Nepal - One Year after the Earthquake

According to the Nepalese calendar, today is the one year anniversary of the earthquake which killed 9,000 people and left many tens of thousands homeless.

I was in Nepal a few days after April 25th, 2015; I've returned several times since and am back again to see how rebuilding work is progressing. I've worked for several agencies and NGOs in the past year, including Getty, Splash, Global Giving, Charity:Water and others. All the NGOs I've worked for are doing impressive work in the region and I'm proud to be helping them share their stories.

Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur, a city about an hour from Kathmandu, was one of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to several ancient temples, some of which were destroyed. Many homes in the city were old and vulnerable and were either destroyed or left in a state too precarious for habitation. Many homeless families have left the city to live with friends or family and those who have stayed are living in temporary shelters. The word "temporary" in that last sentence has an elastic definition.

Where home owners and neighbours were sifting through the rubble last year, searching for survivors and trying to salvage possessions, in 2016 the same sites are being slowly prepared by hand. These workers are employed and paid between 500 and 1,000 rupees (just under US$5-$10) per day.

In these before & after photographs, it's possible to see how the debris and rubble have been cleared away from the pavements and some buildings have been torn down. Many of those that remain are still unsafe and those that were flattened have yet to be rebuilt.

Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Kathmandu's Durbar Square is another UNESCO World Heritage site and probably the most famous site in Nepal. Several ancient temples were destroyed or badly damaged. Repairing and rebuilding such unique structures must require careful planning and well-managed execution if the integrity of the architecture is to be maintained. However, one group of students I spoke with blamed the Nepalese Government for not distributing the funds required in a more timely fashion. "We are embarrassed for Nepal", said one student. Fellow students nodded in agreement as she continued, "This is our culture and our heritage. How can it be left like this? Why are our politicians not ashamed?".

The Kumari House, one of Kathmandu's most sacred buildings and high on the list of 'must see' tourist destinations has reopened. The debris has been cleared away, the pavements are open to pedestrians and the facade is now supported with wooden beams.

Sundari

There is evidence of rebuilding in a small minority of homes. Here in Bhaktapur, Sundari carries bricks into a building and prepares cement for the bricklayer. It doesn't look like easy work. Mixing cement by hand is an arduous task. Women typically receive 500 rupees per day for labouring work. Men receive 1,000 rupees, on average. There is no obvious division of labour, other than women seem to do most of the lifting. When asked why women get paid less - or why men get paid more - the answer was invariably a shrug of the shoulders and a variation on "Because that's the way it is".

Sundari

Sundari

Women making a difference

It seems to this reporter that it's typically women who do much of the building work whilst also keeping their communities together. Whether it's people like Sundari, carrying bricks and mixing cement, her colleagues (pictured below) carrying hods of bricks and ballast or women like Sukla Laxmi and her friends. Mothers and grandmothers, all have been left homeless yet all seem to have succeeded in keeping their families together. Sukla is typical of may of the Nepalese women I meet in the temporary shelters and camps. She's kind of bossy but laughs a lot.

Sukla Laxmi

Sukla Laxmi

"You take my picture here" she tells me. I do as I am told.

"Now wait here, I'll get my friends". I don't mind being bossed around because she's laughing all the time. It just seems funny to me and to those standing nearby.

"OK. Take our picture here." she tells me.

"Well, the light is better here." I suggest. She squints at me, weighing me up, calculating whether I look like I know what I'm talking about.

"Hmm, OK." She relents but is quick to check my work.

"Why did you cut off our legs?" she demands.

"So we can see your beautiful faces more closely" I counter.

She doubles over in laughter, we all take our cue from her and our laughter echoes between the corrugated iron shelters.

"You are too funny" she tells me. From her, it's a compliment I'm delighted to accept.

Sarmila, Rasmila and Samir

I show the women my phone and a photo of a girl I photographed at the same location in 2015. Sarmila was playing at her grandparents' home when the earthquake struck at four minutes to midday. The home was destroyed. Miraculously, Sarmila and her grandparents survived and when I met them, they were painstakingly sifting through the piles of rubble that once formed the family home.

"Sarmila is away", they tell me. "But we will call her'. They take a note of my phone number and promise to call me. It seems like a long shot so I say my goodbyes and head off, not really expecting to hear any more.

A few hours later, my phone rings. Sarmila is on the other end of the line.

"I am home now" she says. "Are you coming to see us?"

Twenty minutes later, I'm back at the camp and Sarmila, now fourteen, her older sister Rasmila (17) and their entertainingly cheeky brother Samir (12) are waiting.

I spent some time with Sarmila and her friends in 2015. I think they were pleased to have an excuse to focus on childish things for an hour or two. I don't tend to offer much in the way of maturity and relish the opportunity to lark around with the other children. It's hard to imagine having to take on the very grown up responsibilities of salvaging belongings from a wrecked home, fetching water several times each day from the communal tap and caring for younger children in the camp when you're barely even a teenager yourself.

I was pleased to see Sarmila looking much less tired than she did a year before. A happy, carefree childhood is a precious thing and something of a rarity in Sarmila's community.

The kids insist that I follow them through the maze of alleyways to their parents' home. Although it was not destroyed in the earthquake, it shows signs of disturbance. The walls are cracked and the narrow, wooden stairs are leaning at an alarming angle. I'm not confident that they will bear the weight of a lumbering photographer (it's the cameras and lenses that weigh so much!) so I step gingerly up each staircase, worrying that I might fall through at any moment.

On the fourth floor, I meet the kids' parents, who invite me to sit and share a drink. Cheeky Samir remembers using my cameras last year and is keen to continue his photographic career. He shoots these portraits of his mother, sister and me, which, I have to say, are really impressive.

