Tag Archives: video

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.

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.

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

Surrogacy: ‘Better than Prostitution’

The executive at Baby Plan Medical Technology Company Knows the camera is on.

“Working as a surrogate mother is better than being a prostitute, right?”

He says to a 30-year-old farmer turned surrogate mother in Wuhan. The comparison gives a small glimpse about how the surrogacy industry see’s itself: better than prostitution.

The woman listening, a 30-year-old divorcee, surnamed Kong is renting her womb to the surrogacy agency for roughly $24,000.

While it is illegal in China to implant a fertilized egg into another woman’s womb, Baby Plan Medical Technology Company avoids the issue by sending its surrogates to Thailand for the medical procedure. “All is permissible unless prohibited,” says CEO Zenan Yang. While the company exists in a legally gray area, opinions about surrogacy on the street seem less gray.

In “China Experiences a Booming Underground Market in Child Surrogacy” Ian Johnson explores the murky world of surrogacy in China.

Real World Uses of Canon C100 Dual Pixel CMOS AF for Video Journalists and Documentarians

A few months back at a music festival in Beijing a man walked by me dragging a cabbage. Perplexed and trapped between two mediocre metal bands, I asked my friend what the deal was. She told me that the cabbage symbolized economic inequality and the act was a form of protest.

In China the cabbage has quite the history compared to other vegetables. In harsher times, it was the main source of sustenance for many and having cabbage actually symbolized wealth — because you could afford to eat.

However, when I got home I started seeing reports online with other explanations. “Lonely teenagers in China who feel life is pointless and who struggle to find friends have taken to befriending the lowly vegetables as the perfect, undemanding companions,” said the Austrian Times, complete with quotes from psychologists and Chinese teens.

Within days, lots of explanations started surfacing. But a quick Google search actually showed that this was something of a performance art and it wasn’t a new thing at all. In fact, its been going on for over 10-years by the Beijing-based artist named Han Bing. A couple of text messages later and some quick networking and I found the guys contact details and decided to give him a call.

A week later, I spent a day with Mr. Bing to get to the bottom of it. After all, how often would I get a chance to strap a GoPro to a cabbage?

While this video is relatively simple there’s a couple tech details going on here of note. It was filmed with the Canon C100’s relatively new Dual Pixel CMOS AF upgrade. When Canon announced this was going to happen I actually had mixed feelings about it. I asked myself if I needed, or even wanted to autofocus at all. Would it be better to have auto focus? or use the Zeiss primes I have grown to love?

I let my curiosity get the better of me and paid for the upgrade A couple months after getting the installation the answer is very clear: if you shoot journalism with the C100 the update is an absolute necessity. I’ve found the feature useful in number of common situation for solo video journalists. With my Glidecam I can not only follow people with a much more shallow depth of field, but I can change my position in relativity to the subject and still maintain focus without a focus puller and wireless system (not that I have ever had those in the field).

Another tremendously useful use is the ability to track things at longer focal lengths. Tracking a fast moving cabbage at 300mm is simply much easier now. With video journalism, we tend not to have the ability to ask subjects to do things twice, so getting a shot on first take is essential.

Breaking news environments is another scenario where I’ve found the feature to be extremely valuable. On a recent assignment in Hong Kong, I attended a protest where over 500,000 people voiced their concerns about Chinese growing influence in the territory. The video was filmed, edited and published within 48 hours. There wasn’t too much tracking or focus pulling going on, but in a large crowd I could get shots quicker and more accurately with the AF. It was a tough situation to navigate and the AF just made life easier, which actually helps meet deadlines.

The feature has become invaluable to me but I do hope for continued firmware improvements to it. Currently, the system does not allow you to change the point of focus within your frame – unlike cameras like the Panasonic GH4 or Canon’s own 70D. This means you can’t chose what point the camera is tracking – it is always in the centre. I’ve reprogramed my camera’s buttons to have a quick focus lock, I can focus and recompose if needed, but it would be nicer to have more control here.

The C100 set up for an interview
The C100 set up for an interview

Being able to control the speed at which the camera focuses would also be very useful. Currently the AF is so quick it can look a little bit unnatural – perhaps lacking emotion. Having the ability to tell the lens to pull focus more gradually would give you the ability to change focus with a little more style.

