In 2017, I traveled for 302 days photographing in 14 countries: the United States, Qatar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Oman, Dubai, Iraq, Turkey, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and Bangladesh.
I may also have had a foot in Iran for a few seconds, under the protective watch of a Kurdish security escort, but I’ll never know for sure since the few people I spoke with in this Iraqi border town, called Byara, said the exact boundary line was a matter of debate and uncertainty (we kept to the conservative estimate of that line). In any case, you can’t count one foot as visiting a country. Visiting requires both feet, and then using them to walk around to get to know at least a little of the place and its people. Something I really want to do in Iran one day.
But back to here and now…
For the final blog post of 2017, here’s a selection of 15 photographs representing the year that was:
In mid-January I flew to Washington D.C., the capital of the United States which didn’t feel all that united. For about ten days I photographed the mood surrounding the Inauguration of President Trump. This man selling t-shirts begrudgingly allowed me to take a picture, but asked that his face remain hidden. I find much symbolism in this photograph.
In late February/early March I visited Borneo, best known for orangutans, palm oil plantations, and peat fires. But there is also a fair amount of badminton, such as in this village near Loksado in Indonesia’s South Kalimantan province. I would spend more time in Indonesia than any other country this year, visiting three times for a total of about three months.
Part way through a three-week visit to Sri Lanka I climbed to the top of Pidurangala Rock, which offers a great view of the nearby Sigiriya rock fortress (the outcrop in the left of this picture). Earlier in the day I had climbed up Sigiriya fortress, where King Kasyapa had built his royal residence in the late fifth century.
From Sri Lanka it was on to Oman, where I stayed ten days with an old college friend stationed at the U.S. Embassy. Most days in Oman I was in front of my laptop at a Starbucks near his house, but we also did a couple day-long road trips together, and an overnight to the Ras al-Jinz Turtle Reserve, the easternmost point of the Arabian Peninsula. I hardly scratched the surface of this beautiful country.
Next I went to Dubai for parts of three days, and assumed the throne. At least for a couple minutes. And I mean of course a meaningless throne at the Dubai Mall.
But something meaningful did happen while sitting here: An older couple, perhaps in their 60s, came up to me and the friend I was with, and started a conversation. They were Palestinian, both born in Jerusalem but now living “everywhere,” including in the United States. When the conversation turned to the difficult situation in the West Bank in 2002 and 2003, and I mentioned that I had spent several months in the West Bank during that time, including several days in the devastation of Jenin at the end of April 2002, the man asked “What were you doing there?” and then before I could answer said, “Whatever it was, thank you for your service.”
For a month, I traveled through parts of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, as well as to Mosul. I photographed these two sisters — Gamila, age 9, and Shilan, age 4 — in the village of Sharya, near Dohuk. They are Yazidi, among the many who were displaced when ISIS swept across much of Iraq in 2014.
It was in Sharya, with hospitable Yazidis and their painful stories, that I felt hatred as deeply as I’ve ever felt it within myself. The Yazidis had suffered terribly under ISIS. For example, read this excerpt from Robert F. Worth’s gripping book, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS:
The next day Abu Ali [a disillusioned ISIS volunteer who now wanted out] was transferred to another guesthouse, in Falluja, not far away, which was under ISIS control. This one was crowded with men. Not long afterward he was amazed to hear the sound of two girls giggling in the next room. Another fighter told him the girls were Yazidis who’d been captured in northern Iraq eight months earlier, when ISIS overran the area and sold hundreds of Yazidi women and girls into sex slavery. They were thirteen and fourteen years old, the man said. They’d been offered to the governor of Falluja, who didn’t want them, so they were being kept here for the moment. Abu Ali had heard about the Yazidi sex slaves, though he’d never encountered any himself. The men called them sabaya. They were mostly rewards for officers or men who’d done well on the front — not for delinquents like Abu Ali. Over the next few hours he heard the girls laughing, and once he heard them sobbing. He assumed it was because they missed their families. Later that day, a shouting match erupted among the dozen or so men in Abu Ali’s guesthouse. All of them wanted sabaya. It went on for a half hour or so, getting increasingly heated.
