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Out of Eden, Journal I — The Bags

Rarely do I travel with more than one piece of check-in luggage.

Maximum, one medium-sized rolling bag containing a few changes of clothing, loads of underwear, socks and a tube of toothpaste — airport security does not like such items anymore in carryon luggage.

Thanks, Richard Reid…AKA, The Shoe Bomber.

All minimalism is out with the bathwater on this latest story for National Geographic.

Three bags — two mega, the other my normal checkin — went into the cargo hold of two planes, as I traveling from the farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts to Ethiopia where they now rest beside me in a 5th floor room of a three-star hotel in this sublime nations capital.

Possibly the most Liked bags ever liked on Facebook, photographed in the kitchen then posting just before leaving the house in the Berkshires very early on Friday morning.

It has taken months of planning for this assignment — illuminatingly titled, Out of Eden — to prepare for every sublet nuance this project may throw; Eight to ten weeks, traveling overland from discovered remains of our first human ancestors in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia — literally where each of our brothers and sisters walked out of Africa 60,000 years ago, populating this astonishing planet we can only call home — meandering across deserts, mountains, ravines, depressions and villages, till I reach Djibouti City, Djibouti, sometime in March.

Like New York City, the Djiboutans named it twice.

For those following this story on my Facebook pageTwitter or on Instagram, you might be wondering why I’m carrying so much kit compared to my colleague, superb human, Pulitzer Prize winning writer (twice), National Geographic Fellow and official walker for the Out of Eden, Paul Salopek?

I know my dearest of friends, Gary Knight, has been wondering.

Simple — Paul has seven years to walk from our ancestors remains till reaching Tierra del Fuego — and for this first part of Out of Eden, as long as he needs — totting I believe nothing more than a few changes of clothing, pens, notepads, a laptop, sat phone, solar charger, sleeping gear and other minimal bits and pieces, doing so at least from Afar to Djibouti City with a camel Paul purchased last week who will carry most of these items…including water and basic food stuffs (will be meeting up with Paul tomorrow evening to actually witness what he’s fully carrying).

Encumbered — I’m carry more bobbles and bits which require electricity than a small village might demand in a week, not to mention camping gear for a translator, driver and myself.

Yes, I’m traveling in a car.

Here is why:

The Kit, for National Geographic's Out of Eden story — Details below on what everything actually is.


Gone are the days when a photographer on a National Geographic story only needed a backpack to carry clothing, a few hundred rolls of film and a camera bag with cameras that only required little more than two watch-sized batteries to operate its metering for weeks on end.

The rest was manual — and we liked it.

With everything gone digital, we now tote a substantial collection of gizmos and contraptions, each requiring their own special cable, a virtual tangled bowl of spaghetti noodles and clamoring hunks of electrical plastic meatballs, the whole lot demanding power. All this nonsense is needed (along with portable 120/220 electricity) or else cease being able to take photographs within 1-2 days.

As much as traveling on camel back may seem romantic, Yonas Abiye (super talented journalist with The Reporter newspaper), a driver (gifted with memory retention of a pasta strainer, I’ve tragically forgotten his name post brief meeting today) and myself will make this journey starting near Mille (pronounced phonetically as Mill-ay), in the Afar region of Ethiopia, to the border with Djibouti, in a grayish-blue toned 2008 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser.

Doing the paperwork (and paying) for the Toyota Land Cruiser that will take Yonas and I from Addis Ababa tomorrow to the Afar region of Ethiopia. With what appear to be new tires, this will vehicle will at times act as our home for the next month.


Even if I didn’t have this triple sherpa load of whatnot to carry, here is why I’m driving:

This story, Out of Eden, is not about Paul.

Rather, it’s a story about our collective humanities migration out of Africa to where we each live today.

Therefore, I will not be following in Paul’s footsteps.

In fact I plan to get completely lost, zigzagging in all direction, photographing a reportage piece on the society, culture, landscapes and truly anything and everything which comes my way,  illustrating what this part of the world, and its people, are doing today.

Come sometime likely in early March — communucating with Paul periodically via satellite phone — I will meet up with him as he arrives in Djibouti City.

My friend, fellow journalist (reporter for The Reporter) and guide for the Out of Eden story for National Geographic magazine, Yonas Abiye, shows me the route we'll be taking, beginning on Monday from northeastern Ethiopia. It will take Paul Salopek 8-10 weeks walking overland to get from this region of Ethiopia, then onward to Djibouti City, Djibouti. Yonas and I are not walking — too much kit to carry...power supplies, cameras, MacBook Pro, HDs, camping gear, etc. We'll be in a Landcruiser, zigzagging all around Paul's trek westward to the border with Djibouti. This story is not about Paul. Rather, it is about our collective humanity, 60,000 years ago, when our brothers and sisters literally walked out of this exact spot in Ethiopia, populating the planet as we are today.


Wonderfully expressed once by a Highlander friend in Papua New Guinea while on another National Geographic story a few years back —  sharing with her how unexpected and wildly magical everything kept occurring while in country — she uttered in a marvelously dry tone:

“Expect the unexpected, John”.

With only a few hours remaining in this somewhat unaired room — for a $150 a night hotel, it oddly lacks an air conditioner nor any understandable means to open a window — I thought it might be interesting to start the journals of this journey with some insight regarding what I’m carrying in this anomalous matching set of Eagle Creek bags and their trusty sidekick, the always toting ThinkTank Airport camera roller.

While Monk’s Dream plays from this MacBook Pro speakers (richly expanded on these already brilliant Retina display speakers using the app, DPS…a must have plugin for iTunes — wowy!) here’s The Kit for part one of Out of Eden:

Labeled — The whole Kit and caboodle traveling with me on Out of Eden story for the next two or more months across Ethiopia and Djibouti.



1- Eagle Creek Load Warrior 25 inch roller — This bag contains all clothing for two or more months:

(The first two clothing items have been The Uniform for the last 10 years while on assignments, all the same color — kaki tan pants, dark green shirts, and surprisingly holding up extremely well)

REI light weather pants — three
REI light weather long sleeve shirts — five
Shorts — one
T-shirts — two
Sleeping t-shirt — one
Sleeping shorts — one
Socks —four
Underwear — ten
Dress Shirt — one
Jeans — one

2- Eagle Creek duffle — Empty, stored in main luggage for when needed

3- Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled Duffel 36 in roller — two, used for carrying most of that crap you see on the floor

4- Cliff & Luna Bars — 73 white chocolate macadamia nut power powers…breakfast for the next two months

5- Medical Kit — Containing more meds, bandages and whatnot than

6- iPhone Camera Cable — Supported through a Kickstarter project, Trigger Happy (not my favorite name for this — remember, cameras don’t shoot anything. They take in light. Only guns shoot) is something I’ve yet to use. hopefully it works

7- Reading Glasses — Five sets, in case loosing one, two or more — a habit I’ve been able to master over the years until discovering they were already on top of my head or crushed in a pocket

8- Toiletries — Hand sanitizer, toothpastes, a hair tie…I’m a minimalist

9- Multi-Plug Adapter

10- 120-volt cigarette lighter power supply

11- Camera towel

12- Various headlamps

13- My tent

14- Driver/translators tent

15- Reusable Twists — Various sizes of heavy-duty twisties. Hang about anything, anywhere

16- Bathing Soaps — These are amazing anti-mosquito repellent soaps that contain citronella. Found them years ago while passing through the Johannesburg airport while working on the National Geographic story, Malaria. Picked up an entire box. Unfortunately, these are the last three bars. Sure hope I route through South Africa again soon

17- Bug Repellent Cream

18- Muti-purpose Tool

19- Lamps — Battery power, they put out gobs of light

20- Carabiners

21- Ground Tarp — Small tent

22- Sunscreen Mozzie Repellant

23- Ground Tarp — Large tent

24- Mosquito Spray — 100% DEET (malaria country where we’re going)

25- ThinkTank Airport Roller — Have had this amazing (and I mean AMAZING) roller carry-on camera case for over 7 years. It’s been through more airports, up/down more stairs, tossed, dropped and careened across floors, rocks and deserts more times than can be counted in memory. Besides a touch bit of the rubber on the wheels fraying, this bag from ThinkTank keeps on going strong. Here’s what’s inside:

Canon 5D Mark III — two
16-35mm lens
24-70mm lens
24 1.4 lens
35 1.4 lens
50 1.2 lens
Battery Charges — two
Batteries — four
ThinkTank — A small Retrospective model shoulder bag. This is where a few of the lenses go when out and about. The rest stays in the roller, taken out when needed

26- Inflatable Pillow — Brookstone blow up felt neck pillow (for plane travel)

