Monthly Archives: November 2013

What Do Monks Eat For Breakfast?

A monk, known colloquially as KBL, watches TV in his Phnom Penh pagoda.

A monk, known colloquially as KBL, watches TV in his Phnom Penh pagoda.

It was after midnight, and the dirt path winding through the Cordomom Mountains was covered in fog, barely visible by the light of a waning moon. The path, which I had been following for more than eight hours, was heavily rutted and continuously snagged the toes of my boots as I dragged them along with exhausted legs. The night air, unusually cool for Cambodia, chilled my sweat and created a slimy clamminess that coated my neck and lower back. I wanted to do anything other than keep walking, but a stubborn pride – a trait fostered by my experiences as a tree planter in northern Canada – prevented me from accepting the numerous motorcycle rides I had been offered. The other foreign journalists were not so so pig-headed, and it had been over an hour since the last of them had driven past, looking relieved to be off their feet at last.

In desperation to reach Pra Lay, a small village in the Areng Valley, I was walking much too fast and had left most of the others behind – save one young Buddhist monk named Prim Houn. I could sense the same obstinate determination in him that I felt in myself, and so we walked together in silent solidarity. Every 15 minutes or so, he would comment “very far,” and I would either nod or grunt my agreement. For nearly two hours that was the extent of our conversation until Houn suddenly stopped in the middle of the path and reached into the pockets hidden deep within his saffron robes.

I expected him to produce a bottle of water, or maybe a pack of cigarettes (even monks have vices), but instead he brought out a white Samsung Galaxy tablet computer. Seeing a monk with a cell phone is nothing new, as anyone who has spent time in Southeast Asia can attest, but in the middle of the night, in a remote valley that most people have never heard of, it seemed very strange indeed. I knew we hadn’t been within range of a cell tower since before the sun had set – nearly six hours previously – and so I couldn’t imagine what he was planning to do with the device. After tapping at the screen for a few seconds, he extended his hands towards me, offering the tablet. A note-taking application was open, and he had typed a single word: Facebook?

This interaction started a thought that would linger well after I left the Areng Valley. What is it like to be a monk in the 21st Century? What is their relationship to technology? What do they actually do?

In my mind, monks had always seemed like objects of exotic otherness rather than real people. Seeing them in the streets of Yangon or Bangkok they represented a National Geographic version of Asia, and I felt like they belonged more on postcards than on the back of a motorcycle. Any photos I had taken of usually featured them silhouetted against a glowing sunset, or walking stoically through the gates of a pagoda, orange umbrellas over their shoulders. My interpersonal exposure was so limited that I had never thought of them doing anything other than collecting alms or reciting the dharma.

After meeting Prim Houn and his fellow monks, the questions I had were not about their quest for enlightenment or the humble value of an ascetic life. I didn’t particularly want to know how I could implement Buddhist philosophies into my own western lifestyle, but instead I was curious about the mundane – what were their favourite movies? Did they have a twitter account? If so, why? How did they get money to buy a cutting edge touchscreen tablet?

Since getting back from the protest in the Areng Valley, I’ve followed up on these questions. In fact I’ve spent almost every afternoon since in a pagoda, querying them on topics as far ranging as Duck Dynasty, the NFL, and sex. Over the coming weeks and months I plan on spending most of my free time trying to discover the real nature of a monk’s life in modern society, and I think the answers will be as interesting to you as they are to me.

Want to know something about the real life of a Buddhist monk? Chances are that the things you would like to know would also be of interest to me, so comment below, join me on social media, or email me directly with your questions and I’ll put them to my new friends. 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia Tagged , , , , , |

Underwater Gold Miners in Southern Leyte

I spent a month in Leyte last year while working on a story about independent (illegal) gold miners in the Philippines. When I heard about the magnitude of typhoon Haiyan, and that it had devastated Leyte’s largest city, Tacloban, I immediately thought of these guys.

I recently heard from a friend who used to live on Leyte, and still kept in contact with some of her old friends. Many have lost their families, and I fear the worst for the gold miners I met.

Working along the gold rich coasts of the island, these miners spend up to 10 hours a day dredging the sea floor for ore using only their hands and empty rice bags. They make their own goggles from coconuts and polished glass bottles, and most wear only flip flops as diving shoes. Their air comes through thin plastic tubes which is pumped from a small compressor on shore. Any tangle or kink in the lines would mean drowning.

The gold they find is extracted from the ore at handmade washing stations along the beach, and then sold to small-scale local buyers. From here the gold leaves the island and is taken to larger buyers who smelt the gold into disks or bricks of pure gold before shipping the product to the gold markets of Manila. For their part in the operation the divers will see very little of the profit, and despite finding gold nearly every day, are only just able to support their families on what they make.

