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How I Came to Love the Beer Bong - Lake Havasu, Memorial Day 2012

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Call me a patriot. In the Declaration of Independence, our nation’s founders predicated the existence of our nascent country upon the “pursuit of happiness” - and I take my civic duty seriously.  Over the past few years, I’ve made it a personal project of mine to photograph people in pursuit of fun. To be more specific, drunk people pursuing pumpin’ music, a red cup filled with beer, and, of course, each other.

Now some might argue I’m merely pursuing prurient interests. True documentary photographers go off to war or photograph the homeless, shrinking glaciers or a starving child - all important subjects to be sure. But what about the real life of so many of here at home? Isn’t there a story here? Does all important photography have to document something depressing? Skinny girls with fake boobs and body tattoos need their story told too. How else will the next generation understand this generation’s sacrifices and values?

Though I’d planned this trip for months, come the week prior my motivation waned. Despite the promise of unabashed drunken partying, I instead saw mornings of hangovers, tempting bodies and an unsure welcome. I travel and shoot alone as well. No friendly souls waiting to accompany me over the long weekend. And though I hopefully make it seem easy, it’s a huge amount of mental energy to continually intrude into people’s lives - and risk the rejection and confrontation that sometimes results. But, with encouragement from my girlfriend, I slung my weapons, filled my cooler with ice and vodka and drove off to battle.

For those not familiar with Lake Havasu, it’s a man-made lake on the border of California and Arizona that captures Colorado River water and sends it off to Los Angeles. The actual town was founded in 1964 by some rich guy (how’s that for reporting) who had the foresight to buy the actual London Bridge from London and rebuilt in the desert - thereby attracting lots of tourists. In due time, people with loud boats and coolers filled with beer began calling it their weekend home and a party town was born.

Not just any party town, but the creme-de-la-creme of party towns. Or as I like to think of it, the belly of the beast. Because at times it’s down right ugly. Yeah, I can handle the beer bongs. I can deal with getting soaked by beer spewing keg-standers. I’m not complaining about girls trading their bikini tops for pasties. I’m okay with drunks and drinking games. However, at Havasu all of it whips into a grotesque whirlwind that touches down all too often.

One set of mostly-naked fake boobs is arousing. A few more is fun. An entire fucking sea of them becomes grotesque. Go to Havasu if you want to forget what the undoctored female breast looks like. After coming home and seeing relatively flat chested (i.e. normal) women walking down the street, I’d have to force myself to remember that not every woman has breasts that can lob shells into the next county.

Not just that, but there’s crassness everywhere. Recovering Catholic school kid that I am, I still think that not every photo calls for the guy to stick his tongue out in a mock licking of a woman’s breasts or her ass nor some sort of mock sex act. After all, I’m a documentarian, not a pornographer.

Still, there’s something thrilling about documenting the extremes - be it summiting Mount Everest or the working end of a beer bong. I’m not the only photographer out there shooting this stuff, but the other guys I see don’t connect. They’re on the outside looking in. What I love about what I do is that I’m in the mix. I become a part of the party. I become one with the beer bong - and I had the hangover to prove it.

Let me also say that, though there are bozos and knuckleheads, most of the people are great. They accepted me in their boats and allowed me into their lives. More than one guy told me that if anyone hassled me, they’d have my back. (Hearing that from a Marine in the midst of a drunken, muscle-filled crowd was actually a bit of a relief.) They’re having fun. I’m having fun. Life is good.


Sunny Day, Sail Away

Friday, April 20th, 2012

Finally, the icy cold of winter (okay, it’s more like the mild chill here in San Diego, but it feels cold to me) has moved on. Now we’ve got some sun and warmth - which means it’s time to hit the beaches and the bay. I’m usually on the water with my itty-bitty outrigger canoe so drinking beers on a 40 foot sailboat was a welcome, and relaxing change.

The coolest part was seeing the big-ass (that’s a technical term BTW) Navy ships head out to sea. The escort security boats kept a close eye on us subversive beer drinking potential terrorists. The coolest was witnessing the USS Carl Vincent sail out of the harbor. That’s a huge aircraft carrier that takes half a dozen tugboats to unhitch from its moorings. Security kept us far away from that one - but it’s still an awe-insprining sight.


