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Alan Lomax — Ethnomusicologist and Photojournalist

Alan Lomax, wandering somewhere in Arkansas. This photograph of Alan conjures up the audio vision I have of the legend. October, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Shirley Collins

Normally, it can take weeks (even months) preparing a story for this space. I need time in my attempts to share something imaginative, hopefully insightful — or dare I reach as an offering towards a sliver of enlightenment — in an era when everything and anything is brilliantly rehashed on the Internet.

This week I’ve decided to loose my laundry and dive as rapidly as I can into the Ring of Blogging Fire on a topic surely well written upon. What happened just under two weeks ago (though it’s been quietly going on for sometime) is indeed one of the biggest developments not only in the world of field recording history, it’s also a landmark moment for social documentary photography.

The Alan Lomax collection is now completely accessible online — 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, piles of manuscripts — including 5,000 photographs he took over this astonishing career.

Alan Lomax dreamed of being able to give back to those he recorded. With the advent of technology, today the Association for Cultural Equity — the institution he started — is reaching out to living family members, finding ways to generate royalties to the late artists and their families. Here Alan is having Raphael Hurtault listen to playback of his recordings in La Plaine, Dominica. Ironically, I was in La Plaine for a National Geographic story last year. Have a feeling little had changed since the 1960's. June 25, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Antoinette Marchand.

Oh, did I mention the best part…these thousands of hours of audio are not only accessible in their entirety (most of the Lomax collection has been available online for years but as 45 second intro pieces), they are streaming for FREE!

Even the film and photographic archive is accessible for searching and viewing, for free.

Clearly Alan Lomax is passionate, utterly oblivious that his fly is open and probably sweating like a pig in the summer heat on the island of Mallorca yet still the gentlemen donning a tie while testing microphone at the Palma Festival, Palma, Mallorca, Spain June 23, 1952 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Jeannette Bell

For those who do not know who Alan Lomax was, he was an American folklorist and one of the preeminent ethnomusicologists of our time. Born in Texas in 1915, Alan was the son of John Lomax, a teacher and pioneering folklorist in his own right. By age 17, Alan Lomax began traveling with his father throughout the American south and the Caribbean as his dad made what are considered some of the most important early recordings of American culture while working for the Library of Congress (John Lomax set out in 1933 on the first recording expedition ever undertaken by the Library of Congress with son Alan in tow). According to Don Fleming with the Association for Cultural Equity, Alan primarily traveled with a Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder and two RCA 77-D microphones — would need a well padder steamer trunk for such a large but truly awesome quality kit. He also traveled with camera, taking photographs that matched his field recordings in places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Scotland, England, Ireland, all over the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Here are some photographs of Alan Lomax throughout his 60 years of literally recording our world ~

Wade Ward, old-time music banjo player and fiddler from Virginia, clearly enjoying the playback Alan Lomax had just made. Take a look at the size of this Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder kit…and we complain that a Fostex or a Sound Devices is big! Galax, Virginia. August 31, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Shirley Collins.

I love this period-based photograph. Why? Look around the room and tell me what you see; Alan Lomax traveled/worked no different than we do hotel to hotel in hot, tropical climates. Instead of a MacBook Pro, he used a portable typewriter. Jeez, remember TWA? Alan Lomax reading notes in Radix Village, Trinidad. May 20, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Antoinette Marchand

Seems Alan Lomax also used a Canon camera, seen here at the Delta Blues Festival, Greenville, Mississippi. September 8, 1979 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Bill Ferris.

When you go to the Cultural Equity website and stream Alan Lomax's recordings, you'll be amazed by how much sound he picked up with these truly tinny microphones. In this photograph, Alan is using a Midgetape which weighed 3 pounds. I bet Alan would be blown away by how compact audio recording kits are these days. Here Alan is recording the Pratcher brothers — Miles on guitar, Bob on fiddle — in Como, Mississippi. September 21, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Shirley Collins

Alan Lomax inspecting film in Albarracín, Aragón, Spain. 400,000 feet of film and 3,000 videotapes make up the moving film archive of the Alan Lomax collection, which is now completely available online. October 15, 1952 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Jeannette Bell.

When the Association for Cultural Equity, a not-for profit Mr. Lomax started, announced that the entire Alan Lomax Collection would be available for streaming, I was beyond thrilled. In my World Music collection I have two or three treasured CD’s of his which are as pure and raw as it gets.

During the last 20 years of his life, Lomax created an interactive multimedia educational computer project he called the Global Jukebox. This recent ability for the entire collection to be accessible to everyone is indeed a dream come true for Alan, who died at the age of 87 in 2002 — he wanted his messages of change, inspiration and education to be available for all.

This is huge on many levels.


Lomax wasn’t only the preeminent and pioneering ethnomusicologist and field recordist of our time, he was social documentarian who used both audio and photography to educate and raise awareness of issues. In many ways, he was a fellow photojournalist.

Take a gander as some of these rare contacts which a young Alan, about 18 years of age, took while he and his father worked for the Library of Congress ~

Some lovely portraits seen on this rare contact sheet during his years when he traveled with his father, John Lomax, while working for the Library of Congress. Contact. He seemed to already have a keen eye for composition at the age of around 19 when these photographs were taken. The musicians are portraits of Stavin' Chain and Wayne Perry performing in Lafayette, LA, June 1935 ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photographs by Alan Lomax

More insight into how Alan Lomax worked behind the camera when not making audio recordings. This contact sheet shows portraits of of musicians Bill Tatnall and Susie Herring — Frederica, Georgia, June 1935 ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photographs by Alan Lomax

His microphones and cameras traveled the world during an era when musical traditions were already under pressure due to development and cultural apathy. Lomax knew the importance of creating audio recordings and photographs as a means to make change and raise awareness, well before a drop of notion that a tool called the Internet would arrive, let along recording device that would fit into a shirt pocket. Lomax knew that the musical and cultural traditions which took all of human civilization to develop was under pressure and about to becoming extinct, in the same manner of urgency that the present day preservation of linguistic heritage is sending anthropologists (sadly with scarce funding) to record the last speakers of dying languages on our planet — every two weeks a last speaker dies, taking with them the vestiges of our global language which not only makes up our global cultural heritage, we lose the wisdom of our ancestors.

Alan clearly understood magazine gutters yet was not a magazine photographer, placing the bamboo support smack in the middle with all sorts of lovely moments happening on the right and left. The white hands on the rear wall and the silhouette of the veiled women tops this image for me which was taken during a Hindu wedding ceremony in Charlo Village, Trinidad. May 12, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Lomax was also a social activist, focusing heavily on civil rights issues, once again using music/field recordings and photography as a compendium against social injustice and raising cultural awareness. He was a co-founding member of People’s Songs, with Pete Seeger and others in 1945, with the belief that folk music could be an effective impetus for social change. His recordings from America’s southern states in the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s were key in raising awareness and helping to end racial discrimination while Lomax championed civil rights issues for African Americans.

When Alan Lomax was 17, he began traveling with his father, pioneering folklorist and author John Lomax, taking photographs and helping is dad with his audio recordings. Some of his early work with his father was at prison camps. Here is a photograph of a prisoner inside the camp hospital taken when Lomax was around 19 year-old — Darrington State Farm, Texas, April 1934 ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Full frame — cropping in camera — clearly was how Alan Lomax saw the world. Unfortunately the cover image of the recordings, Prison Songs (next image) ended up being cropped. Tragic the art team removed the ax in the upper right of this photograph of prisoners chopping wood in order to make it a square album/CD format. Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary), Parchman, Mississippi. September 16, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Final photograph by Alan Lomax as it appeared on the Prison Songs recordings. Seems the design team had a significant hand in making this work as a square, even go as far as using Photoshop to remove all background detail and getting a bit overly creative by adding clouds in the top right.

Alan Lomax used the power of images and the awesome power of sound not just to record history, he used these communication tools to make a difference.

This is one of my favorite Lomax quotes:

“The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.”—Alan Lomax, 1972

I can type effortlessly for hours on how important Alan Lomax was to the preservation of culture and the weighted issues on a whole host of human rights efforts and activism he was connected to. Given the wealth of the Lomax collection now accessible to all — and the countless books, news articles and whatnot written/recorded about Mr. Lomax — you can easily learn more about this extremely talented and passionate individual yourself by making a simply Google search (click here). Anyone wanting to really delve deep into Lomax’s career and life, make sure to read the book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.

My reason for rapidly writing this piece — and what’s often overlooked in all the writings, reviews and ravings about Alan Lomax — is his eye.

Alan Lomax was a pretty darn good photographer.

