Category Archives: Ruom Collective

Monks March for Human Rights

Monks and citizen activists sleep in a pagoda after finishing a day of marching towards Phnom Penh. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks and citizen activists sleep in a pagoda after finishing a day of marching towards Phnom Penh. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

“Monks must not fuck,” he said, his round bespectacled face full of humour. We were getting a crash course on the fundaments of life as a Buddhist monk, the popping of Redbull cans echoed in the open space of the pagoda’s dining hall. The large room, divided into inadvertent sections by ornately decorated pillars, was full of people in various states of fatigue – the citizen activists finishing styrofoam containers of rice and dried fish, the monks downing 250ml energy drinks. The group, roughly 50 strong, had been walking for three days down Cambodia’s national highway 6 and they needed to replenish their strength. They are taking part in one of the largest Human Rights Day protests in Cambodia’s history, and on all of Cambodia’s major highways there were separate groups doing the same thing. Since Dharmic asceticism requires monks to abstain from many things, including having sex, harming living creatures, and eating solid foods after noon, they would have to make due with a liquid dinner. Buddha has no qualms with Redbull it would seem.

The trip from Phnom Penh to Kampong Thom, though not much further than 120km, had taken us nearly 5 hours in a minivan, packed four people to a row and fighting constantly with fellow passengers for elbowroom. Despite having nearly 8 years of Cambodian experience between us, photographer Nicolas Axelrod and I had badly misjudged the travel time and arrived at the pagoda well after dark. Rather than marching with the monks as planned, all we could do was sling our hammocks around the building’s load bearing columns and settle in for the night. Peering through the hammock’s mesh walls I could see the monks doing the same thing, though how they planned to sleep after consuming half a liter of taurine was beyond me.

The following morning the pagoda burst abruptly to life with the rolling baseline of a Khmer pop song and the small speakers of the monks’ smartphones gave the music a tinny sound that got me to my feet before I was yet fully awake. The monks were slower to rise; motionless under the saffron blankets they had drawn their robes over their heads to ward off the morning light. When the pagoda came to life it was with sudden urgency, as if everyone had been lying awake hoping for an extra ten minutes of sleep but had been forced into action by the movement of their peers. From stillness to frenzied action, the room transformed in a matter of minutes; mosquito nets were rolled up and stowed in travel bags, lines formed for the two squat-toilets, and monks scrambled to locate their cell phones from admin the tangled mass of electronics crowded around two overtaxed power bars. A general migration of people to the central courtyard could only mean one thing: it was time to leave.

Early morning in the pagoda. The monks are exhausted and rise slowly. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Early morning in the pagoda. The monks are exhausted and rise slowly. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks conduct a meeting to discuss plans before beginning their march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks conduct a meeting to discuss plans before beginning their march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks raise banners with human rights messages on them before they begin their days march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks raise banners with human rights messages on them before they begin their days march. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

As the protestors filed out of the pagoda and walked across the sandy courtyard, they paused beside the demonstration’s support truck to pick up flags and banners bearing human rights slogans. Though the scene was decidedly militaristic, like Russian soldiers in World War II movies receiving their rifles before being ordered to charge, any sense of hostility was belied by the monk’s tired-yet-cheerful expressions.  Once suitably armed, the group formed up in a loose line under an ornately carved wooden gate to wait for any stragglers and began to shoot pictures with smartphones for social media uploading. Facebook and Twitter have been key driving forces behind the recent surge in anti-government opposition, and the marchers had been filming the event with HD camcorders to present to their online followers.

Outside the pagoda villagers stepped out of their homes to line both sides of the highway. While some watched on impassively, either unconcerned or confused about what they were seeing. Many more stood patiently beside buckets of scented water, waiting to be blessed or to offer support in the form of food or cash. To avoid halting the column every few meters, teams of monks on motorcycles ranged up and down the road performing the water blessings and collecting the small bags of rice. The alms were substantial; a flatbed truck followed the procession in order to transport dozens of cases of donated water, and it took six people over an hour to count and sort the money each night. Considering that the average Cambodian makes roughly $80 per month, these acts of charity speak volumes about the national desire for change.

