Life

Time to act

We can’t wait any longer, time is running out.
We can’t deny it any more, the evidence is simply too overwhelming.
Climate change is real, it is a crisis, and we have to act now.

I am obsessed with photographing the ocean. Ever changing, the ocean waves are mesmerising, the beauty of which can take your breath away. And yet the beauty and health of oceans, and our planet, is under threat like never before. If we don’t change our ways, soon it simply won’t be possible to capture photographs like this.

Throughout history, we have often looked to our elders for their wisdom and guidance, their experience guiding the naivety of the young. But in recent years it has fallen to the young people of the world to express the voice of alarm when it comes to recognising the reality of climate change. All around our planet, young people like Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old Swedish activist who has been shaming the Governments of the world for their failure to act, are crying out in frustration and anger as their elders continue to destroy the environment which will be left to those young people to sort out.

All of us who should be old enough to know better should be ashamed. We have spent the past decades with our heads buried in the sand, fooling ourselves that things are not that bad really, that we can continue being as wasteful and destructive as we have always been, and there won’t be any consequences. But we were wrong, there are always consequences to our actions, and all around the world those consequences can be seen by anyone who chooses to open their eyes to the reality of what we are doing to the planet.

And now we simply have to change our ways. All of us have to play our part. It is not enough to wait for other people to act, we all share the responsibility.

Change can begin with something as simple as choosing to never use single use plastic. Nobody NEEDS to use a plastic straw, and yet every year millions of discarded plastic straws cause mayhem in our oceans. Nobody NEEDS a disposable coffee cup, carrying a reusable mug becomes second nature once you are in the habit, and yet every year millions of disposable cups are dumped into landfill around the world.

These are such tiny changes to our every day lives - changes which can make such a difference to our environment - there is simply no excuse for us to carry on as we have before.

Time is running out, it is time for us to act.

Differently-abled?

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Tony Giles is an amazing individual.

Appropriately enough, I first met Tony on a flight high above the desert of the middle east. As fellow travellers, we found ourselves comparing notes at 34,000 feet about which countries we had visited so far. It was a conversation I was able to continue when he recently came to visit Mauritius.

Some years ago, after completing his Masters Degree in Transatlantic Studies (which personally I struggle to spell, let alone study) he faced the same dilemma as many other students considering life after their studies, what to do next. Whilst most of his university peers turned towards the corporate world, Tony instinctively knew that wasn’t for him and instead decided to take some time out to explore the world. One trip led to another, one country led to the another, until the thought occurred to him that perhaps he should simply visit every country in the world!

Simple or not, that is exactly what he has spent pretty much the last decade doing, as he has gradually made his way across the globe. To date he has travelled to 140 counties, visited all fifty states of the USA, crossed the Artic Circle and stepped foot on the least hospitable continent on the planet, Antartica.

Such a voyage would be daunting enough for most people, but Tony is completely blind and is 80% deaf in both ears.

As someone who has travelled extensively myself, I know just how challenging it can be to find yourself in the middle of a foreign land, unable to speak the language, unfamiliar with the local culture, and unsure which direction to travel. And I am not disabled. Tony has been travelling, by himself, with a disability most of us can hardly begin to comprehend.

All of this got me to thinking, what does disability even mean anyway?

The very word suggests an inability to do something, but over the course of my own travels I have met disabled swimmers who can swim a lot faster than I can. I have met disabled runners who can run a lot faster than I can. And now I have met a disabled traveller who has travelled a lot further than I have. So what exactly are their so-called disabilities meant to be preventing these people from doing?

Perhaps the issue here is actually one of language. Instead of thinking in terms of someone being disabled, I wonder whether it would be more appropriate to consider them differently-abled? In that respect, perhaps we are all differently-abled in our own way, each of us having to deal with the challenges of life based on our own personal circumstances.

Unfortunately Tony was only in Mauritius for a short while, and as I dropped him back to the airport, I was struck by something a friendly staff member said when looking at his passport. “Would you like some help to find your way around?” the staff member asked. “No thank you,” was Tony’s upbeat reply, “this is my 141st country and I have managed just fine so far”.

So much for his disability.

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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?

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.

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.

Skin Deep

Madison is not someone you are likely to miss in a crowd.

When I met her, she was sitting outside the barber shop where she worked, enjoying the Toronto sunshine. With a huge smile on her face and a shock of blond hair on her head, there was something about her which made her immediately stand out against the suburban backdrop. Of course it is quite possible the tattoos running the entire length of her arms, chest and neck, as much as the smile on her face which helped her to stand out.

