I've noticed her quietly sweeping the floor early every morning before the guests awaken. Cigarette butts, bottle caps and trash from the party the night before gives her something to clean, I suppose. She doesn't seem to engage in any pleasantries with the guests; mind you, she's not allowed and could lose her job I've been told.
"Where do you live?" I asked politely one morning. "Would you like to see?" she whispered, "It's very close." Several hours passed until I spotted her again. She gave me a quick glance and an inconspicuous nod - it was time to go. I nervously followed her past the guard station, through a 10-foot gate equipped with razor wire and onto a muddy trail through the banana trees. Finally she smiled and seemed to relax. Unknowingly to her, that trail led me through a thin veil of cultural fog, opening my eyes onto a world that has left me outwardly quiet and reclusive ever since.
Her house was sun-cracked and made of the same mud caked onto the bottom of my sandals. Her small home was sparingly decorated with Christmas tinsel and exposed tree limbs that acted as necessary structural support. She invited me in to meet her mother, brother, sister and 4 children. It was awkward at first, or, rather, I was awkward. I sat on a bench near the door and from my vantage point the interior faded into a darkness through which I couldn't see…
There are several ways to see Africa. One of which is to peruse through the pages of Lonely Planet and hit the highlights; rafting, hippos, and the incredible landscape should not be missed. This is a trade-off, however. The truth is, traveling like most visitors do in Africa is not unlike a reality you already know, and very likely you'll be surrounded by a culture you simply know too well. Interesting as these weary adventurers may be, they may be very far from Africa...indeed.
Taking the local transit known as a dala dala can be rather tricky and a potentially uncomfortable proposition for most. Often these small vans are packed well beyond the 12-passenger seating capacity and completely disregard the manufacturer's safety requirement. Interestingly, it is not uncommon to find one loaded with 20+ people and you yourself holding someone else's child. You may even experience a stranger using your lap as a seat. Do not be troubled if you find yourself next to a squawking chicken, bed mattress or massive bag of maize; it's all part of the culture and positively an experience not to miss.
Photographing or taking video of the locals can also be quite a challenge. My strategy is to cradle my camera like a baby at waist height and record while walking. The simple truth is if I were to be caught the repercussions could prove harsh and I would inevitably be the loser of any confrontation.
Even quietly whispered, the concept of palm oil production is enough to start an all-out debate depending on who's in the room. So instead of adding my two shillings on the subject, I'll just post some pics of how it's produced in East Africa.
I realized a curious little thing and abruptly stopped in my tracks. When it comes to curious little things, I must say, I gain pleasure tossing them around in my head. On many an occasion, the end result may be entirely irrelevant except to add electrical congestion to my brain. Which incidentally, could be accurately described as a forever-curious current of stubborn rusty wires and dying cells, rarely satisfied with a "what" without the "why". So there I was once again, alone with my thoughts and strolling in the moonlight down a sandy shore of Lake Tanganyika, loosely contemplating the path behind and ahead of me.
The camera has been a serious pain in the ass, truth be told. I'll also offer that it has equally been my greatest source of inspiration and guide: a reliable compass and compelling reason to explore around the next bend. A camera in hand sharpens my senses and narrows my focus. It's been a powerful tool for reflection, expression, education: a privilege and blessing in my life. I have often thought of photography (at least my ability to pursue it) as a rough-cut stone wedged deep in my pocket. A magical stone — one I could polish and rub for luck.
I've had several setbacks along the way, mind you. The time I was robbed of an $18K camera kit in Costa Rica was particularly tough. In Argentina I was nearly beaten to death on a dimly-lit street for my back-up Nikon and Nikkor lens. Both experiences, despite the unfathomable terror I was forced to taste, may have sweetened over time and prove to be good blog entries or content for my book; experiences that one day may read like sugar and drip from the tongue like honey from a hive. Predictably however, one might find themselves exactly where I did after enduring such an experience: sifting through the sands of meaning and purpose, frozen mid-step once again.
Why do I do what I do despite all the fear and self-doubt, challenges, inherent risk, set backs, heart breaks, rejections, unknowns, missed or delayed paychecks and consequential sacrifices? Am I good enough? Can I really do this? Let me say that pursuing dreams can be a fuckin' hard realization to see to fruition. I believe that far more often we watch our dreams and passion from a safe and secure distance; keep them close for company; allow them to remain mirage-like and elusive, like a notion rarely realized. The answer is simple for me: I have no other choice. Taking pics is what I was born to do and I can't in good conscience submit to fear of failure or a subtle form of quiet desperation. Nor will I sit quietly and watch from the sidelines. Instead, I will run in head first, trip, fall, pick myself up. My images will be what remain when my ship leaves for sea...of this I'm certain.
