Thursday, June 30, 2011
The American Red Cross sent me to Tuscaloosa, Alabama recently to cover their relief efforts in the aftermath of the tornadoes that devastated the area. Working a disaster is tough but rewarding. Your days can be 18 hours long, after which you might spend a fitful night’s sleep on a hard cot in a shelter after dining on gas station snacks. But of course you can’t bring yourself to complain, because you spend your day photographing people who have had their lives -- quite literally -- ripped apart.
The reward comes knowing that you are working for a organization which excels at responding to such disasters. Often within hours of a tornado, hurricane, or flood, the Red Cross has organized shelters for the newly homeless, and is distributing food, water and medical care. When they’re not responding to a crisis, they are preparing for the next one. Training their volunteers, staging supplies in likely trouble spots, and keeping a careful eye on the weather radar.
My role is to tell peoples’ stories and get the word out, with the hopes of raising funds to pay for the relief effort. It often feels a bit frivolous to me, snapping photos when other folks are handing out food and comforting victims, but I constantly remind myself that someone has to pay for the food, the cots, the water, the gasoline, the travel expenses for the volunteers. And nothing brings home the story to a jaded populace like photojournalism.
As a bizarre sidebar to my experience in Tuscaloosa, I was walking in the door to the main Red Cross shelter there one day and found Charlie Sheen standing in front of me. I guess the situation was even more bizarre for the shelter residents. Imagine one day you are minding your own business when a tornado comes roaring through town and picks your house up and moves it across the street with you still in it. Next thing you know, you're sleeping on a metal cot in a gymnasium when the star of "Two and Half Men" walks in and hands you a flashlight and poses for a picture. There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio...
My Red Cross colleague Lynette Nyman, also pictured above comforting people affected by the tornado, greets Charlie Sheen.