Cathay Pacific: Around the World in 80 Days Contest

I’m trying NOT to think about this…………because my mind is racing.

About a month ago I found out about a travel contest sponsored by Cathay Pacific. The contest, “Around the World in Eighty Days” was the near perfect contest offering. Participants were to create a one minute film, or photographic piece, or written essay regarding what they would do if they succeeded in claiming the grand prize; eighty days of unlimited travel on Cathay Pacific’s network.

I bookmarked the link, put it aside, and began to think about what this contest actually meant. My life, as you know, is fairly hectic, so the idea of this contest, and what the grand prize actually meant, began to creep into my mind during all times of day and night. Where would I go? Why would I go there? And what would the overall message be? The possibilities, as you can imagine, are nearly endless, so this wasn’t something I could plan or resolve in brief moments of uninterrupted thought.

My entry was a film comprised of still imagery and sound, which is not only my favorite combination, but has also been shown to be one of the most powerful ways of delivering online content.

I entered the film, hit send and received the “Successful Upload” signal. I then boarded a flight for Atlanta to give a presentation at the Society for Photographic Education’s national conference and promptly forgot about the contest. Orange County, Dallas, Atlanta, presentation, Atlanta, Dallas, Orange County, San Francisco…….hotel……….5:30AM……..raining……….looking out the window…….check my email………a message from Cathay Pacific. Hmmm, that’s interesting.

All I really saw was, “Congratulations……….” “What?” “Come again.” Wipe my eyes……watch the rain again…….look back at phone. “Let me try this again,” I thought. “Congratulations…..finalist… of eight…..Hong Kong…… day trial……..interview…..” “You have got to be kidding me.” Suddenly the world came racing in through my hotel window. Buildings of glass and steel, towering about my little portal to the world began to resemble other cities scattered across the globe.

Later that morning I descending on the Blurb office where we were creating short films regarding the upcoming Photography Book Now Contest. My mind was bouncing from books to films to Hong Kong to travel and also to the past.

In 1996 I was offered the chance to go to Cambodia to make photographs for a lawyer who had started a law school in Phnom Penh. By chance encounter I met the lawyer in a coffee shop in Laguna Beach. Two weeks later I was on the ground with him in Cambodia. My flight path was Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Phnom Penh. The carrier, Cathay Pacific. I had never flown Cathay Pacific before and can remember getting on the plane and thinking, “I’m in the wrong section.” Economy class was enormous, as were the seats. In short, it was an entirely different flying experience.

At that time Cambodia was like the Wild West. It was very dangerous to travel at night, the Khmer Rouge were still active in the West and South of the country, and the tourism infrastructure had yet to be assembled. Three weeks went went by quickly and suddenly I was on my way back to Hong Kong where I stayed with a friend and tried to process all that had transpired in Cambodia. Hong Kong felt like another planet. I walked the streets in my muddy boots and felt the freedom of shooting randomly and not having to focus on any particular subject. What comes to mind now is the skyline, the water and the bustle of one of the world’s mega-cities. My friend, also a photographer, took me around to places like The Foreign Correspondents Club and to editors at the magazines he was working with. For me to get to know a place I have to be on the street. We spent hours walking the highs and lows of the city and at one point I found myself face to face with an elderly Chinese woman walking with her bike. She took one look at me, with my long-hair, muddy boots and sunglasses and stopped in her tracks. She looked at me, pointed at me, pointed at her bike and then pointed at me again. “She wants me to ride her bike?” I thought. No, probably not. Again she pointed at me pointed at her bike and then pointed at me again. I realized her chain was off and she was saying, “Hey, fix my bike.” A mechanic I’m not but putting a chain back on is well within the limits of my ability. Her chain back on, my hands covered in grease, she gave me a nod and was off.

I sit here now watching snow fall in Santa Fe. My photographic and Blurb duties are keeping my schedule full, but in the background my trip to Hong Kong is quietly humming. I learned a long time ago not to previsualize when it comes to my life, but I’m finding this difficult to do in this particular case. Regardless of what happens with this contest I know that this trip to Hong Kong will lead to many interesting things, and for that I’m grateful. It’s nice to know that someone will be offered this chance of a lifetime to not only explore the world but to share it with the rest of us. The amount of time being offered, eighty days, is enough for the winner to connect at a level that goes beyond the temporary nature of much of the travel we find ourselves doing, and this is what is so intriguing.

