How often do you find yourself someplace and it’s a struggle to make even one good photograph?
I usually go out on assignment in a blind panic wondering if the muse will ever descend again. I know photographers, frequently misguided, who are supremely confident that they are going to make great photographs every time they go out.
I’m not one of them.
Every assignment is a challenge and to stay in this business, as I have for 35 years, I have to come back with the goods. Getting those winning shots can be like searching for a penguin in the Sahara but at other times it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
You can be in a place that appears to offer nothing of any real interest and everywhere you look there are great images. One too many bottles of wine the night before can certainly affect the way we see but I believe it has more to do with a very personal resonance we have with specific places.
When I left college I drove, with a group of friends, across Europe, Turkey and Iran to Afghanistan to spend 4 months climbing in the Hindu Kush, the western tip of the Himalayas. I returned to Asia frequently over the following years, always as a climber but increasingly as a photographer, and my interest moved from mountains to culture.
Those early experiences have stayed with me and when I hear the sounds and smell the aromas of Asia I feel I have arrived home. It’s an environment I feel a strong connection to that excites me on multiple levels.
That’s true but I have always found that some of the deceptively easy places to shoot can be the most difficult when it comes to capturing photographs that rise above the trite, picture- perfect, cliché calendar shot. Hey, I shoot my share of these too but in Asia I find I can go way beyond.
I have photographer friends who feel the same way about the South Pacific. As a long time contributor to Islands Magazine, I covered more islands than I care to remember and I came to dread the next tropical island assignment. This was not my world. How much can you do with sun-drenched, palm-fringed beaches with azure waters and scantily clad women?
Am I missing something?
I have always found it difficult to see good photographs in these places that most people would consider paradise. I really have to work at it and I have only a handful of photographs that please me, and no, they are not of scantily clad women! We all respond to places in different ways and we all have to find our soul destination.
My heart is in Asia but the one country I respond to most, that has remained untouched, regrettably as a result of a tyrannical military government, is Burma or Myanmar – I’m never sure which is politically correct but I’m English so what do I know about political correctness?
For me this is a photographer’s paradise and every time I visit I come back with photographs better than the last.
In 1988 I had planned to base myself in Bangkok and make several one-week trips into Burma to illustrate Norman Lewis’s great book on the country, Golden Earth. At the time there was a one-week limit on visits by foreigners.
I had my plane ticket, a case full of film and a boatload of enthusiasm. I was in Delhi the week before I was due to fly out to Yangon when the riots of the 8888 Uprising, as it became known, closed the country down. It was 9 years before I had another opportunity and once there, I was hooked.
Two years ago I took a small group of photographers to Burma on a field workshop. My goal is always to inspire my students by sharing my love of the destination and devote every waking minute to great photography.
I approach it as a magazine assignment and take the participants through the process I personally go through to complete a story.
We get up in the dark and work through the day until there’s no more light to shoot by. It can be intense but the results make it well worthwhile.
I am happiest shooting local cultures and I’m definitely a land lover. I don’t find bodies of water to be very interesting except for cliché reflection shots and being stuck in a boat trying to make good photographs can be extremely frustrating. Being a non-swimmer doesn’t help either and drowning always ruins my day!
On our Burma workshop, Taungthaman Lake, in Amarapura near Mandalay, was an essential stop. Crossing the lake is U Bein bridge, not only the longest teak bridge in the world but arguably the most photographed bridge in Asia. Like my local Golden Gate Bridge, you have to shoot it, however many times its been done before and the tourists arrive by the bus load every evening for the classic sunset shot over the lake. This was not a sight I wanted to see.
I planned to arrive at the bridge just before dawn. We had the place to ourselves apart from dozens of locals making their way to work across the bridge on foot and by cycle. I shot the sunrise – pretty light, reflections of the bridge, silhouettes of people crossing it. Nice shots but done to death.
I wanted something different.
Lining the lake were abandoned boats waiting for the evening tourist rush. With some difficulty, I found a sleeping boatman and the promise of making a few extra dollars jolted him into action.
The best shots of the day were in the soft morning mist with the strong graphic of the boat in the foreground and a group of men with a horse and cart working in the distance. The photograph below captures how it felt that morning with only the sound of water lapping by the boat as I glided quietly along.
This was my Asia and I felt I belonged.
Early morning is absolutely my favorite time of day to shoot and much as I like to linger in bed I rarely regret getting out to see the world in the first light of day.
Inle Lake, a few hours drive from U Bein Bridge, is known for fishermen who row with one leg and use conical baskets to trap fish. This was another dawn that didn’t go to waste.
The ballet of the fishermen in their boats was mesmerizing. In spite of being restricted to shooting from a boat, there was so much beautiful action and light I was in a photographic frenzy.
I know the next time I visit I will be equally excited and hopefully take even better photographs. This is where I feel I am meant to be. This is my soul destination.
Perhaps water isn’t so bad after all. At least I didn’t drown.