Tsunami – unclaimed possessions



As a photographer, you want to get as close as possible to your subject – to see the smallest detail without missing the big picture. That old rule will never get too old to forget.

But how do you apply it to an event which took place a decade ago?

The bigger the distance – be it time or space – the harder it gets to tell the story accurately. It gets blurred, obscured and perhaps even twisted. Some parts vanish, while others grow.

I’ve covered over 100 hundred mass graves and identification processes in my career, full of mass killings and major natural disasters. Many of these assignments took place long after the tragedy.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami was a huge disaster and “routine coverage” – such an ugly phrase – of its 10th anniversary doesn’t seem to be enough.

Of course we will find survivors and they will recount their stories, we will speak to parents who lost their children, to fishermen whose lives will never be the same again.

But then perhaps you want something else that will bring the 2004 Boxing Day disaster alive and make people stop to think for a moment: “Well, that thing in pictures – that really could have been me.”

I found out from a colleague of mine at Reuters about a shipping container full of items found on tsunami victims.

It brought to mind a masterfully executed collection of pictures by a great Bosnian photographer of items found with victims of the Bosnian war.

Naturally, we immediately started asking permissions to see what is inside that container and to film it.

Police in Thailand’s Takua Pa district, who received the container in 2011 from those who carried out the initial identification process, agreed to the request by Reuters to film its contents, and its heavy doors were opened after years.

Everyone was surprised by the items found in there, and especially the quantity of valuable possessions.

At first, we thought it would just be several boxes with items belonging to the almost 400 still unidentified victims whose remains are buried in a cemetery nearby, unclaimed. But it seems there is more.

A random box was taken out and its contents were placed on a table.

Inside was a yellow snorkelling mask, which looked children’s size, with a fine grain of sand from Thailand’s famous beaches still on it. There were amulets and a little Buddha statue. A watch and wedding rings and much more, in that black hole of pain.

It would be difficult to get closer so I took pictures of those very different items one by one. Such a big tragedy doesn’t ask for your age or profession or religion, whether you are rich or poor, an academic from the developed world on holidays or a migrant fisherman from Myanmar who came to earn just enough to feed his family back home. It’s a full scale disaster.

Unfortunately, no matter how terrible the event, soon the names will become numbers, and the numbers statistics. But we’re all thinking “That could never be me,” right?

For more pictures on Tsunami’s 10th anniversary please click here.

Using sound to tell the story

In their November 2014 issue, Photo District News magazine published an interview with me. In their Gear & Techniques section, to which I don’t belong by any other means, I explain how I use the sound to tell the story. A video I shot and, with a friend’s help, edited from Fukushima was used as an example of what I do. You can click this link to read the interview or scroll down for my original answers from which PDN extracted what they needed for magazine.

PDN Interview Scan

I fell in love with audio, totally unexpectedly, years ago while experimenting with early multimedia. My first sound recordings were flat and confusing and actually really poor. They didn’t add anything to pictures and all seemed like a waste of time. Like a lot of people, I have that aggressive consumer mentality, so I bought a more expensive recorder thinking that would help. It didn’t – the files were just bigger. I was about to drop it all.

A few months after, I decided to give another chance to my recordings and ambition. I opened an old project in editing software and all the different tracks of sounds and visuals were there. Then I realised what my original mistake was – I hadn’t seen the sound before. I was, practically, both blind and deaf to it. Visualisation of tracks in editing software helped me to see it and to start treating it the way I treat pictures—in layers.  The composition is all so similar – different elements, background, action, and important detail.

I loved it and I still love it. Now when I enter the scene, besides the visuals I also recognise different layers and shapes of the sound – what is in the background, the ugly noise or beautiful colour, or a dominant voice.

So I learned it the hard way. I should have asked an expert perhaps to make it all easier. But every time I asked the question, the answers were not what I wanted – they were too technical. I obviously asked wrong people because they were basically retelling me in a nicer way what was written in user manuals of sound decoders. I didn’t need that. I needed to see the sound.


The Fukushima project was the real challenge – how to record the sound of emptiness, of loneliness. What does the horror of a haunted place sounds like? I spent days looking for adequate sound. Something that would, with waves from the ocean and wind that blows through broken windows, be the background for the main story. Sounds of insect fit the picture perfect – the nature was taking over what humans left in a hurry. And it went wild.

Before I went to Fukushima for the third anniversary, I had done some serious research. I always do serious research – a big part of what you see in my pictures or multimedia is research. I do believe in a reporter’s instincts and his abilities to recognise important things in the field and react to them. But I believe those are enhanced by serious research.

For me, research means information, lots of information. On any given story I’m trying to find out much more than what will be visible in the final edit. A friend of mine who is probably the most brutal magazine editor I know, keeps saying “before you write anything, you have to know everything.” Well, everything is probably bit too extreme but as much as possible, I would say.

I followed Fukushima story from the beginning and knew the numbers of evacuation related deaths as they grew. They were usually buried many paragraphs down, hidden behind different Fukushima problems. I brought them up to the top for my story when they equaled the number of those killed in the original disaster. Reuters supported me in choosing that angle, which was extremely important.

While preparing, I also try to get the feeling of the place and of the story. I will stop at a single photograph, or a paragraph of text, and try to figure out what is the world around it—what that world looks like and what it sounds like. Is it calm? Who controls it? Will I be alone? How long can I stay?

The story can get the tone before I even record a thing. I get into the mood early because it’s what I can often control well on non-breaking news stories. I choose accommodation that will fit that mood; I wear the clothes that fit that mood; and I read the books to fit that mood.


