Afghanistan

Like an ache that’s been with you so long that you only remember it, when its suddenly gone. I became aware this weekend that the U.S. had, overnight, almost completely ended its participation in a war that had been grinding on for nearly 20 years. I had a couple of lengthy stays in Afghanistan years ago and really came to admire the people (well the men anyway. I never got to meet any women). As tough and straightforward as you will ever find, with the unequaled and endearing talent of turning a fierce stare into a slightly goofy smile when you raised your camera. Parts of the mountainous terrain reminded me of Idaho, one of the places where I grew up. I’m not a historical scholar of the place, or any kind of expert but I have a real fondness for the people and the place which left a big impression on me. So, I felt moved by the news to remember a bit of the time I spent there.

Its a bit surprising to realize that a country can exist without a national army, especially a country as steeped in violence as Afghanistan is; but at the start of the U.S. invasion of the country, Afghanistan had only a collection of opposing armed groups led by regional “Warlords”. So the creation of a national army controlled by the national government was a big deal in the early 2000’s. In one of my visits, I spent some time documenting one of the new Afghan National Army’s first Kandaks (a battalion size unit) to be trained by the U.S. military.

Some of these guys are probably officers now. I hope they are up to their new jobs.

If you’re interested in Afghanistan (not a history of its wars) I really enjoyed the excellent “An Unexpected Light” by Jason Elliot

Chasing the Second Hand

Covid Time – 2020-2021

I’ve had this odd feeling that time has had an inconsistent quality during this age of COVID. Passing, but leaving little if any evidence of change on the day-to-day scale. Another quiet day, another quiet hour, another zoom, another meal, another walk with the dogs. Yet on a scale outside of our normal awareness, time is not passing but hurtling. A force, pushing ahead of it enormous, jaw dropping change. In the year that’s passed we forgot, but relearned that social relations have a physical component that cannot be ignored. We saw that although many of us could weather an unproductive year, even more exist who cannot pause if they wish to eat. How will this year-long hibernation affect us all in the end? It has happened on a scale that we cannot easily see.

Which brings me to something which gave me a similar feeling… the slow motion disaster. There is a place along the North coast of Central Java where the land is sinking into the sea at the astonishing rate of 8-10 cm (3-4 inches) per year. People living in homes close to the beach became people living in homes in the surf.

Did this man imagine 8 years ago that he would be shoring up his house every night with sandbags and with doors and windows nailed shut against the waves. I don’t believe that he did.

He was likely concerned, as we all are with what was happening right then, that minute, the immediate things. But just at the edge of perception, the full moon high tide gets a bit closer, the sound of the waves suddenly seems louder now. But, he must hurry back to the immediate, a child is sick, there’s a wedding in the village, the jasmine needs to be harvested. This is the level that most of us are attuned to. Chasing the second hand around the clock, attending to the changes which happen from moment to moment. But there is also an hour hand, which sweeps just as relentlessly, but whose movement we cannot clearly see.

Annnnnd I’m back

Its been a while since I wrote anything here. I got a bit distracted by the stampede to social media. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter … they’re all fun, and they certainly have reach, but all-in-all I think its a bit confining to adapt your ideas to a template built for speed and not contemplation. I miss context, and purposeful ambiguity, and surprises. All of which seem to have become a bit scarce. So, “here we are now, entertain us”:

No Place Like Home – Bukit Duri

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(Click image for large view)

Though its hard to see it among the sprawl, Jakarta is a delta city, built on the low flat floodplains of the Ciliwung and numerous smaller rivers flowing down from the mountains south of the city.  Among the sprawl and smack in the middle of this floodplain sits Bukit Duri, a neighborhood bounded, and sometimes submerged by the Ciliwung river.  Its a lively place with an active community center, small businesses, and neighbors from all walks of life who enjoy their shared community.  The homes here are a mix of solid brick homes with brightly painted walls; and makeshift housing with little or no furniture and thin plywood walls.  Its a neighborhood like many others along Jakarta’s rivers.  The position of these neighborhoods hard by the banks of the Ciliwung makes them prone to massive flooding during the rainy season which in turn causes flooding in the rest of the city.  Because of annual massive flooding, the Jakarta government has decided to clean up the city’s chaotic infrastructure along the riverways and other parts of the city’s jumble of informal housing.  And this has meant that the residents of places like Bukit Duri who have been paying rent, paying electricity bills for decades face a very unfair situation.  The government’s argument that these neighborhoods along the riverways are just makeshift squatter camps is belied by the fact that they are officially connected to the city’s power grid, and that many of the residents can show documentation of their rental payments or even ownership of their homes.  And yet, the heart of this lively community has been gutted. Excavators and police descended on Bukit Duri and demolished the riverbank housing there, after forcing residents to move to low cost housing in an area far north of  their former neighborhood. Small businesses and services will have to somehow rebuild in the apartment complex; no easy task if your business is raising chickens or cooking street food for your open air stall.  Its clear that the government must do something to improve aging and disorderly infrastructure, and though they are improving the way they evict these riverfront communities, the result is still heartbreaking – to watch the home which provided you shelter and comfort for your entire life disappear instantly in the roar of an engine and a puff of smoke is a terrible thing.

