Monthly Archives: December 2013

Garment Workers March on Council of Ministers

Garment workers took to the streets today after their demands for a wage increase were rejected again by the government of Cambodia. The protest began outside the Ministry of Labour building, but after hearing the disappointing result thousands of demonstrators moved towards the Council of Ministers. The government was apparently well prepared for the action; hundreds of riot police waited for the group as they walked east on the Russian Boulevard.

Though the protest was essentially peaceful, the police stretched immense barbed wire barricades across the road and multiple officers were armed with tear gas launchers – tools not typically seen at minor demonstrations.

The event lasted all day so I didn’t have time to put together a lengthy written article – but I wanted to get something out before New Year’s Eve. The protestors left the area as the sun set, announcing they would be back tomorrow, so there will definitely be more to come. As we move into 2014, let’s hope this widespread government protesting can stay peaceful.

Crowds of garment workers and supporters gather outside the Ministry of Labour building, waiting to see if the government has agreed to their demands.

Crowds of garment workers and supporters gather outside the Ministry of Labour building, waiting to see if the government has agreed to their demands.

A representative of the garment worker's union leaves the Ministry of Labour building as protestors wait outside the walls to hear if the government has agreed to their demands.

A representative of the garment worker’s union leaves the Ministry of Labour building as protestors wait outside the walls to hear if the government has agreed to their demands.

Garment workers load into large trucks for transportation to the Council of Ministers building after their demands were rejected by the government.

Garment workers load into large trucks for transportation to the Council of Ministers building after their demands were rejected by the government.

Reinforcement units move towards the barricade lines.

Reinforcement units move towards the barricade lines.

The garment workers are demanding a pay increase to $160 per month, claiming their current wages are not enough to live on.

The garment workers are demanding a pay increase to $160 per month, claiming their current wages are not enough to live on.

Police and protestors face off accross the barbed wire barricade as the size of the demonstration grows.

Police and protestors face off accross the barbed wire barricade as the size of the demonstration grows.

Police push through a barrier set up by protestors, moving the group away from the Council of Ministers building.

Police push through a barrier set up by protestors, moving the group away from the Council of Ministers building.

Protestors stay at the barricades until late in the afternoon.

Protestors stay at the barricades until late in the afternoon.

A boy collects waterbottles that protestors have thrown over the barricades.

A boy collects waterbottles that protestors have thrown over the barricades.

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

Street Protests Grow Ahead of Christmas

Protestors continue to take to the streets in the thousands, a week after Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s surprise announcement that the CNRP would begin daily public demonstrations in Phnom Penh. Earlier in the month CNRP representatives had indicated that they would be avoiding physical confrontations with the current government, and instead seek a negotiated settlement to the disputed 2013 election results. Perhaps under pressure from their supporters, the opposition party has done a 180 – holding large-scale public marches through the heart of the capital. They walk through the streets every day chanting derisive slogans against the unpopular incumbent Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and in years of visiting this country, I’ve never seen so many people united under one banner.

I’ve been out of town on an assignment for Handicap International (more on that after the holidays), and haven’t really been covering the breaking news side of Cambodia. Yesterday I was able to get back out and reacquaint myself with the political pulse of the country, and was completely caught off guard by the sheer energy and numbers of the demonstrators. Truth be told, I had expected the protests to die down substantially after a few days, when economic necessity demanded that people go back to their jobs; instead the crowd seems to be growing. I’ve got more things on the go than I can handle right now, so I doubt I’ll be a source of total news coverage on the events as they unfold, but I wanted to give a short update on the political climate as we move into the holidays. Merry Christmas!

CNRP supporters form a wall to hold the front elements of the protest from moving too far ahead of the main body of the demonstration.

CNRP supporters form a wall to hold the front elements of the protest from moving too far ahead of the main body of the demonstration.

CNRP leaders rally their supporters.

CNRP leaders rally their supporters.

A bus is stuck in as the line of marchers floods South along Monivong Boulevard.

A bus is stuck in traffic as the line of marchers floods South along Monivong Boulevard.

A Japanese photographer seizes the opportunity to get some unique angles from a CNRP vehicle. Though the protests are highly publicized in foreign media, the Khmer newspapers make no reference to the demonstrations at all. Instead they run front page stories about the recent troubles in neighbouring Thailand.

A Japanese photographer seizes the opportunity to get some unique angles from a CNRP vehicle. Though the protests are highly publicized in foreign media, the Khmer newspapers make no reference to the demonstrations at all. Instead they run front page stories about the recent troubles in neighbouring Thailand.

Protestors move the paradise hotel, shutting down the large intersection.

Protestors move the paradise hotel, shutting down the large intersection.

A CNRP supporter shouts anti-government, pro-change messages through a tuk-tuk mounted sound system.

A CNRP supporter shouts anti-government, pro-change messages through a tuk-tuk mounted sound system.

