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?

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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!