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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

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-12-01-55-pm

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

The Road to the Source

Horse riders along the highway cutting through Golok region, TIbet (Qinghai, China).

Horse riders along the highway cutting through Golok region, Tibet.

“Welcome to Tibet,” Tashi said as we walked out of the Xining airport after a 30-hour series of flights through mainland China. A former Buddhist monk turned Tibetan travel expert, Tashi would be our companion for the final leg of A River’s Tail as we made our final approach towards the source of the Mekong at the Lasagongma Springs.

Because of the difficulty of obtaining unrestricted travel permits for the Tibetan Autonomous Region, we’d had to abandon a portion of the Mekong and instead had decided on a more circuitous route to the river’s source. Beginning in the city of Xining, we would make a 4000km overland round trip through Qinghai province. And while the province fell under a Chinese name on the map, we quickly realized that this land was Tibet in all but official title.

A family walks through the snow in Darlag, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Darlag is one of the major cities of the Golok region.

A family walks through the snow in Darlag, Tibet. Darlag is one of the major cities of the Golok region.

Locals gather on the streets of Darlag, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Darlag is one of the captials of the Tibetan region of Golok.

Locals gather on the streets of Darlag, Tibet.

After spending a year and a half tracing the Mekong from its terminus at the South China Sea, Tibet was a special place to be ending our travels. Beyond being the literal geographical source of the Mekong, Tibet was also on the front lines of the biggest water-related threats facing the planet.

Tibet possess the largest supply of the world’s freshwater outside of the Arctic and Antarctica, earning it the nickname of The Third Pole. The waters that flow out of its plateau are the basis of all of Asia’s major rivers – the Mekong included – and sustain upwards of a billion lives.

Horses are transported in the back of a truck in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Horses are transported in the back of a truck in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Over the course of our time in Tibet we would learn about more than just the source of the Mekong. The powerful bonds between culture and the environment, the grave threats to regional water security, and the extreme selflessness exhibited by many Tibetans people in their mission to keep the plateau healthy for the benefit of those who lived downstream were all distinctly Tibetan characteristics.

The Black Tent

“A black tent, a black tent!” Tashi called excitedly as he pointed out the window of our car to a small settlement on the side of the highway. The solitary tent sat at the base of rolling foothills that stretched across the horizon, and apart from lines of prayer flags blowing in the cold wind, was the only feature on the barren winter landscape.

A family tent made from woven black yak hair in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

A family tent made from woven black yak hair in Golok region. Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

“This is really rare,” Tashi explained, “tent culture is dying out very fast in Tibet. Most of the nomadic families these days have Chinese-style buildings at their winter camps. Soon you won’t see this at all.”

As we approached the tent we were too distracted by the monstrous Tibetan mastiff guard dogs (that seemed as though they would gladly eat us for breakfast if not staked to the ground with heavy chains)  to notice what was unique about the black tent. While we were impressed by the toughness of any family who could live under a piece of cloth in the freezing temperatures of the Tibetan plateau in winter, from a distance the tent itself did not look like anything special. It was only when we got close enough to touch it that we realized that rather than a single piece of canvas, the walls were woven from thousands of individual strings of yak fur.

A mastiff fights against its restraints on a nomad winter camp in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Mastiffs are used throughout Tibet to protect the livestock of nomadic families from wolves and snow leopards.

A mastiff fights against its restraints on a nomad winter camp in Golok region, Tibet.

Hearing the frenzied barking of their dogs, two women emerged from the tent and surveyed us uninterestedly, exhibiting neither hostility or curiosity. Somewhat surprisingly, they made no effort to engage us in conversation or ask us what we wanted. Instead they mostly ignored us, and set to work weaving coarse tufts of yak hair into yet more threads, presumably to expand or repair the existing tent walls.

To be in such close proximity to other people, in their personal space nonetheless, and not interact with them in any meaningful was a strange experience and somewhat awkward for us after having speaking to so many people along the Mekong. Yet these nomadic women didn’t appear bothered in the least and simply continued with their task until we left, seeming neither annoyed or happy.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China). Tents woven from yak hair are becoming increasingly rare as Tibetan nomads adopt modern materials such as plastic or tarpaulin.

A nomadic woman winds yak hair into thread outside her family tent.

We were on our way to the monastery town of Payul (Baiyuxiang in Mandarin), but first we had hundreds more kilometres of grassland to cross through landscapes that were both utterly hostile looking and stunningly beautiful in their vastness. Apart from the periodic groups of pilgrims trudging along the side of the road and an occasional pickup truck loaded with wild-looking racing horses, it was easy to feel like we were alone in the sheer hugeness of the place.

Occasionally we passed more winter camps of Nomad families, most of whom had built permanent structures rather than the black yak hair tents, shielded from the bitter winter winds by head-height walls made exclusively from yak dung. Small children, their cheeks almost artificially red from wind burn as if they had been interrupted while experimenting with their mother’s makeup, stood in the subzero temperatures wearing little more than thin wool sweaters.

It was hard country, and the people who lived on it had to work hard to make it work for them.

Culture on the Move

“Once these people start moving into [permanent] houses the group culture starts to fall apart,” Tashi said as we stood on a bluff overlooking a sprawling complex of uniform single story homes. “Traditionally they live together in tents that are bigger than a house and take years to build from yak pelts. But most of these ‘real’ nomads are already gone.”

Relocation camps meant to bring nomadic families into permanent residences are spread across an open plain in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China)

Relocation camps meant to bring nomadic families into permanent residences are spread across an open plain in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China)

A community of newly built houses meant to accommodate Tibetan Nomads in Golok region, Tibet. Such communities are part of an effort by the Chinese government to keep nomadic Tibetans stationary and contained, but as there are few opportunities for employment or livestock rearing, many of the homes sit empty.

A community of newly built houses meant to accommodate Tibetan Nomads in Golok region, Tibet. Such communities are part of an effort by the Chinese government to keep nomadic Tibetans stationary and contained, but as there are few opportunities for employment or livestock rearing, many of the homes sit empty.

For nomads, who typically move with their yak herds three times per year between summer, winter, and autumn locations, the residential compound spread across the valley below was essentially an internment camp, a place where culture would suffocate and eventually die.

“In the old days there was no concept of land ownership,” Tashi explained. “Nomad families and tribes used to move together and share land. This started to change in the 1980’s when the government started assigning land to families, and surrounding this land with fences.”

