Photographers' Blog

Riding through flames and fury

San Bartolome de Pinares, Spain

By Sergio Perez

Despite its relative short distance from Madrid, around 100km (62 miles), I have never been in the small village of San Bartolome de Pinares. It is situated in the heart of a small valley surrounded by reservoirs and forest and is well known to trekkers and cyclists alike. However, a traditional night celebration which takes place every January 16th, known as “Las Luminarias”, is little known.

During the celebration, in honor of Saint Anthony, Patron of animals, revelers ride their horses through the narrow cobble-stoned streets to purify the animals with the smoke and flames of the bonfires.

The feeling when you arrive for the first time is that the whole village enjoys a festivity of which you are a part. Around two hours before it begins, all riders prepare their horses, bandaging the tail to protect them from the fire and decorating the manes of the animals.

When you take a tour through the main street, you will find bonfires at every step. They are built with branches collected by villagers a few days earlier in the forest around the village. The street lighting is dimmed to accentuate the almost phantasmagoric atmosphere around you. Just before the jumping begins, all riders take a tour around the village’s streets while the bonfires are lit. The villagers in charge of the bonfires throw damp branches and pour water on the fire to create a huge amount of smoke which engulfs all.

It was a great experience which confirms that, despite the deep economic and emotional crisis hitting the country, the friendly nature of the Spanish people rermains intact when locals share drinks with tourists and with everyone present, making the celebration extremely pleasant. But, as with many things in life, there is another side to this: you will smell of smoke for a long time.

The long trip home

Shanghai, China

By Carlos Barria

There was not much emotion left after crossing central China on a 50-hour train and bus journey. Just a soft touch on the face and a forced hug was all that Li Jiangzhon and his sister Li Jiangchun got from their parents after a long year of absence.

They are just one story among millions of Chinese migrant workers, who have to leave their loved ones behind to look for a better future for themselves and their families.

Every year millions of migrant workers travel to their hometowns during the Chinese Spring Festival, a massive movement of people that is considered the biggest migration in the world in such a short period of time. Public transportation authorities expected to accommodate about 3.41 billion travelers nationwide during the holiday, including 225 million railway passengers, according to Xinhua news agency.

Modern day vikings

Shetland Islands, Scotland

By David Moir

Vikings, they’re not what they used to be.

No more do we see horn helmeted warriors pillaging and plundering everything in sight, striking fear into villagers with the stories of their wickedness. No, now they sing and dance when visiting community centers, hospitals and shopping centers. Basically cheering everyone up who sing along and join in the fun on a cold wet Tuesday in January.

I have just returned from covering the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, Britain’s most northerly set of islands. More than 100 miles north of the Scottish mainland and closer to Bergen in Norway than London.

Shetland prides itself on its Norse heritage and its Vikings, especially for Up Helly Aa with the Guizer Jarl (the Chief Guizer), and leader of the Jarl Squad (there are another 45 squads) who are the Vikings for this special day designing and making their suits, shields and weapons for the occasion two years in advance.

Cubana sweet fifteen

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

“I started saving up for my daughters’ quinceañera party [coming-out celebration for 15-year-olds] over five years ago,” says Marlen, the mother of Carmen, who reached the age of fifteen this month. “I managed to put away money every month, by doing some odd jobs, separating some also from my husband’s retirement pension and adding to that some help from my family in the east of the country, plus selling off some worn out clothes and repairing other garments.”

Marlen managed to save just over 8,000 Cuban pesos, close to $300.

In Cuba’s economy, you cannot just go to the bank and ask for a loan; there is no culture of credit. All payments must be made in cash, so if you want to buy something you must cough up the whole cost at the moment of purchase. With the average monthly salary around $18, it’s not easy to save. But as the Cubans say, it is not easy but it is not difficult either. The amount saved up for the quinceañera celebration is huge for parents and is a really admirable amount for an average Cuban family to achieve. In this case, merit is even higher as it was done mostly by Carmen’s mother.

All Cuban girls dream of having a special quinceañera celebration. It really is a big deal for them, as big as, or even bigger than, a wedding. It is also especially expensive as the costs must be borne by just one family.

Deadly sniper shot through the lens

Ain Tarma neighbourhood, Damascus, Syria

By Goran Tomasevic

One moment, I heard two incoming shots. I was already aiming my camera on these two Syrian rebels. I heard the scream and saw one of them get shot. He was still alive as I was shooting but dying as he was carried away.

There was intensive fighting as the rebel group I was with in a Damascus neighborhood was trying to overtake a government checkpoint some 50 meters away. There was another group of rebels who were supposed to fire rocket propelled grenades from a further distance away from the checkpoint. After that, the group I was with was meant to engage the soldiers manning the checkpoint.

At the checkpoint I could clearly see sandbags and tanks. I didn’t look at the tanks anymore because I needed to take cover. I pulled back a little to look for the best position to take pictures and how to be covered in the best possible way.

Tyranny of a blood feud

Bardhaj, Albania

By Arben Celi

Visiting an Albanian family forced to live inside their walls because of a blood feud always borders on the surreal. A Reuters story of a girl armed with a hunting rifle ferrying supplies for her isolated family in her minivan was made straight into a movie and its Albanian director credited Reuters television for the idea.

There was no action in this one. The three kids had grown up inside their leaky house without ever knowing what the world outside was like. I had been trying for two months to get in touch with a teacher to help me take pictures of a family in northern Albania that had lived inside their house for the last 10 years because of a blood feud.

