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.
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.
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.
This bland graph — like a connect-the-dots game gone wrong — would become the visual guide for what needed to be illustrate:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hot pink and highest of high-heals.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“What’s it like photographing a National Geographic story?”
It’s a question frequently asked and to be honest, a rather intriguing one because a National Geographic story — the process from beginning to conclusion — is not always what we might think.
For one thing, I tend to get very wet and ruin equipment.
Often extremely dirty.
And working 10-14 hours each day for usually four to five weeks straight, utterly exhausted.
In what will become a multi-month series, I’ll try to demystify the experience, sharing insight and nuances on how such long-term projects originate until the magazine arrives in your mail slot, starting now with a latest story I’m about to begin for National Geographic.
But there’s a catch…due to contractual reasons, photographers who work for NGM cannot share the details of stories we’re working on. So this latest story will be nicknamed, White Horse. Like any publication, National Geographic wants to herald the issue being reported. Makes complete sense. These blog postings will only have vague references regarding the next two to three months that will make up this entire assignment, explaining in further detail the processes of an NG assignment using previous stories I’ve done for this amazing yellow-bordered magazine.
Nearly all non-breaking news stories I work on tend to evolve much like this:
A conjecture or notion.
Every photographer needs a file folder in a cabinet or a folder on their computer titled “Story Ideas”.
In mine, there resides around 20 or so subfolders listing various topics of intrigue, interest or importance. Some have languished for years, gathering bits of details here and there if the topic is extremely obscure or not well documented.
Other story folders are chockablock full of research, waiting to be dusted off and turned into a one page proposal.
And there are story proposal which jettison out of nowhere — while sleeping, out walking or sitting upon seat D in row 57 on a long-haul flight trying to keep blood circulating in cramped legs, scribbling ideas on airliners napkins or painstakingly tapped with butterfinger thumbs on an iPhone note until expanding later.
Yet other stories, like the White Horse, arrive as a telephone call or email.
The ones which most often come to meaningful fruition are the notions that never exist on paper or in electronic form. They lay wedged in the subconscious, waiting for events or issues from around the world (or in our own backyards) to transpire, causing a near Vegas Strip of neon to switch on when the moment of solidification happens.
We’ll begin with one such notion that wallowed about in the noggin, evolving months later — and very quickly — into a story for National Geographic that was published in the June 2009 issue.
Have written a bit about this story a few weeks ago from the perspective of a fellow farmer and our collective global connectivity. This time, the we’ll dissect how such a complex story actually manifests.
It goes a bit like this…while living in Asia for over 12 years I would, on average, make one or two visits a year to the United States. It was late 2007 and while visiting either Washington, DC, or the in-laws in Florida, I couldn’t help but notice that the cost of food — both at grocery stores and in restaurants — was getting noticeably expensive, or at least the wallet was feeling pricier foodstuffs. Asking a slew of questions to anyone willing to listen — along with digging for statistics related to the rate of inflation, personal income, fuel prices and other more basic nuts and bolts humanizing questions — I began to see a trend forming; Salaries hadn’t increased in America commensurate to the rate of inflation. Beyond the insane rise in housing prices between 1996 and 2007 (we all know what happened a year later), another item which we cannot live without had suddenly increased — food. That was the first seed to be planted in cranium.
A few months later, riots began to break out in Haiti, Egypt and parts of Western Africa over rising food costs. Second seed or file stored within a ventricle.
Days after returning from another U.S. visit in April 2008 and while jibber jabbering with neighbors, the topic somehow steered to the rising expense of living on Bali, most specifically, the cost of food. Even our friends, Lady Made and Ibu Komang, were explaining that they were having trouble affording meat. And the cost of rice had significantly increased in recent months. These discussions mirrored not only what my neighbors were sharing, they were the exact same concerns my wife and I were experiencing: For the price of foodstuffs on Bali had indeed increased in a very conspicuous way. Beyond my unscientific polling, food riots were also breaking out in Jakarta.
One evening while lying in bed, it hit like a ton a lead; A significant rise in the cost of the most basic needs we as humans require for survival had rather suddenly, and without much warning, spread like wildfire across the entire planet.
In North America, citizens where paying more for food but were able to cushion the blow by using credit or steering away from all natural and premium items, therefore holding back the bane of every governments concern — population unrest.
However in Haiti — already crippled in some of the most brutalist forms of poverty on earth — the population had reached it’s tipping point.
Egypt had also reached such a apex with riots breaking out across the country. By the way, many might think that the revolution which ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was connected to the populations angst against his 30-year reign. Yes, that was a major part of it once 2011 arrived. However it’s roots connect to the Egyptian peoples inability to afford food.
These issues, along with my concerns of how to feed my own family, caused these various story files lodged in gray matter to come tumbling out.
Bursting out of bed, in about three minutes I hammered out an initial story proposal to then director of photographer, David Griffin. It poured faster then pasta strainer releases water.
