Tuesday, October 27, 2015

An Update on Updates

A Shia man participates in the self flagellation rituals during Ashura in Yangon. 

I'm traveling with limited internet access so there won't be many updates until I get back to Bangkok. 

You can follow my day to day work by hitting my Instagram feed

Back soon. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Treasure Hunters Revisited

A diver surfaces in the Chao Phraya River after working the bottom of the river. His spotter is lifting off the dive helmet. 

I went back to photograph the Chao Phraya River salvage divers this week. Last week when I was there I wasn't able to get out to the divers and I ended up photographing them with a very long lens. This time I was able to work much closer to the divers. Most of the photos were made with my 12mm f2 (about a 24mm lens on traditional full frame) and I was able to use my 75mm f1.8 lens (about 150mm on traditional full frame) as more of a macro lens - for tight photos of stuff in the boats and the divers' hands - which, more often than not, is how I use my 75mm lens. 
A diver handles an antique coin brought up from the river bottom. This picture was made with an Olympus 45mm f1.8, about 90mm on traditional full frame.  
Some of the things brought up from the river bottom. This represents several hours work on the river bottom. Being a salvage diver on the Chao Phraya River is not an easy way to make a living. This was made with my 75mm lens, about 150mm on traditional full frame.

I worked from a floating platform in the middle of the river, just a few feet from the dive boat. My platform and the divers' boats were all rolling and pitching in the river. Between the huge barges carrying oil upriver and the barges bringing rice downriver, the passenger boats that bring commuters into Bangkok, the cross river ferries that shuttle between Bangkok and Thonburi and the "long tailed" boats that haul tourists around, the Chao Phraya is an extremely busy river. The tide was coming in while I was working and I was worried about 1) falling off my platform and 2) losing my gear over the side. I ended up tying my camera bag to a cleat in the middle of the platform while I laid on the edge, hanging out over the river. 
A spotter on a diver's boat bails out the boat while his diver is on the river bottom. The diver's air compressor is in front of the spotter, the boat's engine behind him. 

It's one thing watching them work through a long lens. It's something else entirely to be sharing their space. This is an extremely hard way to make a living. 
A diver climbs back into his boat. Made with a 12mm lens, about 24mm on traditional full frame.
The diver rinses off what he brought up from the river bottom, also made with my 12mm. 

There are more photos of the divers 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. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Eviction Update 3

A woman (left) who has lived in the Wat Kanalaya neighborhood most of her life, weeps after she was served her final eviction papers today. She's being comforted by a neighbor. 

I went back to the Wat Kanalaya neighborhood, on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River, twice this week for updates on the evictions project I've been working on. The pace is definitely picking up. I went Wednesday and two large homes that I had photographed were gone.

I went today (Friday) and there were more police and demolition workers in the neighborhood.
Demolition workers tear down houses on the river. 

The demolition workers were tearing down ancient wooden houses (some over 100 years old) that were built on wooden piles over the river. The police and government officials were serving eviction papers and providing compensation to families being evicted. 

It was the saddest day I've seen in the neighborhood since the evictions started. The first couple of days I was there, more than a month ago, the mood was anger. Slowly that passed and by the end of this week it was a deep sadness. 
The woman who was evicted stands in her home, among her belongings packed but unmoved, waits for a government official to finish her eviction paperwork. Moments later she signed the forms, was given compensation and then, before she was finished moving out demolition workers started tearing apart her home. 

Using the translate app on my iPhone, I asked one of the people I've been photographing when they (the community residents) had to be gone. She picked up a calendar and pointed to October 30. She then pointed to the remaining homes and said all gone. 
A man carries his child past a couple of homes destroyed in the eviction process. 

It's hard to overstate how devastating this will be for the evicted families. Many have been living here for generations - children grow up and live with their parents and care for them as they age. When families leave here, some will return to the provinces they originally came from but haven't lived in for generations. They are starting over. 
Thai Boy Scout hats in the wreckage of a home. 

Friday was my last visit to the neighborhood for the next month or so. I am going out of town for almost a month to work on a couple of stories. I will go back to Wat Kanalaya as soon as I can when I get back to Bangkok but I'm not expecting anything to be left. 
Scavengers tear apart a refrigerator case pulled out of a shop that had been condemned. 

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. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Opera for Vegetarians

A performer at a Chinese opera smokes a cigarette backstage before a performance at the Joe Sue Kung Shrine in the Talat Noi neighborhood of Bangkok. 

The Vegetarian Festival is lighting up Chinese communities throughout Thailand until late October. The celebration in Bangkok is not as intense as it is in Phuket but it's still a great opportunity to enjoy Thai-Chinese culture. 

Yaowarat Road, where I worked the first day of the Vegetarian Festival, is the commercial center of Thailand's Chinese community but the best Bangkok celebration of the festival is in Talat Noi, a sprawling warren of mechanical shops and Chinese shophouses, south of Bangkok's traditional Chinatown. 
A performer prays before going on stage. 

