Friday, January 29, 2010

Humanity in Haiti

Photo: Cindy Terasme screams after seeing the feet of her dead 14-year-old brother Jean Gaelle Dersmorne in the rubble of the collapsed St. Gerard School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday.
Photo Credit: AP/Gerald Herbert

A very good friend of mine phoned me the other day after viewing some disturbing images from Haiti. Her voice trembled in horror--and after describing to me in detail the images of dead bodies and crying children, she asked me a question that reverberated deep in my mind: As a photographer, how would you have covered the Haiti disaster?

Below is a blog post that I hope will not just answer her question, but also give everyone a better understanding of what it's like to cover such events. The following are from my personal experiences covering Afghanistan, post-tsunami in South East Asia, and the recent earthquakes in Sichuan province, China.

Capturing All That Is True:

I close my eyes, pretend to sleep. Maybe I am sleeping. Truth is, when you're in a hostile zone, it's hard to tell. Coiled in a dirty sheet, sweat-soaked, my hair matted with the day's dust, and grains of sand in my mouth, I dream of work.

Sometimes, I'd see myself with the camera on my shoulder--hitting the ground running, locked and loaded. There's nothing like that feeling. As a photographer, you run towards what everyone else is running from--thinking some how that the camera on your shoulders will protect you, not really caring if it will or not. Scene after scene, the action moves through you like a funnel--and all you can do is capture as much as you can, as fast as you can. In my dreams, I just breathe, keep moving, breathe, keep my head low, breathe, keep moving, try to stay alive.

I wake gasping for breath, unsure where I am. Lately, that dream has been re-occurring--and after watching much of the media coverage from Haiti, I keep imagining myself there--alone and armed, capturing with my camera the chaos of looters and debris, dead bodies and orphaned children alike. It's a sick imagination, but when you view life through glass, the only thing that stands between you and your pride is the sheer fact that truth is in your eyes--and capturing it is the only salvation you have.

Images frame themselves, and after taking just a few, your soul is conditioned to accept all that is before you--no matter how it makes your heart wrench in horror. There are times when you'd question yourself, ask whether it's right or wrong, justice or injustice to capture the plight of human suffering--but there's no time to find answers--it's just you and your camera, the world around you, and sheer adrenaline pumping through your veins a thousand miles an hour.

But believe me, I'm not a war junkie. I don't seek adrenaline, nor do I find it rewarding to see pain thru my lens--and to be honest, for the photogs in Haiti right now, I doubt they do too. They're husbands and wives, fathers and mothers just like you--just like the many that are trapped and left to die in the rubbles of Port-au-Prince. They are there because they believe in truth-seeking, in the notion that the world needs to mourn with those who have lost lives and life themselves--which in the end, ultimately--they are there because the stories and images they send back causes us to react, to find that thread that links us all as humans, to find the humanity in all of us.

For those who work in my field, there are no right or wrong ways to cover such an ordeal. There are no text books that explain how and why. Censored or not, we capture what is true. Some photos will seem inhumane and cruel, while some will naturally inspire--but as all things are in life, there's always an injustice when finding balance with reality.

In the aftermath of disaster, we are reminded that life can be unimaginably cruel. That pain and loss is so often meted out without any justice or mercy. That "time and chance" happen to us all. But it is also in these moments, when we are brought face to face with our own fragility, that we rediscover our common humanity. Through our lens, we look into the eyes of another and see ourselves. And so as photographers, we lead the world in this humanitarian endeavor--simply by capturing all that is true.

Blogger Note: I'm currently working out logistics on when I will be dispatched to Haiti in the next few weeks. Please stay tuned.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

From Refugee to Reverie

It’s cold. The air lingers silently around me, caressing me, permeating into every pore of my body. I awoke this morning to the darkness of night, stars glistened through my window as I laid there in reverie—in bed, wondering what today may bring.

Sometimes, while in the midst of waking, I’d get flashbacks of days gone by—moments that defined me, shaped and molded me to become the man I am today. In the dark, I’d see light. I’d see images of my history, my family, and the journey we’ve made together to escape war and slavery. I’d see it all unfolding again in my proverbial mind—merely making its way into reality. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe—just too hard to accept.

Through my work, I live in the sanctity of dreams come true, of luck and fate. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this, but through magic and miracles, I am able to view the world in ways few will ever imagine—let alone dare to dream—and because of that, there’s not a day that goes by that I am truly thankful.

