December 2009

by Lee Sinco

The old badjao fisherman sat cross-legged at the bow of the outrigger boat. We bobbed in the calm sea and didn't speak. He scanned the surface for signs of fish but nothing stirred from the deep.

Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times
Johnny Aralaji, the leader of a Badjao community in Puerto Princesa, Philippines, scans the sea for almost nonexistent schools of fish. Because the Badjao, a waterborne, mostly Muslim people known as “Bedouins of the sea,” do not celebrate birthdays, Aralaji guesses his age to be around 70. He sees the culture and traditions of his people sinking but remains unsentimental and resolute because he knows that they must seek land-based alternatives in order to simply survive. Palawan, Philippines, July 15, 2009.
In recent months I visited the Philippines, the country of my birth, and Indonesia – adjoining archipelagos that stretch between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There, I found sublime moments frozen in time, harking back to my father's times when the future held more promise.

But mostly I found people struggling to survive widespread poverty and corruption; cultures ill-equipped as their environments undergo tremendous upheaval; places where people worry about their next meal, not issues like global warming or overpopulation.

I am a photojournalist and don't dream of doing anything else. I am fortunate and often overwhelmed as I document conflict, struggle and beauty. It's all about discovery, on many levels – oftentimes personal.

I am trying to do more with assignments, gathering audio and photo sequences that can gel into Web galleries. In addition, I'm lining up more story ideas for each trip. It's all part of doing more with less. But beyond new production methods and cost cutting, the essence still must be the story – one that resonates, provides perspective and brings home faraway and alien things.

© Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times
A woman scavenges for recyclable cans and plastic from an island of waste deposited in Manila Bay by the flow of several rivers. Thousands of impoverished Filipinos eke out a living in the low-lying delta areas of Manila Bay in one of the world's most congested and polluted urban areas. Malabon, Philippines, July 12, 2009.
In Manila, a dozen families build shanties beneath a flat concrete bridge that spans fetid waters streaming through the sprawling slums. Children are sick. Homes are made of scrap pulled from the poisonous flow. People live on $2 a day. They drown and get displaced by increasingly frequent storms. It's the kind of place where you can lose all hope, only to realize that hope is all there is.

The situation is equally dire for the badjoa, a waterborne, mostly Muslim people known as "Bedouins of the sea." They have fished the Sulu Sea for generations, but these days they catch barely enough to eat. Fisheries have collapsed to feed insatiable appetites near and far.

Drifting in the undulating waters off Puerto Princesa, Johnny Aralaji looks at the empty ocean. I photograph him gauging an uncertain future in the shifting current.

Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times
Prostitutes and strip clubs line Fields Avenue in Angeles, Philippines, a town with a history steeped in prostitution. Local prostitutes once served U.S. military personnel stationed at Clark Air Base. Since the base's closure, however, the town has reincarnated into a sex tourist destination for elderly men from Australia, Korea, China, Germany and the United States. Around here, anything goes, said one craggy-faced bar patron from Australia. July 22, 2009.
To survive he is indebted to a consignment store. Many badjao have beached their boats to beg on land. Like most here, they make it day to day.

Meanwhile, in Angeles City, you can hire a teenage prostitute for the price of a burger and fries. The U.S. Air Force is long gone but the legacy of their sprawling base lives on.

Indonesia, too, is struggling to find a sane course amid runaway birth rates and the need to cash in on worldwide demand for natural resources.

In Jakarta's sprawling Jatinegara market, an endangered brown eaglet is chained to a cage, waiting to be purchased for about $20. It's one of 230 endangered species available for a price. The illegal trade in exotic and endangered animals earns about $20 million a year. And the more rare, it seems, the more people want to put it in a cage.

The water splashed over my head as I scooped it from a large, muddy washtub on the floor: the only way to cool down in the oppressive heat and humidity. A muezzin's voice boomed over loudspeakers, calling residents of the remote rainforest outpost to prayer.

© Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times
A deckhand coils the mooring lines of a riverboat on the Kampar River in Teluk Meranti, Indonesia. The village is located in Riau province, often called ground zero of the war on global warming. Greenpeace studies show that Riau's peatlands contain the highest concentration of carbon per acre than anywhere else in the world. When companies burn the forest to sew new wood pulp and palm oil plantations, that carbon is released into the atmosphere. Studies show that the carbon released by logging in Brazil and Indonesia amounts to more than the sum of all the buses, planes and cars on the planet. Oct. 22, 2009.
Back in Los Angeles the Lakers opened their season. I imagined being courtside amid all the excitement and bling – the disproportionate amplitude we give sports in a parallel universe.

It is easier to be entertained than informed. Celebrity may one day consume the world. But hardship focuses the mind and in uncomfortable places like this I remember why I got into journalism.

In Sumatra, the equivalent of about four football fields is cleared every hour as corporations convert jungles into wood pulp and palm oil plantations. Environmentalists say the forest could be gone in a decade.

The locals face ruthless economic forces and the pervasive corruption of the developing world. Most badly need and want jobs and opportunity. Thus, one of the greatest natural catches of carbon dioxide may be plowed under to produce raw materials for carbon-creating products like bio-fuels.

In Banda Aceh, people still cope with the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 170,000. There's salvation and order in the past, some believe. Following the flood, Aceh became more fundamental, incorporating Islamic codes of morality into law.

Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times
The elegant Grand Mosque is the center of Muslim life in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, which has a devout population that lives under strict Sharia laws governing morality. Oct. 22, 2009.
Meantime, the watery frontier between the two nations harbors smugglers, pirates and jihadists. Separatist struggles have long simmered throughout the islands.

It's always jarring to return to "the real world" after assignments in remote locations. This time, I trudge calf-deep in mud, elephants just a few feet away and no telephones or Internet service for miles.

In Jakarta, I received an e-mail from a veteran photographer at the Los Angeles Times. After more than 25 years, the paper let him go: another talented colleague cut in his prime.

I felt a pang of anxiety. I just turned 50. How much time do I have left for journalism? How much time does it have left for me?

I'm like the badjao, casting my net despite the grim prospects or a traditional Indonesian Pendet dancer fading in a world of MP3s, DVDs, games and reality TV.

On a recent visit to the Tate Modern in London, I was drawn to a Picasso painting that was crude and passionate in its depiction of a lover, whose every orifice produced some emission or noise. The caption said Picasso completed the piece in one day shortly after his 90th birthday. Neither the artist nor subject had time left for studied protocol, I guess.

Photojournalists witness many rare and passing things. We are privileged that way. The universe marches on, with or without me. I fully appreciate that. But for now, I'm on a boat, letting the sea swirl through my fingers, feeling so good and bad at once, like a burst of split-second exposures, preserved or lost forever in time.

© Lee Sinco

E-mail Lee Sinco at:

Lee "Luis" Sinco is a staff photographer with the Los Angeles Times. In November 2004, he embedded with the Marines as they assaulted the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, Iraq. His photos from that battle were published worldwide. Sinco is a 1982 graduate of the University of Washington. He was part of the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning team for coverage of the 2003 California wildfires. In 2005, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. He is married and has four children.

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