Photographers' Blog

Living under sharia

Banda Aceh, Indonesia

By Damir Sagolj

A siren rips apart the silence at the tsunami memorial in Aceh. A short announcement follows, after a greeting in Arabic and blessing from God – everyone is to leave the site immediately. It is time for prayers and the memorial built around a huge ship stranded miles inland during the 2004 tsunami will soon close its gates. Visitors are leaving the site, expected to go to nearby mosque and pray.

I’ve been watching different groups silently walking through the gates – students, business-like people, families and tourists – few went praying. Others were more interested in small shops selling souvenirs and in their pictures being taken. Some stood behind the memorial’s fence, smoked a cigarette and then just boarded their buses.

Aside from some smaller districts in Indonesia that have sharia-inspired bylaws, Aceh is the only province in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, where such laws are implemented. This is something that occurred for complicated reasons some of which go well beyond the religion itself and have more to do with Achenese tradition, the long struggle for the independence and conflict with outside forces, Jakarta included.

Indeed Aceh is where Islam, spreading from the Middle East, landed first in the archipelago (the province is often called “the verandah of Mecca”, something that is mandatory for every reporter coming from Aceh to mention) but it was only at the beginning of the 21st century when sharia was announced by the government in an attempt to finally end a rebellion that had lasted for decades.

The first punishments came after the law entered into force, in what locals say was something of a “pilot project”. It took few years to organise how the laws would be seriously implemented. A sharia police force was formed, courts were established, but it was the tsunami in 2004 and the following peace deal that marked the start of more ambitious implementation of several sharia laws passed by local authorities.

A barrier to peace

Belfast, Northern Ireland

By Cathal McNaughton

“Sure, why would they want to pull down these walls?” asks William Boyd mildly as he offers me a cup of tea in his home at Cluan Place, a predominantly Loyalist area of east Belfast.

He pulls back his net curtains to show me the towering 20-foot-high wall topped with a fence that looms over his home blocking out much of the natural light.

GALLERY: NORTHERN IRELAND’S PEACE WALLS

But what becomes apparent to me as William shows me around the pensioner’s bungalow he’s lived in for 12 years is that he’s not expecting an answer to his question. Rather, it’s clear he has become so used to living in conditions that most people would find prison-like that he finds it completely normal.

Portraying polygamy

Rockland Ranch community outside Moab, Utah

By Jim Urquhart

If patience is a virtue I am damned to burn forever but I’ve made some friends in the process.

Growing up in Utah, knowledge of polygamy has long been part of my experience. I can recall standing on the side of the residential road looking at a nondescript home with a large cinder block wall surrounding it. My friend leaned over to me to tell me that a polygamist family lived there. He tried to explain to me what plural marriage was in the best way a 10-year-old could explain to another. I was confused. I had a hard enough time trying to fully understand why my parents were divorced let alone trying to figure out how there could be a home with several moms and one dad.

As I grew up what I was able to glean from hushed overheard conversations was that the people living behind the walls were different and something to scrutinize whenever we caught a glimpse of them or that we should try to ignore that their home was even there.

Baby-kissing Popes

By Max Rossi

There’s a man in this world that kisses more babies than any mother over the course of her life: the Pope.

Following the Vatican for more than 15 years I can absolutely say that John Paul II and Benedict XVI have kissed more babies than any other public figure in the world. It’s a common scene for the faithful to literally throw their babies to the Pope as he walks by or is driven by in the Pope mobile during general audiences or a pastoral visit.

Having a child blessed and kissed by the Pope is an unbelievable goal for a mother or father. And for a photographer it’s almost always a good shot especially when the baby is not so “old”. A newborn is totally unaware of what is going on but when a one or two year-old child is given to the Pope something brilliant can happen.

The cycle of poverty and pregnancy

By Erik de Castro

It was a few minutes before 6 a.m. when I arrived at the dwelling of Liza Cabiya-an, 39, and her 14 children. Liza was pouring coffee on a plate of rice as her five small children, including her youngest 11-month-old baby, huddled on the floor around her waiting to be served their breakfast. On a good day, Liza says breakfast would be pan de sal, or the classic Filipino salt bread, which they dip into hot instant coffee.

While the small children have their breakfast, Liza’s nine other children were still asleep, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a room of approximately 9-square meters.

