Category Archives: Blog

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.

Also posted in 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.

Also posted in 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.

Also posted in 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.

Also posted in 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.

 

Also posted in 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.

Also posted in 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.

Also posted in Drone, Mexico, Water

Urban Drought: Mexico City’s Water Crisis

Iztapalapa is Mexico City's most populous borough, home to roughly 2 million people. It is also one of the most water starved.

Iztapalapa is Mexico City’s most populous borough, home to roughly 2 million people. It is also one of the most water starved.

Since leaving Cambodia to base myself in Mexico City last spring, I have been asked the same two questions repeatedly — why Mexico, and what are you working on there? Conveniently, the answers to both are more or less the same: water. Of course there are many other reasons for changing continents, and I am doing a variety of non-water related photojournalism and videography, but my primary focus for the last six months has been on the city’s water starved low income neighbourhoods.

Mexico City is the second largest city in the world with an estimated metropolitan population of 24 million people.

Mexico City is the second largest city in the world with an estimated metropolitan population of 24 million people.

The second largest city in the world, no one is exactly sure exactly how many people actually live in Mexico City, but a good guess for the greater metropolitan area is somewhere around 24 million. Only Tokyo is home to more, and its high-tech, hyper-efficient organization makes it an entirely different experience to the functional chaos of Mexico City. With such a staggering population and its under-funded and aging infrastructure, it is in some ways unsurprising that the city is running out of water. Al Jazeera, quoting author Jose Estiban Castro, reported that the city’s water usage average per capita is around 300 litres per day, which is around double what many European cities use (but less still than the American average), and when multiplied across the tens of millions of citizens the total quantity of water needed every day is mind boggling. With this figure in mind it is actually quite impressive that they are able come close to meeting their water needs, especially considering that a devastating earthquake in 1985 caused extensive damage to the underground water infrastructure — much of which still hasn’t been fully repaired.

In fact, if you were to pay a visit to Mexico City and head to some of the trendier colonias, defined by coffee shops, bars, and beautiful parks, you might not notice that there was a water shortage at all. It is only when you venture into some of the sprawling low income suburbs that encircle the city that you realize just how scarce water can be for working class chilangos, as residents of the capital are referred to in the rest of the country.

A pipa drives through the extreme outer edges of Iztapalapa, areas that are water starved as well as possessing high crime rates.

A pipa drives through the extreme outer edges of Iztapalapa, areas that are water starved as well as possessing high crime rates.

Iztapalapa, the city’s most populous borough, is such a place. Home to nearly 2 million and possessing a reputation for high crime rates, Iztapalapa is a different beast than the downtown core that helped earn Mexico City the top spot on The New York Times’ list of cities to visit in 2016. During one visit to the extreme edge of the borough, I was warned by a man I was interviewing not to enter certain vacant buildings because there were often gang-related kidnap victims held inside. In many such neighbourhoods, to have running household water is considered a luxury. In the community of Mixcoatl, for example, the only thing that comes out of the taps with any regularity is a kind of empty gurgling sound. Residents consider themselves lucky if it is followed by actual water more than a few times per month.

Police officers armed with assault rifles man a checkpoint in Iztapalapa, one of Mexico City's poorest neighbourhoods, and one that suffers from chronic water shortages.

Police officers armed with assault rifles man a checkpoint in Iztapalapa, one of Mexico City’s poorest neighbourhoods, and one that suffers from chronic water shortages.

A guard dog protects a scrap yard on the outer edges of Iztapalapa.

A guard dog protects a scrap yard on the outer edges of Iztapalapa.

The first time I went to Iztapalapa it was on the roof of a government water tanker, known as a pipa. From my high vantage point I watched as people ran out of their houses at the sound of the truck’s roaring engine. The pipa would then reverse as close as possible to the person’s house and a crew member would drag a heavy rubber hose inside to fill up whatever kind of vessels they had. More prosperous residents (or those lucky enough to have skilled construction workers in the family) built high capacity underground cisterns to store the delivered water in. When coupled with a small electric pump, these cisterns allow people to have functioning taps in their kitchens, giving the illusion of a functioning public water service.

Waiting for pipas to arrive is a daily occurrence for residents of parts of Iztapalapa.

