(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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
January 25, 2013 1 Comment
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.
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 page, Twitter 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:
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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
24 1.4 lens
35 1.4 lens
50 1.2 lens
Battery Charges — two
Batteries — four
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
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
46- Multi-Plug Adapter — Two more for a total of three
47- Belt — Special type…
48- Small Bag
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
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. . .
All my best,
January 6, 2013 Comments Off
(Note: This review was made testing a MacBook Pro 15-inch, 2.3 GHz with Retina display. Under the keyboard was 8 MB of RAM and 256GB flash storage — the introductory level MacBook Pro with Retina display)
I truly do distain discussions on kit, gear, gadgets and tech. Pour me brilliant cups of coffee and I’ll surely wax endless about what we can do with these tools, however to analyze them, ogle about their design or babble on how they work is tantamount to placing my head in the frame of a doorway, slamming it shut.
There is one specific reason for making this review — I’m utterly excited about photography’s newest and truly amazing enlarger/film editor, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display, and what it means in regards to the potential in the digital darkroom.
Or to express it more succinctly — what it means in regards to both being a photographer in these digital (dry) darkrooms AND having clock time left over to actually have a life.
Some background…for over six years I’ve had the privilege (more so, the honor) to collaborate — and to literally be heard — by some of the smartest minds in the photographic industry; The team at Apple who create the photographic imaging program, Aperture. To say they are geniuses would be an epic understatement. These are women and men who take 0′s and 1′s, turning code into a tool which brilliantly handles all my photographic workflow as efficiently as an iPhone flows and functions all my (and likely your) professional mobile needs. To this day, Aperture continues to push the limits of how we work in what I like to call, the dry darkroom.
Another disclaimer — I know nothing about code. Haven’t a clue what a megapixel is from a pimple pixel. Not a lick of understanding what a MHz is from a GHz nor can I figure out how to set up email if it weren’t for all those Assistant tools. Can’t even fathom how or why when I press these keys, semi coherent words appear on a glowing screen.
Actually, I don’t want to know such things.
Not due to the lack of caring.
It’s simply not my art nor my purpose. Such art — truly is an art — is in the minds and hands of those geniuses who create these tools we use, an art which is well beyond my comprehension.
Recently, I had a MacBook Pro with Retina display sent to my home as a loaner from Apple to test pro apps performance — Aperture, Final Cut and a few other photographic based tools we tend to use.
The timing was perfect for Cupertino to contact me — last month I was heading to South Sudan for work on two projects with MSF (Doctors Without Borders) — first, to highlight a breaking health crisis in Yida and the other, of a multi-month MSF/VII health initiative collaboration. This MacBook Pro I’m still writing upon is on its last leg. Actually, more like exhausted after beating the beheebers out it after a few years of using, creating and playing with it, no different then as kids we used Legos, Barbies or a Stretch Armstrong…remember that wacky guy?. Needless to say I was giddy as an eight year-old when Apple had called upon me to use the MBPr for a month, perfectly falling over the three weeks I’d be in Africa.
When Saturday morning of August 11 came — the day I was leaving for the airport in Hartford — no package from Apple had arrived other than the loaner agreement in a separate envelope a day earlier.
Calling repeatedly to Fedex, I learned the plane carrying the MBPr had been delayed out of Texas, missing it’s connecting flight to Albany, leaving the delivery truck for the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts to never consider stopping by the farm before I left. In a desperate attempt to still bring a MacBook Pro with Retina display to Africa, I called the Apple store in nearby Holyoke where I planned to swing by and purchase one en rout to the airport. Fortunately August 11 was Massachusetts Tax Amnesty Day. Unfortunately, I was told the lines were so long, all MBPr would likely be sold out before I could ever got there. Frustrated, I’d have to bring this 2010 MBP, hoping it would see me through a grueling three-week trip.
Ironically, upon arrival three days later to a dusty airstrip in Yida, South Sudan, I couldn’t help but twistingly ponder whether this Fedex plane hadn’t maybe diverted to Yida in order to somehow deliver food and that Dallas delayed MBPr.
Returning Stateside three weeks later, sitting in my studio was a Pelican case containing the loaner MBPr.
Like a grade schooler, I immediately opened it. Actually had to do so and quickly — there was only 8 days left before needing to ship it back to Cupertino.
Having never written a review (I’m no David Pogue of the NYT’s), I’ll simply tell it like it is, as an end user but more so, as a professional photographer who uses these items on a daily basis, most often in extremely demanding situations.
In the shortest most emphatic way possible, here’s my entire review:
MacBook Pro with Retina display is astonishing.
Wait. That’s too simple.
So much has changed and is new about this MBPr, I need to begin with the basic act of simply starting it up. Pushing the power button on is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding differences between every previous computer (creating tool) you’ve ever owned.
What stuck me immediately was how quickly the MBPr went from simply sitting there like a dormant placemat (it looks almost that thin), to allowing me to begin work — just over ten seconds from pressing the ON button to full active application usage.
