Category Archives: Cambodia

2014: A Year in Pictures

Starting with a string of violence and protests in Cambodia, 2014 saw me cover topics ranging from the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda) in the Philippines, to drug addiction in Nepal, to the environmental future of Cambodia’s Lake Tonle Sap.

The following images offer a visual timeline of my year, and looking back on it, it was a busy year indeed.

Happy holidays.

Luc

January 3, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Military police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors. After months of widespread public anti-government protesting, a violent crackdown saw at least four people killed and many more imprisoned.

January 3, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Military police attempt to storm a building occupied by protestors. After months of widespread public anti-government protesting, a violent crackdown saw at least four people killed and many more imprisoned.

January 27, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - A military police officer beats a Buddhist monk during a pro-freedom of speech demonstration. Crackdowns against anti-government protests continued throughout early 2014, ultimately culminating in the assimilation of the opposition party into the main body politic.

January 27, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A military police officer beats a Buddhist monk during a pro-freedom of speech demonstration. Crackdowns against anti-government protests continued throughout early 2014, ultimately culminating in the assimilation of the opposition party into the main body politic.

February 13, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - For the International New York Times. Mam Sonando celebrates his 72nd birthday (despite what the candles say), in his radio station complex. An outspoken advocate for freedom of speech, Sonando has been a thorn in the side of the incumbent government.

February 13, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia –  Mam Sonando celebrates his 72nd birthday (despite what the candles say), in his radio station complex. An outspoken advocate for freedom of speech, Sonando has been a thorn in the side of the incumbent government. © Luc Forsyth for the International New York Times.

April 14, 2014. Manila, Philippines. Spectators place bets before an underground cock fighting tournament. Cock fighting is one of the most popular sports in the Philippines, with dedicated TV channels. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 14, 2014. Manila, Philippines. Spectators place bets before an underground cock fighting tournament. Cock fighting is one of the most popular sports in the Philippines, with dedicated TV channels. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 14, 2014. Manila, Philippines - The bloody hands of a gaffer, or cock fighting doctor. Gaffers act as veterinarians, tending to wounded fighting cocks. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 14, 2014. Manila, Philippines – The bloody hands of a gaffer, or cock fighting doctor. Gaffers act as veterinarians, tending to wounded fighting cocks. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 19, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - Young men play basketball in the shadow of a beached cargo ship. The force of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda) drove several of these ships onto land, destroying the residential homes in their wake. Nearly six months later, they were still awaiting removal.

April 19, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – Young men play basketball in the shadow of a beached cargo ship. The force of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda) drove several of these ships onto land, destroying the residential homes in their wake. Nearly six months later, they were still awaiting removal.

 

 

 

April 18, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - A family watches a re-enactment of Jesus on the cross during the easter holy week. Tacloban is still a state of recovery after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 18, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – A family watches a re-enactment of Jesus on the cross during the easter holy week. Tacloban is still a state of recovery after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 19, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - Men sit along the seawall in barangay 68. Colloquially named Yolonda village by locals, the residential neighbourhood was one of the worst impacted by the force of the storm.

April 19, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – Men sit along the seawall in barangay 68. Colloquially named Yolonda village by locals, the residential neighbourhood was one of the worst impacted by the force of the storm.

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - A young boy walks through a residential neighbourhood in Tacloban, littered with debris forced ashore by the force of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – A young boy walks through a residential neighbourhood in Tacloban, littered with debris forced ashore by the force of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - Girls play in the destroyed shell of a home in Tacloban's barangay 68.

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – Girls play in the destroyed shell of a home in Tacloban’s barangay 68.

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines - The coastline of Tacloban, still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 20, 2014. Tacloban, Philippines – The coastline of Tacloban, still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan (Yolonda).

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines - A young by heads into an illegal mineshaft where he works ten hours per day hauling unprocessed ore to the surface. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines – A young by heads into an illegal mineshaft where he works ten hours per day hauling unprocessed ore to the surface. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines - A young gold miner loads a bag with raw ore to be carried to the surface. The miners work in near total darkness, and earn a few dollars per day depending on the amount of gold they find. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines – A young gold miner loads a bag with raw ore to be carried to the surface. The miners work in near total darkness, and earn a few dollars per day depending on the amount of gold they find. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 23, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines - Workers crush raw ore into dust before carrying it to a refining station near their illegal mine shaft. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 23, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines – Workers crush raw ore into dust before carrying it to a refining station near their illegal mine shaft. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines - Miners give each other haircuts during their midday break from the tunnels. Heavy smokers to the man, a team of six miners will go through up to six hundred cigarettes in a day's work. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

April 22, 2014. Pinot An, Philippines – Miners give each other haircuts during their midday break from the tunnels. Heavy smokers to the man, a team of six miners will go through up to six hundred cigarettes in a day’s work. ©Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

May 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - A construction worker welds a fence as night falls on Koh Pich (Diamond Island). The island is home to massive development projects, and is planned as a future centre of luxury for Phnom Penh's elite. © Luc Forsyth for the New York Times.

May 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A construction worker welds a fence as night falls on Koh Pich (Diamond Island). The island is home to massive development projects, and is planned as a future centre of luxury for Phnom Penh’s elite. © Luc Forsyth for the New York Times.

May 8, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Residents of a floating village on Cambodia's lake Tonle Sap relax after a day's work. Part of a story funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting about the dangerous future of this important southeast Asian waterway. © Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 8, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Residents of a floating village on Cambodia’s lake Tonle Sap relax after a day’s work. Part of a story funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting about the dangerous future of this important southeast Asian waterway. © Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 8, 2014 - Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Fishermen bring their boats into shore at the end of a day's fishing. The Tonle Sap lake is known as "Cambodia's beating heart", and is the source of food and income for millions of Cambodians. ©Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 8, 2014 – Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Fishermen bring their boats into shore at the end of a day’s fishing. The Tonle Sap lake is known as “Cambodia’s beating heart”, and is the source of food and income for millions of Cambodians. ©Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 9, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Fishermen unload their day's catch for transport to local markets. As fish stocks dwindle due to over fishing and industrial development, fishermen report significant loss of income. © Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 9, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Fishermen unload their day’s catch for transport to local markets. As fish stocks dwindle due to over fishing and industrial development, fishermen report significant loss of income. © Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 10, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Workers sit on a pipe as sand is pumped into Lake Tumpun. The lake was once a major centre of agriculture, but the land reclamation undertaken by private development companies has displaced many of their farms. ©Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

May 10, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Workers sit on a pipe as sand is pumped into Lake Tumpun. The lake was once a major centre of agriculture, but the land reclamation undertaken by private development companies has displaced many of their farms. ©Luc Forsyth / The Virginia Quarterly Review.

June 22, 2014. Kathmandu, Nepal - Balloon sellers on the streets of Jawalakhel.

June 22, 2014. Kathmandu, Nepal – Balloon sellers on the streets of Jawalakhel.

June 22, 2014. Kathmandu, Nepal - Cotton candy vendors sell their wares at a religious festival.

June 22, 2014. Kathmandu, Nepal – Cotton candy vendors sell their wares at a religious festival.

June 22, 2014 - Kathmandu, Nepal. A mounted police officer tries to control crowds in Jawalakhel.

