Photographing Daunting Democracy and Cambodian Peace

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, ChinaSUMMER 1989: Jeffrey arrives home safely from Beijing and I count my blessings that he has avoided harm while photographing the Democracy Movement and its grim aftermath.

I can see in his eyes though, that he’s changed by what has transpired; not in ways that others might notice, but in subtle ways–mostly in the intensity of his resolve.

The brutality of the Chinese government lights a fire in his consciousness that later propels him to create a powerful visual testimony of what took place during the massacre (a story that will be chronicled in my book).

That summer, while we both process everything that has happened, we’re happy to have the luxury of multiple uninterrupted weeks together…at least in between doing several photo shoots for Business Week, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. We’re in the same time zone though, and able to have dinner together nearly every night, so we drink in each others’ presence and appreciate the time we have together. We even manage to squeeze in things like hiking and cycling, concerts and movies, just like other couples.

Normalcy helps balance out the underlying sadness and anger we have about all the young, innocent people in China who have been murdered. Life marches on though, and it becomes clear why journalists must move on too; otherwise they would be paralyzed by what they have experienced.

September arrives in the blink of an eye and Jeffrey leaves me amidst the blaze of golden Aspen trees and heads back to Southeast Asia–this time to photograph the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia. The Vietnamese have occupied Cambodia for more than an decade and it’s a cause for pomp and celebration in Phnom Penh when the last soldiers leave.

Photo of the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, 1989Photo of the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, Phnom PehnPhoto of the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, Phnom PenhPhoto of the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, Phnom PenhPhoto of Vietnamese soldiers leaving Cambodia in 1989Photo of the Cambodian dancers during the withdrawal of the Vietnamese in 1989Photo of withdrawal of Vietnamese from Cambodia, Phnom Penh

In between this assignment in Cambodia and his next one in China, Jeffrey calls me from Bangkok. My heart melts from the sound of his voice.

It doesn’t take long before he’s telling me some crazy story about sharing a ride across Vietnam to the Cambodian border with three journalists from the Iranian News Service.

Knowing he’s safe and that he’s successfully completed his assignment in Cambodia, it’s impossible for me to repress my laughter when he describes being squished in the back of a tiny, sweltering rattletrap car, suffering through hours of heated conversations with three big Iranians who still consider America the Evil Empire.

“You think that’s bad,” he laughs, “You can’t believe the piece of shit Russian helicopter from the 60’s that I flew in across Cambodia. I thought the thing was going to disintegrate during take off. Parts of it were literally held together with duct tape.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about, but when he begins telling me the details of how a Thai journalist had bribed his way onto the helicopter with a bunch of Vietnamese generals, and had invited Jeffrey to join him so he could save three days of driving to a ceremony for the withdrawal of Vietnam’s military, I can picture it all as though I’m watching a scene from an ill-fated movie.

The barefoot Cambodian pilot. The dripping humidity. The porthole windows. The sickening noise of the rotors straining to lift the aircraft.

I count my blessings that Jeffrey’s story doesn’t end with an explosive crash like most Grade B action movies.

“Needless to say,” Jeffrey sighs, “I’m happy to be back in Bangkok.”

Needless to say, I’m glad he is too.

I also realize at that moment that while this life we’re just beginning together verges on nail-biting insanity, I also know I’m already hopelessly in love with the guy on the other end of the phone.

My Crash Course in Living Through the Lens

JUNE 1989: Jeffrey and I have been together for less than six months. During this time I’ve been given an unexpected crash course in the frenetic lifestyle of a photojournalist, learning quickly what it’s like to live through the lens.

Time Magazine with photo of Aung San Suu KyiYou may remember that 1989 is the year seismic political events begin shaking governments and cultures all around the world.

In April Jeffrey navigates Rangoon’s tension-filled streets during martial law, and photographs Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, when she’s first placed under house arrest. This project is a good indicator of what is to come in this life that Jeffrey and I are now happily sharing (if you missed this story, you can read the details in my two earlier posts):

9/27/11 Beyond Rangoon–Part One

10/4/11 Beyond Rangoon–Part Two

Soon after Burma, in May and early June, Jeffrey spends multiple weeks in Beijing documenting China’s Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, capturing the passion and energy of China’s youth and its demands for change.

