Sunday, July 20, 2014

Things Fall Into Place

A girl sets out a meal for her family on the beach in Kao Seng, a village in Songkhla province.

One of the things I like photographing is the little incongruities of life. defines “Incongruous” as “out of keeping or place; inappropriate.” That’s certainly what I thought when I saw this living room set on a beach in Kao Seng, a little north of Hat Yai in Songkhla province. I was there photographing fishermen and walked past the furniture. I made a mental note of it but photographically it didn’t work without a human element.

I went down the beach and photographed the fisherfolk for a couple of hours. I was walking back to my car and the young lady was setting the table. This was the picture I was waiting for, the moment it clicked. Everything came together for a few seconds – the blue sky, the aquamarine ocean, the girl’s blue clothing all contrasted with the red furniture set and the girl’s warm complexion. Everything fell into place to create the photo I saw in my mind when I originally walked past the furniture.
Shoppers ask for directions on Orchard Road in Singapore.

A few months later I was on Orchard Road in Singapore. It was the Christmas season and seasonal decorations lined the busy thoroughfare. I was trying to photograph people walking between and around the statues of Mary and Joseph, Wise Men and donkeys. The photos were more like snapshots and not really working. Then lost shoppers and a Good Samaritan wandered into the frame. It was the moment that clicked, when everything fell into place.

Finally, on a road trip in northern Laos, I stumbled upon this scene.
Migrant workers from China in a bus in northern Laos.

This photo was a gift. There was no waiting for something to fall into place. I was headed up to the Lao-Chinese border. I saw this scene as we passed a bus full of Chinese migrant workers. I practically screamed at the driver to pull over and was out of the car before it came to a complete stop. I ran back down the highway to the bus and nothing had changed – the person on the lower bunk was still dangling his legs out the window while the person in the upper bunk was still framed by the window. I made a couple of frames before the person in the upper bunk moved out of the frame. This was the easiest of these three photos, there was no waiting, no hoping for something to happen.

As a photojournalist I can’t set up a photo. I rely on luck and timing to complete my photos. That doesn’t mean being purely reactive though. Only in the bottom photo was I completely reactive. In the photos from Kao Seng and Orchard Road I saw the pictures before they actually took place. I knew what I wanted and I essentially waited for things to fall into place.

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, July 19, 2014

Answering a Higher Calling

A monk watches from a doorway as men are ordained as monks and novices at Wat Phra Dhammakaya

I photographed an ordination this morning. Seventy-seven men, from 18 countries, were ordained at Buddhist monks and novices at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, in Pathum Thani, about an hour north of Bangkok. 

Ordination in Buddhism is different from ordination in a Christian faith. In Theravada Buddhism, becoming a monk and joining the Sangha is a right of passage. Many men enter the sangha to meditate and find inner peace. Joining the Sangha can be a lifelong commitment but many men become monks for just a few weeks or months.
A man being ordained as a novice (young monk) participates in a procession around the ordination hall. 

The Venerable Ronnapob Jotilabho, head of the The International Dhammadayada Ordination Program (IDOP), which organized the event said, “Being ordained as a monk or novice enables a person to devote time and attention to learn the art of inner peace and happiness skill, which is life’s most important knowledge.” 

Thai Buddhists are very tolerant of other faiths and welcome people of any religion into their temples. You don't have to be Buddhist to study meditation in a Thai temple (though it helps). 

Wat Phra Dhammakaya, seat of the Dhammakaya sect, though takes that tolerance to a very high level. Today's ordination ceremony was conducted in three languages: Thai, English and Chinese. The Dhammakaya sect has a very active outreach program and seems almost evangelical compared to traditional Thai Theravada Buddhism. 
Men being ordained file into the "ubosot," or ordination hall

There are more photos from the ordination 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, July 18, 2014

Registering Migrant Workers

Cambodian migrant workers wait their turn to apply for temporary Thai ID cards at a "one stop service center" set up by Thai immigration authorities in Bangkok

It wasn't as much an invitation to return as it was admission to a club. Migrants were welcomed back if they met certain requirements, specifically they have to have jobs and their employers need to vouch for them. The first one stop centers were set up in Samut Sakhon, a fishing port and industrial city with a large migrant population. After that the government opened one stop centers in cities along the Thai-Cambodian border. Now they've opened centers in Bangkok proper. 
A Cambodian woman and her child wait to sign up for temporary ID cards and work permits.

The procedure at each of the centers is the same. Migrant workers, most of whom were undocumented, applied for temporary ID cards and work permits. They showed proof of employment to immigration authorities and went through a screening process. The migrants were photographed and fingerprinted and issued temporary ID cards. The last step in the process was a very brief and perfunctory health check. 
Immigration authorities set up a large processing center at the Bangkok Youth Center in the Din Daeng section of Bangkok.

An immigration police officer helps a Cambodian woman pose for her ID card "mug shot." 

I've been covering immigration for more than 20 years. I've always been struck by the similarities Thailand and the US share when it comes to immigration. 

