Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Last Assignment in 2009

I shot my last assignment of the year earlier today. I will spend New Year’s Eve working the on the photo desk (which is better than spending it photographing a bunch of drunks). 

I was assigned to photograph Mackenzie Saunders getting physical therapy at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. The preteen was hospitalized on Dec. 19. What landed her in the hospital has to be the worst nightmare of every parent of teenager or student athlete

She was playing a youth soccer game in Ahwatukee, a suburb of Phoenix, and took a hit from one of her opponents. It was a hard, but legal, hit and Mackenzie went to the ground. She got back up, shook herself off and kept playing. Everything seemed fine. A few hours after game she complained to her folks that her legs hurt and they took her to a hospital. 

The first hospital couldn’t find anything specific but suggested they visit a second hospital. The second hospital determined that something was wrong but not what exactly what it was and suggested a third hospital. With the pain increasing and paralysis setting in, Mackenzie and her parents headed to the third hospital, where they determined she had damaged her spine. By this time she was paralyzed from the waist down. 

They recommended she go to St. Joe’s, which has one of the best physical therapy departments in the state. And that’s where she is today and will be until at least mid-January. 

Mackenzie’s long term prognosis for a full recovery is excellent. But in the short term she has to learn how to walk again. And her soccer playing days are over, at least for the next year and a half. 

A lot of people in these circumstances, youngsters or oldsters, would set the table and throw a pity party for themselves. What impressed me most about Mackenzie is that not only is there no pity party, she’s approaching this as a grand adventure. 

Before her physical therapy today, she went out for breakfast with some of the nurses. They put her in the wheelchair and they all set off for a walk to a neighborhood cafe a couple of blocks from the hospital. During an interview with a reporter, she was constantly sending text messages to her teammates and school friends. During therapy she was giving orders to her father - telling him how to play the game. There was no sign of pity or even a second of despair. It was more like, “let’s get this done and have fun doing it.” 

The photos; Top Mackenzie and her physical therapist, 2nd: Mackenzie stretches during therapy, 3rd: Mackenzie greets a therapy dog in the halls of the hospital, 4th: Mackenzie's father helps her back to bed from her wheelchair after therapy.     

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dancing for the Virgin

A Matachine dancer participates in a procession to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe during a service in Phoenix Saturday morning. Catholic churches, especially ones with a lot of Latino parishioners, celebrate Dec 12 as the Virgin of Guadalupe day.

The Virgin first appeared to Juan Diego, a Mexican Indian, on Dec 9, 1531, on a hillside near what is now Mexico City. A giant basilica stands on the site where Juan Diego first saw the Virgin and she is revered the “Queen of Mexico” and “Empress of the Americas.”

The most basic symbol of the dance is good vs. evil, with good prevailing. The legendary Aztec ruler Montezuma and la Malinche represent good, the bull who represents mischief, and Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés, represents Satan or evil.

Los matachines denotes a traditional religious dance and the dancers, musicians, and elders who participate in it. Its roots go back to a type of widespread medieval sword dance called a morisca. Originally, the dances acted out the battle between Christianity and paganism. The Spanish brought the ritual with them to the New World, where over time it incorporated Mexican, Indian, and American religious and social symbols. Like so many facets of Mexican Catholicism, the matachines blend Spanish Catholicism with pre Columbian beliefs. 
Observance of the holy day has spread throughout the US with Mexican immigrants who have brought their religion and culture with them. 

There are more photos from today’s celebration in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Garbage Lives Forever

In the US we don’t give much thought to where our stuff goes when we’re done with it. We just throw it away. Some people recycle, putting glass, cardboard, plastics etc into the little blue recycling bins before taking them out to the curb never to be seen again. But even then we don’t think about where it goes further down the garbage stream.

I’ve photographed a lot of recycling operations in my career. Some were formal, like the relatively new Phoenix recycling center (top photo), but most were informal. In every case, whether it’s a formal industrial recycling center like the one in Phoenix or an informal scavenging in a landfill, the work is physically demanding, dirty, smelly and dangerous.

