Photographers' Blog What makes a great picture? Thu, 16 Jun 2016 19:45:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Jesus in Philadelphia Mon, 22 Dec 2014 19:41:16 +0000 Philadelphia, PA

By Mark Makela

For nearly every day the last eight months, Michael Grant, 28, has dressed as Jesus Christ, and walked the streets of Philadelphia to share the Christian gospel by example. With long brown hair, a thick beard, and wearing a white robe and brown vest, he very much resembles the Westernized depiction of Jesus. Soon into this endeavor, he acquired the nickname of “Philly Jesus,” which he has gone by ever since.

REUTERS/Mark Makela

“I’m not here to preach. I’m here to plant a seed. I portray Jesus and bring awareness to him, but don’t try to convert anyone. Jesus is like my Michael Jordan. I’m just wearing his jersey,” he said.

REUTERS/Mark Makela

Several years ago, Grant was a heroin user and homeless. He panhandled, exaggerating his condition by dirtying his face and changing into rags to increase his daily earnings from handouts. When he was arrested and sentenced to a behavioral modification program, he hit a low point and discovered the Lord. “When I hit rock bottom, Jesus was my rock,” he says. Grant thought of how he could share his faith in a positive way and seized upon an idea of dressing as Jesus to create a “visual ministry,” drawing upon his theater background from high school musical productions.

REUTERS/Mark Makela

When wandering through Philadelphia, Philly Jesus is met with a combination of stares and enthusiasm, but mostly the latter, and frequently receives hugs and high fives. Grant has acquired the status of a local celebrity of sorts and every day is besieged incessantly with requests to pose for cellphone photos.

REUTERS/Mark Makela

Philly Jesus offers guidance to those who seek it and prays with them. He stopped to greet all beggars he passed on the street, prayed with them, and gave them money. “I correct people when they call me ‘Jesus’ and I tell them ‘Philly Jesus,’” Grant said. “Also, I quote scripture all the time.”

Philly Jesus, who has an iPhone and posts numerous photos of himself and group portraits daily to Instagram and Twitter, states that he is here to introduce others to God. He stresses that he is not here to force anything upon anyone. It’s his goal to be a positive introduction or reintroduction to Christianity.

“I don’t have another job; I don’t have a home of my own. I stay with friends. Sometimes I couch surf. When people offer me money I accept it. I won’t ask for anything though. I don’t solicit,” he says.

Philly Jesus thinks part of his success stems from his optimistic outlook on life. He prides himself on having a fun-loving and approachable demeanor, with a healthy sense of humor. In November, an ice skating rink opened at the base of City Hall. Often Philly Jesus can be found skating with verve and using his walking staff as a hockey stick. “Jesus could walk on water and I skate on ice, ” Grant quips.

REUTERS/Mark Makela

“I put the Christ back in Christmas. I explain that Jesus is the reason for the season. But that’s not all.” He continued, “People come up to me all the time, a lot of atheists, saying how much I inspire them, because I don’t care what I look like, and that I’m following my passion, going full throttle all the time.”

REUTERS/Mark Makela

In the “city of brotherly love” it is apt that Grant is spreading Jesus’s messages of faith, hope, and love. Philly Jesus says he plans to continue this for years and years, and that he hopes to travel to other cities, to give speeches, and even to write a book of his experiences.

REUTERS/Mark Makela

“When I’m older, when wrinkles form on my face, and my whiskers turn gray, I’ll morph into ‘Philly Moses,’” he said, “and then I’ll need to find a true believer to become the rightful heir.”

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Boom and bust in Parachute Fri, 12 Dec 2014 13:28:56 +0000 Parachute, Colorado
By Jim Urquhart

“I don’t know how you can weather this if you can’t roll.”

Much of the history of the American West is based on stories of booms and the almost inevitable bust that follows. The land is dotted with decaying remnants of towns that once seemed to be drenched in fortune but then strangled by the drought of bust.