Normally I’ll read, reread…rereading again and again…any story proposal. For goodness sakes, even for a basic Facebook post, at the very least I’ll double, even triple check, before clicking share!
Not this letter.
When closing the email to David with “All is best, John”, I hit send.
Here is the exact copy of the rapidly penned email…filled with grammar errors, line spacing issues and far too many I’s then preferred (not much into the essence of self):
The next morning, resting in the inbox, was a response from David.
Can’t find that email (had a server meltdown around that time, loosing scores of received emails from 2008) but his response was short and to the point. Will try to paraphrase:
John, how ironic. We’re thinking along the same lines internally. Would like you to do this story. More soon. D
Having a story idea approved is always a stupendous and appreciative moment. Even the most benign and shortest story should be relished as if it were a quarter of a million dollar grant to photograph anything you believe in. No story is too short nor too long to not be utterly committed. Suppose this approach makes sense, especially if you had a mother and father hammer the reality of life at a young age — “Be thankful for what you have, John!”
What begins next in the story process is actually one of the most important and utterly enjoyable bits in the entire process — Research.
Photography on very convoluted stories often flows like this: 70 percent research/logistics, 20 percent serendipity…and 10 percent photography.
It’s one thing to pen up a story proposal based upon research collected from news stories, books, feelings and direct observation. A proposal next evolves into a “Oh shit, now I have to make this happen!”
Some stories visually speak for themselves — war/conflict, social revolutions, famine and other event driven stories are primarily (though not all) about recording the occurrence transpiring before us. Long term photography projects are meditative, layered and protracted.
They can also be riddled in logistics, especially when it’s a story being told from many locations, like the food crisis would become.
With the story approved, heavy pondering began — “How, with all the weight and measure possible, do I tell this story?”
Of utmost important was the need to link deeply layered social issues to the growing food crisis. It spread across many countries and levels of society. The research needed exploring on topics such as health, environment, hope, need and change. Of paramount importance was in making sure the visual narrative expanded upon these various issues rather then repeat a similar theme/issue in each location.
Prior to this stage of the process, it seemed natural and somewhat simple to accomplish what had been penning via the email to David. Now the story had gone full circle, resting primarily on my lap to make it happen.
Cartographers are geniuses. If having not been pre-wired to be a photographer, I’d likely be a musician. But if told to decide what to do in life, it would be a geologist or a cartographer.
Maps are windows into the physical essence of our planet, a roadmap to follow for our imagination and souls. No matter where we come from, no matter what period of history we lived, the same question will have been uttered; What lies over that mountain? Who lives across this body of water? Where does this road lead to?
Maps also show what often divides us.
A few years ago I made the plunge and ordered one of those massive National Geographic wall maps.
Previous to having such a large open wall space in the barn, I used the fantastic National Geographic World Atlas, a book worth every Cent and Rupiah. It’s extremely detailed, large enough to read and still light enough to tot around your home or apartment.
Sarah Leen is a truly magnificent photo editor to work with at the Geographic — and an amazing photographer in her own right, having photographed 15 stories of the magazine. She has one of the best mantras ever: “John, Geography is in the name of the magazine. You gotta get some geography!”
Sarah’s right. And her voice, espousing as a guide, is often rolling around in the head, murmuring — sometimes screaming — while photographing as a reminder to think well beyond just a narrow view of a much broader topic.
So while getting lost within a map (no passport required), geography always ends up playing a key part in every story, especially when paving the foundation on the global topic of food:
Philippines— Unable to grow enough rice to feed it’s population, yet with the rise in commodity prices, I had stumbled upon a small newspaper article about the younger generation in the Banaue rice terraces of Northern Luzon who were actually wanting to be farmers. There was good money to be earned and most in the Philippines needed local jobs — one yellow Post-It.
The Midwest— United States is the breadbasket to the world as well as located in the Land of Excess. Have to highlight the Midwestern farmer as well as food leaving the mouth and into a cars stomach — second yellow Post-It.
Brazil and China — Kurt Mutchler (then the Assistant Director of Photography and now the Director of Photography at NGM) was the editor on this story. Kurt, along with his assistant, Whitney Hall, were brilliant at helping research. Kurt and Whitney, along with the astounding mind of Executive Editor, Dennis Dimick (who is passionate about the topic of food and was the one thinking “internally” about this topic), looked at some of the layers which connected the global food web; Brazil was shipping soybeans to China to support this Asian nation’s rise in economic strength — and meat was on plates more than ever in China’s history. Whitney, via the help of an excellent fixer, was able to find a massive ship in Brazil which was going to take soybeans from the Port of Vitoria to Southern China, an amazing feat to find. While in Brazil, I took the rise in food grain demand further by also focusing on the dramatic increase in the destruction of the Amazon, where new farmland was replacing ancient growth forests — two yellow Post-It’s.
