Neil Macbeth: Photographing disasters

The latest addition to UC CEISMIC is a collection of photographs taken by Christchurch-based photographer Neil Macbeth. Neil is a professional photographer with experience in commercial, editorial and wedding photography, as well as portraits. After the 22 February 2011 earthquake, Neil's first response was to head into town to take photographs for the Christchurch City Council. As a result, he managed to capture the atmosphere in the central city as well as an outsider's perspective on the emergency response to the February earthquake. He also took photographs of the Student Volunteer Army cleaning up liquefaction in the eastern suburbs, of earthquake damage around Christchurch, and the Earthquake Memorial on 18 March 2011.

A police car being used to transport the injured at the corner of Rolleston Avenue and Worcester Boulevard, shortly after the 22 February 2011 earthquake.


Recently, Neil took the time to tell UC CEISMIC his earthquake story as well as the story behind his photographs:

My story for the experience of the 2010 quake was the same as everyone else's: I woke up with the house shaking like mad and we had a quick look round to see that the place was OK.  It looked fine so we back to bed and listened to the radio to see what the story was.

Over our way in Ilam the earthquake damage was minimal so I was thinking that I'd be working as planned at midday.  The Christchurch City Council, who are a big photography client for me, had booked me to shoot the official public opening of their newly remodelled headquarters in town.  For almost the whole morning, I thought the job might still be happening.  It seems funny now but we had no idea that things were as bad as they were.  So I didn't do any photography at all that day.  It was a lovely weather and that afternoon we had the first gin of the season and it felt like a bit of a holiday.

A couple of weeks later, one of my clients at the City Council rang me and said 'If anything like that ever happens again, don't wait to be asked to go and start shooting it for us, just do it and we'll sort out payment later'.  Yeah right, as if anything like that's ever going to happen again in Christchurch!

Then the 22nd of February rolled round. I'd just been at Rangi Ruru (another client) discussing whether or not the shocking story in The Press that day would linger in the media.  Given the salacious nature of the story I thought it would.  A student had taken a photo of herself and one of the school's teachers in bed together and it had found its way onto The Press' front page.  I'd just gone from the school to a café in Papanui when the quake struck.  Just about the first thing I thought of when it happened was that Rangi story was safely buried for good.  Having said that, where I was the shaking wasn't particularly intense - the lights went out and things fell of shelves but it wasn't clear that it was a major disaster. I stood outside the café with my coffee in my hand pondering whether it was serious enough to go in and shoot it for the Council.  I decided I probably should.  In the subsequent aftershocks the front of the café fell onto the street where I'd been standing.

So anyway, I raced home, changed into my PPE [personal protective equipment] as fast as I could, grabbed my kit, checked our nearest neighbours were all good and headed out the door.  All the while it was becoming more apparent that the quake had been bigger than I'd first thought.  Our house was obviously badly damaged - everything was all over the place and the drive and the garden wall had had split from the house.

With traffic backing up in all directions I couldn't drive closer to the city than the far side of Hagley Park so walked from there.  I shot some images in the Botanic Gardens (another client) on the way through, still not realising how bad it was in the CBD.

People gathering in the Botanic Gardens after the 22 February 2011 earthquake.


The worse it looked the faster I went.  I virtually ran the last bit of the way in.  Sadly I wasn't fast enough.  The Police were closing the road outside the Clarendon tower as I approached.  I ran past the officer and deliberately didn't hear him when he called out for me to stop.  He called out again and I thought I'd better not push my luck so I grudgingly turned back and went to the Art Gallery where I knew Christchurch City Council staff would be congregating.

Emergency Management personnel outside the Christchurch Art Gallery.


Down there I ran into Carys Monteith, a Press photographer and we waited together for ages for the nod to go in and shoot the CBD.  There were plenty of things to take photos of around the area while I was waiting, so I got busy doing that.  Some of the VIPs from the TPP [US-NZ Partnership Forum] talks, which I'd been shooting in the previous day or two, had also washed up at the Gallery, including ex-Prime Minister Jim Bolger. 

Strangely, I noticed a lot people smiling and laughing at the time.  I found myself deliberately not shooting people smiling and joking because it didn't 'fit' the story.  My own mood was pretty upbeat still so it didn't seem jarring, but looking back it strikes me as a strange reaction. It was even true of some Police officers around the CTV site later in the day.  You saw all sorts of expressions, but I just didn't think it was fair to shoot them acting in a way that looked out of place or inappropriate.

A member of the New Zealand Police with an injured man, rescued from the collapsed PGC building.


