Monthly Archives: May 2014

Ambassadors of God: Mormon Musical Theatre in Cambodia

As far as eccentric stories go, my two day experience with the Mormon Young Ambassadors would come close to the top of my list. 

The Young Ambassadors are a touring broadway-style musical theatre group from Bringham Young University, the main centre of Mormon post-secondary education, located in Utah. I initially approached public relations personnel from the church about the possibility of doing a documentary feature on the lives of Mormon missionaries living in Cambodia, and while they agreed to give me access, they also asked if I would be interested in tailing the Young Ambassadors during their two-day visit to Cambodia.

Not being in any way affiliated with the LDS church, and being a non-religious person by nature and upbringing, I was skeptical at first. While I have no objections to the spiritual beliefs of any person, I didn’t want to be used as an advertising photographer in a campaign to convert Cambodians to a foreign religion. There are many faith-based organizations around the world that have a positive social impact on the people they work with, and my doubts were not based on any sort of anti-Christian sentiments, but rather an unease at compromising my status as a journalist by inadvertently endorsing a religion to which I do not belong.

After meeting with the local representatives of the church, however, I was reassured by their surprising openness. They explained that I would be brought along for documentary purposes only, and that I was free to shoot whatever I saw, whether good or bad. They didn’t suggest any angles for me to follow, they did not want ownership of the images, and they guaranteed not to censor me in any way.  The pictures I took would be mine to do with as I pleased, and I was free to distribute the story to any media outlet I wanted with any slant I chose, so long as I wasn’t manipulating the truth. Even when we discussed the possibility that I could hypothetically come away with pictures that were harmful to the church’s image, they held the position that they would not try to stop me from disseminating them.

These promises were kept, and in the end it was a fun story to work on. Over two days I followed the Young Ambassadors – most of whom had never been to an Asian country – as they toured Cambodia’s genocide museums and markets before performing for several thousand people in Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich Theatre.

For me the story turned out to be entirely disassociated from religion. No one tried to convert me or draw me into religious discussions. Instead I was left to present the experience for what it was – a group of young performers visiting a foreign country for the first time.

Though I doubt stories like this will become a regular theme of my work, it was a quirky and ultimately fun departure from my normal routine – something I think is important every once in a while to avoid becoming stagnant. And beyond that, they put on a good show.

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A Young Ambassador reads from the Book of Mormon as the tour bus drives through Phnom Penh.

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The young ambassadors tour Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields, listening to recorded tour guides on rented headphones.

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A monument to the millions killed during the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in which around 2 million Cambodians were killed.

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The Young Ambassadors tour the S21 genocide museum, a high school which was converted into a prison and torture facility during the Khmer Rouge era.

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A choral performance by the Young Ambassadors at an LDS church in Phnom Penh. The city hosts some 20 Mormon buildings and there are thousands of Cambodian members.

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The Young Ambassadors arrive at the Koh Pich (Diamond Island) Theatre, several hours in advance of their performance. The Koh Pich is by far the largest and most modern facility of its kind in Cambodia.

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Performers ready their hair and makeup, as long-time group director Randy Boothe gives a pre-show talk. Though the Young Ambassadors are quite well funded, they only travel with a ten person technical staff and so are responsible for their own hair and makeup.

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An hour before the show the performers steam their costumes and run through a last minute rehearsal of some of their more difficult sequences.

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After already travelling through both Thailand and Cambodia at a tireless pace, the performers have resorted to washing their underwear (required at all times for LDS members and referred to internally as “garments”) in sinks whenever they have the opportunity.

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A crowded house rises for the Cambodian national anthem before the start of the show.

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The Young Ambassadors show consists of mainly pop songs by artists such as Michael Jackson and the Beatles, lasting roughly 90 minutes.

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A performer runs through the underground hallway that connects the opposite sides of the stage. Because of the fast pace of the show, performers often have less than two minutes to change their costumes and dash through the tunnel.

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The Young Ambassadors is entirely comprised of student performers from Bringham Young University in Utah. While some have broadway aspirations, others are accounting or economics majors.

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A member of the Young Ambassador band is silhouetted against the giant LCD monitor on stage at the Koh Pich theatre.

Posted in Blog

Out of the Bush: What I Learned While Tree Planting

I am who I am today because of five summers spent living in tents in Canada’s northern forests. As a tree planter I learned what it meant to work hard – harder than anything I had experienced before. And while it nearly killed me during my torturous rookie season, I came out a far, far better person.

Tree planting taught me how to make due with limited resources in a remote location. Over the years I gained the ability to deal with huge amounts of personal discomfort and focus on the task at hand. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that self-pity was a waste of time – everyone was having trouble carrying 50 pounds of trees through mosquito infested swamps, they certainly didn’t need to hear me whining about it. In short, tree planting toughened me in a way that made it possible to work as a photojournalist today. Had I not set out for the bush nearly a decade ago, I sincerely doubt I would be where I am now.

