All posts by thomasmperry

Connected.

131207 Beyond The Wire (Tom Perry) 1793If things have seemed a bit quiet on here for the past while, it’s not because I’ve been sitting on my hands. A few months back I joined the team at CARE Australia.

For much of the first part of this year, however, I was working on a project for the World Bank to tell the story of their work to help connect the Pacific Islands.

131207 Beyond The Wire (Tom Perry) 1798To call this work revolutionary may sound like a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not far off. This is the most dispersed, most disaster-prone region on the planet. Imagine you live on a tiny island in northern Vanuatu, hundreds of kilometers from anywhere else. For years you’ve been virtually cut off, and then almost overnight, you have mobile phone reception, can afford to buy a phone, and you are now texting friends on the other side of the country.

Likewise, imagine you are a nurse in Tonga, working from a clinic in the remote north of the country. You rely on an oft-disconnected landline to order new supplies from the capital, and beyond providing basic care and medicines, you are fairly limited in the support you can provide to the thousands of people that rely on your clinic. Suddenly, hi-speed internet arrives, you can order new medicines straight away, and can have internationally-trained surgeons providing live-feed consultations to your patients.

These are the types of stories I’ve been lucky enough to help tell, which have culminated in Beyond The Wire, a film about how technology is changing lives in the Pacific.

If you do like Beyond The Wire, you can see some photos from the shoot, and I’d encourage you to check out the work of Rachael Patching, Ollie Lucks and Laura Keenan, the other hard-working members of the team that made this film happen. Behind-the-scenes, this film was one of those rare jobs where everything – planning, scripting, shooting and post – all worked beautifully. But that didn’t happen by accident; it happened through hard work by a great team with shared ideas, skills and a commitment to make a something good.

I hope you like it. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Tangio tumas

Students from San Isidro Care Centre sign 'tangio tumas' (thank you) to all those who have supported the Centre by purchasing a copy of 'SOLO: life in the Solomon Islands'

Students and staff from San Isidro Care Centre sign ‘tangio tumas’ (thank you) to all those who have supported the Centre by purchasing a copy of ‘SOLO

About a year ago, I put out a book called SOLO: life in the Solomon Islands. Publishing SOLO gave me a chance to pull together some of my photos from the 900+ islands of the Solomons, and to create what I hoped would be a positive collection of images of the country I’d called home for three years.

Students from San Isidro see their photos in 'SOLO'

San Isidro students checking themselves out in print

More importantly, the book was a good excuse to help raise a bit of money for the San Isidro Care Centre, a small school in Aruligo, on the north-west coast of Guadalcanal, which is home for around a hundred young Solomon Islanders, primarily from the deaf community.

Hearing and speech impairments are higher in the Solomons due to the prevalence of malaria. Being unable to communicate means that many kids find themselves struggling to be part of their communities and families. San Isidro Care Centre provides a home, a school and a place to come together for the country’s large deaf community. It also provides sign language training for families and friends, helping to break down life-long communication barriers. In short: it’s a very inspiring place.

The good news is the response to SOLO was sensational. We’ve now sold more than 1000 copies, and raised nearly AUD$3000 for the kids at San Isidro.

San Isidro will soon have 24-hour running water, thanks to your support.

San Isidro will soon have 24-hour running water, thanks to your support.

A year after I left the Solomons, I finally had the chance to return this month to catch up with old friends, and return to San Isidro to deliver the profits from SOLO. The money will be used to purchase a new – and much-needed – water pump, meaning the Centre will now have access to water 24-hours a day, and students will no longer have to make the nightly trek to the nearest river, buckets in hand, just to access clean water.

From third year student Lisa Meery: “washing, showering, cooking – this will make a big difference for us, every day. From all of the students here: a big thank you to everyone who supported the book. It means so much to us.”

As Lisa said, an almighty tangio tumas (‘thank you’ in Solomons pidgin) from me and from the students and staff at San Isidro, to all of those who purchased a copy of SOLO and helped let people know about it.

Tangio tumas!

Tangio tumas!

