Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Cambodia

Photograph of a boy in Cambodia with an AK-47 gunBehind the Scenes: It’s 1989 and the Khmer Rouge are still fighting in Cambodia. Pol Pot’s official reign of genocidal terror has ended, but the aftermath of the “Killing Fields,” as it was coined in the grizzly 1984 film, still lingers.

Jeffrey is in Cambodia with Harry Rolnick, a foreign correspondent for the Bangkok Post. They are there to tell the story of the restoration quietly taking place at Angkor Wat Temple Complex. A handful of scientists from the Archaeological Survey of India have begun work on Cambodia’s most important archaeological site.

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple complex moon riseAngkor Wat, an ancient city built by King Survyavarman II in the 12th century, has taken a beating from years of neglect and non-stop fighting. Khmer Rouge guerrillas have looted temples, decapitated sculptures, and sold the spoils on the black market to raise cash for the war. The site’s exquisite Khmer architecture, which is often compared to that of ancient Greece and Rome in importance, has also been strangled by the encroaching jungle. Vines and roots have damaged structures, causing many of its sandstone temples, reliefs, and statues to crumble.

The restoration of Cambodia’s most important site (and symbol) is a tiny glimmer of hope for a country that has not dared to hope since the Khmer Rouge murdered approximately two million of its people (one quarter of the population).

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple Complex SoldiersBecause the U.S. still has not established diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Pol Pot’s reign of terror, Jeffrey and Harry must first fly from Bankgok, Thailand to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to obtain a visa to enter the country. A few days later they will backtrack to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, then they will catch a puddle-jumper plane to Siem Reap, the province in which Angkor Wat is located.

After a hard and fast landing (to avoid gunfire, they are told), they head to the Grand Hotel, the only hotel operating in the area at the time. Tourism has been at a standstill for more than a decade. When the bellman of this dilapidated establishment leads Jeffrey and Harry to their rooms, Jeffrey notices that his bed is pushed awkwardly into a far corner. When he asks about it, the bellman explains, “That is for your safety—in case there is gunfire. Bullets will not be able to hit you over here if they come through your window.”

Photo of Stone statues at Angkor Wat Temple Complex in CambodiaThe next day an interpreter and several Cambodian soldiers meet Harry and Jeffrey on the outskirts of Angkor Wat. The complex is over five hundred acres, and they must walk through the jungle to the temples where the archaeologists are working. The men are told under no uncertain terms may they leave the single narrow path they plying. Live mines litter the landscape everywhere else. Nearby gunfire reminds them that this is no idle warning.

Jeffrey and Harry walk cautiously and stick closely to the Cambodian soldiers who know every inch of the area. The emptiness of Angkor Wat and the heavy air blanketing the jungle creates an eeriness that makes the back of Jeffrey’s neck prickle. Harry continually looks over his shoulder. Even the slightest snap of a twig from a jungle creature or birds taking flight makes them pause. Jeffrey can’t help wonder, How do we know the Khmer Rouge haven’t laid another mine on the path last night and how do we know we won’t be ambushed now?

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple Complex in CambodiaEventually they arrive where the archaeologists are working. The interpreter introduces the men and points out many of the sites wonders, including giant Hindu sandstone faces, exquisite bas-reliefs, and temples covered in roots more massive than each of them. It doesn’t take long before Jeffrey is able to create a powerful visual story about what is taking place here.

After spending the entire day at Angkor Wat, they make their way back out to the other side where a car is expected to be waiting for them. As they reach the outskirts of the site and walk along a road near a small village, they come upon a young boy carrying an AK-47 rifle. This barefoot youngster, who is wearing nothing more than threadbare shorts, is protecting his village against the Khmer Rouge. As he walks under the weight of his gun, his onyx eyes reveal a life that has already witnessed far too much.

Jeffrey can’t help but think back to his own carefree childhood, and tries to swallow the sadness rising in his throat as he gets down on his knees to create this boy’s portrait. He can only hope that peace will come soon to Cambodia, and with it, a return to childhood for this young “man.”