As much as I would like to hope, I think it would be naive to imagine none of these people have been affected by the Haiyan disaster. These people had a rough life to begin with, and it has gotten much, much harder. They were extremely welcoming to me, and once things settle down I plan to make a trip to see what their situation is and how I can help.

Thin air tubes are connected to a compressor. Mining also takes place in the ocean and though extremely dangerous, workers use this air system to breathe rather than more expensive scuba gear.

Thin air tubes are connected to a compressor. Mining also takes place in the ocean and though extremely dangerous, workers use this air system to breathe rather than more expensive scuba gear.

Thin air tubes are connected to a compressor. Mining also takes place in the ocean and though extremely dangerous, workers use this air system to breathe rather than more expensive scuba gear.

Thin air tubes are connected to a compressor. Mining also takes place in the ocean and though extremely dangerous, workers use this air system to breathe rather than more expensive scuba gear.

An underwater miner prepares to dive. The miners often make their own goggles out of wood and polished glass bottles.

An underwater miner prepares to dive. The miners often make their own goggles out of wood and polished glass bottles.

Two senior miners monitor the diving, watching the air tubes for kinks or signs of trouble. Since the divers are weighted with large boulders any failure in the air system can be fatal.

Two senior miners monitor the diving, watching the air tubes for kinks or signs of trouble. Since the divers are weighted with large boulders any failure in the air system can be fatal.

A miner hauls unprocessed rock from the seabed onto the beach.

A miner hauls unprocessed rock from the seabed onto the beach.

A boy washes crushed rock to separate the sand and mud from the gold dust.

A boy washes crushed rock to separate the sand and mud from the gold dust.

Liquid mercury is used to separate the gold from the sand and mud. Extremely poisonous, the use of mercury for mining is illegal in most countries, including the Philippines.

Liquid mercury is used to separate the gold from the sand and mud. Extremely poisonous, the use of mercury for mining is illegal in most countries, including the Philippines.

The raw gold is melted in ceramic bowls to solidify it into circular disks in a refinery on the neighbouring island of Mindanao.

The raw gold is melted in ceramic bowls to solidify it into circular disks in a refinery on the neighbouring island of Mindanao.

A disk of pure gold, ready to be sold.

A disk of pure gold, ready to be sold.

A low-level buyer weighs the day’s gold. When he has collected enough to make the trip profitable, he will transport the gold to the neighbouring island of Mindanao for refining.

A low-level buyer weighs the day’s gold. When he has collected enough to make the trip profitable, he will transport the gold to the neighbouring island of Mindanao for refining.

A gold market in Chinatown, Manila. Some of the gold from Pinot An makes its way to the nation’s capital, though the vast majority is smuggled out of the country.

A gold market in Chinatown, Manila. Some of the gold from Pinot An makes its way to the nation’s capital, though the vast majority is smuggled out of the country.

Posted in Blog, Disaster, Philippines Tagged , , , , , , |

March of the Monks: Black and White

I used to love black and white photography. The stark images from people like Don McCullin and James Nachtwey, were some of the reasons I was drawn to photojournalism in the first place. When I first started taking pictures more seriously, the first step in my post-production workflow was to immediately convert them to black and white. But when I tried to switch to colour photography during those years, I found that all my images looked washed out and bland.

So a few years ago I needed to remedy the situation and started shooting exclusively in colour. In the last year and a half the number of black and white’s I’ve made is in the single digits, which is a shame since it was the format that I originally fell in love with.

In an effort to try and recapture what I used to love about black and white, I decided to make a second edit of my Marching Monks story. It might be an odd choice for a return to monochrome, since the saffron-clad monks are so iconically colourful, but it really changes up the feeling of the story.

I’ve held off on showing the full story, in colour, because my written account of the protesting monks has been picked up by a large media organization (which will remain unnamed until I’m completely sure they will publish it!).

I’d be very interested to hear what people think about the strengths and weaknesses of black and white vs colour, so if you think that one is better than the other, I’d love to know why. Post a comment at the end of this post, on Twitter or Facebook, or email me directly to get a dialogue going about which one works best.

Monks stand in from of a roadside restaurant

Monks stand in from of a roadside restaurant

Monks drive past rows of rubber trees on their way to the Areng Valley. Foreign owned rubber plantations are a commonm cause of deforestation in Cambodia.

Monks drive past rows of rubber trees on their way to the Areng Valley. Foreign owned rubber plantations are a commonm cause of deforestation in Cambodia.

A colum of monks begin their walk towards Pra Lay, a small village in the Cordomom Mountains. The monks are hours behind schedule and their destination is 25km away.

