Monday, November 21, 2011

The Blind Trust Fund

Photo: Media Team in Port Au Prince, Haiti
L-R: Driver, Bodyguard 1, Dan Denardo, Javier Suarez Martin, Ron Sim, Driver, Emily Lynch, Personal Aid, David Blum, Bodyguard 2

Today, when I watch reality shows like Survivor or repeat episodes of Fear Factor, I have to chuckle. You think building a hut or sticking your hand in a tub of worms is hard? Try treading through a minefield in rural Cambodia moments after hearing one go off; or carrying 50lbs worth of gear up a mountain in the Borneo Jungle while leaches feast on every vein in your body; or sweeping through the Helmand desert in Afghanistan with elite special forces commandos.

When you hoist a camera and a note pad for a living and decide to venture into the unknown--the game you play goes like this: If you lose, you die, and if you win, you get to do it again, and again, and again, and watch as friends die, until you die or retire. Period.

You don't study to become an expert in war zones or how to shoot and survive in remote environments--you just do it, and grow into the role. And as far as survival is concerned, you don't get better at "surviving;" you just keep getting lucky. But make no mistake--for the men and women that do what we do, luck is like a blind trust fund--you can make withdrawals but not deposits--and you have no idea how much is left.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why Should We Care?

Photo: Orphaned boy in Afghanistan, 2008.

I have been on fast-forward for most of my life, racing to keep ahead of the demands of an ever-changing career in the media industry. Writing has given me a chance to pause and reflect a little on myself, but mostly on the dilemmas I have faced covering shattering events around the world.

I am grateful to the many people I have met who allowed a clumsy journalist into their lives. I think about them late at night when I cannot sleep.

What happened to the abandoned boy with the harelip in the Baghdad hospital? Did your mother come back to get you after the siege? And the hungry little boy who followed me all morning in Port Au Prince asking for my pen. I wish I'd given it to you. I only had one. The Afghan orphan I left studying by candlelight--did you become a teacher as you wanted? The boy in Gaza paralyzed by a bullet to the neck--did you get a wheelchair that would go through sand?

If I could revisit the thousands of people I have filmed in the worst moments of their lives, I would apologize for having intruded on their suffering. I would share with them my belief that by telling me their stories they have helped in some small way to make the world a better place.

Hopefully, they would agree.

In a world obsessed with celebrities, leaders, and wealth--one thing I am not ashamed of is the route that I have taken and the direction I've decided to point my camera. I'm determined to shed light on the forgotten, focus on those left behind, those paying the price. And in many ways, I hope to provide an answer to all those who ever dare to ask "why should we care?"

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Special Friends

Photo by Dan Denardo
Current Location: Santa Rosa, Honduras
Original Post Written on March 6, 2010.

His name is Christian David Flores--and to me, he's my angel.

Every now and then my camera takes me to places that take my breath away, digs deep into the depths of my soul and leaves me speechless. There are times when I thought I'd never see anything more beautiful, that the bounty before me is served on a silver platter, that God has given me more than I'd ever asked for. Through my lens, I've seen the Pyramids of Egypt, the jungles of Borneo and even the sprawling walls of China's greats--and at those very moments, I'd indulge in sacred beauty. Then, on the brink of salvation, when it becomes all too prevalent, he has a notion of reminding me how beauty is derived, how ultimately, it is not the destination that defines beauty, nor do mountains, rivers and water falls--but through light, he guides me, and somehow, I meet people who confirms his acclamation.

Christian is five years old. When asked what he wanted to become when he gets older, he looked up at me, gave the biggest smile I had ever seen, and in a sweet little voice, he said in Spanish: "I want to become a coffee drinker." We laughed, he jumped in joy with hands in the air, and within seconds, I saw in him something different--something I haven't seen in a long, long time. I saw hope.

Born with one leg, Christian is a symbol of beauty, of love, of humanity and the human spirit. With the help of a prosthesis, he runs when other his age can barely walk up-hill in his village. He jumps and climbs--and like all children, his laughter fills your heart with warmth. Asked what his favorite sport is, he replied, "soccer."

Challenging me to a game of one-on-one, in Spanish, he'd speak words I couldn't understand. All I did was nod and smile--which in return, he nodded and laughed. And so we'd play, kicking the ball back and forth--and when he pointed to his forehead, it meant he wanted to head-butt the ball. For a while, all my worries were gone--my aches and pains from constant travel had vanished, and like a child again, I laughed for no real reason--except at the fact that someone special was laughing with me.

