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Ethiopia, Journal III — I Need a Bath

Disclaimer: The following are personal accounts of my travels the last month and represent my own opinion based on experiences and observation. By no means do I suggest that hygiene is unimportant nor unnecessary. The references to the history of bathing were garnered from websites and though surely there is far more information out there, the anecdotes shared offer a glimpse into a fascinating realm of life we most often never think about. This is a non-scientific study.

Preface

Indian Summer day’s spent in the backyard of our home on Pratt Boulevard in Chicago or after the age of 9, climbing through genip trees with my friend, Andy Adams, in the Bahamas, I would easily return home coated in sweat, dirt and disgust, never pondering whether a bath was necessary nor desired.

My mother (in a heavy Viennese accent) would always utter in sheer disgust:

“SCHWEINHUND!”

No idea why there's a coconut on my head, but I sure remember playing hard in that Bustedfinger t-shirt and those mode Bay City Rollers shorts. Photographed by my mother in the backyard of our home in the Bahamas, 1973.

Direct translations — “PIG-DOG!”

I was often called a Schweinehund.

Playing was my job.

Bathing, only a notion in the inconsequential rhythms of childhood.

Which brings us to today.

The last month — more specific, the past 43 days in Ethiopia while on assignment for National Geographic — my mother’s voice resonate incessantly in the internal dialogue any time a rare reflection exposed me:

“Look at you, covered in dirt! Look at your clothes! Stink to high-heaven! John, go take a bath — you’re a SCHWEINHUND!!”

 

Photography and Bathing

On many photo assignments, we often don’t have daily access to bath. Having covered more hard news and wars than my heart cares to recall, such deeply emotional events end up being periods of time where survival is principal. Food and water, secondary. Shelter measured by floorspace. Bathing, occasional.

For my naturalist colleagues at National Geographic, brilliant photographers like Michael “Nick” Nichols, Tim Laman, Steve Winter, Paul Nicklen, Christian Ziegler and so many others, bathing must also be inconsequential — these photographers live for weeks in the bush or on floating icecaps to enlighten all of us to care and sustain the natural world around us. Accessibility to use a bar of soap is surely equivalent to that of hygiene opportunities while documenting conflict; It will happen when it happens.

In reality, animals will repel from photographers if cloaked in a bouquet of chemicals so why bother.

A sniper couldn’t sniff the stench of Irish Spring (a brand of American soap) from a few meters away, let along care. You’re only in their sites, hoping they have poor aim.

More distinct, conflict photography thrusts in motion waves of endorphins, allowing to overcome your dearth of cleanliness — days (and nights) are connected to getting home alive.

I’ve gone long periods without bathing while covering revolutions and war, rarely perceiving my filth, torn clothing nor repugnant stench.

Back in 2005 I did a story for National Geographic on Malaria. We went to five countries for this project — Peru, Zambia, India, Tanzania and Kenya. By far the most uniquely challenging was urban malaria in India. Here wandering through the streets of my favorite city, Kolkata. If I do remember correctly, there was access to a shower later that night, thankfully. Photograph Courtesy of Anil Chandra Roy

Keeping distracted via the power of opiate receptors hasn’t worked on this assignment for National Geographic in the Horn of Africa when it comes to bathing.

This story is not a fast breaking news event or a story occurring in a city or town. It’s a continuous journey where my task is to present a narrative based upon a span of time that is 59,850 years older than photography. Throughout this fascinating process, I’ve walked over 50 miles (80 kilometers) through deserts and ancient lava fields, driven over 7,000 miles (11,260 k) on nonexistent roads, doing both in an ever present cacophony of heat and dust.

Abundantly sweating is the norm.

Expanses of time to mull limitless potent — and nonsense — abound.

None of this is difficult. Rather, it simply goes with the job.

Exposed over the previous 43 days in this rather unique wandering (where the nearest hotel or even water is hundreds of miles away), an entirely experimental process occurred which inspired this story. A tale of truth wrapped around human existence, history, a forgotten reality and yes, a bit of photojournalism.

I hope you will be enthralled, as I have, to realize that at times, we all stand before the mirror of our ancestors, our great grandmothers and grandfathers of roughly 2,500 generations past, when they walked 60,000 years ago out of the Afar region of what is today, Ethiopia — not carrying a bar of soap.

 

Afar

Traveling overland since early January in the remotest, most inaccessible regions of Ethiopia — the spectacular Lower Rift Valley of Africa — has been an character altering experience.

More specific, this nonstop journey has taken place in a region of The Rift known as Afar. This area is populated mostly by pastoralist nomads.

My favorite time of day while living amongst the Afar's was when the livestock would return back to the village from grazing. An epic event rarely seen anymore in our modern world of cattle farming and processed foods. The dust these goats toss up is right out of a film, of course you become coated in it.

Afar could be viewed as a nation uniquely its own. Afari’s have a completely different language, incomprehensible to their Ethiopian sisters and brothers. Entirely different customs and history.

Due to invisible lines which most often segregate rather than unite — borders — a vast majority of the Afar people (well over 1.5 million) call home an extensive portion of an already extremely diverse nation called Ethiopia (formerly known as Abyssinia). Afar is roughly the size of the both the U.S. states of North and South Dakota. Maybe larger. And the Afar diaspora stretches well beyond only Ethiopia, spreading deep into both Eritrea and Djibouti.

A key element lacking in this part of the world is the one item which no human can live without.

 

Water

As astounding as this landscape has been, existence is mixed with a heaping toll of suffering for the inhabitance of Afar due to water scarcity.

An Afari elder recently told me something dreadful began 20-30 years ago (think climate change) — rain no longer falls.

In one village, Sudumta, I stumbled upon over 50 men, heads bowed to the ground towards a dried riverbed. Coincidence or sheer divine intervention, the exposed floor of the river and their prostration of reverence was in the direct trajectory of Mecca.

They were praying for rain.

Not a drop of water had fallen from cloudless skies in well over a year.

Desperation and God is all that was left.

It's so dry in the Afar region, sand tornadoes are a regular occurrence.

What little water does exist in this part of the Lower Rift comes from holes, 10 ft (3 meters) deep. Levels of liquid are so negligible, a thin pan is deftly scrapped across wet dirt, daubing mouthful-amounts of silt-brown liquid into a slightly larger container — a repurposed jerry can that once contained cooking oil.

This modest amount of liquid is their only drinking water.

Using such scant recourses for bathing would be inconceivable.

 

Supplies

Let me preface a earnest dose of reality — I DO like to bath!

