Woman at Kailasanatha Temple

Imagine walking up to a hill and deciding to remove all the vegetation and then carve a multi-storied temple out the underlying rock. That what the regional Indian King Krishna decided – and did! – in the 8th century. Helen and I visited the temple in the spring of 2002 and it remains one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen and photographed.

The Temple is located in Ellora just outside of Aurangabad and near the Ajanta caves. Nearly every structure in the world is built from the bottom up. Think of the Great Pyramids as an obvious example. One giant stone laid on top of another giant stone until a structure exists that takes one’s breath away.

At the world heritage sight in Petra, Jordan there are some rather elaborate architectural carvings made to look like buildings. The difference is that Petra, carved as early as 312BC, is merely a series of barren caves with ornate facades. And while the facades look wonderful, they have no architectural integrity. The facades are entirely decorative. The closest I’ve seen to what exists in Ellora were the rock cut churches of Ethiopia in Lalibela – churches cut out of solid stone and dating back to roughly 1200. But even those, as magnificent as they are, pale in comparison to what happened in India.

The date isn’t precisely known, but evidence indicates that it was during the 8th century when Indian carvers stood atop a small mountain of granite and began carving. Short of having a drone (non-existent in 2002) or a helicopter (not in my budget), it’s challenging to capture the grandeur of the entire temple, made up of more than one building as well as buildings of multiple stories. And so when perched atop a hill overlooking the temple, my eye wandered to details that could tell the story for me.

For me the story is about the splendor of the architecture, the sheer enormity of what was accomplished here. To capture this, I decided to focus my attention on the elephant carvings at the foot of the temple. Of course, the statues by themselves don’t tell the story – one needs the added effect of the woman in the image for scale. It’s terrific for the image that she’s wearing a sari – that places us squarely in India. I watched the woman walk slowly and with what imagined was a measure of peace into my frame from right to left. As thrilled as I was to have her walk into my viewfinder, I also struggled with the light. The entire side of the temple was in the shade with the sun peering over the far right corner.

Were I shooting today, I would be shooting digitally with lots of memory space. I would easily snap 20 frames as she moved across the temple. At the start, she would be in the far right corner, I’d have to shift the camera to the right to accommodate her position without crowding her in the corner of the frame. The challenge would be an excess wash of light from the sun. But no matter, with digital equipment, I would capture everything and suffer the time-intensive editing consequences later on.

But this was 2002 and I was shooting film. Film, I might add, that was a precious commodity for me back then. I didn’t have the luxury of clicking off more than a few frames, and ideally would take only one.

I remember seeing a contact sheet from famed photographer Garry Winnogrand once. Every frame on a roll of 36 images was a completely different image. At least on the contact sheet I saw, Winnogrand didn’t work a scene – he found his perfect shot in every situation, captured it and moved on. That’s what I endeavored to become and – with severely limited film resources on our round-the-world journey – what I needed to do here.

I waited until the woman had walked as far along the edge as I was comfortable having her, just before reaching the first corner. I weighed the challenge of capturing enough of the temple to give a sense of depth and receding into the distance – as well as providing a mystery as to the height – and weighed all of that against the blown out brightness I knew would overcome the top right corner. All of this happens quickly and in the moment, I clicked the shutter and captured this image.

There are times when I look at this photograph and am frustrated with the blown out corner. I wish it didn’t have to be there. But when I consider the alternatives to framing the image, I realize that the image is, for me, already perfect. I suppose if I have any doubt, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – a venerable collector of fine art photography – acquired one of the limited edition prints of this image for their permanent collection.

Bravo to the Indians who constructed this. And thanks to the miracle of photography for permitting me to capture this image.

Iceland! – The Reynisdrangar Stacks

Helen and I spent ten days in Iceland last summer. One day we’ll return and spend a month – that’s how amazing it was.

We spent all but two nights at the end sleeping in the back of a modified Jeep – the back of the car converted into a bed that was quite comfortable so long as you didn’t attempt to sit up. The Jeep, a 4WD with Iceland-capable tires and suitable road clearance, gave us the ability to explore the island nation as we saw fit, on and off-road. The car also allowed us to drive to and park at some memorable and remote spots to bed down at night.

A quick primer: Iceland has a total population of 330,000. Recently, Iceland’s soccer team advanced to the quarterfinals of the European Championship and 30,000 Icelanders flew to France to cheer on their countrymen. That means that 10% of the entire nation of Iceland travelled in support of their soccer team. I love that.

