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‘Scenes of rape in the arroyo, seduction in cars, abandoned buildings, fights at the food stand; the dust, the shoes, open shirts and raised collars, bright sculptured hair’ ~ Latino Chrome lyrics by Jim Morrison, The Doors

Prologue

On April 29, 1992, twelve jurors in Simi Valley, California, delivered their verdicts in a controversial case involving the 1991 beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers. The case received international attention when grainy footage of the officers’ attack on King was televised and it became a national scandal. The beating would never have been seen had it not been for George Holliday, who grabbed his video camera and stepped onto his balcony when he was awoken by sirens.

The verdict was read: all four officers were acquitted of excessive force and cleared of all charges. Due to the extensive media coverage, the public received immediate news of the verdict. Reaction in Los Angeles was swift as people began venting their anger. L.A. became a scene from a war movie, albeit one far from the facade of a studio.

The following night I picked up an assignment for CBS news to cover film director Spike Lee’s speaking engagement at the University of California in Irvine. The timing was ironic; following the King beating and the LAPD officers’ verdict, it was day two of the rioting. Spike was to talk about his new film ‘Malcolm X’. Irvine is about 45 miles south of Los Angeles, in the county famed for its oranges. Spike never made it; the announcement was made in the UC auditorium that, as a result of an upsurge in violence in L.A. and due to an exodus of traffic causing congestion on the freeways, Mr. Lee was unable to attend his engagement.

I’d taken the precaution of renting an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera; my 1978 Volkswagen Bus just didn’t have the speed or the protection for riding around the city of Los Angeles under such challenging circumstances and against brutal violence.

I packed up the camera and rushed back to L.A., heading north on the 405 freeway. It had been closed and was therefore free of traffic by the time I neared Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). With no police scanner to monitor the situation, I listened to KFWB news radio for leads, following police vehicles, helicopters and fire trucks that may have led me to riot hotspots. From their reports, I deduced that the worst fires and looting were taking place in central Los Angeles. At the interchange I took the on-ramp to the Santa Monica freeway that sits high above the ground on concrete columns. This gave me a spectacular view of L.A.’s cityscape – it stretched out before me, hundreds of dark gray smoky plumes spiraling upwards to meet the black sky. I could smell the distinctive stench of burning asphalt shingles, wood and rubber. Jesus! It’s Beirut L.A.

Lingering in the night, like a string of Christmas tree lights, were several police and news helicopters, their distinctive red and green pulsing taillights circling where civil unrest seemed to be worst. Known on the streets as Ghetto Birds, the LAPD helicopters sliced the darkness with their powerful searchlights on fixed points of unrestrained violence as media helicopters converged, scavenging on the carcass of a ravaged city. Above the helicopters were processions of commercial airliners with white lights making their final approach to land at LAX; the passengers looking down below were witnesses to a city gone mad.

Speeding along at 144 k.p.h, towards central L.A., I passed a huge house fire. ‘There’s a man on that roof!’ I shouted to anyone listening. I braked, leaving skid-marks and burnt rubber on the freeway, shifted into reverse and backed up to a suitable point to evaluate the scene. The silhouette of a man with a garden hose looked cartoonish against a wall of yellowy-orange flames. The sound of wood beams splitting from the heat of the fire rang in my ears. I grabbed my camera and rolled the tape, capturing the man as he moved back and forth, dousing the roof with water. I was eighty feet away, but I could still feel the heat as the building cooked.

Mesmerized by what looked like a wasted effort on the man’s part, his hose spraying out little attack towards the ferocity of the fire, I was unnerved by the sound of something whizzing past my ear. I heard the air split wide open as the hissing of a bullet passed by, followed by the sharp cracks of gunshots. I reacted automatically, panning the camera over to where the sounds were originating from when another shot was fired. Shouting began and a car peeled out onto the street below me.  I had no idea if I was the target but I managed to get it on tape. I continued shooting film throughout the night, and it was only when I was filming a mass arrest of looters at a Von grocery store that a voice from behind me reminded me of my vulnerability.

‘You better watch out, cameraman.’

I paused. I didn’t want to press my luck so I packed up and drove to CBS Television City in the Fairfax District and licensed my footage to CBS news. The Oldsmobile, I returned without any damage.

April 30, 1992: President George W. Bush announced that he’d ordered the Department of Justice to investigate the possibility of filing charges against the LAPD officers, for violating the federal civil rights of Rodney King.

August 4, 1992: A federal grand jury returned indictments against Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell, both guilty of violating Rodney King’s constitutional rights, with an additional count against Sergeant Koon of willfully permitting the other officers to beat King.

Nearly six months later, on February 25 1993, the trial began in the courtroom of Judge Davies, on the charge of violating the civil rights of Rodney King.

April Fools Day, 1993: Expecting that history would most likely repeat itself, all local, national and international news outlets were gearing up to cover L.A.’s reaction to the verdict. I had been inundated by phone calls from news organizations to cover the event from the end of March. The booking I took was with the A.D. Production Company, the producers of the American Detective show that aired on ABC Network. I was on and off the phone throughout the morning with Mark, who’d produced the riot segment for American Detective.

‘Dave? This is Mark. We’re expecting a verdict soon on the King beating. If the cops are found not guilty there’ll be another riot. If they’re found guilty there may still be a riot. What’s your standby rate if a riot doesn’t happen right away? And do you have a gyro-zoom lens for the helicopter shots?’

Even though we’ve worked together for years, the business of booking has to be clear with very little negotiation; it is pay or play. For my services and for my camera, lighting package and audio gear, it runs to seven hundred dollars a day.

‘Well, Mark,’ I explained, ‘I’ll hold off until another job comes down. There’s no standby rate on my camera package, and yes, I have a gyro-zoom lens.”

There was a pause from Mark. I could hear talking in the background; I must have been on speakerphone.

Mark returned to our conversation. ‘Okay, okay. You’ll be positioned in the Special Enforcement Bureau command center of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, in south-central L.A. You’ve also been given clearance to ride along in their helicopter.’

