Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Year That Was

A picture from October. A girl on the beach in Kao Seng, Songkhla, Thailand. 

It's that time of year when every photographer goes through his archive to pull out his "Pictures of the Year." It gives us a chance to look back on what we've done and consider our hits and misses. 

2012 was a year of change for me. After 28 years of work as a photojournalist for daily newspapers, I struck out on my own as a freelance photojournalist based in Bangkok, Thailand, fulfilling what has been a lifelong dream. 

I've been on a wild ride since leaving the newspaper on June 1. I've made more photos that matter to me in the last six months than I did in the last six years at the paper. I started my "unemployment" with a quick road trip to Ft. Defiance, AZ, on the Navajo Nation and didn't stop after that. 

Here are some of my favorite photos from the year that was. There is a slideshow of all my favorites at the end of this blog entry.

A preacher (right) delivers an altar call during the annual Camp Meeting in Ft. Defiance on the Navajo Nation. 

Driving back to Phoenix from the Camp Meeting I stopped at a bull riding school on the "rez."I used a 50mm f1.2 lens to make this picture.  

Politics is one of my favorite things to photograph. In February, the GOP Presidential candidates met in Mesa for one of their seemingly endless sequence of debates. I took time off from the paper so I could photograph the debate for myself. 

Republican Congressman David Schweikert reaches out to a supporter during his primary election night victory party in Phoenix. I photographed Congressman Schweikert several times during his primary campaign and he was comfortable with me being around, so I was able to make some candid frames of him, without handlers and PR people getting in the way. 

In May, I went to the National Cemetery in Phoenix to photograph Scouts placing flags on veterans' graves. I used the 24mm f1.4 wide open at f1.4 to get the narrow depth of field. 

Back in Thailand, in November, I photographed an anti-government protest for Getty Images. In this photo, anti-government protesters run from tear gas fired by riot police. (Photo used courtesy of Getty Images. © Jack Kurtz/Getty Images) 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Singapore - A City of Many Faiths

Singaporean Hindus pray at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore's Little India

Singapore's history and location practically guarantee its status as a melting pot. An island at an important trading crossroads off the southern tip of peninsular Malaysia, it was first settled by Malay Muslims and colonized by the British. The city-state has four official languages: English, Tamil, Malay and Standard Mandarin. 

The British, as was their colonial tradition, imported laborers and civil servants from India and China. The imported workers brought their faiths with them, whether they were Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, Hindu or Sikh. When the British left, the workers, now Singaporeans, had put down roots and stayed to run the new city-state. Singapore, like the United States, is a nation of immigrants. 

Today you can see the diversity on every block of the city. Indian, Chinese, European, Malay all share space on the city's futuristic subways and teeming streets. 

During our time in Singapore, we made it a point to visit several houses of worship. We visited a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque. All were open to people of all faiths. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Another Day Done

Workers kick back at the end of their day tearing down the buildings in Washington Square in Bangkok.

I've been photographing demolition workers in the old Washington Square district of Bangkok, a mini project of sorts, for the last few weeks. It's interesting to me because you used to see "Washington Square" used with "infamous" on a pretty regular basis. The area has been featured in a series of "Bangkok Noir" mysteries (there's a whole genre of fiction dedicated to foreigners dying in the City of Angels).

The square used to be home to a small cadre of American, British and Australian ex-patriots, all men, all older, most veterans of various Southeast Asian wars. Most of the businesses were bars and / or brothels, cabarets or travel agents (because in Thailand eventually everyone needs a travel agent). There were even a couple of legitimate and, by all accounts, very good western restaurants in the Square.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Reds on the Move

Red Shirt protestors ride their motorcycles down Petchaburi Rd in Bangkok during a motorcade calling for constitutional reform in Thailand

There was another Red Shirt protest in Bangkok Monday. It was the latest in a series of protests calling for constitutional reform in the Kingdom, it started at the Royal Plaza (near Government House) and wound its way through the city, bringing traffic to a standstill, stopping at Parliament, the offices of the ruling Pheu Thai party, Government House and other public buildings before ending up at Democracy Monument. 

By Thai standards it was a pretty small protest, probably only 2,000 or 3,000 people. But 2,000 to 3,000 people on motorcycles and in tuk-tuks are still an impressive sight and can bring Bangkok's always congested traffic to a complete halt.

