The Experience of Experience

In 1995 I was living in Texas attempting to get my journalism career off the ground. I’d left the newspaper world and had returned to Texas to look for more work. I had A LOT of downtime. Newspapers were beginning to lay people off and I was not the demographic being hired. I also had no computer and was still typing my inquiry letters. I was doing a truly horrific assortment of freelance work, but was plodding along in my below poverty lifestyle. One of my brother’s friends had a house party, and seeing as partying was one of my special skills, I tagged along. While pounding more beer than thought humanly possible I met two more of my brother’s friends who had just retuned from a LONG stint in Guatemala. They had been traveling, mountain biking and taking Spanish lessons, all of which sounded dreamy to yours truly, and a lot more exotic than another long summer in the Texas heat. They gave me the name of a school in Antigua and the phone number of a contact they had in the city. That’s it. That was the grand total of my knowledge.

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Yes, that is me. Unknown village, Guatemala 1995. They wanted to wear my Leica and meter for some reason. I have NO IDEA what is under my shirt.

A few weeks later I bought an extremely cheap ticket and found myself on the San Antonio, Houston, Guatemala City route, a backpack full of gear and an oversized duffle bag of clothes. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, and this was what made the trip so interesting. This was adventure. Where are you staying? Don’t know. How long are you going for? Don’t know. What are you going to do? Don’t know. Do you know anyone there? No. Have you been there before? No. Oh. Oh my.

I landed in Guatemala City really not even knowing where Antigua was, or how to get there, and my Spanish was…minimal. I found the bus station and found the bus to Antigua by looking at signs and asking strangers. It came time to board and the guy driving the bus took one look at my duffle bag and pointed at the sky which meant, “This baby is going on the roof.” Up went my bag, and I boarded clutching only my backpack of Canon and Leica gear. The bus wound out of the city and I got my first glimpse of this incredible place. It was amazing to me that only three hours south of Houston I could find somewhere so exotic.

The bus arrived at the outskirts of Antigua and I still had no idea where I was going. I began asking people on the bus, “Hey, you ever hear of this place…..?” Nobody knew anything. About twenty minutes later I thought, “I think I need to get off the bus.” So I did. Only problem was the driver drove off with my bag on the roof. So there I was, backpack in hand, contact name and no luggage. I thought, “Well, I can probably wear what I’m wearing for at least a week before I begin to look like a homeless drifter.” I started walking. Slowly but surely I began to find people who thought they knew my contact, and I was finally pointed down a street where I came to a language school and made one final inquiry. There was my guy, standing there with a smile on his face. As we were exchanging hellos up drove the bus, empty except for my bag. The driver asked about the “wandering gringo” and he figured out where I was headed.

I spent the next month and half making my way around Guatemala, exploring new areas and even attempting to compile a few long stories. I had one paper map and an out-of-date guidebook that I would pull from time to time, but mostly I just went with the flow. Sometimes an eight-hour bus ride would become eighteen-hours, and lodging was a real-time roll of the dice. Nothing was ever certain until I could touch it, feel it, punch it, run from it or embrace it. It felt like real travel. I was at the mercy of fate, circumstance, luck and perseverance.

When I look back on this trip I don’t think much about the images I made. What I think about, and laugh about, was the voyage. At one point I got off a bus in a very remote, highland section of Guatemala and the locals turned on the only other foreigners on my bus and promptly began throwing stones at them until they ran back down the road we had just driven up. For some reason I was spared and found a dollar a night hotel made from plywood. As I asked around for a place to stay people began saying “You better hurry, there is only one hotel.” The only other foreign folks in town were UN workers. As I went to sleep a firefight started on the edge of town and I opened the window to watch tracer fire arc back and forth.

When I got up in the morning the only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to get dressed and leave my room. What came next was always somewhat up in the air. Traveling this way was about engaging with every aspect of the physical world around me. Where I went, what I ate, where I made pictures, etc, was all up for discussion and based on mood, feel and conversation.

