Friday, February 28, 2014

Back in Mae Sot

Burmese Muslim women in their home in Mae Sot

I am back in Mae Sot working on a story about unintended consequences. I like this town, there's a nice vibe to it and there's a lot happening. 

The changes here through the years have been breathtaking. My first time up here, in 2008, the Moei River, which is the border between Thailand and Myanmar, was heavily militarized. Armed Thai soldiers backed by crew served weapons lined the riverbank. Burmese refugee camps in Thailand were subject to occasional shelling from Burmese forces just across the river. 

Burmese in Thailand spoke in whispers about what was happening in their country and pictures of democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi hung in almost every tea shop in town. 

That was then and this is now. It's a much more relaxed place now. There's still a uniformed security presence on the river, but the weapons are put away and the big weapons are gone completely. Aung San Suu Kyi's portraits still hang in most of the shops (although not as much as it did before) but people talk openly about the changes in Burma. Mae Sot is buzzing with development. Shopping centers and condominiums are going up all over town. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Bloody Weekend

Men lay flowers on the spot where two children were killed by a grenade attack Sunday evening. 

It was a bloody weekend in Thailand. Men in two pickup trucks attacked anti-government protestors in Trat, a few hours east of Bangkok. They threw grenades into the crowd and then opened fire on protestors. They killed a child and sent scores to the hospital. 

Less than 24 hours later somebody fired a M79 grenade launcher into a crowd of people around food stalls in front of a Big C department store in the Ratchaprasong area of Bangkok, in the center of one of the protest areas and across the street from Central World, one of Bangkok's busiest shopping malls. At least three were killed. Two children, siblings out for an evening with their father, and a woman. Another child remains in critical condition in a Bangkok hospital.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Beating the War Drums

A Red Shirt supporter in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) bangs a war drum during a Red Shirt meeting Sunday

The Red Shirts, who by and large support the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, have been generally quiet during the anti-government protests gripping Bangkok. Their leadership has made a few statements about supporting the government but they have made it a point to stay out of Bangkok and not directly confront Suthep's followers.

(That's not to say they've been completely absent. Many blame the grenade attacks and drive by shootings that have hit anti-government rally sites on the Red Shirts.) 
A Red Shirt supporter cheers the leadership announcement that the Red Shirts will confront Suthep

Sunday about 4,000 Red Shirts met in a sports complex in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) to settle on a plan for confronting Suthep. They decided they would come to Bangkok to defend the government against what they see as undemocratic forces that are trying to promote a coup in Thailand. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Farmers Head to Bangkok

Don't adjust your monitor. This is supposed to be black and white. A Thai farmer on Highway 32, the main highway leading to Bangkok

The government of Yingluck Shinawatra has a new headache. Rice farmers and agriculturalists from north of Bangkok, traditionally the base of the Pheu Thai and Shinawatra family politics, are angry because they haven't been paid for rice the government bought from them under the rice pledging scheme

The scheme was a populist measure meant to ensure farmers got a decent price for their rice. The government bought the crop at a well above market price with the intention of warehousing the rice until prices went up and then they would sell the rice on the international market at a profit. 

Except rice prices went down as new crops in India and Vietnam came online. Now the Thai government owns warehouses full of rice and is having a hard time paying the farmers. 
A farmer relaxes in a hammock on the side of the highway. 

It's been a months since the last checks went out and as rice growing season approaches farmers find themselves unable to buy food and staples let alone seed and fertilizer. So they did what has become traditional in Thailand. They marched en masse for Bangkok. 

