As a photographer and writer, Dan White could count Afghanistan, Cambodia and East Timor among the many conflicts he covered. The British journalist was always brave but often troubled by the brutalities he witnessed and at times endured first-hand. Nevertheless he stuck to his core values, denouncing all types of violence and emerging in recent years as one of the most affable men in Southeast Asian journalism. Dan, tragically, passed away on September 20, following a brain hemorrhage. He was 47.
My initial encounters with Dan, well over a decade ago, were marked by humor and his ability to see the funny side of life even when confronted by deadly threats. His sense of the ridiculous often stood him in good stead.
As a professional, he covered the serious — Thailand’s long-running red and yellow shirt conflict– and the off-beat. He made the stunning photography for the book Sacred Tattoos of Thailand and wrote the Frommer Travel Guide to Cambodia and Laos. Dan was happiest on his motorbike exploring the nooks and crannies of Thailand and never tired of taking photographs of its temples and pagodas. The knowledge he gained over the years was formidable and he shared it willingly.
He was also deeply sensitive about his work and protective about those around him. Amid the devastation of the 2004 tsunami, Dan told an editor on a Rupert Murdoch newspaper in Australia to “shove it” after they tried to goad him into ignoring the requests of rescuers, enter the overcrowded hospital wards, and take photographs and interview the hapless and horribly injured victims.
When working in the field he lacked that certain cynicism which many in this business seem to think is some kind of macho absolute for a being big tough journalist. This attitude kept his work fresh and his mind vibrant.
Around 2003, soon after making Bangkok his home, Dan was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His symptoms were most noticeable when he was aggrieved or his sense of injustice had been piqued. A serious head injury, sustained in a fight outside a Thai pub, subsequently aggravated his condition.
Dan could get angry, was sometimes antagonizing and always fierce in debate. But he loathed people who waved their finger to make a point; he saw that as something akin to violence.
His pugnacity could work to the advantage of his colleagues. When a fellow journalist was in trouble, Dan would leap to his or her defense. He was like a rottweiler when his friend, the Belgian photographer Thierry Falise, was wrongfully jailed in Laos and made an enormous effort to get him freed.
Unlike many of his colleagues who also suffered from PTSD, Dan acknowledged and addressed it, and eventually his gentler side won out. While on assignment with him in Thailand’s troubled south earlier this year, I could not help but think that Dan was becoming the man he was always meant to be.
I assumed that Dan would go from strength to strength and that his contributions would continue to be an enormous plus for journalism in Thailand and Indochina. His grasp of Cambodian politics and the sensibilities of the Khmer people were matched by his understanding for the subtleties of Thai culture. These qualities are in short supply amongst practitioners of the business that he loved.
Dan’s favorite quotation came from Winston Churchill: "Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.” He lived and worked by this philosophy, and as a result was highly respected and much loved. He is survived by brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, an army of loyal friends and a brilliant body of work.
He was my friend and he will be missed.