Then there is Parachute, Colorado, on the western slope of the Rocky 
Mountains east of Grand Junction. Founded in the 1900s, Parachute was the site of one of the most devastating and quickest busts ever seen.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

On May 2, 1982, Exxon pulled the plug on the Colony Shale Oil Project, since remembered as in town as “Black Sunday.” 
Exxon had been ramping up to begin retrieving shale oil from the mesa north of town, but when market conditions in oil began to fall, they
 pulled out. Overnight, thousands of workers lost their jobs, and as many 
as 15,000 people soon left the region – maybe more.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

But the town of Parachute was still left and even endured the loss as the construction of Interstate 70 bulldozed its way
 through soon after.
 Exploration of the area’s resources had begun well before “Black
 Sunday.” Newspapers from the ’60s include front-page stories about
 other companies looking to exploit the reserves of shale oil.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

natural gas has long played a role. In 1969, a 40-kiloton nuclear
 device was exploded underground as part of Project Rulison, to 
free natural gas from the rock south of town. The frack proved successful
 in releasing the gas, but it was found to be radioactive.

The surface ground zero site of a 40-kiloton nuclear device used for a fracking test in the 1960s.  REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Since “Black Sunday”, about 1,000 residents now call the town of 
Parachute proper home. Natural gas brought yet another boom to the
 area beginning in the ’90s, but it, too, was not insulated from market 
conditions. When prices fell in 2008, the town saw yet another
 decline, yet not as harsh as the termination of the Colony Shale Oil
 Project. Today, natural gas is a major economic driver for the town, 
with companies like Encana and WPX Energy pumping the thousands of 
wells in the area or actively hydraulic fracking new wells to release
 the gas below.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The town is led by Mayor Roy McClung, who makes his living in the oil industry. His family has been here for several generations and has seen the feast and famine firsthand. Along with previous members of the town council, they have stashed away about two years of budget to continue offering services in the event that another crash befalls them.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Part of his initiative is to look for ways to bring more economic
 diversity to the area. At one point, the town explored bringing
 gambling in to spur growth. Sales tax being the primary source of the town’s funds, 
economic studies are in the works to bring more investment into the
 community. He would like to bring in services like a grocery store
, since current residents have to trek to either Rifle or Grand Junction 
for a full load of groceries. “I have dreams … just have to figure 
out how to pay for them.”

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

And much like the mayor, there are people like Diana Lawrence who graduated high school in the town and invests in it when she can. She, along with a business partner, runs Mama’s Restaurant on the 
town’s 1st Street. The building, that was once a bank and later a bar,
 now serves hot meals to the locals and provides catered meals to the
 crews on drilling rigs. She also believes that the diverse
 professions of those in town has allowed it to weather economic 
storms. “We learned from it, and we grew from it.”

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The town people have a long history of independence. Judy Beasley came in 1967 with her now late husband Joseph “David” Beasley.
 Being a school teacher, she was hired on the spot. Later, she and her husband
 both served as mayor and ran a gift shop for 30

Judy Beasley looks at a photo of her late husband.  REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Her home is now within earshot of an active natural gas
-drilling rig, and along a wall inside are all the awards the two
 gathered in their service to the town.
 She noted it was painful to watch friends move from the area as 
the markets fluctuated. She likens it to watching family members move
 away. However, she is optimistic for the town’s future and believes 
economic diversity will be its key to longevity. “I don’t know how you
 can weather this if you can’t roll,” she said with a smile.

The entrance to the Shale Manor mobile home park.  REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

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The Venice of Egypt Fri, 12 Dec 2014 02:47:49 +0000 Alexandria, Egypt

By Amr Dalsh

In the coastal Mediterranean city of Alexandria, I visited a district of families dependant on fishing for their livelihood that is struggling to navigate Egypt’s economic troubles.

I’d heard a lot about El Max — the “Venice of Egypt” — where hundreds of boats dart through the canal. I’d seen pictures of its waterways and brightly-coloured houses, which many fishermen built with their own hands.

REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Almost every day, the men wake up before dawn and return home in the evening, earning 10 Egyptian pounds ($1.40). They’re used to the hard work, but still they worry that each year, the same amount of work has brought them less fish.

I visited the village several times while shooting this story, and it seemed to me a forgotten place. I was saddened to see how dirty it had become over the years, with raw sewage and waste floating in the canals, the water darkened in some places.

The fishermen pointed to the nearby cement and chemical factories, which they believe are dumping their waste into the waters.