It was strange to think of the impact something so simple as a fence could have on an ancient way of life, but as nomadic families started to think of land as their personal property, disputes and violent conflicts began to increase. People who had defined their culture through the sharing of land and resources for thousands of years were becoming divided. And while it seemed, from a distance, that the vast majority of the government-built housing compound was empty, it nevertheless represented a grave threat to (and possibly even the slowly approaching end of) nomadic culture.

Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

Golok region, Tibet.

A yak skull is mounted to a nomadic family's storage shed in Golok region, Tibet (Qinghai, China).

A yak skull is mounted to a nomadic family’s storage shed in Golok region.

But as ominous as the camp was, for the time being most nomads were not yet abandoning their traditional lifestyle. They faced threats from many angles, including the growth of massive industrial mining operations in the region and the degradation of grasslands so essential to the survival of their herds. But for people living in such relative isolation there was little to be done apart from tend to their yaks and hope to be left alone.

In Tibet, as in countless other places along the Mekong, 21st century issues of climate change, environmental degradation, land development, and the over exploitation of resources were most affecting those people who had done the least to precipitate the problems.

As we would see over the coming weeks, however, Tibetans were not resigned to inaction. Perhaps more so than any other group of people we had encountered along the Mekong, Tibetans were fighting to preserve what they had.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Environmental, The Mekong River, Tibet, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Stuff I Liked This Month – September 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.

Enjoy this random collection of things I liked from the internet from the last days of August through to the close of September.

To see what I liked last month, click here.

1. Cameraperson – Directed by Kirsten Johnson

Part documentary, part video memoir, Cameraperson is one of the most unique looking pieces of filmmaking I know of when it comes to relating the experiences of doing documentary work – and more broadly about the power of the work itself. The autobiographical details of director Kirsten Johnson’s decades of experience as an international videographer will appeal to those interested in, or currently engaged in, the field of documentary media, while the socio-cultural perspectives on global issues and the media make it much more than a behind-the-scenes piece for industry insiders.

The New York Times says of Cameraperson:

“In the course of her career, Ms. Johnson has found herself in dangerous and somber places, as a witness to some of the worst inhumanity of the recent past. She returns several times to Foca, Bosnia, the scene of mass rapes and killings during the Balkan wars of the ’90s, and also visits Darfur, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay and Manhattan’s ground zero. “Cameraperson” isn’t a work of journalism or advocacy. It’s a scrapbook, a found poem assembled out of scraps and snippets of truth.”

The film is currently on the indie festival circuit (where it looks to be racking up awards) so I’m not sure when exactly it will be available for mainstream audiences, but this is a film I’m going to keep tabs on.

Visit the official website for the film, here.

2. How a French Photographer Made Intimate Photos of Refugees (or The Ethics of Working With Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs))  – James Estrin/The New York Times Lens Blog

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-4-03-43-pm

Copyright Marie Dorigny. Click on image to read the full article.

This article by my friend and mentor Jim Estrin was technically written last month, but it’s too relevant to photojournalism to ignore. Photographer Marie Dorigny, the main subject of the article sums up one of the dominant issues for those working in documentary photography today:

“There are no more magazines that will send us on humanitarian social stories. They don’t care anymore and they don’t want to put money on these stories. The NGOs are willing to use photo reporters, and it’s an opportunity for us to keep working on the stories we care about.”

While it’s not necessarily true that there are no more magazines that will pay for humanitarian reporting, the list is dwindling by the day and the only ones who seem to see any of the limited funds that still exist are typically big name photographers with prestigious awards under their belts – and all the power to them. But for those, like me, whose names are not industry-wide brands yet are still living full time from visual storytelling, finding the money to pursue in depth projects is a constant challenge.

In fact, in the last fours years of work, the longest assignment I have ever received from the mainstream media has been six days, and that was an outlier. One or two days is more the norm. This isn’t an indictment of media as they are all dealing with their own well-publicized financial woes, but it does mean that photographers like me who want to pursue long-term stories need to look elsewhere for support – and more often than not, that means reaching out to NGOs.

My recently completed two-year documentation of the Mekong river was funded entirely by the non-profit sector, and despite producing roughly 50 pieces of multimedia journalism, we never received a cent from any media organization. That would seem to indicate that the new trend is to bypass the media altogether and work exclusively with the non-profit sector, but the solution isn’t that neat. Working with major media outlets provides both a legitimacy and scale of distribution that just can’t be matched by NGOs alone, and  the work produced with NGOs can be dismissed as being a piece of advocacy rather than journalism.

This article discusses some of the ins and outs of NGO/photojournalist partnerships, and gives some examples of noteworthy photographers who have stepped away from the media to get personal projects accomplished. This is an issue that will likely stick with my colleagues and I for the foreseeable future, and so I highly recommend reading it.

3. Use Your Photography Skills to Master Video – Jessica Dimmock/CreativeLive

If you work in the documentary photography world, odds are you have been repeatedly bombarded people telling you that you need to start shooting video immediately if you are to have any chance of long-term survival. This two-day course from award-winning photographer Jessica Dimmock of the VII Photo Agency takes a slightly gentler approach in branching the topic. Rather than preying on the fears that photojournalists have about the seismic shifts in the industry to force them to adopt video, Jessica Dimmock takes a different approach.

Through in-depth discussions of gear, methodology, logistics, and, more importantly, intention and motivation, she instead shows how exploring videography can compliment still photography and open up new opportunities that might not have existed otherwise. After watching this course (which spans more than 12 hours) I was left with a feeling of excitement about how video could enhance my projects rather than the normal gloom of obligation that often goes with this topic.

One of the best online education experiences I’ve had to date, I took this course when it streamed for free on launch. Now priced at $129 for lifetime access, if you are serious about trying to bring videography skills into your toolkit, this is far cheaper than any workshop that I know of and a great value. Dimmock is a solid and engaging teacher, and far from a patronizing overview for total beginners, this course delivers what it promises – sound, practical advice for experienced photographers who want to expand their skill set and start producing moving stories.

Visit the course page here

4. So Good They Can’t Ignore You – by Cal Newport

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-4-05-20-pmThe anti-self help book I wish I’d read years ago, So Good They Can’t Ignore You is based around the simple premise that the predominant career advice of the last 40 years – follow your passion – is terrible advice. This has been spouted by everyone from high school guidance counsellors to Steve Jobs, and it is easy to be attracted to these types of ideas. After all, who doesn’t want to believe that simply enjoying something is the key to success?

