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Damming the Nam Khan

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

We had been driving for an hour on the dusty mountain road when we hit the military checkpoint. As the lone passengers in the back of the songthaew (a flatbed truck fitted with benches) we figured it would be impossible to avoid scrutiny and we certain that this would be turned back at any moment. With the media’s widespread – and overwhelmingly negative – coverage of Laos’ Thai-financed Xayaburi dam, we thought that we, as camera toting foreigners, would be less than welcome at the dam construction sites along the Nam Khan river.

To our surprise, however, the soldiers on duty barely gave us a second glance, and looked more bored than suspicious as they waved us through.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

We had come to the Nam Khan to further investigate the human impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams after visiting the nation’s first ever damming project on the Nam Ngum river. The people we’d spoken to there had mixed opinions about the dam’s enormous reservoir (known locally as the Laos Sea) that had flooded much of the area when it was finished in the 1980’s. But it had been more than 30 years since the project had been completed and people had had decades to adjust to the change. We wanted to speak to people who were on the front lines of the nation’s current damming rush.

Voices of the Displaced

A day before our drive into the mountainous valley surrounding the Nam Khan, we had visited one of the main relocation camps for those displaced by the series of dams on the river. Before we saw the dams themselves and spoke to those who were facing eviction from there homes because of them, we wanted to have a clear idea of where these people were being asked to go.

The Samaky Sai, or "United Village", relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

The Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams.

The Samaky Sai camp, located just outside the village of Pak Hanh, looked artificial in every way. The houses were carbon copies of each other, and clearly built as cheaply as possible; cracks sliced through many of the concrete walls and the roads were uneven and dusty.

“The old place was better,” a 28-year-old mother of 5 named Pich told us when we stopped to speak to her on the front steps of the cookie cutter home she had been issued by Sinohydro, the Chinese state-owned firm overseeing the dams construction.  “But we didn’t have a choice.”

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Pich, like many of the other occupants of Samaky Sai, had come from a small and remote mountain village further up the Nam Khan where her family had farmed rice. While life in the village was far from easy, Pich told us, and lacked access to modern amenities like electricity and plumbing, essential items such as food and firewood had been abundant and cheap. A barter economy allowed her to trade rice for whatever her family couldn’t grow on their own, and a walk into the jungle would usually provide fresh coconuts or bananas. Cash was used rarely, and typically only for speciality items that had to be brought in from the city.

That all changed when her family moved to Samaky Sai, Pich said: “Over there [in the village] we didn’t need money. But now we need it for everything.” When her family was compelled to leave the village it never occurred to them that they would need cash for nearly everything, and they had no way to earn it. Samaky Sai was too small to provide each family enough space to farm commercially, and virtually nothing would have grown in the hard shale anyways.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.  The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.

Each person we spoke to throughout the day shared similar stories. Their transition into a cash-based economy meant that their traditional communal farming practices were no longer able to meet their basic needs. They needed jobs. And around Samaky Sai, there was only one real employer.

“I work as a construction worker on the dam, earning 60 000 kip ($7.25 US) per day,” a young man named Muoi told us. Dressed in a set of blue coveralls and a hardhat, Muoi, like the majority of men in the camp, was preparing to head to work where he would help build the dam that would eventually destroy his childhood home.

As outsiders the idea seemed perverse, but Muoi was quick to point out that he actually preferred life in Samaky Sai in some ways. “It is more comfortable here because we have a big house and electricity,” he said, but then continued “but it is different. We have to work every day and food is very expensive. Either way I can’t go back because the authorities say that we have to stay here.”

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village - a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village – a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Chanh, a 35-year-old resident of Samaky Sai also employed as a labourer on the dam site, shared Muoi’s preference for the modern conveniences their new home provided, but lamented the loss of free time: “The Chinese never stop working, sometimes we start at 7 a.m. and don’t stop until 7 p.m.”

While working a 12 hour shift was by no means uncommon in the world, Chanh explained that the disappearance of their cultural traditions was more damaging than the loss of leisure time. “Every year in the village we used to have a feast to celebrate the new year,” Chanh remembered, “but we had to cancel it last year [after we moved to the camp] because no one could afford the cost of the food. That’s the first time we have ever done this since I was a boy.”

