Friday, August 28, 2009

Into The Heart of Darkness (Pt. 1 of 3)

Blogger note:

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.

Covert Ops

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

Walmart Smackdown

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!'

Yeah, that's right, I'm tough!  I'm just one lean-mean photog machine--out to save the world from the brink of destruction, one frame at a time. I've seen the best of man, the worse of man, the richest and the poorest, the sane and insane.

Speaking of 'insane,' today I met a man that defined every annotation of the word: INSANE!

Walking through Walmart, I cruised aisle by aisle, looking for adventure, deodorant and Powerbars. Pushing my cart, I turned every corner with ease, gliding ever so smoothly from hardware to pharmacy, electronics to canned goods. With elegance and grace, I maneuvered my cart through the gauntlet of Saturday morning shoppers, weaving through crowds of screaming kids and grumpy old men. The air was cool. The smell was fresh.

As a bachelor, I take pride in my shopping abilities. I value my time behind the wheel of a well-oiled shopping cart--because being single and shopping on a Saturday morning is like cruising in your woman-mobile down the strip with 'I'm too sexy' bumpin' in the background. Chicks dig a guy with a shopping cart full of protein bars and Old-Spice, beef jerky and AA batteries!  It's 2009, ya know.

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!

I looked left, then right , up and down--but to no avail. My whole life flashed before my eyes. I saw sunrises in Indonesia, begging kids in India, amputated limbs in Cambodia, soldiers in Afghanistan. I saw night for day and day for night, felt the air freeze before me and time just stood still. Pinching myself awake made no difference, my body shook, shocked in awe and 'struck'n'stoned.'

Finally, after a lifetime (5 minutes) of searching, in the corner of my eye I spotted a cart full of Old-Spice. I ran to it--and in the midst of chaos, I was able to confirm that it was indeed MY CART. I confronted the man and told him that he'd made a big mistake. He looked at me like I was an alien from Mars. He shook his head and kept walking with my cart. I followed in hot pursuit. In my head I wanted to call the cops, the FBI or even Jack Bauer for back-up. I wasn't gonna let this guy off easy.

"All agents, please be on the look-out for a senior citizen, Caucasian male, 5'6", wearing a red checkered shirt with brown pants and smells Bengay and Preparation H."

I confronted him again, this time standing in front of my cart. Like Tina Turner singing 'Stop In The Name of Love,' I put my hand out, had him to a halt and looked deep in his eyes. He gazed back at me with eyes glistening from a high I'd never seen before--maybe recovering from an overdose of his Viagra. Whatever it was, this dood was INSANE to the MEMBRANE!

"Boy, you wanna' take this outside and settle it like real men do?" he asked.

Shocked, I replied, "No sir, I just want the contents from this cart. It's mine. I've spent the last hour picking everything out and I'd appreciate it if you took your cart back and give me mine."

"Get out of my way, China-Man!" he shouted. 

Oh no he didn't!

Was I really going to get into a fight with an 80 year old geezer--at WALMART of all places?
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!

At that point, I didn't know what else to say to the man. I was sad. I had lost all hope in humanity. I no longer saw the light in an evangelical way--but instead, I saw myself wanting to show him the lights of my right fist! I felt as if the devil had taken me over.

But slowly, I just turned around, walked away and never looked back. I had settled for defeat. And like Hiroshima, I felt the baron landscape of my heart sink deep into the depths of the abyss, never again to be spoken of.

With an empty shopping cart, I ventured out again, aisle by aisle. 'Quit Playin Games With My Heart' by Backstreet Boys played softly in my proverbial juke box.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fear Thru A Lens

Photo: Covering a feature story on Tsunami releif in Indonesia.

When you view life through a camera, your world changes. It twists and turns in a way that can never be mapped, never defined nor labeled. The camera becomes you, and you become it--a marriage of mind and glass, a symphony of light and magic.

As a photographer, I see the world in frames, in shadows and reflections. Sometimes, the images I capture within the moment I'm in gets engraved in my peripheral mind, plays back in slow motion replays and haunt me in my sleep. I get this when I cover wars, tragedy and despair.

I started packing today for an assignment that brings me to the precipice of war--a destination that sees life not for its beauty, but for its ability (or inability) to withstand the wrath of bullets, mortars and bombs. It's a world I'd hate to live in. A world you and I can only imagine.

But as I prepared my camera, checked its glass and wiped it clean, I saw in it a reflection of myself--a mirrored image of my life staring back at me. And as I sat there, I looked into my own eyes, saw fear in it, and heard my heart beating ever so loudly.

I'm scared--but it's a different kind of fear.

I fear not for the bullets that go astray or the mortars that ricochet off mountain walls of this forbidden land, but more so, for the people I will see, the faces I capture and the cries I'll hear. I fear for the children I will meet, the way they run to me, the way they hug me and befriend me. I fear for them because I know that they have no other choice but to be there, to live life amidst terror and tyranny. I fear for them--because I know that once I return home, its their beautiful faces that I'll remember, it's their laughter and smiles that I will cherish. I fear for them, because sometimes, when I lay myself to sleep, I constantly wonder if they're still alive.

Sometimes, when you live life through a camera, you see things in a twisted and demented way. I hope what I'm writing tonight makes sense to you. I'm not sure if even I can understand myself...

Four days to departure.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Boy

Photo: A little boy stares at my camera. Samoa, 2009.

There was a time in my life when all things were fundamental, raw and rugged, yet rich in culture and succulent in flavor. I didn't have a care in the world. I was young. Guided by faith, nurtured by hope.

In school, I'd have nothing but a pencil in my pocket, a few sheets of folded scrap paper for notes and maybe a dollar or two for lunch. I'd sit in class, pay close attention to my teachers as they spoke in length about molecular theories and molar mass, square roots and integers. It meant nothing to me--and to this day, I still can't understand why I sat there so patiently, so intrigued, so amazed at how much information I couldn't understand. When the bell rang, I awoke from the spell--stood up and walked away feeling like I had just paid for a B-rated movie.

I did a lot of soul searching when I was younger. Walking home, I'd take the long way, find new streets I had never crossed, new fields I had never seen. I'd make friends with crossing guards, shake hands with kids I'd never meet again and maybe pet a dog or two. The world was a lot safer then. It allowed me to dream, to lose myself in thought, to see the world in a way I'll never see again.

There was a time in my life when my evenings consisted of having dinner with my family, watching the nightly news with my father and helping my mom prepare for tomorrows meal. She loved to cook. And as we enjoyed each others company, we'd talk about life, about the good old days when they were young--how they never had television, never had silverware or had to eat left-overs for days upon end. I'd listen carefully. Took notes in my mental psyche and realized just how lucky I was to be their child.

At night, I'd lay awake for hours before falling asleep. Listening to my parents chatter in the living room, I'd hear them talk about their fears, their hopes and their dreams. Sometimes, they spoke of me. They'd question each other about my future, what I wanted to become and how I was going to get there. I'm sure it's natural for parents to worry.

I worried, too.

And to this day I still worry. I still ponder about my future. Sometimes, I lose myself in fear, walk the fine-line between fact and fiction--as I try to define what's real and what is not. All I know is that I want to make my parents proud one day. I want to let them know that the sacrifices they made in raising me had a purpose.

But in retrospect, I am still the little boy with nothing but a pencil and scraps of paper in his pocket. I'm still the boy that takes the long way home--the boy that finds friendship in strangers--the boy looking for new destinations.

I'm still the boy that worries about what will become of him when he's all grown up.

I'm still the boy...