They are concerned about how they will continue to feed their families on meager earnings which they believe are being reduced even further by the polluted water, making fishing more difficult.

REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Overall, they’re not very optimistic. Egypt has been hurt by years of political and economic turmoil ever since the 2011 overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak. The number of tourists visiting Egypt, while slowly recovering, is still significantly below pre-revolution levels.

REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The government has tried to fix the state’s finances by cutting subsidies and reining in spending.

But many here argue that the reforms have hurt Egypt’s most vulnerable, who have long-relied on a generous system of fuel and food subsidies to supplement insufficient incomes.

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Hunting for pictures – and crocodiles Fri, 12 Dec 2014 02:27:41 +0000 Arnhem Land, Australia

By David Gray

Walking through a forest of native Australian Paperback trees, we suddenly stop.

“Look, crocodiles!” says aboriginal hunter Marcus Gaykamangu. I squint through the gaps between trees with bark peeling off like paper, and see nothing but mud and what water is left in  the small oxbow lake, known in Australia as a billabong.

“There..!” points Marcus, with a hint of annoyance in his voice, and quite rightly so I thought. As a Reuters photojournalist I’m supposed to be a trained observer, but I can’t see the croc.

Marcus and his father Roy start running. When I finally reach them, there’s a herd of startled buffalo running off into the trees on the far side of the waterway, and Roy standing ankle-deep in water pointing his shotgun at the surface.

Australian Aboriginal hunter Roy Gaykamangu walks across a billabong while hunting a crocodile near the 'out station' of Yathalamarra, located on the outksirts of the community of Ramingining in East Arnhem Land

Roy starts walking across the billabong, treading carefully as the water rises to his knees. He half crouches as he walks – a true sign of a hunter closing in on prey. After a few tense minutes he makes it to the other side, but seems to lose sight of what he was stalking.

Using a long stick, he pokes at the murky water. Suddenly, he sees it. In one swift action, he takes a step back, takes aim and “boom!”

The shotgun is deafening as it breaks the outback silence, until now only interrupted by screeching birds.

Australian Aboriginal hunter Roy Gaykamangu of the Yolngu people uses a stick to try and find a crocodile he is hunting in a billabong near the 'out station' of Yathalamarra, located on the outksirts of the community of Ramingining in East Arnhem Land

I’ve wanted to photograph the daily lives of Australia’s Aborigines in their Arnhem Land reserve in the country’s “Top End” for more than 10 years.

Arnhem Land covers an area of around 37,000 sq miles, including the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, and access for non-Aborigines is by invitation only.

The Aboriginal clans in Arnhem Land have their own language  and their bond with the land is incredibly strong and extremely difficult for an ‘outsider’ to fully understand.

Seventy-six-year-old Australian Aboriginal elder Jimmy Burnyila of the Yolngu people sits at his house located on the outskirts of the community of Ramingining located in East Arnhem Land

Last year, during a patrol with the Indigenous Australian Army unit known as NORFORCE, I met Sergeant Norman Daymirringu, a Yolngu Aborigine from Arnhem Land, who invited me on a hunting trip with his family in an area just outside the community of Ramingining – a very bumpy and dusty 650-kilometre-drive  east of the tropical city of Darwin.

As custodian of his family’s country, Norman is one who is allowed by tradition to pass on stories about his ancient aboriginal culture to relatives and those he deems worthy, and I was honoured to be a part of that and have him show me “Sacred Sites”.

Australian Aboriginal hunters Bruce and Robert Gaykamangu stand on the bonnet of their car looking for potential prey at a billabong near the 'out station' of Ngangalala, located on the outksirts of the community of Ramingining in East Arnhem Land

To a “white fella” like me – this aboriginal term is not meant to be offensive, but just an observation of the colour of my skin a “Sacred Site” may look like a hill, a waterhole, or even an ants mound. But to the Yolngu people they tell stories of creation and tie them culturally to the land, which they sometimes call “Mother”.

At Yathalamarra, a community of around a dozen houses, we pick up some of Norman’s relatives for the crocodile hunt. Roy Gaykamangu, his three sons Adam, Marcus and Michael, plus his three-year-old grandson Johnny, pile into the back of our four-wheel drive and we headed into the bush.