The demonstration stretches through downtown Phnom Penh.

The demonstration stretches through downtown Phnom Penh.

 

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

Interview with G.M.B. Akash

Many people could have lost everything in this fire if Sumon (27) had not jumped to stop the roaring flames all by himself. The site near the Buriganga River in central Dhaka has long been used as a dump for rubbish from the textile and othere industries. It only took the dropping of a cigarette butt to produce a severe fire, engulfing the whole neighborhood of shacks and makeshift homes. But Sumon immediately ran from his scrape-shop nearby, splashing water to save his livelihood and that of others. No one helped him. It is fitting to end this photographic hommage to the many “survivor“ — characters in South Asia with this picture of this courageous fighter, who valiantly took things into his own hands. Dhaka, Bangladesh

 G.M.B. Akash is one of my favourite colour photographers of all time. He has won more than 40 international awards and his work has been published around the world. Beyond that, he is the rare breed of photojournalist who cares deeply about the people he is documenting. While many commoditize their subjects, feeling that the relationship is over after they have gotten the right frame, Akash goes much further. I know from personal conversations with him that his self-published book “Survivors” was incredibly difficult to produce, and yet he used most of the profit to open small businesses for the people who appear in its pages – keeping almost nothing for himself. I don’t know many others who would have done the same thing.

I had the pleasure of meeting Akash last year in his home city of Dhaka, and found him to be an incredibly warm and open person, as well as being extremely talented. I wrote to Akash to see if he would be willing to share his knowledge with a wider audience, and he graciously agreed. We can all learn something from his compassion, his motivation, and his lack of ego. Enjoy!

Nowadays there seems to be a talented Bangladeshi photographer around every corner, but when you were starting out, what was it like to break into the market? Did you face challenges because of where you were from?

Coming from a background where there was little space for adopting a creative process created difficult circumstances for me. People around me had no idea about photojournalism. At that time parents supported you even if you wanted to be an artist, illustrator or an actor/singer. But ‘photojournalist’, this genre did not exist in the circles I was brought up in. Today one click of your mouse takes you to the sites of your favorite photographers, their recent works, and there are opportunities to get your work published. We didn’t have an internet connection or any digitalized facilities. With the only camera I had, I could hardly manage to take the pictures that I imagined. Yes, now a days the field is competitive but there are opportunities too. In my early career, the challenges were where to find inspiration, how to get a mentor, and how to live my dream. I grew up in a place where I saw massive number of sex workers, child labourers, and people living on the edges of society. At that time my friends were filling out forms for higher education to become doctors or barristers, but I had chosen my path. Everyone said I was heading for disaster. Many days I did not eat to save my pocket money for my photography. I used my tuition to buy films. Even sometime when I had no film in my camera and had no money in pocket, I never stopped clicking. I kept clicking knowing I had no film inside my camera. Because I know I had to achieve my dream. Nothing could stop me except myself, so I kept walking. And see, now I am halfway to my dream.

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You shoot all the time. I see images from you on social media almost every day. Where do you get the motivation to work so much?

When I shoot I always ask two questions to myself: why I am taking this photo? And what message do I want to convey? First and foremost, photography is my passion and secondly it is a tool to affect positive change. I shoot almost every day because I love to do it. I do not see photography as competition, nor do I thrive for status or reputation. I want to show my pictures to my audiences. I have seen many of my colleagues who hardly share their photographs and keep them all for competitions, grants, or exhibitions.  I am very clear about the fact that I take photographs to show people, to convey a message, and to make a change. Until I can spread my message, until I share stories of broken hearts, until I show how brave my subjects are, I do not bother with anything else. On my Facebook page, every day I receive messages. Some are like ‘You changed me and my thoughts, Thank you’, or ‘After seeing your photo I cried at midnight. What can I do for the brave lady?’ and sometimes hundreds of wishes and prayers. That matters to me more than any achievement. I believe that if my photographs can connect with the heart, then this is the ultimate achievement.

Why did you decide to start the First Light Institute and what do you hope it will do for photography and Bangladeshi journalism?

I founded the ‘First Light Institute of Photography’ in August, 2013. I wanted to take photography door-to-door, and heart to heart. My mission is to give quality knowledge at minimal cost to unprivileged photography students. The dream is very simple: it is ‘keeping your light alive’. First Light recently organized the event ‘Inspiring Light’, in which we brought aspiring individuals to share their unique treasures with an audience. ‘Inspiring Light’ is an event in which to exchange inspiration; where people learn, are inspired and where ideas will take shape. The event is free for everyone. We recently organized an exhibition at the nearby Narayanganj train station to make the general public aware of photography. More than 25,000 people were our viewers. At the inception of our school, we made a wish! We wished to ignite the dark-velvet realities of many lives. We are aiming to educate unprivileged children: children who are living in the streets, children who are working as child labourers, children who are dropping out from schools and children who have no access to 21st century education. In short, we want to ignite the minds of the unprivileged in many different ways. We have started providing informal education of the basic subjects. Our groups of children belong to factories, the streets, slums and villages. Besides this non-profit contribution to young children, we are charging minimal fees for photography workshops that will provide the fuel for the institute to function. Our mission is to go beyond our dreams and we believe we surely will.

