The past few months have been the beginning of a watershed. A slight change of life style and direction. Only slight of course, I don’t like drama.
I have been living in Fremantle, Australia, for close to 40 years. Those years have been great fun, sometimes profitable and sometimes a touch irritating when it comes to glancing at the pile of bills alongside the bank statement. I imagine a few people experience that feeling.
I’ve pretty much covered Australia from top to bottom and side to side. Produced a number of books and written umpteen articles about everything from mining, agriculture, prospecting, cattle rustling, rodeos, fishing, pearling, diamonds … it goes on.
Now, with massive changes in the media resulting from new technology, great changes in photography for similar reasons and changes in my mind for no particular reasons, I have made a decision to take a sideways shift in lifestyle.
Bali, peaceful and charming
Fremantle is a little over three hours flying time from Bali, a place I enjoy for it’s laid back lifestyle, peaceful culture and charm. Thus I thought “Why not work from Bali?” It costs very little to live here in reasonable comfort and it is a convenient point to reach pretty well anywhere in Asia. So now I’m spending a few weeks here looking for a suitable place with two or three bedrooms, a swimming pool and space for an office. Thus I can live a ‘fly in fly out’ lifestyle and friends are welcome to drop in when they wish.
The idea is to carry on doing what I do, produce a few more books of one sort or another, write a few articles and not make any rigid rules. I don’t do stress.
I’ve also made a commitment to shoot more film, black and white, as well as the digital colour necessary for articles. More on that later but I have bought myself a rather indulgent Christmas present. I’ll show and tell in a later post, probably mid January.
Here’s the view from what I refer to as my ‘Lunch Office’. I also have a ‘Coffee Office’ and a little further down the road a ‘Beer Office’.
I confess that I do enjoy taking snaps on my iPad. This was a straight shot which went through a sort of random button pressing process on the Snapseed App which is far more entertaining than any computer games.
Well, not exactly on the road. Up in the air would be a better description and that probably describes my state of mind better than the mode of transport. In the past six or seven days I crossed Australia three times in the space of 20 hours, largely as a result of bad weather forcing the return of a flight from Melbourne to Perth with the added problem of waiting about ten hours for another flight. This resulted in a door to door trip of 36 hours and no sleep in that time. But I satisfy myself with the thought that if that should be the worst thing to happen to happen to me when I fly I’ll be a very happy wombat. Now, to add insult to injury, I’m stuck in Changi Airport, Singapore, after an overnight flight and waiting fourteen hours for a connection to Saigon. How do airlines manage these schedules – or mismanage them? Small wonder my favourite means of transport is foot power. Nevertheless this is not a bad place to be stuck. The shopping area in the transit lounge is bigger than my home town and there’s a strong temptation to top up with watches costing about fifty thousand bucks each as well getting a designer wardrobe. As it transpires the only thing I really wanted wasn’t available anywhere – a case to hold SD cards. I did manage to get one decent shot in Melbourne, or a least a shot I liked, whilst wandering around with an old photo mate, Michael Coyne. A group of artists were sitting around the steps of a grand building so I snapped them. Then, a few days later, I went for a wander to a local football ground where kids practice and parents watch and jagged another shot. I particularly liked this and it once again reminded me of the influences great photographers have on us. This time Lisette Model.
New Project Right now I’m en route to start work on a larger project which, for starters, will take me up the coast of Vietnam from Saigon, or HCMC as the official name of Ho Chi Min city has been short formed, up to Hanoi. I’m keeping the principle story under wraps as I expect it to take several trips through SE Asia over about three years but, along the way, I hope to pick up many smaller stories. Ultimately I think there will be a book in it. I think I’ll leave this post for the moment. I’m working on my iPad and this is the first time I’ve worked in WordPress with it. I’ll see what mistakes I make first and then carry on with a summary of what I was doing at the Ballarat Photography Festival. Briefly it was a workshop on combining writing with photography to create feature stories and finding ways to make photojournalism viable in the digital age. Total Bogan Apart from that I don’t feel like doing a lot more writing. I had no sleep on the plane last night and was crammed in next to a total bogan, complete with baseball cap worn back to front and using a neck rest decorated in the style of an Australian flag. I don’t know why he bothered with it as he had no neck – it would have been impossible to hang him!
