John Collins – Man Who Lost Everything

I.C. RapoportOn Assignment, Paris March, PhotojournalismLeave a Comment



Mary Rapoport posted this comment on Facebook: “This coming October will mark the 50th anniversary of the mining tragedy in Aberfan, Wales. So it was almost 50 years ago that Chuck spent six weeks there photographing the aftermath that touched everyone in that community and it surrounds with the loss of 116 children and 32 adults. Over the years my husband has received letters and emails from survivors and their relatives who wanted to find the Life Magazine edition or to let him know how their lives progressed. Just this morning he read me an email that referred to a photo of a man who lost everything, his wife, two sons, their home and all it contained of their life and history, as the slag heap flowed down the mountain. It seems that this photograph of a broken man, printed in Life Magazine, prompted a woman to reach out to that bereaved man and they married and they made a life and a daughter who wrote to Chuck because she wanted him to know that his photograph of such terrible loss had helped to create her family.”

The photos of John were taken in his Sister-in-Law’s home in Aberfan just around a month after the disaster. John Collin’s home, that was completely destroyed by the avalanche, was on the same street as the Pantglas Elementary School where the children perished. John Collins lost everything of his previous life.  Thought you’d like to read these emails. It’s a marvelously moving story and proves the power of of a photograph.

See more photographs from I.C. Rapoport’s Assignment

This is the email I received in 2010 – from Bernice Collins – daughter of John Collins of Aberfan. Please read.

On Mar 2, 2010 , at 10:29 PM, I received this email:

My name is Bernice Collins and I am the Daughter of John Collins of Aberfan. I was doing some research into my father’s past when I came across your name in particular to do with a Photo taken of my father which was the reason my mother contacted and later married him. She thinks it was in Life magazine but is not sure as it was him, sitting alone, and we can’t find this particular image in Life magazine. I would appreciate your help in identifying the particular magazine as I wish to obtain a copy to keep as part of our family history.
Many Thanks

My return email:

“Dear Bernice, it is remarkable that you should find me and contact me. Thank you. I met your dad in the later days of November, 1966, about a month after the disaster in Aberfan struck that eliminated his home and all of his family. Needless to say, he was a truly broken man and had every reason to be as he was left with nothing but the memories in his head. No clothing, nothing from his home (it was completely destroyed), no books, papers, or photographs. It was as if they, and everything they were, had never existed. Only their bodies were found. I was quite moved and had a very difficult time working the shutters on my cameras. It was your father, John, who encouraged me to continue working as he said to me, “It’s your job to do this…

Mr. John Collins, November, 1966

Mr. John Collins, November, 1966  © I C Rapoport

   “Upon my return to Aberfan in 2003 (my first time back since 1966) I was met by David Davies, one of the surviving boys from the Pantglas school, who was then the Chair of the Disaster Memorial Committee. He told me that your father had passed not much longer after the disaster and that he had remarried. He mentioned nothing of another child – you. I am quite moved now that your existence is directly the result of my photograph of John Collins in so far as it provoked your mom to seek him out, later to marry him. I of course am assuming that you were born to your mom after she married John – and if that is true, then John’s prompting me to continue shooting photos resulted in his picture being displayed in LIFE magazine and your mother seeking him out.

Speaking of the magazine, I have one copy of Life International in my Los Angeles home but today I am in New York so I can’t look it up. You might want to google this: Life Magazine January 6, 1967 : Cover – A black leopard : part I of a new series : the great cats of Africa (16 pages of color photos). Welsh town of Aberfan’s grief for its dead children in a mine disaster.

    “It is the LIFE magazine that was published here in the States, and you can buy it, it has the whole story, the pictures, and John is mentioned and photographed. The stories are almost identical (between LIFE International and LIFE domestic).

    “Also, you may not know that I had a big exhibition of the Aberfan Aftermath photographs at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth in April 2005 . Also, one in Merthyr in November of 2006. There is a book published of all the photos in the exhibit including four of your dad. You can order it at a bookseller. It’s title ABERFAN: The Days After, by I C Rapoport and it is published by Parthian Books of Cardigan, Wales.

Good luck and thanks for writing to me.”

I C Rapoport