When I heard that Hurricane Maria–the last in a surprisingly long line of hurricanes to make the headlines this month–knocked out all power in Puerto Rico, with analysts estimating the damage to have quite literally set the country back “decades” (by some accounts) I had to see for myself. Now there are no shortage of pictures demonstrating this latest hurricane’s destructive capability; the writing is on the walls its reduced to rubble. But what the majority of these photographs have in common, and is wonderfully demonstrated by CNBC’s photo essay, “In Pictures: Puerto Rico pummeled by Hurricane Maria,” is the destruction on a universally human scale. It’s ultimately the comparison between the destruction and the people affected, standing alongside the wreckage, often in mourning, or merely coming to terms with the new reality of their homelessness, that speak for those affected.
The destruction of Puerto Rico is largely inarticulable. It’s scope cannot be grasped without some sort of comparison–a means of relating the horror the majority of us are lucky enough to view through our screens to the hell on earth Puerto Rico’s residents must now live in–But it’s because of the scope that these pictures are so jaw dropping. An entire nation without power is only so impactful as its citizens are shown to be: there is, otherwise, the disconnect between what we see and feel that screens encapsulate all too objectively. And it’s because CNBC’s photos always include this human element that the destruction we see is never without its due comparison. There are people dwarfed by telephone polls and fallen branches, others surveying the waste, the ruins and landmarks they used to call home. It’s this perspective that packs a punch, that ultimately reminds the rest of the world that these are people living through what is likely the worst time of their lives, and are now utterly helpless.
It’s like the aftermath of a child’s tantrum exacted on their model train set; with its figurines rooted to the ground, in shock, at what remains.
The hardest part of effective photography, when documenting these sort of natural disasters, is in effect to remind the viewer why we should care; to help us rediscover our empathy.
And it’s through the diminutive scale that this is ultimately accomplished. The scale speaks for itself: when I constantly reminded myself that this territory was reduced, practically, to the stone age over night, I couldn’t believe it until I saw the extent of these damages–and only then (and once again) in comparison to people like myself.