Tag Archives: photography

Why I’m Dropping Everything to Photograph a River

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

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

“When you work fast, what you put in your pictures is what you brought with you — your own ideas and concepts. When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.” – Sebastiao Salgado

The last four years have been a slow, single-minded journey as I worked to establish myself as a photojournalist. While I am, in the grand scheme of this industry, still on the lowest rungs of an endless ladder, I can’t pretend that I haven’t accomplished more or less what I set out to do –  support myself as a professional storyteller. Yet at some point during the desperate battle to stand out from the legions of others trying to break in to the market, and the thankless quest for professional validation through publication, I lost sight of why I wanted to do this job in the first place.

Since nearly every photographer of note has at some point been quoted as saying “photography has been my passport to the world” (or something along those lines) I will spare you the cliche, but photography, for me, has never been about the desire to create images. My decision to drop out of a post-graduate program and pursue documentary photography full time was motivated not by a lofty artistic vision about light and tones and textures, but by the rather selfish desire to see interesting places and meet people.

Though I wish I had some prodigious story of learning to develop prints in my father’s darkroom as a young boy, in reality I had already been traveling for nearly half a decade before I learned how to properly expose an image.  Photography, and its ability to communicate the unknown to a far away audience, appealed to me more as a convenient way to support a nomadic lifestyle than a creative calling.

In my naiveté about all things photographic, I assumed that as long as I bought an expensive enough camera and brought it with me as I traveled in Africa or Asia, good pictures would come – followed inevitably by fame and fortune. I vividly remember the feeling of confidence I had after submitting head shots of Himba tribespeople in Namibia to National Geographic that were, in retrospect, nothing short of a disaster. When it became clear the editors were not planning to respond, it started to dawn on me that perhaps I would have to put some effort into developing my craft before anyone started taking me seriously.

And to my credit, I did start to apply myself – so vigorously in fact that I spent my life savings twice before seeing a single one of my pictures in print.  I went from being someone who travelled with a camera to someone who travelled for my camera, so determined was I to break through the barrier separating amateur from professional. Though it seemed utterly hopeless for nearly four years, when I did finally catch my big break things suddenly began to move very quickly. I found I had more work than I could sanely handle, and I was getting relatively high paying international jobs for clients I was proud to have my name associated with.

Yet somewhere along the way I discovered that, while I had achieved more than I really expected in a professional capacity, I lost sight of the amazing opportunities photography provides to learn about the world. It got to the point that if I didn’t think I could sell a story, I wouldn’t bother exploring it. I began to think of my work in terms of a marketable product that had little value if it did not add to my tear sheet collection, which in turn led to pursuing fewer and fewer personal projects – ultimately culminating in the least productive period of my photographic career. Over a few short years I had somehow gone from taking pictures seven days a week, simply for the sake of engaging with the world, to sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.

Exasperated and terrified by my own stagnation, I wracked my brain for a drastic solution to break free from this toxic creative cycle. Several weeks later, I arrived at an unorthodox conclusion: I should buy a boat and drive it through the interior waterways of Cambodia.

Reactions from my colleagues were mixed. While some supported the idea for what it was (a boyish journey for adventure’s sake), others quietly doubted the rationale for investing a large sum of money into something with little commercial appeal. Since I would not take a translator with me, they reasoned, how could I hope to accurately craft a journalistic narrative that would find a home in the international media? And while my detractors were actually right (I never did sell a single image from the trip), I stuck to the idea until I found others who were either bored or stupid enough to come with me.

I already wrote about the experience of finding and buying a boat, as well as a short recap of the trip, so I won’t go into much depth about the trip itself here. I will just say that it was exactly what I needed at the time, and it reconnected my photography with the innate wanderlust that got me into this profession in the first place. Though I took an average of less than 20 picture per day over the three week trip, they were images that I enjoyed making – the first such images I had produced in far too long. For me, that was the win. Beyond that, I was quite content for the pictures to occupy a small space on my personal blog and nothing more. I pitched no one and expected nothing in return. For all intents and purposes, the voyage had served its function as a creative catalyst and I was ready to move on.

Months later, however, while on an unrelated assignment documenting maternal health initiatives in Nepal and Bangladesh, it came as quite a surprise to find an email in my inbox inquiring about the possibility of a partnership for the project. The message was vague, explaining very little about what exactly this partnership would entail, and in honesty I was too skeptical to be very excited. Realistically, I reasoned from experience, requests like this most often do not develop past an individual or organization asking to use material for free in exchange for “exposure”. So I responded politely asking for more information and put the idea out of my mind as being unlikely to amount to much.

