Letters from Sri Lanka

He stared into the distance for an achingly long time, when I asked him how many people do you think died during the civil war?

I don’t know for sure, maybe between 60,000 to 80,000 – he said. That was one of the official figures released by the government, which accounted for both military and civilian deaths since 1983. But according to independent sources and the Red Cross, the number of deaths was far higher over the last three decades.

We chatted for a while, at his guesthouse overlooking the verdant hills of beautiful and picturesque Kandy, a city in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, the second largest city after Colombo.

We spoke of many things, but it always came back to the civil war, a war that was overlooked by the Western world. Until recently, when tourism is flourishing again and Colombo international airport is no longer a prime target for bombings and suicide attacks.

H.W.D Stephen runs a guesthouse in Kandy since 1990; he spoke passionately to me that afternoon about the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers – a separatist group in northern Sri Lanka, which was recognized as a terrorist organization by 32 nations.

He was visibly upset when we touched upon the subject of ethnic cleansings carried out by the Tamil Tigers over the years. Where Tamils and Sinhalese and Muslim civilians – including women and young children – were murdered in their villages or herded to execution sites.

The forced employment of female and child-soldiers by the Tamil Tigers remains a controversial debate in the country – where various ongoing programs are actively trying to unite children of war back to their families. Reminiscent of the efforts in war torn African countries.

He spoke of his own people, and the struggles of those who were caught in the middle. We have no grudges and resentment, he said.  We just want the world to know our story, and for people to come back again.

I told him you have a lot of common with my country. The Vietnam War and the Sri Lanka civil war shared many similarities and tragedies and their own stories; millions of voices, which will never be heard. He asked me what is your view of it all?

I said I could not answer as yet, as I am still learning about all that has transpired. But deep inside, I wanted to say to him that there is no greater tragedy – than that of people killing their own people.

 

Kandy, Sri Lanka

July 2012

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‘Karen & Me’ – Myanmar and Northern Thailand 2012

So it was here, among the hillsides and mountains between Thailand and Myanmar, beneath the tourists that are drawn to the ‘long-necks’ of the Karen people, the sub group called the Kayan Lahwi – I saw the uncertainty of a beautiful group of people caught between traditions and survival.

Many children will grow up and move to the towns and cities to pursue a career in Thailand’s rampant sex industry, and break with traditions, and the coils around their necks. To conform to a society that view them as a novel tourist attraction.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission is already engaging in long term projects to stem this flow of under-aged girls into the cities. But for me, as a mere spectator – I simply did not know what to say to that little girl – besides hello.

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Why You Should Have a Compact Back-Up Camera

In your travels around the world, have you ever noticed those guys who lug around big ass tripods and with 1 or 2 cameras slung over neck and shoulders, and all sweaty and cumbersome in their movements? Ok some of them may be there on assignment or for official purposes, but really 99.9% of the time, they’re just tourists and travelers like you and me.

I believe in absolute image quality at every given chance possible, but sometimes – you just need to compromise. Be it for safety reasons ie. I dont lug around a tripod or DSLR in areas known for petty crimes (do your research first), or for legality and religious reasons ie. temples or government/military areas. But it doesnt mean you should leave your cherished DSLR back in your room or hotel safe though. Compact cameras which are easily pocketable in jeans or jackets are now able to provide excellent resolution at base ISO, even performing respectably in low light at mid to high ISO (albeit with some noise reduction involved later in post production).

I used to travel with an Olympus EP1 but found it hard to be fully pocketable due to the size and lens sticking out – and the pancake lenses can only reduce it so much. But then I lost the damn camera on a train in Paris not long after it survived Mongolia! Nowadays, my preferred compact camera of choice is a Canon S100 – its small size, decent high ISO performance and F2 aperture, combined with the ability to film in 1080p make it a perfect companion to a DSLR when you don’t want to haul around something bigger and less discrete. Not to mention the ability to shoot in RAW with a compact is invaluable to me and others!

Discretion is the key to being a photographic traveler – to blend in and immerse yourself with the local culture is more respectful and important than trying to capture everything and anything possible – such as having a mega-zoom lens or multiple lenses in your backpack.

Below are some sample shots from the last few days in Hong Kong and Chiang Mai, Thailand with the Canon S100. They were taken at random moments whenever I saw something interesting and pulled out the camera, from my pocket:)

P.S. my work DSLR I use in my travels is a Canon 5D2 with mainly a Canon 35L prime. That’s all.