In Phoenix, workers strap in and wear the latest protective gear in an industrial setting. (Photo 1)

In Tapachula, Mexico, near the Guatemalan border, people compete with vultures for the freshest food while mafia like Dons determine who can work in the landfill and what prices are paid for recycled trash. (Photos 2, 3, and 4)

In Mexico City, there’s a vast landfill south of the airport where people live on and off of the garbage, sorting and hauling it out to be sold. (Photos 5 & 6)

But perhaps the most dangerous place to work in a dump is in Mae Sot, Thailand, where undocumented immigrants from Burma, many fleeing political persecution at home, sort through the garbage in oppressive heat. They live, with their children, in thatched lean to’s and sorting has its own set of risks. Live ammunition from the wars in Burma frequently find their into the dump. The week before I was there, a hand grenade went off injuring three workers. (Photos 7, 8, and 9)

In the Phoenix many of the workers are immigrants (documented and undocumented) from  Latin America. That pattern holds in the developing world, where garbage pickers are the poorest of the poor, the very bottom of the social ladder and frequently immigrants from even poorer countries. In Tapachula, they’re from Guatemala. In Mae Sot, they’re from Burma (Myanmar).

I have more photos of recycling in my PhotoShelter archive.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Now It's Obama's War

On Tuesday night President Barack Obama told us what his plan was for Afghanistan. Commit somewhere around 30,000 more troops now and start a phased withdrawal in 2011. Predictably, the plan pleased almost no one. The left argues, rightly, that every dollar spent in Afghanistan is a dollar not available for health care reform, infrastructure development or economic recovery in this country and feels betrayed by the President’s gin up of the war, the screaming meemies on the right accuse him of not being aggressive enough and “dithering.” 

I’m not sure he had much choice. He inherited a war that was almost criminally mismanaged by the Bush-Cheney administration. Any opening the world had to make Afghanistan a better place in 2002-2003 is slammed shut now. It slammed shut when Bush-Cheney invaded Iraq. 

I lived in Pakistan in the late 1970’s. Wandering a bazaar in Karachi one day I picked up a tattered copy of “18 Years in the Khyber” a memoir originally published in 1900 by Robert Warburton, a British officer stationed in Afghanistan. It opens with an attack by young radical Islamic students called the “Talib” on a British cantonment (camp) and the death of a British officer. In 1853. Those Talibs who attacked the British in 1853 are the forefathers of the Taliban we’re battling now. (The book’s back in print and available at Amazon.)

The British, then the mightiest empire in the world that controlled all of India, were evicted from Afghanistan in 1842, 1880, and 1921.  

And then there were the Russians. The Soviets were evicted in 1989 after nine years of battle. Afghan tribesmen initially armed with Lee-Enfield rifles from World War I defeated the mightiest (and meanest) army in the world. (Although by the end the Mujahideen - now Taliban - had a lot of support from the US.)

Obama’s a smart guy. He is aware of the Afghan’s ability to chew up and spit out foreign empires. He should also know what Vietnam did to the Johnson presidency. Civil rights, the Great Society and his domestic reforms all fell victim to the Vietnam War.  

So the question is “what choice did Obama have?” There were no good ones, just a series of less bad ones. 

About 100 people gathered on a street corner in the Biltmore section of Phoenix last night to protest President Obama’s decision. 

There are more photos from the protest and vigil in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Bright Shining Hope

Sarah Palin, the bright light of the conservative movement, brought her traveling road show to Tempe this morning pitching her book, “Going Rogue.” It was more like a campaign stop than a book signing but well over 1,000 people showed up to get her autograph in the book. 

The rules were simple, people could take pictures of Palin, but not pictures with her. And she would sign books but not personalize the autograph.

There’s no denying that Palin has become force to be reckoned with in American politics. Her fans are rabid and she’s shown that she can impact races well beyond Alaska. 

I don’t get her appeal. Her resumé is pretty thin. Mayor of Wasilla, AK, (population 10,256 in 2008) and Governor of Alaska. And she quit that job in the middle of her first term. But her appeal endures.

It’s the little things you notice at an event like this. In my case it was the music.

The ELO song “Evil Woman” was on the radio as I pulled into the Costco parking lot. I almost always listen to NPR, so when I switched to commercial radio and Evil Woman was on I took it as a sign of something. I’m not sure what though. 

And as Palin walked into Costco, the Kid Rock song “All Summer Long” was playing for the waiting crowd. A song about smokin’ dope, premarital sex and an homage to “Sweet Home Alabama.” (Most famous line: “Well I hope Neil Young will remember; A Southern Man don’t need him around anyhow.”) Perfect.