A Visual Dedication to Kathmandu

Nearly 5-years-ago, on this very same blog, I wrote:

“Kathmandu has to be one of the greatest places on earth to get lost. The old city is an architectural and cultural labyrinth. Surrounded by steep hills, the narrow streets of the city are crammed full of people, temples, sounds, smells, sellers, buyers, trash and your occasional cow or monkey. The place is buzzing with life. For the nomadically curious, this makes Kathmandu a gold mine.”

Back then, I was traveling for fun. And I loved it.

That’s why I was so excited when I was sent back to Kathmandu 5-years-later to make a short film. It was literally one month before April 25th.

I spent a week in the city, filming for three days. Visiting the same places I had fallen in love with years earlier.

When the earthquake hit on April 25th I knew it would be bad and I knew I wanted to use the footage I had recently filmed for some good purpose.

However, I didn’t think people would react in such amazing ways. Since publishing the video journal, Ive received so many emails and messages from strangers around the world who shared my feelings and memories of the city. Even more encouraging was people who told me they were encouraged to donate and help the people of Nepal.

Thank you for your feedback and support for the Nepalese people. Find out how you can help here.

谢谢: Pictures of the Year International

I was very honored to be named 2nd place in the 72nd annual Pictures of the Year International (POYi) competition as Multimedia Photographer of the Year for my work in 2014 for The New York Times. This award is particularly meaningful to me because it judges a portfolio of work from a calendar year, opposed to a single piece of work. Although I am bylined on these pieces — many other people made the productions possible, including a long list of senior producers, reporters, fixers, translators and financial support from The New York Times.

With so many incredibly talented documentary video journalists doing amazing work in the world — it is humbling to be listed here.

I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for the Pictures of the Year International competition as well as Columbia’s journalism program which started running the contest in 1944. And while winning awards is not the reason why I have dedicated myself to documentary storytelling, the award is very meaningful to me as it helps to confirm that the extreme time commitment and efforts are noticed and have impact. When you dedicate yourself to a cause and immerse yourself so deeply in it that the rest of life is just a footnote, one can lose perspective about why we are doing it in the first place. Awards like this help.

Additionally, my short documentary “Jade’s Journey Marked by Death and Drugs” received an Award of Excellence in the Documentary Journalism category. This project was built off work I had done the previous year with journalist Patrick Winn, called Myanmar Emerges, which documented post-totalitarian Myanmar’s sturggle for democracy. That series won The Robert F. Kennedy Award for Justice and Human Rights reporting as well as the Edwin Hope Diplomatic Award for Broadcast, amongst others.

You may notice, that the winner of both of the POYi categories is the same person — VII’s Ed Kashi, a journalist I’ve looked up to since I was in journalism school. From second place, I’m still looking up. But to even be included in the same list, is in itself — an honor. His winning portfolio is well worth your time watching.

For an entire over view of this year’s winner see The New York Times Lens Blog entry here.

In submitting to the contest, I tried to show a variety of work from over the year, from lighter features to documentary, to breaking news and researched features. Below are the 5 videos submitted for consideration of the award.

In Myanmar’s ‘Black Zones,’ Illicit Chinese Commerce Is Said to Thrive

Conflicting reports recently about the possibility of Chinese citizens being trapped in the war-torn Burmese state of Kachin are a reminder of China’s shady dealings on the other side of its border with Myanmar.

The state-run Chinese newspaper Global Times reported that hundreds of Chinese citizens were trapped by fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese military around the jade-rich city of Hpakant. The area is the world’s largest source of jadeite, or what is known in China as fei cui, the most valuable form of jade.

A day later, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar denied the report, claiming that no Chinese were in the area. But hours later, U Mong Gwong, an officer of the Kachin Independence Army, told The New York Times that about 300 Chinese civilians had indeed been caught in the crossfire of civil war.

Presumably, the Chinese government would rather not draw attention to the fact that its citizens are conducting business in what Myanmar calls a black zone, that is, territory controlled by guerrilla fighters in one of the country’s ethnic conflicts. Foreigners are barred from black zones throughout Myanmar.

But those roadblocks do not seem to matter if you are Chinese. Video footage from the jade mines, obtained by The Times in an earlier investigation of the industry, shows the Chinese freely entering and working in the off-limits area, where they buy and trade jade.

According to the Kachin rebels, however, the Chinese are doing more than that.