After stopping at a few waterholes we decide to head off on foot to a more isolated billabong. With the sun blazing and temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius I was admittedly getting pessimistic about finding any prey, when suddenly Roy fires his shotgun, emptying the used cartridges in the dirt. At his feet or not far from his feet lay a dead crocodile more than 7 feet long.

Roy yells to one of his sons to come help and they meet in the middle. My first inclination is to warn them that there may be more crocodiles – but I stop and remind myself that I’m with experienced traditional hunters and custodians of this land.

Australian Aboriginal hunter Robert Gaykamangu walks slowly while carrying a shotgun hunting Magpie Geese in a billabong near the 'out station' of Ngangalala, located on the outksirts of the community of Ramingining in East Arnhem Land

Roy pulls the dead crocodile from the water, while Marcus keeps a lookout. Not far from the shoreline, the water starts moving. Marcus grabs at something beneath the surface. After lots of splashing, he holds up a baby crocodile bleating. As he holds the baby croc above his head, a splash breaks the middle of the billabong. It looks like its parents are not pleased.

Australian Aboriginal hunter Roy Gaykamangu carries a crocodile he has just shot dead along the edge of a billabong near the 'out station' of Yathalamarra, located on the outksirts of the community of Ramingining in East Arnhem Land

Marcus quickly ties the baby’s mouth shut and the movement stops. He wanders downstream and grabs a boat hidden in the bushes. Using a stick as a paddle, he pulls up to the shoreline.

“Wow, its over,” I thought. “We can head off with a great catch and potential feast awaiting.” Apparently not.

Roy sits down, pulls out his knife, and starts to cut up the catch.    I’m thinking, however, that we probably shouldn’t be doing this so close to the water’s edge where many more crocodiles are still roaming.

Australian Aboriginal hunter Roy Gaykamangu sits by a billabong and cuts up a crocodile he just shot dead near the 'out station' of Yathalamarra, located on the outksirts of the community of Ramingining in East Arnhem Land

But with another huge smile across his face, Marcus says simply that it is much easier to “carry them out without all that skin.” He then makes me smile when he so eloquently adds ‘Actually, I prefer my crocodile with some pepper and lemon’. Of course he does!

As we are leaving, Roy grabs some tree leaves to wrap the crocodile guts up with, as nothing that can be eaten is wasted. A successful yet normal day hunting in the Top End has come to an end.

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The Disappeared Wed, 10 Dec 2014 16:50:27 +0000 Crossmaglen, United Kingdom

By Cathal McNaughton

I’ve been aware of the story of the “Disappeared” most of my life. In fact, I grew up with it.

While I’ve covered some pretty horrific stories in Northern Ireland over the years – I’ve been to murder scenes and I’ve heard gruesome things – shooting this story affected me more than many of the things I’ve seen.

A memorial for Brian McKinney is seen at the site where his body was discovered at Colgagh bog, Inniskeen

The families of the 18 people who went missing during the Troubles in the 1970s and 80s have been interviewed or photographed many times before, and while they’re very helpful there are certain pictures they’re willing to have taken.

I knew that if I wanted to go into more detail, I had to get to know them a little better, so I arranged meetings with them through one of the trauma centers. I wanted to spend some time breaking down barriers and explain what I planned to do.

Anna McShane stands at the location where her father Charlie Armstrong's remains were discovered in County Monaghan

I was surprised at the access they gave me – I was told I was among the first people to hear some of these stories and to see some of the belongings. It was an amazing privilege.

Many hours were spent thinking about how I wanted to illustrate this story – there had to be some sort of theme or symmetry. The pictures can’t be disjointed even though they should be able to stand on their own.

A pair of glasses which were discovered in Seamus Ruddy's Paris apartment after he went missing are displayed in his sister Anne Morgan's house in Newry, County Down

People may ask: “Why has he photographed a pair of glasses or running shoes?” Well, it forces the viewer to read the caption and once they do that, the picture takes on a stronger meaning.

Photographing Margaret McKinney stroking the running shoes her 22-year-old son Brian was wearing when he disappeared on May 25, 1978, the soil still ingrained in their soles, as she broke down at his graveside is something that will remain with me.