Indonesian Coal Country

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(click the image for larger view)

Indonesa’s coal heartland in Eastern Kalimantan was a hub of big money activity during the global commodities boom of the first decade of the 2000’s driven largely by coal and palm oil output.  Big housing projects, glitzy malls, even an amusement park were built during the heyday as coal continually reached new highs over the decade.  But as the boom came to an end, the region has experienced a huge loss of employment and many of the plans made when prices were reaching their peak have been put on hold or have been made obsolete by the new economic dictates of an era of sharply lower commodities prices. I travelled there to see the contours of a place shaped by asset bubble dynamics.

Disco Kitty

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I really enjoyed this.  I was shooting a brothel area in East Kalimantan and trying to negotiate how much the women working in the brothel would allow me to photograph when their pet cat crossed the floor of the bar leading to the brothel area

Burmese Slave Fishermen

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These are Burmese fishermen, the last dozen or so of the thousands who were enslaved by unscrupulous Thai fishing boat owners and forced to work 18-20 hours a day for a promised monthly pay that they never saw.  Fear and intimidation by crew supervisors kept them working and from running away. Beatings with iron bars or stingray tails, burns with scalding motor oil, and in some extreme cases, murder were witnessed or experienced first hand by most of these men.  In 2015 an investigation by The Associated Press, led Indonesia, in whose waters most of the slavery was happening to halt commercial fishing activities.  Hundreds of commercial fishing boats anchored in ports around Eastern Indonesia and there the scale of the slave trade was revealed. Thousands of men poured off the boats with horrific tales which thanks to the Indonesian government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the AP can now no longer be ignored.

I met these men while working with IOM which has been helping the Indonesian government care for the fishermen while they are waiting for government forced negotiations over their pay to conclude. But many of their colleagues left without any pay at all because they simply wanted to go home, and those that waited often had to accept a mere pittance for their years at sea.

There’s No Place Like Home

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click image for the full gallery

For 30-40 dollars a month Sunita rents a small dark and airless room crammed in amongst dozens of others underneath a highway bridge in central Jakarta.  Many of her neighbors have been living there for nearly 10 years, and many work for the city government as street sweepers.  Several months ago they were told that they would have to leave, though most cannot afford the 70-80 dollars/month or more it would cost for a small and cheap but legitimate apartment.  Just a few days ago all of the residents under the bridge were evicted and their makeshift housing destroyed.  It’s a never ending struggle. Thousands of impoverished Indonesians come to the capital every year to find opportunities that don’t exist in their home towns where farming is generally the only way to scratch out a living.  But, Jakarta itself isn’t prepared for the onslaught and arrivals from the country often have to make do with whatever shelter they can scrounge up in unused public spaces alongside railroads and rivers and under bridges. The clash between the need to clean up Jakarta’s perennially flooded infrastructure and the shortage of low cost housing results in those with the least resources getting shuttled from one inadequate housing situation to another.

The Tenggerese

 

Click an image for the gallery view

I grew up in a mountain area and so have always loved mountains. The quiet, the cold, the solitude, being so close to the clouds has always left me feeling good, so I was really glad to have taken a quick trip to the Bromo volcano and come across the Tenggerese people who live there, up among the cloud banks coming up from the valley and the sulphurous smoke from the Bromo volcano in East Java.  They are living history,  the remaining descendants of the once wealthy and influential  Majapahit kingdom.  It was the last Indonesian Hindu-Buddhist Kingdom before the rise of the Muslim Sultanates which pushed the Majapahit East from Central Java in the 15th century, the majority of the royal court, courtiers, artists fleeing to Bali.

 

Sinabung Volcano

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I love watching volcanos.  Its a wonder to see the earth remake itself, a process that is continual though rarely this dramatic or dangerous.  As beautiful as the sight is, eruptions are terribly dangerous and disruptive to the lives of thousands who live on the shoulders of volcanos.  In this case, it is the Sinabung volcano in Karo, North Sumatra, Indonesia.  It had been quietly sleeping in Karo since 1600, coming to life again in 2013 when it began its current eruption cycle.  16 people were killed in 2014 and as I write, thousands are living away from their homes in refugee centers and are unable to properly tend their crops.  I hadn’t yet had a chance to come and see this volcano having been busy with other projects and assignments, but made some time to watch it erupting until last week.  I just caught the tail end of an active cycle and made just one frame the night before I left.  I hope to make it back when it becomes more active again.