What hits you like a ton of lead after the Retina MacBook Pro is on, will forever change the way you work within the dry darkroom/film editing room.
This Retina screen verges on the near indescribable.
Why do I use the word, Indescribable?
Because working on Apple’s MacBook Pro Retina screen renders images in such astonishing detail, it’s like reliving what you had seen previously with your own eyes.
Now back home, it was as if the events I recorded with my camera (a Canon 5D Mark II) were reappearing in the exact visual reality I’d witnessed back in South Sudan.
I became re-depressed, even more angry, reviewing so frighteningly clear (in such unflinching detail and subtle nuance) the horrors of just weeks earlier.
Another way of putting it — this screen to our world no longer presents a diminished perception of reality, but rather an actual visual presentation of reality.
Not a single detail is missing.
Only thing lacking are three dimensions and scent — sound is sorted through dramatically improved speakers (more on that below).
When looking at an image at 100% magnification, going back to this old screen is as if I put a sheet of cellophane across my eye or drugstore quality reading glasses, the difference is that astounding.
Recently, I was working one afternoon in the dining room. The kids were home — after a few weeks away from the family, I always try to reconnect by being as close to them as possible rather than buried in studio located in the barn. At times I couldn’t help but gasp by the MBPr clarity and sharpness. My middle child, Konstantin, would say while on the living room sofa, “DADDY! What are you making all that noise for, I’m trying to do my homework!” Little did Kon know I was oohing due to seeing elements in my photographs which I’d never seen before.
In fact, photographs I’d toned while in South Sudan on this older MBP clearly showed signs of incomplete/improper (to my liking that is) aspects of burning and dodging, something I’d never be able to see except either in a final print.
In fact, that’s what working on a Retina screen feels like — as if you’re actually toning a physical print.
In addition, I realized why the editor in NY had emailed me while back in Yida, asking if they could lighten up a few of the photos I’d sent — they were too dark in certain areas. Obviously I couldn’t completely see every aspect of the image clearly on what already is a mighty good screen on older MacBook Pros, yet I thought at the time they were toned smack on. Unfortunately I cannot show these toning difference right now. They are part of a project VII and MSF are working on to be released in November.
Immediately realized I’d have to re-tone a few, the task flew effortlessly in Aperture on this MBPr, faster than even on my studio iMac…and that iMac is pretty darn fast.
Now here is where the Retina screen really causes near visual rapture — zooming into an image, barely a pixel appears. In fact look at these screengrabs off the MBPr (SHIFT+COMMAND+3) of the chimney sweep who cleaned our fireplace just over a week ago and note the zoom factor in each image caption — also on the full image mini preview in Aperture on the far right which shows there’s nothing hidden up my sleeve — and then be astonished:
Now at 200%…
Let’s go to 300%…
How about 400%…
Time to enter a new dimension of detail at 500%…
And now to journey into the center of the eye at 1000%…
Another WHOLLY SH_T moment happened when moving my physical position about in the dining room chair — there was no change in tonal nor brightness on the screen.
On every previous portable MBP (and likely on every portable PCs monitor), you have to find juuuust the right tilt of the screen in relationship to your eye perspective/view. Then and only then could you feel you were going to be toning photographs or color correcting video properly.
Those days are gone.
The MBPr is so smack on, you can move the screen back and forth by 30-40 degrees, never witnessing a tonal nor density change in the screen. No more neck cringes caused by concerns if you move your head or shift your body, where then every aspect of toning needs monitor repositioning.
We’re now all free to move about, even turning screens for sideways views so others like Kon, who after too many oohs and ah’s, wandered over to ooh and ah himself.
Continuing on the screen — yes, there’s far more bits still to share — on the final full day of using the MBPr, I stumbled into the unexpected…the screen is much less reflective than all previous glossy screens. Here, take a look:
Loads of websites and magazines have surely mentioned how crisp and sharp letters/fonts are now on the retina screen so I’ll skip that part — Yes, it’s true, you can read as if letters were chiseled in stone, not pixels.
What matters in the world of photography and filmmaking is the image, and wholly cow has image viewing been raised not just to a whole new level, it’s nearly like viewing reality before you, all over again.
Pushing the MacBook Pro with Retina display as hard as I could using Aperture — using certain brushes that are processor hungry — rarely did it slow down, even while working on the most entry level MBPr.
Only twice did Aperture take a half second to catch its breath when adding complex definition brush strokes to an image (maxing out the RAM would surely stop any chance of a spinning pizza from rearing its twirling colors).
Every other action done in Aperture and a few playback tests in FC flowed and responded in real time. No delays.
Like surely all, I relish the moments of down time, unchained from all this nonsense so we can be with our families, have a drink at the bar after a long day on the streets (as we did during film days), to read a book or dare I verge on delusional with the notion of getting to bed early.
If I could bring back all the time lost while waiting for 8GB and 16 (now 32 and 64GB) cards to download, I’d have more lives left than a cat.