The future of travel has been described as being able to open your phone on a foreign street corner and the phone will recognize where you are and then suddenly it begins to ping in with local stops based on your interests the phone has already compiled based on all your personal information. “You like hamburgers, well walk two blocks north and you will find a hamburger restaurant.” There will be a real-time connection with other travelers who would be pinging in with all their experience and where they were and what they were doing. The technology will provide you either the experience other people thought you would like or an experience that is…in a lot of ways…just like home. I know we already have some of this, but the future has been described as being like this but yet far beyond. I am so puzzled by this.

First of all, who wants to walk about the world with a phone or iPad in front of their face? I’m sure plenty do, but I still have a hard time understanding this. I recently spoke with a city manager who worked in a city I knew well. I explained I was disappointed in a section of the city that had been homogenized beyond recognition, and I felt like an idiot for taking a friend from out of town to the area to experience the “real” city only to find a gentrified tourist trap. The city worker said “People in Kansas want to come here and eat the same exact food they eat at home.” Is this really true?

As I sit here thinking about this technology I am hard pressed to find a way to take more of the EXPERIENCE out of travel. Just as I was about to find another viewpoint an Apple ad shows up on the web browser and it shows people…..interfacing the world….through their iPad. Okay, I lose. Game over.

Seriously? Do you want to travel that way? Experience the world that way? Look, when you land in London for a business meeting and have no idea where you are or where you are going and you have 47 minutes to get from Heathrow to your meeting it’s damn nice having a phone with GPS. But there is a HUGE different between business travel and real travel. I’m talking about real travel here.

Doesn’t travel with a device in hand actually limit the experience you are having? How can you be looking at an iPad and the mountain at the same time? And also, what are you doing with the mountain on your iPad? Who needs to see that mountain at the same time you are seeing it? Are you reporting on the mountain or are you sending a continual stream about YOU? I’m just asking. I honestly have no idea.

Now, before we go any further, I will be honest and admit that I am a guy who daydreams about inventing a way to actually disappear. Yes, I do. How great would that be. So when I go somewhere and put my phone down for a few days, I have a built in gene that allows my brain to completely forget about said device, so much so I find myself hinging on the idea of never turning it back on. I know I’m in the minority here. I could leave it all. The images, the phone, the music, the email, the text, if I never did any of it ever again you would actually be able to HEAR me grinning.

I know people who have apps out the wazoo on their phone. Apps for apps. Apps for breathing, thinking, chewing. Apps that count how many steps they have taken in a given day. Competitive apps about walking, cycling, traveling, etc. What is this about? Again, not sure.

The secret is the power of just being. That’s it. In a nutshell, being present in the moment in the specific location is an experience so far beyond the electronic interface it isn’t even close. Look, there are plenty of people who spend less than ten minutes at the Grand Canyon and never actually leave their car. No, I’m not joking,, and these people are doing their own thing and rightly so. And hey, at least they went to the Grand Canyon.

When I think about travel, guidebooks, technology, etc, I think of books like Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia,” or “In a Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson. One person’s LONG TERM take on a place. Why? Because these books allow YOU to create your own mental photography. These books allow you to guess, to imagine and to formulate. You can read them, fly to these places and still have your own adventure without a screen of “user generated content” taking every once of chance from the equation. Plus, the authors spent ENOUGH TIME to actually being to understand a place.

I think there is something to be said about using technology to do your research, and I know not everyone is comfortable with not knowing their day to day routine. But I think there is something to gain from allowing yourself to let go of the electronic, even paper, umbilical. I’ve found that most of the people walking this Earth are pretty damn fine people, and they will bend over backwards to take care of a stranger. Ya, I got robbed at gunpoint once by some kid with an AK(Cambodia 1996), but he only asked for a dollar and I had no problem making his dreams come true. Getting robbed was a rare experience in my book, and my book has a few pages.

I just keep wondering where all this tech is leading us? Are we smarter? Better? More caring? Are we actually communication better or just more frequently?

