Thursday, May 12, 2016

Traffic Jam in Isaan

This is what passes for traffic in Isaan. Water buffalo ambling down the main highway through town. 

There was a time when water buffalo were the main beast of burden for Thai farmers. That time was decades ago. Now most Thai farmers are mechanized. Their tractors aren't as state of the art as the high tech behemoths used by American farmers, in fact Thai tractors tend to be jerry-rigged contraptions that are slow and loud but also cheap and durable. Rice and sugar cane are harvested by machines that look like a cross between an American combine and a zamboni. 

As a result very few Thai farmers still use water buffalo in their day to day lives. But many farmers still keep water buffalo around and they are are still a common site in Thai fields. The further you go from Bangkok, the more buffalo you'll see. Farmers sometimes use the water buffalo for recreation (water buffalo racing) and they're a source of protein (meat). These two were on a country road about six hours from Bangkok. 

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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Drought Drains Rural Thailand

A farmer prepping his field for planting rice kicks up a cloud of dust. There is no end in sight for the drought draining Southeast Asia of water. 

I'm back in Thailand and back to documenting the drought that is wreaking havoc on Southeast Asia. Thai officials had been predicting a normal start to the rainy season, meaning it should be starting in late May or early June and continue through October or November. 

The first warning bells of a late rainy season came just before we went back to the US, when the Thai government asked farmers to delay their rice planting until the rainy season actually started. Traditionally farmers started planting rice in May, confident of rain in the coming weeks. Asking them to delay planting sent a signal that the rains might not arrive as predicted. Earlier this month, the government said the rains may not start on time and predicted that they would start about a month late, in June or July. 
An artesian well in Ban Khana, a village in Surin. 

I am trying to be strategic in how I cover the drought by identifying stories I can do that illustrate how the drought is impacting people or what people are doing to combat the drought. I went to Ban Khana, a small village in Surin, to photograph both how the drought is impacting the community and how people are battling it.

Ban Khana hasn't had significant or meaningful rain since the end of the 2015 rainy season, which was an abbreviated rainy season and well below normal. The village, and surrounding villages, get most of their domestic water from reservoirs and mountain streams. This year their taps ran dry in March. Occasional water shortages, late in the dry season, are not unusual but running out of water months before the rainy season is unheard of. 
Filling a recycled water bottle at the Ban Khana well. 

But the people in Ban Khana are luckier than most people in rural Thailand. They have a reliable artesian well in town that has provided fresh, clean water even in the worst of times. And these are the worst of times. 
There is a fenced off section of the well where people can bathe. 

A steady stream of people come to the well to fill water bottles. Farmers and water haulers come to the well with their tractors and pickup tractors and fill huge water tanks. People I talked to said they couldn't remember a time when their tap water ran out so early in the year. Sometimes water haulers have to wait hours to get under the giant hoses that fill their tanks. 
Trucks wait to fill their water tanks while a farmer finishes filling barrels on his tractor. 

One person told me the well was keeping their community alive but that the increased demand for well water was also a source of concern. He said that before the taps ran dry, it took about 10 minutes to fill a 1,000 liter water tank. Now it takes about 30 minutes to fill a 1,000 liter tank, indicating that water is being drawn from deeper in the aquifer. 
A person fills recycled soft drink and water bottles from the well. The community doesn't charge people who refill small bottles at the well. Water tankers and commercial water haulers pay a nominal fee to fill their tanks. 
A child refilling soft drink bottles looks up after a thunder clap. The clouds and thunder held the promise of rain but no rain fell in Ban Khana. 

The people of Ban Khana are fortunate to have the well in their community. The Cambodian border is just a few kilometers away (most of the people in Ban Khana are ethnic Khmers and speak both Thai and Khmer) and people on the Cambodian side of the border don't have access to the same clean water. 
A water hauler fills a cistern at an elementary school in Ban Khana. The school's taps ran dry earlier this year and 100% of the school's water is now hauled up from the well. 