Waiting for pipas to arrive is a daily occurrence for residents Mixcoatl, a neighbourhood in Iztapalapa.

A man delivers garrafones (large jugs of purified water) in Iztapalapa. Mexico is the highest consumer of bottled water per capita in the world as neither the tap water or the water delivered in tanker is fit for drinking.

A man delivers garrafones (large jugs of purified water) in Iztapalapa. Mexico is the highest consumer of bottled water per capita in the world as neither the tap water or the water delivered in tanker is fit for drinking.

Women in Ecatapec wait to see if government water delivery trucks will enter their neighbourhood. With just three funcitoning trucks for more than 30 000 people, it is sometimes days or weeks between resupply of certain neighbourhoods.

Women in Ecatapec wait to see if government water delivery trucks will enter their neighbourhood. With just three functioning trucks for more than 30 000 people, it is sometimes days or weeks between resupply of certain neighbourhoods.

Those without cisterns relied on a hodgepodge collection of plastic barrels and buckets. Once I even saw someone using a baby’s bathtub as a container of last resort, so desperate were they to make sure they secured every drop of water possible. When I asked why they didn’t just fill up the biggest containers they had and then flag down another truck when they were empty, I was told it might be as much as three weeks before another pipa passed. A family of four, even if each person was using just half of the citywide average, would need more than 4000 litres of water per week. Looking at the size of the vessels some of the people were using, it was clear that they were not even close to being able to store weeks worth of water at, even at one quarter the normal rations.

A mother holds her son back in front of their Iztapalapa home after having an argument with a governement water delivery truck over the infrequency of their visits.

A mother holds her son back in front of their Iztapalapa home after having an argument with a governement water delivery truck over the infrequency of their visits.

A woman hoists a water pipe from a governement tanker onto the roof of her home in Iztapalapa where her family's water storage tanks are located.

A woman hoists a water pipe from a governement tanker onto the roof of her home in Iztapalapa where her family’s water storage tanks are located.

One woman I spoke to told me that she hadn’t been able to do a load of laundry for almost a month because her cistern was dry. Bucket showers had to be taken sparingly and the bather often had to stand inside a plastic tub so that the water could be saved and used to either flush the toilet or wash the floor. Dishes were piled high in many homes until a sufficient quantity had built up to justify filling the sink.

Women in Iztapalapa survey the amount of water that has been delivered to their home, after having used every empty vessel available. It is not uncommon for weeks to pass between water resupply.

Women in Iztapalapa survey the amount of water that has been delivered to their home, after having used every empty vessel available. It is not uncommon for weeks to pass between water resupply.

Two brothers clean their their family toilet using as little water as possible. With days or even weeks passing between water resupply, no water can be wasted.

Two brothers clean their their family toilet using as little water as possible. With days or even weeks passing between water resupply, no water can be wasted.

A woman holds a bucket to catch the water from her kitchen sink so that it can be reused to wash the floor. With extreme water shortages in certain neighbourhoods, careful recycling is needed to meet daily needs.

A woman holds a bucket to catch the water from her kitchen sink so that it can be reused to wash the floor. With extreme water shortages in certain neighbourhoods, careful recycling is needed to meet daily needs.

The problem was not limited to Iztapalapa, nor just to Mexico City for that matter. In the Ecatepec, a 30 minute drive out of the city into Mexico State, I met Yolonda Carillo, who told me that at one point she had gotten so desperate for water that she and her neighbours had essentially kidnapped a pipa crew after being told they would not be receiving a delivery that day. They then called the supervisor at the water depot and demanded that another pipa be dispatched to them or they would not let the crew leave. A stout, motherly woman who fed me tacos and homemade guacamole me after having spoken to me for less than an hour, she was not what I thought a kidnapper would look like. But as she said, water is life, and the lack of it makes people unpredictable.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatapec, waiting for government water delivery trucks.

A boy sits on an empty water tank near his home in Ecatapec, waiting for government water delivery trucks.

Yolonda Carillo stands outside her home on the edge of Ecatepec, 30 minutes outside Mexico City. Like Iztapalapa, parts of Ecatepec suffer from extreme water shortages.

