Life as it should be, a 1st Nation Peoples Experience. 

Last summer while touring Monument Valley, I met Ron, one of the tour operators. Since I opted to stay the night in The Valley that night (with requires an escorted stay by a Navajo (Diné) as it’s on their land), we were treated to a pow wow after dinner. My, of course, having had to photograph this event I ended up send Ron prints of he and his wife dancing in their full Diné Regalia. Since keeping in touch, he told me about an annual event that bring together many native nations for a huge pow wow. I thought little of it and stowed it away as a future ‘maybe’ thing to do.
For some reason, as karma would have it, I received an email that had an advertisement for “the largest pow wow of the year”. I thought … is this the same one that Ron mentioned. Curious forced me to click through the ad. It took me to a website called The Gathering of Nations. After perusing, I found that it was coming up in a couple of months. Almost immediately after leaving the site, I emailed Ron asking him … well you know … yep, same one! So, my quest began. During this quest, I ended up being sponsored as a photographer for a local magazine in New Mexico! With media pass secured, it was time to begin plans around the event.

Ceremonial pray to kick things off.

Growing up in America, all we learned about in history class was how the new settlers from Europe traded and later fought the natives and how the aggressive and warring Indians fought the US Army in various battles. Our history paints “them” as savages. This is what we all mostly grew up believing. Further, Hollywood depicted Indians in similar light which further supported what we learned in school. Sadly, this is the complete opposite in reality. Here we have an ethnic race of proud people having foreigners stealing their land, treating them as second citizen people all b/c the new settlers wanted what they had (their land). Ugh. History aside, what I’ve come to know (now), that the First Nation People have band together in solidarity preaching love, tolerance, respect for once another, a deep commitment to their respective cultural importances to carrying forward to their future generations.
 gon drum1
I digress … Fast forward months of waiting … and arriving in Albuquerque for the first time, I quickly got my bearings and found myself readying my gear to shoot the event. I entered the event to a familiar sound. The sound of a Native American flute song. If you’ve never heard this before, the sound is emotionally moving and soothing. Such a powerfully peaceful sound reverberating off the walls of this large hall, oddly transforms you to a spirtual place. More native music ensues. Then, it’s time for what’s called “The Grand Entry” – a large procession of First Nation peoples dancing to the beat of drums. Arrrgh … the DRUMS. The arena was encircled with no less than a dozen different tribes from all over North America. Each tribe had 8 drummers sitting in a circle around their sacred drum pounding the it in near perfect uniscent with all their might while chanting in their own tongue. That alone sent me spiraling to a different place. If this wasn’t enough for the senses, in come streams over 3000 Native Americans from all over the US and Canada from some 300+ different tribal nations – dawning their tribal Regalia. It was an explosion of color, not to mention a sensory overload that was both exhilarating yet spiritual all at once. I didn’t expect this to hit me the way it did.
Just after a Grand Entry, I struck up a conversation with a tribesman sitting at his encircled drum. He said to me, (while glancing at a female next to me) “Would you like to sit, pointing at a seat next to him in the circle), it’s ok for you”. Come to find that this drum circle a sacred place for men only – no women allowed. Noticing a few things within the circle, I asked many questions and got some very interesting perspectives into what this circle entails. I was honored to be invited to his circle as he shared much knowledge with me.
These brief 3 days felt like 7 as it was a party and spectacle for 12 hours straight. I befriended a couple of folks both from the local area and neighboring states who helped clue me into snipets of Native culture & rituals that helped enhance the overall experience. I was told that once I set my belongings down, that it was completely safe as to no worries of it disappearing – it was against he spirit of the event. More over, everyone whom I interacted with in conversation of otherwise were the friendiest most generous I’ve experienced in the US. I felt like family in an odd sort of way – like they were taking care of me. It felt what I’ve experienced in Asian cultures – which I draw strong parallels from and think the two cultures are somehow descendants of one another.
I left with a few key messages that were both felt and spoken in Respect, tradition, spiritual awareness and forgiveness – all strongly taught to all generations within this proud nation of people. I am humbled once again.
After a longer than expected journey to the ever sacred countryside of the California Eastern Sierras due to road closures in the wake of punishing winter rains, we finally reach the valley floor of Yosemite. Arriving, we head straight for the daily campsite and get lucky in securing a site to bed down later tonight – it should get down to the mid 20*F by the time sleepy time rolls around.
Killing a few hours until nighttime, this winter’s snow melt is in full force as the waterfalls are spewing streams of gushing water from the surrounding walls of granite. Settling on a spot beside the shores of the Merced River with tripods setup, all you heard is the water calmly rushing past a fallen branch a few feet from shore. Ommmmm … no humans with just an occasional visit from grazing deer. Peace. As the sun begins to lower itself behind the granite monoliths from behind and all around, the star of the show begins to isolate itself from its competing peaks, reaching for the last bits of sun rays. Temperatures are dropping steadily sitting in the shade and the layers of clothing begin to appear. Not wanting to leave this surrender spot (not to mention missing golden hour), we prepare ourselves a mountain fresh gourmet meal. There’s nothing quite like scraping a 2-sided spoon/spork/knife instrument against the inside of a foil bag of chicken fettuccini alfredo sauce! What a feast I tell ya! It helps to have a portable water boiler to reconstitute your food. Full bellies, we wait for sundown.


