photography • field recordings • world music • subconscious
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The Soundtrack of Assignments

Musicians and photographers are a strange yet similar lot.

Passing the time on the bow a small boat crossing the Malacca Straits while working on the National Geographic story, Malacca Pirates. Knew this assignment would involve loads of boat travel, making the wooden friend an excellent companion. Photograph Courtesy of Yudhistira Dharama (aka, JP)

 

Instruments

Balafon, cello, guitar, marimba, sitar, trumpet, voice…

DSLR, Holga, iPhone, pinhole camera, rangefinder, 6×6, view camera…

 

Genres

Chant, classical, folk, jazz, punk, rock, ska…

Advertising, architecture, art, fashion, paparazzi, photojournalism, sports…

 

Evolution

After years of jamming in shit-hole bars, playing bland Bar Mitzvah’s or waiting tables, sometimes a musician gets a break, records a few meaningful albums then hits the road, sharing their music and message, performing night after night at their apex because people have paid good money to hear what touches their soul.

After toiling as an intern, self-funding projects by nearly living off of food stamps or working a few dull part-time jobs just to make ends meet, sometimes the photographer gets a break, does a number of short but meaningful assignments, then hits the road on longer projects, performing at their apex day after day because you’ve been hired to deliver nothing less.

The two professions are linked inextricably by the act of performing. Not as a rockstar — that only feeds an ego — but for the art and purpose of communication.

 

Activism

Photojournalist share another common thread with musicians, that of activism, helping bit by bit to turn the wheel of change.

We preform the roll of observer for others who cannot witness the event themselves. Images are the link which helps bind us collectively — a starving person in one part of the world is no different then a hungry neighbor up the road, yet if either plight is not witnessed, who would know to help? If no one documented the atrocities of war, how could those who perpetrate war crimes ever truly be held accountable? Were it not for those who often turn down more lucrative forms of photography, would important in-depth reportage on issues from the Congo or the foreclosure disaster in the United States ever become ink on paper or pixels on an iPad?

Having no witness begets the evils and weaknesses of humanity.

Had Paul Simon not produce the album, Graceland, how many more in our general population (especially outside of the continent) would have not known the oppression in South Africa, or would Stephen Biko have become a near globally recognized name for the enormous sacrifice he made where it not for Peter Gabriel’s 1980′s song, Biko, and his unflinching commitment to help end apartheid? Would the environmental movement not be were it is today without folk singer Pete Seeger? Would the plight for those in need in Bangladesh during the early 70′s not been raised to it’s global awareness without the efforts of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, or would the world have banded together magically on it’s own had Bob Geldof not ran himself ragged to pull off Live Aid in the 1985?

Both the musician and photographer exert passionately for hours on end. It is not work. It’s an obsession. A purpose. The notion of calling it work is as absurd as saying breathing or urinating is laborious.

 

History

Photographs and music have another definitive connection; They are benchmarks of time and history. When viewing the shocking Kent State massacre photograph, I become enraged, hearing songs such as Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Birds. Images from the Vietnam War, Joan Baez’s album Where Are you Now, My Son fills the head and Edwin Starr screams his anti-war anthem, WAR.

After years of being on the road, a pattern began to form — just as the music which played on the radio when I was a teenager become that years soundtrack of summer, the music heard while on the road forever becomes the soundtrack of that assignment. An audible link. A metaphor. A reference to time. Suddenly an album or song takes on new meaning, sometimes comical, other times weighted.

China

For instance…traveling in 1999 to the brothel-ridden southern border town of Ruili, China, for a Time Magazine story on border towns, translator and friend, Casper (yes, she choose her English name after the Friendly Ghost), commandeered the China Southern Airlines music player, tricking the stewardess that the cassette she had in hand was music everyone onboard would love. We jammed at 35,000 feet listening to the Doors blasting through the isle. Jim Morrison also accompanied us throughout the long car drives to the Burma border in Yunnan Province. Every time I think of Ruili or see the following photograph, I hear The Doors.