Alan Lomax could see, working the entire frame of the images in this scene while recording workers clearing land in The Valley, North Side, Anguilla. July 4, 1962 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Portrait of two women seated in front of their home, singing and shaking rattles during a visit to Andros Island in the Bahamas. This was taken when Alan was 20 in 1935 when he traveled to the Bahamas with anthropologist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle ~ Courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Young boy, crying — Unknown Location, between 1933 and 1935 ~ Image courtesy of the Library of Congress ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Beautifully composed baptism near Mineola, Texas. Alan would have been only around 19 or 20 years-old when this photograph was taken in the summer of 1935 ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Once again Alan Lomax finds his composition, using the entire frame, pushing the camera button right when a young newspaper boy appears in the frame, whistling. Festa brass band in Cinquefrondi, Calabria, Italy. August 1, 1954 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax clearly knew what he wanted to see in his photographs, here keeping in the row of elegantly hanging hats in the frame while the Rev. I.D. Back sings during recordings with the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church congregation, Blackey, Kentucky. September 5, 1959 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

Simple yet poetic portrait of Harry Cox with unidentified woman and child at his home in Norfolk, East Anglia, England. Cox was a farmworker and one of the most important singers of traditional English music of the twentieth century. October 9, 1953 ~ Courtesy the Association for Cultural Equity ~ Photograph by Alan Lomax

I hope these few photographs — and Alan Lomax’s entire archive — inspires you as much as it has me for continuing to use our cameras to make social change for those who cannot themselves, while in compendium, make field recordings, helping to expand the minds and hearts of others through the consciousness arresting power of sound and sight.

These days we tend to call it multimedia.

Fine, though I prefer to call it Visual Audio.

Either way, well before anyone of us were creating such combination storytelling, Alan Lomax was…and most of us weren’t even born yet.




NOTE: An enormous level of gratitude goes to Nathan Salsburg and Don Fleming — both with the Association for Cultural Equity — for allowing me to used un-watermarked photographs taken by Alan Lomax over his amazing career. Nathan had the weighted task of gathering 20+ high res files and helping me source proper captions. A super group of people continue the legacy of Alan Lomax, all of whom I’d be honored to meet on my next visit to New York City.

April 9, 2012   3 Comments

Becoming Binaural

Where the Hell Have I Been?

Have come to the conclusion that feeding this blog will happen on event time, not calendar nor clock time. When having the ability to ponder, pen and present something meaningful, it will arrive.

What has helped inspire me back onto the saddle of this beast — for what I sense will be longer sustained ride — are two pieces of audiophile brilliance which recently arrived in the post box.

Binaural microphones and dead kitten binaural ear muffs by Soundman.

What are binaural microphones?

It's important to show just how small a kit this binaural mic setup actually is yet sound quality is off the charts.

For those who know about binaural microphones, skip the following bits and go to Creating.


Human Nonsense

Most of us see in three dimension. With two separated eyes, signals to our brain present a rich perspective of depth, layers, texture and most importantly, a sense of place. It’s easy to take the simple act of sight for granted until loosing it.

We also hear in three dimensions. With separate ears on both extreme sides of our heads, the audible world around us is being presented in a spellbinding rich landscape of spacial sounds. Because of the spacial separation of our ears, we can sense discernible distance, layers, texture, even feel sound elicit it’s flow and movement.


Tech Nonsense

With a mono microphone (and most shotgun and lavaliere clip mic’s), you’re presented with a one dimensional sense of our world. Perfect for listening to someone speak or to isolate certain sounds but otherwise flat, simple and completely dimensionless.

With a stereo mic, we think we’re being presented with sounds that represent what our ears hear, however that’s not the reality. Stereo microphone field recordings basically fake a sense of spacial audio by presenting our brains with a concept of left and right spacial sounds. The main field of sound recording heavily overlaps with both their left or right counterparts in front of the mic, focusing 40 percent or more (depending on the microphone) on the sound in front of us. This is not how we actually hear. We accept this because our eyes see forward in this rather narrow 40% overlap, therefore we think that is how the sound actually moves around us, but that’s not the reality of sounds audible presents around us. In addition, stereo never reaches much further than beyond a 180º sound plain. What about the sounds behind us that we can hear equally as well as the sounds before us?

Look at this stereo “polar pattern” for the Rødes VideoMic, a brilliant stereo microphone many of us use with our 5D Mark II and equivalent Nikon gear, and witness what this stereo microphone actually hears (polar pattern diagrams shows how each specific microphone pick up a field of sound):


By no means can a stereo microphone truly present the dimension of sounds which naturally emanate not only from the left, right, but before and behind us, in the same manner which our ears deliver to our brains the exact audible landscape we hear.

With binaural microphones, we are presented with an exact replication of the entire theater of sound surrounding us in the exact same way our ears send the audible sensation to our brains. I like to call this, Reality Audio, because a binaural audio recording is the unconditionally true presentation of dimensional sounds that we hear.

Here is the polar pattern for the Soundman OKM II Classic Studio microphones showing just how unique the audio field of recording actually is on binaural microphones:




Binaural mic’s are placed in each ear, allowing for the exact same sound dimension to be recorded to tape or SD card as our ears hear, in turn it’s what our brains process into diminutional understanding of sound space.

Placement of binaural microphones go into each ear.

The natural divide — the extreme separation of left/right channels — caused by, yes, our thick heads, replicate exactly the natural three-dimensional sounds that are swirling all around us. It’s only possible therefore to bring a true audible sense of location from the sounds moving and emanating around us via binaural microphones.

There is indeed another level of sound recording even more spacial — surround sound. That’s über technical and far more involving than most photographers will want to dabble in — not to mention you wouldn’t blend in too well wandering the streets of New Deli or New York City (ok, maybe in NYC) with a getup like this on your head from Sonic Studios: Click Here



On a professional level, I’m a photographer. The power of the still image will last for all the history to come. Anyone wanting to debate this reality till it turns to glue can do so to your hearts content. Just do so while defending your theories to a doorknob, not me. Such discussions are by far the grandest waste of ones time in this art and profession. The discussion should be upon what we can do with all forms of communication.

On a personal level, I’m a field recording junkie. While living in Italy in the mid 80′s — using a camera in a completely, unequivocally, different form of photography…fashion — I would roam around Milan making recordings on a macro cassette recorder, moving onward to a Sony stereo cassette recorder once realizing I was hooked by the mesmerizing sounds of sound. Using a host of different microphones over the years, around seven years ago I stumbled upon binaural microphones for recording dimensional audio space, dramatically changing not only how I recorded audio from the perspective of spacial sound, it also allowed me to be a photographer at the same time.

I was gone.

Creating a binaural album for the Bauza Drummers in Lusaka, Zambia, in 2006. This entire album can be purchased on the Field Recording Store of this website. It's amazing performance of traditional drumming. Photograph courtesy of Roy Obobo

When purchasing my first iPhone (version 3), I went berserk creating what I thought were stereo and then binaural recording, like here attempting to make a binaural recording of men collecting guano on a remote island off the coast of Peru in 2006. Little did I know at the time that iPhones did not (and still don't) allow for stereo recording. All that is about to change though with the arrival next week of the Soundman stereo adapter for the iPhone.

Recording an album of tabla and songs from artists Ratan and Piddut performing in a small drum shop in northern Bangladesh in 2008. These recordings can also be heard and purchased in the Field Recording Store of this website. Photography courtesy of Adnan Wahid

I take my children on assignments as often as possible. Here my eldest son, Richard, came with me to a cremation ceremony in Ubud, Bali, in late 2006. During this event I was not only working between a Holga and a Canon digital camera, I was effortlessly making binaural field recording's with Soundman mic's in my ears, attached to a Roland digital recording in my sarong. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S Bintoro



Before the dawn of what really was the turning point — when still photography and filming merged more seamlessly with the arrival of the Canon 5D Mark II — photographers would tote around flash recorders, capturing ambient sounds that were then used in slideshows for what became termed as multimedia, though I prefer the term Visual Audio. To do so meant not only carrying your camera, a camera bag and an audio recorder, there was the microphone which needed to be carried in the kit. A street photographer begins to look like an over decorated Christmas tree that much gear.

We are now being asked to produce short films as compendiums to a photographic story. Excellent. We should relish the act of expanding lateral and outward, same as a guitar player can only expand their art further by learning and then playing the piano.

But how can we make this deliberate act of going from the fluid function of taking still images, then switching over to filming, without taking on an epic level of bulky audio gear or a secondary sound person?



After each stellar National Geographic seminar (the latest being last January 12th), the next day is reserved as a gathering of photographers who regularly work for the magazine. The day-long event begins Friday morning at 8:30 with a session titled Nuts & Bolts. During past sessions, brilliant talents like Kenji Yamaguchi and Dave Mathews from National Geographic’s Photo Engineering department, would demonstrate the latest in remote aerial camera planes like the one now being used by  Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols for his latest project on lions, new camera trap designs by the ever inspiring Steve Winter or utterly trip-out underwater custom camera housings used by the likes of the brilliant Paul Nicklen and David Doubilet. 2012′s Nuts & Bolts was on the greater merging of stills and filmmaking.

The photo department at National Geographic had recently hired the talented, Pamela Chen, as a Senior Photo editor. Her background in filmmaking, photography and audio reads like the who’s who of present-day photojournalism. Her presentation on the audio and film background to a piece she’d produced for the NYT’s was enlightening. Afterwards, questions began swirling around the room, the usual we tend to hear when still photographers mull the prospect of juggling both mediums where one key aspect, the stills, outweigh the moving images:

“How can we be expected to jump between still image making and video in a seamless manner?”

“With all the gear needed to produce video, how can I also manage decent audio without hiring assistants?”

All super important questions, however there is a solution to solve much of the general audio kit catastrophes related to filmmaking.

