Slowly, I sank up to my knees, the mud sucking me in deeper and deeper.
I was standing on a riverbank near the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, photographing villages that had been flooded. Thinking I’d have a better angle if I got closer to the river, I took a flying leap into what I quickly realized was sludge. Each time I moved, the mud pulled me down further.
I noticed the villagers on the riverbank waving and gesticulating wildly. That’s when I heard my guide call out to me:
“The villagers said get out of there, you are standing on the crocodiles’ feeding ground.”
Getting Through with Humor
I’m often asked how I deal with the terrible, tragic and sometimes dangerous situations I see and photograph in my work.
For me, it’s the unexpected, quirky and downright silly moments that get me through.
While working on a project about garbage collectors in Jakarta, for example, I stayed overnight in a hut on a rubbish dump. The stench was overpowering; what the collectors had to walk through was appalling. When I woke up in the morning, I was covered in fleabites from head to toe — and especially on my face.
For several weeks after that, I had to walk around with bright cream on my face. I looked like a West Papuan warrior. I had to laugh about it; what else could I do?
The droughts in my native Australia can be devastating. Animals have to be slaughtered, because it’s too expensive to feed them. Farmers walk away from family farms with nothing, and water is rationed or used sparingly.
During the worst drought on record, I stood in a field talking to a man whose job it was to remove snakes from houses, where they would often crawl in search of water. As we were chatting, a snake started to slink up and around his body.
The man calmly grabbed the snake, held onto its head and continued with our conversation. That was worth a nervous chuckle or two.
Kant on a Rooftop
Filmmakers and authors have long recognized the fascinating juxtaposition of horror and humor. Among war movies, MASH, Catch-22, and even Apocalypse Now — with Dennis Hopper’s mad war photographer — are excellent examples of this.
Once, in the midst of a chaotic, tense Middle Eastern conflict, I was contacted by a government minder who said a man from the university wished to speak with me. I was taken to a house and led up to the roof, where this man was waiting for me.
“I wish to speak with you about Kant and the philosophy of the Western world,” he said.
This was fine except for two things.
One, I didn’t know much about Immanuel Kant.
And two, there were Scud missiles falling all around us at the time — although he seemed oblivious to this fact.
Going to Extremes
Recently, I photographed people in Manila earning a meager living making charcoal.
The area where they live and work is covered in thick, gray, acrid smoke, so intense that I could hardly see while trying to shoot pictures. The workers, many of them children, scratched around in the ashes for wire and nails that could be sold as scrap.
Because of the appalling conditions, the majority of the people in the area have respiratory problems.
As I was shooting, one of the women kneeling in the charcoal dust got up and smiled at me. She waved her blackened hands in the air, threw back her head and laughed.
Was she laughing at me or at life in general? Or was this yet another sign of human resilience taking the form of laughter in the face of extreme adversity?
Also on a recent trip to the Philippines, I found myself traveling in the southern part of the country, an area populated by secessionist groups, bandits and others. These groups partly fund their enterprises by kidnapping people, especially westerners, and holding them for ransom.
We drove through the villages of the tribal people and up into the hills along a meandering dirt track. Suddenly our car hit a muddy patch, got bogged down and was unable to move forward.
The driver revved the engine and tried to go backwards. This resulted in a punctured tire.
We went into the surrounding jungle to collect bracken, branches and shrubs to place under the wheels to provide traction. The driver revved the engine again. This time, he burned out the motor.
So here we were, stuck in the jungle on a hillside in the southern Philippines, where the best type of income was trading westerners for ransom money. We abandoned the car and starting walking.
We were lucky. We got out.
The Cab Ride Home
After one such harrowing trip, I flew into an Australian airport on a Saturday morning and caught a taxi home.
The driver asked me if I was going to see the football game that day.
“No,” I said.
Then he asked if I was going to the horse races.
“No,” I replied.
“Jeez, mate,” he said. “What do you do for excitement? Get a life!”
At the end of the day, you’ve just got to laugh.