ROGER GARWOOD : PHOTOJOURNALIST & REPORTER TRAVELING SLOWLY, TREADING GENTLY
Author: Roger Garwood
Roger Garwood started his career in Fleet Street and was a staff member of The Daily Mail (London) prior to joining the French news magazine Paris Match.
He now works as a freelance reporter and photographer, mainly in SE Asia and Australia. His work has appeared in magazines including National Geographic, The Sunday Times (London), Time, Newsweek, Stern and other European and Australian magazines.
In partnership with Trish Ainslie he published several books which deal with traditional Australian lifestyles. His work is in the collections of The National Library, The Australian National Gallery, The National Gallery of Victoria, The Art Gallery of Western Australia, The State Library of Western Australia and private collections.
Influences on his life stems from Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene , George Orwell. And others, in particular reading 'The Autobiography of a Super Tramp' by W H Davies. He now travels light, recording life as a free range flâneur.
He is a Fellow of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.
I’m cursing myself. I suppose I’m allowed a few moments of stupidity but sometimes I really wonder if I should spend my time simply being content with a good book and a bottle of wine and never being let out alone.
A few months ago I decided that the iPad, good though it is as a travelling companion, it really doesn’t have enough grunt for serious work as in editing pictures, writing text and, in particular, blogging.
Thus I bought myself a MacBook Air and immediately fell in lust with it. It’s fast, has an excellent keyboard and all the whistles and bells. I’ve got LightRoom and Silver Efex Pro loaded as well as a few other goodies which form a perfect combination.
So what did I do when I left on this trip? I decided to leave the Air and take the iPad, purely on the basis of saving a bit of weight. It quickly proved to be an error, though not a life-threatening one. I found it almost impossible to work WorkPress properly on the iPad so am at this moment trying a small experiment. That’s to say I’m writing this blog in Pages, an excellent little word processing programme in App form. Hopefully I can drop a few pictures in. We’ll see. It seems to be very ‘clunky’ so the plan will be to post little and often.
The following shot was pretty much the first cab off the rank. I have a peripheral project which is to photograph people reading newspapers. Sadly they are a diminishing breed.
Well, not exactly on the road. Up in the air would be a better description and that probably describes my state of mind better than the mode of transport. In the past six or seven days I crossed Australia three times in the space of 20 hours, largely as a result of bad weather forcing the return of a flight from Melbourne to Perth with the added problem of waiting about ten hours for another flight. This resulted in a door to door trip of 36 hours and no sleep in that time. But I satisfy myself with the thought that if that should be the worst thing to happen to happen to me when I fly I’ll be a very happy wombat. Now, to add insult to injury, I’m stuck in Changi Airport, Singapore, after an overnight flight and waiting fourteen hours for a connection to Saigon. How do airlines manage these schedules – or mismanage them? Small wonder my favourite means of transport is foot power. Nevertheless this is not a bad place to be stuck. The shopping area in the transit lounge is bigger than my home town and there’s a strong temptation to top up with watches costing about fifty thousand bucks each as well getting a designer wardrobe. As it transpires the only thing I really wanted wasn’t available anywhere – a case to hold SD cards. I did manage to get one decent shot in Melbourne, or a least a shot I liked, whilst wandering around with an old photo mate, Michael Coyne. A group of artists were sitting around the steps of a grand building so I snapped them. Then, a few days later, I went for a wander to a local football ground where kids practice and parents watch and jagged another shot. I particularly liked this and it once again reminded me of the influences great photographers have on us. This time Lisette Model.
New Project Right now I’m en route to start work on a larger project which, for starters, will take me up the coast of Vietnam from Saigon, or HCMC as the official name of Ho Chi Min city has been short formed, up to Hanoi. I’m keeping the principle story under wraps as I expect it to take several trips through SE Asia over about three years but, along the way, I hope to pick up many smaller stories. Ultimately I think there will be a book in it. I think I’ll leave this post for the moment. I’m working on my iPad and this is the first time I’ve worked in WordPress with it. I’ll see what mistakes I make first and then carry on with a summary of what I was doing at the Ballarat Photography Festival. Briefly it was a workshop on combining writing with photography to create feature stories and finding ways to make photojournalism viable in the digital age. Total Bogan Apart from that I don’t feel like doing a lot more writing. I had no sleep on the plane last night and was crammed in next to a total bogan, complete with baseball cap worn back to front and using a neck rest decorated in the style of an Australian flag. I don’t know why he bothered with it as he had no neck – it would have been impossible to hang him!
