Monday, December 28, 2009
I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. I've been enjoying my time with family and friends--and as I'm going through all the photo's from my personal point and shoot camera, this one stood out most.
You see, Steve and I were college roommates--so when we get together during our annual camping trips, we go all out! And yes, that means having foam sword fights like three year olds. It's a good way to attract the "ladies." Gotta love foam.
To see more of my behind the scenes photo's and candid snapshots, feel free to add me to your facebook.
Hope all is well. I just wanted to put up a brief post to see how everyone is doing. Cheers to you and your family.
Nine days to next departure.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
I've yet to start Christmas shopping--nor have I thought of what to get for whom or where to go to get exactly what. And that's just fine by me. I feel great. I'm happy to be home--to sleep on my bed again, to feel winter's breeze against my face.
I stopped to get fuel earlier today at a nearby station--and as I stood there admiring a set of ornamental lights glistening before me, a realization came to mind. A smile whisked across my face.
And so this is Christmas--I thought to myself. Audible sounds of bells danced in the distance.
Driving off, I continued to ponder the realities of my world--where I'd been and who I've become. An entire year had come and gone, and like a soldier marching to the beat of a wooden drum, I've returned home. Simple and surreal, after traveling, home is where I'd longed to be--which at this very moment, nothing else really matters.
So today I'll start my Christmas shopping, weave my way through chaotic crowds, park afar and dodge some traffic. I might even stop for a treat...or two. Life is good...
...and so this is Christmas--and I'm home.
Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope the festive season brings joy and happiness to you and your family--and remember: Faith is what makes all things possible, Hope makes all things work, and Love is what makes all things beautiful. Cheers to you and yours!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Monday, December 14, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
It was just after 7am when I awoke in our vehicle. Looking out the window, it was as if I had died and gone to hell. Buildings were torn, ripped apart, left to slowly crumble in the aftermath of natures fury. It's truly surreal to see such destruction with your very own eyes--naked to the truth, privy to nothing.
Acknowledging my arrival at the epicenter of the quake, my heart began to pound, my palms sweaty, my camera turned on--finger ready at the trigger. I was excited,anxious,proud to be one of the few foreign photogs allowed access to this area. My translator and I had worked effortlessly through the night--weaving our way through back channels of communication,trying desperately to convince our Chinese officials to let us into the restricted zone. After a few rounds of rice wine, phone calls and hand shakes, we finally received the go-ahead.
Stepping out of the vehicle, I ran for my tripod, quickly dropped its legs to the ground and mounted my camera. It didn't matter to me where I was, what I was doing or who was looking. All I wanted was to capture the destruction, the turmoil, the loss and devastation of a country that neither clung to my heart nor mattered much to my psyche. This is China--and for all I cared, what I was filming was epic news, heart wrenching, television at its best. Journalists from all over the world yearn for this moment, they dream of this chance--and here I am, deep in the midst of tragedy, soaking in the rays of light that entered my lens. I'm lucky, I know.
I zoomed in and out, close ups and wides. No matter where I pointed my camera, a kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns formed images of loss--of pain and displeasure--ultimately feeding my appetite with what I had longed to taste.
Broken chairs littered the ground. A single shoe, a child's hat. Calendars hung from wall to wall, slanted--stopped in time, motionless in space. A cloud of white dust glistened my shoes as I walked about--scanning my surrounding like a vulture waiting for the dead. Looking up, I noticed a chalk-board stood half broken. Zooming into it, I pulled-focused on a line of scribbles that resembled a child's hand writing. Small finger prints littered an empty black surface.
Putting my camera down, I viewed the room for the first time with my own bare eyes. A haze of white smoke danced in the light as I stood still. And within a synapse of a moment, my world had stopped spinning. Motionless. Barely able to breathe. Barely able to come to terms with myself as I realized where I was standing. Putting my head down, a teddy bear on a child's lunch box stared back at me. My stomach churned. My throat caught in rapture. I walked out of that school room with out taking another shot.
I've been in this type of situation before--when I use my camera a shield of honor, of valor and faith, courage and distinction--only to find myself caught in my own array of guilt and shame. Sometimes, when caught in the moment, I lose sight of who I am, the morals instilled within me and the respect for human life I've learned to value. I guess, after working so hard to gain access to this area, I had forgotten the true purpose for why I perform the task that I'm given.
By the time I had made it back to the meeting point, my translator was already waiting for me in the car. Her eyes were stained in tears. Running her hands across her face, she tells me that over 200 school children were buried at this site. Alive.
Looking around, I noticed I had drawn a crowd. Local elders, parents and children were there to greet me. Some shook my hand, not knowing exactly why. But as I locked eyes with them, I saw their pain. It's an image I can never forgive myself to capture, nor will I ever try to. I spent the rest of my time shooting from afar, creatively finding other angles to tell this story. I didn't want it to look like a piece you'd watch on CNN or some low budget TV station glamorizing the loss of human life. It's the least I could do.
I didn't sleep that night. I tried to keep myself busy by spending hours returning emails back to HQ, writing scripts or Christmas shopping online. Some how, I felt the need to humanize myself again, replenish my soul, apologize for what I'd done. I didn't want to close my eyes--for I feared what dreams may come.
Blogger Note: I apologize for my lack of posts lately. Frankly, I didn't know how I was going to write this story. As always, I'd love to hear from you. Currently safe in Bangkok, Thailand.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
At first, it was kind of scary. The government buildings look like old-runned down schools or hospitals, the doors are stained with dirt--as if it hadn't been washed in years. And upon entering each room, I'm greeted by a uniformed officer dressed from head to toe in official military garmet--some sporting a rainbow of medals on his chest. But, as the conversations went on, they seem to open up, and as human as they are too, they laugh, smile, and even offer me tea. Hmmm, maybe communism is letting up a bit.
