Photographers' Blog

North Korea – From the outside looking in

Recently, I went to the Chinese border-town of Dandong on the Yalu River to see what I could photograph to match stories about reports that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was sick. Dandong is one of the closest towns on the border to the secretive country, and was the obvious choice due mainly to the chances of a journalist entering the highly restricted and reclusive country at such short notice being practically impossible. They don’t accept journalists at the best of times, let alone when their ‘dear leader’, as he is officially known, is not well. Kim has led communist North Korea for 14 years and if he was dead, the potentially nuclear-capable country could quickly become a scary and somewhat horrifying scenario.My hope for the assignment was that maybe I could get pictures of North Korean soldiers on border patrols, or perhaps even people working in the fields – something that showed life on the ‘other side’.

A local contact told us of boats for hire about one hours drive north of Dandong. I thought ok, it would be something like a small fishing village where the locals occasionally subsidise their incomes by taking people for rides to see the secretive side of the river, but when we arrived we found a thriving, well organised tourism industry. There was a fleet of six large boats that took 20 people at a time, or a fleet of speedboats that took five at a time. You could go for 20 minutes or for over an hour, cruising along the Chinese side of the river photographing or filming North Koreans washing their clothes or themselves, riding bicycles, tending their crops, or just fishing as they tried to get any extra food to supplement what measly portions they were obviously receiving.

Myself, text journalist Chris Buckley and Reuters cameraman Johnnie boarded a boat and headed towards the small town of Qing Cheng which was once connected to China via a bridge that protrudes from both sides of the river but had it’s middle portion blown-up 60 years ago – a symbolic reminder that this country is separated from the rest of the world.

The first amazing sight was a boat full of North Korean soldiers floating down the river. I thought for sure they would follow us, but most of them just waved and smiled. Mind you, thankfully, there was another boat between us and them, and they didn’t really see us I am pretty sure.

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The next thing that surprised me was the sight of maybe a hundred people either walking, riding bikes or on animal-drawn carts travelling along a road that hugged the banks of the river. This was where I managed to get a picture of a military officer riding a motorbike with who I presume was his wife and young child aboard. A rare sight indeed I am sure.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was my nickname yesterday.

My Olympic opening ceremony endurance test began with an 8am call to be on the roof of the Bird’s Nest stadium for a meeting of photographers.

I began my first of three climbs through the maze of steep, narrow catwalks with IOC pool photographers from AP, Getty, AFP and Xinhua. On either side of the path were sheets of glass through which the colored lights of the stadium are projected.

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We were told to wear fireproof suits, helmets and climbing harnesses over our clothes.  The Chinese fireworks technicians on the roof had sensibly chosen to wear t-shirts and shorts.

There is always one…Part four

Sport is a dominant theme at the moment, obviously, because of the impending start of the Olympic Games in China. 

 Nevertheless I offer no apologies for selecting this picture by Darren Staples of Manchester United’s Patrice Evra and Juventus’ Mauro Camoranesi clashing in mid-air during their pre-season friendly soccer match at Old Trafford in Manchester on August 6. As I looked through the file of Reuters pictures it jumped out at me, and has everything a good soccer picture should have. Of course it’s sharp, tightly composed, is shot at the height of the action and, because the players appear to be so far off the ground, it conveys a sense of drama. Also, a very simple point, but one that is often missed – the ball is in the picture!

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A picture is worth another thousand words…

A short while back I collated a few choice quotations and sayings on photography and the picture-taking process: ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’.

I think various gems were omitted first-time round, so here are a few more:

“There are few professions where even when you are right at the top and a household name, you might still be standing on a draughty street corner with your feet getting wet and cold, waiting for something to happen.” (Philip Jones Griffiths)

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Above – A British Airways aircraft taxis past BA tail-fins at Heathrow Airport, west London. Photograph by Toby Melville

Getting your point across

With the Olympics now only a month away the search for scene-setting images to tempt the visual palate has begun in earnest. From the Beijing file Henry Lee gives us this to kick start the week - Wei Shengchu, 58, a supporter of traditional Chinese medicine, poses for photos in front of Beijing Railway Station with his head covered with acupuncture needles depicting 205 national flags and an Olympic torch, 7, 2008. Local media reported that Wei wanted to express his good wishes for the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games as well as to promote traditional Chinese medicine. 

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And it is all his own work, all 205 and something more substantial representing the Olympic flame, painstakingly inserted into his head to the obvious entertainment of passersby. 

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Even in this low resolution the Stars and Stripes, the Swiss, French, Canadian, Brazilian and a host of other national flags, are fairly easily spotted but not the Union Jack. 

First impressions of a photographer’s life in Hong Kong

 Six months ago, after eight years working in Spain I began a new stage in my life as a photographer based in Hong Kong. Here are some of my first impressions. 

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HK is a cosmopolitan and very modern place with enormous malls full of posh boutiques like Prada, Armani and Chanel; deluxe cars like Ferrari, Porsche, Rolls Royce and Jaguar riding the roads; free WIFI access in the streets… all in stark contrast to the homeless people with cardboard boxes begging for dollars. 

