I just got back from leading a Within the Frame Workshop to India. We went to some of my favorite places–Old Delhi, Jodhpur, Bundi, but, a personal highlight was returning to the sacred and ancient city of Varanasi.
The fascinating cultures, the breathtaking landscapes, the ever present feeling that you are in a different time, a different dimension—this is what I absolutely love about Ethiopia. The constant feeling of being a human piggy-bank, the challenges in doing the simplest of things, the often occurring feeling that your new “friends” are measuring you up to see what they can extract from you—this is what I’ve come to hate beyond words about the country. I’ve been in Ethiopia for a bit over four months now. I know that many of the readers of this blog are photographers and travelers, some of whom have aspirations to come here. For this reason, I feel that I should write an account of sorts. One that is fairly uncensored and touches on the good, the not so good and the plain ugly sides of this incredible and incredibly challenging country.
I'm once again back from another hiatus. I haven't blogged about anything because, well, I haven't done anything very exciting (that is photography related) since I was in Spain. I am however about to embark on what will be an extremely exciting journey for me. I'm off to Ethiopia, a country I'd long dreamed of visiting.
Just under two months in India and my Himalayan adventure has come to an end. As usual, time flew by very quickly and as usual I wish I could stay longer. I am tired though. This trip was intense in so many ways. Riding in the mountains does take a toll on the body and the motorbikes. Both “machines” have cracked chassis from the horrendous (but spectacular) Zanskar road.
Those of you who know me personally know that I recently turned 30. Those who know me even more personally know that shortly after I turn 30, my mum turns 50. Today is that day, it’s my mum’s birthday and as I am currently somewhere far away from the internet or civilization, I have automated this post to wish the person to whom I owe everything a very happy 50th birthday!
The villages of Spiti Valley are ridiculously picturesque. The landscapes, the people’s faces, in some cases, their costumes and in others, the combination of everything, I often feel like I am in a fairytale. It’s hard to believe that such places still exist, but I sure am glad that they do. Dhankar was one of the more fairytale-like villages that we visited and here are some images from there.
Every traveler knows how it feels. When you fall in love with a place, you come to appreciate it on so many levels. The natural beauty, the smells, the sounds, the smiles. You’ve connected with the locals, you’ve made friends that will remain close to your heart. It’s sad saying “Good bye”. You don’t know if it’s a “Good bye forever” or a “See you again some time”. You hope it’s the latter. But you never know. If you’ve had your share of travels and good byes, you understand that places and people change. Nothing in life is set, there are no guarantees.
I’ve spent the last three weeks in the small town of San Joaquin on Panay island in the Philippines. Due to my “activities” - the constant waking up in the morning and the fact that swimming in the middle of the sea, while going out with the fishermen can be rather physically demanding (for someone who’s not in the best shape) I’ve been too fatigued to write anything substantial during this time.
Alona Beach is the kind of place that I usually cringe just thinking about. It’s full of resorts, cheesy bars, overpriced soulless food and annoying vendors. Nevertheless, I decided to come here, mostly because I was traveling with a friend who had been getting tired of not having internet or any foreigners around, but I also wanted to give it an honest try, since the last time I was in a place remotely similar (or I thought it was similar) to Alona Beach was in Goa, India and I actually had one of the best New Year’s Eve celebrations of my life.
I was riding back (on a rented motorcycle) to the city of Dumaguette from my little paradise on the beach and noticed a large building with a sign “Dumaguette Cockpit”. From the inside of the building I could hear a rowdy crowd, I came up to the entrance to make sure that this was indeed what I thought it was. I was assured by the ticket-selling lady that this was the place where cockfights took place and that the fights would continue from morning till midnight everyday for the next few days.
Those who know me even a little, know how frustrating and irritating I find Christmas to be. Not only Christmas, but the whole period that leads up to it. I’ve blogged before that my work as a Santa Claus photographer (seeing the ugly side of Christmas) back in my university days might have had something to do with it, as did undoubtedly the fact that I spent my childhood days in communist USSR, where Christmas was purely a religious thing and religion was frowned upon.
Almost two weeks into my journey I am still feeling excited and fascinated, but there’s also a whole lot of frustration. These are probably the usual initial feelings that arise any time I visit somewhere new.
