Monday, March 30, 2009

Between Heaven and Earth: Rediscovery

Current Location: Midland, Michigan, USA / 43°37′25.0″N 84°13′45.7″W

To the government of Canada, I was known as number 013 067 694. I was four years old.

I found this old document while going through my parents filing cabinet over the weekend. Tucked between two folders was a yellow envelope that had the word "Immigration" written boldly in black ink. Pulling it out of the envelope, the scent of rotting paper filled my peripheral senses. The paper was thin--almost Kleenex like. As I unfolded the flaps, I discovered the picture of a little boy staring back at me. His hair uncombed. His face was without a smile. It didn't take me long to realize that it was me.

So I sat there--on a Sunday afternoon as the sun shined brightly through the attic window, casting a shadow of myself on the adjacent wall. Dust particles danced and glistened to rays of light, filling the void of an almost empty room. I didn't know what to think. My eyes were transfixed as I admired the old document--flipping it over again and again, reading every fine detail of every word transcribed. I slowly ran my fingers across the picture and felt my heart gradually beating even faster. I don't know why.

During dinner, I showed it to my parents. They couldn't believe what I had found. My mothers eyes glistened as the light above our dinning room table lit the food we were about to consume. I gave her a hug and she smiled. As a family, we've come a long way since this picture was taken--a long, long way since we left the brutality of a refugee camp over 25 years ago.

Sitting there and looking at my family, I realized that this was one of the best Sundays I've had in a very long time.

Read the Series here:
Between Heaven and Earth

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Never Forget Us

Video Still Capture: A little boy stares into the open sea/ Banda Aceh, Indonesia
Current Location: Midland, Michigan, USA / 43°37′25.0″N 84°13′45.7″W

I'm inspired to write this post after reading an entry on Dan's blog at D2 Photography. In it, he reminded me of how lucky I am, and how safe and secure my life really is. His post today touched me because--in all honesty, my biggest fear in life is not of death or tragedy--but of forgetting-- forgetting how fortunate I am--forgetting how blessed I am with what I have. It scares me to forget.

When I'm on assignment in remote locations, the difference between success and failure lies on my ability to adapt--adapting to my new surroundings, the people, and the culture. That ability alone can determine whether I live or die. And in some cases, death can be a slow and painful fate--starvation, malaria, and diarrhea. It's a sad reality, but it's true. And for the billions of people who do not have access to clean drinking water, proper sanitation, food or basic medical needs, adapting is not an option--it's everyday life at its darkest hour--when every minute is a fight for survival. Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.

When I talk to them--through hand motions and broken English to match their level, the words that I can always understand--no matter how mis-pronounced are: "Never forget us."

Never forget us. Those three words resonate in my heart and fills my soul with chills that permeates to the whiskers of my arms. It haunts me in my sleep and echoes in my mind. I will never forget them. I promise.

For those who know me, know that I live a very simple life--with very few belongings. My apartment is bare and dull with no furniture, no electronics and not even a microwave. I have one spoon, one fork, and one knife. It's all I need. And I like it that way. It's easier for me to look at myself in the mirror when I return from far away places. It helps me to remember them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Perils of A Traveling Photog

Current Location: Midland, Michigan, USA / 43°37′25.0″N 84°13′45.7″W

You know life sucks when:

You go for your first hair cut in two months and all of a sudden the stylist stops cutting, stands behind you in a statue like posture and stares directly at you thru the mirror--and within that very moment as you connect eye to eye via reflective glass, you just know your whole world is going to change.

She asks: "Do you have lice?"
You say: "Psshhh....Not since third grade, lady!"
She says: "Well guess what, you've got lice!"
You say: "@#$!"
Everyone In The Salon Says: "ooooooohhhhh"

You know you've gone away for far too long when:

You drive up to a McDonald's drive thru window to pay for your order and instead of handing over a $10 bill, you accidentally give the teeny-bopper at the window a single $100,000 Indonesian Rupia.

She says: "Sir, we don't accept Monopoly money..."
You say: "What the heck, kid...take the damn cash and give me my change!"

You know you're being profiled when:

Your co-workers avoid being around you--as if you came back with the Ebola virus.

They say: "So, Ron...what did you come back with this time?"
You say: "Why...what do you mean?"
They say: "Oh, you how are you feeling? Any signs of deadly diseases?"
You say: "Hmmm, just the sneezy, itchy, runny nose, and I can't sleep because I'm coughing too much kinda thing!"
They run
(It's ten times worse after this whole lice thing)

You know you're in trouble when:

You tell your doctor you've been having some upset stomach conditions and you tell him where you just came from.