While I hope Canon will give us these features with an update (ed – don’t hold your breath), the Dual Pixel CMOS AF already makes the C100 more valuable for video journalists and documentarians. It has in fact changed the way I shoot and sped up my workflow in fast paced environments.

Of course I also took my GoPro for a ride on the cabbage
Of course I also took my GoPro for a ride on the cabbage

The People’s Religion

“Buddhism and Daoism are embedded in Chinese traditional culture,” the Rev. Matthew Zhen said after an early morning mass in Latin at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. “But Islam, Christianity and Catholicism have a relatively short history in China. People need time to accept them.”

Although Christianity entered China well over a thousand years ago, the recent destruction of the Sanjiang Church in the eastern city of Wenzhou underscored Father Zhen’s point — more time may be needed. Whether it is primarily a question of time or ideology, however, is debatable.

“The government feels more comfortable with the so-called traditional religions in China — Buddhism, Daoism and folk religion,” said Ian Johnson of The Times’s Beijing bureau, who has reported on religion in China for more than 20 years. “They think those are less threatening than those that have more outer-world links such as Christianity, including Catholicism with ties to the Vatican, or Islam. Overall the government is a little uneasy about the growth of Christianity. It sees it as something that is a little bit out of control.”

In “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire,” Mr. Johnson explores the current state of religion in China and what conclusions can be drawn from the destruction of the $5.5 million, year-old church in “China’s Jerusalem.”

A Freelancer’s New Year’s Message

About four months ago I stopped booking new work.

2013 was an amazing year of work for me. I shot, produced and edited over 50 videos in China, the United States, Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, The Netherlands, Poland and Romania. When I get this busy, sometimes my Vimeo channel ends up being a better record of events than my own memory. In 2013, between pre-production, production, post production, client management, stock sales and attempting to keep up with social media, I didn’t have a single day off.

About half way through this marathon of work the stress of never having a day off began to wear on me. I never “burned out” per se, but it became clear to me that I would never have a day off unless I stopped taking on new work. So I decided to take a step back and re-evaluate how to be passionate about my trade, putting everything I have into it, without completely compromising everything else in my life.

Entering 2014 my schedule is cleared for the first time in about three years. Even though I spent so long deliberately trying to get to this point, its actually a bit scary. However, the unknown possibilities are extremely exciting.

The entire process of getting “unbusy” has gotten me thinking about just how busy a freelancer should be. Unlike people with traditional jobs our working hours are relatively indefinite and formless. Our weekdays and weekends — indistinguishable.

So how much work is healthy and how much is too much? Should I be outputting as much as a staffer does? If I had taken half as much work last year, would that work be twice as good? How much quality was sacrificed by constantly being on a deadline?

And what about the rest of life? If you work all the time there isn’t much time for anything else. How many times can you tell a friend you are too busy to come out for a beer before they stop asking? How many “work vacations” can you go on with your girlfriend, before she asks you not to bring a camera? (ok, fine — the camera isn’t a problem, but a tripod certainly makes things less vacation-y).

As I’m trying to learn how to be un-busy, apparently not an easy task, these are the questions bouncing around my head entering 2014.

can get lost in the online ocean of content. If you work in video production then also know this — there is always more work you can do on projects. You can always make sound, color or sequencing tighter. Projects can always be improved and very rarely have I ever finished something and thought ‘there’s nothing more I can do.’

But without a doubt constantly working has made me better at what I do. More precise, more toned-in and more comfortable being creative and efficient in difficult environments with up-to-date technology. Before using the Canon 5D mkII I had barely touched a video capable camera. A few years later, I have a career shooting commercials, news videos and documentaries. Even after years of dedication and passion, I don’t think my learning curve is slowing. The work I’m doing now is leaps ahead of what I was doing 12 months ago.

The video above, Promise and Peril was shot in Myanmar over three different trips over the course of one year. Its a project I’ve been blogging about on the site throughout the year, here and here. In 2013 I made ten news features produced in Burma, but the greater goal of the project was to create a 30-minute documentary painting a bigger picture of what democracy means in reform era Myanmar. Some of the news videos appear in the main doc, others don’t. Some original content only appears in the doc, and some news clips are shown in their entirety, with different creative treatments. From a news industry perspective this is actually a bit unique and interesting. Its a way to get more legs out of your content, without changing your production costs too much.