Calle Lily Alle

For a number of years now, when I first happened upon images online about this area down along the coast of northern California, I’ve been pining year after year to capture this rare event. What event? Well … first off, I’m not a big flower kinda’ person when it comes to making images. I don’t make special efforts to seek and find flowering blooms – it’s just not all that inspiring to me. But, plunk me down into the desert during wintertime where there’s a “Super bloom” happening and I’m already planning to be there, I’m all in!

I digress …

LS (5 of 5)

Still looking fresh

Same goes for this little slice of paradise in a deeply covered revine somewhere alone Highway 1 just south of Carmel Valley about 15 or so minutes. Perhaps that’s why it has taken me so long to finally make the effort to scope out this place. So, driving along Hwy 1 like a lost dog, attempting to follow as many bread crumbs folks on internet sites have left behind in their wisdom to help others find this place, affectionately known as Calle Lily Alley. Why? Well, it’s filled with blooming Calle Lily’s – you know, the kind of white fleshy platters with a yellow plumes coming out of the middle during full bloom (otherwise curled like a roll of paper towels) you typically see during Easter Sunday and perhaps at funerals as well. It’s completely different when you see them growing in the wild in all their glory as they shoot skyward to grab a few hours of sunlight. Remember – they’re set in a deep revine. The unique thing about this revine is fresh mountain water makes it way to the ocean as there’s a steady little stream rushing water onto the beach/ocean not but a couple hundred meters westward – where fresh water turns into seawater. The ground is moist and soggy underfoot along with lush green shrubs and plants that flank both sides of the revine – spare the occasional Poison Oak shrubs.

Since I wasn’t in the area to specifically shoot this – more of a “while I’m here” kinda thing. I only brought my walk around camera (Fujifilm x100F), no tripod, filters or anything else to assist me in any attempt to getting creative, so I was fixed to one focal length at 28mm. Having so, it challenged me to work the revine as creatively as possible – not being able to zoom wide or in tight. I actually had to use my feet to zoom in and out – go figure!

I finally found the revine about 5pm’ish and stuck around until about 6pm or so. I really wanted to stay for sunset to grab the Golden Hour, but I had a hungry someone waiting for me in the car. The time I was there, the lighting was still a bit harsh for my liking, but felt it was a good enough first visit. Two last points of notice … shoot with your widest angle lens, work on crafty compositions and definitely wait it out for sunset … until next year as this event starts around mid-March and lasts about a month or less. Many blooms were starting to wither and brown around me.

More BTS …

Even though my workshops are photo centric, several have accompanied me on these photographic sojourns over the past 5 years everything from pro-level camera and even with a point-and-shoot camera and still had an enjoyable time in opening up new perspectives on local culture and how to make more memorable human connections. You will also find how to make more compelling travel photos as well! You will also learn how to interact within the local environment that allows you to be both present and invisible at the same time!

And, along the way, you just may discover a deeper appreciation for the world around you as being more inviting and welcoming in places you thought were only in storybooks. New friendships formed. New perspectives gained. Refreshed outlook on humanity … all through the lens that’s met with open arms and warmed hearts.

Come join a rewarding journey into a magical world of the visual language. You’ll soon realize it’s easier than you think!


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… aka Behind The Scenes. Just to give you a little idea of how we roll during a given workshop, there are many opportunities to learn (cultural and photographic), have fun interacting with local culture around us and making endearing human connections that stay with you for a lifetime!

These BTS images were from a journey into Tibetan life somewhere in the deep throws of Yunnan Province.

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Above are a few images captured by past participant, Penn Austin … Thanks Penn!

A Photographic Journey

China is rapidly changing. Ancient cultures are losing ground to modernized society as the country yearns to step onto the world’s stage as a leader in industry, technology and the modern cultural scene. With its rural heritage dating back a several thousand years, even with today’s breakneck speed at which China is growing, you can still find cultural gems in the far reaches of the country’s lesser traveled paths. Even these areas are fast embracing the consumeristic values of the western world in search of monetary and materialistic treasures.


