Photographers' Blog

Nights with the Bangkok protesters

Bangkok, Thailand

By Athit Perawongmetha

Thai anti-government protests have been going on for some three months and during weeks of political unrest my attention has been focused on the action of the daily news.

The protesters’ takeover of major intersections in the city harks back to a tumultuous April and May of 2010, when supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra took to the streets. I now find myself in the same location near Bangkok’s central Lumphini Park where violent street battles between protesters and government security forces took place.

Today’s protesters are opponents, rather than supporters, of Thaksin and they are against his sister, the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They mostly hail from the south of Thailand and from Bangkok, whereas Thaksin and Yingluck’s supporters are mostly poor, rural voters from the north and northeast. But despite that, the scene does not look dissimilar to 2010: tents and barricades abound, and I am shooting pictures in the same spot.

During these protests, I have increasingly begun to ask myself whether I am missing something with this new set of demonstrators. Who really are these people who support the protest? Where do they live? What do they believe in? And why have they come to Bangkok to camp out in the extreme heat under the city’s flyovers and near its imposing skyscrapers?

With all these questions swimming in my head, my boss gave me the green light to cover the lives of the demonstrators. I was one hundred percent ready and started preparing to spend several nights with them.

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.

How to survive in the jungle: a drop of cobra blood with Khun Norris

Chon Buri province, Thailand

By Damir Sagolj

“Gentlemen, that was excellent!” said a young American called Richard as he downed a glass of snake’s blood in a room full of cobras and tough-looking Asian men. “Never refuse the invitation, never resist the unfamiliar.”

But those lines come from a movie called The Beach, and Richard was played by Leonardo DiCaprio. A few days ago, another young American, this time a real-life U.S. Marine training in Thailand, told Reuters what cobra’s blood really tasted like. “Terrible. Really terrible. But it’s a good experience. It’s something I can always tell my grandchildren about.”

And that sums it all up. For troops attending this strange training exercise, it’s something to tell grandchildren and friends at home. And there is Facebook, of course – many thumbs-up for bad-ass Marines.

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.

Lessons from the floods

By Damir Sagolj

In the beginning it was business as usual. Children played in the water, women moved around on makeshift rafts and people ignored the rising water from the north of Thailand. There were lots of smiling faces and very few worried ones. Looking from the outside, one could say people were having fun and soon all would be forgotten.

Then, suddenly it was not fun any more. As the murky water rose and moved towards the capital it was obvious the scale of this year’s floods would be something very few expected. The land of smiles turned into the land of worry, then anger.

Pictures of destruction and despair were on every corner, the joy and smiling faces had begun to fade-out. We witnessed catastrophe and damage on a scale that would be difficult to calculate. The floods in Thailand occur every year and they hit the same provinces at about the same time. People know what to expect, and some have even use to it. But, what happened in the past two months left everyone totally shocked.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A week in pictures 03 July 2011

A great news picture has to have the WOW factor and without a doubt the picture of the domb disposal expert being caught in a car bomb blast is amazing. What is even more amazing is that he lived.

A car bomb explodes as a member of a Thai bomb squad checks it in Narathiwat province, south of Bangkok July 1, 2011. The bomb planted by suspected insurgents wounded the squad member, police said.  REUTERS/Stringer 

This combination photo shows a car bomb exploding as a member of a Thai bomb squad checks it in Narathiwat province, south of Bangkok July 1, 2011. The bomb planted by suspected insurgents wounded the squad member, police said. REUTERS/Stringer 

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A week in pictures 26 June 2011

Last week a series of unconnected bomb attacks across Asia left dozens dead and many more injured.  Thirty-five people were killed in a suicide bombing next to a hospital in Afghanistan's Logar province south of Kabul, at least four police officers were wounded in blast in eastern Pakistan, and suspected Taliban militants stormed a police station in a town in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least five policemen. Four explosions rocked Myanmar's capital, Naypyitaw.  In Thailand a triple bombing by suspected insurgents kills at least two people and wounded nine others in Thailand's deep south.

A victim of a suicide bomb attack yells as medics apply burn cream to his torso after he was brought to the Lady Reading hospital for treatment in Peshawar June 20, 2011. A suicide bomber blew himself up in a market area on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing at least two people and wounded three, police and hospital officials said. This image has been rotated 180 degrees.  REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz

Covering violence and the suffering it causes is a daily diet for the team in Pakaistan so when I saw Fayaz's up-side-down picture on the wire  I asked Adrees Latif, chief photographer Pakistan, why it had been rotated. Visually I was uncomfortable with it.  Adrees' answer made me stop and think about the way I look at these pictures so I thought that I'd share his reply.

Catching gold fever

For the past 15 years Boonchu Tiengtan has been digging for gold in Panompa, a small village in Thailand’s Phichit province. His bare hands, a hammer and a shovel are his only tools.

Boonchu Tiengtan carries a load of stones to break at a primitive gold mine in Panompa near Phichin February 17, 2011.  REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Boonchy’s spouse sits in the shade of netting and patiently breaks rock into small stones with her little mallet. They seem to be a happy couple, laughing and joking when talking about what they do. We call it a hard job and primitive gold digging; they call it the only life they know.

A woman breaks stones at a primitive gold mine in Panompa near Phichin February 17, 2011.  REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

With gold prices skyrocketing and investors finding safe haven in precious metal, Boonchu and his wife make $30 dollars a day. That is more than what an average rural Thai family makes in the agriculture industry or with livestock.

A happy snap from the land of smiles

This picture will be printed big on glossy paper, framed and hung.

Sarina and Kunisem, the Thai Muslim bride and groom, sit in golden sofa after the chief of the village of Nisha in southern Yala province was shot dead during their wedding party March 29, 2010.   REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

It’s the wedding of Sarina and Kurisem: the moment they’ve been waiting for. Excitement and pride radiates from their families as Sarina’s parents send their daughter to a good family and for Kurisem’s parents, their son becomes a man.

The photo shows happiness, joy and a hope for a better future. Two beautiful young people smile in front of a golden background, plastic flowers and gifts. A synthetic carpet covers the mud and a silent fan prevents the scene from melting in the heat of southern Thailand. Two hearts, their names and the date are written in a strange combination of languages to remind us of a happy day.

Or, maybe, the day was not that happy?

The official wedding photographer, over whose shoulder I shot this very frame, was not really interested in what was happening outside of the golden moment. However, it was what made me rush to the wedding after hearing the news of violence on the police radio. I was driving when I heard about the shooting so I rushed to the scene. The wedding photographer is accustomed to the violence; he focuses on what photos sell instead. The age-old journalism expression “No bleed, no lead” doesn’t work here in southern Thailand. In the photo album, that filtered reminder of our past, this smiling wedding portrait will be the only picture.

The people of the Mae Sot dump site

MYANMAR-REFUGEES/

LONDON (AlertNet) – The poignant story of Myanmar’s refugees living in and around a putrid rubbish dump on the Thai border town of Mae Sot speaks volumes about the resilience of human nature.

Despite the poverty, health risks and harassment they face from the Thai authorities on a constant basis, many refugee families have lived at the site for years, struggling to earn minuscule wages for the plastic they collect for recycling.

“Every human rights violation on the planet is there in its worse element,” Reuters photographer Damir Sagolj told me in a phone interview.