This past August I was on assignment in Malawi as part of a long term commissioned book project I am doing for the Marist Brothers Bicentenary in 2017. The Marist Brothers are a Catholic order of Brothers who have communities in more than 80 countries around the world.
As my taxi drove through the scorched red-earth hills between the airport and Lilongwe I noticed these two colourfully dressed characters bounding between the bushes. I asked my cab driver to stop and when they were moving past the car my driver asked them where they were going and I managed to take this portrait of the Gule Wankulu.
I was totally amazed by what I had seen and as we drove off I asked the driver to tell me all about the Gule Wankulu. It wasn’t until I could get and read up on the Gule Wankulu cult of Malawi. Twice more on my trip I stumbled upon the Gule Wankulu. They were both on dirt roads in central Malawi, an area dominated by the Chewa ethnic group who the Gule Wankulu cult belongs to.
Of my two other interactions, the above nighttime gulewankulu picture was the most fascinating. Driving home around 8pm we slowed down as these two straw made creatures lurched down the road towards us. My driver a Marist Brother from the Chewa group told me they were transporting the Gule’s to the neighbouring village’s cemetery to be used the following day during a funeral ceremony.
When not spotting Gule Wankulu’s I was I was rather busy working in this commissioned bicentenary book project. Unfortunately more info about it will remain under wraps for the coming 6 months at least. In the mean time here are a few more pictures from my time in Malawi. You can see a few pics below.
As you will all have seen on the news recently, Cyclone Pam has just devastated Vanuatu on a level never seen before in the small Pacific nation. Current death toll stands at 24 people. The government, aid organisations and local communities are scrambling to help those affected, particularly those on remote islands. To anyone wanting to help, a dear friend and long time Vanuatu resident recommended supporting the local health organisation Promed. They are currently at $70,000 and hoping to reach their target of $100, 000, their page is here.
I am deeply saddened by this natural disaster and at this time I am thinking of the many cocoa farmers and their families on Malekula Island whom I filmed and interviewed in August 2014. The film I made for for Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research followed cocoa from bean to bar in the Pacific nation. ACIAR is working with cocoa co operatives and farmers to increase aspects of the cocoa’s post-production so that the beans can be sold to niche markets in Australia and beyond. The film can be seen below.
A big part of the story was a chocolate competition organised by Sandrine Wallez the inspiration and indefatigable founder of ACTIV Association and Director of Island Chocolates. Sandrine with the support of Randy Stringer from University of Adelaide who is working for ACIAR managing the project, they held a brilliant chocolate tasting competition with a panel of judges that included Ben Kolly from Haighs Chocolate in Adelaide and Josh, March and Jacqui Bahen from Bahen & Co in Margaret River. For any serious chocolate lovers you would already know about these two chocolate makers, if you don’t this is perfect time to have a high quality chocolate experience this Easter!
A great part of the chocolate tasting competition was that Josh and Mark Bahen from Bahen & Co thought the quality of the beans had improved markedly since their last visit two years earlier. They thought the beans were so good that they imagined being able to start buying directly from the farmers in the coming seasons. Recent news from the cocoa growing communities featured in this video above is that they will be back up and running in 6-12 months. I hope it is closer to 6 than 12 months and that we have news they may even be directly selling to Australia’s highest quality chocolate makers.Once I have any news I will be sure to let all know.
SUMMER by Bernard O’Dowd
I see a grassy couch
Under a canopy of leaves;
A reedy river murmers by,
Crooning an old, old melody
Tuned to a long-forgotten scale,
Made when the world was young.
Why can the experience of going into the country be so powerful?
Why does is take leaving an urban environment to evoke that powerful feeling of excitement and wonder in us?
My girlfriend came to live in Australia 7 years ago and since then like many migrants she has called Sydney home. By contrast I was born in Wagga Wagga but by age of 6 we moved to Kyogle, a small country town on the north coast of NSW. We then relocated to Newcastle where I attended high school and journeyed through adolescence.
While I spent the first 12 years of my life living in rural Australia. It is now in adulthood that I have been able to appreciate the value of growing up outside the city. I currently share my life with a woman who grew up in a different city, culture and landscape. I love watching her explore the bush, bumpy roads and waterways, some of which I know well. Since exploring rural Australia together I have been able to capture moments of Maryam that highlight the wonder that also lives in my memory from a childhood in rural Australia. Photographing her exploration across this landscape and seeing the world through her excited eyes makes it possible for me to convey a sense I believe many of us can relate to.
From Nairobi it took me three flights and what felt like an eternity before I touched down in Bangui the capital of the Central African Republic.
As I moved through the airport with the other strange assortment of passangers I was greeted with the familiar sense of official chaos I know well. Despite my time spent poring over as much writing as I could find about the country I realised very quickly how little I knew as I looked around the airport. I stood in line for my visa actively perspiring as I looked on perplexed at the soldiers in a vast assortment of army uniforms all whom were unarmed. What I didn’t initially realise is that these soldiers were members of the FOMAC force working alongside the French forces to protect key sites around the capital including the airport and French embassy.