Village life on the border

Central Stupa, Jinghong

Out of all the provinces in mainland China, as mentioned on a few prior posts, my most loved province is wondrous Yunnan. Great weather all year ’round – even in the hot humid months mainly b/c of the clean air quality. Big industry polluting provinces seem to have skipped this province as a whole which gives way for perfect weather. Yunnan is often associated with a coined term of endearment “above the clouds” for its heavenly formed clouds and vast landscapes. Yunnan is home to China’s 2 most picturesque rice terraces – Yuanyang and Dongchuan, photographed by the millions. Yunnan is also a place of diversity … but wait … aren’t all Chinese people, just Chinese people? After all … don’t we all look alike? If you grew up in the west like I did, that’s what our limited education system would have us believing. After living in China for a few years, I began to understand and recognize the suptle facial characteristics of people – at least from a regional perspective. Shorter from the south, taller in the north – in a general sense. Facial features too. This one is a bit more difficult to explain, more with bone structure, eyes, skin coloration and the like.


Yu la, 56 yrs old, Huayao Dai woman , Mannuwo village

Far from ignorant belief, of the 54 chinese ethnicities, Yunnan inhabits a wide range of ethnicities from the Han, Miao, Yi, Dai, Bai, Zhuang, Tibetan, Hani, Hui and to a lesser degree Ahka, Jinuo and Kongge peoples each with their own language (not dialect) and ancient cultural history. More than this, Yunnan is an agriculturally rich environment as well, producing the country’s best tea, coffee and a myriad array of fruits and vegetables – many unfamiliar to western palettes. This is what draws me to Yunnan … people and culture. This is what drew me yet again to a special zone not far from the Myanmar/Burma and Laos border. This is Xishuangbanna.

Gracious Ahka ethnic minorities playing temporary hosts

Upon landing at the surprisingly large airport (of maybe 10-15 gates) of Jinghong, the architecture leads you to believe you’re in SE Asia somewhere. Being a border area, strong cross0ver influences in landscape, food, culture, architecture and people confuse the senses as you know you’re still in Mainland China. Temples, for instance, are right out of Thailand/Myanmar complete with elephant statues and tall slender golden stupas. Even the festive dress suits the backdrop. It’s a bit strange having pineapple thai sticky rice and other traditional SE Asian dishes in what you know is still China.

Various ethnic groups at the weekly market.

Before entering this buffer zone, there was a “border crossing” much like they have from state to state in the US, except this border was manned by several of China’s Army complete with full-on battle armor. Pulling us over, having to show Passports, we were asked to get out of the car whilst an over zealous trooper questioned our entry into the zone. Apparently, there’s a huge drug traffic problem crossing the border into China so I guess they’re a bit squeamish about anyone who doesn’t look the part of a local. After a few telephone calls, taking lots of photos of us and our IDs as well as our Guides, they finally allowed passage after about 30mins.

Heading closer towards the border in the ensuing 2 days, deep into what appeared to mostly be jungle and miles upon miles of growing tea, sugar cane, bananas, mountain rice, the bumpy dirt roads seemed endless. Gladly, our Guide knew every turn and switchback as we flawlessly found village after village of the Ahka, Dai and Bulang people. The deeper we went, the more “raw” it got. Villages became more sparsely spaced, ‘roads’ got worse (at times having to get out and help push our car through the deeply rutted mud), dwellings became more primitive. So too does the food. From the familiar to the unfamiliar, if you can sometimes get past our own insecurities around what’s food vs. what isn’t (as a western palette goes), you’ll come away with a richer more fulfilling experience. What’s so different? In the west, we domestic just about everything except cows, pigs and chickens – our main source of meat. Here, chickens & fish run/swim freely  about until they’re called upon, an occasional dog and squirrels, worms and ‘rats’ (actually guinea pigs to more precise) are considered staples along with a whole host of plant-based stalks, stems and leaves prepared in ways we’ve never thought of are both delicious and nutritious – all grown wild and organic. This is real food. What makes going to the supermarket so natural? It’s all very much a part of the brief immersion of life as it was centuries ago.

Small, but proud Kongge & Jinuo people

As a natural light (preferred) shooter, I have the ability to shoot from sunrise to (past) sunset. In fact, I love midday photography as I head indoors for portrait opportunities. All I have to do (with a bit of finagling) is use light beams darting in from near darkness inside traditional huts as windows and doors are my friends. And, when that’s not enough, I make light by either adding a bit of it via flash and/or grabbing light from outside and bouncing it off of a reflector – whatever it takes to spill creative lighting on my subject. This challenges your knowledge and limitations of how the camera works in harmony with certain settings which must be done in a few seconds as the light changes as quickly as a mosquito bites (of which there are plenty here in this tropical wonderland).

Friendly Bulang people