Photographers' Blog

Mud-covered devotion despite downpours

As Tropical Storm Meari dumped heavy rains on the Philippine capital Manila, causing the cancellation of domestic flights and residents to flee their houses near rivers and low-lying areas, I traveled in the wee hours of June 24 hoping that the rains would not spoil this year’s “Taong Putik” (Mud People) Festival.

The trip to Aliaga town in Nueva Ecija province, north of Manila took an hour longer than usual due to rising flood waters in Manila and surrounding areas. I arrived in the barangay of Bibiclat before 5am, allowing me enough time to talk to residents and ask for directions to where devotees, called “Taong Putik” or literally Mud People, start their preparations as part of a yearly festival honoring the village’s patron saint, John the Baptist. In other parts of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines, people use St. John the Baptist’s feast day to engage in revelry that includes dousing water on unknowing passersby.

One resident pointed me to the rice fields where devotees apply mud to their faces or whole bodies to show humility. Luckily, I arrived while the devotees were just starting their yearly ritual, also called Pagsa-San Juan. Apart from putting mud all over their bodies, the devotees wear costumes made from vines, dried grass and leaves.

The Taong Putik Festival has been observed in Aliaga for decades, with its exact origins unknown. Some say an image of St. John the Baptist was brought to Bibiclat, meaning snake in the northern Ilocano dialect, by early settlers, which helped drive away poisonous snakes from the village. According to another legend, Japanese soldiers during World War II changed their mind about executing all the men in the village in retaliation for the death of 13 fellow soldiers after it rained so hard. Residents believed the Japanese soldiers’ change of heart was a miracle of St. John the Baptist, and they promised to pay homage to him on his feast day.

I interviewed one of the devotees, Mario Guda, 55, who said he has been taking part in the festival as a Taong Putik since he was a teenager. He prays to St. John the Baptist for forgiveness for all his sins, including his uncontrollable temper when he is drunk.

Tips on the fire line

My rental SUV smells like a junior high school locker room manned by a chain-cigar-smoking gym instructor and I am standing on the side of the road with my pants and shirt half off cleaning myself with baby wipes and I am itching in areas that are not suppose to itch like that… yeah, I am in the field covering a wildfire.

Luckily I keep a “go” bag with all my own fire gear in it. I got the call in the evening and had arrangements to fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the next morning. I was being sent to cover the Wallow Wildfire, which has turned into Arizona’s largest fire in history, and was right on the border with New Mexico heading to the community of Luna, New Mexico. Thankfully I had editors that trusted me and knew I had been to a few of these rodeos before and would let me make the calls as to where I would go for photos and take the risk of getting out ahead of the fire.

Much of the media had headed to the northern edge of the wildfire and the towns of Springerville and Eager, Arizona. I had heard nothing but horror stories about trying to get any work done up there. The stories I had heard included hordes of media descending into these small towns making it very difficult to find a unique story. I had also heard from media about how hard it was to work with local enforcement and that even the Public Information officers (PIOs) were taking media nowhere near any real fire action and at times took them away from the visuals and stories.

A Royal prayer to the weather gods

Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton arrive at the Darwen Aldridge Community Academy (DACA), in Darwen, northern England April 11, 2011.   REUTERS/Phil Noble

It can’t be very often that I have the same thought as Prince William, or indeed his fiance Kate Middleton. But after today’s visit to Darwen in northern England I’m sure there was at least one point, as the rain bounced off the pavement, that we were all thinking the same thing; I hope the weather is better than this on the 29th!

It was billed as the couples last public engagement before the big day and myself and Reuters colleague Darren Staples had arrived at our separate venues early in the morning to set up and claim our positions.

Security and competition from other photographers means the call time is usually at least a couple of hours before the VIP’s arrival. This is fine when the weather is on your side, but after a gloriously sunny weekend England’s famed April showers chose today to put in an appearance and soaked us to the bone.

An arctic adventure

Wind patterns are left in the ice pack that covers the Arctic Ocean north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska March 19, 2011.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Arctic Ocean in March is basically an ocean of ice. Almost the entire thing is covered from October to June in an icepack that only partially disappears in the summer and is still very solid in March.

Why would anyone in their right mind volunteer to spend a month to a month in a half in temperatures that usually don’t exceed -10 degrees Fahrenheit or -23 degrees Celsius? In the case of the roughly two dozen souls who work either for the British, Canadian and United States Navy or the Arctic Physics Laboratory Ice Station, it is because there is work to be done.

A man carries an ice auger to a remote warming station near the 2011 Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska March 18, 2011.    REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

And the first piece of work is to physically build the camp. To do this, firstly a piece of “multi-year” ice must be found, that means that it is thick enough (theoretically) that it won’t split in half and will support the weight of a camp while having enough room for an airplane runway and helicopter landing pad. Next, these folks need to load an antique airplane with enough plywood and nails to build a half a dozen un-insulated boxes to live in, this usually takes about 3 days as the workers must fly back to their base at Prudhoe Bay each evening to avoid the -30 to -50 degree temperatures until they build enough shelters to house them all.

Natural disaster strikes Sri Lanka, again

The recent floods in eastern Sri Lanka disrupted the lives of more than 1 million people and forced up to 400,000 people to seek refuge in temporary shelters like huts, schools and mosques. Rice crops in the east were devastated. Many fields were flattened by the water that burst through broken dams. Standing water 4 feet deep saturated the fields for days. Much of the rice that remained standing, while it looked healthy, had no grain remaining in it. The worst-affected districts were Batticaloa, Ampara and Trincomalee and these were also regions hit hard by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and decades of separatist conflict which ended nearly two years ago.