Sitting in the back of the room, I raised my hand:

“All of this is getting too technical. Use binaural microphones.”

50 or more sets of eyes gazed at me as if I were speaking in tongue. Understandably so. Many have never heard nor even used such microphones.

By using binaural microphones when filming, you’re hands are free to hold the camera and BE a filmmaker, easily switch back to BE a photographer. Even better, no bulbous microphone attached to the hotshot of the camera.

Then the best part, you’re bringing to the film a dimensional sound experience, equally layered as your film and photography.

And the crowning touch…when not wanting to film, the mic’s fit in your shirt pocket or can stay resting in your ears till wanting to film again later. Here’s how small these microphones actually are:

Soundman OKM II Classic Studio binaural microphones, about the size of a dime.

For poshing the sound quality even further, make sure to order the Soundman A3 Adapter, a mini preamp and noise reducer when going with the 1/8″ jack directly from the Soundman earbud binaural mics into your camera. The binaural mic’s can work without the preamp however the difference in sound quality is noticeable:

Soundman's A3 Adapter, some of the smallest pre-amps around. It has a mini battery in the housing which on my original unit lasted well over a year with heavy use.

And for those who want to really up the sound quality even further by taking the Soundman binaural mic’s into a Sound Devices or another high-end audio recorder, Soundman has a new XLR connector with A3 mini pre-amp:

Soundman's new XLR connectors with A3 adapter.

Binaural mic’s in your ears is not the solution for everything. Not all aspects of filmmaking can be accomplished with them. There are indeed moments when a lavaliere mic clipped on a persons lapel is needed for an interview (call it the macro mic) or a shotgun mic may be used to isolate sound you want within a crowd (call it the telephoto mic). But I would imagine 60-80 percent of all audio needs for journalistic reportage filmmaking can be accomplish with extremely small, unobtrusive, binaural microphones, which allow your hands to be completely available to focus on filmmaking.



My original Soundman binaural’s had its wire ripped out a few years ago — got snagged on something. In the interim I’ve been enjoying the Rødes, Sennheiser lavalieres and my original Audio Technica from the early 1990′s but I sure was missing those awesome — and small — binaural microphones. When ordering this replacement pair last week, I noticed a new piece of kit on the Soundman website that all audiophiles need — dead kittens.

These dead kitten's made exclusively by Soundman are the poshest most wind suppressing dead kittens available for binaural audio recording. Listen to the field recordings below for just how well they work in 30+ mph wind.

These dead kittens (wind screens) aren’t just any type of kitten. They are custom made earmuffs to avoid wind sounds while making handsfree binaural recordings.

When they arrived, I was as excited as my 8 year-old tends to be when receiving a gift on his birthday. Fiddle and faddling around the house completed, I couldn’t wait to hear how these kittens worked in wind. Trouble was, no wind.

Two days later I had my chance. A 15-30 mph cold wind was blowing through the Berkshires.

Here are a few recent binaural field recordings. The first is test recording made specifically for this blog when the wind was whipping through large pine trees in front of our home. There’s also sounds of the gate opening, a car passing and the arrival home on the bus of Konstantin.

The second field recording was created while I wandered through snow around the farm wearing the dead kitten earmuffs (it was windy) while our family dogs, Emma and Asia, followed. It’s a simple, short piece, but if you listen closely you’ll hear — hopefully feel — the movements of Asia, a 30 lb. Beagle, running past me on the right, followed by Emma, a 110 lb. French Mastiff, thudding just a second or two later on my right. Crank the bass if you really wanna hear Emma’s gait.

The third recording was also created last week while on a brief visit to New York City. To test wirling wind suppression moving around the city — and to bombard the binaural mic’s with as many dimensional layers of sound as possible — I took a brief stroll through Time Square at around 5pm.

Make sure you have either excellent speakers connected to your computer or posh headphones so you can sense the spacial sound.

Each afternoon, the school bus arrives to drop off Konstantin. This recording is a test to see how well the new Soundman dead kitten earmuff wind suppressors worked in 30 mph winds. Also on this recording is the opening of our front gate, a car passing and of course, the arrival and departure of the school bus. Try to take notice on what the wind actually sounds like — not the wind baffling the mic's, that didn't happen because of the dead kittens but rather the actual sound of wind moving through trees.

[wpaudio url=" of Wind, a Car and School Bus.mp3" text="Wind, Car and School Bus" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)


Wandering around the farm in the snow with Emma and Asia.

[wpaudio url=" in Snow and Dogs Running.mp3" text="Walking in the Snow with Emma and Asia" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)

You run into a mighty wide collection of unique individuals when wandering through Time Square in NYC.

[wpaudio url=" of Time Square.mp3" text="Binaural Recording while wandering around Time Square" dl="0"]
(iPhone and iPad)


Field Recording Store

If you’ve ever poked around this blog you’ve likely stumbled upon the Field Recording Store. In this section you’ll find entire albums from musicians who otherwise wouldn’t ever have the opportunity to share their music globally, let alone locally. Two of the albums in the store, Bauza Drummers of Zambia and Ratan and Piddut of Bangladesh were recorded using Soundman binaural mic’s, bringing an entirely different dimension of live musical performances.



While in NYC this week filling a missing gap in a National Geographic story code name, “Sweetness”, I meandered in B&H Photo and picked up a pair of micro-dead kitten wind covers made specifically for lavaliere mic’s. Amazingly, they fit perfectly snug on the recording ends of binaural Soundman mic’s. Making some basic recording level tests I could see that the wind does diminish with these macro-kittens but if in heavy wind, far more noise is suppressed with the Soundman muff versions. This lavaliere option makes a nifty secondary wind sound removal whenever recording in warm climates because the ear muffs dead kittens do keep your ears warm.


Found these lavaliere dead kittens at B&H, here attached to the Soundman binaural microphones. Insanely expensive for their size — $40 for a pair — but they are the minimum you should use when wandering about in any breeze over 5 mph. For strong wind you're going to want the thick, padded design, of the Soundman earmuff dead kittens. Suggest having both types of dead kittens if you're wanting to be prepared.



And some big news about to completely change audio field recording…we’re only a week or so away from the first meaningful stereo-IN recording option for an iPhone. There has been another on the market for some time, the GuitarJack by Sonoma. There are two problems with this iPhone add-on — the GuitarJack is large and the audio-IN connector is a 1/4 inch plug, meant more to be used for a guitar then a small yet powerful stereo field recording kit. The soon to be released Soundman looks promising — a mini clip-on item which by the looks of the photograph seems to be petite, making it less prone to flexing when attached to the iPhone…and it has a 1/8 inch audio jack. It should make for an extremely small audio field recording kit when combined with some of the pro-recording app’s for the iPhone.

A4 stereo connector for iPhone.

More on this iPhone add-on in the coming weeks.

Till then, keep well and enjoy making your life as a photographer and a filmmaker more seamless, less technical — and far less cumbersome — by using binaural microphones.



February 22, 2012   35 Comments

The Amazing Yellow-Bordered Magazine — Part II


Some stories can be tough nuts to crack.

Girl Power, in this months issue (September 2011), was one such nut.

Last year in late September the phone rings. The letters NGM appear on the iPhone over a screensaver image of my daughter, Francesca, mixing paints — caller ID cannot determine who’s number at 1145 17th Street Northwest in DC is ringing.

Whenever the phone rings I have the privilege of seeing Francesca making a wonderful mess.

It was a good friend and über-talented senior photo editor, Sarah Leen.

We briefly babbled. Sarah goes on to say that a story had just arrived on her desk, part of 2011′s Seven Billion series.

In her get-right-to-the-point manner, Sarah concludes the basic story premise with “…and I don’t want to do this story without you.”

What were we about to embark upon?

This installment of the multi-month series on producing stories for the magazine is the complete account — from start to finish — for one of the most complex assignments I’ve undertaken. With multiple zigzags and twirls that lie ahead, the final photographic essay (it’s all about storytelling) illustrated the theme properly, expanding upon the brilliant reporting and text created by Cynthia Gorney.

However before ever sorting a visa, something was odd.

Initially one viagra think it’s stupendous to be asked so directly to do a story, especially from such an esteemed publication as the National Geographic. It was, but a cautionary red flag rose.

“Ok, tell me more.”

It was part of this year’s special project related to the all important topic, population, a brilliant multi-story, multi-month series, which only the Amazing Yellow-Bordered Magazine could ever accomplish.

Adding to perk the interest, population — and the social issues related — are important aspects of my work.

While Sarah spoke, my mind began to drift far off course … in the Story Ideas folder of my computer resides a number of subfolders related to population  — poverty, health, environment — all connectable to our ever-increasing global society. Immediately began to see a visual narrative taking shape, looking at various global aspects of overpopulation, our food supply, migration, urbanization, etc. Percolating such thoughts was Sarah’s unusual direct request that she wanted me to do this story: The editors at the magazine knew I could handle large, multi-country stories, distilling the issues into a focused visual narrative. Surely that was the reason for such directness.

Pulling out of a deep internal dialogue, only then do I hear Sarah say, “….and it’s complex. The story will focus on Brazil.”


Clearly I hadn’t listened to a word Sarah had been saying.

“Why Brazil?”

The complex portion I could handle.

“It’s a success story, John.”