"I've always been judged by my tattoos", she told me, "I have never been in trouble in my life, but people still ask if I have been to prison. The truth is I just like tattoos."

We are all guilty of subconsciously judging the people we meet, often based on nothing more than the colour of their skin or the clothes that they wear. Sometimes those judgements have little impact on our interaction with others, and other times they have terrible consequences. And yet, we also all know these differences between us are literally only skin deep. How ridiculous it is, in the 21st Century, that we are still all so guilty of making these judgements.

Madison was one of the most interesting and friendly people I met, as I walked around the streets of Canada. Polite, talkative and happy for me to photograph her portrait, despite only meeting me moments before. And yet many of the people she meets still make snap decisions about her based on nothing more than the art she wears on her skin.

As the old saying goes, you can't judge a book by its cover, a lesson we could all do with remembering more often, in our increasingly divided world.

Supertrees

There is not a lot we can teach Mother Nature about design. When it comes to form, beauty, and function, she has pretty much got her act together.

So when landscapers were deciding what to do with 250 acres of reclaimed land, right in the heart of Central Singapore, what better place to turn for inspiration, than Mother Nature herself.

The Supertree Grove, located in the Garden by the Bay national park, are an incredible sight. A collection of vast artificial trees, standing up to 50 meters tall, they dominate the Singapore skyline, forming an imposing canopy over the city below.

Acting as a vertical garden for a huge array of plants and ferns, the Supertrees collect rainwater for irrigation, whilst huge solar panels generate energy to power the lights which bring the trees alive, illuminating them against the urban backdrop.

Truly, the Supertrees are a spectacular sight. But, as we move further into the 21st Century, where concrete is replacing grass at an exponential rate, and tree-like structures now replace actual trees, I can’t help but wonder, what harm are we doing to Mother Nature’s grand design?

Alone

The ocean covers more than 70% of our planet, contains 97% of all our water and is home to so much life we think we have only discovered a tiny percentage of what is out there.

Above the waves, it is a lonely ocean, vast expanses of nothing but water to break the horizon before the land arrives. Below, it is a vast wilderness, with more life than we can possibly imagine.

Throughout our history, the ocean has dominated our life in ways we can not comprehend and yet we are still so ill at ease in its presence, unable to achieve much more than floating across it's surface in boats of wood and steel.

Our constant companion since time began, it remains silent and in the shadows, always there, always waiting, always alone.

Walls don't work

On the 13th August 1961, the East Berlin authorities began constructing the Berlin Wall, a huge, physical barrier intended to divide the entire city of Berlin in two, separating friends, families and communities for the next 28 years.

Built by a government intent on controlling the free will of the people, under the pretence of protecting the public from so-called dangerous ideologies, it was used to control where people could go and who they could talk to. Human spirit was contained behind a wall of bricks, concrete and metal.

Except human spirit can never be controlled. No matter how high the wall, no matter how big the divide, human spirit will always overcome, eventually.

And on the 9th November 1989, the wall finally fell, torn down by hand, as the people of Berlin were finally unified once again. Today, as the world once again faces the prospect of a "great wall" intended to separate people by force, the Berlin Wall stands testament to the truth history has taught us, walls don’t work.

Passage of Time

History is everywhere in Athens.

On every street you walk, every corner you turn and every building you pass, chances are something within touching distance will be a thousand of years old, or more. Ancient ruins are so common place, many are barely given a passing glance, as the modern city goes about it's daily life.

But one site which refuses to be ignored is the mighty Acropolis, dominating the landscape from high above. Its presence is felt constantly, as it has done for millennia. At heart of the Acropolis, lies the Parthenon, the imposing temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, constructed around 500 BC.

It is such a strange sensation, to witness a building which has stood largely unchanged for over two thousand years. Sitting within it's shadows, you can feel an almost physical connection with generations of ancestors who have sat there before you.

Around the world, time passes so fast we often struggle to keep up. But with the Acropolis standing proudly above the city for more years than any of us can contemplate, Athens remains a city where the passage of time has done largely gone unnoticed

Caught Short

As hard as it might be to believe today, but when the iconic Flatiron Building first opened in New York, there were no female bathrooms.

This wasn't a deliberate omission. The lack of ladies toilets wasn't being used to make a bold statement or prove a point. Rather the building designers simply forgot to include any.

