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Aberfan survivors speak publicly about media coverage of disaster

15 September 2016

Chuck Rapoport speaking at Cardiff University
Chuck Rapoport presented his photos taken in the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster

Survivors, rescuers and journalists involved in the Aberfan disaster have spoken of their experiences publicly at a conference in Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

Set against the backdrop of the Aberfan tragedy, where a coal tip slid on to the village school and 18 homes on 21 October 1966, the one-day conference looked at issues surrounding media coverage of trauma.

The event heard several powerful testimonies from those who had worked in the media at the time and also from residents of Aberfan, some of whom felt moved to stand up and tell their own stories for the first time.

New York based photojournalist Chuck Rapoport who captured the aftermath of the disaster, presented his photographs of Aberfan and its people.

He said "It was the first major disaster of its kind that was televised.

"I watched with my child on my lap and was so moved I knew that I had to connect with these people."

Where have all the flowers gone?

Writing on his blog, Director of Undergraduate Studies Dr John Jewell chose to highlight the passion in Vincent Kane’s speech. As a journalist himself, Kane had reported from Aberfan in 1966.

Dr Jewell wrote, “Kane’s closing keynote speech was beautifully passionate, poetic, angry and robust.

“He was devastating in his condemnation of both the National Coal Board and the Union of Mineworkers. They had known about the tip being built on a sloping hillside, upon two underground springs which were clearly shown on ordinance survey maps.”

Vincent Kane speaking at Cardiff University
Vincent Kane

He added “Kane was critical of journalism too. In the years that followed the tragedy the media had not been as forceful as it could have been in exposing the truth and defending the surviving community.

“In an atmosphere where the residents of Aberfan were labelled greedy trouble makers, the media had reneged on its responsibility to hold power to account.”

A ‘safe’ place

Writing separately, documentary lecturer Dr Janet Harris noted how the University setting and the frank and open admissions of speakers created a unique space for survivors and witnesses to speak publicly about the disaster.

Dr Harris wrote, “What emerged was a moving and fascinating day where some of the disaster survivors: children, family members, reporters and emergency service workers, spoke publicly for the first time after 50 years, where the ‘academic’ conference was transformed into something else.

“It moved beyond the didactic and performative to become a safe location where people could speak out and exchange and share knowledge both within and beyond the institution.”

Anniversary exhibition

Chuck Rapoport's pictures feature in an exhibition which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the disaster. Aberfan: Remembrances of a Photojournalist opens at the Redhouse in Merthyr Tydfil and runs until 29 October.

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