Photo of Democracy Movement

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1989

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

It’s an exhilarating and surreal time for me as I watch the evening news every night to see what is unfolding in Tiananmen Square, knowing Jeffrey is there at the front line of history.

I see hunger strikers and workers marching with outrageously bold placards, then witness the “Goddess of Democracy” being erected as a symbol of hope and freedom for the movement. With each new development, threats escalate from the Chinese government. Soon fiery warnings are blasted about the severe consequences protesters will face if they do not end the demonstration and leave the square.

Jeffrey is in a simmering pot of politics, power and impatience, and my jaw grows tighter each day knowing that it’s getting closer to bubbling over–especially in a country in which freedom has never been a priority and brutality has often been a solution. At that moment, the Democracy Movement is no longer just a surreal event half way around the world for me; it is palpably real.

Photo of soldiers in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China 1989, Democracy Movement

It’s then I realize I need to focus on my “own thing” while Jeffrey is gone, otherwise my twenty-three year old dark brown hair will soon be turning white. While Jeffrey is in Tiananmen Square, I spend hours out on the road cycling, distracting myself with Aspen’s intoxicating landscape, centering my attention on simply turning the cranks of my pedals and getting enough oxygen into my lungs, rather than worrying about whether the Chinese government will follow through with its threats. I also immerse myself in work and all the other things I love like reading, painting and writing. I still stay glued to the TV and scour every newspaper, but I realize I have no control over Jeffrey’s safety so I trust in his scrappy ability to navigate through upheaval and create images, while staying out of harm’s way.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tianamen Square

I also can’t help but feel empathy for Jeffrey’s parents. Right before Jeffrey leaves for Beijing, I overhear one of the most endearing phone conversations I can ever remember. “You can’t forbid me to go,” Jeffrey says to his dad as gently as he can, a sweet, appreciative smile crossing his face. “You’ll just have to trust that I’ll be okay. Really. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” he says as tries to ease the concerns he hears on the other end of the line.

His dad’s fear says everything about the love his parents hold for Jeffrey, and immediately makes me understand who Jeffrey is from the ground up.

That same trepidation also makes me think about all the other journalists in the world, and all the spouses, families and friends in the wings supporting what each is doing…and most likely worrying–particularly those going into war zones. I’m thankful Jeffrey has not chosen that path.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square is bad enough.

After nearly six weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the worst happens: China’s Democracy Movement tragically ends in bloodshed. On June 4th, the Chinese government orders the People’s Liberation Army to quash the movement and end all challenges to its power. Thousands of unarmed people are murdered, mowed down by bullets and tanks, and many more are injured as the PLA clears the square.

Photo of Tiananmen Square crackdown, Beijing, China 1989

Thankfully, Jeffrey is not one of them.

In a later post I will share the story of how, in an unusual twist of circumstances, Jeffrey sidesteps the June 4th massacre. I’m a firm believer that most things in life happen for a reason. This is no exception.


Beyond Rangoon (Part Two)


APRIL 1989: As you might remember in Part One of this story (see my post on 9/27/11    if you missed it), the last time I hear from Jeffrey is when he’s in Bangkok, on his way to Rangoon to photograph a seemingly innocuous story about daily life in Burma for The Christian Science Monitor.

Photo of a vendor in Mandalay, Burma

These are the days before email, iChat, text messaging and the constant stream of news gliding across our televisions and computer screens, so while I’m aware of Burma’s dark history, I’m unaware of Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent arrest or the military crackdown Jeffrey is about to drop himself into. We are completely out of contact for ten days.

Now, if you will, flash forward with me to when Jeffrey arrives home from Burma…

I can tell by Jeffrey’s glassy eyes that he’s exhausted. The kind of exhausted that makes yawning feel like too much effort.

When I ask how his assignment went, all he can say is, “Insane.”

I can’t tell if it’s a good insane or a bad insane. Then he grabs a box of slides out of his carry-on bag. I try to imagine why he would have had his film processed in Asia instead of the lab at home like he always did, but instead of asking, I open the box, grab a loupe and take a look at the slides.

When I see Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s most powerful symbol of hope and freedom, staring back at me instead of water buffaloes and golden temples, I’m stunned.

“How in god’s name did you photograph Aung San Suu Kyi?” I stammer.

“It’s a very long story,” Jeffrey says, exhaling deeply and throwing himself into a chair.

