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North Korea and the Killer Deluge

Peace Dam DMZ Korea

The shrill threat of “thermonuclear war” from Pyongyang is only the latest in a long line of doomsday scenarios against which South Korea has braced itself. Over the years, numerous layers of defensive infrastructure have been added to prepare for possible attacks, ranging from bunkers to early-warning radar. Perhaps the most unexpected of these defenses is the “Peace Dam,” a $429 million reservoir built to prevent a killer deluge unleashed by the North from engulfing Seoul.

The dam was started in 1987 in response to the North Korean construction of the Imnam Dam just across the DMZ. Military strategists worried that it could be used as a weapon with the power to devastate Seoul like an atomic bomb.

Looking back on military history, we can find other examples of water being used effectively against an enemy. During WWI the Belgian Army opened canal locks and flooded the Yser region of Flanders, halting the German advance.

But in South Korea, second thoughts about the likelihood of the flood attack eventually surfaced, and construction of the dam was stopped before completion. Then, in 2002, satellite photos of the Imnam Dam showed signs of cracks. Even if a deadly flood was not to be unleashed by malevolence, the thinking went, it might happen as a result of the North’s shoddy engineering. Construction of the Peace Dam was restarted, and it was finally completed in 2005.

When I visited the dam last winter, the reservoir still stood empty in order to retain a sudden flood. A small visitors center with a gallery of Nobel Peace laureates had been built adjacent to the dam. The exhibition’s lofty rhetoric and aspirations for peace clashed awkwardly with the true motivation behind the dam’s construction. Just out of sight from the visitors center, down a dirt road leading to the water’s edge was a checkpoint manned by armed soldiers. Beyond them was the DMZ with its barbed wire fences, trenches, and mine fields.

The latest round of threats from the North has prompted South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. military to heavily beef up on expensive missile defense capabilities. Once the Patriot batteries and Aegis-equipped ships are in place, is there any doubt that North Korea will start scheming and fabricating a new threat which would be equally terrifying and expensive to defend against?

©Tomas van Houtryve 2013. This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Emphas.is.

Stuck in Neutral: Swiss Mission in the DMZ keeps fragile ties with North Korea

Deep inside the DMZ, nestled within two meters of the border with North Korea is an improbable cluster of buildings which resemble giant Swiss Army knives. The oblong cabins are painted bright red and several are marked with a white cross. One almost expects an outsized blade and a bottle opener to swing out of the top. Between the cabins are stately trees, elegant patio tables and well trimmed hedges. There is also a bomb shelter.

Welcome to the Swiss and Swedish Camp of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission or NNSC. Here, ten discreet Europeans live within spitting distance of the world’s most isolated and unpredictable dictatorship.

The Swiss and Swedes arrived here with tents in July 1953, tasked with monitoring the cease-fire agreement that halted the exceptionally brutal Korean War. They expected to stay a few months while a comprehensive peace treaty was to be negotiated between the warring parties.

Today, nearly 60 years later, they remain marooned in the narrow splinter of no man’s land which acts as a buffer between North and South Korea. No peace treaty ever materialized, leaving the two Koreas technically still at war. The European monitors are contractually committed to a mission with no end in sight.

Originally there were four neutral nations assigned to monitor the cease-fire. Switzerland and Sweden were to observe and report from South Korea. Czechoslovakia and Poland were assigned to North Korea. Once a week, the four NNSC countries were to hold meetings and to share their reports inside a building which precisely straddles the border. As an indication of the seriousness of the task, each neutral nation’s team was to be led by a flag rank officer, meaning at least a two-star general or admiral.

Things didn’t turn out as planned.

One of the key tasks of the NNSC mandate was to monitor the rotation of war matériel and troops onto the Korea peninsula. The NNSC teams were soon denied access to the ports. Nevertheless, the NNSC teams dug in, even as their responsibilities were whittled down. They replaced their tents with the bright red buildings. Seedlings were planted on the barren war-ravaged landscape. An officer’s club, a well appointed dining hall, and other amenities were added.

After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, North Korea decided to expel the Czech and Polish cease-fire monitors. There is no neutral presence left on the North Korean side. The Swiss and Swedish teams living inside the DMZ have dwindled down to a total of ten men. According to the cease-fire document, the highest ranking officers were required to remain. Hence, you currently have an awkward situation where Swiss Major General Urs Gerber and Swedish Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad are in command of four men each. To put their rank in context, the equivalent two-star general in the U.S. military would command a division of 15,000 to 20,000 troops.

The weekly NNSC meetings continue to take place precisely on the border, but since the Czechs and Poles are gone, the Swiss officers only have their Swedish camp-mates to talk to. Their reports are left inside a mailbox on the North Korean side of the meeting building, but the North Koreans rarely collect them anymore. When the box overflows the reports are shredded.

Though run by military officers, the Swiss see their mission as primarily diplomatic. During the occasional periods when tensions were lower between the two Koreas, the Swiss would host evening parties. They invited both North and South Korean officers to attend, offering them an informal chance to speak that would otherwise be nearly impossible to arrange. Since 1995 however, North Korea has completely cut off working relations with the NNSC. The two-sided parties have stopped.

From the point of view of an outsider, it appeared to me that the true substance of the cease-fire agreement had slowly rotted away, leaving only a threadbare operation in place. I asked Swiss Col. Alex Neukomm why they continued their mission with so many of their monitoring duties curtailed and with the current dearth of opportunities to facilitate peaceful engagement. What was left besides an expensive exercise of political theater?

He replied that the Swiss presence is an important and visible reminder that the cease-fire is still in effect. The mission costs Switzerland around 1.5 million dollars per year, but, surprisingly, the colonel said he is sure that his country is able to compensate economically in other areas. He cited the popularity of Switzerland as a destination for South Korean tourists as an example. Indeed, the Swiss delegation has captured the imagination of the South Korean public. A very popular Korean film released in 2000 called “Joint Security Area” portrays a beautiful young Swiss Army officer objectively investigating a murky fatal shootout inside the DMZ.

Swiss neutrality is legendary, and in previous conflicts they have managed to polish their impartial image while simultaneously profiting from business relations with both sides. The stance has occasionally drawn heavy criticism, especially when one side of the conflict is clearly committing war crimes or mass human rights violations, as Nazi Germany did during WWII.