Yolonda Carillo stands outside her home on the edge of Ecatepec, 30 minutes outside Mexico City. Like Iztapalapa, parts of Ecatepec suffer from extreme water shortages.

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

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

I realized these shortages affected nearly every aspect of people’s lives, and provided a frightening example of what an increasingly waterless future could look like. Mexico City has already depleted the vast majority of its underground aquifers and has to pipe most its water from river and lake systems, some of which are hundreds of kilometres away. The fact that the city is located on top of a 2,200 meter plateau makes the process of pumping water from so far away an engineering marvel in itself. But with roughly 40% of this water being wasted due to leakages in the pipes, the city’s high usage rates, and the unfortunate reality that the needs of poor citizens are a lower priority than those of the rich, the current system is a temporary fix, not a long term solution.

Women watch as water 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 Icatapec. Studies suggest that up to 40% of Mexico City’s water is lost to leaky infrastructure.

Ecatapec residents wait for their family's barrels to be filled, and then sign a waiver to indicate how much they have received. Though the water is supposed to be free of charge, residents are often required to pay a mandatory 'tip' for the tanker crew or face the possibility that the trucks will not return the following week.

Ecatapec residents wait for their family’s barrels to be filled, and then sign a waiver to indicate how much they have received. Though the water is supposed to be free of charge, residents are often required to pay a mandatory ‘tip’ for the tanker crew or face the possibility that the trucks will not return the following week.

A man pays 20 pesos ($1 US) to the water delivery crew as a "tip", though according to government policy, the water should be free.

A man pays 20 pesos ($1 US) to the water delivery crew as a “tip”, though according to government policy, the water should be free.

As the world continues to urbanize at an irreversible pace and as freshwater supplies dwindle globally, the looming danger for the world’s megacities can be seen in Mexico. This is only an overview of the situation and it is far from complete. It represents just the beginning of what will be a three year investigation into water, which, when finished, will include photography, short videos, and essays. The more time I spend in these communities, the more I am coming to realize how terrible it is to live in an urban environment without water. Yet when I’m done I hope to provide insights into possible solutions to this problem, and not only draw attention to the problem itself.

The future of humanity is in our cities, but as I have learned in Mexico City, without water urban life is untenable.

A community greenhouse in Ecatapec died after government water trucks did not visit the community for over a week.

A community greenhouse in Ecatapec died after government water trucks did not visit the community for over a week.

If anyone knows of innovative urban water programs or solution based initiatives, please feel free to contact me at luc@lucforsyth.com.

Also posted in Environmental, Mexico, Water Tagged , , , , , |

Agro Chemicals in The Garden of the Americas

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala.

Vegetable pickers start as early as 1 a.m. in the valley of Almalonga, Guatemala.

I went to Guatemala as a language student, not as a photojournalist. Since relocating to Mexico City after nearly 10 years in the Asia-Pacific region, learning Spanish has become a top priority and nowhere in the world has the same range of affordable options as Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), Guatemala. So I impulsively bought a non-refundable ticket with the intention of learning as much Spanish as possible over the course of a five week intensive immersion program. Everything else was to be put on the back burner. In retrospect, if all I wanted was to focus on language then I should have left my cameras in Mexico, but of course I didn’t. Within two days of landing in the country I had started thinking about possible stories.

Three days later I was on a bus heading out of Xela to Almolonga.

The entire Almolonga valley is roughly 20km squared, and all farmable land has been spoken for. Competition for space can be intense.

The entire Almolonga valley is roughly 20km squared, and all farmable land has been spoken for. Competition for space can be intense.

Almolonga was home to some of the richest agricultural land in all of Guatemala and because of the incredible amounts of vegetables it exported across Latin America, it had earned the nickname of The Garden of the Americas. When I first arrived in the valley, an intricate grid of vegetable plots dominated the landscape, forming a patchwork quilt of various shades of green. It seemed to be an agrarian paradise of small-scale farmers, and had I turned around and left without probing any deeper that impression might have endured. But instead I started asking questions and before long realized that Almolonga – and the unbelievably perfect-looking vegetables it produced — was firmly in the clutches of the international agricultural chemical industry.

A hired labourer carries chemical application equipment towards a piece of farmland in the early morning.

