As the world is sadly aware, an earthquake of stunning magnitude and the resultant tsunami has devastated  the country of Japan. It hit last night just as I was getting ready to head to bed here in Seattle, as the initial bursts of information came through with the figure of 7.9, then revised to 8.0, then 8.4, 8.8, and then 8.9. It took a few minutes to wrap the mind around what that was really going to mean. As the quake rattled buildings all over Japan for minutes, the waves were on their way to shore. There is something particularly awful in knowing that in a few minutes, you are going to witness total devastation;  a normal, sunny spring day in a coastal farm area will transform into a total wasteland. The minutes between them are each felt with some kind of hope that some lives will be spared by rushing to higher ground, and excruciating certainty that many will not.

I sat in my living room last night, watching a helicopter video feed as the water crashed through, creating a massive and swift hell comprised of mud and trees and boats and cars and houses, and I watched as it swallowed everything in its path. I sat there and watched, live, people consumed as they desperately tried to escape in their cars or on foot, as did millions of other people all over the globe. I had never seen anything like this, as it happened; the surrealism of it was off-the-charts as huge boats and apartment complexes on fire battered around like tiny toys in some kind of strange movie special-effects water world.

The sky view of the disaster led to a feeling of detachment, so I tried to mentally zoom in and place myself there. I imagined the smells: the fresh beginning green of the spring farmlands, the heaviness of the briny ocean muck, fish and kelp and mud and sand, the wet wood of broken trees and buildings, the metallic sting of gas and oil spilled and swirling in the water, the acrid choke that comes from the billowing black smoke of uncontrolled multiple fires. The sounds as the surge came closer, the roar and whoosh, the snapping of trees and power lines, cracking and breaking and booming as structures bend and break, alarm sounds, car horns beeping, a few voices screaming, barely heard over the noise of the monster. Most painful was to imagine those stuck in traffic, who could not have seen their fates until it was directly upon them, or those who could never run fast or far enough, or those who were still sleeping peacefully in their homes, unknowing.

I think of those now stranded, still alive, on the rooftops of the buildings that survived, who can see nothing but chaos in every direction, wondering if there will be another wave that will come for them yet, or wondering if another human will come to their rescue first. There is no food. There is no shelter. Some will know that they have lost family members and friends. They don’t know yet how bad it is in other places, and it seems like the end of the world. They wait.

And in this devastation and disaster, there are photographers who have the presence of mind, incredible skills, and nerves of steel to deliver images to us that are both beautiful artworks and horrible reality. They know how important it is for the world to see what has happened, to document what is a profound natural disaster. I am speechless in my respect for what these journalists can accomplish under these circumstances. Again, I try to imagine what I would do if I were there, and somehow had my camera with me. What instinct would pull me the hardest?  “RUN!” is what I would surely do, with no hesitation, but if I felt I was in relative safety perhaps I would be able to take some photos. If I were stuck…I don’t think I’d give a damn about a camera. If you are thinking you may be seeing the last of the world and that you are going to die, I don’t know what the hell you do. I hope I never know.


(Kyodo News/AP)

(Itsuo Inouye/AP)

Here is a link to more of these incredible, full-sized photos and I encourage you to view them. Here is a link to donate to the Red Cross for relief efforts in Japan.