In the case of North Korea, the Swiss government has struggled to decide if it is better to cooperate with the totalitarian regime or to join the majority of Western countries which isolate it as punishment for its nuclear ambitions and human rights abuses. During my research, I came across several interesting points of contact between the Swiss and the North Koreans:

  • Although there is no Swiss ambassador in Pyongyang, a Swiss diplomatic mission in North Korea is channeled through the Pyongyang representative of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. SADC has been active in the country for over three decades, working on agricultural and food relief projects. Swiss NGOs also operate in North Korea.
  • A Swiss businessman by the name of Felix Abt involved himself in various economic activities in North Korea ranging from starting a pharmaceutical company to setting up Pyongyang’s first business school, which was sponsored and financed by the Swiss government.
  • There are reports that Switzerland is leasing a sea pier in the country’s far northern corner to ship out raw materials including manganese and talc. When I questioned a North Korean official about it, he said the pier was being used by a Swiss diplomat.
  • A Swiss company which manufactures specialized color shifting security inks for use on currency notes sold North Korea the ink that most closely matches the ink that the same company sold exclusively to the United States Treasury for printing dollar bills. North Korea allegedly used the specialized ink to produce hundreds of millions of dollars worth of counterfeit $100 supernotes.
  • It has been widely reported in the media that the freshly installed North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, attended school on the outskirts of Berne, Switzerland from 1998 to 2000.

Most other democratic Western governments would be embarrassed to have so many links with Pyongyang. The pharmaceutical and currency ink activities are particularly troubling, especially since most experts believe that the Kim regime props itself up financially mainly through drug trafficking and counterfeiting operations.

However, according to the Swiss, their stance of neutrality combined with these multiple points of contact presents an otherwise unlikely opportunity for communication between the two Koreas. By their reasoning, if a North or South Korean official wants to reach out and make an overture toward the other side, it would be nearly impossible for them to do so directly. More likely, so the theory goes, they’ll reach out through an impartial Swiss intermediary or perhaps cross paths at a Swiss-hosted evening party.

So far, the Swiss theory hasn’t produced any lasting results, and the two Koreas remain locked in a frozen conflict. Nevertheless, the Swiss are determined to remain in their camp.

“We were given the mission by the two sides, and as long as one side wants us to stay, we will stay,” Colonel Neukomm told me.

When the colonel finished his briefing and our interview, I was invited to have a sumptuous lunch with the whole team of Swiss and Swedish officers. Toasts were made toward the pursuit of peace and to the talent of the camp’s chef. It was very easy to forget that outside, just a few dozen meters from the camp, multiple rows of fortifications sprawled out in both directions including mine fields, razor-wire fences, spiked barricades, anti-tank walls, artillery batteries, and finally battalions of heavily armed soldiers. The NNSC camp felt like the eye of a 60-year storm.

©Tomas van Houtryve 2013. This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Emphas.is.

What exactly is going on along the North Korean border?

Deciphering North Korea has never been an easy task, and with the recent rise of a secretive third-generation Kim family dictator, the quest seems more relevant than ever.

As photographer, I’ve been fascinated with North Korea for years. I visited Pyongyang twice, but there was a limit of how much I could see or learn from the inside. Next, my curiosity took me to the Chinese-North Korean border with the help of a grant from the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund. I managed to meet with several North Koreans who had left their country in the past year. They told me of recent food shortages, ongoing power cuts, and the shocking brutality or authorities.

Along the border, I made a series of panoramic-format photographs. It is an attempt to expand our visual understanding of North Korea—beyond the stage-managed scenes from its Potemkin capital—to the less-known border landscapes where unscripted stories of defectors, smugglers, guards and traders play out.

Not everything that I witnessed along the Chinese-North Korea border made for a perfectly publishable photograph. At times I had to work with a handheld mini-video camera to avoid suspicion. Zoomed to maximum magnification, I was able to film North Korean soldiers and civilians carrying scavenged strips of scrap metal to a boat on the river border.

A smuggler then took the boat across the river and dropped off his load illegally on the Chinese shore.

On another occasion I rode in a speedboat along the border river. These boats are often hired by curious Chinese tourists to bring them as close as possible to the North Korean shore. The boat driver told me that his boss had bribed the North Korean border guards to allow these excursions. I took several boat trips, and I saw two things that were very telling of the reality far from Pyongyang. On one of the trips we saw a small North Korean boy hiding along the banks of the river. When he saw us, he motioned to his mouth to beg for food. When I tried to take a picture, the boat driver slapped down my camera, but I managed to get a slightly blurry shot of the boy.

Then the boat driver opened a bag of food and offered to sell me some to give to the boy. He saw North Korean children begging frequently, and he treated the situation like selling treats at a zoo. I bought the boy some food, and he ran off just as a soldier caught sight of us.

On a later ride in a different boat, the driver called out to a North Korean soldier stationed on the shore. Apparently they knew each other, because the soldier came running toward us. When he was only a few meters away, the boat driver threw him an envelope with a Chinese mobile phone card inside. This time I hid my camera and discreetly used the handheld video camera.

Witnessing these situations, I learned more about the real state of discipline of NK’s army and the level of hunger in the country than anything I had seen on my visits inside.

And yet the back-story of a photographer’s work is rarely shared with the public. The idea behind the Emphas.is  is to change that.

I’ve started the second phase of my North Korean border project, tracing the North-South Korean frontier and the D.M.Z. People who sign-up and pay $10 to help fund the project on Emphas.is will get the back-story as I make my way along the border. You are encouraged to ask questions, post comments, and get involved with the issue on a deeper level.

Below is the introduction video for the project. Visit the project on Emphas.is to get involved:

. . .

Discussing life under Kim Jong Il’s rule with Philip Gourevitch

Earlier this year I sat down in NYC with Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, to discuss life along North Korea’s borders. In 2003, Gourevitch wrote Alone in the Dark, a fascinating article which pieces together what life was like under Kim Jong Il.


You can read the transcript of our in-depth discussion, listen to an audio clip and view a slideshow of photos of Korean escapees and the border landscape directly on the Magnum Emergency Fund site. The transcript has also been re-posted below.

TOMAS: So, What kind of picture emerges from North Korea by talking to people who have escaped?

PHILIP: As you’d imagine, people who have escaped don’t have a lot of good things to say about North Korea, but they are pretty convincing about it too. I learned a lot of details about their lives in the North, but also about how intensely resistant the South was to admitting refugees from the North. At that point hundreds of thousands of people had fled North Korea into China from the famine of the ’90s and early 2000s, and only several hundred people had been admitted as refugees into South Korea.

But what you learn about life in North Korea, in almost every case of people I’ve talked to, is that they had been believers. Believers in the North Korean system, in its narrative of imperialist Western aggression, and of South Korea being a terrible American puppet and stooge. In addition to the starvation that had driven them to the border there was an experience that I can only call a kind of explosion of reality in their minds, a profound psychic confusion. North Korean politics is like a religious belief system, structured with the Kims as family deities. To discover everything they ever assumed to be true was wrong and realize everything was upside down, really blew their minds. So the relief of getting out gets compounded with this new retraumatization that had to do with something you don’t get in most refugee situations or just in fleeing hunger–it’s actually a psychic hunger.

