Wednesday, 8 February 2012

'A Holiday in Cambodia' or how tried to kick start my career - Part 2

Lying in my hotel bed, I started to imagine what it would be like to go home beaten, broke and having to face my colleagues and telling them I had gambled and lost was one of the darkest nights of the soul I have ever faced.

To lose a love is hard, but to lose one's dreams is difficult to recover from.

What to do?

All sorts of crazy options ran through my head and I drifted off into a somewhat troubled sleep.

It was the middle of the night.

The phone rang.

I picked it up, somewhat dazed.

It was difficult to believe but it was the picture desk of 'The Sunday Correspondent' newspaper.

'Oh hi Drew, we have a journalist over there who is trying to get into Cambodia, would you like to meet up with her?'

I really could not grasp it but needless to say I said 'yes'

Morning came and after a memorable tuk-tuk ride I met journalist Amanda Mitcheson on the other side of the city.

Amanda was a talented, clever, very experienced and tolerant journalist, the tolerant part was particularly important as she had to cope with possibly the greenest photographer in the history of journalism.

She and I had to come up with a game plan to get into Cambodia.

Simple, right?


Firstly, we needed a journalists visa from the Cambodian embassy and there was no embassy in Bangkok, as Cambodia was not formally recognised by the West and Western aligned countries, the nearest embassy was in Laos, so we had to get a tourist visa for Laos, to cross the Mekong river as tourists and apply for a Cambodian tourist visa in Vientienne (as they did not issue journalists visas) and on arrival in Phnom Penh the plan was to throw ourselves on the mercy of immigration in Cambodia and declare ourselves as journalists, we knew this was possible but it was rather a hit and miss affair by all accounts. (Don't try this at home folks, I tried this in Mozambique and was deported straight away....)

It was a real education for me in so many ways, the labyrinthine task of getting visas took many days and as I'm always saying in my blog just goes to show that the photography is the easiest part in many ways.

So after a somewhat epic journey to Laos to pick up our tourist visas we set off for Cambodia, not knowing what awaited us on arrival.

We were met by smiling officials, it was almost like they knew we were coming but perhaps that was just my paranoia, I do recall that another couple of people on our flight were not so lucky and were turned straight back.

We were taken straight to the ministry of the interior who gave us a minder who was never very far from us at all.

Cambodia may have been liberated from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime but it was a country that had a long way to go, with very few cars and sporadic electricity.

But to say a civil war was raging, with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge being supported by the West (difficult to believe but true) the people were open and remarkably friendly.

On the first day we were shown the train which was frequently attacked with mines and RPG's by the KPNLF and Khmer Rouge insurgents.

I took this shot from the roof of the train as it pulled out of town.
Shot with a Canon F1N with a 20mm F2.8 on Ilford HP5 (I think)
I had a huge bundle of Cambodian money (Riels) stolen from me while I was on the train, it nearly filled the camera bag, really it did. I was gutted until I realised it was worth less than $50 dollars....hyper inflation has its bonuses.

The minder actually was pretty good at taking us around to all sorts of things that you would think would be out of bounds, such as army training camps and various areas which you would think would be considered as sensitive.

At the end of the day though I suppose it was about conveying their message to the outside world.

I shot this rather interesting portrait of an Army conscript during his lunch break who really started to fool around for the camera, to the great amusement of his mates.

The impact of the war on the rural communities was hard stuff.

Lots of injuries from land mines and gunshot wounds from exchanges between the sides.

Seeing the impact of war on innocent bystanders for the first time left a lasting impression on me.

Th government took us on a flight to the besieged town of Battambang, to prove that they were firmly in control. The Russian pilots had to make a very interesting approach over the mountains so we avoided ground fire. That banished any fear of flying, forever.

One thing to remember, it was well and truly the days of film, so 36 exposures on a roll and what on earth to do with all those shot rolls? Leave them in the hotel? Put them in a camera bag that could get stolen? I would keep them in the pockets of my combat trousers, looking like a circus clown.

During the two weeks on the ground in Cambodia I could see the spectre of my day job looming on the horizon, and I wondered how on earth I  was going to fit back in shooting Golden Weddings and kids parties.