There comes a time when some treasured things have to go …
It was my son Ben’s birthday last Friday 21st June. He happened to be born on the day of the winter solstice and, as a small birthday present I took him and one of my grandsons, Sam, out to breakfast at a local restaurant.
As it happens Ben is a successful young bloke on a career path which most people dream about. Heaven knows where he got his brains from but it wasn’t me. He certainly had the brains not to go into photojournalism or any sort of media. Needless to say I’m exceedingly proud of him and the family of Garwoodies – Bek, my daughter-in-law and two grandsons, Josh and Sam.
All that stuff aside I am always left with the problem of what to give a bloke who has everything he needs in life. Well, I think he has anyway. I have, over the past few years, been passing a few of my own ‘treasures’ over to him. Little things I’ve lived with and enjoyed. They don’t amount to a lot but are the sort of things we become attached to.
I have been staring at my two oldest cameras, a couple of Leica M2s, the very first cameras I bought. That was back in April and May 1963, 50 years ago. They have been sitting on the mantlepiece over the fireplace, staring back at me and reminding me of my career in a very pleasant fashion. Now and again something flashes through my mind and I’ll look at them and say: “Remember that?”. They stare at me with blank eyes.
And so it was I decided this year, after 50 years media use, they should go to Ben for safe keeping, a part of family history. One of them is buggered – too much salt water inhalation – the other is working perfectly. They actually got pensioned off about 15-18 years ago as I have a handful of M6s and an old M4-2 which fill their shoes these days.
When I give Ben ‘stuff’ I write a little of the history, A few pages which help him to know a little about my life. I do this because I know virtually nothing about my own family background and don’t want him left in the same position.
I Saved the World
In short I explained that I was studying engineering and hated it. In fact I pride myself in the fact I may have saved the world. By quitting engineering I didn’t design planes which fell out of the sky, bridges which collapsed or ships which sank faster than a stone. The world owes me!
I happened to be sitting in a physics lecture next to a friend, Alan Draper, and can remember leaning over to him and whispering: “You know something? I’ve got a feeling I want to be a photographer”.
Until that moment I had never given it much thought. I was an avid newspaper and magazine reader. Many years later I realised that my mother, in teaching me to read before I went to school – we only had newspapers and magazines – The DailyMirror, DailyExpress, Illustrated and PicturePost in the house – had hot wired me and conditioned me for a career in the media. Thus, no sooner had I made the decision, in April 1963, than I also decided I had to work in Fleet Street. Not only that but I had a clear insight as to whom I wanted to work for – Paris Match – which was a regular publication stocked in the college library and had a reputation for being a hard hitter.
How come Leicas? Well, I was rushing for a train and picked up a magazine – Photography – from a news stand at the railway station. In it was an advert for the Leica M3. The punch line, after the general advertising guff was: “It still expects you to find the picture” or something like that. Check it out … I still have it after 50 years.
In retrospect I like the opening line too – “The Leica does not set out to do your thinking for you”.
It’s a short story as to how I got going and I may tell that later. All in all I can say it was pure arse – fortune shone on me very quickly. I sit here writing this and wishing fortune would recharge its batteries!
So last Thursday the old Leicas were gift wrapped and handed over with very little ceremony but stirring many, many, memories.
Aside from covering news and shooting a lot of features I used one or the other of these to stroll around the streets, mainly in London, and do a bit of street shooting.
In the past few days I’ve been travelling down memory lane and scanning some of those early images. I don’t know that these are the best as I’m still sifting through boxes of negs. Here are a few. Non of them have been worked on in LightRoom. They’re straight scans from the Nikon Coolscan V. I’ll work on them another time so please forgive the scratches and drying marks.
Big Gap Here
I ran out of time after starting this entry. I’m going to add a few scans and then catch my breath a bit.
I had been covering the coalminers’ strike in England. I can’t really remember if it was 1973 or ’74. I’d spent the morning down one of the pits, wading waste deep through water, crawling along filthy passages and getting totally filthy. I’d gone down at the invitation of union members who were striking for a wage of 5000 pounds a year. When I got to the surface, showered and cleaned up and joined the miners in their social club I was asked what I felt about the situation. With great honesty I said I wouldn’t do their work for 5000 quid a week, let alone a year. As I left, I saw this miner munching at a pie and asked if he’d mind me taking a picture. Shot with a Leica M2 and 35mm Summilux on Tri X.