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Angel in Hell

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The journalism/photojournalism industries are undergoing some huge changes. It’s hard to make money, let alone support a family. How have you managed to stand out and carve a niche for yourself?

Frankly photojournalism is not a money making field. It is very hard now and was tougher in 1996 for me when I started. My mother used to say, ‘when you will not have any penny in your pocket, your love will fly through windows.’ That love was and is photography. My father told me, ‘settle with one: money or dreams?’ I replied, ‘dream and money both’. Now I have enough to live my life and live my dream. It did not come in a blink of an eye. You need time to build your name, your reputation and to prove your devotion. If you are looking to drive a Ferrari and living in a studio duplex, photojournalism is not for you. Yes, competition in the field makes everything complex. A lot of groupism and biases are slowing down promising photographers. Often new photographers are providing images to website and magazines for free, and that is creating more problems. In this respect, I try to be honest to my profession, to my work, and to my clients. That is the simple rule I am following to a make a niche for myself. I hate to be greedy because I learnt from my photography that a family can be happy living under a plastic sheet, while another  family can be unhappy living in palace.

What do you think the future holds for you and the profession of photography?

I believe in saving for my tomorrow but not wasting my today worrying about it. By the grace of God photography has brought me much respect, affection and love. For me, photography is my past, present and future. More and more people are entering and taking photography professionally. By the next ten years competition will be triple but I truly believe it will open doors that we can’t imagine now. So cheers to the people who will bring more to the table and will ask the world to wake up.

Now that so many people want to become photographers, what advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

The first question all beginners ask me is about my camera. I say that the camera is the medium, but do not take it more seriously than your eyes. It is your third eye that will capture the image and camera will only convey them. Do not become a camera-junkie with many big varieties. The second question beginners ask me is how to earn a living. I advise to be strategic, to consider things that can bring you money – they could be part-time jobs, small assignments, friend/family party shooting etc. Think about how you can continue to live in your dreams and can survive until you reach to your goal. The third question that I often face is “my parents are against my photography/my girl friend threatened to leave me.” I answer them that the convincing power of a photographer has to be marvelous because you have to convince the people whom you want to shoot. So start doing your homework. If you cannot relate your passion to those closest to you, then how far can this passion take you?

Lastly, be honest, respect others, do not enter into groupism, work hard, travel near and far, and never underestimate your inner power.

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What new projects are you working on right now? What are you most excited about in the future?

I aspire to do many things. I am working on my next photo book and continuing to do my long-term projects. My happiness is being able to bring a smile to a face. My book ‘Survivors’ is spreading happiness among survivors’ families as I am continuing to give an opportunity to elevate their lives. More than 15 families are now happily working in businesses that I set up for them. My desire is to give more. I am currently working on my recently founded school, First Light Institute of Photography. The institute will also be an educational hub for child labourers and street children. If I had a magic kit I would abolish the tears of all sufferers. But as I do not have such a thing, I will still try to wipe off tears of a few. Besides these goals, my photography journey is never ending.

Parting Words?

Dear audiences and fellow companions: our simple work may be our greatest inspiration to become better human beings each day. By making some effort through our work in changing the world even if just a little for the better, we can find the way to love and peace. Helen Keller inspired me by saying:

‘I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do’

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Posted in Blog, Guest Posts, Interviews Tagged , , , , , , , |

The Unlikely Peace of Human Rights Day

A woman seeks blessing from a Buddhist monk on the morning of Human Rights Day.

A woman seeks blessing from a Buddhist monk on the morning of Human Rights Day.

On the morning of Human Rights Day, the elevator doors in my apartment building opened on the ground floor and I took a few steps out into the open-air parking lot. The immense steel gates that separated the courtyard from the street were locked, and it took several awkward minutes of whisper-shouting to wake the night guard. By the time he finally located the key and let me out, I was dangerously close to missing my 5:30 rendezvous. Walking quickly, I passed the dark shapes of moto-taxi drivers stretching against their vehicles in the pre-dawn gloom, ignoring their offers of service.

As I rounded the corner of Street 360, I experienced a moment of panic when Thomas and Omar were not in front of the Kiwi mart as they were supposed to be. We were heading to a pagoda on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to follow a group of Buddhist monks on a human rights march, but since I didn’t know how to get there I was totally reliant on my friends’ local knowledge. If they had already left I would miss the conclusion to a story I had been covering for the last week. I was already imagining the shame of returning home empty handed while they captured Pulitzer-caliber images of a once-in-a-lifetime event, when my phone vibrated in my pocket. One of them had over slept. Relieved, I bought two cans of extra-strong ice coffee and dropped into an aluminum patio chair to wait.

