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Portraits from the Cambodian Countryside

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

As much as I enjoy shooting pretty photos of temples and trees, at heart, I’m a portrait photographer. I need people in my photos! So after hitting the temples, we finished up at a nearby village where I walked from door to door, or should I say hut to hut in search of subjects.

I learned the phrase “Sum taut mui” which means “may I take your photo?” Also, “Sous day” which means “hello” and “aacorn tran” which means “thank you.” With those three phrases, I was pretty much golden! Actually, the people in Cambodia are exceptionally friendly. Once out of Phnom Penh, no one declined to have their photo taken. Indeed many thanked me afterward for shooting the photo. All too often my problem was that everyone wanted to jump in the photo when I only wanted one person.

For this shot, I only wanted the woman as my subject, but the kids wanted in too. It did help that I had Kimleng with me to translate, but still the communication from English to Khmer wasn’t easy.

Once you photograph one kid, you’re going to photograph every kid. Cambodia is going through a baby boom so there are kids everywhere. Kids here are an essential part of life - they’re needed to work and help in the fields to bring in money. A married couple without kids is a couple likely to go broke.

The kids are all so playful and adorable. They may not have all the luxuries of American living, but they’re never far from a smile or a laugh. They’re a great reminder to the truism that money and objects don’t buy happiness.

This boy had this horrible scabs all over his face and on parts of his body. I’m used to positioning my subjects by moving them around - which made more sense since I couldn’t communicate directly with them. I held this kid’s arm to move him where I wanted him. I quickly realized that this might not be a good idea since I had no idea if this was something communicable. As I washed my hands at a nearby well pump, I anxiously hoped I didn’t pick up some dreadful third-world malady.

This guy climbs up coconut trees to fill his bamboo buckets with sap. This sap is then boiled down to create a solid sugar.

This woman is outside her home, a very typical Cambodian raised house.

This house is not this man’s home. The owners are away. They’re probably French since there are many nice homes owned by former colonists sprinkled around the countryside. Cambodia was a French colony from the 1800’s. They left in the 50’s which soon after sparked a long civil war that culminated in the viscous rule of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in the 70’s. Although Pol Pot was pushed out of the large cities by a Vietnamese invasion in 1980. The war continued until Pol Pot died in 1998. Since then, Cambodia has been peaceful - though the millions of remaining land mines still leave a dangerous reminder of the long war.

This woman is boiling down the coconut sap to make the sugar.

This fellow has filled his bottles of coconut sap and is bringing them to the woman who will boil it down. This is a taste of how business has been done since the onset of civilization and the division of labor. No big factories or agribusiness. Just people working in their backyards and in their villages.

These women package up the sugar for sale. I think you can get three of these for a dollar.

This was my last shot of the day. I just love the story it tells. The dad with his machete. The kids in the background. The home they live in. The people here work hard for a living. Their muscles are cut and beer bellies are rare.

The beauty of travel is that we get to experience scenes that are so different, even exotic, from our day to day life at home. Really though, what’s exotic to us is normal to those who live in these places. I love to photograph that normalcy no matter where it lives - be it in America or faraway. It’s the underlying humanity that I love to connect with.

On a technical note, I brought with me a small lighting kit and umbrella that I used to light all of these portraits. I tried to keep the lighting fairly minimal - just enough to add some direction and shape to the otherwise flat ambient light. I figured that anyone can show up and shoot using ambient, however it takes a determined fool to schlep lighting around and then set it up with the locals wondering what the hell I’m doing. In fact, most of my subjects would look at the light instead of at me since they were confused as to which was the camera.

The next phrase I need to learn in Cambodian is “Look here!”


Temples of Angkor

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Today I felt orders of magnitude better. My illness of yesterday is mostly gone - as is the wicked lightening storm that blew in last night. More lightening flashed than in a bad horror movie. The rain fell as though forced from a fire hose. The power went out across the city and trees are strewn across the roads.

By morning, the storm passed - leaving in its wake a nice canopy of clouds and the occasional pleasant breeze. Though it was hot and beyond muggy by San Diego standards, it was infinitely more bearable than yesterday’s omnipresent heat.