What truth is out there waiting to be discovered?

What theme will illuminate the winner’s footsteps?

Story Behind the Photos: Oahu Wedding

I’m a little adrift on this story but stay with me. Get it, adrift. Get it? Okay, I’ll shut up now.

There is always a story behind the photo. Always. A grabshot. A planned image. Luck. Fate. Confusion.

Several years ago I was hired to do a wedding on Oahu’s North Shore. I’ve been to this area dozens of times, both to work on documentary projects and also to complete the occasional wedding. I’m not a traditional wedding photographer, not by a long shot, so when I do get hired to make pictures during this special event, it still feels new, exciting and most importantly, different. I can’t imagine doing dozens of weddings each year. I don’t think it is possible to do creative work, different work, when you shoot that many events in one year. I look around at the production line photography that is pervasive in the wedding world and it supports my view. Everything, for the most part, looks exactly the same. In fact, one of the things I ask potential wedding clients is, “Could you pick your photographer’s work out of a lineup?” and in most cases the reponse is “No.” I’m not meaning to bag on wedding snappers. I’m a wedding snapper. This idea is true with any genre of photography, for the most part. You shoot catalog work 50 weeks a year, and chances are you have a formula. It’s the same principle. And for me, working this way would kill me. Really. I would quit photography. The same goes for my portrait work. If I was shooting six, seven shoots a week, there is no way I could sustain my enthusiasm or the idea of making distinctive work. Putting it another way, what auto manufacturer can increase production by 50% and maintain initial quality? The answer: none.

So it might seem a little odd for me to describe this image as a wedding photograph, but it is. And my first thought when I see this image is not of the location, the people in the boat, etc, but the ceremony that would follow the next day. I’m still friends with these folks, still remain in contact, which seems to be par for the course for me, something else to feel fortunate about.
So when I was sent to do this wedding my thoughts were not really about the wedding itself, outside of the basic vitals of the event. How many folks? Where? What time? Inside? Outside? Etc. My thoughts were of the book, and of creating the story behind the event.
These people in the boat are not part of the wedding party. Neither are any of the other folks I photographed this same afternoon. The landscapes I shot were also not of the wedding location. You see I treat these shoots as documentary projects.
If you browse through the wedding world, you will quickly notice that nearly every photographer you encounter is a “documentary wedding photographer,” or “wedding photojournalist,” but the reality is that 99% of these photographers have never made documentary pictures, have never done a documentary project, and might not even know what doing that work actually entails. I’ve always found this really odd. That is like me shooting my friends jet ski and then calling myself a “watercraft photographer.” I could do that, but it really isn’t accurate. Or like me shooting photos on vacation and then calling myself a “travel photographer.”