He says: "Did you drink the water there? Did you eat the local food?
You say: "Of course I did! What kind of question is that, doc?"
He says: "Well, you might have a worm or some kind of bacteria living in your stomach"
You say: "A worm? Coool...!!"
He says: "I want you to go take a stool sample for me"
You say: "Go to the furniture store?"
He says: "No, you dumb lens slinging twit...I mean take a shit for me!"
You say: "What the want me to shit in a plastic container for you? @#$%"

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lost In Pixelation

Photo by: Ron Sim,csc/ Banda Aceh, Indonesia/Low Clouds
Current Location: Midland, Michigan, USA / 43°37′25.0″N 84°13′45.7″W

If you ever meet me in person, I'm much more friendlier than this blog. I like to consider myself as some what of a cross pollination between being openly forward, with a rather liberal ideology and a male version of Oprah Winfrey--soft hearted and can cry on command. In real life, I'm not always the "touching, heart wrenching" writer that I seem to be on this blog. No, I'm rather easy going. I can take a joke, poke back at you with wit that can tear Goliath into pieces, and will do things you'd never thought possible--like the time I rode backwards on a motorcycle...sober. But that's the topic of a future post.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm normal. I too have a life outside of the fourth estate. I find comfort in friends and family, I enjoy driving on a Sunday afternoon, eating junk food on rainy days, having a beer or two after work--and some times, I even like my office job! But it's amazing when I think about it--about the flexibility I must have when I transport myself from one world to another, from peace to conflict, first and third. It's challenging some times to flick that switch, to mentally tell yourself that it's now time to act your age (or beyond), that it's not Kansas anymore, not your average nine to five day job.

It's hard, very hard. And sometimes, your life changes within hours, within seconds and minutes of landing on the other side of the world--and just like that, like the turning of a knob, you instantly become a different person. For me, as a photographer, it's like being a soldier adjusting from civilian life to being on active duty. I always have to be alert, cautious at all times, ready for the unknown.

I'm different when I'm in the field. Most times, I sit in the car in silence--peering out the window, finding shots, looking ahead for possible ambush. It's a soldiers mentality in a photographers body--a constant and re-occurring fear that something can and will go wrong. But just like all soldiers, we have a heart, too. We care for the people we meet, feel sorrow for the hardships they endure and weep in our bed when it all gets too hard to take in. We're human.

Lately, after coming home from my recent assignment in the jungles of Indonesia, I find it difficult to flick off that switch--to come back to civilian life.

The toughest is at night. I'd lay there in my bed, tossing and turning, trying desperately to fall asleep--but to no avail. And when I close my eyes, I imagine myself in the field, constantly looking for shots, looking for dangers, but also wondering if what I'm shooting will make my bosses happy. In my nocturnal dreams, I envision myself behind the camera, walking through the jungle, shooting in the slums, and falling from the sky in a Cessna single engine-airplane. When I awake, the images repeat itself, over and over again--tired, but triumphant knowing that I'm alive. This is exactly what I went thru when I first got back from Afghanistan--I guess that feeling never left me. Fear follows me with every assignment. It's embedded within me.

In America, no one really talks about life and death, poverty and despair. No one seems to understand. I'd go to movies, visit friends, spend some money and indulge in fine cuisine--but after a while, I find myself lost in a world of falsified fact and fiction. Out at night, looking for adventure, I'd weave thru traffic and lose myself in the crowd. Walking pass a bar, a group of girls with fruit colored drinks talk about plastic surgery and hot looking men. I'd see their lips move, look at their perfect lives--their snapshot smiles and expensive jewelry. I didn't know what to think, so I keep walking. Looking down, I'd see nothing but my shoes...and the dirt stains left behind from my recent assignment.

Slowly, I'm trying to adjust. But working overseas, traversing untouched territory and meeting fascinating people is what makes me happy. Being there, I can feel the air hum, neutrons and protons collide--moving through me in a never ending funnel of hope. No barrier between life and death, just one small step, one foot after another.

Monday, March 16, 2009

I'm Home

Current Location: Windsor, Ontario, Canada/ 42°19′60.0″N 83°1′60″W

Coming home, means calming down, re-adjusting to life in a civilized world. Walking thru a Wal-Mart today, I got lost. Too many aisles, too many choices--an array of products, services and offerings available to please your every desires. Making my way to the deodorant aisle, I got confused, lost in a sea of scent and smell--Arctic Breeze or Shower Fresh? Clear Gel or Misty Spray? Regular Strength or High Endurance? Not knowing the difference, I took them all.

Leaving for the store parking lot, I'd get nervous. Sweat rolls down my brow as I anticipate a million motorcycles coming at me from all directions. Walking thru a pedestrian crossing, my heart would pound in panic, looking left, then right, slowly making my way to my car. It's amazing how cars would stop for you to cross.