In my experience, I’ve always found it best not to get too excited about a standby gig, since most inevitably go away on the same day the production companies hire you. This led to the question: ‘Do you want me to ink the date in my diary or shall I use pencil?’

Mark replied, ‘Pencil. By the way, we’ve also hired you a bodyguard for if we reassign you to the streets. If that’s the case, your bodyguard is on the SWAT team of the San Jose Police Department. Oh, and do you have a sun gun light for your camera?’ Mark asked.

Taking notes, I replied, ‘It’s been my experience that a light on a camera makes for a good target.’

‘Oh, good thinking. Okay, we’ll see you on the 12th of April, Monday morning, at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Commerce. We’ll also rent a bulletproof car, if we reassign you.’

‘How much is that going to cost you?’ I said.

‘A thousand dollars a day.’

I wasn’t surprised – you can rent anything in Hollywood. I called Bexel, the largest vendor of broadcast equipment in the country, to sublease some extra wireless microphones, a gyro-zoom lens and a wide-angle adaptor. I got hold of my friend, John Badovinac, who handled my rental account. ‘JB, this is Dave. Do you have…’ Before I could finish my sentence, John interrupted me.

‘Sorry, Dave, CBS has ten cameras and two gyro-zoom lenses and ABC has just rented what was left on the shelves.’

‘What? This is crazy. This is really crazy!’

‘We’ve rented out everything that has a lens. The networks and local stations are treating this trial as if it was the ‘84 Olympics.’

April 16, 1993: The federal jury convicted Koon and Powell on one charge of violating King’s civil rights. Sergeant Koon and Officer Powell received two and half years in prison. Officer Tony Briseno and Timothy Wind were found not guilty.

April 17, 1993: It was Saturday, 2:30 a.m. I was fully clothed and laid in bed, watching the re-edited version of Dune on television. I munched on another peanut butter Girl Scout cookie and sipped black coffee that was loaded with tons of sugar. I was in a hotel room at the Wyndham Garden Hotel, along with off-duty San Jose detectives and one ex-navy Seal, all of whom had been hired and assigned to me as bodyguards. They were armed to the teeth; the Seal was to drive our rented bulletproof Crown Victoria. Our team had been issued with flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, pepper spray and Israeli gas masks. Ironically, the instructions for the gas masks were in Hebrew which none of us could read.

LA #1A

Though I wasn’t upfront and close to the L.A. riots of 1992, I now had an official backstage pass to the ‘L.A Riots -1993 Tour’.

The decision was made to embed me within the Special Enforcements Bureau instead of a helicopter, in a platoon made up of thirty-six deputy sheriffs. We were to travel in sixteen marked patrol cars and one armored hostage rescue vehicle.

3:15 a.m.: The call came in to prep the gear, check out and travel to a new location. Dammit! Dune isn’t over and I’m going to miss the best part – where the giant sandworms appear to destroy the Harvesters mining on planet Arrakis!

In the hotel lobby I was informed that the production company had had second thoughts; they felt that the thousand-dollar-a-day bulletproof car was too expensive. They didn’t want to be held responsible for any ‘unnecessary’ damage. It looked like I was going to be riding in a deputy sheriff’s patrol car.

8:25 a.m.: We rendezvoused with several other platoons made up of uniformed deputies, in what appeared to be an abandoned hotel parking lot. I looked around the place: I saw some of the deputies relaxing in their vehicles while others paced outside nervously. No one was going to tell me how to behave or exactly what to expect. It was at that moment, as I distracted myself from such thoughts with a fruitless search for coffee, that I heard the verdict and sentencing of the defendants in the second Rodney King trial.

LA #5

              Several of the patrol cars had their trunks open with portable radios tuned to the KFWB news radio. The newscaster’s flat voice echoed across the parking lot, along with news of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a nuclear accident in Russia, a fire-fight with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and a nifty review of Billy Crystal’s hosting of the 65th Academy Awards.

9:20 a.m.: The platoon relocated to a substation at the City Hall Complex in Lynwood.

11:25 a.m.: This was our first sit-down meal in two days. I was sitting in a plastic molded chair and table that had both been bolted to the floor. This was Angelo’s Burgers, a small fast-food joint at the corner of Imperial Highway and Atlantic Boulevard in Lynwood, California. As I ate my breakfast bean burrito and drank my second cup of coffee, I notice a handmade cardboard sign that had been written on with a magic marker resting on the counter where you placed your order. ‘Falling Down, with Michael Douglas, was filmed here on May 12th, 1992.’

It was at Angelo’s that Michael Douglas’ beleaguered character terrorized a fast-food chain called ‘Whammy Burgers’. I remembered his almost understandable motive for going berserk – the menu had progressed to lunch, and all he wanted was a little breakfast. In short, the movie was about a man in L.A. who went bonkers, so it was ironic that we were in Angelo’s with deputy sheriffs, having breakfast, whilst waiting for a city to go bonkers.

LA #2

2:15 p.m.: Despite the announcement of the court’s verdict, this wasn’t what saw us race, at top speed, from Lynwood to an amusement park north of Los Angeles. A thousand tickets had oversold at a scheduled rap concert. Not surprisingly, some of the fans were upset and, out of frustration, had shattered the windows of restaurants across the street from the amusement park’s entrance.

4:35 p.m.: Boredom started to kick in. The deputies, our crew and assorted bodyguards were in a holding pattern at the upper entrance to the park. Everyone was hungry. With my supply of Balance bars and gum gone, all I had left was a bag full of Atomic Fireball jawbreakers, which I promptly started to throw at the deputies and production crew, shouting, ‘I’m coming!’

The production company eventually decided to get McDonald’s quarter-pounders for everyone. Halfway through the order, McDonald’s ran out of burgers, so most of the crew and the seventy-plus deputies ended up with Happy Meals. The Happy Meals came in red cartons and inside each was a toy action figure from Batman. A trade-off began between Batman, the Joker and Two Face, though it was Catwoman in her fitted gray costume that proved to be the most coveted.