The last remaining traditional masseuse in the town of Ruili, China. Learned on this story never say you'll never revisit a place, returning a total of three times to this depressing town located along the Burma border. Young girls from throughout China and Burma are trafficked to this small village which, at least between 1999 and 2003, was basically one massive brothel. Oh, that last masseuse...he was gone a year after taking this photograph in 1999, replaced by another karaoke bar.

Vast amounts of heroin moves across the Burma/China border in Ruili, making it one of the most drug saturated cities in China. It's also the route of the B strain of HIV which then migrates north via truck drivers.

 

Indonesia

Driving through Central Java with my dearest of friends, Heri Yanto (Heri tragically passed away last year), we stumbled upon a cassette sold at a small warong (shop), that became our soundtrack to the National Geographic story, Volcano Gods. Since ancient Javanese spirituality and Ponorogan culture have connectable roots to Mount Merapi, it seemed mystically fitting that Music from Ponorogo would forever be heard every time I gander a photograph from that story, with it’s hypnotic suling (Javanese flute) and trance-like percussion.

Gunung (Mount) Merapi, erupting on May 15, 2006, in Central Java. Merapi is consider among Javanese spiritualist to be mystical and sacred. And thank you, Ed Wray, for letting me use your 300mm lens for this photograph. 50mm is normally the longest lens I tot around and Ed, one of the kindest photographers I know — and an extremely talented photographer — was generous to lend me his lens for a few frame, one of which became the cover image for this story. On a side note, being so engrossed with the various layers of spirituality while working on Volcano Gods, my wife and I named our daughter, Francesca Merapi Stanmeyer.

Reok Ponorogo culture has been around for centuries. Here a member of the group, donning elaborate makeup and a fake beard, waits to perform in the Jatilan, a sacred dance held in May 2006 in hopes to calm the restless ogre believed to reside in Mount Merapi.

Ancient Javanese ceremony where rice offerings (tumpengs) are carried to a river flowing from Merapi. The offer was to try was to try and protect a village located 2 kilometers from the erupting volcano.

Ancient Javanese ceremony where rice offerings (tumpengs) are carried to a river flowing from Merapi. The offering were intended to try and protect a village located 2 kilometers from the erupting volcano.

My dear friend, Heri Yanto, during our three-day visit to Mount Bromo in East Java. Heri and I worked together throughout Indonesia and parts of Malaysia for over 10 year. He passed away last year from diabetes, an illness he never told me had.

 

Pakistan

And for some odd reason while covering the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, James Taylor’s album, October Road, became the soundtrack while moving through some of the most precarious roads ever traveled with my friend Raza Khan (Raza also tragically passed away a few years back). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the most amazing qawali singer ever, shared speaker time, however somehow October Road united with the harsh yet staggering landscape. Think it had to do with witnessing so much loss and suffering, finding hope and love in the track, September Grass.

Evening prayers amidst the ruined mosque in Balakot, Pakistan, after an major earthquake hit Kashmir on October 8, 2005. The entire region was leveled. Truly depressing what happens when the earth shakes.

With the bridge over the Pattika River hanging only by a few remaining cables, it didn't stop the needs of the people who survived the earthquake.

Praying over freshly made graves in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, one day after a massive earthquake rocked the Kashmiri region.

Raza Khan waiting for me to get a hair cut amongst the destroyed remains of a barber shop in Balakot, Pakistan. Raza and I worked together for nearly 10 years. In hostel regions such as along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, he swore to protect me, no matter what, often saying emphatically "I will die for you, Brother John!" Raza didn't have to die for me. He tragically died in a auto accident while driving my colleagues Lynsey Addario and Teru Kuwayama back to Islamabad from an assignment they were working on in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Fortunately Lynsey and Teru survived. I miss Brother Raza dearly.

 

Choices

While packing just over two weeks ago — at the very last minute, of course — for an assignment in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the need for choosing the right soundtrack was paramount…it would require driving throughout much of Washington State, the Oregon coast and possibly Northern California.

In many ways, the decision was more weighted then the gear that still needed packing: underwater camera housing, special tripod clamps, oddball cables, gaffers tape, camping gear, mozzie net, etc.