I was born in a refugee camp straddling the border between two nations—devoid of citizenship, defected by war—yet, I’m proud to say that my life defies all that of tears and sorrow. I’ve come a long way from being that little boy in a refugee camp, but no matter how long or fast or narrow that road may lead, I’ll never forget who I used to be.

Twenty five years ago, I awoke every morning to the sounds of a bustling refugee camp. Today, I awake to a world where dreams do come true, where lives are cherished and people are loved--but today, for some reason I can’t help but to be lost in reverie of years long past.

Never before shown to an online audience, I AM KHMER is the story of my family reuniting after twenty five years of separation. Released in 2001, this feature documentary film is told through my words—yet, the story mirrors that of millions of refugees around the world who seek a better understanding of who they are. Produced and written by Sarorn Ron Sim and Steven Bray. Edited by Richie Mehta. Copyright 4Di Communications 2010. (Streaming through YOUTUBE in a five part series).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Capturing The Olympic Flame

It's 8am, and as the frigid-arctic air permeates through my layers of clothing, I'm being ushered into the media zone to go over the "do's and dont's" of covering the 2010 Olympic Torch Relay.

Security is tight around the flame. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers dressed in running outfits guard the flame at all times as it travels from street to street, community to community--ultimately making its way to the 2010 winter games in Vancouver. The Olympic flame travels in a bubble of security, closely watched by armed officers disguised as runners, ordinary citizens cheering on the sidelines, and even riding alongside it on bicycles. In major cities, helicopters hover closely above it, scanning every perimeter and keeping a close eye on crowd control. Photographers and bystanders alike push their way as close to the flame as possible, but as the RCMP officers near them, they quickly get pushed back--some by using brute force. One photog told me that a Toronto Star shooter tried getting too close and was forced to the ground by an array of RCMP guards. The photog lost his two front teeth in the ordeal.

Fortunately, I've been able to keep my shinny whites and avoid this hassle by being granted a seat on Media One--the vehicle used to transport photographers. Inside Media One, we're given the best seats in the house to capture each runner with the flame. Positioned directly in front of the runner, we come face to face with them as each torch bearer run 300 meters down ice and snow covered streets--holding the flame above their head.

I'll be covering the Olympic Flame for a few more days before making my way south of the border to Salt Lake City, Utah to meet with the USA Speed Skating team. Below are just a few snapshots. Hope all is well. Please take care.

The view from Media One at night--following an Olympic Torch Bearer.

The view from Media One during the day time following an Olympic Torch Bearer. Crowds line the streets.

The view from inside Media One as we follow an Olympic Torch Bearer running with the flame. Photo: Chris Bolin/Canadian Press

Media One from the outside. Photo: Chris Bolin/CP

Posing with Olympic Torch Bearer Marie-Josee Raincourt and producer extraordinaire Jonathan Moser. Photo: Chris Bolin/CP

A mad-man with the torch.

Interviewing Olympic Torch Bearer George Pietersma.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I'm Relaxed and ALIVE!

Photo: "Photog on road"

You know, relaxing is weird. It's like being on this never-ending high of nothing-ness--just random thoughts going through your head--in one ear out the other type stuff. Man, I've been on vacation since getting back from my assignment in South East Asia, and ever since then I've been doing absolutely NOTHING!

I've been waking up every morning with this eery feeling--hard to explain--but it's like that feeling you get when you arrive late for work and you just know someone's watching. Or you know--that feeling you get when you order three pieces of chicken but when you get home and open your box you see not three but FOUR? Yeah, that feeling exactly! Guilt! It's scary because I feel this way even though I'm on vacation and I'm not even supposed to be at work! Lately, it feels like I have NO life. I'd wake up, have breakfasat, do my daily excercises, take my vitamins and all of a sudden I'd be lost--dazed and confused like I'm some sort of hobo looking for a train to catch.

I dunno, having just returned from a big assignment and being constantly on the move--and then all of a sudden be on lock-down is mind boggling to me! I feel like I should be at some insanity hospital--or whatever they call it. Or maybe I should just find some petty crime to commit just to get some excitement in my life. I dunno man...but all I know is that I'm pumped for my next assignment. I can't wait to get out there and start shooting again! Grrrrr!!!

Damn, I sound like some psycho maniac that hasn't seen daylight since Al Gore invented global warming! Speaking of global warming--I dont know about you, but it's freakin' cold in Michigan! Global warming my **s.

Blogger note: Currently packing gear for next assignment. Next post will be from the road again.