Black and white photojournalism by award winning photographer David Lee Longstreath
tales from the trail
Links at the end of this video are no longer in service, full story can be seen at www.davidleelongstreath.com
In September 2002 I spent five weeks working in Afghanistan. Things changed there recently but looking back I can't help but wonder if anything has changed at all.
This is from a Yangon, Myanmar steam train facility repair yard. I was attracted to this image first as a simple color scene. Later when working it I thought what would it have looked like in black and white, as a more than just a little contrast images. Frankly I thin both images are unique in their own way. Attached a comment and let me know what you think.
When I lived and worked in Bangkok and other Southeast Asia cities I would often just hop on a local bus or subway, ride for 10 minutes, get off and wander with my cameras. I started this when I was a young sailor working as a photographer in places like Africa and the Mediterranean. I never knew what I find but I was sure that if I sat in the hotel or stayed on the ship I would get nothing.
So I would just wander. Bangkok to me was a great place for this. Shoot a little, walk a little, eat some noodles, drink a cold beer and then back out to see what I could see.
I shot this moment of a mother teaching her young child how to pray at a temple not far from the Bangkok train station.
A massive 7,6 magnitude struck northern Pakistan on October 8, 2005 while I was somewhere on a corner of the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. I knew it would not be long and I would be there on assignment. Because I was late getting the scene, the boss in New York decided to partner me with AP writer Robert Tanner, who I soon found was a capable reporter in a disaster scene. He was also just a cool dude to hang with which made it all the easier. We set out on our mission in a Pakistan taxi with a driver who never met a curve he could not pass on. We were to provide photos and on scene audio reporting for a new project called “multi-media.” I was thrilled, it meant working for my old friend Brian Horton who was now the head of the new department. Gathering digital photos was the easy part, filing back to New York however proved to be a daily hurdle.
A full accounting of the story can be view at https://www.davidleelongstreath.com/pakistan-diary.html
My first year in Bangkok began in January 1997 during the dry season. Daytime temperatures could climb above 100 degrees, and all of the city's concrete and tall buildings only intensified the heat. The rain began five months later.
At first, the showers were only an hour long. Then the monsoons followed. As a street photographer, I've been a student of life and all of its quirks. Once, when I was shooting for the AP back in Oklahoma, I was told that there were always opportunities for photographs, no matter the weather. You just had to look for the shots.
Such was the case with the egg man and the monsoon. His choices were the same for me that day in Bangkok's Chinatown.
Sit still and wait or get wet.
Landmines, the soldiers that never sleep.
Twenty-four years ago, I sat on the doorstep of "Emergency," a non-governmental trauma clinic in Battambang, Cambodia. I was covering the recent surge in landmine victims.
Large sections of the jungle along the Thai-Cambodian border, once controlled by the Khmer Rouge, had recently been opened to settlers. The main body of the Khmer Rouge was falling apart, leaving a massive section of Western Cambodia open for settlement. The only problem was that the area was heavily mined.
"Emergency," an Italian non-governmental organization, was a modern facility treating about 10 landmine victims a week when I arrived there to do a story. Victims would come every day, usually in the back of an aging pickup truck, usually with legs and feet blown off.
When the Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge from power in Phnom Penh back in 1978, Pol Pot's revolutionary army fled to the border areas in the West with Thailand. Here they fought a holding action against the Vietnamese and later against Royalist Government forces. Their strategy, it seemed, was to mine areas along roads and footpaths that led to villages.
To make matters worse, they then forgot where they put the mines.
Landmines have been called "the soldier that never sleeps" and can kill for years before being discovered and eliminated.
I followed a young victim, Nil Sarak, as he arrived for treatment. He had stepped on a landmine while clearing an area near his new home. His right foot would need to be amputated, his left leg was also injured, but he would not lose its use. Cambodian surgeons operated once he had been cleaned and stabilized. His 16-year-old wife could only wait in silence with Sarak's mother outside the operating room.
I would later visit the homestead, where Nil has stepped on the mine. It was a dry patch of ground that looked like it could never produce anything but weeds. His small bamboo shack home was less than three months old. Scattered around the hut were cooking utensils, pots, and pans abandoned when the family dropped what they were doing to rush him to "Emergency." The trip cost the family the last of their money.
This story had no happy ending, and Nil lost his right foot, mid-calf. He would spend two more weeks in the hospital before returning home to an uncertain future. I bought $100 worth of rice and canned fish for them before I left. Nil's mother cried.
Cambodia today remains the third most mined nation in the world, with an estimated 10 million mines still in the ground. UNICEF reports that an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people are annually killed or injured by landmines worldwide. Today in Cambodia, 50 percent of the victims are children.
Sources report that since 1979, over 64,000 casualties and more than 25,000 amputees have been recorded.
He wore a lime green baseball cap.
He carried a submachine gun.
"Come with me," he said. "I have something to show you."
Four days earlier, I was standing in the lobby of the Dharan International hotel in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, with about 15 other journalists. We were all waiting to board a bus that would take us to a Saudi C130 flight to Kajafi, Saudi Arabia, on Kuwait's border. I was now part of a non-US press pool. I had no idea of what to expect. We flew to Kajafi and landed in a violent thunderstorm. It was the usual hours of boredom followed by one minute of terror. We landed safely, everyone on board cheered.
We gathered on the tarmac and waited for our ride into the conflict zone. Thunderstorms mixed with smoke darkened the skies in all directions. The Saudis had found a shuttle bus similar to the American airport ones that carry passengers to rental car agencies. It seemed weird, a last-minute plan. Our Saudi minders were very nervous.
