Photographers' Blog

Surviving as a garment worker

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

By Damir Sagolj

Like a true professional, Maen Sopeak sings to the audience of seven people who sit on the bare floor of her room in a Phnom Penh suburb. Her singing is soft, at moments almost a whisper, but her beautiful voice is clear. In a country even slightly richer than devastated, impoverished Cambodia, she could be a star. She could perform to packed halls, wearing only the best clothes.

Maen Sopeak is, however, just a poor garment worker. There will be no sell-out crowds or fancy dresses for her anytime soon. She shares a single, hole-in-the-wall room with six other women, who all work at a nearby garment factory producing clothes for Western brands.

The song is excruciatingly sad. It tells the story of a girl forced into marriage with an older man, not the one she loves. Maen makes the grim song sound somehow joyful, although suicidal thoughts would be more appropriate. The abject conditions where she lives and works are a natural setting for this tragic ballad. Here, misery invites yet more misery. Just like in my home country of Bosnia, another devastated post-genocide country where its sevdah music is just a natural extension of everyday hardship.

I’m in Cambodia for five days to do a story on garment workers. The idea is to see how these women live, and shine some light on these conditions before a tragedy strikes (which I hope will never happen). Working conditions are better than in Bangladesh, but not by much. After a building collapsed in Bangladesh in April, killing more than 1,000 workers in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, more business has come to Cambodia. Many fear more accidents will follow.

I knew coming here was not going to be easy. No matter how long I stay, or how good or lucky I am, many layers of this complex story will remain unseen. What I have seen and photographed is not easy to put into one picture or into a single thought.

A return to the land in Spain

Murcia, Spain

By Susana Vera

The silence of a sleepy town and the flickering light of the street lamps greet Jorge Ibanez as he leaves his home before the crack of dawn in Pozo Estrecho, in the southeastern Spanish region of Cartagena, Murcia. With his baseball hat on and a cooler in his hand, he approaches a couple of men on a corner. They exchange timid hellos and engage in conversation as they wait for the car that will drive them to a potato field ready to be harvested.

Ibanez is a 20-year-old Spanish day laborer. A pair of rotten gloves and his baseball hat are his work uniform, a group of Moroccan men his work companions. Together they set out every morning to collect thousands of pounds of potatoes that will end up in the kitchens of northern Europe.

Different fields every day, but always the same sight: row after row of round yellow potatoes waiting to be picked up. Tractors work at night unearthing the tubers so that the day laborers can start collecting them as soon as the sun rises. Extreme heat is not good for potatoes, so the workers have to rush to finish before midday, when the sun is at its peak and the heat starts becoming unbearable, both for them and the spuds.

Gettysburg, 150 years on

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

By Mark Makela

For the past year, I embraced a fervor of the 1860’s that threaded itself from the 149th through to the 150th Gettysburg reenactments. I traversed thousands of miles across the country, documenting a sub-culture of “hardcore authentics,” Civil War re-enactors who honor the importance of the living history as though the war still rages. They took me in, enlightened me as to what once was, and allowed me to experience the mid-19th century world, set amid a contemporary landscape but transformed by a strict semblance of history.

Even before commencing this long term project, it was clear that all paths pointed towards the Gettysburg 150th anniversary. Thus, I loved the opportunity to cover the finale of the Blue Gray Alliance reenactment for Reuters. As my camera got waterlogged by the rain on Saturday night, I was down to one for Sunday, ultimately making the day that much more memorable. Often I find it’s a boon shooting with only one body. One must at least attempt to envision more of what the situation may be and make many decisions beforehand so as not to be changing lenses during opportune photographic moments. “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera,” Lewis Hine famously quipped, but only having one does save wear and tear on your shoulder.

I have always been inspired by the beauty, stillness, and haunting quality of Civil War era wet plate photography, namely that of Alex Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Mathew Brady. It’s a fascinating, reflective phenomenon to be documenting the enduring Civil War culture via living historians not only as a tribute to our American past, but also to the birthplace of documentary photography. A further parallel is that these 1860s photographs are the very imagery and documentary source material which has inspired the “hardcore” practice of honoring the past and instilling the importance of the Civil War to future generations.