But as Newport points out, Jobs didn’t build Apple because he was passionate about technology. In fact, quite the opposite. Jobs was a barefoot, LSD-taking hippy who took a job at Atari so that he could have enough disposable income to pursue his real passion of zen meditation. What is omitted in the legendary story of how Jobs built the first Apple computer in his garage is the fact that he saw the endeavour as a chance to make some money, and it was by no means a passion project. It was only later, after he had built the company into something real that he began to actually love what he did.

Newport argues that this is true of many successful people. Rather than following their passions, they slowly but steadily built up a skill set that provided value to the world, and then leveraged these skills into deeply meaningful careers that they grew to love because they got so good at them.

Through examples of high achievers like Jobs (and many, many others), Newport suggests that a deliberate blue-collar work ethic that allows you to grow your value is what will eventually define a career that you love, not divinely inspired passion. In fact, believing that passion should be the driving force behind your career is dangerous as it can lead to chronic dissatisfaction whenever the day to day going gets tough – which it will.

This is especially relevant to people considering a future in photojournalism, as in my experience only long-term deliberate practice will have any impact on your career. All the passion in the world will not land you your first assignment or build your portfolio. Instead you will feel discouraged when you don’t make any progress, no matter how in love with the medium you may be. What will pay off, however, is building up a skills that are valuable to clients, and that can only be done through tedious and repetitive practice.

Obviously this is not to say that you should not be passionate about what you are doing, but that passion alone is not enough. I have met quite a few aspiring documentary photographers over the last several years who have asked me for meetings or sent me emails to tell me how they have just realized they want to dedicate the rest of their lives to photojournalism, and want to know the best way to get started. But when I answer them that they should probably expect to spend at least the first two-three years building up their skills without expectation of recognition or getting paid, their eyes tend to glaze over. Surely, they seem to think, I just don’t understand how much they want it, and that I am missing the obvious fact that they are outliers who don’t need to suffer the drudgery of practice. I can say this because I often felt the same way.

But looking back, I can safely say that Newport is right – passion is not usually enough to get off the ground. What counts is learning to be good at something, and with time the passion will catch up. Unfortunately this is not sexy advice and it is much more satisfying to dive headfirst after your dreams. But if I’d read this book when starting out and listened its suggestions, I would have likely progressed much faster than I did.

5. The News is Dead, So What Comes Next? – Canadaland Podcast

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-00-19-pmThis podcast’s own host admits at the end of the episode that putting “Canada” in the name of the show is
a surefire way to discourage a mainstream audience from listening to it, but I promise that this 30 minute show is relevant not only to Canadians, but for anyone who works with or near media.  The show’s guest is Ian Gill, the author of No News is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse―and What Comes Next, asserts that Canada’s (the world’s) major media outlets have utterly failed at their job of keeping the public informed about the everyday events that impact their lives. While this is an obviously pessimistic standpoint, he also delves into non-mainstream services that have picked up the slack and which now, Gill says, do a much better job than the traditional news outlets.

This podcast is thematically connected to Jim Estrin and Marie Dorigny’s article that made the #2 slot on this month’s list, and the two go well together if you’re trying to wrestle with what the future looks like for journalists and storytellers in a post-newspaper world.

Click here to leave this site and steam the podcast.

Click here to stream this podcast in a separate tab.

For the full collection of “Stuff I Liked This Month” articles, and other relevant resources for photojournalists and videographers, click here. 

 

Also posted in Photojournalism Tips Tagged , , , , , , , |

A Singular Purpose: Hydropower in Northern Yunnan

The village of Yamen, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. A hydropwer dam will innundate the village when completed, and most residents will be forcibly relocated.

The village of Yamen sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in northern Yunnan. A hydropwer dam will innundate the village when completed, and most residents will be forcibly relocated.

“If you were born somewhere, how would you feel about having to move to someone else’s place?” Chen Quiangguo asked rhetorically.

After leaving the Tibetan community of Cizhong, we had decided to follow up on some rumours locals had shared that the nearby village of Yanmen was set to be flooded by the reservoir of the soon-to-be completed Wunonglong hydropower dam. Relocating villagers to make way for dams was something we had encountered repeatedly throughout our journey, but in this case the residents of Yanmen were not to be given a new piece of land but rather they were to be absorbed into Cizhong.

Rays of sunlight fall on the mountains around Deqen, Yunnan, China.

Rays of sunlight fall on the mountains around Deqen.

Whereas the most common challenge faced by dam migrants was how to go about creating a new community from scratch – often in an undesirable location far from schools, hospitals, employment, and other important infrastructure – in this case the situation had been flipped. How could an entire village be joined with another without severely straining the available land of the host? Before continuing north towards the Tibetan plateau, we stopped in Yanmen to ask how residents planned to deal with the problem. It was there we met Chen Quiangguo, sitting on a plastic cooler along Yanmen’s main thoroughfare.

“I have lived here my whole life,” Chen said, “and now the whole village is going to be evicted. I am not sure where we will go when I lose my farmland.” His life was in a state of uncertainty, and with Wunonglong set to be operational in 2018, he did not have much time to make a decision.

A man walks along a mountain road near Deqen, Yunnan, China.

A man walks along a mountain road near Deqen.

Like the people we had spoken to in Xialuoga who too faced the prospect of abandoning much of their town to a dam’s reservoir, Chen directed most of his anger at local government more so than at the national level.

“I think the power company [Sinohydro] is more powerful than the local government. Whenever we disagree with the company we report it to the local government, but I don’t think they have much power over the company,” he explained. Considering that Sinohydro was a state-owned corporation – and one of the biggest companies of any kind in all of China – he was most likely right.

Engineering Might

20km away along a winding mountain highway, the build site of the Wunonglong dam was not the high security location that we’d expected it to be. Instead of guards and gates a special viewing platform had been build to accommodate tourists, complete with decorative gardens and informational diagrams showing the location of all present and future dam projects on the Lancang. China clearly saw its massive damming projects as a source of engineering pride, something to be marvelled at rather than hidden away.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company.

From the lookout perched above the deep river valley where Wunonglong was being built, it was hard not to be struck by the monumental scale of the construction. Hulking industrial dump trucks were reduced to moving yellow dots, and the workers were nothing more than specks identifiable only by their brightly coloured hardhats.

Where the Lancang should have flowed there was instead a plain of gravel and metal scaffolding that covered the valley walls like latticework. Even more impressive was the fact that the river had not been blocked, but rather diverted in its entirety through a tunnel that had been carved through the base of the surrounding mountains. Despite the environmental ramifications of such dams for China’s downstream neighbours and the human cost of flooding huge tracts of land, this manifestation of China’s engineering prowess was truly awesome to behold.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

Scaffolding is anchored into the rock walls of a Lancang river valley as workers carve the rock away.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunnan, China.

