Photographers' Blog

Preparing for the worst

Oakland, California

By Stephen Lam

When the sounds of the first simulation went off in the distance and victims started screaming, it was game on.

While at a wedding rehearsal last week, I received a call from my editor to cover Urban Shield, a large-scale, 48-hour preparedness exercise for first responders. With participants and observers attending from various states and countries, Urban Shield is in a sense the Super Bowl of preparedness exercise.

I knew I wanted to document the event when I heard that parts of it will be held at the recently closed eastern span of the former San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. So after a week of planning and anticipation, I was escorted first to an elementary school in Castro Valley to photograph an active shooter scenario. In a matter of minutes, a tranquil elementary school was transformed into a disaster scene with people role playing as victims, hostages and terrorists ran all over as SWAT team moved in to secure the area.

It was even more apparent that the planners wanted to make the scenarios as realistic as possible when I was brought to the aircraft interdiction scenario at a nearby airport. With armored cars, a cargo plane and simulated explosives, it was as real as one can imagine. Though Urban Shield was only an exercise and not a tactical competition amongst the teams, the tension and the high stress levels were very apparent in the eyes of each officer behind their mandatory protective masks.

Since bridges are high value targets in an urban environment, the training also included a series of mock terrorist attacks for both the police and rescue teams. SWAT teams were tasked with securing the scene while a hazmat team searched for radioactive materials from a stolen mail truck and urban search and rescue teams devised a plan to rescue a mock terrorist mannequin that was dangling on a rope off the side of the bridge.

At home with a hermit

South of Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk

By Ilya Naymushin

Viktor is a hermit who, for the last ten years, has lived all alone in the wild Siberian forest by the banks of the Yenisei River.

I first heard about him in September, when I went out sailing with some yachting buddies of mine, looking for beautiful autumn scenes to photograph. One of my yachtsmen friends suddenly asked: “Do you know that there’s a hermit who lives near here, completely alone? Do you want to visit him and take his picture?” “I don’t know. Yeah, sure, I’d like to,” I replied.

After that conversation, the day eventually came when I went out with my brother Alexey in his boat to meet the hermit. In a distant corner of a deep cove, hidden from view, we spotted a shabby wooden hut. We were in luck, the hermit was at home.

Star of the gypsy circus

Paris, France

By Philippe Wojazer

“I want to become one of the best Flamenco dancers” said Roujenka, 13, the youngest daughter of Romanes Circus founders, Delia and Alexandre. The circus, located on the outskirts of Paris, is a small Gypsy circus and is entirely family-run. It is comprised of a tent in an enclave along this busy Parisian boulevard.

After asking her father, Roujenka became the first member of the family to go to school. Her three sisters and a brother were educated by teachers coming to the circus. “I have many problems at school”, Roujenka said. “The other pupils make fun of me because I do not dress like them. It is out of the question for me to give up my culture and wear trousers and they do not even try to understand why I wear my long and colorful dresses. It is becoming harder and harder for me to be who I am even more since my community was attacked in France. I am happy with my sisters, my brother and my parents, and the way I live. We do not harm anyone but we are always criticized.”

When I asked about her hobbies, I was expecting a simple answer, like one given by most 13-year-old girls. “I do not watch television. I do not have stuffed animals. My animals are the cats running everywhere in the circus. I do not go shopping, this is not our way of life, it’s not in our culture. The only place I go shopping is the Flamenco tailor but it is very expensive. I have three dresses, one red and white, a yellow one and a black with white spots. When I get off from school, I practice my Flamenco dancing, I sing, I rehearse, I listen to music. My sister Alexandra is a great trapeze artist and she teaches me a lot too. All this is with the goal to improve my skills.”

A night in a bunker

Ilmenau, Germany

By Ina Fassbender

One Saturday morning I began to time travel for 16 hours to a place in eastern Germany, traveling to the time of the former DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), to the time of two countries and two armies. To the bunker museum at Rennsteighoehe, in the middle of the Thueringer forest. It is owned by the “Waldhotel Rennsteighoehe”, which offers a ‘reality event’ weekend, to sleep one night in a bunker built by the ministry for national security MfS, wear a NVA (Nationale Volksarmee or National People’s Army) uniform and be treated like a former DDR soldier for the night.

