Saturday, November 28, 2009

From China

Dear friends,
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.

Talk soon!

Sarorn Ron Sim, csc

Sent Via Blackberry

Thursday, November 26, 2009

24 Hours In My Shoes

Photo: Two celestial Thai dancers performing for the camera, Bangkok Thailand.

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

In Reflection

Photo: Floating village in Pataya, Thailand
Current Location: Rayong, Thailand

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.

I'll never forget that feeling. I had the world upon my fingers as I jumped from one adventure to another, channel after channel. It's amazing how twenty five years later, here I am, unable to sleep yet again, and I still find myself lurking in the night--watching in total darkness, total silence.

It's 3am, and after a long day of filming in Thailand's north-eastern region, I'm physically exhausted, yet mentally awake in reminisce. A warm southern breeze howls through my window, casting the sails of my bed sheets to whither with the wind.

Like any tradesmen, photographers have their days. Sometimes, images just frame themselves, people and objects find their way to your viewfinder, natural light and shadows paint the perfect ambiance--and all you have to do is capture what God has given. You feel it in your soul--and ultimately, you do what is innate. Technology does the rest. But there are certain days when nothing falls into place, stars don't align, and the world just seems unbearable. Images go astray, lighting shifts, technology falters--and in the end, after all the yelling and screaming to yourself, you realize that you're the only thing that stands between success and failure. And ultimately, you begin to question how you've gotten thus far. Today was one of those days.

But as I'm sitting here, I've realized that it is only in reflection when I admit to have forgotten what it was like to be that little boy again--to sit there in awe at the images played out before me. As a boy, I viewed the world without borders and savored each and every shot for what it was worth. For years I was him, looking through my viewfinder, devoid of sound, gifted by light, capturing the very elements that define my existence. Being that little boy has gotten me thus far, and on days when things felt out of place, I used to remind myself of those early mornings when I'd awake on my sofa with the television still on.

Sometimes, all one needs is a little reminder of what it was like not so long ago....

Blogger Note: My apologies for my lack of posts lately due to my hectic travel schedule. As always, I'd love to hear from you. And if you'd like, please feel free to add me to your Facebook--as I update there more often than my blog. Cheers!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

From Chiang Mai With Love

Photo: Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

I'm currently on foreign assignment in Chiang Mai, Thailand--but unlike my previous trips, this one will take me to six countries overall, spanning a time frame of just under six weeks. It'll be Christmas by the time I get home--snow would've fallen, I'd be a year older by then, and like all things redundant, another year would've come and gone.

I'm constantly asked by friends, "how do you do it?" Honestly, there really isn't a secret, nor is there a formula on how to leave things behind, shift everything aside and just say "Bon-Voyage." I just pack my bags, pay my bills in advance, turn off all my lights and essentially--just go. It's as simple as that. It's my job--and it's just as ordinary to me as you packing your lunch every morning and making your daily commute to the office.

Every country is new to me, no matter how many times I've already been there. Seasons change, people change--and when you look at the fundamental truth of where we are in place and time, we too change--and therefore, with every new destination I'm at, it is never constant--new in every sense. So by believing in this notion, it makes it easier for me to travel, to keep an open mind and view the world through virgin eyes. It gives me an excuse to just go.

But I must admit, I do miss out on a lot of the simple things in life. And if you've been an avid reader of this blog, you'd know that I do occasionally have moments of questioning--moments when I'd desperately try to find rhyme and reason for the purpose of my addiction to travel, the lens, and ultimately, the life I live--which, after taking a brief pause to think, I'd find no real prognosis. I certainly don't do it for the money--that's for sure. I guess, you either love it or hate it, do it right--or don't do it at all.

I have friends who say they'd do anything to come with me just once--to carry my bags, load my cameras or set up my tripod. But you know--the one thing that strikes me most is when they say "just once."

Just once is easy. You'd briefly put your life on hold, pack your bags and kiss your loved ones good-bye--and a few weeks later you'd make your triumphant return, throw your bags down and pick up where you left off.

What I'm waiting to hear is: "Ron, I'm willing to travel with you for the next five years straight--to live at airport terminals, feel the jet-lag you feel, go into hostile territory, eat bugs and worms, and at the end of each day, we can still be friends."

Sorry, not accepting resumes at this time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Lest We Forget

Photo: Afghanistan, 2005

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.

I hovered above the bodies. Looked at one through my lens and decided to get closer while everyone else kept their distance. The reporter I was working with started crying. Weird, I thought--at how she took it so personal. I didn't realize that I was the weird one for not doing so. Some how, war taints your soul.

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


Photo: A lady blowing bubbles for her children at the annual Ganesh Chaturthi Festival in Mumbai, India 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...