Long gone are the days when Andy (my across the street neighbor on the island of Nassau) and I could play till soiled beyond recognition.

Knowing such water scarcity was the tragic norm in this part of Ethiopia, we did carry our own jerry can’s of water upon the roof of the LandCruiser, used (and only enough) for cooking.

Melesse, the driver, on the roof getting fuel. On the left are two jerry cans for water which were used for cooking and cleaning dishes. Remaining part of the roof rack held two spare tires. The interior of the LandCruiser was chockablock of sleeping gear and camera kit, with barely enough vision for going in reverse.

Transporting enough water for 3-4 people to bath — Yonas Abiye (Ethiopian translator), Melesse (driver), Habibi and Indris (Afar guides) and myself — would require a small tanker in tow. Completely impractical.

What additional water we did carry was bottle water and those too were often in short supply.

Bathing quickly became crossed off any known To Do list for days.

Even weeks.

 

Evolution

When bathing water was available, it primarily manifested at grimy hotels frequented by truck drivers which incessantly ply the main artery that links Ethiopia to the outside world: The Port of Djibouti. Such brilliance liquid access occurred three or four times in the last month.

As disgusting to those of us living in the developed world might take the next phase in this narrative, you will be astonished to know that our bodies were never designed to be bathed as often as we do today.

Here begins an experiment, one which wasn’t by choice, rather a natural evolution brought upon by environmental changes (lack of rain):

Most of the land near to lakes looks as this, cracked and dried due to a year without rain. Somehow I lost my Merril hiking shoes, having to use a pair of Croc's and a pair of dress shoes. Both shoes are now ruined.

Day 1: Fresh clothing. Hair and skin are clean. You feel nearly buoyant.

Day 2: Clothing has received a few stains — gravity is not my friend when eating — and though no longer as buoyant, a sweaty shirt, trousers, and yes, the same underwear, don’t seem all that dreadful to keep using, knowing even if you did change clothing, within minutes you’d be covered in Afar dust, so why bother.

Day 3: Only by day three do you begin to sense (from our developed nation mindset) that physical needs might be going awry. Disgust manifests, yet you keep a forward presents, knowing once again that donning anything clean would not solve the problem due to daily dust storms and relentless heat (I don’t travel with more than 3 changes of clothing and a few extra underwear).

Within a few days a shirt is soiled, forming shapes and patterns I never thought possible.

Day 4 and 5: One’s will becomes tested. Clothing by this time is completely covered in grim, dirt, food stains. Perspiration causes your outerwear (and inner) to conform to your torsos. Frustration turns to giddiness in this state of disrepair. I began considering the only remaining clean clothing as precious items to conserve — they were all I have left.

Day 6-10: Here began the unique part of this unorthodox, unplanned, process of human understanding — once I reached day 7, 8 and definitely day 10, the notion or more so, the need for a bath evaporates – both from my consciousness and torso. It’s not that you become unreceptive to your hygiene condition — thank goodness there were few mirrors where I’ve been the last month. Rather, a natural occurrence happened; My body began to self-clean. The sweating pores of my skin — and I will stress again, continual sweating pores — began to push out, then off, most of the grim build up. Yes, clothing at this point is reaching a state of ruin, however my skin no longer smelled. Only the clothing did. Airing shirts/trousers/underwear on a tree limb each night before donning a slightly less soiled t-shirt and shorts to sleep in, the following morning my skin smelled fine. The hanging clothing, fused stiff on the tree, is what repulsed.

A great evening's rest was had while sleeping in the tent on the grounds of a small restaurant in Dalifagi. Now by around day 10, my clothing (hanging in the tree) became sculpted works of art designed by gravity, fused by sweat.

Day 11 and 12: Just shy of two weeks, or 12 days to be exact, I became completely one with my new self. My shirt and trousers from REI were now defiled by the harsh conditions of the Afar region, appearing as shop rags in a garage rather than material to be worn by humans. Yet astonishingly enough, my skin was relatively clean and didn’t smell. By some natural process that clearly we’ve forgotten we possess, the rancid notion of filth wasn’t so much about me — sure, I didn’t smell like a Lancôme counter in a department store — but rather, the outerwear. We seemed, by my unscientific study of self, to have built-in self-cleaning systems, which clearly evolved from millennia’s of basic environmental conditioning. No question, there was surface layers of dirt on all parts of my body, yet large areas that were once coated in dust and grime, a day or two later could be no longer seen. This had to have been caused by my natural body sweat because I never had access to water nor ever pulled out a towel.

After 12 days with no access to water for bathing, I was surprised the fine folks at the Harmony Hotel allowed me in the door. Here on a brief trip back to Addis Ababa for a new (third) car, it felt mighty strange to bath and shave.

When I did finally bathe on or around day 12 (there have been two-cycles of 12 day non-bathing travel), it felt exhilarating yet at the same time, offsetting.

Which made me wonder; Were we humans actual bathers 60,000 years ago when walking out of Africa?

Did we bathe 10,000 years ago?

2,000 years past?

Did my great grandmother and great grandfather bathe in the late 1800′s?

Now ensconced in the first (somewhat) legitimate hotel in well over a month — the mildly renovated, Hotel Dar es Salam, located in the heart of Djibouti City, Djibouti — I had to do the research.

 

Reality

For those of you who have a clean-self fetish, brace yourself —

We humans rarely ever bathed until just 100 or so years ago.

Here with a brief overview on the history of human bathing:

"The baths at Louèche," by Hans Bock the Elder 1597 — Interesting how painting during this time only showed the lovely scenes of life (or religion, war, etc) but little on how the general population lived.

10,000 – 60,000 years ago — From the origins of our collective beginnings in Africa (yes, we are all African), very little information exist from this era regarding bathing. An article in the New Scientist has shown that Neanderthals may have learned how to sail or float across seas far sooner than humans, however the chances of Neanderthals caring about bathing would likely be nil. After walking and driving through much of our collective humanities original existence the last 40+ days, water, 60 millenniums ago, was nowhere near as scarce as it is today in Afar, Ethiopia, However observing the landscapes (from a relatively decent knowledge of geology), I could surmise fairly accurately that potable (drinkable) water was not abundant here at anytime in the last 1-2 millions years. There is evidence that fresh water existed but most are now dried lake beds. What was odd is how Afar people today do not actually live next to water sources. There are a few lakes (one very large and very close to where we began this walk in the small village of Herto Bouri), but no one seems to live next nor near to them. Such a practice of living so far from water might mirror our relatives of 60,000 year-old who also may have chosen to live away from large bodies of water (unable to swim or afraid of large animals such as hippos and crocodiles?), seeking potable water either by only walking great distances or finding water in shallow wells and streams. Today, most of the nomadic Afari’s choose to live 1-3 miles (1.6-4.8 kilometers) walk away from the nearest water source. Is this due to disputes with neighbors over water rights, making sure no one group of people have greater access to precious water over another? I could never get a meaningful answer from the countless Afari’s I asked on this topic. This lack of access to water is an misfortune and suffrage for millions around the world. My friend, Lynn Johnson, produced a powerful essay on water slavery for National Geographic a few years back titled, Burden of Thirst, illustrating just how difficult it is to gain access to water throughout much of Africa and elsewhere on earth — a labor that is borne on the women. Surely such access to water 60,000 years ago wasn’t much better. In fact, lack of water may have even led to our collective walk out of this region for greater liquid assets.