Should I offer an apology? May be I should but I haven’t. In any event I doubt that too many people will be losing much sleep over it.
The truth is I said I would post Part II of the Mekong Delta story: Travelling with Dragons. In the event I ran out of time to complete that and decided to take a backlog of work to Bali, find a cheap hotel and catch up with ‘stuff’ – basically unfinished stories. For readers who don’t know Fremantle, where I live, you may consider that it’s rather extravagant to hop on a plane to Bali. In fact it is quicker (that’s stretching a point a little) and a lot cheaper (that’s not stretching a point) for me to go to Bali than to go to next nearest place of note. . It’s a three hour drive to our nearest resort region and it’s very expensive territory.
Thus I find it easy to slip into Bali, not quite a commute but it’s getting like that.
Marco Inn: Not five star but cheap and clean
Thus, decision made, I fronted up in the small coastal town of Padang Bai in the middle of a tropical downpour which delighted me as I hadn’t experienced real rain for about a year. It was well after sunset and, as I like travelling with no prior hotel bookings, I lobbed into the first place I found. Marco Inn is tiny, about eight rooms, and right on the waterfront of Padang Bai. Like may of these small hotels it is situated down a narrow alley which is wedged between a shop on one side, which sells many wooden carvings, and a warung which sells icy beer, fresh fruit juices and snacks.
A room was available on the first floor and had all I wished for – it was clean, there was a shower, toilet, fan, a small desk and a cupboard. It was not five star, more like a monk’s cell. Even in the damp climate of the wet season it smelt fresh and when the sun rose, summoned by roosters crowing, dogs barking and the booming horns of ferries I was able to look out over rooftops to the harbour. Perfect. Even better it was nine dollars a night which included breakfast.
Like many visitors to the island I am totally addicted to banana pancakes for breakfast. That and a heart starter of Balinese style coffee – somewhere between Greek and Vietnamese – sets me up for the morning.
Breakfast was taken in a small frangipani scented courtyard with blooming pink Bougainvillea. And to round it off my banana pancake was served by an attractive and chatty Balinese woman named Jasmin. In the middle of the courtyard yard is a small structure, call it a family temple, and the day’s offerings to the Balinese gods and spirits were already sitting beside small statues. Sandalwood incense sticks were slowly burning and tiny columns of blue smoke mingled with the frangipani’s aroma.
You may have guessed that these days I don’t like to work under pressure.
I specialise in travelling light. So much so I even lecture in the practice. My total baggage weighed a little over 8kilos – about 17-18 pounds. I travel with an iPad, a keyboard, a Leica D Lux 5, a few cards for the camera, notebook, pens and pencils, about five T-shirts, three pairs of shorts and bits – shaving gear etc. I carry this onboard as hand baggage. (TIP: Jetstar allow 10kg of hand baggage). I book a seat up front in the plane and am invariably in the first half-dozen passengers through immigration.
But this trip was going to be full of surprises so tune in tomorrow …. or the day after, I’ll see how I go. And I will finish the Dragon’s Tale soon as possible.
I had an email the other day, a blast from the past.
A colleague, David Levenson, had contacted me to ask why I hadn’t continued with my blog. He had contacted me some months ago and reminded me that I used to write a column in a magazine, Photo Technique, and it had inspired him to become a photojournalist. I didn’t really know whether to feel flattered or guilty but I went for the former.
We subsequently exchanged a few emails and it transpires that during the decades which followed his inspired moment we have shared many mutual contacts from agents to picture editors. I have to say it was a pleasant feeling to know that he, like me, shared equally enjoyable careers. I think we’d both have to admit that times have changed but, with a bit of willpower and hard(ish) work it’s still possible to keep our heads above water.
I guess I’m one of the lucky ones in this world – my bread does have a habit of falling buttered side up.
So why didn’t I continue?
Well, it wasn’t really by design. I’d have to admit I got lazy. If I’ve mastered the art of anything it’s procrastination. I also lost direction but after a bit of thought decided to keep on the same track – keeping the blog loose but a touch anecdotal, a few pictures here and there and sometimes a bit of technique thrown in.