Tightening Croatia’s borders

Along the Croatia border

By Antonio Bronic

Two months ago, I started working on a story about Croatia’s border police preparing for the country’s EU accession and trying to prevent illegal migrants from crossing into Croatia. For a media person, it is indeed rare to hang out with the police for 24 hours and I was afraid they would be stiff and uncooperative. How wrong I was. They were friendly and nice and, in the end, even took pity on my efforts to capture something dramatic on camera.

I visited three border crossings, two in the south, with Bosnia and Montenegro, and one in the east, with Serbia. I was mostly interested in finding out who were the people trying to cross the border illegally. They were mostly poor and unemployed citizens of Afghanistan, Syria and Albania, who wanted to reach rich European countries through Croatia, in hopes of finding salvation there.

From talking with the police who have been patrolling the borders for years, I found out that some illegal migrants travel for two months from Afghanistan and are really starving, thirsty, exhausted and poorly clad once they are caught. In some cases they surrender voluntarily to the police, just to get some food. Those who are captured are returned to the country from which they crossed into Croatia but that often does not stop them from trying again. There have been cases of illegal migrants who have tried to cross the border for ten days in a row. One of the most interesting and amusing stories I heard while hanging out with the border patrol was that once illegal migrants mistakenly entered a police van, thinking it was their arranged transport that would take them to another country.

It’s Superman over California

San Diego, California

By Mike Blake

As technology costs drop allowing the individual inventor to become freer to pursue their dreams, create their ideas, and start up new businesses, the world will become a more fascinating place to live.

I first made contact with Otto Diefenbauch in early 2013 after a youtube video of him flying a cardboard-type plane along the California coastline went viral. We chatted and he said he was working on something even better and would drop me an email when he was ready to show it off. So, six months later when he dropped me an email I was curious to see what he had been up to. In this case, it was a much more refined and well designed “flying people” plane. I’m really not sure what to call them.

Otto would be testing some prototypes and I was invited to come along with my cameras. It was a bit of an early start, considering the past two months I have been working late helping edit the NBA and NHL playoffs. I was given very specific direction, though it was in somewhat of a strange location: Meet by some dumpsters off a side road in back of a building.

How would you like your doner, with or without a gas mask?

Istanbul, Turkey

By Marko Djurica

Everyone who has ever been to Istanbul knows their famed Turkish fast food restaurants, especially in Taksim Square. Doners, kebabs and other delicacies are on offer 24/7. The competition is vast and every vendor fights to lure customers. You can’t really go wrong: most of the places have friendly staff and tasty morsels of food. But in one restaurant I experienced a kind of service I could never have dreamed of.

Namely, on June 22 I was in Taksim Square covering the protests that had begun 20 days earlier when the government of Prime Minister Erdogan announced it would build a new shopping mall on Gezi Park, the last large green space in the city. A large number of protesters faced down a line of riot police armed with water cannons. No one needed to tell me what was going to happen; I have been in similar situations many times. The demonstrators shouted anti-government slogans, the police asked them to disperse because rallies are forbidden. Naturally, after a few hours, tensions rose and the police began to use water cannons and tear gas to evict the masses – now a common sight at Taksim.

Even though at first glance it was frightening, it seemed that both sides could get used to this. Tear gas rained down on all sides and so many canisters landed in front of the mass of kebab stands, the open kind which lack windows and doors to hide from the gas burning your eyes and throat. I decided to go inside and take photos, expecting empty tables, chairs flung pell-mell and charred food abandoned on the grill. But what I saw instead stunned me.

The search for a mosque in Athens

Athens, Greece

By Yorgos Karahalis

Some say that to come in contact with “God” is a spiritual matter that has nothing to do with the particular spot or place where such contact takes place. Well, if it were that simple then there would be no need to build churches or mosques.

In the Greek capital Athens, where almost half the country’s 11 million people live, there is a 500,000-strong Muslim community, mostly immigrants from Asia, Africa and eastern Europe. Many of those are faithful and want to express their faith by praying in an appropriate place. Well, there is no such place – there isn’t a single “official” mosque in the wider area of the Greek capital.

