Saigon and Heading North: 1

The Curse of Technology

I’m cursing myself. I suppose I’m allowed a few moments of stupidity but sometimes I really wonder if I should spend my time simply being content with a good book and a bottle of wine and never being let out alone.

A few months ago I decided that the iPad, good though it is as a travelling companion, it really doesn’t have enough grunt for serious work as in editing pictures, writing text and, in particular, blogging.

Thus I bought myself a MacBook Air and immediately fell in lust with it. It’s fast, has an excellent keyboard and all the whistles and bells. I’ve got LightRoom and Silver Efex Pro loaded as well as a few other goodies which form a perfect combination.

So what did I do when I left on this trip? I decided to leave the Air and take the iPad, purely on the basis of saving a bit of weight. It quickly proved to be an error, though not a life-threatening one. I found it almost impossible to work WorkPress properly on the iPad so am at this moment trying a small experiment. That’s to say I’m writing this blog in Pages, an excellent little word processing programme in App form. Hopefully I can drop a few pictures in. We’ll see. It seems to be very ‘clunky’ so the plan will be to post little and often.

The following shot was pretty much the first cab off the rank. I have a peripheral project which is to photograph people reading newspapers. Sadly they are a diminishing breed.

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On The Road Again

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. Artists in Melbourne Copyright Roger Garwood 2013 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.

Football Dad Copyright Roger Garwood 2013
Football Dad
Copyright Roger Garwood 2013

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!

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