A Shark Encounter

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Why are we so afraid of sharks?

I have been fortunate enough to have experienced so many incredible encounters with sharks over the years. Sometimes these experiences are deep below the ocean waves, as I descend into the blue in order to interact with the sharks in their natural habit. Sometimes they are chance encounters, such as in this photograph captured in the Maldives when I stubbled across a baby shark feeding in the shallow waters at sunrise. Either way, every experience with a shark is special.

Sharks are so perfectly adapted for their environment, so elegant in their movement, it is hard to think about a more beautiful creature. Any yet they still seem to invoke primitive feelings of dread and apprehension in humans, when just the mention of a shark is enough to bring on a real sense of fear.

Why?

Their fierce some reputation is so undeserved. Despite the attention grabbing headlines, sharks are far less likely to cause serious injury - or worse - than falling coconuts. And yet, how many of will happily wander beneath a coconut tree without ever giving it a second thought. Worse still, this undeserved reputation has real life consequences for the shark population. Every day, tens of thousands of sharks are killed by people believing they are ridding the world of one of the great killers of the ocean, when in reality we are the very greatest of killers on our planet.

But fortunately things are starting to change. Over the past few years, as we have learned more about these world around us, we are slowing beginning to realise the important role creatures such as sharks play in maintaining the delicate balance of the planet. I just hope that change of opinion doesn’t come too late - otherwise future generations will never be able to experience the wonder of their own shark encounter.

Felix

What’s so wrong with being an individual?

That is something I have often thought about since meeting Felix Chughuda, a musician from Tanzania who I met while he played his guitar under a tree in a Cape Town park. There is no mistaking his sense of individuality and uniqueness, one of the many ways he chooses to express himself. And yet, despite being one of the friendliest people I met on my travels through South Africa, as we chatted he told me of his many experiences of prejudice based solely on the way he looks. “People just assume I’m out to rob them or something”, he said, “but I just love to play my guitar and watch the world go by.”

One of the things I have always found most fascinating about meeting people from all over the world is how we can all be so similar and yet different at the same time. It’s a contradiction which can be seen all across society - we want to stand out from the crowd but we want to fit in as well, and we ostracize those who dare stand out just that little bit too much. It seems that we judge people as much by the clothes they chose to wear, as the lives they chose to live.

The question is, why?

Why do we allow ourselves to be so governed by these complex social rules, which seem to make so little sense and yet have such a powerful influence on how we lead our daily lives? After all, there are already so many genuine barriers which stand between us, why do we allow artificial barriers, such as the way we look, to further divide us as human beings sharing the same planet.

I say, let’s celebrate our individuality as people, let’s rejoice in our uniqueness, instead of using these small differences between us to divide us. After all, don’t we already have enough division in our world?

Under the bridge

London is full of surprises. Sometimes, these surprises are hidden away from prying eyes, behind walls and high fences. But, just as often they are in the most obvious of place, in broad daylight for anyone to see. Providing they look of course.

The Palace of Westminster is just such a place.

On any given day, at any given moment, the streets around the Palace will be crowded with visitors, all taking exactly the same photograph of the famous Big Ben clock. Hundreds of identical photographs taken at the same identical spot, on the bridge overlooking the river.

But within just a few meters of that spot are some steps leading to a tunnel running under the bridge. Follow those steps and you will find the view from under the bridge, bring with it a brand-new perspective on this most famous of landmarks.

Often, that change of perspective is all that is needed to bring new light, and new life, to the things we thought we already knew.

Pure

Boxing is pure in Cuba.

In a country where the pursuit of personal wealth is largely seen as irrelevant, boxers don't train for money, or fame. They know they will never see their names lit up in lights, or fight before an audience of adoring fans. Instead, they train for themselves, to simply see what they can achieve.

