A snake getting its head smashed in with a rock

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This is one of the more surreal photos I’ve taken. While photographing for a workshop in Cox’s Bazar (the longest unbroken natural beach in the world), I came across a group of boys gathered around something just where the sand meets the sea.

They were clearly excited and slightly afraid of the snake, which was injured and trying to get away. I stopped them from poking it with a stick, and the snake started moving towards the water. As I raised my camera, one of the boys behind me – out of my sight – had thrown a large stone without me realising, and it bounced off the snakes head a split second before my shutter went off. It took me a second to realise what had happened. Needless to say, the snake was dead after that.

Cox's Bazar

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Back from Bangladesh

Asia, Bangladesh, Documentary, Film, Uncategorized

It’s been a very long time since my last post about the leprosy exhibition, which went very well. In October I went off to Bangladesh, and stayed there for the next 6 months furthering my photographic practice at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, a school for photography that has produced many fine artists over the past two decades. It was an intense time, but a superb opportunity to experiment and improve through critical feedback.

I’m now processing the experience as well as the 30,000+ photos I took there. As I begin to put together a couple of stories I’ll put up a few photos every now and then on here and get back into the habit of regular blogging.

Here are three portraits from Jaflong, a stone-mining town on the northern border with India. Taken on my Rolleiflex with Kodak Tri-X.

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LRA: IDPs, FARDC, UPDF and other exciting acronyms

Africa, Documentary, Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, Photojournalism, Uncategorized

Today’s post about Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and other results of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) being in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Above: The government denies that the LRA are a serious threat there. When I spoke to a few officials and Commanders of the Congolese Army I’d hear something along the lines of: “There are 8 or 10, maybe as much as 20 but no more. These attacks are just local bandits”.

Above and below: However these ’10 or so bandits’ have caused well over 300,000 people in Orientale province, an area the size of France to flee their villages and set up in clusters around places such as Dungu and Doruma. Sometimes these are not much safer, Doruma has suffered multiple attacks in the past few months where civilans were killed, abducted and food and supplies were looted.

Above: The roof of the hut of a former soldier for the LRA. He was captured at the age of 17 and made to fight for the LRA for over a year. Now he has returned to his family. At 19, he is living in a displaced camp where he is hoping to find a way to get educated.

Above: A man rocks back and forth on his stool, staring unnervingly at the ground. He is mentally handicapped, but according to his sister he has done little else since moving from his village to the IDP camp in Doruma.

Above: A man a woman clear land and burn wood at the edge of an IDP camp in Doruma while their children wait patiently.

Above: Three young men talk about their experiences with the LRA. They were all captured for a short while (1 week, 2 days, and 1 day respectively) in order to carry supplies that were looted from them. In two cases they escaped, and one was let go. “We were made to carry things to their camp. We had no shoes, and our feet were swollen and bleeding, so when they let us go, we just collapsed and slept on the forest floor.”

Above: A man in the IDP camp in Doruma fills his jerry can from the nearby watering hole.

Above and below: IDPs in Doruma and Gangala.

Above: Tengende was working for the NGO Premier d’Urgence and was hitching a lift with one of their food trucks to see his baby son who was ill. They were attacked by the LRA and he was shot in the arm and a bullet just scraped above his right eye. The driver was killed, and the other man in the truck was dragged out of the front seat. Tengende played dead and witnessed the LRA beat his friends head in with a machete. Gasoline had leaked all over the ground and Tengende was lying a in a pool of it. One of the LRA thought they saw him move as they were leaving and checked by poking a bayonet into his neck. “I do not know how, but with God’s will I found the strength not to react”.

The LRA set the petrol alight, and Tengende lay burning until they disappeared. He rolled in the grass and staggered down the road where Congolese soldiers were running towards him. He was taken back to Doruma and treated for burns on his right arm and all over his back. Luckily they were treated early enough so as not to cause long-term damage and they just resemble large skin patches.Premier d’Urgence refused to send him to Dungu to get surgery on his eye because he had not formally requested to go with the truck. He is blind in his right eye. All the LRA took were two sacks of rice.