It isn’t until the following evening over dinner and a bottle of wine that Jeffrey finally recounts the details of his trip. Goosebumps rise on my arms as he describes it all.

This is but a tiny portion of what he experienced…

Photo of martial law in Rangoon, Burma 1989

Excerpts from Chapter Three of my book…

Ko Ye’s leathery brown hands grip the steering wheel, slowly navigating the embassy car through the streets of Rangoon. Armed soldiers lining both sides of the road peer inside the windows, and beads of sweat drip down the driver’s temples and neck.

The only sound in the airless car is an unspoken symphony of anxiety created by three pounding hearts, the rumble of the diesel engine, and Ko Ye’s laden sighs.

At the first roadblock, the driver’s eyes flash in the rearview mirror to Jeffrey and Andrew, the two journalists in the back seat, reinforcing the insanity of what they’re doing. Upon order, he slowly rolls down the window; nobody dares breathe.

Photo of martial law in Rangoon, Burma

Jeffrey carefully shifts his knees to make sure his camera bag is covered on the floor below. Andrew looks straight ahead. Angry Burmese words are launched at Ko Ye. The passengers have no idea what’s being said, but somehow the driver’s shaky, high-pitched response convinces the soldier to wave them through.

Nearly a half hour later, after several more chilling roadblocks, they arrive at a compound near Inya Lake. A wall of soldiers surrounds the entrance, and it’s clear that whomever’s inside, is at the will of the AK-47’s outside. The embassy car is the only reason the solid metal gate opens, and as Ko Ye slowly pulls the car forward, Jeffrey and Andrew finally allow themselves to exhale…


…On the veranda of the faded two-story colonial villa, a slender woman wearing a simple flowered blouse and a green traditional longyi sits waiting. Her thick black hair, pinned back with a hibiscus, frames her high cheekbones and delicate oval face.

Portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi at her house in Rangoon, Burma, 1989When Aung San Suu Kyi stands and graciously welcomes them in her perfect Oxford English, Jeffrey takes a moment to center himself, trying to remember how he arrived at this unexpected moment in his photographic career.

He flashes back to breakfast earlier that morning. His camera bag is sitting in the chair next to him, and he suddenly notices a foreigner watching him. Not sure what to make of it, he half-smiles, then finishes his breakfast, all the while trying to imagine what this guy is about. Before he has a chance to speculate further, he hears an Australian voice say, “You’re a photographer, right?”

Jeffrey cocks his head and looks up out of the corner of his eye, instinctively putting up his defenses.

“Nope…just here on vacation.”

Before Jeffrey has time to ask him who he is or what he’s about, the Aussie interrupts and sits down at the table, throwing his hand out to shake. “I’m Andrew Walsh,” (his name has been changed to protect his identity) he announces, then lowers his voice, “I’m a reporter for The Age in Australia.”

Then he quickly begins telling his story in a hushed tone. “Listen, my country is the only democratic country in the world right now that hasn’t broken diplomatic relations with Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.” He looks around to make sure nobody else is listening.

“I have an opportunity to use the Australian Embassy car to go interview her this afternoon, and I need a photographer. We’ll be going under the auspices of checking on her—sort of a diplomatic mission for the embassy—to make sure she’s all right.”

Jeffrey has a hard time believing the proposition he’s hearing, but Andrew continues, “In exchange for this exclusive opportunity, I just need one photograph of her for my story. Then you’ll have free reign of everything else. We’ll even pay you for licensing the photograph.”

Andrew doesn’t need to sell Jeffrey. Exposing human rights abuses and injustice in the world drives Jeffrey from his belly. Grabbing his camera bag, he asks, “When do we leave?”


…Inside the heavily treed compound humidity and oppression hang on Andrew and Jeffrey like wet quilts. The stifling air doesn’t budge, but the energy radiating from Aung San Suu Kyi swirls into an electrifying breeze.

While Jeffrey patiently waits for Andrew to interview her, he mentally composes photographs in his head. He’s also swept away by the poise and defiance of this striking 44-year old woman. A wife and mother, and Burma’s most powerful voice for change, she exudes grace while fearlessly trying to lead her party and country in a new direction…

In perfect English, she articulates her hopes and dreams for her country and reveals the reality of its past. “Our party is expected to win the majority of parliament seats during the upcoming election,” she explains, “but the junta is cracking down, afraid to lose its power. You can’t have power without responsibility.”