We talk about the earthquake, about their grandparents, about school, about life in Nepal, about other countries, about the quality of light for portraits and all the while I'm trying to figure out whether the kids might adopt me if I ask them nicely.

Samir helps me shoot a quick portrait of each of his sisters and poses for a final portrait himself before I realise that the light is fading and I still have to get back to Kathmandu. The stairs squeal but hold up as I descend. Samir leads me back through the alleyways to Bhaktapur's Durbar Square where we have time for an ice lolly before I have to head on.

Laxmi and Shambridi

Soon after saying goodbye to Samir, I meet Laxmi and her daughter Shambridi sitting outside a tent. Laxmi explains that her daughter was less than four weeks old when the earthquake struck. They've lived in the tent outside their broken home ever since. The upper floors of the building collapsed. Fortunately, at midday, Laxmi and Shambridi were downstairs. Had the earthquake struck at another time of day, they might not have been so fortunate. This is a story I've heard many times from people who were outside because it was lunch time on a Saturday. On a weekday, kids would have been in their classrooms. Families might have been asleep in upper storey rooms if the earthquake had come at night. The number of fatalities might have been so much higher and families might not be so fortunate should another event strike.

Having homes built to a reasonable standard in a region prone to seismic activity would seem like the very least residents could expect but, sadly, in Nepal, that's unlikely to be the case. I spoke with a structural engineer who explained that most Nepalese homes are vulnerable to earthquakes. "They're built with brick", he explained, "but the cement is not strong and there's very little reinforcement. It's essentially like living inside a giant Jenga building where any sizeable vibration is likely to see the structure topple".

I'm remembering his words as I photograph little Shambridi. It's hard to think that she might actually be safer in a tent.

Nepal Red Cross Society

In Durbar Square, the Nepal Red Cross Society have set up a mobile kiosk and are distributing information leaflets. The leaflets advise how to pack an emergency bag to be used in the event of another earthquake. Experts suggest that last year's earthquake was probably not the "big one" and that a larger event is almost certain to strike the region in the future. It's a sobering prospect.

It also strikes me that this is the only evidence I've seen of an NGO working in the area. I know that there are many projects working tirelessly in Nepal and that without their aid and support, lives would be considerably more challenging. However, with such a large area to cover, any aid is inevitably spread thin. The leaflets are welcome and could very well save lives. I just wish there was greater evidence of support for those who have already struggled through one winter and who seem destined to struggle through more before their homes are rebuilt.

Anniversary Memorial Ceremonies

Back in Kathmandu, preparations are underway for ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the earthquake. One group is offering to paint faces with a likeness of the Dharahara Tower. Once a landmark in central Kathmandu, the Dharahara Tower collapsed during the earthquake, killing 180 people. The tower has become a symbol of Nepal's hope for renewal.

Students from a group called the Youth Initiative are staging a performance art piece. Passersby are invited to play out scenes from their own experience during the earthquake, forming graphic silhouettes on a white sheet. The audience view the impromptu performance from the other side. As the students explain, the sheet symbolises what they see as a narrow but definite divide between the earthquake victims and the Government. It's a metaphor that they're keen to expand upon.

"The Government have not helped. They have received so much aid from the international community but they spend all their time making up fake projects and the money will disappear unless the people speak up and demand action."

It's a common theme in my discussion with people in Kathmandu. I've yet to hear one voice in support of the Government. It seems that everybody I've spoken to, no matter whether they were significantly affected by the earthquake or not, feels that the Government have let the people down. It's been widely reported that pledges amounting to US$4.1 billion have been made yet the Government has so far failed to distribute even a fraction of those funds. The suspicion seems to be that corruption will dilute those funds and a few will get rich whilst those most in need will continue to struggle.

As various groups begin to place candles, a man carrying the Nepalese flag crosses Durbar Square.

At 6:30pm, as the sun disappears below the horizon, volunteers begin to light 9,000 candles in the shape of Dharahara Tower. The words read "We Will Rise", a mantra that you'll see and hear whenever people in Nepal speak about the earthquake.

On the other side of the square, the bamboo scaffolding provides a stark reminder of the work still to be done.

Each of the 9,000 candles represents a life lost to the earthquake.

 
 

As the daylight fades, children keep the candles alight.

Evangeli - hope for the future?

I meet the parents of four year-old Evangeli, who is entertaining herself by lighting candles and shielding them from the gentle breeze that's crossing the square.

She looks up, gazes directly into the camera but continues to protect the candle on the ground in front of her. I make a couple of frames. She is so intent on keeping that flame alive. Perhaps when she's older, Evangeli will become a politician and be just as protective about the people she represents. Let's hope that day comes soon. The people of Nepal deserve better protection than they appear to be getting right now.

Support

If you're wondering how you might support the people of Nepal, there are many aid agencies working in the region. Personally, I'm involved with some groups who I know make a real difference with practical, straightforward solutions to pervasive problems. I recommend that you look at the work being done by Global Giving, Charity:Water and, my personal favourite, Splash. I've seen first-hand how these organisation can make a very real difference.

A Request

I'm keen for the plight of Nepal's population to reach a wide audience. It seems that in our increasingly curtailed news cycles, stories such as the Nepal earthquake have a short shelf life and it can be a challenge to cut through the noise of celebrity gossip. My images only have any value when they're seen so please consider sharing this post with your social media friends and followers and perhaps we can make Nepal's flame burn a little brighter. Thank you.