June 22, 2014 – Kathmandu, Nepal. A mounted police officer tries to control crowds in Jawalakhel.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - A rice farmer stands in front of his field as harvesting season begins in Cambodia. ©Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A rice farmer stands in front of his field as planting season begins in Cambodia. ©Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Rice farmers work to fill in areas of their rice fields where the plants have died. As harvesting season begins, it is essential that the farmers maximize the productivity of their land. © Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Rice farmers work to fill in areas of their rice fields where the plants have died. As planting season begins, it is essential that the farmers maximize the productivity of their land. © Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Workers unload sacks of milled rice in a warehouse of one of Cambodia's largest rice exporting companies. Traditionally not known for producing high quality rice, Cambodia has been trying to get a foothold in international markets in recent years. © Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

July 7, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Workers unload sacks of milled rice in a warehouse of one of Cambodia’s largest rice exporting companies. Traditionally not known for producing high quality rice, Cambodia has been trying to get a foothold in international markets in recent years. © Luc Forsyth for The New York Times.

October 10, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Fishermen wait to head out into Lake Tonle Sap to start the day's fishing. Part of a long term project documenting the health of southeast Asia's waterways. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Fishermen wait to head out into Lake Tonle Sap to start the day’s fishing. Part of a long term project documenting the health of southeast Asia’s waterways. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - Workers load basket fulls of snails caught in Lake Tonle Sap. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – Workers load basket fulls of snails caught in Lake Tonle Sap. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014, Kampong Luong, Cambodia - An ice factory worker fills rectangular moulds which will be frozen and sold as full blocks of ice. Lacking modern refrigerators, ice is an essential means of food preservation for water-dwelling Cambodians. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 10, 2014, Kampong Luong, Cambodia – An ice factory worker fills rectangular moulds which will be frozen and sold as full blocks of ice. Lacking modern refrigerators, ice is an essential means of food preservation for water-dwelling Cambodians. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 11, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia - A worker shreds a block of ice into manageable pieces. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 11, 2014. Kampong Luong, Cambodia – A worker shreds a block of ice into manageable pieces. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

September 13, 2014 - A caged monkey struggles to wrest a piece of fruit from the hands of his owner. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

September 13, 2014 – A caged monkey struggles to wrest a piece of fruit from the hands of his owner. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 14, 2014. Tae Pi, Cambodia - A flower vendor stops in the remote riverside village of Tae Pi. The flowers will be cooked an eaten, and are an important source of vitamins for the villagers. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

October 14, 2014. Tae Pi, Cambodia – A flower vendor stops in the remote riverside village of Tae Pi. The flowers will be cooked and eaten, and are an important source of vitamins for the villagers. © Luc Forsyth / Longtail

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - The annual water festival, celebrating the reversal of the Tonle Sap River's current, returns to Cambodia after a three year hiatus. The last time the festival was held, in 2010, a tragic stampede killed hundreds and led to the event's cancellation. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – The annual water festival, celebrating the reversal of the Tonle Sap River’s current, returns to Cambodia after a three year hiatus. The last time the festival was held, in 2010, a tragic stampede killed hundreds and led to the event’s cancellation. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Racing boat teams start practice runs before the day's races start. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Racing boat teams start practice runs before the day’s races start. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Children play in front of the royal palace at sunset after the day's boat races have finished. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 5, 2014. Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Children play in front of the royal palace at sunset after the day’s boat races have finished. © Luc Forsyth / Getty Images.

November 20, 2014. Nepal - An elderly woman poses with her pug dog in a remote mountain village in the Western Region of Nepal. Part of a project documenting maternal health projects for the United Nations Population Fund.

November 20, 2014. Nepal – An elderly woman poses with her pug dog in the remote mountain village of Khiljee in the Western Region of Nepal. Part of a project documenting maternal health projects for the United Nations Population Fund.

November 20, 2014. Nepal - A man smokes a cigarette in front of his home. Taken while on assignment for the United Nations Population fund on a project documenting maternal health issues in Nepal, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

November 20, 2014. Nepal – A man smokes a cigarette in front of his home in Khiljee. Taken while on assignment for the United Nations Population fund on a project documenting maternal health issues in Nepal, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

 

 

 

 

 

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Water Festival Returns to Cambodia

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews climb down the river embankment to their boats. Crews from all over Cambodia bring their own entourages to the festival, turning the river banks into makeshift villages. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River – an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture.

After a three year hiatus Bon Om Touk, or the Cambodian Water Festival, returned to the Kingdom last week. Meant to mark the the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap river – and the associated fishing and agricultural fertility that brings – the festival is one of the biggest holidays in Cambodia. Over three days of races, long boat crews from all over Cambodia converge on the capital, seeking to win honour (and hopefully a piece of the prize money) for their home towns.

Despite the historical and cultural importance of the festival, the tragic stampede incident in 2010, which saw roughly 250 dead and 750 injured led to the suspension of the event for three years – though strong arguments could be made that the government, fearing large gatherings of people during the past year of civil unrest, had ulterior motives for cancelling last year’s celebration.

Political agendas aside, it was clear from the lower-than-normal turnout that the memories of 2010 have had a stigmatic effect. In past years the estimated number of attendees was somewhere close to two million, whereas this year – despite having very little in the way of official census information – it was widely agreed that not even one million were present. Fear of a repeat disaster, it would seem, has tarnished the festival’s popularity.

Diminished crowds aside, the festival is still one of the most significant events in the Cambodian calendar year, and worth checking out if you’re in Phnom Penh at the right time.

A boat crew dances on the first morning of the water festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew dances in the early morning of the first day of the annual Cambodian water festival, 2014. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Many event spectators have come from distant regions of Cambodia, and camp along the river banks for the duration of the festival. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A man watches the early morning practice sessions from his hammock. With such an influx of spectators, many of whom have come from the countryside to support their local racing team, parts of the east bank of the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh turned into an informal campground.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat crew move aboard their racing boat in the early morning, warming up before the first of the day’s races. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A race crew receives last minute equipment from their supporters before beginning practice runs ahead of their race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boat crews are roughly 50 strong, and around 250 boats participated in this year’s festival. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Racing boats moves along the Tonle Sap for pre-race practice runs. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Racing boats move down the Tonle Sap river. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

 

A racing boat crew warms up on the Tonle Sap river before their race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A boat from Kampong Chhnang passes under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh before going on to win its race.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Water Festival Returns To Cambodia For First Time Since 2010 Stampede Tragedy

Racing teams speed down the Tonle Sap river. With nearly 250 boats participating, the boats are often moving in very close proximity to each other.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Two boats pass under the Japanese bridge in Phnom Penh during a race. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A racing boat moves along the Tonle Sap after having finished a race. Though the prize for winning boats is relatively small, sponsorships and private donations can make winning a profitable prospect. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

A racing boat moves past spectators after finishing their race.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day's races will be held. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Members of the palace guard escort Brahmin priests from the royal palace to the river where the day’s races will be held. VIPs, from the King to the Prime Minister, attended the races, often sponsoring teams of their own. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh's royal palace. Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Children play in front of Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Though attendance numbers were much lower than in past years, the riverfront was still a buzz of activity.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh's royal palace.   Cambodia’s annual 3-day water festival celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River - an event of large cultural significance because of the river’s role in national fishing and agriculture. The event was cancelled for three previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Festival goers walk past a brightly lit portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni near Phnom Penh’s royal palace. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river.   because of the river’s role in previous years in a row after the stampede incident in 2010, when nearly 350 people were killed and roughly 750 more were injured.