I thought perhaps they were worried because the fighting was still going on, or they were concerned that this international pool of journalists would be captured or killed. Once on the bus, I looked around at the group and noticed that most were outfitted with ill-fitting kevlar helmets and flack vests. I was wearing a borrowed helmet and flack vest from the U.S. Army. For what seemed like hours, we sat and waited. Then, we headed for Kuwait City amidst a flurry of shouting and hand-waving by our Saudi minders.
In the early part of the trip, we stopped to film destroyed bunkers and tanks. We were never allowed to get very far from the bus. The closer we got to Kuwait City, the more smoke and confusion greeted us. There was so much smoke it darkened the sky. It looked as though it was midnight. All around, you could see people with AK 47's dancing and shooting in the air. When they saw the pool, they ran and hugged us. A Kuwaiti woman I photographed was so excited she screamed in my face, "George Bush, I love you."
Once we arrived in downtown Kuwait City the pool was allowed to get off the bus to do interviews and take photographs. The Saudis were being strict about anyone's movements. There was still a war going on.
I took off the first chance I saw, saying I had to pee, but before going, I gave a writer colleague what film I had shot. Passing the bag through a window, he asked me, "where are you going?'
"Not back," I said.
I walked across the street to the lobby of the burned-out Sheraton Hotel. "Hello, my friend, we love you," the hotel manager shouted in English as I walked in.
"Are there any taxis?" I asked. "No," he replied, "but I can get you a car and driver."
Later that night, my driver dropped me off at the Kuwait International Hotel. Walking through the parking lot, I found a young Filipino maid passing out room keys.
What once was a lavish and exotic hotel now looked like a trash heap. Inside, I discovered there was no light or electricity. I found myself alone in the dark with nothing to eat and half a bottle of water. Outside, Kuwait was celebrating the withdrawal of the Iraqi Army.
I armed myself with a Swiss Army knife, barricaded the door to the room, and laid down on a king-size bed. There were no covers. Exhausted, I soon fell asleep to the sounds of automatic weapons fire.
The next day several other AP photographers arrived, and my task was to put together a darkroom of sorts in one of the bathrooms. With the help of a portable generator, the others had brought, the darkroom was soon up and running, and the makings of a real working office began to take shape. We sent photos back to the main AP office in New York within hours.
I kept my cameras loaded and had ten unexposed color-negative film rolls in my bag. I also had a couple of power bars. Fresh drinking water, though, was hard to come by. There was no electricity or running water in Kuwait City. No restaurants. No gas stations. Almost all regular businesses had been burned, bombed, or looted. Soon, other journalists wandered in with rumors of mass graves of Kuwaiti dead. There were plenty of unsubstantiated horror stories.
So when Azis walked in wearing western clothes and a lime green hat, I did not question his offer.
His English was good. His manner was direct. The commands he gave the fellow Kuwaitis accompanying him spoke of s senior officer. Soon we arrived at a police station. It looked very new.
As we walked toward the entrance, an older woman in traditional dress approached. Aziz immediately waved her off. It was clear she was desperate for information.
For now, she would have to wait.
The Iraqi Army had done a thorough job of stealing anything of value in the station. Wires dangled from countertops where telephone systems had once been. All the furniture seemed missing. There were no fire extinguishers or other safety equipment.
The screams were coming from the back of the jail. It was now clear that captured Iraqi Army soldiers were being tortured and beaten.
When it all fell apart for the invading Iraqi Army, the retreat back to Bagdad was anything but orderly. In the mass chaos and confusion, at least 10,000 Iraqi soldiers, mostly low-ranking enlisted men, were left behind on the streets of Kuwait City.
I was now looking at ten that missed the ride home to Baghdad.
After taking photographs of the prisoners, Azis announced that "we will now shoot them for you."
"Wait…Wait, No," I shouted.
It took me 10 minutes to explain to Azis that I should not be a part of an execution. I told him that shooting prisoners of war was an international crime. I wanted no part of it.
On the way back to the car, the older woman we had seen earlier approached Azis again.
She was searching for her husband, a medical doctor from Palestine. At first, Azis and the others told her that they did not know of him or his whereabouts.
Crying, the woman handed over an ID card. Both Azis and another Kuwaiti in traditional dress looked at it.
Handing the card back, Azis said, "We killed him yesterday." The woman broke down and began to wail.
His crime, according to Azis, was that he had helped the Iraqis torture resistance fighters.
Moments later, I was guided back to an SUV. Alone I was driven back to the hotel. I never saw the man in the lime green cap again.
This was a young trash dump scavenger from Cambodia. I found him and hundreds of others, mostly children, digging through the refuse of Phnom Penh, back in the 2004. When I take informal portraits like this I am searching for a certain look. Up to his knees in the most foul smelling garbage he offered the look of being a survivor.
Mist rose from the Salween river as we crossed over from the safety of Thailand into Karen National Liberation Army territory in Myanmar. What was waiting at the top of a slight embankment were about a thousand KNLA soldiers, their families, and others gathered to celebrate their annual Independence Day holiday.
Assembled on a parade ground, KNLA soldiers were waiting to form up and march. The Karen are an ethnic minority that have been at war with whatever government was in power in the capital of Yangon since the end of World War 2. That makes them the longest-running insurgents in the world. As the soldiers formed up, clouds heavy with rain gathered in the surrounding mountains.
For a photojournalist, the light, people, and mood was special. The moment could have been the opening scene in an action-packed Hollywood drama. Very few westerners then knew of Myanmar and even fewer of the ethnic Karen. The KNLA is backed by Christian groups and is equipped with semi-automatic assault weapons and western-style deer hunting rifles.
Tales from the Trail
David Lee Longstreath is a retired wire service photographer with more than 40 years experience on assignments around the world. He currently lives in upcountry Thailand.