27- Clothing — Paint/shirts

28- Collapsible Chair — REI has a super-nify foldable chair. This will be seriously used when waiting about in remote areas for the light to get brilliant

29- Stuff — Sharpies, international drivers license, medical vaccine card, passport sized photos, more hair ties and in the envelope, NGM’s amazing Dazzler letter of introduction

30- Map/Guidebook — Lonely Planets guide to Ethiopa and detailed maps of Ethiopia and Djibouti

31- Flash Cardholder — Deputy Director of Photography, Ken Geiger, was kind enough to give me one of the new NGM ThinkTank flashcard holders when I was in DC a few weeks ago for the Out of Eden story prep. They are being given away to National Geographic photographers at next weeks seminar, which unfortunately I’ll be missing this event — sorry for blowing the surprise

32- Clothing — A few more pants/shirts, haphazardly placed on the floor rather than in the other clothing pile

33- USB Cigarette Lighter Charger

34- World Map

35- NGM Luggage Tags

36- Water Bags — To protect kit in case it rains and as backup laundry bags

37- Sleeping Bag — Small

38- Sleeping Bag — Larger

39- Hammock

40- NG Hat — Gift for someone along the trip

41- Hammock Ties

42- Mosquito Net

43- Mosquito Net

44- Power Inverters — Two 300volt models that turns 12volt car battery power into 120volt power. To be used to charge a MacBook Pro, camera batteries, sat phone, iPhone, etc

45- Vitamines

46- Multi-Plug Adapter — Two more for a total of three

47- Belt — Special type…

48- Small Bag

49- Towel

50- Mesh Bag

51- French Press Coffeemaker — THE most important piece of the kit

52- Shelters — Three Kelty 3×3 meter shelters to protect driver, translator and myself from the harsh Afar desert sun while waiting for good light

53- Waterproof Zipper Bags — To hold all the various loose items seen here

54- Small Bag

55- Socks

56- Inflatable Pillow

57- Self-Inflating Mattress

58- Satellite Phone — Thuraya. Including a Thuraya Wifi Hotspot box, allowing to wirelessly connect all communication items to the internet from any location

59- Hiking Shoes

60- Canon Cigarette Lighter Battery Charger Kit

61- Hardrives — Two, 2TB Western Digital USB3, which will make transferring photographs off cards and into Aperture each day an extremely quick task
This is The Kit, which will (should) sustain most if not all needs for the next two or more months while driving throughout more than half of Ethiopia and all of Djibouti — yes, Gary, I’m driving, not walking nor with a camel because tomorrow I pick up the LaMarzocco expresso machine and generator…

Hope the peering into my bags — bags which received more Likes on Facebook than likely any photo of just bags have ever receive — was informative.

4 hours till Yonas Abiye and the driver arrive at the hotel for the 10+ hour drive to the Afar region to meet Paul.

And satellite phone is still not working. Sure hope Thuraya in Dubai sorts this soonest or this might be the one and only journal from the trip. . .

Testing this afternoon the Thuraya sat phone and the Thuraya Hotspot gizmo. After two hours trying for get the data part of the phone to work, I had to call the provider in Texas for support. Seems the GmPRS (whatever that means) wasn't turned on yet. Should be sorted within a few hours, or so my new best friend, Martin, with Galaxy 1 said in a just received email.

All my best,





Visit the official Out of Eden website here, and National Geographic’s Facebook page here.


January 6, 2013   Comments Off on Out of Eden, Journal I — The Bags

The Amazing Yellow-Bordered Magazine — Part II


Some stories can be tough nuts to crack.

Girl Power, in this months issue (September 2011), was one such nut.

Last year in late September the phone rings. The letters NGM appear on the iPhone over a screensaver image of my daughter, Francesca, mixing paints — caller ID cannot determine who’s number at 1145 17th Street Northwest in DC is ringing.

Whenever the phone rings I have the privilege of seeing Francesca making a wonderful mess.

It was a good friend and über-talented senior photo editor, Sarah Leen.

We briefly babbled. Sarah goes on to say that a story had just arrived on her desk, part of 2011’s Seven Billion series.

In her get-right-to-the-point manner, Sarah concludes the basic story premise with “…and I don’t want to do this story without you.”

What were we about to embark upon?

This installment of the multi-month series on producing stories for the magazine is the complete account — from start to finish — for one of the most complex assignments I’ve undertaken. With multiple zigzags and twirls that lie ahead, the final photographic essay (it’s all about storytelling) illustrated the theme properly, expanding upon the brilliant reporting and text created by Cynthia Gorney.

However before ever sorting a visa, something was odd.

Initially one viagra think it’s stupendous to be asked so directly to do a story, especially from such an esteemed publication as the National Geographic. It was, but a cautionary red flag rose.

“Ok, tell me more.”

It was part of this year’s special project related to the all important topic, population, a brilliant multi-story, multi-month series, which only the Amazing Yellow-Bordered Magazine could ever accomplish.

Adding to perk the interest, population — and the social issues related — are important aspects of my work.

While Sarah spoke, my mind began to drift far off course … in the Story Ideas folder of my computer resides a number of subfolders related to population  — poverty, health, environment — all connectable to our ever-increasing global society. Immediately began to see a visual narrative taking shape, looking at various global aspects of overpopulation, our food supply, migration, urbanization, etc. Percolating such thoughts was Sarah’s unusual direct request that she wanted me to do this story: The editors at the magazine knew I could handle large, multi-country stories, distilling the issues into a focused visual narrative. Surely that was the reason for such directness.

Pulling out of a deep internal dialogue, only then do I hear Sarah say, “….and it’s complex. The story will focus on Brazil.”


Clearly I hadn’t listened to a word Sarah had been saying.

“Why Brazil?”

The complex portion I could handle.

“It’s a success story, John.”

Brazil had reduced its fertility rate and not doing so in any minor way. In the past 50 years this South American superpower had gone from 6.3 children per female in the 1960’s down to a staggering 1.9 by 2009. Today it hovers at about 1.8.

What does 1.8 children per family mean?

Negative population growth.


Equally important, this story would also bridge the issues of gender equality and women’s rights which still are foolishly disproportionate in so many countries.

Not fully unhinged from the initial preconception, something still smelled.

The scent told me this was not going to be general feature on women in Brazil. It wasn’t about creating images for a broad theme or perspective where anything and everything could make narrative sense of the topic. It wasn’t related to breaking news where the events of the day would become the visual reference of time. And though there was enough perception in the cranium to sense this project would be captivating, my knowledge on population issues felt like little, if any, in-depth photography has ever done on this topic to act as even a basic road map.

Pushing a bit further as to why, so poignantly, did Sarah want me to photograph this story, she begins to hint at what the next few months would become:

“It’s a digger story, John. I need you to dig. Like a miner.”


Unfortunately, much of the work photojournalists do can be utterly depressing, rarely improving, often steeped in many of the darkest issues facing society. I do such work for the every present hope of change. Even if a situation improves/alters for just one, it’s more than none. It’s not about me. It’s about us. Now here was an opportunity to look at hope, highlighting an example of success, a role model for other nations to follow in a chance (a hope) to help other societies discover ways to balance population numbers in our ever increasing global society.

Why is this so important? In a few months time our collective human population will reach 7 billion.


If we do not rethink our population growth pattern, by 2045 is it predicted we will be a family of 9 billion.


How will we feed ourselves? Where will we find enough energy to power such a massive level of consumption without monumental changes in how we use energy? Pollution, poverty, waste, health, environment and a whole litany of other extremely weighted issues tumble on the table when we begin pondering the needs not only of ourselves but also our planet when you consider a 28 percent population rise in the coming 34 years.

Finally locking in sync with every word Sarah was saying, of course I would do the story, and immediately was honored she, and others within the Society, would consider me for this series. Brilliant work on this project had already begun by Jonas Bendiksen, Joel Sartore and Pascal Maitre, to name just a few. I was honored to walk the road with such esteemed colleagues.

Then a thought hit – wouldn’t it be better to have a woman photograph this story? Discovered quickly that such matters were already considered well before the phone ever rang. Pre-research had indicated that certain access and flow would be best achieved if the photographer was male. While on the ground I began to experience why. Even with monumental strides within this Latin American society for equality, the overall permeating vibe was still heavily machismo.

Before finishing chatting, Sarah said she’d send me the research which had been done for the story. Because it was already late in the year, I’d have to prepare and head south fairly soon; Deadline was March, 2011. For National Geographic, a seven month deadline — from connecting with a photographer to layout — is nearly like a weekly news story timeframe. Most NG stories are spread out, taking one year or more to accomplish in just fieldwork.

To somewhat complicate matters, I was already involved (about halfway through) another National Geographic story, code name, Sweetness (due to contractual reasons we cannot share insight into stories in progress, therefore that is not the story title nor exact topic). Felt the short timeframe for Girl Power could be juggled around Sweetness and if possible, include some photography elsewhere while in South America to save on that story’s travel budget.

It was a go, and I was committed.


An hour later Sarah’s email arrived. Loads of brilliant research had already been done for this story — heaps of statistical, historical and academic literature to pour through, ninety percent or more as drab as toast. Unbuttered. Read them all.

One final document to open set the course — or more so, charted the course — for what the story was all about.

A graph.

This bland graph — like a connect-the-dots game gone wrong — would become the visual guide for what needed to be illustrate:

This graph, ironically donning a yellow border, was the only visual indicator of a countries dramatic shift in population.

Then it hit — I’d been handed a coconut, with only hands to crack open.


The insight into this very specific project is not about airing frustration. On the contrary, it is to share the realities, along with solution, which all of us may face on a myriad of issues in both photography and in life — rarely nothing goes as planned, all the best preparations can often lead nowhere.

The reams of academic research on the topic of Brazil’s drop in population growth pointed towards few meaningful options or at best, Point Pictures, a common term used at the Geographic for photography to avoid — meaning literal views, no matter how well composed. And looking at that damn graph lead me nowhere but downwards.

More so, how to illustrate (not literally but figuratively), across 20-26 pages, a narrative essay based upon a graph? The graph was the only visual indicator of this dramatic drop in fertility that lead towards lower population numbers. Little if any of the research leant itself to something unexpected — education opportunities, job equality laws, economic prosperity and a rapid high-cost of living also had their fingerprints on the chart. They all felt like point pictures.

There had to me more.

One word meandering within all the piles of research kept rearing its visual head and Sarah could feel it:


An academic study done on soap operas or novelas was by far the most unique. In brief:

Between 1964-85 soap operas spread across the country while Brazil was under a military regime. The government subsidized television sales with the hope of building a feeling of nationhood with their controlled messages during a time when Brazil was largely an illiterate country. The mouthpiece of the military, the news, didn’t fully perk the interest. Soap operas did. Directors and writers, many of whom were left leaning, wrote innovative story lines which reached the masses right while electricity spread across the country. These racy plots — many showing fabulous living standards and women portraying powerful rolls — created a lifestyle millions wanted to emulate. How best to live such a new destiny? Have smaller families, just as depicted on television screens.

This would set in motion the drive for as Sarah put it, to mine this story.


If a photographer, writer or filmmaker ever tells you they produced an in-depth feature story all on their own, they are full of shit.

Nothing — let me repeat with utter weighted reality — nothing could ever be accomplished on any meaningful, long term project, without the unflinching and committed support from fellow human beings we in our bubble of an industry call Fixers.

Try arriving solo, in the remote village of Singkil located on the west coast of Sumatra, find a boat with a captain who within less than an hour of your arrival can speed you two hours across an ocean and arrive, as planned, on one of the Bankay Island located in the Indian Ocean. This just occurred one month ago. Terima kasih, Bli Wayan Tilik.

Wayan Tilik and I heading via speedboat from Singkil to the Banyak Island while working together last month on the White Horse story. Wayan was my assistant for over five years while living in Bali. We've traveled all over Indonesia on more strange and beguiling journeys then can be recalled.

Attempt to come out alive when entering a crowd of 5,000 pro Osama Bin Laden supporters surrounding your vehicle in a remote village in the tribal regions of western Pakistan two-weeks post September 11, 2001. Sta na shukria, my late dear friend and brother, Raza Khan.

Raza Khan in the Kashmir Mountains of Pakistan. We worked together often, this time for a Time Magazine story on the massive earthquake in 2005. Raza tragically died two years ago in an automobile accident while working with two other photojournalist.

Fool yourself thinking you can handle all the subtle nuances, details and cultural layers of Peruvian society based upon a few years of Spanish you learned in high school or college while working on a story about how a road entering the Amazon forest can dramatically increase the rate of malaria. Gracias, Viviana Cancino.

Vivi and I spent over a week traveling back and forth along 56 kilometer of the Iquitos Nauta Highway in northern Peru for the July 2007 NGM cover story, Malaria, A Global Killer. Vivi was instrumental on guiding me towards unique malaria issues related to research conducted by The Johns Hopkins University, which Vivi too had been a part of. A few years ago I had lunch with Vivi. She was happily engaged and continuing her education on infectious diseases at a major university in Brazil.

So what then is a fixer you might ask?

A fixer functions in a myriad of ways:

Translator, guide, protector, organizer, menu reader, driver, logistics expert, motorcycle repairer, appointment keeper, taxi finder, guru, calendar decipherer, medic, a wine expert, sounding board, travel partner, a life saver.

Most importantly, fixers are friends, a near member of your family, for if their talents were not with you, one could never accomplish these involving stories in any semblance of reasonable time, let alone at all.

As many photographers will attest — fixers also die while working with us. Not because they want to. Mostly because of the damn awful reality that oftentimes foreigners are treated different than locals, especially in times of conflict. The more tragic reality — journalist can leave. Most fixers in poorer countries where madness is taking place cannot.

In addition, fixers often commit to the same passions we commit to. A great fixers believes in the power of awareness and change.

If there is any paramount aspect of doing meaningful journalism it is not just the photographer with the camera in the field.

Equally, it is the one standing near you.

I am forever indebted and grateful to a whole host of astonishing friends/family who have guided, protected, smiled and cried with me clear across this amazing planet, helping make nearly every story I’ve do come to fruition.

To each of you:

Just a small group of a much larger collection of photographs highlighting friends/family who have helped me over the years produce countless stories. For those of you not on this contact sheet, it's only because your amazing talents are on unscanned film or on not that easy to find digitally. Far more meaningful, you know who you.

Thank you.


Girl Power was nowhere near like working in a conflict zone, yet to accomplish this story it would take the deft skill, astute organizing prowess and tremendous patience of not one but two fixers to make the photography flow.

When previously in Brazil for the Food Crisis story, The End of Plenty, I had the privilege of working with the talented Flavio Ferreira. He was outstanding, finding a ship in the port of Victoria that was carrying soybeans to China in order to feed the Asian Tiger’s insatiable appetite for pork. Finding this ship — there are a number of major shipping ports in Brazil, not to mention a plethora heading all over the world — was literally a needle in a haystack achievement.

Initial inclination was to work again with Flavio, however it was recommended that it would be best to work with a female fixer, creating a balance which in the end proved to be the wise decision.

David Alan Harvey had been in Rio a few month earlier working on a story for the magazine. He had collaborated with an American women by the name of Mira Olson. Though she wasn’t native Brazilian, Mira was apparently fluent in both Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish and was told she had lived for awhile in Rio. Most important, David said she was great.

Mira and I wait for the trolly to take us to the top of Santa Marta village.

We had spoken on the phone a few times, exchanged many an email, however the first time I ever met Mira was at the food court in the Atlanta International Departure Terminal.

She appeared young, mid or late twenties, wore jeans with frayed leg bottoms, sneakers, a t-shirt and a zipper jacket — she could have just wandered in from a college lecture or a Dave Matthews concert. Most interesting, Mira radiating a focused energy. Post initial pleasantries at the airport, we boarded a Delta flight for the long haul to Rio. Unable to sit together to discuss the story that lay ahead, I slept (attempted) multiple rows away in some of the most uncomfortable chairs that fly the Troposphere.

Before semi-nodding off, I began to ponder — how is someone from North America going to know how to handle all the subtleties and layers to help illustrate a graph whose entire essence is in South America? Was this a mistake in agreeing to fly in a non-Brazilian national? A non-native speaker?

Arriving in Rio, blurry-eyed, Mira and I reconnected at immigration then retrieved our luggage while a kind fellow serenaded us sleepless passengers by the spinning carousel with his saxophone, performing the ubiquitous, The Girl from Ipanema, though not as fab as this version by Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz.

Luggage on cart, I bee-lined to the first coffee shop past Customs.

Being the ultimate gringo — only remembering the word obrigado, or thank you, from years of working in East Timor (another former Portuguese colony) — I defaulted to Mira for procuring the basic necessity of life:

“Can you order me the largest coffee possible, thanks.”

As if time stood still, Mira turned to the women behind the counter in the arrival hall, transforming seamlessly from a Minnesotan economics specialist who had worked for the World Bank into a Cariocas (a term given to natives from the city of Rio de Janeiro). Everything about her changed — accent, body language, facial and hand gestures. She became Brazilian, so much so that throughout our nearly eight weeks working together everyone we met thought Mira was a local, flabbergasted learning otherwise.

Dumbstruck, that cup of coffee made it known I was in mighty good hands.

Mira Oslon fielding questions I had to the assistant principle of a school in Rio while working on the Girl Power story last year.

Yin & Yang

When arriving — be it Lusaka, Kolkata, Boston or Barcelona — no matter how exhausted, I’m immediately drawn to dive into the story.

Girl Power barely let me even enter the kiddy pool. In Brazil, I was standing on the high dive, with no water below.

Much of the pre-organizing Mira had done weeks before arrival was already beginning to unravel within 12 hours of arrival:

Appointments with the head of a favela police department in Rio didn’t answer her phone during countless attempts, yet only days before our arrival had said she’d be available — two weeks later she finally agreed but only took us out on a 20 minute evening patrol, then wandered into a another police station for a meeting with her officers. We were not allowed to attend. Mira and I waited for hours. Bored, we began drinking Antarctic Beers and chatted into the night with some of the warmest and kindest people you’ll ever met. It was during this night that we met Joachim and his wife, Maria. She was expecting their first and only planned baby. She was also a novella addict. Spent a portion of that wait in Maria’s sisters home as they watched Passione on Globo. The photograph became one of the four images depicting the ubiquitous power of novellas within Brazilian society. Whatever happened to the chief of police? She never exited the room, likely heading out another door, forgetting we were still waiting.

Numerous evenings, between 6 and 10, we would wander, home to home, asking residents around various areas of Rio if they were watching novelas. Nearly 100% were. In many ways these are just simple images. Collectively it illustrates the ubiquitous power of soap operas upon Brazilian culture. My favorites are Lucimar Lyra Aguiar (lower, left), who even with the worst television reception ever, refuses to miss her favorite Globo episodes. And that Hello Kitty room (upper, right) where a pregnant Maria and her sister-in law Parecida lie riveted to Passione was just over the top kitch.

On a side note to how happenstance flows, we met up with Maria and Joachim months later during Part II of the story. By then, Maria had given birth to a healthy, beautiful baby boy named Jonathan. The family invited Mira and I over to their home for dinner last February. The following photograph came about during that evening. Unfortunately there just isn’t enough ink on paper space to include every photograph, but it did get published online.

Two-month old, Jonathan, in the kitchen of his families one bedroom home in the Santa Marta area of Rio. Jonathan's parents come from ten children families.

A small but important NGO cooperative which helped empower women by providing knitting jobs in poorer communities initially said we could met on our second day in Brazil. Then delayed by well over week. Once schedules merged, the women of the cooperative worried about being photographed in their homes due to possible gang violence, requesting they would only feel comfortable being photographed in the small cooperatives workshop: four walls, drab light and few if any of the women actually sews there — fortunately a few days later, a women agreed. A lovely moment played out in her small home while she sewed lampshade covers with her two girls home from school. It ran double page in the magazine.

We didn't have much time at Liliane's home. In an hour or so we'd have to leave due to commitments later in the evening. Even with this short period, a gentle bit of curiosity occurred from Liliane's youngest daughter, Beatriz, which helped turn an otherwise basic portrait of a stay-at-home mother, into a tender and layered moment.

The all important access to novellas sets with the leading soap opera producer, Globo, was repeatedly denied, requesting additional letters of intent. Not until our return in February of this year was access granted on a film set — Globo gave wonderful support for a full day of photography last February. Many of the photographs turned out brilliant with one image running online (below). However one week earlier the studio, Record, gave unfettered access to any novela stage set of the show Ribeirão do Tempo for as many days as need. They were filming on various sets a fortuitous heaping scoop of story connectivity — a high-powered business women in her million dollar mansion and on my second visit in her ultra-fancy office. Couldn’t have been better. By the way, a huge amount of gratitude to Marcelo Araújo in PR at Record, a talented photographer in his own right, for his friendship and understanding for this story.

We went with this edit of the lead actress in the office of her construction company chatting with a female police officer. A few days previous while at Record it was a full-day of filming in her opulent home. Both moments could have worked well but something had to go to the editing floor — a story is not only about your favorite photographs. It's also about telling a story, with your favorite photographs.

This set at Globo studios was utterly over the top — a novella, filmed in a 19th century Middle Eastern setting. More important, the director, Amora Mautner, was the second ever female director to be hired 10 years ago by Globo. Amora's gone on to direct scores of successful novelas and films. Here she's helping actress Debora Bloch rehearse her lines.

Another photograph which only made it online — again, there is only so much print space available — was this image of a new trend playing out on Brazilian television: Teen Novelas. Now, an even younger generation is able to embrace the novela culture like this scene being filmed in a school dorm for the soap opera, Rebelde, or Rebel.

During a year spent in Brazil on a Fulbright, along with another immersion a few years later as a freelance writer, Mira had solid contacts with upperclass Brazilian society. Those contacts were indeed excellent however when taking it to the next level and requesting to spend time in homes and businesses, the murmur was often negative. Even though Brazil is the South American mega economy, the seventh largest in the world, there is still a significant division between rich and poor. Many who have done well would prefer not show their hard earned successes. Understandable, the crime rate is high in many areas of the country. This translated into many a closed door. After weeks of hearing “No” or “Maybe”, a women Mira had met a few years previous understood the reason for the request to show the success women had made, helping as the conduit to being us deep into the layers of Brazil’s upperclass. Thank you, Vanda.

We attended more fashion and society events then memory recalls. Many turned out excellent. Others, nothing. We went with this photograph, taken during a private sales event at an upscale Rio designer's showroom. That bathing suit was just mesmerizing, especially in duplicate.

These successful vignettes did help keep the story afloat, but as usual, it was the unanticipated and serendipitous circumstances which more often became the most meaningful. It would take well into the third week of the first trip to begin getting in sync, finally embracing all the unique elements of Brazilian culture by the second visit earlier this year — when events riddled in complications began to somewhat ease — that the trickle of interesting visuals turn into a stream.

Oh, did I mentioned it was raining nearly every day for the first few weeks of the assignment?

Providence & Connections

Even in darkness there is always light.

At the end of a long day when few if any meaningful photographs were created, Mira and I caught a cab in front of our barely one star hotel in Rio (not one for fancy hotels). Tired and frustrated, we enter by sheer fate into the most unexpected taxi ever — the driver had a television set in the car.

He was watching a novella.

In what would become a regular attempt to stumble upon more television taxi’s while traveling across Brazil — and there were many such taxi’s to be found — never had I imagined the novela urge being so great that even while driving one could get their fix.

Some things need to be dug long and hard for. Others, through fate, arrive as a gift.

By far, the best television taxi belonged to a cabby in São Paulo driven by a fellow named Wanderlie. Not only did he have one but two televisions in his car — one for himself and massive second telly mounted in the roof for passengers. It would become the lead image for Girl Power.

I fell head over heals with the novela, Ti-Ti-Ti (pronounced Chi Chi Chi) after driving around São Paulo in this cab.

This cab would also serve as the transport conduit to a saving grace which upon each visit would wash away any and all problematic encountered — Braz Restaurant, the purveyor of the best pizza on earth.

If ever needing a food altering, state of mind cleansing, do yourself a favor and go to Braz in São Paulo, order the quatro queijos (four cheeses) or its aptly termed singular noun, Favorita, a bottle of Argentinian malbec donning the eloquently minimalist label, Altos las Hormigas, then dissolve into existential oblivion.

No jive.

Other pieces of the story pie kept arriving, albeit at times in a glacial pace. Unexpected doors would open, leading towards visuals that would relate to the story approach. It often came down to unforeseen, uncanny connections which in turn lead to uncanny and unpredicted access.

One night while out dinning and photographing socialite, Vanda, at Rio’s oozingly-chic Sushi Leblond, a friend of hers named Adriana joined us for literally a boatload of sashimi and wine (the food arrived strewed across a two-foot long wooden ship, with mast). What was thought would be an interesting evening of photography related to ultra-society out for a night on the town, instead turned into loads of good cheer but only so-so photography moments. Granted, the insatiable Adriana and the always voluptuous Vanda were fantastic to photography, however it ended up that by meeting Adriana, a connection of hers in São Paulo would open the floodgates of the unexpected.

Adriana made a phone call to her hairstylist, the ultra-desired Wanderley, hair coiffeur to President Delma and U2‘s Bono to name but a few.

Two days later we flew to Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, and met the extremely understated and particularly beautiful, Muriel. She worked with Brazil’s most acclaimed PR team. They represents the mega-power of Brazil, including Wanderley.

Muriel had other clients she managed, a long list that read like the Who’s Who of the Colossal Famous. One name from the scroll which caught my attention was a dental office.

Why a dentist office?

It was here, behind a signless white wall nearly as tall as security barriers surrounding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, where the gonzo-rich go for dental care — just getting your teeth cleaned here will set you back a thousand dollars.

Most interesting, nearly all the surgeons where women. Highly train, extremely sought after.

This place was like a spa in Bali — waterfall, lounge area, massage room, a bar, TV rooms, doorways that lead into more doorways which lead into other doorways of the private unknown.

There was one doctor who caught my eye. Not her looks — she of course was beautiful, like everyone else roaming the halls.

Her shoes.

Hot pink and highest of high-heals.

Awesome shoes. Nothing more to be said.

Other doors opened with equally unexpected occurrences.

Mira went to Mount Holyoke College and had a roommate from Brazil named Natascha. Her mother, Lourdes, was a highly successful businesswomen in the northeast state of Pernambuco. Mira felt Lourdes might fit well the profile of affluent success, so often depicted on novelas. Forestalled in Rio for a week, we hopped a flight to the coastal city of Recife.

Entering Lourdes’ home is a step into another world. Everywhere — in every nook and cranny, upon nearly every inch of wall space, placed across any horizontal surface which gravity would hold in place, rested or hung an antique or piece of extravagant artwork. It was extraordinary, as if Salvador Dali and Madame Tussauds had each left their mark of brilliance upon any direction gazed. Even in the corner of the dining room was a life-sized wooden carving of priest, carved likely in the 18th century — if you stared into his eyes it genuinely felt as if he were alive.

Lourdes was (is) magnificently eccentric. A sensational soul. We spent many wonderful days and laugh-filled nights in her home watching utterly wacky music videos, photographing as she worked from home and possibly too many car drives — half-baked on wine — listening to Amy Winehouse.

As much as Lourdes — her lifestyle, image, entire essence — fit the novela theme and was visually brilliant, it was her housekeeper, Marcela Gonçalo Pessona, who caught our attention the most during the midway edit. Marcela was THE example of the modern Brazilian women who, like tens of millions more, wanted to rise through the economic stratos towards the novela dream.

Upon our return for Part II of the story, Mira and I revisited Lourdes, but this time spent most of that chapter with Marcela.

Each day she spends over an hour commuting into Refice — dressed in her novela finest — to work with Lourdes for cooking, cleaning and at times helping with the various business interests of her roll model. Returning home via the same multi-bus route, Marcela and her husband would literally watch each night a veritable plethora of novelas. She naturally absorbs, then calculatingly lives, albeit step by step, the life portrayed on screen.

By the way, Marcela, 24, and her husband Ivalsi, 26, have been married four year. No children. When they do decide to start a family it will be one, maybe two children. Had Marcela been born thirty years previous, statically she might have already had four children.

Marcella truly typified the young Brazilian women who comes from an economically difficult background but who uses her desires and passions to succeed in life, grooming herself for a future which might indeed one day mirror her favorite novela, Ti-Ti-Ti.


Whenever anything becomes too weighted, complicated, problematic, a song tends to surface which helps straighten out the bends. I call it, the Monty Python Moment, whistling and internally singing:

Always look on the bright side of life

No longer allowing angst to build by continual cancellations — A no show? Great! I’ll guzzle down a caipirinha (the national drink of Brazil), wander Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo and see what flows.

Whenever hours of meandering Ibirapuera Park yielded near zero interesting visuals, I'd wander to the over-the-top Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art, conveniently located right in this amazing natural oasis in the center in São Paulo. Post such a visit, three frames of a mother with her daughter appeared perfectly within a narrow spot of sunlight.

Drained by moments that end up being as visually mute as photographing a doorknob? — Excellent, spend hours riding inside the female only metro cars of Rio (one of only nine countries which offer such privacy in male-groping societies) and realize the best moments are not so much the packed trains where everyone holds the handrails waiting to get off, the real action is on the platform where uniformed security guards keep men away during morning and evening rush hour.

This security guard repeatedly has to ask male passengers not to enter the female only train of the Rio metro system. It worked out more interesting than interior views of women standing, doing basically nothing other than wanting to get home.

Hamstrung trying to make a setting in a featureless room filled with children learning music just slightly intriguing? No worries — A future protégés from a poor neighborhood practices violin at home. Not just any home that is. It had epic views of Rio, and naturally right smack behind loomed the massive concrete Jesus, known as the Redeemer statue. Even better, she often plays on the roof, and it was laundry day.

Rebeca de Silva, 13, comes from a family of musicians — her father is a musician, so is her brother. And the views overlooking Rio from Santa Marta are some of the most spectaurlar I've seen. No idea why some call this area a slum or favela. Utterly wrong. Santa Marta was actually the area where I felt most welcomed, at peace and inspired, not just by the brilliant vistas but also the warmth and kindness of the people. In addition, couldn't get the James Taylor song, Rio, out of my head, with that massive concrete Christ perfectly positioned in the background. From this position, it truly is only a dream in Rio.

And right when things were flowing so well, Mira had to leave for a personal project that was unchangeable back in the States — there was over one week left and the key photograph to illustrate, the graph, nowhere near accomplished.

Think that ending bit of Life of Brian was whistled a few dozen more times that day.


Throughout Girl Power, I discovered that if Sarah Leen felt she wanted or needed me to do this story with her, in the end it was I who needed/wanted Sarah.

Sarah had the hand on the rudder. I’d call or write often, something I don’t often do. Needed a sounding board when necessities fell through or what initially seemed crucial fell into the visual junk drawer.

What couldn’t slip into this drawer were two photographs that would illustrate that darn graph. If there is any segment of photograph which spins towards the doldrum it’s that I don’t enjoy set-up portraits, preferring portraits to evolve naturally because they do. All the time.

With Mira having to leave Brazil, it was of prime importance to have someone else equally as talented to carry on for the final ten days — the portraits and other minor but important chunks.

During Part I of the assignment in November 2010, we were at an event heralding the importance of women’s roll to help pacify a poor and crime ridden area of Rio. It was there that we met an amazing salsa singer who was preforming at the gather, Thais Villela Lotado.

Had the honor of hearing Thais sing twice during the second half of the assignment. This evening, the diva took the stage at Semente Bar in the Lapa area of Rio. Thais' voice is off the charts amazing.

Between sessions we chatted with Thais — decided to wait out the entire event hoping something (anything) visually interesting would transpire. Nothing did.

Thais spoke very good English, had a fantastic sense of humor, was an astonishing singer and by chance was also a part-time journalist fixer. It helped that her partner was Tom Phillips, the talented British correspondent for the Guardian newspaper based in Rio. Last year the idea never crossed the mind to work with Thais, let alone if I’d ever see her during the second half of the story.

As fate would have it, months later we would spend some of the most productive and fantastic laugh-filled days together — we got along like two peas in a pod, two kids at a carnival.

Having three days with little to do before getting access to Globo, I suggest to Thais we rent a car, head into the countryside outside of Rio and basically get lost to see what life outside of big cities is like for women. Hadn't planned that this idea would actually physically get us lost — the GPS we rented was so lousy that we ended up driving for hours along a dirt road till getting stuck, along with another women with her daughter, due to a lorry running off the the rain-saturated road. Even with this mishap, we had loads of fun, listen to fantastic music and basically didn't find a darn thing all that interesting related to this very specific story — women farming, working at a store. So wife and I farm too. Sometimes one needs to turn over rocks in hope there's something under them. In this case, there was only mud.

The Graph

No matter how many families across the entire country fit the profile of the high to low fertility graph, it took weeks of preparation, brilliant fixers and transport-like logistics of Fedex to make these portraits happen.

Mira’s karma for happenstance is high. Early on in Part II of the assignment she discovered that a housekeeper she knew happened to have been one of six children. The mother was in her early 60’s and all her children lived outside of Rio de Janeiro. The housekeeper, Maria, and her mother, also named Maria, agreed to discuss with the various siblings about the portrait. It would be weeks before this portrait session could take place, not to mention we still hadn’t found the other end of the chart — a family with two children — but it felt, at the very least, the most involving part for this photograph was over.

With only five days left, Thais, organized cars and drivers to go by every home of the children which Maria do Livramento Braz had given birth to over the past 40 years. Maria, 61, said we would all meet at the home where all the children had grown up. It was located in small village around two hours outside of Rio. The process of bringing mom, all her descendant and ourselves to this village worked seamlessly. What we were not expecting became troubling — it wasn’t the mother’s home.

