Author Archives: Luc Forsyth

Luc Forsyth is a photojournalist and writer specializing in social and humanitarian issues around the world. He is currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Farming Heroin with National Geographic Channel

A few months ago I had the opportunity to work with a talented team at the National Geographic Channel on this story about the heroin trade in Mexico. For a photojournalist and filmmaker, working for National Geographic had always represented the gold standard in documentary and so I was more than happy to join the team.

The full episode is available online or directly from the National Geographic Channel, but I wanted to share this short preview of the episode. It’s not every day that you get to work with such a great group of TV and video professionals, and some of the lessons I learned on this production I will carry over into all my future projects.

Posted in Blog, Central America, Drugs, Mexico, Video Tagged , , , , , , , |

Post Earthquake Spirit in Morelos

After covering the earthquake damage in various zones of Mexico City, it became clear that the hardest hit areas were some rural towns closer to the epicentre of the quake where buildings were often made from adobe instead of concrete and rebar. Morelos, a state to the south of the capital, had reported multiple towns in critical condition, along with an unknown but growing number of casualties.

From the viewpoint of a videographer it was clear that we needed to go to Morelos, so a reporter from The New York Times requisitioned a car and we made the three hour drive to Jojutla.

As soon as we hit the town’s periphery it was obvious that the situation was critical. Roadblocks had been set up two kilometres away from the city centre to stop necessary traffic entering the damaged parts of the town and our vehicle was not allowed to pass. Only by hitching a ride with some locals in their beat up minivan could we get into the city, and for the rest of the day and into the night we tried to get a sense of the damage.

A local official estimated that 60% of the buildings had been damaged in some way, and many of them would never be fit to live in again. We met families picking their things from under the crumbled remains of their living room wall and others who had lost parents in the collapse. Entire street corners had fallen, bringing down as many as six homes at once. The devastation was massive, and the resources few.

But throughout it all the general spirit of the people seemed to be one of defiance and determination. “We will get through this,” was a phrase I heard more than once, and defined the mood of the day. Even though many of them had lost everything and the only home they’d ever known, they were already looking ahead to the rebuilding process.

“We are Mexico.”

Posted in Blog, Central America, Disaster, Mexico, Video Tagged , , , , , , |

Documenting the Mexico City Earthquake

When I saw the news that Mexico City and the surrounding states had been struck by a powerful earthquake on September 19th, 2017, I was in JFK airport returning from a few weeks of meetings and visiting friends. In those first hours it wasn’t clear what the extent of the damage was, and so the plane took off for Mexico after only a short delay. It was when we landed, however, and the pilot announced we were stuck behind a backlogged queue of nearly 40 other planes, that I realized that maybe the situation was worse that I had thought.

The videographer/filmmaker part of my brain told me to immediately send emails to my contacts in the media, and luckily was able to connect with The New York Times. By the time I got out of the airport and through the gridlocked city it was nearly 3 am, so I closed my eyes for a few hours and prepared to get up with the sun.

I was planning to go and investigate the site of a collapsed school in the south of Mexico City, but no sooner had I jumped in a car with a few colleagues did we realize there was an incredible drama unfolding just two blocks from my apartment.

This kicked off more than a week of frantic coverage in a city that I have come to call home. Documenting a crisis in my own backyard, albeit an adopted one, was a new and difficult experience, but ultimately for me the earthquake was a narrative of selflessness and community spirit rather than of despair.

Volunteers poured into the streets in the thousands, and ordinary citizens opened their doors to help in rescue efforts. While the event was a horrific tragedy for Mexico City, the solidarity and social awareness displayed by the people who live here was inspiring to say the least. If such collective spirit could be put towards reforming other sectors of the nation, Mexico would be an even better place to live in no time.

 

Posted in Blog, Central America, Disaster, Mexico, Video Tagged , , , , , , |

Portraits of Michoacán

Fishing boats on Lago de Cuitzeo.

Fishing boats on Lago de Cuitzeo.

I recently had the chance to get out of Mexico City to help a friend with a video production and some drone piloting, giving me my first opportunity to explore the state of Michoacán, even if just for a few days.

Michoacán has developed the unfortunate reputation in recent decades of being one of the most dangerous states in Mexico, having increasingly fallen under the control of narco traffickers. At the same time widespread poverty and lack of opportunities have led to large scale emigration out of the state, often in the direction of the United States. One woman I spoke to in a rural village commented that Michoacán’s main export was young men, and the fact most small towns we visited largely consisted of children and the elderly seemed to confirm this.