Covering these moving rallies presents a challenge. You can't do it on foot because they cover too much ground and move too quickly. Renting a car is out of the question because there's no parking along the route. Even in a taxi, which would be really expensive, keeping up with the rally, jumping out at stops and then finding your cab when the motorcade moves again is very problematic. 

The easiest way to cover it is to hire a motorcycle taxi for the day. But I have a serious aversion to moto taxis. They're fast and nimble but they're also very dangerous.

So, like Blanche Dubois, I rely on the kindness of strangers. I took a taxi down to the Royal Plaza for the start of the motorcade, walked along for the first couple of blocks photographing people and then, when it really got rolling, ran up to the truck and asked for a ride. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Honoring His Majesty

A woman bows her head in reverence to the King during a candle light vigil in his honor at Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok Wednesday night

Wednesday was the 85th birthday of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand. The old part of Bangkok, the area known as Rattanakosin, was a sea of yellow* as the King's subjects showed up in the hundreds of thousands to wish His Majesty a happy birthday. 

When I started planning my move to Bangkok back in May, I set aside this week to stay in Bangkok. The King's Birthday is arguably the most important holiday in Bangkok. Thailand is split along political lines (Red Shirts vs Yellow Shirts), economic lines (the poor vs the very rich) and even religious lines (Buddhist vs Muslim in the Deep South), but the one thing almost all Thais agree on is the importance of the King as a unifying factor in their country. Young or old, rich or poor Thais come together in support of the King. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Loy Krathong

A man and his son get ready to float their "krathong" in the Mae Nam Choa Phraya (Chao Phraya River) Wednesday night for Loy Krathong

Loy Krathong is one of Thailand's most famous holidays. It's a fantastic evening of light and fun and revelry. People float the krathongs and pray for success and luck in the coming year. Releasing the krathong also represents releasing your grudges. All in all, a pretty terrific holiday. 

People float (loy in Thai) small lotus shaped boats or rafts (called krathongs) in rivers, lakes or ponds. If you're not near a river, lake or pond (which would be unusual, at least in central and southern Thailand), you can float a krathong in a pool or other small man made water body. And if you're really not near water, you can virtually float one online

I had originally planned to go to Wat Sri Boonreung, a relatively unknown temple in the Bangkok suburbs. I had selected the temple because the monks there are a friendly bunch and its relative isolation meant there wouldn't be many tourists there. 

But then it started to rain. Taxis in Bangkok, like many other big cities, become very difficult to find when it rains. I've stood on street corners for 30 minutes trying to get a taxi in Bangkok thunderstorms. Since I'm not very familiar with the neighborhood around Wat Sri Boonreung and the taxi situation in that part of town, I changed plans and headed down to the Chao Phraya River with Gavin Gough, a British photographer who lives in Bangkok. 

We took the Skytrain to Wat Yannawa, a large temple right on the river, close to big hotels and the Skytrain. 

It was the right choice. The temple was a beehive of activity. There was so much going on, that Gavin and I seldom saw each other once we started photographing. All night long, people came in with their krathongs, lit some candles, recited a brief prayer and watched them float downriver. Some people floated krathongs made of bread (traditionally they're made from the stalk of a banana tree). The river's catfish went into a feeding frenzy whenever a bread krathong came to them. It was a lot of fun to watch and photograph. 

Periodically through the night fireworks (usually unsanctioned) would go off adding to the atmosphere.

As I was getting ready to leave, I saw people trying to light large paper lanterns and "float" them into the sky. This is the Loy Krathong tradition in northern Thailand, especially Chiang Mai, but it's apparently becoming popular in Bangkok.

An unsuccessful lantern launch burns out near Wat Yannawa while others try to launch their lanterns. 

I had read in the local papers that city officials in Chiang Mai were working with holiday organizers to control the release of the lanterns because they posed a fire hazard. I marked that as "that's interesting" sort of thing when I read it but pretty much forgot about it, because I didn't think it was a big tradition in Bangkok. 

Except that now some folks are trying to make it a Bangkok tradition. And the lanterns are not allowed in Bangkok. I watched people trying to light them and as soon as someone would light a lantern, a police officer, firefighter or safety official would run in and literally rip the lantern from the owner's hands and try to stomp out the flames. 

