Rusty

A few days ago I posted that I was currently in Lalibela, Ethiopia for a special orthodox christian celebration. It’s been wonderful to come back and experience the place for a second time and I feel I’ve done much better this time in portraying the soul of some of the inhabitants of this town. There are a few images etched into my mind that really stand out: I have a few of local priests and of some of the beautiful children here, but maybe the ones that really stand out in my mind are those of the Ethiopian woman wearing traditional head dress.

Ethiopia-21.jpg

I’ve been thinking today about why it might be the case that I’ve done better this time. Especially since I feel my efforts haven’t justified the images that are imprinted on my mind so far. Four years ago when I came here, I really worked the place as much as I could and felt I didn’t really ‘get’ the place. This time round it’s the opposite way - I feel I’ve put very little effort in and yet I think I’ve captured quite a few memorable portraits in the space of two days.

How can this be? I’m really not sure, and currently it’s just a hunch as I haven’t seen the final processed films yet. But if I have learned one thing over the years of shooting film, it is that when I manage to make a memorable photograph: I tend to know it at the time of capture. The good ones just seem to be like that - they leave an indelible impression on your mind and emotions and I’ve found that they stay there, powerfully, right up until I get the processed films back from the lab and the confirmation that what I felt and saw at the time really did work.

Of course, it would be very easy to say that the reason why everything has gone so well this time is due to my improvement as a photographer. But I don’t think so. In fact I’m feeling rather rusty when it comes to photographing people, particularly in developing world countries. 

First there is the issue of feeling that I’m exploiting my subjects, even though I know I’m not like that and would never take advantage. But being surrounded by poverty tends to make you stare at yourself a bit more than usual and ask yourself some awkward questions.

As I stated a few days ago, I seem to have become really shy in front of people I really want to photograph. My guide helped a lot, but he couldn’t read my mind and he didn’t know when I was secretly longing to photograph someone. Inside, I’m crumbing to pieces at the thought of approaching them. God, I really am rusty as a people photographer.

But perhaps there’s something in this unfocussed approach to my trip that’s working for me, rather than against me. My feeling of helplessness is in some ways, making me go more with the flow. I’ve more or less decided that it’s just great to be here, and any good photos are an added bonus. I can’t help but wonder if serendipity is paying me a visit and offering me more than if I’d tried to orchestrate it myslef. I really don’t know.

As well as myself changing in the past four years, so too has Lalibela. Coming back has allowed me to compare, but it’s also forced me to notice the differences between what I was looking for back then, and what I’m looking for now. Years ago I would be very happy if I managed to get someone’s attention to work with me on a photograph, whereas now I feel I’m looking for more of a connection in the way they smile at me or how they talk to my camera.

And Lalibela is a bit more confident these days. Everyone seems to have mobile phones - Chinese fake Samsung Galaxy phones, and the town is a little more touristy than it was back in 2010. Tuk Tuk’s are everywhere - those strange little car inventions from India arrived only six months ago and I can already see the streets of people and mules being replaced by two stroke engines in four years time if I do ever return. But mostly I feel the inhabitants are getting used to cameras being around and I guess that’s maybe why I’m finding things just a bit easier this time. Ethiopian’s are very generous people at heart, sincere and open and they like to share. It seems that asking to make photos of people here is considered a compliment rather than an intrusion.

One last thought before I go. Coming back to Ethiopia has made me re-connect with why I got into what I do in the first place. The wonder of exploring a place that is completely different from my western existence has always made me feel more alive. It also offers me the chance not only to see new things, but to see things about my own life and myself that I had never had the luxury to consider before.

Next stop Japan, then Bhutan in April. I can’t wait to see what unfolds as I feel I’ve found my passion again for photographing people, even if I am a little rusty.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

As I type this, I'm sitting in the Seven Olives hotel in the heart of Lalibela, Ethiopia. I've come here to photograph the special christian celebration Timkat.

It's been four years since I came here to photograph Meskel - a special orthodox christian celebration held each year in September. 

I remember my first visit well. I was a little overwhelmed by the people, who appear to dress the same as back in biblical times. Lalibela is after all one of the birth places of christianity.

Photographically speaking, I was also a little overwhelmed back then and today I'm finding nothing has changed for me. I seem to be going through a period of adjustment. Landscape photography may come easily to me, but I feel it takes me a day or two to settle into making pictures of people. Most of my adjustment period is due to an inner shyness that I have. I'm not really sure where the core of my shyness sits: I was very shy as a kid, less so as a teenager and I'm very open as an adult, but I think we all have that inner-core - that old-self still lurking within us. So I think my young-shy self is still there, but he only really comes out when I'm faced with something I really love. When it matters, as is the case when I see a potential beautiful photograph of someone, I can become quite unable to direct my subjects to get what I am envisaging.

I saw so many great compositions this morning on my first outing with my guide - Muchaw - who is one of the Deacons here. But I really didn't have much confidence to take my camera up to my eye at first. I guess I just have too much respect for others as I simply do not wish to offend and would be hurt if I knew I'd upset anyone. 

