Palm Oil Price Rise
July 2008

by Justin Mott

I woke up and rolled over to the other side of the bed and lit up my Mac like I do every morning. I grabbed my headphones to block out the barking dogs and various piercing street noises synonymous with the streets of Hanoi. I watched the bouncing icons on my screen get ready for their daily work. I clicked on my applications hoping not to see my enemy, the swirly rainbow Mac thing that I've grown to loathe. I scan my Gmail inbox in the hope of some work.

© Justin Mott / WpN
A worker on a plantation in Sungai Buloh, Malaysia, collects palm oil fruit. Malaysia is the center of the global palm oil industry.
I was only a few months into my first real stint as a professional freelancer working abroad and the assignments weren't flowing in. I was beginning to grow nervous as I was living off my minimal savings and doing personal projects on my own dime. I was renting my tiny room in Hanoi from a Vietnamese family whose daughter had recently moved out after she got married. Her leftover décor of thoughtfully placed objects throughout the room alongside my scattered clothing and camera equipment shows a stark contrast of our lives. The mother was very ill so the whole family typically retired by 10 p.m. every night. In order to be respectful I usually made it home before 9:30 p.m. before they locked their doors.

So, there I was: 30 years old, living on a tight budget, living with a curfew in the childhood room of someone years younger than I, wondering if my summer of networking in the U.S. was going to translate into actual work.

My inbox showed a message from an editor from The New York Times asking if I was available to go to Kuala Lumpur for an assignment. I was ecstatic and quickly replied saying I was. I had met with a few editors at the Times on my freelancer's tour in N.Y.C., but it was really hard to gauge whether or not any of those meeting would get me work. At that point I had never worked with them and this was to be my first assignment to actually travel outside of Vietnam. I carefully read the details of the assignment. We were going to Malaysia for part of a long series the Times is working on about the world's food chain.

For me this assignment was huge and soon nervous thoughts washed away the initial excitement. I had all these internal questions like: "Wait, why me, why not someone in Malaysia already?" and, "What do I know about Malaysia and, more importantly, what do I know about palm oil?"

© Justin Mott / WpN
Workers begin their day on a palm oil plantation in Sungai Buloh, Malaysia. The fruit clusters are cut down using 50-foot poles and then transported to a mill for processing.
I had a small chat with the staff writer out of Hong Kong and he briefed me on what we were doing. The Times was doing a long series on the world's food chain and this segment in Malaysia was to focus on the soaring prices and shortages of palm oil. He told me he had some visuals set up for me and that cooled my nerves.

I only had a few days to prepare so I read everything I could about palm oil online and about food shortages. We had about one week to complete the assignment.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur in the evening and met the writer for dinner to discuss the story. He told me he was having problems with the visuals that he had arranged and with approvals to visit plantations and that processing plants were most likely off-limits. At that point I had a tiny knot in my stomach because my plan was to show a linear visual story of palm oil from the fruit on the tree to the cooking oil on the streets. In addition to our setbacks, I was also asked by the multimedia department to take audio (I should add that while in N.Y.C. I led most of my portfolio reviews with my multimedia work). I didn't sleep much my first night, because I knew I had a big day ahead of me.

My first full day was spent mostly on the phone looking for access to plantations and processing plants. I was put on hold, transferred, put on hold again and then denied access because they said they needed more notice. I decided the phone was not the way to go so I took down the address of some cooperate headquarters and wandered the city, popping into high-rises in my non-business attire only to get politely turned down due to the short notice of my requests. The writer spent the day trying to line up visuals for me as well but we both kept coming up short. As my first day came to a close I had zero images and not many leads.

© Justin Mott / WpN
Workers sort through palm fruit bunches at a palm oil mill in Sitiawan, Malaysia. Besides the fruit and kernal used to produce crude oil, the whole bunch is put to use for fertilizer and heating the boilers at the mill.
I know many people are thinking, well, this shouldn't be that hard to get into. The issue was that large corporations own these plantations and they have security, PR people, and all sorts of safety regulations. Day two I decided to just go to the source and see what happens. I chatted it up with a taxi driver and asked him about visiting some palm fruit plantations. He said it shouldn't be a problem and we negotiated a day rate. At 5 a.m. we were on the road a few hours outside the city. We were stopped at some security checkpoints and were told we needed approval from the cooperate. Finally as the light just started to pierce the star-shaped palm trees the photo gods helped me out. We talked with a plantation supervisor and I explained what I was doing. He was skeptical at first but my typical goofiness eased him of any thoughts he might have had about us doing some sort of exposé on slave labor.

© Justin Mott / WpN
Containers filled with palm fruit bunches are brought into the mill for processing into crude oil.
A few minutes later I was chasing down a tractor filled with workers heading out to chop down the fruit clusters. They pulled me onboard the moving vehicle with smiles and I started clicking away. I spent the entire morning shooting them working and even cutting down a few fruits myself with the giant 30-foot poles. It was my most successful visual day of the trip and I learned firsthand the labor that goes into just getting the fruit off the tree. The crew of workers got a kick out of a 6' 1," 200-pound dude struggling just to get one cluster off the tree. I love learning by doing and being humbled is always good for the soul. After I shook every worker's hand with a big smile and showed them some images I rode back to my hotel with a feeling of accomplishment.

The rest of the trip was spent in similar fashion, desperately trying to get access and then at the last minute getting what I needed. I even helped the writer get some good contacts and interviews through the help of a dear friend and colleague of mine who grew up in Malaysia.

© Justin Mott / WpN
Yohan, 27, serves up the the popular Malaysian flatbread dish, Roti Chennai, at Devi's Corner in Kuala Lumpur. The dough is wet with palm oil and then flattened by twirling it like a pizza.
The trip was a huge learning experience for me on so many levels. I learned about the intelligence of some of these staff writers and how well they knew the regions and issues they are covering--it was a bit intimidating at times. I learned the importance of great friends and good contacts when working in a foreign country. I also just learned so much from watching the veteran writer work and by asking him dozens of the most likely annoying rookie questions.

Our story ran on the front page with a huge color photo along with a multimedia story online. Since this story was published I have worked for the Times in Australia, Indonesia, China, Laos, Thailand, and in Vietnam, each story being as interesting and exciting as the first. I've worked with the same writer on the food chain series two more times, each time shooting stills and video and each story getting great exposure. I have been lucky to be a part of this fascinating food chain series and grateful to work with their top-notch writers and editors who have these innovative global stories. I understand my images are getting great exposure because of their great ideas, but I'm just happy to do my part and to be a part of it all.

I hide my nervousness well but every time I FTP my take to their server I can't help but feel that pit in my stomach wondering if my editor will like my images. I now embrace the nervousness and feel it keeps me sharp.

As I write this I am in the U.S.A. on vacation, preparing to go back to Vietnam for my next scheduled assignment for the Times with my stomach swirling like that Mac thing, filled with that good nervousness and excitement.

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© Justin Mott

Justin Mott is currently living in Hanoi working as a freelance photojournalist and videojournalist taking on assignments and working on his personal stories and multimedia projects. Justin is represented by WpN and his clients include The New York Times, Newsweek, TIME, Discovery Channel, The Independent (UK), L'Express, Business Week, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Global Exchange and various other publications and NGOs. He is also co-founder of the multimedia storytelling Web site

To read the original New York Times story go to:

To see Justin Mott's multimedia piece see:

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