The only appliances they have are the television and a DVD player. The glassless window provides natural ventilation to the space. Liza’s family lives on the third floor of a three-story tenement in a slum neighborhood in Paco, in the Philippines capital Manila. I had to go up a narrow wooden ladder to reach their dwelling. Residents of the tenement share the same toilet, which is on the second floor. Liza complains that there are nights when they have to endure the stink of the toilet, which is not regularly cleaned.

Exorcism in the Andes

By Jaime Saldarriaga

I first learned of exorcist Hermes Cifuentes, better known as “Brother Hermes,” through the local news media. His exorcisms fascinated me, so I decided to find out more. Many people are against what he does, but when I tracked down his phone number and called, he invited me to visit his retreat in La Cumbre, just north of Cali.

SLIDESHOW: MODERN-DAY EXORCISM

Brother Hermes is a very religious man. As we spoke he wore a white tunic and held a crucifix in his hand. His retreat is a farm with a small chapel filled with Catholic icons. The place is very peaceful, with hens, pigeons and rabbits roaming. He tells the people who look to him for help that they shouldn’t believe in him, but rather in the power of God.

It was only after I arrived that he told me he had two exorcisms to perform that same day, and that I could observe. We hiked up to the highest part of the farm, where there were two women dressed in white with their skin painted black, stretched out inside large rings drawn on the ground. The scene affected me deeply.

At home with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox

By Ronen Zvulun

As a native of Jerusalem, an Orthodox Jews’ appearance is not alien to me. The thought which often comes to mind when thinking about the ultra-Orthodox community is “so close yet so far”.

SLIDESHOW: ISRAEL’S ULTRA-ORTHODOX

How does my life as a secular person differ from the life of a Haredi man (Hebrew for “those who tremble (before God)?

How different are the lives of my daughters from that of a child growing up in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood: the education, the atmosphere at home, the games, the books, the Western-based culture in which my family lives versus the sheltered lives of the Haredim. Nonetheless, despite all these differences, I find the common ground between us and am mostly welcomed when I cover their reality.

Collecting karma

By Damir Sagolj

An angel-like girl, dressed all in white carries a pack of toothbrushes on a Sunday morning. She walks slowly, smiles all around and seems not to be bothered by music so loud that one can’t hear his own thoughts. She is on her way to the Mang Teung Sua Jung Cemetery in Chonburi province – where members of a local Thai Chinese community will exhume unclaimed bodies. Toothbrushes will be used to clean the dirt from bones.

One of the first books I read after arriving in Thailand more than two years ago was Bizarre Thailand – a collection of strange tales from the “land of smiles”. It was a nice introduction to what I could expect here in Thailand but I thought to myself – I’ve seen enough elsewhere; bizarre things in other countries so nothing can surprise me.

Well, this is Thailand and things go well beyond expectations. On this day, unclaimed dead bodies are taken out of graves in the corner of a massive cemetery in Choburi province. It is a Thai Chinese ritual that has been going on for decades since diseases like malaria killed many people 90 years ago in the province. The legend goes that officials began haphazardly digging up corpses so the city could build an airport and stopped only when they were haunted by ghosts. Since then, residents have felt it necessary to leave the land untouched and to honor those who have died without loved ones.

Two worlds of Purim

By Nir Elias

As an Israeli and a resident of “ultra” secular Tel Aviv for most of my adult life, Purim — the celebration of the Jews’ salvation from genocide in ancient Persia, as recounted in the Book of Esther — has always been a time of partying and dressing up, for me.

Images of Orthodox Jews celebrating Purim were always very familiar. But being present at one of these celebrations was a different experience altogether.

This year I went to photograph the Vizhnitz Hasidic community in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox city some 7 km (4 miles) from Tel Aviv. The Vizhnitz community members tend to emphasize the joyous gatherings and celebrations commemorated in the Jewish tradition.

Detroit’s glimmer of hope

By Mark Blinch

I’ve been to Detroit countless times over the years and though I’ve always known the city to struggle with poverty, I am usually sent to the city to cover another winning Detroit sports franchise, or the glitzy international auto show showcasing the years new cars from all the top auto makers.

As I drove down the highway from my hometown Toronto, I tuned into my favorite Detroit rock radio station 89x as I got close to the border crossing. The radio hosts began to plug an event where people with little means could go and get a free meal. It was just a few days until Christmas, and rockstar Kid Rock, a Detroit native, was putting up the funds to help support his hometown.

I was sent to Detroit to meet with the people who struggle the most during the holidays, to see the places where they seek comfort and to capture the spirit of the locals who reach beyond their own troubles to help out others.