But Michoacán has been inhabited by people for the last 10,000 years, and was the home of the Purépecha empire —a powerful rival to the Aztecs in pre hispanic times. Despite the disturbing rise of crime and the exodus of the state’s young people, their culture is still very much in tact. Traditional dresses were common in the cobblestoned alleys of small villages, and the language, totally distinct from Spanish, was often heard in the streets.

While I was primarily working as a drone pilot, I managed to find time to grab a few portraits of the people we met and a bit of the landscape. An incredibly beautiful place unfortunately marred, like many places in Mexico, by the dominance of the drug cartels, Michoacán should not be avoided on the basis of its dangerous reputation. To be sure these problems are very real, but ultimately it is a state that is best defined by its small tranquil villages and unique culture, not the plague of violence that it has come to be associated with.

Early morning on the highway from Mexico City to Michoacán.

Early morning on the highway from Mexico City to Michoacán.

A young man trains his horse in Angahuan, Michoacán.

Making tortillas on a hot stone in Angahuan, Michoacán.

Making tortillas on a hot stone in Angahuan, Michoacán.

A Purpecha woman sits for a portrait inside an old Spanish convent that has been repurposed as a cultural museum.

A Purpecha woman sits for a portrait inside an old Spanish convent that has been repurposed as a cultural museum.

Organic eggs are one of the benefits of living a rural life in Michoacán.

Organic eggs are one of the benefits of living a rural life in Michoacán.

The winding alleys of Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán.

The winding alleys of Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán.

Street traffic in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán.

Street traffic in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán.

A cat stretches in a pottery workshop in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán.

A cat stretches in a pottery workshop in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán.

A group of Purépecha women work together to prepare tortillas for lunch.

A group of Purépecha women work together to prepare tortillas for lunch.

 Purépecha kitchens are often defined by their wood fired stoves and hot stones.

Purépecha kitchens are often defined by their wood fired stoves and hot stones.

Purépecha women wear a unique style of traditional dresses and scarves. The Purépecha culture dates back to pre Hispanic times and once rivalled the Aztec empire.

Purépecha women wear a unique style of traditional dresses and scarves. The Purépecha culture dates back to pre Hispanic times and once rivalled the Aztec empire.

A young boy drives his donkey-drawn cart home as the sun sets in rural Michoacán.

A young boy drives his donkey-drawn cart home as the sun sets in rural Michoacán.

A member of a local marching band practices the trumpet at dusk.

A member of a local marching band practices the trumpet at dusk.

Looking out to Janitzio Island on Lake Patzcuaro. The island community, watched over by a giant statue of Christ, is very strict in its immigration policies. Very few outsiders are permitted to settle on the island, and if a daughter marries someone from another community she is required to leave the island.

Looking out to Janitzio Island on Lake Patzcuaro. The island community, watched over by a giant statue of Christ, is very strict in its immigration policies. Very few outsiders are permitted to settle on the island, and if a daughter marries someone from another community she is required to leave the island.

Posted in Blog, Latin America, Mexico, Travel Tagged , , , , , , |

Earth Day 2017 – The Earth in Pictures

This year marks the 47th anniversary of Earth Day, and the event’s mandate is to increase environmental and climate literacy across the world. This seems like a nebulous and hard to measure goal, but I would argue that we are living in one of the most dangerous times in history in terms of flagrant lying about the severity of our environmental issues. With Donald Trump doing his best to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency during an age when it is most desperately needed and moving the world’s superpower backwards in terms of its environmental outlook, we as visual communicators need to make sure that people are confronted with these issues on a regular basis. It is all too easy to live with blinders on, ignoring the climate and ecologically related threats facing the planet and to assume that someone else will come to the rescue with a technological solution.

And while this might very well be the case (I truly hope it is), if these conversations fade from the public discourse then the chances of this happening begin to fade away. Human progress, while plodding and often delayed until the last possible minute, is predicated on widespread demand and without this it is unlikely that business and industry leaders will put their efforts into solving the challenges we face. But if we collectively refuse to ignore the problems and continue to demand change then we will hopefully become impossible to ignore.

So in honour of this annual event I’ve put together a selection of my favourite environmental images. They range across continents and feature work from Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, China, Tibet, Bangladesh, Canada, Guatemala, and Mexico, where I am now based. Some show only beauty for its own sake, some depict the planet’s wrath in the form of natural disasters, others focus on pollution while yet more look at our insatiable hunger for resources. But all of them are connected by geography in that they were taken on the same lonely piece of rock and magma flying through space, the only home we have ever known. Whether positive or negative, hopeful or pessimistic, I hope these pictures give a sense of how varied and wonderful this planet is and why, in the face of the current political climate, we need to work harder than ever to protect it.

A fishing boat races across the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne as well as a fishing ground for locals.

