Black and white photojournalism by award winning photographer David Lee Longstreath
tales from the trail
As a traveling photojournalist I always valued my time in the early morning when the light would be good and it was cool. Such was a morning in Vang Vieng, Laos while crossing a footbridge I looked out and saw a man wading across the river. The mist and the surrounding area formed a painting like image. Vang Vieng today is a combination of backpackers hotels, bars and nightclubs.
It is no secret that I love black and white photography. While I made a living for more than 40 years using color my heart has always belong to black and white. As Philip Jones Griffiths used to tell me, "color complicates things."
Visit Tales from the Trail and see more B&W images in the future from my personal archives.
His smile was what first caught my eye as I stood watching the people of Sittwe, Myanmar, on a warm December afternoon. He was a tricycle taxi driver waiting for customers from a bustling market half a block away.
Often when I am photographing people on the street in a new place, I take a wait and watch position. That's because standing in one spot just watching the rhythm of the street gives me an idea of how to photograph the people.
Sittwe was in a very remote part of Myanmar. When I arrived from Yangon, I was the only westerner on the flight. Guide books had suggested staying at one of three hotels in town, and their ratings were barely two stars.
But this was not a tourist trip. As always, I had come to take photographs.
I have always been in love with the black and white image. It has been more than 50 years of shooting; I have not stopped looking. For me, black and white photos strip away all of the unnecessary information. "Is it a moment?" I ask myself, or have I "just recorded a scene?"
I could tell the taxi driver was getting shout outs from the others. They had noticed me and my cameras, but I waited just a few seconds longer. Putting my camera to my eye, the man turned and flashed an incredible smile.
Not a big moment, I told myself. But not merely a scene either. This was the first thing I photographed in Sitwee. It was going to be a good trip.
At first, it looked as if I wouldn't make it to Varanasi, India, for my 65th birthday. I completely messed up my Indian on-arrival visa and the airline at the Bangkok airport took one look at my application and turned me away. "Not today. Go back and redo the visa application," the ticket agent told me.
The next day, after finishing my application online and getting it printed at my hotel, I made the flight and then sailed through the "e" visa on arrival in Deli. However, Varanasi would have to wait until the morning. So, off to the Holiday Inn for one night and what was to be my last good meal for awhile.
By midday, after an uneventful flight, I arrived in Varanasi, the ancient city on the Ganges River. I was so excited I was ready to be shooting and not traveling. I had booked into a guest house called the "Shiva Inn" because it was walking distance to the Gnats, or holy places, on the Ganges. Bob Bozart, a friend from my days in Oklahoma, was waiting on me, and soon we were out making images. It isn't hard to shoot in Varanasi, especially if you like photographing people.
During the next week there were many daily adventures. Bob and I walked the banks of the Ganges and toured the city as well. Varanasi isn't for the average tourist. If you like noise, confusion, cattle wandering in the streets and alleys, and all manner of religious pilgrims, then you're in the right place. I would love to return, with an assistant, a set of portable lights, and the chance to shoot a portfolio of the holy men there known as Sadhus.
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On the morning of April 19, 1995, while ironing a shirt for work, my wife called me.
"David, something bad has happened downtown."
I immediately turned on a portable radio scanner that I regularly carried and heard an uninterrupted stream of police and fire dispatchers calling for help at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
Fire dispatchers were saying there had been an explosion while police were calling for all units to respond to the scene to help the injured and control traffic.
I buried the speed odometer at 90 mph and flew along Interstate 35 towards the scene. As I approached the I-40 junction for east- and westbound traffic, I could see a massive plume of black smoke rising over the area near the Murrah building.
It didn't take long to exit I-35 and find my way to a parking spot behind the old Daily Oklahoman Building, where the former office for the Associated Press had been.
Running across the street towards the Murrah building, I kept seeing bloodied people in every direction. One man who I photographed had numerous chunks of glass still stuck in his face and head.
Chaos can't even begin to describe the scene. It looked like something you might see in Beirut or Baghdad. One-third of the Murrah Building was gone. Wiring and piping of all sorts, office furniture, and mangled desktop computers were everywhere in the rubble. Vast sections of concrete had collapsed into a war-zone sized hole in the front of the building.