The house belonged to her eldest daughter, not at all in the village nor near Maria’s home.

It would have to do.

The room was tiny, poorly lit and it was about to rain. Equally challenging with the lack of light in the room, I hardly use flash — rarely does a strobe feel natural. More so, I don’t even know how to properly use a flash. Ironically there is always one Canon strobe in the Think Tank roller bag. It’s there, just in case, and never with any batteries in order to force its non-usage.

The portrait of Maria and her six children worked out fine, senza flash, though days later something was gnawing at me; The setting wasn’t proper.

It had to be the mother’s home.

With due diligence, Thais called everyone, explained the situation to Maria and her children and once more organized the transportation to reunite everyone, this time to the home where five of the six children had actually been brought into the world.

The stars were in alignment that day.

The ancestral home of Maria’s children was utterly quaint and hadn’t changed in decades. More accommodating, there was a doorway off the living room that led into a kitchen that also appeared unchanged since the 70’s. The doorway would allow for a sense of framing and depth in what otherwise would feel like a flat portrait of seven people packed into a 10 foot by 10 foot room. And lifting visual spirits even higher, it was a sunny day and on the wall hung a decent sized mirror. It would be used to bounce natural light through a window, onto the faces of Maria’s children, highlighting the graphs highest precipice.

With three days left — already extending my time on the ground past four weeks —  we still hadn’t accomplished the lower end of the graph; Today’s Brazilian family.

Thais had numerous friends who chose to only have one or two children. Photographing many, none really felt a match to Maria’s family portrait — with one family the son refused to even remotely sit still (fun but impractical), another family was perfect but the interior home setting was utterly confusing, another just turned out blah — not the family, the end result.

Balance lacking, these options would have to do. My sojourn to Brazil was ending.

The following is not fiction.

Two days previous, a friend — of a friend — of Thais said he knew of a woman who had six children. They lived in Rio. We arranged to do a second family of six portrait, just in case.

On the day of departure and only nine hours remaining, another unforeseeable twist transpired.

That morning, with luggage already packed in a Rio hotel, we photographed the large family. It was lovely but not as unique and fitting as Maria do Livramento Braz’s family. Still, it’s always good to have two options when the final editing begins.

What was astonishing is this…her six offspring each had only one or two children of their own, exactly mirroring the low end of the graph.

Rushing around Rio from house to house, sweating like a swine, we made family portraits of three of the sisters with their two-child offsprings. Maria Corrêa de Oliveira, a psychoanalyst in Rio, with her husband, daughter and son worked perfectly — the typical middle-upperclass minimalist home you’d see in novelas and a doorway leading to the study which framed the modern Brazilian family, as did the other Maria’s kitchen doorway.

The graph was illustrated. I could head home.

What began months earlier as a graph on an email attachment finally manifested itself in real life. Indeed the chart was correct, Brazil has found a honest, at times balanced and proper way, to help reduce its population footprint on our planet in a very powerful yet simple way many more countries could emulate — Women's Power.


All stories have their idiosyncrasies. None ever flow as planned. Few if any can be predetermined. Most meander mangled paths of unpredictability. Such routes make the struggles on both assignments and in life far more enchanting. Would be boring, monotonous, monotoned, if everything brilliant simply swirled around you. We need challenges. They make us stronger to see more. Quandaries pull us out on the limb to get the fruit.

With this latest challenge over, feeding the beast — it is an enjoyable beast to feed, roughly once every zodiac calendar cycle — it’s time to share a cup of coffee with my wife, Anastasia, enjoy the first days of fall rolling through the Berkshires and go harvest some vegetables.

The challenges of being a farmer flows pretty much like the hurdles of an assignment — bushels of pre-planning, labor of tilling, backaches of planting, frustration of tending, an acre of luck and the patience of time to nurture its growth.

September 17, 2011   9 Comments

The Soundtrack of Assignments

Musicians and photographers are a strange yet similar lot.

Passing the time on the bow a small boat crossing the Malacca Straits while working on the National Geographic story, Malacca Pirates. Knew this assignment would involve loads of boat travel, making the wooden friend an excellent companion. Photograph Courtesy of Yudhistira Dharama (aka, JP)



Balafon, cello, guitar, marimba, sitar, trumpet, voice…

DSLR, Holga, iPhone, pinhole camera, rangefinder, 6×6, view camera…



Chant, classical, folk, jazz, punk, rock, ska…

Advertising, architecture, art, fashion, paparazzi, photojournalism, sports…



After years of jamming in shit-hole bars, playing bland Bar Mitzvah’s or waiting tables, sometimes a musician gets a break, records a few meaningful albums then hits the road, sharing their music and message, performing night after night at their apex because people have paid good money to hear what touches their soul.

After toiling as an intern, self-funding projects by nearly living off of food stamps or working a few dull part-time jobs just to make ends meet, sometimes the photographer gets a break, does a number of short but meaningful assignments, then hits the road on longer projects, performing at their apex day after day because you’ve been hired to deliver nothing less.

The two professions are linked inextricably by the act of performing. Not as a rockstar — that only feeds an ego — but for the art and purpose of communication.



Photojournalist share another common thread with musicians, that of activism, helping bit by bit to turn the wheel of change.

We preform the roll of observer for others who cannot witness the event themselves. Images are the link which helps bind us collectively — a starving person in one part of the world is no different then a hungry neighbor up the road, yet if either plight is not witnessed, who would know to help? If no one documented the atrocities of war, how could those who perpetrate war crimes ever truly be held accountable? Were it not for those who often turn down more lucrative forms of photography, would important in-depth reportage on issues from the Congo or the foreclosure disaster in the United States ever become ink on paper or pixels on an iPad?

Having no witness begets the evils and weaknesses of humanity.

Had Paul Simon not produce the album, Graceland, how many more in our general population (especially outside of the continent) would have not known the oppression in South Africa, or would Stephen Biko have become a near globally recognized name for the enormous sacrifice he made where it not for Peter Gabriel’s 1980’s song, Biko, and his unflinching commitment to help end apartheid? Would the environmental movement not be were it is today without folk singer Pete Seeger? Would the plight for those in need in Bangladesh during the early 70’s not been raised to it’s global awareness without the efforts of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, or would the world have banded together magically on it’s own had Bob Geldof not ran himself ragged to pull off Live Aid in the 1985?

Both the musician and photographer exert passionately for hours on end. It is not work. It’s an obsession. A purpose. The notion of calling it work is as absurd as saying breathing or urinating is laborious.



Photographs and music have another definitive connection; They are benchmarks of time and history. When viewing the shocking Kent State massacre photograph, I become enraged, hearing songs such as Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Birds. Images from the Vietnam War, Joan Baez’s album Where Are you Now, My Son fills the head and Edwin Starr screams his anti-war anthem, WAR.

After years of being on the road, a pattern began to form — just as the music which played on the radio when I was a teenager become that years soundtrack of summer, the music heard while on the road forever becomes the soundtrack of that assignment. An audible link. A metaphor. A reference to time. Suddenly an album or song takes on new meaning, sometimes comical, other times weighted.


For instance…traveling in 1999 to the brothel-ridden southern border town of Ruili, China, for a Time Magazine story on border towns, translator and friend, Casper (yes, she choose her English name after the Friendly Ghost), commandeered the China Southern Airlines music player, tricking the stewardess that the cassette she had in hand was music everyone onboard would love. We jammed at 35,000 feet listening to the Doors blasting through the isle. Jim Morrison also accompanied us throughout the long car drives to the Burma border in Yunnan Province. Every time I think of Ruili or see the following photograph, I hear The Doors.

The last remaining traditional masseuse in the town of Ruili, China. Learned on this story never say you'll never revisit a place, returning a total of three times to this depressing town located along the Burma border. Young girls from throughout China and Burma are trafficked to this small village which, at least between 1999 and 2003, was basically one massive brothel. Oh, that last masseuse...he was gone a year after taking this photograph in 1999, replaced by another karaoke bar.

Vast amounts of heroin moves across the Burma/China border in Ruili, making it one of the most drug saturated cities in China. It's also the route of the B strain of HIV which then migrates north via truck drivers.



Driving through Central Java with my dearest of friends, Heri Yanto (Heri tragically passed away last year), we stumbled upon a cassette sold at a small warong (shop), that became our soundtrack to the National Geographic story, Volcano Gods. Since ancient Javanese spirituality and Ponorogan culture have connectable roots to Mount Merapi, it seemed mystically fitting that Music from Ponorogo would forever be heard every time I gander a photograph from that story, with it’s hypnotic suling (Javanese flute) and trance-like percussion.