When I work on a story like this one from Fukushima I don’t focus only on what makes strong photography (although that remains my absolute priority; no sound will compensate for weak visuals). I meet as many people as I can. I listen to what they have to say. Somewhere in a corner of an evacuation centre or on an empty beach there is always someone who has a strong story to tell.

In Fukushima, I worked with few Japanese friends with great knowledge of the place and passion for the story. And patience. We visited many places and spoke to many people until we found what proved to be a perfect “subject.”

I spent two days with Mr. Masakura mostly listening to his sad story. He liked to have someone who would just sit face to face and listen. Then his story opened up. I only recorded the most interesting parts in the silence of evacuee’s temporary accommodation. Before we left, he told us he had written a song about his tragedy and asked if I want to hear it. I came even closer with my little Roland recorder to capture the audio. I did not understand a single word, but I perfectly understood what he had to say.

It is very important to be as unobtrusive as possible and for my equipment not to be too big and imposing. I usually use a very small sound recorder without an external microphone so I can get very close to the subject. It’s really important to be close to the subject.  To paraphrase Capa’s famous quote here “If your sound is not good enough you were not close enough.”

I know my cameras, recorders and accessories very well. That’s important because I don’t want to miss any of what is happening in front of me. If a man whispers I need to hear it clearly in my earphones, so eventually you can hear it on your computer later.


I edit my own videos. But for this one from Fukushima, and a few others, I’ve asked an expert friend to help with some technical things like video formats or smoothing out the video. However, most of it is scripted and pre-edited in my head before I even sit at the computer.

The attention span of viewers is short, so I don’t have a lot of time to tell a story. A friend of mine who is a master of TV business, gave me this advice once: “Imagine a short ride, in a bus, elevator, or taxi, lasting just a few minutes. You want to tell your story to a person travelling with you in the time it takes to reach your destination. You want to tell the whole story without missing an important part and you do not want to be boring.”

And the internet is an even bigger challenge than an elevator – it’s interactive and your audience can always click away if it’s boring, or just bad.

I often open videos with an establishing screen where I give some basic information, in writing. With storytelling videos, I like to give it that introduction. Then the story comes, its drama unfolds and all culminates at the end.It is a classical storytelling, just like in documentaries, in movies, in books. It helps if it has “a hero”, a main protagonist of the story, and I choose him/her carefully.


While shooting and editing, I use colours and shapes a lot. In a story like Mr. Masakura’s, the outside is cold and alien so hues are green or blue. That is just off-black, variations of the darkness. When we move inside colours turn into warmer, into reds and orange. That is off-white, where the life is.

The outside is wild with open horizon. Look at the shapes in these pictures – roads and rails go nowhere. There would be maybe just a broken house or a stranded ship in the distance. It’s balanced and central, it has great depth. It goes far but never arrives.

When we go back inside, it all becomes flat and a bit claustrophobic. I don’t use very wide lenses inside because I don’t want to make it look more spacious. There are only two dimensions inside and no depth with nowhere to go. The subject is pinned against the wall. There are no background sounds, maybe just an echo or a clock ticking.

And then windows – I used pictures of windows every time the story leaves the house or comes back from outside. Windows almost always work – visually to frame a picture of the world we see though them. Psychologically, windows divide cold from warm, dark from bright. Life from the absence of it.

Using these elements and setting such rules really helps me editing. A photograph in time and in sequence that lasts a certain number of seconds, is an alien and new concept to an old(er) school photographer, to someone whose main target is/was to make his picture appear printed on the paper. Now, all of a sudden, I have to decide how long the viewer should spend on a particular frame.

It all has to have great timing, rhythm and pace. Since I’m not very musical person, I need assistance with rhythm, like a metronome that sets the speed. I use the background sounds for it, something repetitive but not too aggressive – waves, subtle monk chanting, rain against window, bells ringing…


How do I put it all together and what comes first – pictures, video or sound – it changes from project to project. The foundation stone is the story itself and that comes first. What carries that story is the skeleton of a project – sometimes it can be a strong visual element, sometimes spoken words as in this Fukushima piece. Nothing is more important than the story. Once I build such a skeletal structure, the easier part comes. I add other important elements and then some more nice, decorative ones to help digest the story, to make is more pleasant, attractive. However, a single picture, or sound, can be very beautiful but if they don’t fit the story I cut them out with no regrets.


When do I record video? I don’t shoot action on video, TV does that. I sometimes shoot moving pictures, and that is often just a still picture with flickering lights on an empty street, waves hitting rocks, a twisted clock swaying. These little but important movements I can’t get on still pictures and then I switch to video.

Since there is no or little action in my clips, I pay more attention to sounds while recording. I use a miniature but good microphone that is attached to hot shoe of my camera so I can easily switch between photo and video without losing time on equipment. Recording high quality sound with video helps in editing – I may use only the audio track from that clip and discard video.


I don’t record too much material, take too many photos, or too many video clips. I spend more time looking for a close-to-perfect scene and then sticking to it. If I have time, I will shoot what I think is relevant and strong again and again rather than looking for variations of it. I’m not out there for quantity of footage or to search for that non-existent perfect shot. I’m realistic and I think I can recognise when something is good enough. In edit, the context I put the shot in can make it even work better.

The Doors of Rabat

Behind heavy, ornate doors on the Rue de Farj, an invisible pressure-cooker whistles. Next comes the smell of food that carries me back to childhood. Two cheerful voices can be heard, both female: one is patronising, the younger almost singing. Over the thick stone wall I can see a mother-in-law teaching a newlywed girl the secrets of her cooking.