As I left Cambodia for Bangkok I vowed to return, never having seen some of the great sights of the country like Ankor Wat but so far have not, it would be great to see the country now, though I hear progress has swept away much of what I saw.

On our return to the safety of Thailand,we had a chance to view the refugee camps on the Thai side of the border where the KPNLF were operating from. But it would mean missing my flight home to life on the local paper, needless to say I came up with some half baked excuse which the paper did not buy and headed off to the refugee camps where I shot this pic of Cambodian kids kick boxing, while their dads were over the border fighting the very people whom I had befriended in Cambodia.

That is the thing with photojournalism, it enables you to live many lives which are not actually yours.

All too soon my time was up and I had to return and face the music, I had returned to my day job a whole week late.

I brought back a ton of fake Rolex watches for my workmates who had done their very best to cover for me and my unauthorised one week extra holiday.

I nearly pulled it off too, but one person ratted on me and the game was up.

I was called into see the Editor who was understandably not quite so keen on my approach.

He threatened to fire me, but before he could I handed in my notice and quit.

There and then.

You see on my return to London I was called in by 'The Sunday Correspondent' Picture Editor Michael Cranmer who told me that my pictures were so well received they were running a whole page on them, and more besides.

He then broke the news to me that the safe pair of hands who he had previously chosen for the job had quit, and he asked me if I would like to fill his shoes.

I have no need to tell you what the answer was.

And that is how I got into the world of British broadsheet national newspapers which made me much of who I am today.

As a footnote I was at a party a few weeks after my return and another photographer said 'I was just lucky' he had been to Cambodia and the papers did not run with his stuff.

It was luck, yes.

But you make your own luck.

As my good friend Andy Morgan who became a colleague on the 'Sunday Correspondent' would often say 'Fortune favours the brave'.

Part 3 to follow in the future.....


Ian said...

Very interesting and well written. You have the basis of a book Drew. Thanks, Ian

Mark R Coons - Music Man5 Photos said...

This is fascinating Drew, as Ian said this would be a book that I would buy.

Dave Keating Photography said...

This is a great story. Looking forward to more.

MarkScholey said...

Looking forward to part 3 now Drew, loved both of the first 2!... keep on making your own luck :)

Unknown said...

Thanks Guys,

I really appreciate it

I was going to stop 'memoir' based blogging but it seems to be a hit, so I will keep going.

Have to keep up to date stuff going too, so please bear with me



Dave Keating Photography said...

Drew, not only is the story very interesting, but the photos are great as well, so please do keep posting like this as time allows. Very enjoyable.


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Drew. Very enjoyable! Would be a book worth to read.

Libby said...

'Memoir based blogging' - We don't mind one bit. And you are right - sometimes photography is the easy part. -Libby

moss said...

I'd like to think the brilliant images might have played a small part in your stuff getting printed while the other guys didn't. You know they have a Photography Festival in Siem Reap, in November, perfect time to visit, and if you gave a lecture or two I'm sure they'd be well attended.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thanks Guys,

Thank's Guy's

I'm pleased you have enjoyed the story so far.

Interested be the comment from Moss.

Perhaps one day who knows?

But greatly heartened to hear the country is evolving in positive ways, after being a 'victim' nation.



Rohan Phillips said...

I found this post fascinating. It's always interesting to read about how successful photographers got their start in the business.

But when that involves selling your possessions, and risking your job going overseas in a dangerous area, it's hard to stop reading. Sounds very similar to the way Steve McCurry kick-started his career.

Do you ever think about how differently things may have turned out if you'd taken the 'sensible' approach?

Looking forward to your next post.

Unknown said...

Hi Rohan,

Thanks I'm pleased you enjoyed it.

Th sonly thing stopping me from posting more on my career path is digging out archive material.

Much was in the possession of the newspapers who I was working for and has very sadly been lost over time.

Do I wonder what would have happened if I had not gambled?

Not really.

Life is one big gamble,from the moment we are born.

Our time on earth is short.

To live life to the full is living itself, not safe or easy.

Most readers of this blog would consider I have 'Made it'

The truth is we never make it, until we are dead and then there is no more.

Everyday is a challenge for me and yes, I do still gamble.

Last year I used the proceeds from a house to finance a TV documentary project.

I may win or lose but I don't regret it.