Above: Catholic church at an IDP camp in Dungu.

Above: USAID provides basic food supplies once a month or so various IDP camps. This food is generally sold or used up after a week.

Above: Esperance, 18 was captured in December 2008. Her father was killed on the same day. She escaped only two months prior to this post, in a UPDF attack on the LRA camp. She was forced to marry one of the commanders, and now lives with her mother and siblings in an IDP camp just outside Dungu. “I can’t go to get water on my own anymore, and even then, only when it’s very close. I’m scared that they’ll take me again, I don’t want to go back to them.”

Above: Esperance watches her younger brothers playing outside their hut.

Above: Despite the fact Esperance is now back safe with her family her mother is still very concerned for her well-being. She is a young woman who has spent over two years among soldiers and slaves, looking to get educated in an IDP camp, and scared to be on her own.

Above: IDPs are crowding market places in their new settlements and looking for different ways to make a living. Their presence is naturally effecting current residents, many of whom do not make as much money as before. This IDP has, for a good price just sold a sack of beans he carried from his village when he was displaced.

Above: This IDP is selling charcoal in the market place. Her husband was killed and two sons captured by the LRA. All around her is evidence of unemployed youth, many of whom have just finished their education.

Above: This IDP is making a living as an ironmonger. His resourcefulness has come in handy and he has made a tool to continually blow air onto his hot coals so that he can heat and forge metal. Sometimes he makes simple things like axe heads, but using these same methods he can make more complex contraptions like shotguns too.

Above: It’s not just IDPs that are trying to scrape money together. This woman in a soldier in the Congolese army (FARDC). The FARDC is infamous for poorly paying it’s troops if at all. She is selling charcoal in her time off just so she can feed her family. Her husband is a policeman who’s recently been transferred here. His story is the same.

The FARDC is now considered to be one of the greater threats in Orientale (well actually not just in Orientale…). Bizarrely, it is an army sent in to provide security by the same government that denies the LRA are a threat. The soldiers have very little will to actually be useful to the local populations they’re based near, and since their first priority (as with most humans) is to make sure they are fed, they have few options but to abuse their power (which is an AK-47 with perhaps one loaded bullet) and bully and threaten people into providing money or food for them. But not only are they just not doing their job, they’re actually a real danger to the societies they’re posted by.

Above and below: With the FARDC’s arrival in Doruma HIV/AIDS prevalence has shot up to 23%. The average in the DRC is 6% (however this is according to the ever so reliable government). Both of these babies were recently born HIV positive. Their mothers are unmarried and didn’t want to say who the fathers were. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have said that to battle this problem in Doruma would far exceed their budget. At the moment they only have the resources to deal with trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness).

Above: When attacks first occurred self defence groups (SDGs) were quickly formed by the locals to protect themselves, their families and their crops from murder, abduction and pillaging by the LRA. However the FARDC banned them from doing this (at least alone) when they arrived on the scene. This hasn’t stopped them entirely. It is these local self-defence groups that the government blames for many of the (quite obviously) LRA attacks.

Above: They meet twice a day to discuss what they can do. There are always a few that stay guard around the towns and IDP camps, on the off-chance of an attack. This particular meeting was called because the LRA had been spotted earlier that day just 12km from Doruma.

Above: A few men from the SDG march out in the early evening to track down the recently seen LRA. Since the FARDC refuse to acknowledge the problem and have no motivation, the SDG has little choice. “When we go in we are thinking of our brothers, sisters, and children that have been killed or taken. We go in with anger and revenge. That is what keeps us going.”

Above: The SDG make their own ammunition as well as the shotguns. They can be dangerous, and one shotgun cartridge went off in this mans left hand, taking off the tip of the little finger. However the LRA fear the SDG’s guns, which can kill an elephant and take down 8 men abreast at once due to the spread of the shot. The cartridges are a mixture of lumps of metal and matchstick heads. One former abductee said: “We really feared the self-defence groups. They would put their lives on the line. The FARDC weren’t feared, sometimes we would attack their patrols if they had something we needed.”

