Photographers' Blog

Recharging the mystical powers

Wat Bang Phra, Thailand

By Damir Sagolj

A devotee with a small zoo of animals tattooed on his body speeds toward the large statue of the Big Master, jumping over others and making unusual sounds and gestures. A volunteer standing in his way is big but fortunately very quick to stop the frantic run before a man crashes into the stage. A tattooed man bounces off the volunteer’s huge body, wakes-up from the trance and calmly goes back into the crowd. The air-bag volunteer turns to his colleagues and, as if nothing special is happening, comments in the ultra-cool manner of Bud Spencer (remember the Banana Joe movie?) “It is hot today. Very hot.”

And it’s hot indeed. It’s the beginning of the Thai summer. Only a few hours after the sunrise, the temperature is over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). It is also abnormally humid. However, people who came to Wat Bang Phra today don’t really care for such banal things as heat and humidity – they are here for a higher cause.

Every year, on a special day in March thousands of devotees from all around Thailand (some from abroad, too) travel for the Magic Tattoo festival to Nakhon Prathom province, just over an hour drive from Bangkok. The festival takes place at a temple well known for “magically charged” tattoos.

People with such tattoos believe the inked drawings with elaborate designs of animals and sacred scripts give them mystical powers – protection from bullets and other danger, along with other benefits. They are made all across the country and very different people wear them, just like the amulets you can see everywhere in Thailand. When soldiers from the Thai army went to Iraq on a peacekeeping mission, 443 of them carried 6000 magic amulets for protection.

Tattoos and amulets are made elsewhere but Wat Bang Phra is a special place and the most famous for its powerful, magic tattoos. A few days before the festival, I spoke to a young man from Bangkok’s notorious Khlong Toey slum about his tattoos. Salut got his first tattoo at the age of 17. Now, nine years later, most of his skin is covered in inked drawings and there is barely enough space for another. But, he needs more tattoos, saying they protect him from danger and give him extra self-confidence. After observing his body and smoking a menthol cigarette (that, along with flowers, is offered in exchange for tattoos), a Buddhist monk pulls out a traditional half meter long needle and starts inking sacred script in the tiny empty space around the young man’s left nipple.

The end of a dream

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Sergio Moraes

The historic building known as the Brazilian Indian Museum, located next to Rio’s even more famous Maracana soccer stadium, was donated to the Brazilian government by the Duke of Saxe in 1865. The Duke’s intention was to create a center for research into the Indian cultures, but by 1910 it had become a center for the protection of Indians, the predecessor of what is today known as the National Indian Foundation, or FUNAI.

In 1953 it became the Indian Museum, and remained that way until 1978, when the museum was moved to another location and the building became abandoned and derelict. In 2006 a group of Indians squatted in the building and ambitiously named it Aldeia Maracana, or Maracana Village.

Those Indians, who survived by making and selling crafts, dreamed of making it a cultural center for their tribes. They lived in the building for nearly 7 years, until last Friday when they were forcibly evicted.

The sky of Beijing

Beijing, China

By Wei Yao

This past winter, Beijing and the entire northern part of China were repeatedly blanketed by thick haze, raising serious concerns among citizens and the government. Air quality in Beijing has mostly stayed above “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” levels. Therefore, how to clean up the sky became one of the most important subjects for the delegates at China’s annual National People’s Congress (NPC). As a photojournalist based in Beijing, the moment I was told I would be able to cover the NPC, I decided to shoot a series of photographs to illustrate this matter.

The first thing that came to mind was placing my camera at the same position to objectively document the sky of Beijing throughout the two weeks of the NPC. I immediately thought of the Tiananmen Gate with the giant portrait of China’s Late Chairman Mao Zedong, because for Chinese or foreigners, nothing says more about China and Beijing than Tiananmen Gate.

It puzzled me for a while on how to present the set of pictures to highlight the differences of each day’s air quality. All of a sudden, I remembered a combination of images of the midnight sun in Northern Europe that I saw a few years ago, and decided to combine my pictures in a similar way.

A family with two moms

Chicago, Illinois

By Jim Young

Ava and Jaidon have two moms. Theresa Volpe is “mommy” and her partner Mercedes Santos is “mama”.

GALLERY: TWO MOMS, TWO KIDS, ONE FAMILY

They have been together for over 20 years. They met each other while working for the same publishing company in Chicago in 1992. Theresa says that Mercedes is the person she was meant to spend her life with, she just happens to be another woman.

In 2002, they decided to find an anonymous donor so they could have their own biological children. First came Ava, now a quiet and insightful 8-year-old talented musician, and then her brother Jaidon, an energetic and playful four year old.

My weekend at the Big Sandy Shoot

Near Wikieup, northern Arizona

By Joshua Lott

Sandwiched between the black jack tables of Las Vegas and the knuckle balls of spring training baseball in the Phoenix metropolitan area, machine guns were fired day and night during the Big Sandy Shoot in the desert of northern Arizona near the town of Wikieup.

GALLERY: THE BIG SANDY SHOOT

The three day event attracted hundreds of spectators and shooters from around the country. Some traveled as far as Washington and Mississippi to fire their weapons along a mountain range set up with zombie targets, trash cans and buckets and barrels filled with aluminum oxide mixed with ammonium nitrate to create explosions upon impact.

Several styles of the vintage Browning machine guns used during World War II and the Korean War along with a replica gold 1877 Bulldog Gatling Gun received much attention from the crowd. A family from Utah soaked up some fun cruising around in a 1953 Willys Jeep with a Browning .30 caliber machine gun positioned in the center console.