Residents of Samaky Sai, or "United Village", walk along on e of the camp's main roads. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, walk along on e of the camp’s main roads.

After walking through the camp and talking with Samaky Sai residents for several hours, the stories were essentially all the same. 62-year-old broom maker Chan Souk told us how her initial excitement at the prospect of living in a modern house quickly gave way to the realization that their life was forever altered. “When they first showed us the new houses, we all said ‘wow’, but after a few months we realized there was no food. Here we need money for everything, but in the village we could get whatever we needed from the jungle. It is easier here in some ways because of the electricity, but if we could get power in the village, I would go back.”

But with the Nam Khan dam nearly completed, Chan Souk knew she would never go back.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Just a few hundred metres behind Samaky Sai was the village of Don Mo, and before leaving the relocation site we wandered over to ask villagers how they felt about the camp. In contrast to Samaky Sai, Don Mo was not a planned camp but a village that had grown organically over generations. There we met 60-year-old pig farmer Phanh Boun Na Phon, and asked if he would be willing to leave his 50-odd piglets for one of the newer houses. He answered with a laugh, but also with decisiveness: “The space there is not enough. The houses are so close together I wouldn’t even have space to park my bike, never mind my pigs,” he said. “I don’t want to live like those people. I have everything I need here.”

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 50, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.  While just a few hundred metres away from the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp, Don Mo has abundant farmland and the quality of life is vastly superior to that in the camp. Samaky Sai is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 60, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.

 

Only the Goats Remain

Back in the mountains, our songthaew bounced along the mountain road as we passed the build sites for the Nam Kham 1 and 2 dams. The scale of the projects was immense, and it was hard not be impressed by the feat of engineering such massive structures in so remote a location despite knowing the human costs involved.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam.

 

 

 

Workers scurried along scaffolding, looking more like insects than people from so far away, and concussions thudded into our chests as pieces of the mountains were blown away with explosives. Trucks full of workers, presumably being shuttled between their base camp and the construction zones for a shift change, passed us periodically and waved enthusiastically as they called out in greeting. Visitors were not common, we supposed.

After nearly two hours, we arrived at the third and final dam on the Nam Khan river. Still unsure of whether or not we were allowed to be in the area, we jumped out of the truck and made our way towards the top of the structure. A lone security post overlooked the area, and the guard watched us carefully as we approached. With each step closer to the top, we were sure he would start shouting for us to leave, but as soon as we set foot on the expanse of concrete stretching across the valley he stepped out of his hut and yelled “Hello!” in cheerful if heavily accented English.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we only loitered for a few minutes to take in the sheer scope of the project before heading back towards Pak Hanh. On the way we stopped at the tiny village of Khone Wai after catching a glimpse of movement in what looked to be an otherwise abandoned community.

Perched on a small mountain side shelf, Khone Wai was situated between dams 2 and 3 on the Nam Khan – placing it squarely in the path of the future reservoir. The majority of houses were empty and looked long-since abandoned, apart from a few that still had laundry hanging from the front porches. At first we seemed alone apart from a few small herds of goats, but eventually a middle-aged man appeared to greet us.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam's resevoir. Once completed, the area will be submerged in water. Most of the villagers have already abandoned their homes, with a few returning each day to tend to the livestock left behind.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam’s resevoir.

“Everyone is gone,” he told us, “they have all been moved for when the dam is finished [in a few months]. Only the animals are left, and we come to look after them.” 50-years-old and weathered from decades of farming, he politely declined to tell us his name but explained that he would soon be selling the goats and moving permanently to Samaky Sai.

“Yes we are sad to leave, but we have no choice,” he said. “But I am excited to have a new house.”

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam's resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam’s resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Farewell, Cambodia

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

When I got on the China Eastern airlines flight that would take me out of Cambodia after living and working in the Kingdom for nearly three years, my emotions were predictably volatile. Cambodia had fostered me when I had been lacking direction and adrift in the beginnings of a new career, and as time progressed and I started traveling more and more on assignments, had given me a safe harbour to return to between trips. Cambodia allowed me to call it home even though I had little to offer in exchange.

I met hundreds of people – both Khmers and foreigners alike – who had welcomed, taught, and inspired me at different times and in different ways. From a portfolio review on my third week in the country by the prolific Magnum photographer and long-time Cambodia hand John Vink to my last assignment photographing anti-logging activist Ouch Leng for The New York Times almost three years later, Cambodia helped me to develop as a photographer faster than I ever thought possible.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work.