Over the next two hours of a cool Sunday morning, I stood before and photographed 55 similar and equally mesmerising doors. By noon, I was in love with Rabat’s Medina.

A combination photo shows some of colourful doors in Rabat's old parts Medina and Kasbah of the Oudayas

UNESCO made Rabat a World Heritage Site two years ago. The media and tour operators call it a “must-see destination.” But it seems the tourist hordes have yet to find out. While tourists are getting squeezed and grilled in the madness of Marakesh and Fez, the old part of Rabat – its beautiful Medina and Kasbah of the Udayas – remain an almost unspoiled oasis of calm. Smaller and more compact, its labyrinths of streets, passages and dead ends are a treasure trove of shapes and colours, of moments begging to be photographed.

The view of Medina from its south side, just under the magnificent Kasbah and across the river from Sale, is spectacular. This is where I suggest you start exploring. From the rooftop of the beautiful Hotel Udayas, built in 1918 but now being masterfully refurbished into a luxury accommodation, the view unfolds over a fort and river. What you’ll see from here offers a peek into a history full of reversals of fortune, peace accords and rivalry among neighbourhoods. What is today the ancient part of Morocco’s capital city was once three separate entities competing and sometimes fighting for primacy.

A woman walks of rooftop of a building in Rabat's Medina as the walls of Kasbah of the Oudayas are seen in background

From the south, the main street that leads to the sights and sounds and aromas of the old city is the Rue des Consuls – a slightly wider alley full of shops and founduks (courtyards), with more shops and traditional workshops inside.

Shopping on the Rue des Consuls is a pleasant experience, but talking to local traders in a street with such a great history of doing business with foreigners is the must. This was a hotspot for the 17th-century Barbary slave trade. That’s what made it so important in the first place.

Rue de Consuls is where white slaves were sold. Diplomats from overseas, lacking better options, were dispatched with money collected by local communities to buy their people back. According to the narrated history, one French diplomat was so good at buying slaves back that the local rulers expelled him for ruining their business.

All foreign diplomats were later asked to live in one street, and that is how the Rue des Consuls got its name. Powerful merchant families now occupy their quarters. But I am convinced the beautiful carpets and other oriental products on sale here are just a facade; the real power must lie somewhere else. The tough faces and body language of people I photograph hint at something more profitable, possibly dangerous, than pulling tourists aside and selling them a carpet or two for double price.

A man walks in front of doors in walls of Rabat's Medina

Maybe it’s the history, but the general attitude of business people here seems very different from places like it. There isn’t much pestering. There are very few “mister, good price for you” attacks. It’s a very welcome surprise – a surprise that actually made me buy things I would normally ignore, such as four pairs of leather slippers in colours that don’t match anything else I own.

A legend – probably just another sweet lie told over even sweeter tea by a pencil-moustached local vendor who introduced himself as a great lover of Medina – suggests that if you listen carefully voices from long-gone cabarets still echo through the alleys. This is where the money from piracy was once spent. The old town was a place for business but also for pleasure.

In an alley I hoped would lead from the consuls’ street to my accommodation, all I heard was the sound of pinball machines. If I were religious, that is how my call for prayer would sound, and I would waste no time in entering this house of worship. Inside, the real spectacle: machines from the Eighties, Gottlieb’s Buck Rogers and other pinball legends lined by the wall; video games in the corners. I’m grateful to all the gods that made me take another wrong turn in the labyrinths of Medina. I was a lost but happy man.

Outside the darkness of this gaming shrine, boys chased a real ball. Naturally, all of them wore shirts bearing the names of super-stars – mostly Arab or Muslim players from big foreign teams. Other than Cristiano Ronaldo who is obviously above everything, I mostly see Benzema (actually, many small Benzemas), Ribery, a few Ozils and at least one curly Fellaini.

A man plays video games in an entertainment salloon in Rabat's Medina

Besides shopping, chasing history’s ghosts and playing football with future stars, the real must in Rabat’s ancient quarter is to eat, eat and eat. The only advice here is do not, under any circumstances or imperatives of the world you are coming from, limit yourself to three miserable meals a day. Calories please forget – it’s a sin by any religion or ideology known to humans to suppress the organic need of trying every single one of the numerous delicacies served in Medina.

Even a vegetarian will not know what to choose from a menu full of specialities made of zucchinis, eggplants, olives, artichokes and spiced potatoes. However, my favourite remains sheep’s head offered at one of the small restaurants between the Grand mosque and Bab Chellah gates. It’s cheeks, tongue and, above all, brains are briefly fried and served with onion. Its melting taste produces a dangerous chemistry that communicates directly with hidden parts of human mind; its simply divine. Bypassing all prejudices and possible complaints about questionable hygiene of the surroundings, a sheep’s head will forever change your perspective of fast food.

But slow food is the real treat. The speciality of one restaurant, perhaps jokingly named Petit Beurre, is lamb legs. If a sheep was a centipede it would still not have enough legs for a Bosnian – that’s how much we love it. But – let me tell you – this is something different. This meat, served with boiled vegetables and sauce, melts on the tongue. I asked the chef the age of what we just ate and he said, with no sign of shame, that it was younger than nine months. It might actually be illegal in some countries to eat a mammal so young. But hey! We are in Morocco, so no complaining.

A butcher sells animal's legs and heads in Medina, Rabat's old city

In my five short days in Rabat I felt I discovered only a tiny part of the whole spectacle. I barely saw the ocean and its beautiful beaches. I didn’t walk the wide boulevards of new Rabat, which are decorated with art deco buildings. I didn’t venture inland where, I’m told, the real magic starts.

