Back to the Streets

Trawling the Files

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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

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This was taken in Saigon. Somewhere under the plastic is a man selling newspapers. He’s sheltering from the rain.

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And this is a nice closing shot for now. I get the impression they were good friends.

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Travelling with Dragons: Part II

Time Travel in the Slow Lane

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 typical landing point for cargo boats. These are good spots to cadge lifts.
A typical landing point for cargo boats. These are good spots to cadge lifts.

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.

A typical day on the delta involves dropping into small towns and villages to offload cargo. This is all labour intensive work, often in high temperatures and just made for pictures.
A typical day on the delta involves dropping into small towns and villages to offload cargo. This is all labour intensive work, often in high temperatures and just made for pictures.

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 call 'Keeping and Eye on the Kids'. This boat was moored on the river bank and the kids had rigged a couple of swings up. And no, they didn't fall into the mud. A;; boats have giant eyes painted on the bow to ward off sprits - or see where they are heading.
I call this ‘Keeping and Eye on the Kids’. The boat was moored on the river bank and the kids had rigged a couple of swings up while the tide was low. And no, they didn’t fall into the mud. All boats have giant eyes painted on the bow to ward off spirits – or see where they are heading.

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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s in tight situations like this that the flexible 24-90mm zoom on the DL5 comes into its own.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Graphic images are formed by the boats’ hulls.

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Don’t you just love old technology?

Bali – The Bonus

The Bonus of a ‘Business’ Trip

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.

Ogah Ogah ready for the New Year parade © Roger Garwood 2013
Ogah Ogah ready for the New Year parade
© Roger Garwood 2013

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.

The beginning of the parade in Padang Bai. most of these horrific effigies of evil spirits are made by school children. © Roger Garwood 2013
The beginning of the parade in Padang Bai. most of these horrific effigies of evil spirits are made by school children.
© Roger Garwood 2013
Evil spirits had little chance of distracting these two youngsters from their iPhone © Roger Garwood 2013
Evil spirits had little chance of distracting these two youngsters from their smart phone 
© Roger Garwood 2013
The more noise the better. Everything about the parade is designed to frighten off the bad spirits. © Roger Garwood 2013
The more noise the better. Everything about the parade is designed to frighten off the bad spirits.
© Roger Garwood 2013
Colour alone would frighten most people. Most of these creatures are made from carved polystyrene. Traditionally they were constructed from bamboo frames and paper.   © Roger Garwood 2013
Colour alone would frighten most people. Most of these creatures are made from carved polystyrene. Traditionally they were constructed from bamboo frames and paper.
© Roger Garwood 2013
This character really put me off my dinner. I didn't order sausages that evening. © Roger Garwood 2013
This character really put me off my dinner. I didn’t order sausages that evening.
© Roger Garwood 2013

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.

The weather in Bali can be hot and humid. At the end of the parade a few people would hose down the members in the parade to help keep them cool. © Roger Garwood 2013
The weather in Bali can be hot and humid. At the end of the parade a few people would hose down the members in the parade to help keep them cool.
© Roger Garwood 2013

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.

Ultimately the spirits are taken to the beach and enthusiastically dismembered by school kids.  The ultimate prize is a head. © Roger Garwood 2013
Ultimately the spirits are taken to the beach and enthusiastically dismembered by school kids. The ultimate prize is a head.
© Roger Garwood 2013
To ensure they don't come back the ogahs' remains are burnt to a cinder on the beach. © Roger Garwood 2013
To ensure they don’t come back the ogahs’ remains are burnt to a cinder on the beach.
© Roger Garwood 2013

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/&gt; 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.

Anzac Day

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.


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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.

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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 …..

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Bali Part II – Making a Plan – Who am I Kidding?

You Can’t Miss It

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.

One view from the $9 a night hotel.  © Roger Garwood 2013
One view from the $9 a night hotel.
© Roger Garwood 2013

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”.

White Beach. Tarzan and Jane would have loved it. Especially with an ice cold coke. © Roger Garwood 2013
White Beach. Tarzan and Jane would have loved it. Especially with an ice cold coke.
© Roger Garwood 2013

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.

