Christmas Greeting from Down Under

I have just realised we have about three shopping days until Christmas and I haven’t made up my mind what to buy myself.

Apart from that, and in spite of my many notes to write a Christmas greeting, I’ve allowed my life to be taken over by too many coffees and cakes with friends, thus time retreated at warp speed.

Sometimes it was necessary to refuel with a glass of wine in the company of a friend or three, especially on a Sunday with Ted.  Ted, now retired, is using his drawing skills on a new project. He, like me, observes people and he enjoys making sketches of them. His new project is to observe and sketch people in wine bars and he has so far compiled a list of 70 bars in Perth and Fremantle. I haven’t seen many sketches but he’s gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of wine.

It’s been a year of travel and broken resolutions. Why change the habits of a lifetime?

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I also had to renew my old passport which I’d grown rather fond of. It had about 100 little inked rubber stamped imprints in it (some countries are very mean) also a lot of those visas which look like badly forged bank notes and take up a full page. I like those, they make me feel I’ve actually been somewhere.

I found that I’d been away for over five of the past 12 months. A sort of record. My iPhone also tells me that I actually walked a total of 1679km on those travels. That is a record. I also made a lot of notes, took a lot of pictures and did very little with any of them. Time wasn’t entirely wasted though. I caught up with many friends I hadn’t seen for years as well as making the effort to meet friends from Facebook and various other bits of social media. Those adventures took me though Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. These are countries I tend to enjoy as they encourage me to re-read the old works of Graham Green, Orwell, Maugham and others who collectively help me feel as though I’m living in an exotic time warp. That’s if you call ten buck hotels with cold, mouldy, showers and beds which seem bigger than the rooms, so much so it’s impossible to walk around them, exotic. There’s also the added luxury of bath towels which are so thin they could be used as net curtains.
I remember my well travelled colleague Mac saying “You really know you’re travelling when you’re washing your socks and jocks in a bucket of water on a hotel balcony”. He’s right.

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Sunset over the Mekong at Luang Prabang

It’s been a year of highlights though I’m not sure  the offering of a  fried rat for lunch in the north of Laos was one of them. It did look tasty though, especially if you happen to be a cat.

A long trip down the northern section of the Mekong has made me plan an even slower trip next year.  Maybe it’s something about Lao hospitality but I was offered some deep fried insects by a lovely old lady en route.

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Lunch menu on the Mekong slow boat

I spent a couple of separate months in my favourite spot in Bali where an old mate, Chris, from our respective first marriage days took the trouble to fly from The Old Dart. Coincidently my photo buddy Mac came in from France. Say no more – we had one of the best weeks I can remember. Plenty of food, drink, many lies and much laughter. As long as we each manage to cling to our ageing bodily wreckage I hope we’ll be able to do it again. I may have to work a bit harder too!

I’ve been back in Fremantle for the past couple of months promising myself I’d write a lot more. I’ve got unfinished stories totalling over 30. That’s taking procrastination to extremes.

A couple of days ago I was exploring the town and was stopped by an elegant Chinese gentleman who questioned me about the abstract yellow paint on the walls in the High Street of the Fremantle’s West End.  I told him it was a little difficult to explain, though I did know preciselyy what it was about.

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I directed him to the bottom of the High Street, pointing out the steps to the old Round House prison and telling him to walk up the steps, turn around and look back. “All will be revealed” I said.

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This is a very clever piece of art work installed by  Swiss artist Felice Varini, who has produced geometric optical illusions around the world.

And so 2017 sped past and ’18 is on the doorstep. With that in mind I wish you all the healthiest and happiest New Year possible and I do hope that at least some of us can catch up somewhere other than on Facebook.

Take care, stay well, watch this space.

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?