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Living Through the Nepal Earthquake, Then Grabbing a Camera

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Phur Tenzing Sherpa stands in front of the home he shared with his son Kami Rita Sherpa. His son is in route from working on an expedition on the north side of Everest to help the family.

From the densely populated city of Kathmandu to the remote village of Thame, the Nepalese felt the force of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked the country on April 25. Local and global photographers converged on the scene almost instantly as aftershocks recurred, each one seemingly worse than the preceding blow.

As photo editors for National Geographic News, we worked to cover the story as it unfolded. During the course of our coverage, we learned of three photographers who were already on the scene in both Kathmandu and Thame when the earthquake hit.

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Rescuers rush a victim off on a stretcher in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photograph by Liam Kelly

We interviewed these three photographers over email about their experience, five days after the earthquake.

Thomas Kelly is an American photographer who has lived in Kathmandu for three decades; Liam Kelly, his son, was born in Nepal and is also a photographer. They shared their reactions to the scene unfolding in their hometown with Nicole.

NICOLE WERBECK: Walk us through the first moments after the earthquake hit. What were you feeling?

THOMAS KELLY: I was walking up to my perch-top studio located on the third floor, and the house was shaking. My son Liam yelled, “Earthquake!” I lost my footing, smashed my right arm against the railing, and landed on the bottom floor landing. I recovered, ran outside, and huddled at the base of one of our trees in the yard. The ground was still swaying like a bowl of jelly and my heart was pounding. Liam bolted back into the house. I followed him as we ran through the house yelling [for my wife, Carroll] but she was nowhere to be found. I ran back upstairs to my studio, grabbed my three hard drives, 32-inch Mac screen, and camera bag and stashed them in our shed located away from the house. Suddenly, Carroll appeared at the front gate riding her scooter, returning from a friend’s house.

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Rescuers dig through rubble in Kathmandu. Photograph by Thomas Kelly

LIAM KELLY: I was in my room on the bottom floor of our house. As our house began to shake, it took a few seconds for me to discern what was happening. I ducked into my doorway and waited for a moment of calm to run outside. [I saw] an apocalyptic scene with our 100-foot-tall pine trees aggressively swaying in the windless haze of dust. Dogs were barking, and people were screaming in panic.

We had prepared “go bags” containing important documents, food, water, and [tents] stored in the shed outside, but nothing could have prepared us for the visceral, emotional sensation of being uncontrollably rocked by Mother Nature.

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Nepalis who left their homes rest together, in silence, in the Ason Tole neighborhood. Photograph by Thomas Kelly

NICOLE: What were some of the challenges and obstacles you faced before, during, and after you were shooting?

THOMAS: I was on my motorcycle heading to the main palace square in Kathmandu when I passed through a neighborhood and saw the Rana Palace building had collapsed. I know the owner, Jeevan Shum Sher Rana. I immediately stopped my motorcycle. Half of the palace was in ruins and the armed police force (AFP) was already at the site [and told me] the family was buried below. I thought, “Do I engage or document?” I documented and left thinking about Jeevan.

LIAM: I couldn’t sit a moment more in our yard. I deeply wanted to know what was going on. Instinctively, I picked up my camera and jumped on my motorcycle.

People were frantically digging through rubble with their bare hands. “Help or go home,” people aggressively said to photojournalists impeding the rescue of those trapped beneath cement and bricks. For me, responsible journalism is essential.

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Parts of the Hanuman Dhoka, Kathmandu’s oldest palace, have collapsed, along with the pagodas of several temples. The palace was built by the Malla kings in the 16th century. Photograph by Thomas Kelly

NICOLE: What’s next for you? Will you stay and continue to document the humanitarian crisis as it unfolds?

THOMAS: For the last four days, I’ve been flying on army helicopters to the rural areas to show the devastation. These images and personal stories will testify reality and will reach relief agencies. I live here and will continue to share stories which will show reality unfolding.

LIAM: It’s now time to work on building shelters. Monsoon season is approaching quickly, and if we are up for this mission, we must not let ourselves become daunted by the tasks of reconstruction ahead.


Eighty miles east, in a rural village called Thame, photographer and climbing guide David Morton was guiding a longtime client on the Kyajo Ri peak when they ended up in Thame the evening before the quake.

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A home in Thame Theng after the quake. Men work to remove salvageable windows for rebuilding. Photograph by David Morton

Witnessing extreme destruction in the remote village after the quake, Morton instinctively picked up his camera. However, sending his pictures to photo editor Mallory Benedict proved difficult due to the poor Internet connection. “I was really motivated to get the images of Thame out sooner,” Morton said in an email, “but it just wasn’t happening.”

Refusing to give up, Morton sent a USB drive holding the photos on a helicopter that was picking up trekkers, which then was put on a flight from Lukla to Kathmandu, and finally driven to a friend in Kathmandu who had a good Internet connection, and who sent the images to National Geographic.

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A family begins to remove valuables from the gomba room, or prayer room, of their home. Photograph by David Morton

MALLORY BENEDICT: Walk us through the first moments after the earthquake hit. What were you feeling?

DAVID MORTON: I was with two Sherpa friends who I’ve known for some years, Lhamu Chiki and Danuru. We were holding each other as the quake took its toll, and had just vacated the home of Lhamu Chiki. Lhamu Chiki was crying and Danuru was praying as we sat tight and watched the buildings around us crumble.

Once it subsided, there was a feeling of relief for 10 or 15 minutes as people tried to call loved ones in Kathmandu, but of course no one could get through. Then a significant aftershock hit, and Lhamu Chiki took a call that indicated her sister may have died. We took off on the trail to go to her sister’s home an hour away. At that point it was simply the natural drive to help, and I hadn’t thought of the camera.

The big aftershock approximately 24 hours later hit many people harder, including myself. It was a slap in the face indicating that the danger that most felt had passed [wasn’t over]. People melted a bit emotionally. It’s an unusual intensity. On the one hand, there is this emotional connection we don’t usually have with one another which is life-affirming, but at the same time it’s a life-shattering experience to watch the destruction of homes and communities where life is tied together over so many years. That’s like tearing a bit of the fabric of life apart.

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One of the few tea houses in Thame Theng was destroyed by the quake on April 25. Photograph by David Morton

MALLORY: What made you decide to pick up your camera?

DAVID: We set off for another village from Thame, and as we entered that village, there was no question that I needed to get out the camera and shoot. It was devastating. In some ways, it can be easier in that scene to get behind the camera, as you can [become] numb to the emotion and add a barrier.

MALLORY: What were some of the challenges and obstacles you faced before, during, and after you were shooting?

DAVID: The challenge for me in a situation like that is balancing the strong desire to help out with just shooting. In the 48 hours after the first quake hit, I would want to get rid of the camera and lend a hand or sit with people. At the same time, there is the drive to capture the moments because there is an obvious story right before your eyes. There’s resilience, strength, fear, confusion—humanity comes spilling out.

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Ang Chottar Sherpa, brother of Pasang Diki Sherpa, holds a stick to stoke the fire that is cremating the remains of his sister who perished in the quake. Photograph by David Morton

MALLORY: What’s next for you? Will you stay and continue to document the humanitarian crisis as it unfolds?

DAVID: I do plan on staying to document more of the aftermath and capture some of the stories that will come out of the next phase. That will invariably include uncovering a variety of responses to a crisis like this. I’ll also probably have to balance that desire to drop the camera. Luckily, there’s enough to capture and enough need for help to do both.

See more of Thomas and Liam Kelly’s photos from the days following the earthquake.

See more of David Morton’s photos from Thame. Explore more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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