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‘I needed to photograph to stay sane’: US journalist recounts Beirut explosion

Daniel Carde and his girlfriend had just cut some basil from the balcony garden and gone to the kitchen to prepare dinner on Tuesday. Then the building started shaking. 

“We first thought it was an earthquake, but then the building shook harder,” said Carde, an American freelance photographer who has worked out of Beirut, Lebanon, since February. “Then the shock wave hit. It blew things all around my apartment, and I thought our building had been bombed and was collapsing beneath us. After it was over, I thought we were going to die.”

Living just two miles from the epicenter of the powerful explosion that left 135 people dead and at least 5,000 wounded, Carde’s journalistic instincts took over. 

“I took my phone and began filming what was happening for about a minute, then I went to grab my camera gear,” he said in an email interview Thursday. “It took me about 10 minutes to figure out where my camera equipment was. I knew I needed it but couldn’t remember what I needed or where it was. … My brain couldn’t process anything.”

Carde and his girlfriend escaped their home with a few bumps, cuts and bruises but otherwise physically unharmed. His building remains standing. But the emotional toll is high. 

“I need more time to process everything that is going on. To me, going out and photographing is keeping me sane,” he wrote. “For others, it might be the worst thing for them.”

Immediately after the explosion, Carde thought only about needing to photograph what was happening. 

“As I got closer and closer to the epicenter, it changed,” he wrote. “At first it was the destruction, then the people affected. That’s who I wanted to focus on.” 

Carde has continued documenting the crisis and its impact for Getty Images. When he’s not photographing, he is assisting his friends as they secure new housing; they are among the hundreds of thousands of residents who have been left homeless. After Carde shared with me, his former college media director at the University of Texas at Arlington, that he was safe, we talked about his work in this email Q&A. 

Was there any scene you didn’t photograph; that is, that you actively chose not to include? 

Carde: No, there was nothing I chose not to photograph, I felt everything was important to show. I saw a man who was killed and his body was wrapped up in a sheet, so I took my time before I photographed him. I wanted to show him in a way so his family couldn’t identify him or that didn’t solely focus on his death but placed him in the scene. I later saw horrendous footage of bodies ripped apart. Had I seen that, I would have photographed it. I think the carnage needs to be seen to show how serious this incident is. I would have looked for the most humane way to photograph them though. 

Knowing you and your instincts to help, especially with your military training and background, what are some of the challenges you are facing now? How do you decide between documenting and helping? 

Carde: My job is to photograph, I remember feeling that after the explosion. My girlfriend was crying, saying, ‘We need to leave,’ and I felt horrible about telling her I can’t go with her. In my head, I kept thinking: My job is to be out there covering what is happening to us. As far as helping others, first and foremost, I need to make sure I can live with myself at the end of the day. I’d rather not make the image and help then do nothing and have regret. If no one can help another person, I will step in; if someone’s life and limbs depend on me, I will help. If someone is there who doesn’t know as much first response stuff as I know, I will step in. 

Are your friends and family safe? 

Carde: I think all of my friends’ places were destroyed. Maybe one friend’s apartment wasn’t, and most of my friends were hurt. I don’t think any of my colleagues died, but I am not sure.

What were your first reactions and actions? 

Carde: My girlfriend and I had barely finished cutting some basil from my balcony garden and we went to the kitchen to prepare when the building started shaking. We first thought it was an earthquake, but then the building shook harder, and I thought an airstrike hit nearby. Then the shock wave hit, it blew things all around my apartment and I thought our building had been bombed and was collapsing beneath us. After it was over, I thought we were going to die. She was crying and saying we needed to leave but didn’t know where we needed to go. I was saying I need to get my camera gear. Neither of us could focus well. 

I took my phone and began filming what was happening for about a minute, then I went to grab my camera gear. It took me about 10 minutes to figure out where my camera equipment was. I knew I needed it but couldn’t remember what I needed or where it was. Then I knew I needed to change into clothes to work in, but even that I couldn’t remember where any of my clothes were or what I needed to wear. My brain couldn’t process anything. 