5,000-10,000 years ago — By this time, soap hadn’t even been invented nor considered. Once again, the historical record is scarce this far back. A meaningful hypothesis would indicate not much had changed in the realm of hygiene nor passion for cleanliness between say 5,000-60,000 years ago. Maybe for the extreme elite, bathing was taking place, but for the masses, likely nonexistent. Survival was of far greater importance.

2,000-5,000 years ago — It wasn’t until almost 5,000 years go (or around 2,800 BC) that soap was invented in ancient Babylon. However, by 2,800 BC, our ancestors would have already reproduced nearly 2,000 time. Whether one believes in evolution, creationism, etc (this is not a story on such a topic so let’s not debate this here!), the reality is this; Producing that many offspring would allow our skin to develop/evolve to a point of never needing such an item as soap, let alone regular bathing. Another significant aspect of migration to keep in mind is this — humans didn’t all walk out of Africa and straight to Babylon. We wandered in all directions, creating specific cultural communities in other parts of Africa, onward to Europe, Asia then into the America’s, reaching the tip of present day Chile about 7,000 years ago. In China, the first signs of bathing began only 3,000 years ago. Ancient Greeks — the most prolific bathers during this time — where one of the first to create bathing centers, the oldest discovered in a palace complex at Knossos, Crete. The Romans also seemed to have switched on to bathing around this period of time. Why and what caused this sudden interest — only within very specific locations across the planet — still seems a mystery. One thing of for certain, until this era, humans (us), didn’t give a darn about personal cleanliness.

800-2,000 years ago — Here is when things get interesting. By the fall of the Roman Empire (which began around 470 AD), bathing went out of fashion. There were ritualistic/spiritual bathing within nearly all religions during this time: Mikveh’s in Judaism, Baptism or the act of becoming cleansed/purified, blessed in Christianity, ablutions in Islam (the act of washing feet, hands, face/head) before prayers, etc, all these and more were indeed taking place around this period (the earliest in Judaism). However regular bathing was far from the norm. During the Medieval era (476-1460 AD), it’s a common myth that we didn’t bath. We DID, if you had money. The rest of us only bathed 1-4 times per year, max.

100-800 years ago — Before the great plagues in Europe (especially the Black Plague between 1348 and 1350), few in Europe, except the wealthy, bathed. But when the Black Death hit, there was some consensus that maybe this plague — which killed roughly 75 million Europeans — might be caused by the lack personal hygiene practiced at that time. Suddenly people (those who could afford it) began to bath. Ironically, cleanliness was not the reasons for the onset of the bubonic plague — it was flea-ridden rats that spread death. After this tragic period, pretty much the entire European region returned to non-bathing. On a positive note, the most cleanliest culture at the time (around the 1,400′s) was in Mesoamerica. People in this region, both the elite and the commoners, bathed each afternoon. Why they caught on to such levels of hygiene while few other societies did not, I do not know.

 

Trivia

Here’s a few bits of interesting trivia from this era I didn’t know till doing my post non-bathing research:

How often did Queen Elizabeth I bathe in the 1600′s? About once every few weeks.

How often did European peasants (the vast majority of our relatives at that time were peasants) change their clothes between say 1200 till 1800? Rarely, maybe a handful of times per year.

How often the people bathe in the United States between say 1700-1850′s? Rarely, especially in colder regions such as where I now leave, New England.

Poverty was likely a key factor as to why our ancestors never bathed. The costs for such luxuries as soap were simply far out of reach.

Depressingly, the weight of poverty even today (2 billion humans live on just over $2 USD per day) continues to hinder access to soap or regular bathing.

If you’ve ever traveled to developing world, you will have tragically come across children, even adults, wearing your long discarded sport jerseys or a t-shit with the words “Al’s Auto Parts” meandering around a market. Chances are it’s in tattered condition, never changed nor washed for years.

In the developed world — where we have everything times infinity and we’re still not happy — we’ve become rabid bathers, driven especially by the marketing campaigns from the billion-dollar industry of cleansing products, all telling us we’re less human, less gorgeous, less a person until we look like someone in 30 second commercials and fashion magazines.

As wonderful as it feels after a bath, in many way’s it’s not healthy for our skin.

Our ragging desire — and the hundreds of dollars each year we spend on self-cleaning products — only really manifested with the arrival of indoor plumbing, or in the last 100 or so years.

The forgotten astonishment of being able to turn a knob and the near miracle of water pours — hot or cold — is, in the sense of time, a strand of hair in realm of calendar years.

Astonishing indeed, yet taken so extremely for granted.

At this moment, we’re wasting water at an alarming rate. Not by drinking it all up.

Rather, we’re wasting extreme levels of precious water via the need for more swimming pools (take out the chlorine, it’s your personal Roman bath), our desire for green grass in places where vegetation was never meant to grow and yes, by incredible water usage for bathing — on average we use 7 gallons (26.5 liters) of water per minute when taking a shower using a regular fixture.

28-36 gallons (98-136 liters) for a bath.

40-55 gallons (151-208 liters) to run a conventional cloth washing machine.

Not saying we need to revert back to Medieval bathing practices!

The point that I discovered via self analysis, our environment and culture observation (most Afar people today still only bath once a year) is this — maybe those 15 min showers some of us take could be cut back to 2 minutes.

And if you skip a day without bathing, we’ll be fine.

All that anti-bacterial soap and whatnot, use if you wish, however our bodies need bacteria in order to learn how to fend off common diseases. We’ve gone berserk in the last two-decades turning our homes into mini-sterile hospitals — thanks in part to the multi-billion dollar cleaning industry for convincing us we all must be living in sterile bubbles. And to think we fell for it.