Fireworks explode over the Tonle Sap river after the day’s races have finished.  Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

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Long Tail Diaries: The First Voyage

Flower vendors stops in the village of Tae Pi to sell their produce. The edible flowers will be cooked and are an important source of vitamins for the villagers.

Flower vendors stops in the village of Tae Pi to sell their produce. The edible flowers will be cooked and are an important source of vitamins for the villagers.

 

After months of scheming and preparation, fellow photographer Gareth Bright and I set off for the first voyage on our wooden long tail fishing boat to explore southeast Asia’s waterways. Being glaringly inexperienced boat drivers, this trip was meant as a trial run of sorts – to see how we dealt with life afloat and to check the logistical challenges of expanding this project further into the region – rather than a concentrated effort to produce a coherent body of documentary work.

We took our best guess as to what the essential equipment would be, and while some items were invaluable, others proved more of a nuisance than anything (such as a large aluminium cooking wok that saw no use and mainly acted as something to bang our toes off). We discovered what food was suited to such a trip (peanut butter and coffee were staples), and what just took up valuable space (a 2 litre bottle of chilli sauce, for example). In terms of equipment, we quickly discovered that less is more – our huge DLSR packs saw little action, while smaller compact cameras such as the Fuji X100s and GoPros were much easier to grab and keep safe. Mostly importantly we learned that this project is absolutely possible and that Gareth and I won’t tear each other’s heads off in a confined space.

In all, the first leg of the trip lasted for two weeks and saw us depart Phnom Penh dangerously late in the day as we rushed around town tying up loose ends. Setting out from the Cham Muslim community where our boat lives while in the city, we immediately learned that our engine tends to stall out if not properly warmed up, resulting in us drifting around in circles through busy shipping lanes – much to the amusement of those watching from the riverside. Our second blunder saw us run out of fuel in front of one of Phnom Penh’s busiest ferry terminals, and again we spun dangerously between vessels much larger than our own. Rattled but determined not to look any more ridiculous than we already had, we tried to put distance between us and the city – only to find the darkness approaching much faster than our 18 HP engine could outrun. Ultimately our first night was spent a scant 5 km from where we started, tied up to the side of a dilapidated sunken shack, surrounded by broken fishing traps and a tepid slurry of takeout containers and plastic bags. Perhaps not the noble start we had imagined, but it was a start nonetheless.

Waking at 4a.m. on the damp floor planks of our boat, we cleared our heads with hideously strong coffee and paddled out to put the disasters of the previous day behind us. On that warm morning, the real trip started as we motored out of the city’s urban sprawl and onto the wide, jungle-lined expanse of the Tonle Sap. We made our way slowly up river, driving when we felt like it, swimming when we got hot, and stopping often. When we snapped the pull-start cord on our engine, a group of fishermen repaired it for us in ten minutes, the kindness of strangers amazing me as always. We made camp when it felt right, sleeping in pagodas and an abandoned school, and within four days had broken through onto the Tonle Sap Lake, or “The Great Lake” – a critical source of food for Cambodia and the largest freshwater body in the region.

We spent roughly a week in floating villages, talking to fishermen and remote coastal residents alike, continuously marvelling at the massive expanse of water around us. We crashed into docks, houses, and occasionally other boats, but no one really seemed to mind, so confused were they by the sight of our sunburnt faces.

After two weeks we turned around and drove home, far more competent and confident. The experience was as educational as it was inspirational, and it left little doubt in our minds that the trip would have to continue. Armed with the memories of our mistakes, we will spend the coming weeks re-organizing and re-planning, and will start the process of raising the necessary funds to tackle the next stages.

When we can finish sifting through the hours of footage I will work on getting a short video up to showcase the highs and the lows, as well as outline the project’s goals more clearly. For now though, here are some of my favourite images from the last two weeks.

 

Early morning on the Tonle Sap River in the remote village of Tae Pi. The community consists of a handful of families and their livestock, most of whom make their living fishing the river.

Early morning on the Tonle Sap River in the remote village of Tae Pi. The community consists of a handful of families and their livestock, most of whom make their living fishing the river.

Villagers gather around their boats along the shoreline of Tae Pi.

Villagers gather around their boats along the shoreline of Tae Pi.

A fruit and vegetable seller makes her morning rounds in the floating village of Kampong Luong.

A fruit and vegetable seller makes her morning rounds in the floating village of Kampong Luong.

A boat painter puts the finishing touches on a newly repainted fishing vessel.

A boat painter puts the finishing touches on a newly repainted fishing vessel.

Fishermen prepare to offload their catches onto waiting trucks in the village of Kampong Luong.

Fishermen prepare to offload their catches onto waiting trucks in the village of Kampong Luong.

Baskets of snails, puled from the Tonle Sap Lake, are bagged in preparation for sale at local markets.

Baskets of snails, pulled from the Tonle Sap Lake, are bagged in preparation for sale at local markets.

A labourer hefts a bag of snails before loading it onto a waiting truck.

A labourer hefts a bag of snails before loading it onto a waiting truck.

A fisherman waits to be paid for his day's catch on the Tonle Sap Lake. Fishing is the primary source of income for people living on the water, though most live in relative poverty.

A fisherman waits to be paid for his day’s catch on the Tonle Sap Lake. Fishing is the primary source of income for people living on the water.

Young men and women make use of the steel frame of tower to bathe and socialize during their free time. In the relatively cramped living conditions in a floating community, there are few large spaces for people to gather indoors.

Young men and women make use of the steel frame of tower to bathe and socialize during their free time. In the relatively cramped living conditions of a floating community, there are few large spaces for people to gather indoors.

A labourer smokes a cigarette on the floating ice factory where he works. With many floating communities cut off from the main power grid, ice is an important commodity for food storage.

A labourer smokes a cigarette on the floating ice factory where he works. With many floating communities cut off from the main power grid, ice is essential for food storage.

A worker fills ice moulds with cold water before leaving them to settle into solid blocks.

A worker fills ice moulds with cold water before leaving them to settle into solid blocks.

Workers use metal hooks to slide the ice onto waiting boats.

Workers use metal hooks to slide ice onto waiting boats.

An ice chipping machine shreds large blocks into a more managable form.

An ice chipping machine shreds large blocks into a more managable form.

A gas station attendant scheks his cell phone between customers on a floating fuel barge. The barges cater to a nearly constant stream of villagers, most of whom own boats instead of cars or motorcycles.

A gas station attendant checks his cell phone between customers on a floating fuel barge. The barges cater to a nearly constant stream of villagers, most of whom own boats instead of cars or motorcycles.

Children fill gas cans for their parents in preparation for the next morning's fishing. There are no licenses required for boat operation and it is not uncommon to see 3-4 year olds driving boats at speed through the village.

Children fill gas cans for their parents in preparation for the next morning’s fishing. There are no licenses required for boat operation and it is not uncommon to see 3-4 year olds driving boats at speed through the village.

 

 

Also posted in Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Long Tail Diaries: The First Challenge

Our Cham guide sets off across Lake Tonle Sap at sunrise, navigating through the early morning fishing boats.

Our Cham guide sets off across Lake Tonle Sap at sunrise, navigating through the early morning fishing boats. It will take nearly four hours for us to find the entrance to the river leading to Phnom Penh.

