Earthquake Advice From One Who's Been There

Stay empathetic, stow your ego and keep focused on finding great stories: award-winning photographer Patrick Hamilton's experiences covering quakes in Papua, New Guinea are relevant to newsgatherers working in the Christchurch quake zone.

Patrick Hamilton spent three stints in northern Papua New Guinea after the July 17, 1998, 7.0 magnitude quake that generated three tsunamis and claimed more than 2,200 lives in villages along the country’s remote northwestern coastline near the border with the Indonesian state of Irian Jaya.

Patrick Hamilton's Tips for journalists covering disasters

In the field:

• Make sure you drink plenty of water during the day

• Always try to be empathetic, resist going onto 'auto pilot'

• Stay objective (it's too easy to get carried away with the rumour mill)

• Stow your ego before you leave for the assignment

• Look after others in your team

• If you get caught on your own, just take great pictures or look for great stories

Back in the office:

• Ensure staff in the field have a satellite phone and are kept 'in the loop' - inclusion in the daily news conference would be helpful (and let them call home when they need to)

• Ensure they have a decent survival/livability pack (esp. water purification tablets) and continue to re-supply regularly

• Ensure staff have adequate rest breaks while on the job, preferably away from the disaster location

• Provide on-the-ground logistical support of someone senior in the organisation who can cut through red tape and make things happen smoothly

• Ensure someone back home stays in touch with the families of staff members on distant engagements


• Staff who have been on these assignments need to talk about what they experienced to someone they trust, often a peer who has been through a similar experience is helpful

• They should routinely be offered professional debriefing and supported by their peers and managers

• These staff and their families need to have official notification of an employee assistance service they can call on if necessary at any stage during or after the event

On a lot of different levels journalists covering a disaster will need to be able to deal with themselves, their work and their family while they are on-site, Hamilton said. “But, in many ways, they will be so deadline-focused during the day. I found I tended to want to relax and chill out with lots of beers at night.”

In retrospect, he said, while on assignment, he felt a little disconnected from reality. Life went on back at home and in the office, regardless of what he’d experienced, yet he knew only too well at the time that he had to keep focused on the main task — delivering images for his own paper and its national and international affiliates.

But, he said, support for those in the field — and their families back home while they’re away — was critical to minimise “disconnection”. Therefore, he said, the first priority needed to be on survival and basic communication.

Focus on Survival

“On a practical level, apart from your usual gear, you need a decent emergency survival pack with things like basic rations, lots of water purification tablets, a first-aid kit, a torch, batteries, eating utensils, good work boots and my suggestion is you take something spiritual to read at night,” Hamilton recommended, “to help you see the bigger picture and put things into perspective”.

Then there was sunscreen, a hat and “lots of light, clean and easily laundered clothing that could be washed at the end of a shift to remove grime and the stench that’s inevitable when you do this sort of work, it just clings to you”.

And, because medications are usually hard to come by in disaster areas, Hamilton suggested packs containing pain relief, medicine to quell stomach upsets and vomiting as well as something mild to take at night to help get to sleep. “You are so wound up after a day in the field that it’s difficult to get to sleep and a lack of sleep only compounds your situation,” he noted.

First assigned immediately after news broke of the tsunamis for a four-week stint, Hamilton was still working with film — a challenge in the hot, humid and extremely remote areas he visited. His company soon sent up a second photographer, Campbell Scott, to the PNG capital, Port Moresby (several hundred kilometers to the south-west), which had the facilities to send back Patrick’s processed images for their newspaper group to use.

Locally, based in a small town called Vanimo, Hamilton worked with a seasoned reporter, Brian Woodley, who has since passed away.

Hamilton quickly discovered that they would bear witness to the “utter dislocation of the communities” as he worked long, arduous days without a day off for the entire four-week period.

The Emotional Toll

He recalled “running on pure adrenaline” for most of the time. After the first couple of days, he said, there was a slight lull in the output expected of him, so he decided to go out and photograph some of the bodies.

“But when I got out there, I just put down my cameras and helped out instead. I helped recover bodies because that’s what needed to be done and I was there. Those images, which I didn’t capture on film, still fill my brain.”

At the time, Hamilton and wife Yasmin had a daughter, Tatjana, who was only six months old.

“I was out in the Sissano Lagoon when this little body of a baby floated past and was scooped up by someone in a net.

“That hit me pretty hard, but I learned that it’s important to cry, to have a release from all the tension that builds up”.

But, Hamilton recalled, the most supportive thing he found while working in the tsunami region came when he covered the Australian Army field hospital near Wewak and met Major-General John Pearn and his team of medical staff.

“It was the worst job I did, but ironically the most rewarding,” he said.

“It was a good comforter to be in that ‘organised’ environment where I witnessed this team of professionals getting on with their work, saving limbs and saving lives. It was great to see”.

It was no doubt important for Hamilton to see images of hope and order after having seen so many dead bodies and so much chaos and tragedy

Journalists need Support

In retrospect, he said, logistical support would have been helpful. “Many of the people who send us to these locations have never done this sort of work themselves,” he said.

“We needed someone to be there for us and I reckon they would have treated us much differently if one of them had been there and seen what we had to go through just to do our work”.

When it came time to pack up and head home, Hamilton said his only debriefing was with Brian Woodley, who broke down at the Cairns Airport when he walked out into the clean, safe North Queensland air.

“We had our own personal debriefing there and then, but we weren’t offered any formal sort of debriefing or support upon our return to the office,” he recalled.

“In fact, when I got back to the office I was told I should take ‘a couple of days off and be back at work on Monday’. They just didn’t get it. You need time to be able to repair mind and body”.

In the end, it was a company photographer on sister publication also based in Brisbane — Bruce Long of The Courier-Mail — who realised that Hamilton probably needed to talk to a counsellor to help him deal with what he'd experienced and got in touch with him.

At home, he received the unquestioning support of his wife, who, he said, listened and asked questions about what he’d experienced, allowing him to voice his feelings and responses.

“Of course different media organisations have different ways of dealing with such assignments, and with their staff in the field, but all have a duty of care to those people’s well-being and longer term post traumatic stress symptoms are a factor to be considered,” he said.

“What will happen if organisations ignore that duty of care is that, in a few years — it might be 10 of 20 years down the track for younger staff — if those people fall over as a result of what they’ve experienced, their employers will face expensive litigation because they gave inadequate support in the beginning.

“If you want to be hard-nosed about it, it’s a risk management thing, ultimately, although with some organisations it will probably take government legislation to bring in better management practices”.

After his first stint in PNG, Hamilton arrived back in his home base in Brisbane only to be sent back for a slightly shorter period about a month later. His final trip to the Aitape region was a year later to do the inevitable follow-up/recovery story.

“The fact that I did go back, for me, brought a sense of closure on the disaster,” he said.