Some serious laundry had to be done after a few weeks in Afar. Yes, I changed my clothing a few times (I have multiple sets of the exact same shirts and trousers, though only three sets with me) but without regular access to bathing water, the clothing pile grew until reaching the Galafi border in Ethiopia. I paid extra for this load to be washed (by hand, no washing machines here) — they were so filthy the women cleaning them needed 2 boxes of detergent.

Astounding as it may seem, by natural development, it appears our bodies (not our clothing) were design in many way to be self-cleansing.

Strange, I know, but I just experienced such an understanding.

 

Conclusion

It was indeed mighty hot in Afar for the month I photographed in this extremely unique and remote part of our world.

From 9am till 4pm, the air and land was a searing skillet of heat. No shade except for the thorny wayone (Procopis) bush or a shadow cast by a large rock, natures sundial. There was no relenting till evening and even then the wind blew desert dust everywhere.

The National Geographic/VII Photo agency office, attached to a traditional Afar home. Perfect editing area, sheltered under a Noah Tent from the relentless hot sun of the Afar region.

During this time, I felt I’d become in a small way, Afari. My new Afar friends skin didn’t smell any different than my own, seeking comfort in the conformity. Yes, their clothing was a bit dirty but oddly enough, nowhere near as dirty as mine.

Most important, they were extremely proud with what few things they had. These are pastoralist, whose wealth and success is not measured by what type of car they drive, designer clothing they wear or latest gizmo that’s all the rage (most could care less about my MacBook Pro or even cameras. Only the iPhone struck their fancy because the screen was so bright, it could be used as a flashlight at night).

Value and self worth is based upon their livestock, which provide food and drink (milk), the two main sustainments of life.

Does this mean the Afar’s do not want a better life?

OF COURSE THEY DO!

Every human being seems naturally wired to seek improvements and a brighter future. The different has always been in having opportunity, a clean environment, education and freedom to choose.

For the Afar, such opportunities — most especially the environment — seems stacked against them.

 

Epilogue

Don’t let my kids read this story!

Like all children, the notion of being told to go take a bath is simply not in their lexicon till reaching the age where that hot guy or cute girl in the third row in science class begins to catch their fancy.

This was the view of my ceiling while sleeping three nights on the ground next to a wayone (Procopis) bush outside of families home in Haramfaf Bouri in Afar. Without electricity for hundreds of miles in any direction, the lanterns of the sky are spectacular, remind of just how small and insignificant I am.

No longer traveling or sleeping in the desert regions of Afar out in the open under a staggering ceiling of stars, using a tent or in a truckers hotel with an alleged bathing stall that resembles an abandoned outhouse, it’s still incredibly hot here in Djibouti City.

My days now are spent wandering the streets with my wonderful new friend, Abdul, who is my driver/translator.

I very much miss my friend, Yonas Abiye, back in Ethiopia, however my friend and brilliant driver, Abdul, and I have hit it off as if known each other a lifetime. Here Abdul is navigating with me over an ancient lava field somewhere in central Djibouti.

Like in Afar, we’re avoiding the heat (translated into Photolingo: Bad Light), working a few mornings but heavily in the afternoons and well into the late evening when the vibrancy of the city is on display.

There’s even air-conditioning in my simple windowless room at the Hotel Dar es Salam — although I can stay in basically any hotel in the city, I despise wasting even NG’s funds on characterless hotels costing hundreds of dollars a night just to rest my head for 6-8 hrs.

There’s even a communal shower down the hall, and can you believe it…it rains hot water.

Even a sit-down toilet.

Life is good.

Only thing missing is my family, whom I miss dearly.

By the way, yesterday was my wife, Anastasia, and our 20th wedding anniversary.

Being on the road as much as I am, it sure helps having a partner who understand what we do — and she's put up with me for 20 years! Sending love from the desert yesterday on our wedding anniversary from the outskirts of Djibouti back to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY — and I promise you that in a few weeks time I’ll returned to the Berkshires all showered, in a clean pair of clothing!

All my best,

 

February 21, 2013   13 Comments

Out of Eden, Journal II — Expect the Unexpected

(Photographs on this blog, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are vignettes from the making of Out of Eden, photographed with an iPhone using the Hipstamatic lens/film combination of Jane and Sugar. The main photography will be published in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine).

Introduction

Goats are herd in to a village in the Afar region of Ethiopia after a day of grazing.

All-embracing, this story is flowing far less problematic than predicted.

Months ago when first receiving a call regarding the Out of Eden project from National Geographic senior photo editor, Kim Hubbard, initial discussions were not so much on what the photography for this story would be. Rather, the focus of numerous conversations we had were on the near spectacular potential for logistical problem solving and the layers of unpredictability in order to accomplish the story.

The photography was relatively simple; Photograph whatever I wanted. A reportage wrapped around a loose theme of present day Ethiopian/Djiboutian culture and daily life.

Camel market in Afar region, Ethiopia.

Seems like a dream assignment, right?

In many ways, it is.

In equal measure, it’s not.

With such wide visual potential, the photography (its narrative) can become unruly with its endless possibilities.

Remember, a photo essay is about storytelling.

Imagine walking into La Scala holding an empty sheet of music. You’re presented with an entire orchestral quantity of instruments, each needing to be played not only in tuned, but collectively brilliant and coherent, in the end, filling in notes for a meaningful — dare I utter, potent — symphony which 20 million or more will listen to come December.

There is the heightened awareness that I’m not out-and-about walking the streets of Turkey’s capital to produce a feature of present day Istanbul, carnival season in New Orleans nor the stupefying development occurring in Shanghai.

Out of Eden takes place in one of the most inaccessible regions on earth, where one can drive (if the car can hold together) for hours, not seeing anyone nor even much variability in landscape.

This is arena which this symphony must be written in. Equally grand is the concert hall in which the finished concerto will be presented — a magazine that began publishing 125 years ago this month, founded by such exceptional minds as Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.

I feel as if every National Geographic story is no different than writing symphony. And once ink hits paper, performing it.

Equally interesting, the challenge is relished.

 

The Unexpected

As marveling as this story is, the words my friend in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea once told me (mentioned in Journal I), are resonating in the noggin;

Expect the unexpected.

In planning for eight to ten weeks of nonstop overland travel throughout most of Ethiopia and literally all of the tiny African nation of Djibouti, I’ve had to muster the wisdom of Job — and nearly 30 years of working on complicated stories in over 80 countries — tapping as much extreme foresight as possible; When one thing goes wrong — as they often do — it can cause a chain reaction of problems.

