Henna Hands

I captured this image at the foot of the Taj Mahal in March, 2002. Helen and I were at the tail end of nearly a year of traveling around the world on $30/day between the two of us (airfare, scuba diving and our one safari in Kenya were outside of that budget). In all, we spent two full days inside the Taj Mahal compound, watching the light change, Helen sketching in her diary, me taking the occasional photograph (see: limitations of shooting with film).

At one point during the first day, with the crowds picking up and the light directly above and probably at it’s least interesting, Helen and I ventured forward, removed our shoes and walked inside the mausoleum itself. Seeing the chamber built for the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal is a required visit, but the comparatively small space is less impressive than the building itself.

I was happy to get back outside, into the sunshine and where I could soak in the building’s famous exterior. That’s when I noticed this well-appointed woman and her tattooed hands.

As is my way, I approached her with my camera hanging from my neck. I smiled, pointed to her hands, and told her they were beautiful. She smiled and let me know it’s part of the wedding custom – she was getting married there, at the Taj Mahal. I asked if I could photograph her hands and that’s when she held out her hands as you see here.

I’ve since learned that this form of henna tattoo is called “mehndi” and is part of a larger Hindu wedding tradition. Among other folklore, one theory has it that the darker the henna, the more the bride will be loved by her husband and respected by her new in-laws. Perhaps one beloved tradition is that the bride isn’t allowed to do any work until the mehndi has faded away. In effect, across all fronts, darker is better.

Of course, the dark henna, meant to impress her husband and ward off the start of any work, was perfect for my camera and black and white film. What’s remarkable for me in the image is how all the elements come together – the intricate, dense and dark patterns painted on her hands offset by the also intricate but light and airy patterns on her sari, all separated by her symmetrical arms and series of bright bangles.

This is one of those images where everything came together in an instant to create, what for me, is the perfect moment. Shooting film – a resource I doled out carefully during a year of backpacking around the world – combined with the woman’s graciousness and clearly limited time, I took exactly one frame of her hands.

Clearly, I’m happy with how it worked out.

Reclining Buddha

I captured this image in 2002 at the Ajanta caves outside of Aurangabad, India. Helen and I were in the final three months of a year of traveling out of small backpacks and on $30/day between the two of us. It was a great trip – as Mark Twain once said, “adventure is discomfort misremembered.”

We landed in Bombay after a flight from Zanzibar (flights, SCUBA and safaris were outside of our daily $30 budget). And after five days in and around Bombay, our first challenge was to find our way to Aurangabad.

Enter our first experience with the Indian train system. For perspective, the Indian train system was once the single largest employer in the world and is still in the top ten (the US Defense Department is now the world’s largest employer). And consider that the Indian train system moves considerably more people than it employs. With this as a backdrop, Helen and I entered the central station in Bombay, successfully queued up and purchased two second class tickets to Aurangabad.

This, it turned out, was the easy part. Finding our way to the correct track and train, on the other hand, proved a nearly insurmountable challenge. All the signs pointing to different trains and tracks were written in Hindi script. I stopped a handful of people and asked them each in English if they could point me to the train to Aurangabad. English is not an official language in India, but it’s still there, lurking in the background among the educated class – a holdover from India’s days as a British colony.

Still, no luck. Everyone I asked just shook their head and flipped one hand, palm side up, in the universal Indian expression that roughly translates to “I have no idea what you’re saying.”

A bit anxious about missing our train and in a bit of desperation, I turned to the next well dressed Indian man I saw, embarrassingly adopted my best Indian accent and asked if he could direct us to the train to Aurangabad. To my delight and astonishment, my accent did the trick. We finally were pointed in a general direction and given a track number.

There wasn’t much to the town of Aurangabad. We stayed in a dusty hotel that sat right between the Ellora Temple and the Ajanta Caves. I’ll admit it, the Ellora Temple held me in sway. Helen and I had seen the rock-cut churches of Lalibella in Ethiopia several months earlier and the Ellora temple is India’s answer to that great Ethiopian treasure. Cut out of a single hillside of rock, the Ellora temple with it’s many floors, large elephant guardians and other intricate grandeur is truly a wonder of the world.

Helen and I spent a day exploring the Ellora Temple got a good night’s sleep and tackled the Ajanta caves the next morning. The caves date back to the 2nd century BCE and contain some of the oldest known Indian cave paintings. There are 28 caves in all, each representing a different Indian Monastery from the ancient era – and all the caves were consumed by the jungle and rediscovered by a British army officer during a hunting expedition in 1819.

The caves were each different, each amazing and many contained ancient drawings and carvings. That said, by the time we reached cave 20, I was feeling a bit worn out and tired of spending so much time indoors. As amazing as the Ajanta caves were, they paled in comparison to the grandeur of the Ellora Temple we had explored just the day before. Of course, having made the trek to Aurangabad, and being there in that amazing place, Helen and dutifully entered each open cave and in order – after all, we didn’t want to miss anything.

When we entered cave 26, we knew why we were there, at the caves, and walking in and exploring each of them. There, carved into the far wall near the entrance was this amazing reclining Buddha. The light shone in through the opening and cast an perfect waft of light across the Buddha from head to toe.

I pulled my camera to my eye and considered the light, my film speed and the composition. This was long before digital photography and back when the light limits of our cameras were defined by a combination of the aperture (lens opening) and film speed (ASA). You could push the film, essentially fake the film out and pretend you were shooting one that performed better in lower light. You’d then process the film differently in the lab. But the trade off was in the clarity of the image (it deteriorated the more you pushed the film) and the fact that the entire role of 36 frames would need to be shot and processed differently.

Bearing in mind that I carried 12-15 rolls of film with me at any given time, and considering that I would shoot perhaps six frames of this Buddha – at most – pushing the film was out of the question.

All told, given the light and the lens I had, I needed to shoot with the shutter open for a full second. Without a tripod. That’s an insane length of time to hold the camera steady. But seeing the Buddha and the light before me, I knew I had to try. To get this picture, I braced myself against the opposing wall, pressed the camera tight against my face, took a deep breath, held it, and slowly pressed the trigger – concentrating on the Buddha and trying to channel all the calm and inner peace that I could in that moment.

I’m very pleased with the result – and, of note, one of the limited edition prints of this image resides in the permanent collection at the San Jose Museum of Art.

To this day, every time I sit in the doctor’s office and get my blood pressure taken, I imagine I am in Ajanta, looking at this Buddha. I don’t hold my breath, but I focus on being calm, relaxed, and steady. And, in the moment, I am all of that.

As you read this, I am lecturing on photography and creativity and leading photo expeditions in French Polynesia in both the Society and Marquesas Islands. Internet coverage is only by satellite when we’re at sea and even when we’re at shore, it’s expensive. Which is to say, while I’m not using up precious bandwidth to upload and share an image from this tour, here is one of my favorite images from our last tour in Fatu Hiva slightly more then four years ago.

Here’s a confession. I find shooting in jungles a challenge. Let’s start with the light. Light inside forests and jungles is typically uneven to a fault. Light dapples in through some branches and is blocked by others. The result is often a series of deep black areas of no light whatsoever interrupted sporadically by white hot spots of direct sunlight. Good luck finding a balanced exposure. It rarely exists.

Once I get past the challenges with the light I get to the next most basic challenge in photography – composition. The jungle is everywhere. In its enormity and as we walk through it, we’re enveloped in its entropy. We’re one part amazed, one part intrigued and one part terrified. How does this tangle of life come to exist? What would it be like to live here, without the benefit of modern technology? And, lastly, what lurks within the tangle that can and will do us in? It’s all remarkable and demands to be photographed.

And herein lies the struggle. I typically find it all but impossible to capture the energy of being inside a jungle within the confines of a 35MM frame. IMAX, perhaps, but the dimensions that I work within, not so much.

Scale is as much the challenge for me as anything else. Occasionally, I’ll pretend I’m a National Geographic photographer and put a person in one of the bottom corners for scale. But absent that trick, and not wanting to stage anything, how to capture scale when inside a jungle?

Imagine my delight, then, when I walked past this spot on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands more than four years ago. To be clear, this was alongside and slightly off the trail. But there it was, a tangle of jungle with perfect light that in all, told the quintessential story.

There are spots in a jungle or forrest in which no direct light falls. After years of attempting to photograph in various stages of heavy foliage, I’ve decided that I prefer the spots with no direct light whatsoever. Especially in this age of digital photography, the cameras’ sensors pick up a lot of light, so the dark areas can still read well. Sure, the light is flat, but it’s better than the alternative with rays of direct sunlight creating frustrating hot spits throughout the image.

On all the logs criss-crossing the image in the foreground, the light is mostly flat. That said, there are degrees of gray and black that provide depth and dimension. The strongest objects are in the front, near to the lens. As we fall back into the image, the tree trunks become smaller, weaker, and the ambient light works in contrast and becomes stronger, in fact lighting up the background. Even in the brightly lit backdrop, there are punctuations of dark trees that stand as markers throughout the image. You can’t stage perfection like this if one tried.

The result of the play of light, flat in the foreground, brightly lit in the background, along with the continuity of dark tree trunks throughout provides what is for me a unique moment of depth in a jungle shot.

I love too that the the trees disappear off the four corners of the frame. Look at the bottom left and top right of the frame, with the lines going off precisely at the corners – this was intentional, as was the asymmetrical jungle noise at the opposite corners.

In all, I love every bit if this image. For me, it is equal parts aesthetically pleasing and story telling. And that’s the most I can ask a single image to accomplish.

More than four years after I captured this image in Fatu Hiva, I am back here leading a group of photographers on a tour. I’m excited to share this magical place with fellow photography enthusiasts. And I am also excited to see what new images I come back with.

I captured this image early on in my journey as a photographer. Helen and I were amidst a year-long odyssey traveling around the world when we managed to squeeze in a month in Israel. It was barely two months after September 11th and world tensions, especially in the Middle East, were running high. The United States had identified “The Axis of Evil” which included Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The fear in Israel at the time was the Iraq had poison gas that it would launch into Israel if provoked by rhetoric or worse by the United States. All of which is to say, I have two distinct memories of our time in Israel. The first being that every Israeli walked around with a gas mask dangling from his or her belt – a government mandate to be prepared in event of a surprise chemical attack. Of course, when I asked our family and friends if Helen and I were at risk without a gas mask (tourists didn’t warrant them), we were met with smiles and polite laughter. My second memory is the story behind this picture.

Photographing people on the street is not easy. In some basic ways, it’s like many athletic endeavors. The hardest part may be mental. After that, talent takes over. The mental hurdle to be jumped should be obvious. Most of us are wired to be cautious when invading someone else’s personal space. But that’s precisely what’s required to capture an image like this one. As I’ve said before, I don’t take pictures like this with a telephoto lens. All of my shots of people were captured up close and personal. For me, this also requires tacit permission that’s gained without disturbing the shot. That’s a tough needle to thread at times.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in case you’re unfamiliar, contains what is believed by many to be both the site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and his tomb. As arguably the holiest site of all Christianity, this single building is shared by several Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Egyptian Copts, Syriacs and Ethiopians. It’s a fantastic melange of people and beliefs, a stone’s throw from the holiest site in Judaism (the site of the First and Second Temple) and the second holiest site in Islam (The Dome of the Rock).

A minor albeit not trivial footnote. The Dome of the Rock sits atop the exact site of both the First and Second Temples and is but 1,500 feet from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Which is to say, no matter your beliefs, it’s hard to ignore that something important for humanity has happened here in this tiny postage stamp piece of real estate.

With that sobering appreciation for the history of where we were visiting, Helen and I wandered Jerusalem and eventually explored this landmark church. As one walks through the church, quite freely, I might add – one is struck by the range of priests and priestly garb – each group sticking visibly clearly to his section of the church.

This was November 2001 – I was shooting with a very basic film camera and a single 35-70 lens. I typically had between 15-20 rolls of film with me at any one time. And I was painfully aware that film was a limited (and expensive) resource for me. Which is to say, I was judicious with my shooting.

When I saw these two Greek Orthodox Priests talking, I knew I needed to photograph them. I also knew this was not a one and done situation. I needed to both get up close and then relax and shoot a series of images from which I could then edit and select later on. My first challenge was entirely mental. Who was I to step in, invade the space of these two priests and take (TAKE!) pictures of them? My mother’s voice rattled around in my head, “photographers don’t give pictures, they take them,” she said with scorn reserved for the only photographer in our family at the time she said this to me, her ex-husband, my father.

The path of least resistance in that situation was clear. I could take a picture from a distance – a bad one at that – and move on. That would have been extremely easy. And it was, truthfully, a very compelling option. The thought of stepping forward, into position, and raising my camera made me nervous. My muscles tensed. I began to sweat. All of this for a photograph? My brain began to rationalize all the reasons to forget the scene and move on. Everything, of course, transpired over a matter of seconds. The shot isn’t worth the effort. By the time you step up and after they notice you, the shot will have been lost. There will be other opportunities to face your fear and photograph people I told myself.

I hesitated. And then decided to subdue all the concerns – the rationalizations. If I were to be a photographer in the tradition that I demanded of myself, then I needed to slay this fear right there, right then. And so I stepped forward into the fray, possibly a bit too anxiously. The two priests were engaged in a spirited and private conversation. Their energy reminded me of my father and uncle at a family gathering, inevitably squirreled away in a corner somewhere discussing (read: disagreeing) on one topic or another and with passion. I had no idea what the two priests were discussing, I only knew that for my photograph to work, they needed to keep at it and resist distraction.

Now standing five feet away from them and clearly facing these two men, one of them glanced at me for a moment. I instinctively lifted my camera up toward my eye while asking with a subtle combination of hand and face gestures if I could take pictures. The priest nodded and went back to his conversation. I was in business. I took several images, moving slightly from left to right as I did. This one image is, hands down, my favorite from the few frames I captured.

There’s a lot going on for me. The dip of the head, the hand gesture, the priest in the foreground who established that this is a conversation. I love the texture of the stone wall behind the priest. And, clearly, the play of light from left to right is near perfect. If I had had lights with me (and knew how to use them), this movement of light is exactly what I would have aimed for. In all, I don’t know if I like the image better for its aesthetic or its story – and that’s what makes it, for me, a great image.

I shot five frames, before the Priest waved me off. “That’s enough,” he said, and he was right.

I had no idea how close we’d actually come to these endangered mountain gorillas. Of course, I had done my research – and the friends I travelled with had done the gorilla trek previously. So I had been told we’d be so close that, at times, we could reach out and touch the gorillas. Not that that’s permitted. Sure, I brought the right lens to shoot up close. But I also brought my zoom lens – I didn’t truly believe how close we’d be. Until we got there.

The trek itself starts months earlier when you buy a permit for a specific day. In our case, we elected to trek and see gorillas for two days back to back. Mountain gorillas live in relatively small family groups, and the Rwandan authorities limit the number of tourists who can visit any given gorilla family to eight people per day. And then, for only one hour.

Combine that with the fact that, inside Rwanda, there are ten gorilla families that have been habituated to being visited by people, that translates to a maximum of 80 tourists per day visiting gorillas. Hence the need to buy a permit for your selected days months in advance.

The actual trekking is not so much hard as it is fraught with minor annoyances. I say minor because in the scheme of suffering and pain, these are indeed trivial. In the moment, however, the legions of red ants that we occasionally needed to wade through and the stinging nettles that jumped out attacked us from time to time seemed anything but trivial. The ants insidiously find their way up your shoe, around your gators, inside the socks that are wrapped around your pants, up your leg and then, just when they find the right spot, they inflict a surprising amount of pain for such a small creature. And the nettles, well, they come at all heights and sizes, sometimes reaching clear across the trail at face-height.

There is also mud. At least when we were there in March, there was a lot of it. So much mud, in fact, that the walking stick we were given at the start of the trek was more than a clever affectation. It was a necessity that still was often not enough to keep us tourists upright.

The trek started easily enough on paths through farmers’ fields. After 20 minutes, we reached a stone wall. Behind the wall was a trench. A handful of thin logs, slippery with rain and moss, were laid over that trench. Here started the adventure. We had to walk across those logs without falling – and once across, we were in the pure, unadulterated jungle. People with experience – and people like me who knew people with experience – donned our thick gardening gloves to better fight off stinging nettles.

We trekked in and around the mud for two hours, climbed 2,000 feet up the side of Mount Bisoke till we reached 10,500 feet where we were told it was time to get our camera gear ready. Our staging area was just a part of the jungle where we were directed to stop. No actual clear area beyond what one of the guides had whacked away with his machete.

Before covering the last 100 yards to the gorillas, we slimmed down to our camera and anything we could carry in our hands. No backpacks. Those are the rules. For me, this meant putting the 70-200mm lens on my camera and cramming the 35-70mm in my pocket. As I mentioned, I had been told how close we’d be. But I didn’t believe it.

Many professional media and wildlife photographers travel with two or more bodies so they can have more than one lens with them and ready to go at all times. There are also lens cases fitted with belt loops so one can traverse like Batman with a utility belt and just reach down and grab whatever you need.

I am, for whatever it’s worth, neither of these photographers. And so, I tucked the smaller lens in my pocket and left the larger lens on my camera. Of course, both lenses are Nikon 2.8 lenses, neither of them small or light.

We left our gear loosely arranged under a tree and marched the last little bit and then, suddenly, and as if out of nowhere… after two hours of wading through mud, fire ants and stinging nettles, there they were – a family of incredible and majestic mountain gorillas.

Needless to say we were close to the animals. Much closer than I had ever imagined, despite having been told quite clearly what to expect. I quickly switched lenses and now had to put my 70-200mm lens in my pocket. Of course it didn’t fit and so I laid it down in a bed of trodden jungle undergrowth.

The gorillas were not more than ten feel away – we’re not permitted to approach them, but they could come as close as they’d like to us. And they did. I shot quickly and tried to overcome the moment of awe. Which I didn’t at first. My brain couldn’t get over where I was quickly enough to permit the seasoned and professional photographer in me take over. The result was that my first few shots were a waste of media space.

Thunder, previously in the distance, grew nearer and it began to rain. An Australian tourist with a point and shoot camera and a free hand and offered to hold my spare lens. That was a huge help, especially as the rain began to pour.

I used a modified ziplock bag to keep my lens and camera dry – and as the rain came down harder and thunder boomed overhead, the gorillas and we hunkered down. We humans brought our arms in tight and hunched our shoulders – and the gorillas did the same. I brought my camera back up and began trying to capture a few images despite the distractions. What you see here, the image of one of the two silverbacks in the Amahoro group pictured above, I shot with 35-70mm lens as rain poured down on all of us.

More thunder and lightening – and then the rain turned to hail. The guides decided to bring us back down to where our gear was stored underneath a tree. I took my 70-200mm lens from the Australian as we scampered as quickly as we dared off an exposed part of the mountainside.

Hail, thunder and lighting continued for ten minutes as we all filed underneath a tree in close quarters, our gear protected by ponchos that had been arranged by the porters when the rain had begun.

Fifteen minutes later, the thunderstorm had passed and we headed back to spend more time with the gorillas. Of course I stowed my 70-200mm lens in my bag to be left in the staging area before we headed back up the mountain. Next, I mentally prepared myself to capture another round of remarkable images of these curious creatures and to do so up close.

There’s so much to love about this particular image. The contrast between the black hair and gray chest. The somewhat resigned and yet altogether determined look on the gorilla’s face. The arms crossed in a look of strength and quiet impatience. The water reflecting in drops off his hair. In so many ways, the gorillas remind us of ourselves, and that’s never more apparent for me than it is in this image. Maybe that’s why I love this image as much as I do.

This image, by the way, is just the beginning. I am diligently editing thousands of additional images and I’m as curious as anyone to see what’s in the shoot and what will end up in the collection. Join me here next month for more gorilla tales, images and – with any luck – a link to my new Rwanda images online.

Until then, I hope you enjoy and get as much out of this image as I do.

When I captured this image on my iPhone two weeks ago in Rwanda, the first thought that ran through my head when I looked at the result was the ubiquitous headline, “Shot on an iPhone 6.” If you live in or have traveled through one of our major cities, you’ve no doubt seen the billboards with one spectacular picture or another with this headline. The idea is as clear as the image – that one can capture incredible photographs, ones worthy of being printed large and plastered on a billboard, with something as small and handy as your iPhone.

For the past several years, Helen and I, through our eponymously named company, Kalisher, have donated to an NGO with money earmarked to build a library and women’s cooperative in a small village in Rwanda. Earlier this year, we asked our friends to chip in as well and the response to that request was great. Many thanks to all who chipped in! Two weeks ago, I attended the ribbon cutting along with friends who had conceived of the library project six years ago. That’s what brought me to Rwanda.

A quick primer for those who have vague recollections of the violence in that country. Rwanda is a small state with 11 million people. The Belgians had occupied Rwanda starting at the turn of the 20th century – at some point during their stay in Rwanda, the Belgians began classifying the Rwandans as belonging to one of two tribes, the Tutsis or the Hutus. By the mid 20th century, the Rwandans bought into the tribalism and occasional violence broke out with the majority Hutus inevitably lashing out agains the minority, ruling class Tutsis.

In 1994, the worst took place. The Hutus rose up as a unified force across the entire country and slaughtered the Tutsis among them. In all, 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed in just 100 days. It is recorded as the fastest mass killing/genocide in the history of mankind.

After order was restored, the country went about making peace with itself. People who committed atrocities were arrested and encouraged to make statements about what happened. Rwanda created many memorial sites that are now government owned and run – as well as a top-notch genocide museum that carefully explains how Rwandan villagers ended up killing their neighbors, friends they had grown up with. The museum also features an intelligent overview of genocides from throughout history and in a wide range of countries. The message is clear: in the hands of the right demagogues, genocide can happen anywhere in any country and in any moment in history.

Today, Rwanda is a country at peace with itself and with the the world. It’s undecidedly poor and agrarian. I have visited many poor countries. But none that I can recall in which the only labor in the fields is human. For all the fertile fields in Rwanda – and they’re everywhere, the entire country is one giant fertile field – in nearly two weeks I saw not a single farm animal used to till the fields. Rwanda is a nation of substance farming and 100% of that farming (at least so far as I could see) is done by hand.

Rwanda is also a nation of children. Many adults were killed in ’94. Many others went to prison afterward. And clearly, some have died in the intervening years. That said, many children were killed in the genocide as well. And, I suspect, some surviving children were left without parents or other relatives to care for them. The result is a bit frightening when one considers the cause, most Rwandans are under the age of 25 and the single largest age group in Rwanda is 0-4. The country is over-run with children.

Which is why it seemed smart to build the library.

A few days after the opening ceremony, we went gorilla trekking. I’ll write more about that in another post. Suffice it to say, we hiked through farmer’s fields and crossed a retaining wall, beyond which was a national park and the protected home of the endangered mountain gorilla. We trekked another two hours, then, once upon the gorillas, pulled out our cameras and got busy. For the trek back to civilization, all of us put our cameras away. In Rwanda, this means handing your camera bag to a porter to carry down the mountain. I’m used to carrying my own gear – and take pride in that. But hiring former poachers so they enjoy in the eco-tourism economy seems the right course of action. Especially when the cost of the porter is less than $10 U.S.

The combination of having left the gorillas and having handed my camera bag to the porter meant that as we transitioned from protected jungle to farmer’s fields, my camera was safely tucked away in my back pack and while not entirely inaccessible, certainly not quickly at the ready. And so, as we walked past this woman harvesting daisies, I reached for the camera I had at hand, my iPhone. I framed the scene with the woman off to the left and snapped the shot.

Two thoughts. One, from a National Geographic photographer I had the pleasure of co-hosting a conference with more than a decade ago in San Francisco. He confided that he always carries a red shirt with him. The reason: he wants someone in red somewhere in his images. Imagine that grand National Geographic landscape of lush green rice paddies, for example… now add just a touch of red in the bottom left corner. And so he carried a shirt to have someone wear as needed. Here I was, and this Rwandan woman with her child wrapped in red amidst a lush field of green and white. It was as if that National Geographic photographer were one step ahead of me – here was his red shirt!

My second thought was hopefully obvious by now. Porters notwithstanding, I needed to have my camera around my neck as I walked through the fields. Leaving the camera tucked away was a mistake I wouldn’t make again on this trip.

As for the daisies… the Rwandans dry them and then use the petals as a natural pesticide.

Here, in a single image, is a piece of the story I saw in Rwanda. Lush fields tended by hand – no machines, no animals. And children everywhere. And shot on my iPhone 6. Wonderful!

Steps in Shadow

This is one of those pictures. An interior designer visited us last week from Dallas. I’ve known her for years, but only over the phone and via emails. She came to North Carolina to see us and to tour the studio. Over dinner, the conversation landed on my photography and she commented that her favorite photograph was my shot “of the stairs.” That’s all she said. Stairs. “It’s so calm and has so much depth, I could look at that picture forever,” she said. I’ve captured thousands of images, but we both knew exactly which one she meant.

More than a decade ago, I sat next to a woman on a short flight from Raleigh to Nashville. She was the VP of sales for the southeast for Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Digital photography was exploding, as were my fine art credentials. So I pitched her on the idea of my leading photo expeditions on one of their ships. That led to an introduction to the man in charge of on-board entertainment. And after six months of calls and a lunch meeting in Miami, I was hired to lead a photo cruise in Alaska for ten days.

Helen, kids and I did that together. Which, when I think about it, was remarkable seeing as Jordan was 1 1/2 years old and Tamar was 6 months. The Alaska cruise went well and Helen, kids and I were asked back, this time to lead photo tours in the Mediterranean. And not for ten days, but for six back-to-back one-week cruises. The entirety of those six weeks probably make a novel more than a blog post. I’ll save that for another time.

On our first day in Santorini, I led 15 people on a walk along the cliff’s edge of this fabled volcanic city. As in every tour I led for Regent, I had never before set foot in the location, had only a vague understanding of what I might find there and, as a result, I made up every bit of the photo expedition as I went along. Let’s just say, I got used to challenge and embraced the uncertainty of each day.

Santorini on that particular day was disappointingly overcast. The result was that the light was flat and contrasts lost. It was a day to shoot into the shadows, places that we would avoid on a sunny day. We found our fun in places we typically ignored and there was joy and pleasure in that.

At one point, we walked past these white stairs and I was struck by their beauty. I loved that they were painted white, a single shade of white, and yet there was depth and movement in the stairs – a result of angles and shadows. Only what I saw that first day was bland. I heard the music in my head, saw greatness before me, and realized that the music and the greatness didn’t actually exist in front of me – my imagination was filling in the blanks and envisioning what this image could look like on a clear, sunny day.

I took the picture anyway. Just in case I could tease something interesting out if it. It turned out I couldn’t. That was a dud.

Six week cruise, remember. Two weeks later, I was back in Santorini leading a different group, now 19 people, along the edge of the cliffs. Only this time it was sunny and the skies were that remarkable Greek Island blue. As I ate breakfast on the ship, I was thinking about these stairs and fairly confident I could find my way back to them.

Four hours later I was there, in the exact spot I had been in two weeks earlier. Only, this time, I was there with the light I had imagined having. And the image before me was as amazing and wondrous as I had imagined. The layers, depth, calm – all in a series of bisecting lines in a series of white stairs – is surprising. I agree with my friend from Dallas, I can get lost in this image for hours.

Easter in Juarez

In 2008, violence exploded in the Mexican border town of Juarez, lifting it to be listed by some as the murder capital of the world for 2008, 2009 and 2010. I suppose it’s fair to say that we didn’t visit Juarez because of this distinction but in spite of it.

Back in April of 2008, Helen, the kids and I found ourselves in El Paso, Texas to capture images in and around this iconic city. We had a rental car and, in hindsight, I wonder if there wasn’t some restriction against taking the car into Mexico. But take it into Mexico we did.

For the record, we had heard about all the murders in Juarez. But those murders were, near as we could tell, associated with organized crime and focused around drugs and prostitution. There were, as yet, no reports of tourists getting hurt or killed (maybe because there were no tourists?). And there was nothing to suggest that a day trip to the heart of Juarez was anything other than safe.

For a few days in El Paso, we asked people there about Juarez. Most folks said they would never go across the border and spoke in fear of what was happening there. But then there were the few who laughed and said that the danger was blown out of proportion – that the violence, while terrible, didn’t affect every day folks going about their lives and that they went to Juarez every week for one reason or another. I can’t say we had anything other than intuition to guide us – and our intuition told us to listen to the folks who actually crossed into Juarez and said it was safe.

And so we saddled up into our rental car one day during the week leading up to Easter Sunday and drove across the bridge that spanned the Rio Grande and entered Juarez. Getting into Mexico was easy enough. And we quickly found our way to the center of Juarez, found a parking lot where we left our rented SUV for the day.

I had a marvelous time capturing images in and around the town square. It was a festive time in Juarez and we enjoyed everything from the people to the cathedral and, of course, the food. The truth is, it was early in 2008 when Juarez’s troubles were just getting attention. The peak of the murder count in Juarez didn’t hit until 2010 – and I will readily admit that I wouldn’t have traveled to Juarez then. But in the Spring of 2008, it still seemed a reasonable place to visit.

It’s eight years later and I can still see in my mind’s eye many of the images I captured that day – that’s how memorable the scenes were for me. There were the cowboy boots lined up outside a store, the cathedral, the children on the street, the local photographer selling polaroids and then, of course, there was this scene. It’s one rabbit short of the classic ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ scene and even so, I find the two rabbits alongside the one girl engrossed in her candy entirely amusing.

There are perhaps three keys to capturing this image. The first is the most basic, to recognize the scene, to appreciate the story and decide that I wanted to capture it with my camera. The second key was to be comfortable standing in front of them and taking their picture, being sure to do so quickly enough that I didn’t give them time to react and pose. This translated to being able to get in position and have all the settings on the camera ready to go, so it was just a matter of lifting the camera to my eye, a quick focus and click the shutter. Finally, most importantly, I carried forward a lesson I had learned a decade earlier when after editing pictures I had taken in Thailand and Cambodia. I bent my legs and squatted so that I was eye to eye with the girl.

This last point makes the image for me. I tend not to like images in which we’re looking down at children. That’s not a photograph, but a snapshot of what we saw as an adult – in effect, a memory. If I want to capture an image of a person shorter than I am, for me at least, the right way to do so is to get the camera to eye level with that person. I did that here, and got the result I hoped for.

There are several fun subtleties in this image as well. The Woody & Buzz backdrop for one. The fact that the rabbits are sitting on a ledge and the girl is sitting below them on a chair – seems far too organized for what feels like a haphazard moment.

My biggest fear that entire day was, admittedly, a paranoid one – with Juarez in the news for drug wars, I imagined that someone realizing that we’re tourists destined to return to El Paso and the USA would hide drugs somewhere in the undercarriage of our car as it sat in the lot, only to have those drugs discovered and Helen and I arrested as we re-entered the States. In case you’re concerned, this didn’t happen.

Needless to say, our day in Juarez was entirely uneventful. And I was able to capture a few terrific images for the effort. I’m glad we went.

He’s Asleep!

First of all, yes, this Queen’s Guard looks to have been out late enjoying one too many pints the night before. He’s standing at attention but with his eyes closed. I love this for so many reasons, starting with the fact that we all feel this way at one point or another. Sitting in a meeting at work, exhausted, wishing we could be there in body but not in spirit. And here he is, this soldier who is among the best of the British Empire – and yet he’s altogether too human.

Not ten minutes earlier, I was charged by one of his brothers in arms, loaded assault rifle in hand. I don’t have a picture of that, but some lucky tourist does. To this day, I’m sure that that tourist occasionally trots out the snapshot of me toe-to-toe with an angry Queen’s Guard. I must have looked ridiculous in the moment. I sure felt that way once I realized what was happening.

Several years earlier, I was in a small hill town in Ethiopia – a funeral procession was taking place and it seemed as if the entire village had turned out and was walking in the procession. I shot with a basic Pentax film camera back then and carried with me one lens, a 35-70MM that allowed me to go from a slight zoom to a slight wide angle. I remember looking through my lens, zooming in and realizing that I could capture a few good images from a respectable distance. I took a few steps into the road, knelt down and captured an image.

I can only surmise what happened next. I must have gotten lost in my viewfinder, fixated on the scene and the potential for great images while losing sight of where I was. At the same time, I must have scooched further into the middle of the road for a better angle and to best fill my frame with the procession. The marchers, all on foot, came closer and I, again, not conscious of what I was doing, zoomed out as the mourners got closer. My ears filled with the wails of distraught people and I felt their pain and tried to capture it with my camera, me kneeling down, camera prone against my eye. That’s when I received the well-deserved humiliation. I was kicked in the back by one of the mourners.

If it’s not already clear what happened – I had started taking pictures from a fair distance, but got absorbed in my viewfinder and lost touch with reality. The result was that I (very inappropriately) positioned myself in the middle of the road and (extremely inappropriately) neglected to get out of the way as the mourners approached. The net result of which was that I ended up being both a physical and disrespectful nuisance in the midst of their march. I deserved the kick in the back and then some, and realizing my error, I felt ashamed and quickly slunked out of the road, offering”Yiqirta” (apologies) to anyone who would listen as I did so.

Cut to a couple of years later – I was in London capturing images of a wide range of landmarks including, of course, the changing of the guard. During the pageantry, a regiment of the Queen’s Guards leaves their barracks down the street from Buckingham Palace, walk down Birdcage Walk, take a left onto Spur Road which leads them directly to the gates of Buckingham Palace. Imagine if you will, I had stationed myself along the edge of Spur Road in perfect position to capture images of the marching troops.

The band played. The troops marched with the musicians in front, the armed soldiers behind them, all in perfect formation and perfect cadence. I watch the musicians pass without taking a single picture. I had film – 36 frames before I needed to re-load. I was waiting for the guards with the automatic weapons. Much more dramatic and fitting.

Then there they were – marching five abreast, their loaded weapons held tightly across their chests. I pressed my eye to my viewfinder, only the angle wasn’t quite right. And so, as in Ethiopia, I unconsciously took a half step off the curb. Today, I believe there are ropes that hold the crowds in place. But back when I was captured this image, there were no ropes in place, just a system of common sense and courtesy. Of which, it turned out, I was lacking in both.

Like the scene in Ethiopia I described above, I slowly pulled my lens from full zoom to wide angle as the troops got closer. And like the scene in Ethiopia I described above, in an effort to get the right angle, I scooched slowly out into the the road where I had no business being.

Unlike Ethiopia, this time the angry people who’s space I had invaded were armed. I watched through my tiny viewfinder as one of the guards broke ranks, took two steps ahead of his mates, turned 90 degrees to face the crowd and, as it happened, to face me. What luck, I thought. Perfect positioning. I clicked off a frame or two. The guard began high stepping in my general direction and I feared I wouldn’t be able to pull the lens back quickly enough to keep him in the frame. As I struggled to get the framing and the focus right – I felt a half-step behind as the Queen’s Guard came, let’s face it, running, knees in his chest, directly at me – I noticed that he had taken his SA-80 Assault Rifle off of his shoulder and held it out in front of him – business end, still pointing to the sky, but nonetheless one step closer to action.