A very gifted song writer and good friend of mine has a similar responsibility, I wager. A song, not unlike an image, is an accumulation of notes learned over a lifetime of experience that are unique to the artist. Much like a Picasso brilliantly brushed onto a heart of canvas, he'll play his 6-string while his head and his heart offer a perspective that is perfectly phrased within a 4 minute time slot. I think it goes without saying that the brush strokes we discover, nurture, develop, may take a lifetime to create, find, or even see.
That's when it dawned on me like a timely smack upside the head. I realized, rather melodramatically, that I've spent my adult life pursuing a career defining fractions of time. Moments so fleeting they almost entirely go unnoticed to everyone including me, and, sometimes, only me. 250th of a second here, 1000th of a second there, it doesn't add up to much time at all. Oddly enough, if I were to add up the body of my life's work in measures of time, it's probably a safe bet to say I've captured mere minutes over 20 years of shooting.
I'm not sure what the hell to make of all this quite honestly. Perhaps I'll chalk it up to another traffic jam of loose wires and restless neurons. Whatever it is however, it's curious indeed.
I suppose it's time to write a little sumptin' about the cuisine here in Tanzania. I've traveled from east to west now and currently I'm holed up in a nice little spot on Lake Tanganyika, so I feel seasoned enough to get my thoughts out on such a delicate topic. I'll admit, I'm not a foodie. Furthermore, I probably have simple requirements as it relates to food; tasty, please and lots of it. For the most part food here is simple: rice, beans, plantain, chicken, goat, fish. In a sentence that pretty well sums up what you're about to eat, or what you're currently eating, or what you've just eaten, or what's on the menu at the cute little place down the street, or presumably, what's on the menu even when they don't actually have a menu.
There is another local staple known as ugali, however. This interesting mound of matter which closely resembles a Thanksgiving-sized portion of mom's mashed potatoes, has the consistency of dough made from cassava root or maize flour. The secret to this little stomach expander is to first grab a fist full, roll it into a ball, use your thumb to create an imprint or spoon of sorts and dip it into your soup or beans or fish or chicken. It has a rather bland taste but what it lacks in flavor it entirely makes up with its affordability and unrivaled supremacy in dilating your stomach increasingly for hours after you eat it.
All of this food is fairly tame, mind you, and perhaps a vegetarian's nightmare, but tame nonetheless. That is until I ran across a curious little food called kumbi kumbi. And although the maxim may suggest something to the effect an image has the power of some thousand word soliloquy, you can clearly see that claim is false 'cause this photo leaves me rather wide-eyed and speechless. Sautéed up in a little oil or eaten raw, wings removed, with a glass (or 5) of fine chianti is all one really needs. In fact, you may have just discovered that perfect starter dish to entertain the in-laws over the holidays. These unfortunate flying insects (unfortunate for them, not you) are an epifamily of the cute and cuddly cockroach in case you're wondering. But if one could look beyond the words of Wikipedia, or close their eyes and open wide, this little critter packs a wallop of nutrition. In Africa everything is big including these free-ranging, certifiably organic termites.
So if dinner tonight happens to be a medley of nosh all too familiar, spice it up a little and try something new. Bon appetit!
I managed to dig my seat belt from within the cracks and cinched myself down as best I could. We were all crammed in like salt in a shaker waiting for the next bump in the road. Sitting over the rear axle was simply a very bad idea. The roads in rural Tanzania might be what you'd expect - dusty, narrow and full of massive potholes. The bumps felt more like craters and in my mind's eye they were big enough to have been created by mortar rounds lobbed carelessly from the Congo, but then again what do I know. I can tell you with certainty however, the driver was a man possessed who launched into each bump, hole and curve like he was hell-bent on reaching the afterlife far sooner than natural selection would allow and taking us all with him. Each bump bounced us uncomfortably high from our seats, jarring my lower back and shortening my fuse. To make matters worse, I couldn't see the road ahead so I was both completely at the mercy of this boy-turned-bus-driver, and blind to the impact of each unpredictable blow.
When I say we were crammed in...I mean it. The seats were 3 wide on one side and 2 on the other and separated by a narrow walk that resembled more of a gauntlet than a pathway. The chickens were even squawking their disapproval. I would talk about the odor - a pungent combination of sweat and undesirables - but to be honest, I don't want to paint a picture to my western brethren that these people lack hygiene. I think what is closer to the truth is that western culture is obscenely anti-bacterial and is largely oblivious to the realities of life around the world and all its challenges. Not to mention the cost of a stick of deodorant might mean an empty belly at bed time. The place was ripe though and I'll leave it at that.