Also, things did get busy. I made few trips and found I had a lot of editing, both words and pictures. I had a pile of stories to complete and get out. So, forgive the time gap.
It’s an idea driven industry
Photojournalism, any type of journalism, is an industry driven by ideas. If you don’t have ideas you don’t survive. I guess I’m fortunate in that I enjoy developing ideas and have a pretty good hit rate. I’m now at the stage in life where I don’t depend on commissioned work which is not so much a sign of financial success as a case of keeping my overheads low. Thus I can afford to work on the ideas I want to work on. And one of them has been tucked in my head for well over 40 years.
Back in the very early 60s I read a copy of Paris Match featuring a story of the Indian monsoon by a Kiwi photographer, Brian Brake. Strangely that magazine feature gave me a sense of direction – I wanted to be a photographer and, more particularly, I wanted to work on Match.
In subsequent years I met Brian. He was a quiet, self-effacing character with immense technical skills and a lot of experience. It was about 1976 that he projected his entire edit of Monsoon for me. The quality was stunning, all shot on an old Leica with 35 and 90m lenses using Kodachrome – probably the old 12 ASA stuff but it could have Kodachrome 25.
Thus Brain Brake inspired me in much the same way I inspired David Levenson. Brian felt flattered and so do I.
My family seems to be steeped in maritime history, or up to their necks in water, whichever way you want to look at it. So it’s no surprise that I decided to specialise in anything connected with water: ships, boats, oceans, rivers, fishing … anything. Thus the Indian monsoon stuck in my mind.
For many years I thought about reshooting the Indian monsoon. Several photographers, notably Steve McCurry, had been there, done that. All of them very well but none had quite captured the soulful, spiritual, essence which Brian Brake had so successfully recorded. I dropped the idea as I didn’t feel I could do better than the original and, if I had I’m not sure I would have been happy to chip away at a great photographer’s legacy. Very noble of me!
But I didn’t let the idea drift away altogether. Geographically speaking I live a stone’s throw away from the Mekong Delta. Put another way it’s a cheap airfare. Thus I revamped the idea and was happy with the notion of working on a feature about the monsoon season over the delta.
Thus I booked a ticket for August, statistically the wettest month of the year. I packed plastic poncho’s, an umbrella, a length of string and clothes pegs, anticipating spending a month soaked to the skin and wearing damp clothes, ripping leaches off my skin and smacking mosquitoes to a pulp.
I arrived in Saigon (I still call it Saigon as that’s still, in part, it’s name and I like the romance of it) and caught a local bus down to the delta. The first few days were spent in beautiful sunshine streaming from an azure sky. The humidity chewable. And that’s how the weather stayed – hot and humid without a skerrick of rain. Well, maybe about ten minutes in total but not enough to open the floodgates of a full-blown story. No mozzies or leaches either. My idea, through no fault on mine (which makes a pleasant change) had gone completely pear-shaped.
Thus a decades old idea came to a temporary standstill.
I was having a great time moving around from town to town on the delta, which is known as The Nine Dragons. There are nine huge rivers which make up the delta, starting at Chau Doc, on the Cambodian border, and splitting into the nine dragons which then meander their way to the South China Sea.
My preferred method of travel was on old wooden cargo boats, cadging a lift for a few bucks and not having a clue as to where I would be at the end of a day. In fact it was often difficult to find out where I was – the language is pretty much impossible to learn and it took a week to master the art of ordering a coffee. But that’s the fun of escaping the bubble of the comfort zone.
So, the idea, figuratively speaking, was dead in the water. No monsoon. A minor mishap for me but for the coffee growers a little to the north it had the makings of a disaster.
Nevertheless, I had to make some sort of story from the trip and it came to me one evening. I was sitting beside one of the dragons’ tributaries, in a small waterside cafe, enjoying fresh fish, salad and ice-cold beer, the total cost of which was less than three bucks. After a couple of beers my mind started to drift. I watched rickshaws, locals people in the market, the general timeless socialising which happens in the tropics and the idea hit me. “I’ve travelled back in time”
Thus the story line was in place: “Time Travel With The Dragons”
For the record, I know Brian took a few trips to complete his monsoon feature. I’ve booked again in September – the second wettest month.