BenQ SW2700PT 27 inch Adobe RGB Colour Management Monitor for Photographers

Photographers. We're a picky bunch. Over time, we've probably all developed a fondness for those trusted tools which serve us well. Those tools which prove themselves to be both functional and dependable become a valued part of our working lives. I've certainly fine-tuned my gear over the years, holding on to those things which help get the job done and parting company with tools that don't deliver.

Gear can't make good images alone, of course. Photographers are fully responsible for that. But when we agree a contract with a client, we're staking our reputation not only on our talent and experience but also on the gear that we've chosen to use. You could try taking photos without relying on camera gear but I think you'll find that's called sketching.

One of my favourite pieces of post-production gear was a large Apple Cinema display that I bought in 2008. That model was, sadly, discontinued soon after. I must have processed many tens of thousands of images using that monitor, which was one of the last anti-glare models that Apple made.

I fail to understand what the appeal of glossy screens is. I have a mirror in my bathroom and another in the hallway. I find that's sufficient for all my reflective needs. New Apple monitors are so glossy they're all but useless in anything other than a darkened room. I have a 27" Apple Cinema display and had to buy black shirts for processing because the reflection of anything brighter was a constant distraction. Seriously!

It was with some delight, therefore, that I welcomed an enquiry from BenQ, makers of a new "Colour Management Monitor for Photographers" asking if I'd like to test their SW2700PT display.

"Is it glossy?", I asked.

"Glossy? Why would it be glossy?"

"I don't know. Most monitors are glossy these days."

"Of course it's not glossy. If it were glossy you'd see a lot of reflections and that would make it difficult to process your photos accurately."

"I KNOW!"

"It has a 99% Adobe RGB wide colour space."

"OK. Great. But it's not glossy?"

"No. Not at all glossy."

"When can you get it here?"

"We're sending it now."

And, duly, the SW2700SPT arrived, was unpacked, carefully calibrated and I've been gazing at it in silent admiration ever since.

In the interests of full disclosure, I haven't purchased the monitor, the ruggedly handsome people at BenQ sent it for me to test on the understanding that I'd write a review but, as is always the case when I accept what might accurately be described as 'hardware inducements', I make it clear that I'll write something if I really like the product and won't write anything if I think it's a dog. The fact that you're reading this will tell you that the BenQ SW2700PT is not a dog. It is, in fact, a cool cat.

If you'd like to know more about the technical whatnots of the monitor, you'll find an overview here, technical specs here and excellent case studies here, here, and here.

I will get to the technical whatnots in a moment but, first, can I share these two images with you? This is exactly what I see on my office desk and why, for me, the BenQ monitor has been a very welcome addition to my list of trusted and valued gear.

Non-Reflective

On the left... no, not a mirror, but my 27" Apple Thunderbolt display. On the right, my 27" BenQ SW2700PT. Taken in identical light, moments apart, on an overcast day with light curtains across the windows in my office with both monitors displaying a mid-grey background. A typical office setting, in other words.

That glossy, reflected image would be my starting point if I were processing on the Apple monitor on the left. Well, not strictly true as I would change into one of my black "Processing Shirts", draw the curtains and remove the picture hanging on the wall behind me but I don't think it should be necessary to undergo a complete wardrobe change and feng shui session in order to start work.

Shading Hood

The BenQ comes with a detachable, light-absorbing hood, which prevents stray light from hitting the screen and has allowed me to reacquaint myself with daylight. Darkened processing sessions are a thing of the past. The hood has a canny gate at the top, allowing a calibration device to be dropped onto the screen below, which introduces the real benefit of the SW2700PT, beyond it's non-reflective screen.

Colour Management

As digital photographers, I would say that our work is only 50% complete when we press the shutter release and make a photo. Years ago, when I was shooting Fuji Velvia and Kodachrome slide film, I'd be 95% done when I clicked the shutter. All that remained was printing neat captions on labels to fix to the slide mounts. Things have certainly changed. With the immediacy and flexibility of digital photography comes a considerable extra workload. Those RAW files are going to require careful management before they're ready to send out into the world. When I calculate assignment budgets, I reckon on a 1:1 ratio of shooting/processing. For every day I spend on assignment, I'll expect to spend another day processing.

I think we need to adjust our expectations about where we expect to allocate resources when shooting digital. As well as the 1:1 shooting/processing ratio; for every pound, euro or dollar I spend on camera gear, I pretty much expect to spend another on post-production hardware and software.

Which brings me to the technical whatnots and the thorny issue of colour management. I warn you, there will be charts and acronyms ahead.

When you shoot a RAW file, your camera captures a really wide gamut of colours. When you view that image in Lightroom, for example, you'll see an interpretation of that colour data presented in the ProPhoto colour space.

In this diagram, you can see the curved horseshoe shape indicating colours visible to the human eye. The digital ProPhoto colour space is the nearest colour gamut to that.

Yielding a smaller colour gamut, the Adobe RGB colour space is the one most commonly associated with printing. Printers aren't capable of fully realising the wider ProPhoto space. What does that mean in practice? It means that when you print a photo, you're potentially going to lose some of the colours recorded in your image file.

Smaller still is the sRGB colour space. This space is most commonly associated with computer displays. It's significantly smaller than AdobeRGB and a great deal smaller than ProPhoto. What does that mean? It means that when you view a digital image on an sRGB screen, you won't see all of the colours available in the file's data.

These differences are further complicated by the hardware you're using. Dedicated monitors typically display a wider range of tones and have better black, white, grey and saturation accuracy than laptop displays. Smaller displays yield less accuracy than larger displays, generally. So a 12" MacBook Pro doesn't display colours and tones quite as accurately as a 13" MacBook Pro, which, in turn, is less accurate than a 15" MacBook Pro.

