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The Necessity of Sacrifice: 5 Steps to Creative Success (Part 3)

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part three of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast, and here for Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money.

Manila, Philippines. Angelica, 8, plays with her siblings in a stairwell next to her family shack near the Osmena highway. When her father lost his job, the family of six was forced to move into a squatter's shack measuring just 2 meters squared. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Manila, Philippines. Angelica, 8, plays with her siblings in a stairwell next to her family shack near the Osmena highway. When her father lost his job, the family of six was forced to move into a squatter’s shack measuring just 2 meters squared.      ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Since 2007, when I began living more or less permanently outside of Canada, I have attended exactly one major family event – Thanksgiving, 2013. Though I have been able to get home for sporadic visits, I have been a largely absentee family member, missing birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and child births. At 17 I made most major decisions in my life based on a desire to get as far away form my hometown as possible, but as time passes the distance from my family has become more difficult to stomach. My extreme wanderlust has slowly given way to a gentle, yet nagging guilt that I should be home more often. The problem is that the photojournalism career that I have slowly built for myself is, at the moment, entirely dependent on my living overseas.

Koh Kong, Cambodia. A Buddhist monk begins his 25km trek out of the remote Areng Valley after a multi-day environmental protest. Buddhist monks are entering the political sphere in Cambodia, mostly in opposition of government corruption. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Koh Kong, Cambodia. A Buddhist monk begins his 25km trek out of the remote Areng Valley after a multi-day environmental protest. Buddhist monks are entering the political sphere in Cambodia, mostly in opposition of government corruption. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

When I first decided to pursue independent photojournalism, I didn’t appreciate that I was making a lifestyle decision as much as, if not more than, a job choice. With the proliferation of cheap, high quality cameras, and the ability to self-educate on the Internet, there have never been as many people aspiring to do my job. Very early on, I was warned by a veteran war photographer that if I wanted to stand out, I would have to be willing to give up certain things that constitute a normal life for most people: stability, consistency, and familial relationships, to name a few. Enamoured with the seemingly glamorous lifestyle of a traveling documentary photographer, I was quick to assert my willingness to go without these common staples of life. And while it has turned out to be the best decision I have ever made, the sacrifices take more of a mental toll on me with each passing year.

That is not to say I regret the path I have chosen – on the contrary, I am in the somewhat surprising position of being able to do what I love. But virtually all of my successes along the way have been almost as much a result of the sacrifices I have been willing to make as my skill as a photographer. It goes without saying that your images need to be of a certain calibre if you expect to get paid for your work, but being good is expected these days – how much a person is willing to sacrifice is, in my opinion, as important as photographic prowess. I’ve met many aspiring photojournalist with incredible portfolios to prove they have the requisite artistic and technical skills, yet they are unable to land enough paid assignments to support themselves. Some are (perhaps understandably) unwilling to leave their lives in New York, London, or Paris, which pits them against some of the most well known and established names in the industry. Others don’t want to give up the guaranteed income of their existing jobs to take the plunge into full time freelancing. Whatever the reasons, and however logical they may be, this refusal to sacrifice often prevents these gifted people from achieving their full potential.

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

It is not necessary to move to the opposite side of the world in order to find engaging stories, and there are many ways to make a living as a photographer other than freelancing. These steps fit with my goals and financial situation, but are by no means a formula for success. The lack of face-to-face contact with my family and my surrendering of a steady pay cheque are just two examples of sacrifices I’ve made in order to make things work, and each individual has to decide for themselves what they can realistically give up.

Someone with a young baby cannot, in good conscience, pack up and move to India, but maybe a sacrifice for them could be as simple at packing a lunch to take to work everyday instead of eating out. The extra $10 per day saved could finance a month-long trip, or go into a savings account that will help them weather the transition from their old jobs to their new paths. Conversely, a wealthy banker who decides they want to quit the financial world for a life of documenting human rights issues will not have the same monetary concerns as most people, but will have to give up their comfortable condo or luxury car for the challenges of life on the road. In fact, Marcus Bleasdale from the renowned VII Photo Agency did exactly this, and is now one of the most respected photojournalists in the world. Bleasdale told The Telegraph that at one point he was earning £500,000 per year as an investment banker, owning two houses and a Porsche 911. For his most recent projects he spent months at a time traveling through open pit mineral mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and witnessing the horrors of the genocide taking place in the Central African Republic. Trading a life  of weekend skiing in the Alps for the life-threatening conflict zones of central Africa is admittedly an extreme example of sacrifice, but he clearly finds the satisfaction of reporting the underreported to be worth the tradeoff.