7:46 p.m.: The sun set. I grabbed the Betacam and my Nikon camera and tagged along with a squad of seven deputies. We took in the sights and sounds of the park and I wondered to myself if we were going to stop long enough to get a corn dog.  Occasionally, families and kids, looking for a way out of the park, stopped us and asked for directions. No one in our group was familiar enough with the park so we weren’t much help.

LA #7

We’d not been in the park longer than fifteen or twenty minutes when there was a distinct change in the atmosphere. Instinctively, I hoisted the Betacam on my shoulder and removed the lens cap from my Nikon.

There was a lull in the night’s sounds. The normal carnival atmosphere had diminished; where laughter and the excited screams of kids on wild rides had filled the air just minutes ago, there was now just a low hum and relative silence. Something was happening. All of a sudden, there was a new sound – a differently pitched scream travelling through the air. It was a disconcerted screech that built in intensity, continuing until all the laughter had been swallowed. A swelling of emotion rose from my stomach, settling into my chest and heart.

Time seemed to shift then split, both streams working simultaneously. Different scenarios presented themselves in slow motion, while craziness was kicking off in the background in ‘quick time’. I was rolling tape and filming with the camera on my right shoulder while shooting stills using my left hand.

Like locusts swarming upon a field of grain, kids and families poured out of nowhere and surrounded us. The deputies reacted quickly, creating a circle in the middle of a concrete walkway. If you’d have looked down from overhead, you would’ve seen a circle of tan helmets surrounded by a sea of bodies with a sergeant in the middle trying to hear the two-way radio above the noise. One of my eyes was glued to the Nikon’s viewfinder when the camera’s motor drive whined with a ‘click-click-click-click-click’. Framed faces held expressions of dread, concern and confusion as the volume of pandemonium rose to an even higher decibel.

Somewhere in the park ahead of us panic struck like a flash of lightning. We caught the first swell of people seeking safety: a stampede of hundreds barreled right at us. What the crowd needed was a concrete wall, five-feet thick; we were but a mere fence of eight people. The crying, shouting and screaming escalated again. In the distance, ‘snaps’ could be heard. More screams from the stampede.

A deputy shouted, ‘Was that gunfire? WAS THAT GUNFIRE?!’

The mob receded a little, confusion filling the void. The milling crowd looked set to disperse; again, gunshots or firecrackers were heard somewhere in the park. A tidal wave of families, in sheer panic, descended upon us.

Unlike the 1992 riots, what was happening had an element of vulnerability from the families caught in the middle of a total breakdown of civil order. A group of teenage boys and girls ran up to us, screaming that one of the park’s security guys was getting beaten up behind us. We turned but couldn’t see anything other than a wall of bodies a hundred yards deep.

More deputies arrived from nowhere and we made our way across a sea of glass shards, white plastic coat hangers, price tags and paper images of cartoon characters. I filmed the sheriff’s helicopter as it flew overhead, its powerful spotlight shining down on the confused throng, creating massive shadows from the tree limbs and scaffolding which slowly crawled over the entire area like a black web. Looking through the black and white viewfinder the shadow looked ominous – almost alive.

Dep and Looting

As we passed a restaurant, I noticed that the doors were cracked. I stopped to peer into the darkness. In the foreground were the legs of chairs, tables and serving trays stacked on top of each other. Beyond the barrier a young man, dressed in his chef’s hat and whites, stared at me with a dazed, anxious look. I rested the Betacam on the ground and wedged my Nikon lens between the doors, snapping off a couple of shots. I could only assume that he’d chosen to stand sentry, protecting his co-workers and guests with a fire extinguisher as the world beyond the restaurant door suffered a momentary lapse of sanity.

LA #9

The park was now quieter as the deputies prodded the visitors, containing them in the main entrance. I passed a long line of kids at a pay phone trying to call their parents to come and get them. Nearby, I saw a marble statue of a rabbit on horseback waving goodbye to its guests.

LA #6

              April 19, 1993: I read that morning in the L.A. Times that the park reopened on Sunday to an enthusiastic spring break crowd as law enforcement officials, park managers and a music promoter tried to pinpoint blame for the melee that damaged both the park and its reputation as a place for family entertainment. An all-night repair job replaced broken windows and a restock of looted merchandise was completed in time for Sunday’s 10 a.m. opening.

I later learned that the ‘confused mass of people’ cost the park an estimated two million dollars in damages. Forty people were evacuated as an emergency, and it took 450 deputies to move 40,000 people out of the park.

Urban legend has it that a body was found underneath the Viper rollercoaster ride four days after the riot.

During the comedown, in showbiz news, there was a big buzz around the release of Steven Spielberg’s film, Jurassic Park, about a team of genetic engineers who created an amusement park full of cloned dinosaurs before all hell broke out. Sometimes, science fiction can be a little too realistic.

Within days I picked up an assignment to the Middle East. As sad as it sounds, I was well prepared.

Epilogue

 June 17, 2012: Rodney King, the man at the center of the infamous Los Angeles riots, was found dead in his home in San Bernardino, California. He was forty-seven. According to media reports, King’s fiancée, Cynthia Kelly, found him dead at the bottom of a swimming pool. King recently marked the twentieth anniversary of the riots. Mr. King, whose life was a roller coaster of drug and alcohol abuse, multiple arrests and unwanted celebrity, pleaded for calm during the 1992 riots, in which more than 55 people were killed, 600 buildings were destroyed and the city suffered $1 billion dollars worth of damage.

August, 23, 2012: The autopsy findings by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, Coroner Division: The effects of the drugs and alcohol, combined with the subject’s heart condition, probably precipitated a cardiac arrhythmia, and the subject, thus incapacitated, was unable to save himself and drowned. There’s nothing in the history or autopsy examination to suggest suicide or homicide, and the manner of death is therefore judged to be an accident.

              “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we all get along? Please….we can get along here.”

– Mr. Rodney King, May 1, 1992

Geographic Assignments:

Afghanistan: Kabul, Kandahar, and Bagram. 