TOMAS: And that seems to be true for the people I’ve spoken to fairly recently. They get across the border and all of the sudden they realize that their political system is built completely on lies and their whole world turns upside down. So they think they can work in China for a few months and bring food back, but when they are out there they have this shocking realization. It is already difficult to make their families understand or to decide to make it through to South Korea, which very few do—

PHILIP: That’s right—flight from North Korea is always an extremely difficult decision, for reasons of family, of sheer difficulty of getting out, and also because they believed in it somehow. And then there was the limbo of living in the Chinese border areas, where they were not technically accepted as refugees by the Chinese state and there’s an awkward relationship between Chinese and North Korean authorities. The Chinese had some pity for them, but there was a lot of bribery and corruption and they also liked to have cheap labor they could push around and treat with all the cruelty that illegal aliens anywhere are treated.

Then there’s plopping down in Seoul. And if you’ve been to Seoul you know it like the most hyper-modern city. Everybody’s on their cellphone– and they had no idea how to use a phone or what a push-button device was. It would be as if they were catapulted from the middle of 19th century hermit kingdom Korea into total future-land. And for anybody who was over the age of 25 or 30 there was really a sense that they were a lost generation. They’d been saved from starvation and psychic annihilation in North Korean, but they were never going to catch-up.

TOMAS: I visited North Korea twice—in 2007 and 2008—and was able to see Pyongyang, the DMZ area, and some of the cities close to Pyongyang too. The idea you get of the country is completely different from the border. You go in there, and you realize something is off and they are trying to stage manage something. But you can’t see what is behind. There wasn’t any indication of hunger in Pyongyang, but you can pick up the falsities, the fabrications, that there’s a cult of personality exaggerated to the largest extreme. Going along the border a lot of the pieces started filtering out.

Many of the escapees are women and one of the ways they stay in China is by marrying Chinese men. There is a demographic shortage of women along the border, and North Korea women are considered beautiful.

But it’s quite easy to get denounced and sent back to North Korea, so there’s a population of children who are stateless, born without their birth certificates, who cannot get into school or get healthcare, and their mothers suddenly disappear across the border. Usually the Chinese fathers are poor and give them up, so there are informal orphanages run along the border to deal with these kids.

Along the border, which is mostly a river, the Chinese run tourist operations. There’s a huge curiosity among Chinese, about what’s on the other side. On one occasion on the boat, we came across a North Korean boy hiding in the bushes, gesturing with his hand towards his mouth, “I’m hungry.” The Chinese boat driver had a big bag of snacks to sell to tourists to throw across to the hungry North Koreans. It was very bizarre to be at the gates of incredible suffering, and to know that on the other side, the Chinese who see this as another business opportunity in their bubbling economy.

PHILIP:It sounds like they look at it like a zoo or a nature preserve. They buy snacks to throw across, and you chuckle about their strange ways.

There’s not much on that side of the Korean border, is there?

TOMAS: It’s fairly deforested because they’re using trees for cooking charcoal. Near Dandong, they built showcase houses right along the river to try to face off the Chinese skyscrapers. But the Chinese laugh, and see through this. They say “these are empty homes.” And at night it looks like a medieval village, with only one or two light bulbs in the entire neighborhood – where on the Chinese side there’s LED lights and flashing neon. Basically it looks like the Las Vegas strip.

PHILIP: When you photographed the refugees you didn’t want to show their faces. Do you feel this is something you can convey in pictures?

TOMAS: It was a huge challenge photographically, because their stories are so incredibly powerful, and you are deprived as a photographer of using all of the emotion that a face conveys. I was working with very limited human gestures to bring across what were incredibly powerful emotions and stories. This is one of the most difficult projects I’ve worked on. But the photos are an entry point, and you have to read or listen to the people in the photographs, to get a clear understanding of what is happening.

It’s kind of like being at the gates of Auschwitz and seeing smoke in the distance and one skinny person, but there’s something much more terrible going on. Being on the edge of North Korea makes you see that all indications points to something terrible but you have no direct evidence.

PHILIP: Right, what makes it haunting is knowledge that is not in the picture.

TOMAS: Exactly, but what you can tell from the pictures is that compared to ethnic Koreans living in China for a long time or to South Koreans, North Koreans are much shorter, and the skin on their faces much tighter and wrinkled. You could see they have had really hard lives. Even officials who should’ve been part of an elite looked like they had been working in the sun on minimum food. They have been hardened. If you compare that to the Chinese today, getting plump in the boom of this consumerist economy, the short, more tanned, wrinkled North Koreans stand out.

PHILIP: Yeah that’s what I remember from seeing pictures from the defectors of when they defected. And frankly, they looked like toy people next to the Chinese who aren’t huge to begin with. Right, I mean they aren’t towering people. But then you have these people who look mummified, like shrunken versions of themselves.

When I met people in or around Seoul they were not worried about being seen but even still, it was hard for some to talk. How available were they to you and how guarded were they once they opened up?

TOMAS: You could tell they were uncomfortable, initially. I’d work through various intermediaries and translators before they’d gotten to me, and these people had done interviews over the years for other journalists or human rights organizations. Initially they would be suspicious, then you would get some real information, and then you would have to be careful because they seemed to be telling you information that would please you. It was a delicate balance of feeling out how much you can trust of what they say. Inside Pyongyang the kind of propaganda about Westerns is just incredible and insane. I was taken to a museum that had a picture of a priest and a doctor torturing a baby with hot irons, and they said, “This is an American priest and doctor.” So when they come out and see a Western face for the first time, they must have all kinds of emotion that come up.

PHILIP: Yeah, I would imagine. It’s because they are in that limbo again. They want help, and want people to say “wow this is one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen.”

TOMAS: We had to make it clear to them, no matter how terrible their story we were there just to transmit their story. And we weren’t there to give handouts to whoever had the more horrible experience in life.

PHILIP: Well it’s a bit puzzling for people to deal with journalists like that. Like, “are you a lawyer, can you help me, will you get me a visa?”

TOMAS: And sometimes you don’t know what the intermediaries had said. They were taking big risks to be photographed and speak with journalists. Chinese can get a bounty if they catch North Koreans. And North Koreans get rounded up all the time. For those who get sent back, they get the harshest treatment: forced labor camps and torture. There’s also collective punishment: if one North Korean does something wrong, the whole family is punished.

