About Luc Forsyth
Luc Forsyth is a freelance photojournalist and writer who specializes in social and humanitarian storytelling. This is his blog, a place to share photography, writing and ideas.
You can contact Luc at firstname.lastname@example.org
Luc is a collaborating member of the Ruom Collective. Bringing together journalists, researchers, videographers, and photographers, the collective provides an opportunity to exchange and share information - providing multiple perspectives and more depth to long-term documentary projects.
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- Monks Begin Protest Marches Ahead of Human Rights Day December 5, 2013
- 5 Reasons to Set Aside Your Ego: The Benefits of Working Together December 3, 2013
- What Do Monks Eat For Breakfast? November 21, 2013
- Underwater Gold Miners in Southern Leyte November 14, 2013
- March of the Monks: Black and White November 12, 2013
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- @lynseyaddario on leaving your comfort zone. #photojournalism - http://t.co/75MfyDqt1M about 16 hours ago from TweetDeck in reply to lynseyaddario ReplyRetweetFavorite
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Category Archives: Blog
The 2013 International Human Rights Day on December 10th will mark one of the largest and most coordinated anti-government protests in Cambodian history. The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has been running a de facto one party state in the small Southeast Asian nation, and has an abysmal human rights record. But the tides of fortune seem to be turning on the region’s longest ruling strongman, with his Cambodian People’s Party losing 55 assembly seats in the 2013 national election – elections that were widely suspected of being rigged.
Multiple demonstrations will converge on Phnom Penh’s National Assembly building, including large groups of politically active Buddhist monks. Though monks participation in protests has been an emerging trend in Cambodia recently, the scale of the actions planned for December 10th will be the largest yet. Separate parties will travel down every major national highway, combining forces and joining similar protests from the main opposition party, and the garment workers union. The monks will be walking for roughly 10 days, spreading their social views to the villages they pass through.
These images are from just one group of monks, along only one of the marching routes. When they finally merge in the capital next week, their numbers will have swollen into the hundreds. Though everyone is hoping that the government will not react harshly in light of it being Human Rights Day, foreign journalists are stocking up on anti-teargas supplies and riot protection gear in anticipation of violence.
The Ruom Collective will be dispatching three photographers and three writers to cover various aspects of the events as they unfold, and we will be sharing them as the happen.
5 Benefits of Working Together
Not everyone is a jack-of-all-trades. Most people are lucky to become exceptionally good at even one thing in their lives, and the same is true of photographers and journalists. I’ve focused so much on creative output – the production of photography and writing – that I have avoided developing the business and marketing skills necessary to quickly grow my business (yes, journalism is a business). Don’t misunderstand; my brand is expanding steadily, but along the way I have missed out on opportunities that I should have seized had I been more administratively aware.
In contrast, Ruom co-founder Nicolas Axelrod is an adept businessman as well as being an outstanding photographer, but for Nick writing is laborious. Though he consumes written articles on a daily basis, pairing words with his images is a lengthy process for him. In an age where media outlets want completed stories that are delivered ready for publication, this could have been a significant disadvantage. The solution? Work together.
While the members of Ruom have skill sets that sometimes overlap, each person brings unique talents to the table. Thomas is highly proficient at online marketing and has a large social media presence. Marta comes from a human rights background, and is a resourceful researcher as well as being a specialist in gender issues. Rather than ignoring our weaknesses to the overall detriment of our strengths, by coming together we have been able to create multi-faceted stories that would not have been possible had we worked separately.
Ruom is a Khmer word meaning “together”, and the collective appropriately brings together multiple cultures as well as professional disciplines. A common pitfall of journalists working in foreign countries is the tendency to approach issues through the lens of their native culture. With members from Australia, Canada, Austria, England, Italy, France, Poland, and Cambodia, many sets of eyes scrutinize each article, photo essay, or feature.
Years ago when I first started producing documentary work, I would send out pleas for advice to big-name photojournalists whose work I respected. Typically I’d hear nothing back. Now, though I’m far from famous, I’m on the receiving end of these sorts of letters from passionate photography enthusiasts looking to turn their hobby into a career. After trying to respond thoughtfully to several of these messages, I realize why my emails had so often gone unanswered; there is no easy shortcut to success. Only after a determined and sustained effort of 60-hour weeks for almost two years did I see my first dime of profit.
