Category Archives: Video

Farming Heroin with National Geographic Channel

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

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

Also posted in Blog, Central America, Drugs, Mexico Tagged , , , , , , , |

Post Earthquake Spirit in Morelos

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

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

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

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

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

“We are Mexico.”

Also posted in Blog, Central America, Disaster, Mexico Tagged , , , , , , |

Documenting the Mexico City Earthquake

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

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

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

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

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

 

Also posted in Blog, Central America, Disaster, Mexico Tagged , , , , , , |

Mexico City’s Invisible Rivers – From the Air

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Laos: Behind the Scenes

As Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, Laos has a special relationship with the Mekong. Over the course of our journey through the sparsely populated nation, we learned how this great river has given rise to great empires, fostered religion and culture, supported huge varieties of plant and animal life, and provided food and livelihood for millions of people.

Starting in the south at the Khone waterfalls, we travelled more than 1000 km north into the mountainous jungle near the Chinese border. Along the way we met hundreds of Laos people, from emigre coffee barons to young elephant handlers (known as mahouts), and everyone in between.

We explored the country’s complex and often precarious relationship with hydropower dams as it seeks to transform itself into “the battery of Southeast Asia”, and learned about the human impacts of this rapid development.

Ultimately our experience in Laos left us with mixed sensations of happiness and dread. There are few other places on earth possessed of the pure kindness of the Laos people, and it’s natural beauty is spectacular. Yet we also witnessed a country plagued by poverty, and we can only hope that in its rush to develop economically that Laos will not damage itself ecologically beyond repair.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short behind the scenes look at some of our most memorable moments on this leg of A River’s Tail, and keep checking back for weekly multimedia stories from the Mekong.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Laos, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , |

Behind the Scenes: The Mekong in Cambodia

All three members of our team have called Cambodia home for the past few years, and so following the Mekong and its tributaries through the southeast Asian kingdom was a return to the familiar in many ways. Over the course of more than a month we traced the river from the border of Vietnam, along the Tonle Sap to the region’s largest freshwater lake, and north to the controversial Sesan II dam and the Laos border.

This short film is a behind the scenes look at how we worked in the field while following the Mekong through the Kingdom of Cambodia. Enjoy!

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

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , |

Looking Back on the Mekong Delta

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

A man harvest the beach for clams on the coast of the South China Sea. The South China Sea is known as the Eastern Sea by Vietnamese.

After months of planning and preparation, when production of A River’s Tail started in Vietnam no one on the crew knew quite what to expect. We each had our own preconceptions of what we’d find in the Mekong delta, and after extensively researching the region we knew that there were a wide range of environmental issues affecting the Mekong. Yet until we’d physically gotten on location they were nothing more than speculations.

We decided to do A River’s Tail in the opposite direction of what logic might dictate, by starting where the Mekong ends and tracing it back to it’s source nearly 5000km away in the Tibetan plateau. The reasoning behind this decision was that we wanted to have a clear picture of the myriad of ways the river facilitated ecology, economics, and culture before we saw its origins. Like being able to travel back in time to visit one of the world’s great thinkers when they were a baby, we hoped that grasping just how important the Mekong is in the life of the 60-odd million people who live downriver would allow us to better appreciate the magnitude of its importance.

And while we started the trip with open (albeit journalistically inclined) minds, the more we explored Vietnam’s Mekong delta, the more concerned we became about the health of the mighty river. Starting on the coast, where the Mekong empties into the South China Sea, we found fishermen hauling in nets clogged with plastic bags. Moving inland we visited shrimp farmers who were experiencing massive losses as their ponds became increasingly infected with unknown poisons carried by the river’s current, killing up to 40% of their shrimp. Later we would witness the widespread dumping of agricultural chemicals into the water table, rendering the river unusable for most domestic purposes and irritating the skin of those locals who would attempt to bathe in it. River fishermen were abandoning their boats and instead constructing massive inland fisheries, telling us that plying the Mekong had long since ceased to be a viable means of supporting a family.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam's seaford exports.

A man traverses a line strung between offshore shrimp nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Shrimp is a $4 billion industry in Vietnam and is one of the fastest growing sectors of Vietnam’s seaford exports.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong - resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Ba, 84, is blind in both eyes and has not seen anything for 5 years. The family is too poor to consistently afford purified water and so often must rely on chemical laden river water from the Mekong – resulting in multiple ailments from stomach viruses to headaches to skin rashes.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Young desciples of the Cao Dai faith enter a prayer service outside Can Tho, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

Fish jump from the water of an inland farm during the afternoon feeding near the city of Sa Dec, Vietnam.