Shagging grasshoppers. You can't get away with that sort of behaviour here. © Roger Garwood 2013
Shagging grasshoppers. You can’t get away with that sort of behaviour here.
© Roger Garwood 2013

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.

Lunch. Nasi Goreng $1.50. Cold beer $1.50 © Roger Garwood 2013
Lunch. Nasi goreng $1.50. Cold beer $1.50
© Roger Garwood 2013

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.

To be continued :-

An outbreak of hugs during a tropical storm. © Roger Garwood 2013
An outbreak of hugs during a tropical storm.
© Roger Garwood 2013

BALI: Travelling Light in the Tropical Zone

Commuting to work takes on a whole new meaning

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.

This is the main drag, over the road from the beach in Padang Bai. If you look carefully you'll see the Marco Inn sign. The hotel is down a small alleyway which leads into a jasmin scented courtyard.  © Roger Garwood 2013
This is the main drag, over the road from the beach, in Padang Bai. If you look carefully you’ll see the Marco Inn sign. The hotel is down a small alleyway leading into a jasmin scented courtyard.
© Roger Garwood 2013

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.

No pressures

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.

Opposite the hotel is the main beach where local fishermen make an early catch and deliver fish straight to restaurants along the waterfronts. © Roger Gawood 2013
Opposite the hotel is the main beach where local fishermen make an early catch and deliver fish straight to restaurants along the waterfronts.
© Roger Gawood 2013
Freshly caught fish are cooked in restaurants less than a minutes walk away. © Roger Garwood 2013
Freshly caught fish are cooked in restaurants less than a minutes walk away.
© Roger Garwood 2013

Travelling Light

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.

Travelling with Dragons: Part I

Saigon market place© Roger Garwood 2013
Saigon market place
© Roger Garwood 2013

 

Blast from the Past

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.

Saigon: Fresh fish from the delta© Roger Garwood 2013
Saigon: Fresh fish from the delta
© Roger Garwood 2013

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.

Rice in the Saigon markets© Roger Garwood 2013
Rice in the Saigon markets
© Roger Garwood 2013

Outside inspirations

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.

Ice blocks in a Saigon fish market
Ice blocks in a Saigon fish market © Roger Garwood 2013

Photographer’s legacy

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.

Delta cafe© Roger Garwood 2013
Delta cafe
© Roger Garwood 2013

Time Machine

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”

Dragons in a delta temple© Roger Garwood 2013
Dragons in a delta temple
© Roger Garwood 2013

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

Timeless travel on the delta© Roger Garwood 2013
Timeless travel on the delta
© Roger Garwood 2013

Can of Worms

I’ve only got myself to blame. After the last post which related to being dragged slowly and painfully into the digital age I went out and did a bit of street shooting, probably my favourite pastime. As I said previously I do use digital to shoot the magazine stories I work on, particularly if they need to be in colour.

For personal work I like to do things the old fashioned way which mainly involves wandering around the streets looking for slightly whimsical pictures.  I carry an old M6 with 35mm lens and a couple of spare rolls of film.

I wandered into town and roamed around a few favourite hunting grounds looking for likely suspects. I don’t like to call them victims. Thus I finished up outside the local markets where buskers put on shows. There are usually a lot of people around, a critical ingredient.

I’d had a reasonable day and jagged a couple of decent shots in between diving into cafes and warming up with a coffee. It’s cold down here at this time of the year.

Later in the day I processed the films and scanned this image, my favourite catch of the weekend.

Fremantle Markets 2012

© Roger Garwood 2012

Andrew, who I nickname Soobs, is a photographer colleague who lives on the other side of Australia these days. He read the last blog, regarding digital v film and another emailed exchange of opinions ensued. One thing about Soobs is that he does ask pertinent questions which, as much as I’d like to, are difficult to ignore.

I sent the picture to Soobs with some comments:

This is a straight scan from a TMax neg. I’m really pleased with the tones – a nice range with detail through to the deep shadows and highlights and it looks like film – and it is … and I can make a silver print if want to. So there! 

