From Kuwait to Cambodia with international journalist Matthew Donohue

By Dylan Francis

Matthew Donohue at work as a photojournalist in Wadi Rum, Jordan in 2009.
Photo Courtesy of Matthew Donohue

A Parliament cigarette is plucked from its retro white and blue pack. It’s placed between the wine-stained lips of a man as he looks off his balcony into the rainy Long Island night. A matching blue lighter catches the end and a white puff of smoke drifts out from under the balcony light into the dark.

“You see a lot of bad shit as a journalist,” he said. “Shit you don’t forget.”

Matthew Donohue, 40, stands at 5 feet 8 inches with a buzz cut and a trim dirty blond beard. A tattoo sleeve detailed with Asian symbolism decorates his right forearm. His demeanor is positive.

In contrast to his seemly domestic appearance, his spirit is wholly untamed, reminiscent of travel writer Paul Theroux’s statement, “One whose lifeline is nothing but his own nerve.”

Donohue is a photojournalist and writer who is published in newspapers and magazines in the United States, Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia. He’s worked for numerous news agencies and speaks most highly of his time with Bazaar magazine in Kuwait.

He enjoys covering what he refers to as “the human condition.” He is currently an equine photographer, covering horse racing and portraiture. He also covers long-distance sailboat racing and creates fine art.

Part of his story is told by every piece of memorabilia that inhabits his home.

In the closet hang two formal Lebanese robes made of cashmere and elaborately hand stitched.

Old and new cameras are displayed throughout the house. A camel harness that Donohue sat on as he rode across a Jordanian desert, now retired, hangs on a wall facing the living room. A handmade atlatl, a tool to assist in spear throwing, rests inconspicuously near the television.

In the kitchen, a bottle of special edition Woodford Reserve bourbon sits on a granite countertop next to a basket of aging bananas. The label shows a photo of mounted jockeys leaving the starting gate during the 144th Kentucky Derby. The bottle seemed to be blemished, covered in some sort of patternless, black markings.

“Look closer,” Donohue says.

A closer inspection reveals signatures of every racing jockey covering the bottle front to back.
“It’s priceless,” he said. “I’ll never drink it. If you touch it, I’ll kill ya!”

Later, seated at the barstool of a small Italian restaurant, Donohue’s social navigation expertise is evident.

“What’s your name, babe?” he asks the bartender.

Matthew Donohue tells a story of his travels while inspecting camera lenses inside of a diner in Huntingdon, Long Island. Photo by Dylan Francis

Asking the names of people and becoming quickly friendly and familiar with them seems to be a theme for Donohue. His unmistakable honesty is apparent through his direct of eye contact and ability to listen. His Sicilian heritage is revealed as he investigates the menu.

“There’s no such thing as Italian egg rolls!” He says, smiling and pointing at the appetizer. “My mother’s a real Italian cook. She would be furious.”

Resting his weight on his forearms, leaning forward, he begins to speak of Asia, all the while the Brooklyn accent he inherited from his “motha” is becoming more obvious.

“Cambodia was a real mentality shift,” Donohue says. “I thought I had seen it all. In 2009, I took a bus from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. I couldn’t have been prepared for what I was going to see and feel there.”

Donohue is referring to the genocide that took place during the late 1970’s under the rule of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot. Genocide, famine, and death from treatable disease resulted in the deaths of up to two million people, a quarter of Cambodia’s population at that time.

“The hotel I had booked was across the street from S-21,” Donohue says.

S-21 is another name for the infamous prison, Tuol Sleng. The old school was converted into a torture facility after Pol Pot took power. Of the approximately 15 thousand falsely accused and interrogated there, only 12 survived. The rest were taken to the killing fields. There is still dried blood on the floor of S-21, which now serves as a museum and memorial.

“I met an older man whose face was severely disfigured,” Donohue says. “He was one of the survivors. You don’t see many old people in ‘The City of Ghosts.”

Donohue hailed a tuk tuk motorcycle taxi to the killing fields. He recalls the weather being perfect on that December day. He stood atop a patch of ground which was unearthing the bones and clothes of those buried there.

“There were thousands of butterflies hovering just feet above the endless unmarked graves,” he says. “It changed me completely. The unforgivingness and pain contrasting the beauty of our lives. It was all here in this magnificent and haunting Cambodian landscape.”

Donohue was reminded of the quote by film director Terrence Malick: “What are these wars in the heart of nature?”

Donohue was born in Connecticut but spent most of his young life in Hockessin, Delaware and Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. When he was 3 years old, his uncle was killed in the Beirut barracks bombing in Lebanon. This would have a significant influence on Donohue’s later life and choice of profession.

Donohue was always an artist. At 15, he picked up his first camera. Donohue would later describe photography as his “philosophy.”

