While remaining largely in place during this time in our lives that challenges our resolve to be kind to one another, I find myself, in part, getting lost in my thoughts over recent travels & wander jaunts . Often times, as life continues to steamroll by us, past experiences fast become weakening shades of blur.
Last April’s adventures along the southern coast of Fujian Province in mainland China was yet again a reminder that taking pause to sniff what most wouldn’t dare often times reaps the most rewards. The vastness of the coastline can either jade or inspire you to seek out the beauty in this cross-section of human intervention with natures wonders.
I have long since been enamored with the abstract world around us; zeroing in as close as comfortable enabling a certain level of peacefulness to be achieved – even though there’s chaos swirling around you. Having this time to take myself back to this place through my lens and relive these places through my imagery, it almost always carries back the full and vivid sights, sounds and aromas where landscapes melt their way to dreamscapes begging the question … what are they?
Upon any given photo session, I usually only pick ONE image – the champion image. Often times, in any session, there are a few gems that are at time forgotten about and ignored. During this unprecedented time in which we around the world are experiencing – more specifically here in LA County, where we are in a state-wide shelter-in-place order, I decided to bide my time in looking at these sidelined images.
This particular shoot is on the Ganges River in Varanasi where I hired a boatsman and Sanhu (Hindu priest) to be my model for about an hour on one early morning.
During a shoot, I am often strapped for time and this one was no different. So, one subject in a limited space (a small rowboat), what do you do? I knew that using an external off-camera flash was necessary to bring out the details of my subject as different floating positions with a rising sun would sometimes backlight (my subject). No room for a lightstand and limited human capacity, I had to both handhold the flash and camera at the same time. Although I’m used to shooting this way in my several travel junkets of similar genre, it’s not the ideal scenario, but I’ve learned to manage.
Set the ambient lighting and appropriate shutter speed and just shoot from there. Composition is always top of mind as is making sure focus is on my subject, along with directing my subject through a series of poses. I speak no Hindu, he spoke no english. You learn quickly to use the other senses to communicate – this is what makes this work so endearing, satisfying and humbling.
What do you think? Which one is your “champion” image?
I am told that it is the oldest inhabited city in the modern world, believed to be overt 3000 years old. It’s main attraction for both Hindu pilgrims and tourists alike are the ghats, or steps that lead from temples to the western river banks of the Ganges River. Daily, you will find hoards of pilgrims dunking, drinking and bottling up the water from the river as it’s believed to have healing and spiritual powers.
Amidst the narrowed pathways not fitted for cars, somehow they along with motorbikes, tuk-tuks and bi-peds find their way to the holy waterway of the river. As you can imagine, the streets are teeming with congestion and small commerce ranging from fruit sellers to street food, open-aired haircuts, not to mention t-shirts and jewelry. But, once you reach the river itself, the daytime provides a calm relaxing stroll between Assi Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat – never mind the several requests by local boatsman asking you if you’d like a boat ride on the river (we were asked no less than 25 times along this 2 mile stretch). In the early morning and evening every single day, brings a ritual called Aarti, which rings in a new (day) and marks the ending of the day. This is what makes this city so unique. Witnessing these rituals brings hundreds upon hundreds of people on the Assi and Rajendraprasad Ghats – it’s a surreal event to experience firsthand.
We jumped in a boat after Aarti to head northward towards Manikarnika Ghat where an important event occurs. Hindu’s believe that the Ganges and the city are so sacred that hundreds of dead bodies are cremated here (everyday). It’s virtually non-stop 24/7; more so in the nighttime where pyres burn simultaneously throughout the night. Each cremation site is arranged in a rectangle with wood stacked about 3ft. high where the shroud covered deceased is placed (on top of the wood pile), then another foot of wood on top it. No less than 5 sites burn simultaneously and a seemingly endless queue. I covered my mouth as to not breath in the smoke directly – the thought on inhaling what’s burning in front of me just seemed wrong. I was told that it takes roughly 1000lbs of wood to burn a corpse; as evidenced, there’s piles upon piles of chopped wood stacked 10s of meters high around the ghat. After the cremation is complete, what remains (ash and some unburnt bones are tossed into the river). This is believed to complete the cycle of life.
From Aarti to the burning pyres, everything along the Ganges River is surreal and nothing like I’ve ever experienced in my travels so far. This city has been known as Barnasas, sometimes Kashi and better known around the world as Varanasi.
Have you ever seen something in the movies, on the internet or in pictures and said to yourself, “One of these days, I’m totally doing that!” That day finally happened. This time, it was setting out on camelback through a desert. The romanticism of riding along sand dunes like Lawerence of Arabia seems like a nice dream event, doesn’t it?