Those unfortunate enough not to acquire a seat were forced to stand for hours on end while the driver fishtailed around blind corners and quickly darted onto the down-sloping shoulder narrowly missing oncoming traffic. Danlee, who can sleep almost anywhere, anytime, was even wide-eyed and asked, "If you knew it would be like this would you have booked the flight despite the cost savings?" To which I replied, "Hell yeah!"
Eventually however, and much to our relief, the locals eventually became intolerant and started in unison yelling what was obviously angry Swahili up to the the ears of the driver. "Are you blind!?" one man a row behind us yelled. I surmised when the driver finally realized he might well indeed have a mutiny on his hands he gave up his thirst for speed and slowed. We clapped enthusiastically our approval every time he got it right and eased into a bump as smooth as a baby's back end.
Another day in paradise I wouldn't trade for the world.
I've always wanted to be a native Indian. That is to say, I've always felt anachronistic in my spirit and mildly out of place in the mainstream current of our culture. Although my teen years were tough, I have many fond memories of long nights listening to my favorite cassette tapes of nature sounds, cuddled under covers with native Indian how-to and philosophy guide books: my bible as a boy. Those volumes spoke to me and resonated so deeply that they helped shape me forever. They taught me to open my eyes and live more consciously. They guided me to a greater sense of connectedness and appreciation of the natural world and all its gifts both seen and unseen. In the Canadian forests of my youth I learned how, or attempted on several occasions, to tan a hide, snare squirrels, collect and prepare wild edibles, preserve meat, build shelters out of pine or spruce boughs, construct solar stills, identify game trails, trees and stars.
At the age of 13 I asked my folks for a -10 degree mummy bag for Christmas and by New Years I had a 4 inch foamy on the ground and a 12 foot tarp roped up between a spruce tree and the fence in our back yard. This proved to be a good bed for a night or two that morphed into weeks, and then into months. I remember that period fondly because I slept so well under a crisp starry sky or snowy winter night, bundled up in my bag, drawstring pulled with only my nose braving the elements. I had never felt more alive or alert in all my young life.
In the 8th grade I had a group of young fellas from school convinced that we should all run away to live in the wilderness together. I had done enough reading for the lot of us and had even convinced myself this was the only option to live an authentic life. Our culture's intoxicating consumerism, insatiable greed, incomprehensible disconnect from our roots and the natural world that sustains us, was something of which I wanted no part. So, the boys and I arranged a rendezvous time and location to launch our retreat to somewhere in the Canadian Rockies. When the day finally came I loaded my external frame pack, strapped my father's pump action 22 to the side, hopped on my bike and pointed my wheels west. Roughly halfway to the rendezvous I experienced one of the biggest scares of my young life when I peddled through a busy intersection and spotted a Calgary police cruiser idling at a red light. I remember hauling ass through the adjacent neighborhood making sure he couldn't find or follow me. I was certain he had noticed the rifle strapped to my back.
When I arrived on time at our agreed location I was the only one there. I waited and waited and waited until finally one boy showed with his school bag of books and a story about how he couldn't do it, he couldn't go, none of them could. I was completely devastated but little did I know it'd be a good blog entry years later.
I have no doubt my folks will read this and reluctantly remember that day all too vividly. I can picture how they must have walked into my room that morning, attempting once again to corral me out of bed and on the bus to school. Instead they were greeted by a hand-written note taped to my cassette player; "push play" is all it said. My stereo no doubt crackled to life and broke their hearts. What they heard was a recording of my voice telling them I couldn't be a slave to this world and needed to find freedom and solace the only way that made sense to me at the time - in the wilderness. I told them I loved them and not to worry, I'd be alright. I'll never forget the emotion, fear and sharp words from my father when he finally caught up to me later that day. "This isn't the wild west, Jamen!!" I could tell he was horrified by the thought of losing his son and relieved I hadn't succeeded.
So what is my point and how in the world does this story tie into an image of a Maasai warrior I captured, decades later, somewhere in Africa, half-way around the world and far from a boyhood fantasy? I suppose the reality is I've never lost my appreciation for the indigenous cultures; the original caretakers of our planet. In many ways you might catch me still standing on my little white soap box, stating how I think the natives were the ones that had it all figured out. That is to say, had it figured out until we showed up, the white man, with our cholera, catholicism and obscene sense of entitlement.
