Archives for posts with tag: black and white photo

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.

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.


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!

I don’t typically stage a photograph, but this one, I couldn’t resist. For the past two weeks, I was aboard the MS Paul Gauguin sailing from Tahiti to Fiji – my role was to provide lectures on photography and creativity while at sea, and while anhcored offshore, to lead photo expeditions through some of the most photogenic land on earth.

When I wasn’t working, I was relaxing with Helen, Jordan and Tamar. In short, it was a fabulous trip. On our third day of the cruise, we were anchored off the coast of the Polynesian island Tahaa (where much of our vanilla comes from) – from there we caught a tender to a small motu (or atoll) where we relaxed, snorkeled, kayaked and yes, took the occasional photograph.

I didn’t yet know the crew of the ship well, but I had taken notice of one of the singers, or Gauguins as they’re called on the ship. His name, I would learn, is Mihimana – and his long hair, fit shape and striking tattoos combined to create the perfect image of a stylized Tahitian man. When I saw Mihimana at the motu, I knew I had to photograph him.

Before I left the U.S., the cruise line asked me to capture a few images for them that they could use in their marketing. I don’t know if they’ll like this shot (and yes, I have it in color for them) – but for me, when I saw him strumming his ukulele and singing to welcome guests arriving at the motu, I immediately imagined the possibilities for the cruise line.

I found Mihimana at lunchtime, introduced myself and asked if I could photograph him later in the afternoon. He readily agreed and also agreed to sign a release – something that’s required for images used in advertising and, as a result, something I typically don’t concern myself with.

At 3:30, with a comfortable afternoon sun, Mihimana and I walked across to the west side of the motu, away from the tourists on the beach and set ourselves to capture a wash of light coming from one side. I didn’t have the benefit of any additional fill lighting or reflectors, not to mention any assistants to help move light around. Instead it was just me, Mihimana, the sun, the water, and a relatively short amount of time to play and capture a few images.

Mihimana is a native Tahitian – back in Papeete, he and his brother are popular tattoo artists, the tattoo being a tradition that we in the west imported from Tahiti and what is now French Polynesia. In fact the tattoos adorning Mihimana were drawn by his brother. When he’s not on Papeete, Mihimana works on the MS Paul Guaguin greeting and entertaining tourists 7-days a week for up to four months at a time. He is, in short, a warm and friendly man with a ready and welcoming smile.

I positioned Mihimana in the water where it came up to just below his knees. I turned him into the sun and then asked him to turn his head slightly to face me. That’s why his body is filled with light while there’s just a bit of a shadow crossing his face. I started shooting, then asked him to fold his arms. That’s when I thought to crouch down low to the water to add drama to the way Mihimana filled the frame. And then, the most important request I had of him that afternoon – I asked him to stop smiling and instead to look angry – as if he were about to get into a fight. That’s when I captured this image.

I love so much about this image – from the perspective that has Maihimana looking over us as if a warrior, to his flowing pareo shoring up the bottom of the frame. And one more thing, this ten minutes at the beach has sparked my imagination and for the first time, I can imagine the artistic satisfaction of working with a crew, controlling the light and working with models. That’s not something I’ve ever imagined doing before. And while there’s no time to explore this today, perhaps one day…

I captured this image in December, 2001 and I remember the moment as if it were last week. That’s the way it is with certain images. The events surrounding the photograph, the work we did to get in the right place and position, all of those memories are important and sharp.

Helen and I had landed in Adis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capitol city without much of a plan other than to be sure we toured the northern towns and visited Lalibela, that country’s famous rock-cut churches. Two days into our stay in Adis, an inebriated hotel manager introduced us to Guillome and Melina, a French and Italian couple who had driven up from South Africa in a dilapidated Land Rover (that turned out to be on its last legs) and who were looking for travel companions in Ethiopia with whom to split the gas.

We signed up for a week which, ultimately, morphed into a month of traveling together. The beauty of driving one’s own car in any country is the opportunity to get off the beaten path. In a country like Ethiopia in 2001, when no paths could be called beaten, having our own car allowed us to get off the main bus routes and travel via even smaller roads and through villages that rarely if ever saw tourists, let alone tourists with white skin. Somewhere, we have snapshots of children fondling Helen’s long blond hair, an oddity to them to be sure.