Both countries have a complicated relationship with undocumented immigrants. Immigrants provide the low wage muscle that powers the economy (Thailand is the world's leading seafood exporter - most of the workers in the seafood industry are Burmese. Many of the construction workers in Bangkok are Cambodian. In the US, where Latin American immigrants make up most of the agricultural workers and construction workers.) 

Conservatives and nativists rail against immigrants in both countries, claiming they bring disease and crime and take jobs from, here, Thais and in the US, Americans. 
Immigration police check IDs as Cambodians leave the one stop center

There are also differences of course. Many in the Thai fishing industry, especially crews of trawlers, are held in slavery and human trafficking is more prevalent here than in the US. 

At the same time, you would never see Thai politicians leading demonstrations against Burmese refugee children the way we've seen American politicians leading demonstrations against Latin American refugee children.

As imperfect as the Thai system is, you have to give them credit for trying to deal with the issue of undocumented immigrants and guest workers in a way that recognizes the workers are an essential part of the economy. 
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, July 13, 2014

Flowers for the Buddha

People place "Dancing Lady Ginger" flowers onto a float at a parade for Khao Phansa (the start of the rains retreat) at Wat Phra Phutthabat in Saraburi

This weekend is the start of the Buddhist Rains Retreat, one of the most important Buddhist holidays in Southeast Asia. Temples throughout Thailand were crowded with people making merit and offering prayers. 

The holiday marks the time, more than a millennia ago, that Buddhist holy men, who then traveled from village to village, stopped traveling and stayed in a community for the rainy season. These communities evolved into the first Buddhist monasteries.  
People wait at the side of a road in the district for the procession of monks to pass them
Monks line up before the procession.

The holiday is celebrated in different ways in different parts of Thailand. 

At Wat Phra Phutthabat, in Saraburi province, a couple of hours north of Bangkok, people gather by the thousands to present monks with "Dok Khao Pansa" (also known as "Dancing Lady Ginger") flowers which are only grown in Saraburi and bloom only around the time of the Rains Retreat. 
A procession of monks walks through the crowd, people line up and present them with flowers and wash the monks' feet as they pass

Wat Phra Phutthabat is one of the most important temples in Thailand. The left footprint of the Buddha is housed in a small chapel at the top of the temple. Buddhists from around the world come to the temple to pray in the chapel and to get their "teab" (a sort of Buddhist spiritual passport) stamped. 
A man releases caged birds as an act of compassion to make merit during the Tak Bat Dok Mai

The Tak Bat Dok Mai is just far enough from Bangkok that it's off the tourist path. Tens of thousands of Thais come though to make merit and enjoy the day. 

There are more photos from the Tak Bat Dok Mai 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. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Back to Thailand

A Thai immigration worker (right) helps a Cambodian migrant through the process of registering at the One Stop Service Center in Aranyaprathet

In June, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers fled Thailand, fearing a crackdown by the Thai military junta against undocumented workers. By some estimates, more than 220,000 Cambodians flooded back into Cambodia in a one week period. 

No one seems to know exactly how many Cambodians live in Thailand, estimates range from 200,000 to 300,000. So depending on who you believe, that's every Cambodian in Thailand or most of the Cambodians living in Thailand. In any case it's a huge number. 

Most of the Cambodians crossed back through Poipet, a small (population 90,000) dusty town known for gambling and easy access to Angkor Wat. Poipet's population more than doubled during the access. 

In Thailand, businesses that rely on migrant workers went silent. Construction sites were idled. Garment factories shut down. Nannies and servants disappeared. Thai businessmen sounded the alarm and the junta responded. 
A Cambodian woman and her son arrive at the one stop service center in Aranyaphratet. Thai police were shuttling Cambodian migrants from the border to the immigration office, about one kilometer from the border. 

The junta told immigration to set up "one stop service centers" in provinces with large migrant populations. They also told immigration to speed up the return of Cambodian migrants to Thailand. 

I covered the Cambodian exodus in June and went back to Aranyaphrathet Wednesday to photograph the their return. 

In order to qualify for entry into Thailand, migrants had to show that they had a job waiting for them. They weren't being admitted to look for work. There are brokers on the Cambodian side of the border connecting job seekers with job providers.  
A Cambodian family leaves the one stop center after getting their temporary Thai ID card.

Thai immigration authorities put up shade structures in the parking lot of their office. Hundreds of Cambodians sat quietly in the shade, munching on snacks, waiting to be called in for an interview. 

In the office, Thai officials interviewed the migrants, verified that they had jobs waiting, fingerprinted and photographed them and then issued them temporary ID cards. The actual process to get a temporary ID only took a few minutes but there were so many people waiting that many people will spend the entire day waiting. 

The one stop center in Aranyaphratet is temporary. It opened on June 26 and will close on July 25. Officials said they see more people every day. The first week they opened in June, about 200 people a day came through. They expected more than 800 to come through Wednesday. As word spreads about the program in Cambodia and more Cambodians get travel documents and guaranteed jobs the center will become busier. 

There are more photos from Aranyaphratet 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.