Margaret McKinney holds a running shoe, which her son Brian was wearing when his body was found, as she stands by his grave in Milltown cemetery in West Belfast

It struck me how the suffering and heartache endured, in some cases, over 30 years later.

With that in mind, I was careful to respect the people I was photographing, to not abuse their trust and to do the story justice. There is such a weight of responsibility that comes with being a photojournalist.


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A leap to freedom Wed, 03 Dec 2014 17:18:15 +0000 Nairobi, Kenya

By Thomas Mukoya

A detained protester jumps from a police truck as she escapes after riot police released teargas to disperse the #OccupyHarambeeAve demonstration in Nairobi

I was covering #OccupyHarambeeAve, a protest outside President Uhuru Kenyatta’s office following the killing of 28 people in the ambush of a Nairobi-bound public bus in the northern Kenyan border town of Mandera in November.

More than 200 civil society protesters had gathered in the morning, singing the national anthem and carrying hundreds of wooden crosses to symbolise people killed in a series of attacks across the country.

Residents and well-wishers joined them, calling for the Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo and the Cabinet Secretary for Interior Joseph Ole-Lenku to resign from their posts.

As armed police stood nearby, protesters dressed in red, white and black t-shirts with anti-security slogans chanted “Lenku must go!” “Kimaiyo must go!” and demanded that the president sack the duo.

Two anti-riot police trucks were strategically positioned to manage the protesters, mostly teenagers, as police threatened to disperse them for causing havoc and blocking traffic within Nairobi’s central business district.

The protest organisers then brought in empty coffins to mock the government’s offer to facilitate the burial of the 28 people killed in the latest attack.

Suddenly, the presence of the coffins changed the mood. A few people in the crowd set a pile of wooden crosses on fire, prompting the police to respond with teargas to disperse them.

Aware that they may be arrested, many protesters managed to run away apart from a young lady who was detained and held in one of the police lorries.

A detained protester escapes from a police truck after riot police released teargas to disperse the #OccupyHarambeeAve demonstration in Nairobi

In an effort to disperse members of the media who were jostling to take photographs and video footage of the only detained prote ster, the riot police fired a tear-gas canister next to the truck and the woman managed to break loose, jump out and sprint to her freedom.

As I was choking from the tear gas, I stood not far from the anti-riot police lorry and continued shooting as she broke-off and fled.

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A haunting sacrifice Wed, 03 Dec 2014 17:06:49 +0000 Bariyapur, Nepal

By Navesh Chitrakar

Butcher holding his blade stands among sacrificed buffalos inside an enclosed compound during the sacrificial ceremony of the "Gadhimai Mela" festival held in Bariyapur

Known for its large number of animal sacrifices, the Gadhimai Festival is held once every five years at the Gadhimai Temple in Bariyapur, around 150 km (95 miles) from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.

The open-air pen where buffaloes are scarified is about as big as two football pitches and surrounded by tall walls – the only high ground available to shoot pictures is to climb to the top to get an overall view, and so I did.

As I looked down, I saw hundreds of butchers with blades in hand, slaughtering buffaloes one by one. The place was filled with blood and the headless bodies of the scarified animals.

There was a lot going on at once, but I suddenly noticed a butcher standing alone among the animals. He was searching for another buffalo to sacrifice, as was his job, and I immediately shot two pictures of him.

He had such a sad expression on his face, surrounded by the carcasses of the sacrificed buffaloes. His head was hanging down and he had a knife dangling in his hand. For me that look is what makes the image strong – there is something haunting about it.

When I visited the place the day before, it was completely different: the site was full of live buffaloes. I felt helpless as a human being, but as a professional I had to do my job, so I began shooting.

While shooting, I felt a calf licking my hand. I didn’t think much of it, so I carried on. I then felt something pulling at my camera strap. I turned around, and there was a calf pulling it gently. I felt as if he wanted to tell me something: maybe someone to take care of him or save him.

However brief, this incident touched me a lot. Like the butcher, I too felt a little bit haunted.

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Wigs for smiles Mon, 17 Nov 2014 18:25:54 +0000 Santiago, Chile

By Rodrigo Garrido

Marcelo Avatte, a renowned Italian-Chilean hair stylist, could have never imagined that his own son would motivate him to start making and donating natural hair wigs for children who suffer from cancer.

