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.

The Leica File 4

Okay folks, yet another installment of the beloved Leica File series. I like to think I’m the beloved part of this, but I KNOW that isn’t accurate. This time I take you a long ride down a road in my distant path…Guatemala. This trip taught me a lot about being a photographer, about being in a rapidly changing scenario. That trip taught me about working with other people and what to do if “Plan A” doesn’t work. Have a look. Have a listen.

Leica + Guatemala: An Introduction

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The shot that made me feel I had found my path, Nebaj, Guatemala.

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Cemetery, Antigua.

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Streets of Antigua.

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Local family in the mountains above San Antonio Aguas Calientes.

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View from the rear of a surplus WWII Jeep Willy, Santa Cruz del Quiche.

Dateline 1995:

I’ve graduated from university with a degree in photojournalism.
I’ve interned at a major newspaper, on and off for over a year.
I’ve returned to Texas and am somewhat floundering, and not floundering in a good way like John Belushi in Animal House.
I’ve sent out dozens of portfolios to newspapers all over the United States, large, small, strategic and the truly awful.
Nothing. Not a single response.
I’ve visited the local papers, in at least three major cities, and was met with “not a chance.
It wasn’t just that my portfolio wasn’t superb, it was a combination of things. Changes beginning to happy in journalism, etc.
I hadn’t thought about going to New York at this time, didn’t think I had the work.

So I went to Guatemala.

I studied Spanish in school, loved it, and ran into some friends of my brothers who had just returned from an extended period in this Central American land. They were raving, talking about selling everything stateside and were moving back to Guatemala.

They suggested I go so I went. I had a name, an address and nothing else. Got off the plane in Guatemala City and looked for the bus to Antigua, where I was enrolled in a language school for one month. My plan was to study three days a week, then travel for four days each week, shooting random things, but also working on a list of projects I had researched, some as grand as repatriation of refugees from Mexico.

Got on the bus in G. City, got off in Antigua, bus drove off with my bag still on top. Not a great start. Got my bag back, found my address, met a mutual friend, settled in and began to work a foreign picture story for really the first time. My first time alone, no script, just trying to produce.

Several years back, during my time at the paper, I had switched from Nikon to Canon, back when the EOS had taken over the world. Nearly everyone I knew had switched, but I didn’t have the cash, so I grunted it out with my old gear for as long as possible. I finally saved enough for a EOS A2 and 20-35mm zoom, then eventually got an EOS-1 and 70-200mm. The 2.8 zoom had really landed at that time, and the newspaper world was filled with two lens shooters, and basically I was one of them.

These cameras were fantastic, still are actually, and were so practical for what you found yourself doing as as newspaper person. Press conference, feature picture, portrait, brush fire, high school football might be a typical day, so you needed something broad based and encompassing.

I lugged these large cameras to Guatemala, in my $25 dollar backpack and poncho, but right before I left I used what savings I had remaining and bought a Leica M4-P and 28mm lens. I had seen these cameras for a few years and were intrigued by their size, small, and weight, light. Nobody at the paper was using them, so I didn’t have a real chance to test it out, or ask around. I bought this thing in San Antonio, tossed it in my cheap backpack and flew south.

After making a trip or two, between clase de espanol, into the Guatemalan countryside, I realized something almost immediately. Big cameras meant big disturbance. I met an American with a pickup truck who was living in Antigua, someone with an interest in photography who said, “You teach me about photography and I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.” A deal was made. I also traveled a lot by bus, hours, sometimes days at a time, over crazy mountain roads.

Many of the places I ventured were void of gringos, void of foreigners, and I was a major attraction, in both a good way and a bad way. These were towns that had been hotspots during the war and people were suspicious, even more so of people snooping with cameras. When I would pull the big cameras out some people, grown men, would run away. I began to use the Leica more and more and the larger Canon gear less and less. For overall gear, the Canon was superior, but for this one select use, the Leica was the perfect fit.
I wasn’t shooting as much film, but what I was shooting was more diverse, and I was catching moments more and more. A single roll of film would yield twenty different images, scenes, and with the SLR I tended to have fewer takes per roll, using the motor more and making more pictures of the same scene.

The real moment for me was the moment I shot the first image on this post. I was in Nebaj, up in the mountains, traveling with a botanist, and were, besides a few UN people, the only foreigners in the entire area. There were two Dutch women on the bus with us into town, but for some reason had been stoned and chased from Nebaj by local townspeople. We never figured out why. There had been some sort of shootout the night before. We sat in $1 a night, plywood hotel room trying to figure out if the shooting was getting closer or further away.