In practice? It means that you really wouldn't want to be doing any critical processing work on a laptop screen. More than that, it means it's virtually impossible to accurately process files for printing on an sRGB monitor.

Most displays, including my disturbingly glossy Apple monitor, display a reasonably accurate version of the sRGB colour space. Until recently, you will have needed to invest a substantial amount of money to own a monitor capable of displaying the wider AdobeRGB space. Chances are, you're looking at an sRGB monitor right now, which means that I can't share the main benefit of the BenQ SW2700PT with you, which is that it's capable of displaying 99% of the wider Adobe RGB colour space.

I made the simulation below by changing colour profiles for the balloon image, just to give an idea of what can happen when colour spaces change. In the sRGB simulation, colours may look more saturated but you'll see blocks of solid colour with little variation, especially in the oranges, reds and purples. In the AdobeRGB simulation, you'll see a more accurate, wider range of hues with a more nuanced gradation across the tones.

 
 

OSD Controller

The BenQ monitor comes with an OSD controller. At first, I hoped it was something that would cure my compulsion to check that the door is locked eight times when I leave home but I think that's OCD - different sort of control, apparently. 

The OSD controller gives access to the on-screen menu and provides customisable shortcut buttons, which can be set to switch between profiles. I've set mine to provide quick access to AdobeRGB, sRGB and Black & White profiles. At the touch of a button, I can switch between colour spaces and see how my image processing is going to affect the file in various formats.

Calibration

The BenQ has built-in hardware colour calibration tools and comes with BenQ's Palette Master calibration software. It worked really well with my X-Rite i1 Display Pro, giving the sort of straightforward step-by-step instructions that I really appreciate. It even detects how the calibration tool is orientated and suggests that you turn it the right way around. I've written at some length in other places about the importance of regular colour calibration. Without it, your monitor won't render colours accurately and your processing will inevitably include a degree of randomness. Calibrating isn't difficult, takes very little time and the benefits really outweigh the investment required.

Ports

The SW2700PT has two USB3 ports and an SD card slot, making it easy to add peripherals, such as a high speed card reader and to download from an SD memory card. It also has DVI-DL and HDMI input/output connections. It comes boxed with all the necessary leads and took me about ten minutes to set up and connect to work alongside my Apple gear.

Resolution

The monitor displays an impressive 109 pixels per inch and has what I'm reliably informed is a "14-bit 3D LUT (Look-up Table) and Delta E≤2". What does that mean? It means that colours are rendered accurately and smoothly. In practice, it means that I can process images more consistently and with greater confidence than I could with a lower-spec display. I can't show you the difference but I reviewed a series of images in three different displays: a MacBook Pro 15", a 27" Apple Cinema HD and the BenQ SW2700PT and the BenQ is noticeably better at handling fine gradations and subtle details. Whilst you may not need that quality if you're only concerned about posting images to Facebook, if you're ever planning to publish photographs, make prints, compile a book or enter images into competitions, having that extra detail will be crucial.

Cost

This, I think, might be the monitor's biggest selling point. Yes, it has all of the qualities you'd expect from a professional monitor but BenQ have cleverly pitched it specifically at photographers who want quality but might not have the budget to pay what those pro monitors usually cost. Monitors of this quality typically cost in excess of $1,500, often $2,000 - $3,000. Looking at B&H just now, I see the SW2700PT is available for $599.99. That's less than the cost of a half-decent lens. By way of contrast, a 27" Apple Thunderbolt display is currently $999.00. Interestingly, a mirror at my local furniture emporium would only cost $20 and yet would yield similar results to the Apple display. Looking at the Apple and BenQ monitors side by side on my desk right now, there's no question which I would use for processing. The BenQ wins hands down.

SUMMARY

What does all this talk of colour spaces and gamuts really mean? One of the things that puzzles me (and there are many but we'll stick to photography for now) is the fact that photographers will invest a great deal of time, effort and money into obtaining really impressive cameras and lenses, capable of capturing a bazillion pixels in high definition with fabulous dynamic range but then fail to use all that information. Modern, digital cameras are essentially just data capturing devices. Why have a device capable of capturing a really wide range of data and then immediately throw that data away? If you shoot JPEGs or work only in sRGB then that's pretty much what you're doing.

Unless you're a sports or spot news photographer with immediate deadlines, where image quality can be sacrificed for speed of availability, there doesn't seem to be a good reason for that (please, don't write in).

If you want to take a more holistic approach and are keen to ensure that you're managing the full process, from camera files to final output, then you'll want a display that's at least as good as your camera gear. Until recently, that amount of control demanded that you spend a hefty amount on a professional monitor. BenQ have cleverly delivered a monitor specifically designed for photographers at a very reasonable price.

If nothing else, using the BenQ SW2700PT has allowed me to open the curtains, reveal the daylight, put my pictures back on the wall and change into more colourful attire. I feel very nearly human again. And that, dear friends, is no small achievement.

You can find out more about the BenQ SW2700PT here.

For my friends and colleagues in Asia, you'll be pleased to learn that the monitor has just been made available for sale in our part of the world.

Sri Dalada Maligawa - The Temple of the Sacred Tooth

 

Sri Dalada Maligawa is a really lovely Buddhist temple in the centre of Kandy in Sri Lanka. It contains the relic of the sacred tooth of the Buddha.

In 543BCE, when the Buddha's body was cremated, Khema, one of the Buddha's two main disciples, retrieved one of the Buddha's teeth from the ashes of the sandalwood pyre. Khema passed the sacred tooth to King Brahmadatte and it has remained a highly revered representation of the Buddha ever since.