Nearing week three, so far so good.

Downloading photographs into Aperture in a small village in Afar. Ali Mille (left) traveled with along for this part of the journey, helping guide us through roads which didn't exist. Here he is choosing music from my iPhone while others enjoyed seeing photographs I'd taken earlier in their village.

The photography is flowing very well. Some days are nothing but travel. Other days are overwhelmingly visual. Another day might be untangling unanticipated logistics. All typical events in photojournalism, especially when connected to rigorous travel across multiple countries.

To avoid one my archetypal narratives, here, in list form, is a rundown of what normally — and I do mean, normally — happens while on complex logistical assignments for National Geographic magazine, all which indeed occurred in the last fifteen or more days:

First Landcruiser ruined — doing makeshift repair somewhere in Afar on a broken brake cylinder and snapped shock absorber.

1- First Landcruiser — Ruined front-left break cylinder. In addition, a front shock absorber literally ripped off it’s mount. Both were destroyed due to extreme road/terrain conditions. While the driver limping the vehicle back to Addis Ababa, I rode in Paul Salopek’s car — and at times, Paleoathropologist Tim White’s Landcruiser — while a replacement Landcruiser was driven up from Addis on or about day seven with a new driver.

This second Landcrusier was strong enough to drive throughout the Afar region, but it's overall condition was poor which lead to a third replacement by week two.

This second Landcrusier was strong enough to drive throughout the Afar region, but it's overall condition was poor which lead to a third replacement by week two.

2- Second Landcruiser — this replacement could have been Fred Flintstones automobile for all I cared. Just so long as it was strong, able to handle this astonishing Afar terrain, keeping me on course for this story. Fortunately, it was an extremely strong car, however overall this replacement looked and drove like a beaten Russian Lada. In addition, the new driver, though a nice fellow, was an incessant whinier, driving me berserk.

3- Thorns — This second Landcruiser could at least drive almost anywhere due to it’s strength. However, by day eight or nine, we had a series of blown tires caused by the all-pervasive, 2 inch (5cm) long thorns of the woyane bush (the Procopis plant). These thorns are so strong, they can piece most tires. The woyane bush had been brought into Ethiopia from South America decades back in a misguided attempt to stop erosion in the Afar region. Now, this invasive species has spread in such prolific ways that just in the last two to three years the woyane bush is so thick, it creates an impenetrable barrier, causes us to drive sometimes 5-10 miles (8-16 kilometers) just to get around the densely packed growth — and there are no road where we’re traveling, making the drive to circumvent a journey and significant time loss.

Was very fortunate to run into Melesse while back in Addis last week. His Landcruiser might not be the newest, but it's strong, has 6 good tires (surely we'll blow one or two in the coming weeks) and other than needing to fix the cigarette lighter to charge things like mobile phones, everything works. More important, Melesse is a patient, dedicated man, and does not whine. Here he is, proudly standing with the car he saved for many years to buy, providing the financial support to put his children through school.

4- Third Landcruiser — Avoiding the potential for more car trouble, I went back to Addis, personally choosing a third and this time decent Landcruiser. The driver, Melesse, is patient, professional, willing to push his car to extremes…and he doesn’t whine.

5- Permits — To travel and work in remote Afari villages of Ethiopia (off of well-known travel paths like the road to the Erta Ale volcano, a popular tourist vista to ogle), you need special documentation. Not just from the Ethiopian government but additional paperwork from a regional administration office in Afar which oversees local affairs. Due to misspelling a towns name in Amharic script (the misspelling turned the villages name into town which is not even in the Afar area), we needed to update this special Afar travel permit, taking two-days in drive time to sort.

Ahmed Elema watching photographs download in my office — a ThinkTank camera roller as a desk for the MBPr — as we charge all electronic items off the Landcruiser's battery. Night two of Out of Eden was spent on this lovely village in the Afar region of Ethiopia.

6- Electricity — Traveling in areas with zero access to electricity (forget even having access to water for bathing) means the need for electricity is supreme to charge the cacophony of power-thirsty items in tow:

Camera batteries
MacbookPro
Thuraya satellite phone
Bgan satellite internet
4-mobile phones (drivers, translators, mine and at times even a forth phone belonging to a local Afar guide)

Electrical necessity was especially true one fine morning a few days back — the car battery labored like an overburden donkey to start the Landcruiser. What I had been harboring in the recesses of the cranium was about to take place — using the power inverters (turning 12v into 120v) would soon destroy the car’s battery, stranding us for what could be days, even weeks, in area which truly could be called The Middle of Nowhere. After tracking down an overpriced generator manufactured in China, we were good to go. Or so I thought — that brand-less small generator has already ruined two power adapters. Yesterday, we found a voltage stabilizer. From years of experience living in Asia with terribly unstable electricity, we now (should) indeed be sorted with a third layer of stable power potential, backed up with cigarette lighter charger and the power inverter (to be used sparingly).

By the way, if you ever want to make loads of new friends, carry this mini-nuclear power station in the back of your car, arrive to a village that has no electricity…and where everyone seems to have your discarded (vintage?) 2002 Nokia phone at a battery level of 5 percent!

Paul Salopek logging a GPS reading before beginning his 7 year walk out of Herto, Ethiopia.

7- Unexpected — I received a call from National Geographic on around day 5 of Out of Eden, requesting an additional photograph of Paul, walking with his camels, for another story National Geographic is publishing in either June or July (not for Out of Eden, rather, something else). Out of Eden will appear in the December 2013 issue and has and editing/layout deadline for sometime in July, four months after returning Stateside. This added photograph had to be accomplished far sooner — lightning fast by National Geographic standards; By end of this month. More so, it must be both different and brilliant — you know it has to be when the Editor in Chief, Chris John, speaks to you for 10 minutes via the satellite phone on the importance of this very specific photograph.

Even in semi-normal circumstances this would be simple photograph to achieve. In the Afar region, it’s not. Here is why:

a: Original Plan – This story (the photography), Out of Eden, was never going to be about Paul. Rather, I was to meander, muse, go adrift (my favorite part about these types of stories) anywhere in Afar, moseying along a non-ascertained trajectory beginning in Herto, Ethiopia, arriving 8-10 weeks thereafter (overland) to Djibouti City, Djibouti. I was only going to follow Paul on the beginning of his walk while my support vehicle positioned itself ahead in a village 5-10 miles (8-12k) away, reconnecting with all my supplies in 1-2 days. In this Landcruiser is a near Dave Matthews Band concert level of cables and whatnot to keep everything charged and working.

A cozy REI tent is home for around half of the time while in Afar. Other nights are spent in small hotels in towns along the road which links Ethiopia to Djibouti. We have two other tents for Yonas, the driver, Melesse, and local Afar guides.

The support vehicle also contains complete camping gear for 3-4 people (Yonas, my translator/friend, driver, myself and at times a local Afar guide), food, water, and most important —7 lbs (3kg) of the finest Ethiopian coffee. We were to reconnect in Djibouti City, the end of the first leg in his seven year walk from Herto to Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America. This was the plan, the logistical and infrastructure objective to make one meaningful — and yes, hopefully brilliant — image of Paul leaving the origins of our collective humanities migration out of a very small, extremely remote, village known as Herto. With this unexpected call requesting a second — completely different —image of Paul walking, the dynamics (plan) had to change. Rapidly.

Paul Salopek loading camels that will carry his supplies from the southern Afar region to the border with Ethiopia and Djubouti.

b: Logistics – It takes time to sort camels as a mode of transport. One doesn’t walk up to a camel owner saying: “Hi, would you like to walk with me as your camel carries 300 lbs (136kg) of kit over truly fascinating yet inhospitable terrain, leaving your family, farm and livelihood for the next month?” With Paul Salopek’s camels already laded with the supplies for him and his guide, I could only trouble them to carry my camera bag and a tent. This plan worked, albeit for two days of walking.

All I could carry on one of Paul's camels were a tent and my ThinkTank camera bag as we walked together for the first two days along 10 or so mile (12k) of camel trails, beginning his walk Out of Eden.

c: Weather — Paul’s emergence out of Herto didn’t take him through truly epic landscapes. Also, it was overcast, which helps in reducing the Afar heat, however it also reduces the potential for stunning visuals unless a flock of pterodactyl were to fly through the grey sky — and that ain’t gonna to happen. Even so, I was able to make a beginning step with a meaningful photograph of Paul starting his walk for either the main Out of Eden story that will appear in the December issue or for this special request for the June or July issue. Still, I needed one more photograph of Paul journeying.

Paul Salopek walking out of the Afar region with camels as he begins day-two of his Out of Eden walk, a 7 year journey on foot from the Herto village in Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, at the tip of South America.

d: Sprinting — Can’t say I often photograph camel caravans. Yes, I have photographed camel markets. Even ridden a few members of the humped-back family, however I’ve never had to follow on foot a camel walking for any great distance. Camels walk in long strides — three steps for every four human steps. This means walking at a decent clip, requiring constant running in order to be ahead of Paul or else repeatedly photograph him from behind or from the side. After hours of walking, even in overcast Afar, the physical effort of chasing forward to photograph grew impossible after a few kilometers. There had to be a better solution.

Even before Paul began his walk, it took 10 men nearly an hour to create a drivable road up steeps cliffs of a dry river bank as we followed Tim White and his team into Herto Bourii, Ethiopia. The wayone bush makes such travel nearly impossible unless traveling via camel.

Even before Paul began his walk, it took 10 men nearly an hour to create a drivable road up steeps cliffs of a dry river bank as we followed Tim White and his team to Herto Bouri, Ethiopia. The wayone bush makes such travel nearly impossible unless journeying via camel.

e: Inaccessible — With camels, Paul can travel over any and all terrain. More so, Paul is indeed walking on ancient camel trails. Most, if not all, completely impenetrable even via Landcruiser. Now, after a week or so apart, I will reconnect today with Paul in Afar (for security reasons I am not mentioning town names) where we’ll work out the potential path of his next few days journey, in turn drive (and walk) far enough ahead of him to photograph his arrival, and then passing, as Paul walks through — with flowing levels of serendipitous optimism — epic landscapes. This should be the potent means of making this second photograph of Paul.

Insha’Allah.

 

Reality

The importance of sharing the above is not for my friends and colleagues, most of whom have dealt with similar circumstances. Rather, this is to share with those of you who intend one day to do such genre of photography and the fascinating realism of what to expect, which is always that of the unexpected.

The most spectacular minaret I've ever seen, made entirely of sticks, located in a remote village in the Afar region. This mosque was created by hand 20 or more years ago.

Here with the truth about what it’s like working on a National Geographic assignment:

As involving as some of these events have been — cars, paperwork, a constant dance to solve logistical land travel, chasing ahead of Paul, power supply…not to mention incessant level of bugs, extreme heat, 8+ days in the same clothing with no access to bath, lunch and dinner being tibs, tibs and more tibs (tibs is goat meat) — all of this is completely normal. In fact, within the scope of what is involved in such a story, all these events have been minor.

As candid as possible — if events were not going as they have, I’d be concerned.

And other than missing my family back on the farm in the Berkshires, I couldn’t be more delighted or enthralled with the visual progress (and journey) so far.

Now the reality when producing any involving/layered story; It’s 99 percent problem solving and 1 percent photography, all wrapped around a heaping scoop of serendipity.

 

Epilogue

Goats past a village in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Not far from here the bones of Lucy (Australopithecus) were discovered in 1973.

Growing up in Nassau in the 1970′s, each morning, me and my classmates would sing the Bahamian National Anthem. A part of that anthem always resonates whenever a hurdle rears its head:

“Forward, Upward, Onward, Together”

As week three rounds the bend, I’ve often caught myself humming those words, relishing in what resides ahead, knowing that the resplendence of this story is always present, cloaked in a heavy layer of fascinating orchestration and spectacular moments of visual brilliance, knowing this assignment will continue the grandeur of expecting the unexpected.

All the best from the Afar region of Ethiopia,

 

 

 

 

 

Visit the official Out of Eden website here, and National Geographic’s Facebook page here.

January 25, 2013   1 Comment

Out of Eden, Journal I — The Bags

Rarely do I travel with more than one piece of check-in luggage.

Maximum, one medium-sized rolling bag containing a few changes of clothing, loads of underwear, socks and a tube of toothpaste — airport security does not like such items anymore in carryon luggage.

Thanks, Richard Reid…AKA, The Shoe Bomber.

All minimalism is out with the bathwater on this latest story for National Geographic.

Three bags — two mega, the other my normal checkin — went into the cargo hold of two planes, as I traveling from the farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts to Ethiopia where they now rest beside me in a 5th floor room of a three-star hotel in this sublime nations capital.

Possibly the most Liked bags ever liked on Facebook, photographed in the kitchen then posting just before leaving the house in the Berkshires very early on Friday morning.

It has taken months of planning for this assignment — illuminatingly titled, Out of Eden — to prepare for every sublet nuance this project may throw; Eight to ten weeks, traveling overland from discovered remains of our first human ancestors in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia — literally where each of our brothers and sisters walked out of Africa 60,000 years ago, populating this astonishing planet we can only call home — meandering across deserts, mountains, ravines, depressions and villages, till I reach Djibouti City, Djibouti, sometime in March.

Like New York City, the Djiboutans named it twice.

For those following this story on my Facebook pageTwitter or on Instagram, you might be wondering why I’m carrying so much kit compared to my colleague, superb human, Pulitzer Prize winning writer (twice), National Geographic Fellow and official walker for the Out of Eden, Paul Salopek?

I know my dearest of friends, Gary Knight, has been wondering.

Simple — Paul has seven years to walk from our ancestors remains till reaching Tierra del Fuego — and for this first part of Out of Eden, as long as he needs — totting I believe nothing more than a few changes of clothing, pens, notepads, a laptop, sat phone, solar charger, sleeping gear and other minimal bits and pieces, doing so at least from Afar to Djibouti City with a camel Paul purchased last week who will carry most of these items…including water and basic food stuffs (will be meeting up with Paul tomorrow evening to actually witness what he’s fully carrying).

Encumbered — I’m carry more bobbles and bits which require electricity than a small village might demand in a week, not to mention camping gear for a translator, driver and myself.

Yes, I’m traveling in a car.

Here is why:

The Kit, for National Geographic's Out of Eden story — Details below on what everything actually is.

 

Gone are the days when a photographer on a National Geographic story only needed a backpack to carry clothing, a few hundred rolls of film and a camera bag with cameras that only required little more than two watch-sized batteries to operate its metering for weeks on end.

The rest was manual — and we liked it.

With everything gone digital, we now tote a substantial collection of gizmos and contraptions, each requiring their own special cable, a virtual tangled bowl of spaghetti noodles and clamoring hunks of electrical plastic meatballs, the whole lot demanding power. All this nonsense is needed (along with portable 120/220 electricity) or else cease being able to take photographs within 1-2 days.

As much as traveling on camel back may seem romantic, Yonas Abiye (super talented journalist with The Reporter newspaper), a driver (gifted with memory retention of a pasta strainer, I’ve tragically forgotten his name post brief meeting today) and myself will make this journey starting near Mille (pronounced phonetically as Mill-ay), in the Afar region of Ethiopia, to the border with Djibouti, in a grayish-blue toned 2008 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser.

Doing the paperwork (and paying) for the Toyota Land Cruiser that will take Yonas and I from Addis Ababa tomorrow to the Afar region of Ethiopia. With what appear to be new tires, this will vehicle will at times act as our home for the next month.

 

Even if I didn’t have this triple sherpa load of whatnot to carry, here is why I’m driving:

This story, Out of Eden, is not about Paul.

Rather, it’s a story about our collective humanities migration out of Africa to where we each live today.

Therefore, I will not be following in Paul’s footsteps.

In fact I plan to get completely lost, zigzagging in all direction, photographing a reportage piece on the society, culture, landscapes and truly anything and everything which comes my way,  illustrating what this part of the world, and its people, are doing today.

Come sometime likely in early March — communucating with Paul periodically via satellite phone — I will meet up with him as he arrives in Djibouti City.

My friend, fellow journalist (reporter for The Reporter) and guide for the Out of Eden story for National Geographic magazine, Yonas Abiye, shows me the route we'll be taking, beginning on Monday from northeastern Ethiopia. It will take Paul Salopek 8-10 weeks walking overland to get from this region of Ethiopia, then onward to Djibouti City, Djibouti. Yonas and I are not walking — too much kit to carry...power supplies, cameras, MacBook Pro, HDs, camping gear, etc. We'll be in a Landcruiser, zigzagging all around Paul's trek westward to the border with Djibouti. This story is not about Paul. Rather, it is about our collective humanity, 60,000 years ago, when our brothers and sisters literally walked out of this exact spot in Ethiopia, populating the planet as we are today.

 

Wonderfully expressed once by a Highlander friend in Papua New Guinea while on another National Geographic story a few years back —  sharing with her how unexpected and wildly magical everything kept occurring while in country — she uttered in a marvelously dry tone:

“Expect the unexpected, John”.

With only a few hours remaining in this somewhat unaired room — for a $150 a night hotel, it oddly lacks an air conditioner nor any understandable means to open a window — I thought it might be interesting to start the journals of this journey with some insight regarding what I’m carrying in this anomalous matching set of Eagle Creek bags and their trusty sidekick, the always toting ThinkTank Airport camera roller.

While Monk’s Dream plays from this MacBook Pro speakers (richly expanded on these already brilliant Retina display speakers using the app, DPS…a must have plugin for iTunes — wowy!) here’s The Kit for part one of Out of Eden:

Labeled — The whole Kit and caboodle traveling with me on Out of Eden story for the next two or more months across Ethiopia and Djibouti.

 NOTE: IF CURIOUS, CLICK ON THIS ABOVE IMAGE WHICH HAS EACH ITEM LABELED, THEN REFER TO THE DETAILS BELOW

 

1- Eagle Creek Load Warrior 25 inch roller — This bag contains all clothing for two or more months:

(The first two clothing items have been The Uniform for the last 10 years while on assignments, all the same color — kaki tan pants, dark green shirts, and surprisingly holding up extremely well)

REI light weather pants — three
REI light weather long sleeve shirts — five
Shorts — one
T-shirts — two
Sleeping t-shirt — one
Sleeping shorts — one
Socks —four
Underwear — ten
Dress Shirt — one
Jeans — one

2- Eagle Creek duffle — Empty, stored in main luggage for when needed

3- Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled Duffel 36 in roller — two, used for carrying most of that crap you see on the floor

4- Cliff & Luna Bars — 73 white chocolate macadamia nut power powers…breakfast for the next two months

5- Medical Kit — Containing more meds, bandages and whatnot than

6- iPhone Camera Cable — Supported through a Kickstarter project, Trigger Happy (not my favorite name for this — remember, cameras don’t shoot anything. They take in light. Only guns shoot) is something I’ve yet to use. hopefully it works

7- Reading Glasses — Five sets, in case loosing one, two or more — a habit I’ve been able to master over the years until discovering they were already on top of my head or crushed in a pocket