It was in Cambodia that I learned, through Ruom Collective, that working in a team can often result stronger work than any one individual, no matter how dedicated, could accomplish. It was also there that I met photographer Gareth Bright, who would become my chief partner in crime for nearly two years of exploring the Mekong river and who taught me more about the style and art of photography than any formal education could have. Without a doubt I left Cambodia in better form than when I’d arrived.

But what about the Cambodians themselves? Populated by some of the kindest and most peaceful people I’ve ever encountered after nearly a decade of international travel, had Cambodia become a better place for its own people to live?

Admittedly this is a much more complex question than I am temporally and intellectually capable of answering (for one of the best overviews of modern Cambodia, try Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio), but I can draw conclusions based on my time interacting with Cambodians across all sectors of society. And unfortunately, what I saw was not, for the most part, positive.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling.

In his farewell address to Southeast Asia after a decade of reporting from the region, New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller said “I came to see Southeast Asia as a land of great people and bad governments, of remarkable graciousness but distressing levels of impunity.” This sentiment matches perfectly with my own experiences in Cambodia, and it makes me fear for the future of the country and its people.

Despite a protracted period of widespread protests and sporadic-yet-savage violence in 2014, the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party maintained its grip on power and steadily continued its attack on any organization or person who threatened its authority. The gap between rich and poor widened to ever more ludicrous distances and corruption spread deeper throughout the nation’s governmental and bureaucratic institutions. Public servants with tiny salaries bought $15 million houses in Phnom Penh while working class families, both in the cities and countryside, were evicted from their homes to make way for luxury condominiums and hydropower dams.

The community of Borei Keila is a microcosm of a trend that has been happening throughout Cambodia since before I arrived, and is likely to continue long after I have left. The images that appear throughout this article were all taken in Borei Keila over a period of several months, and were the last serious subject matter I documented for any length of time before leaving the country. The process of making these photographs, therefore, greatly influenced my final impressions of a country I called home for three years.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children's mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children’s mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh.

In 2003, the property development conglomerate Phanimex was awarded development rights to the area and promptly evicted the hundreds of families who lived there. While some were provided with new housing, many hundreds more were offered no compensation and were forced to remain in the site, living in squalid slums without basic infrastructure, such as plumbing. Waste removal services were unreliable, and over time a two meter tall mound of festering garbage rose behind the squatter shacks, bringing thick swarms of flies.

More than 10 years later in January of 2016, the issue was supposedly resolved and a formal ceremony was held in Borei Keila, replete with representatives from City Hall. Yet the final “resolution” (either a new apartment, a small plot of land in the countryside, or a cash payment for remaining Borei Keila residents), beyond being offered more than a decade too late, still neglected to offer anything 35 families. What will happen to these people I have no idea. Based on the past, it seems unlikely that either the government or Phanimex does either.

One is left with the distinct impression that no one in a position of power cares what happens.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila.

In the climate of mega-tycoons and oligarchs that has taken nearly complete control of the power mechanisms of Cambodia, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the consequences of such neglect. These are the “distressing levels of impunity” that Fuller refers to, and they have come to define both the Kingdom as well as much of the wider region.

As I leave Cambodia for Latin America I am acutely aware of how much I benefitted from my time in the country, both personally and professionally, which in turn makes me conscious of how few of the same benefits are available to the average Cambodian.

There are, it should be said, noteworthy examples of an emerging young middle class who are thriving despite the challenges they face. My good friend and colleague Kimlong Meng, for example, who has built himself a thriving local media empire on the back of his own hard work and creativity. A team of five under-30 independent Khmer entrepreneurs founded Brown, a chain of modern cafes that have come to dominate Phnom Penh’s coffee culture. There are others.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.

Yet as I sat on the tarmac waiting for my flight to take me out of Cambodia, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for most Cambodians things were going to get harder. It brings no pleasure to project negativity onto a people and culture that is so deserving of prosperity, and I sincerely wish the best for the country that treated me with such incredible kindness. But until some significant changes take place at the highest levels, I can’t help but fear that more Borei Keilas will be created by the decisions of those with impunity.