There was television in Ethiopia in 2001. It came over the airwaves, not cable, of course. And every now and again, we’d end up in a restaurant that had a television, look up and realize that the advertisements were for scythes – handheld scythes that people would use to cut back the grass and wheat in their fields. Scythes – the near perfect embodiment of an non-developed agrarian society – advertised on television.

The food we had was amazing. The people, welcoming. We drank the water, ate amazing food in village after village. I would go back in a heart beat.

Of course, the life most people led in Ethiopia was a hard one. One man asked my age, 39-years-old at the time, took my hands in his and inspected my palms and fingers. “You have an easy life,” he observed kindly. I had to agree with him. One man we met was nicknamed 44 because his father was 44-years-old when he was born. This, in a nation who’s average life expectancy at the time was 52-years.

Guillome, concerned for the health of his car, insisted on doing all the driving. His concerns about his car were not unfounded. We had to scuttle the car for scraps midway through week four. As we started off, however, it was all excitement and optimism over untold adventures and discovery. I was at the start of my real growth as a photographer and eager to capture images. Every day, we drove past countless tableaus that I wanted to photograph. But I also knew that I would quickly wear out my welcome if I were constantly asking Guillome to stop and pull over so I could explore something or other with my camera.

It was our fourth day of driving together when we passed a group of women lined up to collect water at the village well. I took it all in and couldn’t hold back any longer. I asked Guillome to stop the car. He did and I hopped out with my camera dangling from neck. I was a good 30 yards beyond the women when we stopped. And I moved slowly, smiled and waved with both hands. Critically, I didn’t touch my camera.

Amharic, the Ethiopian language, is fairly intuitive and I had learned some basic civilities. Combine that with a pocket phrase book and I was able to carry off an extremely basic conversation. I can imagine someone else in a similar situation jumping out of the car, jogging up to the women, camera in hand and attempting to take pictures. My style was and is completely different. I prefer to relax, settle in and then, with permission, pick up my camera see what I find.

I walked up to the crowd of women. At the head of the line was a man at the well spout checking that each woman hadn’t already taken her share of water. I traded pleasantries in my rudimentary Amharic and when I felt the time was right, I picked up my camera and, using facial expressions only, sought permission to take pictures. The women smiled and assented. This was before digital and film for me in Ethiopia was scarce. Even still, I shot the better part of a roll of film (36 pictures). Today, with digital, I’m sure I would have clicked off hundreds.

I got some wonderful images of the women – but this picture, which I captured as I walked away, is my favorite. I love the large water jug in the foreground and clarity of people completely disengaged with the camera and going about their lives, all interrupted by this one woman, water jug clearly on her back, staring right through the camera. As a viewer, I connect with her and can only imagine what she’s thinking. For me, that makes this image startling.

On an entirely different level, this image helps me keep my life in perspective and appreciate the smallest conveniences that we take for granted. Turning a tap and getting water that is safe to drink, is an obvious one.

I’m about to teach a photography workshop here in North Carolina as part of the CLICK Photography festival and again in a few weeks in the South Pacific thanks to Paul Gauguin Cruises. This image and my story about how I approach groups of people will certainly be part of both of those workshops.

I captured this image nearly 20 years ago in 1998, and it still stands as one of my favorite images. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston agrees and recently added it to their permanent collection. I can remember clearly taking this picture on a hot sunny day in Rangoon. I spent slightly more than three weeks in Burma, but this scene unfolded before me within the first two days of arriving in the country.

About arriving in Burma. Back in 1998, Burma was essentially blocked from trading with the entire world. It’s a remarkable feat, really, to have pissed off all the world powers, but they had managed to do so. One side effect was that a requirement for entering the country was to bring $250 of U.S. currency – no travelers checks or credit cards, just cash – and trade that at the airport for FECs or Foreign Exchange Currency. That was one way that the military dictatorship that ran Burma acquired hard cash to buy things such as arms on the open arms market.

I, like every other tourist, had signed an agreement to bring the said $250 of cash with me. That was a prerequisite to getting a visa. And so I boarded my quick flight from Bangkok to arrive in Burma with my visa clearly taped into my passport. Oh, and I had cash. Enough to get me through a month in Burma. Only, I had most all of the cash hidden away in different places in my backpack and I had no intention of trading my cash for FECs. I also had two $5 bills in my money belt. And an emergency $20 tucked into a sock.