Truth is, the man posing for me in the image was impressive. It was easy to see his unmistakable pride while he gently tolerated me and my barrage of questions concerning his village, rituals, religious and spiritual beliefs. He had unwavering patience and kind eyes. I can only imagine his history or the history of his people. And despite the fact he seemed to me to be otherworldly, he felt oddly familiar.
His wind-rustled cloak, fearsome gaze and the undeniable beauty of this image pierced me so deeply that when we finished shooting I needed to walk alone in the darkness during our retreat from the canyon. I simply could not contain my emotions as I felt as though I had captured something I had lost. And that little boy buried deep in my bones came flooding out.
You may like, love or hate this image but the reality is photography feeds nearly every iota of me - which is all I need. I mean, come on, if I had shot this scene with what my internal camera meter was "suggesting" I do, the end result would have you yawning your way to another dot-com address. Hell, I'd be right behind ya!
If you had been there to witness the place and hear my shutter trip, however, you would have seen blonde colored sand and a blue-bird sky. In fact, if I had simply pushed the button while lacking a vision of what could be, the students, the shade, the shadows would look so offensively dark and unrecognizable you'd be bored by now and I'd be looking for a new career.
Truth is, this image is straight out of camera, minus a minor contrast/black point adjustment, of course. It did take me some time to absorb and appreciate, but in my mind this image leaps from its pixels and commands attention. It is unique and mildly ethereal.
How do you photograph 6 lovely teenagers in a manner that ties the image to a message which is greater then the sum of its parts? Easy, find the perfect tree and throw in the Swahili word for underwear: chupi. I'm fairly certain those of us raised in the western world would agree the word underwear is a non-issue. If mentioned in Swahili, however, it quite literally cracks up the kids and makes me laugh alongside them.
I've had my clothes cleaned by local ground workers at Jane Goodall's house for 7 bucks a bundle. They seemingly are happy to hand-wash a load of my dirty clothes; everything but my underwear. Don't get me wrong, I don't suffer from interesting hygiene issues or fashion concerns, it's simply a case that the culture refuses to acknowledge that undergarments exist, or deem it in any way acceptable to discuss. But, wow, it works wonders when photographing the children!
Funny stuff, just saying.
Today was cool, way cool, like Justin Bieber prodding his way through a crowd of emphatic teenage fans, pawing and scraping to get a touch of his hand or eye contact, glance, smile, anything. Only, I don't think I could have made a worse comparison relative to this place; East Africa. The idea of anything American, or anything mainstream, by my rose-tinted standards simply fade like the color of this young man's t-shirt. No, I make the comparison because it simply makes me laugh and quite literally, that's how the kids at Mianzini Primary School, Dar es Salaam, made me feel today; like a total rock star.
Cultures fascinate me, I must say, and I suppose the more I travel the more I'm intrigued by my own culture, what makes it tick and why. These kids freely gave me love, song, dance and a farewell speech because they know no other way. Perhaps to them it just seems like the right thing to do? Well, I just gotta say, I can't disagree. Imagine welcoming strangers of all colors, creed or race with warmth enough to make even a hardened heart glow.
I think it noteworthy to also mention that despite the school's recess yard of hard-packed clay and the game wire fencing in the window frames, stains on the ceilings and cracks in the concrete, potholed floors and wobbly wooden chairs, the place was rich with children's laughter and a sense of community that sucks you in so honestly that you never wanna leave.
So why would I post a single frame of a single boy from a morning spent shaking hands and fist pumping with what felt like nearly all 2000 students? Simply put, this picture touches me - the composition, the color and expression, the rain falling into blurry eyes and dripping down his cheeks. It all just sorta sums up something I have floating around in my heart and can't quite put into words.
Well, I'm here, finally. Even despite the 40 hours and four flights it took, and the seemingly harsh words to follow, I'm absolutely thrilled to be here.
The scene is almost overwhelming and too much to describe in a single sitting. The city is third world with dusty streets, far too few traffic lights and not a cop in sight. The good news is there seems to be a hospital at every turn as malaria appears to work its way into the veins of every Tanzanian, sooner or later. Danlee, my travel companion, even thought she had been infected but after a quick stop, 3500 shillings ($2), a painless pin prick revealed her blood was clean, relatively speaking.
I think the reality is I'm suffering from withdrawal of my A/C and cushioned little life back home. Perhaps it's a normal bought of culture shock but I think what put me over the edge tonight was a movie I watched in the local theatre (the only theatre in Dar es Salaam as I understand). Danlee and I watched Ben Affleck's great new flick, Argo, at the local Mall. There was a point, finally, when I stopped fretting over the fact the theatre smelled pungent and ripe with urine. I imagined some unruly fellows visiting cinema 5 several hours earlier and peeing all over the seat I was sitting in.
