Tsunami - unclaimed possessions

Tsunami - unclaimed possessions


Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, one of the most devastating humanitarian disasters in recorded history, Thai police opened a cargo container packed with victims’ unclaimed items. It has not been opened since 2011.

After requests from Reuters to film its contents, Thai police unveiled tattered cardboard boxes and evidence bags full of watches, chunky gold necklaces and cash, among others.


Photographer Damir Sagolj talks about his experience shooting the unclaimed possessions.

"Everyone was surprised by the items found in there."
Damir Sagolj, Reuters Photographer

As a photographer, you want to get as close as possible to your subject – to see the smallest detail without missing the big picture. That old rule will never get too old to forget.

But how do you apply it to an event which took place a decade ago?

The bigger the distance – be it time or space – the harder it gets to tell the story accurately. It gets blurred, obscured and perhaps even twisted. Some parts vanish, while others grow.

I've covered over 100 hundred mass graves and identification processes in my career, full of mass killings and major natural disasters. Many of these assignments took place long after the tragedy.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami was a huge disaster and "routine coverage" – such an ugly phrase – of its 10th anniversary doesn’t seem to be enough.

Of course we will find survivors and they will recount their stories, we will speak to parents who lost their children, to fishermen whose lives will never be the same again.

But then perhaps you want something else that will bring the 2004 Boxing Day disaster alive and make people stop to think for a moment: "Well, that thing in pictures – that really could have been me."

I found out from a colleague of mine at Reuters about a shipping container full of items found on tsunami victims.

It brought to mind a masterfully executed collection of pictures by a great Bosnian photographer of items found with victims of the Bosnian war.

Naturally, we immediately started asking permissions to see what is inside that container and to film it.

Police in Thailand's Takua Pa district, who received the container in 2011 from those who carried out the initial identification process, agreed to the request by Reuters to film its contents, and its heavy doors were opened after years.

Everyone was surprised by the items found in there, and especially the quantity of valuable possessions.

At first, we thought it would just be several boxes with items belonging to the almost 400 still unidentified victims whose remains are buried in a cemetery nearby, unclaimed. But it seems there is more.

A random box was taken out and its contents were placed on a table.

Inside was a yellow snorkelling mask, which looked children’s size, with a fine grain of sand from Thailand’s famous beaches still on it. There were amulets and a little Buddha statue. A watch and wedding rings and much more, in that black hole of pain.

It would be difficult to get closer so I took pictures of those very different items one by one. Such a big tragedy doesn't ask for your age or profession or religion, whether you are rich or poor, an academic from the developed world on holidays or a migrant fisherman from Myanmar who came to earn just enough to feed his family back home. It’s a full scale disaster.

Unfortunately, no matter how terrible the event, soon the names will become numbers, and the numbers statistics. But we're all thinking "That could never be me," right?