Until the majority of Cambodians can thrive in their own country as I was able to, it will be hard to remember my time in the Kingdom without a tinge of sadness.

Farewell for now Cambodia, and good luck.

For more images of Borei Keila, have a look at my personal edit of 20 pictures, or this even longer archival edit of nearly 30 pictures

Posted in Black and White, Blog, Cambodia, Poverty Also tagged , , , , , |

Coffee, Kingdoms, and the Peace of Southern Laos

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

As soon as the heavy cargo truck pulled onto the shoulder of the highway we were immediately swarmed by vendors. They shoved bananas, plastic bags of sticky rice, and barbecued skewers of chicken gizzard through the wooden slats of the truck walls, sometimes receiving a few thousand kip (the name of the Laos currency) in exchange from the hungry commuters.  5 minutes later the truck’s aging ancient engine roared back to life and we were off again, blasting the vendors with exhaust fumes and gravel dust as they turned to meet the next arriving vehicle.

We were on our way to the riverside city of Pakse, the third largest in the country and the capital of the former Kingdom of Champasak. Straddling the confluence of the Mekong and Xe Don rivers, it seemed like a logical destination after leaving the un-tameable rapids of the Khone waterfalls, but as had so often been the case during the making of this journey, we had no real idea of what we would find when we got there.

With a population nearly 100 000, it was a big city by Laos standards and it drew nearly half a million tourists per year; we figured there had to be something there. Yet every time we’d asked a local what we should see or do in Pakse they would think for a moment and then shrug: “It’s pretty, but a little bit boring.”

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

Boring, we figured, was an opinion based on circumstance; what might be boring for a local could be fascinating for us.

Caffeine Plateau

Eager to see what Pakse had to offer we arranged for a small truck to meet us at the unfortunate time of 4:30 a.m. to drive us the 100 kms from the city to the Bolaven plateau. A 1300 metre tall edifice of rock that dominated the surrounding landscape, the plateau was once a place of immense suffering as one of the most heavily bombed theatres of the Vietnam War, but now was better known for coffee than explosives. Being seriously dedicated coffee drinkers, both Gareth and I were looking forward to pursuing anything that gave us an excuse to drink more of it.

As our vehicle ascended the long, gently graded road that lead to the plateau, our ears popped periodically and we rose further and further into the misty cloud layer that hung over the summit. For the first time that either of us could remember since starting this journey we were not within walking distance of the Mekong or one of its tributaries, and the distance felt strangely unsettling after so many days by the water.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Originally cultivated by French farmers during the colonial period from late in the 19th century and running into the middle of the 20th, coffee plantations began to appear on both sides of the road once we reached the plateau’s flat top. More or less at random we stopped at one, passing under tall gates made of an expensive looking hardwood before parking in the visitors area. Polished wood surfaces and metal appliances gleamed in the various reception facilities and it was clear that these plantations were not casual subsistence operations.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing coffee, and it has become the biggest industry in the area.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau.

As we walked slowly through the plantation grounds, surrounded by coffee trees and squat tea bushes, it seemed odd to find very few people physically working save for a scattering of labourers cleaning debris from between the crop rows. A little confused by the lack of activity, we continued further into the compound until we eventually arrived at a rest area, much smaller and more rustic looking than the modern structures we had seen earlier. A distinguished looking man was the sole patron, sitting alone at a wooden table sipping green tea and smoking a long black cigarette.

Bonjour,” he said in way of greeting as we approached and I scrambled to switch into French, which I hadn’t meaningfully used since leaving university. Pablo, a native French speaker, had returned to Phnom Penh before reaching the Cambodia-Laos border to sort through dozens of hours of video he’d recorded and Gareth, though fluent in multiple languages, spoke barely a word. My rusty language skills would have to suffice.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

“Welcome to my plantation, please join me.” His French was smooth and his accent non-existent. “Would you like a coffee?” He waived to a waiter when we accepted, and he gestured for us to sit down.

His name was Inpong Sananikone, a Laos native who had emigrated to France as a young man before returning to Laos in retirement to buy an existing plantation and reform it according to his own principles. “When I started this business I decided on three rules: It has to be welcoming, clean, and organic,” he said, using simple French vocabulary thankfully within my ability to understand.

