Conference surveys devastating effects of natural disasters

Yvonne Marquez

When photographers and writers cover natural disasters, it is important to tell the stories of the people that those events affect, two renowned documentary photographers agreed at a panel discussion Wednesday.

The forum was part of the 2011 Lozano Long Conference on natural disasters and the consequences for the Caribbean, coastal regions of southern U.S. and Latin America hosted by the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies.

Paloma Diaz, the institute’s coordinator, said the conference is focusing on the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina, places where the black population was the most affected.

“The last year was significant in the terms of the number of disasters we saw in the region,” Diaz said. “We wanted to understand the different dimensions and the impact of the population from the media perspective.”

Maggie Steber, who has photographed Haiti for 25 years, said it is important to know the background of the people, places and events she photographs.

“When you have time — and you don’t always — it’s important to learn the history, literature, art, language and culture,” Steber said. “Otherwise, you’re always photographing the surface.”

Steber said that she always thought history was boring, but when she read more about Haiti, she realized it is everything. She said Haiti has one of the most fascinating histories because it is dramatic and bloody, especially during the revolt of the slaves against the French.

Matthew Larsen, climate and land use change associate director for the U.S. Geological Survey, said what scientists and journalists do in the field is similar. He said he talks to people in the communities after a natural disaster. Larsen said it is his job to document what caused these disasters to help government agencies, so it forced him to engage with people who lost a house or a loved one. He said it takes a emotional toll.

“Once you publish the science and math and make recommendations to the government, the human side is really powerful and informs the science we do and makes us try to do a better job,” he said.

Kathleen Duncan, a photographer for Victoria Advocate, said photos from Steber are different from what we see in everyday newspapers.

“When you look at war or disaster photos, they all tend to look the same; they have the same feelings, expression and angles. It is important to tell those stories but you also kind of wonder if there is anything else out there,” Duncan said.