Driving on the freeway, I find myself stuck in traffic--rows of cars neatly lined in pre-designated lanes. Turning the radio off, I sat in silence--not a horn to be heard. Feeling the need to express myself, I honked at the car in front. Looking closely thru his rear window, a perched middle finger stares back at me. I smiled--because in Indonesia, my honk would've meant hello.

Paying for my fuel at a gas station, I pull out three twenty dollar bills and received a five dollar bill in change. I close my wallet--and to my surprise, it actually fits in my pocket! It's amazing how I dont have to carry 500,000 dollars worth of Indonesian Rupiah's anymore to pay for my purchases. I'm no longer feeling rich.

Slowly, I'm re-adjusting...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Photo by: Dewi Amsari Ameer/Sunset in Banda Aceh Province, Indonesia
Current Location: Jakarta, Indonesia 6°12′45.61″S - 106°52′23.74″E

I was sitting on a promontory at the edge of the world. Above me, darkness rolled in as it continued to stretch to infinity. Below, jagged rocks jutted from the sea. Beside me, my camera.

Looking out before me, there was neither moon nor stars, as if they'd taken shelter from the scorching, tropic sun. Yet, sitting there, the warmth in the air permeates to the marrow of my bones. I've been caught in something much larger than life, much more romantic than love itself--a mere synapse of a moment so beautiful that I had to put down my camera and view it with my very own eyes. And as the clouds became darker, I began to reflect on the challenges I've faced, the people I've met and the person I've come to be.

Viewing the world thru a lens is not just a job, its a way of life. You live with it, breathe it, see it in your sleep and wake with it on your mind. Being here, I've come to realize that no matter the challenges or the hardships that I must endure, the quest to quench my thirst with visual stimuli out weighs it all. It's worth every ounce of sweat, every drop of blood and every measurement of your imagination to know that you've captured something more powerful than words, more meaningful than text and titles. It's an amazing feeling few will ever understand.

As I stare into the abyss, I'm reminded of the people I've met, the way they've invited me into their lives and opened their hearts to a stranger from a far off land. I'm reminded of Ahning and Riahn, their new born child and the shelter they call home--poor in wealth, yet rich in so many ways beyond all our fortunes combined. And just as inspiring were the people who helped to guide them, giving them hope, letting them know that they're not alone--people like the group I met at Lentera, International Aid, Habitat for Humanity, and CHF International. Throughout this trip, it was the image of their smiles that gave me the strength to push forward, to keep going in the hopes that people like Riahn and his family can one day live better lives. After this assignment, I too, have hope.

I was sent here to tell stories, to capture in picture and sound the plight of those who need our help. It's a task I've been given many times before. Yet, I was scared. Afraid of failure and terrified of tribulation. My fears rested not on my technical or artistic merit, but more so, on my ability to correctly tell their story, to give them the voice they so desperately need. It's a fear I constantly live with--an obligation I hold dearly in my heart.

I sat there on that ledge, on the precipice of defeat knowing that some how, I'm a different person. I leave here tomorrow with a notion that I, too, can make a difference. I too can help change the course of humanity--even if its just with a turning of the lens. And so can you! In the depths of the World's most under developed regions, they need not your money or your wealth, but more importantly--all they need is your love, your guidance and your prayers, your knowledge and your insight on how they can sustain themselves in poverty and despair. It's a simple concept, really. One that all of us can be a part of.

Watching the rolling clouds that roared above me and the waves that crashed ashore, I reflected not on the hardships that I've endured, but on the hardships that THEY constantly live with. And like the sun that prevails every morning to the east, I know that there's hope, there's life after the storm and rainbows to be cherished.

You just have to believe--in yourself, and each other.

Be well, my friends. I will write again soon upon my return home.

Jakarta, Indonesia

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Stinkin' It Up In South East Asia

Current Location: Kuantan, Malaysia 3°49′00.00″N - 103°20′00.00″E

With my left arm flung in the air, I swiped my right hand across my arm pit up and down. The merchant lady looked at me like I was performing some sort of magic trick. She turned to her partner, smiled at each other, and giggled. Great! What does a guy have to do around here to buy a stick of deodorant?

Right now, I'd do anything for a bag of Doritos Chips and a bar of Old Spice! A burger would be nice, too.

Tomorrow morning I will board a military plane headed for Banda Aceh, Indonesia to document the relief efforts in the region.

I just wanted to send a quick note to thank each and everyone of my readers for your thoughts and prayers--and words of encouragement. After a day of rest, I am feeling much better; my stomach is stable and I'm starting to eat solid food again.

Smell ya' later!

Kuantan, Malaysia

P.S: I'm not sure if I will have Internet connection in Banda Aceh, so I might be offline for a few days. I'll be in and out of the jungles and in remote locations. I'm assuming there won't be much in terms of communication.