I'm trying to gain access to film in a town called Betrund (excuse my spelling). It is currently blocked off to all foreign media, but I'm going to try my luck today. I have a good fixer working with me, and she seems to be good at mingling with local officials. If we gain access, I will spend the night in the village and try to capture as much as possible.
Its freezing here, colder than Shanghai. Luckly I was able to find a jacket when I was in Shanghai a few days ago (previous post below). It says Columbia Sportswear on it, but I doubt it really is--as everything sold here seems to be a knock off.
Lately, I've been in and out of China going back and fourth to Taiwan to work on multiple stories. But today, I'm focused solely on earthquake story.
I'm tired. I'm exhausted. I haven't slept much the last two nights, and the realities of being on foreign assignment are starting to kick in. Its week #3 for me, with three more weeks to go. Its cold, I'm shivering as I'm typing this post on my Blackberry. Need to buy gloves.
We currently have two government guids assigned to follow my every move. One guy is a tall skinny soldier, maybe the star basketball player on his platoons b-ball team. The other guy is short and chubby, maybe just along for the ride. I know the tall one can beat me to the ground if he wanted to. As for the short one, I can probably out run him.
I will update again soon when I return to the city. Wish me luck. Hope this finds you well.
Sarorn Ron Sim, csc
Sent Via Blackberry
Saturday, November 28, 2009
I'm currently in Shanghai, China. The wearher here is freezing compared to the tropics of Thailand. Sporting a light jacket, I can feel the wind rushing up against my body. Must buy a sweater.
Its hard to properly pack for such varying climates, especially when you try to pack as light as possible--and for me, considering all my equipment, packing light is 5 bags or less.
To my surprise (well maybe I should've expected), blogs and Facebook is blocked here in China. I'm currently writing from my Blackberry. I hope the internet cops don't catch me.
I will be here for the next twenty four hours--upon which I will fly to Taiwan for a quick shoot, then head back to China to film a story on the earthquake affected areas from last years events.
I hope this message finds you well. I'm currently in a cab trying to navigate mysef thru Shanghai on one of my days off. And once again, please feel free to add me to Facebook if you'd like to follow my progress.
Sarorn Ron Sim, csc
Sent Via Blackberry
Thursday, November 26, 2009
It's 5Am and I'm awake in Bangkok, Thailand. Working for a U.S based company makes it extremely hard to communicate back to HQ when you've got a 12 hour time difference, so on some nights, I'd either stay up late or wake up extra early if I need to relay back and fourth--especially when decisions need to be made ASAP.
My morning begins first by checking my blackberry, which sits next to me while I sleep. If my response to some emails only require a short message, I'd utilize my quick thumbs and shoot an email off right away. If it needs a longer response, I'd move to my laptop. Sometimes, I'd spend hours replying back and fourth.
This morning, while here in Thailand, I'm communicating with various departments in Michigan (HQ), China, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. These are the destinations for my next assignments while I'm here in South East Asia, so it's a constant juggle to make sure everything is in sync. Each country requires me to cover a different story--with multiple shooting days and in multiple cities within each country. Assistants and organizers in each country bounce emails back and fourth between me, HQ, and other leaders to make sure everything is pre-arranged: flights, ground transportation, story subjects, hotels, medical on standby, etc. When you think about it, it truly is a huge undertaking. I wouldn't be doing what I do without their help.
It's 7am and I'm finished with emails...for now. Oh yeah, I have to call my mom back.
7:30 now, and I'm off the phone. A quick shower, dressed, camera locked and loaded--I'm out the door of my hotel room. My driver is patiently waiting to take me to my location for today's shoot. In the car, while stuck in traffic, I munch on a power bar as my only source of breakfast.
9:10, I arrive at my location. Today's shoot takes place at a temple just outside of Bangkok. I'm here to meet with two celestial Thai dancers and capture shots of them performing a classical routine. These shots will be used for a high-profile project I'm working on for a U.S based company. My crew is locally Thai--which with my luck, speaks no English. I've ordered a twenty foot track and dolly in order to get a cinematic feel for my shots. Luckily, after a few minutes, I'm able to communicate with my Grip (Camera assistant on set) and explain exactly what I want. He nodds and off he goes to set it up for me.
While he's setting up, I'm coaching my two dancers and explaining to them what I need done. They too don't speak a word of English. Through a translator, I'm able to barely get through to them what I envision.
OK, it's 10:00am now and we're almost ready to shoot. The sun has changed directions within the hour, so slight adjustments have to be made with my camera. Different filters are inserted into my Matte Box, gamma settings changed in my camera. I'm ready to roll. Lights, Camera, Action! (I've always wanted to say that).
11:20am, time for a quick break. Great shots so far. My blackberry is flashing red, which means emails are waiting. Uh Oh, China wants to know if I can make a quick trip to Taiwan while I'm "in the area." Ugghhh, I can't believe this! Quickly, I type a response: "Sure, why not...what's the story?"
11:35, time to roll again. New setup, new background. I grab a quick drink of water, run to my camera, jump on the dolly track and start rolling camera. Sun shifting, camera adjusted to compensate.
12:15, we break for a quick lunch. Blackberry vibrates, new email. Uh Oh, Vietnam is inquiring about story angles and now I need government permission to shoot in a rural village (Vietnam is a communist state). I type a response: "OK, please tell the Charlie that I'm Canadian and come in peace." (Something along those lines). Oh, and I always say "Thanks" at the end of each email.