Things have been a little unusual from the first day since I arrived in Manila. I didn’t know what to expect from this city, but I certainly didn’t imagine that it would be so incredibly, almost futuristically developed...
Changes on the way! I've redesigned the website as well as the blog. It's not a major overhaul, but it is something that I feel reflects me and what I do a little better and in a slightly more 'modern' way.
I’ve well and truly settled back into the “other” world in which I sometimes live. That is the world of editing and post processing images, staring at the computer for over 10 hours a day and generally not getting out much, except to walk my dog, to whom I’m thankful for giving me a reason to do at least that much.
I’ve been back in Sydney for some time now. With all the trips back and forth over the years, it is no longer strange to be jump between these worlds, which are so different from each other.
I keep thinking of Vanuatu. In particular I’ve been thinking of the big question of development there, the tourism development or whatever development for that matter. As I had mentioned in past posts I photographed some people and places in order to help promote a couple of the lesser known regions to tourists, in a sense to develop tourism there.
Before I left Vanuatu I managed to get a photo story into Air Vanuatu’s inflight magazine “Island Spirit”. Besides being on the airplanes the publication can be found at every single hotel and guesthouse around the bigger towns of the country. That will be a good little push for George and South West Bay, hopefully. But I keep thinking about where the potential development, where all that interaction with tourists and all the building of new guesthouses, new facilities will lead. Will it really be positive, as I perhaps naively hope? To be totally honest, the country for most part is perfect, or rather it would be perfect, if there weren’t these conflicting views that the modern, developed, “white-man” world is bringing.
Prior to leaving the island of Santo I met an interesting young anthropologist. He had a very cynical view of where things might head. History, he said showed that development had never been good for societies similar to that of Vanuatu. Urban drift, alcohol consumption, increased crime rates - these were all byproducts of the so called modernization. I could only imagine in horror how the wonderful places I’d been to might be affected if things don’t go quite as planned.
In some ways I agree with the anthropologist, but another part of me feels that at times the thinking and reasoning of academics is quite unrealistic. He suggested that it would be better to keep things as they are, the locals don’t need all this crap that we have, they’ve been living for hundreds of years without it. Agreed. But then I had been in Vanuatu long enough and had spoken to enough locals who lived in between these two worlds - the modern and the ancient and they were desperate to see more of our world, to do those things that the “white-men” get to do. Young, a good friend I made on the very remote Rah Island had worked in Port Vila - the capital of Vanuatu for a few years, he acquired a taste for TV and he desperately wanted to see different parts of the world. When I told him that what they have is special, that they don’t need to seek happiness elsewhere or to change things at home, he replied “Yes, but I want to see why it’s so special here. I want to see other countries and to be able to decide for myself.” Fair enough, I think.
He also said something that was very simple and ultimately really insightful. “The white people used to come here and say - you must all change, become modern, wear clothes, stop your rituals, worship Jesus. Now they come and say - go back to the ways of the past, become more traditional, we want to see more of your culture. What are we to do? We are very confused now! What is it exactly that you want from us?” What Young said reflects the way many young Ni Vanutu people from the islands must feel. He’s confused and somewhat frustrated, and; who’s to say that development will answer his questions? Who’s to say that Port Villa isn’t going to become the next Port Moresby (considered by many one of the least livable cities in the world)? If Port Vila is indeed heading that way, tourism will be a pretty small concern in comparison the multitude of serious problems that will arise.
And so I keep asking myself. On the one hand; what is the point of development in a place like Vanuatu? On the other hand; what is the point of preserving things, if all the young locals want to do is watch “Rambo” and “Lost”? Can they really be blamed? Are they lesser people than us that we should decide what’s good for them and what’s not? And then ultimately I ask myself; what is the point of doing what I started? Meaning helping the locals attract more tourists to their areas and in effect “develop” them.
I guess I find comfort in one story that was told to me by an American NGO worker who I met along my journey. He had the same dilemma as me at the beginning of what has now been a four year commitment to developing medical centers around the country. He once asked a more experienced NGO worker: “What is the point of what we’re doing? These people survived for so long without us. Are we just f--cking up their world, by pushing them forward and changing their ideology with what we are doing?” To this he got the following reply. “Development is inevitable, you aren’t going to be able to stop things or go back to the stone age, but things can move forward in different ways. Development can put everything on its head and basically destroy an entire society or it can be brought on more gently, more gradually and that will lead to a much smoother transition and a less disastrous result. You’re one of the people who’s trying to achieve the latter and that is a good thing.”
