Photographers' Blog

Spilling oil in Paradise

Ao Prao Beach, Thailand

By Athit Perawongmetha

I first met Piyapong Sopakhon on Coconut Bay on Samet island. He was surrounded by men in white bio-hazard suits and he stuck out because he was a young boy wearing a simple plastic sheet that protected his small body as well as orange dish-washing gloves that were too big for his small hands. It was as though he had opened up a chest of dress-up clothes and was getting ready for fun — but  matter at hand was not child’s play — the gloves were covered in a thick goo of the black gobs that were smeared across the beach — a toxic spread on golden buttered toast.

Piyapong is not a soldier nor is he a marine biologist. He’s just a school boy who, on any other day, would have been told off for skipping class. So I asked him: “Why aren’t you in school today?” His reply? “I just want to help.”

GALLERY: OIL SPILL HITS THAI RESORT

Born and bred on Samet island, his face was one of ardent determination. On this day, he was a volunteer along with the adults frantically trying to clean up this corner of paradise. So I told him he should find something with which to cover his nose and mouth or he might start to feel dizzy.

News of a crude oil spill in the Gulf of Thailand first broke on the weekend. Most people, fellow photographer colleagues included, were not actively monitoring the spill. We were told by officials that it had not yet reached dry land and so we played a waiting game. By Monday, the spill had spread to Samet island’s Coconut Bay, a stretch of beach with white, powdery sand and turquoise water — the kind of place Thailand would be proud to show in tourist brochures and postcards under any other circumstance.

Thais and foreigners will tell you that Samet is a popular tourist destination. It’s a weekend break and a place to escape the confines of the city. Despite its popularity and proximity to Bangkok, I had never been to Samet island. Covering this spill and seeing the bay splattered with oil would be my first encounter with Samet island. Arriving at Coconut Bay, the smell tickled my nostrils and prickled my eyes. At first, I didn’t bother closing my nose. Surely, the smell wouldn’t be that strong? But it permeated everything and I began to feel light-headed and dizzy.

Euro in pieces

Mainz, Germany

By Kai Pfaffenbach

When heavy floods hit parts of eastern and southern Germany two months ago, a few forensic scientists sitting hundreds of miles away in a dry place at their office in Mainz (south-western Germany) knew there would be a flood coming their way as well. Not that wet, not that destructive but also massive. The 13 men and women are members of the money analyzing team of Germany’s Federal reserve, Deutsche Bundesbank, specializing in reconstructing damaged or destroyed bank notes.

Experience from previous floods told them there would be thousands of notes found in private basements, flooded bank safes or cash machines. Those notes need to be reconstructed and, once they have been verified, the Bundesbank transfers the money back to its owners’ account, while the damaged notes will be burned.

At least 50% of a note is needed but even with less left the experts are able to reconstruct the bills. Obviously, a lot of Germans do not really trust the safes of their banks and hide money in private places – buried in their gardens, underneath wine shelves or (very innovative) in their mattresses. Within eight weeks of the flood more than 100,000 notes, worth more than 3 million euros, were sent to the analyzing laboratory in Mainz.

Tobacco, sodas and nabs

Horry County, South Carolina

By Randall Hill

It’s not long after a visitor arrives at Shelley Farms in the Pleasant View community of Horry County, South Carolina that they are offered a cold soda and a pack of peanut butter crackers commonly referred to as “nabs”. In good old Southern fashion, several bulk packs of the treat are placed on the edge of a John Deere tractor seat and offered to any visitor or farm hand that cares for a snack. Along with the nabs the Shelley’s will offer a choice of a can soda from a large cooler kept cold despite the stagnant summer heat in South Carolina.

Johnny Shelley has farmed his entire life. He took some time away from the farm to attend college in North Carolina and then taught school for a while, but the land eventually brought him back to farming. He and his son Cam operate the farm and maintain 1200 acres of farmland including 300 acres of tobacco just a stones throw from nearby Mullins, South Carolina. This area is referred to as the “border belt” of tobacco with North Carolina and Virginia serving as the biggest producers of the historical crop.