If you plan the trip to Rabat or Morocco, make it at least three to six months long. And hurry up before seriously addictive 25-cent mint tea, nicknamed Moroccan whiskey, gives away to ten-dollar coffee; before fried brains are replaced on the menu by a deep-fried something that even the animal I just ate, wouldn’t eat.

As I am driven to Casablanca airport in an ancient white Mercedes 200D taxi, it strikes me the only real danger of visiting Morocco is that you might want to stay forever. No matter how short or long you stay, make sure you come with a hunger for everything that is hidden behind the doors of Medina. And bring lots of memory cards – your camera will be hungry, too.

A woman makes her way between houses painted in traditional blue and white colors in Kasbah of the Oudayas, a picturesque ancient part of Rabat

See some more pictures here and here.

Djurdjevdan, afar from home


Millions of years later, but only a short distance away from pictures in my previous blog post (in which people are so dwarfed by history that we can’t possibly see them), another image is taken. A bus came to the beach facing North Korea and unloaded a battalion of tourists armed with cameras. To someone coming from the acute greyness of my previous frames, this must look like an alien invasion.

It reminded me on something I feel every May 6, if I happen to be in my beloved Sarajevo. That day is St. George’s Day, a major holiday for Roma people in my country. They call it Ederlezi or Djurdjevdan and it’s basically a fine festival of not-so-fine music and wild dance, heavy food and heavier drinking, plus all the madness the Balkans can offer. Naturally, I won’t miss something as colorful as Djurdjevdan. Early in the morning I go to one of the Roma settlements in Sarajevo’s suburbs and spend the day there.

Usually, I bring a car trunk full of beer and food and install myself into the heart of situation – by the fire, next to a tribal leader. Then, as is the custom, he introduces me to new members of his family: a son just returned from Italy, another one from jail, a few new children, perhaps a new wife. That part I simply adore: to listen to their names. Although the family is nominally a Muslim one, first names are: Elvis, Rambo, Esmeralda, Aaron, Ronaldo and one little cute Rolando (they made a spelling mistake and it stayed like that).

So much for the names. Don’t get me started on their clothes, their lifestyle, their disregard for the usual canons of behavior. In that respect, and despite the restrictions society imposes on them, my Roma friends live close to absolute freedom, and I envy them. We all have our freedoms but within certain boundaries. Roma go wherever they want. We call our children names we want as long as they are within borders someone else drawn. They call theirs Rolando.

It resembles this beach picture, or elsewhere in the South Korea – please look at colors these people wear. Grey or, God forbid, black is only a rare exception from the obvious rule of “as cheerful as possible”. And look at me, or anyone else coming from a warped society in which wearing bright colors is almost a sign of weakness. While standing on the hill and talking this picture, the only non-black piece of clothes on me is a worn out vest that faded into dark grey. Those are my colors. I even changed the straps on my cameras from Canon red to indistinct black.

I know, this people (even men!) wear orange shoes and jackets not only because they can, but because they feel like it. And I’m so happy to see it, this festival of light and life against a very dark backdrop.

All at sea – tales from Korea’s disputed border

Baengnyeong, South Korea


Look at the little blue dot showing a current position on a map: that is the island of Baengnyeong. The map might suggest this outcrop is deep inside North Korea but it’s not. The hand in the picture is mine, the phone with its high-speed internet connection is also mine, and the barbed wire is South Korean.

Baengnyeong – like a few other islands I visited recently – lies on the South’s side of the disputed maritime boundary that separates the two Koreas at sea. Known as the Northern Limit Line, it is an extension of the more famous land border between North and South Korea – the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ – but it curves further to the north. It is the line between two fierce neighbors whose war started over six decades ago and never really ended.

I had seen many pictures of the DMZ but very few of the NLL. The DMZ looks scary but familiar: it is the world’s most heavily armed border, and the only serious boundary remaining from the Cold War.

While recent news from Ukraine suggests that similar borders could soon be drawn elsewhere, the frontier between the Koreas is the real thing: an impenetrable line dividing two different worlds that used to be one.

Life along this border at sea was unknown to me. I had seen only a few news pictures after previous deadly incidents or artillery duels between the Koreas.

There is a famous picture of North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un waving from a rickety, overloaded boat as his officers push the vessel into the sea just across from Baengnyeong. Unfortunately this old image was about as much as I would see from the northern side of this maritime border.

But there was no reason why the southern side should remain a mystery. I went out to document life by the boundary, and found it a strange and fascinating mix of modern, high-tech living and old paranoia.



When an astronomer watches the stars, patch after patch of black nothingness pass before his lens until he is lucky enough to get a glimpse of, let’s say, a supernova exploding in the distance. Usually, that distance is measured by hundreds of light years, which means he is gazing into the remote past, seeing something that happened a long, long time ago.

On a hill on a South Korean island, overlooking the Northern Limit Line, the feeling is the same. The sea is vast but we were there with our gear at the ready. The thing we were expecting to happen – some sort of interaction between old enemies – was the relic of a very distant past. During many long hours of waiting, nothing really happened. We only saw about a dozen lazy Chinese ships on the North Korean side of the NLL, out fishing.

And then, on a fourth visit the hill on the island of Yeonpyeong, just before we quit our careers as amateur observers for good, a loud siren blasted from behind the beach. At first we thought something was happening on the island, some sort of emergency perhaps, but then two swift patrol boats appeared out of nowhere, speeding towards the Chinese vessels. Following them, a minute later, was a large South Korean corvette – we saw its big guns and soldiers on the deck.