I had previously made some comments about the advantages of shooting film, thus opening a can worms:

Needless to say Soobs I had forgotten to mention what I feel is the most important aspect of film. 

In a nutshell the images actually exist. In a computer they don’t. They are a collection of 1s and 0s which are susceptible to the vagaries of technology, ranging from glitches in computers to the treadmill which traps us into continuing updates and upgrades.

By shooting neg on important material I’m doing two things. One is not losing some well earned skills which do need to be kept in tune. The other is the archival characteristics of film. I’ll add to that the ability to make silver prints as well as digital images. 

I think you’ll agree that a scanned neg doesn’t look bad on a screen either. In that regard I’d be the first to admit that times have changed and, to make a silly estimate, it’s clear that 90% of people will view 90% of pictures on a screen. 

I don’t share the notion that film is dead. All the stats show that film sales are increasing throughout the world, as are sales of film cameras. Leica make about 400 film cameras a month. I think that my final ‘camera to last a lifetime’ will be an MP but it can wait. Like the iPad I don’t actually need it, but I want it.The likes of Linhof, Sinar, and others, as well as custom manufacturers of large format gear, are experiencing increases in sales. All formats of film sales are increasing. Paper and chemistry is readily available so I believe the prophets of doom should get back in their cages. 

So, from where I sit, which is currently in front of an iPad, an M6, a steam radio and a plate of poached eggs on toast, I feel the sensible decision is to cover both bases.   

Of course I only say these things to stir him up a bit. It always works. Soobs fired back a series of  well considered comments:

1. People who use film nowadays are analogous to craftspeople who build their own houses from scratch; or – more relevant, perhaps – to those who breed goats, crop the wool, spin it to thread, then knit sweaters. It’s highly skilled, a labour of love, the product is superb – as per your film practices – but for the vast majority of people, it’s out of the question. It’s a niche skill within a set of niche skills. To say this is not in any way to be negatively critical of people who breed goats, or shoot and process film. They just choose to do it differently.

 2. The product you get is not necessarily any better than a more commercially produced one. (cf Simon’s printing)

 3. A negative can be lost, burnt, scratched, generally damaged. It has to be looked after very carefully. So do digital files. There’s no inherent archivability advantage to a neg – or a dig file. Depends on how they’re looked after.

 4. You can make archive quality silver prints from dig files. So once you silver print a dig file it’s ‘as if’ it came from film. Longevity  doesn’t of course apply to colour prints from either film or dig. 

I freely admit to being a dinosaur and haven’t had time to get back to Soobs on these issues, non of which I particularly disagree with. (For the record I do have a few chickens and have given serious consideration to getting goat to save me mowing the lawn). However, one underlying point I made is that I love the feel of a good camera. And for street shooting I enjoy something small and discrete. I’m convinced these big digital cameras, which look like Darth Vadar on steroids, really do upset people. I also like to get relatively close to a subject rather than ‘spying’ on them with a long lens. Working like that is a bit like shooting ducks on a pond – easy!

Dragged, Kicking and Screaming, into The Digital Age

I first saw digital media photography in action about 14 years ago. I was covering the last of the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Races (It’s since become the Volvo Race).

I was contracted to the Toshiba Team and, for a change, being paid good money  to travel around the world, stay in decent hotels and do all of the things which give people who don’t do these things a warm fuzzy feeling. Some people have a funny notion of news work, they don’t understand how bloody hard it is.

A colleague who was contracted to one of the other syndicates was working with an early professional digital cameras. It was a mongrel spawned by Nikon and Kodak, had the memory of a gnat and had cost him about $25,000. He was also using a state of the art Mac laptop. These days they’d be about as useful as a garden gnome but in those days they represented state of the art technology.

I don’t think many of us working at that time realised we were on the threshold of a revolution which would have massive repercussions in the media.

