, a ford sedan. The wind was already blowing hard and local police had warned locals to close shops and schools and bunker down. I was unable to obtain spare fuel or food for the trip north.

I headed off into the night on a desolate Bruce Highway. I was in contact with reporter Tony Wright, he was two hours ahead of me. Tony had originated from Sydney and was en route to Townsville. He informed that the weather was deteriorating rapidly. I drove on in total darkness and it was slow going as torrential rain was falling and the wind was blowing hard. About an hour later Tony called to say he had made it to Townsville and warned me to get off the road as things were turning nasty. I got to Proserpine around 8:30pm and found a pub to bunker down. The Brisbane Times team (another Fairfax Media news outlet) were also at that Hotel. They were travelling with Tony but decided not to go any further as the weather was bad. Radio reports were indicating that the storm would hit around midnight.

Tony called me at 12:30am: He had been evacuated from his room along with other guests. They were told to sleep in the hotel ballroom. I wished him luck and said I will catch up with him by first light. At 3am I started to drive the 266kms to Townsville. The car aquaplaned only 15 minutes into the drive. Water was sheeting across the road. It startled me. There was no one on the road. I had to be in Townsville at first light to start covering the event. I knew that if I could not make it to at least Townsville the story was over as access is extremely difficult once a natural disaster has already occured. The drive was difficult. After two hours in pre-dawn light near Ayr I collided with a kangaroo. It was a glancing blow .I was grateful that I was able to proceed.

I remember thinking that coffee would have been nice at that point. A little while later I slowed to a stop behind two trucks that had stopped. I could see a gaggle of geese to the right and thought the truckers had stopped for the geese to cross the road. I put my hazard lights on and slowly overtook the trucks. When the low hanging power lines crossed over the bonnet and slid over the roof of the sedan I thought it was all over for me. I glanced left and saw a fallen power pole, which had been obscured from view by the trucks. I stopped and slowly reversed until I was clear. One of the truck drivers was screaming at me. He was scared that he was going to watch me get electrocuted. “Stupid!”, I said to myself . Perhaps 2 fitful hours of sleep were not enough, but I had to keep going. There was a camber on the road adding additional clearance for me to get under the fallen lines. The truck driver guided me under the line with about 100mm to spare.

Finally I got to Townsville. The roads were quiet and I passed a police car patrolling the streets. I asked for directions to the hotel where Tony was. At first the officer said I would be lucky to get there, however he did give me directions. I dodged fallen trees, debris and fallen power poles. The hotel car park was flooded due to a storm surge. I parked the car in the driveway. The Hotel was running a diesel generator, which enabled me to have a cup of instant coffee. Went to reception to check and was notified that my booking was cancelled because I didn’t show up last night. Just before 7am I met Tony in the lobby. Now it was time to start work.

It took me 21 hours of flying and driving to travel 2716kms to Townsville. At the end of the assignment I took a direct flight Townsville to Melbourne and was home in 2.5 hours.

PHOTOGRILL: What was it like working in the disaster area?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I was wet a lot of the time. My camera gear was damaged. I organised a helicopter to fly me over flooded areas. I negotiated and failed to fly with the Prime Minister over the disaster area. Successfully managed to hitch a ride with Federal opposition Leader Tony Abbot to fly deep into the disaster area on a RAAF aircraft. (This is not a free service and I paid for the seat). I also had to negotiate with police to pass road blocks.

PHOTOGRILL: Tell us about photographing Theo?

PHOTOGRAPHER: While walking around Cardwell, a small seaside town which sustained major damage, I came across a man dressed in fluoro safety clothing & holding a stop sign. He said, “If they offered me 10 bucks to shoot every photographer he saw he would be a rich man”. A little while later I saw Theo. I approached him with calmness and empathy at his loss. It was important to put my tiredness and stress away. Theo willingly showed me his upstairs home which had lost its roof during the storm. He even showed me the toilet where he took refuge. I was aware that Theo had lost pretty much everything. I enquired if he had a visit from disaster management people and asked if he was aware that the emergency sevices had set up in the town to help. It was not until some time had passed when I asked Theo if I could make a picture of him. He was such a nice man considering the circumstances and it shows in the picture.

PHOTOGRILL: I imagine this is one of many experiences you’ve had while covering the news?

PHOTOGRAPHER: I have witnessed many events. Bush fires, floods, politics, acts of terrorism, crimes, and I’ve travelled widely and met some fabulous people.

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