media economy multimedia photography

Covering Japan’s disaster: A visual journalist’s reflections

Dan Chung spent four days covering the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Based in Beijing as the Guardian’s videojournalist, Dan runs the DSLR Newshooter blog and is the video tutor for the MA in International Multimedia Journalism I contribute to. Upon returning to Beijing on Thursday Dan came into class to give an immediate, first-hand account of his experience in Japan.

Dan spoke for nearly two hours, offering a revealing and thought-provoking analysis of the aesthetic, logistical and reporting challenges he faced working in the disaster zone. He kindly allowed the talk to be recorded and made available as a podcast. I have edited the talk, taking out the sections that recorded the audio from the video reports he showed. In the recording you will hear questions from DJ Clark, and references to Adam Dean, a freelance photojournalist in Beijing, and Tania Branigan, the Guardian’s China correspondent.

You can listen to the podcast here, and I have provided the videos Dan discussed so you can follow the discussion and engage the debate about how to cover an event of this magnitude.


Some of the key points I took away from the talk were:

  • the logistical challenges of getting to the disaster zone quickly were immense, as were the challenges then faced in moving around the disaster zone. He noted that each day only about 2-3 hours was available for shooting still or video images; the rest of the time was consumed by logistics, be that sourcing fuel, power, internet connections and food
  • although he has advised journalists not to shoot stills and video at the same time during an assignment, this was an event in which that dual function was unavoidable. (Dan’s stills galleries can be seen here and here, and he talks about them at 42:00 in the podcast). However he opted to focus on video because of the large number of highly skilled photographers working on the story
  • the fundamental question he thought journalists should ask themselves is ‘what are you doing there, and what can you add to the story’ given the blanket coverage by both the Japanese and international media
  • in assessing a visual journalist’s contribution to the story, he argued that you had to consider the overall media environment you were publishing into. In this story there is the extensive coverage of the Japanese media, the large presence of international agencies and wire services, and extensive social media networks.
  • In this context, the most dramatic footage came from user generated content (such as this video, discussed at 18:15 in the podcast), and it was very hard for international journalists to compete with that. He described a lot of the western coverage as “formulaic,” driven by conventions of reporting and the limits of what one could do in the disaster zone.
  • Dan said his function was to be a witness, providing images to take the reader somewhere they are not.
  • He wondered whether we would be seeing some “stylised photojournalism” in an effort to do something different. He felt that the drive to differentiate oneself through aesthetics was problematic. He asked, “how much thinking can you do outside the box photographically in a disaster like this? How much is down to what you come across, what you see?”

Dan discussed the videos he produced during the talk. At 15:26 he introduces the first story, which is this standard “television style” package presented by Jonathan Watts, that appeared on the Guardian site on 13 March.

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This was contrasted (at 17:38 in the podcast) to Matt Allard’s Aljazeera English report, which Dan regarded as amongst the best of the TV reports.

In an effort to offer something different, Dan produced a piece of ‘cinematic journalism’ he felt embodied the experience of being in the disaster zone. He discusses his intentions at length in the podcast (from 20:55 to 30:00). This film, which took less than two hours to make, has generated a lot of controversy online, as the comments on Vimeo demonstrate.


Aftermath – The Japanese Tsunami from Dan Chung on Vimeo.

The Guardian did not like this package, largely because of the music that accompanied the shots. In London they took Dan’s footage and re-edited it with some audio of a survivor, producing this version.

Watching both versions back to back it is striking how different the visuals can feel when associated with music in the first and the voice over in the second. It demonstrates well that pictures do not speak for themselves.

The final video story Dan discussed (at 31:20 in the podcast) is that of a helicopter rescue, that begins with some of the amateur video he felt provided the strongest visuals.

Dan concluded with a reassessment of his earlier commitment to solo video journalism. He argued that being a single operator visual journalist is extremely difficult for spot news. It offers enormous advantages for a documentary approach, he said, but because the media environment is not a level playing field given the large operators’ resources and logistical support, it could not contribute as much as he had originally hoped to the coverage of event like the earthquake/tsunami.

Featured photo: Fishing boat washed up on the waterfront of Kessennuma, 13 March. Dan Chung/The Guardian

4 replies on “Covering Japan’s disaster: A visual journalist’s reflections”

Having watched the two versions of Dan Chung’s video work on the tsunami, I could say that the second version is much powerful. The disturbing silence even made the shots speak loudly, making the voice over seem not too dramatic. The pauses were also spaced very well. I just wished they identified the whose voices were included in the piece.

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