Fifteen minutes later we were sitting in a tuk-tuk, cruising down Preah Sisowath Quay with the darkened banks of the Tonle Sap River to the east. The streets were clear of traffic so early in the morning, and the normally bustling riverside restaurants were shuttered. Further north we passed a temporary army camp set up on the lawn of an international hotel, and all of us wondered if the day would turn violent.

Once past the Japanese bridge, as Chroy Changvar is colloquially known, the road merges with national highway 5. Gradually the tourist traps of the city gave way to the machine shops and small manufacturing businesses that typify urban Cambodia. We began to see other journalists on the road, presumably making their way to the same place as we were. Driving motorcycles that were much nimbler than our own lumbering vehicle, they sped past us and shouted greetings that were mostly lost in the wind.

Not long later, the tuk-tuk’s screaming engine decelerated gratefully and we made a slow left turn across traffic into the long laneway leading to Wat Ottara Watey. Inside the pagoda grounds, monks and citizen activists were grouped together eating breakfast out of styrofoam takeout containers. Those who had already finished scrambled to make last minute preparations for the march, loading cases of water onto flatbed trucks and checking the condition of their Justice Brings Peace banners. Photographers moved between the groups, snapping pictures and talking with people they recognized from previous demonstrations. The mood was social and light, as if the protestors were marching towards an organized convention rather than a potentially dangerous clash with the police. The government had officially withheld permission for the event and no one knew what the consequences of defying them might be. In preparation for the worst, many of the foreign journalists had brought riot helmets. The marchers wore no such protection.

An hour later we were moving. The residents of Phnom Penh had come out of their homes in the thousands and lined both sides of the road as the procession walked towards the city. Mingled among them were the ubiquitous government informers using radios and cell phones to notify the authorities of our progress. As they took photos of the protesters with smartphones, several monks, perhaps feeling that their religious authority would protect them from retaliation, pointed cameras back at them. Strange standoffs ensued with neither party wanting to be the first to walk away. They stood in place and took photo after photo, slowly pushing their cameras closer and closer to each other’s faces. In one exchange I counted over forty shutter clicks.

Monks form up before beginning their protest march to the National Assembly building

Monks form up before beginning their protest march to the National Assembly building

Residents come out of their homes to watch the procession, offering support.

Residents come out of their homes to watch the procession, offering support.

A marcher waves to a truckload of protestors en route to a separate demonstration at Wat Phnom.

A marcher waves to a truckload of protestors en route to a separate demonstration at Wat Phnom.

Phnom Penh residents and shopkeepers come out of their homes to offer water and energy drinks to Human Rights Day marchers.

Phnom Penh residents and shopkeepers come out of their homes to offer water and energy drinks to Human Rights Day marchers.

As the marchers near Phnom Penh, no police appear to block their way.

As the marchers near Phnom Penh, no police appear to block their way.

By 8.30 a.m. the long line of marchers was inside the city center. Riverside was no longer quiet, and early rising tourists stared at our group over the rims of their coffee mugs. Some pulled camera phones out of their pockets. Now that the protest was in the public eye, I was sure a police barricade would be waiting around every corner. Remembering the street riot that saw one bystander dead and many more injured following a garment worker strike last month, I fingered the helmet attached to my camera bag.

But nothing happened. Street by street, block by block, the column moved closer to their destination without a rubber baton or tazer in sight. Only when the National Assembly building was in view did it finally sink in that the police were not going to respond. If they were as surprised as I was, the group leaders didn’t show it. They simply walked over to the nearest patch of shady grass and sat down, perhaps finally able to release some of the tension and exhaustion from the ten-day march on Phnom Penh. They had made it, and a few quick phone calls were enough to confirm that the groups approaching from other sides of the city would make it too.

Where were the police? After attending several dozen protests over years of visiting Cambodia, this passivity was at odds with my past experiences.  Harsh government crackdowns on civil unrest were one of the few constants in the Kingdom, and though I was relieved that no one had been hurt, the absence of a reaction was somehow unsettling. I half expected trick; a trap door would open and disgorge thousands of heavily armed shock troops into the street, or secretly installed tear gas launchers would fire from the bushes, scattering the unwary mob. A Twitter post from the satirical social media persona Hun Sen’s Eye echoed my suspicions: “protestors are now entitled to a 15-second head start before we unleash the riot tigers.”

But as the crowd grew to over a thousand strong, such scenarios became increasingly unlikely. For most of an hour I circulated among the crowd, taking pictures and exchanging rumors with other journalists until the merciless sun sent me in search of shade and water. I followed the outer wall of the National Assembly building, searching for a drink vendor. When I stepped around the northeast corner, I saw them: several clusters of men in olive drab uniforms, looking in my direction from their positions in Hun Sen Park. They were sitting in the grass under a tree, drinking Coca-Cola out of plastic bags and chatting on their cell phones.