PHILIP: Now the Chinese are trying to balance not allowing everybody to come, and not a total crack down either, because they would be perfectly capable of sealing that border or policing their side quickly and sending many more people back.

TOMAS:There is a change, now the Chinese have added a lot more surveillance. And from stories, it seems like getting across is much more difficult than it was 5 or 10 years ago.

But I actually encountered two people who had gotten visas to come to China. One of them was from the elite and was given a visa to set up a business transaction. He couldn’t get it through in time, so he overstayed his visa, thinking that if he could pull off this business deal, North Korean officials would forgive his overstay. He was very interesting, because he knew what was going on, he pierced through this veil of falsity. But on the other hand, he was constantly justifying the government’s actions, saying that the government does this because of natural disasters or this and this pressure.

There was another person who had a relative in China. And once she got out her whole world fell apart, so she decided to overstay her visit.

But now smugglers are involved in the process, you have to pay a lot of money to someone who knows the exact crossing points or can bribe guards watching the border. A lot of the people getting out now are relatives of South Koreans who have made it all the way to Seoul, started to integrate, saved money and then sent tons of it back to these smugglers to bring people across.

PHILIP: You had some photographs of a bridge, where is it? Who crosses that bridge?

TOMAS: This is a bridge going from Dandong to the city on the Korean side, Sinuiju. A few trucks and a train cross once or twice a day. This is right next to another bridge bombed during the Korean War that was left up as a monument to the war. There is a little bit of trade. But when you consider 20 million people on the North Korean side, the trade is just miniscule. For a population the size of California, there are maybe 50 trucks crossing a day.

We asked the people on the North Korean side about the famine and the shortage of goods, and they said there were a lot of Chinese goods on the informal markets, but nobody can afford them.

In the mid ’90s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and other countries were helping and propping up North Korea, the planned economy and the internal food distribution system fell apart. People didn’t know how to cope with that. From one day to the next paychecks and food distribution stopped and many people died. The generous people died first, because they wouldn’t eat to help the elderly and sick. Now, that same “falling off a cliff” famine couldn’t happen anymore because people have gone through 20 years of figuring out how to make ends meet through illegal ways if needed. All the North Koreans repeated: “we’ve learned how to live. We’ve learned how to survive.” So when the factory pay checks or the food distribution stop, they know how to trade things, how go to the market. Things that would’ve been really illegal in the 1990s are more tolerated now, like making cookies in your house and selling it to neighbors.

PHILIP: I remember in the famine of the ’90s, there was this characteristically lunatic North Korean central planning of agriculture, and at that moment, Kim Il-sung had this idea that everybody should grow corn – which was the wrong crop – and it becomes this “He Says Grow Corn.” So everybody grows corn everywhere—on steep sides of riverbanks—and then it rains. The entire food supply gets washed away and everybody dies of hunger.

TOMAS: Now there are secret gardens in the forest, behind apartment buildings. And in this black market economy there are people doing quite well. One story people told me is that trains in North Korea constantly break down. And there are people who constantly ride trains with things to trade because they know people will run out of food. So, there’s this guy that prepares food, and waits for it to break down. People get hungry after three hours, and the guy gets every body’s watches and shoes, and gives everyone meals. There are people whose profession it is to find holes in the system.

PHILIP: This must be pretty much the only country in the history of countries that brutalize their own in various different ways, that has really sought to prevent people from being able to feed themselves. It’s not normally considered a good way of controlling people.

TOMAS: In the past, South Korea, the United States and the United Nations have given food to North Korea. Should that continue? Does it get to the people in a system where food is used to control people? They seem to confirm that food meant for the most vulnerable ends up getting diverted to the military. And people accept that, they say, “We’re on the verge of war, so we need to have the military strong, otherwise we’re going to be steam-rolled by the Americans or the Imperialists.” But they also plead and say “Please keep sending the food even if it gets diverted to the army, we all have relatives in the army and somehow it will trickle down to us eventually.” It’s a very tough and nuanced decision: if you give food to North Korea, there’s no way to verify it’s going into the hands of the hungry, but if you give lots of food to North Korea, some of it will eventually spill over to the hungry.

PHILIP: Right, it is a very strange situation that we’re propping up and helping to sustain a regime that by all rights we should be trying to strangle to death-we should be trying to starve it.

But everyone is always wondering, because surely one day North Korea has to crack in some direction and break open. The idea has always been, that there will be reintegration with South Korea and it will be a burden. The South Koreans are extremely ambivalent about reintegrating with the North Korea.

For the first decades after the Korean War, the rhetoric was just “reunification”, but then they saw Germany and realized how expensive this could be. The sheer price per head basically. Now, East Germany looks like Shanghai compared to North Korea, so it’s going to be much more expensive and much more complicated. The adult population isn’t going to integrate logically into a modern state. So they are working against terrible human deficits in every sense. Then the Chinese seem ready to flow in there, and at least do border trade, develop it and buy assets – and also to keep them from becoming entirely Westernized.

TOMAS: As it is right now, North Koreans do try to attract a certain number of Chinese. But the Chinese has had it, and don’t want to do business with them anymore because they’ve been burned so many times. They feel like the North Koreans have been opportunist and not straight-dealers. For example, they’ll allow factory equipment and investment in, but suddenly they’ll start blocking the visas for the businessmen and not following through on their contracts. There was a thirst among the Chinese, seeing North Korea as untapped, undeveloped, full of business opportunities. But the Chinese these days feel very hesitant, they are really not interested in doing business with the North Koreans.

PHILIP: It is such a strange story isn’t it? I mean, there are a lot of regimes that are brutal to their people. But they have a kind of logic; you can understand it even if you can’t relate, accept or approve it. None of the above apply to Pyongyang. You would imagine that the Pyongyang elite would realize what a crummy deal it is to be a Pyongyang elite, and start wanting to say, “Why don’t we start liberalizing trade with China and then we will become really rich Pyongyang elites so that one day when the system falls apart we will be one of the 50 richest people in North Korea?” But they don’t even do that! It’s just weird.

TOMAS: It just seems like they have stoked and leveraged the worst of every political system ever on the face of the Earth: they use the religious dynasty-based loyalty to the “Supreme Leader” and the absolute destruction of the individual you can have in communist societies. Then there are right-wing tendencies, like nationalism and racist pride. They have become so isolated from the rest of the world that they don’t want to bridge the gap even if it’s in their economic interest. They would rather go hungry before dealing with the outside world.

PHILIP: It’s a very paranoid mentality. Now, the Chinese are sitting ther; they are looking across the border at this. Do they have any identify with North Korea? Do they say, “Not so long ago, before we loosened up a bit, we were in that kind of state”? Is there any identification, memory, or sympathy?