But my guide is a great help in this respect. He is able to break the ice where I could not and I think this is one thing that I have reminded myself of - it's always worth employing a guide when I travel, as they can help smooth the relations between the subjects I wish to photograph and me. Plus I also think that hiring a guide is good, because it's a positive way of giving some money back to the local economy.

It's only the first morning, but tomorrow and Tuesday are two full days of celebrations. I think there should be many photographic opportunities since my guide has got me access to the heart of the celebrations.

Looking back at my first visit in 2010, I remember being right in the heart of some dance celebration making photos and found myself staring out towards the surrounding crowd.  In that crowd, were all the tourists I'd gotten to know at my hotel, each of them with a bemused look on their face as if asking 'how on earth did Bruce get in there?'.

It was so tempting to take a digital SLR for this shoot. Many of the locations are in dimly lit churches, and it's something that I might have to reconsider for another time. It is High ISO territory for sure if you want to be able to shoot everything here. But I prefer to work with what I know well and love, and so I've brought two Contax 645 bodies and a few lenses with me. I have the 55, 80 and 140 which translate approximately to 35, 40 and 70mm. Film stock is Kodak Portra 160.

I feel this year is about making people pictures. It's about having a welcome change. It's also something I love very much as it gives me inspiration in ways that landscape photography does not. Even though I feel that portraiture is not something that comes as naturally to me I get a lot of pleasure out of the exchange with my subjects and often the photography is of secondary importance.

Lalibela Podcast

Situated in the northern foothills of Ethiopia, lies Lalibela, an important spiritual mecca for orthodox christians.

Please click on the image to play the podcast

I came here in September of this year to photograph the people in the context of the UNESCO rock hewn churches. Unbeknown to me at the time, I was on a pilgrimage of my own. Looking back now, I can see that my entire photographic 'career' has been that - a journey and as with everything in life, we only truly understand how far we've come, by looking back. Everything up ahead of us, is yet to be discovered.

This will be my last podcast for a while. They're very time-consuming to do, even though I do find them very enjoyable. But the problem is gathering enough new material to make one with. Lalibela was the first set of new photographs I made this year. I do have a trip planned to go to Norway in March 2011 to (hopefully) shoot the Aurora and also photograph the beautiful fishing town of A. Who knows what this may bring in terms of a future podcast, but until then, I'd just like to let you know that I intend to make podcasts in future, but only when I have new material and when the time is right to do so.

Lalibela - birth of a portfolio

I’m in the process of writing a new e-book. It’s all about planning and executing a new photographic project with the intention of coming home from a trip with what will turn out to be a new portfolio of work. I use my recent trip to Ethiopia’s Lalibela as a setting for how I went from an idea to creating a final body of work.

I felt there was some room to discuss how I go about putting my trips abroad together, how I plan for them, decide what to take and how I go around making images whilst there including the logistics involved.

But I’d like to ask if there’s anything you think you’d specifically like to know in such an e-book? Maybe there’s something you find hard to figure out or you’re not sure about. So I’d like to hear from you - and any valid comments will be included into the e-book. If I like your suggestions, I’ll place a reply on this blog to indicate that your suggestion will be included in the ebook.

Front page update

I updated my front page today to show a selection of portraits from Lalibela in Ethiopia.

I'm almost done with my scanning and processing, but couldn't wait to show there has been some movement and that some new images will appear in a new portfolio soon. I'm hoping to put a little podcast together too about the trip and there will be some eBooks to follow as well regarding the preparation around the trip and also some details on how I made some of the images on the trip.

But in the meantime, I'm off to the Isle of Harris for another November shoot on some of the most minimalist, stunning beaches to be found here in Scotland.

--

Other breaking news is that Steve McCurry is due to release a limited edition book (3,300 copies only) for around £200. I love Steve's work and if you like portraiture too, then I would highly recommend some of his books from Phaidon Press, and if you're a big fan, then I'd recommend placing an order for his limited edition book (as I have).

King for a Day

Just busy working my way through the films I shot in Ethiopia and felt inclined to show you this shot.

I've got perhaps another 10 rolls of film to work my way through, but so far, I've amassed around 50 shots I'm happy with. Expect a contact sheet to follow at some point.

I love using the Contax 645 system with the 80mm lens for portraiture. As much as I feel that equipment is less important than having an eye for a photo, I do feel that the right camera can instil a sense of confidence in you. But I'd much rather focus on the fact that a decent camera in the wrong hands will produce poor photos. It's really up to *you* whether you capture good photos or not.

Ethiopia work resumes

So I've just started scanning images again. This one just popped up on my preview screen in Silverfast and I'm quite taken with it. Just keen to share it with you.

I find scanning quite exciting. Because I'm dealing with negatives, I'm never entirely sure what's on them until I've loaded them into the scanner. I do like contact sheets, but they're very expensive to have produced here. I bought a Canon 9000F flatbed to help me produce some contact sheets, but I can't seem to get it to work with negatives, and my patience for trying to wrestle with some hardware or software issue is rather on the thin side. So I'm just happy to work on a tray of 4 images at a time.

Muchaw

I'm away for a few days. In the meantime, I thought I'd post a photograph of my guide from my trip to Lalibela.