But when I received a reply almost immediately asking to arrange a time to speak on the phone to discuss possible contractual details, my interest piqued. People who want something for nothing generally do not bring contracts into the equation. Or pay for long distance phone calls.

Over the following days our correspondence continued, erratic and fragmented as it was by my hectic production schedule, exacerbated by South Asia’s often unreliable internet connections and power outages. With each passing email, my excitement grew and I started to send a barrage of online messages to the boat’s co-owner and co-pilot, South African photographer Gareth Bright, hinting that something might be happening.

As I write this, more than a month after that first email, it has become clear that something is indeed happening – and it will almost certainly become the most important undertaking of my nascent career.

I’m intentionally leaving the specifics of the project unclear, as it will be the subject of dozens, if not hundreds of upcoming posts, but in a nutshell: Gareth and I will spend virtually all of 2015 documenting the entirety of the Mekong river, from Vietnam to China through Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). I plan on setting aside time for a select few clients, but otherwise the entire year belongs to the river. As flexible a project description as I could ever imagine, we have been given complete freedom to form our own itinerary with zero obligation to highlight any cause or agenda other than telling the river’s human stories with honesty.

In the spirit of how this project got started, we have elected to spend the entire project budget on travel, only paying ourselves enough to cover rent and utilities. Though we may curse ourselves for this decision when we are financially unable to treat our girlfriends to dinner, we both agree that the spirit of the project is one of creative exploration rather than monetary gain. We bought the boat to recapture something we had both lost during the hustle of trying to carve out a niche in the professional photography world, and I don’t think we could have faced ourselves in the mirror had we sold that out.

While the administrative tedium associated with researching, budgeting, and organizing a project of this scale has been an exercise in patience, the idea of recapturing the essence of why I wanted to become a photographer in the first place has been more than enough to make the headaches worthwhile.

In the words of Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, “The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong.” Here’s to not belonging.

Production of this project will start in March, 2015. We will start releasing preproduction material in the next few weeks, as well as launch the official project web site. Stay tuned.

– LF. Phnom Penh, 2015.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River 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 , , , , , , , , , |

Water Festival Returns to Cambodia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A racing boat coach encourages his teams before their race.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A racing boat moves past spectators after finishing their race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Blog, Cambodia Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |

Long Tail Diaries: The First Voyage

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workers use metal hooks to slide ice onto waiting boats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

Tearsheets

A small selection of published work in the international media. To contact Luc for editorial, reportage, travel, or humanitarian projects in the mediums of photography, writing, or videography, click here. Available to work in Cambodia, throughout southeast Asia, and internationally.

INYT - crackdowns front  copy

For The International New York Times – Government Crackdown on Striking Garment Workers.

INYT - Sonando Cover copy

For The International New York Times – Mom Sonando as a Voice of Opposition in Cambodia.

NYT - Cambodia Rice copy

For The International New York Times – Cambodia’s Expanding Rice Market. For a full slideshow, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/business/international/cambodia-looks-to-put-its-rice-on-the-worlds-plate.html

NYT Online - Koh Pich copy

For The International New York Times – Chinese Development of Cambodia. For the full slideshow, visit: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/05/07/realestate/commercial/giant-development-in-cambodia-hinges-on-chinese-buyers.html

NYT Online - Phnom Penh Bus copy

For the International New York Times – Phnom Penh’s First Public Bus. For a full slideshow, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/20/world/asia/getting-stares-on-the-streets-of-cambodia-buses-for-the-masses.html

Al Jazeera - Marching Monks copy

Al Jazeera English – Monks March for the Environment. (Writing)

Al Jazeera - Chinese Flee Vietnam copy

Al Jazeera English – Vietnam’s Chinese Flee Unrest to China. (Writing and Photography)

VQR - (Cover) Tonle Sap copy

For The Virginia Quarterly Review – The Future of Cambodia’s Waterways.

NYT Lens Blog - Garment Crackdown copy

The New York Time Lens Blog – Government Crackdown on Striking Garment Workers.

TIME - Garment Crackdown copy

TIME Lightbox – Government Crackdown on Striking Garment Workers.

Wall Street Journal - Gold Mining copy

The Wall Street Journal – Small Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines.

Pulitzer Center - Cambodia Tonle Sap copy

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting – The Future of Cambodia’s Waterways

CBS News - Gold Mining copy

CBS News – Small Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines.