We didn’t set out to find a broken river, and it must be said that there are a multitude of global initiatives (both from the government and non-profit sectors) that are working to ensure the Mekong has a productive future. Yet we couldn’t help but leave Vietnam with a feeling of sadness caused by the realization that the Mekong river delta, against a backdrop of great visual beauty and the vast cultural warmth of the Vietnamese people, was a greatly diminished version of its former self.

Even though it would be impossible to completely convey the powerful feelings we experienced after weeks of travel, this short film attempts to bring together some of our final thoughts on what we found during the first leg of A River’s Tail.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

A man dives into the Mekong river in the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

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

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Tagged , , , , , , |

Vietnam: Behind the Scenes

Vietnam, the first country we visited for A River’s Tail, evoked many emotions in us, as powerful as they were often conflicting: happiness and inspiration at the kindness and resilience of those Vietnamese living in the delta, counterbalanced by sadness and concern over the multitude of environmental challenges facing them moving in to the future. A sense of awe at the region’s natural beauty, contrasted with the shock of witnessing the profound physical impacts the region’s rapid development has had on its ecological health. Hopefulness at the eagerness of many of the people we met to preserve and better their environment conflicting with the despair experienced by those whose lives had been forever changed by increased pollution and the corresponding loss of biodiversity.

Working in Vietnam was, on the whole, a wonderful experience. While in the planning stages of this journey we were worried that the country’s reputation as a tightly controlled socialist state would make interacting with its people difficult, for the most part we were welcomed everywhere we went with a smile and a cup of tea.

Over the course of three weeks we travelled from the Mekong’s terminus at the South China Sea to the Cambodian border, stopping in dozens of locations along the way to try and learn as much as possible about how this mighty river factored into the lives of delta residents. Though we could have easily spend twice as much time without coming close to fully grasping the complex relationship between the river and its people, we learned more in these few weeks than we thought possible.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short behind the scenes video that gives some insight into what happens behind the camera.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Vietnam Tagged , , , |

Video: A River’s Tail, A Year Spent on the Mekong

Firstly, apologies for the long period of silence. I’ve been more consumed, overwhelmed, and excited by my work in the last few months than possibly at any other time in my life, and that unfortunately placed my personal blog low on the priority list. That failing is something I promise to remedy.

The project that has effectively taken over my life is called A River’s Tail. I’ve already written extensively about the origins and my motivations for undertaking such an endeavour so I will keep the details simple: myself and fellow photographer Gareth Bright are traveling the entirety of the Mekong river for the next year. Our friend and professional videographer, Pablo Chavanel, is joining us for selected legs of the journey to produce short films about the environmental issues we come across, as well as to document the behind the scenes process of what is involved in a project like this.

https://youtu.be/P0IH2tc3ta8

As I write this, we’ve already finished the Vietnam and Cambodia sections of the trip, and are preparing to head to Laos next month. This is by far the most logistically and creatively demanding thing I’ve ever attempted, and I am learning a great deal about what it means to focus on one topic for an extended period of time. While I am aware that some of photography’s greatest long-term projects have spanned decades, or even lifetimes, this is a step in the right direction for me. I am seeing clearly, maybe for the first time since I started in photography, that in order to tell a story properly I need to slow down and spend more time.

Though my income has shrunk to virtually nothing (we made an executive decision to spend the entire project budget on travel over paying ourselves), and stepping back from the hustle for publication and recognition was initially a hard adjustment (it’s addictive seeing your pictures in major media outlets), I have never been more convinced that this project is the best thing that has ever happened to me creatively and professionally.

The most frustrating aspect of the process has been the necessity of delaying publishing our material – we needed to build up a stockpile of stories in order to make sure the flow of content continued uninterrupted once we launched. I’m not used to keeping my work under wraps, and not being able to share what I’m doing despite this being one of the most productive periods in my photographic career took some getting used to.

I’m happy to say that these days of secrecy are almost at an end. A River’s Tail will launch officially on June 8th, and from that day forward we will regularly release new content for the rest of the year. Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy the trailer video that explains our basic goals and hopes for the next year on the Mekong.

If you’re anywhere near as interested in this as I am, the easiest thing to do is head to ariverstail.com and enter your email address. We’re not going to spam people with hundreds of updates, but rather we’re going to curate the best content from each month in one place. If you’re like me and can’t keep up with the countless amount of information to be consumed online, this is probably the most convenient way to follow the journey.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this video. We are all learning what sort of material resonates with people and allows them to connect to a subject, so if you particularly enjoyed (or just as valuably, hated) something about the video, leave a comment below. As happy as A River’s Tail is making us, it is ultimately about creating an engaging experience for you, the audience. Your feedback is the best way we can keep telling stories that help you connect to the world, so don’t be shy!

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , |