I learned a harsh lesson in portraiture this week: Digital is not the same as Print.
It’s a surprising realization that after four years of photography I’ve never actually printed my pictures. I’ve been satisfied with sharing them here, on Flickr and other social media. That changed when I committed to mailing prints back to the folks in Cuba.
But let’s rewind a bit.
The highlight of my recent trip was the opportunity to take pictures of people. I met members of the Chivirico community and with their gracious consent, took some wonderful portraits. As an additional bonus, on the last day our group had a full day model shoot with a troupe of professional dancers. It was an chance for composed shots with enthusiastic and ‘malleable’ subjects. As a gesture of appreciation I agreed to send printed pictures back to the community.
And here is where reality bites.
Portraits that looked perfectly fine on screen showed up harsh and unflattering in print. So many of these folks had been charming in person; I hated sending back ugly photos. I hastily adjusted the images, dialing back on clarity to soften the details and smoothe out natural skin imperfections. Softer, toned down images resulted with improved print quality. On screen the visual effect was almost as dramatic.
My lesson learned? For close up portraits, particularly those slated for print and people you’d rather not hate you, hold back on the clarity.
On the other hand, for my model pictures I allowed for more dramatic license. There were some pictures where I’d scaled back on the clarity, reprinted the image and then decided that I preferred the original.
For example this portrait of Graciano. I think the hard lights on his face adds a gritty edginess to the picture. It elevates it from being a nice shot to being an interesting one.
Or so I think. What about you?
Photos taken Cuba. March 2018
If you’re a fan of Street then you’ll know that the #1 Fear of all new and no-so-new street photographers is the Fear of Strangers. We all have a natural shyness about approaching strangers. But if you’re like me, who believes that the only interesting street shot is one with a face in it, then you’ll figure out how to overcome this.
I admit that its easier to take street portraits when travelling abroad. There’s a comfortable camouflage in being a tourist. With hat, camera and obvious unfamiliarity with the language it’s easy to smile, point and share pictures on your camera. Couple that with a few key words for beautiful, “Linda!” , “Bonito!”, “Muy hermoso!” and you have the magic for engaging with a stranger and making portraits.
My favorite shots are those that capture an expression that hints at the personality. Most of the time, I find it after after the initial photo, when I’ve come up close to share his/her picture on my camera’s LCD. The subject is now relaxed and I’m close enough for a very personal portrait shot.
If helps of course, to know a few more words of the language. That way, I can walk away with a bit more knowledge of the person. Granted, the knowledge may be incomplete and probably wrong (there’s a direct correlation between language proficiency and understanding) but at least I have something more to remember him/her by.
The Cable Guy’s name was Alejandro (or maybe it was Guillermo.) I’d been admiring his sturdy red truck. This being Cuba it was a solid, all metal 1960’s era vehicle, reconstructed from parts and a chimera of brands & manufacturers. Alejandro was in the telephone cable business, he hauled telephone poles, dug & installed them … or so I understood.
Ramon the Guitar Player serenaded me with Cuban ballads played on his front porch. He told me a long and involved story about his time in Santiago (it could have been Havana) where he met other chinos like me.
The Man in the Blue Box Balcony (sorry I don’t remember your name) was relaxing on his day off. He asked me if I was staying at the local hotel and when I said “sí”, said that he worked there too.
Abuelita was the charming grandmother of Tomás who found my walking group wandering in a dried out riverbed and invited us home for a visit. Abuelita wanted to give me a manicure. Tomás introduced me to santeria … and the topic for another post.
Stay tuned until then.
Chivirico, Cuba. February 2018
Have you walked through a warren of alleys, turned a corner and been startled by a cacophony of color, light and pattern? Visuals so loud and discordant that you had to blink three times to tone it down?
This happened to me in an outdoor market in Northern Thailand. I’d stumbled into hat makers alley. A place where ladies surrounded by gaily colored fabric, sewed ribbons of bubbles and baubles on to hats, aprons and vests. They draped themselves with vibrantly patterned scarves with no apparent concern for color harmony. The laughed and chattered among themselves, ignoring the tourist fidgeting with her camera and trying to isolate a shot.
Later when I uploaded my photos I ignored all of these photos. I had liked one but decided that the frame was too full with color and pattern. It was hard see the subject against the distraction of background.
Fast forward to years later. I’m searching through my catalog looking for interesting B&W portraits. I find this old photo and casually flick it to B&W. What a difference.
The moral of this story? Never discard photos that you like. Maybe your eye saw something your brain did not. Time will tell.
Photo taken in Thailand, 2015
I’ve been looking through my catalog of pictures.