I immediately began to shoot. I took one establishing shot that showed the overall scene. Then, I went to work, picking apart the various elements. People all around me were in shock. Parents of the children in the building's first-floor daycare center began arriving. Shrieks of pain and agony were everywhere. A part of me wanted to reach out and help, but another kept whispering, "don't stop, keep shooting, don't stop."
Two months earlier, the AP had given me one of the first-ever digital cameras. It was a clunky looking thing, a Nikon N90 body married to a digital card reader. It was all I had with me at the scene that morning. I later transmitted over 20 digital images from the bombing to newspapers and magazines around the world. I also purchased two film images from a bank clerk that showed the iconic Oklahoma City firefighter cradling infant Baylee Almond.
AP photographers were not equipped with mobile phones in 1995. The pager I wore never stopped buzzing. At one point, I managed to find a working pay phone and called the buro. I was soon on my way to begin sending those first digital images.
Later that morning, while filing photos and answering nonstop calls, Amateur photographer Charles Porter, a mild-mannered young man, came to me wanting to sell photographs of the bombing. My first reaction was to brush him off and continue working, but something he said caused me to pause. "Dan Perry said to bring these photos only to you," he said, looking out over the top of his glasses.
Dan was a friend of mine who taught photojournalism at nearby Central State University. I took the stack of 4 x 6 color prints and began looking quickly at each. At this point, the AP's Oklahoma City bureau chief, Lindel Hutson, came over to help. I was nearing the final shots of the first pack when Hutson drew my attention to two images. One was of a firefighter holding what looked like a dead baby. "We are going to want this," I said to him.
Porter left my office that day with a check for the first time ever. He would later go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his shot of the firefighter and baby.
In the days ahead, I also photographed a closely guarded Timothy McVeigh being led in handcuffs from the Perry, Okla., jail. I and fellow AP photographer John Gapps III were able to file digital images of McVeigh's "perp walk" hours before any rival news organizations.
Associated Press Photos by David Longstreath
On Jul. 18 of1984 James Huberty fatally shot 21 people and wounded 19 others in a mass shooting at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro neighborhood of San Diego, California, before being killed by a police sniper. I was working at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco and was shipped out the following day to help AP staffer Lenny Ignelzi.
While the shooting was over the pain and suffering of friends and family members was beginning. I photographed the funeral of a young mother and child, buried together side by side, in a white silk-lined casket. It was very moving.
Fast forward two years later, and I was standing outside the Edmond, Oklahoma Post office the morning of Aug. 21, 1986. News reporters have huddled around then Oklahoma City district attorney Bob Macy.
He seemed winded as if struggling for a breath when he looked up from a note pad and said: "seven dead so far, but there may be more." It was then that I turned and began photographing postal workers weeping and clinging to one another. When the day had finished, Patrick Wayne Sherrill had murdered 14 co-workers before killing himself. He used 45 Calibur handguns smuggled out of a National Guard Armory. Described as a loner by co-workers Sherrill it was believed was about to be fired.
I photographed the funerals of most of the victims.
Five years later, I found myself standing outside a crime scene in Killeen, Texas. George Hennard drove his pickup truck through the front window of a Luby's Cafeteria. He left his vehicle and then shot and killed 23 people and wounded 27 others. Like many, he then killed himself.
As of 2018, the Lubby's massacre ranked as the sixth-deadliest shooting in the U.S. by a single shooter.
The single thread that runs through all of these shootings is the question of "Why?'
Why would someone do something like this? What could be so wrong with the mind of an individual that he would pick up a handgun or rifle and kill people?
In 1983 I photographed a man being shot to death outside a 7-11 in South Oklahoma City by a police SWAT team. He had attempted to rob the convenience store just as police arrived for a coffee break. He seemed to want to die. As he left the 7-11 he raised his shotgun, an antique and the swat team pumped his full of rifle rounds. He died later at an Oklahoma City hospital.
Death and funerals were a recurring part of my job as a photojournalist.
Traveling on Cambodian Highway 67, on the way back from an assignment in Anglong Veng, myself and an accompanying reporter took a needed bathroom break from the bone-jarring ride we were enduring in a beat-up local taxi.
The highway we stopped on, really just a dirt road, had recently been hacked out from a thick layer of jungle. It was 70 miles of poorly graded dirt bordered by a triple growth canopy forest. Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world, and free land was the lure the government used to get settlers into the area.