Chasing the floods in Malaysia

A trader closes his flooded shop in the village of Panchor, 200 km (124 miles) south of Kuala Lumpur, February 3, 2011.  REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

As I pondered whether to cover the floods that hit southern Malaysia, the first question that came to my mind was “will the floods still be there?”

Nonetheless, I decided to take the risk by driving more than 4 hours to get to the area. I was proven wrong. A villager said “You should have come yesterday.”

I grew up in the northeastern part of Malaysia where floods are a common phenomenon. When I was a young child, I enjoyed playing in the floods. Now, faced with the prospect of going home empty handed, I chose to stay put and do my best. Luck was on my side. A speeding ambulance whizzed by and I decided to chase the vehicle.

My date with Yasi

So, I was sitting on a plane flying from Sydney to a town called “Townsville” before I had a moment to consider that I was going north to intercept a huge cyclone, try and hide somewhere in the middle of it and stick my head up and start shooting as soon as it passed over me. In the end I was fully equipped, located and psyched to deal with a storm “roughly the size of Italy” but it was cyclone Yasi that blinked first.

When the decision was made to go I had 60 minutes before leaving for the airport. Photographers talk about a “go bag” or how they have a permanent disaster kit next to the front door or that they’re such legends, who have covered an untold number of natural disasters, everything they need is burned on their memory. I have a list. I have a number of lists but I still stand in the middle of the lounge room asking my wife what I have forgotten. She always comes up with something. Surprisingly, the flight (the very last one to this impending natural disaster before the destination airport closed) was packed. On it were a few other media types but also a bunch of paramedics, emergency workers and prison guards all going for the same reason.

Local resident Selwyn Hughes (C) sits with his daughter Roseanne, 13, outside an emergency cyclone shelter after it was declared full and the gate locked in the northern Australian city of Cairns February 2, 2011.  REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

First stop for my text and TV colleagues and I was the first gas station we found still trading as we headed still further north to Cairns – right into the path of the cyclone. Just about everything was closed with taped up windows or boarded up doors. We netted $250 worth of bottled water and the kind of food you’d only ever buy at a gas station.

Floods and landslides: A global view

In recent months floods and heavy rain have affected many different parts of the world, from Australia where an area the size of France and Germany combined was under water to the devastating landslides in Brazil that killed over 500 people.

Here are three stories from photographers, Tim Wimborne in Australia, Tom Peter in Germany and Bruno Domingos in Brazil, detailing how they overcame the challenges they faced to get pictures on the wire.

AUSTRALIA
Tim Wimborne

The mud covered friends of Andrew Taylor (2nd R), pose around a destroyed piano, as they help his family clean their house after flood waters receded in the Brisbane suburb of Westend January 14, 2011. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Huge floods have wreaked havoc across the globe. Australia has experienced some of the worst of it with headlines dominated by an “inland tsunami” killing many around the town of Toowoomba. The much larger flooding however was far more passive in its advance over millions of hectares and into the heart of Australia’s third largest city.

Call of the Wild

Growing up in the Northern Hemisphere, I read the books and saw the film adaptations of books by American writer Jack London. Books such as “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”. Since then I have been fascinated by the North American wilderness, wolves and sled dogs, so when I was offered the chance to follow the ‘Grande Odyssée’ dogsled race, I was overjoyed. I chose to cover the last five stages of the race, which took place in the Haute Maurienne Valley, a remote area close to the Vanoise National Park on the French-Italian border.

Covering more than 1,000km (621 miles) over 11 days, the race mostly crosses the Alps in France but features incursions into Switzerland. Unlike similar events in Canada, the United States or Scandinavia, La Grande Odyssée crosses over the mountains, meaning that the mushers and their dogs climb over 25,000m (82,000 feet) in total – almost three times the climb from sea level to Mt Everest’s summit.

The event’s organization was excellent, with a designated car and chauffeur available for each team of photographers after the daily briefing; one highlight was the opportunity to take photographs from a helicopter, although only for a few minutes, as it proved to be a popular request.

Disaster deja vu

A view shows the landslide-hit Zhouqu County of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, Gansu Province August 9, 2010.  REUTERS/Aly Song

“Zhouqu” in Tibetan means the Bailong River, which runs across the once peaceful county. Surrounded by hills, this small settlement was where just over one week ago, a landslide charged through the main street. 1100 people were killed and more than 600 remain missing – who are presumed dead.

Having returned from covering this disaster, I find it difficult to resume my normal life. I think back over the last 7 days, and I cannot stop feeling how similar the towns of Zhouqu and Beichuan are. (Beichuan was almost entirely destroyed during the 2008 earthquake that left more than 86,000 people dead, and over 12,000 missing). Both these towns are similar in the following respects: landform, residents, architecture, and the arrival of thousands of rescue workers and soldiers. I can say this, because I have now been in both places covering similar disasters. The only difference is, horribly and sadly, the number of victims.

Rescuers remove a victim from the debris in the landslide-hit Zhouqu County of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province August 10, 2010.   REUTERS/Aly Song

ON THE WAY
As soon as I was told about the disaster on August 8, I began to search for the nearest airport to Zhouqu, of which there are four: Lanzhou in Gansu province, Xining in Qinghai province, Chengdu in Sichuan province and Xi’an in Shaanxi province.