He attended The Pratt Institute in New York City, majoring in advertising and design.
“I loved it,” Donohue says. “Pursuing a life in the arts is high stakes.”

“I lay on the deck alone with nothing to hold onto but the celestial wonder of our galaxy. I had understood our fragility in the world.”

– Matthew Donohue

Upon graduation, Donohue went right into the graphic design world and began working for Saatchi & Saatchi, but only remained there for a short time.

“I was making really good money for being 25,” Donohue says. “But, if I have to be honest, I was angry. I hated it. I wasn’t connected to life. The corporate world has this effect of making you not care about anything.”

A friend mentioned to Donohue he should check out South Korea. He moved there and found work as a photographer and journalist.

“I left it all,” Donohue says. “I moved to South Korea leaving behind everything. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I prefer to live here in squalor then go back to the corporate life.’ ”

Donohue’s curiosity of the Middle East had existed since the passing of his uncle. He took an opportunity to teach photography in Kuwait and soon after began working for Bazaar magazine. He had a chance to explore Lebanon and visit the city of Beirut where his uncle had passed.

“I visited the place where he was stationed and where it happened,” Donohue recalls. “I understood the city. I fell in love with Lebanon and its people. That was one of my first great learning experiences.”

While writing for Bazaar, Donohue worked as a columnist. He would write a variety of articles including profiles, travel pieces, and poetry. The position allowed him the opportunity to explore India, Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries.

Donohue was in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon on the Syrian border when the Syrian civil war began. He remembers seeing and hearing the missiles fly overhead, which gave him the idea to travel to Syria to document the emerging refugee crisis.

While planning to sneak into Syria through a Lebanese connection, he found out he was to be a father. Learning this, he decided to remain home, prioritize safety and raise his daughter. His time of working overseas came to an end.

“A camera can act as a psychological shield,” Donohue says, adding that the pain and poverty he witnessed in the Middle East had affected him. He acknowledges that documenting the issues helped deal with the trauma of experiencing them, but still he felt a need for something new.

After moving to Long Island to be close to his daughter Olivia, whom he calls “Cheeks,” he found himself a new creative obsession: horses and all things equine. Soon Donohue would be shooting the 144th Kentucky Derby.

“A very special moment,” Donohue says about the experience. “The love of my daughter and these huge beautiful animals are my process of healing.”

He feels strongly about Frisians, a draft breed that carry a pure black coat and are well known for their warm personalities. He describes them simply as “elegance.”

One day Donohue decided he was ready to begin writing again. He stopped at a local dock hoping to do a story about the oyster industry. He quickly found himself covering sailboat races instead.

Fiddling with his favorite lens (a Canon prime 85mm with a potential aperture of f 1.2), he pulls out a magazine. On the cover is a beautiful photograph of a sailboat. The sails are full of wind and life as the sun sets in the background.

“This is one of mine,” he says. “I find myself being pulled back into the gray zone of balancing danger and work. Not long ago, I accompanied a crew on a race to Bermuda.”

The Newport Bermuda race is a 635-mile journey done entirely on wind power. It averages five to six days one way. There is no bathroom aboard. Sea sickness and cabin fever are very real threats.

Donohue recalls standing on the deck of the 40-foot yacht. The sails were still. They were in a high pressure zone. The wind was gone, and no one knew when it would return.

“Essentially, we’re dead until we reach Bermuda,” Donohue says. “We took a loan out on our lives leaving the dock in Rhode Island.”

He said they took four-hour shifts but he wasn’t able to sleep.

“Nothing is crazier than being 300 miles out to sea on a sailboat with no wind,” Donohue says. “One of our guys started to lose it. ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ he kept saying to me as I lay on my bunk. His eyes were distant. ‘You need to get your shit together,’ I told him. ‘Were almost there.’”
Donohue knew that if the man went topside with his panic, it could cause a domino effect among the other nine sailors.

“I’ve learned that when I’m truly terrified, it’s better to be completely silent,” Donohue says. “We were all scared. The stillness and vastness of that ocean is the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced. My reconciliation came at night in the form of the Milky Way. Our great insignificance was as clear to me as the stars above. I lay on the deck alone with nothing to hold onto but the celestial wonder of our galaxy. I had understood our fragility in the world. The ocean helped me to accept vulnerability, but without letting it rule me.”

Today, Donohue is happy to be spending his days in the company of his daughter and the Frisian horses he’s grown to love.

“If it wasn’t for my daughter and my camera I don’t know where I’d be,” Donohue says. “Being a father really tuned me in with life and death. I look back and realize that the longer I live the more I begin to contrast my younger self. I’m always learning of the relationship of my own human nature to that of nature as a whole.”

Across Donohue’s midsection is a faded tattoo that reads the words of the poet Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Contact Dylan Francis at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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