I can remember the days when myself and a number of Time Magazine colleagues rented a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was November 2001, to be exact. I was covering the departure of the Taliban and the emergence of an society aching for change using my first ever digital camera — a Nikon 1Dx which cost well over $6000 yet produced images (in Jpeg) little better than a $300 iPhone 4s.
Downloading images off a 1GB Micro Drive (now here’s an example for not complaining about the costs of being a photographer today…those 1GB IBM CF cards just over 10 years ago where $350++ each. Last month I bought a 32GB Lexar cards for less than $100), it took 20+ minutes via what I presume was then a USB 1 connected to a USB 1 hard drive.
This was state of the art.
When Apple brought Firewire 400 (and then FW800) to a MacBook some years ago, it was liberation, where downloading meant less time lost, however not nearly enough when downloading from today’s massive storing SD and CF cards.
When copying the South Sudan Aperture library from this 2+ year old MBP over to a portable hard drive (USB 2 to USB 3 — had purchased new USB 3 HD’s to use for the Fedex delayed MBPr loaner…), that 11GB Aperture library chockablock full of preview files, metadata, toning layers and whatnot, copied in just over 15 mins.
The same Aperture library copied from the exact same USB 3 HD over to the USB 3 MacBook Pro Retina — hold on to your seats:
2 minutes 39 seconds.
Maybe it’s because this older MacBook Pro has been dragged up and down too many stairs in a Think Tank bag, wedged into countless overhead bins or received the crumbs of too many sandwiches into the keyboard crevices. It’s just not as fast as it use to be nor is older battery technology able to truly disconnect me very long without AC power and a wall socket. I’m lucky if I get 1 hour on this battery — surely the battery could use replacing but I’m upgrading so why bother.
My sister-in-law, Maria Bakkalapulo, a stellar ethnomusicologist and radio journalist, has a relatively new MBP. She tells me she gets around 2-3 hours on her kit when unplugged using basic apps. When crunching heavy processor apps (like Final Cut) while on battery power, she receives a decent 1 to 1 1/2 hours of battery time….and that, Maria says, is with the screen slightly dimmed.
To see what this MacBook Pro with Retina display battery can handle regarding working say on long haul flights, I unplugged the power cable, cranked up the retina screen to full brightness and pushed the processor as hard as possible with complex brushes in Aperture like definition, repeated burning/dodging, slideshow creations, viewed a video file, etc.
After 1 hour there was still 80% batter power left.
At 4 hours on battery power and having to stop to eat dinner with the family, it was only nearing 20%, likely still able to cruise at full processor speed for another 30-60 more minutes.
It’s not in perpetuity battery flow (perpetual motion is the holly grail of scientific invention), however we no longer need to wander about in search of a power supply as often and that flight across The Pond can indeed be a purposeful, work productive (or movie watching) experience, basically all the way on battery power.
Wow, could I have used that oomph while in South Sudan, where the generator often knocked off for hours, rendering my ability to work on preparing images for MSF impossible.
Simply put — the MBPr is thinner and lighter than any previous MBP. It’s not as light as my wife’s MacBook Air, however I reckon it’s a safe bet that Jony Ivey and his fellow geniuses will sort a way to pack the same power into the size of a MacBook Air well within the next few year and then we’ll all have better posture and re-leveled shoulders.
Being a field recordist for over 20 years and now being asked to produce more films, sound quality is paramount. No idea how they did it but the sound emanating out of the Retina MacBook Pro is significantly better. The speakers even received the WDiiB (Wow, Daddy, it is Better!”) Seal Approval from my son, Konstantin, when I played him a film excerpt from South Sudan, watching the exact same film clip on this MBP and the loaner MBPr. I wouldn’t throw away your Bose or other high-end stereo external speakers just yet, however the sound (more so, the quality) coming out of this computer is noticeably better.
Did not have access to any Thunderbolt peripherals but when reading about — and understand with my limited tech knowledge of such things as transfer speeds — it’s very safe to say that the insane speeds of UBS 3 will feel somewhat impish once using a completely Thunderbolt connected system.
After sharing realtime thoughts recently over Facebook and Twitter while working with the MBPr, I received some very constructive but somewhat misplaced grips. Initial concerns on a key matter were indeed realistic — the lack of connection ports. Rghtfully so, because the myriad of connecting ports we’ve all gotten use to over the last decade (like ethernet connection, Firewire, data card slots, etc) can and will compromise certain aspects of creative workflow now that everything (other than USB 3) is connected via a thing called Thunderbolt. However most if not all have been addressed, either by Apple or third party peripheral makers.
Here’s a rundown of concerns I heard over the 8 days of testing while sharing thoughts through social media:
There were complaints — and some potentially serious concerns — about legacy connectivity with older, less rapidly upgrading third party items such as digital sound cards and other connecting peripheral bits, not to mention the loss of 800FW.
Right while these constructive discussions where occurring, my good friend and VII colleague, Marcus Bleasdale, emailed me the this link, solving pretty much each and every legacy connective issue possible — a simple, elegant Thunderbolt to everything else connecting dock made by Belkin.
Order it, then create with peripherals which likely were even invented over a decade ago — that’s centuries in computer years.