As important as the well is, it's not a panacea for the community. Most of the people in Ban Khana and surrounding villages are farmers and it isn't practical to use well water to irrigate the fields. So while people still have a reliable source of domestic water, they're waiting to plant the crops they rely on until the rains come. 
A farmer plants rice in a parched paddy. The government has asked farmers to delay their planting but one farmer told me, "what can we do?" 

A woman plants cassava in a field near Surin. The Thai government is encouraging farmers to switch to drought resistant crops like cassava but even cassava requires water. This field was so dry it was like walking in talcum powder, my feet sank to my ankles with every step I took. It's not so much top soil as it top dust. 

As desperate as the situation is in Thailand, it's much, much worse in Cambodia. Cambodia doesn't have the infrastructure Thailand has. And Cambodia's farms aren't as well irrigated as Thailand's. So far, I've been covering the drought on the Thai side of the border but I'm planning to go to Cambodia in the next few weeks to cover the drought there. 

There are more photos of the 2016 drought and the Ban Khana well 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, April 29, 2016


A woman leaves a note at a memorial for Prince in front of 1st Ave, the venue he regularly performed at in Minneapolis. 

We were in Minneapolis when Prince died. The outpouring of grief and loss was incredible. I was never a huge Prince fan. I thought Purple Rain was a good movie and a great album. I enjoyed most of his radio hits but I didn't have many of his albums and I haven't seen his other movies. He was hilarious on the Fox show "New Girl."  
A child looks at the Prince memorial in front of 1st Ave. 

It's impossible though to overstate his importance to the music and arts scene in Minneapolis. Musicians from around the world came to his studio in Chanhassen to record. He gave money to schools, families of victims of violence and charities in Minneapolis and around the world. Almost always anonymously. 
Mourners left a stack of pancakes at the memorial at 1st Ave. Prince and pancakes have a long and fun history. 

He was seen riding his bike around suburban Chanhassen and was known to show up at concerts in Chanhassen and Minneapolis, sometimes jamming on stage with the band, other times just sitting in the audience.
People leave condolences on the fence at Paisley Park, Prince's home, office and recording complex in Chanhassen. (An iPhone photo) 

I went to a couple of Prince memorials, but I didn't really cover Prince's death and the reaction to it the way it deserved to be covered. The photo staff at the Minneapolis Star Tribune has done an outstanding job documenting the reaction to Prince's death. Their photos of the music legend are on display in the lobby of their downtown building
A woman leaves flowers at the memorial in front of 1st Ave.

Most of the reaction to Prince's death have been at Paisley Park, his Chanhassen studio, and First Avenue, the downtown venue he will be forever linked to. But there have been dance parties and screenings of his movie "Purple Rain" all over town. An artist painted a purple mural of Prince on the back of a tea house on Hennepin Ave in Minneapolis' Lowry Hill neighborhood. 
The mural of Prince (by local artist Rock “Cyfi” Martinez) on Hennepin Ave.

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, April 21, 2016

Protest for Pot

Protesters calling for the legalization of marijuana line a street near the state capitol in St Paul, MN.

I'm back in the US for a couple of weeks visiting family. I haven't been photographing much but I took an afternoon from family engagements and went down to the state capitol in St Paul for pro marijuana protest. 

I went to college in St Paul and started my career at the Midway Monitor, a community newspaper in St Paul, back in 1982 or 1983. I left the Monitor in 1984 when I went to work at the Fergus Falls Daily Journal, in Fergus Falls, MN, on the North Dakota state line. 

It's been a long, long time since I made a photojournalistic picture in Minnesota. The marijuana protest was an interesting return to my roots (I even ran into another photographer I used to run into during my early years in the Twin Cities at the protest). 
One of the protesters takes a hit off a large bong before the protest. 