The Joe Sue Kung Shrine is the largest Chinese shrine in Talat Noi and hosts a terrific celebration of the Vegetarian Festival. The alleys around the shrine are packed with food vendors. The rhythmic pounding of men making a peanut confection that's a cross between peanut brittle and a cookie punctuates the air. 

The plaza in front of the temple is a candle lit, smoky, incense perfumed beehive of activity. Visiting Joe Sue Kung during the Vegetarian Festival is what I imagine it was like stepping back in time to China in the 19th century. 
A woman makes merit by lighting a candle on the plaza in front of Joe Sue Kung Shrine. 

There's also a large Chinese opera at the shrine during the Vegetarian Festival. I've photographed a lot of Chinese opera in the last two years. I'm usually the only photographer at an opera. Sometimes there might be a second one, but seldom do I have to worry about a pack of photographers. 

Sadly, the opera at Joe Sue Kung during the Vegetarian Festival is so well known that it's become a magnet for photographers. There were more photographers at the performance Thursday night than there were cast members. There must have been 20 photographers in the dressing area backstage. Sometimes there were three or four photographers photographing the same cast member. It's a testimony to Thai patience that the opera performers took it all in stride without complaint. 
A performer puts on his boots before the show started.

I photographed performers getting into character, some of the activities around the shrine and the first hour or so of the performance and then left. It was a good opera but I don't speak Teochow (the language the opera is performed in). The show lasts about four hours and, since I don't understand what's being said on stage, the last three hours is a lot like the first hour. 
People watch the performance. 

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, October 12, 2015

Vegetarian Festival

Lion dancers lead the parade up Yaowarat Road on the first day of the Vegetarian Festival in Bangkok. 

The Vegetarian Festival is one of Thailand's signature events. It's a Thai adaptation of the Taoist Nine Emperor Gods, a nine-day celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It's celebrated in China and in Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia, like Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore. 

The most famous celebration of Nine Emperor Gods festival is in Thailand. Bangkok and Phuket have the largest Chinese communities and best celebration of the Vegetarian Festival. For the nine days of the festival people eschew meat and strong flavorings (i.e. spices and garlic). It's a strictly vegan lifestyle. 
Cooking up an order of vegetarian noodles at a food stall on Yaowarat Road in Bangkok's Chinatown. 

In Thailand, Phuket is the place to go to for the Vegetarian Festival. Devotees impale themselves with knives and metal tools, there's lots of fireworks and, at the end of the festival, firewalking. It's become a huge draw for tourists, not only from the US and Europe but also Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. 

I've never photographed the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket. Coincidentally, there's a lot going on at this time of year (the Shia Muslim holiday of Ashura and the Hindu festival of Navratri, also a nine day festival) and I've covered those instead. 

This year is no different. I'm on my way to Yangon to photograph Ashura. I'm not going to Phuket because I would miss the climactic end of the Vegetarian Festival to get to Yangon. 
Novices from a Mahayana (Chinese Buddhist) temple in Bangkok walk to a ceremony to start the Vegetarian Festival. 

The Vegetarian Festival in Bangkok is more subdued. It doesn't have the extreme display of body piercings or nearly as many as fireworks. But there is great vegetarian food and a good selection of Chinese operas. I plan to photograph a couple of Chinese operas this week before I go to Yangon for Ashura.
Prayers at a Chinese temple in Bangkok at the start of Nine Emperor Gods. 

People pray in the street while Mahayana monks sprinkle them with holy water. 

If you're in Bangkok and you want to get in on some of the Vegetarian Festival activities head down to Yaowarat Road late in the afternoon or early in the evening and go walk about. There's a huge variety of vegetarian food everywhere. Shops selling vegetarian food are marked by signs with red type on a yellow field. The signs are in Thai but there's no mistaking them, they flutter like flags in front of all the shops. 

Just be forewarned that "vegetarian" in this case is not heart healthy. There's no meat (and there's not supposed to be any fish sauce - food is supposed to be vegan) but things are pan fried, deep fried and stir fried, you get the idea. There's a lot frying. And there is a huge selection of desserts, from Chinese biscuits (cookies) to peanut brittle to ice cream (made with coconut milk, not dairy and really more of a sorbet) so it's not a particularly good place to watch your weight. The food is also more bland than Thai food usually is because they eschew spices and strong seasonings during the Vegetarian Festival. But don't worry, even if they don't use spices in the preparation, most of the stands have chillies and spices available so you can still get your chilli fix. 
Devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods march through Bangkok Chinatown on the first day of the Vegetarian Festival. 

While a man makes merit by presenting flowers to a statue at Odian Circle, considered the gateway to Chinatown. 

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, October 11, 2015

Closing Another Landmark

A "gunsmith" in the Saphan Lek market works on a pistol. The gun is a sophisticated replica of a semi-automatic pistol. It fires BBs. 

Bangkok city officials are closing another landmark. The markets at Saphan Lek and Saphan Han, across the street from each other at the end of Yaowarat Road were supposed to be closed by Monday Oct. 12. Saphan Lek is/was famous for toys, replica guns (real guns are tightly regulated in Thailand), software/DVDs/CDs and electronics. Saphan Han is mostly food stalls and cloth and clothing shops. 