A hired labourer carries chemical application equipment towards a piece of farmland in the early morning.

An advertisement for the German-owned Bayer agricultural chemicals overlooks small farms in the Almolonga valley.

An advertisement for the German-owned Bayer agricultural chemicals overlooks small farms in the Almolonga valley.

Over the course of the next few weeks I learned that Almolonga’s farmers were applying pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers in such quantities that the land had become almost entirely dependent on them. Produced by international chemical concerns such as Monsanto and Bayer (now one and the same), these substances had been introduced to Guatemala during the Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s and had exploded in popularity. For a farmer with a ten square metre piece of land with which he supported his entire family, the products must have seemed like heaven-sent gifts that allowed for previously unimaginable levels of productivity.

Almolonga's fertile farmland sits at the bottom of a volcanic valley and has some of the richest soil in Guatemala. But decades of abundant agricultural chemical usage has made the soil reliant on them.

Almolonga’s fertile farmland sits at the bottom of a volcanic valley and has some of the richest soil in Guatemala. But decades of abundant agricultural chemical usage has made the soil reliant on them.

A farmer pours a German-made pesticides mix into a plastic spraying backpack, known as a 'bombero'.

A farmer pours a German-made pesticides mix into a plastic spraying backpack, known as a ‘bombero’.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack.

A labourer pours a mixture of groundwater and powdered herbicide into his chemical spraying backpack.

Farmers in Almolonga apply agricultural chemicals without formal instruction on poper dosages. There are no directions printed on most of the chemical packages, and the only source of information comes from the chemical vendors themselves. As a result many farmer far more than is necessary.

Farmers in Almolonga apply agricultural chemicals without formal instruction on poper dosages. There are no directions printed on most of the chemical packages, and the only source of information comes from the chemical vendors themselves. As a result many farmer far more than is necessary.

Of course things that seem too good to be true most often are. Over decades since the chemicals were initially introduced, their effectiveness steadily decreased while at the same time years of overuse rendered the previously fertile soil increasingly barren.

By the time I visited Almolonga, farmers were applying the substances in such unregulated quantities that the US Food and Drug Administration had banned the importation of the valley’s produce on a regular basis because of dangerously high levels of toxins. But the farmers were hooked, and in order to ween themselves off of the chemicals they would need to leave their fields fallow for roughly eight years — an impossible amount of time for a family living from harvest to harvest. So they sprayed the chemicals onto their crops in ever-increasing dosages and sold them domestically and to the neighbouring countries of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras where the regulations were sufficiently lax. The packages the chemicals were sold in offered nothing in the way of printed instructions, and the only source of education as to their proper application came from the chemical sellers themselves, who in turn received their instruction from the sales agents of the foreign manufacturers. To me this seemed utterly dangerous, akin to appointing a weapons manufacturer as head of a country’s armed forces.

A family of farmers visit a chemical vendor to ask questions about a new type of fertalizer.

A family of farmers visit a chemical vendor to ask questions about a new type of fertalizer.

Trucks line up in Almolonga's markets to be loaded with produce for shipping to other cities and neighbouring countries.

Trucks line up in Almolonga’s markets to be loaded with produce for shipping to other cities and neighbouring countries.

Advertisements for herbicides such as Gilfosato, originally patented by Monsanto, are painted on the walls throughout Almolonga.

Advertisements for herbicides such as Gilfosato, originally patented by Monsanto, are painted on the walls throughout Almolonga.

Farmers seldom wear any protection, though rubber boots and gloves are the minimum safety gear recomended by the vendors. No official studies have been done to link the chemicals to disease and chronic illness, but the high rates of liver cancer in Almolonga are suspected to be tied to pesticide use.

Farmers seldom wear any protection, though rubber boots and gloves are the minimum safety gear recomended by the vendors. No official studies have been done to link the chemicals to disease and chronic illness, but the high rates of liver cancer in Almolonga are suspected to be tied to pesticide use.

Products on display at a chemical vendor's shop in Almolonga.

Products on display at a chemical vendor’s shop in Almolonga.