This shot amused me. I was wandering around and looking at the sign, a theatre poster, thinking somehow it had to make a picture when this old fellow wandered along, stopped, and looked into the magnifying glass.
I’m not that interested in ballroom dancing. People gliding around a dance floor, stately as galleons, don’t do much for me. I can only say I must have registered an interest in off floor pictures. I may have been attracted to the dancers legs but can’t be sure of that. Leica M4, Noctilux, Tri X
I’ll post a few more of these old shots later. In the meantime there are still a few places in my workshop at the Ballarat Photo Festival (BIFFO) in August. Check out the details at
I spent a few days nursing one of those damned head colds which cause victims to reach out for a bit of loving care and attention and, when they don’t get it, to reach for the ‘medicinal uses only’ whisky bottle. This was a half bottle cold.
Being one of those characters who always seems to find his bread falling buttered side up I had a friend bring around some beautiful home made soup and another who arrived with a bottle of whisky. Both of them made me wish I could have more colds to use as bait and attract these people more often.
The upside of colds is that they offer an excuse to meander through the files and dredge for forgotten pictures.
Here’s a few to keep the ball rolling. I like pictures to be a little whimsical, something which may put a smile on peoples’ faces. At the very least I like pictures to have an obvious reason for being taken.
There’s something funny about photographers. They always take up a sort of crouch when shooting.Sometimes I’ve seen them stand on a chair, then they crouch a little which takes them down to their normal head height.
I was out shooting with my photo buddy Lidia D’Opera on what we termed a ‘pooch mooch’. Lidia was working on a book about dogs and I became a sort of deputy dog spotter. We both got this shot, how could you resist it? Check Lidia out at http://www.lidiadopera.com.au and look for her books.
An artist working at Fremantle Markets. He’s there every weekend come hell or high water. The picture at the top left is a self portrait I think
This was taken in Saigon. Somewhere under the plastic is a man selling newspapers. He’s sheltering from the rain.
And this is a nice closing shot for now. I get the impression they were good friends.
I promised part II of this odyssey some weeks ago, in fact about three months ago. However, time waits for no man (or person depending on how politically correct we feel we should be). Thus I found myself sidetracked by a trip to Bali, a lot of writing and, better still, a few weeks of good old fashioned darkroom printing. That has been followed up with preparing notes for a workshop I’m giving at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in August. (http://ballaratfoto.org/garwood-workshop/). I will also be reviewing portfolios.
Also I freely admit that if anything looks as though it is going to interfere with my stroll to the cafe in the mornings it gets put off – forever.
The whole idea of travelling with the dragons is outlined in the original post (February). It was in fact a story which went off at another angle. I had intended to photograph the Mekong Delta in the wet season, the monsoon, but it didn’t rain. Thus I turned the idea into a time travel story. That idea morphed from the observation that travelling on the delta did seem like turning the clock back to days when travelling was a sedate pastime, when there was time to savour the atmosphere of a town, interact with the population, enjoy a journey without an itinerary and not worry about finding a cab to an airport.
It was with those things in mind that I cadged lifts, quite illegally, on cargo boats which ply goods through the lacy network of broad rivers and tiny creeks which make up the delta. To hop on an old cargo barge and negotiate a days travel with the skipper, with no notion of the final destination, is fun. Sauntering along at something above walking pace with a deep throated diesel engine powering you from village to village is a relaxing experience which no organised tour can match. Nudging into jetties as all manner of goods are loaded and unloaded – anything from eggs and bricks to chickens and rice sacks – is an insight into how the world used to be.
By the way, just click on pictures if you wish to enlarge them.
A small cabin, its ceiling low enough to make it impossible to stand upright, with rush bedding on the floor and simple wooden shutters which could be removed to allow a cooling breeze to slide though, was luxury. And cheap. A days travel would cost around five dollars and you are spared the ceremony of eating at the captain’s table. It was a good idea to take a few snacks along as well as bottled water. If you felt inclined you could go below into the crews’ quarters and steal a nap in a hammock. Crews invariably consisted of a husband and wife team and maybe a deck-hand. A real treat would be a pot of lotus tea and dive into a bag of coconut toffee sweets.