For the lucky ones life in this incredible city is easy. It is safe, has amazing buildings, beaches, exciting nightlife, nice restaurants and very low taxes.

Walking with survivors: Audio slideshow

Shanghai-based photographer Nir Elias tells of his hike with survivors of the Sichuan quake.

Aftermath of a quake: Audio slideshow

A showcase of David’s Gray images of the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake are set to music in this audio slideshow.

Earthquake in China – a photographer’s view

1. Dujiangyan, 2: 30 am, May 13th.

In misty light I arrived at Chongqing Airport with my TV colleague Royston. We drove straight toward Dujiangyan, with rain spitting gloomily and the air damply hazing my breath. The city seemed as though the Big Bang had just happened, everything had stopped. The crying and sirens all around made me dizzy and I cannot really remember how I arrived at the ruins of what had once been a school, with its 900 pupils buried in the rubble. A rescue team was desperately looking for anybody still alive, while I stood on the mountain of dust and the dead, shooting pictures. The sound of the shutter seemed to me to be like death itself scratching away.

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2. On the road

Go to Wenchuan.

Go to Wenchuan.

Go to the epicenter of the earthquake .

But how on earth? All roads were damaged and all gas stations controlled by troops. A 500 ml coke bottle filled with petrol was priced at 20 yuan (2.88USD) on the black market. On May 14th, I fuelled a rented motorcycle with several of these and began my long journey to Wenchuan, all off track. 10 kilometers later, I was stopped by police, so Ibegan to walk. Half way there I was offered a lift by Wang, an emergency  worker, driving a bulldozer. In return I had to promise to check on his good friend Tan, the headmaster of a primary school inside Wenchuan town.

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At first on a handsome motorcycle, then on an awesome bulldozer, and finally on foot, I reached my destination seven and a half hours later. It was May 15th. The first living being I encountered as I arrived at the primary school was Tan the headmaster, soaked head-to-toe in blood. He told me that all his family had been killed, only he survived and he could not even estimate how many of his pupils were dead. The news of Tan’s survival was delivered to Wang the bulldozer driver via satphone and my editor in Beijing.

Earthquake in China – a view from Beijing

It happened and it just happened, quietly but tangibly …  it only lasted 5 seconds…
 
May 12, 2008, 2:28 pm on the button, I was stooping to pick up a gift before rushing off to visit a client with two colleagues. The sudden dizzy feeling made me mentally rebuke myself for skipping breakfast and lunch; in those 5 seconds, I swore to myself never to do it again if I had to attend a formal meeting. But of course, my expressions remained calm. 
 
It’s an earthquake“, a sharp yet clear voice from the corner of the office broke this temporary silence which instinctively ignited my relief of being faint. “Hey buddy, maybe you are not so bad”, I said to myself.
 
So, that is how it started … on a normal working day, it just happened.
 
No worries, we had already had contingency plans…
 
Photographers immediately  rushed to the airport, we skipped the client visit and began to tackle the breaking story. From that moment, for the first time ever, the Beijing Pix Desk began running 24/7 with three editors: Grace Liang, Reinhard Krause and myself.
 
The first pictures of white collars wandering downstairs after escaping from a shaking Beijing office building hit the wire 10 minutes after the quake struck while we continued moving pix from around China showing general damage like burst water pipes and cracked walls.  

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While the mobile phones of all our local friends’ and stringers’ remained unreachable, the story escalated. “A middle school building collapsed in Dujiangyan, near Chengdu, burying 900; another toppled in Chongqing…” The snaps just kept coming - who knew at that time that it was just the tip of the iceberg of a much worse tragedy.
 
The local stringers had already headed to these two spots before I got their first SMS which had been delayed for almost 4 hours.
 
“Stay safe & fast ftp,” I replied in hopes that a short message would move more quickly.
 
Shortly after 9, the first image of real damage landed on the desk – then the second, then the third, and then the fourth … By midnight, we had already moved 40 pictures from the worst-hit areas of  Mianyang and Dujiangyan, with half of them exclusive stuff. And so it continued …  
 
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 By 7 am, 61 pictures earthquake-hit Sichuan province had been sent and by 2:28 the next day, 24 hours after the shock, 100 Reuters pictures had moved to the World… And then our staff photographers also began filing from different spots.  
 
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So, that was the first day after the earthquake,  then the second, then the third - it was a sleepless fortnight until the story began to quieten down a bit…
 
I can barely remember how many packages we moved from this terrible news story and all of them telling heart-breaking stories, ”relatives mourn near the body of their dead children”, “a 61-year-old survivor is rescued after being buried for 164 hours”, “a girl has to have her left leg amputated to save her life”…… There were too frequent heart warming moments as people all over the nation donated money and blood to the sufferers, 66-year-old premier Wen Jibao crying while visiting the area, exhausted young soldiers resting around their camp fire…

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We received more and more images  from an ever increasing area including the epicenter and remote villages. In Beijing we tried to take an overview of the pictures file and ensure it was relevant and comprehensible, making  best use of the images we had and respecting the dignity of the victims. It took professionalism and a degree of detachment while deep inside our hearts we were shocked and crying. Now things are calmer we have time to think back over that time and the images frozen in our memories - so it’s blogging time.

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