Brazil had reduced its fertility rate and not doing so in any minor way. In the past 50 years this South American superpower had gone from 6.3 children per female in the 1960′s down to a staggering 1.9 by 2009. Today it hovers at about 1.8.

What does 1.8 children per family mean?

Negative population growth.


Equally important, this story would also bridge the issues of gender equality and women’s rights which still are foolishly disproportionate in so many countries.

Not fully unhinged from the initial preconception, something still smelled.

The scent told me this was not going to be general feature on women in Brazil. It wasn’t about creating images for a broad theme or perspective where anything and everything could make narrative sense of the topic. It wasn’t related to breaking news where the events of the day would become the visual reference of time. And though there was enough perception in the cranium to sense this project would be captivating, my knowledge on population issues felt like little, if any, in-depth photography has ever done on this topic to act as even a basic road map.

Pushing a bit further as to why, so poignantly, did Sarah want me to photograph this story, she begins to hint at what the next few months would become:

“It’s a digger story, John. I need you to dig. Like a miner.”


Unfortunately, much of the work photojournalists do can be utterly depressing, rarely improving, often steeped in many of the darkest issues facing society. I do such work for the every present hope of change. Even if a situation improves/alters for just one, it’s more than none. It’s not about me. It’s about us. Now here was an opportunity to look at hope, highlighting an example of success, a role model for other nations to follow in a chance (a hope) to help other societies discover ways to balance population numbers in our ever increasing global society.

Why is this so important? In a few months time our collective human population will reach 7 billion.


If we do not rethink our population growth pattern, by 2045 is it predicted we will be a family of 9 billion.


How will we feed ourselves? Where will we find enough energy to power such a massive level of consumption without monumental changes in how we use energy? Pollution, poverty, waste, health, environment and a whole litany of other extremely weighted issues tumble on the table when we begin pondering the needs not only of ourselves but also our planet when you consider a 28 percent population rise in the coming 34 years.

Finally locking in sync with every word Sarah was saying, of course I would do the story, and immediately was honored she, and others within the Society, would consider me for this series. Brilliant work on this project had already begun by Jonas Bendiksen, Joel Sartore and Pascal Maitre, to name just a few. I was honored to walk the road with such esteemed colleagues.

Then a thought hit – wouldn’t it be better to have a woman photograph this story? Discovered quickly that such matters were already considered well before the phone ever rang. Pre-research had indicated that certain access and flow would be best achieved if the photographer was male. While on the ground I began to experience why. Even with monumental strides within this Latin American society for equality, the overall permeating vibe was still heavily machismo.

Before finishing chatting, Sarah said she’d send me the research which had been done for the story. Because it was already late in the year, I’d have to prepare and head south fairly soon; Deadline was March, 2011. For National Geographic, a seven month deadline — from connecting with a photographer to layout — is nearly like a weekly news story timeframe. Most NG stories are spread out, taking one year or more to accomplish in just fieldwork.

To somewhat complicate matters, I was already involved (about halfway through) another National Geographic story, code name, Sweetness (due to contractual reasons we cannot share insight into stories in progress, therefore that is not the story title nor exact topic). Felt the short timeframe for Girl Power could be juggled around Sweetness and if possible, include some photography elsewhere while in South America to save on that story’s travel budget.

It was a go, and I was committed.


An hour later Sarah’s email arrived. Loads of brilliant research had already been done for this story — heaps of statistical, historical and academic literature to pour through, ninety percent or more as drab as toast. Unbuttered. Read them all.

One final document to open set the course — or more so, charted the course — for what the story was all about.

A graph.

This bland graph — like a connect-the-dots game gone wrong — would become the visual guide for what needed to be illustrate:

This graph, ironically donning a yellow border, was the only visual indicator of a countries dramatic shift in population.

Then it hit — I’d been handed a coconut, with only hands to crack open.


The insight into this very specific project is not about airing frustration. On the contrary, it is to share the realities, along with solution, which all of us may face on a myriad of issues in both photography and in life — rarely nothing goes as planned, all the best preparations can often lead nowhere.

The reams of academic research on the topic of Brazil’s drop in population growth pointed towards few meaningful options or at best, Point Pictures, a common term used at the Geographic for photography to avoid — meaning literal views, no matter how well composed. And looking at that damn graph lead me nowhere but downwards.

More so, how to illustrate (not literally but figuratively), across 20-26 pages, a narrative essay based upon a graph? The graph was the only visual indicator of this dramatic drop in fertility that lead towards lower population numbers. Little if any of the research leant itself to something unexpected — education opportunities, job equality laws, economic prosperity and a rapid high-cost of living also had their fingerprints on the chart. They all felt like point pictures.

There had to me more.

One word meandering within all the piles of research kept rearing its visual head and Sarah could feel it:


An academic study done on soap operas or novelas was by far the most unique. In brief:

Between 1964-85 soap operas spread across the country while Brazil was under a military regime. The government subsidized television sales with the hope of building a feeling of nationhood with their controlled messages during a time when Brazil was largely an illiterate country. The mouthpiece of the military, the news, didn’t fully perk the interest. Soap operas did. Directors and writers, many of whom were left leaning, wrote innovative story lines which reached the masses right while electricity spread across the country. These racy plots — many showing fabulous living standards and women portraying powerful rolls — created a lifestyle millions wanted to emulate. How best to live such a new destiny? Have smaller families, just as depicted on television screens.

This would set in motion the drive for as Sarah put it, to mine this story.


If a photographer, writer or filmmaker ever tells you they produced an in-depth feature story all on their own, they are full of shit.

Nothing — let me repeat with utter weighted reality — nothing could ever be accomplished on any meaningful, long term project, without the unflinching and committed support from fellow human beings we in our bubble of an industry call Fixers.

Try arriving solo, in the remote village of Singkil located on the west coast of Sumatra, find a boat with a captain who within less than an hour of your arrival can speed you two hours across an ocean and arrive, as planned, on one of the Bankay Island located in the Indian Ocean. This just occurred one month ago. Terima kasih, Bli Wayan Tilik.

Wayan Tilik and I heading via speedboat from Singkil to the Banyak Island while working together last month on the White Horse story. Wayan was my assistant for over five years while living in Bali. We've traveled all over Indonesia on more strange and beguiling journeys then can be recalled.

Attempt to come out alive when entering a crowd of 5,000 pro Osama Bin Laden supporters surrounding your vehicle in a remote village in the tribal regions of western Pakistan two-weeks post September 11, 2001. Sta na shukria, my late dear friend and brother, Raza Khan.

Raza Khan in the Kashmir Mountains of Pakistan. We worked together often, this time for a Time Magazine story on the massive earthquake in 2005. Raza tragically died two years ago in an automobile accident while working with two other photojournalist.

Fool yourself thinking you can handle all the subtle nuances, details and cultural layers of Peruvian society based upon a few years of Spanish you learned in high school or college while working on a story about how a road entering the Amazon forest can dramatically increase the rate of malaria. Gracias, Viviana Cancino.

Vivi and I spent over a week traveling back and forth along 56 kilometer of the Iquitos Nauta Highway in northern Peru for the July 2007 NGM cover story, Malaria, A Global Killer. Vivi was instrumental on guiding me towards unique malaria issues related to research conducted by The Johns Hopkins University, which Vivi too had been a part of. A few years ago I had lunch with Vivi. She was happily engaged and continuing her education on infectious diseases at a major university in Brazil.

So what then is a fixer you might ask?

A fixer functions in a myriad of ways:

Translator, guide, protector, organizer, menu reader, driver, logistics expert, motorcycle repairer, appointment keeper, taxi finder, guru, calendar decipherer, medic, a wine expert, sounding board, travel partner, a life saver.

Most importantly, fixers are friends, a near member of your family, for if their talents were not with you, one could never accomplish these involving stories in any semblance of reasonable time, let alone at all.

As many photographers will attest — fixers also die while working with us. Not because they want to. Mostly because of the damn awful reality that oftentimes foreigners are treated different than locals, especially in times of conflict. The more tragic reality — journalist can leave. Most fixers in poorer countries where madness is taking place cannot.

In addition, fixers often commit to the same passions we commit to. A great fixers believes in the power of awareness and change.

If there is any paramount aspect of doing meaningful journalism it is not just the photographer with the camera in the field.

Equally, it is the one standing near you.

I am forever indebted and grateful to a whole host of astonishing friends/family who have guided, protected, smiled and cried with me clear across this amazing planet, helping make nearly every story I’ve do come to fruition.

To each of you:

Just a small group of a much larger collection of photographs highlighting friends/family who have helped me over the years produce countless stories. For those of you not on this contact sheet, it's only because your amazing talents are on unscanned film or on not that easy to find digitally. Far more meaningful, you know who you.

Thank you.


Girl Power was nowhere near like working in a conflict zone, yet to accomplish this story it would take the deft skill, astute organizing prowess and tremendous patience of not one but two fixers to make the photography flow.

When previously in Brazil for the Food Crisis story, The End of Plenty, I had the privilege of working with the talented Flavio Ferreira. He was outstanding, finding a ship in the port of Victoria that was carrying soybeans to China in order to feed the Asian Tiger’s insatiable appetite for pork. Finding this ship — there are a number of major shipping ports in Brazil, not to mention a plethora heading all over the world — was literally a needle in a haystack achievement.