No 17″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display
Sorry, no behemoth to carry on to a plane which only can be opened comfortably in Singapore Air business class seats. If you want a 17″, it will likely have to wait until Apple sort this (if they even choose to) or plain and simply do the following because it’s an excellent workflow when wanting large screens; Work/create just as brilliantly as many of us have done for basically a decade, doing so on a lightweight, extremely portable and powerful computer with a staggeringly brilliant 15 inch Retina screen, then if needing a larger monitor, do final editing back in studio, connected to a brilliant 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display where we really have visual real estate space.
I heard from a few friends who were wondering whether any of the Adobe image programs (CS/Photoshop/etc) presented images properly on the Retina screen. You might be shocked to know…I don’t use CS (Photoshop), using instead Aperture for my entire still image workflow (even for video storage/organizing). Yes, I do have a licensed version of CS5 but rarely if ever use it. And no, I did not test any Adobe products on this MBPr. CS was not preinstalled (Apple knows I’m an Aperture user) so you will have to reference other sources for this potential compatibility issue. Most important to realize regarding this matter — Apple has always been THE graphics/artists based computer. Sooner than later Adobe will upgrade all their programs just as they have done during previous major OS updates from Apple. In the mean time, try Aperture and you’ll quickly realize just how more efficient, powerful and liberating this entire dry darkroom madness and image organizing chaos can be.
The new MacBook Pro with Retina displays has a wider AC connector so your old MBP power supplies will not work as a backup…let’s not whine about cable changes as has been happening with the new Lightening iPhone connector — things do change. They have to, nearly always for the better. There is however a perfect solution in order to keep those older MBP power supplies useful, a MagSafe 2 Converter which sells for just $10 bucks.
Back in 1997 I was living in Hong Kong. After much buildup and excitement within the tech world (sorry, I don’t get excited about new gear. I simply get excited by what I can do with it), by late November of that year, Apple had finally released what was considered the mac-daddy of portable Macs — the PowerBook G3 (Kanga). My portable computer at the time, a Powerbook 5300, was also on its last leg and was needing to be replaced. Even with Hong Kong being the capital of low cost discounted electronics (and without a sales tax), I went out and bought this powerhouse of a computer (directly at the home of an authorized reseller — his shop had already closed for night) for a staggering $4,000 USD. It had a whopping 5GB HD with processing speeds likely now be found in an Apple Nano.
The MacBook Pro with Retina display I tested (the 15-inch: 2.3 GHz Retina display) is selling for $1,800 less than that 1997 Powerbook G3, for $2,199, or with a full 16GB of RAM for $200 more.
The max-ed out MacBook Pro with Retina crammed with gobs of flash HD space, screaming amounts of RAM and processor MHz whatnot thrown in, is selling for $3,749, $250 less than that then brilliant brick I bought well over a decade ago in Hong Kong.
The max’ed model is what I’d recommend if you can push the bank account (or credit cards) that far, simply for the full power of 16 GB of RAM and the fastest possible processor along with loads of storage space.
To say all this is not inexpensive is a truth for most of us.
To say our photography is important — along with the the time saved to be a photographer and spend time with your family, friends or just plan rest — is priceless.
I have so much more to do in this life and it doesn’t include being tethered behind a glowing screen.
Time for me to order a Retina screen MacBook Pro — and though I adore Fedex (they are smack on brilliant, only two delays to the farm in the last four years of countless deliveries) — I do hope the max’ed MBPr arrives to the doorstep before my return to South Sudan on October 8th.
All the best,
(Photographers wanting to discover how to empower their digital archives — and spend less time behind these glowing screes — I’m hosting a Organize all this Digital Madness workshop in my studio next weekend. Only a few spaces left. Visit my workshop link for registration and complete details for this Aperture workshop and future workshops to Indonesia and India in 2013)
September 21, 2012 14 Comments
With discussions continuing on whether Instagram is just a fad or a publishing entity to embrace, thought it might be interesting to share the complete discussions I recently had with Olivier Laurent, editor of the prestigious British Journal of Photography. Last week he published a well written and researched article titled The New Economics of Photojournalism: The rise of Instagram. Everyone who uses any form of communication should read his story.
As a means to share more insight into this revolving debate on whether or not professional photographers should use iPhones or Instagram — and a whole host of other related debates swirling about — Olivier was kind enough to let me publish the complete email text of our discussions. My responses won’t answer every specific question being bantered about online or in lectures at universities, however I do hope you might be able to garner some insight via the reasons I choose to publish photographs not only on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter but emphatically yes, also via ink on paper.
Some added bits to express before letting everyone dive into my email Inbox — the discussions on whether to use an iPhone or a 35mm camera are completely mute points. Don’t waste your time nor mine on any bit of that dinosaur debate.
Because the iPhone 4s, which is nearly always located in my shirt pocket, produces (albeit for now as jpeg only) images in bright sunlight and shade nearly just as well as my first ever digital camera, purchased nearly 11 years ago in 2001 to cover the war in Afghanistan — a Nikon 1Dx. At the time it cost well over $6000 USD.
If you are into image quality nostalgia, you can purchase a 1Dx today on eBay for less than the cost of an iPhone 4.
It is rudimentary to mention, however I will for the sake of brushing this key aspect not just out from under the rug, but off the cliff of Mount Useless Discussions — a camera (any camera) is a tool, no different than a paint brush, hammer and nail or cooking pots. It is to be used to do something, to create something. Nothing more, nothing less.
Mark these words deep into your conscious — within the next five to tens years (likely less), most professional photographers will be primarily using a camera which is indeed located within something as portable and ubiquitous in our purses/pockets as an iPhone.
I relish the day when the kit used to document the world around me all fits into the palm of my hand.
More so, the power — and the purpose of photojournalism and photography in general — is not the camera, it is what we do with a camera (any camera) in regards to COMMUNICATION.
All the other bits everyone is debating or concerned about are, with all due respect, useless.
Now here is what’s key regarding Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and whatnot; Some of these images we publish, the text we write on various social media outlets, etc, they can be pieces of a far greater, even deeper, more richly layered project which has a commodity element behind it. These images can, for a lack of a better way of putting it, be glimpses, headlines, instant breaking information of a much larger project waiting to be presented. Like seeds, images can be sent out to one or millions, dropping seeds of information into the consciousness of others, nurturing a project to grow, both in marketing and funding. The final product, brought to the consciousness via meaningful bits and pieces, is the entity to be leveraged both as information to an event, as product or as a printed photo essay, as a commodity. This is, until the next leveraging aspect of social media is attained, the greater purpose and potential.
Hope each who reads this garners some element of enlightenment so we can bring these discussions to the level we should be discussing regarding Instagram, iPhones, Facebook, Twitter and whatnot — how we can leverage these publishing outlets even further, rather then wasting our collective time going in circles, missing the greatest potential of communication humanity has ever known.
All my best,
Instagram: @JohnStanmeyer • Twitter: @JohnStanmeyer • Facebook: www.facebook.com/JohnStanmeyer
EMAIL INTERVIEWS WITH OLIVIER LAURENT ON 17 & 22 AUGUST, 2012
First Email, 17 August, 2012
OL: Why and how you are using the network?
JS: Rather new to Instagram.
Presumably as others, I use Instagram for communication, no different than other venues of communication such as ink on paper publications, exhibitions, websites, Facebook, and Twitter. I use the word “publishing” because that is what Instagram actually is — publishing/distributing a visual to others.
In the decades (let’s hope far less) to come, the entire discussion of whether to use this thing called social media will be a mute — archaic — point of view, no different than likely it was centuries ago when previous commonly used means of information distribution where invent/debated; Should I write on papyrus leaf or this new fangled material called paper, or a typewriter instead of block type printing presses, etc.
A peculiar aspect of being human rest in the notion that what we do now is it, when in fact every aspect of life — in this discussion, communication (visual and text) — has always been in a constant state of evolution. An evolution most often connected to even greater communication.
With all due respect to the topic you’re writing about, I find such discussions to be healthy but a rather mundane, where the evolution of time will dilute any notion of why or why not to use Instagram, or who knows what else in the future.
As to how I use Instagram, I use it both through my personal account (@JohnStanmeyer) as well as through National Geographic Magazines account (@NatGeo). VII has also begun an Instagram account (@VIIPhoto).
OL: What kind of photos you publish?
JS: Interesting timing to this question, making it important to discuss in detail…
At the moment I’m in South Sudan, along the South Sudan/Sudan border. There’s a dreadful health crisis occurring right now in Yida. Over the past 8 months, 60,000+ Sudanese have fled fighting/indiscriminate bombing around the Nuba Mountain region of Sudan. In the last month, health conditions have deteriorated to catastrophic levels. Death rates due to acute malnutrition among children has reach more than double the typical crisis level — the problem is not the lack of food, it’s sanitation and clean water. With the beginning of rainy season in recent weeks, malaria is exploding.
I was already coming to South Sudan on a joint VII/MSF health story project. MSF had the smarts to have me arrive early, first spending 4-5 days in the north helping raise awareness to the crisis, using the duality of VII and MSF’s reach to spread awareness.
A few days before leaving home I had a chat with Jason Cone, head of communications with MSF USA, to discuss the option of going as far and wide as possible via both print and social media. He supported the idea wholeheartedly, taking an important social issue well beyond the printed page/website, in turn reaching an additional quarter of a million via MSF’s Twitter readers, tens of thousands on Facebook and even more on Instagram. While on layover in DC, I wrote assistant director of photography at National Geographic, Ken Geiger, asking if he wouldn’t mind if I published about this crisis on National Geographic’s Instagram account (@NatGeo). Once in Nairobi, his email arrived with an emphatic yes, allowing this important issues to reach over 200,000 more eyeballs/minds.
In what would have been considered meaningful issue awareness in print magazines is now amplified, spreading the message of the crisis in South Sudan to well over half a million more.
