difficult to adequately describe the level of destruction that occurred in Banda Aceh on the morning of December 26, 2004. Like many others, I sat in front of a screen as reports continued to be updated and news services grappled to present something authoritative.
I hadn't planned to go there, but someone called looking for a photographer who could also make a TV piece. And so, a few days later and two weeks after the event, I found myself in Banda Aceh.
It took me at least five days to geographically work out what had happened. Banda Aceh lies on a peninsula, and was literally engulfed on many sides by the sea. That's why the destruction there was so total. Some parts felt like photographs I'd seen of Nagasaki after the Americans had bombed it, or images from the destruction of Grozny.
The place was still covered with bodies, but the news crews were up the coast following the unfolding story of the relief effort, or had left. The raw data of the situation was slowly becoming available: increased body counts, estimated reconstruction figures, numbers of US troops offshore.
One day, I met a man with a tape-measure, seemingly measuring the rubble. He told me he was the sole survivor of a family of fifteen. He'd gone out in the morning to the market when the sea swept away the family homes. He found his brother's body two kilometres away from where we stood.
After that I stopped asking so many questions. I felt like I was on the edge of what is possible to communicate. How can we who witness really pass on what it feels like to be present? Usually we rely on the accepted formula of news, but this has led to us essentially seeing the same thing without the subtleties inherent to a particular time and place. I don't know if these images do succeed in presenting something different. Maybe they work because the news does exist, and since people only have that type of information there's space for something else.
-- Tim A. Hetherington