Initial inclination was to work again with Flavio, however it was recommended that it would be best to work with a female fixer, creating a balance which in the end proved to be the wise decision.

David Alan Harvey had been in Rio a few month earlier working on a story for the magazine. He had collaborated with an American women by the name of Mira Olson. Though she wasn’t native Brazilian, Mira was apparently fluent in both Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish and was told she had lived for awhile in Rio. Most important, David said she was great.

Mira and I wait for the trolly to take us to the top of Santa Marta village.

We had spoken on the phone a few times, exchanged many an email, however the first time I ever met Mira was at the food court in the Atlanta International Departure Terminal.

She appeared young, mid or late twenties, wore jeans with frayed leg bottoms, sneakers, a t-shirt and a zipper jacket — she could have just wandered in from a college lecture or a Dave Matthews concert. Most interesting, Mira radiating a focused energy. Post initial pleasantries at the airport, we boarded a Delta flight for the long haul to Rio. Unable to sit together to discuss the story that lay ahead, I slept (attempted) multiple rows away in some of the most uncomfortable chairs that fly the Troposphere.

Before semi-nodding off, I began to ponder — how is someone from North America going to know how to handle all the subtleties and layers to help illustrate a graph whose entire essence is in South America? Was this a mistake in agreeing to fly in a non-Brazilian national? A non-native speaker?

Arriving in Rio, blurry-eyed, Mira and I reconnected at immigration then retrieved our luggage while a kind fellow serenaded us sleepless passengers by the spinning carousel with his saxophone, performing the ubiquitous, The Girl from Ipanema, though not as fab as this version by Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz.

Luggage on cart, I bee-lined to the first coffee shop past Customs.

Being the ultimate gringo — only remembering the word obrigado, or thank you, from years of working in East Timor (another former Portuguese colony) — I defaulted to Mira for procuring the basic necessity of life:

“Can you order me the largest coffee possible, thanks.”

As if time stood still, Mira turned to the women behind the counter in the arrival hall, transforming seamlessly from a Minnesotan economics specialist who had worked for the World Bank into a Cariocas (a term given to natives from the city of Rio de Janeiro). Everything about her changed — accent, body language, facial and hand gestures. She became Brazilian, so much so that throughout our nearly eight weeks working together everyone we met thought Mira was a local, flabbergasted learning otherwise.

Dumbstruck, that cup of coffee made it known I was in mighty good hands.

Mira Oslon fielding questions I had to the assistant principle of a school in Rio while working on the Girl Power story last year.

Yin & Yang

When arriving — be it Lusaka, Kolkata, Boston or Barcelona — no matter how exhausted, I’m immediately drawn to dive into the story.

Girl Power barely let me even enter the kiddy pool. In Brazil, I was standing on the high dive, with no water below.

Much of the pre-organizing Mira had done weeks before arrival was already beginning to unravel within 12 hours of arrival:

Appointments with the head of a favela police department in Rio didn’t answer her phone during countless attempts, yet only days before our arrival had said she’d be available — two weeks later she finally agreed but only took us out on a 20 minute evening patrol, then wandered into a another police station for a meeting with her officers. We were not allowed to attend. Mira and I waited for hours. Bored, we began drinking Antarctic Beers and chatted into the night with some of the warmest and kindest people you’ll ever met. It was during this night that we met Joachim and his wife, Maria. She was expecting their first and only planned baby. She was also a novella addict. Spent a portion of that wait in Maria’s sisters home as they watched Passione on Globo. The photograph became one of the four images depicting the ubiquitous power of novellas within Brazilian society. Whatever happened to the chief of police? She never exited the room, likely heading out another door, forgetting we were still waiting.

Numerous evenings, between 6 and 10, we would wander, home to home, asking residents around various areas of Rio if they were watching novelas. Nearly 100% were. In many ways these are just simple images. Collectively it illustrates the ubiquitous power of soap operas upon Brazilian culture. My favorites are Lucimar Lyra Aguiar (lower, left), who even with the worst television reception ever, refuses to miss her favorite Globo episodes. And that Hello Kitty room (upper, right) where a pregnant Maria and her sister-in law Parecida lie riveted to Passione was just over the top kitch.

On a side note to how happenstance flows, we met up with Maria and Joachim months later during Part II of the story. By then, Maria had given birth to a healthy, beautiful baby boy named Jonathan. The family invited Mira and I over to their home for dinner last February. The following photograph came about during that evening. Unfortunately there just isn’t enough ink on paper space to include every photograph, but it did get published online.

Two-month old, Jonathan, in the kitchen of his families one bedroom home in the Santa Marta area of Rio. Jonathan's parents come from ten children families.

A small but important NGO cooperative which helped empower women by providing knitting jobs in poorer communities initially said we could met on our second day in Brazil. Then delayed by well over week. Once schedules merged, the women of the cooperative worried about being photographed in their homes due to possible gang violence, requesting they would only feel comfortable being photographed in the small cooperatives workshop: four walls, drab light and few if any of the women actually sews there — fortunately a few days later, a women agreed. A lovely moment played out in her small home while she sewed lampshade covers with her two girls home from school. It ran double page in the magazine.

We didn't have much time at Liliane's home. In an hour or so we'd have to leave due to commitments later in the evening. Even with this short period, a gentle bit of curiosity occurred from Liliane's youngest daughter, Beatriz, which helped turn an otherwise basic portrait of a stay-at-home mother, into a tender and layered moment.

The all important access to novellas sets with the leading soap opera producer, Globo, was repeatedly denied, requesting additional letters of intent. Not until our return in February of this year was access granted on a film set — Globo gave wonderful support for a full day of photography last February. Many of the photographs turned out brilliant with one image running online (below). However one week earlier the studio, Record, gave unfettered access to any novela stage set of the show Ribeirão do Tempo for as many days as need. They were filming on various sets a fortuitous heaping scoop of story connectivity — a high-powered business women in her million dollar mansion and on my second visit in her ultra-fancy office. Couldn’t have been better. By the way, a huge amount of gratitude to Marcelo Araújo in PR at Record, a talented photographer in his own right, for his friendship and understanding for this story.

We went with this edit of the lead actress in the office of her construction company chatting with a female police officer. A few days previous while at Record it was a full-day of filming in her opulent home. Both moments could have worked well but something had to go to the editing floor — a story is not only about your favorite photographs. It's also about telling a story, with your favorite photographs.

This set at Globo studios was utterly over the top — a novella, filmed in a 19th century Middle Eastern setting. More important, the director, Amora Mautner, was the second ever female director to be hired 10 years ago by Globo. Amora's gone on to direct scores of successful novelas and films. Here she's helping actress Debora Bloch rehearse her lines.

Another photograph which only made it online — again, there is only so much print space available — was this image of a new trend playing out on Brazilian television: Teen Novelas. Now, an even younger generation is able to embrace the novela culture like this scene being filmed in a school dorm for the soap opera, Rebelde, or Rebel.

During a year spent in Brazil on a Fulbright, along with another immersion a few years later as a freelance writer, Mira had solid contacts with upperclass Brazilian society. Those contacts were indeed excellent however when taking it to the next level and requesting to spend time in homes and businesses, the murmur was often negative. Even though Brazil is the South American mega economy, the seventh largest in the world, there is still a significant division between rich and poor. Many who have done well would prefer not show their hard earned successes. Understandable, the crime rate is high in many areas of the country. This translated into many a closed door. After weeks of hearing “No” or “Maybe”, a women Mira had met a few years previous understood the reason for the request to show the success women had made, helping as the conduit to being us deep into the layers of Brazil’s upperclass. Thank you, Vanda.

We attended more fashion and society events then memory recalls. Many turned out excellent. Others, nothing. We went with this photograph, taken during a private sales event at an upscale Rio designer's showroom. That bathing suit was just mesmerizing, especially in duplicate.

These successful vignettes did help keep the story afloat, but as usual, it was the unanticipated and serendipitous circumstances which more often became the most meaningful. It would take well into the third week of the first trip to begin getting in sync, finally embracing all the unique elements of Brazilian culture by the second visit earlier this year — when events riddled in complications began to somewhat ease — that the trickle of interesting visuals turn into a stream.

Oh, did I mentioned it was raining nearly every day for the first few weeks of the assignment?

Providence & Connections

Even in darkness there is always light.

At the end of a long day when few if any meaningful photographs were created, Mira and I caught a cab in front of our barely one star hotel in Rio (not one for fancy hotels). Tired and frustrated, we enter by sheer fate into the most unexpected taxi ever — the driver had a television set in the car.

He was watching a novella.

In what would become a regular attempt to stumble upon more television taxi’s while traveling across Brazil — and there were many such taxi’s to be found — never had I imagined the novela urge being so great that even while driving one could get their fix.

Some things need to be dug long and hard for. Others, through fate, arrive as a gift.

By far, the best television taxi belonged to a cabby in São Paulo driven by a fellow named Wanderlie. Not only did he have one but two televisions in his car — one for himself and massive second telly mounted in the roof for passengers. It would become the lead image for Girl Power.

I fell head over heals with the novela, Ti-Ti-Ti (pronounced Chi Chi Chi) after driving around São Paulo in this cab.

