Archive for August, 2010

Fishing on Maskelyne Island

August 31, 2010

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Those who have been following my blog for a while know that I have a bit of a photographic obsession with fishermen and things related to fishing. It’s not that I like fishing myself (I find it a little boring), it’s that there’s something about the visual aesthetic in the things around fishing that appeals to me. All those gadgets – boats, canoes, nets, sails, oars. Of course I do love eating fish and whenever you’re photographing fishermen, there’s a good chance that there will be at least some fish for dinner. If you ask me, that’s a great bonus.

Because so much of Vanuatu is along the coast, one would think that fishing would be done in every single coastal village. While there’s certainly a lot of fishing, it’s not quite as widespread as I imagined. Nevertheless one of the places I visited – Maskelyne Island, also known as Ulleveo was pretty ideal. Here people mostly fish with small canoes and the process involves a lot of rowing, casting fishing nets and even the occasional use of the local spear gun called “lastic”, probably because essentially it’s just a piece of elastic tied to a piece of wood. I’m proud to say that I tried it out and even managed to spear one fish.

Anyway, the process promised to be pretty interesting and photogenic and I had been dying to use my underwater housing to photograph something besides coral and fish (no offence to coral and fish, it’s just that these subjects just bored me eventually). I went on two little fishing trips – one with a bunch of local children, the other with a few guys around my age. The children were spear-fishing and unfortunately they didn’t go for very long because the sea was a little rough, so rough that I almost floated away because of not initially wearing my fins.

The older “boys” technique included the use of a net. They’d spread it out and then someone would start swimming and making strong splashes in the water in the hopes that the fish will frantically swim towards the net and get caught in it. Once in the net the fish would meet their doom as one of the chaps would swim towards it, spear it, extract it and put it into the canoe. At the end of the trip guys didn’t get much fish, turns out I was always in the wrong place while taking photos. I’d scare the fish and cause them to flee in the wrong direction. To console my fishing mates I decided to buy them a bucket of kava, which they appreciated greatly.

About the photos, these aren’t my greatest photographic achievements, but these are the better shots of what I’ve created so far using my Aquatech housing. The big problem was that to shoot something like this (at least the underwater part) truly effectively one needs to know what the heck is going on, what to expect and I didn’t know either. I’ve learned though and my next destination – the remote Banks islands will hopefully provide me with plenty more opportunities to photograph this sort of stuff.

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One of the main reasons I got the housing was to get shots like these. What I mean is shots taken from the level of the water. It’s not underwater stuff, but without the housing you just ain’t getting a shot like this one.

In this particular scene the younger boys are getting ready to jump back into the boat after doing some spear fishing.

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One of the youngsters taking aim at a fish with a “lastic”. Boys start doing this sort of stuff from a very early age. By their teens they are incredibly good swimmers and I guess they’re not bad at shooting either.

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The older guys looking around for the right spot to cast the net. They have a few favourite spots which they come back to all the time and they can recognize them without GPS or anything alike. Another interesting example of a close bond between people and land or in this case water.

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Spreading the net for the fish to become tangled in. I like how the light penetrates through the water, creating a fairly dramatic effect. The thing that I’ve learned so far about light and underwater photography is that – the more light you have the better.

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Often the fish hide in underwater burrows and amidst the coral. The fishermen know where the best potential hiding spots are and always make sure to check them out.

A note on the Aquatech housing. I’ve been using the housing for long enough now to form some kind of an opinion on it. I have to say that it’s pretty cool, though there is a bit of a learning curve as in how to get the most out of it and how not to accidentally destroy your camera. I almost killed my 5D MKII because there was a little knob which got loose. I didn’t realize that water could come through because of that. Luckily it didn’t get too loose and the results weren’t disastrous,  there was simply some leakage. Still, the camera began to act strange and though it’s back to normal now, I can only hope that some vital part inside it is not meeting a slow death by salt water as I type this.

All in all the housing works as it should. It’s great to have a port for a zoom lens (24-70mm) that allows it to be used as a zoom. Though I shot most of the stuff as wide as possible, I did need to get closer without physically getting closer a few times and you aren’t exactly going to be able to change lenses under water and so, the zoomable port is a huge bonus.

I will write much more about the housing later. I think it’s a good product and for the price range it seems like there’s nothing really better, so I think there’s some more valuable info I can share with anyone searching to get a housing for similar use.

