Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Into unchartered territory

November 8, 2010

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I’ve well and truly settled back into the “other” world in which I sometimes live. That is the world of editing and post processing images, staring at the computer for over 10 hours a day and generally not getting out much, except to walk my dog, to whom I’m thankful for giving me a reason to do at least that much. 

Thankfully I will be hitting the road in a couple of weeks. A few twists and turns have led me to decide to travel to the Philippines. If all goes right, I’m supposed to do a seminar (or a few of them) on travel photography at one or maybe even a few photo clubs there. Originally I planned for this trip to last a couple of weeks en-route to India, but as I’m not easily satisfied with a short amount of time at a destination and love to “dig” deeper, as much below the surface as I can, I’ll most likely end up spending about four months exploring the country on a motorcycle (again if everything goes right).

My recent trip to Vanuatu reminded me of just how exhilarating it is to explore “unchartered” territory. I hope the Philippines will provide more of this exhilaration. There’s also a part of me which wants a new challenge, which wants to grow and to evolve  as a photographer and though India certainly isn’t short of opportunities for growth in that sense, I feel that over the years it’s become too much of a comfort zone, it’s time to see what else is out there, at least for now.

So, anyone in the Philippines who reads this blog, feel free to contact me here or via the email (on the website) and perhaps we can meet up, hang out and pick each other’s brains.

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New eBook – Journey Through Java

October 1, 2010

journey through java-cover

Hello good people of the Cyberworld! I have a new eBook out! As you probably gathered from the image above, it’s called “Journey through Java”. This one is a collaboration with David duChemin’s “Craft and Vision” team and it is a part of their very popular “Print and Process” series. Basically, it’s my photos and words, their structure and design.

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time are aware that I have known this duChemin fellow for a while. I think quite highly of the man, so when David approached me about doing one or possibly even a few eBooks for the “Print and Process” series, I said – “Sure thing mate!”

What really excites me about this eBook is the fact that the structure of it allowed me to focus on a specific stretch of time during my photographic journeys and as a result I was able to delve deeper into my photographic process than ever before. The eBook is fairly personal, but at the same time, the knowledge one should come away with is applicable on a very wide scale.

There’s talk about the equipment used, the technical aspects (every image has the Exif data provided) as well as composition and light. These things are all discussed in a very practical sense, as they relate to the images included in the eBook. There is a somewhat philosophical side to what I’ve written too. In this eBook I really wanted to touch on what makes a photograph more than a snapshot or an overused cliché and so I’ve devoted a whole section to the discussion of what it means to create shots that are deep, original and express what the photographer feels to the fullest.

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Who is this eBook for? It is for anyone who enjoys my photography and wants to know how I go about creating my work. I do however feel that the eBook will be particularly useful for the serious amateurs who want their photos to be more than “pretty pictures” as well as those thinking of doing travel and documentary photography for a living.

The really good part for all of you strapped for cash is – it’s only $5! And if you use the promotional code JAVA4 as you check out from Paypal, you’ll get it for $4 (offer expires 11:59pm PST October 3, 2010).

To purchaseor for more info, head over to the “Craft and Vision” site HERE or click the cover shot at the top. As always, your support is really appreciated!

I’m still in Port Villa as I write this, but heading home soon. More photos and hopefully some videos to come soon.

Close to Paradise

September 23, 2010

child jumping-lagoon-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

As I mentioned in my last post about Bob, my photography to assist tourism development continued in Rah Lava and to a lesser extent the bigger, neighbouring Mota Lava.  The two islands belong to the very remote Banks group, they’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by endless stretches of the Pacific ocean. If you’re looking for a place to completely escape the busy, modern world and you like the sea, this is the place to escape to.

I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places over my travels and it’s not that easy to impress me anymore, however, I am a sucker for sea and mountains and whenever I find a place with both, well, I instantly fall in love. It’s not that I like to climb mountains, it’s that I love the sight of mountains rising over the sea. In my books it’s hard to come up with a better backdrop to a photograph than something like that. The beach and the lagoon at Rah Lava offered me those very kinds of backdrops, along with some fairly thick, lush greenery in the island’s interior. Besides the great scenery Rah Lava had something else to offer and that was some incredibly amazing (usually very expensive, but not here) seafood – I managed to live out my dream of eating lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner (ok, I’m sick, I know, but it’s so tasty). Of course, to top it all off, as elsewhere in Vanuatu the people were absolutely wonderful. Quite naturally, I had to stay a while in Rah and I did, it was my longest stay in Vanuatu so far – two and a half weeks.

The reason I came to Rah was because George Thompson, the man I was helping out in South West Bay advised me to make the journey there and help out a man (in the same way – take photos for marketing) by the name of Luke Dini or Father Luke as he introduces himself (he’s a retired pastor). Both George and Father Luke were members of Vanuatu’s bungalow association, in fact they were probably the first two men to join a few decades back. The association was meant to set some sorts of standards for bungalows as well as service in those bungalows. The government was meant to help out and direct tourists to those places which were a part of the association.

It appears however that whatever project the government of Vanuatu undertakes, that project is destined for not fulfilling its potential and that has certainly been the case here. Father Luke opened his Bungalow in the seventies and he waited for fifteen years for the first foreign visitors, who happened to be a group of New Zeland Yachties needing to stay on land for just one night. After that there were no more tourists for another five years, but for whatever reason Father Luke didn’t abandon his idea of running a bungalow.

For years the place would receive just a handful of visitors a year, most of them – discount-seeking government workers who found the bungalow through the association (they seem to be the only people who turn to the association to find accommodation). From my understanding, the income was meagre, but Father Luke understood; for a small community like that of Rah Island, tourism was the only kind of business that would empower the locals and give them a chance to earn  a decent enough income. Perhaps more importantly, it could keep the youth closer to home and this is a big thing, considering that many young, ambitious Ni-Vans leave remote places like Rah in search of jobs on the more developed Efate (where the capital Vila is) and Santo (where the second capital Luganville is located). Most often the youth come back, disillusioned, disappointed in their experiences in the world outside. The money they earn on the more developed islands is small in comparison to their sky-high expenses of living away form home. Things like food and accommodation are free for them, while they stay close to home in the huts that they build, near their gardens and the sea in which they know every fishing spot. In the outside world everything has a price tag and because of foreign investment and influence, things are pretty much out of reach for the regular citizen of Vanuatu.

When the youth come back to places like Rah after a disappointing tenure in the capital, they find themselves in an unusual situation. Having been exposed to the world of televisions, DVDs and night clubs they can’t look at life in a quiet island paradise without modern facilities in quite the same way. Sometimes they come back with new skills, which they can’t use because there are no industries of any sort. They’re left in-between two words, confused, a little frustrated and dreaming of what things would be like if their fortunes turned.

Father Luke had a vision, he felt that the presence of tourists on Rah could contribute to the entire community. Starting from the canoe-taxi across the lagoon from “mainland” Mota Lava, which every visitor must take to get to the bungalow, to the fishermen, lobster and coconut crab catchers who sold their catch to his the restaurant, to the traditional dance performers and so on. Everyone would benefit, everyone interested would have a chance to earn an income which was while fairly small, went a long way on an island like Rah. I was surprised that Father Luke was able to see such a big picture, this was very unusual for a man from a remote, forgotten island in the Pacific.

It turned out that Father Luke, besides being a Church pastor in the past, was a politician in the more distant past. In fact he was second in charge of all of Vanuatu during the colonial years and secretary to the president, once Vanuatu gained its independence. I was pleasantly surprised that Father Luke resigned from his high position because he strongly opposed the increasing corruption in the higher ranks of the government. It was then only at the beginning of its growth, these days the corruption in Vanuatu is legendary.

“My wife liked living the lavish lifestyle, having chauffers and eating in restaurants, so she didn’t want me to quit. I told her this; we can continue like that, but in a few years you will lose your husband, for I cannot stand living a lie, I’ll probably die from stress, from a heart-attack or something like that. I want to keep my dignity and to be able to look in the eyes of the people back home on Rah.” These were Father Luke’s words, to which his wife replied – “Let’s go home” meaning their modest house on Rah Island.