All this technology is great, yep, for sure. But guess what? Kilimanjaro still lost its glacier. I don’t need an iPad to look up and see the bare stone. I don’t need to know that you saw it and told everyone you saw it, or even that you had a coffee on the way up. I think sometimes we miss the message because we are in love with the messenger.

Look, I’m writing this on a laptop and I just plugged in an iPhone and a Kindle. Guilty. I’m just asking questions here because I see our new path being painted as an improvement, a more profound experience, but I’m not sure it really is. This stuff is here, and here to stay, but what I’m wondering about is, as always, BALANCE.

Books I Love: Beyond the Fall

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The latest installment “Books I Love.” The concept is very simple. Find a book in my collection, photograph it, then share it with you. The idea being to share what I love about the book or why I have it. The books will range from traditionally published, POD and handmade. The only stipulation is that I love the book. Most of them have a backstory, which I will also share. Books and photography are forever linked, so why not explore the relationship through my bookshelf. Hope you enjoy.

In short, I don’t think you can find a better book of reportage. “Beyond the Fall” by American photojournalist Anthony Suau is a ten-year look at the former Soviet Bloc in transition. TEN YEARS for those of you who came of age in the “modern” photography world of weekend essays, isn’t an exaggeration or typo. He spent TEN YEARS working on this book, and one look at the images living on those pages and you will very clearly see what that kind of time does when it comes to the quality of reporting. Suau covers it all, politics, family, war, high-society and everyday life. When I think of documentary photography books, it’s publications like this that set the bar. You have to remember something very, very important. This is a book of moments. The vast majority of these images are one frame moments. Just think about that. Just think about how much time and focus that requires. Now think about doing that over a ten-year period. So many of the documentary books I see today are the “abstract urban landscape book” void of people(So no need for interaction or model release) or the “portrait series” documentary book which can be done VERY quickly(There are a few stellar books in this category however). Forget it, this book was like an ultra-marathon.

Now, books like this rarely get the credit they deserve because for whatever reason work like this is considered too reality based and the art world doesn’t seem to know what to do with it(Something that has been written about by a fair number of art-world folks), but for me this work is SO DIFFICULT, so RARE and so TIME CONSUMING it deserves it’s own wing in the museum world. Forget the gallery world, this work it more important than MOST of those spaces(There are worthy galleries.)

I KNOW there are so many of you out there living under the ultra-romantic notion of photographer. The loner walking the back streets of a crumbling empire, Leica in hand, pouring their life into their contact sheets. Well, in this case, that is in some ways what you had, but I will remind you of the DATE these images were taken, and the reality that this lifestyle is EXTREMELY rare today because the industry that supported photographers at this time is basically gone. Even during the time this book was made it was a supreme struggle to do this work. Today, nearly impossible. The time isn’t being spent, the work is made digitally now and it just doesn’t have the same cache or impact, nor do folks want to slow down and actually appreciate the work. The reason I’m telling you this is to slow YOU down when you consider a book like this. This is a treasure. A gem. Give yourself, and the photographer, some respect and sit down alone, sans mobile phone umbilical cord, TV, laptop, iPad, etc., and just look at the work, start to finish, front to back. Trust me, it’s worth it.

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I simply can’t tell you the range of what this book offers. I’m not even going start with design or materials, which are both very good, because I still can’t get over the quality of the photographs. The alarming thing is that each photograph represents what has to be an archive of other work. You see an image of a destroyed downtown Grozny during the height of the Chechen War and you think “What ELSE does he have?” You realize to get that one image there had to be MONTHS of preparation and sacrifice. This work is “classic” in all the right ways, and could or should be used in photojournalism schools to illustrate the kind of work being done by one motivated individual with time and resources. Perhaps not as much as he would have liked, actually don’t know, but I’m guessing. This book gets better with age.

Don’t walk, RUN, and go by this thing.

Capture Episode 7

This is worth checking out. There are SO MANY subtle cues in this film I lost count after about twenty-five. I don’t know much about Helena, other than knowing her as a model, but she’s got some super solid work and probably knows as much about BEING photographed as any human on the planet. The other two are rightly considered legends. Oh ya, notice the prints….. Also notice the length…yes, this is an adult conversation.