The temple, which now houses the sacred relic, is a haven of peace and tranquility. Visitors climb steps before entering the main temple courtyard through a beautifully decorated corridor. Sunlight illuminates the corridor towards the end of the day, making the interior glow with golden light.

Ascending a further flight of stairs leads visitors to the shrine of the relic. Devotees make offerings, sit, meditate and pray. It's very low key, without fuss or flamboyance. Often, whole families will arrive together, all dressed in white.

I've enjoyed two days in Kandy before continuing my assignment documenting the Sri Lankan railway and seem to have spent more time inside the temple than anywhere else.

 

F-Stop Satori Expedition Camera Bag

Whenever two or three are gathered together in the name of photography then they shall talk about camera bags.

The perfect camera bag. It's probably out there somewhere. Like the Ark of the Covenant. Although easier to find.

It will have the properties of Doctor Who's TARDIS (the perfect camera bag, not the Ark of the Covenant). It will be small on the outside, infinitely spacious inside. It will be perfectly balanced, no matter how haphazardly packed. It will distribute weight so precisely as to feel weightless. It will be robust enough to withstand the negligent treatment of photographers more concerned with getting the shot than with pampering their gear.

This, my friends, is the closest I've found to the Holy Grail of camera bags. I give you, the F-Stop Satori Expedition Bag.

Fitting neatly into an aeroplane's overhead locker, it's become my go-to bag for most assignments, especially those where I need to carry more than just camera gear.

Last week I completed the final leg of the Via Francigena pilgrimage route from Vertibo to Rome. Carrying two camera bodies, lenses and assorted paraphernalia for the equivalent of a half-marathon each day for a week was going to be challenging enough. Doing so with a bag that was uncomfortable or awkward would have made the experience so much less enjoyable.

I need a bag that distributes weight evenly, will withstand my nonchalant treatment and protect my gear whilst leaving it readily accessible.

The Satori really delivers on all counts. In the interests of full-disclosure, I should point out that I'm one of F-Stop's Global Icons but, like all my affiliations, I only say nice things about gear that I feel sufficiently delighted with. Regardless of my affiliation, I'd choose a Satori for much of my work. You'll find all the technical specifications on the F-Stop web site but, for me, the things that count are the robust build and attention to detail. You'll find heavy gauge YKK zips, plenty of compression straps and helpful details like the whistle that's built-in to the sternum strap and the convenient trash pocket for your pecorino cheese rinds and olive pits - or whatever your lunch de jour might be.

It's important to feel confident in a bag's build quality. When you grab a handle to yank the bag onto a moving train or into an overhead locker, when the bad weather sets in and threatens to soak your kit, when you need to get another lens in a hurry... you want the bag to perform as reliably as your camera gear in every situation. I was able to walk 120km+ whilst carrying all the gear I required for several full days in succession. When I reached The Vatican City, my final destination, I wasn't experiencing any discomfort from dozens of hours carrying the bag.

Good, reliable gear is always worth the investment in my opinion. I don't like to compromise on quality because I believe that it will have an impact on my work at some point. Perhaps the measure of quality gear is whether you miss using it when it's not to hand or whether you curse the prospect of having to go back to it. I can honestly say that I'd gladly pick up the Satori again tomorrow. Indeed, I'm heading to Sri Lanka so as soon as I've written this sentence, I'll be repacking the Satori for the next assignment. Marvellous!

Vespa chic in Bangkok's Chinatown

Here's a little cinematic trivia quiz to kick-start (pun fully intended) your week.

Q: How many films can you name which feature a Vespa scooter?

I ran out after Roman Holiday and Quadrophenia but the gloriously nerdy Internet Cars Movie Database lists 44 pages of films in which a Vespa appears. 

That's no surprise. The Vespa is such a cool bike that it immediately enhances the credibility of any scene where it appears. If you were a script writer penning your potential Oscar winning screenplay, you'd undoubtedly specify "Vespa" in any scene where you wanted the bike-riding protagonists to exude cool. Not that Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck needed much help in that department.

The Vespa is 70 years old this year and there's a healthy trade in new and reconditioned Vespas in Thailand. A smart, new Vespa showroom is tempting the cool kids in one of Bangkok's more salubrious neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, in Chinatown's narrow back streets and alleyways, you can find a number of independent mechanics offering Vespa servicing and reconditioning.

The Vespa is often the preferred choice in traditional market districts. Small wheels make it manoeuvrable, the encased engine protects against dirt and grease, a flat footbed offers comfort and protection whilst the optional rack gives a sturdy platform upon which to carry goods.

Riders might claim all these benefits when choosing a motorbike but I can't help thinking that adding a little Italian chic is more than half of the appeal of the ubiquitous Vespa. After all, if it's good enough for Gregory Peck...

Affichette A2 Vacances romaines.indd

On Bangkok's busy Yaoworat thoroughfare, preparations are taking place for Chinese New Year. The street vendors' red lanterns and green umbrellas offered a pleasing background for a series of Vespa-themed panning photographs.

(All images: Leica M, Summilux 50mm 1.4, 1/15th at f/16, ISO200. Yes, I'm an Englishman in Thailand photographing Italian scooters in Chinatown with a German camera. Truly cosmopolitan.)

Baan Jing Jai Opening Ceremony

Three years ago I photographed the laying of the first foundation stone at the Baan Jing Jai Children's Home. I was delighted to be invited back this week to document the opening ceremony of a really fine building.

Contributions from local and overseas donors have enabled the Construction Committee to fulfil their goal of building a home that offers inspiring surroundings for the resident children.

