A year ago I visited a night market in the suburbs of Yangon. It was a sprawl of food stalls and fairground games. I was photographing a couple of elderly balloon sellers (leprosy-affected of course), who were standing in the green glare of a rather rickety ferris wheel. It took me a while to notice that the wheel was powered by young men climbing up the wooden beams and using their body weight to pull the it around. Naturally I had to have a ride.
While I was photographing my leprosy project in rural Nepal last year I came across an intriguing scene just across from my hotel (a tidy £2 per night). A frail old man was laying down coloured powder into patterns outside a two story mud-and-wood house. There was a group of mainly middle-aged men gathered and with help from one of the leprosy field workers I was with found out that the old man, a Jhankri (the Nepalese equivalent of a witch doctor or Shaiman), was about to perform an exorcism on a young child who had been ill.
I watched as the Jhankri hung up a crab outside the door (covered in red powder, above) and began banging a saucepan covering his head. I watched the ceremony unfurl across two hours, with the patterned powder eventually getting swept away and the crab being trapped under a heated metal dish. Family and neighbours sat around chatting, occasionally observing when the Jhankri did something new.
My understanding is that going to the Jhankri before trying the clinic is still quite common in many of the more rural areas of Nepal.
I had the briefest of visits to Chitwan National park in Nepal last year – I was photographing my leprosy project in the town of Chitwan and the two social workers I was with wondered if I’d like to do an elephant back ride. We went along to the entrance where they do them from.
I must say, this is quite a sensationalist image – the elephant looks particularly gaunt. Having said that, many of the elephants did look gaunt, and many of them were carrying 6 or 7 people. I hadn’t read much before about how cruel it is for elephants and what weight limits are ok for them, but as a result of what I saw, I didn’t feel compelled to ride on one and ultimately opted out.
Having said that, I’m well aware of the importance tourism has on maintaining National parks like Chitwan and the general economy of very poor countries like Nepal.
I stayed in the remote village of Kingangi (in Kasai-Orientale province) in March this year, while photographing part of my Leprosy Eliminated? project. I woke up on the second morning to the sound of singing. The singing itself was uplifting, raw and organic. I went to see what it was all about. Sadly, it turned out that young child of 18 or so months had died unexpectedly the previous evening.
A small crowd of women was gathered, looking inwards, all singing and dancing. But there were no smiles and no laughter. The men sat sombrely to the side. The young father, who was maybe my age came up to me. I asked if it would be ok to photograph. He had said it was no problem. I crouched down and squeezed gently through the crowd of women. The child, less than 12 hours dead was lying on the table.
The dances of the women were rocking up and down, almost like a theatrical wailing. Some of them were crying. The mother sat, clearly numb with disbelief. I took a few photos and put the camera down. I suppose it is tradition of some sort, though I never found out the details as I had a long trek that morning. The cause of the baby’s death was unknown.
While I was on assignment photographing leprosy in Myanmar last year I visited the aforementioned Ma Yan Chaung Leprosy Resettlement Village near Yangon. Frustratingly, due to Myanmar still being a very carefully controlled state, I was only allowed to visit for a few hours, when I would have liked to have stayed there for a week or more.
The area was made up of a leprosy hospital, a church with houses for selected vulnerable former/current leprosy patients, a village made up predominantly of people affected by leprosy and their families, and two dormitories.
The dormitories had about 30 beds each, all of which were occupied, and in which lived individuals affected by leprosy. It wasn’t a hospital, but a community. They all had duties, some of them even had jobs. There was a strict routine each day, getting up early, eating together at specific times and going to bed early. There was little privacy as each dormitory was just one long room with beds facing each other. Some people had been there for many years, others quite recently.
On the face of it, it appeared to be a charitable situation; though there are several social enterprises in place to keep the dormitories going, it still relies on donations of various forms. I know this to be a very simplistic view, and though I wasn’t allowed much time to observe the complexities of this relationship I wanted to turn this view on it’s head somehow.