Back in Yanmen with a clearer visual picture of the source of the village’s destroyer, we spoke to shopkeeper Ge Dacheng about his future plans. Like Chen Quiangguo, he was uncertain as to his future: “I will be evicted next year I think. Because I rent my shop and do not own the land, I do not have as much to lose [as some others in Yanmen], but I do not know where I will go. I’ll have to see what housing is available and what it costs.”

As the current plan encouraged most of Yanmen’s residents (at least those who could not afford to move to bigger cities) to move to Cizhong, Ge and Chen were at least fortunate that people in Cizhong were not unanimously opposed to their arrival. The prospect of giving away inherited farmland to a community of incoming strangers could have sparked deep resentment in Cizhong and made assimilation all but impossible.

A grave or historical marker overlooks the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunan, China. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

A grave or historical marker overlooks the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen.

Graves overlooking the Lancang (Mekong) in northern Yunnan.

Graves overlooking the Lancang (Mekong) in northern Yunnan.

However, when we’d asked 64-year-old wine maker and Cizhong land-owner Zeng Tei how he felt about an influx of newcomers, he responded optimistically.

“I heard they are making this community bigger,” Zeng had said. “I don’t know why these people need to come here, but I don’t think it’s a danger to my family. In the past people here used to be starving, but now things are plentiful. I hope that when new people come I will have a bigger market for my crops – and that they will buy more of my wine!”

Towards the Plateau

While our first reaction to China’s network of dams might have been to rail and shout about the ecological damage being done to the Lancang (and later the Mekong) – as well as the hardships looming for those who had to be relocated to make way for their reservoirs – after spending upwards of a month following the river through Yunnan province, we realized that this would not be entirely fair.

Though the Mekong was a transnational waterway, directly supporting the livelihoods of more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia, international borders and the modern geopolitical system meant that governments were prone to put their own national development interests before those of their neighbours. Though after more than a year on the Mekong we had our own left-of-centre views regarding the future ramifications of such insular thinking, this was nevertheless the reality of modern politics.

A Tibetan walks along the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunan, China. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

A Tibetan walks along the Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen, Yunnan. Fast flowing and oxydized to its blue-tint from the copper rich mountains, the river originates far to the north on the Tibetan plateau.

And time after time in China (with only a few rare exceptions), we had seen that the Lancang was not a particularly useful river for the people who lived along it. Whereas in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, millions of people fished in the muddy brown waters, irrigated their rice paddies, or transported their goods along the Mekong, the fast-moving Lancing and the hard to access topography it snaked through provided little in the way of direct benefits to Chinese people. We had seen very little in the way of fishing, a mere fraction of the agricultural activity that was present in Southeast Asia, and virtually no transportation was possible due to the river’s rocky bed, untamed speed, and indirect course.

In the largely Tibetan mountain town of Deqin, parts of which sit at nearly 4000 metres above sea level, the practical uselessness of the Lancang was reinforced repeatedly by the people we spoke to. Cili Dingzhu, a Tibetan resident of Deqin replied with an emphatic “no, no, no,” when we asked if the Lancang provided anything for his community.

A Tibetan man drives along the mountain roads near Deqen, Yunan, China.

Cili Dingzhu drives along the mountain roads near Deqen.

In fact Cili Dingzhu had been hard pressed to think of a place anywhere in the area where people lived within walking distance of the river. When he did eventually remember once such village, we had driven through the mountains for more than an hour to reach it and found it to be little more than a cluster of houses perched on the steep valley walls. There were no pipes feeding them Lancang water, and no boats tied to the shore. Almost unnaturally blue and capped with intermittent patches of whitewater, in Yunnan’s rugged north the Lancang was simply an obstacle to be crossed, not a boon to be enjoyed.

In this sense the Chinese government had made the best possible use of the river as a means of developing their country. Other nations around the world had made excellent use of hydropower dams to build their economies and build their energy industries, and it would not be fair to expect China not to do the same. Yet we knew that as practical as China’s treatment of the Lancang might be, there were millions of people living the south who had an altogether different relationship with the river.

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

The Lancang (Mekong) river near Deqen.

In an ideal world nations would cooperate to make sure that natural resources were managed with the collective good in mind, but that world did not yet exist.

As we left Yunnan for the final phase of our journey on the Tibetan plateau, we were acutely aware of how much the river had changed since we had begun to follow it in Vietnam, and how greatly its importance in people’s lives varied from north to south.

“Wow, you’ve been on this river for a long way!” Cili Dingzhu remarked when we explained the nature of our trip. “Does it flow through Beijing?”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Tibetan Wine, Tug of War, and a Church in Buddha’s Land

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament in Cizhong, Yunnan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Possibly the last thing we expected to see upon arriving in the predominately Tibetan village of Cizhong was a crowd of hundreds watching a full court basketball game. We had come to Cizhong because of its most famous landmark – a century old Catholic church. Built by French missionaries in 1911 after their previous church was destroyed during a Chinese crackdown on foreign religions, the church had become the de facto centre of Catholicism in Yunnan. With a church in the heart of a largely Buddhist region, we had imagined Cizhong as some sort of spiritual enclave where the intermingling of religions was manifested in the streets by solemn monk-priests and billowing clouds of incense.

Whatever we expected, it was not basketball.

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Two villages compete in a basketball tournament.

It was the middle of losar the 15-day Tibetan lunar New Year holiday – and we had unwittingly stumbled upon the annual inter-village multi-day sports tournament. The women’s teams played first, and despite their general good sportsmanship and respect for the rules of the game, the competition was fierce. Even though it was barely 5º Celsius, sweat poured from the player’s and the spectators screamed encouragement from the sidelines.

At half time it was the middle-aged women of the area that took the stage, not to play basketball, but for a surprisingly intense tug of war competition. Strong and sturdy from their agricultural mountainous lifestyle, they were possessed of formidable stamina and they spared no energy in pulling for the pride of their village. The men in the audience were whipped into a frenzy, many of whom rushed onto the court to spur their women to victory. With multiple switching of sides and several back-to-back rounds, we lost track of which team was which and ultimately had no idea who had won. Judging from the laughter and general good cheer of the crowd, it didn’t seem to matter.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

Women compete in an inter-village tug of war competition over the lunar new year holiday.

