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.

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.

So busy I didn’t even notice the lens was broken

Covering wars is the hardest, most dangerous and most exciting part of my job. This is not only shooting pictures, it is a way of life. To follow the story, make contacts and be respected by soldiers I am following is hard and complex job. Photographers who are doing the same job as me will understand my thoughts. Others may never have that privilege. Words can only explain. With pictures I am trying to show the reality. Nevertheless, I want to explain what happened behind some of my pictures I took during my recent time with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

On March 21, I arrive at Kandahar Air Field (KAF). On my way out of the KAF flight terminal, I find my good friends U.S. Army Colonel Ed Kornish and Sergeant Major Andy Bolt waiting for me. Soon after, over coffee and cigarettes, Colonel Kornish says there is a mission planned in Zabul province and we’d better hurry.

Just a few hours later we are on our way in four Humvees. Around three in morning, we stop to take a rest in a small base near the village of Shajoy and at first light we move to join the Afghan National Police (ANP) at one of their bases nearby.

Aftershocks and other earthquake experiences

1. Departure

May 12, 2:28 pm, almost all my Reuters Beijing colleagues saw the office TV sets shaking. Those TV sets had often shown the news but it was the first time they themselves had been the news. Within a few seconds, we realized it was an earthquake. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake had hit Sichuan province. Sichuan! My home. About ten minutes later, I was driving my car to Beijing airport. At that moment, I did not even know that there was a place on this earth called Wenchuan. Where was I going? What time could I leave? Fortunately, I was the first Reuters journalist to arrive at the airport and unfortunately I was the last to leave as I chose to fly to Chengdu and its airport was closed. I had almost no idea how serious the situation there was but wisely as it turned out took two instant DC/AC power inverters which meant I could work normally in the firs few days when the whole area was completely out of power.

2. In the field

On afternoon of May 13, after 6 hours of driving from Chongqing, the first earthquake-hit area I reached was Hanwang Town of Mianzhu. I was one of the first to arrive there. It later transpired that because the epicenter had been Wenchuan everyone assumed it would be worst hit when in fact towns in the surrounding area suffered more disastrously. It was like the end of the world with gloomy skies and soft drizzle. Terrified survivors told me Hanwang Dongqi Middle school had been horribly damaged so I headed there. It was unnaturally silent, the bodies of at least 20 students covered with plastic bags lay in a row on the ground. A mother gently removed the coverings trying to find her own child. Policemen surrounded the scene and I dared not approach but with a long lens I could see rain and tears merged on her face. Sometime later a couple found the body of their child and were just overcome with grief.  I shot a single frame and went and hugged them but then an aftershock struck which made the damaged buildings ‘peng peng’, like the King of Terrors clamouring against which humans were just so small and weak. The rain became heavier, the mourning became louder and the sky became darker. There was a choking smell of death. I could not believe that just that morning I had been in Beijing, a city with a population of 15 million.

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3. Beichuan

On May 15 I set off for Beichuan, utilising all available modes of transportation - jeeps, cars and my own legs. I arrived 5 hours later as a mass military rescue team also reached the spot. It was a valley of death. A  landslide had almost buried the whole of the old district while the new part was just rubble with fires flickering here and there. Once in a while there would be a shout ”someone here” as a survivor was located beneath the debris. At one collapsed kindergarten, I saw dozens of cute little faces almost untouched except for the dried blood rimming their eyes and mouths while the rest of their bodies were stuck beneath heavy rocks and concrete. The tears in my eyes made it almost impossible to shoot pictures and I had constantly to remind myself that I needed to show this tragedy to the world in a way that was not too general but not too brutal. What a painful feeling, I saw everything I could not let my camera see as I walked and walked among the bodies of victims looking for pictures… I saw a butterfly fluttering between pretty shoes on the feet of a young girl which stuck from the rubble. As I pressed the shutter I mourned for this young soul and moved away to leave her be.  The next day, I saw a mother searching in the rubble for her daughter; she sobbed as she told me she had forced her 4-year-old daughter to go to school that day although she said she felt unwell. She kept saying, “I killed my own daugher”, and begged me not to shoot pictures of her…

Wired at the Preakness Stakes

The 133rd running of the Preakness Stakes horse race was held in Baltimore this past weekend. It is one of the most prestigious events in the American horse racing calendar, the second race in the annual three race series beginning with the Kentucky Derby and ending with the Belmont Stakes in New York. Once again the Reuters pictures team (Jim Young, Molly Riley, Jonathan Ernst, Tim Shaffer and I ), were armed with spools of electrical wire, switches and cases of extra cameras and lenses as we arrived from Washington 10 hours ahead of the 6pm race to set up our ‘remotes’.