I started the day before dawn at an ornate temple, Bayon. Even in its reconstructed state, the complex of domes and massive carvings was amazing. In it’s original state, it no doubt rivaled if not exceeded the masterpiece churches of Europe. We got there not long after dawn to take advantage of the morning light. The heavy clouds left over from the storm, nixed that, leaving instead a soft, low contrast light.

Being the first there made it easy to get photos without dozens of other tourists ruining my shots. To all who are planning on photographing the major temples, I recommend getting there as early as possible. Once the tour bus hordes start showing up around 8:00, forget about getting a wide shot without lines of people spoiling your image.

To us, these buildings appear as ruins. Back when they were constructed, the surfaces would have been painted with vibrant colors and gilded with gold and silver. What a dazzling sight this must have been!

Next it was off to Angkot Thom, a huge temple and royal palace site. It’s size and scope rivals Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula - and it even has it’s own pyramid.

Though the temples are mostly in ruins, they’re still considered holy places and used by Cambodians. As part of the Khmer New Year celebrations, people came to visit the monks at the site for a cleansing ritual. Here these kids draw water for a monk to pour over the heads of the worshippers.

In the midst of our strolls, we stopped for breakfast which consisted of pancakes and tea at one of a long row of outdoor diners. And I use the word diner loosely considering none had running water and all were housed under thatched roofs. Condensed milk is the local sweetener - which was used both for syrup and for tea. Nothing goes down so easy on a hot day as iced tea with condensed milk. Oh so good! Meanwhile, our local guide, Kimleng, stuck to his rice and fish dish.

Later that afternoon, we headed over to the mother of all temples and the most famous of all, Angkor Wat. It’s the largest, most famous and most restored of all the sites. It’s surrounded by a large man-made lake. The lake is at least a couple football fields in length and extends for several miles. It’s hard to believe that in addition to creating the vast temple by hand, a lake of this size could be dug out without anything more than strong backs and crude shovels.

Though it was claimed to have been “discovered” by the French in the 1800’s, the Cambodians never stopped worshipping here so it was never lost to them. They still decorate the statutes and give offerings to the deities.

This young monk spoke English, which he was eager to practice on us. He asked a lot of questions about America. When he saw my iPhone, he asked how much it cost. I was reluctant to say since $400 is probably more than he might see in an entire year. (I didn’t even bring up AT&T’s ridiculous monthly pricing.)

As I strolled through the corridors and walkways, camera and tripod at the ready, I imagined how everything would have looked back in the day. The interiors would have been lined with wood and the exterior surfaces all painted. I also thought about the large army of laborers, craftsmen, architects and artists that were required to build these fantastic structures within the short lifespan of an ancient king. (Once the king died, the construction stopped.)

Despite its size and sprawl, Angkor Wat wasn’t my favorite temple. Maybe because of the sometimes excessive crowds or because it was the most restored, it just seemed a little cold. I’ve grown use to the more overgrown temples that bring together stone, lichen and forest to create a more organic feel to the space. 

Although I felt much better from my sickness of yesterday - the intestinal thing cleared out by midday and my cold had mostly run its course, except for a dreadfully runny nose - the heat still feels oppressive to this San Diegan used to cool ocean breezes. I moved slowly and sat down when I could. I knew that coming to Cambodia during its hottest month meant taking things easy - though it’s much easier to accept in the abstract, sitting back at home planning out the trip.

Before visiting Cambodia, I had little idea of what to expect. I had no idea how developed and tourist friendly it would be. Siem Riep is definitely tourist friendly - especially if you speak English. Most everyone who deals with the public speaks at least broken English if they’re not fluent. Though there is much room for development, the cities all have good roads, decent infrastructure and air conditioning in the hotels.

Siem Riep, though smaller than Phnom Penh, is rapidly growing and is far from a small village. There’s all manner of hotels - from grand and luxurious to cozy-but-comfortable. It’s pretty easy to find a room for $25 to $30 a night with all the amenities and is in a good location. If you’re looking for adventure far off the beaten path, this isn’t it. You can no doubt find it in Cambodia (watch for land mines), but tourism on a ever increasing scale has hit this particular town.

That said, you can still get a decent dinner and a beer for less than five bucks. All is not lost!