After the girls finished their basketball game (the home team lost, some of the players visibly upset), the men’s games began. They clearly took the sport seriously, with some of the teams even wearing customized NBA jerseys with their own names printed on the back.

Only when the tournament ended did we understand that there was more at stake than just hometown bragging rights. Numerous cash prizes of increasing value were handed out at the closing ceremony, honouring the winning teams, coaches, and best individual players – the most prestigious of which were paid out at 2000 Yuan (more than $300 USD), more than double the provincial minimum monthly wage.

An inter-village basketball tournament during the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

An inter-village basketball tournament during the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong.

The majority of villagers gather to watch lunar new years events in the public square of Cizhong, Yunan, China.

The majority of villagers gather to watch lunar new years events in the public square of Cizhong.

The event was brought to a close with dance performances, an alternating fusion of traditional styles and modern pop ballads. There was something surreal about watching a group of children shake their bodies to Gangnam Style immediately after the well-choreographed rhythms of women dressed extravagantly in ceremonial silks, but such was the nature of the globalized 21st Century.

Grapes From God

When we met with Yao Fei, Cizhong’s resident priest who had been sent from Inner Mongolia to be the village’s spiritual leader, we learned that documenting the influence of Catholicism over 70% of the town’s population would not be as straightforward as we’d imagined as no photography was allowed inside the church. But there was another byproduct of the arrival of the French missionaries that was nearly as important economically to Cizhong as the church was spiritually: wine.

A Catholic priest from inner Mongolia is the resident father at a Cathilic church in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

Yao Fei, A Catholic priest from inner Mongolia is the resident father at a Cathilic church in Cizhong.

“The grapes were initially brought here by French missionaries,” Yao said. “At church, we need [wine] for mass. It represents Jesus’ blood. The wine culture started in the church…and now in the village many people make wine themselves.”

It didn’t take long to find locals engaged in the wine industry. 10 minutes into a walk along Cizhong’s main road, a sign mounted to the exterior wall of a house read (in both Mandarin and English), “French style wine available here”.

“My family started to grow grapes and make wine about 10 years ago,” Zeng Alan said. “10 years ago it was very poor here and the government encouraged us to grow grapes as part of a poverty alleviation program. The grapes helped my family to get out of poverty and now we use all our land to grow them. We are much better off.”

The moon rises over the Catholic church in Cizhong, Yunan, China. Though the population of Cizhong is mostly Tibetan, more than 70% of the residents are Catholic, converted by missionaries who built a church in the village in the early 20th Century.

The moon rises over the Catholic church in Cizhong.

In her early 60’s, Zeng Alan moved around her home with the speed of a much younger woman as she poured out small glasses of the bright red liquid for us to sample. Though not completely undrinkable, the wine bore semblance to French vintages only in that it was red and alcoholic. The sugar content was shockingly high, and it seemed certain that even a small quantity of the stuff would bring about an excessive hangover.

Zeng Alan pours homemade wine into plastic containers for sale in Cizhong, Yunan, China. First introduced by French missionaries, introduction of wine making has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

Zeng Alan pours homemade wine into plastic containers for sale in Cizhong, Yunnan. First introduced by French missionaries, introduction of wine making has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

Zeng Alan told us that while her speciality was the fermentation and transformation of the grapes into wine, it was her husband, Zeng Tei, who oversaw the vineyards themselves.

We found Tei on a mountainside above the village wandering through his rows of grape vines, stopping here and there to uproot a weed or pull off wilting leaves. The 64-year-old had married Alan and moved to Cizhong in 1983, he told us, but had only started growing grapes in 2002.

“Growing grapes is just great,” he said cheerfully, “Before I had to do very hard labor with no days off. My burdens are much less now and I have enough money to educate my three sons.”

Zeng Tei, 64, tends to his small vinyard in Cizhong, Yunan, China. First introduced by French missionaries, the grapes are used for making wine. The widespread introduction of grape cultivation has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

Zeng Tei, 64, tends to his small vinyard in Cizhong, Yunnan. First introduced by French missionaries, the grapes are used for making wine. The widespread introduction of grape cultivation has helped lift many villagers out of poverty.

But growing grapes in Yunnan was not always easy. Just a few years after planting his first vines, Tei said, disaster struck. “At first we were very happy with the grapes, but in 2006 they got sick and most of them died. Only one tree survived well and actually produced 2.5kg of grapes.” Without much in the way of formal training, Tei nevertheless guessed that there was something special about that vine. The following season he grafted branches from it onto 10 other sickly vines and to his relief, most of them flourished.

“These new grapes are resistant to disease and have better yields than the original French variety,” Tei said, clearly proud of his accomplishment. “I started with just 10 of these and now I have over two mu (1333 square meters) of vines that give me more than five tonnes of grapes each year.”

This netted the family almost 2500 litres of wine each season, and with a value of roughly $5 USD per litre, this gave them an income well above the average small scale Yunnan farmer.

A woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes plays with her son over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong, Yunan, China.

A woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes plays with her son over the lunar new year holiday in Cizhong.

A boy walks the streets of Cizhong, Yunan, China during the lunar new year holidays holding a toy AK-47.

A boy walks the streets of Cizhong during the lunar new year holidays holding a toy AK-47.

Though by this time of our travels in China we were used to hearing about how little the Lancang provided the people who lived along its banks, we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was a connection between the river and the Zeng’s prosperity. “The valley created by the river gives us a very good climate for growing grapes,” Tei said. “Even though grapes don’t need much water, the water we use comes from [a small tributary of] the Lancang.” He was quick to point out, however, that like everywhere else we had visited on the river, the water was not suitable for human consumption.

After buying a token bottle of the Zeng’s wine, we asked Tei if he felt anything towards the missionaries and their God for the gift of grapes.

“I don’t like religion. I only like grapes and chess.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Drowning the Valley

Residents of Gongle village, Yunan, China, lay the foundations for a new house high up in the mountains to avoid the projected rising water level. 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.

Residents of Gongle village lay the foundations for a new house high up in the mountains to avoid the projected rising water level.

“They keep offering us more and more money, but it’s not about money,” the dump truck driver said. He was hauling loads of sand up the narrow mountain roads of the tiny village of Xialuoga to a construction site where he and his family were building a new house. They weren’t doing this because of an increase in fortune or fate, but rather because of the coming flood. Xialuoga’s farmlands were slated for inundation once the Tuoba hydropower dam on the Lancang was completed and residents had little choice but to prepare to move to higher ground, abandoning whatever low-lying assets they had built up over generations.

