We’ve all done it; watched the news reports, read the stories and shaken our heads – ‘those poor people’ whose lives are ripped apart when disaster strikes. We may all read the news, hold bake sales and collections, but slowly but surely the stories stop. The tagline of the Reframing Disaster conference held in Leeds last weekend was ‘disaster is not an event’, and the conference focused on perspectives on the aftermath of catastrophe – the rebuilding of lives and not just their destruction.
The presentation detailed the numerous reasons why Band Aid 30 was so wildly outdated and inappropriate
Academics from across the globe had travelled to deliver papers, providing a diverse spectrum of topics and interests which spanned a number of worldwide catastrophes. On the Ebola outbreak, an engaging and entertaining presentation detailed the numerous reasons why Band Aid 30 was so wildly outdated and inappropriate, and ridiculed Geldof and Bono’s ‘messianic’ complexes. There were thought-provoking pieces on the continuing effects of colonialism despite it having supposedly ended, focusing on the Arab Spring as a socio-economic revolution against western dominance in North Africa, and examining the effects of America’s previous colonial presence on the Haitian earthquake and subsequent cholera outbreak.
There were also presentations which focused on literary and cultural responses to crisis. Minoli Salgado, a writer who was in Sri Lanka on the day of the tsunami spoke of the paradox of speech and silence in response to crisis, the need for emotional outlet and yet it’s ‘unspeakability.’ Her poem ‘The Waves’, narrating an encounter with a family who had lost two daughters, was written only 5 days after disaster struck. Salgado told of how she was unhappy with the poem, as despite its hauntingly beautiful depictions of grief, there is something problematic in painting the family as victims – she went on to say how the family were today surviving and thriving. This reconstruction was a focus of the evening event on the Friday, which also included the photography of Francesca Moore around the people living in the aftermath of Bhopal gas disaster. One commentator remarked that in photographing their portraits, Moore had ‘given the Bhopalis their sense of dignity’, after being discarded as almost worthless by Union Carbide, whose irresponsibility disastrously affects the lives of people in the area even now, 30 years on.
The conference was a triumph in many ways. The fact that there were so many high profile speakers is impressive in itself, but the fact that all the presentations were accessible and engaging made the conference attractive to all; academics, undergraduates and members of the public alike. The event was interesting, informative and at times moving, an impressive and memorable combination. The conference succeeded in ‘reframing disaster’ in many different ways, and perhaps in future we won’t be so quick turn the page on catastrophe.