This cab would also serve as the transport conduit to a saving grace which upon each visit would wash away any and all problematic encountered — Braz Restaurant, the purveyor of the best pizza on earth.

If ever needing a food altering, state of mind cleansing, do yourself a favor and go to Braz in São Paulo, order the quatro queijos (four cheeses) or its aptly termed singular noun, Favorita, a bottle of Argentinian malbec donning the eloquently minimalist label, Altos las Hormigas, then dissolve into existential oblivion.

No jive.

Other pieces of the story pie kept arriving, albeit at times in a glacial pace. Unexpected doors would open, leading towards visuals that would relate to the story approach. It often came down to unforeseen, uncanny connections which in turn lead to uncanny and unpredicted access.

One night while out dinning and photographing socialite, Vanda, at Rio’s oozingly-chic Sushi Leblond, a friend of hers named Adriana joined us for literally a boatload of sashimi and wine (the food arrived strewed across a two-foot long wooden ship, with mast). What was thought would be an interesting evening of photography related to ultra-society out for a night on the town, instead turned into loads of good cheer but only so-so photography moments. Granted, the insatiable Adriana and the always voluptuous Vanda were fantastic to photography, however it ended up that by meeting Adriana, a connection of hers in São Paulo would open the floodgates of the unexpected.

Adriana made a phone call to her hairstylist, the ultra-desired Wanderley, hair coiffeur to President Delma and U2‘s Bono to name but a few.

Two days later we flew to Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, and met the extremely understated and particularly beautiful, Muriel. She worked with Brazil’s most acclaimed PR team. They represents the mega-power of Brazil, including Wanderley.

Muriel had other clients she managed, a long list that read like the Who’s Who of the Colossal Famous. One name from the scroll which caught my attention was a dental office.

Why a dentist office?

It was here, behind a signless white wall nearly as tall as security barriers surrounding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, where the gonzo-rich go for dental care — just getting your teeth cleaned here will set you back a thousand dollars.

Most interesting, nearly all the surgeons where women. Highly train, extremely sought after.

This place was like a spa in Bali — waterfall, lounge area, massage room, a bar, TV rooms, doorways that lead into more doorways which lead into other doorways of the private unknown.

There was one doctor who caught my eye. Not her looks — she of course was beautiful, like everyone else roaming the halls.

Her shoes.

Hot pink and highest of high-heals.

Awesome shoes. Nothing more to be said.

Other doors opened with equally unexpected occurrences.

Mira went to Mount Holyoke College and had a roommate from Brazil named Natascha. Her mother, Lourdes, was a highly successful businesswomen in the northeast state of Pernambuco. Mira felt Lourdes might fit well the profile of affluent success, so often depicted on novelas. Forestalled in Rio for a week, we hopped a flight to the coastal city of Recife.

Entering Lourdes’ home is a step into another world. Everywhere — in every nook and cranny, upon nearly every inch of wall space, placed across any horizontal surface which gravity would hold in place, rested or hung an antique or piece of extravagant artwork. It was extraordinary, as if Salvador Dali and Madame Tussauds had each left their mark of brilliance upon any direction gazed. Even in the corner of the dining room was a life-sized wooden carving of priest, carved likely in the 18th century — if you stared into his eyes it genuinely felt as if he were alive.

Lourdes was (is) magnificently eccentric. A sensational soul. We spent many wonderful days and laugh-filled nights in her home watching utterly wacky music videos, photographing as she worked from home and possibly too many car drives — half-baked on wine — listening to Amy Winehouse.

As much as Lourdes — her lifestyle, image, entire essence — fit the novela theme and was visually brilliant, it was her housekeeper, Marcela Gonçalo Pessona, who caught our attention the most during the midway edit. Marcela was THE example of the modern Brazilian women who, like tens of millions more, wanted to rise through the economic stratos towards the novela dream.

Upon our return for Part II of the story, Mira and I revisited Lourdes, but this time spent most of that chapter with Marcela.

Each day she spends over an hour commuting into Refice — dressed in her novela finest — to work with Lourdes for cooking, cleaning and at times helping with the various business interests of her roll model. Returning home via the same multi-bus route, Marcela and her husband would literally watch each night a veritable plethora of novelas. She naturally absorbs, then calculatingly lives, albeit step by step, the life portrayed on screen.

By the way, Marcela, 24, and her husband Ivalsi, 26, have been married four year. No children. When they do decide to start a family it will be one, maybe two children. Had Marcela been born thirty years previous, statically she might have already had four children.

Marcella truly typified the young Brazilian women who comes from an economically difficult background but who uses her desires and passions to succeed in life, grooming herself for a future which might indeed one day mirror her favorite novela, Ti-Ti-Ti.


Whenever anything becomes too weighted, complicated, problematic, a song tends to surface which helps straighten out the bends. I call it, the Monty Python Moment, whistling and internally singing:

Always look on the bright side of life

No longer allowing angst to build by continual cancellations — A no show? Great! I’ll guzzle down a caipirinha (the national drink of Brazil), wander Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo and see what flows.

Whenever hours of meandering Ibirapuera Park yielded near zero interesting visuals, I'd wander to the over-the-top Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art, conveniently located right in this amazing natural oasis in the center in São Paulo. Post such a visit, three frames of a mother with her daughter appeared perfectly within a narrow spot of sunlight.

Drained by moments that end up being as visually mute as photographing a doorknob? — Excellent, spend hours riding inside the female only metro cars of Rio (one of only nine countries which offer such privacy in male-groping societies) and realize the best moments are not so much the packed trains where everyone holds the handrails waiting to get off, the real action is on the platform where uniformed security guards keep men away during morning and evening rush hour.

This security guard repeatedly has to ask male passengers not to enter the female only train of the Rio metro system. It worked out more interesting than interior views of women standing, doing basically nothing other than wanting to get home.

Hamstrung trying to make a setting in a featureless room filled with children learning music just slightly intriguing? No worries — A future protégés from a poor neighborhood practices violin at home. Not just any home that is. It had epic views of Rio, and naturally right smack behind loomed the massive concrete Jesus, known as the Redeemer statue. Even better, she often plays on the roof, and it was laundry day.

Rebeca de Silva, 13, comes from a family of musicians — her father is a musician, so is her brother. And the views overlooking Rio from Santa Marta are some of the most spectaurlar I've seen. No idea why some call this area a slum or favela. Utterly wrong. Santa Marta was actually the area where I felt most welcomed, at peace and inspired, not just by the brilliant vistas but also the warmth and kindness of the people. In addition, couldn't get the James Taylor song, Rio, out of my head, with that massive concrete Christ perfectly positioned in the background. From this position, it truly is only a dream in Rio.

And right when things were flowing so well, Mira had to leave for a personal project that was unchangeable back in the States — there was over one week left and the key photograph to illustrate, the graph, nowhere near accomplished.

Think that ending bit of Life of Brian was whistled a few dozen more times that day.


Throughout Girl Power, I discovered that if Sarah Leen felt she wanted or needed me to do this story with her, in the end it was I who needed/wanted Sarah.

Sarah had the hand on the rudder. I’d call or write often, something I don’t often do. Needed a sounding board when necessities fell through or what initially seemed crucial fell into the visual junk drawer.

What couldn’t slip into this drawer were two photographs that would illustrate that darn graph. If there is any segment of photograph which spins towards the doldrum it’s that I don’t enjoy set-up portraits, preferring portraits to evolve naturally because they do. All the time.

With Mira having to leave Brazil, it was of prime importance to have someone else equally as talented to carry on for the final ten days — the portraits and other minor but important chunks.

During Part I of the assignment in November 2010, we were at an event heralding the importance of women’s roll to help pacify a poor and crime ridden area of Rio. It was there that we met an amazing salsa singer who was preforming at the gather, Thais Villela Lotado.

Had the honor of hearing Thais sing twice during the second half of the assignment. This evening, the diva took the stage at Semente Bar in the Lapa area of Rio. Thais' voice is off the charts amazing.

Between sessions we chatted with Thais — decided to wait out the entire event hoping something (anything) visually interesting would transpire. Nothing did.

Thais spoke very good English, had a fantastic sense of humor, was an astonishing singer and by chance was also a part-time journalist fixer. It helped that her partner was Tom Phillips, the talented British correspondent for the Guardian newspaper based in Rio. Last year the idea never crossed the mind to work with Thais, let alone if I’d ever see her during the second half of the story.

As fate would have it, months later we would spend some of the most productive and fantastic laugh-filled days together — we got along like two peas in a pod, two kids at a carnival.

Having three days with little to do before getting access to Globo, I suggest to Thais we rent a car, head into the countryside outside of Rio and basically get lost to see what life outside of big cities is like for women. Hadn't planned that this idea would actually physically get us lost — the GPS we rented was so lousy that we ended up driving for hours along a dirt road till getting stuck, along with another women with her daughter, due to a lorry running off the the rain-saturated road. Even with this mishap, we had loads of fun, listen to fantastic music and basically didn't find a darn thing all that interesting related to this very specific story — women farming, working at a store. So wife and I farm too. Sometimes one needs to turn over rocks in hope there's something under them. In this case, there was only mud.