“Money comes and goes but our families need to be fed everyday,” the driver continued. “Without land, how can we be sure of their basic needs?”

A woman carries a load of canola to feed to her pigs in the village of Gongle, Yunan, 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 woman carries a load of canola to feed to her pigs.

The forced relocation of people living along the banks of the Mekong was a story we had encountered repeatedly throughout our journey. From the cheaply-built relocation camps of Laos (needs link) to the Bunong ethnic minority groups fighting to save their land in northeastern Cambodia, the human cost of energy development was high throughout the region.

A father plays with his daughter in a small restaurant in the village of Gongle, Yunan, 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 father plays with his daughter in a small restaurant.

But whereas in Laos and Cambodia we had been well aware of the situation in advance and had sought out the affected communities to purposely document their struggle, we had come to Xialuoga with the intention of capturing a portrait of peaceful agrarian life in China. It wasn’t until we had arrived and started speaking to locals that we learned the daily life we had come to photograph was soon to be under water.

A Pastoral Postcard

Located across the Lancang from the town of Baijixunxiang and connected to the outside world only by a steel-cabled suspension bridge, Xialuoga was so small as to not appear on Google Maps. Where searching for Baijixunxiang – itself tiny by Chinese standards – revealed a post office, several restaurants, a hotel, and a few parallel roads, the place where Xialuoga should have appeared was represented by only by name and a blank expanse of beige pixels. Only by switching to the photographic satellite view did the village appear, as if to indicate that, although Xialuoga may be physically there at the moment, it was probably best to forget about it.

The village of Gongle, Yunan, China, 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.

The village of Gongle, Yunnan.

On the ground, however, Xialuoga was very much real and the picture postcard of simple pastoral life. While Yunnan had been beautiful in its entirety, the further north we moved, the more dramatic the landscape became. The mountains were rising ever higher as we approached the Himalayas and the snaking valley that held the Lancang correspondingly deepened.

Goats, donkeys, cows, and horses – all manner of domesticated animals grazed on the dry grasses that covered the hillsides, cautious but accepting of our company in the cold, fresh winds that gusted over the mountaintops. Bright yellow canola flowers, used to produce cooking oil and as fattening fodder for pigs, added striking patches of colour to the winter landscape. It was quiet, and incredibly beautiful.

A man walks through the canola fields surrounding the village of Gongle, Yunan, 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 man walks through the canola fields surrounding Gongle

Goats line the mountainside overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunan, 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.

Goats line the mountainside overlooking the village.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” Chao Yunsheng said. A weathered 78-year-old, Chao had lived through turbulent times. “Life is much better now. When I was a boy we often did not have any food to eat. Things are much easier now.”

Over the course of his life Chao had expanded his family’s land holdings to a respectable 20 mu (a mu is an old Chinese system of measurement still used in conjunction with the metric system. One mu equals 666.7 square meters). Though lack of irrigation systems and decreasing annual rainfall meant that he had long since quit growing rice, he nevertheless used his land to good effect by growing corn and grazing a herd of 90 goats.

“I have a lot of land now, and I have given it to my three sons,” Chao said. “My youngest son went to another province to work so I help [the other two] with the farming and animals.” Yet when the 900 megawatt Tuoba dam goes on line, much of his sons inheritance would be lost.

A goat herder cuts tree branches so the smaller goats can reach them in the village of Gongle, Yunan, 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 goat herder cuts tree branches so the smaller goats can reach them.

A family tends to their farm animals in the village of Gongle, Yunan, 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 family tends to their farm animals in the village of Gongle.

“The whole village will flood and we will have to move higher up the mountain. Out of the 20 mu we have, all but two will be lost. We will be able to keep grazing our goats, but there will only be a small area left for farming,” Chao told us. Considering that his crops account for roughly half the family’s income, the loss of 90% of his cultivatable land would be a serious financial blow.

Compensation, Contemplation, and Corruption

“I don’t know what’s happening,” 75-year-old Li Ruqi said as he sat in front of his small shop overlooking the Lancang. “This dam has been talked about for a long time, but there have been many delays and I have no idea when it will be finished. But if the government says I have to move, then I will have to move.”

Throughout Xialuoga and across the river in Baijixunxiang (the low-lying areas of which will also be flooded by Tuoba’s reservoir), locals shared the same uncertainty as to the timing of their relocation. Referring to the compensation package to be offered for evictees by the government, a hotel owner in Baijixunxiang said “We haven’t signed the deal, and many others haven’t either. We don’t know when it’s going to happen. If we don’t sign, they will probably force us to demolish the hotel anyways.”

The village of Yamen, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. A hydropwer dam will innundate the village when completed, and most residents will be forcibly relocated.

The village of Yamen, Yunan, China, sits along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunan, China.

The construction of a hydropower dam by the state-owned SinoHydro company is one of many underway along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Yunnan, China.

The hotelier, who was hesitant to share his name, directed the majority of his anger towards local officials, who he accused of corruption. “Even if we get good compensation packages, much will be lost to corruption. [The dam builders] Sinohydro pay the money to local government officials and by the time it gets to us a lot of it will be gone. There have been many anti-corruption campaigns [across China], but this is a very remote place and they can do what they want here.”

Chao Yunsheng expressed similar frustrations, but was quick to point out that this was a problem at the local level and he placed no blame on the larger government apparatus. “The new president [Xi Jinping] is very good!” Chao said emphatically. “He gave out bags of rice to people with disabilities, which is very nice and the old presidents did not do. I have problems with my eyes, so I should have got two bags of rice but I only got one. This is proof of the corruption.”

Li Ruqi expressed even more faith in the national government, telling us that “I have no concerns for the future of my six children. The government will look after them.”

A woman stands on the hillside overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunan, 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 woman stands on the hillside overlooking the village of Gongle.

A horse grazes on the mountain sides overlooking the village of Gongle, Yunan, 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.

Though almost everyone we spoke to in Baijixunxiang and Xialuoga said they had been visited by surveyors who took measurements of their property, none had a clear picture of how much they would be compensated. Chao Yunsheng, however, said he thought he knew the value of at least one thing – his family’s ancestral graves. “I heard that we will be paid 1200 Yuan (roughly $185 USD) per grave.”

While Chao’s prediction about the value of his ancestor’s remains were unconfirmed, one thing was certain: when Tuoba’s 60m deep reservoir arrived, life in Xialuoga would change forever.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Stuff I Liked This Month – August 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’m going to start posting a small selection of things I’ve come across at the end of every month (travel schedule permitting), in the hopes that others will find these things as helpful as I have and as part of an effort to share interesting work that isn’t necessarily my own.