Above: Not all members can afford or get the resources to make shotguns.

Above: The main characters of Doruma’s SDG pose in the early evening.

Above: It is not hard to see that motivations like anger and revenge in the minds of untrained men with deadly but dodgy weaponry is going to have consequences somewhere down the line. However MONUSCO (the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo) does little but sit tight in their compounds in relatively secure areas, the UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defence Force looking to kill the LRA leaders) comes and goes with little communication to anyone else, and the FARDC is a detriment to society. These small self-defence groups are brought together just to do something for their people.

Above: The president of Doruma’s SDG (middle) sits back during an evening meeting where it was reported that the LRA had now been spotted just 6 km from Doruma.

Above: The UPDF suddenly showed up the next evening in Doruma, having heard reports the LRA was close by.

Above: The FARDC major had refused to give this UPDF commander (with the map) any information of the recently seen LRA. So when we met up with the commander we brought along the vice-president of the local SDG so he could point out where the LRA had been seen the previous night.

Above: The UPDFs map of Orientale province with red dots to show where the LRA have recently been spotted. Rather different from the mental map the FARDC major tried to give us (no red dots).

Above: The UPDF commander thinks he has a seen a pattern with the sighting and hopes to intercept an LRA group that appear to be heading towards the Central African Republic (CAR) where their leader Joseph Kony is thought to be in hiding.

Above: Generally the UPDF troops were happy to be photographed. This friendly individual called himself BmaxB (I guess you spell it). Apparently this friendliness could have been related to my nationality: “The British are my favourite whites”. The commander even offered me 5 kilos of beans to take home. A rather stark contrast to the FARDC which often just take food from the locals.

Below four photos: Suddenly the order came for the troops to move out. In less than five minutes 95 troops had packed themselves into one truck, in the most dazzling display of military efficiency (though perhaps not discipline) that I have yet seen in the Congo.

Above: And just like that the UPDF disappeared again.

In all my interviews with various former abductees, it seemed that most of them had escaped during UPDF attacks. One boy who had served as an LRA soldier said “At first we feared the UPDF the most because they would kill anyone in the camp, even women and children, just to get to the Ugandan LRA commanders. But now it is just commanders that fear them. Many children escape the LRA during the UPDF attacks.”

Above: This was the closest shot I could get of the FARDC; the bottles left over from the Major having a drink with three officers. I took this photo at 7pm.

The US has now sent in military advisors to help these armies (MONUSCO, UPDF, FARDC). However in my opinion, unless they advise the Congolese government to pay their troops better and on time, the FARDC are going to continue to hold back any real progress in these areas – however MONUSCO and the UPDF change. With November elections looming it seems the government finds it cheaper and easier to deny the matter than spend money defending the lives, rights and homes of some of the poorer individuals in their country.

Salone’s 50th Anniversary of Independence

Africa, Photojournalism, travel, Uncategorized

Last week Sierra Leone celebrated it’s 50th anniversary  of Independence. As well as all night parties and local live concerts that kept me up to the wee hours, the government had funded a huge celebration in the National Stadium, which is only 5 minutes walk from my new flat that I’m living in for the time being. I moved off the Africa Mercy over a week ago now, so my time is being spent doing bits of work for Medical Assistance Sierra Leone, the UK charity that I did a bit of work with when I first arrived in Sierra Leone 10 weeks ago.

Anyway, since the country was on holiday last week there were only a few things to photograph for MASL and I got to exercise my shutter finger at the stadium events. The celebrations last week reportedly cost the government $25 million – perhaps not as much as last weeks royal wedding (right?) but then this is one of the poorest countries in the world and there has been debate (certainly from the locals) as to whether there’s much to celebrate.

