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An Image That Inspires Action

MPTV student Jonathen E. Davis reflects on the Nepal earthquake

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Photo by Jonathen E. Davis.

Under the Nepali sun, the earth quaked and trembled with the ferocity of a 7.8 earthquake. Buildings shuddered, then collapsed, and frightened people ran to the safety of open fields. When the earth stopped shaking, more than 8,000 were dead and piles of rubble were all that remained of some villages. The next day, more than half a world away, my phone rang while I was running errands with my wife and less than 12 hours later, I was boarding a flight to Kathmandu, my carry-on bag full of camera gear.

An image, as the cliché goes, is worth a thousand words. But in a catastrophic event, an image can inspire action. As a veteran combat photographer and now a visual journalist, I’ve seen the power an image can have on the public. Photos of an oil slick on the beach led to outrage and a demand for corporate responsibility. Images of Haitian children living among the destroyed remnants of their homes led to the outpouring of financial support after the earthquake. After leaving the military, I joined the veteran-driven disaster relief organization Team Rubicon and deployed to tornado stricken Moore, Okla., to document and volunteer in the cleanup effort.

 

As a non-profit, Team Rubicon is only able to function with the work of volunteers and at the mercy of donations. The images produced by volunteer photographers are used to inspire the public to support the relief efforts and to show the work of the volunteers for the duration of the project. Operation Tenzing worked in three phases: meeting medical needs, debris removal and rebuilding and delivering supplies to prepare for the monsoon season. My job was to document their hard work with my camera and do anything else I could do to help.

Life as a visual journalist is not glamorous. When the trucks broke down, we walked. When it rained, it turned the dust that caked everything into rivulets of mud. When the shelter we were sleeping in began to flood, we slept on benches to stay above the rising water. Mosquitos swarmed and bit every exposed skin surface. We developed hacking coughs from pollution and persistent upper respiratory infections.

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Photo by Jonathen E. Davis.

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Photo by Jonathen E. Davis.

But the stories of the victims and the volunteers show the depth and breadth of the human experience; loss, sweat, determination and the interminable strength of the human spirit. One evening we observed a group therapy session the locals had organized for all of the children who had lost one or both parents. Their young faces stricken with grief, they found strength in each other and in their community. It would be a difficult road for these children but there was still hope, the people of the village would act as their support until they could stand on their own. Stories like this need to be shared.

Team Rubicon adopted the outlying village of Sermantang, a village with a beautiful view of the Himalayan Mountains and home to resilient and kind people. Working to maintain their crops are a necessity for survival, but they also needed time to clean up their village and build shelters. However, the monsoon season was coming fast and they were running out of time. We stepped in and worked to remove debris while they maintained their crops. When they had returned from working the fields, we worked together to rebuild the village.

We were working to clean up a schoolhouse in Sermantang when the 7.3 quake hit. Thinking it was an aftershock, we paused for a moment until it passed - the metal framed building we were working in began to flex and sway. The realization dawned with cold comprehension; this wasn’t an aftershock. Impossible to walk on the shaking, cracking ground, we reached for each other and held on. Years of military training has taught me to master my fear in situations like this, but when I looked into the faces of the people around me, their fearful faces mirrored my own. When the shaking stopped we found no serious injuries on our team or in the village of Sermantang, but we were the lucky ones.

 

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Jonathen E. Davis.

I returned home on day 21 of a 10-day deployment with only a single day left of Academy of Art University’s Spring 2015 semester. The flexibility of the online program meant that whenever I had an Internet connection, I could attend classes from Nepal. This often meant a little problem solving to get assignments turned in; sitting in a tent completing discussion posts and uploading projects using my cell phone as a wireless hotspot. I am grateful to have instructors who understood what I was doing and why. In a traditional classroom, I might have been forced to turn down the chance to volunteer in Nepal.