A colum of monks begin their walk towards Pra Lay, a small village in the Cordomom Mountains. The monks are hours behind schedule and their destination is 25km away.

Darkness falls on the marching monks early in their walk.

Darkness falls on the marching monks early in their walk.

The monks are of varying ages and fitness levels, and many must stop to rest periodically.

The monks are of varying ages and fitness levels, and many must stop to rest periodically.

Sun rise in Pra Lay village. Despite their late arrival, most monks rise with the sun.

Sun rise in Pra Lay village. Despite their late arrival, most monks rise with the sun.

The monks eat a breakfast of rice and curried vegetables. Buddhist monks do not eat anything past noon each day and so a large breakfast is essential.

The monks eat a breakfast of rice and curried vegetables. Buddhist monks do not eat anything past noon each day and so a large breakfast is essential.

Monks unfurl an 80-metre length of saffron cloth which they will use to bless trees during their protest.

Monks unfurl an 80-metre length of saffron cloth which they will use to bless trees during their protest.

The monks walk through the rainforest the morning after the march, searching for large trees to bless as holy.

The monks walk through the rainforest the morning after the march, searching for large trees to bless as holy.

The monks bless the large trees in the hopes that being seen as holy will protect them from being cut down. Many hardwood trees in Cambodia are extremely valuable, and therefore desirable for independent (and illegal) loggers.

The monks bless the large trees in the hopes that being seen as holy will protect them from being cut down. Many hardwood trees in Cambodia are extremely valuable, and therefore desirable for independent (and illegal) loggers.

The monks swim in the Areng River after their tree blessing ceremony. Many of the monks are still exhausted from the previous night's march and welcome an afternoon of relaxation.

The monks swim in the Areng River after their tree blessing ceremony. Many of the monks are still exhausted from the previous night’s march and welcome an afternoon of relaxation.

A monk enjoys a moment of reflection before starting the 25km walk out of the Areng Valley.

A monk enjoys a moment of reflection before starting the 25km walk out of the Areng Valley.

Posted in Black and White, Blog, Cambodia Tagged , , , , , , |

March to the Arang Valley

My friend and fellow Phnom Penh photojournalist, Thomas Cristofoletti, called me a week ago and asked nonchalantly if I wanted to go walk into the jungle with a group of forty monks. Truth be told, I really didn’t have any idea what he was talking about – but it seemed like a fantastic proposition nevertheless. It’s the first time I’ve been asked that question anyways, and I wouldn’t have been able to respect myself had I said no.

Several days later, when I was crossing rivers in the black of night, it seemed less fantastic.

The monks, working in partnership with several non-profit organizations, were heading to the remote Arang valley in western Cambodia in order to raise awareness about the dangers of deforestation. The only way to get to the village of Pra Lay, where the bulk of the monk’s demonstration was scheduled to take place, was along a winding dirt path of unknown distance.

In the beginning we were under the impression the walk would be about 16km, which is, though strenuous on an uneven jungle road, very manageable. Halfway through the walk, rumours began to circulate that the actual length of the trail was over 30km. In the end, the most agreed upon number seemed to be around 25km, but that element of not knowing how much longer made things all the more tiring when we were still walking at midnight.

I was wearing tough leather boots, while the monks wore battered leather or rubber sandals. Add to that the fact that Buddhist monks do not eat anything after 12 p.m., and so had been walking for more than eight hours on empty stomachs. Together with a young monk, Prim Huon, I was the first to arrive on foot at 1.33 a.m; many of the older monks who had fallen behind didn’t straggle in until around 4.

Since I haven’t finished the editing yet and have spent most of the day slogging through audio transcriptions of the interviews I conducted, I’m just going to share a handful of images as a preview. The rest of the story will be ready by early next week.

This is one of the first cases where monks have come together in a large group to protest environmental destruction, and I look forward to sharing it more fully.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked roughly 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The group of monks cross a river during their night march. They have walked roughly 8 of the 25 km necessary.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

The monks eat a snack of green bananas on the morning after their march. Many of the monks were exhausted by the walk and are slow to wake up.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks and volunteers prepare a length of orange cloth which they will use to bless trees in the Arang valley. The blessings are part of an effort to raise environmental awareness and prevent deforestation. Monks are becoming increasingly involved in political and environmental issues in Cambodia.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley hoping to encourage the residents to think criticially about environmental protection.

Monks march through the village of Pra Lay in the Arang Valley, hoping to encourage the residents to think critically about environmental protection.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Monks wrap orange cloth around large trees in the Arang Valley. By blessing the trees they hope to discourage deforestation.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Protest Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , |