Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Incredible Romania!

November 17, 2009

me-in-cart

First: The eBook sale is over. Thanks to everyone who purchased them, the response was a very pleasant surprise. To those who missed out – I may have another special some time down the line, so check the blog for details.

I’ve been in Romania for about a week. A lot of strong first impressions, but the recurring themes are awe and frustration.

I can’t think of many other places with such photogenic faces and landscapes, that’s the good part.  The frustrating part is that I really haven’t done any meaningful photography since I’ve been here. Language and shitty weather have been my biggest obstacles. While I was in Sibiu, one of Romania’s prettiest towns, the cloudy skies and flat light sucked out almost all of the town’s beauty. The clouds also hid the snow peaks of the mountains, I didn’t even know they existed, until the skies cleared a little on my way to Brasov, another picturesque Romanian town.

Finally my inability to speak Romanian has made it next to impossible to communicate in villages, the places where my ideal subjects live, where I want to do most of my shooting.

So far the trip has been much more about getting a feel for the country than anything else. I’m trying to see whether this is a place I’d like to return to, to dig deep and attempt to capture imagery, which I am sure one cannot find in too many other places on the planet. So far I haven’t seen enough, but I have been teased by getting a glimpse of potentially amazing scenarios and looking at the work of a couple of Romanian photographers.

One is Vlad Dumitrescu, a talented young photographer friend I met on OneX and later in person.  I’m actually typing this entry from his apartment. You can see his images HERE. The other is someone Vlad introduced me to – Sorin Onisor. I think he has become one of my new favorite photographers and his images have brought me to the verge of madness, thinking about the amazing photo opportunities that exist here. You can see Sorin’s work HERE. Doesn’t seem like the English version works, but the pictures are what matters, so do yourselves a favor and look at Romania through the eyes of someone who really understands this country.

I had some car trouble recently, but after forking out one fourth of the car’s cost to replace the clutch I am set to go spend some time in a small countryside village, one of very few non-commercialized villages here in Transylvania. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, hopefully  I can come up with something interesting and put up something more than the image you see of me at the top of the cart (taken by Vlad).

Ok folks, back soon.

The elders of Braslavschina

November 2, 2009

Father-Timothy-Port

I am getting ready to drive from Belarus to Romania via Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, but here’s a post before I go.

I’ve said goodbye to Braslavschina, the region which I fell in love with over my time there. Well, it’s goodbye for at least a month and a half, not forever. 🙂

There are a few things which I absolutely love about Braslavschina, but it should come as no surprise that for a photographer of people the best part of any journey is the interaction with the locals. The locals I enjoyed interacting with in particular are the elders of Braslavschina, the fascinating men and women who despite living such tough lives, often even in their old age, remain so generally positive and even naive in the sense that they are pure of the cynicism that fills the world in which they live.

I often heard different variations of the same phrase from the older generation in Braslavschina. “Our lives used to be so difficult before, now everything is so much easier. It’s possible to really live now, pity there’s not much living left.” They would say this with a somewhat sad smile, but a smile nevertheless.

In any case, here are some of the elders of Braslavschina which I had the pleasure to meet and chat with.

Goat

We met these two ladies along the road. I simply couldn’t resist the scene, stopped my car and approached this “trio”. I asked where they were heading and got a pretty hilarious reply – “We’re taking the goat to his girlfriend.” Said the woman in the dark coat. “Yes, we’re taking the goat so he can have sex”. Said the woman in red and giggled. It turned out that they were sisters and Yulia, the one in the dark coat, with the bicycle was a pretty fascinating character. We hung out with her a bit, talked and took some more photos.

babulya-horse

Yulia is 76 years old, she used to work at the stables when she was young and says that she knows everything there is to know about horses. I was a little shocked when she lifted her leg like this to put the reigns on one of her own horses.

edward

Speaking of horses, Edward was looking for two horses that his grandson had tied up somewhere in the area not far from his home. When I approached, he had actually mistaken me for one of those horses. At 86 he lost most of his sight and almost all of his hearing too. Not a good combination. I told him that his horses where nowhere in sight and then after driving ahead realized that they were about 200 meters behind a patch a location which Edward had no chance of arriving at by himself. We drove Edward to the horses, expecting that he wanted to take them home for the night. All the wanted to do however, was feed one of them apples and check that everything was fine.