About 50 people participated in the protest. Some of them smoked as the marched around the capitol, others chanted calls for legalization. Honestly it wasn't really a big story. But it was kind of fun to be back working on the streets I started my career on 33 years ago, even if it was only for an hour or so. 
A protester's colorful shoes and pot themed socks. 

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, April 9, 2016

Behind the Wall

A curry vendor (right) goes door to door in the Pom Mahakan community. The woman and boy on left were thanking her for a meal they bought. 

Another community is being evicted in Bangkok. This, sadly, has become routine and the pace seems to be picking up. About 50 families live behind the walls at Pom Mahakan, an old fort built to protect Bangkok from foreign invaders. The fort was built in the 1780s on the eastern edge of Bangkok. By the late 1800s, Bangkok had expanded well beyond the city walls and the fort was no longer being used.
Motorscooters pass one of the entrances to the fort. 

People moved into the fort and a community grew behind the walls. It was a tiny city in its own right. There were restaurateurs, teachers, artisans and artists. The first "likay" troupe (a form of Thai opera) in Thailand was based in Pom Mahakan. The community was famous for the artisans who made elaborate bird cages that Thais keep their song birds in. It was a famous fireworks making place and is still the center of the fireworks selling industry in Bangkok. It is still the place to go to in Bangkok to buy fireworks although now the fireworks are made in China and imported into Thailand. There was (and still is) a thriving cockfighting community behind the wall. 

Some of the original homes, now well over 100 years old, still stand in the community. Some have hand painted historic markers, others are buried, time capsule like, among the narrow footpaths that meander through the community. 
A resident scrubs the sidewalk in front of his home. 

In 1992 Bangkok municipal government took control of the land through eminent domain. Residents were told they would be evicted and the whole thing ended up in court. The courts ruled in the city's favor in 2004, but the city didn't take any action and a sort of stasis set in. 

Fast forward to early this year. City officials announced plans to go ahead with the evictions and told residents they had until the end of April to find new homes. 
A 79 year old woman reads the newspaper in her home. She has lived in the community her entire life. Her parents lived in the community their entire lives. Her grandparents moved in with the first group of settlers in the late 1800s. She lives with her daughter's family and their children. Four generations have grown up here and being forced out. 

A boy helps his grandmother hang laundry in Pom Mahakan. 

Like the other evictions I've photographed in Bangkok, this is a very complicated issue. The residents are now, technically, squatters. They had a land grant early in their history but it expired when the city expropriated the land. The city is within its rights to take the land and the courts have ruled on this. It's open and shut. 

But this is a thriving community in a city that is losing its history. At one point, city officials and community leaders worked together to promote the community as a tourist destination. Many of the homes in the community still have historic plaques on them, relating the history of the family and the home to passersby. As I've wandered through the community in the last few weeks, people wave to me, we chat, they offer me food and water and display typical Thai hospitality. 
A resident walks past one of the historic homes in the community. The hand painted sign on the right side of the door said the home was built 200 years ago (when the fort was still a fort) and built using "wedging" (meaning no nails were used in the construction). The concrete base was added several years ago. Before that it was on stilts. 

The city wants to tear down the houses and replace the community with a park. I think it's a foregone conclusion that the city will prevail. The city, and economic interests, have prevailed at every eviction I've documented so far in Bangkok and I don't see this being any different. The people don't want to leave but they know they don't have legal standing to remain. The sad thing is that it would be very easy to develop the community into a living history museum. 

It's literally a matter of cleaning the sidewalks, renovating some of the homes (many are in good shape) and redoing the historic plaques that are already there. The people in the community take great pride in their homes and will talk your ear off if you stop and ask them about the history of their lives behind the wall.  
Boys set up an inflatable splash pool between a couple of homes in the community. 

A woman on her stoop counts her money before going to a local market. 

If you're in Bangkok and want to see life in Pom Mahakan you should head down there soon. The people have been given until the end of April to move. The community will be gone by May.

There are more photos from Pom Mahakan 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.