The protestors reach the National Assembly building and are joined by other groups. Their numbers grow to over a thousand yet there is no reaction from police forces.

The protestors reach the National Assembly building and are joined by other groups. Their numbers grow to over a thousand yet there is no reaction from police forces.

Guards stand behind the gates of the National Assembly building, but make no attempt to disrupt the protest. Government staff take photos and video of the event with smartphones from within the compound.

Guards stand behind the gates of the National Assembly building, but make no attempt to disrupt the protest. Behind, government staff take photos and video of the event with smartphones from within the compound.

Minimal police are present at the site of the protest.

Minimal police are present at the site of the protest.

One of the largest concentrations of officers at the protest, sitting in Hun Sen Park seeking shade.

One of the largest concentrations of officers at the protest, sitting in Hun Sen Park seeking shade.

While later on that night much larger concentrations of riot police gathered around Wat Phnom and engaged in minor clashes with small groups of especially zealous protestors, the 2013 Human Rights Day was essentially a peaceful affair. Other than the officers in the park and a few token guards around the National Assembly’s main entrance, the government refrained from its normal muscle flexing. The demonstration continued unopposed until noon, when the tired group of monks and activists returned to their homes voluntarily.

Maybe this is the new face of Cambodia, a redefined nation with a tolerant approach to political dissention. But somehow I doubt it.

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

Monks March for Human Rights

Monks and citizen activists sleep in a pagoda after finishing a day of marching towards Phnom Penh. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks and citizen activists sleep in a pagoda after finishing a day of marching towards Phnom Penh. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

“Monks must not fuck,” he said, his round bespectacled face full of humour. We were getting a crash course on the fundaments of life as a Buddhist monk, the popping of Redbull cans echoed in the open space of the pagoda’s dining hall. The large room, divided into inadvertent sections by ornately decorated pillars, was full of people in various states of fatigue – the citizen activists finishing styrofoam containers of rice and dried fish, the monks downing 250ml energy drinks. The group, roughly 50 strong, had been walking for three days down Cambodia’s national highway 6 and they needed to replenish their strength. They are taking part in one of the largest Human Rights Day protests in Cambodia’s history, and on all of Cambodia’s major highways there were separate groups doing the same thing. Since Dharmic asceticism requires monks to abstain from many things, including having sex, harming living creatures, and eating solid foods after noon, they would have to make due with a liquid dinner. Buddha has no qualms with Redbull it would seem.

The trip from Phnom Penh to Kampong Thom, though not much further than 120km, had taken us nearly 5 hours in a minivan, packed four people to a row and fighting constantly with fellow passengers for elbowroom. Despite having nearly 8 years of Cambodian experience between us, photographer Nicolas Axelrod and I had badly misjudged the travel time and arrived at the pagoda well after dark. Rather than marching with the monks as planned, all we could do was sling our hammocks around the building’s load bearing columns and settle in for the night. Peering through the hammock’s mesh walls I could see the monks doing the same thing, though how they planned to sleep after consuming half a liter of taurine was beyond me.

The following morning the pagoda burst abruptly to life with the rolling baseline of a Khmer pop song and the small speakers of the monks’ smartphones gave the music a tinny sound that got me to my feet before I was yet fully awake. The monks were slower to rise; motionless under the saffron blankets they had drawn their robes over their heads to ward off the morning light. When the pagoda came to life it was with sudden urgency, as if everyone had been lying awake hoping for an extra ten minutes of sleep but had been forced into action by the movement of their peers. From stillness to frenzied action, the room transformed in a matter of minutes; mosquito nets were rolled up and stowed in travel bags, lines formed for the two squat-toilets, and monks scrambled to locate their cell phones from admin the tangled mass of electronics crowded around two overtaxed power bars. A general migration of people to the central courtyard could only mean one thing: it was time to leave.

Early morning in the pagoda. The monks are exhausted and rise slowly. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Early morning in the pagoda. The monks are exhausted and rise slowly. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks conduct a meeting to discuss plans before beginning their march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks conduct a meeting to discuss plans before beginning their march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks raise banners with human rights messages on them before they begin their days march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks raise banners with human rights messages on them before they begin their days march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

As the protestors filed out of the pagoda and walked across the sandy courtyard, they paused beside the demonstration’s support truck to pick up flags and banners bearing human rights slogans. Though the scene was decidedly militaristic, like Russian soldiers in World War II movies receiving their rifles before being ordered to charge, any sense of hostility was belied by the monk’s tired-yet-cheerful expressions.  Once suitably armed, the group formed up in a loose line under an ornately carved wooden gate to wait for any stragglers and began to shoot pictures with smartphones for social media uploading. Facebook and Twitter have been key driving forces behind the recent surge in anti-government opposition, and the marchers had been filming the event with HD camcorders to present to their online followers.