The Lightweight Photo Kit
I tend to specialise in travelling light – very light in fact. The photo gear on this trip amounted to nothing more than my Leica D Lux 5 and about 15 4gb cards.
I don’t backup images while travelling but do edit the obvious junk out ‘in camera’. I’ll also download a few shots onto an iPad each day to use when emailing friends. The intention of doing that is to make them feel green with envy while they work on their desk jobs in the big city, something I’ve never done. The notion of working at a desk in an air conditioned office is the greatest incentive of all to want to spend a life travelling and writing. Rather like feeling thirsty and hungry is an incentive to look for wine bars and restaurants.
There is a certain paranoia among photographers with regard to backing up images while travelling. I really never bother. I know one day I’ll lose something but I don’t really look on that as a matter of life and death. Obviously, If I have a really top shot, which is rarely, I’ll back it up – send it to the cloud or Dropbox. The reason I use 4gb cards is because (a) they are cheap (b) If I lose one I haven’t lost a truckload of pictures (c) the contents of a 4gb card fit perfectly onto a DVD which is how I back-up when I return home. So what happens if everything is stolen? Tough – I refuse to live in fear. It’s worth pointing out the advantage of travelling light – simply put you can keep all of your gear with you all of the time.
One great advantage of using small cameras is they are inoffensive. Lugging a large DSLR around in order to shoot pictures of people can be deemed offensive – small cameras don’t seem aggressive or intrusive.
The D Lux 5 or its successor, the D Lux 6, each with a 24-90 (equivalent) zoom are perfect for candid pictures and deliver very high quality. I’ve had a number of magazine spreads used from DL5 files and the quality is such I could kid myself the work was taken with a larger format camera.
I’m not going to rabbit on too much about the travelling, that’s saved for magazines, but I’ll put a few more pictures and captions in. Interestingly, while on this trip, I have produced one major story and several small ones. That’s to say one of about 2500 words and a handful of ‘fillers’ each of around 500-800 words and a handful of pictures. From the original shoot, which was done in RAW and high quality jpg, I edited about 100 pictures for the delta story. From those around 40-50 are sent for editors to work from with a note saying more are available.
This is a short series from various floating markets on the Mekong Delta. On these occasions I hired a boat and local boatman to get me around.
The original files are RAW but of these shots have been worked on from the jpgs, straight from the camera, and put through Silver Efex Pro 2, a great program to work with.
It’s in tight situations like this that the flexible 24-90mm zoom on the DL5 comes into its own.
Every small town and village has at least one market and they’re like a magnet to me. I don’t generally take less than flattering pictures of people but I couldn’t resist this one.
To give editors a wide choice of pictures when presenting them with a feature story it’s important to give a broad selection which takes many aspects of the story into consideration as well as making sure there’s a variety of vertical and landscape pictures. People always add life to a feature, they give a story ‘pace’.
These two men were sitting in a riverside cafe playing a board game. They could see there were no seats or tables free and the guy on the left stood up, walked over the road to another cafe and came back with a small table and chair and indicated for me to sit down. That’s the sort of kindness experienced all over the country.And I got a couple of reasonable pictures.
This man is a sewing machine repairer. He works from a small workshop with his wife. Language was a difficult proposition but with a bit of hand waving and pointing the old gentleman happily obliged while his wife looked on.
As I said, markets are a magnet. I don’t think I’m an exception in that as most street shooters tend to look on them as happy hunting grounds.
Wandering around Chau Doc, on the Cambodian border, I came across wonderful lady who lived under a bridge. She insisted on showing me her kitchen.
Dried fish! It took me a long time to realise what these were. I had assumed they were a sort of grass or seaweed but the tiny heads gave the game away.
A noodle factory on the banks of the delta. I have to admit that I tend to use the D Lux on a simple automatic setting. Thus the lens seems to operate wide open most of the time. I use the slowest ISO of 80 which produces extraordinary quality from a small sensor. I don’t mind a little movement creeping into pictures and in this instance the steamy atmosphere added a great deal to the image.
Viewed from my hotel room at Chau Doc. This is where many of the homes are floating on large oil drums and are accessed by planks from adjoining streets.