Today, was that day. Saddling up at 10:30am, our destination is our tent camp some number of kilometers away. Camels are a way of life in the desert, so I don’t mind riding them. They provide pack mule-like help and are well equipped to withstand extreme heat in these harsh environments – I found that they have a huge sweat gland right behind their head. Dromedaries or one-hump camels are most common – especially in this part of the world where rider is in front of their hump and a second rider in back (of the hump) – kinda makes sense as I’d hate to be the one on top of that hump. From a clippity-clop trot to a steady and rhythmic gallup, you learn quickly how to ride each gait accordingly – more out of self preservation than anything else. Preservation of your seat bone, muscles and much more, that is.
Fast forward 6+ hours, with a couple of breaks later (off camel), we reach our camp near 5pm. That’s a long day in the hot desert sun! (PSA) If you ever find yourself traipsing through the desert, I highly recommend wearing long sleeve and long pants with a good SPF, a brimmed hat with an added bonus of a neck gator soaked in water to keep your temperature in check. I had re-soaked mine 3 times as it dried out a few times along the way. I made this call and boy, I’m glad I did – it saved me from getting sun burnt and overheating. It was about 90*f this time of year with no shade and usually pushes north of 130*f during the hotter months.
Some say it’s not the destination, but the journey that’s most rewarding. I usually subscribe to this in most cases, but in this case, I’d have to dispel that notion as the air conditioned tent complete with veranda out front and an attached bathroom/shower area was an oasis for sure! The tent was like 20’x20’ with a king size bed! I guess you’ve just got to try some things once, eh? Traditional folk music and dance was a nice ending to a hot, bumpy and wayward journey through the Thar Desert not far from the Pakistan border. Would I do it again. Certainly not. Am I glad I did it? Yep. Some things are best done once to savor the experience and save important body parts from further dismay.
Tired muscles, unclear head and slightly weary body, we leave the poshness of our comfy hotel for an early AM flight far out west to the “major” city of Ulgii. A quick westward flight just over an hour, we land on a small airstrip to unload bodies and luggage before it continued onward. We are met by our smiling guide ‘Sunshine’. Brief welcoming pleasantries as our Land Cruiser is loaded up. We hop in, back out of the parking lot only to take an immediate right turn.
What a right turn it was. The road was a straight single track that lead itself into the vast open prairie. Our heads were barely cleared from the early morning flight and here we sit trailing off on smooth straights, bumpy heavily rutted tire-laid ‘roads’ – it was something out of a Mad Max movie. Surrounded by stark mountains, we’re bumping and grinding out new trails as we make our way to the Eagle Festival nearby.
As this region belongs to Kazakh’s (Kazakhstan is not far to the west), the traditional trance-like minimalist Kazakhstanian music blares unselfishly throughout our Land Cruiser’s speakers. The rthymic beat, Sitar-like twang beating our heads with every bump in the road, one couldn’t help but have an out-of-body experience in its repetitive downbeat. Many road fork diversions later, we reach an opening where a sharp right turn was taken up towards and through a little valley. Maybe it was the discussion b/n driver and guide and pointing fingers, but it felt lost. After about 40 mins, not stopping for pause, we continue up on a slight upward pitch close to a small hill to our right. As we round it, we can see a small gathering way up near the top of the next hill range. We have arrived.
For those familiar with making the journey across the Pacific pond know that the 10+hr flight from the west coast of USA is either nothing or an absolute painful ride. Having jumped on a great deal on United Airline from LAX-SFO-PEK, then a 6hr layover in PEK (not counting the 1hr delay in LAX due to SFO runway construction) before taking a quick 2hr. hopper to ULN, finally reaching Ulaanbaatar some 19+hrs later to bed down in a hotel in the capital city.
Less than 6 hrs sleep, we make our way back to a semi-familiar ULN airport to journey westward to the land of Kazakh’s of Ulgii. Let the sojourn begin!
Someone said to me the other day that had to do with my likes or dislikes for portraits (of people) – me shooting this genre. I was a bit puzzled as I love this genre! Especially when my subjects are in their own natural environment. Not only do I get to make images of them doing what they do, but I am also humbled to learn of their life’s story.
During a recent junket in China last May, we visited several villages that afforded us access into some of the local’s homes. One of the most endearing things about this style of making portraits is that when you are invited into their homes or shops, you have to possess a certain level of honor, respect and gratitude for their time and patience as you attempt to ‘see’ places where you’d like to photograph them while at the same time slowing everything down to understand the essence and presence of just being there in the moment (with them).
As a seeker of natural light for this genre, sometimes you only have minutes to make images before it completely disappears – such as the case with this master calligrapher.
As you can see, I progressively drill down deeper with each successive frame to tell a story or set a storyline in motion.
Here, I see this light beam coming from a hole in the roof and a table that was the recipient of the light. Sitting hime down and begin what he does best all happened with a few seconds … shoot shoot shoot and it was over in less than 2 minutes as the sun shifted enough to not hit the table anymore.
Unlike most specialists in photography, being a generalist affords me to shoot all day long, finding light where it benefits a worthy image – no matter if it’s landscape, environmental portraiture or street photography. My travel workshops encourage, teach and practice these photography genres while on the road in attempts and hope that you will embrace your newfound skills and continue to travel with camera in hand.