I found some favorites which I hadn’t published because I didn’t have much to say about them.
Except that I liked them.
Taken somewhere near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Whenever I travel I take lots of pictures. After the trip, it takes me a while to sift through them all. I discard the (many!) uninteresting and bad shots; select the context and story shots and choose the ones that I just plain like.
I always prefer pictures with people in them. Inevitably my favorites are portraits. For me, the sense of place is best captured in the expressions and character of its people.
Here are a few from my trip to Myanmar.
For whatever reason, I almost never take pictures of children and cats. Don’t get me wrong, I love children and cats. Some of my favorite people were children once. Cats even. But as photo ops? Not so much.
Except for this one. This little monk had just gobbled up a special treat. He’d claimed a small cake included with the rice in the daily alms collection. I love the expression on his face and the overall delight in his posture.
My absolute favorite portrait from Myanmar?
That would be of the Cheroot smoker. It was taken on our first day in Bagan. We’d visited the early morning market and she was setup right at entrance. Over the next eight days I took hundreds of photos but this one, taken in the first hour, is my favorite.
Myanmar. December 2016
Whenever I travel I take photographs. Whatever I photograph I invariably prefer the shots of people. In a recent trip to Laos, these are the photos that I favoured the most.
Although northern Laos is mostly mountain side and green, the villages and inhabited areas are stripped bare to the ground. Footpaths and passage-ways are made of packed earth and mineral rich dust paints everything a dull red brown. Flashes of colour from costume and clothing are a welcome relief.
Most of the houses in the hill villages are made of weathered wooden planks or woven bamboo walls. On the way to Phonsavon we visited a Khmu village which had a house freshly painted in vivid purple and brilliant blue. This young fellow was minding his siblings but he obligingly posed for me.
Our guide Vong, said that school is mandatory and as we drove through the regions of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, we certainly saw a lot of schools and teacher colleges. In the remote hill areas though, I suspect the schools are not as accessible. We saw young kids taking care of even younger kids while their parents worked in the rice fields. At barely seven years old, this little girl was carrying her baby brother while all the other kids were at play.
Kids grow up earlier here. According to Vong, the Hmong kids even earlier. We stopped at a Hmong village selling hand-embroidered textiles. Girls dressed in traditional costume posed for pictures and encouraged us to buy. This young girl, who looks about thirteen, would be married in the next year. Thereafter Vong said, she’d have babies of her own to look after.
Despite my photo collection, Laos is not entirely inhabited by children. Although, with a median age of 19 years, Laos does have the youngest population in all of South East Asia. Less than 4% of the population is over 65. This has more to do with Laos history than its average life expectancy, which is 62 years. To prove my point, here is my final and favorite shot.
An elf of an old man was sitting in a huge chair staring at the farang (foreigners) passing by. When I clackered the wooden cow bells at his stall, he hurried over to show his collection of traditional Lao medicine – snakes and scorpions preserved in rice whiskey. I didn’t buy his medicine but I did treasure his picture.
Laos. March 2016
It was late afternoon and we were making our way back to Chiang Mai city after a day spent in the mountains. We drove through miles of hillside farms and orchards filled with avocado, orange and litchee trees. At one point we saw people harvesting peanuts and we stopped to take pictures. The sun was at that optimal position where the light against the hillside was perfect. The colours were vibrant and intense. The shadows subtle. The highlights spot on.
I took several pictures but my favorite ones were of two kids playing in a peanut patch. I loved the impish expression of the boy and the contrast of colour, light and texture of the girl. While the photographer in me loved the pictures, the mom in me was apalled at their dirtiness. Oh my!
The wonder of digital is that I can switch to Colour or B&W easily. In Colour I maintain the brilliance and vibrance of the scene. With B&W I retain the expression, the contrast and the light but (or and) I lose the grimeyiness of the kids. What do you prefer?
Northern Thailand, 2015
When Luc and I first talked about visiting the Hill Tribes of northern Chang Mai, I had a vague idea of seeing aboriginal people decked out in traditional dress. I half expected real life version of displays in ethnological museums. In my normal fashion of last minute packing, ticket, keys and bag checking, I did not research the trip. Even as we drove out of Chang Mai and the city congestion gave way to verdant hill sides and crisp mountain air, I thought only about the scenic vistas, the roadside fruit stalls and the grinding gears of the SUV climbing up the steep and narrow roadways.
After two hours we arrived a Baan Tong Luang, a cultural preservation village for the six hill tribes of Northern Thailand – the Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Akha, Palong and Kayaw. The settlement was an almost real village of traditional homes and farming community. Real, because these were actual family homes with actual working farms. Almost real, because it was a planned community set up specifically for tourism. The people lived in the villages, farmed the rice fields and earned a stipend from the entry fees and souvenir sales. In exchange, tourists were welcome to peer into their daily lives.
A single page brochure was handed out with the admission ticket. On it were brief descriptions of the hill tribe’s origin and traditional dress.
“Karen people originally came from Tibet before moving into China and entered to Burma around Salween River. Later, they had conflict against the administrations of Burma, then a lot of them moved into Thailand. Their dressing style appeared distinctly as an indentity of them is the clothes of Karen women. They are in the clothes weaved by themselves with the red-white stripe across the body and wrap a piece of several color cloth around their head. The Karen virgin is in white clothes. Mostly Karen people wear necklace made from natural materials such as bean, Job’s tears, etc.”
Excerpt from Baan Tong Luang brochure
The hill tribe villages have come under attack from various eco-tourist groups. Describing them as ‘human zoos’, they point out the under-privileged status of the immigrant tribes and lack of access to education and medical benefits. Particular to the Karen Long Necks, or Padaung, vehement criticism is levied against body-mutilation in the name of tourism.
During my Baan Tong Luang visit, I knew nothing of this. I enjoyed the tidy layout of the bamboo and thatch style houses, the quiet demonstration of textile making, the understated display of crafts for sale.
In many ways, my walk through the compound felt like similar walks through private homesteads in Cambodia and Vietnam. The difference was that people here wore traditional dress and were comfortable in posing for pictures. The homes were authentic and lived in. The indoor kitchen was shady with dappled sunlight streaming in through the slatted walls, the single open room tidy with sparse rugs and containers shuffled into a corner. A group of boys clustered around an outdoor pipe and basin, arguing excitedly about their fishing catch from the rice fields. A dog barked. A waft of country air carried a hint of buffalo, hot packed earth and green fields. What was missing was the rubbish of discarded plastic bags and the re-used or discarded detritus of people living in extreme poverty.
I admit to pausing though, when I saw the long necked women in the Padaung village.
Two little girls were sitting on the porch talking to a visitor. Decked out in carefully applied make-up, shiny bronze necklaces and leg bracelets, they were in animated conversation. With guileless coy they giggled and dangled their legs over the raised platform. As I looked at their feet I was reminded of my daughter’s toes stretching and curling as she swung from a playground swing. When she was their age, she’d had the same careless wit & joy of childhood. But she’d also had the unlimited potential of choice for growing up. What choice did these girls have?
A few houses down there were older Long Neck women. The brace coils wound longer and heavier around their necks and legs. Their posture was stiffer and less mobile. A girl, no more than five years older than the two little girls, wore a neck brace twice as long. Seen in silhouette her head was distended, awkwardly stretched away from her disproportionately small shoulders. She walked with an unnatural gait that made me feel guilty about taking her picture.
Despite their name, the Padaung women do not have longer necks. Rather, the bronze necklaces push down on the rib cage, compressing and distorting the clavicles and ribs, giving the illusion of long necks. The necklaces are made from a single bronze rod coiled around the neck starting at age five. As they grow older the necklace is removed and the coils adjusted in width and number. Aside from this adjustment the necklaces are never removed. By sixteen the women typically stop adding coils. By adulthood the necklaces weigh upwards of 11 kg.
It is easy to pity these women. The willful disfigurement seems cruel and archaic. And yet, a little research shows a different view. The Padaung people are originally from Myanmar (Burma) where they’ve been brutalized for decades. When Myanmar outlawed the brass rings as barbaric, many Padaung fled to Thailand as refugees. With no legal status, they have limited rights and uncertain status. However, they are left alone to practice their tradition and villages like Baan Tong Luang provide them with an income. Their life here is better than they would have had in Myanmar. They chose to leave Myanmar because of the brass rings. They wear the necklaces as a matter of heritage and choice .
Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand (2015)
For more photos, see my Flickr album at Chiang Mai Hill Tribes
Our photo guide, Yande was a taciturn man. On the first day of our photo shoot, we met in the 5am dark at the hotel’s entrance. He quietly greeted us, packed our camera gear and silently drove into the brooding night. Initially, I welcomed his silence. However, in the ensuing four hours of travel we exchanged less than ten words per hour. Forty words. Barely enough for a story stanza, hardly enough for a short story.
That day we had a sunrise shoot on Sanur beach with a local fisherman as a model. It was either his first time or a repeat of many similar times. Either way he was stiff and formal. He wore a cone straw hat and a pressed golf shirt neatly buttoned up. With awkward lassitude he stood against a rising turquoise sky. He held his fishing net with an arm stuck out, stiffly perpendicular to his body. It was a perfect silhouette of a one legged mail post. As the sun lightened up, we beckoned him on shore for portrait close-ups. With a stare reminiscent of mug shots and do-not-smite passport pictures, he stared blankly into the camera.