The months of July and August are harvest and curing time for the tobacco farmers along the border belt. The Shelley’s and most farmers in South Carolina grow a variety of tobacco referred to as flue-clued. The name comes from the process of drying out the crop after it is harvested with heat and air. The tobacco is first pulled from the stalks with a large machine called a harvester. The operator on this farm is a long time employee of the Shelley’s named Lester “Buddy” Stroud.

On patrol with Australia’s indigenous soldiers

Gove, also known as Nhulunbuy, Australia

By David Gray

It’s around 10pm, and we have just entered the ‘Malay Road’, so named by English explorer Matthew Flinders to commemorate his meeting with “Malay” fishermen during his circumnavigation of Australia in 1803. Captain ‘Dusty’ Miller gives his patrolmen their final briefing in the bow of a landing craft sailing west along the coast of Arnhem Land. His indigenous soldiers seem extremely calm and relaxed to me, but then one, who is from an Aboriginal community located a long way from the coastal regions, asks to be excused and is violently sea sick for the rest of the journey. ‘He is simply not used to riding in boats’ is the explanation from a fellow soldier, who can’t help but laugh at his mates’ discomfort. ‘Dusty’ continues his briefing, and explains that the patrol’s orders are to look for signs of any illegal or unusual activity, which usually involves illegal fishing boats, in the area encompassing what are called The English Company’s Islands (named by Flinders after the East India Company). They will be part of Operation ‘RESOLUTE’, the Australian Defense Force’s contribution to the government effort to protect Australia’s borders and offshore maritime interests.

Captain Miller and his four patrolmen, 33-year-old Lance Corporal Danny Daniels, 24-year-old Lance Corporal Vinnie Rami, 27-year-old Private Jonah Thinglere and 24-year-old Private Drew Perry, are Australian Army Reservists serving with the North West Mobile Force, the Regional Force Surveillance Unit better known as NORFORCE. Formed in 1981, this infantry regiment conducts reconnaissance and surveillance patrols in remote areas of Northern Australia, including the indigenous Aboriginal reserve known as Arnhem Land. It consists of 600 soldiers, which includes 60 regular army officers, and around 240 indigenous soldiers from remote Aboriginal communities. These indigenous soldiers are really what make this unit unique. Their local knowledge about the terrain, the flora and fauna, and the means to which these can be used to sustain their time out on patrol in the ‘bush’, make them an invaluable part of an army that performs active patrols in the largest area of operations of any military unit in the world – some 1.8 million square kilometers (695,000 square miles) – that includes some of the most remote areas on earth.

I learn that the landing craft we are travelling in is officially called an LCM8. Its bow ramp is finally lowered after a slow and bumpy five hour ride to our drop-off point. Looking at the small boats rocking on the swell, I am now glad I took the Army swim test before embarking, which involves swimming 100 meters, and treading water for five minutes, fully clothed (and that includes hiking boots). The patrol’s two inflatable boats, called Zodiacs, are pushed down the ramp, and we clamber aboard. We are now trying to find our way using just the illumination of a half-moon, and millions of stars. The destination is still some 30km (18 miles) away – a small beach on what’s called Astell Island. Our first attempt at landing is a somewhat scary experience. With visibility extremely low, and with less than 50 meters to the beach, we are suddenly caught on the crest of a wave that up until just seconds before, was impossible to see. Sixty-year-old Dusty, with his many years experience having joined the Australian Navy in 1968 and serving during the Vietnam War, calmly advises his driver to turn around, as he ‘doesn’t want to go surfing tonight’. After checking several more beaches for waves, we finally find a calmer beach shortly before midnight. The greatest worry now becomes saltwater crocodiles. Dusty leads the exodus from the boats, with his soldiers sweeping the sea and shoreline with torchlight, looking for the telltale red eyes. Fish are jumping at the beams of torchlight, when suddenly just a few feet from the boats, something splashes on the surface of the water, and I ask ‘Is that a croc?’ Two of the soldiers, who have already entered the water, dive rather unceremoniously back into the Zodiac, much to the delight of the rest of the group. But it turns out to be nothing more than a sting ray, which of course is not exactly a comfort, but compared to a ‘croc’, it will do. Once all the equipment has been brought ashore, we set out our sleeping bags, and after a quick meal, it doesn’t take long to fall asleep.

