Student ‘develops’ photojournalism experience abroad

Only 20 years old, Caleb Baer ’14 already cannot recall how many countries he’s been to in his life. “I’ve tried to count the number of countries, but I always get mixed up. I think I’ve been to like, 30-something countries … maybe 40. I have been pretty much all over Africa, all over Europe, all over Latin America … I’ve been all around,” Baer said. As a result, when he decided to spend a gap year exploring and photographing an unfamiliar region of the world, Southeast Asia emerged as the perfect (and basically the only possible) fit.
Imagine spending one year in five countries, combating dysentery in India, attending the teachings of the Dalai Lama and even clearing hundreds of yards of land in order to detonate explosives. Add to that voluntarily entering the middle of Bangkok, Thailand to take photographs amid hundreds of deaths as protestors take control of the center of the city. This was exactly how Baer passed his gap year. The current first-year traveled to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma and India on four separate trips throughout the year with a professional photojournalist through the program Rustic Pathways and then returned home to California to promote awareness about the plight of the subjects of his work.
After his senior year at the Brentwood School in Los Angeles, Baer was “burned out” and saw a gap year as the ideal option to recuperate. Knowing he would continue to play tennis at the College, Baer “just wanted some time to do photography. I took classes every year but never had the time to do it on my own because I play tennis.”
Baer’s first adventure was to Cambodia, where he worked with landmine victims to highlight the ongoing risk of detonation from unfound Khmer Rouge bombs. He met and interviewed Mek Channeng, a 21-year-old man who lost his legs by stepping on a landmine while aiding his disabled uncle. “He epitomizes the problem of the poor farmers in Cambodia. Because the whole infrastructure was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, these people are forced to work where there are tons of landmines,” Baer said. Baer pointed me to a statistic on his website, citing that “94 percent of all [landmine] casualties knew that they were entering areas with mines. Eight-six percent entered the mined area due to economic necessity.”
Tragically, Channeng’s uncle himself once was a part of the Khmer Rouge and even set up landmines. His own nephew fell victim to the trap while trying to help him. “In Cambodia, already everyone knows” about the danger of landmines, he said. Baer hopes to bring stories like this to the limelight and remind the American public that landmines are still a big problem.
Yet, knowing and spreading information about landmines was not enough for Baer – he actually detonated one in Laos. That may sound crazy; after all, why would someone advocating for demining set off a mine? But Baer quickly explained himself: He worked with UXO LAO, a government organization responsible for demining. Currently, the most effective way to demine, ironically, is to detonate. One day on patrol, UXO LAO cleared the area and “wired all the explosives together, and they got back with a detonator. They just handed it to me and asked, ‘Do you want to blow it up?’ and I said okay. So then three-two-one,” Baer said nonchalantly. As he detonated the ordinances, Baer shot a video on his camera that he now uses to expose the dangers of landmines.
As if detonating bombs was not risky enough, Baer tested his own limits in Thailand. While he was initially in the north of Thailand to photograph Burmese refugees, he detoured from his path in Thailand when riots broke out in the country’s capital. Most would move away from the violence, but Baer’s detour was right in to the hostilities’ center. He determined this was a good opportunity to test his interest in war photography. “These riots broke out and I thought, well, I’m here, the Burmese refugees are always going to be here, so I went to Bangkok to photograph the rioting while it was happening,” he said. Baer went straight into the rioters’ encampment in the city center. “I didn’t really get shot at, but there was a lot of shooting around me … They were pretty friendly to me, friendly to photographers,” Baer said without alarm. Baer underplayed the riots’ danger, saying that he only had to actively seek shelter to dodge bullets once. No big deal …
While his year abroad seems a world away from his room in Dennett 3, Baer hopes to use his free time during Winter Study productively. He plans to fill out government forms to create a charity and redesign his website to attract traffic. Baer competed in many photography contests in high school and is now considering selling prints of his gap year artwork to raise money for various charities focusing on demining and eradicating poverty. On his next trip home, he will meet with organizations to see how best to expand the project. But for now, Baer is content on just spending his next four years sheltered in the confines of the Purple Valley.