Father-Timothy-Chat

Father Timothy, (also pictured at the top of the post) worked as an engineer in the government collective farming system most of his life. By chance he had learned some old Russian language as a child and remembered some prayers from the “Old Russian Orthodox Faith”. When the church father passed away, Timothy was approached by the local devotees to take on the responsibility of leading the prayers. After a year of studying (at the age of 65) and leading prayers he was blessed by the “Old Russian Orthodox” Church and sworn in as a Father himself. We had a good chat with Father Timothy, what impressed me most about him was his openness and lack of religious fanaticism. He said: “What happens in the afterlife? I doubt that anyone of us will know the answer while we’re here. I always say that the most important thing is to lead a decent life, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Babulya-and-Dog

Though we spent almost an hour chatting to this kind old lady, we never got her name. The wheel in the corner is still used for weaving and at the time of our visit she had actually begun to weave socks for her grandson who visited her every now and then. The dog on the bed is named “Bobik” that name is about the equivalent of Fido in the English-speaking world. She said that Bobik was lucky to be let in indoors. He quickly jumped on the bed and made himself comfortable. Good for me, I feel he adds to the shot.

That’s all for now folks. The next time you’ll hear from me, I’ll be…don’t even know where.

The lonely Yosef Dorozhko

October 16, 2009

In-the-darkAbout a week ago we met a wonderful man by the name of Yosef. I spotted him from my car while he was pushing his bicycle up a hill. Immediately I wanted to photograph him. I turned the car around, caught up to Yosef and asked him if I could take a few photos. He smiled and said to go ahead.

We spoke a bit, after learning that Yosef was 81 I was a little shocked. His bike journey wasn’t an easy one, even for a young person (there was lots of pedaling up hills to be done) and here he was carrying on very casually. I sorta invited myself over to his house and asked if I could take a few more photos there. He didn’t mind.

And so began our friendship with Yosef. It turned out that his life had taken a very unfortunate turn of late. He lost his wife and both of his sons fairly recently. He also lost his apartment in the neighboring Latvia, because the cost of all the bills exceeded his meager pension. Yosef had to go back to Belarus, to live in the house where he was born 81 years ago. To make his story more sad, the house where he now lives is fairly isolated and ever since his parents built it, there has never been any electricity. Yosef makes light with Kerosene lamps and instead of watching TV, he reads, prays and talks to his cats.

The crazy thing is, he never really complains about anything. He doesn’t drink uncontrollably, like many younger and much more fortunate people in the neighboring villages. He just goes on about his life the best he can, still managing to crack an occasional smile along the way. Yosef inspired me by his resilience and it seems like our visits to his home have given him a reason to crack that smile more frequently. Tanya and I have gone to talk to the authorities and hopefully he will have electricity some time in the not too distant future.

Dedulya-working-2 Yosef has a horse. It was time for him to work on the land during one of our visits and of course that presented a great photo opportunity.RainbowI got pretty lucky during my little photo-shoot. It had been raining most of the day, but soon after I arrived at Yosef’s house there was an opening in the sky. I got some good light and even a rainbow.

By-the-ovenYosef adjusts fire-wood in the oven which he himself made. He was heating up a kettle to make tea for us.

Braslav_MG_2484

Tea time. Yosef sets up the tea glasses and the food for his guests.

Meeting people like Yosef again reminds me of how lucky I am to be doing what I do. These countless chances to meet inspirational people are something I enjoy immensely and when there is an opportunity to have a positive impact on the life of someone like Yosef, that’s sort of like the essence of being human.

More images to come.

The Gypsies of Vidzy

October 8, 2009

Cigane-2The other day was yet another reminder of why I love what I do so much.

I can be pretty cynical, but in general I’d day that I am very optimistic and positive. I like to see the best in people until I am proven the opposite. I don’t see the point in stereotyping and prejudging entire nations, tribes or any groups of people for that matter. What have we got to gain from that?