The following day we went out and began to explore the town. It was very quiet, somewhat off in a way. It didn’t feel quite right.

Along came a procession, a funeral it turned out, and I turned to my travel partner and said, “There is no way I’m gonna be able to shoot this.”

I left my big cameras in my bag and just began shooting with the Leica. A snap here, a snap there, as I walked with the procession. No one said a word. They knew I was shooting. I was right in amongst them, but it just felt okay.

We angled up the mountain, went through the burial procession and then the mourners began to drift away. The head guy walked over to me and began speaking in his native dialect, Quechua or Kekchi, or something along those lines.

Guess what? I don’t speak either, so I answered in Spanish, and we went back and forth. Finally he just motioned for me to follow him.

We walked and walked, up into the mountains, and suddenly I was at the house of someone else who had died. An 80-year-old man had died the night before, was still in his house, and his neighbors were mourning/celebrating.

The head guy pointed at the doorway to the house and motioned his arm. I thought “Well, here goes nothing.”

Entering that house was like going back in time. I felt like I was in a museum that had come alive. I went in, very dark, took one step to my right and backed myself up to the earthen wall. I froze.

All around me people were moving, chanting, talking, smoking, drinking, eating, comforting each other. It was if I did not exist. Nobody looked at me. Nobody spoke to me.

I raised the M4-P and starting shooting. I never moved. I just watched and waited. I was looking for ONE picture. THE picture. I had the light where I wanted it. I had the right lens. And the camera was so quiet it did not disturb anyone or anything.

The M4-P had no meter, and I didn’t have a hand held. But I had shot the same film, every day for one year, so I KNEW my exposure just by looking.

I did not at all feel like I was a part of what was happening, just too much distance between cultures, and too little time, but I also didn’t feel like I was disturbing anyone.

I felt like I was doing what I was put on the Earth to do. Regardless of what happened with the image, what happened with my career, with anything else, it didn’t matter. It was the experience of making the picture that I knew was my destiny. It’s not to say this is the world’s greatest image, or the best picture of Guatemala ever taken, but for me it was.

Not wanting to over expose myself…get it, overexpose? Okay, I’ll shut up soon. I left, walked outside.

My escort came out and handed me a piece of a partially cooked animal of some sort, with the idea being he wanted me to eat this thing. For the life of me I didn’t know what it was, and I could see it wasn’t really cooked, burned slightly on one side, but not anything I could eat and live to write this.

I had visions of what my 24-hour bus ride back would entail if I even sniffed this carcass. I was slowly learning about being a photographer and getting out of eating things like this was another step in my learning process. It ended well. I told him I was already sick, all through an amazing pantomime skill I had somehow acquired and he was cool with it.

Now, the guy in the red jacket in the middle of frame. He came out of the house, wasted, bombed, gassed, hammered, blottoed, slayed, tanked or whatever else you want to call it, and proceeded to wind up and throw his best right cross at me. He missed by a mile, luckily, and all those gathered around cheered him on as he reloaded, trying to send the evil interloper to Hell with his crushing blows. I danced and weaved, backpedaling the entire time, waving, throwing out dozens of “soy amable,” and “gracias, adios,” and his stamina sucked, so he soon pulled up, doubled over and panting at the side of the trail.

All I could think about was my moment inside the house, that image I knew I had captured.

For the rest of my trip it burned like a fire in my imagination.

Returning from Guatemala I found a lab in Austin to process my film. I remember driving into Austin with my parents, just blown away by my experience down south. It was hard to come back to a world of conformity and job hunting. I couldn’t think of anything but the film.

And I as I pulled out the plastic containers I raced to find the roll that held what I need would be my shot. And there it was. Not that you can tell by this crappy scan, but the image was perfect, exposure wise. And content wise it was just as I remembered.

Over the following months I placed this image in my portfolio, along with several others from Guatemala, all shot with the Leica, and began to show it around.

Another photographer bought this image, printing it 6-feet-wide and hanging it on his living room wall, where it still hangs today. This was long before the giant print craze of today, so it wasn’t as easy to get a 35mm to that size in those days.

Several weeks later, someone else bought the same image and also printed it this size to hang in their house.

I realized I had done what I was there to do. Even if I didn’t make another image the entire trip, this one moment in time was worth every sick moment, every 24-hour bus ride, every time of getting stuck in the jungle in a torrential downpour.

When I look at this image today I can smell that room. I can feel the isolation I felt and I can also feel the Leica in my hands. Not the same one, like an idiot I sold it, but another just like it. And still today, I know this work is what I’m supposed to do.