The Social Photographer

This post was compiled via personal experience, observation and conversations with a range of other creatives. I posted yesterday and today simply to offer a differing opinion on the dominant current of the moment, a current centered around over-sharing, immediacy and the social media life.

The “Social Photographer” continued from the previous post….

The photographer I mentioned before began to haunt my thoughts. The BEST work he ever did, by far, was back when he could not see his images in the field. He would just work, work, work and then ship film, or travel back with it. There was the time waiting for the processing, the printing or proofing. His thoughts would be on the film, what he had or didn’t have. There was chance and the unknown and all of these things forced him to think about this work. Then there was the edit, the ALL POWERFUL EDIT. Sometimes he would undertake this on his own and other times he would work with editors. There was limited space in the publications he worked for so the images that made it were given thought, even though sometimes the best pictures weren’t used.

Then came digital and it’s immediate opportunities. But there was still time. He would shoot and shoot, coming back to his hotel at night to download, EDIT, and transmit a chosen FEW images. As the technology began to invade his world the timelines began to shorten. Sometimes he would shoot for minutes, transmitting from the field to save precious seconds. Suddenly, in some ways, TIME became the key element of his life. Perhaps lack of time.

And then came the mobile phone, with true immediacy, and absolutely no filter and no barrier between he and his audience, the world. The traditional outlets, like the magazines he worked for, are bottlenecks of information, operating in many ways like the calendar reads 1975. With the mobile phone and the Internet the barrier was gone. He began to shoot and share. Immediately. This new found ability was like a drug and the intoxication followed shortly thereafter with the soothing warmth of the “like.” “Wow, a lot of people like my work.” But financially things got worse. How could this be? The pipeline for “content” a word that slipped into the vernacular of the industry, was wide and growing wider. He needed to post more. Posting became a daily event, sometimes dozens and dozens of shares were needed to keep the “flow” of information going. If something wasn’t getting enough likes it was taken down and replaced with something easier, something more fashionable. Suddenly the statistics were what was driving the “content.”

He began to realize he needed to post ONLY a certain type of image, and certain times of the day or night were more beneficial than others. He loved his dog, really loved him, but knew if he posted anything of his precious companion he would lose a certain subset of his audience, watching as his Twitter following decreased forcing him to post “rebuilding” posts, or images, that would drive the count back up. There was the competition for followers with his colleagues. After all, people were watching those numbers, corporations, potential clients who would ask “What kind of social following does he have?” “Is he SCALEABLE as a photographer?” “IF we hire him, will he bring his own following?” But there is a hiccup here, a generation gap. Many of the clients asking about this stuff sounded as if they just discovered social media the week before. They are in their 50′s, or God forbid…their 60′s (although their account execs are in their 20′s and want to keep their jobs.) don’t have time for the “nonsense” themselves, but know their readership or potential customers seem to love the stuff, so the photographer they hire should have a following. “Let the photographer mess with that stuff, we just want to SELL.”

Then the photographer finds himself alone and wondering. Thinking back to the days in school when he was pure of heart. He didn’t have the skill yet, or the knowledge required to navigate the world as someone put on the Earth to tell stories, but he knew in his heart it was what he was chosen to do. Life at that time was a fog of ONLY photography. The rest of life went by like it was someone else’s story, an inconvenience because anything that stood in the way of the images wasn’t to be factored in, couldn’t be factored in. He didn’t expect anyone else to understand. This was HIS world.

And now it’s all changed. The electronic umbilical cord can’t and won’t be denied. He wakes up each morning and instead of looking for his loved one, or his dog, he reaches for his phone because the charade doesn’t sleep. Like King in Platoon said, “The Beast is out there tonight, and he’s hungry.” Take even a SINGLE day off and he risks being forgotten, trampled in the running of the digital bulls.

