Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’

Critique, Advice and Mentorship

March 26, 2009

The-Wrestler A few days back I came across “Photo Critique” videos on Zack Arias’ Blog (thanks to Matt Brandon). These videos are surprisingly entertaining, they have that reality TV talent show feel to them, but much more substance. The critique is really insightful for those interested in “making it” in the photo industry. Zack is witty and sarcastic, and he’s got a real gift – he is able to say that an image sucks and the “photographer” shouldn’t quit his day job without ever sounding like a condescending asshole.

Besides the entertainment value of Zack’s videos I found something that reminded me of my own photographic path and led to some related thoughts, which I think may be worth sharing.

In one of the critiques Zach talked about his photo-school teacher as a mentor of a sort, he said that the things this teacher taught him still echo in his mind every time he lifts the camera to his eye. To me this is interesting and important stuff.

It’s really helpful to have a mentor at some stage of your career. The way I see it, a mentor is someone who inspires you and puts you on the “right” path, the stuff he/she tells you may be so powerful that it’ll forever change the way you photograph.

I’ve been lucky enough to have come across two such people. Two very different photographers and even more different human beings.

The first is an amazing B&W travel portrait photographer by the name of Eugene H. Johnson. I met Eugene by chance, I saw him taking photos of life by the river in the holy Hindu town of Varanasi. He had an old film camera and was shooting from a tripod, this made me curious enough to approach him and ask “Why?” What transpired was a lengthy conversation which forever changed the way I took photographs of people. Prior to that, I hadn’t planned my shots or consciously spent time with those who I photographed. Hearing Eugene’s poetic tales of interaction with his photographic “subjects” made his way of photographing sound like the most romantic and rewarding thing in the world. After our conversation I felt compelled to see his work online and after seeing the work I realized two things –  Eugene was indeed an incredible photographer and the stuff that I had been shooting was child’s play, too “raw”, too dependent on chance and luck.

I spent less than a couple of hours in person with Eugene, but even a moment with a wise man can amount to a lifetime of thoughts and ideas. Since then our interaction has been rather sparse, though I have received a few encouraging emails from Eugene over the past few years. In one of the later emails he told me that he was following my progress online and had become a fan of my work. I knew that I had progressed a lot since I first met him, but it was very encouraging to have my own opinion “validated” by the person who influenced me so much.

I feel that Eugene planted a seed that would enable my photography to become something bigger and the next mentor has helped me nurture and grow this seed, albeit in a rather unorthodox way. Unlike Eugene, who doesn’t seem to have a cynical bone in his body, this fellow could be the most cynical person I’ve ever met. I won’t even mention his name because I am sure that if he ever reads my blog he’ll have a good cynical laugh at this post, (so, I won’t give him the credit:)). Well, I guess that’s what years of war photography can do to you and that’s what this man did for a large part of his career. These days he seems to be done with war and shoots for Russian National Geographic, as he journeys around the world on his motorcycle.

As was the case with Eugene, I crossed paths with the Russian, motorcycle riding, Nat Geo photographer by chance, in Nepal. I rode there from India and he from Russia, we met in a roadside restaurant in Pokhara. My question “Why do you have that photographic bag?” began our friendship, the ongoing criticism of my photography and the never ending smart-ass comments such as – “Oh, yes this is the sad eyes of a crapping dog photograph, very good.” Such comments can break one’s heart when they are a response to something you consider strong work, or they can make you think – If my image is as strong as I thought it was, then why has the impact not overshadowed any such remarks?

The Russian mentor is old-school. He’s used to dealing with top people in Russian press, they are economic with words and praise. You got a great shot – good, it’s going in the paper and if you didn’t, then; why the hell are you not out there shooting? That’s his approach. No fluffy compliments. But he has also offered me countless bits of photographic wisdom. It’s like Zack says in his video – you hear those words every time you lift the camera to your eye. “This is boring! Get down, shoot from a different angle! What are you trying to say with this photo? You know what it is, I don’t! Show me, make it understandable! What’s really important here? Why are not showing anything about the person you’re shooting! I want to see emotion!”

These two mentors have played a big part in who I am as a photographer. There is no substitute for having a knowledgeable person critically look at your work and give you advice. The way Zach Arias does on his blog and the way those two individuals have done for me. So, in the end I guess I just wanted to share my own experiences. Perhaps the seasoned pros will be reminded of their own mentors from the past, while those who are starting to get serious about their photography may simply run out the door and find a photographic mentor for themselves.

(Above is a mud wrestler from Kolhapur. It’s one of the images that I’ve recently “played around” with in PP.)