In fact organizing the camera bits are simple.

It’s the choice of music which often takes the weight of thought and time.

Music — and far more kit then normally is brought on an assignment — selected for last weeks National Geographic assignment in the Pacific Northwest.

Rummaging through the music library, slowly and methodically, the audio narrative took shape. Here is what Part I of the assignments musical accompaniment sounded like:

 

Peter Gabriel – US

Neil Young – Harvest

Tchaikovsky – Symphony #6

Pigmy Chants of Central Africa – Hunting, Love and Mockery Songs

Musicians of the Nile – Luxor to Isna

Taking Heads – Stop Making Sense

Japanese Shakuhachi – Japanese flute music

Sundanese – Batawi

Frank Sinatra – Greatest Hits

U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Górecki – Miserere

Sundanese – Classical Music

Dave Matthews Band – Live in Central Park

 

The CD player of the Chevy Traverse become the epicenter of musical timekeeping, naturally heralding, in it’s own time, an album that would become the soundtrack for part one of this latest National Geographic story.

Jabbering incessantly on geology, devising our own audible manual to assemble rather complex foldable Folbot kayaks and the recounting of past peculiar events, forester Dave and I were only able to enjoy around 70 percent of the audio enlightenment; Japanese Shakuhachi, U2, Sundanese, Talking Heads, Pigmy Chants of Central Africa, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon, each selected by Dave and played in that order over long drives through some rather stunning Pacific Northwestern landscape. A week ago we were still on the road at 1:30 am with the only place open for dinner being a 7-11 for hot dogs and chips — U2 and a cup of weak joe kept me awake for another hour, barely. Damn, sure live high on the hog while on NG assignments, don’t we.

Dave Yamaguchi enjoying dinner consisting of water, a hot dog and chips, at the pumps of a 7-11 somewhere on the outskirts of Olympia, Washington.

 

Ritual

Allowing the music to decide what will forever be indelibly referenced as the soundtrack to the 1,400+ miles of driving, a near regular ritual begins, preformed after every story, arising most specifically while flying home, this time lost in clouds hovering over the Cascade Mountains — reflecting on what has been photographed and what lies ahead.

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains on Southwest flight #210 from Seattle to Chicago.

The most invocation-filled moments — along with non-photography bits, like this blog entering completion — tends to happen on planes. Though the carbon footprint is obscene (sadly, it’s impractical to walk from the farm in New England westward to Seattle, Washington…Louis and Clark took over a year back in 1804-05 just from Ohio to Oregon), there’s a certain sense of peace found in planes.

Sick, right.

Maybe it’s because there’s nowhere to go. Maybe it’s the hum of the engines playing on the consciousness with its monotoned drone. Maybe it’s the lack of distractions. Really haven’t a clue. But I’m truly balanced and at peace while being in the belly of a bird…and giddy as a school boy in lederhosens during each take off and landing with the bizarre notion of being encased in what basically is a 10-story building, turned on its side, with two flat sticks on either side.

Oh yeah, and it flies.

 

Epilogue

One thing is for certain…I don’t sense this story — which had significant hurdles to overcome during the last two weeks — will change the world. Unfortunately it’s not going to end hunger nor put a halt to wars. However the purpose of this story, like so many others we all do, is to help us think. Think about our future related to events which can happen to many of us, in turn hopefully saving lives.

A bit of a tall order indeed. One at the very least should be tried, helping, if possible, to turn the cog just ever so slightly further, awaiting the next hand to turn the wheel of change.

 

 

 

PS: Least I forget; Thank you, Kōhachiro Miyata, for fusing your fluid style of shakuhachi with the State of Washington while driving at dusk along Route 8 towards the coast. And to Frank, The Chairman of the Board, dripping your velvet voice while driving under moonlight along the Pacific Coast Highway (Rt. 101) in Oregon, embossing soundtracks to the White Horse along the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

2 comments

1 Fer { 09.03.11 at 03:44 }

A great read, punctuated by excellent pictures, personal stories and musical choices!

2 Tuesday 26 July 2011 { 09.21.11 at 11:54 }

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