Though there is no magic bullet solution, having your work critiqued by people whose professional opinion you respect can make a huge difference. Being told objectively the ways in which a project has fallen short is arguably the best way to make the next one better. But a professional portfolio review can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – money that cannot then be invested in producing stories. By working with others (ideally people more skilled or experienced than yourself), you can get this valuable feedback as you go – and hopefully for free.
Shared Risks and Pooled Resources
Whether visual or written, making independent journalism can be expensive. In 2012 I spent over $1000 chasing a story on rural life in a rapidly changing Myanmar, only to come down with dengue fever. Bedridden for 10 days, the groundbreaking reportage I had envisioned myself creating slipped away with each sweating hour, until my visa expired and I was forced to leave the country. After weeks of accommodation expenses, transportation costs, translator fees, and food expenditures I ended up with a handful of unfocused frames that didn’t come close to telling the story I had imagined.
These things happen. Sometimes the best-laid plans fall apart, or an arbitrary event can derail months of preparation. This is the nature of being a freelancer, and anyone who is independently funding journalism needs to be prepared for these inevitable failures. But by joining forces with people interested in the same issues as yourself, you can significantly offset the financial risks.
When Nick and Thomas first had the idea of documenting the Burmese anti-Muslim group “969”, there was little response to their requests for monetary backing from major media outlets. They were faced with the difficult choice of either paying for the whole thing themselves, or abandoning the project altogether. Since they felt that this story was important to tell, they decided to go for it. By also bringing French journalist and Ruom contributor Alexandre Marchand into the project, they were able to distribute the costs and finish a story that would have been financially unviable for one person. The end product, Inside the 969 Movement, is a fantastic example of investigative documentary journalism, and has become one of Ruom’s flagship features. And it wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t worked together.
A Lighter Workload
There is a limit to what one person can handle. The massive changes wrought on the media industry with the coming of social media services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have essentially turned the whole world into citizen journalists. And while this is a largely positive global phenomenon, ensuring that proper exposure is given to the issues and events that matter, it also means tough economic times for working professionals. Layoffs and cutbacks at even the largest news organizations make it harder than ever to get paid for your efforts. Gone are the days when one major publication could fund a series of personal projects. Photographers and writers are constantly walking a financial tightrope from one paying job to the next, yet pursuing stories that you feel are important to tell is vital in the development of a personal voice and style.
When I was starting out and didn’t yet count on photography and writing to pay my rent, I could afford to build stories at my own pace. If I needed an extra day or two of shooting to get the right image, or if I wanted to spend a week sitting in coffee shops getting a written article just right, I could do it. But now my time is more precious; I need hours every day to edit and create new content, to maintain an increasing number of social network profiles, and to respond to an ever-increasing number of emails from clients and colleagues – not to mention trying to maintain a semblance of a personal life.
Solitary journalists can easily burn themselves out trying to do everything alone. By teaming up with others, it becomes possible to accomplish much more in the same amount of time. For example: in advance of the international human rights day, hundreds of Buddhist monks are converging on Phnom Penh, simultaneously marching down each of the country’s national highways in a display of protest against the Cambodian government’s abysmal human rights record. Such a story involves a lot of travel and time in order to convey the size and scope of the demonstration. One person could get completely exhausted trying to move between so many different locations. A collective, however, can spread the work around and each member can contribute to the greater whole, when and where his or her schedule allows.
Many hands do indeed make light work.
A Sense of Community
One of the hardest things for me to deal with when I was traveling full time was the lack of a supportive community. I spent most of 2012 permanently on the road, moving from city to city, country to country, and every time I arrived in a new location I had to start all over again. In the beginning it was fun; hunting down fresh stories in exotic locations was the essence of why I decided to pursue a future in photojournalism. As time passed, however, and the list of cities visited lengthened, the wanderlust faded.
Planning and executing a photo story or long form written article on a specific subject is tiring work. From research to gaining access to shooting, and finally editing, the creative process is mentally (and quite often physically) demanding. A strong reportage takes me an average of three weeks to produce, and at the end of it I mainly just want to sit on the couch for a few days. But when you are effectively homeless, as I was for the better part of several years, there is no real rejuvenation period. I just moved on to the next city or country or story. I had very few people to show my work to, and fewer still who could give me structured feedback. Any sort of business organization was impossible for any number of reasons – power outages, absurdly slow Wi-Fi signals, broken equipment, or just plain exhaustion.
