Photographers' Blog

Sochi’s struggling locals

Sochi, Russia

By Tom Peter

“We meant to do better, but it came out as always.”

Everyone in Russia knows this phrase, unintentionally coined by the late prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and applicable to an abundance of situations in this country, where official pronouncements of intent are often so far removed from reality that you could cry. Though instead of crying, Russians ruefully utter this aphorism and smile.

In Sochi you hear it often these days. With less than 100 days left before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the city has entered the finishing straight to complete the venues for an extravaganza that is to showcase a new Russia. A Russia that has shed its shabby post-Soviet coat to welcome the world to Sochi, where the “sea meets the mountains”, where everything that is adorable about Russia will flourish in a sparkling new summer and winter holidaying resort, as official publicity has it.

This aspiration comes at a high cost.

There is of course the $50-billion prize tag, which makes the Sochi Olympics the most expensive Games in history. Some Russians say this money should have been spent on schools, roads or the public health system, all of which are in great need of repairs.

Others say Russia can and should afford it. After all, those dollars literally come flowing out of its oil-rich ground. And with President Vladimir Putin’s personal backing, the country will move heaven and earth to make sure everything will be completed in time.

The people of Sochi don’t have to look to national politics to form an opinion about the Games. Over the last four weeks I have travelled all over the area that stretches some 145 km (90 miles) along the Black Sea coast and spoken to many people from all walks of life. They included homeowners, builders, waiters, shop assistants, taxi drivers, ecologists, farmers – in short, locals who don’t have a financial stake in the Olympics.

A torch in space

Zhezkazgan, central Kazakhstan

By Shamil Zhumatov

PART ONE: LAUNCH

During more than a decade of covering Russia’s space exploration program, I have seen pretty unusual missions. I have taken pictures of an investor heading for the International Space Station, as well as those of a clown and programmers flying into orbit. But the most recent space launch and landing have probably become the most unforgettable – the torch of the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Sochi reached space and then returned to Earth. Now, as I play back this hectic flurry of events, it is still hard to believe how closely these two things are entwined – the Olympics and space. The Olympic Games had been aimed by the authorities to strengthen Russia’s image. Given this ambitious task set by Moscow, Russia’s space program – a symbol of national pride, albeit marred by several botched unmanned launches – simply couldn’t stand aloof. Space was doomed to become part of this bright political show.

A few months earlier, when I learnt about the future mission of the torch, the only question that haunted my friends was – how will it burn in space? Their avid interest was heated by the torch itself, whose flame had gone out several times since the Olympic relay across Russia began last month. One of my colleagues even joked that while in space the torch would need “a man with a lighter”, recalling the image of a resourceful plainclothes security agent who saved the day, reigniting the torch with a cigarette lighter when the flame went out right at the start of the relay in the Kremlin on October 6. But as the launch date of November 7 drew nearer, there was a general sigh of relief – the torch would not be lit aboard the space station for safety reasons, and it simply would not be able to burn in outer space due to the laws of nature.

The show began on November 5 at 0700 sharp. The gates of a giant hangar at Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan opened, and at the sound of a whistle a locomotive slowly rolled out a Soyuz rocket, whose normally white-and-grey body was now decorated with Sochi Olympics trademark snowflake patterns. A quick glance at a large number of armed policemen, their armor and helicopters hovering overhead left no one in doubt that the upcoming launch was of paramount importance to Moscow.

At Duxford Airfield, Spitfires still rule the skies

Duxford, England

By Neil Hall

Propellers whirring, a group of Spitfire aircraft zooms in formation across the sky over Duxford Airfield, one of the first stations of Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF).

It could be a scene straight from the 1940 Battle of Britain, when British and German fighter planes vied for control of the skies in one of the key clashes of the Second World War. But this is 2013, and the shapes streaking over the landscape are models that have been worked on by the Aircraft Restoration Company, a firm dedicated to repairing historic planes, mostly for private owners.

Since there are no longer any factory parts available for the old crafts, this involves building the new elements by hand.

From paradise to inferno

Novo Progresso, Brazil

By Nacho Doce

The Amazon? Nobody can truly understand what it is without spending months or years immersed in it, to see the forest and witness the destruction. Spectacular and heartrending at the same time, it is the focus of great controversy that affects the world as much as it does Brazil.

It took us five trips spread over the past year to achieve a better understanding, but what I have recorded is just a brief moment in this immensity of rainforest and deforested land, with the forces working to annihilate what’s left.

GALLERY: INSIDE THE AMAZON

It was time to show the crime being committed against the Amazon.

The only way to begin was to make contacts. I met environmentalist Juan Doblas while visiting a hydroelectric dam on the Tapajós River. Through Juan I met a sociologist named Cirino, and through Cirino I met a farmer named Derivaldo. Cirino and Derivaldo are not their real names; they asked to remain anonymous because both live under constant threat. The word is that there is a $20,000 bounty for Derivaldo’s head, offered by Amazon loggers who want him dead for protecting the forest.

Where do you even find 4,000 pillows?

Chicago, Illinois

By Jim Young

An attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest pillow fight was scheduled for 1 a.m., promoted by a DJ dance duo — and at a rave no less. I was a little skeptical. Originally I thought it was an afternoon event when the organizers said it would be around 1 o’clock but needed clarification when I found out it was attached to a Halloween-themed concert and was told that the effort to break the current record of 3,706 participants set in 2008 would be attempted after midnight.

As I arrived a couple of hours before the event at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, there were hundreds of people lined up around the building waiting to get in, all dressed up for Halloween. The promoters told me they were almost at their capacity of 4,800 and it was clear that there was going to be a lot of people who were not going to get in.