In any case, it’s no secret that gypsies have quite a reputation around Europe, not necessarily the most positive one by any stretch of the imagination. Belarus is no exception. When I visited the village of Vidzy, one of the more fascinating places in the Braslav region (because of its’ multicultural population) I was given mixed impressions about the gypsies living there. Some folks said that all’s good, everyone lives peacefully and the gypsies are decent people. Others told me not to visit them with all that photographic equipment, because one way or another I’d “loose” it. One young man even told me not to visit them at all because I could be greeted with a punch in the face.

Nothing could be further from the last piece of advice. In fact after visiting three gypsy houses, I found them to be the most hospitable people I’ve met in Belarus yet. If there’s any truth to the theory that gypsies came from India, it was manifested through the instant invitations of the guests (us) for tea. I know that tea probably wasn’t around in India when (or if the gypsies) came out of that region, but still, the hospitality was all too familiar. When we met the local gypsy leader, the “Baron”, as they used to be called, he even offered us lunch, which isn’t so usual these days, at least it’s not offered to total strangers, not even by the very kind village people of the Braslav region.

To be honest I didn’t think anything negative of the gypsies in Vidzy even before I met them, but I also didn’t expect such level of hospitality and their eagerness to share whatever they had left of their culture. We spent about 4 hours just chatting to families and shooting a few frames along the way. The whole trip was another proof of why preconceptions should be left at home when we deal with real people, this is especially important if you’re a photographer.

Cigane-1 The gypsy elder; 78-year-old Ivan Yanovich, his grandson Jan and his great-grand niece Xenia. Xenia was very playful and I wanted to show that through her pose/movement in the images, she just couldn’t stay still.

Cigane-3 I couldn’t resist shooting a few more frames when the cat came into the middle of the doorway. Again Xenia is squirming and wiggling.

Cigane-5Another variation of the image from the top of the page. Because my wife Tanya and our local friend Anna were doing a lot of the talking with Filip and Vera (pictured) I had the luxury of just watching things like a fly on the wall and photographing whenever I saw a good shot.

That’s all for now folks. More images coming soon along with some stories.

Braslavschina – The most amazing place you’ve never heard of

September 28, 2009

Lake

I have just returned from Braslavschina – the region around the town of Braslav and as I mentioned in my last post, all of my expectations have been surpassed. There are plenty of old, traditional villages, wonderful, photogenic people and there are over 400 lakes – almost all of them ridiculously picturesque.

Perhaps it’s some sub-conscious thing about this region being a part of my “motherland”, but Braslavschina has quickly become one of my favorite places in the world. All I need to be happy is – something to photograph, some place to swim and some nice people to chat to. 🙂 I can find all of that here, plus the kind of nature, which I only thought existed in fairy tales.

Ok, so I’ve fallen in love with this place, I really mean it. I’ve even enquired about prices of land and simple houses here and I have  found out that they are ridiculously cheap, at least by Western standards. If I find something suitable, I’ll soon have my own tiny piece of paradise, perhaps even one right on a lake.

Anyway, enough dreaming. Here’s a brief look at what I’ve seen so far. I’m in Minsk for a few days to sort out some paperwork on my newly bought ‘84 Volskwagen Golf II. It ain’t pretty, but it’s cheap, it’ll take me where I want and it’s mine. I’ll be coming back to Braslavschina as soon as I can. I’ve only scratched the surface, as far as photography goes.

Cow-herders-fieldTolik and Vatsik – two cow herders taking a break. It seems like I’ve got this strange attraction to cattle herders and fishermen, wherever I go. More on fishermen in the near future.

HerderTolik herding cows with a whip.

Grandma-at-tableAbove and below are images of kind elderly ladies from two different villages with the same story. In the really traditional villages there isn’t much youth these days and the old are the living, walking, breathing embodiment of the incredible history of this area.Babulya- -Cat

Church A prayer inside a church of the “Old Russian Orthodox” faith. It’s very similar to the “standard” Russian Orthodox religion, but all the prayer’s are written in ancient Russian and read accordingly. Only two people in this village can read them – this “Father” is one of them. The “Old Russian Orthodox” faith is almost extinct in Belarus. The three ladies in the background are basically the only attendees.

