portrait

Image of the day - Old Ma'rib, Yemen.

Yemeni woman - Ruins of Old Ma'rib, Yemen. 2006.

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Lying in the center of Yemen, the once great city of Ma'rib now lies abandoned and in ruins.  The city dates from at least 1000 BC and was once a lush oasis teeming with dates and tropical plants - all made possible by an enormous dam and complex irrigation system, the remains of which are still visible.  Ma'rib's wealth accumulated to such an extent that the city became a byword for riches beyond belief throughout the Arab world.  Today riches are again found in the desert - this time oil.  Ma'rib is now more likely to be heard mentioned in context with Al Qaeda, terrorism and drone strikes.

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.

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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

Making vs. taking a portrait

The portrait below was shot during a recent visit to the tiny settlement of Kibbish in South West Ethiopia - home to the fascinating Surma people.  I spent several days in and around the village shooting reportage and portraits of these colorful and elegant people and I particularly liked this frame for the way it captures the gentle nature and the ease of the young guy.  But in order to end up with an image like this there is a lot more to it than just pressing the shutter and hoping for the best.

Firstly the subject - this boy was the brother of another young man who I was using as a guide and was obviously at ease and relaxed in the company of strangers which makes things a whole lot easier from the outset.  He was happy to be photographed and what's more to be photographed repeatedly without demanding payment for every frame taken which is sadly (but not unsurprisingly) a feature in seemingly even the remotest of locations these days.

The location was not that special - a patch of scrubby farm on the edge of the village with nothing that really stood out as a backdrop.  That was until I saw the banana tree.  With the tree as a backdrop I then had a way of isolating subject from the mess of the surrounding area - of course I could have used what was there and ended up with a totally different image but "I chose not to".   That's an important thing to say - "I chose not to"... I didn't just take a picture of a guy in a village but I made a conscious effort to pick a suitable subject and then pick a suitable backdrop and then bring the 2 components together.

Looking through the images in Lightroom I see that I then shot 24 frames - all lit with a handheld speedlight through a shoot through white brolly - until I thought I'd got a frame I was satisfied with.  If you have a subject that you think is interesting then it's worth keeping shooting and working the subject until one of you is either bored, exhausted or you feel you've got what you are after.

Standing there, pouring with sweat and with an image I thought I was happy with was of course just the beginning. Below is the RAW image as it came out of the Canon 5d mkll.

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

As you can see the image is flat and pretty lifeless - exactly what you want from a RAW image but capturing all the data from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights as shown in the histogram

Importing the image into lightroom some weeks later I could simply have pressed the "auto" button and I would have ended up with an OK image - nothing special, just OK.  But that's not what I had in mind when I shot the image - I wanted something more like an old polaroid print so that's how I chose to develop it in Lightroom.

The end result is an Image "I made" - a portrait that I am pretty happy with and not just a picture "I took" of a young guy in a patch of scrubby bush.

Polaroid portraits

filmportraits-2A series of portraits from the Maha Kumbh Mela earlier this year - Exported from Lightroom to my Iphone and then processed in phone....  Gimmicky it may be but somehow the subject lends itself to something a bit retro.  Of course I could have shot it all on polaroid or film in the first place but just imagine the hassle of doing that.  So now we shoot on high end digital, degrade the image, stick a border round it to make it look retro and hey presto we have an interesting image.  It's odd that with all this technology our aim is sometimes to end up with something that looks as if we had none of the technology at all.  My latest camera actually has built in filters that give the impression of a plastic toy camera - where will it all end?

Click on the images below to scroll through larger versions.