A short intro for those who don’t know much about the place commonly known as C.A.R. The Central African Republic is a landlocked country bordering Chad in the north, Sudan in the northeast, South Sudan in the east, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo in the south and Cameroon in the west. Colonised by the French in the 1880s, C.A.R. became independent in 1960 but after a number of leaders and coups it wasn’t until 1993 when multi-party democratic elections were held for the first time. Earlier this year on March 24 a coup led by the Seleka leader Michel Djotodia took the capital and seized power from President Bozize who fled the country. According to the International Crisis Group it is estimated that there are about 400,000 internally displaced people, 64,000 refugees.
Eventually after close to two sweaty hours of waiting, Sylvester from the SOS Children’s Village national office successfully managed to arrange permission for me to leave the airport without a visa. For the record, the visa was something I literally had stamped in my passport hours before I left the country a week later, first time for everything. As we left the airport I was surprised to look around and see the heavily armed French soldiers stationed at the entrance. Bumping along a road with minimal paving that led us into downtown Bangui I tried to suck in as much as I could from the darkness but all I could catch was the whir of street sellers standing over their glowing coals that slowly cooked corn and meat. Inside the taxi, Sylvester apologised repeatedly for the mode of transport. He told me how the Children’s Village cars were stolen a few months pripr when the Seleka rebels took over the village and demanded money, computers, vehicles and anything else of value which they said they had earnt as unpaid fighters in Seleka force.
The Seleka who seized power earlier in 2013 is a rebel force made up of fighters from the north of the country as well as large contingents from neighbouring Chad and Darfur. While the conflict wasn’t waged along sectarian lines, in recent months it has become evident that animosity is growing between the largely Christian population and the Muslims from the north.
We stopped outside a rather nice hotel and was told that it was is too dangerous to reach the children’s village at night time. Sylvester told me that since the Seleka rebels came to power it is very rare to drive at night unless part of a French convoy or moving with the Seleka rebels. I checked into the hotel and unsurprisingly was the only guest.In the morning we continued on to the SOS children’s village where I was based from my week in the country. Unfortunately due to security issues we weren’t able to leave the capital and at all times I was accompanied by the writer and a member of the country office.
Visiting the local area surrounding the Childrens Village it was evident that many people were still living in an active state of fear since the invasion by the rebels in March. Bangui is only divided from the Democratic Republic of Congo by the wide and fast running Congo River. As word grew of the impending invasion of the capital thousands of young men fled into neighbouring Congo as they feared being attacked by the rebels. A number of people we interviewed had lost a family members, most males, at the hands of the rebels. In addition to murdering the Seleka also looted from countless homes Non Government Organisations and government offices.
The health clinic at the Childrens Village is headed up by the charismatic Dr Placide Bassenge. Dr Placide leads a team of overworked health carers who have struggled to respond to the growing need and minimal resources available since the Seleka invasion. Medical supply routes from neighbouring Cameroon have been closed since March. This means acquiring medical supplies such as sterilising equipment, pain relief and antiretroviral drugs has become almost impossible. For Julian Valida a lab assistant who functions as the centre’s pharmacist, work has become incredibly stressful with the growing power cuts which means he must now keep drugs cold with only a few hours of power each day.
Dr Placide Bassenge spoke of the rising number of health issues since the rebels came to power in March. One of Dr Placide Bassenge’s greatest frustrations is his clinics limited resources, this means all serious cases must be referred to a hospital in Bangui. The problem with referring patients onwards is twofold. Firstly most patients coming to the clinic cant afford health care and secondly since the crisis many government departments including hospitals have been unable to pay their employees.
The road ahead for the Central African Republic will not be easy. The rise of self-defense militias and clashes between Christian and Muslim communities are now said to be part of daily life in parts of the mineral-rich country. In the last few days there has been serious calls for United Nations peacekeepers to be dispatched urgently to intervene with Christian-Muslim fighting which is at risk of spiralling into genocide.
I have worked on assignment for SOS Children’s Village throughout the world and during these trips have been warmly welcomed into communities in places as diverse as Haiti and Bangladesh. In the Central African Republic my experience was no exception and the hospitality I experienced first hand was deeply humbling. On my final night at the Children’s Village in Bangui, I sat with Jennifer the journalist I was working with and a number of the SOS Mothers lit only by a full moon. We talked for hours and covered a range of topics from the nightmarish days when the Seleka arrived and looted the Children’s Village to a collection of funny memories since living inside the village. I flew out early the next morning after saying goodbye to the national office staff and the community development workers. Aboard my flight to Cameroon as we banked over a wide river that snaked through the landscape I bid farewell to the troubled country. While the nations future is uncertain, I was confident that the children who call the village home will always know the same love and care that exists during peace or turmoil.
While in South Sudan last month, part of my trip was spent covering the second independence anniversary which I was lucky enough to do with an Australian journalist and all round good bloke, Ilya Gridneff. Our week together was jam packed and our efforts saw the words and pictures published in Fairfax’s The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Daily Life as well as appearing in a number of smaller Fairfax papers throughout Australia.