The only problem was that Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge had heavily mined the land. It was clear why the Khmer Rouge had retreated to the area after being thrown out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in 1979. It was a jungle hiding place filled with mosquitos and snakes.
As I got out of the taxi to stretch, I noticed a dirty Cambodian boy, 6 or 7 years old. He was holding a scruffy looking puppy and was sporting a shaved head style haircut. Neither looked like they had seen a bath in quite a while.
There was no thinking about this image. When I see what I call "zero opportunities" in the eyes of a child, it is hard for me to turn away. It was a simple portrait I felt needed to be taken.
I looked around and there was no family or others to be seen. There was only a green wall in every direction. I reached down, lifted my camera with a telephoto zoom from the backseat of the taxi, framed the shot, and click the shutter several times.
Seconds later, the young boy panicked. The sight of a Westerner holding something that looked like a rifle made him run back into the jungle. I lowered my camera and looked for a moment. Still, no one else was to be seen. My companions were making their way back to the taxi and soon we were on our way.
We had traveled to Anglong Veng, the former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, to do a story about Christian missionaries finding converts among former Khmer Rouge soldiers. I had heard from friends that Highway 67 was open to the border with Thailand, but that it was a just a dusty dirt road.
In the 15 years, I was based in Bangkok, I did many assignments in Cambodia, including two elections, the coronation of a new king and the cremation of an old one. The Cambodia people were always warm and friendly to me. I loved working there. But Cambodia is a basket case.
Less than 30 percent of the population has a high school education. Sanitation and a lack of clean drinking water are constant problems. I have always thought that hiding in the jungle that day we stopped on the highway was a relative who had urged the young boy out to greet me with that puppy. If he had come to ask for money, the sight of my camera scared him off. The boy and his scraggly puppy may have disappeared back into the jungle but they come out again every time I look at their photo.
While growing up in Oklahoma City, I had a summer job at 13 at the neighborhood Lake Air drive-in theater. The theater was seedy and rundown at best, and for $1.25 an hour six nights a week, I popped popcorn, served cold Cokes, and mopped the toilets. Each night before the main movie, there were several short films. My favorite was "Mondo Bizzaro." It included black and white scenes of jungle safaris and exotic places. One of the featured events showed Asian men jamming swords through their faces and walking in a parade with fireworks exploding all around. Some 32 years later, I witnessed that when I photographed my first Vegetarian Festival in Phuket, Thailand. I remember telling myself at the time, "this is the craziest shit I have ever seen, this is "Mondo Bizzaro."
For 10 days in late September and early October, there's a kaleidoscope of strange scenes at the annual Vegetarian Festival. Devotees pierce their cheeks and shove all sorts of sharp objects through the cuts in their face. It looks painful, but there's no display of pain and very little blood. The first time I saw a devotee have a spike shoved through his face, I didn't know whether to puke or shoot. I shot the moment and have been doing so ever since. The festival dates back to the mid-1800s when historians say a traveling troupe of Chinese actors fell ill, most likely with dysentery. A decision was made to abstain from eating meat and offer prayers to the Chinese emperor gods for ten days. Everyone recovered, and the locals have been celebrating the festival ever since.
I have made the annual trip to Phuket to photograph the event since 1997. Each year I seem to discover a different layer to the festival yet. The scenes of men jamming swords and spikes through their cheeks always cause me to wince and is only one aspect of the festival. At the same time, the smoke and noise from endless strands of exploding fireworks can be occasionally overwhelming. The vegetarian food is tasteless, but the images keep calling me back. Book a hotel room in downtown Phuket. You will be able to walk outside your hotel and directly into the street processions. Just remember to wear all white.
In the West, do we understand what work is? Work for the impoverished of Myanmar, also known as Burma, is usually done in tropical heat with little pay. I found this dock worker in Yangon having a smoke break from carrying 100-pound sacks of fertilizer out of the cargo hold of a riverboat. The face, the homemade cigarette, and the sweat all combined to make a beautiful environmental portrait. My thoughts for pictures like this one come down to one idea, "only show what you need to." Clean backgrounds, even, flattering light and reducing the visual elements down to as few distractions as possible, and I do that with a 135mm lens. Today I photograph with a mirrorless Fuji X pro-2 and carry only a few lenses. What I have found works best for me is to take two cameras, one with a 35mm and one with a 135mm. For me, no zooms. I use my feet to zoom in or out.