Outside the pagoda villagers stepped out of their homes to line both sides of the highway. While some watched on impassively, either unconcerned or confused about what they were seeing. Many more stood patiently beside buckets of scented water, waiting to be blessed or to offer support in the form of food or cash. To avoid halting the column every few meters, teams of monks on motorcycles ranged up and down the road performing the water blessings and collecting the small bags of rice. The alms were substantial; a flatbed truck followed the procession in order to transport dozens of cases of donated water, and it took six people over an hour to count and sort the money each night. Considering that the average Cambodian makes roughly $80 per month, these acts of charity speak volumes about the national desire for change.

Within minutes the heat became uncomfortable and after a few hours the monks were dripping with sweat. Draping orange towels over their heads to shield themselves from the sun above, their plastic sandals stuck to the melting asphalt below. Ironically, among the most common sources of shade were the ubiquitous road signs featuring portraits of key figures from the hegemonic Cambodian People’s Party. Throughout the day the protestors huddled in their shadows while Hun Sen watched on imperially.

Monks eat breakfast before their morning march begins. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks stop to perform water blessings on the villagers they pass on the road to Phnom Penh.

A protestor's feet are covered in bandages after days of walking long distances. to perform water blessings for villagers along the highway.

A protestor’s feet are covered in bandages after days of walking long distances. to perform water blessings for villagers along the highway.

Every few kilometers a government vehicle waits for the marchers; they are easily identified by their conspicuous lack of rust, and more obviously by the men in short-sleeved khaki shirts standing nearby, taking photos with tablet computers to be filed in some mysterious database of known troublemakers. Younger monks point them out excitedly, as if they are glimpsing exotic birds in the wild and need confirmation that their eyes are not deceiving them.As easy as they are to dismiss – they make no attempt to hinder or interfere with the demonstration – the vehicles are a reminder that the CPP is tracking us as we approach Phnom Penh. Text messages from journalists following different groups on other national highways report similar experiences across the country. In some cases the marchers arrive in villages to find the local pagodas locked by order of high-ranking Buddhist officials, who have labeled the protesting monks as dissidents.

As the various groups of demonstrators converge on the capital the question of how the government will react is at the forefront of people’s minds, and on the eve of International Human Rights Day it difficult to know how events will unfold. Will the police force stand impassively in front of a chanting mob, or will they react violently as they did during the garment factory worker strike that saw an innocent bystander gunned down by a pistol round? Will this be remembered as a catalytic moment in the modern history of Cambodia, or will the CPP simply send a few street sweepers to tidy up the mess once the protestors have gone home? Things are rarely predictable in the Kingdom of Wonder; powder keg moments, when it seems the whole country is on the verge of tearing itself to pieces, sometimes dissipate quietly just as things seem the most tense. Conversely, seemingly benign events have grown into major incidents of great consequence.

Regardless of tomorrow’s outcome, the 2013 Human Rights Day is hugely symbolic of the small Southeast Asian nation’s growing resentment of the current political situation. The unprecedented scale and complex organization of the protests should serve as a warning to the government. They are facing an increasingly more informed and connected society than the one they have been handily oppressing for the last three decades. And the prospect must terrify them.

A monk walks past a Cambodian police academy en route to Phnom Penh.

A monk walks past a Cambodian police academy en route to Phnom Penh.

Note: A version of this story appeared first on the Ruom Collective site.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Ruom Collective Tagged , , , , , |

Monks Begin Protest Marches Ahead of Human Rights Day

The 2013 International Human Rights Day on December 10th will mark one of the largest and most coordinated anti-government protests in Cambodian history. The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has been running a de facto one party state in the small Southeast Asian nation, and has an abysmal human rights record. But the tides of fortune seem to be turning on the region’s longest ruling strongman, with his Cambodian People’s Party losing 55 assembly seats in the 2013 national election – elections that were widely suspected of being rigged.

Multiple demonstrations will converge on Phnom Penh’s National Assembly building, including large groups of politically active Buddhist monks. Though monks participation in protests has been an emerging trend in Cambodia recently, the scale of the actions planned for December 10th will be the largest yet. Separate parties will travel down every major national highway, combining forces and joining similar protests from the main opposition party, and the garment workers union. The monks will be walking for roughly 10 days, spreading their social views to the villages they pass through.

Monks prepare to sleep for the night before waking early to begin their march.

Monks prepare to sleep for the night before waking early to begin their march.

Monks begin to wake at 5am in Wat Baray, their temporary home for the night.

Monks begin to wake at 5am in Wat Baray, their temporary home for the night.

Monks form up begin their day's march to Phnom Penh.

Monks form up begin their day’s march to Phnom Penh.

A woman asks for blessing outside Wat Baray, the starting point for the march to Phnom Penh.

A woman asks for blessing outside Wat Baray, the starting point for day’s leg of the march towards Phnom Penh.