As the drinks arrived, we asked about the absence of workers in the fields. “It’s not the season,” he said, “Come back in a few months and you can see the work.” Sliding the small cups of steaming coffee towards and after taking an appreciative sip of his own, he stared thoughtfully at his glass before musing “I had coffee with the French Prime Minister last year. It cost 15 euros and it was not as good as this.”

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Uncertain of how to respond to such an unusual statement, we said nothing and instead sat quietly sipping our drinks. Obviously he had accomplished a great deal during his decades in France if he was meeting with the Prime Minster, but my language skills had already been stretched to the breaking point and I didn’t have the words to question him much further.

It wasn’t until the glasses were nearly empty that we noticed something was off. First my hands began to shake, first only a little, but shortly afterwards degenerating into an uncontrollable vibration. Sweat formed on my forehead and I could feel my heart pumping at close to twice its normal speed. Fearing that I could be on the verge of a heart attack, I looked over at Gareth for reassurance. His face was drained of colour.

“Strong coffee is the secret to staying young,” Inpong said, possibly noticing our jitters. “I put 7 grams of coffee into every cup of water.” Even as habitually heavy coffee drinkers, we were both shocked by the power of the drink. As we stared at him in disbelief, he asked rhetorically “Well, did you want to drink water, or did you want to drink coffee?”

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

The Ghosts of Empire

After the extremely unpleasant caffeine high of the Bolaven plateau, we resolved to stay closer to the water for our remaining time in Pakse. After several days we saw what the locals had been talking about when they said that the city was “pretty, but a little bit boring,” – though for us boring was the wrong choice of word. There was nothing boring about the area; it was both beautiful and welcoming, but things around Pakse just moved at a slower pace.

Rather than fight against the area’s nature, trying to force interesting river-related stories to present themselves to us, we surrendered to the casual rhythm of life in southern Laos and spent several days taking in the area.

We visited the ancient temples of Wat Phu, constructed by the same Khmer Empire that  built the world-famous Angkor Wat complex in the jungles outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. The aesthetic similarities were striking, and compared to the constant crowds and inflated prices of the far more heavily touristed temples in Cambodia, we had Wat Phu entirely to ourselves for several hours.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Later we chartered a boat to the silk producing island of Don Kho, getting back on the the Mekong for the first time in several days. Again, rather than aggressively hunt for river-related social stories to tell we simply walked across the island, talking to people we met from small families digging for edible grubs to young men and women working silk looms under the shade of stilted houses.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

In many ways our time in Pakse was like a holiday within the larger journey. Initially we felt frustrated by the lack of activity, having placed a huge amount of pressure on ourselves thought the trip to find and visually document the Mekong’s stories. Yet once we accepted Pakse for what it was, we were able to step back and enjoy the beauty and history of Laos’ sparsely populated south.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

But all vacations must come to an end, and both Gareth and I were eager to get back to work. Most people we’d talked to in Pakse said that the rest of southern Laos would be much the same as what we’d seen in the last days, so we boarded a torturous 18 hour overnight bus and headed north to start investigating what is arguably the most controversial form development on the Mekong – Laos’ hydropower dams.

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.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

2014: A Year in Pictures

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

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

Happy holidays.

Luc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Nepal, Philippines, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |

The Power of Objects: The Gapminder Project

Trip Door

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

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

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

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

Trip Broom

TripTools

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

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

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

Trip toys

TripDecoration

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Nepal, NGO Work, Philippines Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |

No Build Zone: Life in Tacloban After Typhoon Haiyan

When typhoon Haiyan, referred to locally as Yolanda, smashed into the central Philippines on November 8th, 2013, it was the most severe storm ever recorded to make landfall. In the end Yolanda claimed more than six thousand lives, devastated infrastructure, rendered tens of thousands homeless, and its aftermath instigated widespread looting and chaos. Tacloban, one of the cities hardest hit, was largely underprepared for the scale of the destruction, and nearly six months later its residents are still struggling to rebuild their lives.

Further complicating the recovery process is a government imposed “no build zone” that extends forty metres inland from the ocean, meaning that residents of some coastal neighbourhoods who have rebuilt their homes are now technically illegal squatters, possibly facing eviction and renewed homelessness in the future. With some estimates placing the clean up efforts at less than ten percent complete,  the residents of Tacloban face a long road to recovery.