After working flat out for most of 2014, when a month-long drought in assignments set in I didn’t know how to handle all the down time. Over coffee during this period of restlessness in the long, hot Cambodian summer, the blueprint for a reckless adventure was born. 

Harkening back to boyish memories of grand National Geographic-style expeditions, I made the decision to buy a boat. Together with Gareth Bright, a South African photographer newly settled in Phnom Penh, we tracked down a wooden long tail fishing boat for sail in the floating community of Kampong Luong on the western bank of the immense Lake Tonle Sap.

I am in the process of setting up a dedicated site to host a more comprehensive account of the trip, but the basic plan is to self-drive ourselves along all of Cambodia’s major waterways to look at the cultural and environmental state of life on the Mekong and its tributaries.

Sometimes referred to as the lifeblood of southeast Asia, this project will eventually expand to include all the countries the Mekong passes through on its way to the ocean. Traveling through Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China will take the best part of a year, but the first leg of the trip – from Phnom Penh to the Tonle Sap, the region’s largest freshwater lake – will start in two weeks.

The first of the countless problems we will almost certainly encounter as we try to pull this trip off presented itself a few days ago when we learned that we would have to pick up the boat weeks before we were ready to go. Luckily a friend found us a place to store it in Phnom Penh, but first we would have to get it there – a daunting two day drive against the river’s current. Since up to this point we had barely logged two hours each of actual driving time, we decided that it was best not to attempt the passage on our own.

With the help of a Cham (as Cambodian Muslims are known) community leader and his son we arrived in tact, though both sunburned and soaking wet. I won’t go into too much detail about the minutiae of the experience in this post, but I wanted to introduce the concept of the trip since it will probably dominate much of my creative output in the coming months.

In the time leading up to the official departure we have an ambitious schedule of practice drives lined up, by which time we will hopefully be more river-ready than we are now. And if not, it will surely make for entertaining reading.

Though I primarily shot video over these two days, here are a few frames that sum up the experience.

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Almost immediately after departure a violent rainstorm forced us to take shelter on a floating barge-cum-traveller sanctuary. As it is raining nearly every afternoon in Cambodia, the upcoming start of the trip promises to be a wet one.

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Taking a break from bailing water out of our boat. Roughly 20 litres of water accumulated in the boat in just an hour under the rain clouds.

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A captive monkey in a sadly cruel enclosure built out of chain link fence. Two monkeys inhabit the one square metre cage, which is suspended over water to prevent their escaping. Passers by stopped regularly to pour energy drinks into the monkey’s mouths.

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Washing the dishes at dusk, the worst of the storm over.

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With a 4 a.m. planned departure time, we all turned in early.

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A clear sky at sunrise allowed us to start searching for the river entrance that would lead us to Phnom Penh.

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The morning sky quickly gave way to scorching heat. With no place to hide on the exposed boat, we took to soaking our clothes to stay cool.

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Nearly 12 hours later we reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

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Arriving at the Cham village, a floating boat community under the shadow of an under-construction luxury hotel. Our boat will stay in this community for the next two weeks while we get it ready for departure – and better learn how to handle it without the help of a guide.

Boat Delivery_-2

Sunset at the Cham village where our boat will live while in Phnom Penh. The Chams are ethnic Cambodian Muslims, who often live in floating communities.

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The Power of Objects: The Gapminder Project

Trip Door

When I first started collaborating with the Gapminder Foundation some months ago, it was for a one-day assignment documenting the possessions of a single family in Phnom Penh. Since then, the project has evolved into an international photo-research project covering much of Asia. I recently returned from the Nepal leg of the journey and as I prepare to face the intimidating challenge of sifting through five thousand-odd images and forming them into a coherent collection, I finally had time to reflect on this unique experience.

I posted once already about the Gapminder Project after completing the Cambodian portion of the job, but my perspective on the concept has changed dramatically since that time. For those who have never heard of Gapminder before, I would encourage you to watch this TED Talk given by the organization’s founder, Hans Rosling. Its innovative approach to understanding global poverty, as well as Hans’ talents as a public speaker have made it one of the top fifteen most watched talks in TED history – no small feat when considering the plethora of fascinating  presentations that have been hosted over the years.

Gapminder, unlike most non-profit organizations I have worked with in the past, has no direct involvement in the traditional sense of development. They have no regional offices, no permanent field staff, and no branded SUVs crisscrossing the countryside. Instead, Gapminder focuses on the collection and analysis of data, which they then present in an easily understandable format so that even the most statistically challenged among us can grasp. Where I often get lost in the chart-heavy depth of year-end reports, Gapminder turns ingesting huge quantities of data into an engaging experience. Similarly, it is nearly impossible for me to explain the simplistic functionality of the Gapminder system in so many words, so do yourself a favour and watch the TED Talk to see what I mean.

Building on the runaway success of their initial effort to create the world’s first “fact-based world view” that everyone can understand, Gapminder decided to take the project one step further. Dispatching myself to cover Asia, American photojournalist Zoriah Miller to Africa, and a string of local photographers to fill in the rest, Gapminder is in the process of compiling a comprehensive visual database of living conditions around the world.

Trip Broom

TripTools

When completed, viewers will be able to filter through thousands of photographs and video clips, sorting them by region, economic status, occupation, as well as other factors, to see for themselves what life might look like had they been born in a rural village in Nepal, or in an impoverished urban community in Uganda.Through hundreds of meticulously documented items  ranging from teeth to toothbrushes to toys, this platform, when completed, will provide a one-of-a-kind visual reference for anyone trying to better understand the world around them.

Since I’ve finally had a few free days after an extremely busy month, I decided to pull out a few of my favourite images and group them together so you can get a sense of how powerful these simple frames can be, especially when juxtaposed. As Gapminder spelled out clearly to me in the project brief, the point is not to take arty pictures of toilets but to highlight the similarities and differences between cultures and classes through the everyday objects that define our lives.

After a few months of much needed down time, shooting for the Gapminder project will continue in Bangladesh in early 2015.

Trip toys

TripDecoration

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Tree Planting in Rural Cambodia

A mixture of monk and student volunteers arrive at a high school in the rural province of Takeo.

A mixture of monk and student volunteers arrive at a high school in the rural province of Takeo.

After around five months of careful (and at times frustrating) planning, the first of ten thousand new trees are in the ground in the rural Cambodian province of Takeo. Funded by the Canadian clothing company Tentree Apparel, the project seemed like it would be relatively simple when I proposed it, but ended up being several orders of magnitude more complicated to pull off.

I first heard of Tentree when they reached out to me in the fall asking to license some of my Canadian tree planting images. After sending off the files, I had a quick look around their website to see what they were all about and learned of their eco-oriented business model – for every item sold, ten trees are planted somewhere in the world. To be perfectly honest, the cynic in me immediately thought the whole thing sounded like a gimmick to capitalize on the wave of going-green culture.

So I decided to reach out to Kalen, Tentree’s media officer, and feel the brand out to see if they actually practiced what they preached. Since Tentree had active planting operations in Asia already, I asked, why not start up in Cambodia as well? In a country with a roughly 75% deforestation rate from illegal logging and development projects, if anywhere really needs reforesting, it is Cambodia. In retrospect it was perhaps an overly bold move to ask a company with which I had no working relationship other than a one-time transfer of images if they would trust me to establish, supervise, and document a rather expensive new operation from the other side of the world. I pretty much wrote the whole idea off as unlikely from the moment I hit the send button.