A common sense solution was quickly found, with bathrooms on alternate floors being designated as either male or female, but this solution was only arrived at after the building was opened. The fact that none of the many hundreds of people, who worked on the building, noticed there were no ladies restrooms tells us much about how little society valued women, when the building first opened in 1902.

More than a hundred years later, an awful lot has changed. We still have a long way to go to eradicate the gender imbalance in our society, but few of us could contemplate a time when women were so invisible as to hardly merit consideration.

And yet, there are still so many people in society we do forget.

Far too many buildings are still being designed without giving proper consideration to the needs of people with a disability. We continue to use steps when a ramp is just as easy to build, we still design bathrooms without thought to how others in our society might need to use them.

Just as the Flatiron building before, these oversights aren't being used to make bold statements, or prove a point. We are simply still forgetting the needs of people who have become invisible to us. One hundred years from now, I wonder if these modern day omissions will be as shocking to society as a twenty story building without a single female bathroom.

Pride

With the wind in her hair, she looks out over the ocean which surrounds her island.

Her eyes are old, but they are still bright. They have seen so many changes over the years; some good, some bad. Her body is weaker than as it once was, but her smile is as strong as it has ever been. She doesn't fear the future, her spirit for life keeps her seeking out each new dawn.

Because she is a woman of Mauritius, and when she stands, she stands tall with pride.

Calm

There is a certain sense of calm which follows a storm. More than just the relief the worst has past, it feels like a time to rebuild, to renew, and make good again. But where do we start, when all around us the winds have brought nothing but chaos and destruction?

Perhaps we could begin by opening our eyes. What we will see depends on how we chose to look.

If we see only disorder and disruption, we will surely miss the opportunity which comes with it. We need to look harder, and see the wider picture. If we do, we can find order, and even beauty, in the debris left behind.

The world around us is a beautiful place, where even a lonely branch, blown from the trees and swept up onto a deserted beach, can become a work of art.

This is the art of the natural world, something we take for granted far too often, as we go about our busy lives.

From time to time we need a shock to the system, nature needs to remind us that our planet is simply a blank canvas. We can fill it with beauty or  we can fill it with decay. The choice is ours.

The Storm

A great storm is coming. Maybe not today. maybe now tomorrow, but it is surely coming, if we do not change our ways.

I am always amazed at Mother Nature’s ability to put us in our place whenever she feels we need. No matter how much we congratulate ourselves on how advanced we are as a species, how much we delude ourselves into thinking we have conquered the physical world, nature has the ability to bring us right down to earth, to remind who is really in charge of this planet.

And we really do need bringing back to earth.

In our constant rush towards (so-called) advancement, we seem to have completely forgotten that our actions do not stand in isolation. Everything we do has a direct impact on the world around us.

Every time we use a plastic straw, when we could just as easily manage without, we have an impact on our planet. Every time we drill yet another hole in the ground in search of more and more fossil fuels, we have an impact on our planet. Every time we destroy another forest to make room for more and more roads, we have an impact on our planet.

We have had more impact our planet over the past 150 years than we have in the tens of thousands of years before, and if we are not careful we run the very really risk of impacting so greatly on the planet, it may never recover.

But it is not to late for us to change.

It isn’t too late for us to pause, to take a deep breath, and simply decide to follow a different path. Instead of destroying, we could build. Instead of cutting down trees, we could plant them. Instead of plastic, we could use sustainable materials which won’t poison our planet. We could achieve any of these things, if only only choose to do so.

Stepping Out

It is easy to stay in the comfort zone of our lives, but sometimes real reward is best achieved by stepping out into the unknown.

Consider this fisherman. Unlike all the other fishermen, who were grouped on the rocks which line the shore, he was standing alone, way out to sea when I first noticed him. The tide was low and so the water within the lagoon was only around waist hight, but still I wondered what he was doing so far from the shore.

Walking out to join him, the depth of the water varied from place to place. Sometimes it was shallow and then suddenly deep. It was hard to tell where to step, the water obscuring the path ahead. Finally reaching him, I asked him why he choose to come so far from the comfort of the beach.

"Because the fish are here" he answered.

Such a simple truth, and yet still requiring the question to be asked in order to be understood.

In life it is too easy to just remain in our comfort zone, hoping the rewards we seek will simply come to us. But as this fisherman teaches us, sometimes we need to step out into the unknown to seek those rewards out for ourselves.