Ilya recently relocated to Africa after leaving his job as a Fairfax crime reporter, you can read a piece from his time there here. Before leaving Australia we had briefly discussed the possibility of being in the region at the same time and how it would be cool to work together. After chatting further once Ilya was in Uganda’s capital Kampala it was obvious he needed to get out and see some more of the vast continent. From Nairobi where I was arranging my visa I told him he should do the same and soon enough Ilya was buzzing around Kamapala with passport photos and freshly filled out paperwork to pick up his own visa for South Sudan. With a visa and an overland bus ticket in hand, a few days later I saw Ilya in Juba and soon enough the adventure got into full swing, once of course we had every permit under the sun.
Working with Ilya was an absolute pleasure and during our time together based at Juba’s affordable London Star Hotel, I learnt how valuable it can be to team up with a journalist when it comes to the power of pitching. Essentially I can offer pictures and multimedia but once working with a journalist you can essentially offer a package for a story and it becomes much more valuable. While the power of pitching is increased working with a writer, I also believe we do more justice to the overall story when there is a writer present at the events I am photographing. Ilya’s attention to detail and human interaction’s were impressive to watch, keep a look out for more work coming out of Africa from Ilya Gridneff.
Sadly all good things come to an end and after our week together I continued back to Malakal in the north-east of South Sudan where I was revisiting a community in Malakal whom I spent a week with in 2011, you can see pictures from that trip here.
I will be updating an edit of work from this recent trip in the coming days. For now you can see the photo essay Birth of a nation from my two months during independence in 2011 on my website to keep you excited.
Returning to Timor-Leste earlier in the year provoked many a thought about how to quantify progress in the majority world. Leaving my digital cameras, assignments and emails I started to shoot on my medium format film camera thinking less critically at what was around me but more my role as a visual communicator. With a different medium in hand and a much slower pace of movement I started to explore Timor-Leste looking for the remnants of pre-Portugese time, Portugese colonisation, Indonesian occupation, the 1999 crisis and now today.
Here are a few photos from that trip to Timor-Leste earlier this year, more to come.
Engaging Newcastle opening
Despite the bad weather on Friday night the launch of Engaging Newcastle at The Lock-Up Gallery was a great success with a full house. The gallery was packed with people from all walks of Newcastle’s broader community. Mazie Turner a local artist opened the exhibition while myself and Sharon Douglas Manager, Community Partnerships at Newcastle University also spoke.
The following morning there was a feature article in the Newcastle Herald on the broader project of Engage Newcastle in which I was commissioned to document Newcastle communities. See the article below.
On Saturday morning I gave a floor talk inside The Lock-Up Gallery this additional time to answer questions and share some of the memorable stories associated with living in the community for two weeks was great.
On Wednesday 22nd August the project and website will be launched here so stay tuned for further updates. For those based in Newcastle next week you will be able to pick up Hunter Lifestyle Magazine which is running a five page feature of my photographs from this project so stay tuned!
Why people care about climate change
Last week I visited two villages in Bangladesh that in three years time wont exist. The villages sit on river banks close to the Bay of Bengal in southern Bangladesh. Both villages are currently struggling to contain tidal surges that threaten the flood-protecting embankments which were built after the devastating Cyclone Aila in 2009.
Below a women outside her home in Jaliakhali village, Dacope area in southern Bangladesh. The family lost their original home during cyclone Aila, like others in the village the house is perched on a flood embankment built by NGOs after Cyclone Aila.
It was on assignment for The Asia Foundation that I was able to visit one of the climate change hot spots in Bangladesh. One family who lost their homes during cyclone Aila and have since rebuilt along the embankment spoke of how their floor floods during high tide, while another man spoke of how his family has moved countless times in his lifetime alone.Walking along the narrow embankment that barely keeps the river from completely engulfing the remaining low lying villages I felt a weight of sadness.
After finishing the assignment I was struck by an evening of food poisoning (which I suspect ironically came from a lunch at one of the fancy hotels) this forced me to spend a day inside recovering. Taking a break from the assignment I turned to finalising a portrait series I photographed earlier in the year in my hometown of Newcastle, Australia Newcastle is the worlds largest exporter of black coal and has a strong and passionate community of environmentalists. Many of these people are dedicated to activism which is motivated from a deep responsibility to raise awareness for the implications of coal, which accounts for 1/3 of global greenhouse emissions.
Over the last five years covering peaceful direct actions and protests primarily for breaking news I have regularly questioned how much impact my work is actually having. This thought spiral usually grows into brainstorming around how I coule more deeply engage an audience with my work. For Why climate change I asked people attending the annual blockade of Newcastle harbour to sit for me and also share a diary entry about why they care about climate change. Here is a link to the entire series http://conorashleigh.com/#/australia/why-climate-change/.
I was deeply humbled by the participants honesty and also how the portraits turned out. I am inspired by the results so much so that I now see this concept as a long term project. There will be much more to come.
I was lucky enough to find out last week I have been named a finalist of the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards for 2012, here is the link http://www.soya.com.au/entrants/10159637 to check out the page where you can like and share the page with friends on facebook and twitter.The power of social media in the last week has blown me away, after sharing with friends and family the page has jumped over 500 likes in less than a week.