A Flash of Disaster

Before I visited Qualcomm
Stadium on Oct. 24, visions of Hurricane Katrina and the turmoil at the
Louisiana Superdome in 2005 ignited my imagination, conjuring up the image of a
stadium packed to the brim with evacuees, perhaps begging for water. So I
prepared myself for the worst, but in the only way I knew how: my camera
batteries were fully charged and I had enough memory cards to last me a week.
If my digital single-lens reflex camera failed me, two film cameras backed me
up. When I was ready, camera straps covered my chest like bandoliers.

But this was not Katrina. I was surprised to encounter what
looked more like a carnival than an emergency shelter.

Previously, with the temperature well into the 90s, the
fires seemed closer than they actually were. The smoky haze gave midday a
sunset color and kept me expecting to see flames licking the nearest hillside.
I had mostly stayed indoors since the fires broke out. Even the allure of
taking awe-inspiring fire photos firsthand was not enough to get me to leave my
apartment. By Oct. 24, I was still not happy about being outside, even though
the photographer’s urge had caught up with me and I was eager to begin
documenting some responses to the emergency.

In the early afternoon I arrived at Qualcomm with my camera
gear and two grocery bags full of canned food to donate. Volunteers in the
parking lot turned the food away — my first hint that the situation was not as
dire as I had imagined. I was completely disarmed of my crisis mentality the
minute I stepped through the stadium entrance, where I saw kids jumping rope,
volunteers hosting an improvisation show and still more volunteers carrying
signs directing evacuees to massage and acupuncture booths. On a walk around
the stadium’s ground level, I passed mountains of bottled water, heaps of
donated clothing, children coloring, at least a dozen news crews replete with
cameras and reporters and even a couple of performers on stilts passing out
candy. The stark contrast between my impression of the emergency up to that
point and the positive frenzy within Qualcomm
was disorienting.

Leaving the ground floor of the stadium and heading to the
upper decks gave me an idea of why this group required such extensive aid.
Camping tents punctuated rows of unoccupied cots. Despite being bathed by the
warm glow of sunset, they seemed cold and exposed. Compared to the bustling
ground level they were almost unpopulated, but this made sense; Qualcomm held
about 10,000 evacuees at its peak, but by the time I visited there were about
2,500 and the number was falling fast.

Indeed, by Oct. 26 they would all be relocated, regardless
of whether they had a home to return to: the Chargers would play the Texans in the
stadium on Oct. 28. In the uppermost seats, where I might otherwise find
dedicated fans cheering for a fourth-quarter comeback, I found a handful of
people facing a blank field, with each person having one or two entire seating
sections to themselves.

While taking a picture of a tent facing the field, I noticed
a woman sitting alone just a few seats away. I thought of asking for her story,
but I realized that someone who has climbed to the top of an empty football
stadium might just want to be alone. There are some things for which community
outreach and free acupuncture just cannot offer solace.

It would be an understatement to say I was surprised by the
success of so many volunteers raising the spirits of so many more evacuees.

No photographer wants to photograph tragedy. It takes a lot
of effort to come to terms with making aesthetic choices and producing images
of an individual’s often very personal suffering. To do this, photojournalists
have to not only treat their subjects with respect, but also accept in their
conscience that they are not just taking a picture from their subjects, but
also giving them a voice and making their strife, joy or anger the concern of a
larger, powerful public.

Going to Qualcomm with the fear that I would have to shoulder
a great burden in providing some outlet for these evacuees, I was relieved and
exhilarated to photograph a group that had already been heard and answered by a
community offering overwhelming support.

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