Australia: Sydney, Cairns, Mareeba, Atherton, Gordonvale, Undara, Chillagoe, Mt. Bartle Frere, and Queensland Outback.

Egypt: Saqqare, Giza, Red Sea, The Nile River, Cairo, Valley of Kings, Hatshepsut, Abu Simbel, Armant, Aswan, Luxor, White Desert, Thebes, Safaga, Marsa al Alam, Karnak, Al Harrah and Baharia Oasis 

Fiji: Suva and Koro Island

France: Paris, Le Mans, Nice, Cannes, Toulon, Marseille, Toulouse, Montpellier and Corsica 

Greece: Athens, Thessalonique and Island of Patmos. 

Israel: Jerusalem, Golan Heights, Ramallah, Bethany, Jericho, Temple Mount, Nazareth, Gethsemane, Kasr el Yahud, Allenby Bridge, Caphernaum, Sepphoris, West Wall Tunnels and Judea. 

Italy: Rome, Naples, Florence, Solerno and Island of Ischia.

Jordan, Mount Nebo, Tell Mar Elias, Mukawer and Amman Citadel. 

Morocco: Quarzazate, Sahara Desert, Oued Amsailikh, Tagounite and Atlas Mountains. 

Mexico: Chihuahua, Sierra Madre Occidental and Barrancas Del Cobre

New Zealand: North Island, South Island, Southern Alps, Mt. Cockayne, Lake Catherine, Lake Coleridge, Black Hill, Glenfalloch, Potts River. Mt. Peel, Forest Creek and Lake Tekapo.

Russia: Moscow, Murmansk, Severmorsk and Barrents Sea Artic Circle. 

Scotland: Edinburgh, Inverness, Orkney Islands, St. Andrews Highlands.

Turkey: Istanbul, Van, Doğubayazıt, Tabriz, and Erzurum.

Journal Excerpt: On Location/Sahara Desert

I was attacked by a camel today. I was knocked down from behind while shooting Tuareg nomads who were riding camels against a “Lawrence of Arabia” backdrop. All I remember was a loud belch, the tripod and camera falling to earth and a giant camel toe next to my head as I laid on the ground. My scalp and shirt was wet but it was not blood but camel saliva that was as thick as jello . After dusting myself off and getting back to work I detected an odd smell of  coffee grounds mixed with asparagus emanating from my hair and stained shirt. Later tonight I plan to stand in the shower with my clothes on and free myself from camel drool and Sahara sand. My clothes will be dry by morning.

Last shot of the day and a welcome relief from the desert heat. If all goes well this will be the money shot – but most of the time it is just plain luck and being in the right place to capture a good image.

The Parting Shot

I believe that I am trapped in the thoughts of a writer with no say or way out, I’m terrified that at the end of the last chapter I will no longer exist. I can only hope that the author has a strong vocabulary and a bigger imagination to let me have a happy ending. This is my sentence, where I live life on the pages of white. The author writes words without risk as I am forced to walk his narrative day in and day out, but I forgive the author. I’m not sure if my story is being revealed to him or even if he has the final say. I can only hope that maybe, just maybe the author will let me know my fate. Am I fiction or non-fiction, I just don’t know.

“Which of us has not felt that the character we are reading in the printed page is more real than the person standing beside us?”
Cornelia Funke

Excerpt from Cue The Camels, Chapter Eight, Dog Biscuit and Noah’s Ark 

We waited another half an hour after the Turkish patrol had disappeared out of sight before we hauled ass off the apron of Mt. Ararat and on to flat ground. My knees were shot and my feet were thrashed. We crossed numerous gullies, sliding down their drops then trudging back up their inclines, which rapidly depleted our Mt.Ararat-On plainremaining energy reserves. 

Stumbling forward, my boots scraped against the rolling rocks as I repeatedly stabbed with the ski poles for an opening between the rocks to right myself. The flare must have burned out because it became dark again. I faltered a number of times but kept an eye on my fellow climbers Cronuck and Stublich and watched them move at a steady pace towards the faint yellow and white lights of Doğubayazıt on the horizon – which I affectionately call Dog Biscuit

My feet felt warm and soggy which was a sure sign of blood. 

Mt.Ararat-2nd paragraph-BlogIt was at this point – stemming from many things, such as dehydration and sheer exhaustion – that I fell into mild delirium and David Byrnes of Talking Heads became my chaperones. 

‘And you may find yourself in another part of the world. And you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?’

‘You know, David, you’re holding me hostage with that broken record. I mean, I can appreciate your words but after a while it gets a little old. Know what I mean?’

I didn’t get a straight answer from David; instead, he gave me his advice. ‘The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now…’

                 At that moment, a second flare burst in the night sky. It was a couple of seconds later that we heard the low boom of the flare gun, which meant there was a good distance between us and the Turkish military. I made it to the edge of the stone field; Cornuke and Stublich stopped long enough to ask me if I was okay. My lips were cracked, my tongue was swollen and all my saliva had evaporated. I could only answer with a nod and a whisper: ‘I’m okay.’

Ahead, I could hear Dick slapping the iridium satellite phone repeatedly, trying to get enough charge out of the dead battery to make a call to Micah, our Kurdish fixer, so that he could meet us at the predetermined rendezvous point.

George grumbled. ‘This is fucking stupid. Let’s go to the main highway and catch a ride to town.’

Mt. Ararat  3rd Paragraph Sepia-BlogDick stopped smacking the sat-phone and directed all his attention towards George. ‘Shut the fuck up, George. The Turkish military use that road all the time. What do you think they’ll assume if they come across us on that highway with all our gear?’

George didn’t listen and relentlessly argued his point as the sound of the dogs’ howls grew louder. There was a gunshot in the distance followed by the hiss of another parachute flare. That was all the motivation we needed; the five of us turned and hauled ourselves across the plain. David followed nearby. ‘We make a pretty good team. Don’t get exhausted; I’ll do some driving. You ought to get some sleep.’Mt.Ararat-003-Blog copy

‘You know, David, it must be Mercury in retrograde with all the hurdles we’ve had to clear,’ I muttered.

