Photographers' Blog

The choice for Mali

Timbuktu, Mali

By Joe Penney

As Mali went to the polls July 28 for the first round of presidential elections meant to restore peace and stability in the vast, landlocked West African country, I traveled from the capital Bamako to the dusty northern city of Timbuktu.

Elections in northern cities like Timbuktu, the storied Saharan trading post and scholarly center around since the early 14th century, were always going to be difficult to organize. The city is roughly 1000 km (620 miles) by road from the capital Bamako, but it takes 20 hours along dirt tracks and extremely potholed pavements to get there. During the rainy season, flooding renders the dirt track from Douentza to Timbuktu nearly impassable.

Since French and Malian forces took back control of the city from militant Jihadists in late January, electricity has been running only five hours a day, from 7 pm to midnight, provided by aid organizations and not the Malian government. Economic activity grinds to a halt during daytime hours, when scorching temperatures reach 45° C (113° F) at midday and not a fan moves among the 70,000 residents. Drinking water becomes like drinking tea without the tea bags, but that doesn’t matter much to the population of Timbuktu, the vast majority of which is currently fasting for Ramadan.

There were many problems on election day and in the run-up to it. Many people couldn’t find their polling stations due to an arcane registration system imposed by organizational time constraints. One candidate, Tiebelé Drame, dropped out of the race because of the myriad problems, and commented that the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, had become the election organizer. But despite the many obstacles, Malians flocked to the polls and set a new record for voter participation (granted the previous high of 40% was a relatively low threshold to beat). Across the country people displayed a real enthusiasm to take an active part in Mali’s politics, a marked change from the time before the coup d’état and rebel takeover of the northern two-thirds in 2012.

Timbuktu residents enjoyed 36 hours of straight electricity on the day of the polls and the morning after. In a memorable scene for me, poll workers broke their day-long fasts, normally done with family and friends, while counting ballots.

Hugo Chavez: One year battling cancer

By Jorge Silva

About a year ago, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez surprised us during a routine coverage at his Miraflores palace in Caracas. He appeared with a walking cane.

That was the first time he had ever shown any hint of a physical problem, or indeed any notion of fragility. A few days after that, he left on a tour of Ecuador, Brazil and Cuba where he was hospitalized and received emergency surgery in Havana. Weeks later, Chavez confirmed that a malignant, baseball-sized tumor had been removed from his pelvis, and the saga began.

I’ve been covering Chavez for the last eight years – a long, grueling but utterly fascinating assignment for a photojournalist.

Owners of The White Silence

By Anton Golubev

When I was a little boy, I adored the books of Jack London. The Nature of the North – that was the thing that captivated me. The White Silence; a chilling title, words that are hard to appreciate for a city dweller used to the din of cars and neon lights. The majority of Russians seldom leave cities further than to go to the dacha, the country houses that most people own just outside the city limits. Some might travel to some mountains or woodlands. Only a few will visit such a godforsaken place as the Russian North. The land where The White Silence reigns.

The North is a cruel place. Here, where the population density reaches one person per ten square kilometers, there is no transport links, there is nobody to ask the way, there is nobody to ask for a light or hot food, and there is little chance that anybody can help you if something happens. You can count on yourself only. The White Silence is a jingling calm when you can’t hear any sound around, it’s a thin line of a low northern wood on the horizon between two halves of the white nothing, it’s a blizzard when the boundless white Tundra flows together with the overhanging northern sky, it’s a half-strewed snowmobile track which you follow to reach the light and warm of a human dwelling.

It’s hard to imagine that somebody can survive in this cruel land except wild animals but there are some people who live there – the northern tribes people of Nenets, Khanti, Komi, Dolgany, Chukchy; the owners of The White Silence. These people arrived in the far north more than a thousand years ago, when the Roman age was finishing in Europe, and they became the owners of this severe land. They pasture reindeer and catch fish as their ancestors did for tens and hundreds of generations.

Beachside politics

U.S. Election Day has its recurring motifs: red, white and blue vote signs, corrugated plastic voting booths, ballot boxes, stars and stripes. Voting photos quickly become repetitive, even before the sun rises on the West Coast.

An election worker puts up signs as the sun rises at a polling station on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, November 2, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Quirky polling stations such as laundromats, beauty salons and churches are hard to find, buried among hundreds of voting places listed only by address.

Hoping to portray something uniquely Californian, I woke before dawn and headed to the lifeguard headquarters on Venice Beach. During Obama fever in 2008, a long line of waiting voters cast shadows on the wall outside.

Women’s refuge in Afghanistan

Patooni Muhanna, who works at a women’s shelter in Kabul, speaks about women’s rights since the fall of the Taliban. Patooni says that despite some positive changes, domestic violence and self-immolation are still concerns.

Follow news from the Afghan election here.

On the Afghan election trail

Soviet helicopters, pick-up truck racing, Kalashnikov-carrying security guards, banquet lunches.  Photographing Afghan presidential candidates as they traverse the country before the election on August 20, is campaign travel at its quirkiest.

Flying with Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah to a campaign rally in Samangan province.  Photo: Tyler Hicks

In Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan one week before the vote, the traveling press piled into the back of pick-up trucks following Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s main rival, from the airport to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali.

Recurring images of Afghan women

Sometimes we Afghan photographers joke that an Afghanistan without burqas, would mean no more good images.
I was with Yannis Behrakis when he shot his version (top). It was the day after the Northern Alliance took over Kabul and the Taliban fled the city. Yannis wanted to shoot some images which could show a change after the fall of the Taliban. We came across a number of women who were waiting to receive some alms from a rich local businessman. Yannis stopped to take some pictures.

For my version (below), I went to cover President Hamid Karzai’s election rally in the south of the country on August 4. There were thousands of men but some females who were mostly covered in burqas, as usual. I wanted to show the women’s participation in this mainly male-run country.

One could draw the conclusion that years after the fall of the Taliban, women are still under burqas and pictures look the same. This is because the situation of women may have changed in the cities but not across the country. The reason is not that international communities failed to help women liberate but it is because that is how they live. The life style in most parts of Afghanistan is a unique one, it is an Afghan one. It is clear from the start that men work outside and women work inside the house, that is how centuries past by. This is how they choose to live, one can not just take their burqas off, put them in jeans or short skirts, tell them to go out and work and then say your situation has improved. With all due respect to the Western media, they are painting the wrong picture on the situation of women here. Let’s leave the Taliban era out of this, this is now eight years of “Operation Enduring Freedom”.

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