And so in some ways Father Luke is similar to George Thompson. He is a man who puts dignity and community above money and easy life. Thankfully, unlike George, after years and years of struggle things have taken turn for the better for Father Luke’s bungalows. They probably get close to thirty visitors a year on Rah Island and although the number does not seem impressive, it is when you consider the beginnings.

Since this is a photography and travel blog, I feel obliged to tell the readers about Rah Island as a travel destination, not only a photography destination. As I mentioned, it’s the ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of the modern, developed world. It’s still not luxurious comfort living, but there is solar power, a shower and flush toilets – things that are not so common in the outer islands of Vanuatu. Father Luke’s bungalows are pretty cheap too, not South East Asia cheap, but fairly cheap by other standards. It’s about US$30 per person per day and that includes food, which after my recommendation will include more fresh fish and the possibility to eat lobster and coconut crab whenever your heart desires.

Ok, that’s enough of that. Let’s get to the photographs. The one above is of a local kid doing a back-flip from a canoe in the lagoon.

young girl-walk through forest-bush, Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

Saron returning from her family’s garden with the village dog. Vanuatu is one of the greatest agricultural societies on the planet, every family has a garden and every village family lives from one. The gardens are usually located somewhere in the bush and almost daily a family member will venture out there in order to tend to the crops or to bring some produce back home.

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Silas and Young lobster hunting. The men look for familiar spots where they’re likely to find the crustaceans. The easiest time to catch them is during the moment of feeding, which lasts for approximately half an hour in the evening. 

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Silas putting one of the lobsters into the boat.

hunting-coconut crab-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

While on the subject of edible crustaceans, here’s another one – the legendary coconut crab. Near extinction in most of the world, the coconut crab is in abundance in lots of the Torba province, of which Rah and Mota Lava are a part. As you can see they grow pretty big, in fact according to Wikipedia, it is the largest-living arthropod on the planet. Those claws mean business too, Joseph is very experienced at catching and handling the creatures. Here some village youngsters watch him as he separates the coconut crab from his bate – the coconut.

tennage boy climbing-tree-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

As I mentioned in the last post, the men of Vanuatu are generally pretty amazing tree-climbers. By the time they’re teenagers they are strong enough to climb some crazy-big trees. David is one such teenager. As many other boys his age he climbs up trees to hunt (with a sling-shot) small birds and flying foxes, a delicacy in many parts of Vanatu.

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Another image of Bob and his son Jeff. I wanted to include this one here just to emphasize the incredibly clear water around the reef. I’d dreamt about being in places like this for a looong time, now I feel like I’m getting a little spoilt.

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The view out the front of the bungalow, just after sunset. Like I said, I’m a sucker for sea and mountains.

children in a canoe-lagoon-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

Dimitry (front) is one of Father Luke’s grandchildren. The kid is a CHARACTER, that’s for sure. He’s only four, but he’s very savvy, Tanya had to work real hard to become his buddy, he’s the type of kid who you have to constantly attract with something interesting. Dimitry is also unusually interested in his tradition (for a small child) he always tries to perform the island’s famous snake dance with the bigger boys and has a great sense of hearing.

wood carving-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

Franklin is a master wood carver, he creates some true masterpieces. Interestingly though, while Franklin learned the technique of wood-carving from his father, he learned how to carve more complex traditional works from photographs taken in a Museum of Pacific Arts somewhere in Europe. His ancestors sold a lot of the carvings to Europeans over a century ago and even the elders in his village (on Mota Lava) had never seen the carvings in the photographs.

Through a strange twist of fate, the “white men” who laid path for the destruction of the culture of the inhabitants of Rah and Mota islands over a hundred years ago also managed to save a part of it and to indirectly help revive the same part of that culture many decades later.

Franklin is a fascinating man and not only because of his determined approach towards wood-caring, it wasn’t unusual for him to go through five pieces of wood before getting things just right. Franklin is also a field worker of Vanuatu’s cultural centre, which means that he studies and records his own culture. Had I had more time I would have gladly spent hours chatting to the man, asking him endless questions.