I hope that my involvement would put me in the latter category too. I should also mention that in Vanuatu development has so far only been “passed down” to the locals from the foreigners that have invested in the country (or before colonized it). The foreigners are in power, while the locals are mostly picking up the crumbs of the benefits of this “development” and they are often having to do this away from home, because development is centered only around the capital and the island of Espiritu Santo.
Tourism outside of the main islands, would actually put a lot of people in an entirely different position. They would not have to go outside to earn their money, they would become business owners (some already are), they would be empowered to make their decisions and whether that would be to go back to the ways of the past or to watch DVDs well, that’s a decision which I believe they deserve to make.
Well, that’s about it for this post. I needed to get those thoughts out of the system. I invite anyone who has read this post in full to share their opinions; whether cynical or not I am very interested to read what other people are thinking. What have some of you learned from your journeys or perhaps from living in countries which have seen rapid development recently?
You might not hear all that much from me in the coming weeks (though I’ll try). I’ve been busy archiving my collection with the aim of putting up on Photoshelter. I’ll also be slightly redesigning the website and the blog. Good changes are on their way. Stay tuned.
The rhythm of life and the rhythm at which I’ve been shooting in Vanuatu has been completely different when compared to most of the places in which I’ve photographed. It’s probably closest to (my home country) Belarus, because everyday I usually only get to shoot a few images and deal with just one or two people. What this also means, as it did in Belarus is that I get to make more meaningful relationships, even friendships with those who I photograph. Bob, the man in the shot above is one of such new friends.
As I’ve mentioned in the last post, I’ve decided to volunteer my photographic services to some local folks interested in developing tourism in their regions. The first was George and the community in Southwest Bay, Malekula. The next was Father Luke Dini (more on him in a future post) and his community of Rah Island in the remote Banks Islands group. As was the case in Southwest Bay, taking these sorts of “promotional” shots (highlighting some of the culture and the natural beauty of the region) is an excuse to get into some great photo opportunities. You get to see people in their traditional costumes (something you mostly only see in festivals, dances or special occasions) observe what they do day to day and basically you can be a kid and play around with photography.
Back to Bob. If this whole thing was indeed one big chance to play, then Bob was the perfect “play partner”. The man pretty much matched my enthusiasm to make photos with his enthusiasm to take part in them. Get on top of a dangerous, narrow rock? No problem! (see top shot) Go spear fishing? Easy! Climb up a banyan tree? How high? That was Bob’s approach.
Since our first shoot, Bob and I have been having small kava nights, along with Young (the bungalow owner’s son and another great new friend) and some other boys. It is during kava drinking that a foreigner in Vanuatu has a chance to really get to know the locals. I suppose it’s a little like going to the pub in the West, except there’s no chance of some drunkard coming up and asking “What the f-- are you looking at?” to start a fight.
During our kava nights I’ve learned that Bob is a truly fascinating character. He’s an athlete - he runs 100m in 10.97 seconds (despite smoking), he’s active in all sorts of cultural activities (because he loves his culture), he’s travelled around Vanuatu more than most of his fellow villagers, oh and he’s a shaman healer. The latter is the reason for why he travels so much. Magic (good and bad) is something that’s considered very real in Vanuatu and Bob’s job is to lift curses as well as cure people that have been affected by the bad (black) magic. He does this with the help of special plants and a little magic of his own. I can’t testify whether there’s any truth to any of the magic business, but the stuff sure makes for great stories by the evening bonfire on the beach, where we drink the kava. Anyway, to the photos.