You’ve done a genuinely great thing, supporting a wonderful place and some special young Solomon Islanders.

The little camera that could

Many photographers are obsessed with gear. They love comparing lenses, focal lengths, apertures and all manner of technical specs. But I tend to get overwhelmed trawling through forum after forum of photographers discussing countless features that will no doubt make photos closer, wider or more exciting. While I realise that yes, gear is important, I’d prefer take a leaf out of C.J Chilvers’ great book and blog, A Lesser Photographer, which is one of the best arguments for the minimal-gear approach.

Living and working as a writer and photographer in the Solomon Islands over the past few years, I had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the 900 islands of the Solomons, which is a fairly remote part of the world. Given how tough a place the Solomons are to get around in, I tried my best to travel lightly – generally just with my camera, one lens (a Nikon 35mm f/1.8)… and always, my Fuji Instax Mini – essentially a modern version of the Polaroid, that produces credit-card size prints.

The majority of the places I visited were to destinations with very little (if any) electricity, nor a functioning postal service. In short: there was very little chance I would be able to provide printed copies of photos to the people I’d met and photographed.

That’s where the instant camera came in. Being able to give someone a photo of themselves – even one as small as a mini Instax print – was, for many people, a pretty special gift. People love having a photo of themselves, their family and friends. And even today, where point-and-shoot cameras or camera phones are readily available in most parts of the world, a printed photograph is far too rare.

And as a general rule, my photos are better because of it. When your subject comes to realise that you genuinely appreciate their time and want to make sure they too have something to show for the experience you’ve had together, they are far more willing to open up. That 5 minutes you would have had with someone becomes 30 minutes, or becomes a conversation about their family, where they grew up, etc. And the photos generally reflect that.

My Instax has often even become a fun little form of entertainment. As the “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” song lyric goes, I’d often find myself doing an awkward version of the chicken dance with a bunch of kids in villages, dancing around to make the image on an instant print colours appear. (Side note: I have no idea if this actually makes a difference…).

With that said, this post is not meant to be a long advertorial for Fuji’s instant cameras. Nor do I don’t want to suggest my travelling with an instant camera is simply a ploy to take better people photos. Far from it. This is more about learning to appreciate the benefits – tangible and intangible – of putting the camera down for a minute and spending more time engaging, listening and get to know the people whose lives we, as photographers, journalists or simply as travellers, have the chance to be a part of.

Take Brenda Pilly, for instance. Brenda (pictured above, second from right and below) has an extraordinary life story. As I documented in my book SOLO (pardon the shameless plug…); in September 1943 Brenda was 10 years old when World War II arrived on her remote island of Mono, which sits near the border of the Solomon Islands group and Bougainille/Papua New Guinea. Japanese troops took control of the island with the plan to use it as a launching pad for a further push south towards Guadalcanal, and eventually, Australia. American and New Zealand troops soon followed to push the Japanese back, and the Battle of Mono began. As a 10 year old girl who’d spent her entire childhood on an island of less than a 1000 people, to be suddenly surrounded by aerial bombings and trench warfare, was as Brenda put it in pidgin, “barava no gud”. Together with her family, Brenda escaped to the opposite side of Mono, where she lived in and out of caves for nearly six months as her island became a warzone. If I hadn’t stopped and sat down with Brenda and her family one afternoon, I would never have learned her incredible story.

Brenda’s story is just one of countless examples of what I learned because I focused less on the image and more on the subject. Despite that relationship between photographer and subject being the bread and butter of what photographers should do, too often we get obsessed with lighting, composition and lenses and forget that the relationship between photographer and subject is very much two-way. Even the language we often use for photography – we ‘take’ photos – demonstrates this. But photography shouldn’t be about ‘taking’; it should be about learning a bit more from each other and sharing in an experience. And the images, if done respectfully, should reflect this.

In closing this little brain-dump, I should clarify that I’m still very much in my infancy when it comes to learning about the craft and art of photography. I like to think I’ve got the technical basics reasonably well sorted, but it’s this stuff – the psychology, the relationships and the thinking behind the art of photography – that I find far more interesting than infinite techno-babble about lenses and apertures.