Then a man in fatigues burst in. He looked like a commander. He asked where the sabaya were, and one of the men pointed to the door of the next room. He marched in without a word. Two loud shots rang out. The man in fatigues walked out again. Abu Ali, sitting in a chair by the door, stared up at him, frozen. “What did you do?” he said. The man seemed unruffled. “Those girls were causing trouble between the brothers, so I dealt with them,” he said. And he walked out.
If I ever had doubt that I was capable of both killing for something, and dying for something, I lost it in this Yazidi community.
From Iraq I crossed the border to southeastern Turkey and spent the first two nights at Mor Gabriel Monastery, the oldest surviving Syriac monastery in the world, established in A.D. 397. I had previously stayed here in 2004 and so had that small sense of home you get when returning to a building and people you have met before.
For my birthday at the end of May, I departed Mor Gabriel, spent some time on the banks of the Tigris River in Hasankeyf (the town will soon be flooded by a dam), and then wandered around the town of Midyat, where I would stay two nights. During that wandering I saw this 15-year-old tending a flock of sheep. When I asked to take his picture he said no. I asked again a time or two and he said okay. When I asked his name he said “Aslan,” and then after a pause, “English lion.” And so thanks to an encounter with a teenage shepherd, I would walk back to my hotel that evening thinking of the writer C.S. Lewis and childhood memories of my dad reading The Chronicles of Narnia series to my sister and me.
From Turkey I found a one-way fare to Bangkok on Singapore Airlines for 300 USD. It included a day in Singapore. In Bangkok I photographed life on Khao San Road (above), went to the movies with a friend to see Wonder Woman, worked a lot on the computer at coffee shops, etc. Then I caught a bus and ferry south to Ko Phangan, one of Thailand’s many islands, and stayed about ten days.
Before long, via a few days each in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, I was in Jayapura, a city on the Indonesian half of New Guinea, waiting for a visa to cross the border to the other half of the island, the independent country of Papua New Guinea. Even if I didn’t need to wait for the visa I would have stayed here several days. Jayapura is another interesting corner of the world, with beautiful places such as Lake Sentani (pictured).
I lived in Papua New Guinea for several years as a teenager, and my last visit to the country was in 2002. It was wonderful to be back, to see faces and hear voices I hadn’t heard in a long time. I also saw people who didn’t exist in 2002, like this boy playing at the beach on Pig Island, off the coast of Madang.
After almost a month in Papua New Guinea, I flew to Australia for a month, starting in Cairns and Port Douglas (Queensland), then to Melbourne (Victoria), where the highlight was driving the Great Ocean Road, a winding stretch of dramatic coastal beauty. This picture is from the end of Day Two of the drive, at the London Bridge overlook. I loved my time in Australia, which ended with a wonderful week in the Northern Territory, including Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park, and Darwin.
From Darwin it was a cheap flight to Bali on Air Asia — about 100 USD — and here another month passed quickly. For one of these weeks I stayed on a small island adjacent to Bali called Nusa Penida. It was a good place to rent a scooter and explore.
In late October, after a couple more weeks in Thailand, mostly back on the island of Ko Phangan, I flew to Bangladesh to photograph the Rohingya refugee crisis around Cox’s Bazar, in the southeast corner of the country. For more on this crisis, I published three blog posts, starting with What Child Is This? (Rohingya Refugee Crisis).
In Bangladesh I flew in and out of the capital, Dhaka, and before and after my time in Cox’s Bazar was hosted in Dhaka by the Roy family. How I was introduced to them is a beautiful story in itself, but all I want to say here is thank you — to the Roys and to the other families and individuals who open their homes and hearts to me. They are instrumental in enabling me to do what I do…and in wanting to do what I do.
And as always, thank you too to the people who allow me to photograph them.
Wishing you all a good year to come!