Well folks, I say ENOUGH . As you know, I left photography over three years ago(Now I’m back.), and from where I view things now, think 10,000 feet birdseye, I look back on the industry and can see things those mired in the trenches cannot. I not only SEE these things, I hear them on a weekly sometimes daily basis. I listen. A lot. And I watch. But most of all I wonder how people allow themselves to be sucked into all this? Yesterday it happened again. Someone contacts me and says they are going to dip their toe in the digital stream. No matter what I say they will take that fateful step. I warn of diminishing impact, of being lost in the Internet jungle, but it always bounces off. “I’m only going to do such and such for “x” amount of time.” And then, like a whisper, they are gone. Instead of reading or talking or browsing the world they find themselves sitting at a dinner party reaching for their phone to check their Facebook page.(This happened last night.) They mumble through their conversation. They seem distracted, agitated because they can’t focus on ANYTHING. Their thumb moves up and down, trained to flick at content like a nervous tick. Their vocabulary suddenly takes on things like “wow,” “amazing” and “unreal,” words now firmly planted in their brains from their social feedback, words used to deflect conversation because they weren’t really paying attention in the first place.

Someone called me the other day and asked about a certain photographer. My response was “You will never get his undivided attention.” This didn’t mean the client wasn’t going to call this photographer, it just meant their communication had to be tailored to FIT. If you think this is crazy, think again. I have to do this ALL THE TIME as I navigate the world as a Blurb faithful. It’s just part of the job now. And people, just know, I’ve dealt with almost all of these issues myself at some point in the last ten years. I was lucky. I saw these things happening to friends and colleagues and said “I gotta make changes…now.” And I did, further evidenced by my severing of all(almost) things social media.

Many of the photographers I know, if given time and peace of mind, will come up with the goods. In a perfect world I could change things, figure out a way to get this done, but the reality is, most of the time, when I even bring these things up, the response is attack. “Who is this guy?” “He’s a nobody.” “He’s a hater or a luddite.” Maybe.

I’m also a listener and a watcher. I’m a refined observer. And there is absolutely no way you are going to tell me this isn’t happening. But I’ll leave you with a question or two.

Where is this headed? What is the endgame? Can you take in more content than you are right now, right this second? Do you see a world where your mobile phone becomes MORE of a part of your life, and does this world seem like a place you want to live in? Do you see your life’s work getting more attention or less? Are real changes being made or are things just being tossed around more?

The reason I ask these things is when I ask real questions about today’s issues, it’s rare I get any real response other than bewilderment. Poverty in New Mexico, air pollution in San Francisco, NSA spying or financial world shenanigans and so often there is just NOTHING coming back at me. Everyone knows when the new iPhone is scheduled for release, but nobody can pinpoint what is actually happening with troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Now look, I waste my fair share of time. I can recite every line of “Step Brothers,” and probably will many more times before I die, but I’m starting to look around and wonder. Are we talkers and sharers or are we doers? I just bought a teen love novel by accident, on my Kindle, and I KNEW something was wrong ten pages in but I READ THE ENTIRE DAMN THING. Now I feel dirty and used. I make mistakes all the time, so not wanting to paint myself as a saint, or more worldly than I am.

Where does this leave us? Don’t know. I think there is a difference in bringing up poignant questions and being a contrarian. I’ve been accused of being a contrarian, but what I’ve found is that most of the people accusing me see the same holes in the narrative that I do, but they are trapped and pretending it’s only a flesh wound.

I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna close my eyes and I’m gonna think of this photographer one more time. I’m going to dream “best case scenario” and I’m gonna work backwards and see if I can’t find a path worth taking.

Dosage

I WROTE THIS POST, AND THE FOLLOWING POST, BACK IN JANUARY. ONCE AGAIN, I FORGOT ABOUT BOTH OF THEM.

I was just on Twitter and I looked down in the “Hey silly, these are the people you should follow” area. I rarely ever go to this little spot because I’m trying to EXPAND my digital horizon, not build a staggering mound of similar people, and it dawned on me how much THIS exact scenario is a part of the social world.

In other words, preaching to the choir.