This photograph was created with a Nikon F4, a Nikor 24mm lens and Fuji Velvia film.

Postscript: Jeffrey has returned to Angkor Wat on assignment two more times since his first trip in 1989, and each time he has witnessed it coming back to life more and more. Restoration is now nearly complete and Angkor Wat has been listed as a World Heritage Site, along with Cambodia’s largest tourist attraction. The best part is that Jeffrey has never come across another child carrying an AK-47 rifle in Cambodia.

If you want to learn more about Angkor Wat, click HERE.

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple Complex in CambodiaPhoto of Angkor Bayon at Angkor Wat in CambodiaPhoto of Angkor Wat Temple Complex restored reliefPhoto of a young monk at Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Indonesia

Photo of a Hindu ceremony in Bali, Indonesia

Behind the scenes: It’s 1992 and Jeffrey is photographing on assignment for Newsweek in Bali, Indonesia. The king’s wife has died, and an auspicious day has finally arrived for her funeral ceremony.

For Hindus, the days between death and ceremony are spent in intense preparation as they organize the myriad details involved in rituals leading up to the cremation. It’s believed the soul of the dead can only leave the body once the body’s five elements of air, earth, fire, water and space have been returned to the cosmos. Once this happens then the soul can depart and find its new life through reincarnation. Mishandling of any small detail can prevent the soul from reincarnating.

Photo of a Hindu funeral floatThe Balinese have spared no detail in this elaborate three-day event, which is taking place in Ubud, the cultural center of Bali.

Jeffrey has been working in Asia non-stop for over a month, and can feel the weight of the pace he’s been keeping—photographing everything from a story on rice in Japan to a feature on the Yangtze River in China to yet another on Beijing’s lively outdoor markets—but he’s also energized by this visually compelling and culturally important event.

As Jeffrey stands photographing next to his friend, Robin Moyer, who is working on assignment for Time Magazine, the two men can’t help but laugh at themselves. Every person in attendance is required to wear traditional dress during this formal ceremony. Photographers are no exception. Not only are both men sporting batik sarongs over their Levis but also Indonesian udengs (wraps) on their heads. While Indonesian men look handsome, the two of them look absurd.

Photo of a Balinese dancer in IndonesiaIt is over 100 degrees with humidity equally as brutal, but Jeffrey pays little attention to the heat. Everywhere he looks he sees a blaze of color. High priestesses carry out blessings and holy water ceremonies, musicians and dancers perform traditional movements, women adorned in vibrant dresses carry offerings atop their heads, and others lead a procession which eventually arrives at the funeral pyre.

When the elaborate pyre is finally lit, it quickly catches on fire and bursts into hot flames. It is this moment the Rajah’s wife’s soul is released into the cosmos to seek its karma and reincarnation.

What Jeffrey witnesses is an awe-inspiring celebration of Balinese culture. Gratitude brews beneath his sweat-drenched udeng as he knows once again that his camera has opened a door to a place and time that he otherwise never would have experienced. 

Photo of Balinese MusiciansThis image was created with a Nikon F4 camera, Nikon 80-200mm lens, and Fuji Velvia film.

To view a few more images from this ceremony in Bali, click here or on the photo of the musicians to the left.

What cultural ceremony or event has stirred your soul? I’d love to hear your most memorable moments!

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Vietnam

Photo of Muslims praying at the Central Mosque in Saigon, Vietnam

Behind the scenes: It’s 1992 and Jeffrey is on his way from Thailand to Cambodia to photograph a story about Angkor Wat Temple Complex. In order to enter Cambodia though, he must first stop in Vietnam to get his visa processed. The U.S. still has not re-established diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Pol Pot’s Killing Fields so he’s forced to take a circuitous route.

Map of VietnamIt’s early morning in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and as Jeffrey sits on the rooftop restaurant of his hotel, sipping orange juice and reading his Herald Tribune, he begins mentally planning his day.

Below, the streets teem with motor scooter drivers and vendors as they begin their daily frenetic ritual of eeking out a living. In the midst of the city’s cacophony, Jeffrey also hears another sound warbling in the distance. He knows he’s heard it before in other regions of the world, but never in Vietnam.