Alexandra Munoz, 5, who lost her hair due to chemotherapy for a brain tumor, poses in the cancer ward of the Luis Calvo Mackenna Hospital in Santiago

Avatte came up with the idea in February 2006, while watching his four-year-old son Vittorio undergo treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the cancer ward of the Luis Calvo Mackenna Hospital in Santiago.

He was moved by the sight of young girls losing their hair to chemotherapy. He saw the anguish they suffered and the way it affected their fight for recovery.

Hair stylist Marcelo Avatte prepares to fit Isidora Serrano, a 14-year-old who lost her hair due to chemotherapy to treat her bone cancer, with a natural hair wig in the cancer ward of the Luis Calvo Mackenna Hospital in Santiago

“I could see the pain, in particular of the girls who lost their hair, during treatment, how it affected their self-esteem and the depression they fell into. That was what motivated me to begin this project with my son.”

Avatte says just seeing the smile that a natural wig brought to the a patient’s face when they started to comb through it as if it were their own hair was enough for him to continue the project.

“That was when I realized that the child’s outlook on life and recovery were greater with the wig than if they continued to hide their head with scarves,” he said.

Alexandra Munoz, 5, who lost her hair due to chemotherapy for a brain tumor, poses with the natural hair wig she received as donation from hair stylist Marcelo Avatte in the cancer ward of the Luis Calvo Mackenna Hospital in Santiago

He recalls the pain he felt when Vittorio lost his hair: “That was the most painful wig I ever made.” Today, Vittorio is a healthy young boy and fully recovered, and Avatte’s project is as strong as ever.

As I photographed this project, I witnessed the immediate change in girls and women from the moment they wore their wigs and styled their hair.

Hair stylist Marcelo Avatte prepares to fit Isidora Serrano, a 14-year-old who lost her hair due to chemotherapy to treat her bone cancer, with a natural hair wig in the cancer ward of the Luis Calvo Mackenna Hospital in Santiago

Their faces were magically transformed, smiles emerged and their natural femininity took over. They straightened their posture as they walked and raised their heads, shedding off that downcast appearance they had before.

Isidora Serrano, one of the patients I photographed before and after she received her wig, walked out of the hospital with her new hair and said: “I can feel the cool wind in my hair as I used to before. I feel so good.”

Isidora Serrano, a 14-year-old who lost her hair due to chemotherapy to treat her bone cancer, walks on the street for the first time after receiving a natural hair wig as a donation in Santiago

Another younger patient, Alexandra, close to turning 5 and recovering from surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor, played with her new head of hair by turning her head from side to side, swinging her hair across her face.

Alexandra Munoz, 5, who lost her hair due to chemotherapy for a brain tumor, plays with her new natural hair wig after it was fitted to her for the first time in the cancer ward of the Luis Calvo Mackenna Hospital in Santiago

Avatte has donated more than 300 wigs since 2009, by campaigning on TV and radio to get women of all ages to donate their hair for a noble cause – a natural hair wig in Chile costs about $670, and many patients cannot afford them. 

All that is needed to make a natural wig is healthy hair at least 35 cm (13.8 inches) long that is not overly dry and has no split ends. Neither color nor waviness is important, but it mustn’t be tangled. At least three donors are needed for each wig.

Hair stylist Marcelo Avatte dries the hair of Pamela Matus before she allows him to cut it as a donation for the making of a natural hair wig for a girl undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, in Vina del Mar

Everything is handmade, with special dedication from the staff who know that the wigs are for young girls with cancer, and that this will help their self-esteem and recovery.

Workers Edith Marfil and Marcela Reyes make natural hair wigs to be donated to girls undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, at the workshop owned by hair stylist Marcelo Avatte in Santiago,

 Avatte said that for girls around the age of 13 and older it’s much more frustrating than boys to see their hair fall out after under than three months of treatment. They feel excluded and will often isolate themselves from society once they feel that others are staring at them.

 For him, that’s the moment when the wig can make a difference.