We couldn’t believe it. Ships from the North Korean side had come too close, or even crossed the invisible boundary, and now the South Korean military was chasing them away. For a short moment we thought a real drama was unfolding before our eyes, something we better record as skillfully as possible because it might be breaking news. When we planned the trip, witnessing any sort of interaction between the two sides – be it radio contact, fishermen helping each other out at sea or even petty trade – was at the top of our wish list.

What we didn’t know, and what an experienced coast guard officer explained to us later that afternoon – his voice laced with irony – was that we had gotten overexcited. In fact, such incidents are not really incidents; they happen almost every week. The South Korean military is always ready to protect its borders, and whenever it decides ships from the other side have come too close it simply chases them away.

Nevertheless, we got our supernova and a dose of adrenaline. It was a timely reminder that we were indeed deep inside “enemy territory” and that the situation could escalate at any moment.

A scene from the Cold War had played out before our eyes. Not many places in the world can offer you the chance to gaze into the past from a tourist observation point.



Working by the NLL is no smooth trip through time. Sometimes it feels like the machine malfunctions, and you are left in limbo between a faded past and a colorful and futuristic present.

This is, thanks for asking, a challenge for any photographer like me trying to put together a coherent sequence of pictures, without giving the impression that I have mixed up two different series of images.

Looking north through razor wire on Yeonpyeong showed me a scene like so many others I have witnessed during my professional life: heavily armed borders, the presence of “us and them”, threats and obvious suffering … It seemed as if some outside force – some photo-shopper in the sky, perhaps – had dimmed all the colors.

But I felt comfortable, I know this situation so well. I like it and I hate it. As I framed my shot, I was almost tempted to capture the scene in a way that would deprive it of life even further, adding more salt to the wound.

But that was just for one short and depressing moment. We listened to a North Korean radio station (the signal is not jammed here, as it is in Seoul) and we almost took pleasure in the sounds we could hear, broadcast from not all that far away. The voice of a news anchor announced that the supreme leader visited another factory and gave famous “on the spot instructions” followed by revolutionary songs from what should be history. We enjoyed hearing it, in a bizarre and almost shameful way.

My relationship with totalitarianism and communism is a weird mixture of well-known painful fact and nostalgia about my late homeland Yugoslavia, my years during Perestroika in the Soviet Union and some wonderful moments I spent in Iran.

But when I witness these societies, I am often the privileged one looking at them from outside. The feeling I have here is the feeling of the reporter with a return ticket in his back pocket, who has covered disasters and wars, but can walk away any time.



If there is a female version of Chuck Norris, she can’t be even remotely as tough as Kim Ho-soon, a 66-year-old diver and fisherwoman I had the honor to meet on Baengnyeong.

Originally from the island of Jeju, where female pearl divers are not uncommon, at first sight this utterly lovable woman could be mistaken for any other elderly citizen of South Korea. Except she doesn’t spend her days enjoying long walks, gossiping or watching soap operas on TV, like most of her generation. She dives for seafood almost every day, and has done so since she was nine.

I asked her why she is still doing this now and she immediately answered: “Because I’m best at this,” as if her age counted for nothing in the cold winter waters of the Yellow Sea.

“North Korea doesn’t bother us… [South Korean] military, China and reporters are ones that bother us,” she added, while waiting one foggy morning for the military’s permission to take her three-strong crew diving and fishing.

Fishermen from Baengnyeong can’t go when and where they want and that makes them visibly unhappy. Every port on the island has a wooden booth with a young marine inside and a mast above it.

On the mast is a flag whose color Kim Ho-soon – also known as mama – checks every morning. If it’s red, that means the sea is a no-go; blue means go; and yellow is the sign of a frustrating stand-by. Often, the poor soldier manning the booth feels the heat from fishermen for flying a red or yellow flag. The messenger always pays the price.

It all makes sense, the flags and the tough behavior with fishermen. If they stray too close to the NLL, someone from the other side might snatch them, despite the constant patrols by South Korean marines. It’s the price you pay for living on such an isolated island so close to the enemy.

Soon, a blue flag fluttered on the mast, and the mama happily took us on a little boat steered by her son-in-law. As I put on another layer of clothes in an effort to stop the unstoppable wind that was blowing in from the open sea, the old lady was getting ready for a dive. Her kit: a simple mask, a knife and a bag that she fills with seafood by hand (she can bring back 40 kilograms in one go).

Soon after, she disappeared into the depths and just a tiny yellow air hose remained visible from the surface. In the background, a military corvette sailed by, marking the end of Kim Ho-soon’s world. What we don’t see behind it, dissolved in fog, is North Korea.

South Korean marines sleep on the ferry traveling to the mainland from the Yeonpyeong island that lays just inside the South Korean side of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in Yellow Sea


In North Korea, just across the invisible border and not too far from a ferry carrying three sleeping South Korean marines, rules for taking pictures are simple: only beautiful, please (to quote the title of the book by John Everard, former British ambassador to Pyongyang).

And that is only if the person with the camera is lucky enough to visit a country so many want to leave.

Journalists play a funny game – most of the time we really want to go to places that others really want to leave.

Whether in North Korea, Fukushima or Sarajevo reporters are always headed in the opposite direction, against the current and often against common sense.

North Korea probably tops the list of photographers’ dream destinations. I haven’t met anyone in this profession who doesn’t want to go there. I’ve been asked more questions by colleagues about how I once made it to Pyongyang than about anything else I’ve done in my career.

Ironically, the images we see from the North are not unlike what you remember in the morning after awaking from a nightmare: just flashes, a few details, maybe a single scene around which we knit our pain and anxiety.