But I can look at the doc and see quality differences from scene-to-scene. Things I see from segments shot earlier in the year, that I would never do now. This to me is an indicator that all the time I spent juggling multiple projects in multiple countries for multiple clients wasn’t without big benefits.

But perhaps the greatest thing I’ve learned from being too busy is how many things I want to be better at.

For me, I know I want more time to study software and setup better workflow processes. I want to improve my color grading and audio engineering skills, learn to animate and become more efficient at handling data. These type of ventures get lost quickly if every bit of your time is spoken for.

When I realized that these things were important to me — I decided to stop booking work. I decided I want to chose my projects even more carefully than I already do and to make sure I have time for other parts of life. Finding the right balance between improving myself professionally, earning money while doing interesting work and still having time to enjoy life (without carrying a tripod around), might just be the greatest challenge I’ve found as a freelancer.

Just like a busy restaurant will often stay busy simply because its full of people (the sheep mentality) — by working a lot I do believe I get more work. But by working too much I don’t have time for the other things which are so important in staying relevant in a technology-based industry as well as simply spending time with the people I care about.

These are the promises and perils of freelancing.

So looking into 2014, I’d like to wish all you readers of the blog a healthy and balanced year ahead: A year with bright ideas, powerful projects and hopefully, a little time for yourselves. I know these are my goals.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading.


Myanmar Emerges is a year-long GlobalPost investigation into challenges facing Myanmar’s nascent democracy. To learn more about this project click here.

A Portrait of Luo Changping

Transparency International Integrity Award: Luo Changping from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

This video portrait of Luo Changping, an anti-corruption fighting journalist in China was commissioned by Transparency International to be played at the 2013 awards ceremony in Berlin. Luo along with Angola based journalist Rafael Marques de Morais received the annual award.

I’ve really grown to love this form of video. In my opinion it is the video equivalent of a still portrait where the photographer takes control of the elements from lighting to where the subject is photographed. In the video world, we have room to create sequences that build an environment and an atmosphere around a subject’s voice.

However, if we were to put narration in, I believe the format changes dramatically to become something different.

Working on projects like this is meaningful to me because I supply the creative architecture to let the character speak. And this character should be commended by what he says. Fighting corruption in China is an uphill battle and very few are brave enough to even try.

Transparency International Integrity Awards recognise the courage and determination of the many individuals and organisations fighting corruption around the world.Winners are a source of inspiration to the anti-corruption movement because their actions echo a common message: that corruption can be challenged.

Working in an environment of media censorship, Chinese journalist Luo Changping summoned the courage to expose corruption via his personal blog.

When the respected financial magazine Luo works for was reluctant to print the name of a high-ranking official accused of illegal financial dealings, he bravely decided to publish the full allegations, including the official’s name, himself. His naming of the official, Liu Tienan, eventually led to a government investigation resulting in Liu’s dismissal from the party and removal from public office in 2013.

The road to accountability was not an easy one. After the investigation was announced by Chinese authorities, Luo’s internet account was deleted before he could release further information on the story. But were it not for Luo’s courage and tenacity, the official’s conduct would have continued unchallenged. Luo’s success was a rare victory in the struggle for transparency in China. His actions have demonstrated the important role for investigative journalism and social media in the fight against corruption.

The response from the Chinese government to Luo’s award is not a surprising one. Before the award was released the central Propaganda Department told Chinese media outlets (via China Digital Times):

“Regarding Transparency International’s intention to give Caijing Deputy Editor Luo Changping [this year’s] Integrity Award, the media must downplay the story. Do not report or comment on it. (November 2, 2013)”


Transparency International
Get involved – Integrity awards http://buff.ly/I6rqzn

NYT: China to Investigate Top Economic Policy Maker
CNN: How Chinese journalist Luo Changping took on a corrupt official
BBC News – How a Chinese journalist took on a top official
China Digital Times: Minitrue: Luo Changping May Win Integrity Award
SCMP: Luo Changping on the state of Chinese media | South China Morning Post