I arrived in the middle of the forest with 14 others taking part in this reality event. First, everybody had to choose trousers, jackets, belts and caps. A gas mask was essential. Then a man, who looked like a major, appeared with a frightening look in his eyes and scolded us with severe words, exhorting us to find the bunker some 30 kms (18 miles) away. So we walked with our luggage through the forest. We were happy to find the bunker after only 100 meters (yards). At a closed gate a man, who had the look of a former NVA officer, welcomed us with no warm words. Rather he gave commands like in former times.

GALLERY: INSIDE A GERMAN BUNKER

At that moment I remembered my first meeting with the NVA. I visited friends in Berlin in 1986 and had to use the 200 km (124 miles) transit motorway through the former DDR. At the customs inspection I waited for many hours; don’t do anything, stay calm, don’t smile, be serious. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, there was the moment NVA soldiers had to control me. I was in fear. They looked into my eyes, asked me where I wanted to go, how long would I stay there, what was the reason, was I smuggling something? They went away for 10 minutes with my pass. When they returned they uttered no words, inspected the car and my baggage inside and out. It took around 15 minutes and then I was on my way to Berlin. They found nothing.

The fashion of Liverpool

Liverpool, England

By Suzanne Plunkett

The chances are you won’t have heard of Liverpool Fashion Week. But if you have – or if you ever do in the future – it will likely be thanks to Amanda Moss.

Moss, an indefatigable mother of six children, is on a mission to transform Liverpool into Britain’s first haute couture hot spot beyond London. She has some way to go but if anyone can do it, she can. I met her while covering Liverpool Fashion Week, an event launched by Moss five years ago and now proudly sashaying into the international spotlight.

The words Liverpool and fashion have been known to raise a smile when mentioned together – especially among locals, known for their self-deprecating sense of humor.

Morphing after midnight

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Sergio Moraes

In Brazil it’s not hard to find people who like to play soccer. Recently I came across a group of fanatics at Don Camillo Restaurant along Copacabana Beach, but they weren’t customers. They are the waiters.

At work the waiters never stop talking about soccer, whether commenting about the latest round of the Brasileiro national championship, or the outlook for the 2014 World Cup that Brazil will host. But every Monday after closing up at midnight, the waiters grab their gym bags and board a bus to the Aterro do Flamengo soccer field in the south of Rio. They morph into what they really want to be – soccer players.

The best player in the group is Jonas Aguiar, 37, who nearly turned pro at 18 but was frustrated by a thigh injury. Aguiar is the team’s organizer; it was he who found a sponsor for their team jerseys in restaurant customer Mr. Ayrton, director of the Botafogo first division club. Although the waiters began playing with the Botafogo name on their shirts, they soon made up their own name combining Botafogo, which means “fire spitter”, with their restaurant’s name, Don Camillo. They now call themselves Don Fogo, or Mr. Fire.

A round in the ring against Parkinson’s

Costa Mesa, California

By Mike Blake

I have been tromping around the planet for some 50 years now. I don’t have much recollection of the first six or seven, but after that I can easily think back to places, people and events that remain inside my head much like the pictures I have shot remain on film and in pixels stored on the random-access memory inside this computer I’m typing on.

GALLERY: FIGHTING AGAINST PARKINSON’S

For each and every one of us, our memories are contained somewhere behind our eyes in a biological wonder of neurons that has yet to be fully understood. If you think about all your life’s memories and how much information that is, and, if you’re as old as me, you have to be impressed with this piece of engineering we all have. Not only is it holding your whole life in storage, it’s also been telling your heart when to beat, your stomach when to toss that bad piece of sushi and your body temperature to remain precisely regulated at exactly 98.7 F since the day you were born. If that’s not impressive enough, it tells your body to do everything you want it to do.