Instead, they have to rent flats, basements, old garages and all kinds of warehouses and transform them into makeshift mosques to cover their need for a place to hold religious ceremonies. There are lots of these types of “mosques” around town but they’re not easy to spot and whenever I arrived at one of those addresses I had to double-check it was correct as there was no way to identify these flats or warehouses from the outside. I could not say that they’re miserable places but I could better describe them as hidden places, places that do not want to get noticed. During most of my visits people have been very welcoming and very keen to express their concerns about the lack of a recognizable place of worship as well as their fears about the threats they get from some locals.

On the lifeblood of Cairo

Cairo, Egypt

By Asmaa Waguih

On a bridge that overlooks the Nile, a couple stands close to one another, planning for their future. A fisherman passes under the bridge in the boat his sons are rowing and a larger vessel approaches blaring loud music, with young people dancing inside and enjoying a cruise. Elsewhere, school children stand on the bank near some rocks and take a dive into the water to cool off. Everything’s happening on the Nile – this is the lifeblood of Cairo.

I wanted to shoot a story about life on the river because in Cairo it attracts everybody, rich and poor. There are expensive places where you can go and hang out, have dinner and see a belly dancer, but the Nile is also a huge attraction for the majority of the population who are less well off and who can pay two or three Egyptian pounds (around 30 or 40 cents) to take a cheap shared cruise down the river at night.

You could spend your whole life taking pictures of the Nile and there would still be more to see, so I had to try and choose my subjects. Some of my images show the huge contrasts in Egyptian society, from the huge buildings in central Cairo, to life in the shantytowns towards the outskirts, where I photographed a man washing his horse in the water.

From Confederations Cup to Demonstrations Cup

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Sergio Moraes

It took them 21 years but they’re back. Brazilians began to hit the streets last week to protest the lack of investment in health, education, public transportation, and security, and against corruption and the exaggerated spending for the Confederations Cup, World Cup and Olympic Games. The last time I saw a nationwide movement of this type was in 1992, during the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello. He ended up resigning.

Two decades later Brazil’s youths have again provoked the entire country to fight for their rights. The difference between these protests and the ones in 1992 is the level of violence from both the police and the demonstrators. I covered them back then, and those now in Rio and Belo Horizonte, and there’s no way I can agree with those who say that it’s just a small group from each protest that confronts the police. I’ve seen the protests divided into huge groups between those who are fighting for better infrastructure and services, and others who just want to fight the cops, but they are all in the battle.

The first protests were against the increase in public transportation fares, but with the movement’s success suddenly other issues have made the list of demands much longer. Since they began during the FIFA Confederations Cup, a warm-up to next year’s World Cup, the protests gained much more visibility than normal. One of the biggest complaints is the amount of public money being spent on the construction of stadiums, and for that reason many of the demonstrations are held on match days, and even inside the stadiums as fans hold up posters with phrases like, “We want FIFA-standard hospitals,” or “No more corruption.” It’s worth noting that FIFA prohibits demonstrations inside stadiums during its competitions, but this time Brazilians managed to dribble around FIFA and get their posters inside.

Destination Cuba: Alongside empty seat 17A

Havana, Cuba

By Maxim Shemetov

I’ve never been to Cuba before. Frankly speaking, today is my first visit. It’s a very short one of only 24 hours, of which now I have only half left to walk around Old Havana and to swim in the ocean while the global hysteria over the uncatchable Edward Snowden carries on.

For me, this story started on Sunday when I woke up and slowly went to the office. It was supposed to be a usual working weekend when almost nothing happens. Almost… Incoming calls suddenly started to light up my cell phone. The big story with Snowden as the lead actor flying somewhere via Moscow began. It is hard to describe all of the next 24 hours spent in the airport, with expensive tickets booked to get inside the transit zone at Sheremetyevo and disappointment that a lot of energy was wasted on information that turned out to be wrong.

The next morning I headed to the airport again to take the same flight as Snowden. It looked suspicious that everyone knew when and how a top secret target was going to leave Russia. The flight number, even the fugitive’s seat on the plane, was known 24 hours ahead of departure! I met around 30 reporters flying to Cuba near gate 28. All were filming a newly arrived plane while arguing with airport security.