You have a picture of Chinese tourists on the beach with their little dog, colorful hats and umbrellas, and this could be on the Italian Riviera. But on the background is one of these barren hills of desolate North Korea. It’s like picnicking by a gulag fence. What do they think?

TOMAS: Those Chinese people living on the inside of the country don’t know what life is like in North Korea at all. Chinese press isn’t free enough, there’s not enough reporting on North Korea for the average Chinese person. But the ones on the border all seem to know.

PHILIP: You would have to wonder if you were sitting looking across the river. They have got to think, “There is another country over there and the country is dark.”

TOMAS: But they do know. They say “They have nothing, just like we had nothing. They live like we did in the 1950s.” I went on a Chinese tour group in a bus where you had a local, snappy, smart teenage tour guide who lives along the river basically mocking the North Koreans, saying “Look how poor they are, we used to be like that.” And the people kind of chuckled along: “Those silly North Koreans over there.”

From what we can learn about North Korea, what does it mean for its neighbors and the United States. Can we negotiate with North Korea? It’s not the first communist or totalitarian country that has popped up, how should we deal with it?

PHILIP: It is the most sealed off. I remember in the late 80s West Germany talked about this geographical region in East Germany that couldn’t get the radio or television signals, and even other East Germans referred to it as The Valley Where They Have No Idea. All of North Korea is like The Valley Where They Have No Idea.

One of the puzzling things is that you have this highly Westernized, Western oriented, anti-communist South, and China, as its two bordering countries. Both have very strong reasons for not wanting North Korea to go away. The Chinese don’t want to lose this last puppet government with military value. China looks pretty good when it can always point to its crazy cousin waving missiles around and say “listen, we are pretty well behaved here.”

Are they capable of launching a missile it into the air and hitting a target? Nobody fully believes they could do it, but nobody wants to find out. There’s always been a hostage situation in both directions. North Koreans are held hostage by their government and by the world’s unwillingness to help. Nobody has an overwhelming interest to see what happens after it’s gone. On the other hand they’re holding the world hostage by having about 13,000 artillery pieces aimed straight at Seoul from 12 miles away–which is an unbelievable hostage situation. “One false move and we blow up Seoul.” Nobody seems to believe it’s all bluff, right? And they are a little crazy.

I got a feeling that everybody was just hoping that it wouldn’t happen on their watch, that nobody knows what to do about it – which is bizarre because at its core one has to believe that this regime is unbelievably weak, that it doesn’t command the loyalty of a starving people, that the starving people aren’t capable of defending it, that although it has a few modern weapons, to a large degree, it’s in the stone ages, technologically.

TOMAS: The only thing that is keeping it in check is this myth. So the army may have old and outdated weapons, the food supply may have fallen apart, the economy may be in tatters—all markers you would typically use to predict a solid state collapse—but the myth is perfectly intact. People still believe that they are special, from the chosen country, and are surrounded by enemies on the brink of war.

PHILIP: And this is where we come in. You would think journalism of some kind or story-telling is what usually makes a big difference, when a totalitarian myth loses its totality.

Every one of the defectors that I spoke to in South Korea had a moment of: “Oh, wow, it’s not like they said it is out here.” And then they come back and they’re mad and confused so they build their own little radios. The most subversive thing that you could do would be to get radios into that country. I know during the Rwanda genocide there was talk of scrambling the radio stations since they were being used as a means of control. Couldn’t we put a satellite over this country and more or less switch the channel?

But we don’t want to! We’re terrified of what could happen. This is like another planet or we have this other planet on our planet. So we’ve got to surround it, and we think “Oh shit, what happens if it breaks open, or if we break it open?” Will it attack us? Will it cost us too much? So let’s just leave it there.

• • •

Also, it’s worth checking out Gourevitch’s latest post, Unreality Check: From Kim to Kim in North Korea on The New Yorker blog.

Yuri Irsenovich Kim a.k.a. Kim Jong Il is dead, but where was he born?

From the very start, Kim Jong Il’s life has been shrouded in mystery. According to official North Korean biographers, the Dear Leader was born on Mount Paektu under a double rainbow and the appearance of a new star in the heavens. Earlier this year I visited the bizarre and eerily beautiful volcano-lake which straddles the China-North Korean border. Since ancient times, Koreans consider the mountain sacred and the place of their ancestral origins.

Mount Paektu Kim Jong Il

Mount Paektu on the China-North Korea border.

However, Soviet records show that Kim Jong Il was actually born in the Siberian town of Khabarovsk, where his father spent WWII at a Soviet Red Army garrison. Historians say that his real name is not Kim Jong Il, but Yuri Irsenovich Kim. Will North Koreans know any more about his death than they do about his birth?

Kim Jong Il or Yuri Irsenovich Kim

Yuri Irsenovich Kim.

New funding models, Part V – Crowdfunding, The Good, The Bad and The Awkward

In the past few months, the idea of crowdfunding photography has caught fire, with a number of renowned individuals putting their photo projects up for public backing.

I’ve been supporting some, watching others, and trying to try draw early lessons from these brave pioneers and the public’s reaction to them.

Below are a few projects and how I rate them.

• I Love You Real Fast by Krisanne Johnson

Not so many years ago, Krisanne and I were in photo class together under the guidance of our instructor Kevin Moloney. Even then, her talent set her apart from the other students. She later went on to win a World Press Photo Award.

Her project is about young women coming of age amidst the H.I.V/AIDS epidemic in Swaziland. I already knew her, trust her and love the project, so I choose to support her with $25. At that level, backers are rewarded with a personal thank you on a postcard. Mine arrived in the mail promptly after she reached her funding goal.

Postcard © Krisanne Johnson

Rating the project:

PROS

• My personal connection to Krisanne
• Talented photographer
• Original project idea
• Reasonable incentives
• Endorsement from the Magnum Foundation which funded a previous segment
• Funding exceeded goal by 30%

CONS

• Two months later, and still no project updates posted online

• • •

 

• Crisis in Afghanistan by Larry Towell

For decades, Larry Towell has been one the most interesting photographers in Magnum’s stable of elite talent. His previous work stands above reproach. For an established photographer of his generation to jump into the fast shifting world of online funding took some guts. Despite the relevancy of his topic, and the power of his vision, his first stab at crowdfunding came off as slightly awkward. Nevertheless, I contributed to his project without hesitation, though I occasionally cringed as he grappled with online comments. He reached his funding goal on January 12th.