Muchaw is a Deacon of the Orthodox Church. He was an amazing guide, got me into places that I wouldn't have had access as a normal tourist, showed me around Lalibela, and of course, lent me his rather large size 12 trainers when my own shoes got stollen from outside one of the churches of Lalibela (I've never seen someone look so shocked, dumbfounded and embarrassed at the same time - personally, I thought it was very funny).

Pictured in the background is the rock hewn church of St George. It is in my opinion, the most stunning piece of architecture in Ethiopia. So much so that I asked Muchaw one day why there were no tourist souvenirs of it.  I wasn't surprised when the very next day he arrived at my hotel with two replicas of it - one made of local stone and another made of wood.

Someone, somewhere, had been up all night working away at making these models in the hope of  a few Ethiopian Birr.

If you are thinking of going to Lalibela, then you can contact Muchaw at muchaw2007@yahoo.com

Meskel Day

One of the benefits of having your own guide, who happens to be a Deacon in the church, is that you get access to areas that the ordinary tourist does not.

So it was with my trip to Ethiopia. I'd been speaking to Jake Warga - who has produced an excellent podcast about Lalibela available on YouTube, and he recommended I get in touch with the guide he used.

So it was, that I ended up on the day of Meskel, situated around 2 feet away from the Lalibela cross, right in the heart of the celebrations, while all my newly found friends from my hotel stood on the periphery looking in towards the celebrations. I distinctly remember catching eye contact with them and exchanging a dialogue through our eyes which went sort of like this:

them: is that you Bruce? How did you manage to get down there into the heart of it all?

me: yep, it's me, I feel like I'm on display to everyone and the world here, but I can't help find it crazy that I've managed to find myself in such an amazing vantage point.

I'm not used to feeling smug. I'm not used to feeling I have the upper hand. It was a strange situation to be in. But it did allow me to make photographs of the men who were dressed like kings on Meskel day.

Portra

As I go through my films (roughly about 1/3rd of the way through them so far), I'm finding that I'm very much in love with Portra 160NC, but I really can't use 400NC in future. It simply lacks the tonal scale I want from a 6x4.5 negative.

For those of you shooting digital (roughly 99.9% if my workshops are anything to go by), then this is all meaningless to you. Unless you like the colours and tones I've got in my India and Nepal Portfolios and also evident in this shot of an Ethiopian Orthodox Deacon.

It's very hard for me sometimes to go back to scanning film. I feel I'm getting so used to seeing smooth clean images on my workshops and by contrast, film simply looks far too noisy at first.... but it just takes an adjustment to get back into it.

Besides, by contrast, I feel digital has too much of a smooth-plastic-look to it and the colours just don't 'sing' the way Kodak's Portra 160NC does. Which reminds me, I get a lot of correspondence from people wanting to know how to get the same look with their 5D. You can't.

If you want the look of film, then shoot film.

Anyway I love this shot and wanted to share it with you today.

I intend to put some material together over the coming months about how to prepare for a photo trip abroad, how to work with film (for those who are interested) and all the other gubbins that goes along with a remote photo shoot.

The Lalibela Cross

One of the reasons why I decided to go to Ethiopia, was because I watched a television programme by Dan Cruickshank called 'Around the world in 80 Treasures'. In this program, Dan goes around the world looking for some of the most sacred of items which are not so commonly known to exist.

For instance, he goes to Ethiopia to search out the Ark of the Covenant, which turns out to be held, as many Ethiopians believe, in a small hut with an iron fence around it, and looked after by one guard.

In the TV program he also goes to Lalibela to see the Lalibela cross, a 7kg gold cross which dates back to the 12th century. It is an Ethiopian heir loom of significant importance.

I went to Lalibela for Meskel, a festival which happens once a year, known as the festival of 'finding the true cross'. Ethiopians are orthodox Christians and Lalibela is their own Jerusalem.

So I thought I'd show you a photograph of the Lalibela cross, held by the Deacon of the church of Bet Medhane Alem.

It was a real privilege to be allowed to photograph the cross before the ceremonies of Maskal - it is perhaps the first and only time in my travels that I've ever been given such privileged access to something of such significance to a nation.

Ethiopia

I've been a bit swamped lately, and I've only just literally started to work on my Ethiopian image this afternoon. But I'm a little troubled. My Nikon Scanner's software isn't supported anymore and I can't get it to work on Snow Leopard, so I've had to resort to buying Silverfast. Talk about clunky. Talk about confusing. Talk about being able to screw up a scan so easily.

I used to work in Software, and I know it's easy to make a hash of stuff (hey, I was never that great a programmer), but the user interface could really do with an overhaul on their software and more importantly, so could the workflow. It's rubbish.

Anyway, here's the very first test scan I've done. I think it's going to take me a few weeks to get to grips with scanning on Silverfast. It's always painful for me having to learn new software, get used to the way *it* wants to work, rather than it working the way *you* want it to work.

Hope you enjoy this first taste of my new portrait images from Ethiopia. I have no idea what is in store at the moment because all I have is a big box of negatives all sitting in their sleeves at the moment, and a cumbersome way of scanning them on a Canon 9000F to see what the digital-contact-sheet holds.