When I was younger (and cared more) physical prowess and general machismo was a big part of my life. At school we’d compete to see who has the best body, who jumps the highest, who’s the strongest etc. A lot of the men in Vanuatu would put most of us folks from the so-called developed world to shame (even ones who think they are something special). Bob is probably the best example of one of these “hyper-masculine” men. The dude climbs trees better than a monkey, (as I mentioned) runs like a leopard, swims like a fish and he’s built like a freakin Greek statue. Sometimes hanging out with someone like that makes you feel rather inferior. Well, if I have a son one day, I’ll make sure that he can climb trees like Bob. :)
The men of Rah Island (and boys) are experts at something that you’re not likely to see in too many parts of the world. When the tide is low, the crystal clear water around the reef allows them to see the fish and to shoot them with the same kind of bow and arrow that they hunt bats and birds with. One of the festivals on Rah Island includes this kind of traditional “fishing” competition, where a whole bunch of fish are rounded up with a long net and the competitors shoot as many as they can.
The little dude in this image is Bob’s son - Jeff. He seemed like such a quiet boy when I first met him. Boy was I wrong. Well, he is quiet in the sense that he doesn’t talk too much, but the kid is a bundle of energy. At 5 years of age he climbs coconut trees just like his dad, runs around like crazy and spits small berries from bamboo tubes at passing birds and bats. Quite a character.
There are deeper parts around the reef and in those places the men dive with the good, old “lastic” (the rubber and wood underwater gun). Here I went down a couple of meters to follow Bob, as he turned over stones behind which the fish might have been hiding.
Unlucky day for one fish. Bob swims towards the surface with his catch.
When the tide is high, it’s usually time to take out the canoe. The sea was pretty rough on the day of this shoot and I could only get this particular shot from a spot where my feet could still touch the ground. As I had hoped, the Aquatech housing has opened up a whole lot of opportunities shooting around water. Without it I would have been really limited and would be kicking myself in these situations. More images around water to come soon. That’s all for now though.
Hi folks! Wow, it’s been about 3 months since my last post. I realize that posting once every 3 months is a great way to lose most of my readers, but hey, what can I say, I haven’t had much writing left in me lately.
The thing is, I had undertaken a pretty big project. In collaboration with The Digital Photography School I’ve written another eBook, this time on Travel photography. That’s a pretty darn broad topic, so naturally it took me a while to get the whole thing done (though longer than I expected). In the process I just really didn’t have the energy to write anything on my own blog, nor did I take any photos. I don’t know how the heck guys like David duChemin (at Pixelatedimage.com) manage to blog a few times a week, but then again even he has been pretty sparse of late, due to all the traveling.
I also have to update all of you who applied for the “Join me” trip on a motorcycle from Bali to the tribal villages of Flores. Sorry to say, but it ain’t happening this year, nor is the other private photo workshop. I’m kinda surprised by how much interest these generated, since I never actually advertised them anywhere, nor even blogged about them. In any case, I think I’m most likely going to stay away from the face to face, non-virtual workshops for the next couple of years. I just feel like I want to use my time on the road to educate myself for now, to keep taking my own photography to the next level. Nevertheless, I’ve put a lot of my knowledge into the Travel Photography eBook, so if you’re hungry for knowledge, if you want to know how I do things, it’s definitely worth checking out, stay tuned here and on the Digital Photography School site this week to find out more.
As I mentioned, I haven’t done any photography or at least no significant photography since I’ve been back in Sydney. So that’s about 4 months without doing any meaningful photo taking. Such is the nature of this way of business/lifestyle – you take photos for months and then you work on them for months, so that you can actually get them out into the marketplace or in front of the public.
I recently finalized a contract with Corbis Images, so now I’ll be represented by two of the world’s “favorite” stock photo agencies. This means more work sorting through the images and that’s exciting and overwhelming at the same time.
Now to some fun news, I hope to begin adding video content to this blog starting from my next journey. It’s something that I want to make a big priority in the not too distant future. It’ll be a mixture of adventure/travel videos and some behind the scenes stuff, which will hopefully be educational for all the aspiring travel photographers or for just anyone curious about what happens on such trips, how the photos are actually created.
Ok, so that’s about all for today. I’ll be blogging regularly again. To all of you who haven’t forgotten about me – thank you. To all those who have – I hope that you’ll find the new content of this blog interesting enough to come back.
For now I leave you with an image from a Ukranian magazine “Digital Photographer”. They did a pretty long story on my travels and images a couple of months back. The whole thing is kinda funny because they interviewed me in English (easier for me than Russian, though I speak it) and the way they translated what I said made me sound much more intelligent than I actually am, or perhaps more well-spoken in Russian. The title of the feature is “Messenger from the people”. If any of you are in that part of the world, perhaps you can get your hands on the magazine and check it out.
