Archives for posts with tag: polynesia

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 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…

In 1766, Captain George Wallis left London with the goal of circumnavigating the globe. Along the way, he discovered Tahiti. When he returned to England and before his death, he passed on information about Tahiti to Captain James Cook. Captain Cook then hired many of Wallis’ crew and returned to Tahiti in 1768 aboard his ship The Resolution. As fate would have it, the Master on that sailing was none other than William Bligh who would go on to his own fame for the mutiny on The Bounty 19 years later.

From Wallis to Bligh, there were several trips to Polynesia. Among other reasons was the British need for breadfruit. Breadfruit was plentiful in Polynesia, did not spoil once plucked from a tree, and was found to be a cheap and energy rich food for slaves. The United Kingdom ended slavery in 1833, but until then – and especially as it related to the slave trade – there was a demand for Polynesian breadfruit.

This demand likely helped drive Captain Cook’s second voyage to Polynesia and was the entire reason for Captain Bligh’s voyage to Tahiti in 1787. In addition to breadfruit, great weather, beaches, food and local women, the sailors on Captain Cook and Captain Bligh’s voyages to Polynesia also discovered something new to the West. Tattoos.

Polynesians had developed a rich history and culture around tattoos that dates back 2000 years. The tattoos are distinctive black and white geometric patterns, often depicting sea creatures or, occasionally, birds (the one above looks like a Manta Ray). The British sailors who sometimes spent months in various parts of Polynesia went local in many ways… including, of course, getting tattooed.

That’s how it came to be that tattooed British sailors returned to England. Which, in turn, led to a sub-culture of tattoos among sailors in general. In the early and mid-20th century as two world wars broke out, these same sailors joined the Navy and brought with them their culture of tattoos. Which is why, when I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, seeing a tattoo on a man of nearly any age indicated military service in the Navy or Marines.

Over the last forty years, the culture of tattoos has migrated from the naval culture to mainstream society. I’m fascinated that so many people, of all ages and social strata, have tattoos these days. And I wonder how many of these people know how that tattoo came to be on their body, that it all started 2000 years ago in Polynesia and then with a bold sailing by Captain Wallis in 1766, followed by sailings by Captain Cook and Captain Bligh, with a nod to need to feed people caught up in the slave trade.

With this as a backdrop, thanks to Paul Gauguin Cruises, I was fortunate enough to lead six weeks of photo expeditions in Polynesia over two recent summers. There’s plenty of stunning landscape to photograph and I saw and photographed plenty. It was in the Marquesas Islands, listed as the most remote islands in the world, 3,000 miles from a continental land mass – on the Island of Nuku Hiva, known for, among other things, its history of cannibalism – that I was inspired to start photographing these tattoos.

I suppose here in Nuku Hiva, with little connection to the outside world and a population of 2,660, that the tattoos felt especially genuine and how it was that my pent-up interest in Polynesian tattoos finally found it’s way into my viewfinder and into my images.

This particular image came from just outside the gathering hall on the island. Some of the locals banged drums while others danced in a performance that’s true purpose was to get us rare tourists up where they could sell us souvenirs. The drumming and the dancing were wonderful. I took pictures of the drummers and even pulled out my iPhone to capture video of my 5-year-old daughter joining in with the local dancers. But the real intrigue for me was not in the hall with the staged performance, but outside the hall, where otherwise idle men gathered to pass the time. These men were not there to sell anything nor to participate. This was their island and we were all as much a curiosity to them as they were to us.

I noticed this one man immediately. He was large and hard to miss. I knew I wanted to take a picture of his tattoo – and I also knew I wasn’t interested in shooting a portrait. I wanted the open shirt, the gold chain and the tattoo. I wanted to fill the frame with that which interested me, nothing more. I don’t shoot pictures like this from afar, preferring instead to be up close and personal with my subject. This means getting permission which, in this case, I got by raising my camera and asking permission with my eyes and a slight head nod. He, in turn, signalled his approval ever so slightly.  He didn’t look like a man with much patience for the likes of me, so I took one shot, thanked him and moved on.

There’s symmetry and asymmetry in this shot that both work well for me and, in an intriguing way, offset one another. And then there’s the history. All in all, I quite like this shot.