There was no response.

We’d been tramping about in the darkness for hours and we were spent, physically and emotionally. We walked on autopilot, using the light of Dog Biscuit as our beacon.

‘You know, David, I could’ve stayed in L.A. picking up work shooting a mindless sitcom and watching a celebrity with two soft, protruding organs give us the local weather report. I could have, but I wouldn’t have had this wonderful field trip to remember. Know what I mean?’

David paused then caught up with me. ‘You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here? You may ask yourself: where does that highway lead to? You may ask yourself: am I right; am I wrong? You may say to yourself: my God, what have I done?’

While researching material for Cue The Camels, I came across this old journal entry from a shoot I did in Egypt. Which was included in my book Cue the Camels.
Assorted images from my years in the Middle East

Northern Alliance, Afghanistan

Saqqara, Egypt
High Atlas Mountain Range, Morocco
Northern Alliance, Shibar, Afghanistan
Sahara Desert, Morocco
Sahara Desert
Bedouin Girl, outskirts of Jerusalem
Passport Lane, Kabul, Afghanistan
Mt. Ararat, Turkey

On a cool March morning before sunrise, we left the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and made our way to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge to enter Jordan. The windows of our suburban were down, the cool desert breeze reviving those of us that did not get a full night’s sleep. We sat silently, lost in our own thoughts, as the rosy-pink morning sky brought a new day. 

Mark sat up front, reading the day’s itinerary, as Shmuel Bernstein, our Israeli co-producer, drove; on reaching the border, Shmuel was not able to enter Jordan with us. Sitting next to me was Jim Glove, Associate Producer, whose responsibilities included keeping my blood sugar up, which explained the many protein Balance bars and Snickers bulging from his pockets. 

We were as prepared as possible for a smooth shoot without incident or delay. In our arsenal, to ensure all went well, we had: an envelope of money for baksheesh, passports, visas, and our carnet for the camera gear. We had just one day to shoot the segment in Jordan and fortunately, Bethany Beyond the Jordan was about five to ten minutes from the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge. The border didn’t open until 8 a.m. for crossing and, as it is strongly suggested you arrive early, time was of the essence. 

Once we crossed into Jordan, a Jordanian government official, two security men, a production assistant, a tourist bus and a driver were due to meet us. As we approached the border, the suburban suddenly filled with a very sweet fragrance; as we queued, several large trucks bearing mountains of oranges lined up beside us on their way to market in Amman. Waiting for the Israeli army to inspect each truck took hours and we could see our Jordanian officials waiting by a small bus, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. We could do nothing but wait. We opened the back of the suburban and made coffee on a small stove, stealing oranges from the last truck for breakfast. 

After two and a half hours we showed our visas and lugged cases of our gear for inspection. Finally, we crossed into Jordan and met our officials, handing over a little baksheesh. We continued to the archaeological site where we met Muhammad Waheeb. Muhammad was the lead archaeologist at all excavations carried out at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, which began in 1996. Jordan was attempting to follow Israel’s success in biblical archeology which became a major factor in their increased tourism. It’s believed that Jesus’ baptism took place on the Jordanian side of the Jordan River, at Wadi Al-Kharrar. This location was therefore touted to evangelical Christians looking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

 Already three hours behind, we shot a seated interview with Mr. Waheeb then B-roll of the dig site: the Jordanian workmen, close-ups of their hands and shovels, the terrain, and a walkabout with Mr. Waheeb as he surveyed the excavation. We rushed to capture as much footage as we could before we left for the border which closed at midnight. And we needed to be there at least three hours before this, to unload all the gear for inspection and show our visas to the Palestinian Authority.

Despite getting some great footage, we felt that we were missing a key shot, that of Bethany by the Jordan and the Wadi Al-Kharrar riverbed. Mark, Jim and I went on the hunt, wandering down a makeshift path lined with an old wooden fence. We’d just passed some Jordanian workmen who were extending the dirt path through a dense thicket of bushes and shrubs when we stopped at what appeared to be a promising location. Beyond the fence, facing west into Israel, was an open field. Within this was a mound of earth that offered enough elevation to clearly see the east bank of the river.

‘Jim, you take the tripod. Mark, give me an extra camera battery and tape,’ I said. 

I handed the camera to Mark as I hopped over the fence, Jim following me with the tripod. As we had little time left I forged ahead in a quick march, across the barren patch of earth. Mark stayed behind and sauntered back to the Jordanian workmen we’d passed to shoot more B-roll with his mini DV camera. Jim and I were near the mound when our attention was caught by the workmen. ‘Hey! Mr! Broom, Broom! Mr….Room!

‘Dave, what are they shouting about?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I said, confused. ‘Something about a broom.’

‘Why would we need brooms?’ Jim murmured.

Standing next to the shouting workmen Mark looked bewildered. He threw his arms up in an ‘I don’t know’ gesture.

‘Hey, Mark, what’s all the hoopla? What’s going on?’ I shouted.

‘I don’t know what they’re saying, guys. Something about a broom. Or a room…there’s a lot of commotion,’ Mark shouted back.

The workmen rushed to the fence, shouting, with Mark in tow. At that moment, storming down from the top of the trailhead, our short, squatty Jordanian escort – we called him Mr. Security – was running towards us, arms flailing and leaving a wake of dust. 

‘Nooooooo!’ he yelled.

As Mr. Security got closer to Mark and the workmen I could see his round face was sweating profusely. There was a big, wet spot on the front of his shirt underneath his suit jacket. 

Jim shouted, ‘Hey, guys, what’s going on?’

Mr. Security stepped up to the fence. Leaning as far forward as he could without losing his balance, he cupped his hands. In broken English, he yelled, ‘No, no! Stand still! That area has not yet been cleared of landmines.’

‘Oh, great!’ Mark shouted. ‘That’s just great! Jesussss!’

