Friday, November 29, 2013

Embassy Protest

Protestors at the US Embassy in Bangkok blow their whistles for two minutes Friday. One whistle being blown near your ears is annoying. Being in the middle of a crowd of thousands blowing their whistles in unison is ear shattering and physically painful

The anti-government protests continue in Bangkok. While there's been nothing as dramatic as the storming of government offices that we saw earlier in the week, but there have been daily marches to government buildings. 

These marches are carefully planned (scripted really). A group of protestors form up, march to their intended government office. Police have laid down razor wire and formed a phalanx around the office. Protestors blow whistles, make speeches calling for the police to support their people power revolution and finally protestors give roses and orchids to the police. The protestors then march down the road a little before breaking up. 
Protestors march down Sukhumvit Road towards the US Embassy. Although most of the protestors do not speak English, many protestors carry signs in both Thai and English

So long as everyone stays on script no one gets hurt. There's almost a festive air to the whole thing.

Friday protestors went to the US Embassy (among other places). I joined the protest at the Asoke Intersection, about 2 kilometers from the Embassy and walked with them to the Embassy, which is in a fortress like complex of building on Witthayu Road in central Bangkok. They were led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who made speeches and urged protestors on in their battle of wills with the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra (Yingluck defeated Abhisit in the 2011 election). 
Former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva reaches out to supporters from his truck in front of the US Embassy

There were riot police on duty at the Embassy, but storming the Embassy was never a part of the script today and the general mood was happy. 
Anti-government protestors file past riot police at the US Embassy. 

Speakers took turns from the sound truck making speeches in both Thai and English calling on the US to support their peaceful revolution.

The protest culminated in the massive whistle blowing that has become the trademark of these protests. A speaker called on protestors to blow their whistles in unison and with enough force that even President Obama could hear them in Washington DC. And blow they did (top photo), and I have no doubt the President could hear them. It was loud, literally, painfully loud. The most important piece of kit in my bag for these protests is not a wide angle lens or telephoto lens or memory cards. The most important piece of kit in my bag is ear plugs. 
There's a lot going on in this photo. These women work in a bank on Sukhumvit Road. There's a McDonald's and Starbucks in the building. The women represent the Bangkok middle class and they're the heart of the protest movement. 

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. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

More of the Same

Anti-government protestors at the Ministry of Finance in Bangkok

I didn't come to Thailand to photograph politics. But I'm a journalist and I have to go where the news is. And right now the news in Thailand is the anti-government protests that are taking place in Bangkok. Monday, protestors left their protest site at Democracy Monument and took over the Ministry of Finance, where Thailand's financial decisions are made. It would be like protestors in the US taking over the Department of the Treasury. 
Former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the protests gridlocking Bangkok, walks through the crowd at the Ministry of Finance

It's impossible to explain these protests to people who don't follow Thai politics. Thomas Fuller, the New York Times reporter in Bangkok, has a good story about the protests in today's Times. He explains it much better than I can. 

I can say there is a certain element of deja vu all over again in covering these protests. I seem to spend hours listening to speeches and photographing people cheering their respective leaders all the while wondering how it's going to end. 

Will it end in bloodshed like 2010? No one wants that. Will it end when protestors close the airports like 2008? (The current protestors are allied with the people who closed the airports in 2008.) That would be an economic disaster and no one wants that. Will it end when Red Shirts (who support the current government) come to Bangkok to defend the government from the protestors because the police and military haven't done anything? That, to me, is the worst case scenario. Red Shirts have been gathering in a large sports stadium in suburban Bangkok. So far they've stayed in the stadium listening to speeches and vowing nonviolence but it's not impossible to see them saying enough is enough and taking to the streets. 

Top picture: an anti-government protestor screams at riot police (bottom picture) who are stationed behind concrete barricades fronted by razor wire

What puzzles a lot of foreigners is that the protestors have occupied the government buildings by just showing up. 

They announce their plans, jump in their trucks and motorcade off to the building they intend to close. When they get there, they blow some whistles and march into the compound. There has been absolutely no violence and very little property damage (not even broken windows). The protestors have, really, been quite well behaved. At the same time, there has been absolutely no police presence around the government buildings (except for the Prime Minister's office and Parliament, which are very tightly guarded). There has been no effort to stop or control the protestors. I can't imagine this happening anywhere else in the world. Certainly not in any country in this neighborhood. 