In an effort to bring together the two jobs which have had the most impact on my life, I spent nearly four months in a tree planting camp last year trying to capture the experience with a camera.

Right now thousands of tree planters across Canada are starting their seasons, replanting Canada’s forests by hand. For them it will be as it has always been – simultaneously one of the best and worst possible ways to spend a summer. And while can’t say I’ll miss the job itself, every Spring I feel a powerful nostalgia for the truly unique lifestyle.

For those reading this from a destitute hotel room somewhere in the Canadian north, good luck and happy planting.

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A foreman checks his map, trying to decide where to put his planters.

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Tree planters walk to work, carrying all their gear, food, and water down a 4 km muddy trail.

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A planter moves through the aftermath of a forest fire, replanting the burned zone with new trees.

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A tree seedling, recently planter in the cracked soil of northern Alberta oil country. A good planter can plant thousands of trees per day.

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A planter works an especially good piece of land on a rainy day. He will go on to make over $600.

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A planter’s face is covered with soot and charcoal after working to replant a burnt forest.

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A planter falls up to his knees in soft mud. The ground, open and flat, should be a planter’s dream, but heavy rains have rendered areas of it unworkable.

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A planter drinks water from a gas container. The vessels are common among tree planters because they are high capacity, tough, and can be used as a stool if necessary.

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A planter silhouetted agains an oncoming rainstorm on the oil sands of northern Alberta.

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Planters work to dig toilets for the camp. Each time the camp is moved, which typically happens multiple times per season, the camps need to be rebuilt.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off. There is little privacy in a planting camp.

Planters pick thorns out of eachother's hands at the end of a work day.

Planters pick thorns out of each other’s hands at the end of a work day.

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The camp’s cook hangs from a log deck. Canada is the world’s biggest exporter of forest products.

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The camp sits around a fire on the last night of the season. Some planters will go on to other jobs, but many will head back to their province of origin.

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Planters watch the northern lights.

Posted in Blog, Canada, Tree Planting Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Underground Cock Fighting in Manila Revisited

Last month my editor at Getty Images gave me the rare opportunity to revisit some of my old stories from the Philippines: Small scale gold mining in southern Leyte, and the underground cock fighting scene in Manila.

I was first introduced to the world of cock fighting when I decided to move out of my guest house in Manila and onto a fighting cock training farm in the working class neighbourhood of San Andres Bukid. In metro Manila, where space is in short supply, the “farm” was really just an empty lot between two houses. But shaded by tall bamboo thickets and closed off from the hustle of the streets by a tall iron gate – ominously topped in concertina wire – the training centre proved to be one of the most relaxing places I’ve yet to find in a city of nearly 12 million.

Floren Castillio, whose house in little more than a tarped bed he shares with his wife and granddaughter, is the farm’s caretaker and a well respected “gaffer” – a combination of fighting cock trainer and amateur veterinarian. Two years ago, when I first met Floren, he unhesitatingly agreed to allow me to set up a tent on his property within the first hour of meeting him. During the month or so I stayed there, he greeted me each morning with a cup of coffee and recoiled whenever I tried to pay him rent. Even though I hadn’t had any contact with the man since 2012, when I showed up again out of the blue he immediately went to his small storage closet, pulled out my old tent, and asked me how long I wanted to stay.

Though a tight work schedule limited my time in Manila and I couldn’t spend as much time with Floren as I would have liked, he was instrumental in getting me access to the underground cock fighting scene once again. Animal ethics aside, cock fighting is one of the most popular national sports in the Philippines, and it takes place nearly every day in the country, from Manila’s backstreets to massive government sanctioned arenas.

This story was shot over a day and a half in the neighbourhoods of San Andres Bukid and Raymundo. All images are the exclusive property of Getty Images.

Floren Castillio, a respected gaffer, pulls a young fighting cock towards him before giving it minor surgery.

Floren Castillio, a respected gaffer, pulls a young fighting cock towards him before giving it minor surgery. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

Floren Castillio uses a metal pin to clear an area for a feather transplant. When fighting cocks suffer damaged feathers, they are replaced - sometimes with heavier turkey feathers - to give the birds increased balance and stability.

Floren Castillio uses a metal pin to clear an area for a feather transplant. When fighting cocks suffer damaged feathers, they are replaced – sometimes with heavier turkey feathers – to give the birds increased balance and stability. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

Floren's bloody body after a morning of giving surgery.

Floren’s bloody body after a morning of giving surgery. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

Young men inspect the cocks on Floren's property, looking for a potential bird to buy.