Looking for ‘filler’ shots is essential to give stories some character. These spotless white ducks were in a little creek off a main delta tributary. I’m not sure if they were waiting for their dinner or about to become dinner.
I may have mentioned before that the idea of going to Bali was to catch up on some writing and maybe take a few pictures. I booked the trip while remarkably low fares were available and arrived in a bucketing tropical rain storm. I did actually do some work, mostly while sitting on a beach with a cold beer on standby. I really don’t like offices.
When I booked the trip I’d forgotten that the Balinese New Year was to happen right in the middle of my time on the island. This is when, after a few celebrations which involves building giant monsters – the famed Ogah Ogah (read ogre) – representing the evil spirits said to roam the island. The object of New Year is to frighten these spirits and force them to leave the island. It’s a story which has been told a few times to say the least but I’d never witnessed it and in any event it seems to happen mostly at night-time which makes photography a little arduous.
As luck would have it I was staying in Padang Bai and the performance which is designed to frighten the local ogahs into a hasty retreat takes place in daylight. This was bonus for me.
In the morning I strolled around town, finding these colourful creatures having finishing touches put to their hideous bodies and watched them being hoisted onto frames, making it easy for them to be hauled through streets.
Padang Bai is small enough to walk around in ten minutes and it is not a tourist centre as such. It is a small port where ferries leave for a variety of islands such as Lombok. It’s also a popular dive centre. As the time came close for the procession of about a dozen ogahs to be paraded and ultimately destroyed the atmosphere became quite electric. I could feel good pictures in my bones.
Small groups of bands formed up. Kids, dressed in their brightest and best took up vantage points in the streets and I armed myself with my only travelling companion – the little Leica D Lux 5. “Bring ’em on” I thought. And they did.
All of the pictures were taken on the Leica D Lux 5, a perfect camera for travelling with. The 24-90mm (equivalent) lens offers a useful range from wide-angle to a short telephoto.
I keep the camera on auto everything. I have three basic programs. The first handles colour with an ISO setting of 80. The other two are B&W set to 80 and 400 ISO. I find this combination is pretty much perfect for everyday shooting in reasonable light. The D-Lux 5 has now been superseded by the D Lux 6.
Apart from a few holiday snaps I did the bulk of my shooting in one day. From about 350 pictures I edited 35-40 which formed an excellent back up to a short story about the New Year celebrations.
As a matter of interest these days I specialise in travelling light and producing stories and pictures which I syndicate. I am running a workshop at the Ballarat Photo Festival. If anybody is interested check out the details at <http://ballaratfoto.org/garwood-workshop/> This will lead you to the home page. Look for “Participate”, scroll to “Workshops”.
I may meet some of you there. It’s going to be great festival.
Each year Australia and New Zealand commemorate what is possibly the most venerated period of their history. At dawn on the 25th April, 1915, off the coast of Gallipoli, tens of thousands of troops landed on the beaches in an attempt to push through to Constantinople. In prolonged fighting over 8000 Australian troops were killed and the campaign, though a significant defeat, ensured that Australian and Kiwi troops gained a reputation as being among the toughest fighters in the world.
A dawn services marks the beginning of a day when families, many of whom lost relatives, assemble at memorials throughout the two countries. The day starts in a solemn manner but later, following what is known as a Shotgun Breakfast in many halls and clubs, lashings of bacon, eggs, hot tea and rum are served to anybody who cares to join in. Following this a parade of old diggers and sailors as well as younger military people march through towns. The day becomes a celebration.
I’ve been taking pictures of Anzac Day for about 36 years now, the first in 1977 in Perth but mostly in Fremantle which has a very homely and slightly disorganised feel about it. The military precision is not quite as precise as the bigger events.
I have generally used the occasion to wander around and shoot a few street pictures, mainly to record the event but also to keep myself tuned up. Until recently I used a Leica M6 with a 35 or 50mm lens though the earlier pictures were made with an M2. Invariably I used film, initially Tri X, more recently T Max 400 but for the last couple of years I have used a little Leica D Lux 5. I’ve found the 24-90mm (equivalent lens) and the B&W jpg processing in the camera to be excellent.
Here’s a selection of pictures from this years event with a couple from previous years.
This shot was taken as the old fellow was being wheeled onto the parade ground. Just before he joined the parade he whipped out a hip flask and knocked back a sly swig or two. Can’t blame him really.