So I asked them each to think of when they last gave something to someone else – an intrinsic part of the Burmese Buddhist culture. Then I took just one or two shots of them on their bed. I didn’t direct them at all, I just wanted to show them, with their worldly possessions around them, and their quote that makes them the donor, and not the beneficiary. I’m going to try and expand this concept in my long-term project Leprosy Eliminated?.
“10 days ago I gave rice to a teacher in a remote village.” Daw Lone Tin
“Last week I donated some food to a monk living in the forest.” Daw Mya Sein
“Yesterday, on 2nd December I gave some noodles to a monk.” Daw Sun Tint
“2 months ago I gave a longyi to one of the people affected by leprosy.” Daw Than Khin
“On the 15th November I gave a longyi and some noodles and other food to a poor patient.” Daw Tin Shwe
“10 days ago I was given an extra blanket which I felt I didn’t need, so I gave it to someone who needed it more.” U Thein Han
“15 days ago I gave some longyis to some local people.” U Ko Mya Oo
“I donated a thermoplast to a monk on 19th November” U Mg Mg Khin
“Last Saturday I donated packs of noodles to a monk.” U Tao
“10 days ago I gave one shirt and one longyi to a person in the village here.” U Tin Khaing
Occasionally the light is so beautiful it dictates what you photograph. When I arrived at this market several miles outside of Janakpur in Nepal, I was photographing a woman for American Leprosy Missions. As I was finishing off the shoot I realised that the light coming through the tree at the other side of the market was beckoning…
Nsumbula is a remote town in the province of Kasai-Occidentale, not too far from the Angolan border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I was there in March for just a couple of nights photographing (for The Leprosy Mission Canada) those in the area suffering from leprosy. Walking through Nsumbula one afternoon I decided to take just one or two photos of each of the hand-painted stores and dealers that lined the main street. I didn’t think much of it at the time – often I like to just record things for the sake of looking back in 20 years time and saying, “oh right, that’s what it was like then.” But I’m just editing the several thousand photos I took in that month-long trip now, and I rather liked this small sequence of shop scenes. As with most of my favourite images these days, I think there’s significance in the details.
I think I took 26 shots in the 7 minutes it took me to walk down the street and here’s my quick edit of them.
In March I was working in Kasai-Occidentale province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is one of the most challenging places to work in terms of travel, and out of the 3 weeks I had in Kasai I spent only about 10 of those days shooting. The rest was travel by car, bike and foot.
On this particular day, near the Angolan border, we had to walk for about an hour and half from where the car could go no further to find a man affected by leprosy (well what else would I be photographing?). The long walk there and back under the midday sun was tiring, and we treaded silently, slowly through several small villages. Many of the children froze when they saw me. Foreigners don’t come out to these villages, and most of the children had never seen “Le Blanc“.
One of the villages we came across – I swear it was no more than about 6 houses – had a small gathering underneath a tree. The two men in the centre of the photo (can you tell they’re wearing face and body paint?) shouted over to me to take a picture. The two men stood still and for a second everything fell into place. Afterwards they told me they’d just been made chief of the village. One or both of them, I don’t know. It was a 30 second diversion from a walk where all I could think about was getting back to shade and my crate of water. I realised later it was a pretty unusual thing to witness. I blame the heat…
So, I’m finally beginning to go through work from Nepal and Bangladesh, while I’m at the end of my stay in Myanmar. I tend to shoot a lot whether I’m with the subjects of my assignment or at the end of a 9-hour drive on the way back from seeing them… like this shot was. I leaned over the guy next to me and stuck my camera out the window of the car. He was used to it by this time.
So I’ve been travelling for a little over two months now. I’ve photographed in several parts of Nepal, and I’m now in Nilphamari, Bangladesh. I have a lot to show you, but I’ve been too busy taking photographs rather than editing them.
However I quite liked this rather over-exposed image I shot this morning of some patients having a shave in the corridor of the leprosy hospital where I’m currently at. Looks rather surreal.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to see some more of the places I’ve been, then check out a selection of my best instagram snaps.