Chief Ayar Randes

August 29, 2010

Chief Ayar Randes portrait

I mentioned Chief Ayar in my last post. I also mentioned that he is one of the favourite characters that I’ve come across through all of my journeys. Chief Ayar is a unique man, he is sometimes considered strong headed, very opinionated and one might even call him a little cunning.

Two things that matter to Ayar more than anything in the world are his land and his culture. He has needed to possess at least a little of the mentioned qualities in order to hold onto these in the quickly modernizing, changing world which swallows and absorbs everything in its path without waiting.

For Ayar, his land is much more than just land. He believes that the spirit of his people came from it, from the thick forest, mountain rivers, creeks and some of the most fertile soil on the planet. Ayar is of that land and the land is a continuation of him, it’s can’t be separated, like an organ vital to the body.

Ayar realizes that others might want to take his land away. Vanuatu’s infamous land disputes are a testament to that and in order to basically not get screwed, you have to be ready to fight and to protect your land and your rights. Before the fighting was done with weapons, now one must play by the rules of the modern world. Ayar has negotiated with the government to create a law which ensures that his land will never be sold and the only way it can be transferred is from generation to generation, just as it has been for as long as anyone can remember.

Should there be any doubt or dispute in the future, Ayar’s children, who have all been given modern, Western education will be able to stand up for their land. The youngest is studying law, the middle is a director of a trading company, both in Port Villa (Vanuatu’s capital) and the eldest owns a small shop, in a village close to the ancestral land.

It is the eldest son to whom Ayar has entrusted the task of keeping the family history and his tribe’s culture alive. He told me that he once pulled the boy aside and said “You’ve had enough white-man education, now it’s time to learn about kastom (the word used for tradition/culture in Vanuatu).” Ayar taught  his son how to beat the traditional, wooden gong, how to dance, how to paint masks, how to prepare ceremonies and sacrifice pigs.

It’s hard to tell whether kastom will indeed stay alive for generations, but the pattern which the culture follows in parts of Vanuatu defies reason, or at least it defies the reasoning of most white-men, as the locals refer to almost all Westerns. On Malekula, the home island of Ayar there were still cases of Cannibalism and tribal warfare until late 60s. Then, as majority of the population was finally converted to Christianity, the natives suddenly turned away from their past and at times even became ashamed of it. The Church did their best to discourage anything that would remind the people of their bygone  “savage” ways, calling grade-taking and ceremonial pig killing, which were vital parts of the culture for so long – sinful.

By mid seventies, in South West Bay, the area of Malekula island, where chief Ayar’s ancestral land is, most traces of what once made the  smol nambas, the formerly fierce cannibal warriors of the region distinct and unique was almost gone. That is until Ayar, inspired and influenced by the knowledge passed on to him by his father decided to hold a grade-taking ceremony, to kill a pig, to become a chief and to begin the revival of the smol nambas culture in South West Bay.

Fascinatingly, before Ayar decided to become a chief he was already a prominent Church member, which meant that he had close ties to the very institution which tried their best not to revive, but to rid the natives off of  their history and culture. This didn’t seem right to Ayar and after the pig killing that made him Chief, he went to the Church to pray.  This move was intentional, Ayar wanted to show that Church and kastom could go hand in hand, that they could co-exist. The way Ayar saw it, both were about love,  peace and respect for other human beings.

The Presbyterian Church had a different opinion and decided to “discipline” Ayar by keeping him away from Sunday services for three months. Unshaken and still convinced that Church and kastom could and should co-exist, Ayar went up into the hills to build a church there for the few unconverted or (semi-converted) tribes. Once the church was completed he started attending the services in nothing more than a namba (a banana leaf around the private member). This was a big no-no once again, but no one could discipline Ayar up in the hills. Again he wanted to show  how Church and culture could co-exist, but to his surprise the mountain natives quickly exchanged their nambas for “white man clothes” and began to move away from their ancient traditions without ever really looking back. Unknowingly and unwillingly chief Ayar pushed the only remaining purely traditional people away from their history and culture.

This story would have a very sad ending, if it were to end this way and in most cases, in most countries, it would have. But let’s get back to what I said about the way that the pattern which the culture follows in Vanuatu makes no sense. Interestingly and strangely enough, Ayar’s pig killing and grade-taking gained a small wave of support among some of the older chiefs. It’s as if he reminded them that what they had was too precious to lose, even if it was considered sinful by the Church, and so began a small revival of the old ways, minus the cannibalism or the warfare.