And as a post script: there was a new case of suspected cannibalism on the island a week after we were there.

So it goes.

I’m fascinated by the fact that tattoos originated in the tiny islands of Polynesia and are now nearly ubiquitous around the much of the world. If you have a tattoo, the chances are it wouldn’t be there but for the fact that natives in Polynesia pioneered the art. In 1768, Captain James Cook sailed on his first of three voyages and stopped in Tahiti. There, his crew was first exposed to the art of tattoos. A young lieutenant on his ship would later become a captain of his own ship and return to the same set of Polynesian islands – his name, William Bligh who later famously captained the Bounty.

It was during these and subsequent visits to Polynesia that sailors began to adorn themselves with and learn about the art of tattoos. From there, it’s an easy and quick step to see how tattoos infiltrated western navies. Indeed, back in the 1960s and 1970s when I was a kid, only men had tattoos and it was usually taken and a sign that he had served in the Navy.

In the intervening 40 years, tattoos have jumped the chasm from the military and naval service and become mainstream art. In the process, I feel confident in saying that few folks wearing tattoos know where the art originated, know nothing of the chain of events that lead to the tattoo that’s on their bodies and have no connection to the distinctive styles of the original tattoo culture.

Tattoos in Polynesia have a sacredness to them. They provide connections to the earth, to the ocean, to their culture, family and history. The tattoos all have a similarity to them – a sense of shared geometry. They are all black ink, no color. They don’t contain names or representational images. They are not entirely abstract either… the shapes have meanings and often take the form of a recognizable animal such as a manta ray.

I spent three weeks in Polynesia this past summer… it was magical for a number of reasons, one of which was the opportunity to see a range of tattoos from the place in the world where tattoos originated. And, of course, it was magical because I had an opportunity to photograph a range of the these tattoos as well.

I nearly missed this shot. I was leading two pick-up trucks filled with 15 adventurous photographers around the island of Bora Bora. To be clear, our guide Jay was leading us with myself and half our group in his truck and the rest in a second pick-up that followed closely behind. At one point, the second pick-up truck was nowhere in sight. I mentioned this to Jay.

Jay smiled sublimely. “Don’t worry,” he said. He was the epitome of relaxation and he meant it.

Five minutes later, as we turned off the main ring road and onto a well-rutted dirt trail, I asked Jay again where the second pick-up was. “Don’t worry,” he smiled. “Bora Bora time,” he said, reminding me that I was in a place where time moved slowly and without effort or concern.

Jay is a Bora Bora native and he’s understandably proud of his island. “This is where I come to work every day,” he said as he took a side spur off the main artery we were climbing to share a particularly magnificent vantage point.

The photographers unloaded from the back of Jay’s pick-up truck and I began coaching them on where to stand and how to frame a shot to build in foliage for perspective and drama. Jay, meanwhile, actually thought to look at his watch. “He’ll be here in 2 minutes,” he said of the second pick up truck with complete confidence.

Ten minutes later, Jay picked up his cell phone and left his friend from the second pick-up truck a vmail. I tried not to worry about what might have happened to the other pick-up truck, took out my own camera and snapped a few pictures… that’s when I captured this image.

I love all the various line in this image. Two lines at the top are parallel to one another straight across the image, but then two lines cut across the mid-section of the image at oblique angles – and finally, the tree line and one of the water lines curve together in perfect synchronicity  from left to right about a third of the way up from the bottom. This movement is what makes the shot for me… it’s unexpected, unusual and unexplainable. And it’s fun to look at.

After another few minutes, we loaded back up into our pick-up truck which was precariously balanced on a few off-kilter mounds of dirt, and drove off for the nearby summit. That’s where we found the missing pick-up truck and the rest of the troop waiting for us and wondering where we had gone off to. The driver of that second truck didn’t know about the spur we had taken, nor the vantage point it lead to, and had driven straight past it.

The other photographers were enjoying the photo ops from the relatively high peak when I re-joined them. They were amazed at the vista and had been excited to photograph it. “It’s nice,” I said and then I had them all mount up in their pick up and brought them down the mountain to the overlook they had missed. And then they started creating some marvelous images.