Cambodian Countryside

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Unfortunately, I got stuck an extra day in Phnom Penh. Ugh. I reserved a plane ticket for the morning - but because of the new year holiday, I wasn’t able to pay until the morning. By then my reservation had expired and the plane sold out. Bummer. The next flight was that afternoon so I filled my time with getting caught up on blogging and downloading images.

My advice to anyone traveling to Phnom Penh is to stay there for one day. Tick the sights and then leave. More than one day, regardless of what your travel agent says, simply isn’t necessary to taste the unremarkable flavor of this capital city.

The flight to Siem Riep was short and comfortable. The plane, a puddle jumper, was nearly empty but super clean and brand new. The flight took about 35 minutes - barely enough time to watch that episode of Entourage that I had loaded onto my iPad.

The next morning, I joined Peace of Angkor guide Dave Perkes and driver Kimleng on a two hour drive out of the city to some ruins way off the beaten track. The last hour of driving was over serious off-road trails where we would have easily gotten lost but for the local guide that we picked up along the way.

Now, I should add to all this that I’d picked up a cold in Singapore that I’d managed to fight off - until today. At the same time, I picked up an intestinal bug in Phnom Penh (another reason not to like that city) so I was ready to run to the outhouse at any given moment - not a pleasant prospect in Cambodia where their idea of a developed toilet is often a ceramic ditch into which you pour water from a nearby container to flush it. That and the heat sapped my strength something ferocious. Basically, I was a semi-lifeless wreck trying to make do as we hiked through the jungle to find some interesting but probably-not-worth-the-effort sculptures of elephants and tigers.

In fact, the stuff that we looked at wasn’t nearly as interesting as the people that we met along the way. These kids allowed their curiosity to guide them as they followed us around at our first stop.

So I mentioned that I had this intestinal bug. Well, I should add that Cambodia is notorious for having millions of land mines still in place from its long civil war. Every year, children and farmers are blown up from treading in uncleared areas. Anywhere near the tourist areas is not a problem, but we were many miles off the beaten path.

Thus I wasn’t too surprised to hear that there were land mines in the area of our adventure. Now I don’t know if they were pulling my leg, but I did take the prospect of getting my legs blown off seriously. Where this fact and the fact that I had a serious case of the runs intersects is in that I was now afraid to leave the trail to go to the bathroom (and of course there were no actual bathrooms around).

Dave, my guide, assured me that so long as my poop weighed less than 22 kilos, the minimum weight needed to set off a land mine, I’d be okay. Ha ha. As Fred Flintstone would say, “so droll, so very droll.” The joke was even less funny considering that defecating under the influence of a tropical third-world intestinal bug does not result in anything resembling solid. But I’m telling you more than you care to know.

As I put a smiling face on my discomfort, we visited a cave known for it’s large bats. It also served as the home for a hermetic monk. Here’s his home.

Here’s a portrait of our cave guide in his two-hut village.

Afterward, we stopped by a river popular with the locals. There’s a waterfall that was perfect for a cool soaking. One great thing about Cambodia is that few, other than children who just jump in naked, bother to get out of their street clothes when they go for a dunk. So I went in too. Man it felt so good! The misery I was feeling just washed away - and because my clothes were wet, I stayed cool for a good while after.

There’s no public transportation in Cambodia so people just jump aboard the local third-world pickup. These vehicles are a common sight in the countryside. Consisting of nothing more than a generator with a flywheel hooked up to a long steering bar and four wheels, they noisily transport all manner of goods and people from village to village.

For many farmers, the age old ox cart is still the preferred mode of travel.

Our last stop of the day was a relatively small temple complex not far outside of Siem Riep. Finally, my reward for leaving Phnom Penh! The reason I opted to travel to Cambodia was because I’d heard and seen fantastic photos of Angkor Wat - a grandiose ancient Khmer Temple. But in reality, the area contains dozens of temples, both restored and crumbling. So finally putting my camera and my creative eye to work amidst the elegantly sculpted rock of the temple was a welcome task.

These local kids came out to entertain us with their jumping skills. Of course, they both asked for “one dolla” afterward. I gave them some cash for their performance. A buck for me isn’t much, but it goes a long way for their families.

Then it was back to the hotel for a cold shower and food. I shuffled next door for some tom yum soup then shuffled back to my room. I’m fully cooked and hoping that tomorrow will bring with it new energy and better health.


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!


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.