Larry Towell's Kickstarter budget

PROS

• Exceptionally high level of talent and dedication in previous projects
• Taking the long view on a critical contemporary conflict
• Endorsement from the Magnum Foundation which funded a previous segment

CONS

• A good-natured hodgepodge of backer incentives that resemble a yard sale more than a well thought out business plan
• A tension between the use of the word “Crisis” in the project title and later updates that mention a “retreat in Italy” and a “road trip with a novelist” before Mr. Towell will “begin the process of planning for Afghanistan.” That schedule seriously clashes with the perception of urgency in the project title.
• Sometimes awkward replies to comments and questions

• • •

 

• The Long Shadow of Chernobyl by Gerd Ludwig

Gerd Ludwig has been one my favorite color photographers for years. His genuine humanism and commitment to difficult issues make him shine even among his acclaimed contemporaries at National Geographic magazine. I would have liked to contribute $100 to his project, but I am already the owner of his book Broken Empire: After the Fall of the USSR. With postcards from Krisanne and Larry Towell already ordered, and no interest in a $45 poster, I opted for a humble $10 contribution, for which I was rewarded with a “shout-out” on the project’s Facebook page.

Project © Gerd Ludwig

PROS

• Top level photographer with a reliable track record
• Important story that deserves ongoing coverage, even after the mainstream press has lost interest
• Multi-faceted distribution plan using exhibitions and new media

CONS

• Initially posted project budget lacked details, justification was posted ad hoc

• • •

 

And here is an example of how not to use crowdfunding.

• DSLR Kit for a Filmmaker by Ian Hedley-Wakefield

An aspiring film student put up this crowdfunding request for $7000 because he wanted to “get a Canon 7D and a Cinema Bundle kit made by RedRock.” After eight months, he collected $13.

An object of desire, with no backers.

According to his blog, he managed to eventually raise the money for a 7D by “selling as much stuff” as he could. I’m sorry to single him out as a botched funding attempt, and I do hope he will give it another try some day after more carefully thinking through his proposals.

• • •

 

Taking a step back from the details to look at the big picture, there are three budding trends in photo crowdfunding that are making me uncomfortable. If they aren’t corrected, things could head in the wrong direction and diminish the long term potential of this tool. They are:

 

1) Using the general tone and catchphrases of a charity

Although NGOs and charities raise money from the public, there is no reason why photographers should be adopting their language.

Until a few years ago, it was quite common for magazines to give “guarantees” to photographers before they started on the project. No promise of publication was involved, and it certainly was not enough for the photographer to make a living from. It was only enough to get a project rolling. Guarantees were often linked to the first right of refusal for a publication, or the promise of exclusivity if a simmering news event suddenly boiled over. The practice waned due to the feeble economic health of print publications, and not because there were suddenly less stories to be told.

Outside photojournalism, upfront funding is used on things as varied as motion picture films, artistic residences and business startups. The terminology they use never sounds like a charity. In some cases a return is expected on the investment, but in cases involving art and culture the idea is clearly to make projects happen outside of the sphere of pure market capitalism.

I think photographers need to drop the “donate” or “help save me” vocabulary that sounds like it was lifted from the Red Cross home page, and adopt terms like patronage, participation and guarantee. Let’s be perfectly honest here. None of us – not myself, not Johnson, not Towell nor Ludwig – are desperate for food, shelter or medical care. We live privileged lives compared with most of humanity. The simple truth is that we want to tell stories, and we’d like the people who are most interested in our work to get involved financially.

Framing our situation in more dramatic or misleading terms just leaves photographers open to the accusation of cyber-begging, which is summed up perfectly in this satirical cover from The Onion.

Satire sums it up. Fictional cover of The Onion.

 

 

2) Missing the chance to harness backer incentives as business tools

The people who have done amazingly well on Kickstarter are those who have combined a clever idea with well priced rewards for backers. Check out the TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch Watch Kits by Scott Wilson. They asked for $15,000 to develop wrist bands for iPod Nanos, and they ended up with nearly $1 million in pre-orders, despite the product’s frumpy name.

Admittedly, gritty documentary photo essays don’t have a potential market as big as slick Apple accessories, but clearly there is a lesson here that unique incentives with a good price-to-value ratio can do very well on crowdfunding platforms.

This is one aspect where Larry Towell’s proposal was completely off target. For $10, he offers backers a “personal handshake if I see you on the street corner of my home town.” At least we know that he has a cheeky sense of humor. Sadly, the joke is at the expense of his lowest level supporters who might have been offered something more meaningful.

For $10, I can buy a movie ticket or four newspapers or a couple of beers. Are you telling me that a renowned conflict photographer can’t offer an incentive that is roughly as interesting as those products for the same price?

Karim and Tina from Emphas.is think that $10 should buy backers a “unique bond between photojournalists and their audience,” by way of a communication channel that offers behind-the-scenes updates from the project. News is already free on the internet, so what exactly are we getting here?

The analogy that comes to my mind is the music industry. As digital music caused the revenue from album sales evaporate, some bands switched to making their money from live concerts. Now that you can get U2’s songs for free on the internet, why would you shell out $100 for a concert ticket? Much of the answer has to be the uniqueness of the experience, the immediacy and exclusivity.

If visual journalists can use social media to create interesting levels of immediacy and exclusivity for their backers for the price of a movie ticket, I think they’ll get people to come back.

And one word of caution for photographers offering rewards to backers: be sure to check with local tax rules and factor it into your business plan, as this animated video suggests.

 

3) Using old media, with all its failings, as the only guidepost for success

The traditional print media, which is indeed suffering a slow death, may have been responsible for producing many memorable photo essays and sending a long line of photographers to cover wars, but it was by no means perfect. That model—based on the concept of bundling information, maximizing circulation and attracting advertisers—has several systemic flaws which contribute to tarnishing the name of journalism and diminishing its power.

Think about the sensationalism, the short attention spans, the scattershot distribution, and the conflicts of interest with advertisers’ agendas that plague our current media landscape.

In an ideal world, stories would be well researched, executed with transparency and credibility, and then delivered directly to an audience that is relevantly connected to the information. Does that sound like the system we have in place today? Not to me.

If visual journalists take the lead in steering our profession back in the right direction, and if backers want to improve the media landscape, this moment of profound change is the time for us to bond together. And if we get things right, the old media may even pay attention and swing back in line.

 

Keep watching this blog. I’ll be pitching my own crowdfunding project via Emphas.is in the weeks ahead…

 

[Also, if you want to learn more, I will participate in a live webinar with Karim Ben Khelifa, the CEO of Emphas.is, and Paul Lowe, Course Director of the Masters Programme in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, on Tuesday, February 1. Please follow these detailed instructions to participate.]

 

*UPDATE – Jan. 25: Another top-level photojournalism proposal just went up on Kickstarter last night. Check out the powerful “Bedrooms of the Fallen” project by Ashley Gilbertson.

