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Walkabout in Phnom Penh

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

By day two of Phnom Penh, I’d already had enough. The heat grit and generally ugly demeanor of the city had taken their effects on me. Just little things like the constant harassment of the tuk tuk drivers, people peeing in the open, the dead rat on the sidewalk just made the city a less than desireable place for me.

Late in the afternoon I strolled through a market just a couple of blocks from my hotel. The smell, the flies, the blood, the vegetables turning all did not give me confidence in the food I’d be eating that night.

Cities take on a different personality at night and Phnom Penh is no different. The relative cool of the evening draws out the crowds. Young lovers, families and curious tourists all come out to the river banks and open space in front of the palace. They gather to play, buy food from the many street vendors and stroll along the brightly lit streets.

Just off the beaten track, the scene quickly lost its romance.

I returned to the outdoor market that I had photographed earlier. Much of it was shut down though a few vendors hung on while others went through the motions of cleaning up. The smell wasn’t easy for me to take. Worse though, as I strolled through the crowded alleys, I noticed the ground moving in places. Looking closer, I realized that a bevy of oversized rats were doing some shopping of their own.

I don’t have any great fear of rats, though these were about two feet long from nose to tail and mostly fearless. They didn’t budge as I slowly strolled through their rotting smorgasbord. As I set my camera up, I can’t deny that I had visions of being attacked on the back of my ankles by bloodthirsty vermin. What I would have given for a pellet gun and handful of bb’s!

The next morning, I decided to get out of the city center for a walk to S21, the prison-now-museum where communist dictator Pol Pot tortured and killed many thousands of his fellow Cambodians during his brutal 1975 to 1979 rule. Most people choose to tuk tuk their way the couple of miles that it takes to get there, but I liked the idea of experiencing the city first hand to see what I could.

The Cambodians may be poor and their government not able to do much, but they do have cool crosswalk signals here. Check out this little video. The best part is at the end.

The day coincided with the Cambodian New Year so the noisy temples were filled with worshippers. Here’s a video with some of the sights and sounds of the new year celebration:

This man handed out a few Reals (Cambodian currency) to the beggars who sat outside the temple gates

After a couple miles of walking in the midday heat, I finally made it to the prison. The banality of the present day scene belies the horrific cruelty that took place here. In this room, the high value prisoners were held and tortured. Photos of the victims show them bloodied and beaten to the point that their life left them long after their will to live.

The barbed wire on the outside of the building wasn’t so much to stop prisoners from escaping as it was to stop them from killing themselves by throwing themselves off the higher floors. For many victims of the relentless waterboarding and other vicious tortures, death was no doubt a welcome relief.

Before becoming a prison, the complex was a school. It’s easy to imagine children walking to class here. Hard to visualize the macabre scene of beaten men being herded aboard trucks to their death.

My next stop was to one of the many killing fields in Cambodia. There’s one that’s set up as a memorial/tourist destination but in reality there are hundreds of these murderous sites scattered throughout the country. At the killing fields, prisoners were bludgeoned to death by the hundreds and buried in shallow mass graves. According to the nearby sign, this tree was used by the Khmer Rouge to kill babies and small children by swinging them by their feet and bashing their heads.

This three story memorial contains thousands of human skulls stacked in shelves that fill the middle of the tower. They’re all on display.

To get to the killing fields, a tuk tuk was required because the distance was way to far to walk. On the way back, I snapped photos of some of the many scooters zooming by. Here a mom breast feeds her baby on the back of one. Seeing families of four on a scooter is not uncommon - traveling by scooter is just part of everyday life here.

My last day in Phnom Penh. Whew! Tomorrow I leave for the more scenic city of Siem Riep, an 45 minute plane ride to the north. I’ll be happy to leave this town.


Day One in Phnom Penh

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

I got into Phnom Penh just after darkness had fallen. Going into a new city at night always feels like walking into a mystery since so much is left unrevealed. My eyes were wide as I took in the new sights of all the motor scooters, old cars, and odd lettering on the concrete buildings. As my taxi neared my hotel, a small dog scurried in front of us. Seeing that the speedy little animal was actually a monkey reminded me of just how far away from home I had traveled.