I’ll continue with Part II of posting in the next day or two. Watch this space
That’s a difficult question. It’s not because I’m bored. I’m not. I’m happily earning a precarious living preparing features for magazines. That involves a bit of writing, a bit of photography and a bit of travelling. I also enjoying sitting around with colleagues enjoying sunshine, fresh air and sharing notes about what’s making the world go round. Sometimes that involves navigating our way around a few wine bars.
I like this industry. It’s commonly called photojournalism. I was lured into the media because my mother taught me to read before I went to school, thus print media is a large part of my conditioning. I didn’t see television until I was about 16. That’s a slight exaggeration as I did watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on a television and can remember being told what a privilege it was for me. Let’s not go there but in later years I did spend a considerable time as a sort of proto-paparazzi, chasing the very person I had watched on the TV as she was crowned.
I started work in Fleet Street as a stringer for the Daily Sketch and the Daily Mail and then went onto the London staff of Paris Match. Now I simply freelance, work on my own ideas and syndicate the resulting stories. Then I spend a bit of time with colleagues, navigating a few more wine bars. Such is life and I have to admit that in terms of lifestyle things don’t get better.
But where next I ask?
It’s clear there are many changes happening in the media and I feel it’s essential to become accustomed to working within eMedia. There are many online magazines emerging; newspapers are collapsing and the new era of electronic media is expanding at roughly the same rate as the known universe. One of the eBenefits is that it’s possible to publish a blog without the constraints placed by conventional media, and I want to be part of it. A simple blog is a humble beginning. I feel blogging can be fun, I hope it will be anyway. I can be my own media boss and that is the real challenge. In their own sweet way every blogger can nibble away at media moguls’ empires, challenge their editorial control and offer those who do read blogs an alternative opinion to the mainstream manipulation of public opinion. And of course there is the added advantage that we can become mega bloggers, like the Huffington Post, sell out for squillions and spend the rest of our lives relaxing on large yachts.
So this is my first effort. Over time I’ll probably talk a bit about ideas, cameras and lenses, writing and travelling. I won’t give ideas away until I’ve finished working on them and sold subsequent material – I don’t want to give the competition too much of a head start and believe me this is a very competitive industry.
I have spend time lecturing in both journalism and photography and I may voice some of my opinions about teaching practices. In that respect I’m often at odds with mainstream thinking.
By and large my blog will be a random selection of past work and experiences. To kick start I’m posting a picture taken several years ago, several decades ago in fact. It’s utterly sexist but I like it. I’d be mad if I didn’t.
I slipped out of the office to buy a bottle of red before I went for a lunch with my erstwhile business partner, Trish Ainslie. The hotel over the road had a small bottle shop and as I waited at the counter I looked into the bar. This picture was taken after the then Premier of Western Australia, Charles Court (a real wowser) had banned strip shows in pubs. Fremantle is a port city and the pubs were patronised by wharfies, the dockworkers who enjoyed a bit of entertainment with their beer. So in a true Australian spirit the very next day, following the ban on strippers in pubs, we witnessed the advent of what became known as Skimpies. They were very welcome and the beer tasted pretty good to.
I am in the habit (or was, pre digital) of carrying an old Leica and 35mm lens around, loaded up with Tri X in those days. I could see no reason to ignore this picture. I didn’t realise at the time that it had started me on a distinct path, a change of direction, as to the type of stories I liked to work on. But more of that later.
Skimpy Barmaid, The Fremantle Hotel. circa 1987
The photograph was taken with a Leica M4-2 and 35mm Summilux lens. The exposure, on Tri-X, rated at 400asa was probably about 1/30 sec @ f2. I can’t remember what wine I bought but it would have cost about four bucks. Lunch would have been the Roma’s chicken, mushrooms and chips – that’s about all I ever had there. I have a cruel sense of humour, I give this picture to friends on significant birthdays, just to remind them how good life used to be before they hit a pensionable age.