I was working with a few Leica R bodies and lenses which weighed a tonne. I was also working with film, C41 colour neg. which I processed in hotels, in the bathroom basin with a two bath kit of powdered chemicals. I then scanned the negs on a Nikon Coolscan and was able to caption and send pictures from my computer. In the time it had taken me to do that my friend had download his camera’s memory cards, edited them, captioned them and hit the send button. In fact he had pretty well finished his work before I had unloaded the film from my cameras.

It was in the first few days of the race that I realised the potential of the new technology. My colleague, I’ll call him Bert  (that isn’t his name because I’m going to talk about his financials here).

In addition to the contract he had with his team he made deals with about 200 newspapers and magazines around the world, offering them a simple service from the race. He would photograph the end and beginning of each leg of the race (when they arrived and left each destination). He would also supply a story for each of 10 days during each stopover. The stopovers were generally for a couple of weeks and there were about ten of them. So, on each of those days he sent half a dozen pictures with captions and a short story. Now here’s the stroke of genius. He didn’t mind how the pictures or stories were used. They could be covers, spreads, postage stamp size, whatever. The customer had no rights to sell them on to others nor did Bert lose copyright.

I know a heap of photographers who, with some justification, bleat and moan about the small amounts we can be paid, particularly now. But Bert was offering a service and for what he offered he was asking US$40! I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t open the filing cabinet drawer for that amount. Now look at  200 x $40. When I went to school (I did go to school!) that was $8000. Now look at that for ten days – $80,000. Now look at ten stopovers. $800,000 for ten months work plus the syndicate’s contract. I was impressed.

And so, very slowly, I was dragged, kicking and screaming and probably biting, into the digital age. I don’t like the cameras much. I do like the convenience. I still use my old Leicas and film for what I deem serious work – which doesn’t make money. But digital is convenient, it’s fast to process and pump out material.

I have, for the best part of my career, worked as a freelance for some excellent magazines. I would be commissioned to work on a story, deliver the goods and, hey presto, get a cheque in return. I retained copyright and put pictures into stock libraries which gave a tidy turnover. I also received syndication fees from the magazines – generally 50% of ongoing sales.

It was a gravy train. These days there’s no train and no gravy to speak of. We all know times are tough.

I asked myself, in light of the rapidly changing market, what I felt I should do. The answer was simple. Carry on as you are – writing and illustrating stories. But instead of looking at the megabucks hit five or six times a year offer publications shorter stories with fewer pictures. Then sell them many times for small amounts. A few years ago it was possible to get good four to five figure payments from magazines. I decided to make a new business plan and spreadsheet based on average sales of $200. It showed that by doing about six stories a year and syndicating each of them methodically I could make a reasonable quid without actually stressing too much and with radically reduced overheads.

Is it working? Well, it is. The early signs are good. Sales are going up, not down and it’s a difficult market with magazines and newspapers closing and the competition increasing. Basing my business plan on $200 sales was a bit low as sales average above that.

Would this be possible without digital technology? Well yes but it wouldn’t be as simple.  While the big change has been in equipment the bigger shift has been the effect the web and electronic media are having on traditional markets.

Digital images make it possible to cut overheads dramatically. About 15 years ago it was necessary to supply magazines with either original transparencies or duplicates.  That meant high film overheads and high duplicating costs. Many magazines would expect to see anywhere from a hundred to well over a thousand images. That made it necessary to get high publication fees.

Now it is possible to fill neat little markets with  stories of a 800-1200 words and a selection of about 20-100 pictures. The production and freight costs of preparing and dispatching are, to all intents and purposes, zero.

What of the immediate future? Well, here’s a thought. Statistics from the USA show that the industry in the most rapid decline is print media. The industry showing the most rapid increase is electronic media. My conclusion is that the market is still there but it’s highly fragmented and, like shrapnel from a bomb blast, nobody knows exactly where it’s going land or who it’s going to hit. And we know there are plenty of casualties.

So Just What Does Make a Picture Great?

This is an area where photographers can be treading on thin ice. I was in a lengthy email conversation with a colleague. I’ll call him Andrew (because that’s his name).