U Dau Hka, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization — the civilian counterpart of the Kachin Independence Army — said that almost all the jade mines in the Hpakant area were owned by citizens of Myanmar, at least in name. “But those who are handling the steering wheels behind the scenes are foreign companies and foreign businessmen,” he said, referring to Chinese businessmen who they claim are financing the jade mines in the black zone.

South of Kachin, different wars are waged. In Shan State, 25 percent of the world’s heroin is produced from endless valleys of opium poppy. Just like the Kachin jade mines, the poppy area is in a black zone — no foreigners allowed.

This winter, I found myself waist-deep in those poppy fields, where opium was being farmed with impunity. As I waded through the fields filming opium farmers, my jeans became sticky with the mind-altering sap that oozes from the poppy flowers. They were the only pants I had with me. I imagined trying to explain to a Chinese airport security officer on my way home to Beijing why the dogs had sniffed me out. Fortunately, they did not.

About 90 percent of the heroin produced in those fields will eventually make its way to China, where it will be consumed.

Though foreigners by law are not allowed into the area, poppy farmers tell me that Chinese chemists making heroin have worked freely there. The practice is decades old, and government-designated boundaries do little to slow the trade. Poppy farmers feed their families from it, and rebel armies use the money to finance their fight for independence.

Regardless of the rival claims in this week’s reports about Chinese citizens trapped in Kachin, the Chinese presence in Myanmar’s black zones is nothing short of abundant. Myanmar’s civil wars have created havens for Chinese involved in smuggling timber, jade, gold and drugs.

This month, 155 Chinese citizens were detained in Kachin State on suspicion of illegal logging. “From a humanitarian point of view, China urges Myanmar to protect these people’s legitimate rights and interests,” a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, said of the detainees at a news conference on Wednesday in Beijing.

Such arrests are the exception rather than the norm in Myanmar, however.

“There are some businessmen engaged in illegal activities who, attracted by outsize profits, cross the border to mine or smuggle jade,” China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Yang Houlan, said when asked about China’s involvement in Hpakant. “But there are some parts of this illicit trade that, like drugs, can’t be stamped out.”

Lost Dreams of Home Ownership in Hangzhou

On the fourth floor of an unfinished apartment building in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, a man stands guard, looking down on the courtyard of the complex where he had thought his future home would be. It is his turn to keep an eye out for the developers who are said to have abandoned the project.

He and the other would-be residents take shifts guarding the area, sleeping in tents and in makeshift rooms. They are defending their protest signs, which they say the developers will tear down if they do not remain vigilant.

“I bleed, I cry,” reads one banner, which is three stories high. “Give back my home, give back my money,” reads another.

Those occupying the space say that nearly 600 families had paid cash advances for apartments at the Xixi Moho complex. But then, they say, the developer sold their shares to another developer, who then sold the property to yet another. The building was never completed, and the families are now trapped in a state of residential and economic limbo.

“Many customers who borrowed money from banks are in trouble,” said Liu Cheng, an unemployed entrepreneur who invested in the project. “If they stop paying off their loan, they will bear legal responsibility from the bank. But what if they keep paying it? They still won’t get an apartment in the foreseeable future.”

Mr. Liu said he invested in the property development because the price seemed reasonable.

“But in the end, we lose both the apartment and our money,” he said. “And now? No one is taking responsibility.”

The situation at Xixi Moho is not uncommon in the area, the protesters say. Or elsewhere in China.

Many real estate developers have financed projects by selling the bulk of the apartments before construction, borrowing from banks and then selling the rest of the apartments during construction. This works well when prices are rising, and it allows developers to earn huge rates of return on their investments.

But the system breaks down when prices fall. After years of steady increases in housing values, prices have begun to decline, and some developers have run out of money before finishing the projects.

Real estate projects accounted for 12.8 percent of China’s economic activity in October, according to the International Monetary Fund. If related activities such as making steel for beams or manufacturing sinks for bathrooms are included, that figure jumps to 33 percent. This means that even small price drops in the real estate sector can have considerable economic implications.

Could you take me to a Uighur neighborhood?

“Could you take me to a Uighur neighborhood?” I asked my taxi driver in Karamay, an oil-rich city in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Like many foreign reporters visting this area, I had been hearing “no” and “not possible” a lot, regardless of what questions I asked. However, my driver, a woman who gave her surname as Zhu, said she knew a Uighur neighborhood and begrudgingly agreed to take me there.