But much to my surprise, the next morning there was an email from Kalen, expressing interest and asking for more information. Having worked in the forestry industry for six years before transitioning into media, I was immediately suspicious: would they want to plant a huge swath of a single, cheap species of tree simply so they could add the total number of tree planted to their scoreboard? Would they insist on planting a non-native species to cut costs? Were they going to micromanage the whole thing according to some sort of established corporate doctrine?

Anticipating the worst, I sent back a proposal to plant a mix of endangered native hardwoods (far more expensive than many fast-growing softwoods) in a variety of locations – meaning the planting would take substantially longer than if they were all dropped into a single location. With a pitch that featured such selling points as high cost and a slow execution, I fully expected that to be the end of our correspondence.

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Students at a primary school in Takeo transport tree saplings to the planters using a small wooden cart.

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A Buddhist monk volunteer carries a sapling to a suitable planting location. Monks have a strong connection to environmental issues, believing nature to be sacred, and dozens volunteered their time to join the project.

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A group of monks work together, digging holes, planting, and watering the saplings.

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A monk’s hands after a few minutes of panting. While many monks are spared from the labour intensive livelihoods of most Cambodians, these volunteers had no problem getting dirty.

Within a few days, however, I got an enthusiastic response from Kalen, telling me to go ahead. Since we had never met, or even talked on the phone, this was quite a leap of faith from the guys at Tentree, and somewhat of a shock for me, who now found myself in charge of the logistics for a complex operation in a foreign country as well as all media production. Now that the project is on its feet and running smoothly I can admit that at the time I was in way over my head.

The realities of government permissions, negotiating with tree nurseries in a language I was barely functional in, finding the manpower to physically put the trees in the ground, and somehow transporting and feeding hundreds of people for multiple days of hard labour in a remote area sunk in all at once. It’s not worth mentioning all the ways I tried and failed to get this project going on my own, but suffice it to say there were quite a few botched attempts.

Yet just when it seemed I had made a huge mistake in taking so much on, I was introduced to a group of  student activists from Pannasastra University of Cambodia called The Model Teens. Practically overnight these hugely ambitious volunteers turned the operation from a well-meaning but ill-planned pipe dream into a reality. Without their help in securing a fair price for such a large order of trees and their local contacts in the rural provinces outside Phnom Penh, securing us protected and fertile ground, I doubt a single tree would have been planted.

Together with hundreds of student and monk volunteers, the Model Teens and I set out from Phnom Penh last week to plant the first few thousand of the ten thousand tree total. With much of Takeo’s population scraping out a subsistence living from the increasingly desertified land, it seemed like an ideal place to put new life into the ground.

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High school students plant trees around the perimeter of their campus.

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

 

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Students and monks work together to transport the trees to the planting areas.

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Girls collect water in plastic bags from a pond on their school ground.

More than anything it was great to be a part of actually creating something lasting rather than only observing and documenting other people’s lives and achievements. While I am still first and foremost a documentarian rather than an operations manager, as the Tentree operation in Cambodia expands in the coming years, I have no problem setting aside my camera to take an active role in seeing it succeed.

I’m off to Nepal for the next few weeks for a mixture of commissioned humanitarian and personal work, but at this stage the project is running so smoothly that I suspect my managerial oversight would be more of a nuisance than a benefit to the hundreds of planters. But with a dedicated independent tree nursery already under construction to expand the operation for next year’s planting season, I can leave Cambodia in the knowledge that I was able to contribute to something bigger than myself.

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Water is carried by student volunteers to each of the newly planted trees.

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A monk takes the opportunity to wash his hands as a newly planted tree gets its first watering.

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Hundreds of volunteers work together throughout the day to make sure the trees are properly planted.

Updates from Nepal to come.

 

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A Cost Effective Solution for Unexploded Ordnance

The weapons of war – from grenades to artillery shells to airplane bombs – cause terrible damage when employed on a battlefield. But for every piece of ordnance deployed, a percentage fails to work as advertised and does not detonate. These duds, though perhaps an immediate blessing to those on the receiving end of a barrage, create a lasting hazard that pervades a conflict zone long after the last of the fighting has stopped.

In Germany, roughly 15 pieces of UXO are discovered every day, remnants from massive allied bombing campaigns in the Second World War. When the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon came to an end, it was estimated that up to one million cluster bombs remained in southern Lebanon. In April 2014, a 500-pound incendiary bomb was uncovered at a construction site in Japan, a relic of the intense American-led attacks in the late days of World War II. In Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are home to over a hundred thousand amputees, mostly the victims of UXO left over from decades of wars, both foreign and domestic. Even in the United States, 150 year-old munitions from the civil war era have been discovered as recently as 2007.

Though wealthy nations such as Germany, Japan, and the United States typically have large budgets and highly trained technical teams in place to deal with such incidents, in less developed countries, the cost of ordnance disposal operations can be prohibitively high. However, the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, an American based non-profit organization staffed largely by former military personnel experienced in dealing with explosives, are on the verge of bringing an innovative and low-cost method of ordnance disposal to the international stage.

At its core, the concept of Golden West’s strategy is simple: use the explosive compounds from found UXO and stockpiled munitions to build smaller bombs, which can then in turn be used to destroy even more land mines and UXO. At the organization’s main base of operations in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia, caches of old munitions and UXO are delivered daily from the outlying provinces, and Golden West staff set to work identifying, dismantling, and repurposing it into small anti-land mine and UXO charges. By using found munitions as the main material in their explosive-destroying product, the organization can ensure that it is both sustainable and self-sufficient. They don’t need to rely on expensive shipments of foreign made C4 or Semtex, and their supply is directly proportional to the threat they are combating. As long as there are land mines and UXO to destroy, they have a free source of material. As the free supply diminishes, so too does the problem. If there is ever a day when they can no longer find ordnance with which to build their charges, then their mission has been essentially completed.

The simplicity and relative cheapness of their operation (according to a former US Navy explosives expert I spoke to, a Golden West project is up to five times less expensive than other popular land mine and UXO clearing methods) has attracted the interest of major funders, such as the US Department of State, which has been supporting Golden West’s mission since 2005. Though negotiations are still underway, it seems likely that in the future this innovative method of dealing with land mines could be implemented around the world. Golden West estimates that it has already destroyed up to 300 000 land mines and pieces of UXO in Cambodia, and has the potential to make major international progress in removing a serious danger to people living in former war zones.

To find out more, visit the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation web site.

A Golden West team member examines a defused airplane bomb at the organizations main compound in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia.

A Golden West team member examines a defused airplane bomb at the organizations main compound in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Len Austin, 48, leads a team meeting before the day's work begins. A retired explosive ordinance disposal officer from the United States Marin Corp, Austin is a veteran of Iraq and Somalia.

Len Austin, 48, leads a team meeting before the day’s work begins. A retired explosive ordnance disposal technician from the United States Marine Corp, Austin is a veteran of Iraq and Somalia. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A team member inspects a Taiwanese-made heavy saw which Golden West uses to cut apart unexploded ordinance so the explosive compounds can be removed. Because of heavy use the saw must be checked daily and the blades changed every week.