12:25, On the side of the road, I grab a quick bite of rice, chicken and some kind of clear broth.
12:45, we set up a new shot. But, all of a sudden, a group of school kids flood my set. A tour bus unloads about 60 Japanese tourists, all sporting fancy Canons and Nikon's and posing with peace signs with my two dancers. I can't believe this!!!
12:55, I'm asked to take pictures for Japanese tourists. I smile and agree to snap a few shots for them...
12:58, Japanese tourists want me to be IN THE SHOT with them now. Great! I smile and pose...with peace sign, of course.
1:10pm, After sweet talking/greasing some elbows with a local police officer, the temple is now temporarily closed for tourists. YES! We begin filming again.
4:40pm, Shoot is a wrap! Great shots! Big success.
5:40pm, On the way back to hotel, but currently stuck in traffic on one of Bangkok's busiest highways. Great! Uh Oh, Blackberry vibrates, China needs credit card info and copy of passport in order to book flight to Taiwan. Ugghh, I type a reply: "Credit card info XXXXX. Copy of passport, I don't have on me, please ask HQ in Michigan for it.....thanks!"
6:22pm, I'm finally back in my hotel room. I sit down for a bit, turn on the TV to listen to the news, jump in the shower, get dressed and head out for dinner.
7:15pm, Dinner was delicious. Tonight, I decided to venture out to Bangkok's Soum Long market and try the local cuisine--all cooked hawker style on the side of the road. Pig feet stew on rice. Yummy. I think I'll spoil myself a bit tomorrow night and have dinner at the hotel restaurant...I'm kinda getting tired of the local food after being here for almost two weeks.
8:34pm, I'm back in my hotel room. I jump on my laptop, collect all of my memory cards I've shot on for the day and begin the process of backing up all my shots to hard drive. To be safe, I make three backups of everything, all on separate drives.
9:23pm, Backups are still copying to drives. It's now morning in Michigan HQ, so emails start flowing from the other side of the globe--answering the many questions that China, Vietnam, and Indonesia had asked earlier today. It's a constant cycle: they ask, HQ answers, HQ asks, they answer. It never stops.
10:45pm, Backups are almost done copying to the last drive. Uh Oh, Blackberry again, China needs to change my flight from Bangkok to Shanghai (which leaves in two days) to a later flight because of a mis-understanding on ground transportation. Great! I type a response: "Thank you! :)"
11:30pm, All backups are done copying, memory cards are cleared to set be ready for tomorrow's shoot. Batteries are placed on charger. Camera cleaned and filters polished.
12:10am, I'm getting ready for bed, take my malaria pills, my vitamins and brush my teeth. Goodnight! Uh Oh, an email from HQ. I pick up my Blackberry and take a quick look. Oh, never mind, someone sent an email out to EVERYONE just to let them know that there are donuts in conference room B. Yeah, thanks for letting me know! I type a response: "Save me one,will ya? Thanks!"
2:20am, I wake up to the sound of some drunk dood yelling in the hallway of my hotel. Bastard!
5:40am, I'm awake...and it starts all over again.
Monday, November 23, 2009
As a child, unable to sleep, I'd sneak out of bed, tip-toe through complete darkness--and some how, find my way to our living room. Turning on the tube, I'd bathe in its glow as flickering lines of light painted images through the retina of my eyes. Alone, I'd sit in silence, caught in rapture at how the world seemed so close to me--separated merely by glass. For hours I'd watch elephants roam the plains of Africa, men dressed in fur climbed to the top of Everest, and astronauts walked in outer-space.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
You know, one would think I'd be used to traveling by now--used to the constant barrage of airport traffic, lost luggage and shifting time zones--but in all honesty, the more I travel, the harder it gets. When I think about it, I can't help but fathom the fact that nothing is ever routine. Every destination is different--which requires a unique mindset for each location.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
From a distance, you can smell the bodies before you even saw them. Truth is, when you're in a war zone, you stop seeing altogether. Other senses kick in before vision.
It was January 2005, on a desolate stretch of road about sixty miles north of Kandahar. They were lying in a row, partially hidden in a field of golden grass. From inside our Humvee, at first, I thought it was a family resting. Their bodies were still, but when the wind howled, their heads would move gently--left to right. They were all dead, of course. Their eyes were shut. Exposed to the sun, their skin had wrinkled, shrunken and stretched over rotting flesh.
No one said a thing. We stood there in silence as vultures and crows flew above us.
Pulling out my cheap insta-matic camera I'd brought with me for my scrapbook, I took detailed shots of their body, hands, and legs. Click, Click.
To this day I've never really understood why I did that. The pictures remain undeveloped--but every time I see that roll of film, I'm haunted by my actions. I see it clearly in my mind--perfectly etched in vivid colour. I guess, for me, it's my harsh reminder to the realities of war...
"The tragedy of war is that it uses man's best to do man's worst." -Stanley Baldwin
On this Remembrance/Veterans day, lest we forget those who paid the price--those behind the guns who faught for our liberty, and those who are innocent caught in between--for they too, haved died for our freedom.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Lately, I've been hurtling across oceans from one country to the next,one time zone after another. I'm starting to believe that motion is what keeps me alive.
But coming home, always meant calming down. Emptying my pockets, I'd pull out a handful of boarding passes, crushed-up receipts and a pen or two bearing the name of the last hotels I stayed at. I've come home to a cold apartment, a pile of bills and an empty fridge. Going to the grocery store, I'd weave thru traffic--frantically look for a parking spot--only to realize that I'm in no real hurry. Pushing my cart from aisle to aisle, I'd pay attention to labels, aisle numbers and bar-code scanners--totally forgetting what I came to shop for. I'd see children pick through cereal boxes, old men looking for denture adhesive, and little ladies in hair nets serve cheese behind carefully polished glass counters.
