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Letter from Beijing

By David Butow   Friday June 20, 2008

Like many foreign photographers, I came to Beijing this spring because of the international attention generated by the upcoming Olympic Games. But when a huge earthquake hit Sichuan province on May 12th, I found myself dealing with challenges and dynamics I had never experienced in previous disasters.

During the first couple of days, many flights to Chengdu, the city closest to the epicenter, were canceled. Getting to the disaster zone required being both flexible and aggressive. Unlike most Beijing correspondents, I was working on the fly, with no assistant, no assignment and practically no language skills. Just some cash, a backpack and a local cell phone filled with the numbers of Chinese friends who I called constantly to serve as my interpreters.

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Left: Young woman mourns the loss of a relative killed in Beichuan. Right: Soldiers help refugees evacuate Beichuan a few days after the earthquake. Photographs copyright David Butow.

Once in Chengdu, I took a gamble on heading to one of the more remote areas that had not been extensively covered so far. After a day's travel, my driver and I reached a road where the bridge had collapsed. It was the end of the line for us but I spent some time photographing in the nearby fields, which had been turned into a makeshift army camp. The scene was primitive, almost like something out of the American Civil War. After about an hour some army officials drove up and began questioning two European reporters who had just arrived; at that point, my driver and I quietly slipped away.

The next day, I went to the city of Dujianyan, which had suffered significant damage. Covered bodies were still lying in the streets. I mingled with the crowd and raising a tiny black point-and-shoot camera, I was able to take only a single frame before being waved away by one of the security guards.

This turned out to be an exception. There were few places where I was not allowed to photograph, such as an open mass grave, but during the first few days of the rescue effort, photographers were generally allowed to work without restriction. The disaster area was simply too spread out, and too dynamic for officials to control. And because much of the early press coverage was focused on the speedy mobilization of the rescue and relief effort, the government probably believed its country's image was being enhanced. It was hard not to compare the official response in Sichuan to that in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

The next day, after negotiations conducted by cell phone, I got a driver to take me to Beichuan, one of the hardest-hit areas. The scene was jaw-dropping. Most of the town’s multi-story buildings had collapsed. Several days after the disaster, there were still many uncovered bodies lying unclaimed as workers desperately tried to free the remaining survivors.

I came upon the scene of one such rescue. A man in his 20s was trapped beneath the rubble of a five-story building, lying in a space so small he could barely move. Leading the rescue was a middle-aged fire captain from faraway Suzhou. He and his crew worked methodically, using gasoline powered saws and hammers, cutting away parts of rebar and concrete, slowly enlarging the tiny hole through which the man’s cries had been heard. His team had done hundreds of rescues but because so much time had passed since the quake, he said, it would probably be the last. Occasional aftershocks rumbled, threatening to send heaps of debris onto the rescue workers.

A young volunteer doctor crawled into the tiny space where the man could be seen and inserted an IV drip into his ankle. The doctor emerged, wiped the sweat from his face, and declared that the trapped man could survive for about three more hours. The fire captain nodded and said he could get the man out in about an hour. I was able to follow this because I had run into a bi-lingual news photographer from Shanghai named Sun, one of the many Chinese who helped me navigate the situation.

At last the man was freed, placed on a stretcher and immediately carried away. Six men carried the stretcher while one held the IV. Suddenly shouts rang out as people around us began to run. A high-ranking soldier appeared with a walkie-talkie and waved at our group to move quickly. Sun yelled, "David, hurry! The water is coming." "But my bag is back there," I shouted. "Forget it. We have to go, now!" Officials feared that a dam upstream had been compromised and water would soon be cascading into the town. We hurried over the rubble and back across the two rickety bridges and up the hill to higher ground. The man on the stretcher and his rescue team also made it out. The entire town was evacuated but the deluge thankfully held off.

Sun found a driver to take us to his hotel, about an hour’s ride away. Because my backpack was still in Beichuan, I had nothing but my cameras and the clothes on my back. I took a shower, put my filthy clothes back on and went to dinner with Sun and a writer from his newspaper.

At dawn the next day, the same driver took me back to Beichuan. He was also carrying a soldier who he asked to escort me safely back to the village. We retraced my steps across the same sketchy bridges and through the same ruined streets until I saw someone wave at me. It was the fire captain from Suzhou. He was grinning from ear to ear, and perched next to him was my trusty Arc'Teryx backpack.

Back in Mienyang that night, I went to one of the only restaurants still open. Slumped in my chair, sipping my tea, I looked up as a somewhat disheveled Alan Chin, a New York photographer on assignment for Newsweek, walked in with his Chinese friend and assistant Joy, and their drivers, a cute young couple from Dujianyan, who were wearing matching pink T-shirts.

The next morning the hotel keeper took me to a makeshift staging area where drivers were picking up passengers. As I got in the back of the car for the trip back to Chengdu, seated next to a neatly dressed college-age woman, I began to scroll through my pictures to get a jump on editing. At one point she glanced over. I said "Beichuan" and showed her an image. "I know," she said in halting English. "My brother and sister died there."

She explained that they had been at school in their hometown of Beichuan during the quake while she was safe at college in Chengdu. Fortunately, her parents had survived and her father had gone into the mountains to find their other relatives. A few weeks before in Beijing, a Tibetan monk had given me a small jade Buddha carving that I’d been wearing around my neck. As the young woman and I parted in Chengdu, I took it off and put it in her hand. It was all I could think of to do.

California photographer David Butow, who is represented by Redux Pictures, is based in Beijing through the middle of September.

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