The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim people, are native to this region. Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, though, their stake in their homeland has been shrinking. Jobs and state policy have drawn millions of Han, China’s dominant ethnic group, to Xinjiang.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in 1949 the Han made up only 6.7 percent of Xinjiang’s population. By 2008 that number had jumped to 40 percent. In Karamay, though, they represent about 80 percent, leaving the Uighurs a marginalized minority.

Ms. Zhu is a Han who moved to the city from the central province of Henan five years ago. She seemed uneasy about driving me into this part of the city. Clashes between the two ethnic groups have been abundant in recent years, as many Uighurs complain of restrictions on their cultural and religious expression. Hundreds of people in Xinjiang have died in the violence this year alone.

I had traveled to the area to make a short video about the relationship between energy and ethnicity along what President Xi Jinping has called the New Silk Road, linking the economies of China and Central Asia as well as points farther west. Although my requests for an official visit to Karamay’s oil fields were denied, the effects of China’s energy expansion plans were all around me.

Ms. Zhu is one of the many Han chasing the new opportunities that abound in Karamay. But in her taxi was a reminder of the ethnic frictions that have accompanied the economic drive.

Displayed on the dashboard was a sign with photographs of people in a spectrum of ethnic dress. On the left, under the words “Traditional clothing of Uighur women,” were images of women in head scarves and embroidered caps.

On the right, however, under the words “These abnormal ‘five types’ of people are forbidden to access public places,” were women in more concealing jilbabs, burqas and hijabs, as well as young men with full beards and T-shirts bearing crescent stars and moon symbols.

These were, supposedly, the telltale signs of Islamist extremism. The local government had issued the signs to indicate what kinds of dress are now acceptable on public transportation and in taxis or for visiting public places like shopping malls.

Ms. Zhu said the tightening rules were having an effect.

“Five years ago, there were a lot of people dressing like that, wearing veils and only exposing their faces,” she said. “Now the government regulates this strictly, so there aren’t so many.”

She welcomed the change. As we pulled up to a crumbling Uighur neighborhood, she said, “When I first came here, I was afraid when I saw people dressing like that.”

I exited the taxi. Ms. Zhu lost no time in speedily driving off.

The Life and Times of Mung Hkwang

When I met Mung Hkwang, his ankle was chained to a bamboo bed with a cheap padlock you might find at 7-Eleven.

A week earlier he had arrived at Change in Christ, a drug rehabilitation center in the hills of northern Myanmar. The chains were the center’s best method to fight drug addiction. If addicts can’t leave, they can’t use.

At age 15 he began using heroin at school in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, a mostly Christian, war-torn territory in northern Myanmar that has been fighting for autonomy from the central government.

He wasn’t the first drug addict I had seen locked up in Kachin State. At other rehab centers in the area, I had seen drug addicts locked in cages, some of them ironically called “prayer rooms.”

Rehab centers in this religious area have little in the way of resources to fight drug addiction. For most, prayer is the first line of defense. But they know this isn’t enough. They have seen too many die to not have learned. Without medical professionals or resources like methadone, rehab leaders say they are forced to lock up drug addicts.

The free flow of heroin at Kachin State’s jade mines has created a stream of heroin that has made its way into all parts of Kachin society. From schoolchildren to businessmen to those directly involved in the jade industry, you would be hard pressed to find someone in the area who wasn’t affected by it.

Although Mung Hkwang never worked in one of Myanmar’s drug-infested jade mines, his addiction shows the effects of the lack of drug enforcement in the mines. Drugs spread like a virus.

Filming this story was both difficult and devastating. What’s easier: Asking complete strangers if you can film them injecting heroin into their arms or asking addicts in withdrawal if you can film them describing what they’re feeling? But heroin has become such a big problem that most Kachin addicts are fully aware of what it could mean for the future of their people.

Kachin State is trapped between the superpowers China and India. It is at war with the Burmese. And now with the young hooked on heroin and the old only getting older, the future of the ethnic Christian minority is in question. This motivates many to tell their stories. But to talk about their addiction is, in fact, a cry for help.

Sadly, the padlock keeping Mung Hkwang locked to his bed was not strong enough. He escaped rehab weeks after my visit and was soon found dead, his bloodstream full of heroin.