Kolkata, India. A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Kolkata, India. A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon cricket practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

From the professional athlete who chose to forgo the temptations of a debaucherous college life in order to master their sport, to the Hollywood superstar who worked overtime at Starbucks so they could afford to keep going to auditions, the path to success is often littered with sacrifices. Society loves to dwell on the meteoric risers, such as Justin Bieber, who shot from high school obscurity to entertainment icon seemingly overnight, yet more often than not the struggle towards greatness is defined by a series of uphill battles in a long war of attrition. This, to me, seems like the way the world should work. Those who are willing to give up the most and work the hardest deserve to be considered the best, and the only honest way to speed up the process is to identify the elements in your life that are not advancing your goals.

So quit smoking, ride a bike to work, or stop buying name brand clothes. Get a part time job, or quit a soul-sucking one. Drink water instead of Perrier. There is endless fat that can be trimmed from most people’s lives, including my own, and while everyone needs to decide for themselves what they can and can’t live without, the ones who sacrifice, whether they be photographers, lawyers, or NASCAR drivers, are probably the ones who we will remember.

Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast

Click here to read Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money

 

 

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Don’t Do it for the Money: 5 Steps to Creative Success (Part 2)

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part two of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast.

A young family in San Andres, Manila. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A young family in San Andres, Manila. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A recent survey from Forbes Magazine placed journalist (they used the moniker “newspaper reporter”, but I think it’s safe to count these as being roughly the same thing) at number nine in the top ten list of the most stressful jobs in the world. The official list published is as follows:

1)    Enlisted Military Personnel (Soldier)

2)    Military General

3)    Firefighter

4)    Airline Pilot

5)    Event Coordinator

6)    Public Relations Executive

7)    Senior Corporate Executive

8)    Police Officer

9)    Newspaper Reporter (journalist/photojournalist)

10)  Taxi Driver

This list looks pretty fair to me – all these jobs seem to be relatively stressful and I don’t think any of them are out of place. What jumped out at me were the disparities in income between various jobs. I can see how being the CEO of a major company would be less than relaxing, or how hard-working PR agents could burn themselves out in a high-stakes industry. But for these jobs they are rewarded financially, whereas the same Forbes list estimates the median income of working journalists at $36 000 per year, compared to $146 000 for a commercial pilot. The only jobs on the list that pay less than journalism are taxi driver and soldier. So why do people do them?

I would argue that driving a taxi is a job undertaken out of necessity rather than passion. While there may be some drivers out there who love going to work each morning, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else, to my understanding it is generally the sort of thing people do to earn money when they can’t find anything better. A friend of mine drove a cab when he moved across the country and needed money quickly to pay the rent on his new apartment, but once he got on his feet he moved on and never looked back. There is nothing wrong with being a professional taxi driver (to the contrary, if you love what you do then you’ve already won in life), but I don’t normally think of it as being a driving passion in someone’s life. I don’t remember any of my classmates in the first grade declaring that when they grew up they wanted be a taxi driver, for example. Driving a cab is something people do because they need to make ends meet – a straightforward exchange of money for services rendered.

Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Koem Bunloerum, 30, enjoys a moment of reflection in the Areng Valley. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Koem Bunloerum, 30, enjoys a moment of reflection in the Areng Valley. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

According to Forbes, soldiers make only about $5000 a year more than taxi drivers, but the jobs seem worlds apart in terms of what motivates the people who do them. Sure, there are probably large numbers of enlisted military personnel who sign up because they are in financial or personal trouble and see no other alternative, but these people are likely to accept a discharge as soon as they possibly can. A career soldier, however, must have an entirely different outlook on his or her job. In order to risk your life for less than the price of a mid-range car, there has to be something that makes it all feel worthwhile. Never having been a soldier I can only speculate, but I imagine it has something to do with feeling like they are a part of something larger and more important than themselves. They see themselves as the guardians of their country (all political opinions aside), and in their eyes what they do is important. Others may disagree with them, but for those who thrive in military careers there is probably nothing else in the world they’d rather be doing.

If taxi drivers and soldiers, the first and second lowest paying jobs on the Forbes list, were surveyed, which of them would likely report a higher job satisfaction? I say soldier almost every time. Most taxi drivers would probably quit their jobs the moment something higher-paying came along, but I would wager that it would be much harder to convince a dedicated marine to leave the service. According to the list, a military general makes more than five times as much as an enlisted man. But to become a general, one first needs to be a soldier for many, many years. If all they cared about was a paycheck, there are certainly easier (and safer) ways to make a living. The best soldiers stay in uniform because they think it is something worth doing, and the same mentality has to apply to anyone who wants to succeed as a creative professional.

During my first full year of being a “professional” photojournalist, I was paid in sandwiches. I was working for a small independent magazine in South Korea, and they had literally zero budget for paying contributors – apart from advertiser-donated gift certificates. One publication earned me one meal. But sandwich or no, I would have made these stories anyways. There are innumerable articles floating around the internet that deplore the practice of working for free as destroying the market for paid professionals, and for the most part I agree with them. Giving high quality work away for free so that others can profit from it is a slippery slope, and should be avoided at all costs. At that point in my career, however, I was barely literate in my craft – and truth be told, looking back on those first clumsy attempts, I don’t think they were deserving of paid compensation. In the end, learning to work with a photo editor on a deadline was worth far more in the long run than a few hundred dollars that I wouldn’t have remembered spending.