 

New funding models, Part IV – Interview on Emphas.is

Emphas.is, a new site that is creating an innovative platform for crowdfunding photojournalism, did an in-depth interview with me. The full text is reposted below with permission. The original post was published on Dec. 27, 2010.

• • •

‘People are willing to change the way they consume and pay for news’

In part IV of our series of interviews with photojournalists, TOMAS VAN HOUTRYVE talks about sneaking into North Korea, the relative advantages of working outside the mainstream news, and how to break out of your little photo cave on the internet.

Relatives of veterans of the CIA Secret War in their hidden village in Laos. © Tomas Van Houtryve 2007

I first met Tomas Van Houtryve on a bus in Guantanamo Bay at the beginning of 2002. We were part of the first batch of reporters allowed to visit Gitmo as part of a not so successful attempt by the US Marines to convince world opinion that the prisoners there were being treated fairly.

Gitmo was Van Houtryve’s beat as a staff photographer with the AP bureau in Puerto Rico. I’m afraid I’m partly responsible for convincing him to quit his job and become a freelance photographer. These were exciting times––there was a war going on in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq was just around the corner. Puerto Rico seemed like a dead end for a photojournalist in 2002.

But although Van Houtryve did quit his job with the AP, he didn’t follow the pack to Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he decided to concentrate on that most forgotten of all wars: the Maoist rebellion in Nepal. It seemed like a strange choice at the time, and there were times when he must have cursed the people who talked him into going freelance.

Eventually though the hard work in the shadows paid off. His Nepal work earned Van Houtryve the Visa Pour l’Image Young Photographer’s Award and the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents. In 2010 he was named POYI Photographer of the Year and he was asked to join the prestigious VII Network. Along the way he also turned out to be a talented writer.

The Nepal work gradually developed into an ambitious project to document the remaining communist regimes in the world. It included a crazy trip to North Korea for which Van Houtryve went to great lengths to change his identity on the internet, grew a moustache, developed a foreign accent, and acquired a second passport from a small inoffensive European country––all so he could enter North Korea as part of one of the so-called “friendship brigades.”

[Read about the North Korea adventure here on Van Houtryve’s blog]

We spoke to Van Houtryve in Paris, where he lives.

Has working on stories outside the mainstream helped you prepare for the new media environment?

“It think it has made the transition a bit less brutal than it was for people that were doing mainly headline news and had the rug pulled from under them. It was always quite a struggle to get media interested in the projects I was doing, like Nepal. But at least before the crisis there were more doors to knock on and there were more people with budgets. Now, there are maybe half as many or a quarter as many people out there who are willing to finance this kind of thing. So what was already a challenging task has become even more difficult.”

Has the effect been mainly financial or has it also reduced your ability to get the story out there?

“It’s mostly financial because there a quite a few websites that have sprung up that are willing to take photos but for a lot cheaper. At the same time that Time Magazine cut down how much they were buying or sending people on assignment, Time.com began running many more photo essays. But they only pay $750 per essay so you can still get your work out there but it will never pay to finance it.”

You’ve given this a lot of thought, experimenting with things like Twitter and Flattr. What have you learned?

“I have learned that there are ways that you can harness social networking and the internet to reach out to more people. Of course the money amounts in Flattr are fairly symbolic. At this point I’m making $20-$30 euros per month from Flattr; it basically pays for my online activities. But it does show that people are willing to at least make the effort of signing up for a PayPal account. It says there is a willingness out there for people to change the way they consume and pay for information.

“And once in a while you have a story that catches fire. I had a slideshow about North Korea that went viral on the Foreign Policy website. You have things like Digg where people click to put it at the top of the list and the more people click the higher it goes and eventually it goes viral.

“So this one thing about North Korea got like 400,000 clicks in one day and then topped a million within four days or something like that. That was a year-and-a-half ago, before Flattr was launched, but you can imagine if 10% of the people had been giving money on Flattr there, you would actually have had some real money coming in.

© Tomas van Houtryve

North Korea: Secrets and Lies photo essay

“Of course it’s very rare that a story goes viral like that, but it opened my eyes to the fact that the numbers you can get on the internet are totally different from the numbers you can get in print. I mean, 1 million hits, that’s The New York Times right there. But it all depends on how you promote it. If you just put something on your website you’ll get maybe a couple of hits a day but if it catches on to other groups, communities on the internet, there’s no telling how far it can go.

“It’s totally fickle and you don’t really want to go chasing after 1 milllion hits every time because the top hits will always be things like Shakira videos. But if you can raise your visibility and get a fairly consistent portion of the crowd then it can be worthwhile. There are lessons to be learned in terms of breaking out of your little cave on the internet and reaching out to wider audiences and what the tools are to do that.”

How does Emphas.is fit into all this?

“There are all these tools and ideas floating around in the new media environment and the guy that gets the recipe just right has the chance to make something powerful. And so far, within journalism, Emphas.is seems to have the best combination of ideas for distributing journalism and making that into a monetary model. It is taking many different ideas that are already out there and combining them into an interesting recipe.”

What do you think photojournalists need to do to get backers and to keep them as well?

“A lot will depend on the backers themselves. The one new thing that Emphas.is is bringing to the table is this idea of direct communication with the backer in more or less real time. And that seems like it would be useful to a lot of people but not to everybody.

“It is useful to people who want to know how photographers go about their business. It is useful to people who want to know about a particular subject or conflict and have the time to figure out a more nuanced form of communication rather than just a synopsis at the end. It is useful to students, for example, who are going to make a leap from their education to the real world, and to be able to tag along online with somebody in the real world is helpful for their formative process.

“But that’s not going to appeal to everybody. People who collect photography are probably not the ones who are going to jump online. So you may have to offer different incentives to different people. It depends on who your crowd is.”

Do you see it working for you?

“I do see it working for me. I think it’s definitely worth a try. And I think it offers a bigger opportunity. If you can build these crowds, the very act of cutting out the middleman and communicating with them directly, is something that is useful for journalism in general. It’s good for the public and it’s good for the journalist. I think that’s an opportunity not to be missed either.”

Which types of media will you be using to communicate with your backers on Emphas.is?

“Probably quite a bit of blogging, because I’m comfortable writing. Short video clips and also pictures from behind the scenes, pictures that wouldn’t make my final edit to a magazine because it doesn’t fit whatever the magazine’s point of view or needs are, or because they didn’t pass the ultimate quality test for publication but they may have some other value.

“There is also a question of the appropriateness of putting yourself in a story. In a story for the mass media it may seem weird to take away from the subject of the story to put yourself in there, but within the context of social media it may be that people actually want to hear the story from my personal point of view. I think that’s a door worth opening.”