Mali’s war: Far from over

Across Mali

By Joe Penney

Since French troops first arrived in Mali on January 11, 2013, I have spent all but one week of 2013 covering the conflict there. The first three weeks were probably the most intense I have ever worked in my life, and at times, the most frustrating. French troops hit the ground at a pace which far outstripped most journalists’ ability to cover events, and media restrictions forced journalists to focus on something other than fighting.

GALLERY: IMAGING MALI

Many other journalists have lamented the stringent media restrictions, which at a certain point meant that when the French and Malian took control of Gao, most of the journalists were blocked at a Malian army checkpoint in Sevare, more than 600km (370 miles) southwest. But after the initial push resulting in the seizure of nearly all of Mali’s territory, the jihadist groups opted for a more insurgent-like approach, targeting the Malian army with suicide bombs and surprise attacks in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

It is clear that this war is not like many others. After a month of complaining that we were not given access to the frontline, on one of the first few days I arrived in Gao, the frontline came to us. We had heard lots of gunfire throughout the night and then in the morning, Malian and French forces engaged in a day-long street battle with jihadists who had taken control of several key administrative buildings downtown. The attack on Gao and other attacks, like Thursday’s in Timbuktu, show that the danger in this war is that it can erupt at any time, in any place.

Neither Croat, nor Serb

Knin, Croatia

By Antonio Bronic

Ethnic conflict shook Croatia to the core during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Today, both Serbs and Croats in the country still bear the scars – something clearly visible if you visit the areas around the southern town of Knin. Before the war broke out, most of Knin’s citizens were Serbs. When Croatia declared independence in 1991, Serbs who wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia staged a bloody rebellion, and Knin became their stronghold. The town was recaptured by the Croatian army in 1995 and the Serb population fled in the thousands, leaving behind their homes, most of which were soon torched or blown up by the Croats.

After the war ended, some of the Serbs returned and Croatian authorities promised they would receive equal assistance in rebuilding their damaged properties. But 18 years after the conflict, many are still making do with basic or temporary living arrangements. Croatia, preparing to join the European Union on July 1, has told the EU that houses for returning refugees would be constructed. I thought I would go and investigate the situation, and after a bit of research and a few phone calls, I managed to find people to talk to both in Knin and the surrounding areas.

Among them, I found Croatian Serbs whose houses are still in ruins, who are struggling to make ends meet, and who have survived on welfare since their return. One of them is Sava Knezevic, who has been living in a barn next to his destroyed home for 17 years now, and ekes out a meagre living by collecting and selling discarded plastic bottles. Instead of a toilet he uses bushes around the back, he has one electric socket in the barn, a small bed and a wood burning stove – and these are all of his possessions.

How ’bout them Yankees?

Bradenton, Florida

By Steve Nesius

As a photographer you often don’t know what to expect when covering MLB spring training baseball games – especially covering the Yankees.

After several games of being crammed into ridiculously tight photo wells at other stadiums with still photographers, TV crews and team interns shooting videos of batters and pitchers, it was nice to be assigned to a game at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Florida. Most photographers choose to shoot on the walkway behind the seats with clean fields of view. I wanted to shoot in the third base well, which is low to ground level, during the first inning to get the starting right-handed pitchers before heading up to the walkway.

It turned out to be a good decision. The Yankees batted first. Lead-off batter Eduardo Nunez singled, then stole second base. Brennan Boesch, in his second game since joining the Yankees after his release by the Tigers, was batting second. Boesch broke his bat on an infield single. Nunez advanced to third and scored on a throwing error. Kevin Youkilis batted third and hit a two-run homer, scoring Boesch. Yankees were up 3-0. Good action to start the game.

A recycling hero

Santana do Parnaiba, Brazil

By Paulo Whitaker

Today’s Brazil is synonymous with great promise, as the country of the future with tremendous economic potential. But in terms of our care for the environment, we are far from being a global example.

Although we are the world champion in recycling aluminium cans, we still have many polluted rivers and cities, and our rainforests are being devastated to make room for soybeans, cattle and sugar cane. Recycling cans is high thanks only to the thousands of poor who survive by collecting them.

Roberto da Silva is one of those people – poor and unemployed. Years ago the Tiete River was teeming with fish, but while Roberto gets his food today from the river too, it’s not by harvesting live fish from its waters but rather by fishing tons of plastic PET containers from the river polluted by South America’s biggest city. He collects containers in Santana do Parnaiba as they come floating downriver from Sao Paulo 20 kms (32 miles) away, and sells them to a recycling center.

Different congress, different picture

Beijing, China

By Kim Kyung-hoon

In China, where the Constitution says “All power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the People”, the National People’s Congress (NPC) is one of the most important political events in the country.

Over 2,000 various delegates including political leaders, military generals, CEOs, celebrities and even Tibetan monks gathered in the Great Hall of the People to represent their districts and discuss how to shape the future of 1.35 billion Chinese people. In theory, the NPC is the great lawmaking power in China and plays a similar role to the parliaments of its neighboring countries, Japan and South Korea, where I have worked as a Reuters photographer for the last 11 years.

Instead what I saw at this year’s two-week-long NPC in China was very different from what I witnessed in the neighboring countries, even though these three North Asian countries have been closely connected geographically, historically, economically and culturally for thousands of years.