Walking into his bedroom, a small Honduran soccer jersey hung over his bed. With walls made of mud, it was probably the most prized possession in his home. Looking down, I noticed a little teddy bear sitting by his pillow. "You still sleep with a teddy?" I jokingly asked. He nodded and smiled. Grabbing my hand, he showed me the prosthetic limb that he designed for his teddy bear. And just like his, he could put it on and take it off. "Mi amigo," he said. At that very moment, I merely cried.

That night, I went to bed in my hotel room realizing how lucky I am to have met him. I am forever thankful that there are people like little Christian David Flores in this world.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Scars of the Soul

Photo by Dan Denardo

This is a look at what goes on in the mind of a photog in the midst of fear.


Like shards of broken glass, the sharp sound of gun fire cuts through the silence of the night, echoes through the air, and into the abyss. I sat there on that ledge in Port Au Prince that night, surrounded by darkness, engulfed in fear unlike any I had ever felt. There's nothing more terrifying than the sound of ricochet, the possibility of being hit, the utter silence that follows and the heavy sigh that trembles out of your soul. It's a feeling you never forget.

As minutes passed and silence fell once more, I sat there on that ledge--alone, wondering what tomorrow may bring. On the eve of inevitable rioting and political unrest, for the first time in my life, I sat there in fear--not of dying or leaving the world behind, no, but fear of failure--failing in life and the person I've come to be. I had never set out to become anything in particular--only to live creatively and push the scope of my existence--for adventure, through passion. And along the way, either by fate or destiny--or maybe guilt or shame, I've managed to re-focus my lens on those less fortunate. There was a time in my life when I would stare down the barrel of my lens to capture the plight of those who suffer--without even realizing they were human. It's a guilt that is embedded in my soul.

I have seen so much of the world, yet I have felt so little. I have gone to places few can imagine, even parts of the world many never knew existed. I have seen war and death, destruction and despair. I have seen beauty when all was lost, darkness when many seemingly smiled. I've seen between the lines, the silent threats and invisible divides. I've seen, but never felt. I've captured, but never cherished.

And because of that, I am changed. I am not the man I once was. After every foreign assignment, I'd return home to an empty house, bare walls and unopened mail. When I am with my family, they no longer ask where I've been or what I've done. They no longer ask to see my work or hear my stories. It's as if I had never left. And for their own sanity, that's how they prefer it--because to them, I am that son that travels for a living, the one that goes to distant lands and daunting journeys, fending off sickness, disease and most times, danger. I am that son that parents wish they had but never want to know of--the son that parents fear would never return. And with that reality constantly in the back of my mind, I often regret living that kind of life.

As an eerie silence held a city of seven million in rapture, I sat there on that ledge contemplating about the choices I've made and the choices I should have made. The notion of fear and failure, regret and reverie lingered on my mind--making me want to scream.

Gun shots echoed in the distance.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Forever Changed

Photo Credit: Paul Emanuel
Port Au Prince, Haiti

One year ago today, my life changed.

On January 12, 2010, the world was caught in rapture as the plight of millions flickered live on television screens around the globe. And sadly, for all the wrong reasons, for a brief moment in time, a little island known as Haiti caught the attention of billions. Within the blink of an eye over 250,000 lives vanished, crushed and buried underneath the rubble known today as Port Au Prince.

As a photographer, I was instantly drawn to the action--not because I was excited to capture pictures of people in dire circumstance, but for some strange and indescribable reason, I wanted to save lives--just like those heroic rescuers on TV. For a while, I wished that I was simply more than just a man behind a lens, more than a face behind a camera. For once, I wanted to look at something and have it marinate within--to savor something more profound than just an image caught in time. To see life, to feel warmth and the touch of compassion, to hear the cry of those who are silent.

Having been to Haiti shortly after the earthquake, it changed me--and changed the way I view the world. It became my passion. It inspired me to find more meaning in the work that I do, to show more than the obvious, to bring to life some of the issues the mainstream conscience so soon forget.

I know I'm not a doctor, not a specialist or a scholar of any kind. I cannot perform miracles, heal the wounded or comfort the weary. Truth be told, I'm simply a man behind a lens. And what I do know is that the images I capture must do justice--it must convey a conviction equally profound as life itself--HOPE. And because of this notion, I am forever changed.


Blogger Note: I am embarking on a new project entitled ONE WORLD--a five part documentary series to bring to light the need for clean water in Haiti. Please follow me on this journey by clicking on the link below.