• Sun
  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 1:41am

Kees Metselaar

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 April, 2010, 12:00am
 

ITCHY FEET Growing up in a village near Hoorn, in Holland, I had this urge to go to places that were far away. I've always been intrigued by places with lots of islands, such as Indonesia and the Philippines - the romantic view of the traveller. Backpacking was relatively new [when I started travelling, there were] no Lonely Planet guides - and you could visit Afghanistan over land without a problem. I only took happy snaps on these trips. Then, in 1984, I decided to become a freelance photographer.

I worked for an NGO called Novib. It's now part of the Oxfam family. I had spent half a year in Sudan and they needed photographs of their projects there. It started with the news about the hunger in Ethiopia, Eritrea and north Sudan. Bob Geldof started his Live Aid and all that. Because of the whole noise about the famine, photographers and TV crews started coming in but they were only in the big refugee camps. It was extremely helpful that I had travel experience. In the mid-1980s, going to Sudan was unheard of, [although] I suppose there were a few eccentric Brits there who had wanted to go in the footsteps of [Lord] Kitchener.

Soon travelling became addictive. I went to northern Pakistan in the mid-80s to photograph the mujahideen massing with their horses and supplies - even children's school books - to go to northern Afghanistan for the winter after the Russian invasion. I later went to Kandahar.

ALTERED IMAGES I teach photojournalism at the University of Hong Kong. It's interesting to see how many students here [want to become] photojournalists at a time when the job is really changing. These days you can type 'Afghanistan' on the computer and source thousands of photos. Before, the wires would do the grind stuff but it wasn't enough. So [publications] would send you [there]. These days they hire someone locally or stick to photos from the wires services.

STREET SMART Hong Kong lends itself to street-scene photography, which I love. A couple of years ago, I had an exhibition on Graham Street and have photographed other old neighbourhoods including where I live, in Sheung Wan. There's something fascinating about street scenes; how suddenly they come together. You wait and then it is there, just right.

REMEMBERING HU I have been organising an exhibition on Dutch photographer Hu [Hubert] Van Es, at the [Foreign Correspondents' Club]. In 1975, [he took the photograph during the fall of Saigon, at the end of the Vietnam war, of] people on top of [a building used by the CIA] desperately trying to evacuate on a helicopter.

He joined the club in 1969 and was a stalwart member. He died last year. We became friends - both Dutch, both photographers. I was, I suppose, half a generation younger than him, so knew enough about what he had done but I was too young for the Vietnam war and I think he found that refreshing.

Van Es spent a year in London and some of his photos of the Rolling Stones and Nancy Sinatra still survive. He went to Vietnam as a soundman, but that was just his way of getting in. In 1979, he flew into Kabul during the Russian invasion and took photos of the ground troops massing in [the city] from the plane. Because of that, he wasn't allowed off the plane, but the photos went worldwide.

FIRST ON THE SCENE In 1991, I ... worked again for Novib - in Chittagong [Bangladesh] ... and was spending a few days in Dhaka. [I heard there was a cyclone approaching] and returned to Chittagong four hours after [it] hit. [One of the deadliest cyclones on record, it claimed the lives of at least 138,000 people]. I spent two days there then got the rolls of film onto a plane to Paris. Le Figaro and other magazines at the time paid a lot of money to have the first and unique stuff. As I got back to Dhaka, the first plane of journalists was arriving from Bangkok.

CATCHING DICTATORS In 1986, I was in Manila [the Philippines] at the time of the fall of dictator [Ferdinand] Marcos. At the beginning of the year there were snap elections and initially it was unclear who had won. There was shooting. Among the photos I took were the soldiers of Marcos an hour before they left. And Marcos and Imelda and their son, Bongbong, on their balcony; a few hours later they left.

In the mid-90s, I spent time in Indonesia and photographed the fall of Suharto. Later I moved to Bangkok with my wife, who works for the BBC, and photographed the early days of the red shirts and [former prime minister] Thaksin [Shinawatra].

ESCAPING FATE I may have missed the really intrepid age of travel but had I been born any earlier, I would have been milking cows all my life, like my father. My father had very much wanted to go to school more but he started working on the farm at 13 and at the end of the [second world] war, Holland was kaput; you never had a holiday. When [he] stopped work in 1980, he calculated that, since 1937, there were only about 40 days when he hadn't milked a cow. Most farmers just had a Bible but, with him, I grew up talking about news.

'Hubert Van Es A Retrospective' is on display throughout April at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central, tel: 2521 1511. Non-members can view it between 10am and midday.

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