An Islamic call to prayer wafts through a loudspeaker, a muezzin’s sing-songy voice summoning Muslims to prayer.

Curiosity instantly changes the course of Jeffrey’s day. Instead of heading to the Dan Sinh Market like he had planned, or photographing the Apocalypse Now Bar or the city’s wide boulevards and French colonial architecture, Jeffrey begins his search for the mosque.

Photo of traffic in Saigon, VietnamFirst he must maneuver through the certifiably insane, always-rush-hour-traffic, then he must get on the back of a motorcycle taxi before he is eventually dropped off in front of the Saigon Central Mosque in the Dong Khoi area.

A sea of motor scooters dots the sidewalk in front of the light blue and white building. Its cool, immaculate structure exudes calm, floating like an island of serenity in the midst of the churning streets outside where sensory overload is the norm.

Jeffrey removes his shoes, and like other men, washes his feet before stepping onto the cool stone floors. The city’s heat, humidity and noise instantly fade away.

Though he isn’t sure what kind of reception he will receive, Jeffrey is warmly welcomed into the mosque and is even encouraged to photograph during Friday prayer.

The men pray on one side and the women on another. Jeffrey’s eye is immediately drawn to the clean lines and undulating pattern of the women praying before him. In no time he raises his camera and begins photographing. After shooting a handful of frames, he  lowers it back down and puts it away, hoping to avoid disturbing this sacred time of worship. Instead he watches and listens, enjoying his unexpected discovery in Vietnam.

What Jeffrey likes most about this photograph is that most people think it was created in Africa or the Middle East rather than Vietnam.  He likes the surprise element, and also the anonymity of the image, which allows viewers to imagine what the faces look like behind the traditional robes.

“It’s also a good reminder that curiosity is often my most powerful tool. If I hadn’t been curious, I never would have discovered this part of Vietnam,” Jeffrey says.

This photograph was created with a Nikon F4 camera, a Nikon 85mm lens and Fuji Velvia film. It was awarded a PATA Gold Award.

Now I’m curious! What is the most interesting or unusual place you have discovered while traveling, simply by following your curiosity?

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.

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Morocco

Photo of a Moroccan woman wearing a hijabBehind the scenes: It’s 1999 and Jeffrey is photographing on assignment in Morocco for Travel Holiday. The story he is working on highlights the important role women play in this North African country, even though many are not allowed to work.

As Jeffrey strolls around the lively Jemaa el Fna Marketplace in Marrakesh’s old medina quarter, he breathes in the savory aromas of late afternoon. Along the way he photographs an array of vendors selling fruit, spices and kabobs as well as several flamboyant water sellers, fire eaters and snake charmers.

In the midst of this bustling scene, he notices a woman wearing a blue hijab. Her striking almond-shaped eyes dance beneath her blue head covering as she paints intricate henna designs onto a woman’s hands.

Jeffrey is intrigued, so through his interpreter, he asks the woman if she would mind if he made a portrait of her. Her eyes instantly light up, unmistakably flattered. Looking around though, she quickly replies in an overly loud voice, “No, I’m sorry, I cannot without my husband’s permission.”

Map of MoroccoEvery nearby vendor is now watching. She glances down at the ground and shakes her head, then looks at Jeffrey with a feisty twinkle in her eye before she repeats: “No, I’m sorry, my husband would need to give you permission.”

Jeffrey can tell she is up to something, and would clearly like to have her picture taken, so he says louder than usual, “Yes, of course, no problem. I understand. But do you think it would be okay if I just photographed your hand to show your beautiful henna artwork?”

“Oh yes, of course…of course.” she replies, her eyes indicating her happiness that they have figured out a way to make this work. “That would be no problem,” she says again, if it is just showing off my artwork.”

“Great,” Jeffrey says as he brings his camera up to his eye.

Then he lowers his camera back down. “But do you think you could bring your hand up to your chin so that your artwork shows up better in the picture?” he asks, grinning.