Except the fuel was a sterno like substance, which like napalm, continues to burn but sticks to everything. Some of the police were running around with flames licking at their shoes. And people who managed to evade the law discovered that the lanterns are deceptively hard to get airborne. 

I'm willing to bet that for every lantern that went into sky, five or six crashed and burned (literally) on the ground. The winds last night were carrying the lanterns over the river and the ones that did fly were gorgeous, but I could definitely see how these could be a fire hazard. It was very interesting and a lot of fun to photograph. 

There are more photos from Loy Krathong in my archive and available from ZUMA Press.   

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for either editorial licensing or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you like, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wat Saket Temple Fair

A balloon vender at the Wat Saket Temple Fair in the old part of Bangkok

I started out today checking out the places I wanted to go to photograph Loy Krathong, a Thai holiday that is one of the happiest, most photogenic days in Thailand. I took a khlong boat out to the end of the route on Khlong Saen Saeb, where there's a lovely temple. With a friendly group of monks. 

It's location, well off the beaten path and far from central Bangkok, means there won't be many tourists out there. On the other hand, it's location, well off the beaten path and far from central Bangkok, means it might be hard to find a taxi to bring me home at the end of the night. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Praying for the King

A woman prays for King's recovery in the courtyard at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok Monday

It's hard for non-Thai's, especially Americans who have no tradition of a monarchy, to understand how important Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, is to most Thais. He is Thailand's longest serving monarch - on the throne since 1950. He's the only King the overwhelming majority of Thais know. 

In a country riven by political differences, the King is a unifying force - reverence for the King is the one thing most Thais can agree on. Even though Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, like the United Kingdom, the King wields enormous influence that goes well beyond his technically limited powers. Insulting the King, or those in his immediate family, are violation of Thailand's "lese majeste" laws and can land you in jail. 

He's Rama IX, the ninth King of the Chakri Dynasty. Thailand wouldn't be what it is today without the leadership of the Chakri Kings. When Burma, the Malay states, the Annamese (now Vietnamese), Lao and Khmer monarchies were wiped out or co-opted by the forces of colonialism, the Chakri Kings were able to play British and French colonial interests off against each other and maintain Thailand's (then Siam) independence.

Southeast Asia has a long history of God Kings - the Angkor Kings were revered as God Kings. Thailand was an absolute monarchy until a military coup in 1932 replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional one. 

Rama IX is revered because he is not a God King. He's a mortal who puts his people's needs ahead of his own. The King has sponsored economic development programs in rural Thailand. He funds colleges and schools, hospitals and health programs. He's an accomplished jazz musician and amateur photographer (I have a theory that one of the reasons Thais are so comfortable being photographed is that the King, even from his hospital bed, is never without a camera). In his younger days, the King seemed genuinely fond of getting out of Bangkok and being with the "common" people. Now age and illness limit his mobility. 

The King has been in Siriraj Hospital since 2009. He's left a couple of times for short day trips or official functions but for all intents and purposes he lives in the hospital. A steady stream of Thais visits the hospital every day to pray for his recovery, sign get well cards and drop off bouquets of yellow or pink flowers (yellow the color of the monarchy, pink because it's thought the color will bring him good health). His birthday is Dec. 5. As the day approaches, crowds at the hospital are almost certain to grow. 

There are more photos of the King's well wishers at the hospital in my archive

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Party Cloudy With a Chance of Tear Gas

Thai riot police and anti-government protesters scuffle near Government House Saturday afternoon. I was put on assignment by Getty Images to cover the protest. These photos are not available for use and are used courtesy of © Getty Images

Saturday's protest started peacefully enough with both Buddhist and Brahmin blessings. At the main stage, on the north end of the protest site, there was a festive, almost street party atmosphere (which is normal in Thailand). Street vendors were doing a brisk business with barbecued meats, soft drinks, sweets and other snacks. There were also lots of Thai flags and the yellow banners of the monarchy for sale. Thai musicians put on concerts and every once in a while the crowd would break out chants of "Yingluck, Get Out!" I don't speak Thai but the phrase for "Get Out" is one I understand and in Thai it's rather poetic (I learned it in 2010 when the crowds chanted "Abhisit, Get Out!"