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The wall that is always with me Mon, 10 Nov 2014 18:52:55 +0000 Berlin, Germany

By Fabrizio Bensch

In the middle of a bustling Potsdamer Platz, a young tourist asks me: “The wall. Where is the wall?”

Tourists take pictures with a mobile phone in front of a painting depicting former Soviet leader Brezhnev kissing his East German counterpart Honecker painted on a segment of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin

I look at him astonished and almost want to answer: “It’s over there!” Because for a moment, that picture wells up in full force: the high concrete walls with the rounded tops, which looked like giant tubes snaking through the city. The barbed wire, the watch towers. Where I look now, however, there is no eerie silence, no border with a death strip, but the loud sounds of a lively city, with traffic horns being honked and crowds of people enjoying daily life.

“The wall? The wall does not exist anymore.” I tell him. He gives me a confused look and I quickly realise I should be saying: “If you continue straight on, then you will find remainders of the wall.” He thanks me and quickly moves in the direction I pointed out along with his companion. 

Segments of the former Berlin Wall for sale are pictured at a storage yard in Teltow south of Berlin

The man’s simple question triggered memories of a completely different time in my hometown. As someone born and raised in Berlin, I only knew “the West” as being surrounded by those winding tubes.

I never imagined that one day the wall could really fall, the border would really be opened. This concrete beast – 3.60 meters tall, 155 kilometers long and wildly colored with graffiti, at least on the Western side – was not always in sight during the day, but it was always present. You came across it eventually.

Its oppressiveness was just part of life as we knew it, and at the same time, it was unique. So 25 years after the fall of the wall, I decided to track down its remainders, and what these remainders could mean to me as an eyewitness of this part of local and global history.

Painted segments of the East Side Gallery are pictured at the largest remaining part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin 

Anyone who still calls themselves a “West-Berliner” probably still knows the queasy feeling when climbing the wooden tourist platforms, such as the one at the Bernauer Straße, to see the wall and its surroundings, including the death strip. The whole area was deadly silent, except for the barking of a watchdog or the rattling of an army trabi driving by.
There were one way streets on the eastern side, which stopped at the wall, but one could see their continuation over in the West.
You could see the watch towers, always with two soldiers, and their faces: either stale with boredom or focused on intense searches of the border lines through their field glasses. Patrollers were always in pairs, so that neither could easily try to flee.
Even in darkness, the death strip was so glaringly lit that you could see every detail: the meticulously raked sand strip to capture footprints of those attempting to flee; the barbed wire atop the security fence, which sent a silent signal to the watch towers if people attempted to flee without them knowing that they had been caught; the street and bridge blockades to discourage any attempt by car. 

A general view shows the the Berlin Wall memorial site in Bernauer Strasse in Berlin

 I recently climbed the rooftop of a house at Bernauer Straße. The maintenance assistant accompanied me. He is a former East-Berliner and almost the same age as me. Together we look down at the area that used to be the border, which is now a memorial saturated with greenery. In the background newly built, rather stylish buildings are visible.

Even with these changes, however, the two of us can still spot the death strip in all its width.

At Griebnitzsee in the north of Berlin, where fragments of the wall remain, I chat to an older, spry gentleman, who is cutting the grass in his garden. He has been living here since the wall was built in 1961, and recalls how life next to it became normality. One tried to talk to the East-German soldiers once in a while. One tossed cigarette packets over the wall. Children used to throw apples.

Soldiers were not allowed to speak to Westerners, but once in a while one of them picked up the cigarettes.

A combination picture shows former border watch towers of the Berlin Wall in Berlin

In an area called “the duck’s beak”, as it was an East-Berlin settlement that reached into the West in just that form, no one I speak to can imagine that the wall once cut into West-Berlin anymore. It is a beautiful area with lovely villas, family houses and gardens.

A lady is busy trimming her hedges when we get talking. Yes, she still remembers the wall. One could see into the houses of one’s Eastern neighbors directly from the top floor of one’s own house.

There was no direct contact, but one could tell what the neighbors were doing, such as tending to the garden or eating a meal. Why on earth the city decided to reconstruct segments of the wall near her house is incomprehensible to her. None of the residents were asked, but all of sudden the wall had reappeared.