On Twitter’s list, made special for me, was a photojournalist. I clicked on his name, and found post after post of mobile phone images. Under each image was the list of those who “liked” what the photographer posted, and there were many. There were SO MANY posts I just immediately killed the Twitter tab and tried to forget about it, because here is the reality. That photojournalist, he is capable of good work. He really is. He isn’t new, or crazy young, he’s got a track record. Now, that track record was FAR better before the advent of the mobile phone(in my opinion), and I really don’t want to engage with him in his new incarnation of “please follow and like me.” The work being liked, relentlessly, isn’t great work, but it comes with the “preaching to the choir” aspect of this charade. He could post photographs of his feet and a hundred people would tell him “great photo,” “amazing,” “incredible,” “awesome,” all the telltale vocabulary associated with social.

Ever wonder what would happen if someone said “Sorry man, this one just isn’t good enough.” Blasphemy!! Ban them! Burn them! How dare you invade the flowery world of the social following with ANYTHING deemed remotely negative. How often does someone in the choir yell “This song sucks…… we either sing FREEBIRD or I’m WALKING!” How often? NEVER.

I’m WAITING for these photographers to realize this little game has blowback. When someone shares their work at an unsustainable rate it actually diminishes the value and the power of what they are doing. Consider the micro-seconds of time many of these folks offering up the “likes” are spending with the imagery. Here today, gone tomorrow. In short, we are OVERSHARING at a deadly rate. Well, some of us are.

I’ve always felt that there have only ever been a few truly elite photographers in the world. This was true fifty years ago and it’s true now. The truly elite in my mind are NOT sharing every moment of every day and begging for attention. The elite are making work; real, honest, deep work and they are waiting like a visual virus. They are waiting for that work to be complete. They are editing, they are sequencing and they are packaging. They are waiting for the moment when humanity, NOT just the choir, is ready is receive and then they make their move. When they move, people stop what they are doing and they PAY ATTENTION. Real, undivided attention.

Certain photographers transcend photography. I have a game I play with my mother(75-years_old), who has always been supportive of photography but doesn’t have any interest in actually following photography, outside of the images I make of her grandchildren. I ask her if she has ever heard of certain photographers. Anyone who knows this site knows about my Salgado man crush, and Salgado is someone who transcends the choir. He, and his work, have become part of the vernacular of our culture. If he was buzzing around my ear EVERYDAY with post and after post after post I would toss him aside like I do the rest simply because there is NO WAY I have the time to actually consume that level of interaction. What I like about Salgado is that he pops up on my radar about once every ten years, and when he does I know I need to pay attention. His methods, his projects and his legacy are unrivaled in documentary photography, and just so you know, I don’t like everything he does. I think certain projects are better than others, but I pay attention, real attention, to all of them.

The sad thing is I believe there could be more Salgado’s out there, but too many people who have the talent have become sidetracked by staring at screens all day long and feeding their empty calorie lifestyle of the social following. At some point it’s going to dawn on these folks that change is in the air. Artists today have more control and more options than ever before, but it takes nerve, focus and a fearlessness to blaze a new trail. Artists have a permission slip, something I’ve harped on endlessly. A permission slip to be eccentric, to take chances and to be entirely original, but in doing so run the risk of NOT being “Mr/Mrs Popular.” Heck, sometimes I post things on Twitter to see how many people I can LOSE in one, 140-character blast. I do, and it’s a game I highly recommend because the MOMENT you begin to shape an artificial version of yourself in an attempt to gain more anything THE GAME IS OFFICIALLY OVER.

I hold out hope. When I see the name of the photographer I mentioned above, the one I noticed on Twitter, I see images of his in my mind. I see the OLD images, the ones that made him who he is before this charade began. This is true of many of these folks. I see their images because they were GREAT images. Signature, historical images but there were ONE or TWO from an entire story. THIS, for me is what photography is truly about. Great moments don’t happen everyday no matter how many filters you apply.

I SAT ON THIS POST FOR A FEW DAYS, CHEWING ON IT. THERE WAS MORE. SEE FOLLOWING POST