This is one of my favourite shot. Taken in 1977 at the Perth parade. This old digger had walked over to what I assume were his regimental flags, removed his hat and stood contemplating them for several minutes …..
And so I made a plan. I’d spend five days in Padang Bai, then slip over to my favourite hotel in Candidasa where they have an excellent restaurant with a French influence and a brand new pool to frolic around in and finally round off the trip with a few days in Ahmed. So much for the best laid plans. Anyway, this was a working trip and I had to work out a routine of some sort.
On my first morning I thought I’d gather my thoughts by heading off to White Beach with my notes and iPad.
There’s a beach at one end of the town – White Beach. If you read the Lonely Planet guide it’s a short walk. Thus I cheerfully set off. It was a hot tropical day – humid with air like close-fitting velvet. I was told the beach was a gentle meander over the hill, a stroll past the temple ” … take about half an hour … you can’t miss it”. I’ve heard that phrase a good many times in Australia and greeted it with a sinking feeling. I’m the bloke who always misses the bright red oil drum marking the beginning of the dirt tract. Can anybody explain to me how it is possible to get lost on a single track lane who’s only destination is a beach?
Black Beach or White Beach?
It was simple as far as the temple which is just beyond the harbour’s ferry terminal. The hill then became somewhat more inclined, to the ‘short of breath’ status. After going down the other side of the hill I came to a junction. Nobody had mentioned that. The left side went up, the right side went down. Logic told me the beach must be down so I turned right. Wrong! I could hear water on a beach but it wasn’t getting closer. I stopped a guy on a motor bike which had a huge pile of hay on board, holding him in place: “Excuse me my good man, would you be kind enough to tell me the way to the beach please?” I said in my best and clearest English.
“Black beach or white beach?” he asked in perfect Indonesian.
“Er, white please my good chap”.
He indicated the direction I had come from, told me to go to the top of the hill, I’d see a big green gate, ignore that, go to the road at the left and look for a pathway. “About 25 minutes”.
Grasshoppers get their rocks off
Dehydrated and close to death I retraced my steps, found the gate, ignored it, found a network of paths and took several wrong ones, all within earshot of surf. I finally found some steps which led through unremitting undergrowth and trees. Suddenly there it was. White beach. I felt like Tarzan, in one of those films we used to watch as kids, suddenly seeing water for the first time. I grabbed the last creeper and swung down onto the soft sand and staggered up to one of half a dozen bamboo and tin warung, each with rickety tables and bench seats sitting unsteadily in the sand. I sat in the shade and ordered a Coke which came ice-cold in an old-fashioned bottle, the sort Tarzan would have been familiar with in Hollywood.The ocean was azure, palm trees dutifully did their postcard bit behind the huts and a few people plunged into the water. They were mostly of the eye candy version which gladdened my heart, making the journey worthwhile. It had only taken close to an hour and half to get here?
I made camp and settled down at the least busy table, planning to read and write a bit but allowing myself the occasional distraction. A grasshopper, massive bugger, lodged at the end of my table and was slowly rocking backwards and forwards. I looked a bit closer and there were two of them … shagging themselves silly. I didn’t want to disturb them so let them get on with it.
It didn’t take long before there was spontaneous outbreak of yoga on the beach. Not organised, just individuals. Having spent a day looking at ogahs (more about them in the next posting) in various stages of distortion and licentious behaviour I saw no reason not to enjoy what was happening. Women started contorting themselves on the beach in a manner they wouldn’t dream of doing at home, in front of menfolk. In any event they would have been hosed down with cold water.
Downward Dog was pretty easy to spot but there were interesting variations. Scratching Panda, Itching Monkey … how do you describe such things? Thank goodness they hadn’t seen Shagging Grasshopper. One tender morsel, trim, taut, terrific (and knowing it ) stood up, all but naked and covered in damp sand which was sticking like Lycra, where it touched, which was almost everywhere. She skipped to the water’s edge with one of those dainty little hopping dances which fitted a ‘look at me, look at me’ rhythm. So I did. Then ordered a cold beer and a plate of freshly prepared nasi goreng – total cost about $3.