Incredible power of communication.
As for other photographs I publish (noticed only now your own wording of “publish” in your question instead of post…well done), I only publish moments of meaning, or at least try. In recent months, I’ve been in studio working on projects, exhibitions and most important, trying to spend some time with my family. Living on a farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts often means the photography being published is on my family — also part of a year long project VII is producing termed mile square, photographing within a mile or less of our own homes. Not having many neighbors, my family became the reportage, photographed using an iPhone with Hipstamatic and a specific minimal effect filter/lens combination.
There has to be some purpose in what I publish on Instagram. I consider each (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) to be no different than various publications.
BTW, I only use Instagram as a means to distribute/publish. Prefer to use specific minimal manipulating Hipstamatic films/lens. The endless tweakery of Instagram filters are too much for me to deal with, preferring the approach of choosing a film/lens (no different than analog film), photographing and when the image develops, that’s the final print, with the only potential post production being conversion to b&w, maybe burning/dodging. When I first tried Instagram a few months ago (via inspiration/nudging from National Geographic Photo Editor, Pamela Chen), I was overwhelmed with the options, most of which manipulated the photograph far further then felling comfortable with.
In the future, I hope to distribute more on Instagram. Most of my work in recent years has been with National Geographic, where stories we’re working on are not often openly shared until published. Months, even a year or more passes before the final story is seen in the magazine. Fortunately, all that is changing at the magazine. With the advent of NGM Instagram feed and the importance social media is playing in pre-story interest building, NG is embracing Instagram in a big way, allowing us to publish aspects of stories we’re working on as we’re producing them, reaching a large visual audience.
Exciting times indeed for communication.
OL: What does it bring you?
Instagram also support numerous aspects of photography — the marketing of books, exhibitions, workshops, lectures and interest in stories that are in progress, allowing for greater connectivity with the general public, both immediately and down the road.
Decades ago, I often thought how brilliant it would be to publish photographs of issues I’m passionate about, placing them on roadside billboards to scream what mattered to me. Almost did just that till discovering how expensive physical billboard space cost. Instagram (and again, other social media) does just that, reaching the potential consciousness of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Even more.
And it’s free.
We all have to put food on the table. Publishing to Instagram doesn’t directly (emphasis on directly) pay the bills, however it does add information/marketing value in a huge way. It also seems to play a significant aspect for new photographers to be seen. I’ve read some photographers are building their careers by leveraging Instagram. Well done.
It’s about communication.
Second Email, 22 August, 2012
OL: Why did you choose to join Instagram?
JS: Answered in previous notes.
OL: What use are you making of the network?
JS: Answered in previous notes. Let me know if I wasn’t clear.
OL: What kind of images are you looking to share (behind-the-scenes, etc.)?
Answered in previous notes but I’ll try to expand more because it’s relevant to the greater purpose of why I do this — communication.
While in Yida, I used Instagram (and other social media) as loud as possible, trying to spread awareness of the crisis. Nothing behind-the-scenes. Only frontline, what was happening, doing so more rapidly then I could with the other (similar) work I was producing with a 35mm camera. Hopefully what we did in Yida — my direct social media connections in addition to MSF social media/newsletters and VII’s distribution/social — helped raise awareness.
OL: With MSF, how did Instagram come into the mix?
JS: As I believe mentioned in my previous email…While on a phone briefing before leaving, I bridged the idea with MSF on leveraging social media, most specifically due to the scale and importance of the health crisis in Yida, the first part of this multi-week visit to South Sudan. There had been some discussions on MSF’s end to Tweet/Facebook at times while in Yida, but I asked if I could ratchet communication even further with my own Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feed, additionally publishing 1-2 photographs a day to the National Geographic Instagram account. MSF agreed and so it went.
Oh a bright note…photographs which I published in my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts seemed to have been felt — photographs were shared widely on all social media outlets. NGM’s Instagram feed seemed to have spread extremely wide with thousands of likes (difficult to like photographs of sick/starving children. There needs to be a stop this madness button). Even more interesting — comments. Where most photos on the NGM Instagram feed seem to receive hefty 100-200+ comments, a photograph of a young boy suffering from acute malnutrition generated over 800 comments, most discussing how they can help.
I am extremely grateful that NGM agreed for me to post frontline issues of the health crisis in South Sudan to their over 200k followers. What a powerful reach of communication.
When you combine the potential viewership of MSF, VII, National Geographic and personal viewers/followers, the collective reach through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook was well over 500,000.
Powerful means of communication.
OL: Are you using your own account or MSF?
JS: My own and National Geographics.
Seems MSF USA (@MSF_USA) is somewhat new to Instagram with a decent but not broad Instagram following, however their Instagram viewership does seem to be growing. MSF does have a massive following through on Twitter and Facebook. I made certain to send photographs through Twitter as often as possible while in Yida using @MSF_USA on all photographs and text comments, reaching and additional 225,000+ direct twitter followers.
OL: Do you use filters?