Darjeeling, India. Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in a centre for Tibetan refugees. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Darjeeling, India. Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in a centre for Tibetan refugees. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

When I eventually decided to leave the magazine and strike out on my own as a full-time freelancer, I spent my life savings (twice) before landing a single paid publication. I shot stories in eight countries, and each one was a little better than the last, but still money eluded me. I would send pitches to only the most prestigious publications in the world, and when I received no reply I took it as a sign that the stories were not good enough. While this was extremely discouraging at times, I still went out everyday for four to five hours and hunted for stories.

Why? Because I loved doing it. Even now, when my entire income is derived from documentary photography and writing, if I found an interesting story that nobody was interested in publishing, I would still shoot it. If I was born into a richer family, or if I had scooped up some rental properties in an up-and-coming neighbourhood – making money a non-issue – I would still do exactly the same thing. In the end it took more than three years to start getting paid for my efforts, and even now it is only possible to survive on what I make because I’ve worked hard to keep my lifestyle as cheap as possible.

Manila, Philippines. Men passing a bottle of rum in San Andres. Excessive drinking is common in Manila’s lower class neighbourhoods, as the price of alcohol is extremely low in the Philippines. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Manila, Philippines. Men pass a bottle of rum around a circle in San Andres. Excessive drinking can be common in Manila’s lower class neighbourhoods, as the price of alcohol is extremely low in the Philippines. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

These days, particularly in photography, people seem desperate to be recognized as professionals rather than receive the dreaded label of amateur. Some will give their work away for a pittance in exchange for a promise of exposure, often to profit making organizations (as opposed to free independent magazines that genuinely cannot pay). But the word amateur derives from the Latin amare: “to love.” I would suggest that in the hyper-competitive and image-saturated modern world, it will be the people who work because they love doing it that will succeed above the ones looking for a big payout. Just like a soldier who puts on a uniform because of what it represents over what it pays, the best in most creative fields tend to be people for whom money is secondary to the gift of being able to do what is important to them.

In order to really prosper in a creative field like photography, writing, or filmmaking, even the most well respected professional needs to be an amateur at heart. Figuring out what sort of work is important enough for you to dedicate your life to is the hardest part. The rest is just logistics.

This is the second part in a multipart series. Click here to read Part One: Nothing Happens Fast.

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Nothing Happens Fast: 5 Steps To Creative Success

A crow hops between ledges in a residential area of Rampur Hat.

A crow hops between ledges in a residential area of Rampur Hat, India.

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part one of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money.

I recently was invited by the wonderful people at Chattanooga State College in Tennessee to give four presentations to their student body on a variety of subjects from globalization to poverty – but all within the context of my personal experiences as a photojournalist.

The students at Chattanooga State turned out to be one of the most receptive audiences I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to. Eager to learn and with a minimum of pretension, a few of the sessions went nearly an hour overtime because of the great conversation-generating questions they put to me.

While I enjoyed all of the talks hugely, I wanted to share the some of the finer points of one in particular that was hosted by the college’s media department. The presentation was loosely titled “Making Your Way in a Globalized World,” and focused on some of the lessons I’ve learned about the realities of establishing yourself as a creative professional in the modern fast-paced and interconnected media industry.

Part of the reason I liked giving this talk so much, apart from the great crowd, was the fact that it forced me to think critically about what I’ve learned over the years of trying to establish myself as a photojournalist. In preparing for this session I spent a long time trying to organize my experiences and thoughts into a coherent presentation, and I think the process was of as much benefit to me as it was for the students. In the end I boiled everything down into five talking points which, while there are countless other minutiae that could be delved into in great detail, I think embody some of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way.

I initially wanted to outline these points in one article, but it turns out I have too much to say on these subjects and a single post would be unmanageably long. So instead I’ll break them up into individual entries and post them separately.

Part 1: Nothing Worthwhile Happens Fast

A monk outside his pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Part of a larger story on the recent trend of Buddhist monks entering the political sphere in Cambodia.

A monk outside his pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Part of a larger story on the recent trend of Buddhist monks entering the political sphere in Cambodia.

The Internet has made us into some of the most impatient generations the world has ever known. I want almost everything I do to happen as quickly as possible, and most people I know are the same way. Even as technology is allowing me to do some incredible things – such as self-hosting a publishing platform like this web site, which brings my work to an international audience – I get irrationally irritated at any sort of holdup. When it takes slightly longer than normal to upload new images to my portfolio page, or when my favourite news site takes a little more time to load, I will often curse my computer or Wi-Fi provider. The faster technology allows me to work, the less I am able to be patient.