Today South West Bay, Malekula remains a fascinating destination and the main “draw-card” for the few visitors that ever make it there is undoubtedly the culture, which still stubbornly holds on with its last breath, thanks to people like chief Ayar Randes. The younger generation have also recently caught on to the fact that there’s value in what their ancestors have passed on to them, not only spiritual, but commercial value. The few tourists that do make it to South West Bay are willing to pay to watch traditional dances and ceremonies and as a result new festivals and cultural programs are in the plans.

It’ll be interesting to observe which turn the culture of South West Bay takes in the next couple of decades. Will the youth continue to see the value in their past or will they be seduced to leave the small villages of South West Bay for “greener pastures” in Vanuatu’s capital and commercial centre – Port Villa? Will the traditions remain true to their original intentions or will they continue to exist purely as a form of entertainment or cultural experiences for the visitors? One thing for sure is that Ayar Randes is not very keen on festivals or ceremonies which stray away from the “correct” way of doing things, which don’t follow the tribal law laid out by his distant ancestors. He loves the idea of tourism coming and helping the locals understand the value of their culture, but Ayar won’t take what’s sacred to him and simply make a show of it all. The question is – will it matter when he’s gone? No one knows and perhaps for now, there’s no reason to think too hard about the future, but rather to try and catch the present, what still remains of the past.

chief dancing

Chief Ayar showing some moves from traditional ceremonial dances. Every ceremony has its own distinct dance moves, costumes, masks and gong beats. Here he dances by the remains of his “Nakamal”. The same word used these days for Kava bars was initially used for a chief’s sacred house – a place of great spiritual significance for any village. Chief Ayar’s sacred house was destroyed during a hurricane a couple of years ago and it’s been one of his main goals to rebuild it, the same way that it was before.

If you click on the photo to make it bigger you might also notice that behind Ayar is a pole with a face painted on it. The pole has spiritual value, but what’s perhaps most intriguing about this pole, is the way that one has to obtain a right to paint certain symbols on it. The law that dictates this is like an ancient system of copyright. Each new adopter of a particular symbol/pattern has to pay the original owner/inventor or his descendent with pigs.

through the bush with dogs

Ayar loves walking through the forest (or bush as its called in Vanuatu) which falls on his land. He tells me that he isn’t really happy when he’s in the village. The village is community land, he doesn’t feel home there and so every day he walks through the bush, to feed his soul in a sense. He talks about how much he loves the fresh breeze, the smells of various plants, which he occasionally tears off and rubs against each other to demonstrate (the smell). His three dogs (two pictured here) help him chase off any wild pigs, which like to come and make a mess of his crops.

coconut drinking

The last time I saw a person so passionate and proud of what their land produced was back in Belarus, in my grandmother’s countryside house. It’s interesting how ultimately there are all these similarities amongst people regardless of where we travel.

Ayar opened up a couple of coconuts for Tanya and I before he masterfully chopped the top off of his own. This was indeed one of the best tasting, sweetest coconuts I ever tried.

Elder Ayar in Church

I was pretty shocked when I saw Ayar in this “white-man outfit”. I joked with him, saying that I didn’t recognize him from the man in the namba I had seen a couple of days ago in the bush.  To this day Ayar remains closely associated with the Church, in fact he is one of the senior and most respected Church elders in the village of Wintua, which borders with his land. Being what I could describe as a devout non-believer myself (I believe in God, I just don’t believe in names of God or religions) I had a few very interesting conversations with Ayar. At the end of the day it was interesting to know that he’d gladly leave Church and go back to the bush, which is actually what he is planning to do in the next couple of years. When I asked him the pressing question of “What would you chose – Church or kastom?” he replied “kastom – it is my life, my history, my culture.

First month in Vanuatu

August 27, 2010

climbing trees

Hi folks! Once again I’ve found myself in a situation where it is impossible to post anything regularly. For most part Vanuatu does not have internet access.

I also had a mini computer tragedy. The files from Mac OS X somehow got screwed up and I was unable to load up the system as soon as I arrived in Vanuatu. Luckily I also installed a copy of Windows 7 through bootcamp meaning that I can still use the computer to an extent, albeit very minimally. So much for Mac’s famous reliability – big disappointment there. Stupidly I forgot the system recovery disks and I don’t have much software to work with on the Windows system. Nevertheless, here are some images that have been processed relatively little, you might still see different versions of them sometime down the road. The images are a quick overview of some of the things I’ve come across so far on this adventure.

