Into the Earthquake Disaster Zone
June 2008

by Adam Dean

Most photographers and journalists who have worked in China will attest to the complexities and obstacles that are often encountered here. It is a fascinating country to photograph and after Iraq and the Middle East, the rise of China is arguably one of the most important stories of our time. However, the difficulties with access, the attitude towards foreign media and the language problems can make it an exhausting and infuriating place to work.

© Adam Dean / WpN
Shi Shi Mo (right), 82, is helped as she walks over destroyed homes in Han Wang, China, on May 20, 2008.
So with memories fresh in my mind of the clinical efficiency with which the Chinese authorities recently blocked all foreign media access to Tibet, a region twice the size of France, I wondered how things might be different this time as I boarded my flight from Yangon, where I was covering the cyclone aftermath in Myanmar [Still recognized as Burma by many countries including the U. S.], to Chengdu to cover the aftermath of the May 12 earthquake.

I arrived several days after the actual quake and much like the rest of the world had seen the devastating TV and still images of children and adults buried alive under the rubble as the rescue workers struggled against time to free them.

The first day I headed straight for Beichuan County, a small town a few hours' drive from Chengdu, which was one of the worst affected areas. The first checkpoint was about 20km (13 miles) from the town where we had to leave our driver and get on the back of a truck that took us further up the mountain road. As we approached the outskirts of the town we reached the second checkpoint and were stopped by police from going any further because we did not have the appropriate media accreditation.

After a couple of attempts at explanations we gave up and decided to hike around the checkpoint which was in a valley with camps for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) rescue teams surrounding it. It took us about two hours to get through the thick mountainous undergrowth until we were spotted by PLA soldiers who, to our surprise, kindly escorted us through their camp and around the first checkpoint and into the town.

© Adam Dean / WpN
A mother marks Children's Day by mourning her son who was killed in the May 12 earthquake when Xingjian Elementary School collapsed in Dujiangyan. June 1, 2008.
It should be noted at this stage that although the media access for unaccredited journalist like myself had tightened up, this event seemed to be a watershed in foreign media control in China for both journalists and photographers. The Beijing-based correspondents have always had a challenging relationship with the authoritarian regime in China and particularly with the organs of state such as the Police and Army. So you can imagine my surprise when a group of PLA soldiers gave us a lift into the worst affected area of the town, gave us a bottle of water and packet of biscuits and thanked us for coming.

The devastation in the town was unreal. There were mountains of twisted steel and rubble three or four stories high with smoldering fires still flickering. Boulders the size of family houses had tumbled 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) down the mountain and completely squashed vehicles and destroyed buildings in their path. Teams of PLA soldiers and firefighters were searching through the rubble for any signs of survivors. They also had the gruesome task of collecting the bodies of those who had died and burying them in the mass graves on the edge of the town.

Most of the residents had been evacuated because of the concerns of flooding from the "quake lakes" further up the valley so the place had an eerie ghost town feel to it. The only local people there were the occasional mourners searching for lost relatives and the odd group of people trying to salvage anything from the wreckage of their former homes.

© Adam Dean / WpN
A classroom in Liuhe Dujiangyan Community School, which was destroyed in a 7.9-magnitude earthquake. Dujiangyan, China, May 21, 2008.
What struck me most on that first day was the massive efforts of the rescue teams and soldiers who looked as though they were almost dead on their feet after several days of nonstop work with barely any rest. Most of them were young recruits from far away provinces who had been flown in soon after the earthquake and had spent their days and nights repairing destroyed mountain roads and clearing landslides to allow other emergency groups and aid in.

I suppose coming directly from Myanmar, where the government and military had been so disorganized, slow and negligent in their response to the cyclone, highlighted the efforts and organization of China's response to the earthquake.

Probably the most distressing part of the story was covering the grieving parents at the many schools that had been destroyed. Many parents were demanding answers as to why their only children had been killed in collapsed school buildings when surrounding structures had withstood the force of the earthquake.

As I write this there have been growing protests and criticism of the government authorities responsible for the school building contracts by parent groups so it will be interesting to see, as the mood changes, how long this new media-friendly approach that China seems to be taking will last.

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© Adam Dean

Adam Dean is a freelance photographer based in Beijing, China, and represented by World Picture Network in New York. His work has been published in many of the leading news publications including Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone magazine, Stern, Le Figaro magazine, Internazionale, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, Le Figaro, etc.

His work has been shown at the Visa Pour l'Image festival in Perpignan, exhibited at The Ian Parry Scholarship print exhibition at the Getty Images Gallery in London and at the Luis Valtuena International Humanitarian Photography Award Exhibition across Europe. He also works for UNICEF and Save The Children.

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