Since moving to Phnom Penh permanently, the job has not gotten any less tiring, but at least I have a bed of my own to come back to at the end of a long day (or week, or month). More importantly, I belong to a community of motivated professionals who are supportive when they need to be and critical when they need to be. They will tell me when I’ve done a good job, and perhaps more importantly when I’ve done a bad job. I can borrow a memory card or a spare battery in the middle of a street riot, and if there is an important event happening, someone will send me a text message so I don’t miss it.
In many ways, this has been far more important than any lens or camera body, and it is this sense of being part of something larger than myself that has kept me hungry to produce. Photographers and writers tend to be control freaks who want the final say in whatever they are making, but for those who can set aside their egos and accept external input, you might be surprised what you can accomplish if you work collectively.
Are you in a collective or group of creative professionals? Do you have any experience, good or bad, working with other people in your industry? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Post a comment below, or join me on Facebook or Twitter to continue the conversation.
It was after midnight, and the dirt path winding through the Cordomom Mountains was covered in fog, barely visible by the light of a waning moon. The path, which I had been following for more than eight hours, was heavily rutted and continuously snagged the toes of my boots as I dragged them along with exhausted legs. The night air, unusually cool for Cambodia, chilled my sweat and created a slimy clamminess that coated my neck and lower back. I wanted to do anything other than keep walking, but a stubborn pride – a trait fostered by my experiences as a tree planter in northern Canada – prevented me from accepting the numerous motorcycle rides I had been offered. The other foreign journalists were not so so pig-headed, and it had been over an hour since the last of them had driven past, looking relieved to be off their feet at last.
In desperation to reach Pra Lay, a small village in the Areng Valley, I was walking much too fast and had left most of the others behind – save one young Buddhist monk named Prim Houn. I could sense the same obstinate determination in him that I felt in myself, and so we walked together in silent solidarity. Every 15 minutes or so, he would comment “very far,” and I would either nod or grunt my agreement. For nearly two hours that was the extent of our conversation until Houn suddenly stopped in the middle of the path and reached into the pockets hidden deep within his saffron robes.
I expected him to produce a bottle of water, or maybe a pack of cigarettes (even monks have vices), but instead he brought out a white Samsung Galaxy tablet computer. Seeing a monk with a cell phone is nothing new, as anyone who has spent time in Southeast Asia can attest, but in the middle of the night, in a remote valley that most people have never heard of, it seemed very strange indeed. I knew we hadn’t been within range of a cell tower since before the sun had set – nearly six hours previously – and so I couldn’t imagine what he was planning to do with the device. After tapping at the screen for a few seconds, he extended his hands towards me, offering the tablet. A note-taking application was open, and he had typed a single word: Facebook?
This interaction started a thought that would linger well after I left the Areng Valley. What is it like to be a monk in the 21st Century? What is their relationship to technology? What do they actually do?
In my mind, monks had always seemed like objects of exotic otherness rather than real people. Seeing them in the streets of Yangon or Bangkok they represented a National Geographic version of Asia, and I felt like they belonged more on postcards than on the back of a motorcycle. Any photos I had taken of usually featured them silhouetted against a glowing sunset, or walking stoically through the gates of a pagoda, orange umbrellas over their shoulders. My interpersonal exposure was so limited that I had never thought of them doing anything other than collecting alms or reciting the dharma.
After meeting Prim Houn and his fellow monks, the questions I had were not about their quest for enlightenment or the humble value of an ascetic life. I didn’t particularly want to know how I could implement Buddhist philosophies into my own western lifestyle, but instead I was curious about the mundane – what were their favourite movies? Did they have a twitter account? If so, why? How did they get money to buy a cutting edge touchscreen tablet?
Since getting back from the protest in the Areng Valley, I’ve followed up on these questions. In fact I’ve spent almost every afternoon since in a pagoda, querying them on topics as far ranging as Duck Dynasty, the NFL, and sex. Over the coming weeks and months I plan on spending most of my free time trying to discover the real nature of a monk’s life in modern society, and I think the answers will be as interesting to you as they are to me.