Because while the rare buzz of looking back at an image and seeing something you’re genuinely proud of is of course a nice feeling, that moment of pure joy when someone that you’ve built a bond with has, in their hands, a printed photo of themselves for the first time in years is, without question, far more satisfying.

Three years on an island

A little over three years ago, I was given what I now understand was a sort of Golden Ticket to an extraordinary experience. Taking a job in the Solomon Islands, a country I knew very little about – beyond the fact that it was north of Australia, and that the Australian and New Zealand military and police had gone in a few years earlier – felt like a scary step, a complete unknown.

My initial few days were hardly the perfect start. Out on a police patrol boat within six hours of being in the country, I was involved in a rescue of 13 people, whose fibreglass boat had sunk in rough seas. Thankfully, all survived, but the faces of those freezing, terrified children is something that still makes me wince whenever I think of that bizarre first afternoon in the Solomons.

And a few days later back in the capital Honiara, I was checking out the shops in my new town, and was put in a headlock by a spakamasta (the pidgin word for a drunk), whose equally-spaka mate then tried to take my wallet. While I pushed them off and got away, it was a bizarre entrance to a country that I was supposed to be calling my home for the next 12 months.

In the end… I’ve stayed in the Solomons for three years, two years longer than I’d planned. Maybe this is the point where those wiser than I will talk about ‘baptism by fire’, etc and talk about the symbolism of those tough first few days. Who knows. All I know is that while that headlock was definitely not a reflection on the warmth and generosity of Solomon Islanders, the rescue of those 13 people was definitely a reflection on the adventure that would lay ahead.

And these past three years have been a pretty extraordinary existence. I worked for two and a half years as the on-staff journalist/photographer for the Australian-led peacekeeping/aid mission known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). The job gave me the chance to travel to some of the most remote parts of the Solomons, and throughout the Pacific: to Samoa, Vanuatu and Kiribati, countries I knew almost nothing about.

Early on I came to realise just how special the opportunity in front of me was. The Solomon Islands are, in many ways, a photographer’s dream. It is beautiful, it’s incredibly diverse, and it is completely unexplored. There are thousands and thousands of stories just waiting to be told. As a result, I’ve carried my camera every day, nearly everywhere I’ve gone, for three years. During these three years I’ve seen some extraordinary things, some truly stunning places, and met some inspiring, genuinely unique people. And (the key reason for somewhat self-indulgent blog post), I’ve been able to photograph a lot of this stuff too.

The result? It’s called SOLO: life in the Solomon Islands.

It is my first book, a 68-page book of my photographs that document of life in the ‘modern’ Solomon Islands, the country that I’ve called home for the past three years. In SOLO I’ve tried to showcase the Solomon Islands that I’ve seen and come to know: as much a tropical paradise in the South Pacific as a country with more than its fair share of problems, where the balance between kastom (tradition) and the realities of modern life often do not sit well together.

Be sure to take a look at the PDF sample (2.2MB) to get a sense of the book, and if you’re keen to get hold of a copy, head on over to PayPal to order a copy and I’ll get it over to you quick-smart.

For those who are keen, there’s also a Facebook page where you can leave your comments, suggestions and ideas for Solomon Islands photography. Or if you’ve got any comments, feel free to leave them below.

So whether you’ve lived in the Solomons your whole life or are just looking to discover a bit more about a special part of the South Pacific, I do really hope you enjoy SOLO, as I can promise you that putting it together has been a pretty wild adventure.

Trailing Ho Chi Minh

“A deserted ribbon of perfection, one of the best coast roads in the world…” 

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These are the sort of words you’d expect for roads around the French Riviera, or even Australia’s Great Ocean Road. But Vietnam’s Hai Van Pass, a 21km over-mountain stretch that just 10 years ago was considered one of the most dangerous roads in Asia?