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The snake dance of Rah has become famous all over Vanuatu. It is usually performed at weddings and special occasions, but these days it’s become a regular performance for tourists too. I have to say that usually I think stuff like that is lame, but I’ve reconsidered that approach in Vanuatu and particularly with the snake dance. We watched it about 4 times and every time it was pretty cool.

dancer in makeup-snake dance-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

A dancer having his body and face painted for the snake dance.  I don’t know if anyone who is not part of the dance group has been behind the scenes for this dance before, back in the day seeing the preparation was strictly taboo. The paint used, as well as the material of the costumes were the performers’ secret and if anyone were to find out that secret they may have very well been killed, such was the kastom law.

view from-Rock of Rah

A view from the rock of Rah, one of the most accessible high view points I’ve ever come across (you can get there in about 10 minutes from the village). No photograph will do it justice. From the rock you have a 360 degree of the surroundings and they are magnificent.

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I couldn’t resist including another shot of children in a canoe in the lagoon. That place was ideal for photography – dramatic mountain backdrop on one side and the setting sun on the other, doesn’t get much better than that.

That’s all for now folks.

South West Bay, Malekula – Where pristine nature meets ancient traditions

September 21, 2010

Traditional-boy-near-waterfall-South-West-Bay-Malekula

A few posts ago I mentioned that  I got involved in helping some locals with the promotion of their regions as tourism destinations through my photographs.  In fact I not only ended up doing the photos, but also dished out quite a lot of advice, since the people on most islands of Vanuatu (besides two main ones – Vila and Santo), well they don’t have much of an idea of what foreigners actually want and their misconceptions could not be further from the truth. That is of course very understandable, since their culture and general approach to life could not be much more different from that of “white people” or most foreigners in general.

For the moment and likely for at least five years or more, most of outer islands of Vanuatu (as all the islands outside of Efate where the capital is located are called) are pretty darn far from being “real” tourist destinations. I mean this in the sense that they are not particularly suitable for those who want to relax in comfort, eat well, drink or party. Outside of about three major towns, there’s no electricity, running water is very uncommon and perhaps the most painful thing, at least for me, is that the locals, for most part could not care less about what they eat. There’s no food culture, which equals to no tasty local cuisine as you get in most places around Asia or elsewhere where there is a food culture.

All the minuses aside, Vanuatu offers something that few places offer these days and that is untouched, pristine and absolutely stunning nature. On top of that the people (the Ni-Vanutatu or Ni-Vans, as they call themselves) are some of the most charismatic, friendly and likeable on the planet. There’s also no hassle, no one attempts to sell you crap that you don’t need, no one tries to trick you or rip you off. As much as I love places like India, Nepal and Indonesia, it gets pretty annoying when people constantly see you as a money bag and come up with the most ridiculously creative ways of making you part with your money. You just don’t have that in Vanuatu, at least not yet.

Besides the already mentioned virtues, there’s of course the culture. As I also mentioned in a past post, the culture is undeniably disappearing, but it hasn’t disappeared yet, at least not everywhere. And while there are still places where you can experience this incredible culture in at least some shape or form, you have to go. In some very strange way it appears that the foreign interest in the culture of Vanuatu’s islands has made a lot of  Ni-Vans realize just how precious their culture is. At the end of the day, it may very well be tourism which will help ensure that not all is completely lost.

But let me now get specifically to South West Bay. It is one of two regions which I photographed with the aim of helping promote it. As you might have already gathered I am also ready to promote it through my blog and the internet in general, but that doesn’t mean that I’m simply going to sugar-coat everything. I’ll tell the truth, and in this case the truth is good enough to get people to come.

My idea to do this little project came after I met a good man by the name of George Thompson. George was born and grew up in the very remote South West Bay, Malekula. Through some visionary thoughts, hard work and twists of fate he was able to become the leading tour operator and the head of the tourism department  in his region. This role even gave George an opportunity to travel to Europe for a tourism expo in the late nineties. He saw places that very few Ni-Vans get to see – France, Germany, Denmark. While he loved the experience, travelling abroad made him realize that things back home were not as bad as some of his fellow countrymen had imagined. Sure, Vanuatu is a poor country by Western standards, but paradoxically there are no homeless people and no one begs for money or food. On top of that the air is fresh and the culture is rich.