Batyushka-Port Father Akim (a very unusual name for Belarus) on his way out of the church.

milkmanEvery morning this man waits by the side of the road to sell is milk to large government-run co-operatives. Here he is returning home after selling the milk.

DedulyaGrandpa Alexei was very shy about being photographed. When it comes to photos initial shyness is a common reaction amongst most of the older people. They’ll usually say something along these lines – “Why would you want to photograph me? I’m not shaven” or “I haven’t even got my teeth”. To me however these faces are amazing, they say so much without the need for words. After a short chat and me explaining what I do everyone usually agrees to have their picture taken.

chainsaw-cutterThe modern way of preparing firewood – with a chainsaw.  The man – Vasily is one the few younger men choosing to live his life in the countryside. He does however work outside of his village, on construction sites in cities as large and as far as Moscow.

PastuxiBack to the cow herders – Tolik and Vatsik having their dinner by the fire. I won’t mention what they were drinking.

VovaVova is another rare find, he is the only young man in his village. The rest have moved out and now live and work in Belarus’ larger cities.  Photographically speaking this is the sort of portrait I am enjoying shooting more and more these days – a shot where the person is surrounded by objects that tell you something about his her life/culture.

Ok, that’s all for now. Needless to say, I can’t wait to go back and shoot some more stuff. I have also filmed some interviews and some scenes that are best communicated through “moving pictures”, but unfortunately my ancient laptop isn’t powerful enough to edit HD video. Well, I guess that’ll all have to wait.

Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai and Good Bye India.

March 6, 2009

curious-in-mumbaiBangalore – we didn’t originally plan to stop in this city, but it was the nearest place from where we could get a train to Pune, our final stop before we’d fly from Mumbai. I didn’t want to ride any more either, but all trains to Bangalore were full and you can’t put a motorcycle on a bus.

I planned to ride the 480km from Madurai to Bangalore over two days, but somehow Tanya and I summoned up enough energy and finishing the ride in one day seemed possible.

480km is the longest distance that I have ever ridden in one day on a motorcycle, anywhere. If I were riding in Australia, this distance would not seem that far, really. But this is India and here distance is not only measured by milestones along the road. It is measured by how many cows, chickens, goats, children and women with firewood on their heads you almost hit (because they almost jumped under your wheels) as well as how many buses and trucks almost hit you (because they are bigger and don’t care). It’s a long distance, almost unbearably long. Your butt feels like it’s burning on the motorcycle seat all the way, but you finally pass the pain barrier after 400km, you stop feeling or caring.

Bangalore – the “I.T. City”, “The future of India”. You could have fooled me by the last 20km of road that leads there. Countless potholes, puddles of black water, construction, everywhere and that horrible, dark smoke, the whole thing felt like traveling through a post-apocalyptical landscape, and then you reach the city itself. I’m sure that Bangalore is as amazing as people make it out to be, but whatever it has to offer, it can offer to someone else. I had no time to discover its charm under the black cloud of traffic smoke; I was to finish my “business” and to head off.

At the railway station we sent what was left of the motorcycle back to my Gujarati friend Hardik, who is now in Ahmedabad (Gujarat’s commercial capital). Then it was our turn to go. We’ve become soft when it comes to public transport. We avoid buses because of the loud music and no leg-room; we avoid the sleeper class on the train because of the countless beggars and hawkers that pass through every other minute and we even avoid the “Three-tier AC”, because it still feels somewhat crowded. So we got two “Two-Tier AC” tickets for our 24-hour train ride to Pune. “Two Tier AC” means that you have a compartment with four beds in it and two beds along the corridor, what it does not mean is that you will get the peace and quite that you long for on a tiring journey. I had to force myself to sleep to the sound of continuous burping, farting and snoring of fellow passengers. At 11:30 pm a young boy with a loud, squeaky voice decided it was a good time to have a conversation with his father about Superman. Oh, the joys of travel on the Indian Railways!