Walking Around the ‘Hood

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Had 40 minutes to kill while waiting for my camper van to get smogged so I walked about a bit and shot some pretty pictures. It’s fun being a tourist in my own backyard.


Green Truck Party

Monday, March 26th, 2012

It’s been one year since the mean Green Truck has been serving awesome food out on the streets of San Diego. Nothing like using an anniversary as a good excuse for a party. I came out with my camera to help celebrate the night with owner David Holtse. Fun times, and good food. The bank rocked it. I jammed on guitar with a couple of the guys a few weeks ago. If I’d known how good they were, I’d probably have been too intimidated.


Afternoon on the Golf Course - Disc Golf That Is

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Velodrome Portraits

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

For those of you who don’t know what a velodrome is, it’s a track for cycling. Basically, it’s a banked oval track for bike rides to go really fast around. As it happens, there’s one in Balboa Park near my home. Tuesday is race night. It’s great to go sit in the stand, watch some fun racing, drink beer and have an evening picnic.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve also brought my camera for some portraits of the riders. I especially love photographing the kids. They’ve got such great personalities.


Intervention - Hard Rock Hotel, San Diego

Monday, June 13th, 2011

My cell phone buzzed as it does whenever a text comes through. It was my friend and client Samantha from a local magazine. “Did I want to go to intervention?” was the text. So I’m thinking that either we were going to try and intervene with a friend or that maybe she thought my bad habits had reached the point of requiring outside help.

Fortunately, it was neither. Instead, it was an invite to an outdoor pool party that the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gaslamp throws most Sundays throughout the summer. Far be it from me to say no to a party so off I went.

Now, it’s been brought to my attention that some people think that my images are “upskirt” shots. In the broadest sense maybe they are, but the people in my photos are generally aware that I’m taking their photo. They know what they’re doing and often play it up as willing participants in the making of the photograph. Some of my photos may be extreme, but this is an extreme environment. I’m just documenting it (which I thoroughly enjoy by the way).

I’d also like to add that creating these types of images is not easy. The second most people see a camera, they immediately turn to it, stick out their tongue or make a peace sign, grab a friend and pose for the camera. Ugh. It’s thoroughly uninteresting to me. Yes, I take the picture because that’s the routine, yet I’m always looking for more. One reason why I resorted to taking shots from the ground or close to it is because a) it’s an interesting angle and b) they can’t smile at the camera once it’s on the ground.

My goal is to capture the energy and feeling of what’s like to be there so I do what it takes.


The Fishing Village - Last Day in Cambodia

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Up to now, most of my sightseeing has revolved around visiting some of the many temples in the Angkor Wat area. This morning, my journeys will take me to the largest lake in Cambodia, the Tongle Sap lake, the largest lake in South-East Asia which sits about an hour or two south of Siemp Riep. We’re off to tour a fishing village that literally floats on the lake.

On our way down, we stopped off at a little roadside stand where local women package and sell sticky rice. As we pulled off, I wondered what the big deal was with sticky rice - I get that all the time at the Chinese restaurant at home. But this rice isn’t just sticky, it’s also kind of sweet which makes for a great snack to munch on. The women first make the rice at home, then they bring out chopped bamboo sections which they stuff with rice and then cook over an open flame.

Afterward, they cut the outside of the bamboo down to leave just a thin sliver of bamboo as the outer covering. When it’s time to eat, the bamboo is easily peeled back to access the rice inside. It’s almost like a pushup popscicle (without the pushing though). Here a woman slices the bamboo down. The butterflied bamboo in the lower right of corner is one that’s been opened and the rice eaten.

Though the rice is actually tasty, it’s not that sweet. Well, not Snickers bar sweet. These women prepare the rice just a few feet from cars whizzing by on the highway.

From there it was off to a local market - what we refer to back home as a farmer’s market. Here, they’re all farmers market. They’re bustling, chaotic and raw. Lots of exotic vegetables sitting next to unrefrigerated meat. The health department back home would never approve. I tried out one seed-pod fruit that look almost like an exaggerated sunflower. It took a little digging, but the seeds were a little like edamame.

Although the market in this town felt similar in spirit to the one I went to in Phnom Pehn, it was much cleaner and thankfully lacked the putrescent smell. Still, you could get pretty much anything you wanted. From pots and pans to the local Cambodian music - I bought three pirated CD’s for a dollar.

I also felt more comfortable photographing people at this point. Knowing my few words of Cambodian - “hello” and “may I take your photo” - helped break the ice and made me feel more at ease- even if the subject was still a little nervous. Most smiled and even laughed at my earnest attempts to speak the language. I liked being out in the countryside so, as we drove away from the small town into the outlying countryside, I kept asking Kimleng to stop for photos. I was definitely in no rush since the journey here was definitely the destination.

Among my many stops was one to photograph this typical Cambodian house. The owner was home. He’s the uncle to this child and the woman is his sister-in-law.

The locals spread rice out on the ground to dry it. This all takes place on a narrow road that rises steeply above the surrounding flood plane. The dried rice is stuffed into the red bags and then straw is placed on top to keep the rice from falling out. After a day or two of drying, the rice is then picked up by big Hyundai trucks that rumble through the villages. Scenes like this take place in thousands of locations across the country.

All of the nearby houses sit on high stilts to accommodate the wet season floods. The Tonle Sap lake is about four to five feet deep in the dry season, but when the rainy season comes in June, it rises to 20 or more feet in depth.

There’s only one road into or out of the area and it’s built up about thirty feet up from the flood plane. All the houses hug this one road creating a thin, almost endless village.

Boys walking to the lake which is still a couple of miles away. I photographed these teens later riding a boat out on the river.

So this little puddle is actually a river - of sorts. It’s the dry season so it’s basically a fetid trickle. From the boat, passengers could view the backsides of the many houses lining the river. From many exited a pipe that dropped straight to the river. I asked if that was water going in or out. It goes out. Ah yes, waste water flowing directly into the river. Today’s special on the menu - our friend E. Coli.

The river was shallow and muddy. Definitely not a pretty site, but fantastic nonetheless.

Whatever the water quality might be, that doesn’t stop the fishermen from going out and doing their job. The poles and netting are fish pens into which the fishermen drive the fish to trap them.

The men here are all lean and cut from a lifetime of hard work and a low fat diet of fish and rice.

After a 30 minute boat ride up the river, we finally made it to the lake murky, shallow lake. What looks like the other side of the lake in the photo is actually a floating village. Those are all individual little boats whose owners live nearly their entire lives out on the water.

Look in the lower third corner of the photo. You’ll see a boy’s head bobbing as he swims to his neighbor’s house.

Here’s the crude motor compartment of our boat. Note the open bottle of fuel and exposed engine. It came to me as no great surprise when I heard a sudden clunk and the engine raced at maximum speed. The driver, maybe 15 years old, cut the engine off and went back to investigate. The first mate reported that the propeller fell off - so in he dove to look for it. After 15 minutes of bobbing about, we hitched a ride back with a passing boat.

Our first mate before the propeller went missing. At the end of the trip, I tipped him and the driver a few dollars. Another couple on board, Americans, tipped him with a couple of childish stickers. I felt embarrassed and pissed off. These kids don’t work for stupid stickers. That might be okay for handing out to kids in villages playing around, but you don’t tip the people who work for you with useless stickers - even if they are ten years old.

Next we took a walk through the village where lunch awaited us at a local home. I struggled with whether to use the word house or hut since it was a little of both.

Waiting for us inside was a traditional meal of fish, fish and more fish. It was all quite good and I especially enjoyed the salty fish sauce for dunking the fried fish. I have to admit though that I was quite leery when I sat down. There’s no running water here (nor anywhere around here) and the Cambodians have a habit of bringing out the silverware in a cup of water - water of dubious purity. As I began eating, I had this feeling of intestinal dread. But the feeling slowly passed as I began to enjoy the tasty meal accompanied by plenty of cheap, warm Tiger beer. (And I’m happy to report that I didn’t get sick from the meal. Yeah!)

The kids here are just precious. So friendly and alive with innocence and joy.

In the shot above, dad is actually sitting in his barber’s chair. Supercuts has yet to open a store in this area.

After walking around a bit, it was time to head off to another temple. I however was burnt out on temples. No mas! I just didn’t have the creative energy left to enjoy another set of jumbled blocks - no matter how sublime they might be. Instead, we just drove along and stopped at whatever sight caught my eye.

The photo of this boy is one of my favorites from the trip. He saw me taking photos of the old boats and bridge so he walked down from the road. Without saying a word, he began posing for my camera. I’d love to go back and give him a print of this image. He became my silent but curious companion as I snapped photos of the surroundings.

In a way, this image reminds me of the famous Steven McCurry photo of the wide-eyed afghani girl that appeared in National Geographic. Twenty years after he shot the image, he returned to find the now grown woman, her face displaying the ravages of a hard life. I wonder how time will affect this boy as he becomes a man and then likely a father over the coming decades.

As we bounced along the dirt road, I spied a Buddhist temple and graveyard. Loud Cambodian pop music, remnants of the week long Khmer New Year holiday, filled the air as I took photos and did my best to avoid the unavoidable midday heat. I much preferred the sound and feel of the place to yet another temple.

I asked what this pot was for. It reminded me of a pinata hanging there, but I was still surprised to hear that it was part of a gambling game. Basically, it’s a clay pinata and people bet how many swings it will take to break the pot. Imagine mom and dad betting with the parents how many swings it will take Johnny to get the candy to fly. That’d make for a heck of a lot more interesting birthday party.

Here the students at the school figure out what songs to play over the loudspeakers.

And with that, we jumped back into the car and headed back to town - my trip pretty much over. I’m going to go out tonight and shoot some night time scenes of Siem Riep. I’ve wanted to do it all week long, but I’ve been too tired (or sick). It feels so good to be back to normal. Though I finally feel as though I’m finally getting into the rhythm of the country and the people, I do miss home and my beautiful Southern California weather.

Before coming here, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew of a war-torn country, alternately bombed to shreds during the American bombing campaign of the Vietnam war and then then held in terrifying hostage by a vicious killer, Pol Pot. Much of my previous knowledge of the country had come from photographs. At the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, I’d seen an exhibit of the victims of Pol Pot’s torture prisons. Also at MOPA, I’d seen an exhibit of fantastic platinum prints from Angkor Wat and some of the other temples. This latter exhibit from over ten years ago was the first time I, and most other Americans, had ever heard of this other-worldly place. Those photos first planted the seed of traveling to this sub-tropical land.

As I ready to leave Cambodia, I think now of a country that’s growing. It’s open to tourists and adventurers. There’s still remnants of the past violence - land mines abound in some areas, though none anywhere around any of places that I visited. And it’s still “developing” as third world countries are now called. But when I think of poverty, I think of unhappiness. Cambodia has reminded me that there’s a difference between poverty of wealth and poverty of spirit. Though the people here are poor by American standards, I didn’t really feel it because the people here possess such a wonderful, happy, vibrant spirit - a “joie de vivre” as the French might say.

Hopefully, I can take some of that wonderful spirit home with me and, through my words, photos and actions, share it with all of you.


Cambodia - A Trip to the Lake

Friday, May 13th, 2011

After my morning trip to Ta Prohm, we took a little break before our next adventure. I stopped in at a Thai restaurant in Siem Riep. Since Thailand is right next door to Cambodia and only a few hours from Siem Riep, there’s about as many Thai dishes on most menus are there are Cambodian ones. Sitting down, I was surprised to see that the menu was pretty similar to what the restaurants back home serve. However the Pad Thai was the best I’d ever had. Good stuff!

By then the day was getting pretty ridiculously hot. Where as the previous day had been overcast, today it was nearly all merciless, relentless sun. As we drove out to a small village on the outskirts of town so that I could shoot more portraits, my head sagged and nodded off into sleep - tired from the many days of early starts.

30 minutes of driving led us to the countryside where rice paddies lay open but for the small berms that divided the plots and held the water needed to drown the rice crops. April is the end of the dry season so there were few crops being grown and the fields were a mix of brown and green. Once in the village, nothing more than an open bar with a small store and place for locals to hang out, I got out and set to work finding subjects.

I have to admit, I was still a little reluctant at this point to approach people. I didn’t know the language and not sure how well I’ll be received. Asking the often busy adults to stop for a photo wasn’t easy for me. Plus there just weren’t that many out and about. The kids on the other hand were more than ready and willing to jump in front of the camera.