About ten thousand farmers in more than 1,000 tractors and farm vehicles from the provinces north of Bangkok headed to the capital. At first it was thought they would head to the Ministry of Commerce, where a small group of farmers have camped out demanding payment. Then the farmers said they would go to Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok's main international airport, which raised the spectre of of an occupied airport and memories of the crippling airport occupation in 2008

Government officials went out to meet farmers on the highway south of Ayutthaya, about two hours from Bangkok. After some back and forth, farmers announced they would go home and the government announced checks would go out next week. Farmers added that if checks don't go out they're going straight to the airport. Crisis averted. For now. 
Farmers sleep on the highway while their leaders negotiate with the government

I started the day at the airport. My intention was to be there when the farmers arrived. When I got word that the farmers were not leaving Ayutthaya until noon, I jumped in a taxi and headed up country to photograph the farmers on the highway.

I made the decision when I left my apartment that I was going to photograph the farmers in black and white. An effort to mix things up a little and it seemed to me that the farmers were an appropriate subject for black and white photography. 

There are more black and white photos of the farmers in my archive. Color photos are 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, February 15, 2014

Makha Bucha at Wat Phra Dhammakaya

Buddhist monks line up for the candlelight procession at Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani

Friday was Makha Bucha Day one of the most important religious holidays in Thailand (and other Theravada Buddhist countries like Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos). It marks the day in Buddhist history when more than 1,200 Arhantas (enlightened ones) spontaneously came to hear the Buddha preach more than 2,500 years ago. 

People come to their temples in the morning to pray and make merit by presenting monks with food, flowers and money. They come back in the evening to meditate. The observances culminate with a candlelight procession around the temple. 

I photographed my first Makha Bucha Day in Kanchanaburi several years ago. It was a small temple in the jungle and it was a wonderful experience. Since then, Makha Bucha Day has become pretty much my favorite Thai holiday. (I even photographed it at a Thai Buddhist temple in Chandler, AZ, one year when I couldn't be in Thailand for it.) 
Monks file into Wat Phra Dhammakaya for Makha Bucha Day

Wat Phra Dhammakaya is the most unique Buddhist temple in Thailand. It's in Pathum Thani province, about an hour from my apartment in Bangkok. The temple looks nothing like traditional Thai temples - more than anything it looks like a giant UFO in a rice paddy waiting to lift off for the heavens. It's the home of the Dhammakaya sect of Theravada Buddhists and not without controversy but it hosts one of the most spectacular Makha Bucha observances in the Bangkok area. 
A time exposure of monks walking around the main Cetiya (dome shaped stupa) at Wat Phra Dhammakaya

Back in the long gone days of film, photographing something like this meant using ISO400 transparency film and "pushing" it one stop to ISO800. Pushing film meant deliberately underexposing it and then extending the development time to make up for the underexposure, it almost always was a Faustian bargain. ISO400 film was not that good to begin with (low contrast, lots of grain) and the process of pushing it aggravated its already poor qualities. 

Digital handles high ISO much, much better than film ever did. We have access to really clean ISOs in the 1600 - 3200 range, something we could only dream of back in the day. But there are times when even ISO3200 is not enough. The candlelight processions at Makha Bucha Day is one of those times. It's dark, really dark, around the Cetiya and we were kept a good distance away from it so it meant using long lenses. 

When the candlelight processions started I pulled out a small table top tripod I have, put it on the ground and very quickly made a series of time exposures of the monks. After I photographed the monks, I turned around and photographed the lay people, who had their own candlelight procession on the walkway on the perimeter of the Cetiya. 
A woman prays at the beginning of the evening meditation service. 

There are more photos from Makha Bucha Day 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, February 11, 2014

A Village by the Sea

A fisherman and his wife pull his boat (which is more of a canoe really) up the beach in Kao Seng

Kao Seng is a small village on the edge of Songkhla, the provincial capital of Songkhla province. Most of the people who live in Kao Seng are Muslims. The village is so small and blends so seamlessly into the town of Songkhla it doesn't even merit a spot on the map. 

Anyone who complains about the price of seafood should visit a place like Kao Seng. The fishermen go out very early in the morning, just after midnight, in tiny open boats to harvest what they can from the sea. They stay out for 10 - 12 hours before returning to shore to offload their catch.