Did something just scurry over my bare toes? I had to ask myself. And just as quickly I suddenly forgot about the odor. Then something to my left caught my eye, again, and again, until I realized it was a family of rats high-tailing it up the carpeted wall to a nest, no doubt, 15 feet up. The crafty little buggers have box seats! Up there I'm sure they safely scarf down their share of kernels and enjoy the showing of the next hollywood blockbuster. I suddenly put the two together and realized the odor in the joint wasn't from a few troubled teens but from a throng of cinema rats!! Man do I miss sanitized restrooms and the smell of lysol...just saying. I live in such a bubble, shame on me.
To be truthful, I think life will get easier once I start shooting in a couple days. We're in Dar for the next week then rural Tanzania for about a month but so far this looks like any third world city save the smell. Who would have thought a blanket of wood smoke, car exhaust and street dust could create such a lull of comfort for my senses. Africa sure has a smell all its own, unique and imperfect but strangely satisfying.
The idea of this image came to me a year and a half ago during a week stay while shooting Las Palmas, Huatulco, the first time around. I wanted to share the process involved in making this image a reality. The truth is, a similar image can be seen in my architecture gallery on my main page. When I had the opportunity to return to the hotel, the image festering in my minds eye dominated the landscape of my creative juices, sort of speak. I wanted to capture a two hour exposure of star trails over the hotel. My plan was simple enough providing I got some help.
A very kind and accommodating hotel staff agreed to wake at 3am and "zombie" walk through the grounds flipping switches to every light bulb in the place. I then hopped on a quad 4x4 and weaved my way around the bay to a vantage point looking back toward the villas. My plan was to shoot two images on the same frame using a sturdy tripod - a double exposure as they say. I worked out a shutter time of 30 seconds for the buildings and framed it so they would anchor a wide landscape, an empty colorless sky, and plenty of room to breathe. I then radioed back to flip the breakers and the land returned to black and the sea a light grey. At that point my plan was to open the camera shutter for several hours and capture the stars, which were too many to count, and record the celestial interaction between the galaxy and our spinning little planet. If all went well the stars would trail through the frame burning subtle hues of blue and red and green and yellow. What an amazing little world we have here.
I ran a test shot first. I hit the double exposure setting on my fancy D3s and experimented with one test shot - I didn't want to mess this up. I should also mention that I really do not miss the days of having to manually rewind the film canister in my camera to do this! First, I exposed the building at f-16 to increase the star-like burst effect that happens to light sources at lower f-stops. Secondly, after the power was cut and using a wireless trigger, I opened up the aperture to allow as much starlight in for my second exposure. I flipped it to bulb and fired the frame. After about 10 minutes I got a bit anxious about what I was collecting so I ended the exposure and the image posted was the result. The golden hue in the bottom left corner was from the revolving lighthouse some distance away. I was concerned, will the light house mess up the 2 hour exposure I had planned? I should also mention that I was watching the cycles of the nearly full moon and the reason why I had chosen 3am as the time to begin was because the moon would have completely set, thus enhancing the clarity and potency of stars against a rich black, canvas sky.
At this point I radioed back to the grounds staff and they kindly flipped the breakers back on, piercing the tranquil night scene. Much to the chagrin of the patient guests that were trying to sleep I should add! Thank you, again, by-the-way. I then began my 2 hour exposure and was left to wait in silence and darkness, but for the swatting of mosquitos, my sole companions for the night. At some point I was startled by some sort of creature and my adrenal glands shot a healthy dose of adrenaline through my body. Whatever that creature is, I whispered quietly to myself, it probably sounds worse then it looks.
Anyhow, when my 2 hour timer finally buzzed me back to reality, I ended the frame and was completely horrified with the results! The light house had completely burnt out my sky and the image was completely ruined!
So, I learned a valuable lesson and was very glad I had taken a "test" shot! Next time I'll take at least two.
Nikon D3s & 85mm 1.4, Hähnel Giga T Pro II wireless trigger, Gitzo GT2541 tripod, Induro BDH2 ballhead, Honda 4x4 quad, one can of caffeinated cola.
Ok, here it goes with my first blog entry that is long overdue. I thought I'd make it simple by adding some pics I shot over the last several days of a beautiful piece of paradise I have had the privilege of shooting. Ron Williams, the owner of Las Palmas Resorts & Villas in Huatulco, Mexico, has simply created a masterpiece with the design, location and staff of this little oasis perched on a cliff. If you like infinite pools, warm wind and stunning views, Las Palmas won't disappoint.