With the sun ruthlessly bearing down, my enthusiasm for shooting quickly waned. 90 degrees doesn’t seem all that hot, but mix in the high humidity and the climate becomes debilitating. I often thought about the American men who were drafted into the Army to fight in nearby Vietnam. I can imagine them stepping off the plane and thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” The heat, the rain, everything so different from home. And then to get shot at. I felt lucky to be a casual tourist with no place to be nor hard work to attend to.

After less than an hour, we happily retreated to the air conditioning of David’s Landcruiser and rumbled along some back roads to our next stop - which honestly, I wasn’t sure where that was to be. We stopped amidst a couple rows of outdoor clothing stalls and a mound of smelly trash tossed right off the road. On a side note, if I were the ruler of a third world country, the first thing I’d do is make trash collection a national priority. Once the trash starts piling up, pride of ownership goes down and the entire place becomes an undesirable dump.

Anyhow, I was happy to see that our destination was a huge lake occupied by numerous cabanas along it’s shore. And one of them was for us! With great joy, I ordered a Tiger beer from one of the locals. As I mentioned in a previous post, Cambodians don’t really have bathing suits - certainly not bikinis (nor Speedos for all you Euros) so the adults just go in wearing whatever they have on. Which I happily did too.

As I was standing in the West Baray lake shooting, I began to feel something like an animated grass brushing up against me. It soon dawned on me that I was being grazed upon by small fish that were enjoying the skin of my feet and ankles. In town they are many shops with tanks of these fish set up so, for a dollar or so, you can sit on top of them and have a fish foot massage of sorts. I was getting the treatment for free. Still, I hoped there wasn’t something more menacing as a follow-up. But the locals didn’t seem to be worried so I just put it out of mind.

In between naps, I headed out into the water to snap photos of the kids doing what kids everywhere love to do: play and jump in the water. The kids took pleasure in jumping in my general direction which was fine but for the fact that my camera and lens kept getting soaked. Water spots on the lens just won’t do!

In a way, I feel like taking photos of kids, especially third world kids, jumping in the water is almost a cliche. I’ve seen so many of them over the years. To that, I answered myself in saying that I still like my images and if this was all I had then I’d have a right to be disappointed. In many ways I feel like a National Geographic photographer covering the story of the people and place from all angles. Maybe I should send them my portfolio? Hmmm…

At any rate, taking a nap in the cabana, wet from wading in the water, was such a welcome relief. One thing that I especially enjoyed is that this was truly a local’s destination - there was maybe one other tourist there. Everyone was so friendly with nothing but smiles from everyone. Unlike Southern California, beer drinking was not only allowed, it was almost to be expected. A mere raise of one’s hand and a woman from a shop would quickly bring out a cool, but not quite cold, Cambodian Tiger beer. Paradise was just a few degrees away.

Note the steps down to the beach - the only way down too. The top step is missing, the steps are almost two normal steps apart, the beams are narrow and angled back. Even sober, walking up and down them is no easy task. I’m surprised there’s not bones down below from all the wounded drunken warriors who fell through the gaps and couldn’t get up.

Though I would have been happy to continue to sit in the hammock and do nothing, there were more temples to visit so off we went.

The moment after I snapped this photo, I took a step back. In one hand I had my iPhone and in the other my Canon 5D MII. My foot stepped into a foot deep hole. I fell backwards my feet flying into the air, cameras skidding into the dirt. Though dazed and laughing at my klutziness, I was intact as were my now dirt covered cameras. The guys came running as I brushed myself off. Although I laughed it off, inside I was damn happy I didn’t sprain or break something as my ass hit the ground.

Preah Khan is a huge temple complex that’s only partially been restored. Its long hallways that give way to the creeping jungle give it its own sort of spooky feel.

Found this monkey swinging from a tree vine…

The ancient Khmer ruler who built Preah Khan dedicated this temple to his father. Like its neighbors, it’s awe-inspiring and beautiful. Probably my second favorite of the trip. Still, at this point I was on temple overload - which wasn’t helped by the fact that even in the late afternoon, it was still sauna-like hot.