It was a different story at the south end of the protest site, about 1 kilometer away. There protesters were confronting riot police, and had set up a second stage with more strident speakers. Very early on police fired a volley of tear gas to break up a group of protesters but for most of the morning it was a tense peace. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Before the Storm

A Thai riot policeman drills with his comrades near Government House in Bangkok Friday. The scarf is not a fashion accessory. It identifies the officer's unit. Others wear green, blue, red etc

Authorities around Government House spent Friday preparing for what they expect to be a large anti-government protest. The protest was called by the Pitak Siam group which hopes to provoke enough confusion that the Army will step in and force out the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Pitak Siam claims the current government is corrupt. Corruption is a huge issue in Thailand. There is an entire government department dedicated to rooting it out and daily headlines about corruption inside and outside government.  

This will Pitak Siam's second rally. Their first one, in October while I was in the South, drew many more people than expected. This time they claim they will have 500,000 to 1,500,000 people filling the streets around Government House in Bangkok. 

The government is taking that claim seriously. They are putting well over 10,000 riot police on the street, imposing the Internal Security Act and putting several army units on alert to back up the police. 

In many ways, this is a movie we've all seen before and it seldom ends well. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

POTUS at the Podium

President of the United States (POTUS) Barack Obama and Thai Prime Minister (PM) Yingluck Shinawatra at their joint press conference at Government House in Bangkok Sunday night. The lighting is caused by another photographer's flash going off at the same time I made my photo. This is one of my favorite photos from the night. Photo by Jack Kurtz / Getty Images

President Obama visited Thailand yesterday. He landed in Bangkok Sunday afternoon, toured Wat Pho, met with Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, and then came to Government House for a meeting with Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thai Prime Minister and attend a State Dinner. He ended the night at a meeting with US Embassy employees in central Bangkok and flew on to Yangon, Myanmar this morning. 

Getty Images, the photo agency / wire service, asked me to photograph the President during his time at Government House because their Bangkok staff photographer was traveling to Yangon to photograph that part of the President's trip. 

Photographing a Presidential visit is both interesting and tremendously, unbelievably, excruciatingly boring. 

It's interesting because he is after all the President. There is always the chance that news will be made or he might slip either figuratively or literally giving you a better picture than you would expect to get.

It's tremendously, unbelievably, excruciatingly boring because Presidential visits now are so tightly scripted there almost no chance of news being made and you have to be there hours in advance for security sweeps and you're kept hundreds of feet away from the President. President Obama is very disciplined and not given to off the cuff displays. (President Bush on the other hand was a relative wild man. I once photographed him drawing a power tool from a tool belt, pretending it was a "six shooter" and shooting reporters.)

I've covered a lot of Presidential visits. In fact, I've photographed every sitting President since Ronald Reagan and I've been in the "pool" (the small group of select photographers who accompany the President everywhere he goes) for several Presidential visits in Phoenix. So this wasn't my first rodeo.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Heavy Load to Bear

A worker in a rice warehouse in Pathum Thani, Thailand, prepares to throw a sack of rice into place in a warehouse. The sack weighs about 100 kilos (about 220 pounds). 

One of the things I love about being a photojournalist is that it's a passport into the lives of others. Sometimes they're politicians, celebrities or athletes; people used to being in the public eye. They usually have a public face they put on for us. The best photographers have a way of cutting through that public face to show us the real person, but as people become better at manipulating the media and publishers increasingly don't mind being manipulated if it saves them money, it's getting harder and harder to do that. 

Working as a photojournalist also gives me a passport into the lives of regular people. I enjoy these assignments a lot more (although I do like covering politics and politicians when I have the time and access to do it properly). This week I worked on a story about rice in Thailand. One of the sort of themes of my work has been food and where it comes from. I like working on stories about agriculture and food production and hanging out with farmers and workers. 

We drove out to Pathum Thani, a province north of Bangkok, Thursday to visit a rice warehouse and find rice farmers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Buddhas Bought and Sold

Men haul a Buddha statue out to a waiting delivery truck on Bamrung Muang Street in Bangkok.

Bamrung Muang Street in the old part of Bangkok is one of my regular haunts. It's one of the oldest streets in the city - it was originally an elephant trail from the provinces to the Royal Palace - and one of the first paved roads in Bangkok. 