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The edge of the Sirocco – Morocco 2012

these photos embodied my thoughts and feel of Morocco. The country is a paradox in North Africa – where the French, Spanish and Islamic influences dance together to form something akin to a love-hate relationship. In those forty-five minutes, one could almost feel the sight and sound of the medina returning.

Self portrait at the Ait ben Haddou:)

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Tales From The South Pacific – Vanuatu 2011

Of Tanna and Efate, and of discrimination.

It was beautiful from the air, an idyllic nation where a smile goes a long way for many. But for some, it was far from beautiful as they came to Efate for work and a new beginning.

The Tannese people from Tanna Island have long held on to the traditional ‘kustoms’ of the old ways, and resisted the American and Western influences since World War II. Living in the shadows of the volcano that is Mount Yasur – their traditional tribal values continue to hold a unique place within Vanuatu, and the inevitable clash with the modern society on Efate came as no surprise to many.

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The Things We Carried, Hoi An – Vietnam 2011

Everyone carried something. For some, they carry a burden so great to bear, a weight upon their shoulders and eyes that many will not see. This is the story of a woman I had met one January afternoon in a rice field outside of Hoi An, in the Quang Nam province.

In the years to follow, someone will look back at all of this and think – this is what life was all about. When the feeling of dirt and mud coated one’s fingers, where the wind and sun covered the face so beautifully that no amount of make-up ever can. A life so far removed from the metal and concrete high-rises and grim dark suits, which knew no meaning of living, but only serving and acquiescing.

Time stood still to these people. Their crops will eventually whither and die and be planted anew, fishing nets will eventually wear out and be replaced. World leaders will topple and nations rise and fall in an endless cycle of progress. But time really stood still here. The world will pass them by without even a glance from one another.

On this lazy afternoon, my feet cooled in the refreshing embrace of the mud and water of a rice field outside of Hoi An. I sat on an irrigation ditch and watched and admired. The life that went on around me, as it has since 1975, or 1954 or 1820, has never changed as the world changed around them. I watched old women harvest rice, men fishing, children playing. It was where I also met a very special woman.

Her parents and relatives had died in a tunnel collapse as they hid from American bombs outside of Hoi An in 1968, or 67’ she could not remember exactly anymore. Only her and her sister survived. She was born in 1937 and had lived here all her life – through the occupations of Japanese, French and American forces. Her slightly hunched back told the tale of decades of hardship in the rice fields. But no matter the grizzled lines and weary frame – one will always see the bright eyes and smile looking back at you.

I photographed her. Watching her work the fields as she has done so from early mornings till afternoon for decades. I keep on taking pictures. Click. A shot of her stopping to smile at me. Click. A brief moment of her talking to her sister. Click. As she moved to another spot n the field. Click. There was that joyful smile again. Always that smile. This was an afternoon I will never forget.

That night, in my clean hotel room, when the mud and dirt had all washed away and so detached from her life; I decided to look through the photographs again, and kept looking back at it. I decided to print the photos of her and her sister and give it to them. To say thank you, for allowing me a glimpse of what was.

So we rode through the rain, trampled on muddy dykes through rice fields and holding onto 2 photographs I had printed for her and her sister, shielding it from the rain. We asked locals far and near for her residence, eventually ending down a narrow road miles from where I had met her; and there she was, smiling at me as she came home from the markets.

Her name is Nguyen Thi Kien. She had bothered to talk to me that day.

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The Changing Shanghai – 2010

In the stifling heat of summer in the Paris of the East, I was seeing history played out in front of me. The cosmopolitan feel of Shanghai is not only evident in its architecture and designer shops, but in its people who set themselves apart from the rest of China.

There is not a single sign of the Red Revolution here in this city, save for the armbands of the policemen and subway station guards. Shanghai is far from Beijing and far from the political and cultural suffocation that the people suffer from. The World Expo a few blocks away from my apartment may have played in a major part in shifting the paradigm of the Communist Party; as it moves to exert a more friendly and approachable facade of Communism to the millions of foreigners and locals who will past through the Expo gates.

 

This new image of a friendly China is being cultivated since the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and the nation is riding on a high to further elevate itself as the world’s premier superpower over the United States in the next two decades. But in this corner of Shanghai, life goes on for the people who have lived here for decades, where the latest BMW sedans of the nouveau riche mix with rickshaws and ancient bicycles of a generation that has remained untouched by the increasing prosperity of the new China.