In run down gyms, on the backstreets of Havana, the boxers will spend endless hours skipping, and running, and sweating, all for the chance to simply match against someone else who has spent as many hours doing the same. Adversaries for the duration of the bout, friends the moment the bell sounds to end it, the result of each match is rarely as important as the effort each boxer has demonstrated. In one of the few places left where sport remains pure, they are driven by nothing more than their own determination, as they trade blows watched only by their fellow boxers.

But the biggest challenge still lies ahead for the boxers of Havana. As Cuba gradually opens up, to a world where so many of our sports have been tainted by temptations of money, let us hope these boxers are able to stay true to their sport.

That will surely prove to be the hardest fight of all.

International Women's Day

We shouldn’t need an International Women’s day.

We shouldn’t need to set a reminder, telling us that March 8th each year is the day when we recognise the achievement of women. We should be recognising those achievements and contributions every day of the year. And yet, we don’t.

Why is that?

We can’t blame ignorance. We can’t say we didn’t know how much women have achieved, because we do.

We can’t blame the media. We can’t claim they aren’t doing enough to highlight the role of women in the modern world. That shouldn’t need to be highlighted.

And we can’t blame society, because every society simply reflects the values and opinions of its members.

The reality is that we don’t adequately value the achievements of women because we simply choose not to. That isn’t to say tremendous improvements haven’t been made. Women have access to more opportunities today than ever before. And yet we still need to do so much more. The glass ceiling is still as much an issue today as it ever has been.

And so, on International Women’s day 2018, we once agin take the briefest of moments to consider the achievements of women all over the world. But, in doing so, let us recognise the real women in our society. Not the celebrities, whose fame is glorified every day. Instead, let us consider the actions of the everyday women, who do so much to contribute to our communities.

Women like Soobawti who, at 70 years of age, is still working from sunrise to sunset, to provide for her family.  When I first met her, she was carrying an seemingly impossible load of grass on her head, which she told me she had cut that morning for the family goats. She doesn’t do this for the recognition or the rewards.

And yet, it is exactly women like Soobawti who we should be rewarding, who we should be recognising, until the day finally comes when we no longer need a special day to do just that.

Why?

We need to have a conversation about homelessness.

All across the world, from New York to Cape Town, London to the Kiev, people hurry about their daily lives, hardly noticing as their fellow human beings prepare a bed of cardboard boxes and plastic sheets.

Although often blamed, neither over-population nor a lack of space are the cause of homelessness. Rather untreated mental health problems, the break down of families, drugs and alcohol abuse, and a thousand other tragic issues cause people to find themselves living on the streets.

Throughout the development of our modern society, we have seen humanity accomplish some truly amazing achievements. And yet, somehow putting a roof over the heads of those most in need is not one of those achievements.

The conversation we need to have is, why?

Sugar Loaf Mountain

Watching the sun rise over the rounded incline of Sugar Loaf Mountain, it is impossible not to get swept up in the atmosphere of Rio de Jeniero.

Home to around 6,000,000 people, Rio is definitely not somewhere to get away from the crowd. Isolation is an impossible dream with so many people crammed into a single city. But there is something about the vibe of the city which makes everyone your friend.

Even in the dark, sat on top of a desolate mountain top waiting for the sun to make its appearance so I could take this photograph, I was soon joined by the small group of people passing by for a morning walk.

Sharing their coffee with me, we soon found ourselves in such an engaging conversation. I very nearly missed the shot I had been waiting for.

That was my experience all over Rio de Jeniero, where the carnival spirit lives on as much in the hearts of the people as on the streets of the city.

Friendship

The summer heat of Dubai can take your breath away. It grabs hold of you from the moment you step out of the comfort of air conditioned buildings, and just won't let go. But wandering around the old souk region of Dubai there is a much greater warmth to be felt, the warmth of the people going about their daily lives.

It was still very early in the morning when I set out to meet the people of the souk. The sun had hardly risen in the sky, and people all around were greeting each other on the street before starting their day. That was exactly the scene when I met this group of friends sitting on the curb side, drinking hot tea.