On a whim, I showed him the pictures on my camera’s LED screen.
“Beautiful,” I said.
In my next shot I noted a gradual easing of his cheek. The slight, almost imperceptible crinkle at his eyes. It was the beginning of a potential for a smile.
Later I told Yande that one of my better pictures was a closeup of the fisherman.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Bugis,” Yande said.
On our second day, Yande took us to the hills to greet the sunrise at Ulun Danu. On the way we were stuck in a narrow winding country road, in a slow moving cavalcade of cars and farm vehicles. At one point we were cut off by a motor bike hauling a makeshift bamboo trailer. In the trailer, precariously maintaining his balance, was a large pig. White exhaust belched from the bike’s muffler directly into the pig’s face and the trailer lurched and swerved around the many pot holes. In this stretch there were more holes than road and I wondered how the pig stayed upright.
Poor pig. I thought.
“That’s a happy pig,” Yande said.
“Why? Isn’t he going to the butcher?” I said.
“Oh no. He’d be in a different position if it was the butcher. He’d be lying down. That pig is going to visit a lady pig.”
“He’s a bull pig?”
“Yes. The owner probably got a call just now. So he’s off to make a service.”
“How does the owner get paid? With the baby pigs?”
“No. No. He gets paid in cash for his service.”
“What if there’s no piglets?”
“It’s no matter,” Yande laughed. “Services rendered. No returns.”
Balinese homes have a feng shui type arrangement – walled compounds with a single gate for entrance and exit. Money and prosperity flows in and with careful watch, does not flow out. The unofficial gate house is the kitchen, where mother stands guard. Everyone must pass the kitchen. Even a daughter’s boyfriend. Especially a daughter’s boyfriend.
In the Bali compound a system of houses are arranged in strategic north-south, east-west placement. The parent’s house faces West, the grandparents’ faces East. The eldest son’s family home faces North and the tombs of deceased family members face South. Yande says that the North symbolizes youth and prosperity; the East, longevity. Longevity without wealth is not good. Wealth without longevity is even worse. North East is the best.
“If the eldest son lives at home,” I asked “where does the second son live?”
“First son has to live at home with the parents, so that he can take care of them.”
Yande’s voice deepened with the weight of an observant son.
“He makes all the decisions for the family and has all the responsibility and power, but he can never leave the village. He doesn’t even get to choose his wife. His parents arrange the marriage. The Second son has all the freedom. He can leave the family village and do whatever he wants. He can choose his wife. He can marry for love. Buy his own land. Setup a new home.”
Yande paused before deciding to tell us a story.
“My uncle, my mother’s brother, is a second son. A long time ago he met two sisters and fell in love with the younger sister. She was very beautiful. He noticed though, that whenever he went to visit her, the older sister was always there. When it came time he wanted to marry the younger sister. But the girl’s parents said no, he could only marry the older sister. Although they were very rich, they owned two separate houses, they had no sons, only the two daughters. As an incentive, they said he could get the family home, if he married the older sister.
So he did.
Still, in his heart he loved the younger sister. After several years of marriage and the birth of his own son, he again approached the parents. Eventually they agreed and he married his true love. Today, he has two wives and two houses.
Gates are a big thing in Bali. Large stone structures, they are ornately carved portals which loom eight meters high. Yande said that the gates are built in the image of Balinese mountains because all life comes from there. Fresh water flows from the mountains and food grows abundant with seasons.
“True Balinese people are farmers,” Yande said. “They work the land and harvest the crops, three, four times a year. Balinese are not like the Bugis who live near the sea. Bugis are lazy and have no patience. Give the Bugis some seeds and three months and they don’t know what to do. They prefer the easy prosperity of the sea. They cast their nets and draw their catch.”
“Bugis,” he said with disdain “are not loyal to the land. They take their boats and scatter far away. Bugis are in Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines. Even Singapore! They plunder the sea and go everywhere.”
On our last day in Bali, we walked along Jimbalan beach and watched the fishermen bring in their catch. It was scarcely 9 am, but most of the boats had been docked and unloaded for the morning market. Wiry and burnt brown from the unforgiving sun, the men cleaned their catamarans and untangled their fishing nets. When a late coming boat approached, everyone dropped their work and hurried to help dock the vessel. Lined up on either side, they hoisted the heavy boat onto a barrow trolley and pulled it ashore. With the waves bashing against the fully loaded hull, it took twelve men and nearly an hour of heaving to bring the boat ashore.