The Digital Journalist
January 2005

by Beverly Spicer

No matter who we are or what we believe, the week between Christmas and New Year's Day is generally a time for reflection as we find ourselves in the last week of the year. On December 26th, the people surviving the tragic earthquake and resulting tsunami in the Indian Ocean began an immediate effort to stay alive during the ensuing danger and chaos, and commenced what will be years of struggle to rebuild their lives. Though a tsunami is the inevitable and typical effect of an underwater earthquake, what was atypical was our mass-witnessing of the tragedy. Through satellite television and the Internet, the rest of the world in possession of the technology was riveted to the initial event, and continues even now to simultaneously monitor minute-by-minute developments of a monumental crisis in 12 countries.

Photo by Hellmutt Issels
As we helplessly watched events unfold during the holiday season, we were forced to grasp the profound contrast between the privilege of our comfort and safety, and the horror of what so many were experiencing, literally on distant shores. Reflecting upon the new year, most of us are now grappling not only with personal issues, whatever they may be, but also with the disparity between the lives of those less fortunate and our own, brought into stark relief by the tsunami. In addition, powerful destruction by natural disaster and the resulting needs of the survivors underscore more than ever the extraordinary tragedy, profound expense and relative insanity of voluntary war and man-made catastrophe.

Though most of us are incapable of directly helping except by donating to humanitarian agencies, we are nevertheless gripped by the heartbreaking circumstances and are changed by our collective awareness, magnified through the power of witnessing en masse.

Photographers and journalists have always been about witnessing, bringing back news and insight from far-away events to those on the home front who want to see the unseen and know the unknown. Now, we are all witnesses—instantaneous witnesses—and the most powerful images are sometimes captured not by professionals but by participants themselves, as we are currently seeing 24/7. On a more impersonal scale, satellite photographs are now giving us an overview of the destruction, as shown in the following before and after photos of the northern tip of Aceh province in the western Indonesian island of Sumatra. Click on the larger photo below for more satellite images.

So, awakened rudely to a global tragedy, it seems appropriate at the beginning of this particular new year to consider the gift that technology has given us to witness and reflect upon life on earth, who we are, and how we are related to each other. No longer, it seems, can anything happen here or on the other side of the world in isolation. That we are all part of the greater whole of humanity has never been more immediately, if violently, illustrated than by reportage of recent events in the Indian Ocean, and perhaps never more peacefully illustrated than by NASA's photographs of the Earth from the space. This one, taken from the surface of the moon, is called "Earth Rise."

The astronauts who first saw the beautiful view of the Earth from a distance were struck by the profundity of a planet with no borders, no countries, just one single round ball upon which we all live. Astronaut Donald Williams said, "For those who have seen the Earth from space... the experience most certainly changes your perspective. The things that we share in our world are far more valuable than those which divide us." NASA calls this view of our home planet between the continents of South America and Africa, "Earth Ornament."

Socrates said, "Man must rise above the Earth - to the top of the atmosphere and beyond - for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives." Could it be that cyberspace, digitally transmitted images, and instant communications are giving us a similar perspective? The earth seen from space at night is another powerful image worth viewing again and again, showing us we're all living here together, and though distance separates us, we are all part of a greater whole that is in constant communication.

The Tsunami of December 26, 2004 is not the first nor is it the last to bring powerful, earth-changing forces into being. Earthquakes will continue to reshape the planet until finally, about 250 million years from now, the continents will drift back together again to form one supercontinent, Pangea Ultima, much like the original solid land mass called Pangea, of 250 million years ago. At that future time, according to NASA, "the Atlantic Oceans will be just a distant memory, and whatever beings inhabit Earth will be able to walk from North America to Africa."

E-Bits usually contains humorous material, but this month's column has been particularly somber. However, I leave you with one parting set of photos, which arrived in my mailbox labeled "Best Photographs of 2004." Someone told me recently, "We are here for a very short time, there is much beauty and much sorrow, and remember, this experience of life is the only time we are not alone."

Photo by Patti Sapone/The Star-Ledger

May all things come to all good, to all of us, in the coming year. Onward to 2005!

© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.

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