It controls all your motor functions, from me typing these letters on a computer screen, to getting up to go to the bathroom. As soon as you think it, it sends the signals down to your muscles and you get to where you’re going, or your arm brings that cup of coffee up to your mouth. Your brain can do all of these things in the blink of an eye – except when it can’t. And this is where I begin my little story about Parkinson’s disease.

No darkness within

Buenos Aires, Argentina

By Enrique Marcarian

No disability scares me more than blindness. I depend on my sight more than on my legs. Impaired vision determines the course of the lives of those who suffer it, changing or eliminating their ability to do so much. Nevertheless, there are cases in which a person’s strength is greater than the challenge. Two such people are Leonardo Duarte (Leo) and Eusebia Casimiro (Evi), husband and wife who live by themselves, although they are both blind.

Leo and Evi are both in their mid-fifties, and both lost their eyesight as young adults. Leo lost his as a victim of an attempted robbery, and Evi was left blind during surgery to remove a brain tumor. I was attracted to them by their personalities and attitudes in the face of adversity; they live alone with limited resources but with great will to overcome all that, in a society that does not fully accommodate the visually impaired.

For those unfamiliar with the city of Buenos Aires, traffic is unbearable and walking the streets is often like navigating an obstacle course. Although the couple conserve their visual memory, I imagine that they begin with something like a blank chalkboard in their minds. And although they can’t see, it’s as if they had a light inside them to guide them, through intuition. They can describe with about 80% accuracy different shapes and places. I believe they can sense even more than I can with normal eyesight.

Peering into the Wall of Death

Athens, Greece

By John Kolesidis

I’m a huge fan of motorbikes and I’ve been riding since I was 20. I love the speed. I watch MotoGP racing religiously and I certainly don’t scare easy, either as a driver or a passenger. But I cannot say the same for the first time I saw the “Wall of Death”.

After a two-hour trip some 150 km (93 miles) northeast of the capital Athens, I arrived in Mantoudi, a small village where stuntman Akis Andreou would perform his final motorbike stunts in the “Wall of Death,” a narrow, wooden, barrel-like structure, before taking the show to Athens.

After I met him, he offered to do some rounds just for me so that I could get used to it, as he said, before taking pictures. He asked me to go to up to the stands where the audience usually sits and stressed that I should be careful and keep my hands off the barrel.

Hope turns to tragedy in quake aftermath

Cebu, Philippines

By Erik de Castro

It was a normal Tuesday morning for me that fateful day when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck the central Philippines. I was covering a Muslim Eid Al-Adha religious festival at a Manila park, after nearly a week of floods coverage brought about by Typhoon Nari. As I was driving away from the park, I received a text message from a Reuters reporter about the quake. I felt the adrenalin rush as I mentally ran through my checklist of disaster gear while hitting the accelerator to reach home quickly. After getting my manager’s approval to cover the earthquake aftermath, I rushed to the airport to catch the next flight to Cebu city. I was lucky to get on a flight minutes before the plane’s door closed. After more than an hour, I arrived in Cebu and quickly contacted a driver and rented a van to go around the city. I was checking out damaged structures near the Cebu airport when I heard from a local radio station that hospital patients were being evacuated from a quake-damaged hospital.

When I reached Cebu City medical center, I saw the adjacent basketball court filled with hospital beds and patients. I immediately took pictures of a general view of the area. As I fired my shutter, I noticed some medical personnel surrounding a baby lying on top of a small table converted into a makeshift operating table at the far end of the covered court. I moved closer and took a few pictures only as I was worried I might interrupt their work to save the baby.

I moved to other areas to continue taking photos of the evacuated patients, but I made a mental note to come back later and inquire about the status of the baby and to get more details for my caption. When I returned to that spot after about two hours, I saw a man, who turned out to be the baby’s father, pumping oxygen manually in to the baby’s mouth. He told me the baby, their first born, is a boy. He gladly told me the baby’s chances of survival were good because he was now breathing. I felt a strange joy in my heart after taking a few photos of the baby and the father. After a few minutes, I was asked by medical workers to leave the area.

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