This loss of patience is one of the biggest obstacles to professional success for a lot of aspiring creatives, photographers included. We demand that everything happen instantly, that our every desire is gratified just as soon as they pop into our minds. This attitude leads us to forget something important: anything that is worth doing will take a lot of time. Previous generations – I’m thinking of my grandparents, for example – spent decades crafting meaningful careers for themselves. Now, however, many people will quit after putting just a year of modest effort into something.

My friend and photographic mentor Zoriah Miller explained to me that if I was making a semi-decent living from photojournalism within 10 years of starting out, then I was doing well. I have kept this in the back of my head and it has helped me to put my career into perspective, and, mostly importantly, kept me from quitting.

And this is really the crux of my point. The easiest way to fail at achieving your creative vision, in whatever form that may take, is to quit. I’m not suggesting that you miraculously acquire a saintly patience; in fact a healthy dose of impatience is probably necessary in keeping you hungry – but it needs to be harnessed. It is easy to be motivated straight out of the gate, but building a career, especially in competitive industries such as the media, is about the long game.

River taxi drivers take shelter during a rain storm in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

River taxi drivers take shelter during a rain storm in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

For example: If one million people per year (probably an overly conservative estimate) declare that they are becoming professional photographers, by the end of that first year at least half of them will have quit. Discouraged by a lack of quick progress, or the fact that TIME Magazine isn’t beating down their door because they bought a 5D Mark III, they will take the easy option and make excuses as to why they should stop – “the industry is dead,” would be a common example. By the end of the second year still more people will give up, citing a lack of money or that it is time to grow up and get a real job. The same thing will happen again after the third year, and so on. By then end of the fifth year, those who have found a way to keep at it, to bear the lack of financial success and recognition, and have struggled forward anyways – those will be the people to watch. They will have built up the contacts, the knowledge, and the resourcefulness to weather any storm and continue to create. And the next group of people who decide they want to become professionals will look at them with envy and ask, “how did they get to where they are?” – all the while looking for a fast and easy answer on how to duplicate their achievements.

I can say this because for a long time I was the same way. I spent hours each day performing creative Google searches along the lines of “how to become a photojournalist.” If I am honest with myself now, what I was looking for was someone to tell me how to get what I wanted quickly, some sort of step-by-step guide to success. The last thing I wanted to hear was that the secret was a lot of practice over many years, and it took me nearly a year of beating my head against a wall before I accepted this reality. But once it sunk in, I took the most important step of my career – I stopped Googling and started working. By no means am I representing myself as some sort of industry leader, but I am fully supporting myself from the work that I love doing, and for me that is the victory.

A street portrait in Kolkata, India.

A street portrait in Kolkata, India.

The bottom line is that whether you are an aspiring photojournalist, a novelist, or an independent filmmaker, there is no shortcut to success. If you are searching for that magic-bullet solution, it doesn’t exist. But if you put good work into the world for long enough, good things will happen. Keep working.

Click here to read Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money.

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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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Always Be Planting: A Personal History of a Treeplanting Career

ABP. Always Be Planting. The rookie trainer explained this acronym to a large group of us on one of our first nights in a tree planting camp. The idea was simple – never walk more than two steps without planting a tree, otherwise we would not be maximizing our earning potential. And although we enthusiastically mocked him behind his back for the cliché motivational speech (one I’m pretty sure he borrowed from Vin Diesel in the movie Boiler Room), his words turned out to be truer than I could have imagined at the time.

I started my tree-planting career eight years ago as a student in desperate need of a summer job. A classically Canadian experience, I had known people who had known people who had planted their way through university and decided to fill out an online application – the bare minimum of effort needed to start looking for employment without actually leaving the comforts of my bedroom. During the dark winter months I all but forgot about it until I received a call telling me that I had been hired. I wonder if I might have done something differently had I known then the powerful effect tree-planting would have on the next half-decade of my life.

Having never done any sort of manual labour before, I was totally unprepared for the realities of what awaited me. I excitedly told friends about the vast quantities of money I was sure to make and spent hours shopping for outdoor gear online. After all, I was a reasonably experienced camper and was in relatively good shape, so surely all I had to do was turn up and wait for the cash.

A few months later, sitting in the large mess tent listening to the trainer deliver his Always Be Planting speech, I looked down at my feet and tried to comprehend what I had gotten myself into. It was only a few days into the contract and I had already torn the skin off the tops of all of my toes and much of the surface area of my heels. My palms were blistered, split, and bleeding. My knees and shins were crossed with a myriad of wounds, ranging from superficial scratches to semi-dangerous infected lacerations. My lower back was vigorously protesting the 50 pound loads of saplings I forced it to carry on a daily basis and I could barely get out of my tent in the morning without swallowing a fistful of painkillers. The high-tech quick-dry pants I had diligently shopped for months earlier had torn from the knee to the crotch, and my underwear and thighs were plainly visible to any who cared to look. I was completely miserable, and out of my depth both physically and mentally. The only reason I didn’t quit was the presence of two close friends from university, hired onto the same crew as me, who would have abused me without mercy for the duration of the following school year for my weakness.