An array of shopping carts passed me by as I stood at a crossroad between three aisles. Holding up traffic, I felt the need to move--so left I turned. Ladies tampons and baby diapers flooded my peripheral vision.
Carefully exiting my lane, I looked left, then right, merged into on-coming traffic and smiled gently at the lady coming my way. She smiled back. Our eyes made contact as our carts nearly touched--but quickly, I pulled an evasive maneuver, steered left and found myself careening off the side-rails guarding rows and rows of freshly placed produce. A gentle breeze whisked the back of my neck. Cool mist blew graciously over fresh fruit. Feelin' good at the move I'd just made, I fired a pistol salute towards an old geezer smilin' at me.
Aisle after aisle, I traveled the path most shopped. Looking at my watch, I noticed two hours had passed. Glancing down at my cart, a mere bag of chips and two bottles of water filled its void. Damn...I need to stop cruisin' and start shoppin'. Maybe motion was all I came for.
Five days until next departure...
Saturday, October 31, 2009
As a photographer, I spend most of my time alone. I meet random strangers in airports and airplanes, city markets and hotel lobbies. There really isn't anything glamorous in what I do--it just sounds interesting to the naked ear.
For years, I've tried to compartmentalize my life, separate my work from reality, from career to personal life--find an equilibrium between fact and fiction and filter everything through the membranes of my nocturnal psyche. But lately, I've realized that it's literally impossible--impossible to decipher the difference between what I do behind a lens and what I should be doing when I put it down. Ultimately, there is no difference.
Lately, I've been living out of airport terminals and empty-cold hotel rooms, eating dinners alone and surviving on hope. Talking to my mother on the phone, I'd lose track of where I am, what time it is and what day I'll be home. Sometimes,I'd lie to her by saying I'll be home soon--knowing very well that I have more destinations in between. It tugs on my heart strings--and late at night, I'd sit awake, wondering what else I've missed in life.
Birthdays go unnoticed, including my own. Thanksgiving day was spent eating a bag of beef jerky on a plane. Invites to events I'd get invited to sit rampant in my mail box. And as I read all the status updates of my Facebook friends, I can't help but to envy those who have normal lives--those who have a place to call home.
I miss going to the movies. Sharing a drink or two. Sleeping in on rainy days. Grocery shopping with my mom. Praying with my family.
Sure, there will be many who will read this and say I'm complaining, ungrateful for the job I have or just whining about my life. And to be honest, they have every right to think just that--but let it be known, that this blog was not to glorify what I do or bring to light my career, but rather, to bring you with me behind my lens--to show you what it's really like to have it consume your life.
Blogger Note: I'm currently on assignment in Vancouver, Canada to cover the arrival of the Olympic Flame.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Life has been hectic as of late. I haven't had much time to sleep, eat, nor organize my life. I'll be in Vancouver for five days to film the arrival of the Olympic Flame on Canadian soil as they prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Hopefully, I'll be able to post again soon. In the meantime, I hope all is well. Please take care of yourselves...and each other.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
This post is dedicated to my dear friends in Brazil: Fernao Silveira and his lovely wife Bianca, their beautiful parents Antonio Jose Rossi and Teresa Dos Santos Rossi. For they have taught me so much during my last assignment.
Sometimes, when I put my camera down and take just a few steps back, the world before me swallows me whole--finds the rhythm to my heart--and some how, I am able to march to the beat of my own solemn pace. Lately, I've been traversing from city to city, country to country--living a life lost in sublime poetry. A million people pass me by, thousands more rub shoulder to shoulder--yet in a world of billions, I've come to realize that we are all mere mortals marching to the beat of one. One planet. One people.
I've seen the world from one end to the other, ventured into the depths of danger and back and even walked the path less traveled--yet, if you were to ask me which destination is my favorite--I'd be at a loss for words, freeze in the moment--and like an actor without lines, I'd find myself improvising, looking for a way out, trying desperately to slither my way off stage. I've seen so much through my lens, but to see the world without scripts and screenplays,lights and cameras--I must admit that I've seen so little. It's different when you view the world through elements of film and glass. You only see what you frame.
I cannot begin to tell you where my favorite locations have been, which country is better to vacation in or where the best foods may prevail, but having framed much of the world, what I can tell you is that the world is much smaller than you think--much the same--as you'd never thought it would be. You'll never hear this from a travel agent, but believe me, the sun rises the same way in Indonesia as it does in Brazil. The Pacific Ocean ebbs and flows, travels between land and sea the same way as the Atlantic. Beauty is all around us. And if you look to where everything begins, you'll see that we all breath the same air, drink the same substance and walk upon the same land that stretches far beyond our reaches. You too will realize that the only thing that divides us--that makes us different and unique from one another are mere lines of latitude and longitude--invisible to the naked eye. Our languages and cultures crisscross and weave into the very fabric that defines our existence. At the end of the day, we are all humans. We all reside on one planet.
Flying out of Brazil, I sat beside two men: one from Israel, the other from Lebanon. Two foes sitting side by side, leaving a country no where close to their home--yet, by virtue of 35,000 ft, they were the best of friends--sharing stories, laughter and fellowship.
I don't know what I've done to deserve to see the world like I do, or what obstacles and challenges may come my way, but the one thing that I will always cherish is the notion that we are all interconnected--marching triumphantly to the tune of one symphony, one beat--in a world of one.
Blogger Note: I apologize for my lack of posts as of late. My travel schedule has been hectic--flying out of Brazil, straight to Toronto and then to New York. I'm back at base for the next few days, then I will be leaving for an assignment in the Middle East next week. I hope all is well with you, my dear readers. Thank you for reading.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Friday, October 2, 2009
Currently in Guarajua, Brazil.
I awoke this morning to the sun peeking through my hotel window. Looking out, I saw the haze setting in, streaks of light glistened and danced through openings in the cloud. The morning traffic had already started without me. Engines roared through the streets of Sao Paulo while I laid still, motionless--looking out at a world that never stops.
I felt empty this morning. Lost. Devoid of hope, jaded by fate. I felt like the world had flipped inside-out, twisted and turned like a kaleidoscope--melting away the very elements that binds us together. I felt sadness and sorrow, pain and displeasure.
I had heard the news--felt a knife rip through my heart. Oceans away, families are torn, people live and people die. It scares me to get up. Afraid of what I'll hear, see and feel. For the first time in my life, I'm afraid to face the world--to accept the truth--because when you live life through a lens, it quickly becomes your mask--a shield to protect you from reality.
My alarm clock went off--but at that very moment, I didn't care--because I knew that a thousand miles away, a different kind of alarm was going off, telling the inhabitants of an entire island to seek higher ground. Indonesia and Samoa hold a special place in my heart. I saw flashbacks of images I had captured, the people I've met and the memories I cherish. It's different when you're a photographer--you see things differently, you learn to cherish moments captured in time like there's no tomorrow. And no matter what type of mask is flung before you, reality some how seeps through the pores of your soul--through the toughest of any skin. And just like that, you're human again, you feel for the people suffering, you pray for their well-being.
I used to capture the world in all its beauty, pain and reward, triumph and tragedy--all without a care for whom was staring at my lens. The shot was all that mattered. The people and their suffering was the cost of doing "business." I was young, ambitious, and naive. Maybe that's why I've changed--somehow, I've turned full circle--and like a vulture turned prey, I've taught myself to love the people I see through my lens.
Sitting on my bed, I began to pray. I hope my friends are safe. I am scared. I am worried and I am desperate to hear from them. I've tried calling, but my calls are answered by a machine--speaking a language I cannot understand.
I've been in Brazil for almost two weeks now. My body aches, my mind is numb and my soul searches for balance. My schedule takes me from one city to another, one village to the next--but no matter how busy I am or no matter how hectic my life may be, Samoa and Indonesia will always be in my heart, in my dreams, and most importantly, in my prayers.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Filming in Downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil
Monday, September 21, 2009
This is what happens when the graphic designer at work gets a hold of your profile picture. Pretty good, eh? I sure would love to read that article entitled "I'm not a womanizer, I'm in love." Anyone happen to pick this issue up from the newsstands?
I'm currently on foreign assignment--writing to you from Dallas, Texas, en-route to Sao Paulo, Brazil. I'll update soon when I'm on location.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
After every major assignment, my boss and I have a sit down meeting to discuss the mission, debrief on the events that unfolded and catch up on loose-ends. I sit at one end of the room, he sits at the other, and eye to eye, we talk story, logistics, the economics of our trade, and most of all--life in general.
But after this past assignment in India and Pakistan, he asked me a question that he normally doesn't ask: What do you want to do?
At first, I thought he was referring to my vacation time, where I wanted to stay during my next assignment, or what equipment I needed to replace. But the question was beyond that, far beyond the realms of what I had anticipated. Caught off guard, my mind began to ponder, the air got thicker, and in the synapse of a moment I saw my youth flash before my eyes.
It was like being twelve again when I sat face to face with my guidance councillor--nervous and light headed, I had to decide whether I wanted to become an engineer or a doctor, a teacher or a cop. Slowly tilting my head from the ground, I looked at him, noticed the custodian cleaning behind his shoulder and replied, "I want to become a janitor, sir." My voice shook 5.2 on the richter scale.
But this time was different. This was seventeen years later--and believe it or not, I'm a bit smarter now--more confident, too. After a brief moment to let the question sink in, I knew what he meant. He was simply looking out for me. It's not a secret--it's inevitable that one day I'd have to put my camera down, smell the roses and maybe even build a white picket fence of my own. There's more to life than traversing the world, going in and out of hostile zones, or surviving in jungles and rainforest's. There's more to it, I know.
But for now, I told him this is all I know. This is what I'm good at--and to be quite honest, this makes me happy. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make, a step forward I'm determined to take. I don't know where I want to be five years from now, who I want to become when I'm distilled and wrinkled, or why I've decided to take the road less or most travelled--but what I do know is that everyday is a new day for me, every morning is a new destination, a new background and new people to meet. And to me, right now, at this very moment in my life, I'm richer because of it--wealthier than any silver lining to hug the contours of my soul.
You know what, I wake up every morning in amazement--sit on my bed and wonder to myself how lucky I am. It still brings a smile to my face when I realize that people actually pay me to do what I do. Wow...who'd ever thought?
Come to think of it, I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Monday, September 7, 2009
I'm not a war junky, nor I thrill seeker. I'm not a writer nor poet, philosopher nor philanthropist. I'm just an average guy off the street, a fellow tax payer, common citizen, and a disgruntled Walmart shopper. I am just a man behind his lens--trying desperately to tell a story--a story that cannot be left untold. It is my duty, my calling and my obligation to tell these stories--to live up to the gift that is bestowed upon me--even if it means going Into The Heart of Darkness.
A man once told me that by becoming a photographer, I'll be throwing my life away. He looked me in the eye, put his hand on my shoulder and said it straight to my face--point blank. He called me a fool, a lost--unguided soul. I was in eighth grade at the time.
