Photographers' Blog

Derby days

Augusta, New Jersey

By Mike Segar

When I was growing up I remember each summer looking forward to visiting the Barnstable County fair in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where my family spent the summer. A tradition from coast to coast, the summer county fair is a purely American event and my family never missed it.

GALLERY: JERSEY’S DEMOLITION DERBY

What I also remember fondly from the fair after the cotton candy, rides and games was going to see the evening demolition derby races – watching as groups of salvaged and homemade cars called “beaters” or “wrecks” slammed into each other over and over on a dirt track until the last car still moving was declared the winner. It was always a fun event with lots of laughs.

As a Reuters staff photographer based in New York I am always looking out for quirky, uniquely American events and stories which can bring with them their own set of characters and atmosphere that make for interesting images and the opportunity for visual storytelling. Demolition Derby is certainly one of these events. When I found out that the Nation-Wide Demolition-Derby company was holding a two-day competition, one of the largest on the east coast, I knew I wanted to shoot it.

The first documented version of a race in which the destruction of cars was the intended goal, involved Larry Mendelsohn, a stock car driver from Long Island, New York. He began promoting demolition derbies around the area in the late 1950’s after he and others realized that the spectators at the races enjoyed the wrecks as much, or more, than the race itself. In Wisconsin in 1950, a used car salesmen named Crazy Jim held a demolition derby to promote his business using old Fords. He later became a demolition derby promoter in the region. Other sources say that the demolition style of racing was happening in Chicago also as far back as 1950. The sport grew in popularity peaking in the 1970’s with national television coverage. Now the events are mostly held at the local level at fairs and carnivals.

Despite being just 70 miles from New York City, the largest metropolitan center in the United States, Sussex County, New Jersey, is farm country – rural and open. The New Jersey State Fair Sussex County Farm and Horse show reflects that farm culture, and is typical of summer fairs held around the country. But as the sun begins to go down and the stands around the Derby track begin to fill with spectators, competitors in the demolition derby take center stage. Auto mechanics, body shop owners, welders, tire guys, metal fabricators, junk yard owners and auto dealers are all there. Men and women, young and old come to have some fun, see their friends, get some food at the fair and crash their cars. If they’re lucky maybe they win a trophy and a bit of cash. Most have built their own cars from junk with parts salvaged and scraped together which they hope can outlast the competition in a few minutes of punishing crashes.

Little angel Niuniu

Shanghai, China

By Aly Song

“Mom, can I touch the stuffed steamed bun? I won’t eat it, just touch.” Four-year-old Wang JiachengNiuniu, nicknamed Niuniu, said to his mother while desperately eager for a bite of the steamed bun stuffed with meat in front of him. Half a year ago, Niuniu was diagnosed with late stage neuroblastoma. Since then, he has undergone chemotherapy treatments which cause him to vomit constantly and make it almost impossible to eat anything, especially meat. Yan Hongyu, Niuniu’s mother, cast a bitter smile at her son’s naive request. She was still struggling to believe that her boy had to suffer such a great deal in his childhood.

GALLERY: A CHILD’S STRUGGLE

I came across Niuniu’s story while doing research to find a family for an in-depth picture story on China’s healthcare policy. Before I met them, I did some searches and found out there weren’t many treatments available in China for neuroblastoma, which is a neuroendocrine tumor arising from any neural crest element of the sympathetic nervous system. This cancer has a more successful treatment rate if the patient is less than two-years-old. But in Niuniu’s case, the risk is much higher. Nonetheless, Niuniu had surgery to remove the tumor. After that, he would have to completely rely on chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells.

Knowing the chances were slim, Niuniu’s parents committed to the treatment with 100% faith. Yan quit her job in Yancheng, Jiangsu province, and took her son to Shanghai for better medical services in early 2013. They rented a 10-square-meter small apartment near the hospital, and since then have been rushing between the two places. Niuniu’s father, who used to own a small company in Yancheng, recently sold the company in order to pay the bills. He was still taking some jobs in their hometown to make ends meet, but whenever he had a chance he would go to Shanghai to help his wife. “Nowadays, people just cannot afford to get sick” Yan said as she chatted with other patients’ relatives in the hospital. Before Niuniu fell ill, they were a happy upper-middle class family. But now the estimated cost for the entire treatment is over 300,000 yuan (48,991 USD), and the insurance can only cover as much as 80,000 yuan (13,064 USD). A huge financial burden, restless nights while taking care of Niuniu and mental anguish – none of this matters to Yan. “Nothing is worse than seeing my son suffer everyday,” Yan said. “I would rather myself being sick.”