Here’s another fun fact. From 2006 – 20011, there were roughly 500,000 tourists visiting Iceland annually. It varied from year to year, but not by much. But then growth happened. In 2015, 1.3 million tourists visited Iceland – 5x as many tourists as there are locals. And, to make things more interesting, most of these tourists transit Iceland in the summer months – for the obvious reasons.

Last August, with our kids in sleep-away camp, Helen and I landed in Reykjavik as two of those tourists, picked up our Jeep and began driving north along the coast. That first morning, we parked at the foot of a glacier and, aided by jet-lag, slipped off into a brilliant night of sleep. The next morning we explored the base of the glacier where we had parked and then began day two and our first full day of touring.

It was mid-morning when we pulled off the main ring-road at Reynisfjöru beach. This beach sits at the foot of Reynisfjall, a 1,000 foot tall tuff mountain overlooking the ocean and famous in part for it’s bounty of puffin nests. Puffins, of course, while not technically the national bird of Iceland (that distinction goes to a falcon), may as well be since pictures, postcards and all types of souvenirs depicting puffins overwhelm store shelves across all of this island nation.

And while we thought we were at the beach to see the puffins – and see them we did – we realized quickly we were there for much more than that. There were basalt formations which I’ll share in a future blog post – amazing geometric patterns of rock. And there were the Reynisdrangar Stacks – formations rising out of the sea – nearly 200 feet high.

There is also a slight cave set on the beach which we traversed and which I photographed as well. With the tide coming in, it was bit tricky both getting to the cave and then being inside the cave without getting wet. One particular set of waves came in and nearly did us in, but we managed to stay dry (just barely). Another tourist who’d arrived about the same time we did wasn’t as lucky and got caught up to her waist in the oncoming North Atlantic waves – which I could only imagine was bone numbingly cold. She escaped unscathed but for wet clothes and a bit of embarrassment.

For all the splendor at this Icelandic beach it was this single rock formation that captured my imagination most of all. It was, I suspect, a sight I least expected to see and which, truth be told, made the least sense. A single, skinny, 200 foot tall needle rising out of the ocean. How did it form? How did it survive?

As I made sure I was out of the reach of the incoming tide, I slipped on my 70-200 zoom lens and clicked off a few images of this formation. Next, I turned toward the beach and took the opportunity to scout puffins through my viewfinder – and while they are small birds demanding of a more powerful lens, I was nonetheless able to get one or two decent shots of them in flight.

It was then, out of the corner of my eye, that I noticed this woman walking along the beach and I knew instantly the image I wanted. Her, a vertical line in the foreground and out of focus on the right corner of the frame with the pinnacle in sharp focus behind her. I had to hustle a bit to get into position, pointed my camera and waited for her to walk through my viewfinder. For me, perfection.

I love the symmetry and peacefulness of this image. It’s unusual and, given the rock formation, unexpected. The image is also dreamy and contemplative – with the woman looking down, we can each put ourselves in her place, walking silently, alone on a beach, reflecting inwardly on some aspect of our lives. In the background, nature joins her in this private moment.

I am 1/3 of the way through editing my Iceland photographs. I’m excited to see what else I captured with my camera. At least here, from day two of our trip, I see that I was off to a good start.

I was in Rwanda last April with friends Larry and Jerri – we spent 10 days there and it was, in a word, magical. Traveling with them was easy and we all got along quite well. Toward the end of the trip, we found ourselves at the remarkable Nyungwe Forest Lodge for three nights and two days. Arriving at the lodge is as if finding an unexpectedly lush oasis in the desert. The architecture, design and finishes are far beyond anything we anticipated given Rwanda’s recent history and – to this day – struggles with poverty, refugees and the like.

The three of us checked in amidst some confusion amongst the staff who insisted I must be someone named Morris B – even as they stared at my passport. Morris B turned out to be Barry Morris – an Australian ex-Royal Marine with a broken clavicle and a will to not let that get in his way, combined with a tolerance for pain that I both admired and admonished at the same time.

The first morning at the lodge, we were up at 4:30AM for the drive to the dawn trek to see the chimpanzees. The trek was filled with fire ants and Barrie’s cries of clavicle pain induced by a slippery and root-filled trail followed by his insistence, “I’m okay, don’t stop, carry on,” and then finally punctuated by seeing a handful of chimpanzees in the far distance and with the sun rising directly behind them. Translation: no decent chimpanzee photographs.