I wish he'd see me now--throwing my life away head first--traversing the world from one country to another, from coast to coast, end to end. And like a lost and unguided soul, I have no limits, no boundaries to tell me where I can and cannot go. If he was here right now, I'd stick my middle finger in his face, tell him to fuck off and eat my shorts.
I don't know why I'm telling you this, but in Pakistan, this was all I could think about. I guess, when you're down to your very last drop of energy, you find ways to dig deep into the depths of your soul to find that sliver of hope you have left. You bring it to surface, and with every breath, you savour it like it's your last.
Not In Kansas Anymore
During the day I walked the beat of a scavenger, hunting for shots to tell a story. I'd pay close attention to where I'm standing, who's around me and why that person a hundred feet from me is doing what he's doing. I question every move, every detail and every fragment of my inner psyche. Like a lion on the prowl, I watch my prey, slowly creep up to it, find it's weak spot, and in a synapse of a moment, I decide whether I shoot it--or be shot. Sometimes, the hardest thing for a photographer is to decide whether the shot is worth shooting--whether its worth paying your life for. I've been told by many that no shot is worth it--but when you're in this profession, you take the risks.
Being covert in a hostile environment is different from being an embedded photog--the technical term journalists use to tag along with the military. In Pakistan, there are no such programs that exists, you're simply here on your own. In many ways, it's much more dangerous than being with the military. There's no one else but you and your team, alone and desolate, left to fend for yourself. And if you some how go missing, no one will know. Scores of journalists and photographers go missing every year in Pakistan and surrounding countries. Some will make it out alive, others will end up on the streets--stuffed in a garbage bag--cut up to pieces. But if you're lucky, you might make the cut of a highly acclaimed video of you being beheaded.
In Pakistan, the cities are owned by government forces, loyal to America--but by being so, they face a constant threat of attack from Muslim Extremists who are against the western world. In the villages outside of the city, Mr. Taliban rule the people. So no matter where you go, you're constantly surrounded by danger. There's no way out.
So there he was, looking into my lens. Through light, we spoke. Through sound, we listened to the tune of fear thumping through my heart. I turned around, started walking to our car. My team quickly followed suit. It was an orchestrated melody without the quartet--just the glance of each others eyes, and we knew it was time to leave.
Through miles of dust and debris, I looked back through the window, saw a faint shadow of a man in uniform--dressed in signature white, long beard and a distinctive head ornament that clearly proclaimed him as a member of his country club. There was no doubt he was a member of al Qaida. Our fixer later confirmed this.
Laying in bed that night, I played back that vivid moment in my head. I remember his black hallowed eyes, the way he stared at me, ripped through the chambers of my chest and choked every drip of blood streaming from my heart. It skipped many beats. But for a brief moment, while trying to put myself to rest, the fear within me had subsided--and instead of being afraid, I became utterly angry. Flashbacks of the September 11 attacks played back in my head, images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers billowed in my nocturnal haze.
And within the blink of an eye, I wanted to kill the coward. I wanted to go back there and strangle him with my bare hands, pull his eye-balls from its sockets and make him eat it whole. I'd burn him alive, drop his body from a thousand stories up, and watch him suffer a million times more than the thousands of Americans that perished that fateful day.
The devil had taken me over. I slept great that night.
All is fair in love and war, right?
To my readers, thank you so much for your kind words of support and for the prayers that you've said for me and my team. You are more to me than a name, a picture or a blogger. You are a friend--and beyond the virtual networks of this inter-galactic universal web(try saying that five times), we are a group of strangers that are united towards a common bond, a common belief and a common foundation of love and freedom, the pursuit of happiness, and the notion that we are all truly grateful for each other.
Many readers have suggested that I one day write a book--etch onto printed pages a collection of my stories, my moments of sheer adrenaline and aftershock. I thank you for the compliment, but believe me, I am not a writer. I spend hours articulating my thoughts, finding the right words to describe emotions that I don't even know is real, reading over and over again to make certain I am still within the context of what I started to type three hours earlier.
Originally, I had wanted to post on a daily basis while in Pakistan. But for security concerns, I decided against it. I went into the country without a laptop. Please excuse me for posting on events that had already unfolded. After leaving Pakistan, I was assigned in India for seven days. Based out of Mumbai, I posted part 1 and 2 of this series. I am currently home now, desperately trying to put my life back on track, readjusting to civilian life, and sleeping in a managed routine. But life for me will never be the same, it will never be like that of a many who enjoy the freedom to walk the streets without having to worry about check-points, incoming fire and being ambushed. Getting rid of that mentality is the hardest part of coming home.
I'll be at home base for two weeks--preparing for yet another assignment. I will keep you posted.
Twelve Days to Next Departure.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Landing deep into the tribal regions of Pakistan, producer Ed and I are greeted by a team of locals that will take us to our final destination--a remote village to cover a story that will forever linger in my mind, kept alive in my prayers, and cherished in the chambers of my heart. It's a mission that remains classified online, but if you were to one day look me in the eye, I'd spill to you the very essence of why I accepted the job, why I believed my camera would make a difference, and why I ventured Into The Heart of Darkness.
There was a time in my life when I'd sprint along the shores of Lake Erie, step by step, carefully making sure that the weight of my body would keep me from sinking. I always knew that if I ran fast enough, I'd keep afloat--find an equilibrium between man and nature, and some how, I'd always come out on top. I never forgot that feeling.
Looking at my watch, the date had just changed. But mentally, my mind was a day behind, lingering in an time zone that was yesterday. It's tomorrow now, and life just got complicated. Ed and I are crammed into a Toyota LandCruiser, riding with people whom we knew nothing about, not even their real names. Listening to the sound of horns coming from all directions, I saw flashes of light, high beams and low beams, yellow and white, throbbing its way through the retina of my eyes. I looked for signs of danger, but in the dark, danger lurks where you least expect it. It's difficult to see.