When George got back, he had become even more inspired and passionate about showing off his region to the occasional tourists. By 2000 things were looking good, tourist numbers were slowly growing and  the income that tourism provided made people’s lives just a little easier. However, things in Vanuatu can change rather quickly. Corruption and “mismanagement” of funds at the higher level are common and around 2004 the nationwide tourism company “Island Safaris” the branch of which George led successfully in South West Bay went down due to “mismanagement”. Tourism numbers started to decline faster than they rose, without the support of a bigger company there was no way that George or the locals could market their region to the outside world. To add even more pain to the dilemma, the airport of South West Bay was sporadically closing and opening, thus making it harder for anyone to get to the area. In a couple of years there were virtually no tourists visiting South West Bay.

Because of George’s past friendships and connections he was able to get a good job, managing a small resort in Port Villa. He had a relatively easy life and a high salary, by Vanuatu standards. George worked at the resort for a couple of years, but soon he became haunted by the thoughts of home. He was away from his family and he knew that while he was having it easy, the people of South West Bay were struggling. He felt pain and guilt and before long he got back to South West Bay with the hopes of reviving the small, but once stable tourism industry that he helped build.

Fast forward to 2010 and things are not looking so bright. Over the past few years tourism has still been near non-existent. Instead of helping bring up the lifestyle of others, George found himself in a similar situation as them. He didn’t tell me his story when I met him, he’s not the kind of person to whine or complain about life, that doesn’t seem to be part of the Ni-Van mentality in general. Instead I got all of this information out of him during the two weeks that I spent in the area, this of course made me even more motivated to help the man in at least some way.

The particular idea about me making some photos came after George showed me some of the past photos of the places in his region sent to him by tourists. According to his stories, the places were beautiful and the people in those places fascinating and so when I saw images that were let’s say not very inspiring I felt a little uninspired myself. I know that I’m not the only one who gets excited about a place by seeing a single beautiful image of it and so with that thought in mind I suggested that we create a little tourism marketing campaign. The campaign would be a combination of documentary images of some of the more photogenic activities, places in the region, as well as some set up shots of the locals dressed in their traditional costumes in their beautiful surroundings.

For me personally the shoots were a reward in themselves. I have been shooting documentary stuff for years and I’m always interested to be placed into new photogenic situations. As far as the set up shots, it was in a sense even more fun to do them. I’d made a couple of short fiction films while at uni and photo shoots of this sort, while fairly new to me were in a some ways similar to making short films. In this case you could say that the shoots were a blend of fiction and documentary (the line was very thin). Our “actors” had to be themselves, they simply had to be in specific locations, wearing costumes which they used to wear in the past and still wear during celebrations  or as was customary for the chiefs and some village members while greeting visitors (i.e. tourists). The dances, which are a big thing in the region are performed in similar outfits, (usually more elaborate) so all in all the images we created showed what was most visually exciting about the region of South West Bay and something that the visitors would get a chance to see themselves.

And so let me get to the photos. This is a just a portion of the images I created, you can see more HERE and in the coming months. The image at the top is of one of the boys (Pillison was his name)  who I had seen performing the kastom dance at a pig killing ceremony a couple of days earlier. I wanted to photograph him in a similar costume in front of the waterfall, one of the hidden little gems of the area.

Boys-in-a-canoe-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Pillison was a great model so we got him and his little mate into a canoe and asked them to row along the shoreline a little. For full impact, I expect this or a variation of this image to be shown in a bigger medium than the 450 pixel photo on a blog. You can get a better view by clicking on the image (to make it larger). Mountains and sea always look dramatic to me and more so when they’re bigger.

Chief-Ayar-in-the-bush-South-West-Bay-Malekula

This is Chief Ayar again. I blogged about him HERE. I took quite a few shots of this fascinating man. I expect that some of them will be used in something like a brochure, while I’d like to use others, like this one along with images that make up a story, which, if things work out will hopefully appear in some of Vanuatu’s tourism magazines.