The contract ended just six weeks later, our camp having planted all 7-ish million trees assigned to us. Though six weeks may sound like a short time, there was no power on earth that could have persuaded me to sign on for additional work once we were given the option to leave. I wanted a bed and a shower and a week’s worth of sleep.

I had been an average first year planter.  Though I was nowhere close to matching the production numbers of the best in our camp, I was deeply relieved not to have been one of the worst, one of the “pussies”. I had done what was asked of me and came out the other side feeling decidedly manlier than at any point previously in my life. I had seen bears in the wild, slept on the ground, grown the thickest beard of my twenties, and drank beer like a lumberjack on nights off. I was in the best shape of my life and had more money in my bank account than ever before. I felt hard and tough and alive, full of youthful bravado like I had accomplished something great, even though I had been gone less than two months. I knew without a doubt that I would be back the next year.

And I did go back, every summer for the next five years. I logged more than 15 months of total nights living in a tent and planted hundreds of thousands of trees. The money, much more than I could have earned at almost any other unskilled labour job, allowed me to travel widely. I began to refer to the time in between tree planting as “the off season”. I began so many stories with “this one time, when I was treeplanting” that my non-planting friends eventually forbade me from talking about it. The experience was so immersive and engaging, not to mention profitable, that it was hard to imagine stopping.

But a string of injuries, culminating with a broken arm in my fifth season, led me to throw my planting gear on top of a bonfire and publicly announce my retirement. I left the bush behind and began to travel more seriously, moving to Asia where I began to pursue photojournalism and writing full time. But even while living abroad and visiting some of the most overwhelmingly sensory places imaginable, I don’t think a day has passed where I haven’t thought of treeplanting, even if only fleetingly. Some days it will be a fond memory, of drinking cheap lager around a fire and telling war stories about hordes of mosquitoes or massive earnings. Other days they will be “thank God I’m not treeplanting right now” memories, usually brought on by particularly nasty weather when I am deeply grateful to have a roof over my head. Terrible speech aside, that training instructor was right: in my head, probably for the rest of my life, I will Always Be Planting.

_______________________________________

Recently I returned to Canada for the first time in several years, exhausted and emaciated from 9 months of non-stop intense work and travel. Directionless and searching for a new project, when my photography mentor (Zoriah Miller) suggested that I focus on something that I had a personal connection to and document it extensively for a long period of time, there was really only one subject that made sense. So after a frenzied email exchange, and the generous support of friends still in the industry (John Holota and Matt Hudon especially), I find myself once again going treeplanting – though I will be joining the camp in a working embed capacity, and thankfully wont actually be planting any of the trees myself.

Over the coming days, weeks, and months (probably about five of them) in the forests of northern Alberta I’ll try to get as up close and personal as possible and document the experience that influenced me, and many other young Canadians, so profoundly. It is a truly epic visual environment and one filled with intense human drama, so it promises to be an interesting few months.

I’m sure there will be a direct correlation between my level of misery and your enjoyment of the posts (this is almost always true), so at the very least you can be glad you aren’t there with me!

ABP.

Luc

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On Burning Out

I could feel the burnout coming for weeks, but when it finally hit me it was so overpowering that I completely shut down in a matter of days.

A travel burnout is not a new sensation for me. Typically I crash either mentally or physically (or both) every three months or so, but this burnout was, to date, by far the most savage. It’s hard to say why this particular episode was so devastating; maybe because I have been pushing myself harder than ever before to continually produce new material, or maybe because of the strain of living on such a tight budget for so long. Maybe not seeing anyone in my family for nearly two years, or the unfortunate stress created by not seeing my girlfriend for long stretches of time finally caught up to me. Whatever the reasons, when I burnt out it came on hard and fast and without mercy.

It’s difficult to describe the feeling of breaking down completely, but the word that sums it up best for me would have to be weary. Weary of everything, from eating to walking, to taking buses, to haggling over the price of a taxi. Weary of being perpetually homeless and usually fairly dirty. Weary of the endless communication problems, the high frequency of illness, the need to vigilantly watch over my possessions, and the constant lack of creature comforts. Weary of life.

It happened just as I was finishing my story about Tibetan refugees in exile in India (which will begin to appear on the site over the coming days and weeks). A pervasive and persistent feeling of malaise settled over me like a toxic cloud. Sitting in a café in Darjeeling with a friend, we started planning the logistics of a one-month visit to Nepal when I realized that I had no desire to go whatsoever.

There was no reason not to; Nepal was less than 30 km away and the costs were well within my budget. I just did not want to do it. It had nothing to do with Nepal, which I am sure is an amazing place, and one that I plan to visit sooner rather than later. But the thought of starting again in a new country and going through the exhausting process of searching for a story, recruiting local translators and gaining the trust of subjects seemed like it would break me completely.  Even though I had been traveling for nearly seven months, I realized I had not actually taken a vacation in almost two years – and as anyone who travels seriously can tell you, there is a big difference between travel and vacation.