A Father of Eagles

I meet a lot of interesting people: Inventors, basketball players, presidents, deep ocean explorers — the list goes on forever. But recently, I met my first eagle hunter. 75-year-old Sulantanbi. And yes, eagle hunter is an actual job in some parts of the world.

“The eagle is like my son. He only recognizes the person who raises him,” the tall man with the small hat says to me.

I was in Xinjiang, China’s wild west. Sulantanbi is nationally Chinese, but he is ethnically Kazakh. About 200-years-ago Kazakhs started to flee Russia into far western China. Their goal: to preserve their culture and identity. Some say the migration has kept some traditions, like eagle hunting, better preserved in China than in Kazakhstan.

“They were living under pressure form the Russians in Kazakhstan. The Russians had an assimilation policy, so my ancestors migrated here,” Sulantanbi tells me over tea in his house near the Nalati grasslands.


“At that time Russian men married Kazakhstani women. They forbid them from speaking Kazakh.”

Sulantanbi is the 7th generation of his blood line to be born in China and he is in fact proud of his Chinese nationality. Afterall, he’s 75-years old and grew up in a much different China. While his family was able to hold on to some of their traditions, like eagle hunting, their path in China has been far from easy.

“We grew up eating millet and wearing clothes made of sheep’s wool and skin. We had to eat from the same big pot during the Great Leap Forward. All of my family did. At that time they gave us 200 ml corn flour and that’s all we ate for several years. But after the Great Leap Forward, our life became better. It was Deng Xiaoping’s time.”

Today, Sulantanbi raises eagles on the grasslands. Its an ancient tradition that allows Sulantanbi to get food and exotic furs during the long winter months. Sulantanbi tells me, when his eagle is fully trained he will be able to snatch a fox in less than 5-minutes during winter months.

“Eagle hunting started during the times of the emperors. The emperors often went hunting, bringing their eagles and hounds. The emperor’s hunt would last for days and this hunting tradition spread to Kazakh folk life,” he explains to me.

The largest ethnic population in Xinjiang are the Uighur people, the original inhabitants of much of the region. While China’s Kazakhs and the Xinjiang’s Uighur people follow two separate blood lines and cultural paths — they do share some things in common, including their religion. But a growing Uighur insurgency has caused China to tighten their control of the Muslim population. New rules have banned Islamic dress and religious practices.

Rights’ groups say these policies create widespread discrimination and politically marginalize the population.

While the Kazakhs have not been part of violent clashes in the region, China’s anti-Muslim policies have started to effect China’s Kazakhs, causing some to ironically leave China for the same reason their ancestors migrated here.

But not Sulantanbi.

“I was born in China. This is my home. I want to be buried in Chinese soil.”

Chi Yin Sim | 2014 Her World Young Woman Achiever Award

I make many dozens of videos every year, about dozens of different people. However, very rarely are these people my friends. This fall, that changed.

Both my current contract and schedule don’t allow me to do too much work outside of The New York Times. However, recently my friend and colleague Chi Yin Sim won an award and I took a day off to help film a short vignette which was played during the award ceremony held in Singapore.

The Her World Young Woman Achiever award was launched in 1999. The annual award recognizes a young woman who aims higher and reaches further to achieve more. Her achievements have surpassed existing boundaries, inspiring those around her and paving the way for others in the future. She has also demonstrated the potential for attaining a higher level of success in her chosen field.

The Her World Young Woman Achiever 2014 goes to Sim Chi Yin, 35, an award-winning freelance photojournalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times,
The New Yorker, TIME and Le Monde.

See Chi Yin Sim’s web site
Meet your new Her World Young Woman Achiever 2014 | herworldPLUS

Movidiam: The Facebook for Filmmakers, Will Do Much More than Just Connect

A new social media infused project management platform has opened its digital doors for preregistration. Its called Movidiam and if you’re an independent filmmaker, production company or even brand — I think you have a lot to be excited about.

We’re seeing multiple sites offering creative collaboration project management systems pop up these days, such as Frame.io and Arc 9. I believe this shows a real hole in the market — a product that’s missing. And based on my work flow which is largely based on email and Google Docs, I see why.

Before you brush this off as “yet another creative collaboration site,” pay close attention to the description above — this is much more than a site to improve workflow. Movidiam is both a social network as well as an interactive project management system made for filmmakers (by filmmakers). Think of it as Vimeo + Linkedin + Facebook + WordPress + Mandy + a project management system.