A team member inspects a Taiwanese-made heavy saw which Golden West uses to cut apart unexploded ordnance so the explosive compounds can be removed. Because of heavy use the saw must be checked daily and the blades changed every week. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Austin instructs his team on the best method to cut open a Yugoslavian made artillery shell.

Austin instructs his team on the best method to cut open a Yugoslavian made artillery shell. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

All ordinance is labelled before cutting so the mix of explosive compounds inside can be properly identified.

All ordnance is labelled before cutting so the mix of explosive compounds inside can be properly identified. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The team watches the feed from a remote camera as the heavy saw cuts an artillery shell in half. The camera system allows the team members to keep a safe distance from the ordinance in the case of an accidental explosion.

The team watches the feed from a remote camera as the heavy saw cuts an artillery shell in half. The camera system allows the team members to keep a safe distance from the ordnance in the case of an accidental explosion. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

After the ordinance has been dissected, the explosive compounds are removed for recycling into Golden West's signature charges.

After the ordnance has been dissected, the explosive compounds are removed for recycling into Golden West’s signature charges. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

A shed in the Golden West compound where recycled explosives are reformed into small bomb-destroying charges.

A shed in the Golden West compound where recycled explosives are reformed into small bomb-destroying charges. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Once removed from their casing, the explosives are crushed into manageable pieces using a polymer tamper. A combination of heat, shock, and friction are needed to set off an explosion; by using tools made of composite materials, the element of friction is reduced, lessening the likelihood of an accidental blast.

Once removed from their casing, the explosives are crushed into manageable pieces using a polymer tamper. A combination of heat, shock, and friction are needed to set off an explosion; by using tools made of composite materials, the element of friction is reduced, lessening the likelihood of an accidental blast. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The crushed explosives are mixed with additional elements into a pourable liquid. The composition and formulas behind Golden West's techniques are secret and unique.

The crushed explosives are mixed with additional elements into a pourable liquid. The composition and formulas behind Golden West’s techniques are secret and unique. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The liquid explosive is poured into shaped moulds and left to cool overnight.

The liquid explosive is poured into shaped moulds and left to cool overnight. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Once cooled, a hole is drilled into the top of the charges so a detonator cord can be inserted.

Once cooled, a hole is drilled into the top of the charges so a detonator cord can be inserted. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The completed charges are only a few inches tall, yet are powerful enough to penetrate thick steel plate - meaning they are capable of destroying nearly any type of unexploded ordinance. The charges also contain micro radio transmitters so their location and use can be tracked remotely.

The completed charges are only a few inches tall, yet are powerful enough to penetrate thick steel plate – meaning they are capable of destroying nearly any type of unexploded ordnance. The charges also contain micro radio transmitters so their location and use can be tracked remotely. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

Austin gives the command for a test detonation.

Austin gives the command for a test detonation. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

The charred landscape after a detonation.

The charred landscape after a detonation. Luc Forsyth/Getty Images.

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Gapminder: A Fact-Based World View Everyone Can Understand

A man stands inside his home, where he squats with his twin children. After his wife passed away, he was forced to move into a run down and half-ruined apartment with no running water.

A man stands inside his home, where he squats with his twin children. After his wife passed away, he was forced to move into a run-down and half-ruined apartment with no running water in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Taking a break from political coverage, I’ve spent the last two weeks working on a series of nine assignments for Gapminder – a non-profit organization based in Sweden. Gapminder is a unique organization in the sense that their approach to development is not focused on field operations, but rather on gathering detailed information on global inequalities in wealth  – and presenting it in visually interesting and educational ways to encourage a better understanding of poverty around the world.

When Gapminder first reached out to me about working together, I have to say I initially found their project specifications unusual. Unlike a typical development-oriented job, the focus of these assignments is not on people, but on the objects they own. In fact, other than a single family portrait of each of the nine families, there are no human elements in the images whatsoever (In the material I submitted that is. These photos are just a behind the scenes look at the locations visited, not the finished product). For someone like me, whose work is almost exclusively focused on people, the idea was surprising.

A translator works with a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to gather information about his family's income.

A translator works with a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to gather information about his family’s income.

A woman near her home in Borei Keila, a neighbourhood heavily affected by land grabbing and the extensive development underway in Cambodia.

A woman near her home in Borei Keila, a neighbourhood heavily affected by land grabbing and the extensive development underway in Cambodia.

 

I was given a list of nine different types of households to find – some rural, some urban, some suburban – and a detailed shot list of items to be documented. But apart from these loose guidelines, Gapminder gave me total freedom in terms of people and locations – a rare and welcome opportunity. As long as the households in question met a few basic criteria, I was free to focus on anyone I wanted, anywhere in the country.

If I am being honest I should say that after finishing the first of these projects in Phnom Penh, I didn’t really see the utility of these images. Photos of doors and brooms and plates of food aren’t things that I normally would think of as telling stories about people. But after doing several more (I’ve completed six of the nine), the beauty and simplicity of the idea has become obvious. By comparing these everyday items across a variety of socio-economic contexts, a much larger portrait of poverty emerges. Whereas a single photo of someone’s kitchen may not tell a strong story, viewing six side-by-side (or, even more impressively, the hundreds that Gapminder is collecting from countries around the world) is decidedly more powerful. From these comparisons, inanimate objects paint a vivid portrait of life and hardship in a country where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the global poverty line.

My experience with the Gapminder project has been more informative than I could ever have imagined. Even though I have worked extensively in developing regions and much of my work focuses on impoverished areas, these last few weeks have given me a more personal and intimate understanding of both Cambodia, and the effects poverty has on household life. I’m glad to be a part of Gapminder’s mission to “fight ignorance with a fact-based world view everyone can understand,” and I’m looking forward to the assignments to come.

A woman helps her husband with his mosquito net in their small shack in Phnom Penh. Though he normally works as a construction worker, recent illnesses have rendered him unemployed and the family does not have enough money to meet their daily needs.

A woman helps her husband with his mosquito net in their small shack in Phnom Penh. Though he normally works as a construction worker, recent illnesses have rendered him unemployed and the family does not have enough money to meet their daily needs.

A young boy eats lunch outside their home in Phnom Penh.

A young boy eats lunch outside his home in Phnom Penh.

 

Chicks being raised in an abandoned apartment in Phnom Penh. The owners do not have access to any agricultural land, so they must raise their animals indoors - creating potential sanitation and health issues for the family.

Chicks being raised in an abandoned apartment in Phnom Penh. The owners do not have access to any agricultural land, so they must raise their animals indoors – creating potential sanitation and health issues for the family.

*Note: These are not the photos for the official Gapminder project.

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Commemoration on Veng Sreng Street

A monk looks inside a medical clinic that was destroyed by protestors during clashes with police early in January. When clinic's doctor refused to help a wounded protestor, an angry mob forced entry, smashing and looting the interior.

A monk looks inside a medical clinic that was destroyed by protestors during clashes with police early in January. When the clinic’s doctor refused to help a wounded protestor, an angry mob forced entry, smashing and looting the interior.

A small ceremony was held yesterday near the Canadia garment factory complex on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. A group of around fifty people, a mix of monks and citizens, gathered to show their support for the six dead and the twenty-three detainees still being held by the government after deadly clashes early in January.

The group gathered as the sun set, lighting candles and incense. Though bail hearings for the detainees are scheduled later this month, little is known about what fate awaits them.