There are more photos of yesterday's protest in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

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. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mor Lam Rocks Thailand

People from Isan dance at a Mor Lam show in Bangkok

One of my goals since coming to Thailand in 2012 was to do a project on Mor Lam, which has been called Thai country music because it originated in northeast Thailand and Laos. Mor Lam is still a music style and you can buy Mor Lam music CDs in record stores (they still have those here) and markets but the Mor Lam live shows have become wild extravaganzas that are a cross between Chinese opera (they tell a familiar, traditional story through song) and Las Vegas spectacle with comedians, stand alone music acts and costume changes. Shows last four or five hours and the audience drinks, dances and sings along the entire time.
A Mor Lam performer on stage. 

The Mor Lam shows I went to for this blog entry and these photos were about the most fun I've ever had in Thailand. The Mor Lam troupe, which is based in Khon Kaen, Thailand, gave me unlimited backstage access before and during the show. When I wanted to go into the crowd to photograph the audience singing, dancing and tipping performers I was told to walk out on stage and jump into the crowd. Which turned out to be the only way to get to the crowd.
A fan photographs a Mor Lam diva with his cell phone

Mor Lam is an Isan thing. It was born there, it's sung in the Isan language (which is a dialect of standard Thai and not always understood in Bangkok) and the stories are stories of Isan. Migrants from Isan make up the muscle that powers Bangkok. Isan people are the taxi drivers, construction workers and factory workers of the Thai capital, so Mor Lam has a following here.

The Mor Lam troupes (there are a couple of hundred of them in Thailand) seldom tour beyond Isan. They play in Bangkok only a couple of times a year. As a result, the Bangkok shows draw thousands of people. Folks from the countryside who don't get to see their Mor Lam come to the shows and, just for the night, can imagine they're back in Isan. To show their appreciation fans call out to performers and slip small tips into their hands - anywhere from 20Baht (a little than .60¢ US) to 100Baht (about $2.90 US), it's not much but for people who make only 300Baht for the day, it's still significant. 
Performers put their makeup on before the show

Finding Mor Lam shows in Bangkok is hard. There aren't many that come to the big city, they're not advertised in the English language media and they're held in places that are a little out of the way. Just the same, it's worth the effort to find them. Going to a show is like cracking open a window into a side rural Thai life that most foreigners here never experience. 

There are more photos of Mor Lam in my archive

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. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Mixed Blessing

A Red Shirt supporter weeps with news that the Thai courts would not dissolve the government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thailand's political climate is going for lukewarm to full boil. Things have been percolating along with the usual verbal spars between Red Shirts (and their sometime political allies the Pheu Thai) and opposition Democrats (and their allies). Then the government tried to pass a wide ranging blanket amnesty bill which pleased almost no one. 

The Red Shirts were displeased because while it might have granted amnesty to Thaksin Shinawatra it also granted amnesty to the military men and politicians who led the crackdown against the Red Shirts in 2010. The opposition was displeased because while it granted amnesty to the military and their politicians, it might grant amnesty to Thaksin, whom they hate. Protestors immediately took to the streets and lawsuits filed. 

The court ruled that the government significantly overstepped its bounds in promoting both the amnesty bill and the proposed charter change to directly elect Senators to the upper house (which right now is done through a mix of appointments and elections). But the court stopped short of disbanding the government. 

Predictably the decision pleased almost no one. The Pheu Thai suggested the court overstepped its bounds and the opposition said the court didn't go far enough and the government should be disbanded. 

I went to the Red Shirts to photograph them watching the ruling. 

As the court read its ruling, striking down the Pheu Thai efforts people started to weep and anger built. The anger dissipated almost immediately though when the court stopped short of banning the Pheu Thai party and dissolving the government. At that point the crowd burst into applause and started cheering. 

It was the middle step of a process that promises to go along through mid-December. I think there will be a break around December 5th because that is the King's Birthday and a national holiday. 