Across a dry rice paddy on the outskirts of Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Sept. 3, 1997, the bodies of the dead passengers lay strewn throughout the wreckage of Vietnam Airlines Flight 815 from Ho Chi Minh City. Seconds earlier, the pilot had failed to heed a warning from airport controllers to divert his landing. I was seated in the departure lounge of Thai Airways as the Tupolev Tu-134B made its final approach. I had been in Cambodia photographing the return of King Sihanouk and was on my way back to Bangkok when the crash occurred. At first, I heard the approaching jet and then watched as a waiting passenger killing time might do. I can't say with any certainty, but remember hearing the roar of jet engines taken to full power. There was something clearly wrong. The plane veered to the left. A split second later a fireball, a massive mushroom cloud of orange, red and black, filled the sky. Stunned onlookers shouted in Thai and Cambodian. I reached for my camera bag and while looking through plate glass windows, searched the tarmac for any emergency vehicles that might be going to the crash. Unlike now, international passengers in 1997 walked through a single door to the tarmac and then up a flight of portable stairs to their planes. The door was open with no security to stop me. As quickly as I could, I went out and hopped on the back of a rescue truck. The crash was the focus of the airport police.
I was an American dressed in black Levis and a black polo shirt. My Tony Lama cowboy boots were spit-shined to a high gloss. No one that day questioned me about why I was there. They just stepped aside as I and others headed to the crash scene. In less than three minutes, I was photographing the dead and dying at the scene. I have heard other photojournalists describe airplane crashes as "flying car accidents". But this was no auto wreck. This was a full-fledged "Bad JuJu" deal.
As it turned out, of the 65 crew members and passengers aboard the plane,
there was only one survivor, a 14-month-old boy -- Chanayuth Nim-anong -- from Thailand.
I had photographed the carnage of the Oklahoma City bombing two years earlier and was no stranger to seeing dead and dismembered people. I first heard about the rescue of Nim-anong as it was in progress. I first heard about the rescue of the boy while it was in progress. The noise of men screaming and quickly moving around the wreckage grabbed my attention. It was either a survivor or a suitcase full of money. I was soon racing across a paddy field to photograph the scene.
As if almost on cue, a Cambodian man reached into the tangled mess of damaged airline seats and personal luggage and pulled out what looked from a distance to be a doll. The man was yelling and holding his discovery over his head as if to say "Look at the treasure." It was then that I realized it was a baby and that a rival news photographer, a freelancer for the French AFP agency was already there photographing the unfolding drama. "SHIT, SHIT, SHIT." I needed to be there shooting the scene fast. I made it just in time to fire off three frames as the child was shoved into the hands of Cambodian paramedics. It was all too incredible. First, the crash: Second: the race to the site aboard an emergency vehicle: Third: A survivor and my competition ahead of me.
My head was spinning. My emotions were all over the map. I tried several times to light up a Marlboro Red only to have the rain snuff out the cigarette. My hands were shaking now. As I smoked, trying to calm myself, I watched villagers carry off pieces of the plane including large chunks of aluminum and wiring. In several areas, the wreckage was still burning. The villagers also were stealing watches, rings, and wallets from the dead bodies. I left the scene, my once-shiny boots covered in mud, sweat running down my back, and hailed a motorcycle taxi. In broken Cambodian and pointing the way, I hustled to Phnom Penh's only qualified photo lab. When you shoot for a news wire, speed is king. Often being the first to transmit one's photos meant success. As I walked into the shop, the freelancer was holding a processed roll of film up to the light to see what he had. He was looking for "the shot," but I could sense things were wrong. He was grumbling, muttering to himself as if he had done something stupid. The shop keeper handed a second finished roll to him. He held it to the light, too, and scanned the negatives. "SHIT!" he yelled as he turned and left the shop.
I'm not sure what happened, but heard later through the rumor mill that the freelancer had blown the exposures. In the following days, the competitive play check was mostly my photos. This day, this spot news event changed my life in an instant.
all photos/David Longstreath/Associated Press
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.