My first impression of Phnom Penh was that it reminded me of Tijuana Mexico, a city which neighbors my hometown of San Diego. Both share in common dusty streets, boxy concrete buildings, smog belching cars and a general run down feel to them. My large suite of a hotel room though was a welcome sight. Its French doors opened to a view of the Tonle Sap River and its meeting with the mighty Mekong River. To the right was a large Buddhist Temple, where cars, dead rats and the homeless all made their home outside its walls

The next morning, I made my way to the nearby National Museum. Built during the French era of colonization, its design mixed a colonial style with traditional Cambodian pagoda details. I love the little pointy things coming off the roof. I think they’re snakes. Whatever they are, I want some on the roof of my house.

Consisting mostly of sculptures taken from the various ancient temples in Cambodia, the museum took about an hour to get through. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed. (Gotta sell those postcards.)

As I walked over to the royal palace (Cambodia being some sort of constitutional monarchy), the relative cool of the morning gave way to the ruthless heat of midday. April is the hot season. Though temperatures rarely make it above the mid 90’s, the high humidity makes mere walking around an exercise in staying alive.

Not that the Cambodians seem to notice. I never failed to marvel each time I’d see a local wearing dark pants and long sleeves, sometimes even a winter parka, strutting around the overheated streets without so much as breaking a minor sweat. Meanwhile, I’ve sought refuge in the shade of a street-side bar, wearing shorts and a fancy thermo-wicking Nike white t-shirt with a fan pointed at me and a cold beer pressed against my forehead. Fortunately, the beers here are cheap; 75 cents will get you an almost cold glass of Tiger beer.

Walking along the bustling tourist corridor in Phnom Penh mean avoiding tuk tuk drivers and their constant pestering for a ride. (A tuk tuk is a small carriage pulled by a motor scooter.) There’s few flies in Cambodia; I think the tuk tuk drivers were too annoying for even them.

I entered the royal palace not long before it closed for lunch. Before long, all the other tourists had left, the outside doors were closed and I had the place to myself. No one kicked me out, so I kept snapping away with my camera. After the din of Singapore and the bustle of the outside streets, I welcomed the solitude and beauty of the palace grounds.

Afterward, I ambled along the friendly bank of the Mekong River until I came across some midday Buddhist temple worshippers. It was the start of the Khmer new year so things were especially festive everywhere I went. Since music doesn’t translate well in a photo, I decided to shoot some video. (The audio is a little rough at the start of this clip though it quickly gets better.)


Singapore Sling

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Greetings everyone from the other side of the world. It’s 20 hours in an airplane to get here. Seems like a long time to sit until I think of the visitors of old whose journeys took months in a creaky ship. Traveling in coach doesn’t seem so bad after all.

I’m here shooting a job for a client. Ah… the joys of being a world traveling photographer. Singapore isn’t much of a tourist destination so I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s sort of like south east asia’s version of Orange County. Very clean and conservative. People obey the laws here - although as one sign reminded me: low crime is not the same as no crime.

Singapore seems to love these big brother-esque sorts of signs. Construction sites specialize in signs about safety and such - which sounds great until you see herds of Bangladeshi being carted around like cattle. But no one seems to really care as long as the money keeps flowing in. And making money is what Singapore is really all about.

One local told me about Singapore that it’s best not to scratch beneath the surface since you’re not likely to find anything there. Although it’s a couple of hundred years old, it has the feeling of being born yesterday. No one has a past. Everything is new. Make money today and spend it lavishly.

All that said, the waterfront is stunning. I took a tour during the day then returned at night for photos. Well worth the return visit. There is something to be said for spending money in the right places. The amazing, boat like Marina Bay Sands casino is nothing short of stunning. As is the helix bridge - a stainless steal masterpiece that mimics the double helix of the DNA molecule. Can we have one in San Diego, please?

Singapore is all about getting shit done. “Let’s build a bunch of really cool stuff and the tourists will start beating a path to our doors” is the attitude. The Chinese are showing up, don’t know if the rest of the world will.

Taxes in Singapore are high. Very high. I went shopping along Orchard Lane - which isn’t anything as quaint as the name would hint. It’s a mighty boulevard it thousands of pricey stores and brand names like Prada, Gucci, Zegna, Apple and for all you fans of Jared, there’s even a Subway. The prices seemed high - for example that $250 Hugo Boss hat seemed steep even for Hugo Boss. But I locked away my wallet once I saw a shirt that I paid $100 for in the US selling for over $200. Still, that $5,000 Gucci jacket looked dazzling on me.