The image at the top is of a young chief climbing a tree to look for fruit bats and birds (which the local people hunt). People don’t usually wear this sort of stuff any more (apart from ceremonies and festivals), but this is what they used to wear not all that long ago. I got involved in helping some local people make some promotional shots of their area for tourism, so the man dressed for the occasion as did the other people in traditional outfits.

nice beach

This was the scene right outside of our bungalow on Maskeyne island off the larger island of Malekula. Pretty lovely place, we stayed for a week and a half and I got to experiment a little with some underwater photography.

fishing in a canoe

Fishing at Maskelyne island. The man is hitting the water to scare the fish so that the swim towards the net and get tangled in it. It was pretty wet in the boat (lots of splashing), so I was real glad to have my Aquatech housing, more on which in future posts.

spear fishing

Spear fishing by the reef, still in Maskelyne. Just one image under water for now, more to come.

fire in a forest

Maskelyne is not all underwater stuff. I came across this boy on the way to the village in which our bungalow owners lived.

nakamal at night

Abobe is a “Nakamal” a kind of a local bar, except the people don’t drink alcohol, but Kava – a very foul tasking drink made from a root. I will say again it tastes pretty awful, but the effect is great and Nakamals are great places to meet the locals and do some bonding.

bird hunting

Continuation form the series which the first photo belongs to. These guys were amazing tree climbers. I did manage to get up on a branch a little above the ground in order to get this shot.

two chiefs

Same young chiefs photographed one they got off the tree. The trees I should mention are some of the most photogenic I’ve ever come across.

fire in the village hut

I love shooting stuff by the fire and this is probably one of my favourite images of the sort so far. Here Jenny, the daughter of a man I befriended in one of our bungalows is preparing our dinner. Amenities in many parts of Malekula are pretty basic, here Tyreesa the young sister is providing some extra light.

mat weaking and kids

I really loved shooting inside the thatched huts that make up the main part of architecture in most villages around Vanuatu. Children are everywhere in Vanuatu and they are some of the nicest and cutest kids one is likely to encounter. As much as I love India, the children there can be absolute monsters, that’s never been the case in Vanuatu. In this image Victor, Jenny’s sun is the baby and in the back it’s his grandma and a neighbour girl doing some mat weaving.

chief ayar

Chied Ayar Randes. This man is one of the favourite characters I’ve come across so far on all of my journeys. Besides being a chief he’s also a church elder, which is actually pretty contradictory, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Despite wearing not much more than a banana leaf around his private parts he reminded me a bit of my grandfather – full of interesting stories, strong beliefs and basically he’s someone who might come across as a simple village man, but in fact is a very smart fellow who sees the bigger picture better than most of the people around him. I’ll definitely post a little story with some photos of him in the coming days.

planting yam

Chied Ayar’s hands planting a yam. It’s one of the main parts of the local diet all around Vanuatu and as far as I know a lot of the Pacific too. I have to say, I am really not a big fan of the stuff and though I have tried yam in some really tasty dishes, if I never see it again in my life I’ll be just fine.

hands with fishing net

Youngsters fishing in a lagoon in the remote South West Bay, Malekula.

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More net fishing in the same place, there’s actually quite a bit of fish there and I love fish, thus the lagoon was a place I liked too.

traditional boy in a canoe

Another photo taken for the tourism campaign. I saw this boy wearing the outfit a few days earlier during a festival. The festival is another story, but it was not a place where I could get the kind of shot of him that I wanted (I’d have to compete with some pretty intense and sometimes rude tourists who mostly traveled to the festival on their yachts).

young warriors

Same boy in the background and a son of a chief at the front. The thing he’s wearing is a curved pig tooth which forms when the pig’s bottom or top teeth (don’t remember which) are pulled out. For a tooth like that to form it takes a few years and a pig with this prized possession is worth a substantial amount of money, as it’s the kind of pig that’s used in grade-taking ceremonies, where young men become chiefs and older men move higher in rank after they perform traditional dances, kill pigs and share food with local villagers. The leaves above the boys heads are local umbrellas, for real. It started to rain during the shoot and once some adults brought them these leaves I thought it was a great opportunity.

baker lighting fire

A local baker in Wintua, South West Bay, Malekula lighting a fire. I shot a whole bunch of photos in his bakery. As I mentioned, I loved shooting in the interiors and the bakery was pretty awesome with some nice backlight and sidelight. I also shot some video there and I hope I’ll have enough time to share some of it when I get back.

Ok, so that’s about all for the quick overview. There are of course many more images and I’ll try to post some mini stories with some of those photos while I am near the internet. Next Wednesday I should be going somewhere pretty remote again, so hopefully I’ll have the time. In any case I just wanted to share something quick in case I don’t get the chance in the near future.