The pictures in between soon vanish, or become an “only beautiful, please” image, a boring commonplace, like the images of thousands cheering for the Leader, or a pretty policewoman in white socks directing traffic in Pyongyang.

South Korea has its own “only beautiful, please” aesthetic, but it’s fundamentally different. The truth is that I have rarely been anywhere where I have been ignored or snubbed so much as on the South Korean islands near the NLL.

More often than not, people looked away or soldiers comically turned on their heels and marched in the opposite direction when I lifted my camera. At first I thought it was just bad luck. Soon I realized their photo shyness was widespread, or instructed.

It seemed like soldiers were told to turn away from a stranger’s camera if the situation was not pre-arranged; a friend who knows a lot about the subject told me they have to look beautiful and strong all the time.

I have taken many images of tough-looking soldiers, but then an important and differently beautiful frame sometimes comes along – like the one of sleeping soldiers, shown above – and offers a new perspective.

At the same time, freedoms on opposite sides of the Korean border are fundamentally different – not to be compared.

On the South side I move freely. Nobody really stops me, even if I get close to the border fence or climb the hill on which a terrifying rocket is planted. To my great delight, there is no need for any special permission; there are no unpassable checkpoints and almost no photo restrictions.

Here, I actually have a good chance to see and photograph real life as it is – both the “only beautiful, please” and beyond.


Some more pictures from island near NLL here.

The samurai and survivors of Fukushima

Shortly after the mandatory evacuation was announced on television, Fumio Okubo put on his best clothes and his daughter-in-law served up his favorite dinner. By morning, the 102-year-old was dead. He had hanged himself before dawn.

A rope knitted from plastic bags is certainly not a tanto knife. Nor was his death a dramatic one, with the public in attendance and blood all around but what an old farmer did that morning recalls the act of a samurai in ancient times – to die with honor. Okubo, who was born and lived his entire life between Iitate’s rice fields and cedar trees, wanted to die in his beautiful village, here and nowhere else.

Mieko Okubo poses with portrait of her father-in-law Fumio Okubo in their house where he committed suicide in the evacuated town of Iitate in Fukushima prefecture
For most people on Japan’s eastern coast – at least for those survivors who lost nobody and nothing – the true horror of the powerful earthquake and tsunami it triggered was over quickly. But for many unfortunate souls in otherwise prosperous Fukushima prefecture, March 11, 2011 was just the start of what for me is one of the most heart-rending stories I have ever covered outside the misery of the developing world.

The unimaginable happened. A nuclear power plant, the pride of Fukushima, was overwhelmed by the monster wave, setting off a series of disasters that never stopped. The result is equally disastrous: two and a half years later, Fukushima looks worse than ever. Once the government realized the initial scale of destruction and the threat of radiation, over 300,000 people were evacuated. Towns and villages were abandoned and lives broken. People were in shock. Only a few, Fumio Okubo among them, knew this was not something that would be over in a week or so.

Evacuees found shelter in schools and sport halls turned into collective centers across the prefecture, sometimes in places with radiation levels higher that their original home towns. In the early post-tsunami chaos, such mistakes were made. Iitate, officially one of the most beautiful villages in Japan, was originally designated as a shelter for people from areas near the tsunami-crippled plant. Then it was realized that the radioactive cloud traveled north-west, and that Iitate was more contaminated than many places closer to the plant.

Another announcement was made and everyone was on the move again, destined never to return. Except for Fumio Okubo and a few other civilian samurais, thousands of people ended up scattered across Japan.

A twisted clock, spider's webs and debris are seen from inside damaged primary school at the tsunami destroyed coastal area of the evacuated town of Namie in Fukushima prefecture only some 6 kilometers from crippled Daiichi power plant

Now, the miserable towns of Fukushima and their residents hang between the past disaster and fading hopes for rebuilding their futures.

For many, two and a half years was not long enough to bury their past and move on. They live in limbo – survivors, but not as alive as before. Inside plastic walls and tin roofs of their temporary accommodation they can’t possibly call home. Their real homes remain deep inside the zone. Most will never return there to live, and they know it.

The level of depression inside these thin walls is, not surprisingly, enormous. Hiroshi Masakura, a former landlord from Tomioka, currently lives at the evacuation center in Iwaki, south of the exclusion zone. A man in his sixties, with a strong face and a soft voice, he invited me to his makeshift home to meet his wife. But his wife Miyo is dead, and all I would meet are child-like portraits of her drawn by Masakura.

Hiroshi Maskura from the town of Tomioka near the tsunami-crippled Daiichi nuclear power plant sits inside his pre-fabricated house at the center for evacuees where he lives in Iwaki n Fukushima prefecture

Initially, the family was evacuated north of their Tomioka town and spent months in a sport hall, sharing the floor with many others. “That was bearable,” said Masakura. “We all ate the same food, we were together. People like you and even some celebrities visited us.” But then they moved to a settlement of pre-fabricated houses in the suburbs of Iwaki. The bare floors of sport halls and mere survival were replaced with something designed to simulate real life, but it was a poor substitute. This is when the real pain starts over what has gone forever. Those who lost their homes in wars or disasters know this moment very well.

As soon as they moved into a tiny new apartment, Mrs Miyo began suffering from depression. Three months later, she fell ill and they took her to a hospital with stomach problems. Four months later, she was dead. This is where the otherwise very strong Masakura’s world collapsed and he broke down while telling me the story. I asked if he believed his wife’s illness was related to the depression. He quietly replied, “Yes.”

Between the bare walls of his temporary home are pictures and drawings and a shrine to his late wife and a huge new TV screen. There is nothing material from his previous life, as if it was just a dream. “Do you want to hear my song?” Masakura asked.