Inside Mongolia’s Ger District

Ulan Bator, Mongolia

By Carlos Barria

As the sun tucks behind the hills near the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, Baljirjantsan Otgonseren, 32, walks out of her “Ger,” a traditional Mongolian tent, looking for her daughter. The girl is watching the last sunbeams of the day stretch over the settlement known as the Ger District — a sprawling residential area that has grown so fast in ten years, it has evolved from a transient slum to a legal residential zone.

Like many other residents, Otgonseren and her family migrated from the grasslands to the capital looking for better opportunities. They left behind a traditional nomadic lifestyle in favor of city life and a shot at participating in their country’s rapid economic growth. Recent natural disasters have played a part too. For example, the 2010 “Zud,” a Mongolian term for an extremely snowy period, helped convince many to settle in one place for good.

According to a 2010 National Population Center census, roughly 30,000 to 40,000 people move to the capital every year. As a country, Mongolia is considered the world’s least densely populated nation; with 2.8 million people spread over 1.5 million square kilometers (580,000 square miles).

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.

Marathon inferno

Marathon, Greece

By Yannis Behrakis

It was a typical August day in Athens — very hot and windy. I was driving around town on my scooter when I stopped next to a fire brigade jeep at a traffic light. An officer in the vehicle asked me if I was happy with my scooter. I said: “yes I’m happy. Are you happy with the weather conditions?” He smiled and said: “I’m sure we will have many forest fires these days. There are a few burning in central Greece as we speak.”

It was less than an hour later when I received a message on my mobile phone from the fire brigade about a fire in Marathon, some 40-45 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Athens, where the Athenians fought the Persians in a historic battle in 490 BC. Sources said that police and the fire brigade had started evacuating a hamlet in the area. I took my gear and a few masks for the dust and raced to the area on my scooter. It was really windy and for the last few miles, the traffic on Marathon Avenue was heavy — both ways — as some people were fleeing and others were trying to reach their homes and protect them from what looked to be a fire out of control. Police were stopping vehicles from reaching the area to provide clear access to fire engines and fire brigade troops. In order to pass through, I drove closely to a speeding ambulance and managed to pass all the police check points.

The area was covered by smoke and the one main road was full of water containers, police cars, fire fighters and a few local volunteers. I left the scooter off road in a field and rushed into the forest behind a group of fire fighters and a couple of volunteers. It was intense. The strong wind would change direction again and again, burning trees and thick bush as helicopters and fire fighting planes flew overhead dropping water. The heat was extreme and the smoke made it hard to see. In some cases, I was taking pictures unable to see as the smoke made my eyes watery and sore.

High fashion under high security

Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, Brazil

By Paulo Whitaker

A stylish, high-society blonde smelling of French perfume, inside a maximum security prison teaching prisoners to knit, truly seemed like a scene from a movie. But that’s what I found in Juiz de Fora, a medium-sized city in Brazil’s southeastern state of Minas Gerais.

Just a few years ago, Raquell Guimaraes, now 32, began working with her mother to knit clothing in tricot. They enjoyed success and with an increase in orders she needed more knitters, but couldn’t find enough. That was when she decided to visit the Arisvaldo de Campos Pires maximum security penitentiary in Juiz de Fora, about 100 miles (160 kms) north of Rio de Janeiro. There, Ms. Guimaraes found her perfect knitters, people with available time, some with as many as 20 years to spare.

At first, she presented to the prison administration a proposal to train female prisoners to produce her clothing. But after talking with the warden, Andrea Andires, they concluded that it would be more productive to work with male prisoners, an idea that at first seemed a little bizarre. These prisoners have violent histories, and the question was whether men imprisoned for offenses such as armed robbery, drug trafficking, and murder, could learn to knit tricot. This was the gamble that Guimaraes and Andires took, with excellent results.

My week at the fair

Little Valley, New York

By Brendan McDermid

As a child some of my favorite summer memories were going to the fair. I’m not sure if it was the cotton candy, candy apples, taffy or fried dough that I liked best but I’m sure all of them have something to do with my memories. I grew up in Buffalo, NY (insert winter weather joke here) which hosts the third largest county fair in the United States and the largest county fair in New York State. But none of my memories are from the Erie County fair.