… Jeffrey, knowing there isn’t much time left before the light disappears, begins photographing. Quickly placing the bright red flag of The National League for Democracy behind her, he shoots frame after frame, capturing the mix of intellect, warmth and defiance in her eyes.

Portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi at her house in Rangoon, Burma, 1989

Portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi at her house in Rangoon, Burma, 1989Her chapped lips and the shadows under her eyes reveal the vulnerability of a woman who’s been treated harshly, but also the stoicism of a leader whose fortitude could never be underestimated. Then he captures the family connection and the love of her country as she sits near a large portrait of her father, General Aung San, who negotiated Burma’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1947. As she tells the story of how he was assassinated when she was just two years old, the harsh reality of her country is hammered home even more.

In no time, the light fades and they know they must leave.

As they depart the compound, Aung San Suu Kyi’s last words grip them…“Let the world know.”


When Jeffrey finishes telling me this story, then shares other details about the sketchy drive back from her compound, how he duct-taped his undeveloped film to the bottom of his hotel bed to keep it safe, and how he and Andrew also used the embassy car to photograph a demonstration in which dozens of protesters were slaughtered, I count my blessings that he made it home safely.

What resonates most though, are Aung San Suu Kyi’s words, “Let the world know.” Jeffrey and I both know it’s our responsibility to get his images published so people can see what’s happening in Burma.

In the coming months and years, that is exactly what we try to do. Not only does The Age publish one of Jeffrey’s photographs, but his portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi become the most published photographs of her ever. One graces the cover of Time Magazine when she wins the Burmese elections, and later when she wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Others are splashed across dozens of magazine covers in Europe, Asia and Latin America, in every kind of publication, large and small.

Time Magazine with photo of Aung San Suu Kyi

Her face becomes the light in the midst of Burma’s darkness, a symbol of courage and strength around the world. Like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, she gives up everything for what she believes in, and its her sacrifice and fortitude that inspire veneration around the world.

Her words are also one of the reasons I’m writing my book…to let the world know.


Postscript: In November 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released, after spending most of the last 21 years in some form of imprisonment. She continues to fight for democracy and freedom for the Burmese people. The billboard below is an example of the challenges she faces. Click on it to view it larger.

Photo of a government propaganda sign in Rangoon, Burma

Photo of a government propaganda billboard, 1996

The Art of an Improbable Life Blavatar

Beyond Rangoon THEN…A Feather in Her Cap NOW


APRIL 1989: Jeffrey and I have been together little more than four months when I get my first taste of what life is going to be like with him.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tianamen SquareFirst, if you’ll flash back with me briefly, you might remember that 1989 is a year of extraordinary change around the world—everything from China’s Democracy Movement to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Dalai Lama winning the Nobel Peace Prize to Gorbachev being elected Russia’s new president.

Another dramatic event taking place is that Aung San Suu Kyi is about to be voted Burma’s first democratically elected leader in nearly thirty years.

Jeffrey is in Bangkok finishing up an assignment for Newsweek when he receives a call from The Christian Science Monitor. “We have a project for you in Burma,” he hears.Those few words are all it takes before he agrees to the assignment.

Burma has been closed to the outside world for decades—at least to journalists—isolated by its brutal military dictatorship; Jeffrey knows this is an unusual opportunity.

At one time Burma had been the wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia and the largest exporter of rice, oil and teak. Its capital, Rangoon, often referred to as the “Queen of the East,” had been a vibrant metropolis brimming with a highly literate population. But a 1962 coup d’etat, followed by rampant corruption and the catastrophic economic plan, The Burmese Way to Socialism, turned this country upside down.

With Burma’s current economic bankruptcy and the UN’s label as one the least developed countries in the world, a tiny crack has been pried into this iron-fisted country, one just large enough to allow a handful of tourists to visit–along with their money. Jeffrey is one of them.

Abercrombie & Kent, one of the few tour companies operating in Burma, organizes a seven-day visit for Jeffrey, the maximum time allowed by the Burmese government. His itinerary will take him to Rangoon, Pagan and Mandalay, where his assignment is to capture the stark beauty of the country and the everyday life of people in this isolated land.