Sometime between trying to figure out where my clothes and camera gear was, I took my chocolate bars from my closet and put them in my fridge. I didn’t remember doing this until after I returned from photographing and found them, then I had a vague memory of it. I called to check on some friends, I learned their places were destroyed and they were injured. I called someone at Getty Images and told him I need to photograph this. I needed to photograph to stay sane. On my way out, I made my way to a few friends’ places to check on them.

Describe some of the images you thought were most important to share with the world.

Carde: Honestly, I was only thinking about needing to photograph what was happening. As I got closer and closer to the epicenter, it changed. At first it was the destruction, then the people affected. That’s who I wanted to focus on. Then I saw the injured man sitting on the chair. I remember thinking he looks like how I feel, mentally out of it, so I photographed him.

Was there any scene you didn’t photograph; that is, that you actively chose not to include? Why? 

Carde: No, there was nothing I chose not to photograph, I felt everything was important to show. I saw a man who was killed and his body was wrapped up in a sheet, so I took my time before I photographed him. I wanted to show him in a way so his family couldn’t identify him or that didn’t solely focus on his death but placed him in the scene. I later saw horrendous footage of bodies ripped apart. Had I seen that, I would have photographed it. I think the carnage needs to be seen to show how serious this incident is. I would have looked for the most humane way to photograph them though. 

Knowing you and your instincts to help, especially with your military training and background, what are some of the challenges you are facing now? How do you decide between documenting and helping? 

Carde: My job is to photograph, I remember feeling that after the explosion. My girlfriend was crying, saying, ‘We need to leave,’ and I felt horrible about telling her I can’t go with her. In my head, I kept thinking: My job is to be out there covering what is happening to us. As far as helping others, first and foremost, I need to make sure I can live with myself at the end of the day. I’d rather not make the image and help then do nothing and have regret. If no one can help another person, I will step in; if someone’s life and limbs depend on me, I will help. If someone is there who doesn’t know as much first response stuff as I know, I will step in. 

As a freelance/contract photographer working overseas, what kind of protection or safety considerations do you assume for yourself? How has that changed with COVID? 

Carde: I do my best to never put others in harm’s way and never knowingly do something that could kill me. I went into damaged buildings, and yes, there is a risk that they could collapse, but I wouldn’t go in if I knew it was going to collapse. With COVID-19, I’ve been wearing a facemask, which I’ve been wearing as I photograph the damage from the explosion.

How has Getty supported you during the last two days? 

Carde: My assigning editor checked on me and my wellbeing and asked what protective equipment I have. He has let me take breaks and told me to only go out and photograph after I have cared for myself and loved ones first. 

Covering global conflict has long been your career goal. Why is this work important, and how do you mentally prepare for what could happen? 

Carde: My grandmother survived a massacre in French Indochina in September 1945. Growing up, I used to look online to learn more about it, but there was only a sentence or two that could be found. There is a photo of my great-grandmother’s body laying where she was executed. This image serves as a witness to what happened. If the image wasn’t made, it would be much easier to deny it happened or to be forgotten. The image is also kept in my grandmother’s family photo album, so I learned how important these images are to survivors of such tragedy. Mentally preparing to cover conflict, I feel, is a bit different — it’s going into something knowing what could happen. This explosion was unexpected.

What do you want other journalists to learn from your experience?

Carde: I honestly don’t know. I need more time to process everything that is going on. To me, going out and photographing is keeping me sane. For others, it might be the worst thing for them. Do what you need to do to protect yourself and your mental health.

How long have you been in the area and how long do you plan to stay? 
Carde: I moved here in February, and I am not sure how long I plan to stay. I don’t have an expected departure yet. Maybe a year, maybe a few years.

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Its Outlet
1 year ago

Neither of us could focus well. 

I took my phone and began filming what was happening for about a minute, then I went to grab my camera gear.