This month makes the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Sichuan, China that killed 68,172 according to the Chinese government and left another 17,291 unaccounted for but presumed dead. Papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post this week reported stories that the Chinese government’s first official tally of student deaths from the earthquake listed 5,335 as either dead or missing. Previous estimates had placed the number of students who died when school buildings collapsed during the quake that rocked the Sichuan province on May 12, 2008 as high as 10,000.
These stories brought back immediate memories for me of a video that washingtonpost.com video journalist Travis Fox shot in the aftermath of the quake. As it happened, Travis had been in Beijing last May preparing stories in advance of the Summer Olympic Games when the quake occurred. He happened to be in the Beijing bureau when the quake struck some 1500 kilometers distant in Sichuan. He reported to us via phone immediately afterward that buildings had indeed swayed in Beijing.
Shortly afterward, he and other colleagues from the Post bureau headed to Chengdu to begin coverage of the story. Travis was able to get to Beichuan, a city near the epicenter, when the tremors had caused collapse of schools, among other buildings.
In that first day there, Travis recorded a powerful scene that distilled the horror of the aftermath down to a single moment. At once it was both highly specific and expressive of the larger truth about the terrible consequences for parents who lost their only child in an instant. That irrevocable loss had stemmed from two situations that up to that point had been disconnected – China’s “one child” policy and school building construction that proved inadequate in the face of the earthquake’s power. In an instant the two merged to create scenes of human as well as physical devastation.
Today, the anger of many in Sichuan who blame their loss on shoddy school construction remains unabated, as does their grief. Meanwhile, the specific wild grief of a devastated set of parents responding to the finality of their loss of a child will be a scene impressed on my mind and heart forever. It speaks to the ability of visual journalism to bear witness in such moments and to provide lessons for us all.