This story documents daily life in Tacloban, largely focusing on Barangay 68, a community so badly damaged that residents now call it Yolanda Village.

Barangay 68, often referred to as Yolonda Village by locals, was one of the hardest hit by typhoon Haiyan. After Haiyan devastated the area, the government imposed a "no build zone" policy from the waters edge to 40 metres inland, meaning that those who have rebuilt their homes near the ocean face a possible eviction in the future.

Barangay 68, often referred to as Yolanda Village by locals, was one of the hardest hit by typhoon Haiyan. After Haiyan devastated the area, the government imposed a “no build zone” policy from the waters edge to 40 metres inland, meaning that those who have rebuilt their homes near the ocean face a possible eviction in the future.

Young men play basketball in front of a  beached cargo ship. Several large ships are awaiting removal after being swept onto land during typhoon Haiyan. Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines on November 8, 2013, leaving more than 5000 dead and displacing nearly 2 million people homeless.

Tacloban, Philippines. Young men play basketball in front of a beached cargo ship. Several large ships are awaiting removal after being swept onto land during typhoon Haiyan.

A man inspects the remains of a friend's home. Typhoon Haiyan damaged many homes to the point that they became uninhabitable and have been left in disrepair. Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines on November 8, 2013, leaving more than 5000 dead and displacing nearly 2 million people homeless.

A man inspects the remains of a friend’s home. Typhoon Haiyan damaged many homes to the point that they became uninhabitable and have been left in disrepair.

A carpenter rebuilds a destroyed home for his friends uncle just outside the government imposed "no build zone".

A carpenter rebuilds a destroyed home for his friend’s uncle just outside the government imposed “no build zone”.

The interior of the Palo cathedral outside Tacloban. The roof of the building was blown off during typhoon Haiyan and has yet to be repaired fully. Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines on November 8, 2013, leaving more than 5000 dead and displacing nearly 2 million people homeless.

The interior of the Palo cathedral outside Tacloban. The roof of the building was blown off during typhoon Haiyan and has yet to be repaired fully.

Girls play in the remains of a building that was destroyed during typhoon Haiyan.

Girls play in the remains of a building that was destroyed during typhoon Haiyan.

A woman clears debris from her front yard in Yolonda Village. Nearly six months after typhoon Haiyan devastated the area, the hardest hit coastal neighbourhoods are still far from rebuilt.

A woman clears debris from her front yard in Yolonda Village. Nearly six months after typhoon Haiyan devastated the area, the hardest hit coastal neighbourhoods are still far from rebuilt.

A group of men drink brandy and wine on the beach during a day off.

A group of men drink brandy and wine on the beach during a day off.

A young family are seen in the window of their tin house.

A young family are seen in the window of their tin house.

A man walks along an improvised breakwater made of hardened cement bags.

A man walks along an improvised breakwater made of hardened cement bags.

Salvagers work to cut apart a cargo shipping container that washed up along the breakwater in Yolonda Village. Other containers can be found as far insland as 100 meters.

Salvagers work to cut apart a cargo shipping container that washed up along the breakwater in Yolanda Village. Other containers can be found as far insland as 100 meters.

Many residents of Yolonda Village remain without electricity nearly six months after typhoon Haiyan made landfall, and rely on rechargable LED lights to see at night.

Many residents of Yolanda Village remain without electricity nearly six months after typhoon Haiyan made landfall, and rely on rechargable LED lights to see at night.

A man salvages wood from a wrecked house frame to use in the reconstruction of his own house.

A man salvages wood from a wrecked house frame to use in the reconstruction of his own house.

A group of young men relax on a wooden fishing pier over the easter weekend.

A group of young men relax on a wooden fishing pier over the easter weekend.

Women seek shade under the hulls of several beached ships that were blown inland by typhoon Haiyan.

Women seek shade under the hulls of several beached ships that were blown inland by typhoon Haiyan.

A cargo ship and shipping container rest nearly 100 metres inland from the ocean. Nearly six months after the typhoon, the majority of debris remains uncleared.

A cargo ship and shipping container rest nearly 100 metres inland from the ocean. Nearly six months after the typhoon, the majority of debris remains uncleared.

A man sits in the window of his home in Barangay 68. Many of the locals have taken to calling the neighbourhood Yolonda Village, after the Filippino name for typhoon Haiyan.