I spent a few more days in Darjeeling, thinking carefully about the next step. My biggest fear was that if I pushed any harder I would begin to hate what I was doing, and for someone still establishing himself in a very competitive industry, that seemed like a seriously bad idea. So I dropped everything, took an overnight train back to Calcutta and booked the cheapest one-way ticket to Bangkok I could find. From there I met some friends in the tiny rock climbing community of Tonsai beach and didn’t emerge for several weeks.

I dropped everything. I didn’t write, I didn’t take photos, I didn’t think about stories or grant applications or contest deadlines or the cost of repairing my 70-200mm lens. I basically thought about hammocks and fruit shakes for nearly a month. And it was glorious.

Refreshed and re-invigorated, I’m writing this from an island in Malaysia where I’m sleeping on a friend’s boat as I prepare to head slowly back to Canada where I will embed with a tree-planting camp for nearly four months to document one of the most unique jobs in the world, one that holds a special place in my heart. I’ve wanted to do this story for over five years and it’s exciting that it’s finally happening.

Over the coming weeks I’m going to post more from my project about Tibetans in exile, as well as share some of the images from the past eight months that didn’t quite fit with whatever story I was working on at the time, but are interesting nonetheless.

Stay tuned.

Luc

 

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Knock Knock – Dengue Chic in Burma

“Knock knock,” says my door in two gentle syllables. I roll over in my bed, the sheets so soaked with sweat there is an audible squelching sound.

“Knock knock KNOCK,” the door repeats more urgently. I know from the soft light filtering through the flowered curtains that it is morning time, and therefore on the other side of the door there will be an elderly woman holding a tray with a soggy fried egg, a banana, and a cup of instant coffee. It is breakfast time at the YMCA Yangon and from the screaming pain in every joint and muscle in my body I can tell that the dengue fever has not yet passed.

Knock knock knock. Pause. Knock knock knock knock knock. I know from experience that this will not stop. I have been to the front desk three times to request that I be taken off the breakfast list, and each time they nod earnestly and tell me it will be done. I have said the same thing directly to the women who bring the food as well, and they give me the same nod. I have been staying in the same room for a total of two weeks now and have refused the breakfast every morning but one (the first), and yet they persist.

Knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knock. My head is throbbing and I slept for perhaps two hours the night before, so intense was the pain from the dengue. I attempt to say “no” as loudly as possible, but all that comes out is a pathetic guttural moan. The knocking continues with renewed vigor, the little old woman in the hallway emboldened by the sounds of life from within.

I drag myself out of the bed with herculean effort. Since I the fevered sweating began I have been sleeping naked in an effort to conserve the three pairs of underwear I currently own, so I drunkenly grope in the semi-darkness for something to cover myself. I find a towel and tie it around my waist, and then swing the door open. I know for a fact that I looked utterly insane at this moment because I looked at my reflection soon after. My hair, uncut for three months, is matted to my head in damp curls and my eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep. It has also been three or four days since I’ve had enough energy to shower, so I almost certainly smell horrendous.

To her credit the woman doesn’t flinch in the slightest. She simply extends the try towards me, sad looking egg forward, and says “breakfast!”

I am furious, livid, raging. I want to scream obscenities at her at the top of my lungs and ask her what makes continue knocking after the first twenty-five go unanswered. I want to smash the tray out of her hands and slam the door in her face. But instead I say “No thank you.” Despite the fact that I have had the same interaction with this woman for approximately thirteen consecutive mornings, she looks confused. Unsure of what to do she extends the tray towards me again, hopefully.

“No thank you. Very sick. No breakfast tomorrow. No breakfast next day. Breakfast never, OK?” The fever makes it difficult to take anything more than a very shallow breath, so I have to speak in measured tones to avoid using too much air.

“OK, bye-bye!” she answers brightly and moves on to the next room, occupied by a French girl who hates the breakfast service as much as I do. This encounter will be repeated tomorrow, I have no doubt.

I close the door and take stock of my room. I have refused the cleaning staff entry since the dengue set in and things are beginning to deteriorate. The bed sheets are twisted from my fever induced squirming and the pillowcases have circular yellow stains from where my sweat has seeped into the cotton fibers. A vomit crusted waste bin sits beside my bed. Empty water bottles litter the floor, and several of them are filled with a yellowish liquid.

I started peeing into the water bottles on the second day of being ill when I lost the strength to walk down the hall to the bathroom. I stack them in rows against the wall and wait until it rains, at which point I dump them out the window onto a tin roof, and watch the rancid liquid run into the gutters.

There are empty wrappers from all sorts of strange Asian junk food items. It’s a shame, since there is so much good food to be had on the streets here, but I don’t have the energy to walk more than a hundred meters. The effort of climbing the three flights of stairs to my room leaves me gasping, and my head spinning. I am subsisting almost entirely on the kinds of foods I refuse to eat normally; I spent the whole of yesterday slowly picking at a foot-long cake, dubiously named The Strawberry Cream. It’s strange to me that I can be so sick and yet still be hungry. If someone had put a McDonald’s cheeseburger beside my bed in the night I would have eaten it for breakfast.

