Tragedy in focus

Arko Datta's Tsunami shots filled the world's front pages. But at what cost?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is the news photographer's lot that his or her greatest professional triumphs are likely to be tainted by the knowledge that they are inextricably associated with the tragedy of others. Such was the bittersweet feeling of Arko Datta on Thursday as he prepared to fly home to his wife Jyophi after a week in which his pictures have appeared on the front pages of almost every major news publication on the globe.

"I always feel saddened that when we (photographers) win acclaim it is on negative assignments - negative in the sense that they involve human tragedy. Those are the pictures that are appreciated the most," he says. "You cannot really feel too happy. There's so much sorrow that you really can't enjoy the fact that all the papers have carried your pictures."

Not that the experience will stop him from covering disaster stories in the future. "It comes along with the job," he says. "We do the best we can in those situations and I still feel proud to be a photographer because we are able to help in a way by taking photographs and making people aware of what is happening in the world. I take my consolation from that."

Datta is based in the Mumbai bureau of Reuters and when he was assigned to fly east to the coast of Tamil Nadu, where the tsunami had wreaked the worst damage in India, he had little idea what to expect. "I heard the word tsunami and I didn't know what it was. I had no idea what I was getting into and what I would see," he says.

Arriving in the coastal community of Cuddalore on 27 December, he immediately stumbled across a scene that he was to propel on to front pages around the world. A mother and father were besides themselves with grief as they cradled the body of their eight-year-old son. "That was in the very first minute," says Datta. "I stopped the car and saw the body of the boy. The mother and father were there and they couldn't come to terms with it at all. They were holding his hand and crying."

Datta knew he had to photograph the scene but elected not to use a wide-angle lens because he wanted to avoid an image that would appear too "gruesome" and show the boy's body. Instead, he pictured - through a telephoto lens - the father weeping as he cradled the hand of his son.

Datta says that he would "normally" prefer to show a scene in its entirety but in this case the circumstances demanded something different. "The gruesomeness takes attention away from the picture," he says. "People see it in a different way because not everyone can relate to dead bodies. By cropping it at the hand and father's face everyone can relate to that because everyone relates to sorrow."

For 10 days, Datta drove back and forth between Cuddalore and Nagapattinam, nearly 100 miles away, going from village to destroyed village and recording what he saw. "People were calling me up and letting me know that my pictures were in all the papers. They wanted to keep my motivation high," he says.

As he took his pictures, capturing scene after scene of human tragedy that writers would struggle to put into words, Datta tried to put his feelings to one side. "I was trying not to relate to it and to just do my work. If I became emotional I would not be able to do the mechanical stuff," he says. "But there were times when I just had to put my hand on a person's shoulder. I have covered a lot of stories in tragic circumstances but never a case like this."

Datta, 35, dreamed of becoming a photographer when as an eight-year-old growing up in Delhi he was given his first box camera by his mother. " He found his first job on the India Express in Chennai before joining the international news agency AFP in Calcutta and then moving three years ago to Reuters.

Datta has found himself working amid death and destruction many times. The earthquake in Gujarat in 2001 caused the deaths of 20,000 people and left 600,000 homeless. He also covered the Hindu-Muslim rioting in Gujarat in 2002, in which at least 1,000 people died. "I have seen things more horrible - when people kill people," says Datta. "This tsunami was an act of nature. One cannot do anything about this; it was like an accident on a much larger scale."

He says he will try to get over the trauma of covering such an assignment by talking to his wife, a print journalist, about what he saw. "I was just taking pictures in the heat of the moment and not reacting to what was happening. Now I can look back because I am actually travelling home," he says. "I'm feeling sort of guilty leaving that place and going back to my house.

"One has to have a bit of a philosophical approach because we are always covering these things. If one was not able to come to terms with it, one would not be able to do more than one assignment in life."