The procession includes monks and citizen activist groups from communities affected by government policies.

The procession includes monks and citizen activist groups from communities affected by government policies.

Monks pass local traffic along national highway 6.

Monks pass local traffic along national highway 6, roughly 150km away from Phnom Penh.

Villagers wait in front of their homes along the highway, presenting alms of money, rice, and water to the marching monks. In return the monks offer water blessings recite the Dharma.

Villagers wait in front of their homes along the highway, presenting alms of money, rice, and water to the marching monks. In return the monks offer water blessings and recite the Dharma.

A villager kneels for a Buddhist water blessing along the highway to Phnom Penh.

A villager kneels for a Buddhist water blessing along national highway 6.

 

These images are from just one group of monks, along only one of the marching routes. When they finally merge in the capital next week, their numbers will have swollen into the hundreds. Though everyone is hoping that the government will not react harshly in light of it being Human Rights Day, foreign journalists are stocking up on anti-teargas supplies and riot protection gear in anticipation of violence.

The Ruom Collective will be dispatching three photographers and three writers to cover various aspects of the events as they unfold, and we will be sharing them as the happen.

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

5 Reasons to Set Aside Your Ego: The Benefits of Working Together

Ruom members Luc Forsyth, Thomas Cristofoletti, and Nicolas Axelrod (from left) on location in Phnom Penh with Reuters correspondent Damir Sagolj (front right). Photo courtesy of John Vink/Magnum Photos.

Ruom members Luc Forsyth, Thomas Cristofoletti, and Nicolas Axelrod (from left) on location in Phnom Penh, with Reuters correspondent Damir Sagolj (front right). Photo courtesy of John Vink/Magnum Photos.

5 Benefits of Working Together

I recently made a short presentation at the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap about the benefits of working together. Together with Thomas Cristofoletti, one of the founders of the Ruom Collective (the journalism association I collaborated with on a piece about protesting monks for Al Jazeera), and writer Marta Kasztelan, we explained to an international audience how setting aside egos can achieve more in-depth and complete reporting. Aside from Ruom, I also collaborate with Wandering Cameras, a multimedia organization specializing in non-profit filmmaking. While photojournalism and writing are often thought of as “loner” professions, the advantages of teaming up with like-minded specialists are too numerous to neglect. The following five lessons are just a few of the reasons that collectives may redefine the way we tell stories in the 21st century.

Merging Talents

Not everyone is a jack-of-all-trades. Most people are lucky to become exceptionally good at even one thing in their lives, and the same is true of photographers and journalists. I’ve focused so much on creative output – the production of photography and writing – that I have avoided developing the business and marketing skills necessary to quickly grow my business (yes, journalism is a business). Don’t misunderstand; my brand is expanding steadily, but along the way I have missed out on opportunities that I should have seized had I been more administratively aware.

In contrast, Ruom co-founder Nicolas Axelrod is an adept businessman as well as being an outstanding photographer, but for Nick writing is laborious. Though he consumes written articles on a daily basis, pairing words with his images is a lengthy process for him. In an age where media outlets want completed stories that are delivered ready for publication, this could have been a significant disadvantage. The solution? Work together.

While the members of Ruom have skill sets that sometimes overlap, each person brings unique talents to the table. Thomas is highly proficient at online marketing and has a large social media presence. Marta comes from a human rights background, and is a resourceful researcher as well as being a specialist in gender issues. Rather than ignoring our weaknesses to the overall detriment of our strengths, by coming together we have been able to create multi-faceted stories that would not have been possible had we worked separately.

Multiple Perspectives

Ruom is a Khmer word meaning “together”, and the collective appropriately brings together multiple cultures as well as professional disciplines. A common pitfall of journalists working in foreign countries is the tendency to approach issues through the lens of their native culture.  With members from Australia, Canada, Austria, England, Italy, France, Poland, and Cambodia, many sets of eyes scrutinize each article, photo essay, or feature.

Years ago when I first started producing documentary work, I would send out pleas for advice to big-name photojournalists whose work I respected. Typically I’d hear nothing back. Now, though I’m far from famous, I’m on the receiving end of these sorts of letters from passionate photography enthusiasts looking to turn their hobby into a career. After trying to respond thoughtfully to several of these messages, I realize why my emails had so often gone unanswered; there is no easy shortcut to success. Only after a determined and sustained effort of 60-hour weeks for almost two years did I see my first dime of profit.

Though there is no magic bullet solution, having your work critiqued by people whose professional opinion you respect can make a huge difference. Being told objectively the ways in which a project has fallen short is arguably the best way to make the next one better. But a professional portfolio review can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – money that cannot then be invested in producing stories. By working with others (ideally people more skilled or experienced than yourself), you can get this valuable feedback as you go – and hopefully for free.