In the end, it’s a little insulting to those folks who really do this kind of work. I know a lot of documentary photographers and I know a lot of photojournalists, and what people are doing at weddings has NOTHING to do with these fields. I know they are using these descriptions simply to sell an idea of how they work, but even that doesn’t work for me. What I’ve seen is a trend to describe wedding work in the “documentary” tradition, but much of what I see, especially right now, is posed portraiture called documentary work. I went to a presentation a while back, a well known and highly touted “wedding photojournalist,” who showed about 10,000 images during his presentation, and about 9999 of them were posed, photoshopped portraits. And every image was crafted for “perfection.” This is the exact opposite of documentary photography. The only saving grace for these folks is that most wedding clients probably don’t spend a lot of time studying documentary photography, and most probably don’t care. So, it works for the photographer. It makes me laugh.
So back to Oahu.
I arrived for the wedding a few days early, like I like to do. You never know with air travel what could happen, better to go in early, and also better to build the foundation of the story. There is no substitute for time and access in the field. And when you consider the actual amount of time you get with great light, great moments, you need every second you can get.
So I rented a car and headed to the furthest reaches of the island, taking the long way around, and got a room in a huge house where a lot of surfers stay. I rented a tiny room, outside shower, and stowed my gear. Grabbed my 645 camera, my Leica, black and white film and hopped back in the car. The day was mature and the light was getting warm with a hard directional feel. I had the mountains to deal with, knowing the light would be hidden along the coast due to the sun dropping behind the peaks, but I also had great clouds in certain sections. I loaded the Leica with color, but a strange film that I don’t exactly cross process, but I process it myself, in a strange chemistry that gives me a unique, bluish grainy look that I haven’t seen from anything else (even the PS crowd.) And I loaded the Pentax with black and white.
I don’t know about you but when the light is great, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, my heart races. Sometimes this is great, other times, torture. This day, great. I would drive, stop, get out, snap a few frames, get back in, drive more. I worked along the coast for hours, talking to people, shooting portraits, shooting landscapes and piecing the wedding book together in my head. I figured the first third of the book would be “unrelated” imagery to the actual ceremony. We were, after all, on Oahu. This isn’t Palm Springs, LA, Santa Barbara, etc, Those places have their own distinguishing features, and Oahu does as well. In fact, these island are the most remote landmass on Earth. So, if I’m doing a shoot there, my pics should reflect this.
There is something about the air in Hawaii that drives me crazy, in a good way, and moments before I shot this image, my mind was unsettled. I think Hawaii is a great combination of wind, landscape and sea. Okay, obviously that is what Hawaii is about, but I think these ingredients unhinge all of us from the mainland. I think this is part of the magic that makes Hawaii what it is.
Just before the sun was setting I drove across a small bridge near a harbor and noticed this boat heading back into the safety of the bay. The water was glass, the light was right. I moved up higher to get a slightly different perspective. Initially I framed the boat clean, against just the water, but then realized I wanted more of a layering effect so I panned right, added the small jetty of land. I wanted the boat as the foreground, the land as the middle ground and the cloud as the background.
Looking at these snaps online never do them justice. The print is rich, razor sharp and somewhat three dimensional. And, was nearly a completely straight print, meaning I had to do almost no dodging or burning, meaning great light, great exposure.
Like I said, these people were not part of the wedding but it doesn’t matter. I also included images of burned out cars on the side of the highway, and cairns that people had made along the road, which were all part of the feel of this place, and part of what you have to record if you really are a documentary wedding photographer.
This isn’t the greatest image ever taken, not by a long shot, it was simply one piece of the wedding puzzle.
I’m going back in a few months, to do another wedding in this area, and I’m already beginning to relive these moments, these places, in preparation for building another book, another story.

Leica + Guatemala: An Introduction

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

Cemetery, Antigua.

Streets of Antigua.

Local family in the mountains above San Antonio Aguas Calientes.

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.

Story from Mom "Old Hunting Dog Has Her Day"

gypsy is my english pointer hunting dog
she has lived her 12 years to do one thing
to hunt birds and upon occasion other critters
she picks up their scent tracts them points them
and waits or breaks her point and chases and catches
we are older now and don’t walk the fields anymore
but we carry on the the hunting tradition every morning
after she goes outdoors first thing I break and hide
small pieces of dog biscuits around the inside of the cabin
when she comes in extremely excited about this
I go out on her porch and hide some more biscuits
when she comes out and finishes her porch hunt
she sits down next to me as I drink my espresso and bats at my arm
she then shakes hands speaks and sits up for more biscuits
now this is fun for her but not the same as a real live bird
well yesterday good fortune brought us a real live bird
a white winged dove flew into the cabin window on her porch
she was asleep on her sofa as apposed to her highway 218 red leather chair
I ran out to see if the impact had killed the dove
I observed the dove and decided it was struggling
it was going through the final death twitches signifying the end
my decision was to get gypsy and let her have her way with it
I went into the cabin and pryed her off the sofa
I told her bird out here and opened the door to her porch
as her feet softly touched the porch floor she hit a point on the dove
it was still shaking a bit but sitting still
I nudged her telling her it was ok to get it
suddenly there she was bird in mouth one happy dog
she headed out into her fenced area with her prize
when she dropped the dove to clean all the feathers out of her mouth
it tried to fly or run and hit the fence where she retrieved it again
she spent alot of time with this most prized possession
by the end of the day it was gone what a treat raw meat
I will admitt but would not want anyone to know
I eyed that dove and the thought crossed my mind
that it would taste pretty good to me for dinner that night
but today it would be gypsy who enjoyed this magnificent bird
by the end of the day there were a couple feathers and alittle raw meat
on the cabin porch floor which she finished before heading back to her sofa
and a night of sweet sweet dreams about dove hunting ending her perfect day
I noticed a big smile on her face as I checked this happy old hunting dog
a loyal superb companion to me for so many years