Saphan Lek is on the north side of Yaowarat Road, at the edge of Chinatown, Saphan Han is on the south side of Yaowarat. Both markets are built on top of Khlong Ong Ang. Years and years ago people built temporary decking over the khlong (canal) and opened market stalls on the decking. Time went on, the decking and the shops become more elaborate and now Saphan Lek is a warren of small shops, completely enclosed and air conditioned. Saphan Han is more rustic and old school. 
Toy car vendors put together some of the merchandise in their shop. 

The markets' location over the khlong is their undoing. Water management and flood mitigation is a huge issue in Bangkok. City authorities say the temporary decking and piles sunk to support the decking are clogging up the khlong and complicating flood control efforts. 
A teenager buys a replica BB gun in Saphan Lek.

While a cloth and clothing vendor reads a newspaper in Saphan Han.

The vendors say their stalls don't interfere with flow of the khlong and that the city wants to remove them so the land can be redeveloped. The city gave the vendors very short notice to vacate. They delivered letters on September 28 giving the vendors until October 12 to get out. 

The vendors aren't going without a fight. They've taken their cause to Thailand's human rights officials, who haven't ruled yet. The city said the October 12 deadline was solid. I talked to a couple of vendors early Sunday who said they probably would have to close. Eventually. But, they said, "arrangements" would be made in the short term to allow them to stay open for a few months more. 
Shoppers walk through small shops selling toys in Saphan Lek. 

I don't know who's right and who's wrong in this one. And I don't know what's going to happen. I've gone to Saphan Lek/Saphan Han a couple of times in the last month and it doesn't look to me like anyone is making plans to leave. Sunday afternoon, many shops were unpacking more merchandise and putting it on display. There were no "going out of business sales." Although there were a couple of shops closing down, in general, it didn't feel like a place on the verge of shutting down. 
A man looks at what used to be his coffee stand in Saphan Han. He was one of the few vendors actually shutting down his shop. 

Closing Saphan Lek and Saphan Han feels like it's a part of a much bigger trend in Bangkok. Namely shutting down and evicting local markets, that serve primarily the poor. In the last few months, city officials have closed street markets around Tha Chang and Thammasat University (on the river in "old" Bangkok). Bang Chak market, a few kilometers from our apartment on the BTS line, far away from the river, is being closed. The people around Wat Kanalaya are being evicted. There are plans to evict other poor riverside communities and redevelop the land into high end housing and retail. As far as I know, this is not a grand conspiracy. I think it's more a series of coincidences. Still, it's changing the face of the city in a way that's not necessarily better. 

The are more photos of Saphan Lek 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. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Diving for Treasure

Salvage divers work the Chao Phraya River near Wat Kanalaya. 

There's an active dive community in Bangkok. These aren't sport divers, but salvage divers who, working out of small boats, barely bigger than a canoe, dive the Chao Phraya River looking for things they can salvage and sell. 

It's dangerous, low paying work and not something tourists usually see. The Chao Phraya, especially in Bangkok, is a dangerous river. It's fast flowing and unpredictable. It's very deep (deep enough for ocean going ships to navigate, though they don't come upriver anymore because they can't get past the low bridges) and busy. Passengers boats go up and down the river all day long, ferries crisscross the river and huge barges haul commodities from the countryside into Bangkok. And it's polluted. 
A diver slips into the river. 

I've seen the divers working the river but never photographed them because they were always working in places where I couldn't reach them. This week though there's a group of divers working off the Wat Kalayanamitr pier. I could reach them with a long lens (my 40-150 f2.8 zoom and teleconverter) and the cross river ferry took me close enough to the divers that, working fast, I could use wide angle lenses for establishing shots. 
Reverse angle of the first picture, made as the ferry returns to the Bangkok side of the river. That is Wat Kalayanamitr in the background. 

I spent a couple of hours photographing the divers. It's not an easy way to make a living. Their dive "helmets" are homemade contraptions. Air is forced into the helmet by a compressor in the canoe boat. They walk along the river bottom, in what is a dark, muddy environment picking up what they can while a spotter waits for them in the boat. 
Surfacing after a dive. 

After 20 - 30 minutes on the river bottom divers surface with their treasures. They rinse and sort them in the boat, drink a Red Bull (invented in Thailand), put the helmet back on and disappear again into the deep. 
Rinsing and sorting in the canoe boat.

There are logistical challenges to photographing a story like this. I had to use my longest lenses for most of the photos and I don't normally like to work with a long lens. It's not how I see. But the only way I could have gotten closer would have been on a boat. I didn't even ask the divers if I could join them - it would have been to unsafe for them. Their boats are very unstable and I am not very graceful. I would, more likely than not, have tipped the boat trying to get into position for a picture. 

I want to spend more time with the divers. They seem like a friendly bunch. They were waving at me and shouting greetings and not camera shy. I plan to go back and photograph them some more, only I will make arrangements to rent a small boat that can navigate in amongst the divers without causing problems. 

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.