Two months ago, Cyclone Pam touched down in Vanuatu, an island nation located off the northeastern coast of Australia. Pam was one of the strongest storms to ever hit the South Pacific, and will likely go down as one of the worst natural disasters in Vanuatu’s history. According to the BBC, the cyclone left 24 dead, 3,300 displaced and many more in need of aid for food and water.
Aaron Tait, a commercial photographer based in Queensland, Australia, was sent to photograph the recovering nation by his client, Digicel, an international mobile phone network provider. Aaron says the cyclone was big news in Australia, since Vanuatu is only a three-hour flight away, and those massive Pacific storms can sometimes hit the northern coast of the country. Aaron heard through social media that Digicel had sent people to their Port Vila (Vanuatu’s capital/largest city) office to help coordinate their network recovery, so he got in touch.
Out of that conversation came the request for me to go over and photograph what they were doing to get back on their feet. Digicel is a mobile communications provider, so a lot of their gear had been damaged. I normally shoot their advertising campaigns, so this certainly was a different brief from them, but not unlike what I shoot for some of my other clients. Basically, it was storytelling, which is what I do best.
Instead of shooting the damage and destruction left behind after the cyclone, Aaron’s job was to focus on Vanuatu’s recovery and how Digicel and their business partners were a part of it. Digicel was beginning to restore phone service to the islands, but many mobile phones had been lost or destroyed during the storm. For most residents of Tanna, a remote island in the Tafea province of Vanuatu, it was nearly impossible to communicate with loved ones outside of the country. So, in addition to restoring cell service and delivering food packs, Digicel gave away free, ready-to-use phones to Tanna’s villagers. As Aaron puts it, he and his client burned the midnight oil planning his trip to Tanna to show that Digicel was not only a service/product, but also an essential part of their customers’ lives.
I have seen the aftermath of cyclones in my own country, but I’d never witnessed devastation like this firsthand and so close after the cyclone had gone. So when I arrived the country had just started to get back on its feet—roads were being cleared and the people of Vanuatu were getting on with it, what else is there to do? Fortunately, they had fine weather straight after, so the risk of disease was low—this was a big bonus. Nature is a beautiful thing, but it can also be very brutal.
My biggest challenge was that as a commercial photographer, I had to remember that I wasn’t there to exploit the people waiting for their phones and aid packs. They weren’t paid talent—they were real people who had just gone through a horrific ordeal. It’s very easy to jump on a plane and appear out of nowhere and start shooting away. I was a guest in their village, I wanted their trust, I wanted to show their dignity and, above all, I wanted to tell the story of the day honestly and with integrity.
The reaction to the photos has been overwhelmingly positive for Aaron. Digicel used the images to illustrate to their other global markets what’s happening in Vanuatu, and how the free cell phones helped to connect loved ones after the storm. Aaron also plans to print them and have an exhibition in his studio in the future.
To see more of Aaron’s work, visit aarontait.com.