Candles and stickers are arranged to spell "Free 23", in support of the six dead and 23 detainees resulting from deadly clashes early in January.

Candles and stickers are arranged to spell “Free 23”, in support of the six dead and 23 detainees resulting from deadly clashes early in January.

Monks and citizens arrange candles before the ceremony begins.

Monks and citizens arrange candles before the ceremony begins.

A monk lights incense before the religious portion of the ceremony begins.

A monk lights incense before the religious portion of the ceremony begins.

A monk lights sticks of incense.

A monk lights sticks of incense.

A man lights a stick of incense before the ceremony begins. The small group of roughly 60 people was comprised of both monks and citizens.

A man lights a stick of incense before the ceremony begins. The small group of roughly 50 people was comprised of both monks and citizens.

A young man hold his hands in prayer while listening to Buddhist prayers.

A young man hold his hands in prayer while listening to Buddhist prayers.

A man delivers a speech, commemorating the dead and supporting the 23 detainees.

A man delivers a speech, commemorating the dead and supporting the 23 detainees.

A small shrine of candles and incense.

A small shrine of candles and incense.

The ceremony ended as the sun set. Bail hearings for the 23 detainees are sheduled for later in February.

The ceremony ended as the sun set. Bail hearings for the 23 detainees are scheduled for later in February.

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Cambodian Crossroads

After a long period of intense political protest, a disquieting calm has fallen over Cambodia following the violent crackdown on protestors in the early days of 2014. Culminating in the arrest of twenty-three people and the death of at least four, the aggressive police and military suppression of demonstrations in support of striking garment factory workers received widespread international media attention. Those now infamous days were not isolated incidents, however, but simply the most publicized of a series of events that have dominated the recent Cambodian political climate.

My colleagues at Ruom Collective and I were present at all of the major moments as this story developed, and these images along with the accompanying article I wrote, are part of our effort to tell the larger narrative. Rather than repost my photos alone, I’ve included images from all three of the Collective’s photographers. 

• CNRP MOBILIZES

Though the Cambodian National Rescue Party had been regularly protesting the contentious 2013 election results, on December 15th they dramatically increased their efforts to put pressure on the ruling Cambodian People’s Party by calling for daily demonstrations. As reported by Radio Free Asia, opposition party co-leader Sam Rainsy implored his supporters to engage in a “non-violent attempt to bring about change based on democratic principles.”

Heeding Rainsy’s call, tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched in the streets of Phnom Penh throughout the remaining days of December, in what the New York Times called “one of the biggest acts of defiance against the nearly three decades of rule by Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister.” The largest of these marches stretched for miles down Monivong Boulevard, brining traffic on one of the capital’s main arteries to a standstill.

22 December, 2013 - Phnom Penh. Thousands of CNRP supporters take to the streets in Phnom Penh to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

22 December, 2013 – Phnom Penh. Thousands of CNRP supporters take to the streets in Phnom Penh to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

• THE GARMENT WORKER CONNECTION

During what would ultimately turn out to be the last week of these mass demonstrations, the Garment Workers Union of Cambodia encouraged their members to strike. A cornerstone of the national economy, the garment workers had been engaged in a long-term struggle for a doubling of their $80 monthly wage, which they asserted was not enough to cover their basic living expenses. Though not all workers engaged in the strike, thousands of those who did converged on the Ministry of Labour to await the government response.

After three days of waiting, the resolution was ultimately rejected, with the government stating that a $15 increase was the best that could be expected. The angry – though perhaps unsurprised – demonstrators then marched towards the Council of Ministers, but were stopped short by roadblocks. Police and protestors faced off across barbed wire barricades for several hours, but violence was averted as the protestors left peacefully with the daylight.

On the morning of January 2nd, garment workers took their strike to the factories themselves – defying a government order to cease demonstrations.

December 30, 2013 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Garment workers protest near the Council of Ministers. Workers are calling for a raise in the minimum wage to 160USD © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

December 30, 2013 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Garment workers protest near the Council of Ministers. Workers are calling for a raise in the minimum wage to 160USD © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• THE CRACKDOWN

The Wall Street Journal noted that 2013 was the most strike-intensive year on record for Cambodia, yet no one seemed to expect that the morning’s protests in front of the Yak Jin and Canadia industrial complexes would be the catalyst moments for the most violent incidents in the country’s recent history.

Outside the Yak Jin factory complex, the garment workers and their supporters were met not by regular police forces, but by soldiers from the Indonesian-trained 911 Airborne Commando unit. Though the standoff initially seemed static, a water bottle thrown by an unidentified civilian triggered a swift and brutal reaction from the paramilitary force. With a combination of slingshot projectiles and viciously aimed baton strikes, the soldiers wounded around twenty of the protestors and arrested ten. Among the detained were human rights workers, union leaders, and Buddhist monks.

 

January 02 , 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

January 02 , 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Forces soldiers from the 911 Airborne unit beat an observer from a non-profit organization after a stand off between the military and striking garment workers erupted into violence. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

Across town, military police similarly dispersed strikers outside the Canadia garment factory. As soon as the authorities had left the scene, hundreds of garment worker supporters – mostly young men – occupied the area. As night fell, they fortified their position, starting a series of fires and erecting barricades against the inevitable police return.

It wasn’t until near midnight that hundreds of police stormed the area, only to find the streets eerily deserted. Behind a screen of acrid smoke from the street fires, the protestors had withdrawn to a nearby apartment building where they consolidated their strength. In a siege situation that lasted into the early hours of January 3rd, police bombarded the building with tear gas and repeatedly tried to assault the structure under the cover of their riot shields. The defenders hurled bottles and cinder blocks from the rooftop, injuring several officers. Seemingly admitting defeat, the police called off their attack at around 3 a.m., and returned to their staging area beside the Phnom Penh train station.

As the sun rose, the protestors returned to the barricades, tensely awaiting the government response. At around 9:30 a.m. the police and military arrived on the scene, but rather than their customary baton charge, they opened fire with pistols and assault rifles. The humanitarian organization Licadho would later be quoted by The Guardian, describing the events as “horrific”; their independent survey of local hospitals found that four had been killed and twenty-one had been wounded in the most violent incident in Cambodia since 1998.

03 January, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters set barricades on fire during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom 2014

03 January, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters set barricades on fire during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom 2014

03 January, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Wounded protesters lie unconscious on the floor after having been beaten by police during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

03 January, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Wounded protesters lie unconscious on the floor after having been beaten by police during a demonstration calling for a raise in the minimum wage and calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 04 , 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vacant homes in a factory workers housing complex after a crack down on protesting workers on January 03, 2014. Workers went home after several factories closed in the area, and military patrolled the streets. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 04 , 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vacant homes in a factory workers housing complex after a crack down on protesting workers on January 03, 2014. Workers went home after several factories closed in the area, and military patrolled the streets. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 19, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A garment worker injured during clashes with government forces on January 03, 2014 is taken to have his wounds seen by a doctor. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

January 19, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A garment worker injured during clashes with government forces on January 03, 2014 is taken to have his wounds seen by a doctor. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• THE CLOSING OF FREEDOM PARK

The next day, seemingly intent on decisively stamping out future opposition, plain clothed CPP thugs armed with clubs, hatchets, and pieces of rebar rushed into Freedom Park. With the tacit approval of the police, who surrounded the park but did not actively participate, the un-uniformed government supporters destroyed the temporary facilities and stage that had been host to opposition rallies since October of 2013. The government issued a statement, banning all further protests indefinitely – an act in clear violation of the national constitution.