Given the option to repeat the 4:30AM wake up and return to the trail of the fire ants or do something else the next day, the three of us opted for plan b. We would tour a local tea factory after breakfast and play the rest of the day by ear.

Barrie, the last I heard, stayed fairly well self-medicated for the day. I can’t say as I blame him. He’s one determined man. I heard he went on to trek with the gorillas later in the week – perhaps even more demanding trekking albeit without the 4:30AM start time. A remarkable man, that Morris B.

The tea factory tour was insightful. The tea they produced there looks nothing like any tea I’ve had before. It starts off as leaves, but after going through a range of machines that we watched in action, it ends up as small black dots of, well, tea. It tasted amazing, I’ll say that for the tea. Even my British wife loves it. And so today we’re buying the same Rwandan tea the only way we found possible – through a Chinese importer on Amazon. Globalization is amazing.

After a week that included a library dedication, two gorilla treks, a chimp trek, a tea factory tour and much more – we finally had an unscheduled afternoon. And, for the first time in more than a week, Larry, Jerri and I decided to part company, if only for a few hours.

I had heard that we could get a tour of the local villages and I was determined to go. Larry and Jerri were up for a break from their traveling companion if not a bit of relaxing at the Lodge. And so I headed into town where our driver brought me to a small office. In that office was an older man with a ready smile and bit of English. Just as quickly, our driver was gone and I was working through what the next three hours would look like – and how much it would cost me.

There is a brief and fleeting moment in which I accepted that I just put my safety in the hands of a stranger. It’s a safe bet that the camera equipment on my back was worth more than this man’s life savings. That’s not right nor fair, and it’s nothing to be proud of. It just is. And, I’ll be honest, there’s a nano-second where I’m painfully aware of that, that I recognize the injustice of it, and also my vulnerability should my guide decide he’s had enough.

My guide, Danny, sized me up and saw what was to him an average tourist, probably not up for much more than a cursory walk about. An hour into our village walk, he started to look at me a bit differently. For starters, it began to rain. Afternoon, African downpour rain. I pulled out my rain jacket, slipped on my baseball cap, put the built-in rain cover over my camera bag and kept on walking. It was a bit dicey in spots, and while I’m no mountain man, whatever I did, I was able to convince my guide that I was not his average afternoon fare.

Before the rain began, we happened upon a fisherman plying his trade in a pond. We stopped and with Danny’s help, I asked the fisherman several questions. What fish does he catch? How large are they? Were do the fish come from (it’s a pond)? How does he catch the fish? What do the fish eat? And so on. Danny had a huge smile on his face.

As we proceeded through three different villages, I asked Danny to introduce me to people and, where possible, to see if I could enter people’s homes. I wanted to see how people lived. I wanted to ask questions. Where it made sense and felt comfortable, I wanted to capture images.

Between my footwork on the slippery and, in spots, steep paths and my insistence on meeting people, in asking questions and seeing how the locals lived, Danny warmed up to me. He began pulling at different plants and teaching me their various medicinal purposes. Danny transformed into a fountain of information and folklore. He clearly was enjoying taking me around.

In the third hour of our 2-hour tour, we entered the village seen in the image above. We spoke with the man in the background for 5-10 minutes and I took a couple of pictures of him and Danny together. Everyone is friendly enough – but there’s also a distinct lack of what in the West we would consider posing for pictures. Which, to be fair, is perfectly fine by me. The ubiquitous smile is typically not what I’m after when looking around for a story to tell with my camera.

I captured this moment just as we left the village. There is a lot wrapped up in here. The adult with the young child in the background looking on at me. The slightly older child in the foreground. The scene suggesting a life completely different than our own, perhaps beyond our comprehension, and yet a scene completely at peace with itself.

For me, the story is clear. And, I see that story wrapped in an engaging composition. The boy’s head in the foreground sticks up perfectly into a space made by the outlines of the buildings behind him. He looks into the camera and grabs my attention and pulls my view up and behind him where I then notice his father and brother standing at ease, but also staring directly at us. All of this is perfectly framed by palm fronds and a wooden fence on the right and mud-built homes on the left.

There is depth and complexity in the composition and, when combined with the story, makes for a marvelous and moving image.

I had an incredible 10 days in Rwanda – thanks to Larry and Jerri for inviting me and including me. That took some courage and was, for certain, a leap of faith. This particular image, this afternoon, was but one of a series of remarkable moments and I’m pleased to be able to share it with you.

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.