There are more photos of the Red Shirts in Rajamangala in my archive and available from ZUMA Press

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, November 17, 2013

Loy Krathong

Mother and son pray before floating their krathong during Loy Krathong at Wat Yannawa in Bangkok

Sunday was Loy Krathong, a mostly Thai holiday, with variations observed in Laos and Myanmar. The holiday originated during the Sukothai period, (roughly 1300s AD) in the Royal Court. Loy (also spelled Loi) is the Thai word for float, Krathong, which doesn't have a direct translation, refers to the lotus shaped vessel that floats. Thais put incense and candles into their krathongs, go to a nearby body of water and watch them float away. They usually say a prayer and make a wish before placing it into the water. The krathongs floating away also represents the release of bad thoughts and feelings.    

Originally krathongs were made from the trunk of banana trees. A few are still made the old way but increasingly krathongs are made of bread. Recently krathongs were made out of foam and plastics but people realized the environmental damage those materials do and reverted to biodegradable krathongs. 
A family at Wat Yannawa lights up a Yi Peng lantern. 

In Chiang Mai, Loy Krathong is celebrated with the release of Yi Peng lanterns, homemade paper lanterns that carry a small flame and much like tiny hot air balloons float into the night sky. The Chiang Mai tradition is becoming popular throughout Thailand and it's not unusual to see people releasing the flaming paper lanterns in Bangkok.

I like photographing Loy Krathong. It's a lovely celebration and a happy day. It mostly takes place after dark though so I generally use high ISO (1600-3200) and wide aperture lenses. My 50mm f1.2 and 24mm f1.4 lenses all get used wide open or close to wide open all night long. Although I had my 200mm telephoto with me, I never used it. The longest lens I used was the Olympus 45mm f1.8 on my Micro 4:3 body (roughly the equivalent of a 90mm lens on full frame).
A woman lights the candle on her krathong. I popped a little flash into the this picture using my 430EX II with the flash off camera to my left

For a few of the photos I used a little pop of fill flash. I favor the small Canon flashes, like the 430 EX II, it's relatively small but still powerful enough for what I need. It recycles quickly and has most of the controls of the much larger (and more expensive) 580EX II (now discontinued) or 600EX-RT. I used the flash with a generic off-camera cord, which gives me a more natural, less flash like, image. You can accomplish the same thing if you use Canon's older ST-E2 wireless controller for the flash. Canon's new radio transmitter, the ST-E3-RT does not work with the 430EX II.

Normally you would think that for that much available darkness and nighttime photography you would use a tripod. I've found that things happen too quickly at Loy Krathong to make a tripod useful. People go down to the river, say a brief prayer and then slip their krathongs into the river. The moment is gone by the time you set up a tripod. Wat Yannawa, where I photographed Loy Krathong, is one of the most popular places in Bangkok for the holiday and it's too crowded to set up a tripod near the water.

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

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Takin' It to the Streets

An anti-government protestors at Democracy Monument Friday evening.

The Pheu Thai led government of Yingluck Shinawatra tried to pass a sweeping amnesty law earlier this month. The bill sailed through the lower house of the Thai Parliament and passed by a landslide, largely because the opposition Democrats walked out of the parliament before the vote was taken.

The bill is widely seen as a way of whitewashing the alleged crimes of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (he’s Yingluck’s older brother). Thaksin is very popular in the rural areas but he’s despised by Thailand’s Democrat Party, the moneyed elite and many in Thailand’s middle class. Bangkok is the base of the Democrat’s power and they never have a problem whipping up a crowd in the capital. 

The protests started as soon as the bill passed the house. There were large protests near Phan Fa Bridge and Democracy Monument, site of violent Red Shirt protests in 2010, and a rolling motorcade and march of protests through Asoke, Ratchaprasong and Silom, in Bangkok’s financial and shopping districts. The protests pretty much gridlocked a city that is on the verge of gridlock almost every day. 
Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva makes a phone call during the protest at Democracy Monument. He was defeated by Yingluck Shinawatra in the 2011 election.  

The Prime Minister appealed for calm and then withdrew the bills and the Senate, the upper house of Thai parliament, voted down the amnesty bill, effectively killing it for at least six months. 

I was still in the US when the bill passed and I missed the first week or so of the protests. Even though the bill was voted down by the Senate, Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Deputy Prime Minister when the Democrats controlled the government and one of the core leaders of the protests vowed to continue until the “Thaksin regime was eradicated.” 