A fishing boat races across the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast reservoir has been dubbed “The Laos Sea” by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientiane as well as a fishing ground for locals.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav, Cambodia, and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

The driver of a ferry that shuttles locals between the village of Khpob Ateav, Cambodia, and the island of Peam Reang docks his vessel as darkness approaches.

A Tibetan man stands above the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunnan, China. Fast flowing and oxidized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

A Tibetan man stands above the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunnan, China. Fast flowing and oxidized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

Buddhist monks play basketball on a court in their mountainside monastery in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Despite the light covering of snow, the monks report increasingly warmer winter temperatures each year and a general reduction in quanitites of fresh water on the Tibetan plateau.

Buddhist monks play basketball on a court in their mountainside monastery in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Despite the light covering of snow, the monks report increasingly warmer winter temperatures each year and a general reduction in quantities of fresh water on the Tibetan plateau.

Boys play in the ocean near Yolonda Village, Tacloban, Philippines. Yolonda is the local name for typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged southern Leyte.

Boys play in the ocean near Yolonda Village, Tacloban, Philippines. Yolonda is the local name for typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged southern Leyte.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam. There are so few fish left in this section of the Mekong River that fishermen have turned to building inland fish farms to support their families.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam. There are so few fish left in this section of the Mekong River that fishermen have turned to building inland fish farms to support their families.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatapec, outside Mexico City, waiting for government water delivery trucks. As the city's water resources become increasingly scarce, more and more of its poorest residents depend on such deliveries.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatepec, outside Mexico City, waiting for government water delivery trucks. As the city’s water resources become increasingly scarce, more and more of its poorest residents depend on such deliveries.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion washed away their land.

A boys sits on a staircase on the edge of the Mekong near the island of Peam Reang, Cambodia. The stairs are the only remains of a house whose owners were forced to relocate as river erosion washed away their land.

A man walks along an improvised breakwater made of hardened cement bags in Tacloban, Philippines. Much of the coastline was destroyed by typhoon Haiyan, and the sacks serve as a temporary replacement.

A man walks along an improvised breakwater made of hardened cement bags in Tacloban, Philippines. Much of the coastline was destroyed by typhoon Haiyan, and the sacks serve as a temporary replacement.

Canadian tree planters hike into a clearcut where they will manually reforest the area. Canada is the world's largest exporter of wood products, and reforestation is part of the national law.

Canadian tree planters hike into a clearcut where they will manually reforest the area. Canada is the world’s largest exporter of wood products, and reforestation is part of the national law.

An elderly woman in Ecatepec shouts at a water delivery truck for not visiting her home in over a week.

An elderly woman in Ecatepec shouts at a water delivery truck for not visiting her home in over a week.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave them to dry in the sun.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave them to dry in the sun. Recycling organic fibres such as these instead of throwing them away develops local industry and reduces waste.

A horse grazes on the mountain sides overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunnan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

A horse grazes on the mountain sides overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunnan, China. Gongle sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river, but will be flooded by the completion of a nearby hydropower dam, necessitating the relocation of most residents.

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala. Almalonga is often referred to as the Garden of the Americas, but it has become heavily dependent on agricultural chemicals to keep production high.

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala. Almalonga is often referred to as the Garden of the Americas, but it has become heavily dependent on agricultural chemicals to keep production high.

A young boy enters an illegal gold mine in southern Leyte, Philippines. Mining crews work for up to 10 hours per day underground, with little to no safety precautions.

A young boy enters an illegal gold mine in southern Leyte, Philippines. Mining crews work for up to 10 hours per day underground, with little to no safety precautions.

An aerial view of a Mekong River tributary near Luang Prabang, Laos, with a major hydropower dam nearly completed in the distance. Laos is attempting to transform itself into "the battery of Southeast Asia" by heavily damming its rivers despite the high environmental costs.

An aerial view of a Mekong River tributary near Luang Prabang, Laos, with a major hydropower dam nearly completed in the distance. Laos is attempting to transform itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia” by heavily damming its rivers despite the high environmental costs.

Small mounds of chemical fertilizer is placed next to each head of lettuce to ensure they reach maximum possible size. Lettuce is not a staple food in Guatemala and much of it will be exported to neighbouring countries. Furthermore, decades of heavy application has rendered the soil dependent on it.

Small mounds of chemical fertilizer is placed next to each head of lettuce to ensure they reach maximum possible size. Lettuce is not a staple food in Guatemala and much of it will be exported to neighbouring countries. Furthermore, decades of heavy application has rendered the soil dependent on it.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majority of their income.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake’s level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majority of their income.

A buddhist monk hikes through the Areng Valley in Cambodia as part of an anti-dam protest.