Denver Post - Gold Mining copy

The Denver Post – Small Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Smithsonian - Alberta's Oil Sands

The Smithsonian – Alberta’s Oil Sands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in 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 , , , , , , , , , |

Tree Planting in Rural Cambodia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

High school students watch the planting from their classroom window.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updates from Nepal to come.

 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Tree Planting Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

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

 

 

Posted in Blog, Photojournalism Tips, Writing Also tagged , , , , , , , |

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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Interview with G.M.B. Akash

Many people could have lost everything in this fire if Sumon (27) had not jumped to stop the roaring flames all by himself. The site near the Buriganga River in central Dhaka has long been used as a dump for rubbish from the textile and othere industries. It only took the dropping of a cigarette butt to produce a severe fire, engulfing the whole neighborhood of shacks and makeshift homes. But Sumon immediately ran from his scrape-shop nearby, splashing water to save his livelihood and that of others. No one helped him. It is fitting to end this photographic hommage to the many “survivor“ — characters in South Asia with this picture of this courageous fighter, who valiantly took things into his own hands. Dhaka, Bangladesh

 G.M.B. Akash is one of my favourite colour photographers of all time. He has won more than 40 international awards and his work has been published around the world. Beyond that, he is the rare breed of photojournalist who cares deeply about the people he is documenting. While many commoditize their subjects, feeling that the relationship is over after they have gotten the right frame, Akash goes much further. I know from personal conversations with him that his self-published book “Survivors” was incredibly difficult to produce, and yet he used most of the profit to open small businesses for the people who appear in its pages – keeping almost nothing for himself. I don’t know many others who would have done the same thing.

I had the pleasure of meeting Akash last year in his home city of Dhaka, and found him to be an incredibly warm and open person, as well as being extremely talented. I wrote to Akash to see if he would be willing to share his knowledge with a wider audience, and he graciously agreed. We can all learn something from his compassion, his motivation, and his lack of ego. Enjoy!

Nowadays there seems to be a talented Bangladeshi photographer around every corner, but when you were starting out, what was it like to break into the market? Did you face challenges because of where you were from?

Coming from a background where there was little space for adopting a creative process created difficult circumstances for me. People around me had no idea about photojournalism. At that time parents supported you even if you wanted to be an artist, illustrator or an actor/singer. But ‘photojournalist’, this genre did not exist in the circles I was brought up in. Today one click of your mouse takes you to the sites of your favorite photographers, their recent works, and there are opportunities to get your work published. We didn’t have an internet connection or any digitalized facilities. With the only camera I had, I could hardly manage to take the pictures that I imagined. Yes, now a days the field is competitive but there are opportunities too. In my early career, the challenges were where to find inspiration, how to get a mentor, and how to live my dream. I grew up in a place where I saw massive number of sex workers, child labourers, and people living on the edges of society. At that time my friends were filling out forms for higher education to become doctors or barristers, but I had chosen my path. Everyone said I was heading for disaster. Many days I did not eat to save my pocket money for my photography. I used my tuition to buy films. Even sometime when I had no film in my camera and had no money in pocket, I never stopped clicking. I kept clicking knowing I had no film inside my camera. Because I know I had to achieve my dream. Nothing could stop me except myself, so I kept walking. And see, now I am halfway to my dream.

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You shoot all the time. I see images from you on social media almost every day. Where do you get the motivation to work so much?

When I shoot I always ask two questions to myself: why I am taking this photo? And what message do I want to convey? First and foremost, photography is my passion and secondly it is a tool to affect positive change. I shoot almost every day because I love to do it. I do not see photography as competition, nor do I thrive for status or reputation. I want to show my pictures to my audiences. I have seen many of my colleagues who hardly share their photographs and keep them all for competitions, grants, or exhibitions.  I am very clear about the fact that I take photographs to show people, to convey a message, and to make a change. Until I can spread my message, until I share stories of broken hearts, until I show how brave my subjects are, I do not bother with anything else. On my Facebook page, every day I receive messages. Some are like ‘You changed me and my thoughts, Thank you’, or ‘After seeing your photo I cried at midnight. What can I do for the brave lady?’ and sometimes hundreds of wishes and prayers. That matters to me more than any achievement. I believe that if my photographs can connect with the heart, then this is the ultimate achievement.

Why did you decide to start the First Light Institute and what do you hope it will do for photography and Bangladeshi journalism?