The home was officially opened by Mr. Kjetil Paulsen, His Excellency the Norwegian Ambassador to Thailand and Cambodia. Norwegian donors have made significant contributions to the building fund, especially the company and staff of Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics in South East Asia.

As you can see from the photographs, the children were really excited at the prospect of moving into their fine new home. There's space for up to 100 children who will be able to enjoy the smart new home, which includes neat bedrooms, kitchen and dining room, a music studio and art room together with meeting rooms and staff offices.

It was good to be able to see the project come to fruition with some impressive, long-term support from donors and supporters from around the world.

Rubina's story

 

The last time I saw Rubina, just a few days after the earthquake that struck Nepal on 25th April, she was in great pain. Both of her legs had been badly broken when she was trapped beneath falling rubble.

Almost exactly six months later, I'm back in Nepal and went to look for Rubina and her family, hoping that she had recovered.

In the days after the earthquake, I worked for a number of NGOs, including Global Giving, Charity: Water and Splash.

My brief was to document the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, helping those NGO teams to gain an accurate perception of the situation on the ground and to assist them as they communicated their immediate needs.

 
 

The scale of damage to areas such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Bhaktapur was clear to see. Other areas remained relatively unscathed. Earthquake damage, as I learned, is wholly random and unpredictable.

Over 9,000 people lost their lives as a direct result of the earthquake and each story is heartbreaking. It's six months later and I am still hearing very personal stories of friends and relatives lost in cruelly random ways.

Countless thousands more were injured and I documented just one girl's story in an earlier blog entry.

 
 

Rubina, 7, sustained severe injuries to the lower part of her body during the earthquake. She was sheltering in a school classroom when I first saw her during an inspection of schools in Kathmandu. In great pain, she had received limited medical attention and had developed a life-threatening infection.

Rubina's one-hour journey to the Sushma Koirala Memorial Hospital was clearly painful but we'd received expert advice from volunteer staff at the Mercy Malaysia Field Hospital so knew that Rubina needed immediate attention and moving her was the best approach.

The last photograph I took of Rubina shows her waving goodbye, sedated at the hospital, about to fall asleep and finally free of some of the pain.

Earlier today, I walked from central Kathmandu to the school where we first found Rubina (walking is almost a necessity in Kathmandu currently due to fuel shortages - but that's another story).

On reaching the school, one of Rubina's neighbours recognised me and called Rubina's father. He obviously recognised me too but ran off without speaking. Despite what you might think, I'm not used to seeing that reaction and wondered why he didn't even pause to say 'Hello'.

Two minutes later, the reason he'd run off became obvious. He couldn't wait to proudly share Rubina's impressive recovery and returned, beaming, holding Rubina's hand.

Seeing Rubina walk around the corner, dressed in a beautiful, pink festival dress and walking quite freely is a moment that I'll cherish for a long time.

 
 

We talked about Rubina's recovery, she showed me the tiny scars on her legs where the pins were inserted, we took a few photos for posterity and then Rubina showed me how fast she can run around the nearby temple.

 
 

Rubina's story is just one of many thousands. Not all have such a happy conclusion but without the dedicated work of the medical teams who devote themselves to treating those in need, even this story would not have a happy ending.

Six months ago I posted the following list of gratitude, which deserves repeating.

"Thank you to orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Shue, paediatric surgeon Dr. Lai and all their impressive colleagues at Mercy Malaysia, together with Medical Director Dr. Jaswan Shakya and his generous staff at the Sushma Koirala Memorial Hospital including Dr. Laxman Rijal, the anaesthetist, ambulance driver, paramedic and all the people who collaborate to provide essential care to patients. Thanks also to Farah Ali who made an important connection after seeing an Instagram photo I posted earlier in the week. Thanks also to Ritesh, his friends and colleagues at Splash for their pro-active approach to helping Rubina in what might literally have been a life-saving mission."

Rubina and I are going for a run around the temple now.

:)

 
 
 

A day at Erawan Shrine

Anybody who has visited Bangkok is likely to have passed by Erawan Shrine, even though they might not have realised.

Erawan sits on one corner of busy Ratchaprasong junction; a relatively small and tranquil spot, nestled between giant shopping malls and luxury hotels.

The shrine is home to a sacred and highly revered Brahmin statue, The Four-Faced God, worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists alike. Greatly respected by Thai people, Erawan is also a popular tourist destination.

Geographically and spiritually, it's fair to say that Erawan lies at the very heart of the city.

At 7pm on Monday, 17th August, 2015, a bomb left in a backpack inside the shrine exploded, killing 25 people and injuring scores more.

 
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Evidence of Erawan's importance is apparent as you walk around the neighbourhood. Commuters rushing to work on the elevated walkway and on the streets around the shrine will almost invariably pause and offer a traditional "wai" gesture in the direction of the Brahma statue.

 

One week after the bombing, I spent a full day at Erawan Shrine.

Among the first to arrive at 7am are some of the Thai dancers who perform for those devotees who wish to offer thanks for prayers that have been answered.

The presence of a soldier is unusual. The metal barriers and the freshly-painted railings indicate where the bomb was located.

 
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Inside the shrine, with towering buildings on each side and with the elevated skytrain and walkways, it's easy to appreciate how central this location is.

 
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One face of the Four-Faced God statue was very slightly damaged in the blast.

On any day, there will be a steady stream of devotees, lighting candles and incense.

 

Devotees will typically pray and offer candles, flowers and incense at all four sides of the statue.

 

One week after the deadly explosion, the presence of soldiers, police and journalists made it clear that this was not an ordinary day.