I have been living like this for six days now. It began very suddenly while I was out making pictures of a traditional Burmese martial art, my temperature soaring wildly over the course of an hour. I barely made it out of the taxi on the way back without throwing up. That night was a hellish combination of sweat, nausea and retching, and the second night was no better. The third morning was promising; I felt fine, if still below average, and went out for tea and lunch to celebrate my victory over what I assumed was a stomach bug. But later in the afternoon the true evil of dengue began – the physical pain. It’s as if all of my bones were trying to twist themselves apart and no bodily position, sitting or lying, offers any relief. Each breath feels like my lungs are expanding into fractured ribs. This lasted most of that day and through the night. When I woke up the next morning, I again felt fairly good, though a headache persisted. And then, by the evening, the pain returned. Up and down, peaks and hellish troughs.

This is the glamorous state of life at the moment. According to the doctors I have spoken to, both in Yangon and abroad, I could be out of commission anywhere from a week to three. This means that the trip to Burma is essentially a write off photographically as my visa expires in a week. Perhaps I will miraculously recover and get a few more days of shooting before then, but it seems unlikely I will produce anything of substance. This is extremely disappointing, obviously, but maybe an important lesson about the nature of this work. Definitely this is an exercise in patience and humility.

Note: I wrote this for three reasons, the first being that I spend so much time exposing other people’s private lives that I thought it was important to be honest about myself and my situation. Secondly, to show just how decidedly unglamorous and unromantic this experience is. The idea of some globetrotting loner, with everyday filled with adventure and exotic experiences, is so very far from reality. And thirdly, and most importantly: I have been lying in bed for more than six days now and am desperately bored.

Stay healthy!

Luc

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Re-Learning to Take Risks

Last year I got burned. Hard. And it has taken almost eight months to fully recover.

How or why exactly is an extremely long story, and one which I am working on telling fully – but for now I cannot do this tale the justice it deserves. In a nutshell, my best friend and I tried to have a grand adventure, and it ended in misery. We signed on as crew of a small yacht with the goal of sailing from Malaysia to Madagascar, but 3 months later we ended up stranded in the Maldives, mentally and financially broke.

This experience dealt a severe blow to my confidence, and my willingness to take risks. I thought seriously about giving up on what I wanted out of life and settling for something comfortable and secure. I convinced myself that achieving your dream life was an illusion, and that I was misguided in thinking that I could live it.

But last month I got my inspiration back. There was no catalyst, it just sort of happened one day. I am now ready to take risks again, to get what I want out of life or go down trying. Insert more motivational idioms here.

So today I put a down a hefty deposit on a photography workshop with Zoriah Miller, one of my favourite photojournalists, and someone whose work I have been following for the last 3 years. I’m not sure how I originally found him, but it was well before I had decided to pursue photography as anything more than a hobby.

What inspired me about Zoriah was not that he took amazingly moving images (which he does), but the fact that he shares the process with others. There are so many amazing people found on the internet who create wonderful things, but there is no insight into the how or the why. Zoriah’s site, however, is an in depth look at how a dedicated professional works – and, more importantly, why he is compelled to do what he does.

I am not expecting Zoriah to make me a great photographer, or to spoon feed me a photo opportunity that will get me published on the cover of Time Magazine. But its a start, and a positive one at that. There is a long road ahead, and there is no magic bullet for how to get what I want. I could get lucky and be supporting myself fully from photography by the end of next year, but I sincerely doubt it. Probably it will be a drawn out affair, developing slowly over 5 or 10 or 20 years. I am not counting on retiring any time soon.

The website, the writing, the worskhop – they are all manifestations of me trying to set myself on a track towards getting what I want. So if you read any of what I post on this blog, you don’t have to remind me that I am not a professional. My pictures are not the most moving frames you have ever seen. The material I have now is not going to change the world. I know all this. But I will get there.

If you need to hear this stuff from someone else, listen to this guy. He’s completely wired, but his words are still great. He’s high on dreams!

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Portraits of the Himba

Himba women are red. That was my first impression driving into the small village outside of Uis, a small community in central Namibia. Their hair, their bodies, even the earth they built their villages on – all red.

A Himba woman looks at me impassively. Click on the image to see the full gallery.

During the first few weeks in Namibia, I had noticed these red women sporadically. In the gas station; walking through the aisles of the supermarkets; sitting at the side of the road. It seemed completely bizarre to see a woman of Amazonian presence, red from head to toe (including lengthy red dreadlocks), casually buying a tin of snuff from the local grocer. And while I eventually stopped gaping every time I saw them, the curiosity always remained.

