In April of 2015 I was hired to shoot what would be one of the most exciting assignments of my career - I traveled with a group called The Human Journey to Dharamshala, India to photograph His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu having a five day conversation about joy.
I had never been to India before - the movies, of course, always show cows wandering everywhere, and yes, they were there, even in Delhi - cows, water buffalo, goats, pigs all sharing the roads with bicyclists and huge painted buses and taxis and cars and people on foot. There's a different philosophy to driving in India - no one ever stops honking, but it's seen as more of a 'pardon me, I'm here' than the American 'get the f-- out of my way' (which I am as guilty of as any American.)
The flight to Dharamshala was fabulous - we got to fly in a prop plane from the 70's, a 46 seater that had little hand-painted red doodads over every window on the outside. It was like a flying bus - it felt like an hour and a half of going down a giant staircase on our butts. Flying towards the Himalayas has it's own special set of air current issues, and they made themselves well known.
Dharamshala is actually the town below the smaller village where the Dalai Lama built his temple - that town is called Macleod Ganj, after the Scot who settled it. It is a cluster of streets and buildings paved with stones and concrete, propped up with bamboo poles, lined with prayer wheels, leaping with monkeys, the narrow streets teeming with vendors selling singing bowls and prayer beads and pashminas and snacks. Monks mingle comfortably with locals - many, many of the residents are Tibetan, so there's a great sense of a Tibetan community there. Here's why:
In Tibet, a traditional Tibetan education is forbidden by the occupying Chinese government. This is a very unique education - not only are students schooled in Tibetan Buddhism, but in calligraphy, dance, musical instruments, debate - it's a very intellectual society, and its traditions have survived for thousands of years. So - many Tibetan parents choose to bring their children to Dharamshala to go to the Tibetan Children's Villages, schools run and funded by the Dalai Lama. These are boarding schools - students arriving there can expect to be fed, housed, clothed, and educated. Getting there is an Olympian feat - since borders can't be crossed without question in a vehicle, parents walk their children across Tibet, through Nepal, over the Himalayas and down into Dharamshala. There they give their children into the school's care - and then many of the parents have to turn around and walk home, needing to return to their land and property. Many of the children are very, very young when they make this journey - it's heartbreaking for everyone, children and parents alike are devastated at having to be separated. Clearly Tibetans value their beliefs and education so highly that the physical risk and the heartbreak are worth the end result - a Tibetan who understands what it means to be Tibetan. Under the current occupation of Tibet, this education wouldn't be possible - it wouldn't be allowed.
In the US I have the best crew on the planet, people who I consider to be family and would trust with anything, any time. None of us could bring crew for this project, so we all pitched in and helped each other, lugging gear and hanging duvetyne. Along with my stills, the conversation was being videotaped and our unparalleled director Peggy Callahan had put together a brilliant team in charge of motion - DP Jason Ezukian, lighting director Zack Savitz and sound guru Juan Cammarano. Zack picked up two grips in Delhi, Sibi Veliath and Satbir Singh - these guys were so amazing, just salt of the earth talented and hard working men. Together we all transformed a monastery dining hall into a studio set, with brilliant, funny, hyper-talented Peggy spearheading the project. You can see images from the project here.
We settled in to our hotel, Zambala House, met the local monkeys and spiders (both big, brown and furry), had dinner at Chonor House (where Richard Gere stays, very humble yet lush with Tibetan antiques and textiles), and prepared ourselves to meet the great men.
My first experience with His Holiness was him reaching out and patting my fro - and that was typical of the whole ten days, both His Holiness and Arch (as Archbishop Desmond Tutu antically prefers to be called) were constantly joking, welcoming, inclusive and kind. His Holiness insisted on having lunch with everyone at least once, so we all dined in his private dining room at some point. He led us in a meditation in his home as well - then Arch performed communion for us all. We levitated back to work.
There's a quote from the Dalai Lama painted in huge letters across one of the buildings at the Tibetan Children's Village: My Religion Is Simple - Kindness Is My Religion. This from a man who had to flee his country under threat of capture, imprisonment and possible disappearance (Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the Panchen Lama, disappeared at five and hasn't been heard from in 20 years.) And Arch, a man who has seen so many horrors (having lived through apartheid) believes firmly in forgiving one's enemies - not condoning their actions, but forgiving the human. It was an incredible conversation - it still feels surreal. I am incredibly lucky and grateful to have been there.
Update - the book came out to fantastic reviews and spent 37 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It has been translated into over twenty languages and sold millions of copies around the world.
