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War photographer finds solace at Taiwan’s frontline: Matsu

Riots, revolutions, natural disasters through the lens of Chris Stowers

Acclaimed war photojournalist Chris Stowers. (Taiwan News photo)

Acclaimed war photojournalist Chris Stowers. (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — "The camera is magical protection. A talisman."

Born southeast of London, photojournalist Chris Stowers reels off overseas assignments as if they were patches on a photographer's vest: Bosnian Civil War (1992), Fall of Suharto, Indonesia (1998), Kashmir Earthquake, Pakistan (2005), Russian Invasion of Georgia (2008).

In Bosnia, he found himself in the back seat of a sedan driven by Serb militia with a pistol stuck in his neck and an AK-47 directed at his knees, furiously screaming at the driver and his captors, who had kidnapped him.

"The minute you show fear, you are dead. The only thing you can do is demand to be released." His captors ultimately let him go, realizing the risk of keeping him simply wasn’t worth the effort or the headache.

While Stowers has chalked up many hardship assignments, the one he may be best known for is a recent visit to the Matsu Islands, for which he hosted a 60-minute documentary.

This time around, he was asked to step in front of the camera and narrate the lives and times of residents on the front lines of the escalating tension between Taiwan and China. As luck would have it, the documentary starts out with thrilling action and footage.

"We were fortunate to get a live-fire demonstration at the start of the film. That’s real anti-aircraft fire and tracer rounds going off at night," says Stowers during an interview weeks after the release of the documentary on Taiwan Plus. Click link to view it here.

War photographer finds solace at Taiwan’s frontline: Matsu

Stowers found himself available for the Matsu assignment mainly due to the COVID pandemic, which kept him locked down in Taiwan for the better part of three years. As an avid traveler, he was eager to take any assignment that would allow him to travel.

It also meant that Stowers would be revisiting an island chain that he was well familiar with after first visiting it 26 years ago. At the time, Stowers accepted a cultural assignment from the Taiwan government and set off for this remote island for two weeks over Christmas 1997, paired with an eclectic team that included a poet, an architect, and an artist.

The group’s safety was never in question, though they did experience lots of hardship, spending restless nights in sleeping bags in derelict houses with only the stars above them, and eating ROC Army K-rations.

Stowers remembers this early visit as a period of relative calm, with only the daily comings and goings of soldiers, chats with elderly residents, and admonishments to steer clear of no-go zones like beaches and military installations filling up his days.

"A lot has changed. You can see one scene in the documentary where I am taking a picture of a staircase. I have a picture of that same staircase framed on my bedroom wall. But when I tried to take it again, it was all off because the roof got fixed and everything was cleaned up."

War photographer finds solace at Taiwan’s frontline: Matsu
Heavy arms on Taiwan's front line of defense against China. (Chris Stowers photo)

An Early Trigger Itch

Stowers says that ever since he was a child, he wanted to be a photojournalist working in conflict regions. He believes it is due to being a UK citizen and part of a family tradition, as other relatives have traveled and lived abroad like it was a birthright, including his father, who was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

"I could go anywhere with a UK passport. I only had to land in Hong Kong- which was still a British territory when I arrived in 1987 - and they gave me an ID card, and I could live there." Stowers would go on to photograph the handover ceremony for Time magazine, 10 years after leaving England, feeling a fleeting sense of accomplishment in his professionalism as the territory reverted back to China.

"I learned photography from other photojournalists. I had a Nikon and borrowed lenses from other people, and then I let them critique my work. He recalls traveling to Peshawar, Pakistan, and hanging out with other photojournalists covering the Afghan conflict in the spring of 1987.

"I was there when the first stinger missiles were delivered. I was also teaching English to mujahideen children and was able to go into their training camps."

Stowers says that in a war zone, you can only react to what’s in front of you. He describes it as a very fast-moving environment where one inherently knows which areas are safe and unsafe.