Instagram filters (boarders and whatnot) are just too much, too many to choose from. Feels like walking down the breakfast isle in an American mega-supermarket, trying to choose a cereal box after spending three months on the road where your choices each day were one or two options, and you were happy.
Only photograph with a very minimal (if any) manipulating Hipstamatic film/lens set, then if wanting B&W, desaturate, only doing basic burning/dodging.
Analyzing this workflow while writing, it seems as though I work in three realms…A camera with a specific minimal evasive lens/film combination, Aperture if on a laptop (Snapseed on an iPhone), then using Instagram, FB and Twitter as the publisher.
I’ve seen some rather non-manipulated photographs on Instagram posted by friends and colleagues, especially in B&W, sometimes even in color. Presume it’s all done in Instagram however no idea how.
OL: Do you interact with your followers and their comments?
JS: Try to.
With Instagram, it seems a bit odd to interact when people comment with repeated one word notes such as “brilliant”, “awesome” or funny looking thumbs up and hand clapping icons. What’s there to comment about unless being asked a question?
On the NGM Instagram feed sent while in Yida, there was actual issue discussions taking place on Instagram. But as mentioned, there was so much dialogue (specifically on one photograph) it becomes next to impossible to read them all. If Instagram was interactive on a computer and not just a small screened iPhone, maybe one could manage reading more than the first few notes. Also didn’t help in Yida that Internet access was extremely limited, only at the UN compound and with a 7PM curfew, leaving not much time left in the day post photography to read tiny print.
On Facebook and twitter, I do try to interact. With Facebook, there’s more space and easier ability to read. Twitter as well. Twitter and Facebook feels to be more a venue for word communication in collaboration with visuals or at least that is how it seems to me.
OL: Do you gain anything from it?
OL: Do you see Instagram as a marketing tool or a social tool?
OL: Would you want to financially benefit from this community of followers you’re slowly building? And if so, how would you approach this?
JS: This indeed is a question often asked.
We’re likely all asking this same question, with no definitive answer.
Sure, the time it takes to interact with these various tools of communication can cause a significant time vacuum. I do not sense financial benefits can/will come directly from posting images to Instagram. Lateral income potential is very possible, both presently and surely more so into the future as people likely far smarter about social media than I am figure it out.
Examples I see happening now (regarding financial benefits) are when you have a new book coming out, or an exhibition, workshops, speaking engagements, etc, and you have a relevant image which can be published, connecting thousands of people directly to X, Y or Z project you’re creating or a part of.
So yes, there are already potential financial benefits available. I feel them and have noticed an increase in various aspects of my entire photographic business portfolio (meaning, connective work aspects). They just are not immediate — i.e., not a view-read-buy-consume commodity item which brings to the photographer a tangible (immediate) returning financial benefit. The financial benefit aspects are again more laterally dispersed, dimensionally layered.
At a time where everyone is a photographer (whose ranks will grow by the number of births on this planet), the former commodity of a photograph or series of photographs that had a direct (tangible) financial returns based upon a resale to an ink on paper publication (or online), that avenue of income is going to dwindle even further than it already has. Example, resales at VII are not dreadful. They are still ok, however as all agencies and photographers have been noticing in recent years, resales — how we actually pay our bills between assignments — are dramatically lower than say 3-7 years ago. This declining bell curve isn’t likely to change. However the act of self publishing via Instagram (or Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogging, etc) will, likely over time, create an even greater potential for economic return, IF the photographer has a commodity to offer (books, prints, their time, etc) which is either lateral or directly connect to the photography they are publishing. It’s happening already. This process of lateral income potential from social media will only grow, just as it has in the last few years.
You bet, because we’re still at the infancy of where this road we each paving is taking us.
Exciting times with limitless potential?
Once again, thank you to Olivier Laurent, who agreed to letting me share the email correspondence I had with him while in South Sudan last month, making a much belated update to this blog far less daunting then penning it all from scratch.
NOTE: If you wish to limit the illegal usage of your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc, images being used as ads or uncredited on websites, I strongly suggest you watermark your images before publishing. Thanks to photographer, Yunghi Kim, who turned me on to the brilliant iPhone app, iWatermark. It’s super simple to use, just make sure you buy the Pro version because it allows for full-size saving of each photo imbedded with a watermark — the app is less than a tall latte at Starbucks. iWatermark won’t put at end to the rampant illegal use of photographs, however it might make someone think before posting your photographs as their own, or have those running Facebook rethink before using your photographs as ad space images along the right side of the FB page — read the fine print in Facebook’s Terms & Conditions, each image you post has the ability to potentially be incorporated into an ad, without you being paid for it.
July 11, 2012 21 Comments
Normally, it can take weeks (even months) preparing a story for this space. I need time in my attempts to share something imaginative, hopefully insightful — or dare I reach as an offering towards a sliver of enlightenment — in an era when everything and anything is brilliantly rehashed on the Internet.
This week I’ve decided to loose my laundry and dive as rapidly as I can into the Ring of Blogging Fire on a topic surely well written upon. What happened just under two weeks ago (though it’s been quietly going on for sometime) is indeed one of the biggest developments not only in the world of field recording history, it’s also a landmark moment for social documentary photography.
