photography

A Grand Day Out

As a photographer who spends several months of the year shooting on location in remote areas one of the things that always astounds me is the amount of time one can seem to waste in the back of a 4WD vehicle getting around in country.  Almost inevitably the best parts of the day (the morning and evening) are spent bumping along dirt roads while you can frequently be tasked with getting your story or images in the heat and intense light of the midday sun.  There is also the frustration of being on route to a particular location with a time schedule to keep to and passing countless good photo opportunities as you go - all highly annoying.

On some rare days though, when you have a little more time on your hands, you have the chance to stop and take advantage of the the location and the journey and get the images that normally pass you by.

AGDO-3
AGDO-3

On this particular day we had been photographing in the village of Longwa that straddles the border of Nagaland and Myanmar.  The people of the village are of the Konyak tribe and were extremely hospitable despite their not too distant past history of head hunting.  Facial tattoos are pretty common among the older men of the area and this along with the beauty and remoteness of the region is what draws in the few visitors who make it here.

Village headman - Longwa, Nagaland/Myanmar border
Village headman - Longwa, Nagaland/Myanmar border

I shot a few portraits including the one above of the new village Headman (lit with a speedlight and shoot through brolly held at full extension in my left hand - my 'go to' quick and dirty lighting in these sort of situations).

Leaving the village in the early afternoon we were faced with the usual long drive to get back to the only guest house in the area but this time had a few hours to kill and spend on the journey.  The first stop was for this guy who was standing beside the road on the edge of a scruffy little village. Come on......, how could you pass up the opportunity to go and chat to a man with horns?

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AGDO-4

After the usual pleasantries we broached the subject of shooting a few pictures and as typical in this region it was met with a smile and a nod of the head.  We were then ushered into the mans nearby house and invited to sit in the near darkness whilst the fire was re kindled and the tea made.  With a sweet brew in hand it began to dawn that we were in fact sat in a smokey little opium den with a few other quietly staring reclining figures tucked away in the shadows.

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AGDO-5

The man with the horns began to prepare his next pipe, explaining as he did so how he got the opium from the Myanmar side of the border and how he could afford little else other than his habit.  Things then took a peculiar twist.  Our host put both feet behind his head - resting on the dirt floor on just his bottom.  He then stuck his opium pipe in his mouth and took a burning branch from the fire to light it - but then rather than throwing it back on the fire he rubbed the flaming branch up one arm after another explaining as he did that the continued use of opium had completely de-sensitized his skin.  It seemed to have no effect on him at all.  Looking back at the images now I realize I missed capturing the moment concentrating more on shooting portraits rather than documentary images - maybe the smoke had clouded my judgment?

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AGDO-6

Leaving the smoke and drugs behind we soon picked up a character we'd given a lift to earlier in the day.  With his bright red waistcoat and blue beads around his legs this was a local village chief who we'd picked up in the morning.  With nothing more than a live chicken in a basket he was on his way by foot to a funeral in a village some 30km away.  Luckily for him it was a day with time in hand so we'd stopped and offered a lift.  It was now the chiefs opportunity to reciprocate and invited us back to his village for tea.  Having accepted we suspected there might have been an ulterior motive as this then took us miles out of our way down dirt paths to deliver him home - again without the time in hand we would never have gone.

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AGDO-8

Leaving the chief and by this stage late in the afternoon we passed several hunters on their way into the forest - needless to say it was another encounter too good to pass up.  Young guys with guns - hunters or insurgents?  Nagaland has several insurgent factions demanding regional independence but also involved in kidnapping, extortion, smuggling and inter-factional clashes.  Maybe stopping and shooting the breeze with these guys was not a good idea but again encounters like this are for me what make travel interesting.

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AGDO-9

As is so often the case these young guys were flattered to be stopped and have the attention - 2 minutes of chat and then we had the all clear for as many photographs as wanted.  As is so often the case if you just have the time to stop and chat and make time for people you soon realize that there are interesting encounters to be had had even when you are driving along dirt roads in the middle of nowhere.

Hunter, Nagaland, India
Hunter, Nagaland, India

A short walk before breakfast

Whilst visiting the Suri people in Southwestern Ethiopia one of the things I was particularly keen to document was the traditional practice of taking and drinking cattle blood early in the morning. 

Cattle are of enormous significance to Suri men with a man's worth  judged by the number of cows he has.  In fact it's not uncommon for Suri men to risk their lives in protecting their cattle from raiders.  Typically adult men might own 30 or 40 cows, saving for the day when having amassed 60 head they are considered of marriageable status. 

Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM

Setting off just after dawn and guided by our armed escort Arbulo (meaning Black Bull) we waded the Kibbish river and headed up into the bush on the far bank.  After a brisk 40 minute walk we arrived at the corral of a man we had met and photographed on the river bank the previous evening and who had invited us to visit him with his cattle. Scanning the cattle with a very knowledgeable eye a young cow was selected and quickly cornered by the young herd boys who then held it ready for blood to be taken. 

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Surma-4
Surma-6
Surma-6
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Surma-7
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM

Strangely the cattle were not particularly disturbed by any of this - perhaps used to this near daily activity.  A leather thong was quicky passed around the cows neck and tightened - it's jugular vein by this stage very pronounced but still a tiny target for for the bow and arrow held by one of the elder herd boys. 

Surma-9
Surma-9

One quick shot with a sharp arrow into the bulging jugular was all it took to release a throbbing stream of blood into the gourd bowl held ready.  Seconds later with the bowl full of vivid red blood the thong was removed and a small handful of mud pressed into the tiny cut.  The blood clotted almost instantly and the cow was released and trotted off to join the rest of the herd seemingly none the worse for it's experience.

Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM

With only minutes before the fresh blood would start to clot, two of the young herd boys quickly polished off the blood in a matter of seconds and then without another word the gate of the corral was opened and they quickly left and vanished into the bush with the cattle.

Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM

Photographing this event was always going to be at least a little bit tricky - with little or no verbal communication possible between me and the subjects there was no real way of telling what was about to happen and there was no option to say hang on a second whilst I change lenses or recompose.  With an already bright sun causing the usual problems of photographing black skin in broad daylight I chose to shoot with off camera fill in flash triggered through a Canon ETTL cable and shot through a combination of white brolly or small softbox.  Trying to get well composed images whilst slipping around in ankle deep cow shit is not the easiest thing to do and as always with hindsight there are always things you might do differently but in general I think I more or less caught the flavor of the morning if not the smell.

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Surma-15

With the cattle gone it was back down to the river to wash off the the knee high reminder of the mornings experience and then back to the tents for our own altogether less adventurous breakfast.

Capa's advice

Legendary photojournalist Robert Capa once said "If your photos aren't good enough, you aren't close enough".  What he was saying was that we as photographers should become more intimate with our subjects, become not only physically closer but also more involved on a personal level with our subjects.

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KUMBHMELA_2617

During a trip to the recent 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad I was frequently amazed by the number of photographers who seemed to show little or no interest in their subjects.  Armed with two large DSLR cameras (generally fitted with grips) and large zoom lenses they seemed so often to be equipped more for shooting wildlife than the main subject of the Mela - people.  Add to that the obligatory backward facing cap and maybe a photographers waistcoat plus the large bag of kit and these guys see themselves marked out as serious players not to be messed with.  Watching the 2 guys below I realised why they needed long lenses - they walked straight past people without any contact, in a world of Nikon and Canon and not in a festival of 100 million people.

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KUMBHMELA_309

Whenever I go somewhere new it takes a little while to work out how people are going to react to being photographed - in Northern Kenya for example the reaction was generally a demand for money, in Iraq it was always met with a smile.  At the Kumbh Mela it took literally minutes to realise that in this happy festival atmosphere everyone was not only happy be photographed but also frequently insistent that you should photograph them.

My reasons for photographing these sorts of events is the people.  Yes it's an amazing spectacle but more than that it's an opportunity to meet and chat and interact with literally thousands of interesting and interested people.  I think a lot of people have a natural reluctance to approaching total strangers and making small talk - for me it's one of the joys of travel and being a photographer and if you can get over this then you are half way there to 'being close enough'.  I'm constantly amazed by the kindness and generosity of people I meet - if you don't take the time or effort to connect and get closer you will often fail to see this side someones character.

Of course there are cases where some 'photographers' go too far.  At the Mela there were many instances where photographers would just barge in to photograph someone you might be chatting to without so much as a word of a 'hello' or 'do you mind' or anything else - I have to say the local Indian photographers were particularly bad in this regard. Now don't get me wrong I know that I frequently approach and chat to subjects as a way to soften them up for the inevitable photos that follow but by doing this you develop at least some kind of rapport and connection with an individual, no matter how brief it might be.  In an ideal world it would be great to go into a community - spend days getting to know people and making them comfortable in your presence and then start shooting images - unfortunately we don't live in an ideal world and few of us can afford the time or luxury of working in this way.

Having connected with a potential subject it is generally very easy to decide if photos are going to follow - there might be the slightest sign that it's not going to be welcome and that's enough.  I rarely if ever shoot pictures of someone not willing to be photographed, though there are always valid exceptions.  Many amateur photography magazines advise travelers to take candid shots with a telephoto lens in order not to be noticed - I find this a rather sneaky approach that rarely results in a good image.  Far better to photograph people with their complete approval, sometimes acknowledging the camera's presence and at others behaving as though you weren't there - but all the time the connection is there and the consent and respect maintained.  Leave the long lenses in the backpack and use something in the 24 - 50mm range - get connected with the subject and share a bit of human interaction and get images that see into the lives of others.

Stand still and let it happen..

Old Havana, Cuba

Finding good subject matter is sometimes difficult as a traveling photographer - some days everything seems to fall into place easily and interesting things pop into your viewfinder one after another whilst on other days you scratch around looking hopelessly for some kind of inspiration.  A useful approach I quite often adopt is the 'stand still and let it happen' technique.  It goes like this: Find an interesting background and then sit back and wait for the subject to come to you!  Simple but often effective.  If you wander around aimlessly hoping to come across interesting images you can strike lucky but if you identify an interesting backdrop to an image then at least you have one element in place and a degree of control of your final image.  Another advantage of this technique is that you can blend into the scene and become less visible particularly if you pretend to be shooting pictures of something other than your approaching subject.

The following pictures hopefully illustrate the point.

Walking around the narrow alleys in the beautiful city of Harar in Ethiopia I came across this door and section of very colorful wall.  As a graphic image on it's own it's OK - nothing special but a good starting point for a better image yet to come.  There were few people around and in the confined space those that there were very aware of a me and my camera.

So stand still and let it happen... Just blend into the wall as best you can and wait - when someone comes down the alley rather than chase them with a camera just start shooting architecture and wait for the moment to happen when person and wall fall into place.

OK still not perhaps the best images in the world but standing in that same spot for 5 or 10 minutes gave me quite a few useable images.

Here are a couple more images shot in the same way in Ethiopia, Kurdish Iraq and Cuba.

Making the most of an opportunity

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Sometime as a photographer things happen very quickly and often you need to decide whether there is something in front of you that is worth photographing or not - will it make a good picture, or an interesting picture - or perhaps one that tells a story you are interested in telling?  Sometimes it's as simple as a young girl on her way to school with an umbrella in hand on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

On this particular day I'd already been driving for several hours through the Western Highlands of Ethiopia and to be honest by this stage was looking for an opportunity to stop and stretch my legs - a toilet stop is always the most obvious excuse but in this instance the sight of the young girl with matching clothes and umbrella were the perfect reason.

Having persuaded the girl to allow me to shoot a couple of frames we were then rapidly joined by a quickly growing group of her school friends who having seen the image on the back of the camera were all keen to be photographed as well.  What followed was an exercise in patience - what you can't see in the images are the 25 or so other kids who all wanted to be in every shot and lined up forming a tight human corridor between me and the subject.  I shot a single frame of each kid at 200mm in order to avoid the sea of encroaching faces.

Individually none of the images are great but together (and as a little reminder of a fun half an hour with some friendly kids) they work quite well.