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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130371

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130336

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130331

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

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130327

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1140050

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130214

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’.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1120662

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1120231

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130985

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130784

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1120826

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130267

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130247

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130715

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130481

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.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130401

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1130552

Graphic images are formed by the boats’ hulls.

Mekong-Sepia-Resized-1140026

Don’t you just love old technology?

Advertisements

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.

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.