At times, he has found himself hiding behind letterboxes and vehicles. "I’ve had pieces of shrapnel hit a tree behind me when a Russian bomb went off. And during some of the riots in Katmandu, I was hit by a brick in the back of the head, which still causes me some hearing problems."

But Stowers laments that the days of a freelance journalist covering conflicts and natural disasters may be part of history. "The only photojournalists who can do it now have paid assignments and guaranteed publishing arrangements."

The rise of citizen journalists or the omnipresent nature of cell phones, which can take photos and videos, has simply replaced the need for foreign correspondent coverage.

Stowers says this is not altogether a bad thing. "It’s madness sometimes, as you wonder if we are fueling a sick need for glory and violence. But this is not my specialty, as I hang around filming internally displaced people. The people who can’t leave the violence"

At the heart of his work, Stowers admits that it is no different from traditional story telling.

"I worked for Asiaweek while I was in Hong Kong. We had about a dozen photographers in different countries around region, at the time, and they were all very supportive. Each week we had a section called ‘Eyewitness," where we had to tell a story in four double-page pictures. That’s when I learned a lot about photography."

War photographer finds solace at Taiwan’s frontline: Matsu
A fitting tribute at the front lines of tension between Taiwan and China. (Chris Stowers photo)

The Documentary

In the documentary "Secrets of Matsu," Stowers played a central role as both the host and the principal protagonist through whom the story of this unique set of five islands is portrayed.

The total shoot would last for nine days on this island chain and involve six crew members led by Singaporean director Kenny Png. Editing and voiceover work would go on for another month back in Taipei.

"We didn’t do the documentary with a script because it would be too unnatural. Often, my first take would be the best, and when I did it a second or third time, it would just get progressively worse."

Stowers says the director would often give him prompts to take interviews or have conversations with local residents about a potential story line or theme. The documentary team would also film sequences flashing back or remembering what they had seen the previous day.

Stowers was quite comfortable working with the film crew, as together they had completed another documentary a month earlier for AXN, "Secrets of the Raknus Selu Trail". This film explored Taiwan’s famed indigenous camphor trail.

In "Secrets of Matsu," however, Stowers really does play himself and carries a trusty Nikon D800 camera throughout.

"In war photography, we use as little equipment as possible. I was taught that you can use ‘as much as you can run with.’ So it’s best to keep the weight and complexity down. Of course, you always have two cameras with you in case one of them jams. In a way, it’s like reloading ammunition."

When asked if he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his encounters as a war journalist, Stowers says the term doesn't adequately represent his feelings or emotions after leaving a conflict zone. Stowers says PTSD can be a handy carpet "to sweep a lot of mental dirt under." He feels certain types of flawed personalities might be attracted to war reporting and some degree of personal responsibility is in order.

"After being in a war zone or witnessing a humanitarian disaster, one initially feels relief that you don't have any skin in the game and can get out once you've got your shots or if the situation gets too risky. And then one feels "guilt" for the people you were there sharing these experiences with, those who opened their homes and hearts to you, who can't get away."

Despite these conflicting emotions, Stowers says he's still drawn to the work and would not travel for any other reason.

"I just can’t do the typical tourist things. I had a shoulder operation in 2018, which made it impossible for me to carry a camera bag. I went to Israel at the time and didn’t take any photos. Being a tourist just wasn’t interesting for me."

Visiting Matsu for the first time 26 years ago was exciting for Stowers. He said that the China threat back then was even more intense, and many local residents braved life and limb in the lucrative cigarette smuggling business, venturing out in small boats at night despite the risk of being mistaken for an enemy invasion force.

After all of his travels around the world, documenting some of the worst humanitarian disasters and ethnic conflicts, it seems fitting that Stowers may one day contemplate spending the remaining years of his life in Matsu, in a little village called Dapu on Dongjiu Island.

The village has a few stone houses that remind Stowers of Italy. It also has a few abandoned Abrams tanks with their turrets pointed towards China. The village also has a fig tree that he planted, creating a connection between this hardened journalist and a place to rest and reminisce about times of war and peace.