A general view shows the East Side Gallery the largest remaining part of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin

 As I drive on, I reflect on these stories and impressions. The wall literally fenced in my childhood and youth. Now its power is irretrievably broken. For those who witnessed it, however, the wall with all its details still shapes us – even 53 years after it was built and 25 years after it fell. It will always be alive in some way – as a construction, as a border, as an experience, as a historic sight. That is why people like me will always need a second when a tourist where the wall is. I quickly have to think about how it is still around today.

File picture shows East and West German citizens celebrating as they climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin


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Venezuela’s eternal storm Fri, 07 Nov 2014 19:49:30 +0000 Ologoa, Venezuela

By Jorge Silva

In this small fishing village of Ologa lies a square kilometre that is struck by more lightning than anywhere else on the planet almost every other night of the year. 

Nataly, my travel guide, grew up with it. She knows lightning very well. As she told me, some of the people living here have a very special relationship with the phenomenon.

Catatumbo lightning strikes over Lake Maracaibo at the fishermen village of Ologa where the Catatumbo River meets the Lake in the western state of Zulia

Her father, Alan Highton, has been a guide of this remote area for 25 years, ever since he left his native Barbados to follow a woman he had met. Funnily enough, it was the love of a woman that brought him here, but when he saw the Catatumbo Lightning for himself he fell in love all over again.

Nataly was thrilled we were spending the night of October 23 in the Catatumbo area. She was certain that we would see “good lightning.” When I asked her why, she told me the date marked the 10th anniversary of her two-year-old daughter Kelly losing her battle against leukaemia, and the lightning was a special way the two of them celebrated and communicated.

A house is seen at Lake Maracaibo at the fishermen village of Congo where the Catatumbo River meets the Lake in the western state of Zulia

I silently joined her emotional celebration. “To see the lightning we’ll a storm. We’ll need massive clouds but sometimes the lightning is hidden behind them,” Nataly tells me.

The first few hours of the first night were completely calm. The lightning strikes almost every other night of the year, but after a long wait I went to my hammock to sleep, thinking that this would be one of the nights when it doesn’t.

But at 2 am it woke us up with a roar, and would not cease until dawn. It was like a festival of stroboscopic fireworks. It arrived without rain – an electric storm that illuminated the clouds with different colours. The lightning would appear vertically, horizontally, branching out, like a river in the giant screen of the sky. It was a visual symphony.

Catatumbo lightning strikes over Lake Maracaibo at the fishermen village of Congo where the Catatumbo River meets the Lake in the western state of Zulia

To photograph something so fast, you have to do it very slowly, using shots of 1, 3 and up to 5 minutes – it’s that bright and fleeting in the middle of absolute darkness. Photographers will understand: ISO 100, f22. It is that luminous and bright.

I went to sleep at dawn, and as soon as I closed my eyes I would see the strobe and the powerful flash of the lightning again.

Catatumbo lightning strikes at the horizon over Lake Maracaibo at the fishermen village of Ologa in the western state of Zulia

The second night was different. Unlike the previous one, which felt like we were watching a show on a giant screen, this time it was very close. It felt like the storm was directly above us.  We were covered under the roof of the pier, but it was almost impossible to avoid getting wet. The rain seemed to come down vertically on us, and on the cameras.

The perfect silhouette of the lightning would appear from time to time in the sky, leaving us momentarily blind.

A woman stand at the door of her house at Lake Maracaibo at the fishermen village of Congo in the western state of Zulia

During the day, I got to see the daily life of the fishermen and their families – lives of hard work and struggle. Earning a living as a fisherman in the oil-rich Lake of Maracaibo isn’t easy. Fish banks have grow thin in the polluted waters of the lake and the shores are awash with residue from crude spills.

The lightning is so familiar for the fishermen, that some of them say they don’t even notice it anymore. Obviously, no one stays awake waiting for it to appear. I got the impression that they believe that nights are like this around the world.

A fisherman review his catch while arrive to their house in a boat at stilt village of Ologa in the western state of Zulia

On my last night, the lightning was more constant and it lasted for many more hours than previously. It brought us columns of lightning strikes that would descend from a black cloud in the horizon.

Nataly was excited and moved, and I was too. Her wish of having ‘a beautiful lightning’ on her sad anniversary had come true.

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