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A moment from the pig-killing ceremony. During my stay in South West Bay, two chiefs “upgraded” their ranks. Two pigs were killed and meat was shared with the villagers.

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Every pig killing is preceded by a traditional or kastom dance. Only certain individuals are allowed to take part. The young are once again being taught the steps of the dances as part of a cultural revival in South West Bay.

Ancient-burial-site-Melmes-South-West-Bay-Malekula

For those who like hiking, there’s a fascinating hike to the creepy ancient burial site in the hills above the village of Melmes. The guide, a young chief by the name of John was very passionate in telling us about the history of his people. Below those skulls is a mass burial hole, but before the bodies were placed there they were put onto a high rock. Because John’s tribe thought that they descended from the eagle, they had a little custom associated with this bird. They believed that if the eagle were to eat the eyes of the dead body (when it was placed on the high rock), that person would go directly to paradise, if not, well they go to hell. When I asked John whether many of the dead actually had they’re eyes eaten and went to Paradise, he replied with an uneasy smile – “No, most of our ancestors went to hell.”

Weaving-mats-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Mat-weaving is one of the women’s main occupations. They weave mats for home as well as for sale in big towns like Port Villa in order to generate a small income that usually contributes to the ridiculously high school fees they must pay for their children each year.

The-baker-of-Wintua-village-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Another documentary image taken inside of the village bakery. The baker is cleaning out the ash before putting the bread inside the oven. Once I am home, near a fast connection I’ll try to post some video that I did in this very atmospheric little spot.

Old-chief-South-West-Bay-Malekula

George’s uncle is one of the highest chiefs in South West Bay, people like him are an “attraction” in their own right, they are living history and chatting to folks like that is always a highlight of any trip. George’s uncle (his name escapes me, it was a long traditional name, not a Western one) had never had a white man in his house before, so he felt a little nervous when I came to photograph him there. He still had reservations about white people in general because in his youth the presence of a white man was usually bad news. He signed to me that they used to kill the locals by making the cutting of a neck gesture with his hand.

My presence I was sure left him pretty puzzled. I was using the off camera flash in a soft box, which meant that I’d click the button on the camera and the flash would go off (away from the camera). George later confirmed that the flash was indeed a source of bewilderment and amusement as his uncle told fellow elders “This white man came to take my picture. He pressed the button in one place and then this bright light would go off in another place! He’d talk to his woman, she’d press something on the thing that makes the light and then the same thing would happen again, over and over!”

The-coastline-South-West-Bay-Malekula

South West Bay is stunningly beautiful. I am not a landscape photographer, but even I was seduced by the scenery of dramatic, red, cliffs and greenery lining the shore. There are much more scenes for the landscape photographer and if I was one of them I’d probably stay even longer.

Boy-in-Canoe-South-West-Bay-Malekula

More beautiful nature  (click the image for larger size) and another youngster in a canoe. This is in fact a lagoon about a half hour’s walk from George’s house. Beautiful place, warm people and you only have to dip the net in for a few minutes before you catch fish. Once the traditional owner of this area builds a thatched bungalow, this will be a great place to spend a couple of days.

Trees-at-sunset-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Just a few hundred meters from the lagoon, you come to this place, which made me feel a little like I was in a forest in Europe. The setting sun made for a perfect lighting scenario and I couldn’t resist making a couple of exposures.

Some final words: For those who are into photography and interested in visiting Vanuatu there are some good news. Through working with me George learned a good bit about what sort of stuff more serious photographers might be interested in. In other words he knows that we don’t like cheesy pictures of kids giving us the thumbs up (very common in Vanuatu) or people standing with their hands by their sides like soldiers before a march. He also understands that sometimes real life is the most fascinating subject of all, so he can help the photographers get access to shoot stuff like that.