At the Rangoon airport, the handful of tourists on my flight dutifully handed over their $250 and received $250 worth of FECs in return. They would spend those FECs in Burma and receive Kyats, the local currency, as change. Any FECs left at the trip would be all but useless. Even trading Kyats for dollars was tough.

When it was my turn to hand over my $250, I presented a credit card, knowing full well that due to all of the banking blockades, no one in Burma – not least of all the government – could take a credit card. The authorities made a big show of pointing out the paper I had signed agreeing to bring $250 of cash into the country. I pointed out that in the rest of the world a credit card was the same as cash and shrugged my shoulders. They confiscated my passport and started asking questions. “How are you going to pay for your hotel?” they asked. I told them I would go to the bank and have money wired in. “It is Sunday, the banks are closed,” they pointed out. I’ll go tomorrow, I told them. “How will you pay for the cab?” They asked incredulously. Oh, I told them, I have $10 with me.

I opened up my money belt and fished out the two lonely $5 bills I had placed there before leaving Bangkok.

The police at the Burmese airport demanded the $10. I laid $5 on the counter and insisted that I needed the other $5 to pay for the taxi into town.

The net result was that a $5 bribe got me out of paying $250 in exchange for FECs. The police took my $5, gave my passport back and sent me on my way. Two weeks later, after spending four days together – a guide in a remote part of Burma asked me to explain what happened at the airport. He then proceeded to let me know that I had been followed and tracked ever since arriving in Burma and that he, as my guide, had to report to the police on everything that I did. Among other things, the government wanted him to find out from me was how I ended up with money to pay for my travels when I had arrived with no money. “I worked it out at the bank,” I lied.

There was a lot to see and photograph in Burma. I had stepped out of my backpacker hotel the first night and stepped into a scene that was utterly unrecognizable – the sheer magnitude of people living on the streets and going through all manner of life that we go through behind closed doors and just laying it all out there for everyone to see. That was Rangoon at night in 1998.

During the day, the chaos still existed, but it was more recognizable. I remember watching the public buses pass through the streets filled beyond capacity with people moving around the city. And then this unfolded before me. I had but a moment to get into position, move around yet more people headed toward the door, focus, set exposure and shoot. I was shooting film, of course – digital didn’t exist yet. And I had limited film with me and, of course, no assurance that I could buy film in Burma. So every click of the shutter was precious. I took one picture of this scene – unheard of today – and this is it.

I love every nuance within the scene. Look carefully and you’ll see someone in the doorway staring out at me, looking directly into the camera. For me, he makes the shot. This image alone sparked the idea for me to create a series called The Daily Commute. I have played with this idea off and on over the years and while I have yet to launch the collection, I have plans for this series that I am, to this day, still excited about and plan to pursue again when I have a free moment.

This image works for me on many levels. It’s a fascinating moment in time. It’s well framed and composed. And, truthfully, it’s a stark reminder as to the varied lives that people across our planet are living right now, even as you read this. I am grateful that I was able to travel in Burma, grateful that I’ve had the broad range of experiences that exposed me to how people live in countries both wealthy and poor – and grateful that I was able to capture this image on film.

I recently printed this image again and framed it in our new framing facility. It now sits on the floor in my house awaiting a decision as to where it will hang. Soon enough, this daily commute will again, albeit as a 2-dimensional image, be a part of my daily life.

The Boys of Summer

I captured this image in San Francisco in the summer of 2001 – it was later acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and added to their permanent collection. The outing to what was then PacBell Park was an experiment. Baseball was in the infancy of its steroid crisis and I wanted to see if I could create images that captured the old-fashioned romance of the game.

Before multi-million dollar salaries and drug and steroid scandals had become the mainstay of the sport and before the rise of the NFL, baseball was America’s sport. The teams and players captured our imagination and our hearts. That’s the spirit I wanted to capture on film.

Helen and I traipsed off to the ballpark with several canisters of film in hand. Looking back at the contact sheets, I shot three rolls of film that day. That’s 108 pictures over the course of a three hour game. Film processing and printing pictures costs money – and I was on a budget. I could experiment, sure – but not with hundreds or even thousands of pictures. Today, of course, everything is different. Given the same situation today, I’d probably click off 108 frames inside of 20 minutes and have 1,000+ images before the game was finished. Shoot more, edit later. But that wasn’t how it was back then.