“Sayonara and Tomioka” are the only words I understand from the song a lonely man composed and wrote, but the sad tone told me precisely what it was all about. Translation was not needed and, like so many times before, I focused on a camera to chase away my own dark thoughts.

Official numbers confirm what I witnessed. The Mainichi newspaper reported earlier this month that evacuation-related deaths in Fukushima Prefecture have surpassed the number killed in the original disaster. About 1,600 people have died in Fukushima due to their health deteriorating while living as evacuees, or because hospitals treating them had shut down. Others were driven to suicide.

An elderly woman leans against the damaged grave of her relative as she visits the cemetery at the tsunami destroyed coastal area of the evacuated town of Namie in Fukushima prefecture

Some evacuees retain a sliver of hope, or are ready to return home regardless of the danger. Some are too old to care what long-term radiation exposure might do to their health. But what they will do? Live alone, forgotten and abandoned like these poor and half-wild people I encountered years ago in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone?

Ironically, many people forced out of Chernobyl were able to start a new life relatively quickly. They buried the victims, along with all hope of returning to normality, thanks to the brutality of life under a Communist regime. Some moved to Slavutich, a town purpose-built for evacuees, or to Kiev, or even further into what was then the Soviet Union. A few climbed the fence, ignored the law and settled back inside the exclusion zone. But people will not do this in Japan. They will obey the rules, do what they are told and suffer forever in their pre-fabricated new houses. Only a very few hardcore Japanese will do it their own way.

Keigo Sakamoto, holds Atom one of his 21 dogs and over 500 animals he keeps at his home in the exclusion zone near Naraha in Fukushima prefecture

One of these people – considered a lunatic by some and a hero by others – is Keigo Sakamoto, a farmer and former caregiver for the mentally handicapped. Sakamoto said no to evacuation, stayed inside the zone and made animals his mission. He ventured into empty towns and villages and collected all the dogs and cats and rabbits and chocolate marmots abandoned by former owners when they left carrying sometimes as little as their wallets.

Now, Sakamoto lives with more than 500 animals in his mountain ranch near Naraha town in a scene reminiscent of experimental theater rather than modern Japan. It’s a very noisy theater too, because many of his dogs have gone wild from the time they spent alone before Sakamoto rescued them. As if to confirm this observation, one dog bit me hard as I passed his little house.

“There are no neighbors,” said Sakamoto. “I’m the only one here but I’m here to stay.” Of his more than 20 dogs, only two are friendly to man. One is called Atom, a super-cute white mutt, named because it was born just before the disaster at Fukushima.

In contrast to Sakamoto’s cacophonous theater, the scene in Fukushima’s deserted towns is more like a silent horror movie. It is a horror movie with no people, where the only dangers are half-destroyed buildings that might collapse and a few wild animals. Twice a wild boar trotted in front of my car and halted. I reached for my camera, but he ran away before I managed to photograph him.

Street lamps light the street in the evacuated town of Namie in Fukushima prefecture

Radiation is still a danger but everyone, myself included, wears a Geiger counter around the neck. There are roadblocks everywhere and signs warning of possible radiation hot spots.

In Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, a zombie-like creature bewildered by cheap vodka and loneliness might jump out from behind a bush. But here in Fukushima everything was in almost perfect order. In abandoned towns, traffic lights worked and a rare car would stop on red. Near the train station of a ghost town called Namie, sitting outside a shop whose window was stacked with undistributed copies of March 12, 2011 newspapers, a vending machine blinked. I dropped in a coin. The thing made the usual sound and gave me back a hot can of coffee! I tried to calculate how much energy the machine had consumed over these two and half years to heat my coffee in a ghost town with a population of zero.

On the other side of the rail tracks, along Namie’s main street, I met an elderly couple with masks over their faces and plastic bags over their shoes. They were making a rare authorized visit to their house and the family sweet shop they used to run. Mr and Mrs Nagaoka’s main concern was hygiene. There were mousetraps all over the place, and the couple spent their time taking dead mice out and putting more poison in.

Zenjuro Nagaoka is followed by his wife Satoko as he takes a dead mouse out of their sweet shop during a visit to the evacuated town of Namie in Fukushima prefecture

After the pests were taken care of, Zenjuro and his wife started cleaning the freezers inside their shop. To my surprise, all the cakes were still there and in perfect shape. Nagaoka, the owner, explained that the power had never been off since the day of the disaster. He didn’t seem to find that odd or particularly significant.

A vending machine, brought inland by a tsunami is seen in a abandoned rice field inside the exclusion zone at the coastal area near Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture
I drove for days through abandoned towns and rice fields where strange things grew – plastic bags full of contaminated soil, the wrecked boat carried inland by the tsunami, another vending machine sprouting from a field.

I drove and drove through several parallel Fukushima worlds, where listless people moved through abnormally eerie scenery. Security guards were blocking the roads, letting in only those with special permission. The workers fixing the doomed plant or decontaminating the ground inside the exclusion zone were transported by bus through their own worlds to do miserable jobs. A few visiting former residents searched the vegetation for where the graveyard once stood.

I kept driving endlessly on roads cleaned and repaired as if life would come back tomorrow. My car radio was obviously broken and the only station it could tune to played classical music (called “serious music” in my native Bosnia). It was almost a perfect soundtrack to the scenery. Although Johnny Cash came to mind often: “I felt the power of death over life. I hung my head, I hung my head.”

Fumio Okubo, a modern samurai from Iitate, knew it all. Fukushima’s problems will take an age to fix. The old man just didn’t have time to wait.

