I am a documenter. I go to the areas that most people would not go, or hot spots like Pakistan and Afghanistan, mostly for my own venture, my own story. I was more of a business person who had an artistic enjoyment or hobby that I could use to leverage in the industry to pay for my trips, always working for myself and never really for a newspaper directly. I have been a freelancer my whole life. I’ve been to 42 countries and it’s hard coming up with one example.
After the tsunami, I decided to move to Thailand and I lived there for a year because I was able to get work from the Bangkok Post. They let me go and go down to the islands and to cover it. I saw large-scale devastation and death and all this hardship, but that came across in my photos and elevated me in the game where I could work for larger newspapers and leverage more of my photography as a source of income for me to continue my travels.
I want to experience events first hand. When I covered the BP oil spill for three months, I lived in a trailer I rented from a captain of a shipping vessel. I would drink with oil riggers and hang out and go out on the helicopters. It helps me to be able to tell a story better, the lens just happened to be the one tool that I have used in my travels. The last big shooting that I did was the Zuccoti Park raid for Occupy Wall Street and some of my images and videos were in the New York Times and French TV. I’m not a classically trained photographer; I’m not somebody who took courses. I’m a guy of perfect digital time; I didn’t have to learn the darkroom. I was just able to pick up a good camera and I could be in the places where I needed to be. With the way social media works, it’s harder to do the job when somebody is going to be there five seconds after the event or they have recorded the event themselves. In the time that it takes a photographer to get there, news photographers are a dying breed.
I moved to Thailand about six weeks after the tsunami. I had secured an apartment in Bangkok and had about $3000 in cash on me and I knew that I could get work because I had done it before. I had gotten down to the islands that were hit, like Krabi. I would contact the editors of newspapers and they started offering to pay me for photoss, so I was able to pick up freelance work right away and maintain the ability to have that for a whole year while I was there.
I would take the night train on Sunday down to the islands overnight. I would spend Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday down on the islands. I spent a lot of time helping as well. It’s hard to just be an observer there. Sometimes you put down your camera and pick up a shovel.
I saw a lot of death. There were bodies still around. Most places that I get to, I get a couple of weeks after, after the hope wears out, after the idea where everybody promises aid, everything is supposed to be coming and we are all waiting, everything is exciting, we know we’re going through it… Six to eight to twelve weeks in, all of a sudden all of these promises get tied up in bureaucracies, and get slowed down, money gets funneled into the wrong hands, specifically in Thailand. You saw it taking place, but the journalists could not do anything about it because if you call attention to it, that stops the process. You just come to accept it in some areas.
I was taking a train from Bangkok to Georgetown, a small island off MalaysiaIt’s a long train ride. 18 to 20 hours. The trains have companion seats that get turned down into a bed. It’s not great sleeping but you have the ability to get two hours of sleep. When I was on that train I was going through what was considered one of the more hot bed issues of South East Asia, meaning the Thailand-Malaysia border. I was sleeping on the train when our train was robbed.
The rebels came on armed and they shook everybody down. I didn’t have my camera with me because it was in my bag. These guys were coming and pointing guns at people’s faces, demanding their valuables and things out of their hands. This was all going on around me. To have captured photos of that would have been amazing. People don’t get that type of experience. Places that most average citizens go to don’t push death that far.
There were about thirty of them so they were able to take five per car and take them down very aggressively. People get waken up, looking down the hallway, going on asking what’s the noise going on down there. They came on with precision. The only way to get people to give up a belonging is that you gotta give them a fear that is equal of greater than what the value of that item is. That is why a lot of the people use the weapons that they do with intimidation factor. It just works.
This was in 2004, when we were not really publishing those types of images. With everything that the county was going through reconstructing the villages and having no clean drinking water, there was still a fraction of society who were still robbing their own people, because of whatever belief they had or whatever money they needed to keep their organized fraction still going.
They were all 35 and under. I saw two people that could potentially have been teenagers. There are older people dictating the groups, but the majority of people are going to be the yes men, a lot younger, a lot more raw. There is a potential for making mistakes. A 19-year old kid who is not used to this might pull the trigger.
People were really scared, you know, I was very calm. I am not intimidated by people and I’m not intimidated by guns,. They are not going to come in and blow everybody up. This is not their M.O. They don’t leave people dead.
All my photos are done that way, because I am not really using the rules of someone who was classically trained, I’m looking for what I believe needs to be told, that’s why I think it has been successful.
It’s like, you can’t fuck it up. In my world that’s what I really believe. I’m not gifted. It’s just that I can’t screw it up. There is a story to be told and if you are standing right there and paying attention you’re gonna capture it. It’s not that hard, you know.
Should Have Shot That! is illustrated by James Noel Smith. “Weed dude” has worked as a freelance photographer for everyone from the New Zealand Herald to the Bangkok Post to the New York Times. Last year he rode the freight trains from New York to LA and this year, he’s going to document Detroit. He’s a major newsbreaking Twitter presence, dubbed @weeddude because he digs the Beats and wants “to push the conversation about drug use in the society.”