I let the San Francisco Giants know in advance what I wanted to do and they granted me a media pass for the day. Helen and I used the passes to mostly roam the stands and look at the game from different vantage points – and in every instance, I was looking for the story.

A lot of playing the game of baseball involves standing around and doing nothing. Some folks believe this makes the game slow and boring… other folks believe it adds to the romance of the game. After all, there’s an art to athletes in their prime staying engaged and involved with the game during long stretches of nothingness.

Sports photographers typically capture the action. The catch. The slide into home plate. They capture decisive moments of excitement on which a game turns. I am not a sports photographer. I wasn’t looking to capture a great image of a decisive moment of sports action. Instead, I was looking to capture an admittedly old-fashioned spirit of the game. And, as a result, instead of pointing my camera at the action, I decided to look through my lens and find the boredom.

I have images I captured that day of ballplayers in the field inspecting their gloves in moments of silent reflection. I have wide shots from above of home plate, with batters in various stages of swinging at the baseball, catcher and umpire clearly in view – those images more a photographic version of a Norman Rockwell painting than a Sports Illustrated cover shot.

But it is this image which stands out to me. This image captures precisely what I came to the ballpark that day to showcase – baseball players in what, for me at least, is a true reflection of the game. Each of the players looks to be in a different state of either boredom or engagement with what’s going on on the field.

I’ve often said that for me a great image is one in which the content and the style compete equally for our attention – the result being that we don’t know if we like the image better because of the story it’s telling or its aesthetic. As much as I love the story told by the players in this image, I also love the aesthetic. Tilting the camera at a slight angle gave everything life – it forces my eye naturally through the frame and created a series of parallel lines that are the final magic of the image for me.

When the Smithsonian asked to acquire a dozen of my prints, this seemed a natural part of the collection. The images of mine that they selected ranged from the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, the Space Shuttle – among others – and this wonderful image of the boys of summer. I’d say this image and the boys of summer are in great (and perfect) company.

I was shooting in Charlotte several years ago and had the thought to photograph The Charlotte Motor Speedway. The media folks at the speedway granted access easily enough. The weather when I was shooting was spectacular. Helen and the kids were with me, which always makes me happy. The only thing I neglected to take into account was that it was August – in North Carolina. I would pay for that.

When we arrived at the track there wasn’t a race going on. Not even so much as a practice lap being run. I figured the lack of cars would present a disappointment. Actually, to the contrary, having the track to myself was a treat.

I was directed to drive through a service tunnel and to park my Prius on the infield. We were free to roam the track as much as we wanted – so long as we didn’t drive on it. And while I didn’t drive on the track, Tamar was still in a stroller back then and so I took the opportunity to race her around one of the banked curves in her stroller. There was no rule against that.

One shot I wanted was of a banked curve captured from ground perspective. And here’s where I ran into trouble. It was August in North Carolina and the track was black asphalt. I was dressed in shorts and a short sleeved shirt and lying down to take the shot was, in a word, painful.

I did all I could to contort my body so that no bare skin touched the ground. Even then, I could barely lie down for ten seconds before the heat became entirely unbearable. I would stand, set my camera settings, lie down, focus, shoot, adjust settings, shoot again – all while counting to ten – which is when I had to stand up to avoid being burned. I did this several times. And just when I thought I was done, I would see the track from a new angle and start again. I tried laying a rain jacket on the ground. That bought me five additional seconds, no more. I was lucky to get away without damage to skin or clothing.

On my way back to our car, I walked past pit row and there, at the exit to the pit, I saw this scene and couldn’t help but chuckle. I’m not sure why someone needed to spray paint the word “finish” on the asphalt – but they did and the nonsense of it struck me as funny.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a shot that called for me to lie on my belly. I crouched a bit and made the shot about the track – you’ll see just a hint of sky at the top and the letters in the foreground coming off as large enough to be an important part of the shot while not taking over. I love the way the lines work – the V that hits the center of the frame, the banked curve in distance, wrapping the shot from left to right, the word “finish” left of center. For me, this is an image with strong composition and good story – and the humor is in the fact that I can’t quite discern what the story really is.

Of course, when I was done with this image, Helen, Jordan and I ran along the track as I pushed Tamar in her stroller. That was a fun stollen moment with my family. When we were done, we climbed in our cylinder hybrid and drove off the NASCAR track where, I’m some part of me thinks we probably never belonged in the first place.