The teacher is one of the few people allowed into the house twice or three times a week to help the two sons and the daughter keep abreast of the curriculum. I thought she made things harder for me until I met the family myself on Friday. The mother and the 19-year-old daughter grew fearful seeing me and barely concealed their opposition when I took out the camera. But they trusted Liljana, the teacher, and did not throw me out after we made it clear we meant no harm to them. The little kids also warmed to me.

Into a fashion model’s world

Paris, France

By Philippe Wojazer

Now I know where United Nations negotiators should be trained: in the fashion world!

If you want to cover a “not usual” story in the world of fashion, you have to learn what negotiation means. If you want to take pictures backstage at a fashion show, you have to be ready to send 120 emails and call the recipients to explain what you meant in your messages and hear “I am afraid this will not be possible”. But, once those people are convinced – they might change their mind the very next minute – but if they don’t, you enter the fashion and model’s world and realize, it was worth it. I didn’t know if I would be able to photograph this story untill the last minute. Once I finally got the accreditation for the Valentino show, the model had to be rushed to the dental emergency and was not guaranteed to work that day. But suddenly the clouds opened and I started seeing the sunlight of the fashion world.

GALLERY: A DAY WITH A MODEL

My goal was to show the part of the fashion week we usually don’t see – a model’s life backstage.

Seeing world leaders at shoe level

Davos, Switzerland

By Denis Balibouse

Seeing world leaders at shoe level – you can tell a lot about them.

Last week my colleague Pascal Lauener and I covered the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Alpine ski resort of Davos in Switzerland. According to its website the WEF is “an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.”

The 2,500 participants can take their pick from 258 official sessions over a four-day period. Some only come for informal meetings in the hotels surrounding Davos’ congress center, where discreet talks covering business, politics and deal-making thrive away from the spotlight. Contracts are signed, soirees take place, deals are made.

For some reason, wire agency photographers can access all sessions in order to photograph the participants. Some sessions are not open to the reporting press, as talks are held under The Chatham House Rule, which requires that you can make use of the information dispersed at an event, but can not divulge or mention the identity or affiliation of those involved in the event.

Extreme tough guys

Everton, England

By Nigel Roddis

With heavy snow and the threat of flooding, conditions were never going to be pleasant for the Tough Guy Challenge on the so-called killing fields of Perton, central England. Five thousand competitors push themselves each year in this charity obstacle race held on a 600-acre farm since 1987.

The mud was deep and the car park, as I would later learn, was treacherous. I waded through the mud with my cameras taped up inside carrier bags and was out of breath before the races even started, though I was only taking the photographs. Having already covered the event three times, I knew that the competitors tend to start the day on a high; singing and dancing like they’re off for a stroll in the park. Even after the canon sounded and they hurtled down the hill to start the 15 km race packed with over 20 obstacles, they seemed unaware that over a third of them wouldn’t finish.

GALLERY: TOUGH GUY CHALLENGE

Within 100 yards of the start I found the first casualties. Three people had lost their shoes in the mud and couldn’t find them, bringing their race to an abrupt end. The first main obstacle was a U-shaped canal full of thick ice which the competitors had to wade through, many of them screaming in the freezing water. To photograph it I had to edge along a slippery beam over the icy abyss and even then I couldn’t really do the task justice.

Among wolves

Merzig, Germany

By Lisi Niesner

“You can join me and pick up the deer carcass”, German wolf researcher Werner Freund invited me as he climbed into his lorry. I quickly jumped in. A rotten smell of meat hit me. I thought I wouldn’t smell it after a while but this proved to be a very false assumption. We chatted while driving and he told me about his education as a gardener and his first botanical job at the Stuttgart zoo. Soon, his job turned into a predator zookeeper after the initial bear keeper was injured. “I have cataracts, but have heard it can be treated very well today”, he suddenly added. I started monitoring his driving suspiciously until we reached a house, not far from the French border. There it lay in the snow, directly on the driveway. He asked me to give him a hand, and in view of the fact that Werner Freund is almost 80 years old, it was just polite to help him load the animal’s cadaver. On the way back I told him I had never loaded or even touched a dead deer, which seemed to amuse him.

GALLERY: LIVING WITH WOLVES

Back at his home he changed clothes to confront the Mongolian wolves pack with a familiar odor. I was curious. Werner opened the door of the fence and entered the enclosure. First the alpha male wolf Heiko, came towards him and licked his mouth which is a sign of acknowledgment and a sign of membership of the pack. After this ritual Werner got the deer cadaver, put it on the snowy ground, lay down and held it in a manner as if it were his prey. As a child I was told, like most other children, the tale of little red riding hood making me wary of the big bad wolf with bared teeth on display. Unexpectedly the pack was shy and approached carefully. Werner took over his role and bit into the leg of the deer but spat out the raw meat. I was too busy trying to shoot pictures through the wire-netting fence, to wonder what was going on in front of me. None of the wolves competed with him for the food.

In the afternoon I met Werner at the enclosure of the Arctic wolves, he had changed his jacket again. It was terrific watching the beautiful white animals howling in anticipation. They recognize the sound of Werner’s car and were excited long before he arrived at the gate. “From the moment the wolf cubs taste meat and blood, they turn into predators and cannot be domesticated like dogs”, he said while entering the enclosure with a bucket of meat. From when the Arctic wolf Monty, named after the horse whisperer Monty Roberts, and the female wolf Deborah had a litter of cubs, Werner began feeding the cubs from the mouth. It was incredible that the whole pack adopted this behavior.