All aboard North Korea’s ship of weapons

Colon City, Panama

By Carlos Jasso

I received a call from a colleague late at night saying there were rumors that a shipment of missiles from Cuba had been found on a North Korean-flagged ship at the entrance of the Canal in Colon.
At that point I stopped what I was doing and started calling my contacts in the security services, colleagues and scanning Twitter to confirm the time and place where the ship had been intercepted.

I got word that the captain of the ship had tried to commit suicide when police boarded the vessel and that there were indeed arms on the ship. I left the house in less than 15 minutes and caught a ride to the port with a colleague from a local newspaper. The port is an hour and a half away from the city and it was pitch black. There was little chance to see anything, so we decided to sit it out until dawn; maybe we would get a chance to see the ship. We got ready for a long night, three photographers perched in the car with lots of gear and a family of annoying mosquitoes that kept us company throughout the night.

The first rays of light brought reporters, photographers and cameramen and we all stormed out trying to catch a glimpse of the ship. It was pretty far away but luckily it was close enough to get by with, as a start. Interest in the story was mounting, especially after Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli tweeted a picture of what seemed to be a missile on board the ship. But there was no access and we kept being told “later, later.”

The gunfighters

Aldergrove, Canada

By Andy Clark

The hot mid-day sun beat down as the fellow nervously checked his Ruger Blackhawk single action revolver. Spinning the chamber and checking the hammer mechanism several times he then slipped the gun smoothly in and out of his holster sitting low on his hips. Adjusting his Stetson he looked up and said “I may be nervous, but I am ready”. Stepping into position he slightly bent his knees and placed his partially open right hand over the holster, while his flattened left hand crossed over his stomach and balanced just above the hammer of the gun. Only yards away his opponent stepped into his position and took a similar stance. A split second later there was a deafening and almost simultaneous boom as both guns spit fire, creating a large cloud of blue smoke that hung in the air. It was over. There lying on the ground was not some poor soul but rather the tattered remains of two yellow balloons, both gunfighters checked their guns, holstered them and prepared for the next round.

As you have gathered this was not some scene from the late 19th century in a dusty town of the American wild west but rather, a modern day competition, taking place at the annual Canadian Open Fast Draw Championships in Aldergrove, about an hour east of Vancouver, British Columbia.

The present day Fast Draw competition was born from the Hollywood myth of the western gunfighter. The terms “gunfighter” or “gun slinger” are actually movie and literary terms of the 20th century and were not used in the old west. In the 1950s and early 1960s TV westerns were very popular with large audiences and the Hollywood studios began promoting some of their stars as the fastest guns. One actor, Hugh O’Brien, who portrayed Wyatt Earp in a television series even hired a coach and challenged other Hollywood actors. The beginnings of today’s modern competition are credited to a stuntman, a trick shooter named Dee Woolem who designed a timer to measure the quick draws and in 1954 the first Fast Draw competition was held.

Fresh food on Paris rooftops

Paris, France

By Philippe Wojazer

Have you ever eaten vegetables grown in central Paris? I have.

“What about growing some carrots in our house’s courtyard or radishes on the balcony?” asked one of my daughters. She said she had heard engineer Nicolas Bel’s interview on the subject. So I called him. As with all those with passions, he could speak about his studies for hours and make you suddenly feel part of it.

“Many Parisians who have a flat roof or a large balcony are thinking to produce their own vegetables. There are many technical constraints to build a rooftop vegetable garden such as weight, depth for the substrate (a minimum of 20 centimeters), wind, sun, water. We are now at the live study stage. We want to be able to build a vegetable garden capable of self-sufficient production. We are recuperating biological waste from people, companies and are growing vegetable in trays. We are testing different combinations, all with no fertilizers or any kind of chemicals. Our fertilizers are produced by worms. The project is: Are we able to grow vegetables on a base of organic waste we can find in urban and peri-urban environments such as wood, compost or cardboard,” Bel explained. “My dream is to have a rooftop garden capable on being financially sufficient. I even work with a chef who is growing some vegetables he uses in his kitchen on the rooftop of his restaurant”. “We are conducting pollution tests on our production and the results are really good”, added Bel, who is in charge of the roof of the AgroParistech institute in Paris and is the founder of Topager company where he uses his knowledge to install rooftop vegetable gardens in schools, restaurants, companies and individuals.