A buddhist monk hikes through the Areng Valley in Cambodia as part of an anti-dam protest.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos. Fewer than 400 wild elephants remain in Laos, while many of those in captivity are used for brute force labour.

Women watch as watWomen watch as water leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Ecatepec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City's water is lost to leaky infrastructure.er leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Icatapec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City's water is lost to leaky infrastructure.

Women watch as water leaks from a tanker pipe in the streets of Ecatepec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City’s water is lost to leaky infrastructure.

Children play cricket in a flooded field that has become a dumping ground for garbage and human waste. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A tree planter works along a rainy ridge in southern Alberta, Canada. Though this section of forest will be replanted, what grows will be a monoculture forest and cannot replace the old growth that once stood.

A tree planter works along a rainy ridge in southern Alberta, Canada. Though this section of forest will be replanted, what grows will be a monoculture forest and cannot replace the old growth that once stood.

In Iztapalapa, Mexico City, many residents are so short of water that their only source is from delivery trucks that might take as much as three weeks to refill their cisterns. As water becomes increasingly scarce in Mexico it is the poorest residents who suffer the most shortages.

In Iztapalapa, Mexico City, many residents are so short of water that their only source is from delivery trucks that might take as much as three weeks to refill their cisterns. As water becomes increasingly scarce in Mexico it is the poorest residents who suffer the most shortages.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinghong.

The foothills of the Himalayas in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). The Tibetan plateau is often referred to as "the third pole" because of its huge reserves of ice and water. This region is under serious threat from global climate change, which is in turn threatening the water supply for most of Asia.

The foothills of the Himalayas in Zado, Tibet (Qinghai, China). The Tibetan plateau is often referred to as “the third pole” because of its huge reserves of ice and water. This region is under serious threat from global climate change, which is in turn threatening the water supply for most of Asia.

Cambodian monks bathe in the Areng River, near the site of a proposed Chinese hydroelectric dam.

Cambodian monks bathe in the Areng River, near the site of a proposed Chinese hydroelectric dam.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack. This region of Guatemala has become so dependent on the use of agricultural chemicals that many imports have been banned from the United States - despite the fact that many of the chemicals were manufactured in America in the first place.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack. This region of Guatemala has become so dependent on the use of agricultural chemicals that many imports have been banned from the United States – despite the fact that many of the chemicals were manufactured in America in the first place.

A tree planter climbs on a "log deck". Canada is one of the world's leading exporters of wood products, and the harvested forests must be replanted by hand.

A tree planter climbs on a “log deck”. Canada is one of the world’s leading exporters of wood products, and the harvested forests must be replanted by hand.

Valeriano Cutúc is an Almolonga farmer who remembers a time before the chemicals were necessary. The current reliance on them is a constant financial strain as prices of the chemicals are beyond the farmers control. A sudden price hike could ruin a farmer who is already dependent.

Valeriano Cutúc is an Almolonga farmer who remembers a time before the chemicals were necessary. The current reliance on them is a constant financial strain as prices of the chemicals are beyond the farmers control. A sudden price hike could ruin a farmer who is already dependent.

Illegal gold miners bathe in the jungle near their mining tunnel in the mountains overlooking Pinut An, Philippines.

Illegal gold miners bathe in the jungle near their mining tunnel in the mountains overlooking Pinut An, Philippines.

Yaks eat in the early morning in Yak Kharka, Nepal. The Himalayas are one of the regions most threatened by global climate change.

Yaks eat in the early morning in Yak Kharka, Nepal. The Himalayas are one of the regions most threatened by global climate change.

Horses that did not survive the harsh winter in Northern Nepal.

Horses that did not survive the harsh winter in Northern Nepal.

The Thorong Pass stands at nearly 5500 metres above sea level, yet is nowhere close to the highest point in Nepal. The Himalayas are the world's highest mountain range, but region is under severe threat from global climate change.

The Thorong Pass stands at nearly 5500 metres above sea level, yet is nowhere close to the highest point in Nepal. The Himalayas are the world’s highest mountain range, but region is under severe threat from global climate change.

Posted in Blog, Environmental Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , |

The Passion of Iztapalapa

Early morning on Good Friday, actors and their crosses begin streaming into Iztapalapa for the annual Passion of the Christ procession.

Early morning on Good Friday, actors and their crosses begin streaming into Iztapalapa for the annual Passion of the Christ procession.

Since basing myself in Mexico City, most of my personal work has been focused on the water crisis for urban poor in Iztapalapa – the most populous of the city’s 16 boroughs. So when I heard that several million Catholic devotees would be converging on Iztapalapa to reenact the Passion of the Christ, complete with horses, costumes, and fake blood, I knew it was an event I had to cover.

I teamed up with Al Jazeera English, and the following text was originally published there along with a nice selection of images.