She knows exactly what Jeffrey is doing and quickly raises her hand near her face, Jeffrey shoots a few frames, then the artist quickly goes back to painting another woman’s hand, while all other vendors go back to their own business.

Jeffrey is sure that he has just created a stunning portrait—one that symbolizes the beauty and strength of Moroccan women. He also senses that this woman, by navigating around the suffocating constraints of her culture, feels a tiny bit more empowered by her conspiracy in this photographic moment.

To see a few more of Jeffrey’s images from Morocco, click on the fire eater below:

Photo of a fire eater in Marrekesh, Morocco

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 and unpredictable lifestyle of a photojournalist, and 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.

The Art of an Improbable Life Blavatar

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: A Day in the Life of Africa

Photo of the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali

Behind the Scenes: It’s February 28, 2002 and Jeffrey is working on A Day in the Life of Africa, a book project in which nearly 100 photographers from around the world are participating in a historic, one-day documentary of Africa.

Photographers are spread out across 50 nations, from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope, all trying to capture what is unique about the people, geography, and customs of this continent.

Jeffrey has chosen the West African nation of Mali—specifically, Mali’s medieval city, Djénné. He is intrigued by its massive Grand Mosquée, which is not only the largest mud-brick building in the world, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1905, it was modeled on a mosque first erected on the site in the 11th century. Every year, after the rainy season, much of the population helps repair and resurface the mud walls.

Book cover photo of A Day in the Life of AfricaOn the day of the shoot, Jeffrey and his interpreter Musa (Moses), drive all the way from the capital of Bamako, about 250 miles away, then immediately seek out the Imam, the leader of the Djénné Islamic community. They know they’ll need his permission to enter the mosque.

The two venture down narrow dirt alleyways, passing modest mud-pressed houses, eventually ending on the steps of the Imam. When the leader welcomes them inside, Jeffrey can’t help but notice an exquisite Swiss-made grandfather clock as well as a large-screen television.

As is customary, the three men have tea, then Jeffrey finally asks the Imam (through Musa) if it’s possible to photograph inside the mosque. The Imam rubs his chin, then promptly says, “No, it is not possible.”

Jeffrey, who has flown half way around the world to photograph this landmark, tries to keep his cool. “Why?” he simply asks.

The Imam replies, “No non-believers are allowed inside the mosque.”

Then he begins a long, convoluted story about how an Italian fashion photographer had recently been allowed in, deceiving them with his project, and bringing shame to their community. “He asked my permission, which I granted,” the Imam fumes, “then he took a woman there and had her remove her proper clothing to be photographed in a swimming suit. That is against our beliefs. We can no longer allow non-Muslims or non-believers inside.”

Jeffrey can feel the weight of his response pressing on his optimism. Not to be dissuaded though, he continues his appeal. “I will only be going in with Musa, and I will abide by all your rules. My only objective is to show the world what a magnificent place of worship you have here in Djénné.”

The Imam does not budge in his response. Jeffrey continues, “All the money raised from this book will go toward AIDS awareness in Africa. I only want to do something that is good for your people.

The Imam listens to Jeffrey’s plea, then suddenly begins hinting at a bribe. “See this fine grandfather clock. A very important person donated this to me when he wanted to see the mosque. And see this television? That was another donation by another important person.”

Jeffrey is immediately disgusted. “I’m sorry, but my only donation will be making a photograph that will show the beauty and magnificence of your mosque. And that donation will contribute to the book, which will raise money for the African AIDS Education Fund–yet another donation. If that is not enough, then I will not be able to photograph inside.”

As Jeffrey and Musa leave, Jeffrey starts thinking of Plan B. He tells Musa, “We are going to walk around this entire mosque—all 360 degrees—until we find a place that will be even better than if I had photographed inside.”

It doesn’t take long because as they’re walking down a narrow alley, Jeffrey notices a man praying on top of a nearby house. Musa talks to the man and explains what Jeffrey would like to do. In no time, they are up on the roof creating the photograph you see above. It not only captures the grandeur of the mosque, also but gives a broader glimpse into the culture of Mali.