It's where Buddhist religious paraphernalia is bought and sold. Big and small statues of the Buddha. Statues of revered Thai Kings, like King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn. Statues of Hindu and Brahmin deities like Shiva and Ganesh (also revered in Thai Buddhism) can all be bought here. Some small enough for bedside table, others so large they require their own room. I call it Bangkok's Street of Many Buddhas. 

But it's not just statues that are sold along Th Bamrung Muang (Th is the abbreviation for Thanon, the Thai word for street or road), you can also buy monk's robes, alms bowls, candles, incense or pretty much anything you would need for a Buddhist observance. Workshops along the street apply the finishing touches to the statuary while workers apply the final touch ups and details to the statues on the street in front of the showrooms. 

I like photographing the street because it's an always changing kaleidoscope of Bangkok life. Even on cloudy days, like yesterday, the photography is good. You're dealing with a lot of saturated colors - yellows and golds and reds - and a lot of the photography is in the shade, either in small sois or storefronts, so the clouds help control otherwise nasty contrast. 

The street photography along Th Bamrung Muang is right up my alley (so to speak). Almost all of it is done with short lenses, from my 24mm lens to my 50mm lens. On my Lumix GX1, I used mostly my 20mm lens (equal to a 40mm on the Canons) or my 14mm lens (28mm on the Canons). 

Every experience is different, no matter how often I go down to the Street of Many Buddhas. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive, and almost all of the photos  from Southeast Asia, are available for editorial licensing or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you like, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the on screen prompts. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Trying to Save a Life in Bangkok

Medics and first responders work on a child hit by a vehicle in Bangkok Saturday night. The medics worked on the boy for more than 30 minutes but they were not able to revive him. 

One of the stories I'm working on while I'm here is how Bangkok and other fast developing Asian cities grapple with growth; how they meet the basic needs of citizens drawn by perceived economic opportunity the bright lights of the city. 

In Bangkok, one of those issues is emergency medical care and first responders. 

Bangkok has a police force. They deal with crime and public safety. Bangkok has a fire department. They deal with fires. 

What Bangkok doesn't have is a publicly funded emergency medical department. So people hurt in accidents, fires, crimes may have police and fire respond to their event, but neither police nor fire will render aid or transport them to a hospital. It's not their job. 

There are two large Buddhist based foundations that run emergency medical operations through the city. These organizations are privately financed and rely on volunteer medics to meet the first response needs in a city of 12 million. To call it a challenge is to significantly understate the situation. 

The Ruamkatanyu Foundation and Poh Teck Tung got their start picking up the dead from the streets of Bangkok (from crimes scenes, accidents, suicides etc) and transporting them to morgues and hospitals. They initially got some fame as Bangkok's "body snatchers." 

Sometimes though the dead they were picking up weren't dead but were in need of emergency medical care. So they started volunteer medical response and ambulance teams. And now both organizations field thousands of people who roam the city streets, mostly at night, offering aid to strangers and helping the injured get medical help. 

The volunteers who work the streets give a lot more than just their time. While they work under the umbrella of the Ruamkatanyu Foundation and Poh Teck Tung, they have to provide all their own gear. 

That includes uniforms and rubber gloves, ambulances and oxygen tanks, firefighting and snake catching gear (they are frequently called upon to capture snakes, even in the heart of Bangkok 25 foot long Burmese pythons are not unusual). 

And yes, you read that correctly - the ambulances these volunteers drive are their privately owned vehicles marked with the Foundation's stickers, the oxygen they administer at an accident they've bought with their own funds. Even the gas they use to race to an accident scene they have to buy. Many spend up to 1/3 of their monthly pay on supplies for their ambulances. One driver joked that he didn't drink because all of his money went into his rescue gear. 

Ruamkatanyu, the younger and smaller of the organizations, has been around for about 65 years and has about 7,000 volunteers (they're not all on the street every night). Poh Teck Tung, has been around for about 100 years and has many more volunteers. 

The foundations' (and volunteers') work isn't limited to Bangkok. After the 2004 tsunami in southern Thailand both groups sent volunteers to Phuket to help with the clean up and body disposal. One Ruamkatanyu volunteer told me he thinks he helped take care of more than 2,500 deceased after the tsunami. Marko Cunningham, originally from New Zealand but now a Ruamkatanyu volunteer, said he got onto the ambulance crews after the 2004 tsunami - that after not sleeping for weeks straight and helping take care of 2,500 bodies he never wanted to touch a dead body again. 