I returned visit to the beach the day afterwards. Managed it in 27 minutes without even breaking into a sweat. It was a tad different. The sky clouded, the cloud base lowered to head height and lightening ripped through, biblical style. Thunder shook the area and torrential rain smashed into the beach, creating small rivers which then recycled it to the ocean. After the initial fright which caused everybody to retreat to the back row of tables a few mad buggers rushed out onto the beach and started to hug each other. They were all washed out to sea so I finished their beers which was the most charitable thing to come to my mind.
Should I offer an apology? May be I should but I haven’t. In any event I doubt that too many people will be losing much sleep over it.
The truth is I said I would post Part II of the Mekong Delta story: Travelling with Dragons. In the event I ran out of time to complete that and decided to take a backlog of work to Bali, find a cheap hotel and catch up with ‘stuff’ – basically unfinished stories. For readers who don’t know Fremantle, where I live, you may consider that it’s rather extravagant to hop on a plane to Bali. In fact it is quicker (that’s stretching a point a little) and a lot cheaper (that’s not stretching a point) for me to go to Bali than to go to next nearest place of note. . It’s a three hour drive to our nearest resort region and it’s very expensive territory.
Thus I find it easy to slip into Bali, not quite a commute but it’s getting like that.
Marco Inn: Not five star but cheap and clean
Thus, decision made, I fronted up in the small coastal town of Padang Bai in the middle of a tropical downpour which delighted me as I hadn’t experienced real rain for about a year. It was well after sunset and, as I like travelling with no prior hotel bookings, I lobbed into the first place I found. Marco Inn is tiny, about eight rooms, and right on the waterfront of Padang Bai. Like may of these small hotels it is situated down a narrow alley which is wedged between a shop on one side, which sells many wooden carvings, and a warung which sells icy beer, fresh fruit juices and snacks.
A room was available on the first floor and had all I wished for – it was clean, there was a shower, toilet, fan, a small desk and a cupboard. It was not five star, more like a monk’s cell. Even in the damp climate of the wet season it smelt fresh and when the sun rose, summoned by roosters crowing, dogs barking and the booming horns of ferries I was able to look out over rooftops to the harbour. Perfect. Even better it was nine dollars a night which included breakfast.
Like many visitors to the island I am totally addicted to banana pancakes for breakfast. That and a heart starter of Balinese style coffee – somewhere between Greek and Vietnamese – sets me up for the morning.
Breakfast was taken in a small frangipani scented courtyard with blooming pink Bougainvillea. And to round it off my banana pancake was served by an attractive and chatty Balinese woman named Jasmin. In the middle of the courtyard yard is a small structure, call it a family temple, and the day’s offerings to the Balinese gods and spirits were already sitting beside small statues. Sandalwood incense sticks were slowly burning and tiny columns of blue smoke mingled with the frangipani’s aroma.
You may have guessed that these days I don’t like to work under pressure.
I specialise in travelling light. So much so I even lecture in the practice. My total baggage weighed a little over 8kilos – about 17-18 pounds. I travel with an iPad, a keyboard, a Leica D Lux 5, a few cards for the camera, notebook, pens and pencils, about five T-shirts, three pairs of shorts and bits – shaving gear etc. I carry this onboard as hand baggage. (TIP: Jetstar allow 10kg of hand baggage). I book a seat up front in the plane and am invariably in the first half-dozen passengers through immigration.
But this trip was going to be full of surprises so tune in tomorrow …. or the day after, I’ll see how I go. And I will finish the Dragon’s Tale soon as possible.
I had an email the other day, a blast from the past.
A colleague, David Levenson, had contacted me to ask why I hadn’t continued with my blog. He had contacted me some months ago and reminded me that I used to write a column in a magazine, Photo Technique, and it had inspired him to become a photojournalist. I didn’t really know whether to feel flattered or guilty but I went for the former.
We subsequently exchanged a few emails and it transpires that during the decades which followed his inspired moment we have shared many mutual contacts from agents to picture editors. I have to say it was a pleasant feeling to know that he, like me, shared equally enjoyable careers. I think we’d both have to admit that times have changed but, with a bit of willpower and hard(ish) work it’s still possible to keep our heads above water.
I guess I’m one of the lucky ones in this world – my bread does have a habit of falling buttered side up.
So why didn’t I continue?
Well, it wasn’t really by design. I’d have to admit I got lazy. If I’ve mastered the art of anything it’s procrastination. I also lost direction but after a bit of thought decided to keep on the same track – keeping the blog loose but a touch anecdotal, a few pictures here and there and sometimes a bit of technique thrown in.