During the rainy season or storms, they spend their time on shore, repairing their nets or fishing in the surf.  

They sell their haul just off the beach. Most of the people who buy the catch of Kao Seng's fishermen are market vendors from Songkhla or Hat Yai, about 30 minutes away. A fish sold by the fisherman for 150Baht ($5US) gets sold in the market later the same day for 300B and in a restaurant might be 500 or 600B (roughly 30B to the US Dollar). In a scene that is all too depressingly familiar to farmers, ranchers and fishermen around the world, the fishermen, who undoubtably do the hardest part of the work, net the smallest amount of money. 
Members of the community come together to push a neighbor's boat to the sea.
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, February 10, 2014

Lunar New Year in Hat Yai

A lion dance at Lunar New Year festivities in Hat Yai.

I went to Hat Yai to work on a couple of feature stories. It was mostly an excuse to get out of Bangkok and away from the whistle blowing protestors. I photographed Lunar New Year festivities in Bangkok and had a great time. What I didn't know when I made my plans for Hat Yai was that Lunar New Year there was a week longer than Lunar New Year in Bangkok. I got to Hat Yai for the last weekend of the Lunar New Year festival. 

Hat Yai is the biggest city in Songkhla province (Songkhla is the provincial capital) and the economic engine of southern Thailand. Hat Yai was settled by Chinese immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century and Sino-Thais are still the business leaders of the community. There are more Chinese style temples in central Hat Yai than Thai style temples. Even though Songkhla is the provincial seat, Hat Yai is the biggest city in the province (and 4th largest city in Thailand).
A folk dancer waits to perform at Lunar New Year in Hat Yai

Lunar New Year, Tet, Chinese New Year, call it what you will, is a big deal here. That's why the celebration goes on for almost two weeks. 
Women pray during Lunar New Year observances in a Chinese temple in Hat Yai

I found the party kind of by chance. I had an afternoon to kill in Hat Yai so I went walkabout and wandered down to a couple of street food stalls I like to visit when I'm in town. I turned a corner onto the street and saw Chinese style lanterns strung over it. I wandered down the street to see what was going on and ran smack into the party. 
Lion dancers wait to perform in front of a temple

I photographed the party Thursday night and again Sunday night. I missed it Friday and Saturday nights because I was editing work I had done earlier those days. It was a great party. I don't know if it's better than Bangkok's Lunar New Year bash but it's more accessible and feels more authentic. 

Lunar New Year in Bangkok is great but it's also a very commercial, tourism driven street food fair. In Hat Yai it doesn't feel quite as commercial, more like a community celebration. 

I consider myself lucky that when I plan these out of town trips because I almost always stumble into some unplanned event that turns out to be a highlight of the trip. Lunar New Year in Hat Yai was certainly that for me on this trip. Now it's on my calendar. I think next year I'll skip Lunar New Year in Bangkok and head straight to Hat Yai. 
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, February 9, 2014

An Afternoon at the Fights

A member of a bullfighting team washes his bull's forehead before a fight in Phawong, a small village in Songkhla, Thailand.

I went to bullfights in Songkhla this weekend. Bullfighting in Thailand is nothing like bullfighting in Spain or Mexico. There is no matador, picador or human involvement. Two bulls are brought into a ring, face off against each other and fight. It's brutal and it's not a "sport" in the western sense of word.

Thais like to gamble and they like to watch animals fight. There are cricket and beetle fights here. Fish fighting is very popular. Cockfights and bullfights are televised, sometimes live. People usually gamble on the outcome of the fights. They actually bet on almost every aspect of the fight, from which animal will strike the first blow to which will actually win.
A man signals a bet on a fight...

and loses

I've photographed cockfighting and bullfighting around the world - from the "traditional" bullfights in Spain to small ramshackle fights in Mexico to the Thai fights. I've photographed cockfighting in Mexico, Haiti, the Philippines, Bali and Thailand. Thai animal fighting, at least cockfighting and bullfighting, is different from the other "bloodsports" I've seen because its lack of blood.