Within minutes the heat became uncomfortable and after a few hours the monks were dripping with sweat. Draping orange towels over their heads to shield themselves from the sun above, their plastic sandals stuck to the melting asphalt below. Ironically, among the most common sources of shade were the ubiquitous road signs featuring portraits of key figures from the hegemonic Cambodian People’s Party. Throughout the day the protestors huddled in their shadows while Hun Sen watched on imperially.

Monks eat breakfast before their morning march begins. Nicolas Axelrod/Ruom

Monks stop to perform water blessings on the villagers they pass on the road to Phnom Penh.

A protestor's feet are covered in bandages after days of walking long distances. to perform water blessings for villagers along the highway.

A protestor’s feet are covered in bandages after days of walking long distances. to perform water blessings for villagers along the highway.

Every few kilometers a government vehicle waits for the marchers; they are easily identified by their conspicuous lack of rust, and more obviously by the men in short-sleeved khaki shirts standing nearby, taking photos with tablet computers to be filed in some mysterious database of known troublemakers. Younger monks point them out excitedly, as if they are glimpsing exotic birds in the wild and need confirmation that their eyes are not deceiving them.As easy as they are to dismiss – they make no attempt to hinder or interfere with the demonstration – the vehicles are a reminder that the CPP is tracking us as we approach Phnom Penh. Text messages from journalists following different groups on other national highways report similar experiences across the country. In some cases the marchers arrive in villages to find the local pagodas locked by order of high-ranking Buddhist officials, who have labeled the protesting monks as dissidents.

As the various groups of demonstrators converge on the capital the question of how the government will react is at the forefront of people’s minds, and on the eve of International Human Rights Day it difficult to know how events will unfold. Will the police force stand impassively in front of a chanting mob, or will they react violently as they did during the garment factory worker strike that saw an innocent bystander gunned down by a pistol round? Will this be remembered as a catalytic moment in the modern history of Cambodia, or will the CPP simply send a few street sweepers to tidy up the mess once the protestors have gone home? Things are rarely predictable in the Kingdom of Wonder; powder keg moments, when it seems the whole country is on the verge of tearing itself to pieces, sometimes dissipate quietly just as things seem the most tense. Conversely, seemingly benign events have grown into major incidents of great consequence.

Regardless of tomorrow’s outcome, the 2013 Human Rights Day is hugely symbolic of the small Southeast Asian nation’s growing resentment of the current political situation. The unprecedented scale and complex organization of the protests should serve as a warning to the government. They are facing an increasingly more informed and connected society than the one they have been handily oppressing for the last three decades. And the prospect must terrify them.

A monk walks past a Cambodian police academy en route to Phnom Penh.

A monk walks past a Cambodian police academy en route to Phnom Penh.

Note: A version of this story appeared first on the Ruom Collective site.

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5 Reasons to Set Aside Your Ego: The Benefits of Working Together

Ruom members Luc Forsyth, Thomas Cristofoletti, and Nicolas Axelrod (from left) on location in Phnom Penh with Reuters correspondent Damir Sagolj (front right). Photo courtesy of John Vink/Magnum Photos.

Ruom members Luc Forsyth, Thomas Cristofoletti, and Nicolas Axelrod (from left) on location in Phnom Penh, with Reuters correspondent Damir Sagolj (front right). Photo courtesy of John Vink/Magnum Photos.