I might be doing a workshop in Vanuatu at some stage and if I do there will only ever be one. However for the more independent minded or more advanced photographers, I highly recommend you to get over to South West Bay and to let George show you around. I’ve only scratched the surface here. There’s reportedly a great reef for those who love shooting underwater (I had left my housing near the airport not knowing this) you can go on a wild pig hunt with a couple of dudes with bush knives and a pack of dogs. There are more traditional villages and fascinating elders in the mountains and some folks shoot river fish with bows and arrows.

Oh and did I mention that the whole thing will be extremely affordable, especially by Vanuatu standards? Whatever you pay will go directly to the community, there are no middle-man organizations (as is often the case when you do things through bigger companies). I don’t get anything out of it apart from satisfaction in knowing that I helped someone.  I’ll post more on the prices and the possibilities at a later stage, but if anyone is already interested, feel free  to contact me via this blog or the email on my website.

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.

Transcending Travel – my new eBook

June 3, 2010

Travel book book graphic1-2 Just wanted to pass the word that my new eBook, which I did for “Digital Photography School” is out. I’ve put a lot of work into this one and I’m pretty over the moon about the fact that Darren Rowse, who is the founder of DPS (which happens to be the biggest photographic community on the web) decided to team up with me for this eBook. Darren is definitely one of the gurus of social media, he also runs the extremely useful and popular ProBlogger, it’s always an honor to be associated with people like that, who are at the top of their game.

Transcending Travel – A Guide to Captivating Travel Photography” is ideal for beginners and intermediates, but even if you’re a seasoned shooter I hope that it can provide you with some inspiration and food for thought or just give you a look at how I do things photographically.

You can find more info HERE or by clicking on the picture above. This week there’s a 25% off special and there are also some pretty cool incentives, check out the links for more.

That’s  all from me for now. More to come soon.

Been away for way too long, but here’s something to keep you busy.

February 26, 2010

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Hi folks, almost a whole month has passed since my last post. Wow! Time flies!

The fact is I’ve been more busy than ever and part of the reason for that has been caused by me writing a new eBook. You’ll get more details on just what it’s about at some stage later.

While we’re on the topic of eBooks I absolutely must direct you all to this one. It’s sorta “produced” by the wonderful David duChemin, but it’s actually written by his friend and a darn good photographer Dave Delnea.

The eBook’ is titled – “Below The Horizon, Understanding Light at the Edges of Day”. Pretty self explanatory, all I can say is – it’s well worth the $5 or better yet the $4 introductory price. Photographing at the “edges of the day” is something I love doing and want to do much more of in the future, this little eBook has already given me some pretty cool ideas. Get, it learn from it, use your knowledge out in the field.

Go to David’s Blog. The “Craft and Vision” store or simply slick on the image above.

I’ll be away for a little while longer, but please be patient. Good things are coming.

Greetings from the Holy Land!

January 19, 2010

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Hi folks, it’s been a long time since my last post and in case you’re thinking that I’ve been buried somewhere in the snows of cold Belarus, you’re wrong. 🙂

I’m actually in Israel. It’s not a random trip, I’ve had family living here for a while and it was time for a way overdue visit. I won’t get into all the personal details, but rather keep it photography related. A couple of days back I’ve managed to do something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while – go back to Jerusalem.

I visited the “Holy City” in the past, when I was about 13 (with my parents). As a teenager, I was raised  on Christian beliefs and was familiar enough with the Bible to know the significance of Jerusalem. Even back then it felt special.

These days I’m not attached to any religion, but having been exposed to other faiths and life-experiences, I can appreciate the city more than ever before. In reality it’s hard not to appreciate Jerusalem. The old town’s ancient architecture, labyrinth-like streets, bustling markets and hordes of devotees of all races, colours and faiths make it a city like no other on Earth. The closest thing I’ve experienced to Jerusalem was travelling through the old cities of Rajasthan, India, but even they don’t match Jerusalem’s incredible diversity.

I spent most of my time around the famous symbols of the world’s dominant religions – the Church of Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall and the Golden Dome Mosque. That’s where the images you see here are from.