I felt much like I did towards the end of my stay in Florence. After awhile, each painting, no matter how stunning, becomes just another masterpiece and loses much of its impact. As much as I enjoyed the sights and felt lucky to be here, I was also relieved when we headed back to the car for the short trip back to Siem Riep and my hotel.

Can’t believe that tomorrow is my last full day in Cambodia. I’m looking forward to something completely different. Stay tuned!


Ta Prohm - My Favorite Temple

Friday, May 6th, 2011

I’ve been to ruins in many parts of the world. In some respects, they’re pretty much the same: large blocks of stone stacked together in interesting ways. But what makes Cambodian ruins unique is the vegetation that’s grown up, over, around and on top of the ruins. Specifically, it’s the massive roots of the silk-cotton tree and the vine like trunk of the strangler fig that create a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel to the setting. Laura Croft Tomb Raider was actually filmed at one of the sites here.

Within no other place in the Angkor park are there more trees left intact than at Ta Prohm. At many locations, the trees were removed leaving the ruins almost sterile (kind of like at Angkor Wat). In contrast, Ta Prohm has been left in a mixed state of ruin, overgrowth and rebuilding. Bottom line, it’s really cool. It’s the one place that really captured my imagination. I’d love to return to discover more of its photographic treasures!

At this point in the trip, I’ve grown weary of the of the locals, mostly young children, constantly pestering me for a sale. “One dolla! One dolla!” is the incessant refrain as they push guide books, postcards or some bright trinkets in my face. These kids, cute as hell, just don’t stop. They try and wear the tourist down so that eventually he coughs something up.

They’ll work their cuteness and ask my name and tell me theirs. Next thing you know, I’ve got a five year old insisting, “John buy this one dolla.” It sucks to be cold and ignore them but there just got to be a point I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Now, it’s head down and head straight to the temple.

The roots of this tree are from the silk-cotton tree. Unfortunately, the caretakers of this site chose to put up a platform with ropes next to most of the interesting tree formations. The platform is great for the casual tourist who wants a snapshot next to the spot, but it absolutely ruins any sort of meditative photograph. Dave, my guide, frequently joked about how they hate photographers here. After scene after scene was ruined by the inconsiderate placement of posts and ropes, I too began to swear at the misguided caretakers.

The root of the silk-cotton tree imitates the long odious slither of a massive constricting snake. Being alone amongst them feels a little spooky, even sinister.

Here the roots of the strangler fig cover not only its host tree, which the fig will eventually kill, but also overrun the ancient temple.

If you can, come here at first light so you’ll have plenty of time on your own. Sit. Feel the solitude. There are spirits here that you can feel if you’ll let them touch you. Once the lines of Russian tourists show up, much of the experience is lost - unless you consider white beer bellies and big boobs clad in gaudy fashion to be in sync with the spirit of the place.

This view was one of my favorites of the trip. I love how the sinewy curves of the tree contrast with the blocky ruins of the foreground and background. I just wish I’d spent more time just sitting and reflecting.

To get to this little nook, my guide led me over some rubble. No one else was near as we were off the main path at this point. It seemed as though there was something more fantastic around every corner. This is what I’d come to Cambodia for!

Talk about the Land of the Lost. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a sleestak come trolling around the corner.

When I got to this spot, I stopped in awe. More exotic and yet more real than any movie I’d ever seen, it appeared like a giant stage. The light filtered through the trees as though intentionally placed for effect. Usually when I get to this point in a temple tour, I’m pretty much done as it all starts to look the same. Here the effect on me was just the opposite. I felt rejuvenated and emotionally moved by the scene - like I’d been transported to another world where fantasy lives. I just hope they never rope up this area.

As we walked out of the temple site back to the Landcruiser, we passed a spot where workers were in the midst of reconstructing a building within the complex. On the ground lay huge chunks of cut stone marked with numbers written in white crayon. Imagine a jumbled 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle with each piece the size of a coffee table and you’ll get the idea of scene. How they put it all together is beyond me.

Most of the construction is financed by foreign countries, be they China or France or whomever. Which ever country sponsors the work gets to have signs in their language. Seeing that investment in Cambodia gave me a little hope because not only does it bring in money, it trains the work force for something other than asking plump tourists for “one dolla.”