8- Toiletries — Hand sanitizer, toothpastes, a hair tie…I’m a minimalist

9- Multi-Plug Adapter

10- 120-volt cigarette lighter power supply

11- Camera towel

12- Various headlamps

13- My tent

14- Driver/translators tent

15- Reusable Twists — Various sizes of heavy-duty twisties. Hang about anything, anywhere

16- Bathing Soaps — These are amazing anti-mosquito repellent soaps that contain citronella. Found them years ago while passing through the Johannesburg airport while working on the National Geographic story, Malaria. Picked up an entire box. Unfortunately, these are the last three bars. Sure hope I route through South Africa again soon

17- Bug Repellent Cream

18- Muti-purpose Tool

19- Lamps — Battery power, they put out gobs of light

20- Carabiners

21- Ground Tarp — Small tent

22- Sunscreen Mozzie Repellant

23- Ground Tarp — Large tent

24- Mosquito Spray — 100% DEET (malaria country where we’re going)

25- ThinkTank Airport Roller — Have had this amazing (and I mean AMAZING) roller carry-on camera case for over 7 years. It’s been through more airports, up/down more stairs, tossed, dropped and careened across floors, rocks and deserts more times than can be counted in memory. Besides a touch bit of the rubber on the wheels fraying, this bag from ThinkTank keeps on going strong. Here’s what’s inside:

Canon 5D Mark III — two
16-35mm lens
24-70mm lens
24 1.4 lens
35 1.4 lens
50 1.2 lens
Battery Charges — two
Batteries — four
Miscellaneous
ThinkTank — A small Retrospective model shoulder bag. This is where a few of the lenses go when out and about. The rest stays in the roller, taken out when needed

26- Inflatable Pillow — Brookstone blow up felt neck pillow (for plane travel)

27- Clothing — Paint/shirts

28- Collapsible Chair — REI has a super-nify foldable chair. This will be seriously used when waiting about in remote areas for the light to get brilliant

29- Stuff — Sharpies, international drivers license, medical vaccine card, passport sized photos, more hair ties and in the envelope, NGM’s amazing Dazzler letter of introduction

30- Map/Guidebook — Lonely Planets guide to Ethiopa and detailed maps of Ethiopia and Djibouti

31- Flash Cardholder — Deputy Director of Photography, Ken Geiger, was kind enough to give me one of the new NGM ThinkTank flashcard holders when I was in DC a few weeks ago for the Out of Eden story prep. They are being given away to National Geographic photographers at next weeks seminar, which unfortunately I’ll be missing this event — sorry for blowing the surprise

32- Clothing — A few more pants/shirts, haphazardly placed on the floor rather than in the other clothing pile

33- USB Cigarette Lighter Charger

34- World Map

35- NGM Luggage Tags

36- Water Bags — To protect kit in case it rains and as backup laundry bags

37- Sleeping Bag — Small

38- Sleeping Bag — Larger

39- Hammock

40- NG Hat — Gift for someone along the trip

41- Hammock Ties

42- Mosquito Net

43- Mosquito Net

44- Power Inverters — Two 300volt models that turns 12volt car battery power into 120volt power. To be used to charge a MacBook Pro, camera batteries, sat phone, iPhone, etc

45- Vitamines

46- Multi-Plug Adapter — Two more for a total of three

47- Belt — Special type…

48- Small Bag

49- Towel

50- Mesh Bag

51- French Press Coffeemaker — THE most important piece of the kit

52- Shelters — Three Kelty 3×3 meter shelters to protect driver, translator and myself from the harsh Afar desert sun while waiting for good light

53- Waterproof Zipper Bags — To hold all the various loose items seen here

54- Small Bag

55- Socks

56- Inflatable Pillow

57- Self-Inflating Mattress

58- Satellite Phone — Thuraya. Including a Thuraya Wifi Hotspot box, allowing to wirelessly connect all communication items to the internet from any location

59- Hiking Shoes

60- Canon Cigarette Lighter Battery Charger Kit

61- Hardrives — Two, 2TB Western Digital USB3, which will make transferring photographs off cards and into Aperture each day an extremely quick task
This is The Kit, which will (should) sustain most if not all needs for the next two or more months while driving throughout more than half of Ethiopia and all of Djibouti — yes, Gary, I’m driving, not walking nor with a camel because tomorrow I pick up the LaMarzocco expresso machine and generator…

Hope the peering into my bags — bags which received more Likes on Facebook than likely any photo of just bags have ever receive — was informative.

4 hours till Yonas Abiye and the driver arrive at the hotel for the 10+ hour drive to the Afar region to meet Paul.

And satellite phone is still not working. Sure hope Thuraya in Dubai sorts this soonest or this might be the one and only journal from the trip. . .

Testing this afternoon the Thuraya sat phone and the Thuraya Hotspot gizmo. After two hours trying for get the data part of the phone to work, I had to call the provider in Texas for support. Seems the GmPRS (whatever that means) wasn't turned on yet. Should be sorted within a few hours, or so my new best friend, Martin, with Galaxy 1 said in a just received email.

All my best,

 

 

 

 

Visit the official Out of Eden website here, and National Geographic’s Facebook page here.

 

January 6, 2013   Comments Off

The Amazing Yellow-Bordered Magazine — Part II

Nuts

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.”

“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.

Fascinating.

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.”


Details

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.

SEVEN BILLION.

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

NINE 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.


Reality

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.


Process

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:

Novelas.

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.


Fixers

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.


Brazil

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.


Python

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.


Solace

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 what...my 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.


Epilogue

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

The Soundtrack of Assignments

Musicians and photographers are a strange yet similar lot.

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

 

Instruments

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

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

 

Genres

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

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

 

Evolution

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

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

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

 

Activism

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

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

Having no witness begets the evils and weaknesses of humanity.

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

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

 

History

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

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

China

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

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

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

 

Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pakistan

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

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

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

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

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

 

Choices

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

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

In fact organizing the camera bits are simple.

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

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

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

 

Peter Gabriel – US

Neil Young – Harvest

Tchaikovsky – Symphony #6

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

Musicians of the Nile – Luxor to Isna

Taking Heads – Stop Making Sense

Japanese Shakuhachi – Japanese flute music

Sundanese – Batawi

Frank Sinatra – Greatest Hits

U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Górecki – Miserere

Sundanese – Classical Music

Dave Matthews Band – Live in Central Park

 

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

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

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

 

Ritual

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

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

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

Sick, right.

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

Oh yeah, and it flies.

 

Epilogue

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

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

 

 

 

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

July 21, 2011   2 Comments