I founded the ‘First Light Institute of Photography’ in August, 2013. I wanted to take photography door-to-door, and heart to heart. My mission is to give quality knowledge at minimal cost to unprivileged photography students. The dream is very simple: it is ‘keeping your light alive’. First Light recently organized the event ‘Inspiring Light’, in which we brought aspiring individuals to share their unique treasures with an audience. ‘Inspiring Light’ is an event in which to exchange inspiration; where people learn, are inspired and where ideas will take shape. The event is free for everyone. We recently organized an exhibition at the nearby Narayanganj train station to make the general public aware of photography. More than 25,000 people were our viewers. At the inception of our school, we made a wish! We wished to ignite the dark-velvet realities of many lives. We are aiming to educate unprivileged children: children who are living in the streets, children who are working as child labourers, children who are dropping out from schools and children who have no access to 21st century education. In short, we want to ignite the minds of the unprivileged in many different ways. We have started providing informal education of the basic subjects. Our groups of children belong to factories, the streets, slums and villages. Besides this non-profit contribution to young children, we are charging minimal fees for photography workshops that will provide the fuel for the institute to function. Our mission is to go beyond our dreams and we believe we surely will.

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Angel in Hell

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The journalism/photojournalism industries are undergoing some huge changes. It’s hard to make money, let alone support a family. How have you managed to stand out and carve a niche for yourself?

Frankly photojournalism is not a money making field. It is very hard now and was tougher in 1996 for me when I started. My mother used to say, ‘when you will not have any penny in your pocket, your love will fly through windows.’ That love was and is photography. My father told me, ‘settle with one: money or dreams?’ I replied, ‘dream and money both’. Now I have enough to live my life and live my dream. It did not come in a blink of an eye. You need time to build your name, your reputation and to prove your devotion. If you are looking to drive a Ferrari and living in a studio duplex, photojournalism is not for you. Yes, competition in the field makes everything complex. A lot of groupism and biases are slowing down promising photographers. Often new photographers are providing images to website and magazines for free, and that is creating more problems. In this respect, I try to be honest to my profession, to my work, and to my clients. That is the simple rule I am following to a make a niche for myself. I hate to be greedy because I learnt from my photography that a family can be happy living under a plastic sheet, while another  family can be unhappy living in palace.

What do you think the future holds for you and the profession of photography?

I believe in saving for my tomorrow but not wasting my today worrying about it. By the grace of God photography has brought me much respect, affection and love. For me, photography is my past, present and future. More and more people are entering and taking photography professionally. By the next ten years competition will be triple but I truly believe it will open doors that we can’t imagine now. So cheers to the people who will bring more to the table and will ask the world to wake up.

Now that so many people want to become photographers, what advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

The first question all beginners ask me is about my camera. I say that the camera is the medium, but do not take it more seriously than your eyes. It is your third eye that will capture the image and camera will only convey them. Do not become a camera-junkie with many big varieties. The second question beginners ask me is how to earn a living. I advise to be strategic, to consider things that can bring you money – they could be part-time jobs, small assignments, friend/family party shooting etc. Think about how you can continue to live in your dreams and can survive until you reach to your goal. The third question that I often face is “my parents are against my photography/my girl friend threatened to leave me.” I answer them that the convincing power of a photographer has to be marvelous because you have to convince the people whom you want to shoot. So start doing your homework. If you cannot relate your passion to those closest to you, then how far can this passion take you?

Lastly, be honest, respect others, do not enter into groupism, work hard, travel near and far, and never underestimate your inner power.

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What new projects are you working on right now? What are you most excited about in the future?

I aspire to do many things. I am working on my next photo book and continuing to do my long-term projects. My happiness is being able to bring a smile to a face. My book ‘Survivors’ is spreading happiness among survivors’ families as I am continuing to give an opportunity to elevate their lives. More than 15 families are now happily working in businesses that I set up for them. My desire is to give more. I am currently working on my recently founded school, First Light Institute of Photography. The institute will also be an educational hub for child labourers and street children. If I had a magic kit I would abolish the tears of all sufferers. But as I do not have such a thing, I will still try to wipe off tears of a few. Besides these goals, my photography journey is never ending.

Parting Words?

Dear audiences and fellow companions: our simple work may be our greatest inspiration to become better human beings each day. By making some effort through our work in changing the world even if just a little for the better, we can find the way to love and peace. Helen Keller inspired me by saying:

‘I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do’

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