“We are living in a connected and mobile world where the traditional agency model is challenged, where remote freelancing is becoming the norm and where the demand for brands to create a constant stream of quality films has dramatically increased,” says co-founder George Olver.

“Movidiam was created to address these challenges by providing a streamlined and collaborative production process from concept to completion.”

So: What is Movidiam, how does it work and what can it do for me?” I had these same questions and while I had seen some talk of the upcoming system at IBC it wasn’t until I sat down with George Olver to take a tour of the preproduction system where I truly got a better understanding of its potential power.

On a the most basic level Movidiam connects content creators, agencies and companies. A brand looking for a filmmaker can search the system’s geobased database and see filmmaker profiles, complete with embedded videos, a free blog custom designed for the site and see the filmmakers credentials, history, awards and collaborations.


Down the line, the metadata of your films, projects and credentials will also be searchable. So a company could put out a brief and have it sent to only people or agencies who are actually qualified. Alternatively, a freelancer, producer or agency would only receive the brief, if that brief meets their set financial quantifications and profesional qualifications.

For all parties involved, this can make posting or responding to a brief much more efficient. Instead of having an enormous list of poorly paid jobs, like we mostly see on Mandy, this could potentially cut some of the bullshit out.


From within a project on the site, one can also search production team members. You might see a video with great lighting but a poor story and want to track down the gaffer. This system connects production team members digitally, much like Facebook or Vimeo’s credits. However, you’ll be able to find out a lot more professional information about those crew members with this system.

This is a quick over view of the social side of Movidiam.

While this is great, it’s the production side of Movidiam which I’m more excited about.


The project management system has many of the tools we really need in a single location, in a clean and simply designed user interface. Things like production timelines, budgets, storyboards, crew locations and contact details are all in one place.

One feature I’m personally interested in comes in the form of revisions. Unfortunately, most of my revisions happen via email. Ill send a draft of a video to an editor and they will send back a long list of time codes with comments or issues. And when you get 500+ emails a day and a working on multiple projects you can really waste a lot of time trying to simply update videos and find the information you need, when you need it.

Movidiam allows editors or clients to view videos and add comments in real time and on specific areas of the video. This might be a comment such as “can we get a different grade on the lamp here” where a user would then see these comments come up in real time and on a specific X/Y coordinate, on the video.

Users can then scroll through or navigate through a video via the comments and simply move directly from one comment point to the next.


Furthermore, if you’re like me and usually have 10-20 projects going on at any given time, this system can give you an overview of all of them. A user can see all of their projects and quickly see at what stage in the process they are all at, how the budget is holding up or where deadlines are across many videos.

This is where I see huge potential for video newsrooms. Potentially, an editor or director of a newsroom of 50 video journalists could see an overview of where all of the projects are, see storyboards, scripts, budgets, deadlines or story ID information which might correspondent to other parts of the newsroom. That editor could see current drafts of each of those projects and without having to send a mass email out to all of those 50 journalists, would be completely up to date on where each project was at and what each employee was doing.

This is a basic outline of what the site aims to do. Its a bit hard to tell what place it could have in the industry, but I see huge potential in it from getting gigs to connecting with other filmmakers to simply having more organized and streamlined productions.

Movidiam will have two main options for users: a free site and a paid subscription. The free account allows users to profile themselves, create portfolios and blogs, be searchable and work on any existing project that they have been invited into. The pay wall unlocks all the production management tools and will be on a subscription basis of $25 a month. Its great to note here that even free users can use paid services, if they are invited by a member who has subscription services. Multiple user accounts, corporate, agency and enterprise group accounts will also be available.

I do think the site will be more powerful with a bigger user base. If there’s more filmmakers on it, it will be a more realistic place for agencies and brands to search find creators. Movidiam is offering two free months of full access to those who preregister for the beta site, so I encourage everyone to sign up here, as more users can actually benefit us all, across the industry.

Formula E, Carbon Free

The first carbon free, fully-electric racing championship was held in Beijing on September 13, 2014. The race aims to promote electric vehicles and clean energy technologies. Beijing was the first to host one of ten, Formula One style races around the world. Races take place in city centers of major destinations throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas.

See “Beijing Hosts Debut of Formula E as Engines Whir Rather Than Roar.”

Visual Journalism | 视频记者 Cinematography

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