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Remote cameras are triggered either by a cable or wireless transmitter, allowing a photographer to shoot multiple angles of an important moment like the finish of a horse race. They can provide an usually high or low angle to vary the type of pictures we like to provide to our clients.  On news assignments remotes can also yield an alternative angle from a tight position or one that does not allow a camera to be hand held. The only limit to shooting remotes is the photographer’s imagination!!

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With a cut-off time of 10am before the first race of the day, we set up five remote cameras under the inside rail of the track, and another on an observation post beyond the finish line with a high angle general view of the end of the race. Putting in place the gear – five EOS-1D Mark II cameras, an assortment of lenses from 16mm to 200mm, and their little mounting plates was a breeze, about 5 minutes in total, compared to the next step – getting them all to work!

Why I became a news photographer

The images of the earthquake relief effort in China have been horrifying and deeply moving and remind me what has always been so compelling about my job - the ease and speed with which still pictures can impart so much readily understood information to so many people.   

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And what brilliant pictures they are.

Stuck at the base of Everest

Day 8 – After travelling 4 days from Lhasa Airport, and spending 4 days at 5200 metres, we are all feeling the effects of altitude but mostly suffering from frustration at the lack of information about the Olympic torch. Mark Chisolm, Reuters Cameraman and Producer, Nick Mulvenney, Reuters Correspondent and myself travelled from Beijing on April 25 to Tibet to cover the Olympic torch’s ascent of Mount Everest.       We are currently at a make-shift press centre located near Everest Base Camp. Facilities consist of an extremely good media centre, with amazingly fast internet, a press conference room, that doesn’t provide the media with any information (but I will get onto that later), small basic cabins that offer fairly comfortable beds but are just plain freezing, a dining room with excellent food, and last but certainly not least, the toilet block. Oh wow!! I cannot even begin the try and find the words… so I will leave it at that.

 Reuters staffers

Mountainmen Chisholm, Gray and Mulvenney.

The altitude is a major factor in everything we do. It affects each person differently. Some have a very low percentage of oxygen in their bloodstream, some have a very high heart-rate, some get high blood pressure, many get severe headaches, others stomach problems. But all get breathless after walking just 20 metres and all are very tired. But the effects of altitude are not consistent, and even somebody who has travelled frequently to and from high altitude react differently each time. So the fact that the three of us have managed to feel ok after our schedule of travelling from Beijing, situated at a height of just 50 metres above sea level, to Everest Base Camp at a height of 5200 metres in just 4 days, does make us feel like we have achieved something, even before we have produced any stories. But this is not to say we are in the clear. Acute altitude sickness can hit anytime, even once you are back at normal levels, so we are extremely wary of this achievement.

The days consist of walking around the 500 metre cordon we seem to have been restricted to. Chinese Border Police keep a watch on our moves from several vantage points along the road and surrounding hills. I like to watch the changing weather patterns on the peak of Everest, but you cannot keep photographing it every hour – the weather might change but its shape doesn’t.

Stepping into photographer’s shoes…

For sub-editors on Reuters Singapore Picture Desk, one of this year’s performance targets is a “shooting assignment”. They have to select and plan a valid photographic assignment and then shoot pictures for the wire. The exercise is intended to give them practical insight into the working lives of busy photographers in the field and the decisions and operational challenges they face on a daily basis. 

Shahida Patail is one such sub-editor.

Sha

Up until now my picture taking had been limited to holiday snaps and friends’ weddings but the thought of shooting a picture for the Reuters wire was certainly appealing.

In my eagerness I decided to go to Arab Street and on a working day to boot. There was no concrete idea in my head, but I kept thinking of the colourful shop houses and the much-photographed Sultan Mosque and felt confident that I’d be able to find a subject. Luckily, before leaving the office, my boss Pedja Kujundzic suggested a possible angle – old buildings contrasted with new buildings.

Ninjas – in text or pictures?

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Japan’s sleepy town of Iga offered an opportunity for me to write my first story for the news wire. Iga is known to many Japanese as one of the traditional home towns of the ninja. I was looking forward to seeing tens of thousands ninja clad enthusiasts, the ninja themed-train and a house with secret escape passages - the home of a real ninja.

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The hardest part was knowing where to start - that and deciding on what the story’s ‘selling point’ would be in text terms rather than pictures. Would I be able to persuade people to give me both tantelising ninja tidbits and interesting quotes?

I first interviewed the self-proclaimed grandson of a real ninja who told me that his grandfather was always out on the lookout for ways to further his skills had even mastered the art of hypnotism. A museum curator  that the web of myth and mystery surrounding the world of the ninja fired people’s imaginations and for this reason the ninja lives on.