The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Eventful Photos

As a journalist, you run around with a sense of joyful entitlement. This feeling of self-righteousness is usually what encourages journalists to sneak into places or to not be pushed around by the rich and powerful. You might be struggling to pay the rent, but when you’re holding a notebook or a camera, you can act like a little emperor. You get to ask the rude questions, to pop your flash in someone’s face and demand time with veryimportantpeople. Sure, it’s crucial to be nice as well, but you also get to be stubborn.

Being an event photographer is very different. I’ve started doing some event photography on the side, and it’s been fun to assume a different professional demeanor. If you acted like a journalist while shooting a party, you’d be a real jerk. One can’t constantly, rudely butt into an event’s most precious moments. Instead of being a little emperor, you’re a member of the waitstaff, anticipating the right moment to jump in. You’re always courteous, always smiling, and there’s none of that cowboy swagger I sometimes try to fake as journalist. Read the rest of this entry »

Cage dwellers

Some stories should be told again and again. The media usually does a good job covering a sudden calamity, but a slow moving tragedy or the static plight of a downtrodden group gets short shrift. Before I went home for the holidays last year, a friend and I started to look into a story on cage homes in Hong Kong. It’s a story that’s been done multiple times over the last three decades (watch a particularly moving version of the story here). The gist of the story is that Hong Kong has some of the highest real estate prices in the world. With long waiting lists for public housing, some people can only afford to live in cages and are stuck there for years at a time. In many places, the actual cages have been removed, making the densely packed residences (still called “cage homes”) the world’s most dilapidated hostels. Scores of people share smelly, filthy squat toilets that are often located two steps from the kitchen sink. Read the rest of this entry »

Gone fishin’

We took a translator, Toro, to Koh Kang with us. He’d been a government soldier in the province in the 80s and befriended a local fisherman. Whenever one of them went hungry, the other would give him food. They ate, cooked, and kept each other company in a violent and unsure time. But, as can happen with all old friendships, they lost track of each other and hadn’t seen each other in more than 15 years.

We had a half day free, and we decided to go with Toro to his old friend’s fishing village for lunch. In the years apart, Toro’s friend had gotten married and had the nicest, cutest kid. Even though it’d been a long time, the two of them didn’t seem to miss a beat. When it was just the two of them talking, I couldn’t understand what they were saying exactly—but Toro was laughing his way through the conversation.

Now, you should always accept an invitation to dine with a fisherman. We had fresh shrimp, prawns and fish raw, barbecued and steamed—as much as we could eat. Toro’s friend engaged in bottom trawling, an incredibly destructive mode of fishing, and he complained how he’s been catching less and less these days. Like the Cambodian soldier accepting bribes, it’s hard to blame him for his fishing practices. He’s catching fish the way that he knows will support his family.

Marine Conservation Cambodia hopes to create what are basically sustainable fish farms by planting bamboo sticks woven with leaves in the water, creating a safe space for fish to breed that cannot be trawled. The result would hopefully allow for sustainable fishing and restock the oceans.

If things keep going the way they have, Toro’s friend—who, 20 years ago, could feed Toro when he was starving—will need all the help he can get just putting food on his own table. Here’s hoping Marine Conservation Cambodia’s plans work. Conservation isn’t just about the fish in water, it’s about making sure we still have fish on the table.

Hanging out with the Cambodian border patrol

A few weeks ago, I headed to the Thai-Cambodian border to try and follow illegal migrants across the border (read about it here). I wasn’t able to smuggle myself across with the migrants. I only got as far the point where they bribe the Cambodian border authorities.

As we were waiting for more migrants to interview on the Cambodian side, we were hanging out with the Cambodian border patrol. All of them were middle-aged, ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers, and most of them had been in the army for over 30 years. As far as I could tell, their only source of income was accepting small bribes from illegal migrants. The cluster of about five buildings on the border is isolated from most of Cambodia by landmines. The land is dotted with thousands of them, and just the night before a small fire had broken out over a few acres and about 40 mines exploded. After hearing that, they didn’t need to remind us to stay on the path.

The soldiers and their families grow most of their own food, raise their own livestock, and—as I would found out—make all their own whiskey. Most of the rest of their supplies appear to come from Thailand.

Our translator, being a former government soldier in the 1980s, informed us he knew exactly what the soldiers wanted. Before I knew it, he had come back with a jug, and we’re all drinking home-made rice whiskey.

It was noon.

As middle-aged Cambodians, these men have surely seen a lot, and I can only begin imagine what they did as KR soldiers. The KR period was grim, and in this area of Cambodia, the KR era didn’t really end till the 1990s. But, as is often the case, you’d never guess their past. These soldiers were absolutely giddy by having two barangs (white people) drinking with them. One soldier in particular was constantly goading me to drink and laughed everytime I took a sip.

Without a regular salary, these men would have no choice but to turn to corruption. Before we can fault them for accepting bribes, the Cambodian government needs to at least pay them enough to live. Corruption in Cambodia runs all the way through from the poorest soldiers to richest generals, but in the case of some of the soldiers, they have no real choice so long as someone up the line is pocketing their income.

In stark contrast, the much younger Thai soldiers with their M-16s largely ignored us, and when they did talk, they were much more media aware, bragging about how much they helped Cambodians fight fires as their side had a firetruck and a road.

No one wanted to talk about the illegal migrants (which says something in its own right), but the Cambodians at least would were happy to drink with us.