Andrew and I happened to be discussing snaps. I made a case outlining the importance of the simple family snap and pointed out that whenever I’ve been to a news story which involved fire, flood or similar tragedy which had left property destroyed the response from the victims was nearly always along the lines:  ” … and we’ve lost all of the family snaps … ” I’m sure I’d have no trouble finding other photographers who have experienced similar reactions.

My attitude is that great pictures exist in the eye of the beholder. That invariably puts the humble snap at the top of the heap for many people. But snaps are also an important recorder of history and that happens to be an area where photography scores very highly indeed. It gives us a pictorial record of moments in time. Often those pictures are ultimately treated as works of art, are bought by institutions and traded among collectors.

I’ve been trawling through old negs recently, mainly snaps from my earlier days in photography, and scanning them. I was working on one particular image, taken around 1963 when I was strolling around the back blocks of Paddington. I’d come across this negative while the exchange between Andrew and I continued –

Rag and Bone Merchant, Paddington, London.  circa 1963      © Roger Garwood 2012

I was a carrying the Leica M2 loaded with Tri-X and fitted with a 50mm Summilux. I decided that I’d use this as an example of what I like in a picture. I like it, you don’t have to.

Here’s the slightly edited  extract of what I said:

” … re snap v great picture. It’s a discussion we could have interminably – and forever.

In many respects it doesn’t matter. I’m a great supporter of the snapshot and saying that reminds me of the number of people I’ve met [while covering news events]who have had their property burnt out and say: ” …  we lost all of the family pictures”. In most case it’s a sure bet they were snaps. But to them they were the best pictures in the world and I wouldn’t dream of arguing with them.

In that regard I have no argument with your pictures of the family. They are, and you said so, family snaps. And it is not the right of anybody to pass some sort of etherial, aesthetic, judgement on them. When it comes to pictures which are designed to be published … for general consumption I believe we need to look at some basics which give  pictures broader appeal.

So what are the basics? Well, in that respect, it’s every photographer for himself – that’s what defines style. It’s what makes Salgado, Strand, C-B etc stand out from the crowd.

Thank goodness we each have a set of rules as to what we like, what we define as good or bad, and it’s very hard to qualify what they are. I have a tendency to like media work which depicts day to day life. Some I don’t like. For example, try as I may, I find it difficult to appreciate the work of Robert Frank. Yet the work of, say, Eugene Smith, I deem as brilliant. I also acknowledge that I have tunnel vision as to what I feel is good. I’m  happy to be dismissive of the work of say, *** ***, which has never been great but is sold on the back of bullshit [by third rate curators, particularly in Western Australia]

What do I look for in a picture? Well, attractive lighting is important. Light can make or break an image. Secondly, and broadly speaking, composition which is easy on the eye, where the elements of a picture seem cohesive and the eye can be lead from part of a picture to another. (I can feel a blog moment coming on) Look at this shot and see what you feel makes it work (if you feel it works at all).

I think you’ll find your eye will move over various elements of the picture, taking in detail, reading a poster, the phone number, the man in the chair, looking at the rubbish in some detail but always looking the girl in the door. It’s the sort of ‘snap’ I like and the reason I took it was because of its complexity, its variety of interesting points. All in all it works and had I been ‘working it’ as part of a story I would have spoken to the bloke, taken a portrait of him, detailed shots of the rubbish, posed a shot of him and the girl together, posed a shot of him beside the rubbish and so on. Try and imagine the shot without the girl. Or of him leaning against the ladder with the rubbish around him. It would have worked. As it is I settled for the one frame candid snap.

I happen to like pictures with a lot of detail in them and also with a touch of whimsy. The whimsical touch in this is the girl. She’s totally out of context but without her you’d be looking into a black hole. As it is, small though she is, she is very much an essential element, possibly the strongest part of the image. And, referring back to the last post on serendipity, she’s a touch serendipitous.

Anyway, I’m rambling (hence the blog’s subtitle title).

The point I was trying to make is that if we are to be professional we can’t be indulgent and take pictures which please us alone. There’s enough esoteric stuff out there without imposing it on the whole world.