Young men inspect the cocks on Floren’s property, looking for a potential bird to buy. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

A group gathers on Floren's farm to test the aggression of fighting cocks in advance of a large fight. This pre-fight test will influence what birds are bet on the following morning.

A group gathers on Floren’s farm to test the aggression of fighting cocks in advance of a large fight. This pre-fight test will influence what birds are bet on the following morning. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

A non-lethal test fight to test the aggressiveness and stamina of the birds.

A non-lethal test fight to test the aggressiveness and stamina of the birds. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

The morning of a fight, men gather in the working class neighbourhood of Raymundo to place bets.

The morning of a fight, men gather in the working class neighbourhood of Raymundo to place bets. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

An old man contemplates which bird to bet on before a fight. People have been known to wager a month's pay on a single fight.

An old man contemplates which bird to bet on before a fight. People have been known to wager a month’s pay on a single fight. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

Crowds gather to watch one of many fights for the day.

Crowds gather to watch one of many fights for the day. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

Multiple gaffers, or fighting cock doctors, are on hand to treat injured birds after each fight.

Multiple gaffers, or fighting cock doctors, are on hand to treat injured birds after each fight. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

The bloody hands of a gaffer at the end of the day's fighting. Gaffers act as amateur veterinarians, and can treat almost any wound a fighting cock might suffer.

The bloody hands of a gaffer at the end of the day’s fighting. Gaffers act as amateur veterinarians, and can treat almost any wound a fighting cock might suffer. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

A man watches money being exchanged after losing a bet.

A man watches money being exchanged after losing a bet. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

Feathers are swept out of the fighting pit at the end of  each fight.

Feathers are swept out of the fighting pit at the end of each fight. ©Luc Forsyth/Getty Images

Versions of this story appeared in The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! News.  These photos are the exclusive property of Getty Images and may not be used without consent – all images are available for purchase here.

 

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

No Build Zone: Life in Tacloban After Typhoon Haiyan (Preview)

For most of the month of April I was working at a feverish pace in the Philippines, where I accepted a somewhat ambitious 11 assignments in a three week window. Despite an inconveniently timed three day fever (which caused me to pass out in front of about 50 Filipino cock fighting gamblers), unreliable communication networks, damaged equipment, and a visit from President Obama that brought air traffic to a standstill, everything miraculously got done.

Somehow, during the midst of all this running around, I found a few afternoons to visit some of the neighbourhoods in Tacloban most heavily damaged by typhoon Haiyan. The most powerful storm ever recorded to make landfall, Haiyan (or Yolanda as it is referred to locally), smashed into the central Philippines last November, killing thousands and rendering many more homeless. Nearly six months after the initial devastation, coastal residents of Barangay 68 – colloquially named Yolanda Village by residents – are struggling to rebuild what they lost.

Young men play basketball in front of a  beached cargo ship. Several large ships are awaiting removal after being swept onto land during typhoon Haiyan.  Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Young men play basketball in front of a beached cargo ship. Several large ships are awaiting removal after being swept onto land during typhoon Haiyan. Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Reconstruction in Tacloban

The catholic cathedral in Palo, on the outskirts of Tacloban, remains without a roof after it was torn off by the winds of typhoon Haiyan. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Though cleanup efforts have had the full support of the community and assistance from international aid organizations, evidence of the destruction is everywhere. Several large cargo vessels rest unnaturally at the base of inland hills, roughly a hundred meters from the ocean. Shipping containers and other maritime debris can be found along the beaches and between rebuilt houses, like alien artifacts in the residential community.

For those who have managed to repair or replace the homes they lost, the challenges are far from over. A government mandated “no build zone” extends forty meters from the ocean, meaning that anyone who has rebuilt near the coast – and is therefore illegally squatting according to the law – could face homelessness again at any moment. While hospitality and friendliness are abundant for visitors to Yolanda village, for those who live there the road to recovery will be a long one.

Thousands of hardened cement bags are piled along the coast to build temporary piers and breakwaters. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Thousands of hardened cement bags are piled along the coast to build temporary piers and breakwaters. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Young men drink bottles of beer together  over the easter weekend. Many residents of Tacloban have lost their jobs due to storm damage and have little to do during the days. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Young men drink bottles of beer together over the easter weekend. Many residents of Tacloban have lost their jobs due to storm damage and have little to do during the days. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A young man plays guitar on a pier in Barangay 68, one of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by typhoon Haiyan. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A young man plays guitar on a pier in Barangay 68, one of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by typhoon Haiyan. Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

These images represent a short preview of a larger set of pictures that I will post when I’ve had a chance to organize my archive and thoughts – and repair a broken laptop!

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