‘Dave, what did he say?’ Jim asked.

‘I think he said we’re in a landmine field that’s not been cleared. The Jordanian guys were saying ‘Boom, Boom’, not ‘Broom, Room’.’ 

‘Oh. Well, uh, what do you think?’

‘I think I would rather be at IHOP having pancakes,’ I sighed.

‘You know, I think that’s a good way to look at things. Let’s just relax and breathe in. Breathe out. Calm, calm, calm,’ suggested Jim, letting out a nervous chuckle. 

 He was about two meters behind me, with the tripod over his shoulder and Snickers bars in his pants. We both stood perfectly still, squarely balanced on both feet that were planted into the earth. The sun seemed suddenly hotter than it had been only moments ago and my grip on the camera had become more difficult as sweat ran down my arm. For a split second, I swore I could hear the ocean. Perhaps it was my mind playing tricks on me, in an attempt to take me away from reality. How we’d managed to get into such a scrape, I didn’t know; there’d been no signs and nothing had been mentioned about landmines.

  ‘Jim, I think I just threw up in my mouth.’

‘That’s got to be unpleasant. Do you have any gum?’

‘Yeah, somewhere.’ I paused a little before searching about my body. 

After intensely focusing on the ground around us, I looked up at Jim. I could see he was also processing our situation. 

‘Dave, did they say it hadn’t been cleared of landmines? Let’s think about it. They said ‘cleared of landmines’. Being this close to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Elijah’s Hill and other archeological sites – not to mention this big push to bring in tourism – they may not know if landmines have recently been cleared. Just beyond that hill I can see the tops of willow trees, which means we’re very close to the Jordan river….’

‘I found the gum!’

‘What?’ Jim asked.

‘I found the gum.’

‘Oh, great, Dave. Can we just focus on this, please? I think, if we really focus on the ground, we should go for it.’

My ears suddenly snapped into action. ‘Elijah’s Hill? Isn’t that where Elijah’s ascension into heaven was in a whirlwind of dust, at the appearance of a chariot of fire?’

‘I’m not sure. But it sounds biblical. I’m trying to recall any movie I’ve seen where the characters are in a landmine field, and how they might have got out of it.’ Jim paused. ‘Hey! Do you remember the movie ‘Lethal Weapon 2’? Where Danny Glover is on a landmine? No, no, that’s not right….it was a toilet mine,’ he muttered.

‘Jesus, get real,’ I said. ‘It’s a ‘what would MacGyver do?’ issue. You know, I worked with Richard Dean Anderson on General Hospital back in the day, before he was MacGyver.’ 

‘Really? You never told me that,’ said Jim. 

‘Yeah. We’d race wheelchairs across the studio between taping scenes, then sneak behind other actors and hang clothespins on the back of their clothes. We even pinned the executive producer, Gloria Monty.’

‘Dave, Dave…you’re rambling. I think I have cramp in my legs.’

‘Hey, Jim! How about we scoop up pebbles and toss them in-front of us?’

‘That’s a great idea. I wonder if that was ever used in a movie?’ 

With my feet firm, I bent down and gently scooped a pile of small stones and earth. ‘I’ll go first,’ I told Jim. Holding the camera in my right hand, I closed my eyes and threw the handful as hard as I could. There was no explosion.

Jim laughed. ‘You throw like a girl. Well, we’re almost at the bank of the Jordan. It’d make a great establishing shot.’

‘Yeah, I know,’ I said.

Despite the weight of the Betacam and the daypack full of batteries and tapes, balance became paramount. I leaned forward, ready to take a step. With each footstep the crunch of dry earth, dead roots and unusual lumps in the earth became potentially volatile underneath my boots. I stopped and turned to Jim. ‘Well? Should we keep going?’

‘Let’s go for it, Dave. Who knows, maybe the History Channel will do one of those screen credits: In memory of Dave Banks and Jim Glover, who made this program possible.’

‘I doubt they would. The History Channel’s like most networks – drowning in corporate culture and more interested in making money by selling commercial airtime than giving credit to anonymous producers like us on the front lines.’

Frenetically chewing my gum, I took another step, feeling every little step in the dry soil. Another step…nothing. Another step forward…nothing. Jim followed, placing his boots in my footprints. We reached the top of the mound.

‘Wow! We made it,’ said Jim.

‘Yeah, well, it’s not the best establishing shot, but it’ll do.’ I glanced back at the fence, where the workmen were squatting on the dirt path with their hands covering their ears, as was Mark and Mr. Security.  

Really? You guys can’t have a little more faith that we’re going to get out of this? 

Jim and I set up the tripod and shot the Wadi Al-Kharrar riverbed, zooming in and out of the Bethany Beyond the Jordan excavation and panning the horizon. ‘I think we’ve as much B-roll as we can get. You ready to head back?’ I said.

‘Before we do, let’s raise a toast with a Snickers bar,’ Jim said.

‘Good idea.’

We raised our Snickers to Mark and Mr. Security who had dropped their hands from their ears. The workmen had now turned their back to us, still with their fingers in their ears. Mark gave us two thumbs up and a smile. Jim and I were in no rush to dance our way back to the path. We slowly munched our creamy, nutty chocolate, stalling for time. 

‘Have you ever eaten a frozen Snickers, Jim?’

‘Oh yeah. I love one on a hot day, especially after a run.’

‘You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve been in a landmine field,’ I said. ‘I had a shoot in Israel a couple of years back. I was shooting around Galilee in a field when the IDF drove up and told us, ‘Guys, this area hasn’t been cleared’. It appears that someone had actually taken down the warning signs. There was noindication of danger.’

‘Wow,’ said Jim.

‘I think we should walk backwards, placing our feet in the footprints we’ve already left. What do you think?’

‘Good idea. Let’s just take our time.’

‘Are you going to be able to keep your balance with the tripod on your shoulder?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, no problem,’ said Jim.