Gunung (Mount) Merapi, erupting on May 15, 2006, in Central Java. Merapi is consider among Javanese spiritualist to be mystical and sacred. And thank you, Ed Wray, for letting me use your 300mm lens for this photograph. 50mm is normally the longest lens I tot around and Ed, one of the kindest photographers I know — and an extremely talented photographer — was generous to lend me his lens for a few frame, one of which became the cover image for this story. On a side note, being so engrossed with the various layers of spirituality while working on Volcano Gods, my wife and I named our daughter, Francesca Merapi Stanmeyer.

Reok Ponorogo culture has been around for centuries. Here a member of the group, donning elaborate makeup and a fake beard, waits to perform in the Jatilan, a sacred dance held in May 2006 in hopes to calm the restless ogre believed to reside in Mount Merapi.

Ancient Javanese ceremony where rice offerings (tumpengs) are carried to a river flowing from Merapi. The offer was to try was to try and protect a village located 2 kilometers from the erupting volcano.

Ancient Javanese ceremony where rice offerings (tumpengs) are carried to a river flowing from Merapi. The offering were intended to try and protect a village located 2 kilometers from the erupting volcano.

My dear friend, Heri Yanto, during our three-day visit to Mount Bromo in East Java. Heri and I worked together throughout Indonesia and parts of Malaysia for over 10 year. He passed away last year from diabetes, an illness he never told me had.



And for some odd reason while covering the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, James Taylor’s album, October Road, became the soundtrack while moving through some of the most precarious roads ever traveled with my friend Raza Khan (Raza also tragically passed away a few years back). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the most amazing qawali singer ever, shared speaker time, however somehow October Road united with the harsh yet staggering landscape. Think it had to do with witnessing so much loss and suffering, finding hope and love in the track, September Grass.

Evening prayers amidst the ruined mosque in Balakot, Pakistan, after an major earthquake hit Kashmir on October 8, 2005. The entire region was leveled. Truly depressing what happens when the earth shakes.

With the bridge over the Pattika River hanging only by a few remaining cables, it didn't stop the needs of the people who survived the earthquake.

Praying over freshly made graves in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, one day after a massive earthquake rocked the Kashmiri region.

Raza Khan waiting for me to get a hair cut amongst the destroyed remains of a barber shop in Balakot, Pakistan. Raza and I worked together for nearly 10 years. In hostel regions such as along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, he swore to protect me, no matter what, often saying emphatically "I will die for you, Brother John!" Raza didn't have to die for me. He tragically died in a auto accident while driving my colleagues Lynsey Addario and Teru Kuwayama back to Islamabad from an assignment they were working on in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Fortunately Lynsey and Teru survived. I miss Brother Raza dearly.



While packing just over two weeks ago — at the very last minute, of course — for an assignment in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the need for choosing the right soundtrack was paramount…it would require driving throughout much of Washington State, the Oregon coast and possibly Northern California.

In many ways, the decision was more weighted then the gear that still needed packing: underwater camera housing, special tripod clamps, oddball cables, gaffers tape, camping gear, mozzie net, etc.

In fact organizing the camera bits are simple.

It’s the choice of music which often takes the weight of thought and time.

Music — and far more kit then normally is brought on an assignment — selected for last weeks National Geographic assignment in the Pacific Northwest.

Rummaging through the music library, slowly and methodically, the audio narrative took shape. Here is what Part I of the assignments musical accompaniment sounded like:


Peter Gabriel – US

Neil Young – Harvest

Tchaikovsky – Symphony #6

Pigmy Chants of Central Africa – Hunting, Love and Mockery Songs

Musicians of the Nile – Luxor to Isna

Taking Heads – Stop Making Sense

Japanese Shakuhachi – Japanese flute music

Sundanese – Batawi

Frank Sinatra – Greatest Hits

U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Górecki – Miserere

Sundanese – Classical Music

Dave Matthews Band – Live in Central Park


The CD player of the Chevy Traverse become the epicenter of musical timekeeping, naturally heralding, in it’s own time, an album that would become the soundtrack for part one of this latest National Geographic story.

Jabbering incessantly on geology, devising our own audible manual to assemble rather complex foldable Folbot kayaks and the recounting of past peculiar events, forester Dave and I were only able to enjoy around 70 percent of the audio enlightenment; Japanese Shakuhachi, U2, Sundanese, Talking Heads, Pigmy Chants of Central Africa, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon, each selected by Dave and played in that order over long drives through some rather stunning Pacific Northwestern landscape. A week ago we were still on the road at 1:30 am with the only place open for dinner being a 7-11 for hot dogs and chips — U2 and a cup of weak joe kept me awake for another hour, barely. Damn, sure live high on the hog while on NG assignments, don’t we.

Dave Yamaguchi enjoying dinner consisting of water, a hot dog and chips, at the pumps of a 7-11 somewhere on the outskirts of Olympia, Washington.



Allowing the music to decide what will forever be indelibly referenced as the soundtrack to the 1,400+ miles of driving, a near regular ritual begins, preformed after every story, arising most specifically while flying home, this time lost in clouds hovering over the Cascade Mountains — reflecting on what has been photographed and what lies ahead.

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains on Southwest flight #210 from Seattle to Chicago.

The most invocation-filled moments — along with non-photography bits, like this blog entering completion — tends to happen on planes. Though the carbon footprint is obscene (sadly, it’s impractical to walk from the farm in New England westward to Seattle, Washington…Louis and Clark took over a year back in 1804-05 just from Ohio to Oregon), there’s a certain sense of peace found in planes.

Sick, right.

Maybe it’s because there’s nowhere to go. Maybe it’s the hum of the engines playing on the consciousness with its monotoned drone. Maybe it’s the lack of distractions. Really haven’t a clue. But I’m truly balanced and at peace while being in the belly of a bird…and giddy as a school boy in lederhosens during each take off and landing with the bizarre notion of being encased in what basically is a 10-story building, turned on its side, with two flat sticks on either side.

Oh yeah, and it flies.



One thing is for certain…I don’t sense this story — which had significant hurdles to overcome during the last two weeks — will change the world. Unfortunately it’s not going to end hunger nor put a halt to wars. However the purpose of this story, like so many others we all do, is to help us think. Think about our future related to events which can happen to many of us, in turn hopefully saving lives.

A bit of a tall order indeed. One at the very least should be tried, helping, if possible, to turn the cog just ever so slightly further, awaiting the next hand to turn the wheel of change.




PS: Least I forget; Thank you, Kōhachiro Miyata, for fusing your fluid style of shakuhachi with the State of Washington while driving at dusk along Route 8 towards the coast. And to Frank, The Chairman of the Board, dripping your velvet voice while driving under moonlight along the Pacific Coast Highway (Rt. 101) in Oregon, embossing soundtracks to the White Horse along the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

July 21, 2011   2 Comments

Why Choose a Holga? Part II – The Tortoise

Extremely fast moving — Young Bali Aga men use sharply thorned pandan leaves to fight each other during the Perang Pandan ritual in Tenganan Village. Thrashing one another until severely bleeding, the participants do this to show their respect to Dewa Indra (god of war).

A rangerfinder is a lapdog, always faithful, a stalwart.

A digital SLR is a rabbit, blisteringly fast, hard worker.

A Holga is a land tortoise, staggeringly slow, a meditative beast.

If there was a contemporary symbol added in Chinese astrology — reminding us to slow down in these gigabyte blasting, hard drive stuffing days — it should be a giant land turtle.

When choosing a Holga for the book, Island of the Spirits, it was deliberate act in order to delve into a mindset of not only looking back in time from the perspective of the present, the decision also was to slow things down.

Here’s why: A 64 GB flash card equals roughly 60+ rolls of 35 mm or 180+ fills of 120 mm film into space smaller than a cracker.

In some ways such a massive table to work on is liberating…near limitless photography where batteries will need changing before ever considering the need to change film.

Troublesome in other ways — one can end up producing far too much food to choose from on that table, allowing the weakness of being human to consume more tasteless excess than needed, hindering the mystery and depth found in patients to see (often time sooner) the more flavorful dishes buried amongst the excess. Decelerating also avoids the hours spent in a hotel room working off the gorging from a day’s visual consumption.

Even worse…a lack of moderation can lead to never finding your visual voice.

The protracted pace of the Holga forces you slow down simply by its idiosyncrasies, which can be welcoming*.

Slowing down to a turtles pace while photographing a multitude of ceremonies in Bali had its ying but also a weighted yang;

How to photograph certain spiritual events which at times moved quickly while using a camera that moves film as if dancing tango with your partner in heavy mud?