The engine revved high, went up hill and down hill, never finding neutrality. At stop lights, I noted how much distance the driver is keeping from the vehicle in front of us, and how just close to us is the vehicle behind us. I looked for ambushes, people walking by, motorcycles that seemed too loud. It's amazing just how much detail you see when you're in fear, afraid and at the mercy of your new found friends.
We were on our way to a safe house, deep in an urban area where no one knows we're coming. The air was heavy, hot and humid--full of hostility from the rising barometer that signified a change in pace. There's no where to turn but to keep going, keep moving, and hopefully, we're always one step ahead from sinking.
At 2200, we arrived at house tucked in the midst of an urban sprawl. A man opens a gate and we drive through. The gate closes. Our car doors unlock. We're told to get out. And just like that, under the cover of complete darkness, we were ushered into a house that would become our base for this mission. "Home sweet home," said Mr. Nickel.
After a short briefing, we're warned to never leave the house,keep all windows closed and carefully watch our steps--warnings that seemed more like threats. I never slept that night. In my mind, I envisioned a team of terrorists bursting through my bedroom door, slamming me to the ground, and covering my head with a black bag. I heard lyrical voices that I could not tune, screams that echoed to the symphony of fear.
The Eyes of an Enemy:
Waking up in the morning, I felt my stomach rumble, my mind dazed and ears popped. I've been in and out of consciousness, asleep and awake, hovering the fine line between exhaustion and adrenaline.
Strapping on my bullet proof vest, we headed out. Donkey carts and men with long beards roamed the streets while women covered from head to toe carefully moved about. Sand and dust flew through the air, leaving behind a cloud of haze and desert debris. Buildings that looked more like ancient civilizations stood tall, reminding me of how the hands of time had stood still. Walking with my camera, I looked like a soldier. People stared, wondered what I was doing. They never said hi nor waved. Children gawked from a afar, poking their heads through walls to capture a glimpse of the man with the lens. I couldn't shoot at first, too afraid to put my guard down. I looked left and right, up and down, making sure danger wasn't lurking.
But like a fool with a cause, I had to start shooting. I rolled camera, zoomed in and out on a group of people mingling in the distance. I turned the camera left, then right, pulled focus and decided to look into the eyes of a stranger. It was a close up--which meant I couldn't see his full face. A great shot--locked and loaded on a set of eyes looking at me through my lens.
Zooming out, I saw his face, his beard, the white clothing he wore and the signature head ware he adorned on his head. Looking at Mr. Nickel, he said to me a word that sent shock waves to my heart: Al Queda.
Slowly, he started to walk towards me.
Please standby for Part 3.
Friday, August 28, 2009
The following are actual events that unfolded during my assignment in Pakistan last week. The stories are true. The people are real. The fear is un-imaginable. But for the safety and well-being of those who accompanied me--and those who continue to risk their lives everyday in Pakistan, I cannot share with you my exact locations, disclose real names, nor write in detail the reason why my camera lead me to Pakistan. But what I will share with you are my emotions, my feelings, and my thoughts. I will walk you thru step-by-step--and take you, Into The Heart of Darkness.
When I accepted the assignment last month, I was in the midst of filming in Samoa. A message came through via email that read: 'I have an assignment for you. Are you interested?' And that was it. Simple and sweet, right to the point. I like that. Because sometimes in life, you just know when something is calling--and if you're true to yourself, you answer it. This was one of those moments.
When I got home from Samoa, I immediately began packing again. I didn't tell my mother where I'd be going. Looking her straight in the eye, I told her I might be in India, somewhere safe, of course. Looking away, I felt the veins in my heart twist and turn as it weaved its way through a mesh of lies I had fabricated. I wanted to tell her the truth. But if I did, she'd never approve of me going. No one would.
There were a select few that knew about the mission, the bits and pieces of an elaborate-covert operation: some co-workers, my best friends Steve and Zak, and people who either didn't know my family or weren't anywhere close to their proximity. I was cautious. And even for those whom I had told, they had no idea exactly where I'd be, who I'll be with, or for how long I'd be away. I've never been good at keeping secrets. It always felt better to me when I spilled the truth, the intricate details of life's little vignettes.
But quickly, I realized that this mission wasn't just about keeping secrets or holding back information from those you love, it meant more than that--more than just telling lies--because in the end, I might not get the chance to ever tell the truth. The thought of me dying or coming home critically injured crossed my mind on a daily basis. On some occasions, while I packed, I envisioned my funeral, my mother crying, my brother carrying my casket. It's gruesome, I know, but when you prepare to go into a war zone, you prepare for the worse. You're no longer just a citizen of the free world--you become nothing more than a living, breathing dead man waiting for your turn.
At night, I wrote farewell letters. Stuffed them in envelopes, but never sealed. I wrote to my parents, my best friends, my employer, and even you--my readers. If something were to happen to me, I wanted to leave everyone with a final message, something that you'd remember me for. But in the end, before leaving, I never gave them away. Something told me I'd jinx myself. And as for this blog, I simply gave my good friend Dan an empty envelope with my user name and password written inside--that way, he'd be able to let you know that I won't be posting. I knew he'd find the right words (and photo) if he had to.
0300 at 35,000 ft
I awoke at 3am. Looking out my window, I saw clouds, a few stars and the moon hovering over the horizon. To my right, was Ed, my producer/director, fast asleep. I don't know how he did it. For Ed, this assignment was his first in a hostile zone. Earlier, he told me he was excited to see the country, meet the people and experience the culture. I smiled and turned away.