Not everything in Singapore is sky high. I got a custom suit coat made for $250. I picked out an Italian fabric much like that Zegna coat that I’ve been salivating over. Saved $2,000 there. I wanted to buy a three dollar watch, but the ones I saw were just a little too girlie. For all of you getting souvenirs from me, I can assure you, I did not get them for ten bucks for three.

By the way, that lotus-like structure that collects rain water into a fountain (not that such ecologically high minded planning means much in a rain forest), it’s a science museum. Don’t your wish your local museum looked like that? (The base is in the photo below.)

Once I got past the waterfront, there wasn’t a heck of lot else to look at. Yes, there was Little India. Sort of like what India would look like in a Disney theme park: All of the color and dressed up characters, but none of the filth and grime. There was also Chinatown - three blocks of crammed in little shops that end in a square occupied by old Chinese men playing some form of checkers on steroids.

I can’t say that I’m a big fan of cruises, though I’ve never been on one. But Singapore is one such country (it’s the last of the great city-states) that hitting as part of cruise is probably just about right. Tick off the points of interest and you’ve still got plenty of time for dinner with the captain.

Next stop Cambodia!


“Overpowering Sunlight” Workshop: Feb 20th in Las Vegas

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Ever wonder how you get that “look” of fashion and constructed reality that just pops off the page? How do big-time photographers like Annie Leibovitz and David LaChapelle so perfectly match or overpower sunlight for magazines like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone?

In this one-day, hands-on workshop, I’ll share my techniques for working with location lighting to create the sort of images that discerning clients demand. You’ll learn what equipment to use and how to use it. Special emphasis will be placed on creating light-and-fast setups for use in weddings or when working alone.

More details on the Photographer’s Toolkit website.


Glamis: Portraits in the Sand

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

It’s been cold here in Southern California and all the places that I’ve been thinking about traveling to are far colder still. Snowy and freezing is to be expected in winter, but it doesn’t make my travel plans any easier. After some thinking, I looked at the one spot on the map that seemed to be reasonably warm and headed there.

Glamis is a tiny town that gives it’s name to a huge expanse of sand dunes east of the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley. The miles upon miles of perfect dunes attract motorcyclists and dune buggy riders from all over the country. Some live there throughout the winter though most make the weekend trek from Los Angeles in their RV’s and pickups.

I’ve never ridden a motorcycle and didn’t know anything about the area. I’d been there once, but stuck to an area open to hiking only. I suspected there’d be some good opportunities to meet people and take their portraits so, with no advance knowledge nor planning, off I went.

My first day there started off slow. It took a while to get my bearing straight and understand the rhythm of the place. I walked around with my camera, met a few folks and learned a lot about the sport and the lifestyle of the people here. For one thing, the toys here are shiny, powerful and expensive.

It’s also a family affair out here. Mom, dad and kids are a common site.

Unlike Joshua Tree - the site of my last portrait adventure, there’s no central gathering point for the riders. Everyone has their own camp which, much like the settlers of old, consist of motor homes and trucks all circled around and closed off to the outside. I found it hard to walk into an uninviting camp filled with people and ask to photograph individuals. Plus I’m an outsider with no set of off-road wheels of my own.

Basically, the going was slow and I began to question whether I’d made the right decision to come here.

So, I switched locations to one that I thought might be more of central hub. I took off to the high-point in the dunes, Osborne Overlook, to see if my luck might change. And, initially, it did. I hooked up with some friendly guys - one of whom offered to give me a personalized, turbocharged tour of the dunes.

I mounted my camera to the front of the buggy to get this next shot. That’s me in the passenger seat. Oh, this stuff is way fun!

Here’s where things took a turn for the worse. I happened to park my van next to a big, well-organized camp. Turns out that a famous NASCAR driver invited all his buddies out to the desert for their annual get together. I chatted with a couple of them and everything seemed cool. Until… some guy told me I couldn’t shoot photos there. To which I politely replied that I could shoot photos anywhere I damn well pleased.

Later, as I was getting ready to go to sleep. Someone turned on the big diesel semi-truck parked next to me. Then I got a knock on my door. I opened my door to some guy walking off and shouting that they were going to leave the truck on all night until I left. The truck made it way too loud for me to sleep and taking on the big group did not seem like a wise career move for me. So I moved to another, less scenic camping area down the hill.