Enjoy.

1. Listening to the Voices from the Hijabi World – Ed Kashi/Talking Eyes Media

Ed Kashi (VII Photo) is a household name for those in documentary photography, and is known as one of the hardest working and most committed photojournalists/filmmakers around. Ed has become a literal mentor to me (and 15 other emerging photojournalists and documentarians) as part of the three year advanced mentorship program I was lucky enough to be accepted to, and so I was able to see an advanced screening of this short film, produced by Talking Eyes Media, before it was officially released.

To me this video is emblematic of why Ed has been so successful in this hyper-competitive field. He has taken a complex and sometimes divisive topic (the stereotyping of Muslim women wearing the hijab in America) and presented it in a deceptively simple, yet hugely effective way. By giving the voice back to those people actually affected by this issue instead of asserting his own judgements and preconceptions, this film is far more successful in its objective than it might otherwise be.

2. The Fishermen of Elmina, Ghana by Tomasz Tomaszewski

A ritual happens in the fish market in Elmina at the beginning of the fishing season. It is supposed to influence in a positive way the harvest of the fish by local fisherman. © Tomasz Tomaszewski. Click on the image to see the full essay on Lens Culture.

A ritual happens in the fish market in Elmina at the beginning of the fishing season. It is supposed to influence in a positive way the harvest of the fish by local fisherman. © Tomasz Tomaszewski. Click on the image to see the full essay on Lens Culture.

Tomasz Tomaszewski is a photographer, a long time National Geographic contributor, and a photographic educator originally hailing from Poland. I came across this photo essay after a friend posted it on social media and I was immediately blown away by the imagery. Taking such a quiet and simple-seeming topic and producing such strong material is what makes a photographer great.

See the full essay here. 

3) Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 12.19.28 PM

I picked up the audio version of this book after hearing it repeatedly recommended on various podcasts and found it to be highly applicable to photojournalistic work. Not only is photography an industry which highly prizes the reputation and personal brand of the individual over the work that they do (see Magnum’s John Vink “The Photographer is Not a Hero”), but the pressures of expanding that ego can often lead to near nervous breakdowns for young people trying to get their foot in the door.

I personally have worked myself into fits of panic in the past because my social media following wasn’t big enough, or because I hadn’t appeared in the world’s most prestigious publications, or because someone had given me negative feedback on my work. While I have (mostly) been able to move past these types of unproductive obsessions over the last years, I found Ryan Holiday’s modern distillation of Stoic philosophical principles extremely applicable to this line of work.

A few takeaways I found especially useful:

  1. Always be a student. If you think that you’re the best at something, you’ll be unwilling to learn. Without being willing to learn, you’ll never improve. For anyone heading into their first (or hundredth) portfolio review, this is hugely important. I left the first formal photo critique I ever had feeling angry at the person for not loving my images, and in the end I missed a major opportunity to learn.
  2. You will always be unappreciated. Deal with it and work through it. One of the hardest things about breaking into the photojournalism world is that it seems as though no one is willing to give you a chance. Holiday’s point is that this is always the case, and it really shouldn’t matter. If you aren’t doing the work for yourself (i.e. your ego needs to be constantly stoked by the praise of others), then you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all.
  3. Know what you want. This was one of the most resonant chapters of this book for me personally. As Holiday says, if you don’t know what you are actually working towards, the default answer is always “more”. It is only recently that I have been able to see what I am actually trying to achieve in this line of work, and that has helped me filter out many distractions that used to drive me crazy.

I won’t go into to much detail as this book is very accessible and informative of its own accord, but I would highly recommend its lessons to anyone in the photojournalism or any other creative industry.

You can buy the book here.

4) The Boreal Bash – The Boreal Collective, Oaxaca Mexico. October 28-November 3, 2016.

The Boreal Collective is one of North America’s premiere documentary photography groups, and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of its members who were, beyond being talented photographers, very nice people. The Boreal Bash is an annual event that they organize that helps young photographers get feedback and inspiration at reasonable prices. In a time when photo workshops can often run into the thousands of dollars, the fact that this group puts in so much effort for so little money (relatively speaking) is a breath of fresh air.

Moreover, the fact that they are taking this show on the road to Mexico in an effort to bring photographic education to people who might not otherwise be able to access it is a wonderful gesture. If you’re just starting out and are looking for guidance, consider heading to Oaxaca this October or supporting their fundraising campaign.

5) What Makes a Good Life? – Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness from Harvard

I found this video through the always interesting Brainpickings blog curated by Maria Popova.

This TED Talk is by Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of a 75-year study on happiness by Harvard University. Researchers have tracked the lives of hundreds of people to try and determine what factors lead to a happy life. The answer they’ve found is both simple and perhaps cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In a period where many young people see the road to happiness as being necessarily lined with fame and money, the findings of the study are highly relevant.

 

Also posted in Photojournalism Tips Tagged , , , , , , |

Lancang River Fishing

A view of  the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan Province, China.

A view of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan Province, China.

The first thing that grabbed our attention as we stepped off the bus in the tiny roadside community of Jinglin River Bridge was the richness of the Lancang’s surreal blue colour. Though we had noted the changing characteristics of the river since entering China, the narrow and swift flowing aquamarine channel at the bottom of a deep mountain valley was so utterly different to the lazy brown Mekong that we had known for the last year as to be nearly unrecognizable.

Later we would learn that the unnatural colour of the river was largely due to the loss of sediment because of China’s hydropower dams along the Lancang. But in our initial ignorance we did little but stand and stare down at the alien waterway, speechless as we took in the vast landscape.

A boat floats on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, CHina

A boat floats on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China

The naming of Jinglin River Bridge was both literal and appropriate. Derived from the blending of Jinggu, the name of the county the town was located in, and Lancang, the community was visually defined by the impressively stark concrete bridges that spanned the river in several places. Though utilitarian and without ornament, the bridges were a reminder of the scope and scale of China’s infrastructural engineering projects. In Laos or Cambodia, with their aging and potholed highways, such roadworks would have been among the best in the country; but in China, even in an out of the way backwater, they were unremarkable.

We had stopped in Jinglin for two reasons. The first was geographical: this was the only major crossing point over the Lancang between the larger cities of Pu’er and Lincang, and the only route to access Yunnan’s mountainous north without suffering a lengthy detour to the east. The second reason was less practical and more hypothetical. Since arriving in China, we had yet to meet anyone intimately or directly engaging with the Lancang on a daily basis.