I’m adding a few unpublished pictures here, and if you’re interested in seeing the complete edit, you can look though my archives, here.

In short, the Iztapalapa Passion of the Christ is a photojournalist’s dream in terms of visual overload, and if you find yourself in Mexico City during Semana Santa (holy week), it is well worth the trip.

Catholic devotees carry a statue of the Virgin Mary through the streets of Iztapalapa, clouded in incese smoke.

Catholic devotees carry a statue of the Virgin Mary through the streets of Iztapalapa, clouded in incense smoke.

The Passion of Iztapalapa

Every April for the last 174 years, massive crowds have been gathering in Iztapalapa, Mexico City, to express their Catholic devotion at the annual Passion of the Christ procession. A country with a massive Catholic majority, with more than 80% of the population prescribing to the faith at the last census, the event brings in millions of spectators to Iztapalapa – already Mexico City’s most populous borough. They come to watch thousands of actors in full costume wind their way through Iztapalapa’s streets to the summit of Cerro de Estrella where Jesus’ crucifixion is reenacted, fake blood and all. The players come from all demographics, like Miguel Julian, a handyman from Iztapalapa who has been dressing as a Roman legionary for the last 17 years. When asked why he gives his time to sweat in the Mexican sun clothed in heavy leather armour, he says, “to give thanks to God.”

Actors playing Roman cavalry ride through the streets of Iztapalapa. Most of the horses for the annual event are on loan from the Mexico City police force. Despite being well trained, there are horse-related accidents nearly every year.

Actors playing Roman cavalry ride through the streets of Iztapalapa. Most of the horses for the annual event are on loan from the Mexico City police force. Despite being well trained, there are horse-related accidents nearly every year.

Young men dress as Roman legionaries for the 174-year-old Iztapalapa Passion of the Christ procession. Upwards of 10 000 actors will participate in the event.

Young men dress as Roman legionaries for the 174-year-old Iztapalapa Passion of the Christ procession. Upwards of 10 000 actors will participate in the event.

Local bands practice their marching songs for the annual Passion of the Christ procession. Participating in the event is seen as a sign of devotion and a point of pride for locals.

Local bands practice their marching songs for the annual Passion of the Christ procession. Participating in the event is seen as a sign of devotion and a point of pride for locals.

Unlike in other parts of Latin America where similar passion tributes dates back to Spanish colonial times, Iztapalapa’s event was formed after a cholera epidemic in 1843 ended. To express their faith that God had saved them from death, locals wrote and stages their own version of the Passion of the Christ – an event that has now grown to be one of the region’s largest religious events.

The procession has become a point of local pride for Iztapalapa, an urban sprawl on the Eastern edge of Mexico City home to nearly two million people. One of the city’s lowest income areas, Iztapalapa has been plagued with high crime rates and instances of domestic violence for years. The prestige and scale of the Passion procession is therefore a much needed source of honour for a community that is so often portrayed negatively in the news. “I’ve been coming to this event since I was a little boy,” said 38-year old taxi driver and Iztapalapa local Omar Zepeda. “I used to carry the crosses up the hill like the others, and it always made me feel proud that this event happens here in Iztapalapa.”

Catholic devotees dressed as Nazarenes begin the Passion of the Christ procession in Iztapalapa dragging 100kg (220 lb.) crosses behind them for the long walk to the summit of Cerro de Estrella.

Catholic devotees dressed as Nazarenes begin the Passion of the Christ procession in Iztapalapa dragging 100kg (220 lb.) crosses behind them for the long walk to the summit of Cerro de Estrella.

A cross-bearer takes a break from carrying his 100kg (220lb.) cross up the Cerro de Estrella. In the mid day sun, dragging the crosses up Iztapalapa's tallest mountain is an exhausting physical feat.

A cross-bearer takes a break from carrying his 100kg (220lb.) cross up the Cerro de Estrella. In the mid day sun, dragging the crosses up Iztapalapa’s tallest mountain is an exhausting physical feat.

After reaching the summit of Cerro de Estrella, people quickly drop their heavy crosses and rest in whatever shade they can find after the exhausting trek.

After reaching the summit of Cerro de Estrella, people quickly drop their heavy crosses and rest in whatever shade they can find after the exhausting trek.

While there are thousands of actors and participants in the parade, the competition for the main parts – especially Jesus – is fierce as the honour associated with such a role is immense. The actor who is chosen (this year 27-year-old Eder Omar Arreola Ortega won the part) must be able to drag a 100 kg (220 lb.) wooden cross for roughly six kilometres, much of which is uphill. In order not to collapse in front of the nation’s TV cameras, he must train up to six months in advance.