Shared Risks and Pooled Resources

Whether visual or written, making independent journalism can be expensive. In 2012 I spent over $1000 chasing a story on rural life in a rapidly changing Myanmar, only to come down with dengue fever. Bedridden for 10 days, the groundbreaking reportage I had envisioned myself creating slipped away with each sweating hour, until my visa expired and I was forced to leave the country. After weeks of accommodation expenses, transportation costs, translator fees, and food expenditures I ended up with a handful of unfocused frames that didn’t come close to telling the story I had imagined.

These things happen. Sometimes the best-laid plans fall apart, or an arbitrary event can derail months of preparation. This is the nature of being a freelancer, and anyone who is independently funding journalism needs to be prepared for these inevitable failures. But by joining forces with people interested in the same issues as yourself, you can significantly offset the financial risks.

When Nick and Thomas first had the idea of documenting the Burmese anti-Muslim group “969”, there was little response to their requests for monetary backing from major media outlets. They were faced with the difficult choice of either paying for the whole thing themselves, or abandoning the project altogether. Since they felt that this story was important to tell, they decided to go for it. By also bringing French journalist and Ruom contributor Alexandre Marchand into the project, they were able to distribute the costs and finish a story that would have been financially unviable for one person. The end product, Inside the 969 Movement, is a fantastic example of investigative documentary journalism, and has become one of Ruom’s flagship features. And it wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t worked together.

A Lighter Workload

There is a limit to what one person can handle. The massive changes wrought on the media industry with the coming of social media services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have essentially turned the whole world into citizen journalists. And while this is a largely positive global phenomenon, ensuring that proper exposure is given to the issues and events that matter, it also means tough economic times for working professionals. Layoffs and cutbacks at even the largest news organizations make it harder than ever to get paid for your efforts. Gone are the days when one major publication could fund a series of personal projects. Photographers and writers are constantly walking a financial tightrope from one paying job to the next, yet pursuing stories that you feel are important to tell is vital in the development of a personal voice and style.

When I was starting out and didn’t yet count on photography and writing to pay my rent, I could afford to build stories at my own pace. If I needed an extra day or two of shooting to get the right image, or if I wanted to spend a week sitting in coffee shops getting a written article just right, I could do it. But now my time is more precious; I need hours every day to edit and create new content, to maintain an increasing number of social network profiles, and to respond to an ever-increasing number of emails from clients and colleagues – not to mention trying to maintain a semblance of a personal life.

Solitary journalists can easily burn themselves out trying to do everything alone. By teaming up with others, it becomes possible to accomplish much more in the same amount of time. For example: in advance of the international human rights day, hundreds of Buddhist monks are converging on Phnom Penh, simultaneously marching down each of the country’s national highways in a display of protest against the Cambodian government’s abysmal human rights record. Such a story involves a lot of travel and time in order to convey the size and scope of the demonstration. One person could get completely exhausted trying to move between so many different locations. A collective, however, can spread the work around and each member can contribute to the greater whole, when and where his or her schedule allows.

Many hands do indeed make light work.

A Sense of Community

One of the hardest things for me to deal with when I was traveling full time was the lack of a supportive community. I spent most of 2012 permanently on the road, moving from city to city, country to country, and every time I arrived in a new location I had to start all over again. In the beginning it was fun; hunting down fresh stories in exotic locations was the essence of why I decided to pursue a future in photojournalism. As time passed, however, and the list of cities visited lengthened, the wanderlust faded.

Planning and executing a photo story or long form written article on a specific subject is tiring work. From research to gaining access to shooting, and finally editing, the creative process is mentally (and quite often physically) demanding. A strong reportage takes me an average of three weeks to produce, and at the end of it I mainly just want to sit on the couch for a few days. But when you are effectively homeless, as I was for the better part of several years, there is no real rejuvenation period. I just moved on to the next city or country or story. I had very few people to show my work to, and fewer still who could give me structured feedback. Any sort of business organization was impossible for any number of reasons – power outages, absurdly slow Wi-Fi signals, broken equipment, or just plain exhaustion.

Since moving to Phnom Penh permanently, the job has not gotten any less tiring, but at least I have a bed of my own to come back to at the end of a long day (or week, or month). More importantly, I belong to a community of motivated professionals who are supportive when they need to be and critical when they need to be. They will tell me when I’ve done a good job, and perhaps more importantly when I’ve done a bad job. I can borrow a memory card or a spare battery in the middle of a street riot, and if there is an important event happening, someone will send me a text message so I don’t miss it.

In many ways, this has been far more important than any lens or camera body, and it is this sense of being part of something larger than myself that has kept me hungry to produce.  Photographers and writers tend to be control freaks who want the final say in whatever they are making, but for those who can set aside their egos and accept external input, you might be surprised what you can accomplish if you work collectively.

Are you in a collective or group of creative professionals? Do you have any experience, good or bad, working with other people in your industry? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Post a comment below, or join me on Facebook or Twitter to continue the conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Ruom Collective Tagged , , , , , , |