Also, things did get busy. I made few trips and found I had a lot of editing, both words and pictures. I had a pile of stories to complete and get out. So, forgive the time gap.
It’s an idea driven industry
Photojournalism, any type of journalism, is an industry driven by ideas. If you don’t have ideas you don’t survive. I guess I’m fortunate in that I enjoy developing ideas and have a pretty good hit rate. I’m now at the stage in life where I don’t depend on commissioned work which is not so much a sign of financial success as a case of keeping my overheads low. Thus I can afford to work on the ideas I want to work on. And one of them has been tucked in my head for well over 40 years.
Back in the very early 60s I read a copy of Paris Match featuring a story of the Indian monsoon by a Kiwi photographer, Brian Brake. Strangely that magazine feature gave me a sense of direction – I wanted to be a photographer and, more particularly, I wanted to work on Match.
In subsequent years I met Brian. He was a quiet, self-effacing character with immense technical skills and a lot of experience. It was about 1976 that he projected his entire edit of Monsoon for me. The quality was stunning, all shot on an old Leica with 35 and 90m lenses using Kodachrome – probably the old 12 ASA stuff but it could have Kodachrome 25.
Thus Brain Brake inspired me in much the same way I inspired David Levenson. Brian felt flattered and so do I.
My family seems to be steeped in maritime history, or up to their necks in water, whichever way you want to look at it. So it’s no surprise that I decided to specialise in anything connected with water: ships, boats, oceans, rivers, fishing … anything. Thus the Indian monsoon stuck in my mind.
For many years I thought about reshooting the Indian monsoon. Several photographers, notably Steve McCurry, had been there, done that. All of them very well but none had quite captured the soulful, spiritual, essence which Brian Brake had so successfully recorded. I dropped the idea as I didn’t feel I could do better than the original and, if I had I’m not sure I would have been happy to chip away at a great photographer’s legacy. Very noble of me!
But I didn’t let the idea drift away altogether. Geographically speaking I live a stone’s throw away from the Mekong Delta. Put another way it’s a cheap airfare. Thus I revamped the idea and was happy with the notion of working on a feature about the monsoon season over the delta.
Thus I booked a ticket for August, statistically the wettest month of the year. I packed plastic poncho’s, an umbrella, a length of string and clothes pegs, anticipating spending a month soaked to the skin and wearing damp clothes, ripping leaches off my skin and smacking mosquitoes to a pulp.
I arrived in Saigon (I still call it Saigon as that’s still, in part, it’s name and I like the romance of it) and caught a local bus down to the delta. The first few days were spent in beautiful sunshine streaming from an azure sky. The humidity chewable. And that’s how the weather stayed – hot and humid without a skerrick of rain. Well, maybe about ten minutes in total but not enough to open the floodgates of a full-blown story. No mozzies or leaches either. My idea, through no fault on mine (which makes a pleasant change) had gone completely pear-shaped.
Thus a decades old idea came to a temporary standstill.
I was having a great time moving around from town to town on the delta, which is known as The Nine Dragons. There are nine huge rivers which make up the delta, starting at Chau Doc, on the Cambodian border, and splitting into the nine dragons which then meander their way to the South China Sea.
My preferred method of travel was on old wooden cargo boats, cadging a lift for a few bucks and not having a clue as to where I would be at the end of a day. In fact it was often difficult to find out where I was – the language is pretty much impossible to learn and it took a week to master the art of ordering a coffee. But that’s the fun of escaping the bubble of the comfort zone.
So, the idea, figuratively speaking, was dead in the water. No monsoon. A minor mishap for me but for the coffee growers a little to the north it had the makings of a disaster.
Nevertheless, I had to make some sort of story from the trip and it came to me one evening. I was sitting beside one of the dragons’ tributaries, in a small waterside cafe, enjoying fresh fish, salad and ice-cold beer, the total cost of which was less than three bucks. After a couple of beers my mind started to drift. I watched rickshaws, locals people in the market, the general timeless socialising which happens in the tropics and the idea hit me. “I’ve travelled back in time”
Thus the story line was in place: “Time Travel With The Dragons”
For the record, I know Brian took a few trips to complete his monsoon feature. I’ve booked again in September – the second wettest month.
I’ll continue with Part II of posting in the next day or two. Watch this space