Carys and I eventually realised it wasn't likely that anyone was going to give us permission to go and shoot the CBD so we decided to take our chances and go anyway. As it turned out, I ran into the very Christchurch City Council client who'd called previously about shooting disasters even if I wasn't expressly asked.  She lent me her Council photo ID card in the hope that it might help me get through the cordons.  The CCC staff were desperate for information on what was going on in the city so I guess she wanted to give me the best chance to get in and see it. Carys and I found that while there were cordons set up on all the street intersections there was nothing to stop us walking down an alley by the Park Royal hotel, so we entered there. Virtually everyone apart from emergency services had deserted the inner city by that point. Carys had heard that PGG and the CTV building had collapsed so we walked from Victoria Square around to PGG.  John Kirk Anderson and Martin van Beynan of The Press there when we arrived and I got some images of people being rescued from the rubble.

Emergency personnel assisting a woman they have rescued from the wreckage of the collapsed Pyne Gould Corporation building.


After shooting that for a bit we walked through town to Latimer Square with them.  It was all very sad.  At least the photography was easy - there was something dramatic everywhere you looked.  As sad as it was I couldn't help feeling hyped, knowing I was photographing a turning point in the history of the city.

There were some very unhappy people at Latimer Square but I didn't shoot any of that.  It wasn't useful to my client and you're either the kind of person who can shoot people in that state or you're not, and I'm not, so I left it alone. 

The Police Officer controlling entry to the CTV site didn't know whether it was appropriate to let me in, but having Christchurch City Council ID swung it in my favour.  I walked in and after a couple of minutes taking pictures around the edges of the site I backed up against a truck in the most inconspicuous place I could find and didn't stray from it too much. Even so, I felt like it was a matter of time before someone in a uniform demanded I leave the site.  I think I was the only photographer at the CTV site at the time, which made the photos useful to the inquiry into the emergency response.

Emergency personnel searching for people trapped in the collapsed Canterbury Television Building on Madras Street.


One person was found in the rubble and the ambulance officers brought them down to the ambulance in front of me so I shot what was going on as it happened.  A labourer on the site started giving me a hard time for shooting a body being removed from the rubble.  I had no idea the person had died prior to that point because the medical staff handled them with such care.  I felt like I was being as respectful as I could so that seemed particularly unnecessary.  I decided I'd achieved everything required of me and that I should leave. It seemed to me that there was no chance any living person was going to be pulled out of the rubble.  It seemed like I was there for a long time but I was at the CTV site for just 6 minutes in total.

St John Ambulance personnel standing over a stretcher loaded with medical supplies outside the collapsed Canterbury Television Building on Madras Street. Behind them, emergency personnel can be seen searching the ruins of the building for trapped people.


I walked out via Kilmore Street.  The light was getting low and there was no-one around anymore.  The only sounds were ongoing fire and burglar alarms.  I was pretty over it at that point.

I returned the Christchurch City Council ID to my contact at the Art Gallery.  I ran into my brother-in- law there.  He was dropping off BBQs to help feed the emergency workers.  He gave me a ride back to my car. As it happened, the whole extended family had bugged out to his house in Rolleston.  When I got there I tried to upload images to some random news agency in the UK who'd called and asked if I had any good pictures.  It took too long though to edit and deliver anything and none got used.  They, and the Sydney Morning Herald, I think it was, asked me to go back in and cover it the next day.  I said I wasn't interested. It's just not the kind of photography I want to do and no doubt there'd be legions of news photographers around by then to do it.  I was more interested in hanging out with the whanau for a few days in Rolleston instead. 

I did go and do some more work on it later though.  My partner Kate and I, along with my 80-year-old father, went out for a day with the Student [Volunteer] Army and I shot photographs between bouts of shovelling.  That was genuinely inspiring. I turned down a day's work in Auckland for a European newspaper so I could do it.  It didn't feel right to leave Christchurch when I could do something more useful here.

Neil also explained his decision to gift a copy of his photographs to UC CEISMIC, as well as the role photographers play in the documentation of natural disasters:

Richie Cosgrove, the Illustrations Editor at The Press told me about the CEISMIC Programme.  He told me that Fairfax had supplied images to it.  That lent the programme a lot of credibility so I thought it was worth looking into. I don't think my photography that day was particularly special, but it's nice to think that the images I had might be of value to someone somewhere down the line.  My initial dealings with CEISMIC also reassured me that they knew what they were doing and would treat the images appropriately. I've handed images over to a couple of books as well, mainly because there are people in the images who will remember that day as one of the most dramatic, moving and important days of their lives and I think they should have a chance to see the images.  There's also a bit of ego involved on my part. I'm just as prone to wanting to say, 'See? I was there then!', as anyone else. 

Also, I hope that by offering my images I'm supporting the role of photographers as an important part of the response to an emergency.  The images of disasters like February 22nd that are later valued as a historical record, or as evidence in an inquiry, or as a reminder of what a particular emergency service person was doing that day don't happen by accident.  They have to be shot by someone with suitable equipment and skill that is actually on site at the time. And generally, but not always, the important images are made by professional photographers whose primary focus is taking photos.

Denying photographers access to disaster events means you're denying future generations the chance to see what really happened there.  I believe that the images taken that day are important and I hope they serve as a reminder that photographers do something valuable for society.

Photographs by Neil Macbeth CC-BY-ND