A presenter from the public broadcasting Thai PBS channel gave regular, live reports during the breakfast show.

Groups from local businesses arrived to make offerings, also giving interviews to local and international TV stations.

Many groups wore shirts bearing slogans such as "Stronger Together" and "Bangkok Strong".

 

In the centre of such a busy, bustling city, Erawan provides a quiet haven for contemplation and prayer.

Many visitors were visibly upset as they offered their silent prayers and several shed tears and they made their offerings.

 

Between the pavement and the shrine, fresh cement and a new pillar indicate where the bomber left the device.

At 8:30am, dozens of staff from the neighbouring Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel arrived, each proudly wearing a "Stronger Together" t-shirt.

Prayers and offerings continued throughout the day. 

 

From 6pm, as the sun began to set, increasing numbers of people arrived at the shrine, gathering at the nearby Amarin Centre.

 

At 6:55pm, exactly one week after the time of the explosion, Buddhist monks led the group in prayer. The Thai national anthem was sung and a minute's silence was observed in remembrance of those killed and injured.

People, almost universally dressed in white, lit candles and offered prayers.

 

Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the bomb attack.

The bombing was, by any definition, a pointless, senseless act that has achieved no discernible advantage other than to enhance the sense of community in the city's residents.

To me, Bangkok hasn't felt any less safe since the attack but, even if it had, the resilience and resolve found in large numbers of people who are willing to show the strength of their conviction offers great reassurance and comfort.

 

Sharing, not taking.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2015

Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2015

 

Those of us who can claim a certain vintage may still remember our family photo albums. For some, printed photographs were fixed inside an album or scrapbook with "sticky corners"; small, paper triangles that could grip the corners of a photograph. Wonderful in theory, fiddly and largely ineffective in practice. No matter how carefully we placed those sticky corners around the prints, they always seemed to work their way loose.

More successful were the albums with pages covered in a sheet of clear, sticky plastic, beneath which we would carefully position the photos from family holidays and birthday parties. The covers of those albums, probably purchased in the local Woolworths, always seemed to have some sickly-sweet image of a couple walking hand-in-hand through a misty meadow or a gypsy caravan beside a field of sunflowers, reminiscent of that famous advert for Cadbury's Flake chocolate.

Regardless of whether you used sticky corners, Woolworths photo albums or an old shoe box, printed photographs had a value that I don't believe digital files will ever match. The printed photos told the stories of our lives, they encapsulated our childhood memories and documented the passing of time. We might claim that digital photographs do much the same thing but those printed pictures required an investment of time and money that gave them inherent value. Looking at the family albums was actually an event. We would gather round, all attention focussed on the turning pages, pointing out the same gurning expressions that we'd laughed at many times before. It was an experience I never grew tired of.

Now we can make beautiful images with hand-held devices that also make telephone calls. It's really something of a miracle when you think about the changes we've seen in the last 30 years.

I'm all for the democratisation of photography. I love the immediacy of digital and the convenience that it provides. I'm not so ancient that I'm yet given to talking about "the good old days" with a shake of the head and a sad sigh. Nearly but not quite.

Fujifilm Instax MINI 90

Fujifilm Instax MINI 90

But I do wonder if the value of a single photograph has diminished in the digital age. Perhaps, to be truly cherished, a photograph has to be tangible. We need to be able to hold it in our hands and pass it to our friends, from one hand to another. Swiping an iPhone screen just doesn't seem to be quite as substantial. Convenient, yes, but it's one step removed from our physical selves and lacks that tangible quality.

For several years, I've carried a Fujifilm Instax camera on most of my assignments. (Full disclosure: I am not sponsored by Fujifilm and am in no way associated with them - I just like the Instax cameras). I've recently upgraded from a Instax Mini 50S to a Mini 90 but both do pretty much the same job. Each can carry a cartridge containing ten prints. A pack costs about $5, so each print is about 50¢.

Whilst a print costs 50¢ to make, it's fair to say that the value to the recipient often seems to be priceless.

I've recently returned from an assignment in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Kolkata, India where I've been photographing in schools and orphanages. For reasons that still escape me but which nevertheless delight me, the kids are always super excited when we arrive. I like to think it's my magnetic personality but I know it's much more accurate to say that it's my cameras which they find appealing.

Taking a photo of a SPLASH water station, with enthusiastic onlookers.

Taking a photo of a SPLASH water station, with enthusiastic onlookers.

The kids love to be in the photographs. Taking a photo of just one or two children can be virtually impossible because their friends will sneak into the back of the shot, appear from beneath desks or just leap up in front of the camera. Nobody waits for an invitation. Fortunately, I work with wonderful clients who have become expert at crowd control.

Occasionally, when time permits, I'll shoot a quick video and turn the camera around so the children can watch the movie. I'm sure that if I was able to magically levitate in the centre of the classroom or produce a rabbit from a hat, I could not conjure any more excitement than my camera LCD screen can create.

Children at a BRAC school in dhaka look a video made in their classroom

Children at a BRAC school in dhaka look a video made in their classroom

If you'd like to see the video they watched, you're in for a treat. You might not think that a small, dark, one-room school in a slum neighbourhood in Bangladesh would be a place where you'd find a lot of joy but you'd be mistaken, as these two girls demonstrate.

I've written before about the strange vocabulary photographers use. We "take" photographs. We "grab" a picture or "capture" a frame. It's accurate language, I suppose, but I've never felt fully comfortable with photography being a one-sided transaction.

When the work part of the assignment is done, I'll often hand my cameras over to the kids, which produces some fascinating results. They invariably appreciate the trust and confidence they feel has been placed in them and immediately launch into full creative mode, posing for each other and taking turns at directing the action.