We had a plan but with much apprehension: moon-walking across a sterile field of earth that held Crackerjack-style surprises underneath. I turned my head, owl-like, and took my first steps, carefully placing my boots in the shallow imprints I’d left earlier that afternoon. Holding the camera in one hand and covering my crotch with the other, I continued backwards. Turning his head from side to side and keeping perfect balance with the tripod on his shoulder, Jim gingerly began his return to the fence. 

Mark called out, ‘Just take your time. Don’t rush…you’re doing great, guys!’

  Reaching the fence, we both gave a huge sigh of relief. It was obvious Mr. Security was very upset with us, he didn’t speak to Jim or me for the rest of the shoot. Mark slapped us on the back, pleased that body bags had not been necessary. 

We loaded up the gear and traveled back to the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge, where Shmuel was waiting to take us back to the King David Hotel. Our Jordanian hosts were given a bonus in cash, as expected. We had nearly a week of shooting left in Israel – hopefully, without any further mishaps. Shmuel turned the radio off and the three of us, Mark, Jim and I, fell asleep. 

I didn’t have a restful sleep that night with Bethany replaying in my dreams over and over again. I woke and remained tired, despite the many shots of espresso I’d downed. I moved more slowly and wasn’t as clear headed as usual. Hopefully, I’d tap into my enthusiasm at the Garden Tomb. It was an easy day of ‘talking head’ pieces. Stood in the hotel lobby, waiting to leave, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere. It was then that I recognized a team of American Secret Service agents. They were trying to be inconspicuous in their dark suits, Secret Service lapel pins and sunglasses, doing reconnaissance.

I recalled that, before we’d departed for Israel, the shoot had nearly been cancelled by MPH Entertainment due to events of terrorism: suicide bombers, snipers and random shootings had killed 69 and left 292 civilians and IDF soldiers injured. MPH had had doubts about our safety but they were under a deadline with the History Channel. Time and money were at stake; regardless of safety, we had to feed the monster. At the last minute, Mark, Jim and I persuaded MPH to move forward with the production of ‘In the Footsteps of Jesus’. 

On the drive to the Garden Tomb, the IDF and the Jerusalem police were out in force at every intersection of the city. Shmuel told us that Vice President Dick Cheney and General Anthony Zinni were both in Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Only the day before, a suicide bomber had detonated his bomb on a bus, killing 21 civilians, just minutes after we’d passed through the French Hill neighborhood, northeast of the city. No wonder security was at a heightened level with Cheney – whom we referred to as Darth Vader – and Zinni in town.  In the Garden Tomb, across the Damascus Gate, we were ready to shoot interviews against a beautiful backdrop of cultivated English garden, with stone paths, flowers and towering pines. It was a peaceful atmosphere unlike the world outside the walls. The Garden Tomb was a favorite spot for Christian prayer and meditation, and a great location to conduct interviews with little external noise. Between interviews with Peter Wells, General Secretary of the Garden Tomb, and archaeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson, we shot B-roll of the skull-like feature on the adjacent hillside, which many Christians believe to be Golgotha, as described in the Bible. The Garden Tomb also showcased an ancient rock-cut tomb that had side by side chambers which most evangelical Christians believed was where Jesus was laid to rest before transcending to heaven. After the previous day’s experience, Jim and I felt we had a right to indulge ourselves: we took it in turns to lie on the stone benches to be ‘resurrected’. 

It was late afternoon when we finished the last interview. We gathered up our gear and packed it away. It was our last day of shooting in Jerusalem. The next day would see us check out of the King David Hotel and travel to the northern shore of the Galilee. 

We rushed to get back to review tapes, clean the gear, charge batteries, pack our clothes, have a sit-down dinner and maybe, just maybe, get at least six hours’ sleep. The gods, however, were not with us. There was congestion throughout Jerusalem with the universal middle finger salute given out like candy. Honking horns, shouts and security checks hailed us at every intersection leading back to the hotel. With traffic queues stretching before us we snacked on Balance bars, Three Musketeers’ chocolate bars, and Jelly Bellys – all of which only raised our impulsiveness, bravado and reckless behavior. We were only a few blocks away from the hotel and someone had to pee – I won’t mention any names. We started shouting from the back seat, daring Shmuel to hop lanes. There was no oncoming traffic. 

‘Go for it, Shmuel! Go for it!’ we chanted. ‘Go, go, go, go!’

Shmuel looked into the rear-view mirror and gave us a ‘Clint Eastwood’ smirk. He glanced quickly in both directions then pulled the suburban into the opposite lane, making his way to the entrance of the King David Hotel. Driving up to the car port, we jumped out and started unloading our gear. We were met by a tall, red-headed Secret Service agent wearing Wayfarer sunglasses. He spoke into his sleeve. ‘Yeah, I got it.’ He then turned to us. ‘Hey! You guys can’t stop here. You have to move along.’  

‘What? We have reservations here,’ Jim said.  

‘Sorry, but you have to move, now! We’ve VIPs arriving in a minute and we need this area cleared of all traffic.’  

Reloading the gear, we jumped back into the suburban. Shmuel told us that the hotel had a rich tradition of hosting royalty, celebrities and other international dignitaries on their visits to Jerusalem. We drove across the street to the most elegant YMCA I’d ever seen: it combined art deco, Byzantine and Islamic decorative styles, and it was surrounded by gardens – the Village People would have been proud. We sat in the parking lot, waiting for Cheney’s convoy to arrive while trying to remember the lyrics and gestures of ‘YMCA’.  

Our attention was turned when a stream of black suburbans with flashing red lights came from our right. They made their way down David HaMelech Street, past Gozlan Garden. There were few privately owned suburbans in Israel, most were official Embassy vehicles; in particular, those of the US Embassy. Shmuel and his suburban were often mistaken as being part of the embassy which worked to his advantage sometimes. The motorcade passed by and, still on a sugar high, we started shouting at Shmuel. ‘Go for it, Shmuel! Go! Go, baby, go! Shmuel accelerated, making a small screeching sound in the parking lot, driving to the tail end of the convoy. We waited in line as dignitaries and security teams unloaded at the front entrance of the King David. More Israeli police came up behind us but we acted like any other official and took our turn to pull into the hotel carport. The red-headed agent we’d met earlier was not in sight so we quickly jumped out and pulled all our gear from the vehicle. Mark proceeded through the revolving glass door in a cadence of authority. Mark has that East Coast air about him and he dresses very similarly to a deputy director of the FBI. No one stopped him as he disappeared into the lobby. 