Shanghai has become a black hole, where the gravitational pull and whispers of higher income and better living standards – has drawn million of villagers and small towners to the glitzy lights of Pudong and towering high rises which pierce not the clouds and sun, but into the smog and pollution.

Like the uncertain grey skies and lingering pollution that they have delved into, the fate of many who traded their former lives and simpler times for an uncertain future in urban slums remains like the poisonous substance that floats above their head – a grey labyrinth.

This was not what Mao dreamt of or ‘fought’ for, the days of collectivism has died – not when the wall came down in Berlin, not when the Soviet Union collapsed and with a Ronald Reagan smiling from afar, not when the Khmer Rouge fled back into the jungles with a trail of corpses behind them, and definitely not when the Cold War ended. Collectivism died when common sense was recognized or prevailed.

In this bustling megalopolis, only a staunch hardline Communist member who lived through the hey-days of Mao and book burnings would still preach from the ‘little red book’. The aforementioned common sense is now preached from the latest lifestyle magazines and fashion journals and western style newspapers, that has torn out the heart of the Red Revolution and replaced it with – a beating heart; one that is not cold and rigid, but one that is warm, sustainable and raising the living standards of those who embrace it.

Shanghai has always strived to be different to China, shaped by the colonial histories of England, Germany, France and other western powers not that long ago – the city is a gigantic visual diary of how change in Communism to a predominant capitalist governance can benefit its own people. I was lucky enough to see all of this before my eyes, and I hope you can too.

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Mongolia – The Gobi Desert & Grasslands

Eleven years ago, I was sitting in a hole at 2AM in the morning in the deserts of Broken Hill, Australia. I thought I had felt true isolation and loneliness and awe of this planet – but I was wrong. The Gobi desert swallowed up everything I had felt that night and reshaped my thinking and ideals of this world, and showed me how real isolation is. I was in the least populated part of the world. At the end of the world.

Mongolia will always hold a place in my heart. For its people are of a tough and resilient nature, yet hospitable with a smile that is always forthcoming.

This was a lesson in humility and life and self worth. It was where I met a girl who sadly told me that her dream is to one day see the ocean

Prepping the camels and supplies before we headed out into the edge of the Gobi desert

 

I really respect those that can sit on a camel for days and weeks on end. After only a day I could barely walk! Not the most comfortable when we are heading up and down sand dunes all day.

 

Camel – an invaluable asset and companion in all desert regions in the world!

Making a wrong shortcut which led through a muddy lake

The aftermath of the shortcut.

A Mongolian yurt in the Grasslands, albeit with a concrete floor as a permanent structure:)

One of the oldest parts of the Great Wall of China, dating back 2000 years old. The crumbling walls and watch-towers were constructed with clay and has not stood the test of time, when compared to the newer segments built from stone and bricks found in Beijing. The left side of the wall is China hence the new road, the right side is Mongolia.

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Out The Door in 2007

It was in February of 2007, when I first walked out the door in Adelaide and fell in love with Hong Kong and whatever else that beckoned me for the next 5 years or so. It really did take me that long to finally start putting words and meanings to the photos that I still hold close to me.

Some places I will always cherish, Siem Reap in Cambodia where we were exposed to the ongoing charity work of so many brilliant individuals and organisations. Hong Kong – where all our adventures seem to begin etc. So here I am, with some old memories before I maintain a regular update of my travel photography and anecdotes!

A Cambodian boy playing with a Vietnamese girl in the slums of Siem Reap. We were to return here for the next 3 years, and saw the progress and changes wrought by tourism and Christian missionaries in the area.

Cambodian children riding to English school in the countryside – Siem Reap, Cambodia 2010

Watching the Chinese National Diving Team rehearse, Water Cube, Beijing – China 2010

Forbidden Palace, Beijing – China 2010

Under-dressed for warmth in 2 degree weather, I stumbled upon a portrait session of a Japanese couple about to get married in Harajuku. The sombre and formal feel to it all is quite a contrast to years later, when I started doing wedding photography. Harajuku, Japan 2007

We were helping the missionaries look after the children, as many of the parents worked long hours at the local dump and farming in the countryside. A number of children had not bathed for months. Siem Reap slums – Cambodia 2008

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