The Graph

No matter how many families across the entire country fit the profile of the high to low fertility graph, it took weeks of preparation, brilliant fixers and transport-like logistics of Fedex to make these portraits happen.

Mira’s karma for happenstance is high. Early on in Part II of the assignment she discovered that a housekeeper she knew happened to have been one of six children. The mother was in her early 60’s and all her children lived outside of Rio de Janeiro. The housekeeper, Maria, and her mother, also named Maria, agreed to discuss with the various siblings about the portrait. It would be weeks before this portrait session could take place, not to mention we still hadn’t found the other end of the chart — a family with two children — but it felt, at the very least, the most involving part for this photograph was over.

With only five days left, Thais, organized cars and drivers to go by every home of the children which Maria do Livramento Braz had given birth to over the past 40 years. Maria, 61, said we would all meet at the home where all the children had grown up. It was located in small village around two hours outside of Rio. The process of bringing mom, all her descendant and ourselves to this village worked seamlessly. What we were not expecting became troubling — it wasn’t the mother’s home.

The house belonged to her eldest daughter, not at all in the village nor near Maria’s home.

It would have to do.

The room was tiny, poorly lit and it was about to rain. Equally challenging with the lack of light in the room, I hardly use flash — rarely does a strobe feel natural. More so, I don’t even know how to properly use a flash. Ironically there is always one Canon strobe in the Think Tank roller bag. It’s there, just in case, and never with any batteries in order to force its non-usage.

The portrait of Maria and her six children worked out fine, senza flash, though days later something was gnawing at me; The setting wasn’t proper.

It had to be the mother’s home.

With due diligence, Thais called everyone, explained the situation to Maria and her children and once more organized the transportation to reunite everyone, this time to the home where five of the six children had actually been brought into the world.

The stars were in alignment that day.

The ancestral home of Maria’s children was utterly quaint and hadn’t changed in decades. More accommodating, there was a doorway off the living room that led into a kitchen that also appeared unchanged since the 70’s. The doorway would allow for a sense of framing and depth in what otherwise would feel like a flat portrait of seven people packed into a 10 foot by 10 foot room. And lifting visual spirits even higher, it was a sunny day and on the wall hung a decent sized mirror. It would be used to bounce natural light through a window, onto the faces of Maria’s children, highlighting the graphs highest precipice.

With three days left — already extending my time on the ground past four weeks —  we still hadn’t accomplished the lower end of the graph; Today’s Brazilian family.

Thais had numerous friends who chose to only have one or two children. Photographing many, none really felt a match to Maria’s family portrait — with one family the son refused to even remotely sit still (fun but impractical), another family was perfect but the interior home setting was utterly confusing, another just turned out blah — not the family, the end result.

Balance lacking, these options would have to do. My sojourn to Brazil was ending.

The following is not fiction.

Two days previous, a friend — of a friend — of Thais said he knew of a woman who had six children. They lived in Rio. We arranged to do a second family of six portrait, just in case.

On the day of departure and only nine hours remaining, another unforeseeable twist transpired.

That morning, with luggage already packed in a Rio hotel, we photographed the large family. It was lovely but not as unique and fitting as Maria do Livramento Braz’s family. Still, it’s always good to have two options when the final editing begins.

What was astonishing is this…her six offspring each had only one or two children of their own, exactly mirroring the low end of the graph.

Rushing around Rio from house to house, sweating like a swine, we made family portraits of three of the sisters with their two-child offsprings. Maria Corrêa de Oliveira, a psychoanalyst in Rio, with her husband, daughter and son worked perfectly — the typical middle-upperclass minimalist home you’d see in novelas and a doorway leading to the study which framed the modern Brazilian family, as did the other Maria’s kitchen doorway.

The graph was illustrated. I could head home.

What began months earlier as a graph on an email attachment finally manifested itself in real life. Indeed the chart was correct, Brazil has found a honest, at times balanced and proper way, to help reduce its population footprint on our planet in a very powerful yet simple way many more countries could emulate — Women's Power.


All stories have their idiosyncrasies. None ever flow as planned. Few if any can be predetermined. Most meander mangled paths of unpredictability. Such routes make the struggles on both assignments and in life far more enchanting. Would be boring, monotonous, monotoned, if everything brilliant simply swirled around you. We need challenges. They make us stronger to see more. Quandaries pull us out on the limb to get the fruit.

With this latest challenge over, feeding the beast — it is an enjoyable beast to feed, roughly once every zodiac calendar cycle — it’s time to share a cup of coffee with my wife, Anastasia, enjoy the first days of fall rolling through the Berkshires and go harvest some vegetables.

The challenges of being a farmer flows pretty much like the hurdles of an assignment — bushels of pre-planning, labor of tilling, backaches of planting, frustration of tending, an acre of luck and the patience of time to nurture its growth.

September 17, 2011   10 Comments

Why Choose a Holga? Part III – Film to Book

A woman is in trance during a Melasti ceremony at the Pura Tanah Lot, a 15th-century temple and one of Bali’s holiest sites situated just off the coast of Tabanan. This unique ceremony is held to purify and make sacred the Pralinggan Ida Betara, or god temple shrine, carried from its sister temple in Tambawaras.


Finding solace — and time to feed the beast — continues to occur in the air, this time heading across the Pacific in seat 25C.

No better way to proceed with Part III of Why Choose a Holga? then doing so while flying to a country we once called home and were the book, Island of the Spirits, was created.


Just the name, Indonesia, conjures images of mystery, enchantment, suspense and magic.

On many levels, Indonesia had a profound effect for me and my family. For instance, if we hadn’t chosen to name our daughter Francesca Merapi (Merapi, being the name of a mystical Central Javanese volcano), we might have chosen Francesca Indonesia Stanmeyer.

No joke.

The word Holga also illicit’s a sense of enchantment, mystery, magic and indeed suspense…suspense because you never fully know what will be exposed on the negatives it produces.

Digital cameras took away the mystery — and at times, suspense — of photography. The pensive wait for hours or days thereafter for the film to be developed has been replaced with instant gratification at a press of the button.

Film and a Holga simply does not work that way, taking you back in time (not that long ago) when thought and patients reigned.

A high priest, or Ratu Pedanda, is held by her followers during a ceremony in Ubud. When such a holy person prays, he or she is called a living Siwa and is believed to deliver direct messages or requests from the gods. That is why the revered person is held and does not touch the ground.


Living five years in Bali had many ups, but also downs.

Bali is an overwhelmingly beautiful place to live, raising a family amongst some of the most kindest people in one of the richest cultures on earth.

The down sides often resided in the reality that for a working photographer, there simply wasn’t the infrastructure on the island to handle professional photographic needs.

Forget non-reliant electricity, obscenely expensive satellite Internet fees, the numerous hassles from corrupt customs officials who would want to shake me down for money at the airport because I had more than one camera whenever arriving home (yes, I was a registered journalist and a legal resident…and a sign, clearly written in both Bahasa Indonesia and English, resided on the wall in the customs interrogation room which read “TWO recording devices are allowed to be brought into Indonesia…”), or if you needed specific equipment, it would have to wait until making a future trip to Singapore, Hong Kong or New York.

The greedy customs agents are easy to sort — just let them get bored with your kindness and smiles, after an hour they give up knowing they are wrong. Can’t blame them, they are underpaid and have families to feed.

The most complicated to sort was finding a lab which could properly develop 120mm film.

Knowing years before moving full-time to Bali that films like 120 Tri-X simply did not exist on the island, the choice was predetermined:

Kodak CN400.

Accepting that the grain pattern was tight, lacking the feel and sublet nuance of it’s more mature cousin, Tri-X, it was the ability to develop using C-41 (color chemical processing) which cemented the decision.

More so, it was relatively easy to find in Indonesia.

Seems simple, right?

Not really.

Here is how it was accomplished in what took five years to photograph and a few more years thereafter in post production.

A giant ogoh-ogoh is paraded at night through the village of Tibubeneng in Canggu on the eve of Nyepi, or the Balinese Day of Silence. The primary purpose of creating ogoh-ogohs is the purification of the natural environment of any spiritual pollutants emitted from the activities of living beings, especially humans.


During Indonesia’s historically weighted Reformasi era, I’d tried many labs in Jakarta for E-6 processing (jeez, remember E6?? It’s not that long ago) but only one lab stood out, Standard Foto.

One day I called Farida, the wonderful women who owns/runs Standard Foto, and discovered she does professional processing of 120 C-41 film. This was a near godsend because the only place found in Bali that could do 120mm film was a dusty hole-in-the-wall shop located in the dreadful tourist area of Kuta in Denpasar — they scratched a test roll of film more than the Holga naturally does.

To get film to Jakarta, we’d wait until 3 or more rolls were needing processing, then express mail the rolls to Farida.

She knew I was demanding, requesting that only she process the film. No one else.

It was also imperative that the film was not cut into strips — the Holga is a manual film advancing camera with a nowhere near precise hand-winding knob. This means space between frames are often close together or even touching. The decision where to cut was mine and no one else’s.

Then came the next hurdle; How to ship back to Bali meter-long, uncut strips, of fragile film?