The Spirit of Travel, Cool in the Hills and Tibetan Monks

January 26, 2009

monks-rushing-out-after-morning-poojaIf I do not see another Theyyam performance for the rest of my life I will not be devastated. Don’t get me wrong, watching these was amazing, surreal, but maybe this is the case of too much of a good thing being not that great. “Theyyam Overload”, perhaps. The highlight of our little endeavor into the world of Theyyam must have been the second time we met up with Vipin – the Theyyam artist I mentioned in the previous post. That day, in many ways embodied what travel is all about. It started horribly, we were ‘evicted’ from possibly the most amazing hotel I’ve stayed at. Our room’s balcony had a view of the Arabian sea. Every morning we watched dolphins splash around within 50 meters from the shore.
Long and strange story about the eviction – in short, the hotel was meant for government employees only, but somehow we managed to stay for five days, then some genius finally decided it was enough. The main point is – once you’ve tasted the good life, it really, really sucks getting back to mediocrity. Getting told to ‘vacate’ our perfect room and to exchange sea views for views of a sea of traffic on one of the towns busiest and noisiest roads set up what could have been the most disappointing day of our journey, yes the place was that good (and cost about as much as a McDonald’s value meal). But that wasn’t the end of our bad luck. First we couldn’t find any half decent hotel to move to and then my meeting with a professor at the Folklore Academy, the man who had promised to hook me up with some Theyyam artists was cancelled due to an unexpected meeting that could not be put off. I wanted to see him to get reliable information on where I could see more Theyyams. Having been given the wrong information the day before we traveled a couple of hours along a dreadful, traffic filled road for nothing. Now I had to face the fact; I had come to the region to photograph something that I couldn’t even find, I really wasn’t getting anywhere.
worker-at-ronalds-coffee-estate Ready to cry like a child who’s been told he’s not getting a bicycle after all, I decided instead to go to Vipin’s village and give him the Theyyam photos I shot on the night I met him. Vipin was happy to see me and to receive the photos, I couldn’t quite match his enthusiasm. But that all changed when he told us that there was a Theyyam performance in his very village. In fact there were two performances that night. These weren’t Theyyams aimed at mass audiences, media and tourists, instead I witnessed what was probably as close to Theyyam as it had been hundreds of years ago – raw, sometimes brutal and always full of energy. By late night we had seen a Theyyam performer, possessed by the divine spirit behead four roosters…with his bear teeth, another performer walk through fire and yet another, dance around frantically to some of the most incredible drumming I’ve heard. We called it a night close to 11pm – real late for rural Kerala. Vipin had been called home a couple of hours before and we were left in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, dependent on our memory to get back. After almost getting lost in the narrow, dark village roads we somehow made it to the main highway that led to Kannur. As we rode the motorcycle back to town, we reflected on the day that pretty much summed up the realities of this life on the road. We were reminded once again that even in the face of the biggest disappointments something amazing could be just around the corner. Knowing that Tanya – my wife was sitting behind me on the bike, ready to face all the obstacles with me also made me realise just how lucky I am.
morning-along-the-road-in-coorg The Theyyam stuff, the heat of coastal Kerala and continuous, hectic rides to the surrounding villages again left us feeling a little drained. We had been contemplating going to Coorg – a hilly region with a cool climate, to refresh for a couple of days, then we’d head back down the coast to Thrissur – one of Kerala’s cultural centers. On the map Coorg isn’t far from Kannur – 113km. But as always, in India – expect the unexpected. A relatively small patch of the road, known locally as the forest road, was how shall I say – damaged. The damage was so bad that the road looked like it had been bombed continuously for 16 km. I figured that I had traveled on similar roads before, so I didn’t make that much of it. BIG mistake! Almost 10km through we started hearing all sorts of noises from our beloved motorcycle. We stopped, I lifted the bike seat and there it was, my worst fear had come true – the motorcycle frame/chasis was broken, snapped right in the middle. To avoid messing things up even more we couldn’t continue traveling with all that load and Tanya on the back, and so my poor wife had to walk 6km up a winding, hilly forest road, while I slowly and carefully navigated my way around giant pot holes towards a better road.
elephant-washing-at-dubare-reserve We decided to stop for the night at Madikeri – Coorg’s biggest town. Our chances of fixing the chasis in this remote region were slim, but Madikeri was our best bet. Again we were facing a very unpleasant situation, but as has happened countless times in India, a stranger came to the rescue. After failed attempts to explain what I need and a few rejections from mechanics and welders who understood, we unexpectedly came across Joe – a catholic Indian man from the coastal city of Cochin. Joe was looking to buy a motor to use for a crop-sorting machine on his spice estate. He came to the same place where we were trying to find out whether our problem can be fixed. After hearing our predicament Joe took it upon himself to help out the guests in his country. The next day his two equally helpful nephews Jeremy and Ronald were involved and although the task became a job of epic proportions (Madikeri is a relatively small town) it was done by the end of the afternoon. It was a little late to head to our next destination and we decided we’d stay another night in Madikeri, that was until Ronald, Joe’s nephew called. Ronald found out that I was interested in checking out some tea or coffee plantations/estates and so he invited us over to his estate for the night. We couldn’t resist. Another potentially horrible situation had turned in our favor. The next morning we woke up in a mini forest of coffee and pepper bush, as well as some very tall (and apparently expensive) trees. The golden light played it’s role in making everything magic. Tanya and I wondered around, appreciated the surroundings and shot a few frames. We expressed our gratitude to our new friends, who saved us and turned a potential disaster into one of the most memorable moments of our journey. Then it was time to move on. Next stop – Bylakuppe – a Tibetan refugee settlement. That’s where we are as I type.
monks-at-sera-jey-temple Bylakuppe is a peaceful place, full of maroon robed monks and monasteries. It ain’t Himalaya, but there’s still something special about it. Monasteries and monks are always photogenic, so we’ve already spent a few days photographing here. Tomorrow we head off on a little detour, to avoid the dreadful ‘Forest Road’. We’ll probably end up in Mysore for a few days, then it’s on to Wayanad. This cool climate and nature stuff has inspired me to spend some more time up in the hills, in India’s forested areas.
Now to the photos. From top to bottom: Monks rushing out after the Morning Prayer, Sera Jey Temple, Bylakuppe. Coffee berry picker at Ronald’s estate, Coorg. Morning along the road in Coorg, Kushalnagar region. A mahout washing his elephant at the Dubare Forest Reserve (Forgot to mention we went there. Shot this while standing knee high in water filled with elephant urine and crap ) Bottom: Inside of Sera Jey Temple, Bylakuppe.