Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sri Lanka: Calling it as you see it – the shooters’ tale

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It generally starts with a text message.

Someone sends a message saying that there is heavy police presence. Then phones are picked up and calls are made. “Barricades are being brought in. Student protest, apparently”. A few calls later, we have a rough idea of where it’s going to be. We change plans of heading back to office, and tell the tuk-tuk driver to take us to Colpetty.

Lots of Police can be seen, but no sign of a protest. No students, no placards. We talk to a few Police officers. “We don’t know where they plan to go.” Confusion ensues.

A few more phone calls are made to photographers. Then we finally track it down to Town Hall. Students, monks, student monks. Slowly the crowd gathers, and they start marching.

The marching is brisk. The trail moves with the speed and agility of Colombo’s tuk-tuks. Only a few people at the front of the march are aware of the final destination that the march is headed to, and the directions they will be taking. Everyone else, including the police, are confused.

We walk in front of it, occasionally slowing down to shoot, and then running up to overtake it. We stop at junctions, and try to guess where they are heading. Police guess along with us. Sudden turns and twists, and some police officer or another is seen screaming into a walkie talkie.

The march comes to a junction, and there is a lone soldier with an assault rifle on his shoulder. Sanka Vidanagama and I stop for a moment. To try and juxtapose the saffron of the robes and the peace that it signifies, with the greens and browns of jungle camouflage and the violence that’s attached to it.

“I started as a hobby” says Sanka, who’s father is the legendary news photographer Sena Vidanagama, who took the picture of Rajiv Gandhi being hit over the shoulder with a rifle butt. Sena was an inspiration to many a young photographer.

But somewhere along the way the hobby turned into a profession. He talks about what he does, and the reasons behind it, with the same enthusiasm and cool that is trademark Sanka Vidanagama, laid back, all calm. “It’s probably the rebellious nature and the drive that comes with the age as well, which makes us want to go where we go” he adds. Even though young, he’s a veteran in the arts of urban warfare that is tear gas and water cannons. “I’ve faces tear gas about ten fifteen times” he says, but his initiation to violence was when he was recently at the receiving end of a stone that was thrown, when supporters of Gen. Sarath Fonseka and President Mahinda Rajapaksa clashed outside the supreme court complex.

Eranga Jayawardena, who is a Photographer for the Associated Press in Sri Lanka talks about the Hulfstdorp clashes in a different context. “There are two kinds of trouble that you can get into as a photographer. One is when you shoot in situations where there can be incidents that can physically harm you”, says Eranga.

The veteran photographer also talks of his days when he was covering the conflict, which ravaged the country for decades. “The conflict had an ethnic base, and I come from a specific ethnicity which was a party to that conflict. Even though I call it as I see it, by doing photographic reportage – and only reportage, persons with different agendas can twist the information that flows from to for their gain”. The gain for others, Eranga says, comes at a hefty price. “Whenever someone else gains, reporters become victims of targeted and premeditated harassment.”

Eranga follows the same philosophy that all good photographers do – snap what you see, and let the viewer come to conclusions. “I’m a reporter. I report. And then I hope for the best.”

In Colpetty, the march is now confronted with a barricade stopping it’s way. Photographers and reporters manage to squeeze through the barricade before it closes up. They are now on the side of the Police. We talk to them to find the action plan. A police officer takes a megaphone and asks the crowd to disburse. The crowd erects a stage and start making speeches.

Three photographers from local newspapers climb atop a telephone wire box to get a better look. A videographer manages to climb onto a roof. I get onto my colleague’s back. A police officer looks at my colleague and I can almost hear him mutter “psychos”. I smile.

The photographers reunite behind the barricades and take a few more shots of the assembled riot squads. One truck with a water cannon mounted starts to leak water. A few jokes are made at the truck’s expense. When things cool down, pow-wows happen and the people who are lugging heavy equipment around jest and rest. And memories are shared.

Chamila Karunaratna is a news photographer, who started when he was in school. He entered the sphere of photo journalism when he was twenty, and now contributes to a leading weekend paper, as well as freelancing for the Associated Press. Chamila relates an incident at a student protest a few years back, where he was the only photographer on the scene. “This was the days of film. I heard of a protest happening outside Kelaniya University. Since there were violent clashes between the police and students immediately before this, all the photographers were back at their bases”, he recalls.

“I was taking pictures for a long time, and by the time other camera crews got to the scene, the tempers has disappeared.” After filing the shots with his own paper, he went on to hand over copies to the others who missed the incident. A brotherhood which is still shared by many.

The first to arrive at the scene, will almost always give some shots to the others who couldn’t make it on time.

That camaraderie is treasured by those who share it, knowing that the guy next you is not going to leave you in danger, is partly one reason why the shooters cover dangerous events in groups. Ironically, while the individual friendships are cast in iron, they are also members of a community that has failed to forge a united front, that however is a another story. It is more to do with the faults of those who manage the outlets than the foot soldiers.

Today however, everybody is here, and there is time to shoot.

The protest also catches the eye of a passerby. A member of Sri Lanka’s extremely small orthodox Jewish community walks his son towards the protest. The telephone wire box which earlier gave a platform for the photographers, is instantly transformed into a viewing stage for the little boy. The photographer from Reuters walks over and shoots. We watch.

Phone calls and texts are sent to the bases. “Things are calm. They are speaking. No sign of clashes. We have the shots. Shall we come back?”

What started with a text message, also ends with one.

© Perambara

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