5 Benefits of Working Together

I recently made a short presentation at the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap about the benefits of working together. Together with Thomas Cristofoletti, one of the founders of the Ruom Collective (the journalism association I collaborated with on a piece about protesting monks for Al Jazeera), and writer Marta Kasztelan, we explained to an international audience how setting aside egos can achieve more in-depth and complete reporting. Aside from Ruom, I also collaborate with Wandering Cameras, a multimedia organization specializing in non-profit filmmaking. While photojournalism and writing are often thought of as “loner” professions, the advantages of teaming up with like-minded specialists are too numerous to neglect. The following five lessons are just a few of the reasons that collectives may redefine the way we tell stories in the 21st century.

Merging Talents

Not everyone is a jack-of-all-trades. Most people are lucky to become exceptionally good at even one thing in their lives, and the same is true of photographers and journalists. I’ve focused so much on creative output – the production of photography and writing – that I have avoided developing the business and marketing skills necessary to quickly grow my business (yes, journalism is a business). Don’t misunderstand; my brand is expanding steadily, but along the way I have missed out on opportunities that I should have seized had I been more administratively aware.

In contrast, Ruom co-founder Nicolas Axelrod is an adept businessman as well as being an outstanding photographer, but for Nick writing is laborious. Though he consumes written articles on a daily basis, pairing words with his images is a lengthy process for him. In an age where media outlets want completed stories that are delivered ready for publication, this could have been a significant disadvantage. The solution? Work together.

While the members of Ruom have skill sets that sometimes overlap, each person brings unique talents to the table. Thomas is highly proficient at online marketing and has a large social media presence. Marta comes from a human rights background, and is a resourceful researcher as well as being a specialist in gender issues. Rather than ignoring our weaknesses to the overall detriment of our strengths, by coming together we have been able to create multi-faceted stories that would not have been possible had we worked separately.

Multiple Perspectives

Ruom is a Khmer word meaning “together”, and the collective appropriately brings together multiple cultures as well as professional disciplines. A common pitfall of journalists working in foreign countries is the tendency to approach issues through the lens of their native culture.  With members from Australia, Canada, Austria, England, Italy, France, Poland, and Cambodia, many sets of eyes scrutinize each article, photo essay, or feature.

Years ago when I first started producing documentary work, I would send out pleas for advice to big-name photojournalists whose work I respected. Typically I’d hear nothing back. Now, though I’m far from famous, I’m on the receiving end of these sorts of letters from passionate photography enthusiasts looking to turn their hobby into a career. After trying to respond thoughtfully to several of these messages, I realize why my emails had so often gone unanswered; there is no easy shortcut to success. Only after a determined and sustained effort of 60-hour weeks for almost two years did I see my first dime of profit.

Though there is no magic bullet solution, having your work critiqued by people whose professional opinion you respect can make a huge difference. Being told objectively the ways in which a project has fallen short is arguably the best way to make the next one better. But a professional portfolio review can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – money that cannot then be invested in producing stories. By working with others (ideally people more skilled or experienced than yourself), you can get this valuable feedback as you go – and hopefully for free.

Shared Risks and Pooled Resources

Whether visual or written, making independent journalism can be expensive. In 2012 I spent over $1000 chasing a story on rural life in a rapidly changing Myanmar, only to come down with dengue fever. Bedridden for 10 days, the groundbreaking reportage I had envisioned myself creating slipped away with each sweating hour, until my visa expired and I was forced to leave the country. After weeks of accommodation expenses, transportation costs, translator fees, and food expenditures I ended up with a handful of unfocused frames that didn’t come close to telling the story I had imagined.

These things happen. Sometimes the best-laid plans fall apart, or an arbitrary event can derail months of preparation. This is the nature of being a freelancer, and anyone who is independently funding journalism needs to be prepared for these inevitable failures. But by joining forces with people interested in the same issues as yourself, you can significantly offset the financial risks.