What I learned after five weeks of visiting Almolonga was the insidiousness of the agri-chemical trap that bound small scale farmers into a cycle of paying for products that had to be applied in higher and higher quantities. Like tobacco, for the companies that exported the chemicals it was a near perfect arrangement — and just as addictive. Unlike cigarettes, however, where the power to stop using the product ultimately lay in the hands of the individual, the farmers of Almolonga had virtually no agency remaining. If they stopped buying, their crops would wither.

Further complicating the problem was the fact that the vegetables grown in Almolonga looked amazing. The chemically boosted crops produced carrots longer than my forearm, and just as thick, as well as radishes, heads of lettuce, and onions of such perfect colour and shape that they would be sure to catch the eye of any supermarket shopper. This helped me recognize that the problem isn’t simply one of supply, but the fact that modern demands have come to expect such unnatural perfection. When compared to the monsters that came out of the ground in Almolonga, an organic vegetable looked downright pathetic.

A chemically boosted Almolonga carrot on the right compared to much smaller organic carrots on the left.

A chemically boosted Almolonga carrot on the right compared to much smaller organic carrots on the left.

A truck loaded with Almolonga produce leaves for nearby wholesalers.

A truck loaded with Almolonga produce leaves for nearby wholesalers.

Mounds of chemical fertilizer are spaced between heads of lettuce. The soil has become so dependent on chemicals that larger and larger quantities are necessary for crops to grow.

Mounds of chemical fertilizer are spaced between heads of lettuce. The soil has become so dependent on chemicals that larger and larger quantities are necessary for crops to grow.

During my time in Guatemala I conducted many interviews and shot thousands of pictures, which I’m working on combining into a longer piece, but I wanted to share some images from this disturbing cycle in the mean time. Feeding the planet is going to be one of the main challenges of our time, and great care needs to be taken to make sure that Almolonga’s example doesn’t become the norm. I recognize that billions of people won’t be able to buy their vegetables at organic farmer’s markets and that technology and chemistry will have an important role to play in providing food security to the world. But if this process isn’t watched with care, future generations are going to have to deal with the financial enslavement and health risks associated with placing the global food supply in the control of the same multinational corporations that invented the likes of Agent Orange.

Work in the Almolonga valley never ends, with farmers tending to their fields in the middle of the night depending on the crop and time of year.

Work in the Almolonga valley never ends, with farmers tending to their fields in the middle of the night depending on the crop and time of year.

Also posted in Environmental, Guatemala Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Stuff I Liked This Month – October 2016

Like most people I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet reading articles, watching short videos, and looking for inspiration among the millions of new things uploaded everyday. While a lot of what is forced down our throats these days is clickbait trash, every once in a while I stumble across something genuinely of interest to me as a photojournalist, videographer, and more broadly as a human being.

I spent most of this month on the road between Mexico and Guatemala, and so this edition of Stuff I Liked This Month is reading heavy, perfect for long bus rides. Enjoy!

To see what I liked last month, click here.

1 – I Used to Be a Human Being – Andrew Sullivan/New York Magazine

Andrew Sullivan's essay in New York Magazine discusses the perils of internet addiction. Click the image to read the full article.

Andrew Sullivan’s essay in New York Magazine discusses the perils of internet addiction. Click the image to read the full article.

This long form essay deals with a problem that afflicts many people today: social media obsession and the mistaking of online recognition with real life success. Since starting out as a photojournalist, social media presence has been one of the most stressed yet elusive buzz words in the industry. From day one I had it drilled into me that I needed an online and social media presence if I were to have any chance of success in this highly competitive field, and the pursuit of that at times bordered on obsession. How could I ever hope to succeed without a following of tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, like those of the top names in documentary photography? Instagram and Facebook changed from being enjoyable social services to mandatory business tools that I scheduled into my calendar and at times the slightest changes in my followings could cause great anxiety.

Andrew Sullivan was one of the early adopters of online life, and for more than a decade he grew an impressive virtual following across multiple platforms. But after 15 years of living according to the whims of these anonymous “friends”, the need to feed the internet beast started to dominate every aspect of his life:

For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

Without giving away the entire substance of the article, I’ll just say that Andrew has since had a change of heart and his realizations about the dangers of living too much in the virtual world have direct applications to my own path as a photojournalist. As our work is more or less digital only these days and lives almost entirely online, thinking critically about how much engagement with the online world is healthy.

Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.

Head over to New York Magazine to read the full article, and take a moment to think about how your own relationship to the internet has changed your life.

2 – Inside Venezuela’s Crumbling Mental Hospitals – Meridith Kohut/The New York Times

Copyright Meridith Kohut / The New York Times. Click on image to see the full series.

Copyright Meridith Kohut / The New York Times. Click on image to see the full series.

The economic woes of Venezuela have been well covered in the media lately, but this haunting set of images by photojournalist Meridith Kohut for The New York Times show a dark side of what the collapse of a state can mean.

The glue that keeps this hospital in order — the sedatives, tranquilizers and medications — is nearly all gone. In courtyards, women who are functional while medicated are now curled on the floor hallucinating, crying, screaming, rocking back and forth for hours.

The doctors and nurses here are aghast at what is taking place, caught between anger and feelings of helplessness.

The nursing staff debates daily: Who gets the few remaining pills? Who is the most unstable, or suffering the most? They reduce doses, doling out pills into small metal cups with the fluidity of Las Vegas casino dealers.

The images speak for themselves. Click here to see the full set. 

3 – Mike Rowe on What is Wrong with the U.S. Elections

The circus theatre and the divided politics of of the American electorate have been impossible toscreen-shot-2016-10-27-at-11-20-52-am ignore for anyone with an internet connection. The coverage of the candidates has eclipsed all but the biggest news stories to the point where I didn’t learn about the horrific earthquake in Haiti until a week after it happened. And I am a regionally based environmental photojournalist who actively tries to monitor things like natural disasters as part of my job. If I didn’t know about it, how many less engaged people missed it completely? Yet more or less everyone I’ve come into contact with, American or not, native English speak or not, has something to say on Trump vs Hilary.

Weighing into the conversation is the always eloquent Mike Rowe. Made famous by the TV show Dirty Jobs, Rowe has a habit of looking at complex issues and distilling uncommonly sensible bits of wisdom.

Hi Jeremy,
Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it. I also share your concern for our country, and agree wholeheartedly that every vote counts. However, I’m afraid I can’t encourage millions of people whom I’ve never met to just run out and cast a ballot, simply because they have the right to vote. That would be like encouraging everyone to buy an AR-15, simply because they have the right to bear arms. I would need to know a few things about them before offering that kind of encouragement. For instance, do they know how to care for a weapon? Can they afford the cost of the weapon? Do they have a history of violence? Are they mentally stable? In short, are they responsible citizens?

Over the course of this open letter he breaks down the police commute in America with the common sense approach he is known for, but it so often lacking today. Click here to read the full piece. 

4 – Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

 

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-11-33-43-amAlmost like the antithesis to Andrew Sullivan’s past internet addiction is Murakami’s collection of essays/memoir about his lifelong love affair with running. As one of the world’s great writers, it would be easy for Murakami to retreat into a world of ideas and favour the cerebral over the real. But through running he finds a primal connection to the world that keeps him anchored in reality. As I said above, as a photojournalist I can get lost in the number of likes a an Instagram post gathers or how many readers my most recent assignment had in comparison to others, etc. But in his typical calm and minimalist style, Murakami makes me want to do something physical instead. In today’s digitized world, that’s something I need constant reminding of.

People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.

The book is a short and light read, and can be picked up here. Part autobiography and part philosophical treatise, I highly recommend this for anyone who feels that they might be just a little to caught up in the virtual world.

5 – Raising Barriers – Fences, Walls, and Fear – The Washington Post

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This piece by The Washington Post caught my eye both because of the interesting presentation of multimedia and the way it has been used to tackle a difficult topic – the correlation between the building of walls and fences with fear.

A generation ago, globalization shrank the world. Nations linked by trade and technology began to erase old boundaries. But now barriers are rising again, driven by waves of migration, spillover from wars and the growing threat of terrorism.

If national borders are themselves artificial and unnatural, then the global trend of building huge walls to separate societies from each other is even more so. The story weaves together photography, videography, text, and infographics effectively and I hope the Washington Post and other media outlets are able to find the budgets to keep producing dynamic pieces on unorthodox topics.

Check out the full story here.

Also posted in Photojournalism Tips