It was a crazy scene: a sea of people, the music thumping and the laser light show was at full throttle. Organizers brought in dozens of huge garbage bags full of pillows and threw them out into the crowd. After a couple of hours of waiting, there was a break in the music and a representative from Guinness took to the microphone to read out the rules. Basically, all they had to do was keep the pillows in their hands and fight for a full minute. The music was cranked up and the pillows became a blur. The bass from the music was so heavy, it felt like an earthquake. My whole body was shaking. As quickly as it began, it was over.

Living with “werewolf syndrome”

Dolkha District, Nepal

By Navesh Chitrakar

People have always had a certain fascination with the unknown – a fascination that has been experienced by Devi Budhathoki and three of her children, who all suffer from a rare genetic condition that causes large amounts of thick hair to grow on their bodies.

There is no medical solution available for Devi’s condition, which is known as Congenital Hypertrichosis Lanuginosa, but its symptoms can be reduced by laser hair removal. Dermatologist Dr. Dharmendra Karn has been giving this treatment to 38-year-old Devi, along with her two daughters Manjura, who is 14, Mandira, who is 7, and her son Niraj, who is 12. Dr Karn’s care has helped the family, but they need multiple sessions for it to be effective and even after finishing a course of hair removal, they need to keep returning because the hair grows back again.

The Dhulikhel hospital has been treating Devi and her children for free since its management heard from locals, the media and social workers that Devi came from a poor family. Devi is married to Nara Bahadur Budhathoki and for 23 years they have been living in their home that has one kitchen, a shared bedroom and no lavatory. The house sits on a hill in Kharay, some 190km (118 miles) from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.

Colombian yellow is back

Barranquilla, Colombia

By Jose Miguel Gomez

An entire stadium with over 40,000 fans dressed in yellow awaited the key match between Colombia and Chile. Only a couple of thousand wore Chilean red. We photographers arrived early to set up on the field in the 40C (104F) heat and 80% humidity. Every slight movement in the sun caused a burst of sweat.

Colombia only needed a draw to qualify for Brazil 2014. It was 16 years since we last qualified for the World Cup, and the fans inside the stadium and out were in a state of triumphal optimism. This was a whole new generation of players, and those who played for European clubs carried the biggest burden of setting the stage for a nationwide fiesta.

Chile, on the other hand, did play in the last World Cup. Commentators claimed that Chile is a dangerous team, but no one imagined what would happen later.

France’s boy bullfighters

Nimes, south of France

By Jean-Paul Pelissier

Ask a young boy what he wants to be when he gets older and the reply is the usual “a fireman, soccer player, doctor or astronaut”. However, ask two young boys from southern France, Solal, aged 12 and Nimo, aged 10, and you’ll hear, “a bullfighter”.

At the start of the story, bullfighting was familiar to me, but full of unknowns. Familiar because living in southern France, the traditional Ferias of Nimes and Arles are well-known yearly popular festivals, attracting revellers for two or three days to the Roman arenas and parades with many dressed in local costumes. On occasion I attended bullfights with friends, followed by partying in the streets at the outdoor bars or “bodegas”.

Following the two boys I learned the language of the bullfighter, mostly Spanish in origin, that the “aficionados”, the dedicated fans use. The studied cape movements by the toreador, and the charges by the fighting bull, make for a charged confrontation between man and animal where spectators react with animated emotions.

Home is where the Beetle is

Monterrey, Mexico

By Daniel Becerril

The need to find a place and make it your own is sometimes the only way to cope in a life full of surprises, hardship, sorrow and joy. It’s unbelievable how humans are capable of accommodating themselves in any space and under any circumstances.

I first heard of Oscar Almaguer, or Don Oscar, on a local TV program. It was the story of an 83-year-old man who had been living in a battered VW Beetle for the last 10 years. Don Oscar’s story was the perfect one to show life’s full range of social complexities and I thought it would definitively make an interesting picture story.

In these times of economic hardship it’s not that uncommon for people to live in their cars after falling on hard times but Don Oscar’s story is a little bit different. He and his wife got divorced 10 years ago and sold everything in order to split it in equal parts. Instead of leaving Don Oscar with half, she disappeared with everything, or almost everything. What she did leave him was their 1967 VW Beetle, known here by the Mexican nickname “Vocho.”

Everyone has a dark side

Bottrop, Germany

By Ina Fassbender

I really don’t like splatter films, not even the films of ‘Saw’. But for this job I had to look at a sequence from Saw 1 on YouTube and after six minutes of this, I was curious about my performer Yvonne Nagel who wanted to perform as the Amanda Young character, who wakes up in a room with a “reverse bear trap” around her mouth and the key to her escape is in the stomach of her dead cellmate. Nice. Movie Park Germany engages every year some hundreds of people who run through the park to frighten visitors during the Halloween season.

So I met Yvonne, or ‘Amanda’, in person at the Movie Park.  It is her fourth season as a Halloween performer there. She was excited about my idea to picture her out of character, so we decided that I could visit her, at her office where she works as project manager, at Lenovo-Medion AG in Essen. When I arrived at the entrance of her company, I looked around and couldn’t see her. Then from a distance a business woman with somber black suit and high heels called my name. It was Yvonne. What a change. She looked like you and me. Dressed casually. Flowing long hair and very likeable.

We went to an exhibit room to take pictures. Wonderful, the contrast between her job and her performance for Halloween couldn’t be larger. Next, I visited her at home. Because they changed their house, it looked a little bit provincial.

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