In providing captions for photographs, there is often background to the image that the photographer leaves out. Each of the photos in this post, when I look at them, bring to mind moments of adrenaline or pain. I hope that these images with backstory — all of which come from a 2007 trip to Southeast Asia — will reflect well on my adventurous spirit, dedication, and mild stupidity.
But before getting to the pictures, here’s a brief timeline of my five trips to Southeast Asia, along with the reasons for going:
- 2000 – This trip was to celebrate the end of 21 consecutive years of sitting in classrooms, where teachers had labored to stuff my brain with all sorts of smarts. Two months went to Indonesia; another two months were divided among Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia. And the first five days back home in Atlanta were spent in the hospital, recuperating from Dengue Fever.
- 2004 – It would be too strong to say that those four months backpacking in 2000 had been addictive, but they were certainly fun and formative. The older one gets, however, the more difficult it is to travel without a clear purpose. And so on this second journey I went to Asia to write a book about the place and its people, and about how a person changes in the process of such a long journey.
- 2005 – After nine months in a Tennessee library doing follow-up research and writing on the book, I was on the verge of a research-induced coma. And so I sought a remedy by relocating my laptop and notes for ten weeks to the beaches of Bali, the cafes of Saigon, and the banks of a Laotian portion of the Mekong River. Living was cheap here, and the writing began to flow again.
- 2007 – By this point in my life it had become evident that, so long as my focus was solely on writing, no matter where I was geographically, I would go completely nuts. I was tired of my own thoughts and drained by the solitude of writing. I was also, relatively speaking, poor. I was ready to walk away from writing. Perhaps if I did so I would rediscover the friendships I had neglected since the end of 2003, when I first began writing fulltime. Perhaps I’d even find a way to earn a living. The previous autumn I had purchased a digital camera and taken it to Palestine. While not giving up on writing, this trip to Southeast Asia would be focused primarily on photography.
- 2011 – I had planned to visit Burma toward the end of that 2007 trip, but due to unforeseen circumstances I needed to have surgery instead (more on that below). It took four years to finally return to Southeast Asia, this time primarily to spend a month in Burma.
Following are five of the 25,663 photographs I took during five months in Southeast Asia in 2007.
NHA TRANG, VIETNAM (JULY 7, 2007): I often take images along the street, and seldom is this a problem. On this day, however, after taking a photo of these kids, a middle-aged man unrelated to the bus rushed up and grabbed my camera hard by the lens, yelling at me in Vietnamese. He pulled on the camera, which I knew might damage it, and with no time for diplomacy I grabbed him by the throat. If mad at a photographer, particularly one that can’t easily afford to replace his lens and camera, grab his arm or even his neck rather than his camera. Slowly we eased up on each other’s valuable parts, and then went our separate ways.
NHA TRANG, VIETNAM (JULY 10, 2007): Three days after the bus incident I almost split my skull open. This happened during an all-day boat trip off the coast. The boat I was on had pulled up alongside a sister boat and the crew tied the two together so that the passengers on both vessels could hear a band play on the one boat. It was in this context that I made a bad move: while the band played, I got up to take some pictures, including the one you see here.
To get the shots, I straddled the gap between the boats. The distance between the two fluctuated slightly, but not enough that I worried about falling into the water. After taking several pictures — and perhaps after having been lulled by the band singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” — I stood upright, ready to hop back into my boat. I forgot about the overhang though, and in an uncanny act of timing my head rose into the overhang as the two boats were being pushed together by the sea, and just like that my head was in a vice-grip that had the potential to crush my skull. I fully expected the contents of my head to explode out of my face. As the band continued to play “Imagine”, I thrust outward with my thighs as if my life depended on it, since I think it did. Back inside the boat, I was in shock both at what had happened and, given the pressure, that my head hadn’t cracked.
HELLFIRE PASS, THAILAND (AUGUST 7, 2007): It had been a long motorbike ride up to Hellfire Pass, located about 45 miles from my guesthouse in Kanchanaburi. But I had wanted to see this particularly deadly portion of the Thai-Burma Railway, built by prisoners of war during WWII. Hellfire Pass got its name from the torches POWs used as they worked through the night to dig through rock along the 110-meter stretch of track called the Konyu Cutting. For 12 weeks the prisoners labored, and by the time it and several other nearby cuttings were complete, two-thirds had died.
As I lay down on the track to get a photograph of the infamous spot, I felt something similar to hellfire in my lower back. My herniated disc was in rebellion, and tears welled up in my eyes as I gritted my teeth to take the couple dozen shots I needed here. When it was over, I got up off the track as if I were 110 years old and then limped back up a steep trail to my motorbike, which I would ride 45 miles back to my guesthouse in a cold rain.
KO PHANGAN, THAILAND (SEPTEMBER 29, 2007): While hiking a seldom-used trail on the north end of this island in the Gulf of Thailand — I was en route to an isolated beach to take pictures — I came upon this rocky slope with a nice view. Four hours earlier while sitting for breakfast, I had been in considerable back pain, but now at 1:30pm I was feeling better. And so I decided I was up for some rock climbing, which would take me down to the waterline where I could take a few photos that I couldn’t from up here. I made it down and back, but as I continued on toward the final destination, still an hour away through overgrown vegetation that required a lot of bending over, the pain increased. Shortly after I arrived, a jolt unlike anything I had known shot through my lower back and down my left leg; I fell to my knees in the sand. This is why I wouldn’t be taking any photographs on this particular beach, even though I had been planning to do so for months. But I would be having surgery in Bangkok two weeks later.
BANGKOK, THAILAND (OCTOBER 17, 2007): I had surgery the evening of the 16th to remove a portion of a lower disc, and this was the first photograph I took post-surgery, at 6:30 a.m. from my hospital bed. I felt tons better already (morphine?) and loved the view of a new day dawning outside my window. I was looking forward to recuperating, and to taking more photographs in the months and years ahead. And to paying better attention to back pain.