Want to know something about the real life of a Buddhist monk? Chances are that the things you would like to know would also be of interest to me, so comment below, join me on social media, or email me directly with your questions and I’ll put them to my new friends.
I spent a month in Leyte last year while working on a story about independent (illegal) gold miners in the Philippines. When I heard about the magnitude of typhoon Haiyan, and that it had devastated Leyte’s largest city, Tacloban, I immediately thought of these guys.
I recently heard from a friend who used to live on Leyte, and still kept in contact with some of her old friends. Many have lost their families, and I fear the worst for the gold miners I met.
Working along the gold rich coasts of the island, these miners spend up to 10 hours a day dredging the sea floor for ore using only their hands and empty rice bags. They make their own goggles from coconuts and polished glass bottles, and most wear only flip flops as diving shoes. Their air comes through thin plastic tubes which is pumped from a small compressor on shore. Any tangle or kink in the lines would mean drowning.
The gold they find is extracted from the ore at handmade washing stations along the beach, and then sold to small-scale local buyers. From here the gold leaves the island and is taken to larger buyers who smelt the gold into disks or bricks of pure gold before shipping the product to the gold markets of Manila. For their part in the operation the divers will see very little of the profit, and despite finding gold nearly every day, are only just able to support their families on what they make.
As much as I would like to hope, I think it would be naive to imagine none of these people have been affected by the Haiyan disaster. These people had a rough life to begin with, and it has gotten much, much harder. They were extremely welcoming to me, and once things settle down I plan to make a trip to see what their situation is and how I can help.
I used to love black and white photography. The stark images from people like Don McCullin and James Nachtwey, were some of the reasons I was drawn to photojournalism in the first place. When I first started taking pictures more seriously, the first step in my post-production workflow was to immediately convert them to black and white. But when I tried to switch to colour photography during those years, I found that all my images looked washed out and bland.
So a few years ago I needed to remedy the situation and started shooting exclusively in colour. In the last year and a half the number of black and white’s I’ve made is in the single digits, which is a shame since it was the format that I originally fell in love with.
In an effort to try and recapture what I used to love about black and white, I decided to make a second edit of my Marching Monks story. It might be an odd choice for a return to monochrome, since the saffron-clad monks are so iconically colourful, but it really changes up the feeling of the story.
I’ve held off on showing the full story, in colour, because my written account of the protesting monks has been picked up by a large media organization (which will remain unnamed until I’m completely sure they will publish it!).
I’d be very interested to hear what people think about the strengths and weaknesses of black and white vs colour, so if you think that one is better than the other, I’d love to know why. Post a comment at the end of this post, on Twitter or Facebook, or email me directly to get a dialogue going about which one works best.
My friend and fellow Phnom Penh photojournalist, Thomas Cristofoletti, called me a week ago and asked nonchalantly if I wanted to go walk into the jungle with a group of forty monks. Truth be told, I really didn’t have any idea what he was talking about – but it seemed like a fantastic proposition nevertheless. It’s the first time I’ve been asked that question anyways, and I wouldn’t have been able to respect myself had I said no.
Several days later, when I was crossing rivers in the black of night, it seemed less fantastic.
The monks, working in partnership with several non-profit organizations, were heading to the remote Arang valley in western Cambodia in order to raise awareness about the dangers of deforestation. The only way to get to the village of Pra Lay, where the bulk of the monk’s demonstration was scheduled to take place, was along a winding dirt path of unknown distance.
In the beginning we were under the impression the walk would be about 16km, which is, though strenuous on an uneven jungle road, very manageable. Halfway through the walk, rumours began to circulate that the actual length of the trail was over 30km. In the end, the most agreed upon number seemed to be around 25km, but that element of not knowing how much longer made things all the more tiring when we were still walking at midnight.
I was wearing tough leather boots, while the monks wore battered leather or rubber sandals. Add to that the fact that Buddhist monks do not eat anything after 12 p.m., and so had been walking for more than eight hours on empty stomachs. Together with a young monk, Prim Huon, I was the first to arrive on foot at 1.33 a.m; many of the older monks who had fallen behind didn’t straggle in until around 4.