A man sits in the window of his home in Barangay 68. Many of the locals have taken to calling the neighbourhood Yolanda Village, after the Filippino name for typhoon Haiyan.

Young men drink bottles of beer together  over the easter weekend in Tacloban.

Young men drink bottles of beer together over the easter weekend in Tacloban.

Reconstruction in Tacloban

Residents of Yolanda Village search for crabs and small fish to eat.

Boys play in the ocean near Yolonda Village.

Boys play in the ocean near Yolanda Village.

A young man plays guitar on a pier in Barangay 68, one of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by typhoon Haiyan.

A young man plays guitar on a pier in Barangay 68, one of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by typhoon Haiyan.

A group of spectators stand in the rain in front of a reenactment of Jesus' crucifixion over easter weekend. The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, with roughly 80% of Filipinos belonging to the faith.

A group of spectators stand in the rain in front of a reenactment of Jesus’ crucifixion over easter weekend. The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, with roughly 80% of Filipinos belonging to the faith.

 

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Gapminder: A Fact-Based World View Everyone Can Understand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Streets and Nuns

While walking around the sidestreets of Nam Guro with some friends, I met a nun named Hong Seun-Hwa. Korean religious types, particularly of the Catholic and Jehova’s Witness persuasion, always seem eager to talk with foreigners – and more often than not have a decent command of English. Seun-Hwa curiously approached me as I was sitting on a ledge taking photos of a small blue door. Apparently she lived behind said blue door along with 35 of her sisters. For the next 25 minutes she gave me some historical background of the area (as well as encouraging me to see the wisdom of God).

Apparently the name Guro comes from a legend that once nine (“gu” in Korean) old men enjoyed “a miraculously long life in the area”, and so the neighbourhood was renamed in celebration of their longevity. Having lived in the area for many years, Seun-Hwa had witnessed the dramatic changes in the area as the municipal government rezoned Guro into a modern digital business area.

I wasn’t allowed to follow her into the convent, though I’m not sure if thats because I’m a man, or because I told her I wasn’t Catholic. But the fact that there were 35 Korean nuns living behind a non-descript concrete wall confirms that in Seoul there is a story behind every door, even if it can’t be seen from the street.

Seun-Hwa, a nun, in front of her convent

Seun-Hwa returning to her convent

a courtyard facing a public parking lot, full of the sounds of a mid-afternoon domestic argument

 

an elderly woman pulls her groceries behind her

a worker repairs a tangled cluster of electric wires

a market vendor blurs into the gloom of her stall

 

steel wool sits on a bathroom window ledge

a relic of a coffee vending machine

a taste of Europe in Seoul?

 

 

a telephone pole being reclaimed by vines

 

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Portfolio

Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-1

Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-2 Reconstruction in Tacloban Reconstruction in Tacloban Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-5 Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-6 Reconstruction in Tacloban Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-8 Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-9 Dhaka, Bangladesh. River taxi drivers take shelter during a rain storm. The evening call to prayer during the holy month of Ramadan. Bangladesh, 2012 Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-13 Reconstruction in Tacloban Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-15

A man smiles at a received text message. Kolkata, India, 2013. Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-16 Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-17 Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-18 Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-19 Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-20 Small Scale Gold Mining in The Philippines Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-22 Small Scale Gold Mining in The Philippines Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-24 Manila, Philippines. A young family in San Andres. Luc Forsyth Photojournalist Portfolio-26

 

Luc is available for editorial, travel, reportage, and humanitarian assignments internationally. For questions about availability or to commission an assignment, please contact Luc here.

 

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Barbed Wire Schools

While walking around to the West of Guro Digital station, I stumbled on this strange school zone, ringed in barbed wire. In Seoul nothing is particularly surprising, but finding children surrounded by factories and military grade barbed wire is a little surreal.

Particularly amazing to me was the fire escape, completely wrapped in wire. While I suppose this is likely an effective deterrent against thieves, in the event of a serious fire I can’t help but think this decision will be regretted…Seoul is never short of visuals.

 

barbed wire surrounds the school (background)

what is presumably a fire escape is covered in thick vines of barbed wire

an umbrella gives shade to a girls bike
a slide and a plastic play set seen through the wire.
a rusty playground in the courtyard of an apartment block
directly across from a schoolyard, paint flakes off the BYC smoke stack

 

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