Jeffrey had several other photographs of Mali published in the book as well.

Photo of Jeffrey Aaronson at the Day in the Life of Africa opening in Grand Central Station

Jeffrey Aaronson in Grand Central Station during the opening for A Day in the Life of Africa. Here he's standing in front of another of his images published in the book.

You can see the tapestry of images from this project and a list of the participating photographers by clicking on the links below:

Washington Post slideshow of images from A Day in the Life of Africa.

Photographer profiles and the countries in which they photographed.

Photo of photographers Paul Chesley, Jeffrey Aaronson, Michael Lewis

Photographers Paul Chesley, Jeffrey Aaronson, Michael Lewis in Grand Central Station at the opening for A Day in the Life of Africa

Photo of photographers Jeffrey Aaronson, Larry Price and Michael Lewis at a book signing for A Day in the Life of Africa

Photographers Jeffrey Aaronson, Larry Price and Michael Lewis at a book signing for A Day in the Life of Africa

Photo of Jeffrey and Becky Aaronson at the Grand Central Station opening for A Day in the Life of Africa

Jeffrey and Becky Aaronson at the Grand Central Station opening for A Day in the Life of Africa

The Art of an Improbable Life Blavatar

Beyond Rangoon (Part Two)

THEN: 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.”

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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.

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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

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Saturday’s Sizzle: Rick Smolan Tells the Story of a Girl

Each Saturday on my blog I will be posting “Saturday’s Sizzle,” something I think is hot in the world of photography, art, travel or writing.

My first Saturday’s Sizzle features “Rick Smolan Tells the Story of a Girl.” This TED presentation tells the unforgettable story of a young Amerasian girl, a fateful photograph, and an adoption saga with a twist. I hope you are as enthralled as I was.


Portrait of photographer Rick SmolanRick Smolan is a former Time, Life and National Geographic photographer who is best known as the co-creator of the Day in the Life and America 24/7 series. He and his partner, Jennifer Erwitt, are the principals of Against All Odds Productions, which specializes in the design and execution of large-scale global projects that combine compelling storytelling with state-of-the-art technology.

Jeffrey is privileged to have worked on two projects with Smolan: One Digital Day and American 24/7.

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Japan

Photo of a woman in Tokyo, Japan wearing a Kimono at Shinjuku train stationBehind the scenes: It’s 1992 and Jeffrey is working on assignment for Travel Holiday, doing an editorial feature on rice in Japan. He’s photographing everything from sake factories and rice farmers to the cultural and religious significance of rice.

Because taxis in Tokyo are exorbitant, he decides to do his client a favor and take the subway to a Shinto shrine where he’ll be photographing a ceremony involving rice.

Inside Shinjuku Station, as he stands in line waiting for the train, he notices a woman near the front wearing a traditional kimono–something seldom seen in modern Tokyo anymore.

Jeffrey knows this is a perfect opportunity to create a photograph showing the contrast between old and new. Quickly he pulls out his camera, steps out of line and tries to frame the image. Within minutes the train arrives. He has just enough time to shoot off two frames, capturing this fleeting moment, before jumping aboard the train with the rest of the passengers.

This picture, which was created with a Nikon F4 camera, a Nikon 85mm lens, and Fuji Velvia film, has been honored with a PATA Gold Award and has also been published on the cover of several magazines.

Earlier this year Jeffrey also donated this photograph to Life Support Japan to help Japan’s tsunami and earthquake victims. The fundraising relief effort was organized by Crista Dix of Wall Space with the help of Aline Smithson of Lenscratch, and raised over $50,000 for Direct Relief International and Habitat for Humanity in a matter of days.

If you’d like to know more about this project you can click on this link: Life Support Japan.

If you’re interested in seeing more of Jeffrey’s photographs from Japan, you can click on this link: rice in Japan.

Look for my next regular THEN and NOW post on Tuesday! And as always, I’d love to hear from you. Leave your comments or questions and I’ll be sure to reply.

Thanks for being a loyal follower!

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