As the rest of us unloaded a couple of agents surrounded our vehicle – not questioning us but looking out to the street for any unusual activity, in protection. I could only assume that they thought we were part of the envoy.  We continued, unchallenged, into the hotel.

The lobby was decorated sumptuously and furnished with velvet couches, gold drapery and marble-topped tables, with a spectacular view of the Old City and Mount Zion. The Secret Service agents were sitting in over-stuffed chairs, their feet up on the coffee tables as they smoked cigars. They talked loudly, their bursts of laughter echoing off the marble floors and traveling down the halls. The staff of the King David tried to ignore the vocal Americans but you could read their thoughts when they glanced up, disdain on their faces for their ugly American guests. An agent near the elevators stopped me.  ‘Hey, where’s your service pin? You know we’re on lock down.’ He was referring to the Secret Service lapel pin that gave them full access to roam about the hotel. ‘It’s, erm, in my bag upstairs,’ I said, showing him my room key. 

‘You’d better wear it,’ he warned.

In our hotel rooms, Mark and Jim reviewed the footage while I cleaned our gear, packed, and charged the batteries. We ordered room service and discussed our itinerary for the following day’s trip to Galilee, hitting the sack around 3 a.m. 

*****

Vice President Dick Cheney was grinding his teeth, his head cocked to one side, as if to take aim at his plate of cantaloupe and assorted breakfast goodies. He bore an irritating smirk of satisfaction as he chomped down on the ripe pink flesh, all the while scanning the hotel’s elegant breakfast room. The room was incredibly quiet with just the occasional sound of silver spoons stirring within porcelain cups. At the entrance of the breakfast room, and at each exit, were dozens of dark-suited agents, their die-cast pins sat proudly on their lapels. Each agent had an earpiece with a clear acoustic tube that dropped down underneath their jacket collar. 

.

Our table was directly adjacent to Cheney’s and, on occasion, we caught part of the staff briefing. Dick Cheney was smaller in person than his ominous persona on television, yet his 5 foot 8 frame seemed to tower over the table and his staff. There was a perpetual smugness on his upper lip that pulled to the left side of his round, meaty face. It must have been a bad day for the VP, his trademark scowl was present as he listened to the day’s agenda. We tried not to make eye contact with the agents or Darth Cheney, concentrating solely on eating our breakfasts. Eventually, we caught each other’s eyes and snickered, very much amused that however tight Cheney thought his convoy was, we’d breached it. We checked out of the King David without any problems, under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service. With Jerusalem behind us, we took our time, stopping along the way to shoot B-roll. We booked into a kibbutz at the end of the day and turned in early, eager to rise in time to shoot the sun rising over the Golan Height and Galilee. Nothing will ever top the filming of that beautiful morning at the shore of Galilee on what was our last day. With the camera on a tripod and locked off, I filmed the sunrise as it peeked over the Golan Heights. Gleaming, warm, amber rays reflected off the lapping waters of the Galilee and a new day was born. It was serene, and the closest thing to a spiritual moment that I’ve ever had in Israel. 

The waterfowl resting on the gentle surface suddenly screeched off into the distance and tranquility disappeared. Two drunken Russians floated down the shoreline in large, black inner tubes, holding bottles of vodka and singing. It was 5:39 a.m. The moment could still have been salvaged if only the Russians had continued their journey out of frame. But it was not to be, the current halted their progress in the middle of my shot. I waited for half an hour as they smoked cigarettes, laughing loudly. Perhaps God was letting me know that He had a sense of humor? Or perhaps my spiritual moments are just different to those of other people…. 

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them” – Elliott Erwitt

Street Photography is like catching butterflies, you run around scanning the horizon trying to catch that magic moment of interaction. With patients and tenacity, the nectar of your efforts presents itself unexpectedly. With stealthy sequence of movements, you position your lens ready to capturing the allusive moment. The planets are aligned, the decisive moment is captured  becoming an artifact of time that will never exist again. Well, that’s if you don’t stage the shot.

Kabul, Afghanistan

My Afghan Polaroid

Wandering the back streets of Kabul I found myself on Passport lane where Afghan citizens go to have their photos taken for government ID’s. After watching the photographer at work with a couple of subjects, I fell in line to have my photo take as well. The process was slow, about 10 to 15 minutes to shoot, develop and print a photo for each customer. Which gave me the time to study and admire the work of this real street photographer. The Afghan box camera is a giant handmade wooden box known as the kamra-e-faoree, meaning “instant camera” – I call it the “Afghan Polaroid”. Working with only natural light the photographer uses a 35-millimeter camera lens attached to the front of the box and instead of clicking the shutter, the photographer removes the lens cap for a second and replaces it. Inside the box camera is an entire darkroom – paper, developer and fixer. After the latent image is exposed to a sheet of photographic paper, the photographer inserts his hand into the box through a cut-off pants leg designed to keep out light that would ruin the print.

He develops the image by moving the paper through two trays, one holding developer and the other fixer, to create a paper negative. He then makes another exposure, which converts the negative image into a positive print. It was truly impressive to watch how smooth and precise the photographer worked.

Having been briefly banned along with music and paper bags by the Taliban the kamra-e-faoree camera is in danger of disappearing again as digital cameras become more common place in Kabul.

Lukas Birk is well aware of the historical signifiants of the Afghan street photographers and their camera. Mr.Birk  has creating the Afghan Box Camera Project. For any photographer who appreciates the history of cameras and film this is a worth while cause. Link:http://www.afghanboxcamera.com/

I waited to see if the women was going to remove her burka for the photo, she never did.