Ok, off for now, but I’m back in the blogosphere, so stay tuned.
I’m in Abu Dhabi airport on a 12-hour layover. There’s really no better time to reflect on my most recent and final adventure in Belarus, before I head back to Sydney. With a bit less than a week till my flight I decided that it’ll be a real pity not to visit the Braslav region one last time. When Yuri Ivanych, my friend in Braslav told me that I’d be able to see how the same fishermen brigade which I already photographed works in winter, I was sold on one last visit, much to the dismay of my family in Minsk, and Tanya – my wife.
The main reason was their concern for my driving ability in winter time. After my small car crash in Poland I had a bigger accident the day before New Year’s Eve. Again - very slippery road, which looked deceitfully decent, I decided to overtake a very slow moving car, but even about 60km/per hour was enough to land my vehicle into a barrier, down a small hill and into a field. A tractor pulled me out and one of those “evacuator” vehicles got the car all the way back to Minsk, as it was not driveable. The story had a happy ending, since no one was hurt and everything was solvable, but understandably my family was concerned.
In any case, I hired a car again and went to Braslav. Luckily everything went very smoothly as far as driving this time, I think I learned my lessons.
Now to the fishermen. The shoot was a dream and a nightmare at the same time. I always wanted to shoot in the winter, in the snow. But that day it was minus 20 Celsius! I will say first of all that the gear held up incredibly well. I shot with the Canon 5D MKII, 20mm f1.8 Sigma and 24-70 f2.8 Canon lenses, I didn’t expect any problems with those, what surprised me was the battery. I filled a 16GB card with stills and even a few videos, the battery still had 28% of life left, I decided to change it simply to avoid missing an important shot when it would finally go flat.
I don’t know how I would rank my own performance. I was in the cold for about 5 hours straight and another two with breaks in a pretty warm car. It’s tough working in such weather. You can’t shoot without gloves, you lose sense of your fingers very quickly, the wind feels like it burns your face and when the sun goes down, staying for a couple of minutes without movement makes your teeth rattle from the cold.
I was not greatly equipped, as far as cold-proof gear for this one, but my friend was impressed with the way I tolerated the conditions. I have to say - it was a great experience, but I won’t be too sad if I don’t have another one like it for a while.
When the fishermen finally pulled out the net, which they managed to spread out under the ice, they didn’t end up with much. Parts of the ice cut the net in a few places and a lot of the fish was lost. Tough day for these guys, they were at the lake for much longer than me and managed to handle it like just another work-day.
At the end me, Yuri Ivanych and the National park driver drove across the frozen lake. In a very timely manner I was told that 10 years ago a jeep went under at about this time of the year, taking four passengers with it. I was advised to hold on to the door handle, to open it and jump, in case the ice cracks. I thought it was a joke, but after seeing Yuri Ivanych holding on to the door handle at the back I realised it wasn’t. The driver joked – if you two are holding on to the handles, what the hell am I meant to do? – Hold on to the wheel! Joked Yuri Ivanych.
The working conditions are very manual labour intensive, but things weren’t actually this way before. I was told by the fishermen who have been in the “business” for a while that there was more machinery involved during the Soviet times. Tractors did the job of horses and humans. Now it is unclear where the resources are going, one thing for sure the job hasn’t become any easier.
This man has been with the fishermen brigade for a very long time. When I asked him “How’s life?” after arriving, he replied - “Life? What kind of life is this? I’m so sick of this shit, I’ve been doing it for 36 years! It’s f—cking cold out here!” I asked him why he did the job. His reply- “What else is there to do?”
Not all fishermen lack enthusiasm though. The much younger Leonid, despite his frozen moustache tells me that the work isn’t so bad. He’s used to working because he has a big family and “many mouths to feed”. I asked him about the cold. “You don’t feel it while you work, while you move around, it’s not too bad here, if only someone could wipe the snot off my nose, then it would be perfect.” He jokes.
