Although a self-described “straightforward journalist,” Jerry Redfern and his work are far from traditional.
Redfern’s intense, beautiful images from Southeast Asia are compiled in his upcoming book, “Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos” (release date: June 2013), which documents what Redfern calls the most important environmental story he has ever done — and perhaps also the most dangerous. The striking images have won him the 2011-2012 Photographer’s Award for Reporting on the Environment from the Society of Environmental Journalists, which he received earlier this week.
Redfern has spent over 20 years in photojournalism, and over a decade of those working in close quarters with UXOs – or unexploded ordnances – in Southeast Asia. He frequently teams up with his wife and traveling companion, freelance journalist Karen Coates, to cover the stories they feel need to be told. Redfern provided the images for Coates’ upcoming book, “This Way More Better: Stories and Photos from Asia’s Back Roads” (release date: March 2013).
Now a Scripps Fellow at the CU Center for Environmental Journalism, a fellowship previously held by his wife, Redfern is adding new multimedia to his storytelling arsenal. Pursuing a project to document, share and live-update the environmental health of the Rio Grande, Redfern hopes to culminate his fellowship with the design of a new mobile app for the purpose.
We recently spoke with Redfern about his extensive travels, his award-winning photographs and his ambitious project.
Talk a little about your career in photojournalism and in journalism.
I started off as most people did at the time, and I think a lot of people still now try to do, which was at newspapers. And at the time at the University of Montana, they were grooming people to work at small papers in the West, which is essentially what I did. Then I got a job in high eastern Wyoming – Gillette– it was a small town, tons and tons of coal mining. It’s actually the center of the Powder River Basin coal mining and fracking stuff that goes on in northeastern Wyoming now. Tons of stuff to report on. Absolutely middle of nowhere, miserable place to live, but good place to learn your chops.
I went from there, ended up in Roseburg, Oregon, sort of south-central Oregon, worked there for a couple of years, and decided this wasn’t cutting it for me, and wanted to do something else. My wife Karen had taken a semester program in Hanoi while she was getting her masters at the University of Oregon, and came back from it and said ‘that is what I want to be doing, I want to go to Asia, I’m not going to stick around here.’ And I said ‘okay, that sounds good to me.’ We just sort of up and left the next year when she got a job at the Cambodia Daily at Phnom Penh. It was the year that the Khmer Rouge finally collapsed, sort of the end of the world there. We decided, well, this is a bit more than we bargained for; we should go back to the U.S. and think about it.
I was offered a job as chief photographer and photo editor at the paper I’d worked at in Roseburg again, did that for another couple of years and realized that no, I was right the first time around, I don’t want to be working at papers. Essentially, since January 1, 2002, that’s what we’ve been doing. Most of that freelance work has been in Southeast Asia. Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, a little Vietnam — and Burma when they let us in.
What sort of issues do you find yourself reporting on?
Probably the biggest environmental story we’ve worked on, and it took us a while to figure it out, is the book that we have coming out in June of next year – “Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos,” about the leftover UXO from the bombing campaign in the Vietnam War. The pictures actually won the award for photojournalism from the SEJ. I’m actually kind of happy about that. It’s about how this was such an incredibly massive bombing campaign, it has ecological effects for the people living in Laos up to this day. You can’t easily or safely walk around large swathes of jungle, you can’t necessarily do rice farming or other farming, or gathering in the nearby fields and jungles, or building roads, or you name it. It’s a living ecological effect.
And the unexploded ordinances still have a shelf life of how long?
It all depends. We dropped some really high-quality explosives on Laos. Some of them are going to last for the foreseeable future. Gold doesn’t rust, right? It doesn’t oxidize. There was a type of fuse they put on the backs of 5,000- or 2,000-pound bombs. The fuse is usually in the form of a big gold plate that screws onto the back of a bomb, with all sorts of stuff on it. I have a friend who did clearance work, who was in this area of Laos somewhat close to the Vietnamese border. This would’ve been roughly 30 years after the bombing had stopped. Nobody had been doing any farming or doing any real work in this district for most of that time, except for very small stuff because there was so much UXO left over. He remembers driving; the sun was catching it, the gold reflecting off the bombs stuck-nose into the earth, hundreds and hundreds of them. They spent the next month just detonating them, dozens and dozens a day. And that sort of stuff – while huge fields of unexploded, easily accessible bombs like that aren’t quite so common in Laos anymore – there are still millions and millions of explosives yet in the earth, either waiting to go off or waiting to be found by clearance teams to do the clearance work.