In the spring of 2015 I was asked to work on a project in Varanasi, India with a group called Voices4Freedom. I was already planning to be in India and the work sounded compelling, so I agreed.
I had no idea what a heartbreaking, uplifting, eye-opening experience it would be.
When Americans think of slavery, a lot of us generally think of the American South, the Civil War and the hundreds of years that our own country lived within that horror. The idea of modern slavery barely crosses our minds - it's archaic, the notion seems impossible. Yet right at this moment nine year old boys are being sold. Nine is the magic number - old enough to work but too young to be trouble. Old enough to mold bricks in a brick kiln, weave rugs for the international market, be house slaves. Yes, girls are trafficked as well, and nine is not too young - they can be even younger. Some children are born into
Every day started with a long ride in a passenger van over rough roads - all the villages we visited were remote; one of the visits required the pass van, then a jeep (over hogsbacks and around herds of water buffalo) then some lean, canoe-like boats to ford a lake, then a half-mile hike across dry farmland, dodging goats and hogs. That village was the most challenging to shoot because the human traffickers were there, mixed in with the villagers, and we had to be very discreet about what we were doing there.
Voices4Freedom creates schools in these remote communities, and along with basic grammar, math and computing skills, teaches the villagers their human rights. A lot of slavery in India is possible because of the caste system - the lower castes truly believe in their perceived lesser worth, and are easy prey for predatory slavers. It's a familiar story, a bait-and-switch: a family will need a tiny loan, less than $20 American dollars, for medical supplies or housing, and in recompense for the loan, the person or family becomes indebted to the money lender for an indefinite period of time. The family becomes theirs to sell or transport, including the children. Just as transport over the Mexican border by coyotes can lead to enslavement in order to repay an endlessly increasing fee, the lower castes in these situations feel powerless to protest or defend themselves against these opportunists. Children are transported far from their families and forced to work - it's not uncommon for the children to disappear. Slavery is illegal, but the enslaved don't know that.
Enter Voices4Freedom. Along with the schools, V4F creates cottage industries in these villages, giving the villagers economic freedom. Sometimes it's as simple as providing irrigation, some livestock or seed, and soon the village has its own income stream. The average cost to completely free a village is about $30,000 - such a small number to change so many lives. Each school educates at least 40 former slaves - in the last village we visited, a former slave entered an election and was just elected to local office. Here are some of the many people we met in Varanasi.
I'll travel back to India next fall to continue working with V4F.
Update, 11/18: I just returned from my fourth visit to India - it's a tough battle, but entire villages are coming to freedom thanks to V4F! More photos soon to come.
Several years ago I was asked to contribute to a new magazine, Spirit and Flesh, a beautiful oversized art publication out of New York. I was given the theme of Hunger, and that was the entire prompt. How the story that I imagined came out of that prompt, I'm still not sure - but it appeared complete in my head, a dystopian landscape with a lone resident. The styling would have to be epic, huge, almost a trompe l'oeil - and there would have to be explosions.
I'm a pyro. Any opportunity to set something on fire or blow something up is fine by me. The problem in this case was the usual one - how to set off a bunch of explosions without hurting anyone. The solution in this era of photoshop is simple - but making the explosions happen was still going to be tricky.
Enter Big Bang Al, Albert Lannutti, a forty year veteran of the film industry - the hypertalented set designer Patrick Muller introduced me to this explosives guru and we were ready to go. Check Al out on IMDB - http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0487000/ - this man knows his explosions.
But where to blow stuff up? My backyard, ultimately - we live on an acre and have hoses everywhere, so the possibility of fire was locked down. I had a powder concept I was imagining for the makeup - I discussed it with my makeup artist for the project, the incredible Garret Gervais, and he started talking about Indian Holi powder, the brightly colored powder people throw at each other on Indian Holi Day. That was it - the bombs were constructed around packets of red Holi powder, and the powder became a central metaphor in the story. Thank you, Garret! Creative collaboration is one of the best things about this job.
Al actually yelled 'fire in the hole!' every time he detonated one of our ten explosions - excellent. I shot stills, my wonderful DP Charlie Balch shot motion, and the explosions were captured to become a part of the story.
I love the story, Lucid Dream (the editors at S&F named it, I was fine with just calling it Powderbomb but maybe that was too prosaic) - the model, Hanalei Reponty, is the gamest girl ever, a surf pro who is equally okay with standing barefoot on baking desert sand or running just as barefoot and barely dressed across a 34 degree beach in frosty February. (We've done both together - well, I've shot her doing it.) The stylist, Emma Trask, made the epic choices I was hoping for and the hair stylist Lou Moon killed it as always. Interestingly, though, the explosions can live on their own - here are a few of them. The whole experience inspired me to do an ongoing explosion series (entitled 'Pyro') - it's just about deciding what to blow up next. Al recommended noodles - nice and soft - I was thinking clock parts - which Al mentioned would make a schrapnel bomb. This is why it's always smart to work with pros. Stay tuned for more explosions - or maybe something with a flamethrower.