The only light comes from the car’s head-lights, however, usually there’s even less light than you see. The car’s lights were only switched-on after my begging, pleading and explaining that I won’t be able to photograph anything without them, at least that helped the fishermen a bit too. I've said it before, it's a tough life. Their salary is about 180,000 Belarussian Rubles per month, that’s a bit over US$60.
That's all for now. My next post will be from home, for the first time in about 5 months.
My Eastern Europe trip’s over. For the first time in a long while I am actually happy that a trip has ended. Perhaps it’s because I am still not completely home, but in Belarus, and in some way the journey is still continuing.
My incredible bad luck continued on the Poland to Belarus road. I had my first ever car crash of a sort when I went over a pile of snow, slightly lost control of the car and then totally lost control when I pushed the brakes (not the best idea to push the brakes). Luckily there was one of those barriers along the highway that separates lanes from each other, that’s what the car hit, first with the front bumper then after sliding and doing a 180° turn, with the back.
We weren’t going too fast and there was almost no traffic, so we ended up unscathed and didn’t collide with anyone else. The car looked…interesting, I regret not taking photos of it now, but Tanya and I were too busy gaffer-taping the front bumper on, in – 13 C weather.
We somehow made it over the border the next day. After seeing the gaffer-taped bumper, the Belarusian border patrol jokingly asked “Is that a bumper from a BMW or yours?”. The customs people felt so sorry for us they didn’t even bother going through the trunk (which doesn’t open anymore anyway).
The important thing is that we made it back in one piece. I guess there is the argument that we were really unlucky, because of all the things that happened along the way, but on the other hand no one even thought it was possible to go to Romania and back in our little 25-year-old Volkswagen Golf. Go figure.
After spending a few days in Minsk, one of my least favorite cities in the world, we decided to go visit some friends in another city. That’s when the car died again on us. I didn’t bother fixing it this time, simply got a hire-car and drove off to Braslav, the region I passionately spoke about numerous times on my blog.
Driving in winter, especially when there are sudden weather changes is a nightmare. From the icy roads to giant puddles, it’s tough and dangerous. I’d be happy to lie low for a few days and that’s exactly what I’m doing in a friend’s countryside house (that’s a picture of it at the top of the post and those are his “pets” below). Just me Tanya, nature and my computer. :) In reality I have a lot of work to catch up on and I hope that’s what I can do, while getting some peace and quiet that was missing during the constant movement around Eastern Europe.
New year is approaching and I already have plenty of exciting plans. Coming back to Braslav in the summer is one idea. It is an amazing region and perhaps my journey around the rest of Eastern Europe made me realize just how special it is. In many ways it’s still virgin, unspoilt, a little wild even. To wander around the villages here is absolutely fascinating and often heartwarming and the natural beauty is unlike anywhere else.
I’m thinking that it may be worth doing a workshop in Braslav or perhaps even trying something new with the good friend I’ve made here (the one whose house I’m staying in) – a guided photo tour of a sort. It’ll be for those who are more comfortable with their photographic abilities and simply want to have an amazing photographic experience, rather than learn a standard workshop. If anyone thinks it’s a good idea, drop me a line or leave a comment on the blog.
Two personal trips which are close to happening:
Another trip to Indonesia and yet another trip to India. I want to buy underwater housing for my Canon 5D MKII and shoot stuff on fishermen in Indonesia. The last time there were just too many times when I was kicking myself for not having some sort of casing.
The India thing is well, India calls and when it calls you go. It seems to be calling me at least once a year, but hey, I still have only just scratched the surface of what can be done there. I’ve got a few particularly exciting things planned, but I won’t reveal too much just yet.
I like to make plans for the future, actually, it’s more like dreaming up things and then working to make them happen. It’s an amazing feeling when you realize that you are living a dream, but it all starts with nothing more than a thought, an idea. I think it’s important to have those plans/dreams, not only for photographers, but for anyone. Make those dreams achievable and then really work to realize them. It’s sort of what I’ve been doing, without having any particular idea of how to make things happen, I simply make them up, dream and somehow everything falls into place, the important thing is to set those goals for yourself. I guess the clichéd yet encouraging and true thing to say is that – if I made it happen, so can you. :)
So I guess before I end this blog post I’d like to ask; what are your photographic plans/dreams for the next year?
Happy new year folks! :)