Peru — While in South America, it made sense to look for other aspects on how we feed ourselves. Whitney found an obscure and unique topic: The government of Peru was finding a new and organic way to increase food yields by collecting guano (bird shit) from a chain of rocky islands off the coast near Lima. It was being used in their agricultural industry in replace of chemical fertilizers. A success story, adding something lateral to the narrative — one yellow Post-It.
India — Dennis, the environmental guru master (he writes an excellent blog titled Signs from Earth Notes, well worth reading), helped guide me on the importance — and failures — of the Green Revolution. The Punjab region in the 1960’s and 70’s became the breadbasket for India, allowing the South Asian nation for the first time in generations to be able to grow enough food to feed their entire country. But there was a dark side to this dawn of pesticides and fertilizers…birth defects and lowering the water table — another yellow Post-It.
Bangladesh — Kurt and I had a meeting with a World Bank food specialist who happened to be Bangladeshi. Can no longer remember his name but over the 30 or so minutes we chatted, one word echoed like a tympani: Monga. Monga is a term used to describe a season in Bangladesh when weather patterns change, causing a dramatic influx of water from melting ice in the Himalayas to rush through the northern region of the country, ruining farm land, causing displacement and disrupting the food supply. It was also in this part of South Asia where we could best understand the difficulties of trying to live — let alone feed your family — on just $2 USD or less a day. Combine weather pattern changes and poverty with the rising cost of food and you have this very simple yet weighted understanding that effects over 2 billion — yes, over TWO BILLION — fellow human beings on our planet:
If you earn roughly $2 dollar a day, 70% of that income ends up going to food. When food prices increase by 30-40%, how do you feed yourself?
You slowly start to starve — a depressing yellow Post-It note.
Egypt — The riots in the Middle East had ended by the time I started this story in late June 2008, but I didn’t want to let that important topic go so easily. There had to be lingering ramification on the rise in food costs in Egypt. Kurt wasn’t too keen on the idea but was able to convince him it was crucial to try and would only go for a few days while flying home from India. In my typical approach, I would stay in a shitty hotel to save costs — I despise the idea of spending hundreds of dollars a night staying in fancy hotels just to rest for 6-8 hours. With the help of my friend, Issam, we found a brilliant hole-in-the wall place which was smack up against the amazing pyramids of Giza. Cost $15 per night, con baño. And sure enough within a day, we came upon the opening image of the story, illustrating the reality of what happens each morning when a nation of millions cannot afford to feed themselves — another yellow Post-It.
Ethiopia — The writer, Joel Bourne, wanted to highlight grassroots agro efforts in Timbuktu, Mali. An excellent success story yet visually mute. I’d already chosen to highlight the success of the Northern Philippines, the rice bank of seeds just outside Manila and the rise of organic fertilizers from Peru. Summonsing all the visual mind power possible — no matter how romantic it would seem to visit Timbuktu — I just couldn’t see how to make rice farming in Mali all that interesting. Instead, I wanted to highlight the forgotten: The over half a billion who are surviving on $1 or less a day. Who are the people who simply cannot afford to eat? Hadn’t planned to highlight Ethiopia because the country had made significant strides in feeding its population since the famine in the 80’s. But in the Horn of Africa, weather change was wrecking havoc, causing tens of thousands to go hungry. Under reported and with little knowledge where to go, Kurt said “go visit the new commodities exchange that has just opened in Addis Ababa (a success story) and if there’s time, see what you can find further afield” — last yellow Post-It.
After weeks of reading every document I could get my hands on, most of it blandly scholastic, strewed across a map like notes on sheet music where nine yellow Post-It’s, lacing together what would become the visual narrative of the global food crisis or what ended up in the magazine being called “The End of Plenty“.
What happens next?
Pulling It Off
In a few weeks time we’ll delve into the logistics on how to accomplish such large stories— within budget — using the Sacred Water story which ran in the April 2010 issue. Sacred Water, even more logistically complex then End of Plenty, was photographed in over 12 countries during a 10-week period. Will also highlight the true unsung heros of the photojournalism world, The Fixers, who without their patients, guidance, courage and skills, none of us could ever do the work we do.
Till then, need to get back to researching this latest story, White Horse, that arrived via an email two weeks ago, connecting circumstances which took place around five years ago, 53 years ago, over 300 years and other instances prior. Utterly fascinating though dripping in academic jargon and monochrome graphs.
Gnawing to get out from under the weight of books, PDF’s, websites and more email traffic then can ever be recalled, to get behind the camera next week in a region of the world I’ve never been to before, the Pacific Northwest of North America. Equally romantic and intriguing as if heading to Timbuktu.
But there’s a challenge: How to make the White Horse visually interesting while photographing circumstances which happened eon’s ago?
Have learned over the years that nearly every National Geographic magazine story is like producing a doctoral thesis.
Wouldn’t want it any other way.
June 30, 2011 60 Comments