The guard’s knees hiked up sharply as he double timed directly toward me. Honestly, I wasn’t fast enough to get a decent shot, but I was excited at the possibilities. After all, what were the chances that a guard would break formation right in front of me and head not just in my general direction, but directly toward me? Yes, I was indeed that dense.

As the guard drew nearer, I could hear him yelling. To this day I have no idea what he said. It was mostly a military grunt of some sort with a strong British accent to boot. I had no idea what words he was speaking. But when he came to a halt inches from my camera and basically yelled in my face, the penny finally dropped. I pulled my camera away from my face, looked up and realized that I had ventured ten feet out into the street – ten feet past the line I wasn’t supposed to cross and ten feet into the sacred space that at that very moment belonged to the Queen’s Guards.

I would love to find a tourist who has a snapshot of me in all my glory, out where I didn’t belong, and lucky to have gotten off with only a browbeating.

The guards continued unabated into the Palace grounds, behind the fence and stood in formation for a range of music and drills. I quickly got my adrenaline under control and squirmed my way up to the front of the fence where I pointed my camera at the troops that just minutes before had nearly run me over, or worse.

That’s when I captured this image that I affectionally call “The Sleeping Guard.”

Rest assured, the guards were not actually sleeping that day, even if this particular chap needed to get some additional shut eye before his shift.

My biggest challenge with this image is that the closed eyes are everything in the shot, but they are also a relatively tiny part of the overall image. The result is that one has to look quite closely to get the joke. One day before long, I’ll print this picture very large, life size perhaps, and put up on a wall where his shut eyes can’t be missed. That said, the moment is timeless and, I believe, a human moment that each of us can relate to. And for that reason, more than any other, I do love this image.

Rome!

My first trip to a city is typically filled with running from landmark to landmark, capturing my version of the most iconic structures. That first visit is always tense as I race the light and distances to make the most of my time. The second visit, by contrast, is much more relaxed and tends to result in a broader more insightful collection of work. I liken it to watching a movie – each time you watch it, you find new treasures that you’d missed before. The same is true, for me, when photographing a city.

Helen and I first visited Rome in 2005. Our son Jordan was 18 months old. I can remember distinctly pushing his rickety Costco stroller over the ancient cobblestoned streets, Helen with the day bag filled with diapers and food, me with my cameras on my back. Our second trip to Rome came nearly 18 months later, this time with Helen, Jordan and our then one-year-old daughter Tamar. We plied the streets as a family, this time pushing a sturdy double stroller that felt more like an SUV compared to the Yugo we had brought the first time, diaper bag underneath, daypack on Helen’s back and 30 pounds of camera gear on my back. Those were good times.

This being our second time in Rome, we were a lot more relaxed. We were after a few shots I still wanted to capture, but mostly we were exploring for fun and headed wherever the light and my eye took us with little pressure on time and hardly a shot list. More often than not, that’s when magic happens.

One shot I wanted to capture was of the Vatican with Saint Angelo’s Bridge in the foreground. To get this shot means walking out on the Ponte Umberto bridge in the morning, the sun rising in the east and throwing its light over your shoulder as you face the Vatican to the west. As we waited to cross Piazza dei Tribunali, the crossing traffic came to a stop and this scene unfolded before me. A well dressed woman, on her scooter – presumably on her way to work – with her dog sitting placidly at her feet. At that moment, I didn’t care about the Vatican, the light, or the bridge. All I cared about was this woman, her distinctly Italian shoes, the scooter and the dog.

I captured this image as both a horizontal and a vertical. Shoot first, edit later. I rarely decide in the moment which way is best. Instead I frame the precise shot I want in both formats and decide to worry about which shot I prefer later. That being said, none of the pictures I took included the woman’s face. Why? Because who she is and what she looks like is not the story. I go back to one of my mantras – fill the frame with that which interests you and discard the rest. I wasn’t interested in this woman as an individual – I was interested in what she represented. In the moment, I believed that showing her face would only distract us from the actual story here. And to this day, I’m convinced that decision was the right one and is what makes the image so strong.

It’s an unconscious move for me now, after so many years and so many photographs taken. I can still remember editing my photographs after my first trip abroad – to Thailand and then Cambodia. I took photographs of a range of people that I had met from large cities to Hill Tribe villages. Only all of my pictures were taken from the same vantage point, my height. A standing adult might be face to face with my camera. A child was seen looking up at me. Two adults sitting on a curb, the same, looking up at me. I remember sitting in my apartment in San Francisco – upon my return – looking over the pictures and having a knot turn in my stomach. I had missed so many shots by neglecting to change my perspective. I should have knelt down and looked my subjects right in the eye.

By the time I was in Rome, changing my perspective was an unconscious muscle reflex. So as I stood at this corner in Rome fascinated by the scooter, the image (but not the face of) the woman and, of course, her dog, I instinctively knelt down to change the camera’s perspective. I suppose there are times when looking down at your subject at an oblique angle makes sense – but this, for me, clearly wasn’t one of them.

Ultimately, this image exists because we were on our way to a distinctive lookout point in Rome, but without the distraction and pressure to get there and to then get somewhere else quickly. As a result, my mind and my sense of humor were open to the possibilities. The traffic signal changed at the perfect moment to serve up this great sight and I had the reflexes necessary to capture it. As they say in Rome, Bravo!