There's something about Ed that I envy. The way he can view the world without fear, how he's able to look beyond danger, to see what I cannot see--the world for all it's beauty, without having to be scared. Don't get me wrong, Ed is by no means the epitome of a thrill seeker, not a jock by any standards. If you were to meet him on the street, he'd probably show you pictures of his family, the two daughters he married this summer, and a snapshot of him and his wife. He's the kinda guy you'd find at Costco on a Sunday afternoon looking for motor oil, the kind that can care less if Michael Jackson came back from the dead. He's a simple man with the smile of a ten year old.
And as I envy his spirit, I can't help but feel remorse for the same spirit I've lost, the innocence that I too once had. But after being in Afghanistan two times before, I've accepted the notion that I will no longer be able to view the world the same way again. I've seen more pain and suffering than most will ever see in a life time. I'll never be able to have what Ed has.
As we flew over continents, Ed and I verbally ran through scenarios in preparation. I taught him how to listen for the direction of incoming bullets, how to properly fall to the ground, what to look for when approaching check-points, where to run to if we got ambushed, and most importantly, what to do if we got kidnapped. He listened closely, asked questions--and just when I thought I had covered it all, we simply found more scenarios to play out. The fear was palpable. But some how, Ed was able to fall asleep half an hour later. The roar of the plane's engine echoed in my proverbial mind as I tossed and turned in my seat.
Getting In/Getting Out
Our mission in Pakistan was simple: go in covertly as tourists, not journalists. We were to get our shots and get out. But going in as tourists with professional camera equipment was like trying to mix oil and water.
Before leaving the plane, Ed and I checked ourselves over, made sure we looked like tourists. Our carry-on luggage was a simple backpack. My camera was stored in a roller that resembled that of an old man's suit case. So together, we walked carefully off the plane, headed towards the immigration line and patiently waited for our turn. My heart skipped a beat.
Standing there, my eyes started to canvas the room. I noticed bags being left unattended, young men walking with AK-47's--their fingers on the trigger, safety-lock in the off position. Looking left, I noticed two ladies kneeling on the hard granite floor, praying in the direction of Mecca. Behind me, an old man stood silently with his passport in hand. Amazingly, after only twenty minutes of waiting, Ed and I cleared customs. Our disguise had worked. Weirdly, the whole ordeal felt too good to be true. Not a single question was asked. All we did was stood there and waited. It was as if some secret clearance was granted to us before we had even arrived--as if someone was covertly working for us behind the scenes.
As we left the terminal, darkness had set in. The moon lit our way. Suddenly, we were quickly greeted by a man whom we only know as Mr. Nickel, a code name that he went by. We were ushered into a dark green Toyota Landcruiser. There was no small talk, no mingling or smiles. They took our bags, stuffed them in the trunk and slammed the door. Within seconds, Ed and I were enclosed in an elaborate protective circle.
Looking out the window, I saw Mr. Nickel shaking hands with men dressed in military fatigues. A few handshakes later, he entered the vehicle, took the front passenger seat and told the driver to GO.
It was then when I realized that this was the point of no return...
Please Standby for Part Two.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Blogger update: I'm currently on foreign assignment in Argentina with good friend and photog Dan Denardo. We stopped at a local Walmart in the small port city of Bahia Blanca to pick up some essentials. Dan captured this photo of me in the parking lot and told me to "stay out of trouble." It reminded me of an incident I had at Walmart three years ago. Below is a repost of that day.
August 16, 2009
If readers of this blog ever get the notion that sometimes I'm one tough SOB, then they should consider themselves perceptive. Heck, maybe even take it up a notch and go for 'psychic!'
So there I was, deep in the midst of going through the camping aisle, backed turned away from my cart, eyes glued on sleeping bags and over-priced tents. I felt a whisk of air brush the back of my neck--the kind you get when a thief runs off with your (man) purse. So I turned around to look and it was gone--whisked away from me within the blink of any eye, a synapse of a moment. My shopping cart was no where to be seen!
"Boy, you wanna' take this outside and settle it like real men do?" he asked.
"Get out of my way, China-Man!" he shouted.
Oh no he didn't!
Was this going to end with someone in hand-cuffs and another in an ambulance?
Does this guy really want to fight me? I'm a quarter of his age, lean, mean, photog machine!
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Friday, August 7, 2009
I'm still the boy that worries about what will become of him when he's all grown up.
I'm still the boy...
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
I apologize for the lack of posts as of late. Since I've been back in the office, I've been playing catch-up on many things--and at the same time, I'm planning for my next assignment. In the meantime, I hope this message finds you well.
Keep smilin' because the world is beautiful...and so are you!
Thursday, July 23, 2009
From afar, I remember seeing the waves rolling in, faintly losing its force as it merely reached the shores. And like a child waiting for his turn on the swing, I smiled to myself, saw the ebb and flow of rolling tides, much like the kinetics of a child swinging through the air.
So tonight, I'm smiling to myself, yet again. And like the moving tides that slowly crept ashore, I've returned home. I'm healthy and I'm well. My assignment, despite challenging times on both physical, mental, and technical fronts, can now be proclaimed as a successful mission. I've found that image I had set out to capture, and now, I'm back to let my body, mind, and soul catch up with life itself.
And after reading back on my posts and going through all the comments that you have left, I thank you for your support, your well wishes and your encouragement. It meant the world to me while I was out there. From Facebook messages to emails and blog comments, you were my lifeline with unrelenting support. Thank you.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
This, my friends, is the raw truth of what it's like to do what I do.
Status Update: Currently filming on remotes islands off Hawaii. Home in three days.