The Alan Lomax collection is now completely accessible online — 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, piles of manuscripts — including 5,000 photographs he took over this astonishing career.
Oh, did I mention the best part…these thousands of hours of audio are not only accessible in their entirety (most of the Lomax collection has been available online for years but as 45 second intro pieces), they are streaming for FREE!
For those who do not know who Alan Lomax was, he was an American folklorist and one of the preeminent ethnomusicologists of our time. Born in Texas in 1915, Alan was the son of John Lomax, a teacher and pioneering folklorist in his own right. By age 17, Alan Lomax began traveling with his father throughout the American south and the Caribbean as his dad made what are considered some of the most important early recordings of American culture while working for the Library of Congress (John Lomax set out in 1933 on the first recording expedition ever undertaken by the Library of Congress with son Alan in tow). According to Don Fleming with the Association for Cultural Equity, Alan primarily traveled with a Ampex 601-2 audio tape recorder and two RCA 77-D microphones — would need a well padder steamer trunk for such a large but truly awesome quality kit. He also traveled with camera, taking photographs that matched his field recordings in places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Scotland, England, Ireland, all over the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Here are some photographs of Alan Lomax throughout his 60 years of literally recording our world ~
When the Association for Cultural Equity, a not-for profit Mr. Lomax started, announced that the entire Alan Lomax Collection would be available for streaming, I was beyond thrilled. In my World Music collection I have two or three treasured CD’s of his which are as pure and raw as it gets.
During the last 20 years of his life, Lomax created an interactive multimedia educational computer project he called the Global Jukebox. This recent ability for the entire collection to be accessible to everyone is indeed a dream come true for Alan, who died at the age of 87 in 2002 — he wanted his messages of change, inspiration and education to be available for all.
This is huge on many levels.
Lomax wasn’t only the preeminent and pioneering ethnomusicologist and field recordist of our time, he was social documentarian who used both audio and photography to educate and raise awareness of issues. In many ways, he was a fellow photojournalist.
Take a gander as some of these rare contacts which a young Alan, about 18 years of age, took while he and his father worked for the Library of Congress ~
His microphones and cameras traveled the world during an era when musical traditions were already under pressure due to development and cultural apathy. Lomax knew the importance of creating audio recordings and photographs as a means to make change and raise awareness, well before a drop of notion that a tool called the Internet would arrive, let along recording device that would fit into a shirt pocket. Lomax knew that the musical and cultural traditions which took all of human civilization to develop was under pressure and about to becoming extinct, in the same manner of urgency that the present day preservation of linguistic heritage is sending anthropologists (sadly with scarce funding) to record the last speakers of dying languages on our planet — every two weeks a last speaker dies, taking with them the vestiges of our global language which not only makes up our global cultural heritage, we lose the wisdom of our ancestors.
Lomax was also a social activist, focusing heavily on civil rights issues, once again using music/field recordings and photography as a compendium against social injustice and raising cultural awareness. He was a co-founding member of People’s Songs, with Pete Seeger and others in 1945, with the belief that folk music could be an effective impetus for social change. His recordings from America’s southern states in the 30′s, 40′s and 50′s were key in raising awareness and helping to end racial discrimination while Lomax championed civil rights issues for African Americans.
Alan Lomax used the power of images and the awesome power of sound not just to record history, he used these communication tools to make a difference.
This is one of my favorite Lomax quotes:
“The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.”—Alan Lomax, 1972
I can type effortlessly for hours on how important Alan Lomax was to the preservation of culture and the weighted issues on a whole host of human rights efforts and activism he was connected to. Given the wealth of the Lomax collection now accessible to all — and the countless books, news articles and whatnot written/recorded about Mr. Lomax — you can easily learn more about this extremely talented and passionate individual yourself by making a simply Google search (click here). Anyone wanting to really delve deep into Lomax’s career and life, make sure to read the book, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.
My reason for rapidly writing this piece — and what’s often overlooked in all the writings, reviews and ravings about Alan Lomax — is his eye.
Alan Lomax was a pretty darn good photographer.
I hope these few photographs — and Alan Lomax’s entire archive — inspires you as much as it has me for continuing to use our cameras to make social change for those who cannot themselves, while in compendium, make field recordings, helping to expand the minds and hearts of others through the consciousness arresting power of sound and sight.
These days we tend to call it multimedia.
Fine, though I prefer to call it Visual Audio.
Either way, well before anyone of us were creating such combination storytelling, Alan Lomax was…and most of us weren’t even born yet.
NOTE: An enormous level of gratitude goes to Nathan Salsburg and Don Fleming — both with the Association for Cultural Equity — for allowing me to used un-watermarked photographs taken by Alan Lomax over his amazing career. Nathan had the weighted task of gathering 20+ high res files and helping me source proper captions. A super group of people continue the legacy of Alan Lomax, all of whom I’d be honored to meet on my next visit to New York City.
April 9, 2012 3 Comments