My housemate Victor, a 20 year old History and Political Science student in his final year at Fourah Bay University in Freetown disagrees with the amount of money spent and refused to go to the celebrations at the stadium. I certainly admire his determination for silent protest and putting his money where his mouth is, but I wasn’t going to miss this unique opportunity to witness Salone celebrating in style.

School children wait outside for their chance to come in and parade.

The Union Jack hangs among other flags – a reminder of who once controlled the former British colony.

The crowd gazes up at the big coca-cola sponsored screen detailing the entertainment in the centre of the pitch.

A high-ranking military personel looks a little lost amongst the common crowds and street entertainment under the stadium seating.

The army waits outside in case any trouble starts. As it happens there was very little trouble at all and the feeling I got from the crowd was very much of high spirits from the freedom they had to enjoy the day.

A dancer puts on her moves in the stadiums bowels where street entertainers do tricks and traditional dancing for money. It was one of the few occasions where I gave out money – I wasn’t obliged to, but since the locals were I couldn’t not.

The locals look through the fencing to the secured centre where the hired entertainment, press and VIPs were located.

Many leaders from the provinces came down for the event, dressed in their finest traditional clothing, yet still watching from behind the fencing.

A group of acrobats from Guinea jump through hoops for Sierra Leone.

Locals had a choice of seating in the stadium or watching from the ground. The day’s events were completely free.

VIP guests were seated in a smartly dressed marquee just behind the track with prime views of the entertainment.

Boys painted in Sierra Leone’s colours relax on the pitch under the heat of the midday sun.

Dancing devils scuffle as one of the acts leaves the centre stage. Devils are well-known as part of the local culture in this area of Western Africa. The wearer assumes the spirit linked with the costume when it is put on – and dances and acts accordingly. Despite the devil name, it is not always a bad thing.

President Ernest Bai Koroma is welcomed to the stadium. Security, naturally, tightens and those in the press pit  (below) are reminded that they are only here at his invitation.

A marching band leads in the military representatives.

High-ranking military personel march around freely, making sure people know they are very important.

My personal highlight of the day was shinning up the floodlights just outside the grounds with the street boys. For someone that used to be afraid of heights, ascending wasn’t the most enjoyable part…

…but once at the top, the view was stunning.

Whether or not the population felt the money could have been best spent somewhere else, to all appearances those that turned up certainly enjoyed it, and with regards to organisation (relative to organisation of everything else in the country) I would say the planners did an excellent job.

The last month with Mercy Ships was a difficult one and I didn’t have much chance to post any photos, but they were taken and will go up in the coming few weeks. However next up will be a short photo essay showing the celebrations from a totally different point of view.

Sonoco

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Here’s the latest shoot I did on Friday night. Esha, a good friend of mine from Uni is the lead singer of a band called Sonoco. The full band…according to their MySpace page is Ayesha ‘street brawler’ Allen, Matt ‘slap in the face’ Brown, Max ‘Dom Perignon’ Richardson & Harry ‘the puppet master’ Thuillier. They play a sort of House, Trip-Hop, Soul, Jazzy, Funk Fusion. I photographed them before a gig at the Roof Gardens in Kensington, and out of all the posed musician/band shots I’ve done, I reckon they were the most relaxed and happy to be photographed; very easy to shoot. They’re playing with Lemon Jelly (yes THE Lemon Jelly) on 26th March at Valmont in London. So if you’re not busy, get down there.

My new job on board the Africa Mercy

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I say job; it is unpaid, and in fact I have to pay for my board and lodgings, as well as my transport there and back.

On May 15th until September 5th this year I’m off to Togo to work for the Mercy Ships on their flagship Africa Mercy. The Mercy Ships essentially harbour for several months in countries in western Africa providing free operations to individuals who would never otherwise get the chance receive the complex healthcare they require. I got the position as their PR photographer, so will be photographing whatever I’m instructed by their Media director all day long… portraits of individuals that have an interesting story to doctors performing eye operations.

I found this video on their website and it explains in 5 minutes just exactly what they are about.