Young women in full costume wait in the streets as the procession is halted in the winding streets of Iztapalapa. An estimated 10 000 actors and actresses will participate in the event.

Young women in full costume wait in the streets as the procession is halted in the winding streets of Iztapalapa. An estimated 10 000 actors and actresses will participate in the event.

Up to 10 000 actors and actresses participate in the annual event, which winds for kilometres through the streets of Iztapalapa before ending on the summit of Cerro de Estrella.

Up to 10 000 actors and actresses participate in the annual event, which winds for kilometres through the streets of Iztapalapa before ending on the summit of Cerro de Estrella.

With an estimated 2-4 million spectators lining Iztapalapa's streets for the procession, a heavy police presence is needed to control the crowds.

With an estimated 2-4 million spectators lining Iztapalapa’s streets for the procession, a heavy police presence is needed to control the crowds.

Broadcast by satellite and now the Internet all across the Spanish-speaking world, Iztapalapa’s Passion of the Christ is only growing in popularity, just as the religion itself continues to gain ground in the developing world. And there is every indication that massive crowds will continue to gather on Cerro de Estrella for years to come.

An actor dressed as a Roman legionary prepares the wooden crosses at the summit of Cerro de Estrella on which Jesus will be crucified.

An actor dressed as a Roman legionary prepares the wooden crosses at the summit of Cerro de Estrella on which Jesus will be crucified.

27-year-old Eder Omar Arreola Ortega, the actor playing Jesus in this year's Passion of the Christ parade, carries his wooden cross to the summit of Cerro de Estrella. Being chosen to play Jesus is seen as a huge honor and the actor must train up to six months in advance for the phycial feat of dragging a 100kg (220 lb.) piece of wood up hill in the sun.

27-year-old Eder Omar Arreola Ortega, the actor playing Jesus in this year’s Passion of the Christ parade, carries his wooden cross to the summit of Cerro de Estrella. Being chosen to play Jesus is seen as a huge honor and the actor must train up to six months in advance for the phycial feat of dragging a 100kg (220 lb.) piece of wood up hill in the sun.

Jesus and one of the unnamed thieves he was crucified with hang from crosses on Cerro de Estrella, in a representation of his crucifiction.

Jesus and one of the unnamed thieves he was crucified with hang from crosses on Cerro de Estrella, in a representation of his crucifixion.

A tired devotee in Roman legionary's clothing takes a break after hoisting Jesus onto the cross.

A tired devotee in Roman legionary’s clothing takes a break after hoisting Jesus onto the cross.

After dying on the cross, disciples remove Jesus' crown of thorns towards the end of the annual Passion of the Christ procession.

After dying on the cross, disciples remove Jesus’ crown of thorns towards the end of the annual Passion of the Christ procession.

Actors carry Jesus' body down from Cerro de Estrella as the annual procession ends.

Actors carry Jesus’ body down from Cerro de Estrella as the annual procession ends.

Click here to see a longer edit of images from my archives.

Posted in Blog, Mexico Tagged , , , , , |

Mexico City’s Invisible Rivers – From the Air

Mexico City, beyond being one of the biggest cities in the world, is also one of the most at risk global capitals in terms of water security. This was not always the case, however. In fact, much of what is now Mexico City used to sit on top of Lake Texcoco – a body of water now almost completely covered over by the massive urban sprawl of 24 million people. But even after the lake was sacrificed to accommodate the city’s growing population, there was still a network of rivers that flowed through the city, providing irrigation, drainage, and green space.

Starting in the mid 1900’s, however, the rivers became so polluted from discarded trash and human waste, which when combined with the explosion of personal cars in Mexico led local government to the decision to enclose these rivers in pipes and pave over them with new roads. Some of the city’s main thoroughfares — Rio Churubusco or Rio de la Piedad, for example — still bear the names of the waterways that they replaced. While there is still some form of running water underneath these roads, they are now more sewer than river.

A woman uses an overpass to cross Rio Churubusco, a major freeway that was once a river.

A woman uses an overpass to cross Rio Churubusco, a major freeway that was once a river.

Recently there has been rising interest among architects and environmental activists to dig up these rivers and restore them to their original state, cleaning the water in the process and providing natural space for locals to enjoy. Unsurprisingly these plans have not been wholeheartedly embraced by the government which does not seem interested in spending large sums of money on projects with little promise of economic returns. Yet that hasn’t stopped people from drawing up plans for what such a project might look like and architecture firm Taller 13 has been among the lead voices in advocating the benefits of a city through which rivers once again flow.

 

Concept art from architecture firm Taller 13, showing what the Rio de la Piedad might look like if rejuvenated.