Farida devised a system…she would sleeve the uncut film in plastic, hand spin each roll, placing the rolled film into two 35mm film canisters — one canister on the bottom, one on the top — taking tape to seal the two touching canister seams so that each roll of 120 film became virtually indestructible to damage in it’s mini missile container.

Farida also knew I was giddy to see the processed film, often times turning around 20 or more rolls in one day, returning the film back to the studio in Bali the next day…and ever so kindly not charging express processing fees. Big hugs for that, Farida.

The studio in Bali, build as a one room house but used entirely for photography.

Yudhistira Dharma, aka, JP, working in the studio.

Whenever Tiki-Jne (Indonesia’s domestic express courier) came knocking on the garden gate, it was a time for near juvenile excitement; We were soon about to see what we now take for granted whenever pressing a preview button on the back of a digital camera — the mystery of photography.

Ripping open the package as if it were Christmas, we would go into the temperature controlled film room — with extreme humidity in Bali, we had to build literally an entire room in the studio that was completely sealed and humidity/temperature controlled. We’d put on gloves, turn on the lightbox and begin opening Farida’s deftly sealed plastic film canisters.

At times it was a near religious experience — there is nothing more recessed in tradition and thought provoking than looking at film. And there is nothing more mysterious and beguiling then looping a roll of film created on a Holga to see what actually was exposed.

Editing rolls of Holga film with Wayan Tilik that had just arrived from Standard Foto in the film room of the studio. Not concerned about theft, more so, fire, hence the large safes which kept film and HD's from potential ruin. If you look closely near the center/bottom of the photograph, you'll see the Farida designed way of protecting 120mm uncut film using two 35mm plastic film canisters. Photograph Courtesy of Lukman Bintoro


Because of my concern to have no one else cut film, we had to devise a simple but meaningful way to go from a negative to a positive. We needed contact sheets. The solution: Flatbed scanner.

After cutting, Wayan or JP would dive with enchantment into the process of creating digital contact sheets, beginning the first step of an involving dance of going from film to book and exhibition ready images.


Step I

Digital contact sheets – Each roll would be scanned at around 30 mega each, given a special code (example: holga-melasti-001, holga-melasti-002, holga-melasti-003, etc), then placed in archival envelopes with matching digital contact sheet code.


Step II

Basic toning – Raw (untoned) digital contact sheets would need basic toning, sometimes toning individual frames on each contact sheet due the limited exposure controls on a Holga — Sun or Cloud.


Step III

First Edit – It was said by a photographer (her or his name escapes the mind) that showing contact sheets is like showing someone your underwear.

Ok, here is my underwear:

First edits made on a digital contact sheet from barong ceremony located in Baturiti, Bali.

Only one edit made on a digital contact sheet from a Perang Pandan ritual in Tenganan Village.

Using dots, I would make a broad but meaningful first edit. These edits would be called in the analogue as world work prints, but in this digital realm, they became work scans. All contact sheets were scanned as 30+ meg TIFFs, allowing for full-screen viewing on a 30-inch Apple monitor of each individual frame.


Step IV

Organizing – Every edited digital contact sheet was then imported into Aperture, Apple’s professional digital imaging program. Aperture is by far the best for not only toning both digital camera files and digital film scans, Aperture is the most intuitive organizing program, allowing you to work in a humanizing way, as if categorizing analogue film in the film room. In addition to contact sheets, all work scans were imported to begin the next step, toning of work scans. Here is an example of what contact sheets look like when organized using Aperture:

543 digital contact sheets, some edited, others not, residing in Aperture. Due to inherent spacing issues when advancing film in a Holga, some contact sheets could not be cut into typical strips of three. Some had to be cut into strips of two or even one negative frame, creating at times an A, B and C contact sheet for an individual roll of film. This is why all cutting of film had to be done in Bali, not at the lab in Jakarta or by anyone else other then myself.

Step V

Work Scans – JP or Wayan would then take each edits negative, scanning one by one on a flatbed scanner, using a mask to make sure perfect full-frame (including the natural black border of the film) scans were created. These scans were made as 30 meg TIFFs. The work scans then received a special coding, matching them with their respected roll of film. Example: holga-melasti-002-04 (meaning, roll 0002 of a melasti ceremony, frame number 4).


Step VI

Work scans needed toning. These would become the photographs which the final book edit was derive from. Well over 600 A, B and “what the #*$- is this?” edits, were toned and organized in Aperture.

When I first starting using Aperture (version 1.5 days), some photographers considered it a slow running program. Sure, we all want everything fast but those who complained missed the boat — anything digital in version 1.whatever is no different then complaining that your child, a prodigy violin player, isn’t immediately performing like Itzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall. Speed aside, Aperture blew me away with its powerful toning controls for black and white film scans. More so, Aperture works in a way that mirrored my process in a wet darkroom.

Aperture version 3 is now lightening fast and nearing a Miles Davis level of brilliance.

Second Edit – Once the work scans were toned, the next task was to edit over 600 images down to a visual narrative. Using staring, color labels, Smart Albums and whatnot in Aperture, the multi-year body of work grew into shape and form on the screen, bringing a large loose edit into a storytelling 100+ image tighter edit.

Final A edit, toned and organized in Aperture. Notice the multiple albums, projects and whatnot on the left. The ability to quickly and efficiently make various albums helped in bringing the edit down to 106.


Work Prints – Being more in-tuned with three dimensions than two, I find it nearly impossible to fully determine a selection without making final decisions from prints. One long weekend, we printed 106 photographs on A4 paper.


Step IX

Final Edit – Lisa Botos, the former editor of Time Magazine in Hong Kong, was the editor for the Island of the Spirits book. We had worked together for over ten-years on countless stories. Lisa’s not only a dear friend and one of best photo editors I’ve ever worked with, she’s won nearly ever editing award possible during her tenure at Time. Lisa flew to Bali from her new home in Singapore. Awaiting her in the garden off the studio were all the prints, hanging on a makeshift clothesline around a large poinsettia tree we called Jack. Sipping wine and watching the kids run around the garden, we brought the 106 photographs down to 56, which would become the final edit for the Island of the Spirits.

My son's Konstantin and Richard, running around the garden off the studio amongst A4 size work prints. It's from these 106 prints that we made the final 56 image edit for the book, Island of the Spirits. August 17, 2007

Step X

Drum Scans – The final 56 photographs next needed to be turned into master digital files. Scans off a $300 flatbed scanner are fine for work scans, but it’s nowhere near good enough to use for a book or massive exhibition prints. Lans Brahmantyo, owner of R&W books (who published Island of the Spirits), had a drum scanner in his Jakarta office. Out of fear of having original negatives lost if using a shipping company, Wayan flew to Jakarta and hand delivered the original negatives for drum scanning. 200 megabyte, 16 bit, RGB scans were made of the initial 106 image edit, just in case of wanting to swap out an edits during the final layouts of the book.


Step XI

Dust and Scratches – Probably the most complicated, involving and time consuming task in the entire process of making the book was to clean dust and scratches that eight different Holga bodies imbedded across nearly every negative. 200 megabyte Heidelberg drum scans are ruthless, showing even the tiniest of tiny specs of dust. It took six months of nearly every day work to take the 106 images and remove the dust/scratches. We then made two versions of each master drum scan — an untouched original scan (with all the dust and scratches) and a second matching with was dust/scratch free, left untoned.


Step XII

Final Toning – The last step — though there never really is a last anything until the book comes off the press and the prints for the exhibition are all printed — was to tone the drum scans. It was in Aperture were the magic of being in a darkroom was nearly resurrected, working fluidly upon each image, reaching a proper, naturally toned quality. This final toning process took another six months.

A final toned image from a Melasti ceremony.

Step XIII through Infinity

The Book – In Part IV of Why Choose a Holga?, we’ll go into the process of why I chose to go with a Indonesian based publisher, working on design and layout, the nightmare of discovering that over a years worth of image prep was almost for naught and the fascinating processes of supervising the actual printing process of the book.

Till then, the plane, one of four that it took to get from Texas to Indonesia, is about to land. The second half of the National Geographic story, code named, The White Horse, is about to begin. It was a raging stallion to ride in the Pacific Northwest a few weeks back. It will likely continue to be an unbroken beast here in Southeast Asia.

Even with the visual challenges, I’d rather be nowhere else than in this magnificent land called Indonesia.



To Purchase Island of the Spirits

Regular Edition

Island of the Spirits by John Stanmeyer Foreword by anthropologist Wade Davis • Introduction by Anastasia Stanmeyer

Regular edition signed copies of Island of the Spirits are available worldwide through the Island of the Spirits website and unsigned through

In Indonesia, Island of the Spirits is available at all Periplus and Gramedia bookstores and the Ganesha bookstore in Ubud.


Limited Edition

Island of the Spirits is available in a Limited Edition of 150. The books cover is wrapped in grey woven material with a positive image on a full-frame piece of film replicating the original exposed 6x6 Holga negative. The numbered book is placed in a handmade box also covered in gray fabric material. A signed print on archival watercolor paper is included.

Limited Edition copies of Island of the Spirits are only available through the Island of the Spirits website.

In Indonesia, Limited Edition copies are only available from R&W.

August 7, 2011   9 Comments

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)



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

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



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

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



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.



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.



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.


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.

July 21, 2011   2 Comments