They told me they were from Bangladesh, attracted to the city of Dubai by the opportunities it offered them. Life was a struggle, the hours long and the work arduous. And yet despite this they were still able to laugh and tease each other as only friends could, the warmth of their friendship seeing them through.

Nana Viv

The quietly spoken matriarchal elder of an Aboriginal family, which can trace it’s roots back far before any Europeans arrived on the shores of Australia, Nana Viv has dedicated her life to the preservation of Aboriginal culture and history.

For over 40,000 years, the Nyungar people have called the lands of South West Australia their home, but today only a tiny fraction of the inhabitants this vast region are of Aboriginal descent. In just 200 years, their population has been decimated by disease and war brought by the colonial settlers from the west.

For generations, Nana Via and her family have been fighting for the recognition of the Aboriginal people in the Australian constitution. But it is not ownership of the lands which drive  them. Seeing themselves as the guardians of the coastal lands, the gateway to their sacred ocean, the Nyungar feel it their responsibility to protect the land for future generations.

"They are like children who don't understand what they are doing to the land all around us", Nana Viv tells us, speaking slowly to allow our western minds to understand, "we have to protect this land. This is not something we chose to do, it is something we have to do."

Time and time again, the history of the world is littered with examples of humanity charging in without fully understanding the consequences of our actions. We rip fossil fuel from the land and the ocean, we cut down the ancient rainforests, push back the ocean to create more space to build upon, and pump huge volume of chemicals into the atmosphere, all in the name of the advancement of humanity.

But to Nana Viv, and many of the other ancient peoples and civilisations, our actions are simply those of impatient children, tearing up the world without thought for the future.

As the governments of the world look towards an uncertain future, as we begin to better understand the damage our actions have caused, I am left to wonder whether perhaps Nana Viv has a point.

Empty Streets

Have you ever noticed how the world never seems to slow down?

Everything always seems to happen at a breakneck speed. There are never enough hours in the day; never enough time to feel we are totally in control. If only we could finish that last job, we think to ourselves, we will finally be on top of everything, only to have that feeling snatched away when we realise there is always one more job to complete, always one more task to undertake.

An ordered existence constantly seems so tantalisingly close and yet always just out of reach as we find ourselves trapped in the chaos of every day life. And yet, there is order out there. We just have to go out and look for it.

Wandering the deserted streets of London, at 5am before the rest of the world stirs, is a surreal experience. In just a matter of hours these very streets will be packed to bursting point, as huge crowds of office workers who adhere to the rhythm of the corporate world which tells them when to arrive, when to leave, when to eat, and when to work.

But before that hour, just for a short window of time, the city belongs to whoever wishes to claim it. It becomes an oasis of peace in the heart of chaos, a private playground for anyone wishing to follow the beat of a different rhythm.

The truth is, the reason the world never seems to slow down is because we choose to live our lives at that speed. And there is nothing wrong with that. Many people enjoy the exhilaration of life at that speed. But every now and again, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is ok to slow down occasionally, so we can enjoy the empty streets of our lives.

Courage

At just 19 years old Abdulazez is already one of the most inspirational people I have ever met.

Originally from Syria, Abdulazez is one of the millions of people forced to flee their homes as war and conflict arrived uninvited into their lives. I first met him in a desolate, miserable refugee camp in Northern Greece. He came charging up to me excitedly, after hearing my broad English accent.

“Are you a journalist?” - he asked.

“No, no” - I replied, well aware that journalists were looked upon with more than a degree of mistrust within the camps.

“It’s ok, I don’t mind if you are a journalist. I just want to practice my English”.

And so started an unlikely friendship.

I say unlikely because, as Abdulazez was quick to chastise me, shortly after assuming his self-appointed role of my translator, I hadn’t actually taken the time to get to know any of the people whose stories I was sharing.