When Nick and Thomas first had the idea of documenting the Burmese anti-Muslim group “969”, there was little response to their requests for monetary backing from major media outlets. They were faced with the difficult choice of either paying for the whole thing themselves, or abandoning the project altogether. Since they felt that this story was important to tell, they decided to go for it. By also bringing French journalist and Ruom contributor Alexandre Marchand into the project, they were able to distribute the costs and finish a story that would have been financially unviable for one person. The end product, Inside the 969 Movement, is a fantastic example of investigative documentary journalism, and has become one of Ruom’s flagship features. And it wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t worked together.

A Lighter Workload

There is a limit to what one person can handle. The massive changes wrought on the media industry with the coming of social media services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have essentially turned the whole world into citizen journalists. And while this is a largely positive global phenomenon, ensuring that proper exposure is given to the issues and events that matter, it also means tough economic times for working professionals. Layoffs and cutbacks at even the largest news organizations make it harder than ever to get paid for your efforts. Gone are the days when one major publication could fund a series of personal projects. Photographers and writers are constantly walking a financial tightrope from one paying job to the next, yet pursuing stories that you feel are important to tell is vital in the development of a personal voice and style.

When I was starting out and didn’t yet count on photography and writing to pay my rent, I could afford to build stories at my own pace. If I needed an extra day or two of shooting to get the right image, or if I wanted to spend a week sitting in coffee shops getting a written article just right, I could do it. But now my time is more precious; I need hours every day to edit and create new content, to maintain an increasing number of social network profiles, and to respond to an ever-increasing number of emails from clients and colleagues – not to mention trying to maintain a semblance of a personal life.

Solitary journalists can easily burn themselves out trying to do everything alone. By teaming up with others, it becomes possible to accomplish much more in the same amount of time. For example: in advance of the international human rights day, hundreds of Buddhist monks are converging on Phnom Penh, simultaneously marching down each of the country’s national highways in a display of protest against the Cambodian government’s abysmal human rights record. Such a story involves a lot of travel and time in order to convey the size and scope of the demonstration. One person could get completely exhausted trying to move between so many different locations. A collective, however, can spread the work around and each member can contribute to the greater whole, when and where his or her schedule allows.

Many hands do indeed make light work.

A Sense of Community

One of the hardest things for me to deal with when I was traveling full time was the lack of a supportive community. I spent most of 2012 permanently on the road, moving from city to city, country to country, and every time I arrived in a new location I had to start all over again. In the beginning it was fun; hunting down fresh stories in exotic locations was the essence of why I decided to pursue a future in photojournalism. As time passed, however, and the list of cities visited lengthened, the wanderlust faded.

Planning and executing a photo story or long form written article on a specific subject is tiring work. From research to gaining access to shooting, and finally editing, the creative process is mentally (and quite often physically) demanding. A strong reportage takes me an average of three weeks to produce, and at the end of it I mainly just want to sit on the couch for a few days. But when you are effectively homeless, as I was for the better part of several years, there is no real rejuvenation period. I just moved on to the next city or country or story. I had very few people to show my work to, and fewer still who could give me structured feedback. Any sort of business organization was impossible for any number of reasons – power outages, absurdly slow Wi-Fi signals, broken equipment, or just plain exhaustion.

Since moving to Phnom Penh permanently, the job has not gotten any less tiring, but at least I have a bed of my own to come back to at the end of a long day (or week, or month). More importantly, I belong to a community of motivated professionals who are supportive when they need to be and critical when they need to be. They will tell me when I’ve done a good job, and perhaps more importantly when I’ve done a bad job. I can borrow a memory card or a spare battery in the middle of a street riot, and if there is an important event happening, someone will send me a text message so I don’t miss it.

In many ways, this has been far more important than any lens or camera body, and it is this sense of being part of something larger than myself that has kept me hungry to produce.  Photographers and writers tend to be control freaks who want the final say in whatever they are making, but for those who can set aside their egos and accept external input, you might be surprised what you can accomplish if you work collectively.

Are you in a collective or group of creative professionals? Do you have any experience, good or bad, working with other people in your industry? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Post a comment below, or join me on Facebook or Twitter to continue the conversation.






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