How do you see your photojournalism work on that issue affecting ongoing international work detonating the UXOs – how do you see your work feeding into the resolution or the future of the issue?
I’m still, for better or for worse, a fairly straightforward journalist. I’m not a whole lot into direct advocacy work, or working with a group to do their direct promotional work, and calling that journalism as well. There are lots of people I know who do it, more power to them. That sort of work needs to be done. But I think, doing the work that we’ve done with this book is to bring the story back to American consciousness, that this is what we did, this is the leftover effect, and how do you feel about that? It’s also, I have to say, one of those stories with no other side. This is just a bad story. There’s no sort of other side to necessarily report on here.
“The benefits of bombing”?
There isn’t. You can sort of in a black humor sort of see it, because there is a large local industry in collecting high-grade American scrap steel from the bomb shrapnel and they recycle it into rebar. And so, actually, lots of the buildings being built in Laos today are being built with rebar from bomb shrapnel from American bombs and bits of American planes that were shot down and stuff like that. But I’m not sure that’s exactly a positive.
Those casings that flutter down to Earth, if you happen to live through all of it, they’re nice high-grade American steel, very well-painted, just incredible. So they find those lying in the jungle, pick that thing up, take it home. It makes a great fence post, they make fantastic feeding troughs. Karen’s favorite is they use them for herb gardens raised up on a couple of posts.
How did you transition from Southeast Asia back to the U.S. to work in Boulder as a Scripps Fellow?
I’m not sure it’s quite a transition. Karen and I have talked for years now – it’s like we have a new life every three months, because we travel so much to different regions for like a month or two months here and there. So I just kind of see this as the next trip. I can’t find any real consistency in what we’ve been doing in the last decade!
Yep, chapters, exactly. Or almost like short stories. I’m not sure they’re fully connected.
Talk a little bit about your research you’re doing as a Scripps Fellow.
Karen and I moved to New Mexico, about a mile from the Rio Grande River. We got there this summer, and it rained, it was beautiful, it was green. There was a river coming by, and we think ‘this is really neat, this is really beautiful stuff.’ And the river started getting lower and lower, it turned brown and turgid, and you think,’ this is kind of odd.’ And then it started to stink. It smells bad, smells toxic – and then the river shuts off altogether, generally early to mid-August. And so the Rio Grande, one of the great mythic rivers of America – there’s no water in it by our house.
I started taking pictures, as I do everything, along the river, not sure what I was working toward at that point. Realizing I’d begun, unwittingly, a project on documenting the Rio Grande, on how this once great mythic river has been brought low. It’s not really a river, it’s a commodity. I’m trying to think of how to represent it in so many different forms that are available to us now, in terms of multimedia tech, or video, or amazing mapping technology, as well as public documents available online. And thinking that, for me, perhaps this is a wake-up call that photojournalism is not what it used to be, not what it once was.
So the project that I sold them on here is to learn how to pull these things together in a multimedia format designed for portable devices, and to see how much I could learn about that while here, and learn about water issues and water law while I’m here, and actually this semester at least, primarily learning coding for Androids and Mac operating systems, which I’m not sure was the brightest thing to do, but hey, it’s apparently what I’m doing!
Could you speak a bit more to the new face of photojournalism?
It’s just the way the market is. It’s so much easier now to make picture, it’s so much easier now to transmit photos than it was even five years ago. And it’s easier for all sorts of people who weren’t photographers before to take a perfectly exposed, properly focused picture. The market has just changed. I don’t think it’s necessarily for the better. I don’t think you’re seeing more good pictures than you did 15 years ago, I think the number of good pictures is probably the same. You just have shitloads more of them you have to weed through to find those. And now that publications don’t have the money, are finding all sorts of basic pictures for a dollar, essentially free, online, there’s no call for lots of what the freelance photographer market used to be and what the business model used to be. It’s just not important anymore.
- A local man clasps his head in disbelief as he stands barefoot in the massive, still-warm crater left by a 750-pound American bomb, in rural Phongsali Province, Laos. A bomb disposal group destroyed the bomb which was found by local girl clearing land for a new garden. (Photo/Jerry Redfern)
But still room for innovation?
There’s room for innovation but there’s also still room for people who can tell stories, and know how to find good stories. Karen and I still do freelance work and are able to get it sold, because we can figure out what a good story is. We have that going for us, and we know how to tell it. And she can write it and I can photograph it in ways that haven’t necessarily been done before.