We had encountered tourists and retirees who enjoyed the river as a source of relaxation, farmers who irrigated their crops with its waters, and sand dredgers who plied its currents on immense metal hulks to bring its sandy bed to the surface, but none of the artisanal fishermen that had been so prevalent in the lower Mekong basin. If we were going to find such people in Yunnan, we reasoned, what better place to start looking than in a small village that had incorporated the river into its name?

A Revolutionary Welcome

“This revolutionary area welcomes you!” the Mandarin characters carved into the side of a large stone monument proclaimed in a historic reminder of the town’s political past.

Once the site of an important salt refinery, the area had been ground zero for the rising wave of discontentment among China’s lower classes over the inequality of wealth between themselves and their Kuomintang rulers. When the prices of salt rose to unaffordable levels, the rural poor formed themselves into small Communist militant groups which would later coalesce under Mao and take part in the Cultural Revolution that changed China’s political system forever.

Now, however, there were no signs of insurrection or rebellion, and the memories of those turbulent times were evidenced only in stone. It was the smell of fish, not class warfare, that permeated the morning air as we searched for a path down the steep mountain valley to the Lancang below.

A small market was spread out along the highway, offering travellers an opportunity to pick up fresh seafood before reaching their ultimate destinations, and the gathering of their parked cars gave the false impression of bustle to the town that was only transitory. The fish were live, splashing feebly in a few centimetres of water at the bottom of plastic buckets, and so we knew that fishermen could not be too far away.

Customers stop at a road side fish market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Customers stop at a road side fish market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fish vendors sort their catch at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish vendors sort their catch at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish hang to dry at a local market near the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fish hang to dry at a local market near the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

When we eventually found our way down to the river’s edge, however, the fishing boats that lined the banks were devoid of crew or cargo. Instead we found a family of local tourists who had stopped to enjoy a picnic and some recreational fishing on the Lancang.

“I don’t really catch anything,” the father of the family said when we asked about his fishing rod, “it’s just for fun. If you want to see real fishermen, you could try coming back in the morning.” His teenage son, seemingly embarrassed by his father’s repeated attempts to offer us cigarettes and food, hurried away down the beach so as to not be drawn into the conversation. Having both survived the terrible awkwardness of being teenage boys, we empathized with his unease and left the family to their lunch.

Fish vendors spread their catch out to dry at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish vendors spread their catch out to dry at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

A driver prepares to deliver fishermen's morning catch to local market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A driver prepares to deliver fishermen’s morning catch to local market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

“The fishermen leave early in the morning,” 52-year-old Zhang Yun said in front of his hotel. We had left the river banks and returned to the town to see if someone could introduce us to an active commercial fisherman, and had gotten lucky when we met Zhang.

“They only started fishing here three years ago,” he continued. “Before the dam [near Simaogangzhen] was built the river moved too fast. 20 years ago if you jumped in here the currents would carry you away. It has changed a lot.” With that he pulled a cell phone from his pocket and made a call to a friend.

“Go to the river early tomorrow morning and he will meet you there,” Zhang said. “He can take you fishing.”

Unnatural Stilness

Though the sky was still dark and the rising sun obscured by the high valley walls, the banks of the Lancang were a hive of activity compared to the previous afternoon. Boats were already returning from the day’s fishing and the small crews worked together to weigh and sort their catch.

Fishermen weigh their morning's catch before delivering it to market on a Lancang (Mekong) tributary in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen weigh their morning’s catch before delivering it to market on a Lancang (Mekong) tributary in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen haul their catch ashore on a Lancang (Mekong) river tributary in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fishermen haul their catch ashore on a Lancang (Mekong) river tributary in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

“This has only been possible since the dam,” a husband-and-wife fishing team told us as they hefted baskets of tiny shrimp and whitefish onto a set of digital scales, confirming what Zhang had said the previous day. “Before [the dam] you couldn’t catch anything. We worked as sugar cane famers, but this is better money. We work for two or three hours and can get 30kg of shrimp a day and sell them for 24 Yuan per kilo.”

If what they said was accurate, a morning’s fishing could earn the couple more than $100 USD – vastly more than the small scale river fishermen we had encountered earlier in our journey who often survived on just a few dollars a day.

A fishermen checks his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen checks his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen pulls in his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen pulls in his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

When Su Youdong, the fisherman Zhang Yun had called for us the day before, arrived at the river’s edge, the sun had not yet risen high enough to lessen the bite of the morning chill. As we boarded his boat to set out on the Lancang, the cold metal benches stung our legs through the fabric of our pants. An ethereal mist blanketed the water, and the mountains rose on both sides of the river valley to create a sense of place that felt prehistoric. Only the sound of the boat engine and the presence of the concrete bridges far overhead reminded us of the modern world.

“I’ve been fishing since the dam was built,” Su said as he worked the outboard motor to manoeuvre around unseen nets submerged just under the river’s surface. “I’ve got ten nets in the river, and I still catch plenty of fish. But the rare and expensive species are gone – now I catch mainly common species, like tilapia and carp. There are more and more people fishing here, so we catch less.”

As Su’s boat navigated the Lancang, there seemed to be fishing vessels around every bend. But if there was any animosity between fishermen over the dwindling species diversity, they did not express it. Instead they called out to each other cheerfully and chatted in passing about the quality and quantity of their catches.

Fishermen take a break to smoke tobacco through a water pipe near Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen take a break to smoke tobacco through a water pipe near Jinglin, Yunan, China.

This was not a traditional source of livelihood, passed down through the generations as was the case for families on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake or near the Khone waterfalls and 4000 Islands of southern Laos. This was a recent and unnatural boom made possible by the taming of the river’s currents by hydroelectric dams, and local residents were taking advantage of the bonanza while it lasted. We knew from previous conversations with biologists that dams almost always disrupted the migration of river fish and that once depleted it was unlikely that stocks in the area would rebound. But for now, Su and his friends were enjoying the unexpected boon and not dwelling on thoughts of the future.

This would be the first and only time we encountered Lancang river fishing in China on any sort of scale, and we knew that if we returned in ten years it was unlikely that this pop-up industry would still be thriving. In China, we were continually learning, the Lancang was not a source of primary livelihood for individual families, but rather a force to be tamed for the development of the nation.

But from where we sat, watching the fishermen pull their nets from the piercing blue water, that knowledge didn’t make the landscape any less beautiful.

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