Justin Clemons Covers Aftermath of Moore, Oklahoma Tornado

By Jacqui Palumbo

Justin Clemons is a Dallas-based photographer who approaches his imagery with authenticity, communicating his subjects to viewers in a direct way. His recent clients include Texas Monthly, Forbes, Runners World, Entrepreneur, Wells Fargo, Wal-Mart and The Wall Street Journal, and he stays involved with his local creative community, leading a small group called Kick in the Ass (KITA), where members challenge each other to keep up with personal projects in addition to their commissioned work.

Clemons received his first assignment from Getty Images in late 2011 for content for the HGTV show “Million Dollar Room,” and has worked with the agency on several occasions since. The day of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, Clemons was finishing up a shoot in West, Texas and he received a call from Getty to cover the aftermath for Save the Children. He quickly packed a bag and made preparations to arrive the following day.

Save the Children needed content fast, and Clemons’ role was to document the damage and to tell the stories of the families who had fallen victim to the disaster, which killed 24 people and injured 377. Another photographer would be flying after Clemons to photograph Save the Children team members as they set up relief areas and play areas for kids.

When Clemons arrived in Moore, he was not prepared for the scene that lay ahead of him. “You hear it a lot, but it was like an end-of-the-world movie,” he explains. “It was chaos.” 

With soldiers present everywhere and standstill traffic due to closed roads, Clemons could not even reach the neighborhood by car. “I eventually just started walking,” he says. As he neared the affected area, he saw the mud and debris in residents’ yards began to increase and take on larger shapes. Debris gave way to mangled cars, and then he found himself standing in a flat field where hundreds of homes once stood, covered in wreckage.

“The destruction was just too big for my mind to grasp it,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing.” He decided to focus on small sections at a time, walking through the neighborhood and carefully approaching families as they tried to salvage their belongings.

Clemons was cautious about asking the residents to be photographed, as he couldn’t begin to comprehend how they felt. He spoke to many of them for as long as possible first, listening to their stories and connecting with them. He was surprised to find that many of them did want to be photographed. “I think most people wanted to be seen and heard,” he says. 

Their stories were both powerful and sad: A family that hid in the hallway under a mattress believed their home to be safe, only to discover when they stood up that the entire house, except the hallway, had blown away. A little girl who asked if Clemons’ own daughter, after watching a silly video of her, had had her school fall on her as well. The girl had survived the collapse of an elementary school thanks to her teacher, who shielded her from a wall as it fell on top of them. The teacher was in the hospital, and was badly injured. In most of the stories though, there was a similar vein that ran through each – neighbors helping neighbors, adults protecting children, a community being a community in the most sincere sense of the term.

Clemons was there for a day and a half, and spent six to seven hours photographing. The other hours were spent coordinating with Save the Children team members, who were flying in from all over the country to help and were being pulled away by news channels for interviews intermittently. They needed the imagery quickly for social media, so he uploaded images to his computer when he could, and sent iPhone photos direct when they needed immediate content.

The assignment impacted Clemons in a deep and personal way. He left Moore, Oklahoma with a new understanding of how fragile life can be. The lives of the residents changed in just 39 minutes, the length of time that the tornado made contact with the ground. Clemons’ photos tell their individual stories, and he hopes that together they tell the story of the town.

For more of Justin Clemons’ work, visit his Web site.


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