The next morning, the first folks I approached for photos said no in a rude way, In all I was feeling pretty low at that point. I’d been there two days and only had a handful of usable shots. Again, the thought of taking off weighed on me.

Instead I tried another area that seemed to have more riders and more activity. The sun was out and the day warm as I trudged through the soft sand with my gear. The going was slow, but I managed to get a few portraits that I liked. It wasn’t easy, but I figured nothing good comes easily.

By this point, I knew I wasn’t going to get as many portraits as my recent Joshua Tree trip, but I was getting some stuff that I liked so the balance was starting to tip in my favor.

Then my luck turned. I struck up a conversation with a fellow who invited me to go out on the dunes with him later to get shots of them jumping with their motorcycles. A couple of hours later, I returned to see if he was still around. Unfortunately, he’d already left.

As I dejectedly walked back to my lonely van, I struck up a conversation with a couple of guys replacing a motor in their camp. I asked if I could shoot some photos of them working away. They said no problem; before long we were chatting away in between me snapping photos of them and all their stuff - of which they had a lot.

It turns out that Mike, the guy above, works for David, the guy below. David is David Gilliland a NASCAR race car driver. (His is the Taco Bell car.) He invited me to come out and shoot some photos of him cruising around in his dune buggy. Hell yeah!

What happened next was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life bar none. With David behind the wheel and me in the passenger seat of a 1,000 horsepower dune buggy, we rocketed over the sand, launched off a sandy ramp and flew a hundred feet through the air. Holy shit! This was Evel Knievel stuff!

I got out and set up my camera to get him taking off overhead. I’d imagined this shot before I left my home. I didn’t think I’d get it because most buggies aren’t made to take this kind of abuse. David’s hot rod on steroids didn’t hesitate. (I didn’t either.)

Then we moved on to another, steeper jump. Again, we launched into it. We flew through the air for more than two seconds. Not sure how far or high that was, but it was jaw-dropping, high-fiving far enough for me.

Here’s another angle for a little perspective.

Afterward, we flew across the bumpy sand to an impromptu drag strip where riders showed off their loud motors and wheelie skills. The kicked-up dust softened and further warmed up the already red desert sun. Nearly all of Glamis turned out as the racers enjoyed the last of the sun’s rays. Even the guys who chased me off the day before were there. One came over to apologize - the guy that hassled me ended up getting kick out of the camp. So I guess everything worked out and karma had its way.

This trip was definitely a leap of faith for me. I didn’t know what I would encounter; I just assumed it would be good. From it though I took home three little jewels of inspiration:

1) Good things happen when you walk out your door and open yourself to new opportunities. Great experiences do not come about just sitting at one’s computer.

2) There’s power in being alone. Had I gone out with a partner - be it my wife or a friend - I wouldn’t have forced myself to do the hard work of heading out to take photos. Nor would I have met the people and had the experiences I did.

3) Persistence is the key. Great experiences come from new adventures, but that doesn’t mean they come easy.

John Mireles

Dirtbag: Climbers and the Climbing Life

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

To most people, being called a dirtbag is an insult. To climbers, it’s not only something they do, it’s a point of pride.

Dirtbagging is actually the fine art of throwing one’s sleeping bag in the dirt without worrying about the all the niceities of civilization and/or camping. I can’t count the number of times I’ve happily tossed my sleeping bag on the gravel of the desert or the dirt of the mountains. It’s home to me.

Climbers are an inventive lot. They’re used to making do with very little in order to live most of their lives in the places where the rocks are plentiful and the climbing good. Miles, the climber below, has rigged his VW Bug so that he and his girlfriend can slip in through the back window and sleep in a custom made bed.

I used to live for climbing. I actually got my start in photography in shooting rock climbers climbing impossible routes. These days, I’m lucky to climb once a year. I’ve come to realize that, as much as still enjoy climbing, I appreciate the people and camaraderie even more. My mission is to document the people; I think they’ve all got great stories to tell.

At some point, I’d like to collect these images into a book. My working title for it is “Dirtbag.”

A climbers version of American Gothic.

Then there’s the climbing. Steep rock and splitting cracks are the stuff of climbers’ dreams.

All images were shot in a RAW format and imported into Lightroom. The black and white images were converted using the Toolkit Preset Kit Bitchen B&W conversion. The Warm Tone preset was added along with the Heavy Vignette. Three clicks and done!

The VW van, the consummate climber’s vehicle.

