One survivor described the wall of water as "a big black cobra" coming toward him from behind. From about a kilometer away, the man said, it looked higher than the minarets at a nearby mosque in Banda Aceh.
After being knocked off his bicycle by the 9.3-magnitude earthquake on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, the man instinctively started running with his two young kids. He hadn't even imagined that a deadly wave was coming, but he had happened to run away from the coast. The unconscious decision ended up saving their lives; after sprinting inland for about five kilometers, grabbing his childrens' arms the whole way, the water rushed past them but never knocked them over.
It's one of the few positive stories out of the countless tragic scenarios heard by Jon Warren, photo director for the Seattle/Tacoma office of Christian relief organization World Vision, during his visit to the stricken region in the days after the tragedy.
Most other stories were similar to that of Arahi Japanthan, a grieving woman Warren met in the destroyed town of Talanguda, in India's Tamil Nadu state. "She had been in the marketplace when the tsunami hit, while her three daughters were at home, close to the seashore," Warren says. "When the waves came, the girls ran for safety. Only the eldest, Kyalvelli, 10, was able to escape; the other two little ones were swept away. Arahi and her husband searched frantically for the little girls. The day before, after the waters had subsided from the shallow lagoon behind the house, they were able to find their bodies close by."
A full month after the massive underwater earthquake struck near Sumatra, sending a succession of waves throughout the Indian Ocean, the combined death toll from the 11 affected countries was still uncertain. The best estimates by Feb. 14 varied widely from 225,000 to as much as 300,000. At least 116,000 were known to be dead in Indonesia alone, according to the country's National Disaster Relief Coordinating Board, with many tens of thousands still missing and presumed dead. Another 800,000 people in the hardest-hit Aceh Province of Sumatra have been left homeless by the surge that penetrated as far as five miles inland.
Polaris Images, based in New York City, was one of dozens of photo agencies that sent photographers and reporters to the region. According to Polaris president J.P. Pappis, about 3,500 images were sent back from the eight Polaris-represented shooters who were sent to the area. The event generated one of the highest numbers of photo requests in Polaris' history, rivaling the level of demand from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq, he says.
Los Angeles-based photographer Eric Grigorian, spent two weeks in the Aceh region, representing Polaris. After arriving in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Jan. 1, he flew directly to the town of Banda Aceh, where he spent most of his time documenting the destruction and recovery efforts.
"It was the most devastated thing I've ever seen," Grigorian says. "It was on such a large scale that anything you see on TV wasn't even close to capturing it. There were no landmarks to tell you where you were or what was there before. A lot of places looked the same — just flat and collapsed, either from the water or from the quake itself."
Warren, who traveled for two weeks in Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia with World Vision videographer Tom Costanza, left the day after the wave hit. "Usually I have two or three days to prepare, but the next morning I just grabbed my gear and left for the airport," he says. "I wasn't even sure where we were going."
After a 32-hour flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and an all-night drive to the eastern coast of the island, Warren and Costanza first saw the extent of the damage. "We visited a couple of towns that were just completely gone," Warren says. "There was just sand, not even foundations left behind. I spent some time with some grieving widows. That's when it drives the knife into you."
Warren and Costanza spent a few days traveling around Tamil Nadu, India, before flying to Aceh for the final week of their visit. "Banda Aceh was just hit by a bomb," Warren remembers. "The infrastructure was just totally shot. The damage went so much farther inland. Volunteers in masks wearing rubber gloves came by throwing white powder disinfectant on the ground. The stench of death was strong."
Grigorian says he was struck by how numbed the Indonesian survivors were. "People didn't have a lot of emotions," he says. "I was there about a week after it happened. The attitude was that it was fate-based. They looked at it as just part of God's will. They appreciated the coverage and the knowledge that people from the outside world were coming to help, but they were very much down to business, salvaging what they could and just moving on."
"I've covered famines and wars before, where the injuries and pain are usually caused by other people, but this kind of suffering had a very different feel to it," Warren says. "There were not a lot of injured people. The ones that survived were emotionally traumatized, but there wasn't the element of anger. They were still running on adrenaline."
Those who did acknowledge the presence of cameras, however, were unusually accommodating, Grigorian says. "I saw a lot of people who would drop what they were doing to talk to me, without me asking," he says. "They would come up and say ‘I just have my sister left' or ‘I lost my mother, my father, my uncle and my brother.'"
"Usually, we're just seen as furniture," Warren adds. "But there were so many times where they went out of the way to track me down. Many of the people seemed to have a need to tell their stories, to share their grief even with strangers. We didn't have to ask many questions; their words spilled out in a torrent."
Work conditions for the visiting journalists were horrendous. "We stayed in a team house in Banda Aceh, which held about 30 people," Warren says. "There were no beds, no water — just mats and mattresses and two couches."
Grigorian was housed in the governor's mansion. Though it sounds like luxury, that was hardly the case, he says. "By necessity, it became a refugee camp full of about 350 people, mostly volunteers, aid workers and journalists," he says. "There was no power or water and none of the toilets worked. After shooting all day long, you had nothing to come back to."
Though both Grigorian and Warren shot with digital, the lack of power made their jobs far from convenient. At the crowded mansion, Grigorian waited for hours to get Internet access through the few remaining telephone lines, and his satellite phone rarely worked properly. "It took forever," he says. "One night it took me three hours to send 18 pictures back to the States. I'd be editing my photos and transmitting them until 2 or 3 a.m. I used to shoot with a Leica, which was so light. I really missed it."
Warren had to share access to a single working phone line at his group house. "I came back more exhausted than I've ever been on any other trip," he says. "I was thankful for my digital, but it meant I lost a lot of sleep transmitting everything."
For Warren, the saving grace during his experiences was the time he spent each day at the "Child-Friendly Spaces" that were set up by World Vision to take care of children orphaned or traumatized by the tsunami. While he sometimes struggled to find a way to convey the enormity of the event and to connect the people with the damage around them through his lens, he always found a glimmer of hope with the kids.
"It was a really wonderful thing to photograph," he says. "After spending all day seeing nothing but devastation, it was nice to have something positive to come back to. I spent so little time focusing on the negative aspects, so I didn't have time to dwell on it. Other reporters we stayed with, however, were really torn up at the end of each day."
Warren adds that he expects the healing process in the flooded areas will take far longer than the actual cleanup. "I have a feeling that in six months, when the cameras are off and relief workers leave, there will be a lot of long-term psychological difficulties," he says. "I've covered relief situations for 20 to 30 years now, and it's never easy. Sometimes it's when you're actually covering the event when it hits you. Other times it hits you when you come back, but it always hits you."
Editor's Note: PhotoMedia gratefully acknowledges the photographers, editors and the entire staff of Polaris Images (www.polarisimages.com) for their cooperation in providing images for this special report.Please give generously to the organizations that are dedicated to providing relief to all the victims of the South Asian tsunami.