Sure I had photographed many hundreds of people fleeing the war-torn regions of the Middle East, and I had listened to the stories they had to tell me, but just a quickly as I had captured their portraits I was moving on to the next camp, and the next set of experiences. What I hadn’t done was taken the time to find out who those people were, as individuals not refugees.

As Abdulazez pointed out to me, hearing their stories is easy, living their experiences is much more difficult.

And so, as we made our way through the camps of Northern Greece, Abdulazez shared his experiences with me. He asked me to imagine life in his shoes. He had been happy in Syria. He had been studying to become a graphic designer and wanted nothing more than to follow his dream of becoming a digital artist. Instead, his family found themselves forced to flee the country they loved, and making the treacherous journey to the safety of Europe.

And yet, despite the challenges he faced, he never seemed to lose his passion for life, or his dreams for the future. Determined to make the best of every situation, he set about learning everything he could, from anyone he could. He taught himself English in less than a year. In less than two years, he was teaching English lessons to other refugees, explaining concepts of the language which would challenge many native speakers.

He has become a voice of the people, whose voices had been lost within the crisis. And his voice is strong.

The video of his open letter to Donald Trump, entitled "Dear Donald", has been viewed by more than 13 MILLION people around the world.

And his Through Refugee Eyes photography project has captured the experiences of the refugees in a way only someone who has walked in their shoes could do.

Today he has found the safety he seeks, in Belgium, where he is busy building a new life for himself. Within days of arriving, he bought his a book on the Flemish language and set about learning his second language in as many years.

It is that determination to simply get on with life, no matter what, which inspires me most about him. At just 19 years of age he has already stood up to challenges most of us could never imagine. And he has done it with a smile on his face. It is a smile I have rarely seen him without. It was that smile which was the subject of one of the first things he ever said to me, something I will never forget:

“Just because we smile, it doesn’t mean we aren’t crying inside”.

The world needs more people like Abdulazez, people who aren’t afraid to smile and cry at exactly the same time.

Freedom

In Amsterdam, it the bicycle which rules the streets not the motor car. It is pedal power which moves the city, not oil.

Cars have become so entrenched into our daily lives, it is hard to imagine that they really are a very modern invention. Our world has existed for millions of years. Humans have existed for hundreds of thousands of years. The motor car has existed for just a hundred years and yet already it dominates our planet.

Huge road networks now span the globe. Planning where to park all the cars now dominates the thinking behind every new building. And the fumes pumped out by the billions of cars we own have made the air virtually unbreathable in cities all over the world.

And yet, despite all this, we remain totally addicted to our cars.

We have become so obsessed with them, we use them for journeys which make no sense. We will sit in a traffic jams for an hour to make a journey we could walk in 20 minutes. We will sit in them alone, side-by-side with other people all alone in their cars, all travelling to the same destination.

We know it makes no sense, and yet still we do it. Why?

There is no doubt the motor car is a wonderful invention. It has brought us so much convenience, helping bring people together, helping people to explore. But like all technology we have to learn that sometimes is it ok not to use it. That sometimes pedal power makes more sense.

It is a lesson they have certainly learned in Amsterdam and personally, I envy the freedom it has brought them.

Memories

I have lost count of the number of times I have found myself standing on this very spot, staring up at Big Ben. It brings back so many childhood memories, as I remember the feelings of wonder and excitement, as I waited for the famous bells to chime.

Many years may have passed since those childhood days, but the those feelings are just as strong as they ever were.

Spirit of the Samurai

Tradition still runs strong in Japan.

Despite being at the forefront of technological advancement for decades, all across the neon lit, modern city of Tokyo, people are keeping the old ways alive. They haven't forgotten their heritage.

People like Kazuhisa, who I met early one rainy Tokyo morning, practicing his traditional sword play in the park. I asked him why he still practiced the long outdated skills of the Samurai. "Because I am Japanese" was his simple answer.

The glory days of the Samurai may have long passed into the history books. In the 21st century, there is no place for people walking the streets with killing swords in their hands. And yet their memory lives on through those who keep their traditions alive, ensuring their spirit remains an every day part of the identity of modern Japan.