When I used to climb, climbers lugged their gear in legitimate backpacks. Now, folding pads are the rage. The idea is that when you’re climbing small boulders, they give you something to cushion your fall. They makes people look a walking domino though.

There’s a popular climb in Joshua Tree called Right Ski Track. It’s right in the center of the campground and in front of the parking lot. The climb is not easy though. Whenever I see someone starting on it, I always like to head over because I know there’s some exciting sports action coming up. Here’s Mike from North Carolina logging some flight time on it.

The agony of defeat.

Next door to Right Ski Track is… Left Ski Track. Here’s a climber contemplating the steep route.

Dick Cilley, yes that’s his real name, use to sell gear around Joshua Tree 30 years ago when I first started climbing. I hadn’t seen him for 20 years. Then I ran into him hitch-hiking up the road into the park. The day was cold and raining, but that wasn’t stopping him.

And Tucker Tech, another ubiquitous character in the climbing world. Though he’s done more than his share of dirtbagging, he’s now graduated to caretaking a 100 plus acre ranch inside the park. An unlikely exit strategy, but an effective one nonetheless.


Check Out the Party at Hipstarama!

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

I recently started another blog dedicated to photos taken with my new iPhone. If you’re into camera phone images taken with toy apps from your phone, I’ll have lots of info on how to get the most out of the process. Come on by Hipstarama.com!


In the Air

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

What’s great about travel is that we see all sorts of new things. These new things catch our attention and motivate us to pick up the camera. The challenge for most photographers is not what to do when everything is new, but what to do when everything is tedious and mundane.

Few things are more tedious than air travel. However, as I sat in the airport today, I decided to give myself a little assignment to find and capture interesting moments and scenes in the terminal. I ended up doing a little street style photography where I shot people in the hopes of not being noticed. It made the hour plus long wait to board actually fun.

Once we got into the air, I pointed the camera to the outside. The clouds that made for a rainy, drab day on the ground became a perfect carpet of white fluff balls.

Then the ground began to emerge allowing more texture and contrast to appear.

When the view outside became monotonous, I switched my attention to my confined little space on board the Southwest Airlines 737 in cramped class.

My large neighbor neighbor in the middle seat. He occupied the airspace of four of me.

Nearly three hours after takeoff we prepared to land in Austin.

Even though the flight attendants informed us to put away our electronic devices, I couldn’t resist a few last shots. A minute later, we were on the ground.

Finally, I made it to my home away from home for the next few days. It’s a house on Lake Austin about ten miles outside of town. I’ll post photos of my lake view later. In the meantime, here’s an agave in the backyard.

I’m shooting an assignment here in Austin. Unfortunately, I can’t post any shots from it. It’s gonna be a fun shoot - though a lot of work too. Austin is a great town and there’s a big music festival here so hopefully I’ll have more fun stuff to share.



Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve really taken to my little iPhone camera. I’m using the Hipstamatic App which is modeled after toy film cameras such as the Holga and Diana. All of the treatment is done in-camera.

I love it because all I have to do is shoot. The process involves little post-production and the camera is so simple and, ironically for the technological wonder that is the iPhone, crude. Crude in the sense that there are no manual controls whatsoever while the viewfinder is small and imprecise.

In a way it almost doesn’t feel like photography because it’s so simple. On the other hand, if feels like the most pure form of photography that I can do. The process is so carefree in a way that I almost feel guilty.

This latest round of shots was taken in my neighborhood and in a nearby urban section of town.


A Stephen Shore inspired photo.


Day on Mt. Tam

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

During my trip to the San Francisco area, I took a little side trip to the mountains north of the bay. Mt. Tam has it all: mossy forests, broad grassy mountainsides, broad vistas to the sea, beach, cliffs and winding roads that you’ve seen many times in car commercials.

At my first stop, I was there all alone until a rental company showed up with chairs for a wedding. Can’t think of a better place with a more fantastic view. There’s a beautiful view of the ocean and even downtown San Francisco from here.

If you ever have a two-seater sports car or motorcycle that you want to take for a test drive, Mt. Tam is the place.

Mickey’s beach is actually a nude beach. But it’s blocked in by a tall cliff that’s littered with rock climbs. Back in the day, I used to climb there on my visits to the area. I actually did an early ascent of the most difficult climb (5.13b) on the cliff. Here’s a view from the top.

The sunset lasted forever.


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