Cunningham has run flood relief operations in the provinces north of Bangkok and conducted emergency medical training for foundations in northern Thailand and eastern Myanmar (Burma). Both groups have orphanages and schools. Poh Teck Tung has a large public hospital in Bangkok (the website is in Thai). 

These volunteers fill a vitally important role. If it weren't for them, many people would never get the first response medical care they need. Marko Cunningham is trying to buy another ambulance for his crew at Ruamakatanya Foundation. You can read about it here

NOTE: Some graphic content in the slideshow. 

Finally, many of the photos you see in my archive are available for licensing for editorial use or for self fulfillment as prints if you would like to hang one on a wall or give one as present. Click on the "Add to Cart" and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election Watch in Thailand

Americans living in Thailand react to President Barack Obama's reelection victory during the US Embassy's election watch party at a hotel in Bangkok

History was made in the US Tuesday when the nation reelected, against all odds, Barack Obama to a second four year term. 

This is the first year in nearly 30 years of being a photojournalist that I missed most of the election season, or at least the home stretch of the election season. But that's what happens when you move to Thailand six weeks before the election. 

It was weird being in Bangkok and following the election from afar. Thais follow the horse race nature of American elections pretty closely and they like President Obama. They like that Americans (most of us anyhow) put our past behind us and elected an African-American, and they like Obama's message of inclusiveness. For Thais, whose democracy has been tested by coups and military crackdowns, it's proof that things can change. 

Finally George W. Bush was not popular here or anywhere. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not and are not popular. (I covered the US Embassy's 2004 election party in Mexico City, when George W. Bush was reelected. One of the headlines in the Mexico City papers then was "Four More Years of Terror." I thought that headline said all you needed to know about the Bush administration's international standing.)

Covering a US election from outside the country means covering the US Embassy's election watch party. US Embassy's everywhere hold election watch parties. Local dignitaries and media are invited to watch the count while the Ambassador and embassy employees explain the process. The parties are strictly non-partisan. 

I'm sure the embassy employees have political leanings, but they were definitely "sitting on their hands" during the party in Bangkok. They didn't express any feelings one way or another whether it was discussing national races or local races. They explained the process without taking the sides. Which is their job. 

The attendees though were not bound by the non-partisan ethic. Most of the people at the party supported President Obama and as the early results with Mitt Romney leading came in they were pretty glum. But once the vote count picked up steam and the President's victory became apparent the enthusiasm grew. 

I made most of these photos towards the end of the morning (Bangkok is 12 hours ahead of the East Coast, so 10PM in New York is 10AM here). 

There are more photos of the election watch party in my archive

Finally, many of the photos in my archive, and almost all of the ones from Thailand, are available for editorial licensing and self fulfillment for prints. If you see something you want to use or hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the on screen prompts. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Rowing for the King

The Royal Barge Narai Song Suban is propelled down the Chao Phraya River during the final dress rehearsal for the Royal Barge procession.

The Royal Barge Procession is Friday, November 9. It's a special day, a very important one for the Thais. This is a full procession of the barges. Full processions of the barges is a rare event - there have only been 16 during the reign of Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The river bank will be lined with thousands of well wishers, most wearing yellow (the King's color). The King's eldest son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir apparent to the crown, will preside over the procession.

I photographed two of the rehearsals. One from the east side (Bangkok side) of the Chao Phraya River, one from the west side (Thonburi side). The first time I photographed the rehearsal, from the Bangkok side, I made a couple of mistakes

I didn't get down to the river early enough. I naively thought the river taxis and ferries would be running (because even then I knew the best view would be from the west side of the river) but they weren't because the procession shut down river traffic. And I didn't bring a long enough lens with me to the river. I knew the barges would be in the middle of the river and I would be on shore, but I thought my 200mm lens and 1.4X teleconverter would be long enough (effectively a 280mm lens) but I was wrong. 

The pictures from the first rehearsal were okay but not what I was hoping for. They would have been better from the west side of the river with a longer lens.  