Since I haven’t finished the editing yet and have spent most of the day slogging through audio transcriptions of the interviews I conducted, I’m just going to share a handful of images as a preview. The rest of the story will be ready by early next week.
This is one of the first cases where monks have come together in a large group to protest environmental destruction, and I look forward to sharing it more fully.
The first in depth photo project I did in Cambodia was focused on the forced eviction of the Borei Keila community. A year later, the situation barely seems to have changed. The residents of Borei Keila are still waiting on adequate compensation from either the government or the land development corporation, and it doesn’t seem like either entity has made the issue a top priority.
In an attempt to force a resolution to the situation, the residents turned to one of the only weapons at their disposal: public protest.
Marches and rallies have becoming increasingly popular in Phnom Penh, and the ubiquity of smartphone-toting citizen journalists suggests that Cambodians are taking cues from the Arab Spring uprisings.
On October 30th, the residents of Borei Keila met at 8.30 in the morning to began their march. But before they had set out from their community, the police had established the first of many road blocks the day would see.
With this initial obstacle overcome, the protestors marched out of Borei Keila and towards the Peace Palace – the ironically named building which houses the offices of the top government officials.
It only stands to reason that a violent reaction from the officers would bring much needed international attention to the Borei Keila cause , and so for nearly an hour they pushed, jostled, and attempted to generally provoke the police as they shouted their message.
Though the regular police forces acted with relative restraint, when the protestors left the Peace Palace and blocked traffic on Monivong Boulevard near City Hall, more aggressive blue-clad security officers moved into the fray and seized an unidentified man from the crowd. Neither Cambodian nor foreign journalists were able to learn why this man was targeted; rumours circulated that they had actually been after a journalist and had taken the wrong person.
Rumours aside, the man wan dragged inside the walled City Hall compound and allegedly beaten. In response, the protestors rushed the gates and threw food and debris over the fence, but the fate of the man was unclear.
In the face of this violence, the marchers returned to Borei Keila to plan their next move, postponing plans to occupy a building being built by the same land developer responsible for their evictions years before.
The issue of land grabbing and forced evictions in Cambodia is ongoing, and this protest was just one event in what will surely be an ongoing campaign.
It was while I was living in a tent in northern Alberta, working on a four month project about Canadian tree planters, that I made the decision to move to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’d visited the Kingdom of Cambodia several times in the past, most recently last October when I stayed for a month to document the aftermath and consequences of the forced evictions in the community of Borei Keila. To avoid spouting off cliches about the friendly people or vibrancy of life, I’ll just say this: it is an impossible place to forget. When it came time to move on from Canada’s northern forests, Phnom Penh was the first city that came to mind. Often exciting, sometimes sad, and nearly always interesting, Cambodia was a natural choice.
But the city that I left in 2012 is not the same one that I find myself in now. In a relatively short period of time, Cambodia has undergone some dramatic political changes, ones I couldn’t have imagined a year earlier. The Kingdom I left was a virtual dictatorship, with President Hun Sen and his questionable human rights record having held onto power for 27 years. The leader of the official opposition party, Sam Rainsy, had been living in exile in France since 2005, and it seemed as though Cambodians were unlikely to have much say in how their nation was governed. Several protests I attended, aimed at calling international attention to the issues of land grabbing and forced evictions, were met with harsh police crackdowns – road blocks and riot shields were the norm, not the exception.
The city I find myself in now, however, is charged with political energy. Sam Rainsy has returned from exile and is at the head of mass rallies with thousands of supporters marching through the streets. Citizens and monks alike wear the orange band of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, something that seemed unimaginable a year earlier.
It should be noted that Rainsy and CNRP is by no means a magic-bullet solution to Cambodia’s numerous social problems, and is not necessarily a better prospective leader. And Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party has no intention of relinquishing power meekly – as demonstrated by the deadly shooting of a protestor by government forces last month. The ruling party is still very much in control of the nation. The recent changes in Cambodia’s political climate are by no means decisive, and there will certainly be countless bumps along the road to democratization. But the fact that there are changes of any sort after nearly three decades of stagnation is a feat in and of itself.
Neither Cambodians nor foreign journalists have a clear idea of what the future will hold for the country, but it is, without a doubt, an interesting time to live in the Kingdom.