Photo of Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of a monk at Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of pilgrims praying in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of a watermelon vendor in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of vendors in Mandalay, BurmaPhoto of Pagan, BurmaPhoto of a monk at a temple in Pagan, Burma

Inside A & K’s air-conditioned Bangkok office, an employee, Ms. Too, hands Jeffrey his plane ticket, visa and itinerary. Then she says, “Mr. Aaronson, there’s just one thing: there’s been a terrible crackdown in Rangoon. Martial law has been imposed. The elections are coming up and Aung San Suu Kyi has been placed under house arrest by the junta to prevent an uprising. It’s not safe for you to go.”

The nervous employee, of course, is sharing this news so that Jeffrey will postpone his trip, but Jeffrey’s mind is working in the opposite direction.

“Is the airport still open in Rangoon?” he asks.

“They haven’t said otherwise.”

“Then I better get going.”

“Mr. Aaronson, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. No journalists are allowed.”

Jeffrey, not to be dissuaded, replies, “Who said anything about a journalist? Remember, I’m a tourist, going on vacation to visit the beautiful country of Burma.”

“If you must go, then please be careful,” Ms. Too says with pools of concern in her eyes…

Photo of matial law in Rangoon, Burma 1989

Read Part Two in my next post…Sorry, I don’t mean to leave you hanging, but even the uber condensed version of this complicated story is too long for one post. I hope you’ll check back to find out what happens. In many ways this improbable story epitomizes Jeffrey’s career, and also the beginning of our relationship.



SEPTEMBER 2011: The events of 1989 were hugely memorable, but not be outdone, we also just experienced our own “big event” right here at our house last week. Our daughter, Olivia, got to have two feathers put in her hair.

I know, I know. It’s not exactly the kind of “big,” you might have imagined, but in the life of a 7-year old, it’s huge. Believe me.

photo of feather hair extensionsIf you’re trying to imagine what the heck I’m talking about, let me clue you in to the world of 2nd grade girls. The latest craze is having one or two…or several thin feather extensions threaded into your hair to add a splash of color and pizazz.

When our daughter first told me she wanted a feather like all the other girls, I have to admit I cringed. Really cringed.

I couldn’t imagine our sweet little bean with a Steven Tyler-like feather in her beautiful curly tresses.

Eventually though, because Jeffrey and I try not be ogres (well, at least most of the time), we told our daughter that if she really wanted a feather, we would let her get one if she worked hard at a challenging personal goal she was trying to achieve.

We set a date, marked it on the calendar, and gave her several tools and suggestions to help her reach her goal. Then we set her free to do it.

Somehow it reminded me of when I was training for my first New York City Marathon, and the calendar I had made charting out my 16-week training schedule. It seemed epic at the time, and I had no idea how I’d ever get through my first 10-mile run, let alone get to the finish line of a 26.2 mile race. But having a visual chart made all the difference. It was a constant reminder.

The same held true for Olivia. Like marathon training, many days were tough, but at the end of the day, after she worked her hardest and did what she need to do, she put a check mark on the calendar, and each time we could see her confidence grow.

Well, last Thursday her calendar was finally filled with check marks. She reached her goal.

I never imagined that a hair salon appointment could ever turn into a family celebration, but that is exactly what it was.

Photo of hair feather being put in girl's hairWe took Olivia to the salon immediately after school to pick out her feathers . She chose her favorite colors, pink and red, and the stylist quickly crimped them into her hair. All the while Jeffrey took pictures with his IPhone and I blinked back tears as I watched Olivia’s pride glowing in the mirror.

Photo of Steven TylerNowhere did I see visions of Steven Tyler. All I saw was a sweet little girl who had kicked some serious butt and had grown in multiple ways along the journey.

I clearly never would have chosen a feather for Olivia, but now I adore the look because it represents her hard work, determination, and her ability to overcome a daunting challenge.

The piece de resistance is that she got her feathers just in time for her 2nd grade school picture. Now she’ll always be able to look back at her photo, see those feathers and remember that she can do anything if she puts her mind to it.

Here’s to the feather in Olivia’s cap…I mean hair. This mama couldn’t be prouder (in case you couldn’t tell).

We all need “feathers” once in awhile. I’d love to know what motivates you to stay on track and reach your goals, especially when things get tough. Leave me a comment and share your feathery moments!