Since moving to Mexico City and starting a three year investigation into all facets of the city’s water situation, I’ve wanted to get a sense of the scale of these former rivers. Previously I’d driven along some of them and taken photos, but the real magnitude of the environment can’t be grasped from ground level. Instead I set aside my camera and travelled across the city with my drone and I think the footage gives a much better idea of both the size of the city and of the invisible rivers that were once above the surface.

Posted in Blog, Drone, Environmental, Mexico, Video, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Sean Gallagher Mentorship Program 2017

I’m pleased to say that I have been awarded the 2017 Mentorship with environmental photojournalist Sean Gallagher. I’ve been following Sean’s work for years, and he was one of the first role models I had to follow when I initially started considering making environmental issues may full time focus. Sean’s work on India’s toxic leather industry and his long-term partnerships with the Pulitzer Center showed me that it was possible to pursue complex environmental stories, even though they might not be dramatic enough to be sought after by the mainstream media.

Ever since I started in this industry I have found that I develop much faster as a storyteller when I have consistently feedback from people I respect, and so I’ve always tried to get as much outside input as possible. In this sense, having a photographer like Sean, someone who is interested in the same issues as I am and who is giving me a full year of his time, will be incredibly valuable and I am looking forward to getting started.

Throughout the course of this program I will continue to work on my long term project about water shortages in Mexico, and I have no doubt that his input is going to increase its power hugely. The visual documentary industry, and the even smaller environmental photojournalism niche within it, can be a solitary one and I am incredibly grateful that there are people like Sean out there who are willing to help along the way.

 

Posted in Blog, Mexico, Photojournalism Tips Tagged , , , , |

Reading List for Environmental Journalists

As an environmental photojournalist, writer, and videographer, I’m always looking to understand the conflict between culture and the environment as deeply as possible. It is from books that I get inspiration for projects, fill gaps in my knowledge, and expand the way I think about how to tell environmental stories visually. This list serves as an evolving record of the books that I’ve found most interesting, inspiring, or informative, and I hope that you’ll discover something that makes you think about our relationship to the planet more deeply.

By no means an exhaustive list, these aren’t ranked in order of best to worst, but are stacked one on top of the other as I come across them.

Limits to Growth – Donella and Dennis Meadows

When this book was originally published in the early 1970’s, many — including some of the most reputable environmental experts of the time — dismissed it as doomsday fiction. The husband and wife team of Donella and Dennis Meadows were commissioned by think tank Club of Rome to create a computer model that would predict the world’s environmental future based on rates of consumption. Tracking population, food, pollution, industry, and the use of resources, the project made predictions about the state of the global population to the end of the 21st Century. The simulation found that if significant action wasn’t taken to combat environmental degradation and curb humanity’s rapacious appetites, we would be on the verge of collapse by 2070.

But the really chilling part isn’t the prediction itself, or that most people of the time dismissed it entirely. It’s that the predictions it made, when measured against today’s statistics, have proven to be more or less accurate. And while I’m not saying that our world is going to collapse in 50 years, this freely available book is well worth a read if only for the sake of understanding the great imbalance between resource availability and consumption. There is a limit to how much society can grow, yet despite being warned about it nearly 25 years ago, we still have continued with business as usual.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate – Naomi Klein

One of the most definitive modern texts on climate change and what it means, This Changes Everything is also one of the most readable. Written by the author of No Logo and other bestselling non-fiction books, Klein lays out the problem we’re facing with the clarity of a journalist instead of an academic.

Simply put, we have built our society around the principle that we can expect to continuously grow and expand our profits without end. And despite the fact that this is obviously not true (see Limits to Growth), we proceed to act as though it were. From the oil and gas giants who expand operations every year despite the almost irrefutable indications that they are doing irreparable damage to the climate to the governments who continue to ignore the mountains of science they know to be true, Klein argues that a paradigm shift is needed immediately or everything really will be lost. When read in conjunction with Limits to Growth, This Changes Everything puts the climate change problem into perspective in a writing style that is both informative and highly engaging.

Let My People Go Surfing – Yvon Chouinard

This autobiographical business manifesto written by the founder of Patagonia was originally intended as an employee handbook to explain the ethics and values of the company to new workers, but was eventually published internationally for public consumption. Now nearly 80 years old, Chouinard’s Wikipedia page lists his occupation as “rock climber” even though he has been managing one of the biggest outdoor clothing companies in the world for more than 40 years, which should tell you something about his character.

Decreeing that profits should be secondary to creating long-lasting, high quality, environmentally sustainable, and personal ethics, Patagonia’s corporate philosophy is far from greenwashing. They are one of the few companies that actually goes out of their way to better the world they sell to, and their most recent advertising urges people not to buy their products if they don’t need them. They also offer free repairs to all of their items, something that is sorely needed in the age of planned obsolescence that creates the need for us to buy a new iPhone or laptop every few years to ensure that the companies who make them can keep turning a profit.

