Books: images of a turbulent year

In Our World Now 5, stunning pictures by Reuters photographers often eclipse the power of words. Maryann Bird pages through the album for 2011, a year punctuated by upheaval, natural and man-made.

Our World Now 5
Thames & Hudson, 2012

From an environmental perspective, the big news story of 2011 was the three-pronged disaster that began to unfold in Japan on March 11. As the world saw to its collective horror, a 9.0-magnitude undersea earthquake in the North Pacific – off the Tōhoku region of Honshu island ­– churned up a devastating tsunami, sending black waves of water over cities and farms. This led to a further, unnatural, disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

The “megathrust” quake was the most powerful ever known to strike Japan. The tsunami, with fierce 10-metre and higher waves, destroyed everything in its path. And at the Fukushima plant, floodwaters disabled emergency generators that cooled its reactors, producing partial meltdowns and radiation releases. It was the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, in Ukraine, in 1986.

In all, an estimated 20,000 people perished – overwhelmingly because of the tsunami.

Among the hundreds of images in the fifth volume of Our World Now, the Reuters news agency’s annual picture album of the planet – are 11 that were captured by photographers in Japan during the awful aftermath of the tsunami. All deliver an emotional punch, perhaps none more so than Kim Kyung-Hoon’s photo of a small girl – brow furrowed and hands in the air, as if a criminal suspect – being monitored for radiation by a man in protective gear.

Other pictures, too, remind us of the children among the dead and missing: Kim’s poignant close-up of an encrusted red Sony PlayStation controller lost in the waters, and Toru Hanai’s image of a yellow-gloved volunteer delicately cleaning a family photo that also had been swept away.  Arrayed around the sink, scores of baby pictures lie.

Carlos Barria and Lee Jae-Won documented moments when stunned or emotional survivors returned to the wreckage of their homes to collect what belongings they could pluck from the ruins. A piano floating in the floodwaters, snapped by Damir Sagolj, is entangled in delicate greenery. In another almost surreal image by Sagolj from inside an evacuation centre, a face-masked couple sit on folding chairs beside a kettle, their damp clothes drying on hangers that dangle from a basketball net.

Sagolj also addresses food problems in North Korea, in three pictures from South Hwanghae province, illustrating the fall-out from a cold winter that wiped out 65% of the country’s barley, wheat and potato crops. The winter eventually gave way to summer floods and typhoons, which destroyed 80% of the maize crop. The Reuters images show a frail child in a hospital bed, suffering from malnutrition; a collective-farm manager with a far-way look in his eyes as he holds damaged produce; and the meagre meal of a woman living in a tent after losing her house to the disasters.

Other environmental concerns are reflected in photos of flooding in Thailand and Nicaragua, fire in Britain and the Philippines, and crude oil spilt from a pipeline in western Nigeria. In a gripping scene from the Kenyan-Somali border, Barry Malone shows a dark-suited aid worker using an iPad to film the rotten carcass of a cow. Lying on parched, stony ground, the animal is just one of the hundreds of thousands said to have perished across the Horn of Africa after successive failed rains.

As in the four previous editions of Our World Now, the book is rich in images that often eclipse the power of words. While chinadialogue is most concerned with its environmental aspects, the volume is wide-ranging, covering man-made tremors and upheavals as well as natural ones. Presented chronologically and divided into three-month periods of the year, it includes moments from politics, activism, conflict, business, economics, culture and more.

“Witness” sections again provide in-depth photo essays, introduced in their own words by four top photographers. Danish Siddiqui, an Indian, chronicles the lives of migrant workers in Mumbai, India’s most populous city, while American Eric Thayer presents images from the US “Rust Belt”, the once-booming central region now in severe economic decline. Goran Tomasevic, a Serbian snapper, focuses on the Libyan rebels fighting to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

And Damir Sagolj, who is Bosnian, records life at “the Hague Hilton”, the detention unit in the Netherlands for those awaiting trial or sentencing by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Some of the detainees, he says, are accused of crimes against members of his own family.

“For the nationalists, who still regard the accused as heroes,” Sagolj writes, “this place is a dungeon – for others it’s a stopover on what they hope is the road to hell.” From a wall of the unit’s “music and spiritual room”, he gives us a sculpture of an angel with a broken wing.

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.