So when a man stopped Brad, my traveling companion, and I on the side of a dusty road in Uis to ask us if we would like to drive out to visit one of the remaining Himba settlements in the area, we jumped at the chance. Well, in truth we initially feared a scam, but once we were told that the only payment required were some sacks of corn meal and a few kilos of sugar (no cash) we decided to take him up on his offer.

The village was an hour away, down a bumpy access road. Among the dung and thatch huts sat a large circle of women and children, all of them red. After giving them our ‘gifts’ we were given free range of the village, and spent the day trying to communicate with them through music, photos, and sign language.

The Himba are descendants of the Herero, sheep herders who were displaced from their traditional lands by an intertribal conflict. The Himba are nomadic, moving their cattle from place to place in search of grazing lands. The ‘village’ we saw was actually just a temporary camp that they would inhabit until their cows had eaten all the grass in the area. The men mind the herds during the day while the women stay in the camp to do domestic chores and prepare food.

Their striking redness is a product of ochre and fat, which the women rub on themselves and in their hair to protect themselves from the sun as they churn milk into sour yoghurt. It gives them their distinctive colour (and unforgettable smell!). From what I could see, the men were not similarly dyed, but I never found out why this was a specifically female habit.

I took a series of portraits of some of the Himba, which you can see HERE.

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Same World Same Chance

This is an article I wrote for a Korean magazine about Same World Same Chance. This is a writing component to what was mainly a photographic project. Click HERE to see the image gallery.

 

In 2006, two young Canadian university graduates, Kim Hurley and Marissa Izma, landed in Africa with vague notions of making a difference in the world. They had no clear idea of how they would do this, but after several months they found themselves in the small community of Kibombomene, Zambia.

“We just wanted to be rural because the media portrayed such a negative image of Africa and we just needed to see it for ourselves,” Says Izma. From this, Same World Same Chance was born – a completely independent, education based, community development organization.

Four years later, Izma still lives in Zambia while Mrs. Hurley has returned to Canada to raise funds. On the project site, a two-room schoolhouse, a library, staff housing, and an organic farm now stand where before there was only a diamond shaped plot of wild brush land.

In a time when people are becoming increasingly mistrustful of how NGOs spend their funding, Same World Same Chance is a prime example of how compassion and drive can still be an effective force for social change.

“I have personally seen some NGOs running in Zambia that are misusing funds, [and] it makes me angry because S.W.S.C. strives on making our priority that every cent gets spend in the best way possible,” Izma states, though she makes it clear that she has also seen a lot of money being spend in the right way.

Relocating permanently to a small village in South-Central Africa has not been easy, however. According to Izma, “The biggest challenge has been integrating into a rural community and into a culture that is so different from my own. It has been important though, because we knew that we had to immerse ourselves within the community to discover who the notable members were. We needed to know who could trust us, and who we could trust so that we could work together. Without the community of Kibombomene, the project is nothing.”

Education in Zambia, especially in rural areas, is sub-standard to say the least. While there was an existing primary school in the village before S.W.S.C.’s arrival, whether or not the teachers would show up was a daily question. When and if they did, their effectiveness (and often their sobriety) was dubious. Local children would attend this school for years under the impression that they were receiving an education that would help them further their lives. But when it came time to write the national exams, many would find that they were unable to read the questions.

Izma and Hurley hope that SWSC’s free secondary education program can be part of a solution. “We want people to graduate from here and movie into the world and create more positive change.”

 

But they also believe in helping Kibombomene help itself: “It’s not about graduating and leaving the community to find a better job in the city.” Besides paying the salaries of two local teachers and funding an organic farming project, SWSC has established a local manufacturing industry which now makes and sells tailored bags and blankets internationally. All proceeds from this venture are put back into the project, and therefore the community.

A health committee has been created to give free medical services to the village residents. Led by Candance Ngungu (a Canadian nurse who came to the project as a volunteer and ended up marrying a local man), the fledgling clinic will be invaluable for Kibombomene’s people, who have no real access to a hospital. In a country where AIDSand malaria are ongoing threats, having free professional medical assistance could mean the difference between life and death.

Potentially the most exciting aspect of SWSC is how ambitious it is in the scope of its long-term vision. When it reaches maturity, the project site will be home to six classrooms, a nursery, a trade school for continuing education, a boarding house for up to 200 students, a full health center, a community assembly hall, and eventually even roadside restaurants and shops so that the operation can be truly self sustaining. Staff numbers are steadily increasing, with volunteers expected from Canada, the U.S., Germany, and Japan.

Though the future looks bright for SWSC, this project remains an intense labour of love, and would not exist without the persistence and dedication of its leaders. “This isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t perfect,” says Izma, “but I never have to force myself out of bed in order to do it. That makes it all worthwhile.”

SWSC cannot exist without independent support. To donate, buy locally produced goods, or explore volunteering opportunities, visit www.sameworldsamechance.org.

Luc Forsyth is a photojournalist who spent time at the SWSC site in April 2011. To see more of his work, visit www.lucforsyth.com.

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