Cremation ceremonies can last all day, sometimes at a glacial pace. Other times, briskly.

Thousands descend upon sacred water sources during Melasti (cleansing) ceremonies, with many entering rapidly into dramatic states of trance.

Melasti ceremonies start slow but once worshipers enter into a state of trance, it can be like photographing a sprinters.

How to solve the frame past number 12 with a camera that can take 2-4 minutes just to change film?

Solution: Five Holga’s and one assistant, deftly changing rolls of 120 film, turning the tortoise and all it’s pensive but laborious wisdom into a zen-like animal of fluid photographic efficiency.

Five varying models of Holga's were used to create the photographs of the Island of the Spirits.

Throughout the five years it took to photograph Island of the Sprits there were two truly wonderful friends who assisted in making this book actually happen. Bli Wayan Tilik and Bli Yudhistira Dharma, better known in the Indonesian photographic community as JP.

Wayan and/or JP came with me to each and every wedding, cremation, tooth filing, land blessing, spiritual event for the book. Neither of them had ever used a Holga let alone worked with 120 film before.

Appreciating the light leak effects which the Holga naturally creates, I was more interested in deciding the outcome of photographs, not have the camera create the feel of each image with random acts of fogging. To do so, it was imperative to ensure the porous shell of each Holga was completely sealed with electrical tape. There was also deft skill needed to make sure the often loosely spooled rolls of film was somehow tightly sealed before opening the camera back. It required all sorts of beguiling objects taped or glued to the exposed film area inside the camera — FYI, earlier Holga’s didn’t come with the small pieces of foam in present models.

To achieve success also meant finding shade, which is challenging when photographing in a geographic location 8 degrees below the equator.

In the beginning we had hit and miss results but over time JP and Wayan quickly learned techniques and tricks to sustain a fairly consistent level of unfogged film.

Often times looking like an overly decorated Christmas tree, it was this ability to always have 2-3 pre-loaded cameras around my neck (or at least in reach) which helped achieve a fluid flow of photography when events called for nonstop photography.

Photographing a gamelan orchestra using three Holga's while also making a binaural recording of the music with microphones placed in each ear. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S. Bintoro

By no means can one move massive amount of film with a Holga as can be done with a DSLR or even a rangefinder film camera. It defeats it’s purpose. But there were days during truly astonishing event filled ceremonies where we’d get back to the studio and realize there were 20-25 rolls of film in the film bag…and for a Holga, that’s seemed staggering — a whopping 240-300 photographs.

Photographing, slowly, the bathing ritual during a cremation ceremony in Ubud. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S. Bintoro

When photographing with the Holga, I often times made field recordings. The rituals were of course stunning to witness but the audible essence of Balinese spirituality and culture was equally hypnotizing. Here’s a short binaural recording of gamelan performed by a 30-piece orchestra during a cremation in Ubud, Bali:

[wpaudio url=” at a Cremation Ceremony.mp3″ text=”Gamelan at a Cremation Ceremony” dl=”0″]
(iPhone and iPad)

While changing film and totting 1-2 extra camera bodies, JP or Wayan would also carry the Fostex and an Audio Technica microphone, recording ambience from the periphery, while I had binaural microphones in my ears connected to an Edirol, freeing the hands to work the camera while recording truly three dimensional sound.

JP making field recordings with the Fostex and Audio-Technica microphone while I photograph with a Holga during a cremation ceremony in Ubud. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S Bintoro

Wayan Tilik making an audio recording of musicians performing gamelan music after a barong blessing in central Bali.

Once back in studio, the slow pace of the Holga didn’t stop. There was processing of film, cataloging, archiving, toning, audio archiving and a whole host of other tasks ahead, often requiring similar patients and wisdom found when using the Holga in the field. 

Part III of Why Choose a Holga (on post production and how working with a Holga influenced my other photography) in about two weeks time. For now, the plane is landing in Baltimore and a steward is about to go postal if not shutting down.




To view some of Lukman Bintoro’s photography, visit his blog.

Reminder: I’ll be teaching a 9-day workshop in Bali between August 11-19, 2011. If you’re interested in taking your photography further, being guided through in-depth storytelling and seeking more insight into working with a Holga, this is a workshop not to miss. Visit the workshops section for registration and more details. Hope to see you then.


* For an average National Geographic story, it’s not unusual for me to produce (when working over the course of 8-10 weeks) 25,000 or more photographs. That’s an average of round 360 photographs a day or only 10 rolls of 36 exposure film…which truly makes the Holga a tortoise compared to the hare.


May 19, 2011   4 Comments

Why Choose a Holga?

Royal Cremation Ceremony, Ubud, Bali 2004

A few weeks ago, an interesting question was asked on Facebook, inspiring this discussion connected to the book, Island of the Spirits.

Doug Thacker wrote:

“John, would you care to discuss in detail, here or elsewhere, the process of choosing the Holga for this work; and how using this camera changed your work habits?”

Suppose one takes initial impulses for granted at times, in this case the choice between a Holga over a conventional 35mm or 6×6 camera. To be honest, I never recall thinking much about the decision. It was a deliberative choice right at the onset of this five year project: I wanted to present a body of work on a very unique and ancient culture, allowing the viewer to have one foot rooted in centuries of unchanged religious and cultural practices, while having the other foot firmly planted in the present.

The Holga — a stellar and very powerful camera — allowed me to do just that.

Doug’s request (along with Tobie’s similar request from Taiwan) made me recall something which might illustrate this decision a bit clearer, or even open up a fascinating debate.

Digging through the archive the other day, I came upon a frame taken with a digital Canon camera from the exact ceremony and nearly exact angle of one of the photographs in the book, taken with film on a Holga.

Thanks to digital metadata details — which I rarely look at — this ceremony happened on March 29, 2006.

It was the day before Nyepi (the day of silence) when melasti or cleansing ceremony happening all across the island. In the village were I use to live, Banjar Tandeg, the local temple was literally a two minute walk from our home and an all day ceremony was reaching a climax. At this lovely temple — my neighbors praying and worshiping, some in trance, stabbing themselves with kris’s, incense whirling while the gamelan orchestra clanged to an intense rhythm  — there was line of priest deep in prayer. One of the priests use to work for us. We called him Made Mystic because he was security guard by day, a priest and shaman at all other times.

I recall clearly the moment both of these photographs were taken…the light was falling fast. According to the metadata of the digital image (below, right), it was 655pm and already was pushing the film for the Holga two stops, the available light simply not enough for the fixed f8 lens of this rangefinder. Working the low light as long as I could — even at times using a Holga body with a clipped shutter spring to work in bulb mode (before Holga’s came with a bulb setting) — I asked my friend and assistant, Wayan Tilik, to hand me the Canon camera…the setting was so peaceful and rich in layered warm light.

The end result in color is fine and meaningful in it’s own right — rich golden yellow umbrellas, neutral whites, hints of dark reds in the temples bricks mirroring almost the tonal hues of the women on the far right dress and Made Mystics sarong hanging from his waste. But it just didn’t present the historicity of events occurring across Bali…a society deeply connected to centuries of unchanged traditions, holding (somehow) onto those roots during the present bombardment of development and modernity sweeping across the island. It color felt too simple. Too straightforward. Too expectant.

Holga on left, Canon 1DS Mark II on right

There have been countless color coffee-table books made about Bali. Very few (other than a fascinating book titled Bali Sacred & Secret by Gill Marais) made me feel or understand the enormity existing all around me. Color photography presented the weight and measure of Balinese society in too simple of a form. Yes, it had meaning and purpose as a visual message, however I wanted to create a document, a testimonial reference, able to remind the Balinese just how astonishing their culture actually is, especially at a time where dramatic changes are taking place across the island, effecting traditions or which one day might erode culture.

My assistant, Wayan, would help me edit hundreds of rolls of film taken with the Holga. Often times he would come up to me say “Bli” (brother in Balinese), “I never realized how beautiful and special my culture really is until seeing these photos.”

At that moment I knew I’d done my job.

Wayan Tilik carrying a Holga at a ceremony held
at his families home in Tabanan. No clue why
Wayan’s standing on a chair

There are other reasons for choosing the Holga. It’s a rangefinder, not a toy camera. It’s very meditative to work with rangefinders, composing, working slower and actually seeing the photograph you’re taking. The natural fingerprint of the Holga shares space with dreams and poetry.

Next posting on this topic I’ll touch on how or if using the Holga changed my work habits as well as some insights into how I actually work with Holgas, usually 4-5 bodies at one time, while juggling audio, even video.

Feel free to present additional questions to topic and I’ll expand upon this theme if there’s interest.


May 2, 2011   7 Comments