Because I learn from my mistakes, things went much better the second time. First of all, I got great tickets from a friend at the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Grandstand seats at the Royal Navy Convention Hall on the west side of the river very close to the end of the procession, exactly where I wanted to be. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Eye Candy From Kao Seng

Kao Seng is a Muslim fishing village near the city of Songkhla. It's a little off the beaten path and a lot off the tourist track. I went down there Sunday morning to watch and photograph the fishing boats come in. Except they didn't come in because they never went out. It stormed Saturday night and the seas were too high for the small boats to put out.

Instead of photographing the boats coming in and the catch being off loaded, I photographed people in the village. It worked out pretty well for me because although the boats didn't go out, the storm left beautiful skies and gorgeous light behind.

There's no story or narrative here - just a few photos I liked.

I was walking along the beach and I saw this girl making lunch for her family. I don't think she even saw me until I thanked her for the photo. 

Men fish with casting nets just offshore. 

He was wandering along the beach hunting for clams. 

A fishing boat, one of the few that went out Saturday night, comes back. 

A fisherman coils some of his ropes. 

A boat runs offshore. 

A fisherman walks home after a morning in the surf. 

There are more photos from Kao Seng in my archive.

Most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial licensing or self fulfillment for prints if you want to hang one on your wall. Just click the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

To Olé or not to Olé

Bulls do battle in the bull fighting arena in Hat Yai. Thai bullfights are bull vs bull. No matadors, no swords and not much blood.

I went to the bullfights in Hat Yai Saturday. It was my first Thai bullfight and it was something I've been trying to photograph for years, but my schedule and the bullfighting schedule never got into synch.

It was interesting and the people watching was a lot of fun. Thais bet on bullfights. (They also bet on cockfights, fish fights and cricket fights.) In fact, they bet a lot on bullfights. The totals wagered on one of the fights Saturday was about 4,000,000 Baht (that's four million), about $128,000 (US). Not much in terms of the Super Bowl, but a lot for rural Thailand and a lot for one fight.

There's ritual connected to Thai bullfighting. The bulls are washed down and anointed before the fight. The bulls wear decorative necklaces and lassos. They are paraded into the ring with a team of people who tend to their every need.

During the fight they are encouraged (from a distance) by team members calling to them and tossing their ropes toward them. But there are no whips and the bulls are not hit. I know it's seems incongruous, but the animals are well cared for and live to be 20 or more years old. One of the bulls fighting Saturday was 15 years old.

The bulls choose to fight or not to fight. In fact, most of Saturday's fights were very brief. The bulls meet in the arena, head butt each other a couple of times and one of the bulls turns around and trots away.

Catcalls and booing ensue from the spectators and if the bull can't be shamed back into battle the match is called. During Saturday's fights I didn't see any bulls change their minds. Once a bull decided this wasn't what he wanted to do on a nice Saturday afternoon the fight was over.

Which brings us back to the 4,000,000B wagered on one fight. The Thai man I went to the fights with told me 2,000,000B was bet on each bull in the final bout of the day. It was also the shortest. The bulls met in the center of the arena and the loser turned and ran. He didn't trot off, he ran. At some point in his career he must have done well to get people to drop 2,000,000B on him, but this wasn't his day.

The fight wasn't much to watch but the crowd was. The losers were incensed that their bull chickened out. There were catcalls and boos a plenty.

None of them worked. The bull stood his ground by refusing to stand his ground. In a matter of seconds, 2,000,000B was lost.

I don't gamble and I especially don't gamble when 1) I have no idea what the rules are and 2) I don't speak the language of the bookies.

The betting at Thai bullfights is fast and furious. The betting starts as soon as the fight is announced - days or weeks before the actual bullfight - and continues right up to the end. I didn't even pretend to understand it. But I had a good time and I will probably go to a bullfight the next time I'm in Hat Yai.

There are more photos from the bullfight in my archive.

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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Living Under the Gun

Thai Rangers patrol in Yala from the back of an open pickup truck. 

The situation in south Thailand is complicated. Just ask almost anyone who lives there. In Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces there is a low intensity war being fought between Muslim separatists and Thai authorities. 

Centuries ago, Pattani was an independent Muslim sultanate and one of the leading trade ports in Southeast Asia. It was a part of the Britain's Malaya colony in the late 1800's and ceded to Thailand in the first few years of the 1900's. The people of Pattani remember the sultanate like it was yesterday and chafe at Thai rule when their ties are much closer to Malaysia than they are Thailand. (Most Thais in the south speak a local dialect of Malay and are Muslims, like most Malays.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ok Phansa at Wat Kohwai

A Thai Army Ranger prays before making merit during the Tak Bat for Ok Phansa at Wat Kohwai in Yarang with a bowl of steaming rice. 