Of course the biggest story that you’ve put yourself in was when you made up a whole new identity for yourself to get into North Korea.

“Yes, I probably wouldn’t have been able to live blog from North Korea…”

You would probably still be in North Korea if you had.

“Exactly. But as soon as I got back from North Korea I did do a short video from my hotel room in Beijing and I wrote tons of notes. Of course, when you have put both economic and physical risks into gathering this information, you hesitate about just dumping it all on the internet for free. But if you have a stable of backers that thrive off that kind of information, you’re much more likely to share it because it can help you finance your next project.”

Your first pitch for Emphas.is is a trip to Laos as part of your communism project. Tell us a bit more about that.

“I’m getting near the end of my communism project. Some of the countries, like Cuba and Nepal, I’ve been to seven times or more. But I’ve only been to Laos once. That is partly because I had a hell of a time getting anyone to back me to go in there.

“I eventually persuaded The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune to split the cost to each put me on assignment for three days. And they didn’t want to pay for my plane ticket out there either, only for the short plane ride from Bangkok to the north.

“But when The New York Times journalist and I got back from talking to the Hmong the story actually made quite a splash. The Hmong were allies of the Americans in the secret CIA war in Laos during the Vietnam war era, and thousands of them are still in hiding in the jungle today where they are being tracked and killed by the Laotian army. But Americans are hardly aware of the fact.

“So the story ended up getting three excerpts on The New York Times front page and three pictures on the front page of the Herald. I think it was one of the cheapest front page stories they’ve ever had, but I didn’t even break even on it.”

[Read more about the Hmong story here on Van Houtryve’s blog]

“For Emphas.is I want to go back to Laos to put the shocking things I’ve seen there in the jungle into context. What kind of state has Laos evolved into today? What kind of state can allow this kind of thing to go on in the jungle? I also want to look into the left-over ordnance from the war that is still killing people today.

“So the idea is to go back to Laos and get a full picture of Laos and how it fits into my larger project about how communism has adapted to the 21st century.”

What kind of incentives will you be offering backers for the Laos trip?

“I’m going to do blogging similar to what I did on my first trip to Laos. It described how I got in contact with these groups, what the process was to gain access to the jungle, how I got the media interested and what happened afterwards. This will be exclusive for my backers on Emphas.is; it will not be available for free on my blog.

“I will also be making custom mini 7-by-7-inch (18-by-18-cm) photo books of the Laos project for backers. People can choose between either an economical softcover, a beautiful hardcover, or for significant donors they can have their name listed in the book. And if enough people are interested live presentations could be organized in Paris or New York, or even via Skype for people elsewhere.”

(Interview by Gert Van Langendonck)


Flattr this

Read: New funding models Part I, Part II and Part III.

2010 The Year in Pictures

Below is a link to a retrospective slide show of my work this year, including my trip following the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Vietnam, a visit to the bizarre Republic of Kalmykia, the food crisis in Niger, protests and rural landscapes from France, the floods in Pakistan and the American Ballet’s historic visit to Cuba. The 60 photos are shown in chronological order.

2010 The Year in Pictures2010 The Year in Pictures by Tomas van Houtryve

 

Once again, my work this year would not have been possible without the generous support of photo editors, friends and other backers. I would particularly like to thank Bryan Erickson, Cyril Drouhet, Evelyn Masson, Antonin Lainé, Adrien Tomarchio, Daphne Angles, Patrick Witty, Mark Rykoff, Jenny Smets, Katie Mathy, Taylor Umlauf, Lidwine Kervella, Molly Roberts, Barbara Stauss, Lars Willumeit, Rick Shaw, Jean-Francois Leroy, Nick Papadopoulos, Dominique Viger, Scott Thode, Alina Grosman, Tanja Malmar, Stephen Mayes, Natasha Uppal, Laurene Champalle, Anne Guion, Brendan Hoffman, Ben Reich, Bruno Fert and Mathilde Damoisel.

For those of you interested in the technical aspects, here is the breakdown of how many shots in the series came from each of my cameras:

• Leica M9 digital – 40 photos
• Canon 5D Mk II digital – 12 photos
• Voigtlander R3M with Fujichrome film – 4 photos
• Leica M6 with Fujichrome film – 4 photos

Winter 2010 Newsletter

My Winter Newsletter is now online, with a roundup of my best work from 2010. It includes photo essays about the American Ballet in Cuba, Kalmykia, Famine in Niger, Vietnam as well as my new multimedia pieces and 2010 publications.

Cuba Ballet Beach

VII Network September Newsletter

The VII Network September Newsletter is now online. My photo essay featured in this issue is about the flooding in Pakistan. More photo essays, exhibitions and publications from the all the VII Network photographers inside.

June Newsletter

My June newsletter is now online with updates on new awards, exhibitions and publications. Most noteworthy, I’ve joined the VII Network. Full details at the links below:

June Newsletter | English version

Newsletter juin | version Français

2009 The Year in Pictures

Below is a link to a retrospective of my work this year including the Obama inauguration seen from Paris, urban renewal in Warsaw, and maternal health in Niger. Once again, most of my energy went  into my ongoing  project on global communism with fresh pictures from Cuba, coverage of the anti-communist riots in Moldova, a look at the self-declared republic of Transnistria, and a preview of my new work on Red Tourism in China.

copyright Tomas van Houtryve2009 The Year in Pictures by Tomas van Houtryve

This work would not be possible without the support and collaboration of numerous editors, colleagues, fixers and friends. Among those that I would like to acknowledge for their contribution in 2009 are Marianne Alfsen, David Arnott, Annie Boulat, Mathilde Damoisel, Marie-Sylvie Demarest, Cyril Drouhet, Bryan Erickson, Adrian Evans, Bruno Fert, David Hogsholt, Christie Johnston, Whitney Johnson, Mira Kamdar, Christian Kirk-Jensen, Marie Lelievre, Delphine Lelu, Olivia Lenard, Jean-Francois Leroy, Alain Lewkowicz, Susan Meiselas, Gina Martin, Evelyne Masson, John McConnico, Fanny Merrien, Maia Metaxa, Fredrik Naumann, Alex Perry, Michael Regnier, Pep Rigol, Molly Roberts, Mark Rykoff, Cynthia Schibli, Lonnie Schlein, Adeline Sombert, Bonnie Stutski, Josh Tyrangiel, Pauline Vermare, Janis Vougioukas, Mark Walsh, Patrick Witty, Maria Wood, Ellen Xu, Yukiko Yamagata, Amy Yenkin, Cristina Zelich, Quito Ziegler and undoubtedly several others that I forgot to mention here…

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