Part memoire, part business philosophy, Let My People Go Surfing shows us an alternate example to how businesses can operate sustainably, and how we can continue to buy the things we need without destroying the planet. It’s no coincidence that Naomi Klein, an author who has spent much of her career attacking corporate greed, personally wrote the intro for this businessman’s book.

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival – John Vaillant

The second offering from the author of the equally great The Golden Spruce, this true story recounts the rise of a man-eating tiger in the hostile forests of Siberia and the team that was tasked with tracking it down. Vaillant has an incredible ability to present his subjects in such detail that the freezing world of eastern Russia comes to life, and the tiger itself becomes a living character in its own right. While this is ostensibly a story about killing a wild animal, in reality it is an ode to the fragility of the ecosystem and the incredible impact humanity has made on it.

It is rare to find non-fiction books that move forward with such an attention-grabbing narrative, and I absolutely tore through it. The characters, the setting, and the message all combine to make this one of the most gripping environmentally oriented books I have ever read.

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water – Maude Barlow

Numerous high profile academics and military leaders have been quoted as saying that just as the wars of the last century were fought over oil, the wars of this century will be fought over water. In persuasive detail, Barlow outlines the facts: there is not enough fresh water on the planet to keep pace with current usages, corporations have been given a free license to privatize the world’s most valuable resource, and pollution is spiralling out of control.

There can be no life without water, but despite this absolute truth, we continue to treat water as if it was worthless and hardly think twice about its wastage. But the time is coming where we will have to stare the reality of our water choices in the face and deal with the consequences. Not just a treatise of doom and gloom, Barlow outlines steps that can be taken to bring us back form the brink of water catastrophe — but it remains to be seen if governments and business leaders will put humanity’s survival ahead of profit margins.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – Jared Diamond

From the author of the popular Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse is focused on how societies — from the pre-historical to the modern — fall apart. With a great deal of attention paid to the role of environmental degradation in the destruction of societies, I found this book reminded me how much there is to lose. We tend to view our current society as indestructible and we can often bury our heads in the sand and assume that regardless of our actions things will continue as normal. But ancient Babylonians or Sumerians must have thought much the same thing, and their societies are nothing more than an ancient memory today.

Diamond is careful to point out that environmental issues alone were not solely responsible for the collapse of the world’s great civilizations. Military and economic factors brought down the Romans and Soviet Union alike, and cannot be ignored. Among the challenges facing our 21st Century society, however, Diamond views the environmental crisis as one of the most likely to bring us down. A long, sweeping historical narrative along the lines of his other books, Collapse warns that if we don’t do something to check the ecological degradation taking place around us than our future is no more assured than that of the Vikings.

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Have any suggestions for great environmental books? E-mail me: I’d love to hear them.

Posted in Blog, Environmental, Environmental Reading List, Photojournalism Tips Tagged , , , , |

Iztapalapa by Air

As part of my ongoing long term project about water shortages in Mexico, I’ve been spending a lot of my free time in Iztapalapa – Mexico City’s most populous borough, and one of the most chronically short of water.

The size and scale of Iztapalapa is truly hard to grasp from the ground. For a visitor at street level it’s impossible to get any sense of place, so thick is the urban environment. Low-rise concrete houses interspersed with light industrial operations seem to continue without end and the lack of any tall buildings makes navigating without GPS a challenge. Add to that the fact that Iztapalapa has one of the highest crime rates in a city of roughly 24 million, and wandering around lost becomes a situation best avoided.

Despite the difficulties of working in the area, the majority of Iztapalapa residents are possessed of the same hospitality that Mexico as a nation is famous for. And as a photojournalist and videographer newly based in Mexico City, Iztapalapa is a visual playground. So after a few months of meeting people and exploring various neighbourhoods I finally decided to come back with a drone to get a better sense of where I was in the greater context of the city.

As a drone pilot with experience in multiple countries across Asia, Canada, and Latin America, I have seen my fair share of impressive aerial views. But the expanse of urban jungle as dense as Iztapalapa was by far one of the most dramatic landscapes I’ve flown over.

Narrating in the background is Marisol Fierro, a community representative of the Mixcoatl neighbourhood and one of the people I make sure to visit every time I pass through Iztapalapa. This short video is part of a much longer section on the state of water shortages in the city, and will be eventually part of a much larger narrative. In the meantime, enjoy this birds eye view of Mexico City’s largest borough.

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For questions or proposals about photojournalism, videography, or drone operations in Mexico or the rest of the America’s, you can contact me here.

Posted in Blog, Drone, Mexico, Water