Pune – just a one night stop here, a quick catch up with a friend – Rahul, a young man who had recently spent a year in Germany, a year which radically changed the way he now looked at his own city, his country for that matter. The first time I met him I told him that I thought Pune was very modern and developed. “Modern, developed?! No, this place is not like that! You see a high-rise glass building and then you walk inside and you see the people there, spitting on the shiny floors, throwing their shit around. That is modern? Developed?” With his unusually cynical views and his stories about Pune’s Koregaon Park and the infamous “Osho International Meditation Center” Rahul certainly kept me amused and entertained. I hope I meet him again one day.

Mumbai – the city of dreams for millions. I never liked this place very much, but make no mistake about it, it is absolutely, incredibly fascinating.

One more friend to catch up with in Mumbai – Santosh, an independent filmmaker who works as a sound engineer in various Bollywood drama-series out of necessity.  Santosh is one of the most intelligent fellows I have come across on my Indian journeys. Whenever I meet him he tells me countless stories about various places we come past in Mumbai. These stories have probably played a part in forming my view of the city – yes there is crime and there are slums, but there is so much more that you will simply pass by if you are visiting by yourself. So many cultures and sub-cultures and everyone has a story, a fascinating story.

As we walked to a restaurant in Colaba, a place where I usually eat, we passed through the parts of the city where the horrors took place in December. It’s eerie when you hear what happened and picture things, but now, just a couple of months later life goes on as before. Sure there are a few policemen with machine guns, but you couldn’t even imagine what took place in the very same streets, where today people are laughing, drinking and celebrating life. That’s how India is. It doesn’t stop for anyone, nor does it compromise or change because you want it to. It is every bit “The Incredible India” of the romanticized advertisements and it is every bit as dark and hopeless as its worst slums, its deranged beggars and its corrupt politicians.

This trip has exhausted us more than any of our previous visits to the country. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps it’s the distance we’ve covered by motorcycle or perhaps it is because we understand things a little more now. The naivety is gone and it is not only the exotic, beautiful India that we see these days. We realize just how hard it can be to survive in this country, to live with dignity or to at least make it possible for your children to live with dignity. We haven’t learned something that we didn’t know before, but it has really hit home this time. Our realization however, doesn’t make this country any less fascinating. It is a matter of time until we come back. Although I want to spend a few years seeing other parts of the world, I know that just like this time, when India calls – you simply pack up and go.

 

Photo: The image at the top was taken on a previous India trip. I shot it in a neighborhood about 500 meters from the famous Taj Hotel in Mumbai. It wasn’t quite what you’d classify as the slums in India, but not much better. Insane contrast, the richest of the rich were staying at the Taj, while the poorest of the poor were living in less than ideal conditions and all that separated them from each other was a five minute walk. It’s the old cliché about India – the land of extreme contrasts, but it is so true and it is still tough to get your head around the whole concept when it comes to the rich and the poor.