And these words didn’t come from a guidebook or a tourist brochure, but from the notoriously grumpy TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear, who rode the Hai Van Pass on a motorscooter during the BBC series’ Vietnam Special in 2008. Furthermore, prior to riding this stretch, Clarkson had nothing but snide remarks to say about motorbikes. Clearly the Hai Van Pass changed all that.

I know the feeling; riding a motorbike in Vietnam does that.

Over 12 days and 2000 kilometres, me and a group of mates took a bunch of clunky old Hondas along one of Asia’s most legendary journeys; Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Trail was the hidden supply route used the North Vietnamese during the ‘American War’ (as it’s known locally). Actually series of hidden routes straddling the Vietnam-Laos border , the Trail remains the stuff of military legend; it’s exact location eluding American forces for much of the 10-year campaign.

I hopped on a motorbike and road this incredible journey for Jetstar magazine.

Crossing Guadalcanal

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Guadalcanal.

The Solomon Islands’ largest island, named after a small Spanish town, inspires many thoughts for many people. For historians it stirs visions of tens of thousands of American and Japanese troops battling for control of the Pacific during World War II. For nature lovers, it represents the home of countless rare species of birds, marsupials and reptiles. And for those fascinated by black magic, Guadalcanal is home to endlesskastom storis featuring an array of spirits that still inspire real terror.

But for me… it’s home. (For the past three years anyway.)

With my time in the Solomons – and on Guadalcanal – soon coming to an end, I decided to take up the challenge of completing a journey that I’d thought countless times about, but had been too wary of attempting: crossing the island. For three tough days me and five others trekked across this incredible island, from the tough, black sand beaches of the appropriately-named ‘Weathercoast’, through the seemingly impassable mountains of central Guadlacanal, and through the countless rivers and streams to the end point: the mouth of the Poha River.

The story is published in edition 58 of Solomons, the Solomon Airlines magazine.

By the rivers of Kalimantan

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In late 2011 I was given the chance to hop aboard the Rahai’i Pangun with the crew from WowBorneo for a journey throughout southern and central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

While my mind was firmly set on getting close to Borneo’s famous native, the orangutan, it was the journey itself – throughout the hundreds of rivers, creeks and canals of Kalimantan – that will remain my most lasting memory from this incredible part of the world.

By the rivers of Kalimantan was published in the March 2012 edition of Get Lost mag. Have a read and let me know what you think.

‘Voluntourism’

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Call me a cynic, but – like most people – it takes a special kind of ad campaign to have much of an impact on me these days. So when a friend sent me a link to the When children become tourist attractions campaign put together by Cambodian NGO Friends International, and it had an immediate, lasting impact, I realised it had struck a nerve.

The campaign essentially encourages tourists to Cambodia to think twice before ‘helping out at an orphanage’. As the campaign helps inform, the reality is that in most cases, a ‘voluntourist’ is going to be of limited value to the organisation they are supporting, and more importantly in the case of orphanages, may actually have a detrimental impact on many of the kids they are there to help.

For me, one of the reasons the campaign hit home is because I’ve been that guy. So have many of my friends. We’ve been on a gap year / sabbatical / year off – and thought, “I’d really like to do something helpful, something that will help others” and turned up for a week or two thinking I can make a difference. And the reality is that voluntourism is now big business, with many people forking out thousands of dollars for the chance to build housing, teach English, or help out at an orphanage in a developing country.

With that in mind, for Get Lost mag‘s ‘Responsible Tourism’ section I decided to take a bit of a look at voluntourism, its impacts – and suggest some potentially more helpful alternatives. Have a read and let me know what you think.

(Image courtesy Friends International)

Riding the rails in India

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Back in November, I was given the opportunity to ride the rails in India for a month by the crew from Get Lost.

Organised by the good folk from Vodka Train, I covered many thousands of kilometres by train – from Kolkata, through Varanasi and Agra, across Rajasthan, into Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and all the way back down to Dehli. It was a phenomenal opportunity, and one that I’m still – even well over two months on – still struggling to get my head around.

The result was On the rails in India, which is in this month’s edition of Get Lost and is available to download (PDF file, 1.7Mb).

Be sure to also take a look at Flickr for plenty more photos from the trip.