January 04, 2014 - Phnom Penh Cambodia. A group of hired workers dismantle structures at the camp set up by Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders at Freedom Park. The CNRP having been leading demonstrations in Phnom Penh since early December using Freedom Park as their base. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 04, 2014 – Phnom Penh Cambodia. A group of hired workers dismantle structures at the camp set up by Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders at Freedom Park. The CNRP having been leading demonstrations in Phnom Penh since early December using Freedom Park as their base. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 05, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sam Rainsy, President and Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP hold a prayer at their offices for the victims of the government crack down on protesters two days earlier. © Nicolas Axelrod /  Ruom

January 05, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sam Rainsy, President and Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP hold a prayer at their offices for the victims of the government crack down on protesters two days earlier. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• BOEUNG KAK ARRESTS

In defiance of the new declaration, land-rights activists from the community of Boeung Kak Lake attempted to deliver a petition to the French embassy on January 6th. Hoping to elicit international pressure for the release of the twenty-three detainees from the previous days, the group of women approached the embassy on foot, but was stopped by municipality security forces. After a brief altercation, an unmarked white van arrived; several of the high-profile activists were forced inside. The van pulled away as riot police looked on. The women were released the same day, though under strict orders to cease all future demonstrations.  Under the new laws restricting the right to assembly, Cambodia had become a de facto police state.

January 06, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Land-rights activist Tep Vanny is restrained inside a police van after activists from Boeung Kak lake tried to deliver a petition to the French embassy to ask the liberation of the 23 detainees arrested a few days earlier during a government crackdown on protesters. The five women were released that afternoon. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

January 06, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Land-rights activist Tep Vanny is restrained inside a police van after activists from Boeung Kak lake tried to deliver a petition to the French embassy to ask the liberation of the 23 detainees arrested a few days earlier during a government crackdown on protesters. The five women were released that afternoon. © Luc Forsyth / Ruom

• VICTORY DAY

On January 7th, against the backdrop of the recent violent and political uncertainty, Hun Sen and the CPP held a large ceremony for Victory Day – the commemoration of the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge.

In a speech delivered by honorary party president Heng Samrin, the CPP expressed that “Cambodia has been making progress in all fields,” while only vaguely alluding to the violent turmoil that occurred only days earlier.  With regards to the wide-spread opposition sweeping the nation, Samrin said: “They continue to consider themselves enemies of the January 7 victory, to make slanderous propaganda, to deceive the pubic, to disrespect the Constitution and existing laws while colluding to seek all means to deny the achievements scored by the Cambodia People’s Party for the country to cause political and socio-economic instability.”

With over 20 000 people in attendance, many having been bussed in from the countryside, the CPP was ironically in violation of its own anti-assembly laws.

January 07, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia People's Party law makers wait for the arrival of Prime Minister Hun Sen during the Victory day celebrations on Koh Pich Island. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

January 07, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia People’s Party law makers wait for the arrival of Prime Minister Hun Sen during the Victory day celebrations on Koh Pich Island. © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

• BACK TO THE STREETS

For their part, CNRP supporters also chose to ignore the ban on public gatherings. On January 15th, an estimated 2 000 people gathered in front of the municipal courthouse in Phnom Penh as opposition party leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha were brought in for questioning  – ostensibly to determine their involvement in the deaths of the protestors earlier in the month. Upon emerging from the building, The Cambodia Daily quoted Rainsy as saying “We went to the court because we want the world to know about the reality. We did nothing wrong. We just protected the people’s will through nonviolence.”

January 16, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters deliver a petition to Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi at UN OHCHR offices to call on the release of 23 detainees arrested during protests in early January. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 16, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Protesters deliver a petition to Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi at UN OHCHR offices to call on the release of 23 detainees arrested during protests in early January. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 14, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP waves to supporters from the steps of the Municipal Court as he arrives for questioning over the opposition party's involvement in instigating unrest that lead to the January 03, 2014 crack down on protesters that left up to four deaths and 23 detainees.  © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 14, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Kem Sokha, Vice President of the CNRP waves to supporters from the steps of the Municipal Court as he arrives for questioning over the opposition party’s involvement in instigating unrest that lead to the January 03, 2014 crack down on protesters that left up to four deaths and 23 detainees. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

• A SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR

The government crackdowns garnered international media attention, and prompted UN special envoy Surya Subedi to launch a human rights investigation – in which he condemned the violence.But there was also room for optimism in his words. In a private interview with Ruom Collective, the Special Rapporteur was eager to highlight the progress and positive changes in the realm of civil and political liberties. He pointed to the relatively free and peaceful elections, and to the overall tolerance of mass protests by the authorities as a testament to the “maturing of democracy in Cambodia.” After meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on January 15th to discuss Subedi’s recommendations, the envoy felt assured that the country was on a path to change.

January 16, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi is filmed during a press conference at the UN OHCHR offices. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

January 16, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi is filmed during a press conference at the UN OHCHR offices. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom

• INTERNATIONAL INDIGNATION

Two days later, the parliament of the European Union weighed in as well – calling on Hun Sen’s government to hold an internationally supervised enquiry to examine both the deaths of the protestors, and the contested 2013 election results. The United States also made its concerns known, with Barack Obama signing off on a bill cutting a portion of U.S. aid to Cambodia. Politicians were not the only ones putting pressure on the Prime Minister. Major international corporations such as Nike, Wal-Mart, and H&M – whose goods are produced at the factories in question – sent a joint letter to Hun Sen, demanding an investigation.

Facing such mounting international scrutiny, Hun Sen decided to voice his own opinions at the opening of an orphanage in Kratie province. Stating that anyone who challenged his government would not be spared, he called on his supporters to be prepared to defend the country against a possible coup.

On January 19th, Sok Chhun Oeung, the acting vice president of the organization IDEA, became the latest victim in Cambodia’s political struggles. After organizing a small demonstration near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Oeung was pulled into a police truck and taken to the headquarters of the municipal police. Oeung only became the acting vice president of IDEA after the original vice president, Vorn Pao, was beaten and arrested during the January 2nd altercation in front of the Yak Jin factory complex. Oeung has since been released, but Long Dimanche, a spokesman for Phnom Penh city hall told Agence France Presse that this incident was a “yellow card for those who do not respect the law.”

January 19, 2014 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vice-President of IDEA (Independent Democracy of informal Economy Association) Chhun Oeung arrested by riot police in front of the Royal Palace during a peaceful gathering. People were asking for the release of 23 detainees arrested during a government crack down on protesters calling for a raise in the minimum wage in early January © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

January 19, 2014 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Vice-President of IDEA (Independent Democracy of informal Economy Association) Chhun Oeung arrested by riot police in front of the Royal Palace during a peaceful gathering. People were asking for the release of 23 detainees arrested during a government crack down on protesters calling for a raise in the minimum wage in early January © Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

With more small-scale protests scheduled for the upcoming weeks, and a supposed “second phase” of opposition party activity tentatively planned for early March, it remains to be seen how the endgame will play out in Cambodia’s long battle for democracy.

Additional reporting by Marta Kasztelan

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