Madurai

March 3, 2009

madurai-prayer-011From Kanyakumari it is a 250 km ride to Madurai. We’ve made it…barely. After over 10,000 km on the road over the past three months, our bodies are aching in places we didn’t know could ache. The two-wheeled machine which has been transporting us all this time is “exhausted” too. It experienced another “major injury” – another crack right through the middle of its chasis on the way to Madurai, but somehow we managed to pull through to our destination.
madurai-market-02madurai-market-01 Madurai is a fascinating city. My short time here would not do it any justice. However, I decided to at least have a peek at it, rather than to simply pass it by. Parts of the city are particularly photogenic. The fruit and vegetable market inside the city is as bustling and challenging to photograph as the fish market in Kollam. I came to this place every morning, I suppose more to absorb the atmosphere than to create any compelling images. Later in the mornings I’d go to the temple, the most famous temple in all of south India and arguably the finest example of Dravidian architecture – the Sri Menakshi. To my huge disappointment there was restoration work being done to the Sri Menakshi during my visit. Its giant, elaborately decorated towers were covered with faded, dry palm leaves. I was left only with post card images of what it looked like and my imagination of how it may look after the restoration.
madrurai-temple-011 Thankfully the inside of the vast temple grounds was very much intact and buzzing with religious activity. I have a strange feeling in Hindu temples; it is as if I am both – a complete alien and totally at home there. All the rituals, the hundreds queuing up for darshan (blessing) or prashad (blessed food) and bowing to the Gods carved out of stone; on the surface none of it makes much sense to someone like me. I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, in fact I’d say I’m anti-religious at times, but the essence behind every religion is very human and when I think of that, I, as a human being can connect with it. I feel that behind the multitude of layers, the rituals at Hindu temples or for that matter any sites of worship, stand two universal factors – misery and hope. Misery and hope go hand in hand in and around the Sri Menakshi Temple. A poor farmer’s family spends the night on the pavement by a make-shift fire, a deformed man begs for money, a newly-wed couple makes an offering and the fat businessman who has “made it” bows down to the Shiva statue – there is a degree of hope and misery that drives all of these people. They plead for a better life, money, happiness, forgiveness and they all hope that they will be heard by the divine. There isn’t an individual in the world that doesn’t suffer or hope. And as for surrendering to the divine, if it’s not God that a person looks to, it’s love, work, alcohol, drugs. The essence remains the same, only the layers around it change. Knowing this makes me feel at ease about the blanks in my knowledge of Hinduism. I can fill in those blanks. What makes me comfortable is the fact that those in the temple are humans, before they are anything else. Their actions are a manifestation of their cultural upbringing, but these actions are driven by the same misery and hope that I and every other human feel.
We spent three days in Madurai. Our next stop is Bangalore. How we have to get there is another story.

At the edge of the world…or India.

February 26, 2009

at-the-edge-of-the-world

Kanyakumari is where India ends. It’s as far south as you can go before you face nothing but endless water. I thought it a rather romantic idea to reach “The world’s edge”, to ride all the way to Kanyakumari on the motorcycle, and finally we have made it. I’ve got no idea exactly how many kilometers this place is from Rajasthan, where we began the journey, but mine and Tanya’s bottoms say “It’s pretty damn far!”
salt-workers-son Besides being a major place of religious pilgrimage, the biggest attractions of Kanyakumari are sunrise and sunset watching. Because the town is located on a narrow tip, right at the very bottom of India, it is possible to see the sun rise and set over the sea, and you only have to walk a couple of hundred meters from one spot to the other. As a result every morning there are hordes of mostly local tourists who line up to watch the sunrise and to photograph each other in silly poses at the sunrise point. In the evenings the same deal is repeated at sunset point. The whole area around those two spots is kitschy beyond description and rather irritating, due to the countless numbers of people trying to sell you tourist junk at every corner. But should you venture outside of the tourist zone, you will see a very different side of this region.
sunset-point One day we decided to ride along the coastline road that headed north-east from the “Edge of India”. The whole way felt strange, fascinating and edge-of-the-worldly. Sparsely populated fishing villages, government housing, likely erected after the 2004 Tsunami and churches, in almost every village, they seemed so out of place due to their grand design and enormous size that dwarfed anything we had seen in Goa.
Without a map, a description of the area in any guidebook or any useful information from the tourist office the ride was exploration for the sake of exploring, a journey into the unknown. There were no demands for pens, chocolates or money along the way. It was beautiful “unadulterated” India. When we got back into town I was faced with the same dilemma that I have encountered a few times on this trip – a bit over three months to cover a relatively small part of India, but ultimately so little time.
We have less than ten days until we fly back to Sydney and so the journey towards Mumbai must begin soon. The next stop is Madurai, we ride from there to Bangalore and travel by train for the remaining days.

me-edge-of-the-worldPhotos:
Top and middle: A child of a salt worker, patiently waiting for mother with his juice bottle. I photographed this at a salt making field (or whatever you would call a place that makes salt). We came across it while doing our little exploration trip. We came back a few times, wanting to see the mother and son again, but they were no longer there.
Second from the bottom: Tourists at sunset point.
Bottom: This one’s for my mum. She hasn’t seen her son in over four months. Yeah, it’s kinda cheesy, but till I get back I guess a photo is all she can see of me.