Ok Phansa is a Buddhist holiday that marks the end of Buddhist "Lent" or the three months rains retreat. People make lavish gifts to their temple and special processions with monks or statues of the Buddha riding in lavishly decorated carts and floats. The processions symbolize the Lord Buddha's return to earth after his three month retreat to heaven. It's a very happy holiday. 

For the people of Wat Kohwai, this year's Ok Phansa was particularly happy. The Buddhist village is an island in a sea of Muslim villages. For the last eight years, it's been to dangerous for the villagers to hold the processions or celebrations. 

This year the Thai army dispatched a unit of Rangers to the village. Their mission was to protect the village. But in the Thai way, they also participated in the holiday, livening up an already lively event. Soldiers danced and sang and wore silly hats while protecting villagers and carrying M16s.

Sanuk is a Thai word I like. It means fun, but more than the word fun, it really means the concept fun. That you should have fun and enjoy what you're doing, whether it's sitting in traffic, going to a movie or a soldier on a potentially dangerous mission. The soldiers dancing during Ok Phansa was Sanuk in action. 

I couldn't help but think I wouldn't have seen American soldiers in silly hats and dancing with each other while they were on a mission. I'm not saying the Thai way is better. But it is certainly different. 

There are more photos of Ok Phansa in my archive

Finally, always remember and never forget that most of the photos in my archive are available for licensing for editorial use or self fulfillment for prints if you'd like to hang one on the wall, just click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the on screen prompts.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Home for the Unwanted

A man chained to a wall greets the day with a prayer in a home for the mentally ill in rural Pattani province

One of the stories I went to Pattani to work on was about a home for the mentally ill I had heard about in the Mayo district in rural Pattani province. I wasn't sure what I was going to find - if I found it at all - the only thing I had to go on was the name of the district (township) the home is in. No address or street. I didn't even have the name of the home. 

I work with a local journalist when I go to Pattani, I told him what I was looking for and we set off driving up down the back roads of the province - asking strangers if they knew about the place and surely but slowly we zeroed in on the home. 

My first thought when we pulled up was that the place looked nice. A large sloping yard led up to the main house. Rows of brick huts lined both sides of the yard. It looked vaguely like a rustic resort. One that had fallen on hard times to be sure but a resort none the less. 

Then I noticed the chains on the wall. And the people shackled to the chains. I realized this was unlike any health care facility I've ever been to. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Eid al-Adha

A Thai Muslim girl in her finest outfit for Eid al-Adha in Narathiwat, Thailand. 

The main reason I came to Thailand's deep south when I did, at the end of October, was because I wanted to be here to photograph the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha as it's practiced here. I'd been planning this trip to southern Thailand for over a year. 

Also called the "Feast of the Sacrifice," Eid al-Adha is one of the most important holy days in the Muslim calendar. It marks Ibrahim's (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice Ishmael, his first born son. It also marks the end of the holy pilgrimage season of the Hajj. Huge feasts are held in Muslim communities around the world on Eid. It's also a time of travel - people are coming home from the Hajj, people travel to see family or return home from work in Bangkok or other big cities. It's a joyous holiday. 

In Thailand, Muslim families buy a cow and sacrifice it in God's name. So many cows are sacrificed on Eid, that the markets in this part of Thailand run out of cattle. Cows are brought in from Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia and sold for Eid sacrifices. 

In other communities in the Muslim world, the sacrifice might be a goat or sheep. One of the tenets of Eid is that families with greater means provide for families or individuals with lesser means. A portion of every animal sacrificed is set aside for the poor, widows or orphans. 

Before an animal is sacrificed it is blessed and men say a lengthy prayer over it. Its throat is then cut in the Halal fashion. The animal is immediately butchered and meat set aside for donations to the poor or less well off. 

There are more photos of Eid in my archive

Finally, always remember and never forget that most of the photos in my archive are available for licensing for editorial use or self fulfillment for prints if you'd like to hang one on the wall, just click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the on screen prompts.