A few years ago, I was having a backlash moment - the advent of 50 mp images and 30" monitors on set was making me miss the days of the mystery in the box. Not that long ago, photographers (and clients, models, assistants, stylists, the glam team) had to wait a solid minute for a Polaroid to develop before any decisions were made. And then, there were still no guarantees - the lab could have a temperature spike, the lens could have a malfunctioning aperture (been there), some idiot could mistake your black and white film for color (been there) and run it that way (good bye, six rolls of Don Cheadle) - anything was possible. More often than not, though, the visit to the lab after a shoot meant an hour in happy discovery - hovering over proofs with a lupe, editing in the moment, finding new favorites.
I missed that. I missed the surprises, the unpredictability of human moments translated by grain and light and chemistry. So I decided to assign myself a darkroom project, based on a technique I learned as a student - the Sabatier effect. Check out the process:
Sabatier prints are a combination of several factors - double exposing a print, solarization, paper neg, a weaker developing solution - but what appeals to me most is the unpredictability. You cannot reproduce the same image twice in Sabatier, each image is by definition unique. The motion of the developer over the paper, how you decide to apply the developer, imperfect dodging and burning practice (only a machine can replicate the same moves repeatedly) - these all combine to create something unpredictable. And I love that.
The smell of fixer is completely nostalgic to me - bringing back nights spent working/playing to the Clash, The Specials, Public Enemy, Shostakovich, Etta James, Cameo - whatever motivated me at 3 am. (And at any hour, living in NYC at 6th Ave and 10th St., I could always get a snack - Gray's Papaya and the Bagel Buffet were two blocks away.)
I selected negs from my archives and started playing. A friend had a terrific darkroom at Hollywood and Cahuenga - I did my printing there in Hollywood, sometimes until 3 am, engrossed in the process of reinterpretation.
Every opportunity I get, I shoot film to feed this project.
(Update: I wrote this five years ago now - crazy! I recently shot a three camera interview at home during the Covid lockdown and had to rely on my Canon for the third camera. The clear difference in the quality of the Nikon glass was glaringly apparent. Still in the honeymoon stage with Nikon, now with a D850 as well as the D810. Can't wait to see what's next.)
Completely frustrating. Again and again, I asked Canon professionals when I could expect an upgrade to my 5D. Great camera and all that, but it was time for a bigger sensor. And I kept getting the same answer - which made me feel bad for them all - 'they never tell us anything'. That's right, Canon apparently doesn't share information with its sales and service crew. Not sure how that's supposed to benefit anyone, Canon isn't Apple - right?
I had been hearing great things about the Nikon digital cameras for years. I grew up shooting Nikon - my first real camera was a Nikon FE2, an all-metal-bodied workhorse. I still had it, plus some nice lenses including a gorgeous 85mm 1.4. (And that's it, in the photo to the left.)
I went to Photoplus Expo in New York late last year - it's always a madhouse, sell sell sell. I approached the sheepish guys at the Canon display and was met with the same refrain - eyes on shoes, shrugs, and 'they never tell us anything'. Not that they cared, but I told them that I'd be jumping the fence - I'd had it with waiting. I wandered over to the Nikon display and started shopping.
I wasn't expecting more than a bigger sensor, but immediately, the superiority of the glass made itself evident. It felt almost like the switch from PC to Mac - a week of cautious steps, then a headlong sprint. The low light reciprocity, the clarity, the quality of the images - Nikon, it seems to me, is just a more sophisticated piece of equipment.
I recently returned from a trip to India - I brought two bodies along, but it wasn't really necessary. My new D810 killed it in the field, shooting upwards of 100 gs a day in 108 degree temperatures. Thank you, Nikon - I feel like I never left you.
PS - I just saw the amazing film Merci Congo, directed by the hypertalented Paul Freedman - the film addresses conflict minerals in Congo and the horrors that Congolese citizens are subjected to by rogue warlords in the struggle to control the capital from those minerals. When the film started shooting, over three years ago, conflict minerals were in use by many manufacturers, Nikon among them. Thanks to the example set by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, many high tech companies (Nikon included) are rejecting conflict minerals and will only build conflict-free products from now on. Check your manufacturer's records before you buy any tech product, from CF cards to laptops to cameras.