That was my link between this new bio-city agriculture and a story to tell.

So we went in the early morning to the 6th floor of the Mutualite building in central Paris to meet Sibylle, a bio-agronomy student who is in charge of this vegetable garden. She was collecting yellow zucchinis from Orgeval, beans, parsley and chives to give to chef Eric Castandet who cooks in the “Terroir Parisien” on the ground-floor of the same building. Today’s special was: Stuffed yellow zucchinis. Sous-chef Nicolas Bouchard started cutting the zucchinis and the rest of vegetables to prepare the recipe. At noon, the restaurant opened. Thirty reservations to start and after an hour, the daily specials were gone. Castandet had put one aside for me and said I had to leave my cameras in the kitchen and taste his cooking. Resisting would have been impossible. The zucchinis were absolutely delicious. Chef Castandet told me that the taste of the tomatoes he grows, like all the vegetables on his roof top, with no chemicals is incomparable to what you could find elsewhere. After the bees on the rooftop of the famous Tour d’Argent restaurant, sheep in a green space owned by the French capital archives service, what will the future hold and what will be the impact of this phenomenon of urban agriculture in France? Is it just a trend or a new way to learn about food production?

Rich and poor in the Philippines

Manila, Philippines

By Erik De Castro

Taking photos of poor people is nothing unusual for me, as the poor comprise more than a fourth of the Philippine population of nearly 97 million. They are also the most vulnerable during disasters such as typhoons, landslides and fires that frequently dominate the headlines in the country.

Late last month, the Secretary General of the state agency National Statistical Coordination Board wrote in an article that the gap between the country’s rich and poor is widening, with the country’s strong growth, the fastest in Asia so far this year, benefiting high-income earners more than those from the middle- and low-income classes. The article said the rich were enjoying significantly faster growth in incomes compared with people from lower income classes.

That helped me build the idea to juxtapose the lifestyles of the rich and poor in the country through images. I thought in the beginning that it was easy to document the rich and poor divide, but I found out as I was doing my picture story that it was a complex matter. I spent more than three weeks doing a picture story concentrating on two families with similar age brackets but from different income classes. I followed each of the two families as they went about doing their daily activities, spending lots of time with them even during ungodly hours of the day.

The Labor Pains of Royal Photography

London, England

By Suzanne Plunkett

The last occasion I spent any amount of time at St Mary’s hospital in London, I was giving birth to my own child. And I can honestly say that experience was a lot less painful than covering the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s newborn son.

A photocall for a baby might not seem like that tough an assignment — and for many of the endless days of waiting in the run up to the birth, the only challenge was boredom — but when the time came, the physical and mental stress gave even the most severe labor contractions a run for their money.

GALLERY: ROYAL BABY BOY

First there was the planning — far more meticulous than for a birth when most couples simply have to pack an overnight bag, work out the quickest way to hospital and, for reasons we will never truly understand, prepare a relaxing CD of whale sounds. For the photographers, this was more of a forensic exercise in which every detail was scrutinized minutely and agonized over.

A Hollywood timelapse

Hollywood, California

By Mario Anzuoni

The timelapse: One GoPro, one magic arm, one plate, one phone GoPro app.

During my usual coverage of entertainment events, I come across a few that are a little bit more unique. Whether that may be the unveiling of a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, a celebrity leaving hand and footprints in cement for eternity, or the world premiere of a blockbuster movie. Events such as these are hyped by the fans, attract large crowds and hundreds of members of the media and are often held in the heart of Hollywood.

My idea for this project was to give a much wider look of the whole scene before, during and after. Therefore not focusing solely on the celebrity but instead placing it into context and giving the viewer a closer idea to exactly what happens during big entertainment events such as these.

I knew that my GoPro camera would be ideal; it was wide enough, it offered me minimal set-up (practically anywhere a magic arm could be attached), just like I did for the Backstreet Boys star where I ended up latching it onto a pipe by the sidewalk.

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