My new best friend, the schoolgirl and wonderfully enthusiastic Yasmine Kaddour took this photograph of her schoolfriend below. Not only is it a fine portrait, it may also be one of the first photographs taken of a young lady who seems destined to be a famous photojournalist in the future. What a confident pose.

"Schoolgirl with camera" © Yasmine kaddour

"Schoolgirl with camera" © Yasmine kaddour

If it's practical, we'll use the Instax to make some prints to share. I'm not sure if it's me or the kids who get most excited about this exercise but it's fair to say that being able to share the photographs adds a really satisfying dimension to our time together.

The slideshow below contains just a handful of hundreds of images that I've taken with recipients holding their instant prints. These photos are as cherished by me as the prints themselves seem to be cherished. When returning to places where I've worked before, sometimes many years later, I frequently meet people who have kept their instant print in a wallet or pinned it to a wall in their home.

I've often said that if I were only allowed to keep one of my cameras, I'd be very reluctant to lose the ability to make and share instant photographs. The inexpensive Instax might win out over the Canons and the Leica gear. That's no exaggeration. It might not earn me a living but if Fujifilm ever want to sponsor me to travel the world, handing out instant photographs, I'd be delighted. #fujifilm :)

 

Here's a link to information about the Fujifilm Instax.
In Dhaka and Kolkata, I've been working with the really inspiring crew at Splash. If you'd like to be involved with an organisation that improves the lives of children in many parts of the developing world, I can really recommend that you take a look at the work that Splash do.

Tuoro sul Trasimeno

 

Possibly the finest combination of sentences ever to appear in a walk description.

"...you pass through a double row of cypresses and umbrella pines and the track now heads downhill through an olive grove. At this point you can climb the steps in front of you and go into the town centre where you will find two bars in the piazza."

This is from the rather excellent "Circular Walks on the Tuscany Umbria Border" by Martin Daykin.

 
 
Olive Tree, Tuoro sul Trasimeno, Italy

Olive Tree, Tuoro sul Trasimeno, Italy

 

Rubina's Journey - from earthquake victim to treatment

 

Rubina is seven years-old. She was caught by falling rubble when last week's earthquake hit Nepal. Her legs and pelvis were crushed and fractured.

 
 

During a post-earthquake inspection of local schools for Splash (www.splash.org), Ritesh Adah found Rubina and her parents in a classroom where they'd been staying since the earthquake. Rubina had received very basic medical attention but despite her severe injuries, local hospitals did not have the capacity to treat her more fully for at least a week.

Breaks to both legs can be seen in her x-ray.

 
 

The following day, when I accompanied Ritesh to document the damage done to Splash installations in Kathmandu, he took me to the school where Rubina and her family were staying.

Rubina was sleeping most of the time.

 
 

But when she woke, the effect of the pain was clear to see - and hear .

 
 

Seeking advice on the best course of action, Ritesh and I took the x-rays to a Mercy Malaysia field-hospital, just outside Kathmandu.

I've learned this week that broken bones don't kill. It's the resulting infection and other complications that can be life-threatening.

Doctors advised that Rubina be brought to them as soon as possible.

 
 

It was clear that her right leg had become twisted at the hip and we still did not know what internal injuries she might have sustained.

This morning, Ritesh was able to arrange for an ambulance to take Rubina to the Sushma Koirala Memorial Hospital in Sankhu.

Having spent over a week on the classroom floor, Rubina was understandably scared at the prospect of being moved.

 
 

Eventually, with assistance from Ritesh, the paramedic was able to transfer her to the ambulance.

 
 

Understandably, Rubina didn't want to let go of her mother's hand.

 
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Rubina hadn't seen bright sunlight for nearly a week.

 
 

She held her grandmother's hand all the way out of Kathmandu until we reached the hospital.

 
 

Doctors from the hospital were joined by volunteer orthopaedic and paediatric surgeons from Mercy Malaysia.

 
 

Very soon, Rubina was inside a treatment room for an initial assessment.

 
 

From there, doctors took her quickly for new x-rays.

 
 

After the x-rays, Rubina was moved to a Recovery Room for sedation before a more thorough examination in the Operating Theatre. She was clearly still in a lot of pain and discomfort.

 
 

The official death toll in Nepal exceeded 7,000 today with many more injured. Rubina's case is one of many, many thousands.

Volunteers at the Mercy Malaysia Field-Hospital have treated up to 250 patients each day since the earthquake. Doctors and nurses at the nearby Sushma Koirala Memorial Hospital have been working day and night to cope with the influx of patients.

Eventually sedated, Rubina drifted in and out of sleep. She will have surgery to repair her broken bones tomorrow and there's a good chance that, in time, she will be able to walk again.

 
 

All across Nepal, other international teams continue to treat patients and save lives.

Rubina benefitted from the expertise, dedication and professionalism of the doctors from Mercy Malaysia who have flown into the disaster zone voluntarily. They really were excellent and it's so reassuring that Rubina and many others like her are now in their expert care.

Thank you to orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Shue, paediatric surgeon Dr. Lai and all their impressive colleagues at Mercy Malaysia, together with Medical Director Dr. Jaswan Shakya and his generous staff at the Sushma Koirala Memorial Hospital, the anaesthetist, ambulance driver, paramedic and all the people who collaborate to provide essential care to patients. Thanks also to Farah Ali who made an important connection after seeing an Instagram photo I posted earlier in the week. Thanks also to Ritesh, his friends and colleagues at Splash for their pro-active approach to helping Rubina in what might literally have been a life-saving mission.