A portrait of Fumio Okubo (C) and his son Kazuo hang from the wall of their house in the evacuated town of Iitate in Fukushima prefecture

Some more pictures in a different edit you can see here.

Surviving as a garment worker

Like a true professional, Maen Sopeak sings to the audience of seven people who sit on the bare floor of her room in a Phnom Penh suburb. Her singing is soft, at moments almost a whisper, but her beautiful voice is clear. In a country even slightly richer than devastated, impoverished Cambodia, she could be a star. She could perform to packed halls, wearing only the best clothes.

Maen Sopeak, a garment worker who shares a single room with six other girls smile during a lunch break in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

Maen Sopeak is, however, just a poor garment worker. There will be no sell-out crowds or fancy dresses for her anytime soon. She shares a single, hole-in-the-wall room with six other women, who all work at a nearby garment factory producing clothes for Western brands.

The song is excruciatingly sad. It tells the story of a girl forced into marriage with an older man, not the one she loves. Maen makes the grim song sound somehow joyful, although suicidal thoughts would be more appropriate. The abject conditions where she lives and works are a natural setting for this tragic ballad. Here, misery invites yet more misery. Just like in my home country of Bosnia, another devastated post-genocide country where its sevdah music is just a natural extension of everyday hardship.

Garment workers sit on the floor of their apartment during a lunch break in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

I’m in Cambodia for five days to do a story on garment workers. The idea is to see how these women live, and shine some light on these conditions before a tragedy strikes (which I hope will never happen). Working conditions are better than in Bangladesh, but not by much. After a building collapsed in Bangladesh in April, killing more than 1,000 workers in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, more business has come to Cambodia. Many fear more accidents will follow.

I knew coming here was not going to be easy. No matter how long I stay, or how good or lucky I am, many layers of this complex story will remain unseen. What I have seen and photographed is not easy to put into one picture or into a single thought.

A woman holds her child under cheap dresses offered for sale at a market just outside one of industrial zones in the suburbs of Phnom Penh where many of garment factories are situated

Cambodia’s garment industry is huge and getting bigger. More than 300,000 workers produce the clothing, mostly for exports. There is a high chance you have worn clothing from Gap or H&M that has been stitched together here. Demand and investments are surging. So, too, is labor unrest. That’s no surprise. Although salaries and conditions for workers in Cambodia are not as bad as in Bangladesh (the monthly minimum wage of $80 compared to only $38 in Bangladesh; in China it is $150) protests and strikes quadrupled over the last year. There have already been 48 strikes this year, more than in the whole of 2010 and 2011 combined.

In the village of Trapeng Weng, just outside Phnom Penh, more than 400 people work in a factory that makes products for Nike. “Police come every day to look for me, sometimes in uniform, sometimes as civilians,” says a man who claims to be on the black list for his role in recent and violent protests. The pay is not enough, he said, explaining the reason for the unrest. The government raised the minimum wage to $80 a month in March this year but workers complain that it is not enough and wage rises have not kept up with the cost of living.

Som Cheantha, a eight month pregnant garment worker cries and holds a sign during a gathering of workers at their union headquarters in Phnom Penh

To survive with some money left at the end of the month to send home, workers must live a very basic life. For those who come from the provinces, the accommodation is shocking: overcrowded buildings, four or even more people usually sharing “an apartment” as big as a changing room in clothing store. They each pay rent of about $10 a month, plus more for water and for a single neon light installed on bare walls. Another $10 or more goes toward transportation expenses. Food is getting more expensive.

To make ends meet a worker has to be very lucky not to get sick or overspend on anything outside the bare basics.

The problems start when something goes wrong, such as a family member dying, or a debt collector turning up. Then they borrow, creating a vicious cycle of debt and poverty that has ruined so many families, communities and countries worldwide.

Eng Chen, a 23 year old garment worker waits to receive an intravenous therapy at an one-bed private clinic in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

Not all survive such a hard life. In the stench of a city’s slum, in a room in which every other wooden floor plank is missing, where the tin roof turns into a microwave oven, a girl nicknamed D explains why she quit garment work and joined what is colloquially called the “entertainment industry”, basically prostitution. “My mother died and it all went downhill from there. I needed quick money and could not wait for the next month’s salary. When I work in the park, it is more dangerous but I get money the same day.”

For many others, work in the textile industry is as good as it gets and better than anything else they know. Chhem Sokhorn, 37, is getting ready for work in the family’s rice field. We briefly speak about her life before the morning turns into unbearable heat and the ever-smiling woman makes a point: she used to work in the garment industry but quit to be the only one from her family to take care of her household. Her daughter is at the factory and she hopes her other children will get jobs there, too. Yes, the garment industry pays little; the hours are long and the work is hard but that is much better than tilling a rice paddy a few months a year.

With no education and no money to invest in something more profitable, the garment industry seems to be the only option. Outside an industrial zone where factories are based, young, unemployed women gather at the gates hoping for part-time work. Day or night shifts, they don’t seem to care. Their families expect them to start contributing an income.

Garment workers walk in heavy rain after working at their factories at a industrial zone in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

The real problems will come later. The young and healthy can work a lot without asking too many questions.

They might dream about being a singer or an architect (like Man Chan Thea, the boy I photographed in a rice field who hates garment work because his sister is always so tired and sick from it).

But the reality is brutal and the society conservative. Investing in education or a career will not feed the family or pay existing debts. For many people I met outside walls of the factories, it is about sheer survival, nothing else.

The head of a mannequin is left in the window of a beauty saloon in area where garment factories are based in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

You can see more of my pictures for this story here.