Suthep called for a three day nationwide general strike that was ignored by almost everyone and has vowed to start a campaign of civil disobedience  until Yingluck Shinawatra and Pheu Thai is out of office. 

It’s not clear what the next step is. A period of civil disobedience could damage an already fragile economy (the Thai economy has slipped into recession) and scare off tourists. Shutting down the infrastructure (like closing airports) would cripple the country’s export based manufacturing industries. 

It seems to me that Yingluck Shinawatra and her advisors didn’t think the amnesty issue through. It’s been a goal of this government to broker an amnesty bill for Thaksin Shinawatra practically from the first day of their administration. And the opposition has made it clear that they won’t accept an amnesty under any circumstances. 
The protestors’ stage at Democracy Monument is reflected in a woman’s sunglasses.   

Although Yingluck and Pheu Thai control an absolute majority in the lower house, they don’t control the Senate, which is made up of appointed members and more conservative than the lower house. Pheu Thai also doesn’t control the Constitution Court, where any amnesty bill will almost surely land if it does pass both houses of the parliament. The constitutionality of an amnesty bill would be decided by the same courts that have already banned earlier iterations of the Pheu Thai government. 

There are more photos of the protest in my archive or available from ZUMA Press.

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. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Great Day for a Parade

Women, all former Ms. Senior Citizens, at the Veterans Day Parade in Phoenix. Phoenix has one of the biggest Veterans Day parades in the US

Today was my last full day in Phoenix. I head back to Bangkok on an early morning flight Tuesday and I'll spend the next 26 or 27 hours in airplanes and airports. Today was Veterans Day in the US, a day we honor those who have served in our nation's military. I went up and photographed the parade because I thought it would sort of close out my time in Phoenix. The first event I covered when I moved here in 1999 was Memorial Day services at the National Cemetery in north Phoenix so military themed holidays sort of bookended my time here. 
A Vietnam era vet prepares to march in the parade

It was a great day for a parade, the sort of November day that you can only enjoy in Phoenix. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the temperature was in the 80's. Nearly perfect. I photographed the parade then rushed home to edit and finish packing. 

There's a sense of finality about this trip to Bangkok. We're selling our house, Cathy is joining me in Asia as soon as it sells. I'm excited about returning to Bangkok, one of the world's great cities, but I'm also a little more nervous about it this time than I was last year when I went to Asia. 

There are more photos of the parade in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

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, November 10, 2013

A Phoenix Rising From the Ashes

A participant the Phoenix Annual Parade of the Arts walks down Roosevelt Street during the 7th iteration of the popular event

There's a renascence of sorts going on in central Phoenix. The "Roosevelt Art District" has breathed new life into a part of town that, for the years that we lived in downtown Phoenix, was little more than an urban wasteland. Blocks of empty houses butted up against downtown down on its luck. At one point, before the Arizona Cardinals moved out to Glendale, there was talk of razing the whole area and building a NFL stadium there. I always thought the area had tremendous potential but needed to reach critical mass before any redevelopment could take place. 

Luckily the NFL plan went nowhere. Arizona State University built a campus in downtown, near the blighted neighborhood, bringing lots of young people into the area. Phoenix built a decent light rail system with stations near the neighborhood, making it easier for people to get to the neighborhood. The "First Friday" art walks became main stream cultural events that draw thousands into the neighborhood. It seems that critical mass arrived and almost nobody noticed it.

A friend sent me a link to the Phoenix Annual Parade of the Arts, an outgrowth of First Friday, we thought it would be an interesting evening so we down to the Art District to check it out. 

The neighborhood has been reborn. Once empty houses are now home to small cafes, used bookstores and art galleries. Once deserted streets are now lined with cars, people walk through the neighborhood grazing and shopping. 

Apple Computer, famously, did an ad called "Here's to the Crazy Ones"a paean to the notion of thinking outside the box. The artists and authors, chefs and musicians who moved into the Art District embody that ideal. I move back to Bangkok this week but I was glad to see the success of the Art District and the redevelopment in the neighborhood. If you're visiting Phoenix and happen to be in town on a First Friday you owe it to yourself to downtown and visit the First Friday Art Walk and see a neighborhood in the process of being reborn.

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. 