Growing up my family had a cabin in Cattaraugus County, New York and we’d spent a lot of time there hiking, fishing, sitting around the camp fire and generally running a muck in the outdoors. Each year we’d head over to the Cattaraugus County fair to break up our time at the cabin and to basically give my parents human interaction outside of their five kids, and whatever friends we had staying with us. Like any other fair they have rides, games, entertainment and most importantly deep fried deliciousness! So, naturally as an adult I wanted to relive all the joy and excitement of my youth. Don’t we all?

When I came up with this assignment, one of the things I really wanted to look at was the 4-H program and the kids who take part in it. Growing up, 4-H was not very popular where I lived, but I was always curious because of my experiences at the fair. This week I’ve met some amazing young people like Keenan Tadt, who competed in the English Horse Show and showed her sheep, about 15 minutes apart. She’s best seen in the competition ring wrestling her unruly sheep while still wearing her breeches and riding boots.

Spilling oil in Paradise

Ao Prao Beach, Thailand

By Athit Perawongmetha

I first met Piyapong Sopakhon on Coconut Bay on Samet island. He was surrounded by men in white bio-hazard suits and he stuck out because he was a young boy wearing a simple plastic sheet that protected his small body as well as orange dish-washing gloves that were too big for his small hands. It was as though he had opened up a chest of dress-up clothes and was getting ready for fun — but  matter at hand was not child’s play — the gloves were covered in a thick goo of the black gobs that were smeared across the beach — a toxic spread on golden buttered toast.

Piyapong is not a soldier nor is he a marine biologist. He’s just a school boy who, on any other day, would have been told off for skipping class. So I asked him: “Why aren’t you in school today?” His reply? “I just want to help.”

GALLERY: OIL SPILL HITS THAI RESORT

Born and bred on Samet island, his face was one of ardent determination. On this day, he was a volunteer along with the adults frantically trying to clean up this corner of paradise. So I told him he should find something with which to cover his nose and mouth or he might start to feel dizzy.

Euro in pieces

Mainz, Germany

By Kai Pfaffenbach

When heavy floods hit parts of eastern and southern Germany two months ago, a few forensic scientists sitting hundreds of miles away in a dry place at their office in Mainz (south-western Germany) knew there would be a flood coming their way as well. Not that wet, not that destructive but also massive. The 13 men and women are members of the money analyzing team of Germany’s Federal reserve, Deutsche Bundesbank, specializing in reconstructing damaged or destroyed bank notes.

Experience from previous floods told them there would be thousands of notes found in private basements, flooded bank safes or cash machines. Those notes need to be reconstructed and, once they have been verified, the Bundesbank transfers the money back to its owners’ account, while the damaged notes will be burned.

At least 50% of a note is needed but even with less left the experts are able to reconstruct the bills. Obviously, a lot of Germans do not really trust the safes of their banks and hide money in private places – buried in their gardens, underneath wine shelves or (very innovative) in their mattresses. Within eight weeks of the flood more than 100,000 notes, worth more than 3 million euros, were sent to the analyzing laboratory in Mainz.

Tobacco, sodas and nabs

Horry County, South Carolina

By Randall Hill

It’s not long after a visitor arrives at Shelley Farms in the Pleasant View community of Horry County, South Carolina that they are offered a cold soda and a pack of peanut butter crackers commonly referred to as “nabs”. In good old Southern fashion, several bulk packs of the treat are placed on the edge of a John Deere tractor seat and offered to any visitor or farm hand that cares for a snack. Along with the nabs the Shelley’s will offer a choice of a can soda from a large cooler kept cold despite the stagnant summer heat in South Carolina.

Johnny Shelley has farmed his entire life. He took some time away from the farm to attend college in North Carolina and then taught school for a while, but the land eventually brought him back to farming. He and his son Cam operate the farm and maintain 1200 acres of farmland including 300 acres of tobacco just a stones throw from nearby Mullins, South Carolina. This area is referred to as the “border belt” of tobacco with North Carolina and Virginia serving as the biggest producers of the historical crop.

The months of July and August are harvest and curing time for the tobacco farmers along the border belt. The Shelley’s and most farmers in South Carolina grow a variety of tobacco referred to as flue-clued. The name comes from the process of drying out the crop after it is harvested with heat and air. The tobacco is first pulled from the stalks with a large machine called a harvester. The operator on this farm is a long time employee of the Shelley’s named Lester “Buddy” Stroud.