If a bull chooses not to fight, there is no fight and people who have bet on the less pugilistic bull loses. Aside from their time in the ring, the bulls live a pampered life. They get massages from their owners. They get the choicest grasses to eat. They live a much longer and happier life than feedlot cattle in the United States.
A bullfight in Songkhla. 

My interest in photographing bullfights (and cockfights) is not the actual bullfighting, although I have to do that to complete the story. Rather, for me, it's about photographing the people at the event. Spectators, men and women, really get into the bullfighting. They shout out bets the instant the fight begins and keep shouting out bets (and encouragement to the animals they've bet on) until the last moments of the fight. 
Owners of a bull react to their animal's victory

The bull's "team" sits inside the ring shouting encouragement to their animal. If their bull wins in a dramatic fashion they react with great enthusiasm and do victory dances around the ring. 

As a journalist, my job is to photograph and cover events without expressing an opinion or bias, one way or another. Whether I'm covering politicians in the US, protestors in Thailand, combatants in conflict or bullfighting in Thailand, my job is to observe and report. That's how I cover bullfighting here, or rodeo in the US. 

I used mostly wide angle lenses, like my Canon 24mm f1.4, or normal lenses, like the Canon 50mm f1.2 to photograph the bullfight. Of the hundreds of frames I exposed Saturday afternoon, only a small percentage were of the actual fights, most were of the human drama going on around me. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Election Day

A Thai Muslim woman carries a Thai flag on her way to confront anti-government protestors who disrupted voting in Bangkok Sunday

Thais voted Sunday in what was supposed to be the final round of voting after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament on December 9. Early voting was last week and it didn't go too well in Bangkok and the southern provinces. There was no reason to believe regular voting would go any better Sunday. 
An anti-government protestor carries a club while taunting people who were trying to vote

Most Thais were able to vote Sunday. There were no problems in the north and northeast, home base of the governing Pheu Thai party. There were only a few problems in central Thailand. 

There were no votes cast in southern Thailand (home base of the anti-government opposition) because no candidates were allowed to register in the run up to the election (candidate registration was blocked by anti-government protestors). The same protestors, and their threat of violence, prevented people from signing up to work the election. There was no one to staff the polling places. 

Voting in Bangkok was haphazard. 

Many polling stations were open but roaming gangs of anti-government protestors went from polling center to polling center to intimidate people out of voting or shut down the polling center. Many were armed with clubs and sticks. Some were carrying guns.
People who wanted to vote try to confront armed anti-government protestors. Police kept the two sides apart.

I went to a polling station in Ekkamai early. It was a normal day there, although turnout seemed light. 

I also went to a polling station in a district office in Din Daeng, long a flashpoint in Thailand's political problems

Din Daeng was a weird scene. On one side, a group of men in their 20s and 30s, most wearing baklavas and masks, carrying sticks and guns and on the other side grannies, aunties and old men carrying voter ID cards. Police kept the two sides apart.

Every so often, voters would get frustrated at being denied their rights. They would start chanting "respect our vote" or "let us vote." They would charge and occasionally break through police lines and run down the street towards the line of armed anti-government protestors. Thousands of people have died earning and keeping the right to vote in Thailand, and these voters, whether they were anti-government or pro-government, were not happy about a gang of toughs preventing them from voting. 

The protestors would stand at their barricades waving clubs and taunting voters until someone would step in front of the voters and urge them to calm down. At one point an anti-government protestor pulled a small semi-automatic pistol and fired it towards it voters. No one was hit by the round. 

After about two hours of the back and forth, election officials declared the polling place closed and the protestors jumped into their pickup trucks and sped away cheering and laughing. 

Voters then rushed the polling place and demanded a chance to vote, but it was too late. Workers had already shut it down and left. 

There are more photos of election day in Bangkok (and the "Shutdown Bangkok" protests) 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.