To learn more about the travails of urban Phoenix I recommend you read the Rogue Columnist by Jon Talton. Talton is a native Phoenician and former business columnist at the Arizona Republic. His blog focusses on Arizona politics and Phoenix in particular and the struggles the city faces in light of assaults by the Tea Party on immigrant populations and right wing attacks on urban lives. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Canon to the Rescue

My 5D Mark III and 50mm f1.2.

I've written a couple of times about my quest to find a smaller camera to equal the quality of my Canon 5D series bodies. I use Micro 4:3 gear for my smaller cameras and more and more I like them a lot. 

They're not yet a complete replacement to my Canons. The Canons are faster, have better bokeh and are better in low light. But M4:3 cameras get better all the time - the new generation of bodies like the Panasonic GX7 and Olympus Pen E-P5 are really nice. I think they could replace big (and heavy) digital SLR bodies like the 5D Mark 3, Canon 1D series or equivalent Nikons for many assignments, especially travel, reportage and portraits. 

There are some things - sports and wildlife - come to mind, where M4:3 has a lot further to go to makeup the difference. There are none of the big lenses, like the 300mm f2.8, 400mm f2.8 or 600mm f4 lenses sports photographers rely on, in the M4:3 universe (although a M4:3 150mm f2.8, the equivalent of the 300mm f2.8, is supposed to be in development) and the autofocus and low light capabilities still have a ways to go. Even though M4:3 has gotten a lot better in the last several years, Canon and Nikon have also improved their cameras. For me this means I need to keep my Canon gear around for the indefinite future. I use the M4:3 whenever I can, but keep the Canons handy for those times that I'm not comfortable relying on the M4:3.

There is one feature though that is likely to keep me firmly in the Canon camp for a while. 

Canon Professional Services (CPS) is the most important but least talked about tool in my Canon kit. Canon provides expedited and discounted repairs and other features like loaners and telephone tech support  for members. 

I've been a member of CPS for probably more than 25 years. Back in the old days (i.e. manual cameras) I mostly used it for expedited repairs and to borrow equipment when I was on assignment.

I've never owned really big lenses because I never considered myself much of a sports or wildlife photographer. When I worked in Florida I covered several space shuttle launches. I never had a lens up to the task but Canon always set up on site at Cape Kennedy and loaned long lenses to CPS members covering shuttle launches. It was the same at political conventions. Canon (and Nikon for photographers who belong to their professional support organization) always had on site representatives who could make minor repairs and maintenance and loan out equipment. If you only needed specialized gear a couple of times a year, it was a huge help to know I could borrow it from Canon and didn't have to buy it myself. 

Back in the day, CPS membership was free. Alas, it's no longer free and qualifications for membership are tighter but it's still one of the most important tools in the kit. 

When I came back to the US from Thailand, I sent my camera bodies in for "clean and check." Canon provide the clean and check for free and returned the bodies to me in less than a week. 

One body needed more than a "clean and check" because somehow covering Ganesha in Bangkok I got rice pudding into the camera. About a week after the rice pudding incident the camera locked up and wouldn't work. I sent it to Canon, simply telling them it was broken and not mentioning the rice pudding. I got an email confirming receipt of the camera, outlining the repair and estimating that it would be free. About 20 minutes later I got a second email from Canon saying they had opened the camera and found evidence of rice pudding inside it. They said they would try to repair it for free but the presence of rice pudding in the camera might complicate it. 

Two days later the camera was back in my hands, repaired for free. 

I don't use zooms much but I still have an old 70-200mm f2.8 zoom. I tried to use it once in Bangkok, when I discovered the autofocus on the lens didn't work. I sent it to Canon Thailand and they quoted me $800 to repair the lens. I seldom use zooms and it wasn't worth $800 to fix it so I held onto the busted lens. When I got back to the US I sent it into Canon USA and told them Canon Thailand had estimated $800 to repair the lens. I asked for a second estimate. Two days after Canon USA received the lens I had it back in my hands. Total repair cost $250. 

Keeping gear in good working order is an important part of being a professional photographer. You can't tell an editor or client that you don't have pictures because your camera broke. That's why I have three working Canon 5D series bodies. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Canon Professional Services gives me the backup I need to keep my gear in good shape. Unfortunately, there is no pro support yet for the M4:3 gear making it difficult to rely exclusively on M4:3 for mission critical work. 

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.