Mine and Tanya’s stay was made much more special thanks to meeting a talented photographer and a super nice dude named – Sasson Haviv. I got in touch with him on the photography site 1X.com a while back and after I randomly emailed him and told him that I was gonna be in Jerusalem, Sasson was all too happy to meet and hang out. He helped me gain an insider’s view, which is something I treasure whenever I go somewhere new. You can check out some of Sasson’s images right HERE.

priest-in-door An Ethiopian priest enters “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre”. The church became one of the favourite photographic places I’ve been in. There’s a lot happening, there’s a great variety of faces, the light is different in different places and at different times of the day. You can just sit in one spot, people-watch and wait for something photo-worthy to happen.

blessingA priest blesses a devotee. I shot this image at the same spot as the photo above, but a bit later on in the day and obviously from a different angle. It’s possible to spend weeks here.

nunsTwo Orthodox nuns absorbing a passage from the Bible. Still the same area, but the opposite side by the entrance to the church.

priestA Greek Orthodox priest changes oil in the lamps above the stone-plate where Jesus’ body is said to have been prepared for burial.

the-tomb-of-chirstA  crowd of devotees around the Holy Sepulchre / The Tomb of Christ. There seems to always be a crowd around it. As holy as the place may be, this is where I saw the less magical side of the church. The person in charge of directing the crowd, usually a monk would tell everyone when it’s time to get out . He’d commonly say – “Hey, come on, you don’t get one hour here, move on!” He would also knock back those who try to squeeze-in without waiting in line. I saw an elderly Russian couple say “Can you please let us through, we are pilgrims.” The answer – “Guess, what? Everyone’s a pilgrim here, get in line!” At one stage the crowd started to get out of control and the monk started screaming almost uncontrollably for them to get back, I guess it was time for desperation.

girl-and-candlesJust by the tomb  is where I continuously saw Russian tourists/pilgrims obsessively burn the fuses of candles which they had bought in the church or brought with them (such is the tradition and it makes the candles blessed in a way). They would buy whole bags of them and would greedily burn the candle-fuses, one bunch after another. Well, at least that gave me a chance to get some shots.

worshippersDevotees praying at the “Wailing Wall”. I have to admit, I know relatively little about Judaism, perhaps that was one of the main reasons I felt less comfortable  shooting at the wall. Ok, that and the fact that thousands of tourists photograph these same people here every day, thus annoying the heck out of the them. There’s about a 50/50 percent chance that you’ll be asked to stop. It’s a tricky situation, because when you see someone in a moment of religious ecstasy, doing the “decent” thing and asking is not necessarily an option. If I had more time, I would come back and do what Sasson does – make friends with some of the worshippers and get their consent before shooting in a more intimate way.

knowledgeThere’s no shortage of knowledge by the Wailing Wall. In the undercover area to the left religious books are aplenty and you always see someone looking for something or putting a book back on the shelf.

girl-soldiersFemale soldiers rehearsing for “the end of army service” ceremony by the “Wailing Wall”. The sight of women in army uniforms and with guns is quite unusual for most people around the world, but it’s just an everyday occurrence in Israel. When I came across the scene I couldn’t resist shooting quite a few frames. It is funny that despite such seemingly serious duty, the girls (who are all probably in very early 20s) joked around, made bored faces, occasionally made faces at me and one even stuck out her butt for the camera.

religionandsecularThere is the ever-present contrast of the religious and the secular in Jerusalem.

view-from-above View of Jerusalem from the side of the Golden Dome Mosque.

mosqueMorning around the Golden Dome Mosque.

marketAt the market by Old Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.

breadmakersThanks to Sasson we were able to get into this bakery after-hours and take some photos of these two Palestinian brothers at work. They were real nice guys. After we finished shooting, we were offered some of the sweetest tea I’ve ever drank, not necessarily a good thing, but a a sign of the famous Middle-Eastern hospitality Sasson told me about.

smokersIn this place Palestinian men enjoy a smoke of their pipes and play cards. I was quickly told that some of the older, more classy pipes cost as much as 2500 Euros. One of the guys collected them and said that when he smokes his expensive pipe the experience is as great as being with a beautiful woman.

That’s all from me for now. I’ll be flying back to Belarus in a couple of days, I hear it might be –30C by then! Aaah!!!