We are all products of our past. And yet so often we forget where we have come from, ignoring our personal heritage as we race towards the future. After all, how can we know where we are going if we don't know where we have been?

The traditional ways may not always have an obvious place in our modern day lives, but it is worth considering whether the best way to know who we want to be in the future, is by understanding of who we were in the past.

For that, perhaps we could all benefit from searching for our own sprit of the Samurai.

A fresh beginning

The start of a brand new year always feels like the perfect time to make a positive change in our lives. It’s an opportunity to sweep away the cobwebs of the previous year and make a clean start for the year ahead.

When I look back on 2018, a year when my camera took me literally all over the world, I am left with a resounding sense of just how much we all have in common with each other, no matter where we are from.

Over the course of 2018, I was fortunate enough to meet some of the most incredible people, from New York to Tokyo, and pretty much everywhere between. What struck me most was that despite encountering so many incredibly different customs and languages, the aspirations of the people I met were often remarkably similar.

And yet, 2018 also feels like a year when division became a global reality. All around the world, people choose to turn their backs on their fellow human beings, often based on nothing more than where someone was born. Discussions of understanding and empathy have been replaced with talk of travel bans and walls.

But as we enter a brand new year, I can’t help but think it doesn’t have to be that way. Each of us can choose what type of world we want to live in.

Just as we can choose to ignore the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves, we can also choose not to. We can choose to stand by, or we can choose to make a difference, no matter how small that difference might be.

So as I look forward to the brand new year ahead, I choose it to be a year when I turn my back on division, rather than people. It will be a year when I refuse to allow others to tell me I should only care about those who speak the same language as I do, or follow the same religion, or same customs. It will be a year when I choose to make a difference.

The Spirit of Determination

Guillaume Thierry is one of the most determined people I have ever met.

The first time I saw him was on television, as I watched him represent Mauritius at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. He was competing in the decathlon, and I can vividly remember cheering him on for the pole vault event.

It was only some time later, after I met him in person, that I found out what a challenge that pole vault event had really been. “That wasn’t my pole,” he explained. “Somehow my pole was sent to a different stadium, so I had to borrow a pole at the last minute.”

As can be imagined, in an event as technical as the pole vault, simply picking up another pole and using it to project yourself five metres above the ground is not the easiest thing to do. But that is the mark of Guillaume’s determination. When faced with a challenge, he just got on with it.

I have found this determination running throughout Mauritius. When faced with a challenge, people will simply get on with it. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail – but, regardless of the result, their determination remains as focused as it ever was.

A Magnificent Colosseum

At the height of their popularity, the gladiatorial contests held at the Colosseum were some of the most spectacular events Rome had ever seen. But they were also spectacularly expensive, and their cost ultimately led to the amphitheatre’s eventual demise.

Today, 2000 years later, the Colosseum is more popular than ever, contributing far more to the economy of Rome than those first gladiators could ever have imagined.

Smile

Despite being widowed for over 10 years, Beeponee wanted me to know she wasn’t lonely. Her son lives close by and she has other children and grand children. In this respect, she says has more than many.

Still, life isn't easy. After a lifetime of working, she still has to work to support herself, growing vegetables in her small garden to sell by the side of the street.

But the thing which struck me most, as I listened to her story, was her amazing smile.

I saw it from all the way down the street. It was a smile of pure defiance, a smile that declared to the world, no matter what, this is a woman who intends to live a full life. It is a smile I will never forget.

Legacy

After her husband, James Russell, passed away in 1848, this is the church Jane Smith Russell had build in his memory. Standing high over the "Poison Glen" of Dunlewey, in Ireland's County Donegal, the church has long fallen into disrepair.

The roof was removed, for fear of it collapsing. The furniture long distributed to other churches across Ireland. And yet here it still stands, a cold, lonely testament to a family who once stood proud in the community within which it was built.