Photographers' Blog

Five days with my North Korean minders

Pyongyang, North Korea

By Jason Lee

From stepping on to the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang on the evening of July 24th until my return on the 29th, I didn’t stop taking pictures. Our group from Reuters, visiting the secretive state of North Korea for its celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, often found ourselves with no time to eat. It was only in the taxi on the way home from Beijing airport that I had time to think back on my trip.

GALLERY: INSIDE NORTH KOREA

It was the experience of a lifetime, a nation of 22 million people showing a depression and weakness of spirit that I tried my best to interpret through my cameras.

But it can also be seen through my experience with the closest North Korean people to me during the trip – the minders, the name we gave to the “guides” deployed by the government to accompany foreign media.

Probably because our Reuters group had a Korean American journalist, we got “special treatment”: two minders. One was a meek translator with no experience (I will refer him as Minder M) and the other a gruff chap (Minder G), who later turned out to be the head of a surveillance team assigned to the journalists’ shuttle bus. Upon our arrival in Pyongyang, I received a friendly warning from both of them: Please check with us before you take any picture.

Our first event was to cover the opening ceremony of the Cemetery of Fallen Fighters of the Korean People’s Army. None of the visiting journalists had been told that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, would be there, and in the ensuing media scrum to grab a shot of the latest, mysterious ruler of the Kim dynasty, Minder G was very kind, holding me steady as I stood on tiptoe on top of a ladder carrying three cameras.

Swimming by Seatrac

Alepochori, Greece

By Yorgos Karahalis

In Greece, with its hundreds of islands, one of the longest coastlines in the world and a great climate, people are lucky enough to enjoy the beach for nearly half the year. Swimming in the sea is a way of life for many Greeks and a habit they’ve grown used to from their earliest years. With tourism being the country’s biggest industry, almost all visitors plan at least one “touch” with the sea during their holiday.

But for some, things are not so simple. Those with kinetic disabilities have always had to ask for help to enjoy the simple pleasure of swimming in the sea as wheelchairs cannot be driven on the sand or over pebbles. Unfortunately, this isn’t unusual in a country where access facilities for the disabled are in general very poor, even at the most basic level. A lack of infrastructure by the state and hostile behavior by many locals is a cocktail poisoning the daily life of those who depend on wheelchairs to get around.

In such a difficult environment, a team of university students and professors developed a solar-powered device which enables autonomous access to the beach for people with kinetic disabilities: the “Seatrac”, an innovative project covered by European and U.S. patents but faced with Greek reality.

Woodstock 2013

Kostrzyn-upon-Odra River, Poland

By Tom Peter

It was a sweltering hot day and already late in the afternoon when I reached the small Polish border town of Kostrzyn-nad-Odra, home to the Woodstock Station rock festival. As I made my way along a forest road towards a military base on its outskirts, I passed scores of bare-chested men who lay dotted around in the shade, having clearly succumbed to a mixture of heat and hard liqueur. I approached the throbbing roar of guitars beyond the forest with some apprehension, believing I was in for a night of testosterone-induced aggression. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I stepped out into the clearing I found myself at the edge of a mud mosh pit the size of a tennis court, with a few dozen boys and girls in swim suits going absolutely bonkers to the sound of a Polish punk band. Beyond it there was the main stage towering over a billowing cloud of dust thrown up by thousands of dancing metal-heads who were going equally off the rails.

Those in front of me chased one another through the knee-deep murky water, tipping each other over (girls were the preferred targets), and rolling around in the sludge in what looked like Mad Max fighting scenes. Every so often groups would be overcome by a communal fit of exercise mania and organize themselves in circles to do push-ups or crawl, military style, across the pit.

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.

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.