Blognotes from a photographer life...

Feb 27, 2010

LO MA STORY

Lo Ma is a thirteen years old girl living near Buriram, in the backward region of Isaan, Northeast Thailand. She has a simple family and goes to school: a normal life. But she has a passion that makes her special: she loves Muay Thai boxing, and she's very good at it.
When I started working on this story dedicated to women in Muay Thai I thought of a more professional approach. Covering clubs and major competitions, visiting large venues and even stadiums. But the family-size experience of Lo Ma is too compelling. The gym, just a hut between the house and the rice field. The father training her every afternoon. The mother, former boxer herself, overlooking alongside grandmother and sisters. The little niche decorated with boxer's posters where she sleeps. It's one of these simple life stories that nobody is telling anymore, but that should be told for it's simplicity in this time of forced complications.
I followed her, the whole family, to a match during the festival in a Buddhist temple. She prepared herself like the other boys in the open ground. Her father spread oil on her body, put on her gloves, and then she was ready to walk to the ring, to the sixth match of the night. The public was as passionate as was with her male counterparts before, and her opponent bigger, and more angry.
She won. But I had to ask if she had indeed. There were no jumps, jubilation, screams. What is fascinating in Lo Ma is the way she lives all of this: the shy simplicity of a thirteen years old girl that punch and kick like she was playing with a doll.
I'll keep looking...

Feb 23, 2010

WHO IS THE SNAKE? WHO IS THE VICTIM?

The King Cobra village, in northern Thailand, has developed a local business out of a problematic co-existence with a large community of Cobra snakes, up to 3 meters long poisonous unfriendly wanderers. The Cobra Fight is a show where villagers, old and young, confront a snake in a proof of courage. In fact the villagers keep the poor Cobras even at home, in wooden boxes, feed them with smaller snakes and pat them on the head like friendly pets. Therefore the fight is really a family matter. Where one member of the family is indeed a real snake!
But looking at the show my preference for other animals over humans comes back, even with such improbable counterpart. Looking at the face of the "human fighter" just about to swallow the head of the King Cobra, I can't avoid wondering who the most dangerous is. The proud villain used to wander the countryside chasing rats, and now is a prisoner, a gladiator called to fight in a ridiculous arena. As I said for the Corrida, that i still like (I would prefer to be a Corrida Bull then a cow slaughtered for steaks!), let it be, but allow me to be a fan for the Cobra! (This guy was bitten 47 times: we are not even, but...)

Feb 19, 2010

BANG RAK HOTEL

I'm making friends in Bang Rak, the Bangkok quarter where I live. I love the area for it's mix of modernity (above the first floor) and popular street life (at ground level). You can find everything here, and I mean everything.. From computer parts, even Apple, to Som Tam salad.. from the Chinese Christian school below my window to the massage shop with improbable "therapists".. from a fake Rolex to an original Timberland shirt.. The Sky Train rolls in front of my residence leading to the uptown glitters; the Chao Phraya river flows nearby, and the public boats carry you to the historical temples and palaces, or to the anonymous condominiums downstream..
It's hot, it's humid, it's polluted.. but I smoke my cigar under the Saphan Taksin bridge and feel very reassured by the waves of life going around me. With my job I have come to know several people at every social level, and here social level has quite a big relevance.. It's not India with it's Casts, but it's not that much different. Being a "Farang", a Western foreigner, I'm off the social scale comparison, thanks God!
Of all the acquaintances made, those that I find more reliable are the homeless residing on the sidewalks. The elder lady above sleeps on the same step every night from October: I wonder what will be of her 10pm bedtime punctuality when the monsoon comes. The guys below at least have a decent protection from the overpassing highway, and certainly don't worry about security having the police booth right at their feet. The darker side of the "city of nightlife" is not really dark after all: everybody can see it, and make his own opinion, and do something if they wish..
Wake up guys, this is the Asia of contradictions.. But talk silently please: the old lady needs a good sleep til sunrise comes..

Feb 18, 2010

..AND ABOUT THE TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER PRESENT (AND FUTURE)


As a follow-up to the recent post concerning the Travel Journalist destiny, let me talk of a matter much closer to my -and probably most of the readers- personal life and profession: what is the sense of being a Travel Photographer nowadays. First of all let me clarify that I define "Travel Photographer" only the one focused on presenting places and cultural venues, not those dedicated to the larger news arena, a field of photography formerly known as Reportage and today going under the less fashionable definition of Documentary. Somebody likes also the name Photojournalist.
I can't be too short in making my point or I'll be misunderstood. The travel editorial market was really born in the 80's: travelers were still a small number and magazines were showing dream destinations. The photographers had an easy life: show how nice or interesting a place is at the best of your skills. And not much skills were requested! Plus money was flowing: in a rich environment, airlines and tour operators would finance any project to attract tourists. So good to remember the old days!
In the 90's the market was mature. Many travel publications were produced everywhere. But the mass tourism was a reality by now, therefore the target was adjusted: mass oriented presentations or sophisticated suggestions on specific destinations, or interpretations on the way to visit famous places. Go to Paris, but stay in a boutique hotel, and look at Montmartre in this "artistic" way. Personally I can say it was the best of times, professionally: I was allowed the peak of experimenting in photography. With the first digital manipulation of scanned images I published stories of the Fiesta in Pamplona in a red dominance; the Oktoberfest pictures had the tone of beer; Salvador and Manaus were only partly turned to B&W.. And, above all, it was free interpretation of the places: out of focus, panning, night lights were all right!
Then came the dreadful new century, Internet developed, printed paper started being obsolete.. Confusion reigned. Why would any young guy, under-educated on laptop and cellphones, buy a magazine? And these started struggling for impossible ideas, in fact for a reason to exist, to stay alive.. An impossible task, that have lasted ten years nonetheless..
Here we are, asking ourselves what has become of our profession, or our photographic language.. With this history in mind is not difficult to understand how desperate the task is this time! Telling how a place is in the time of mass travel and communication in a globalized world is ridiculous.. Interpretations are considered eccentric, and they have no space for publication anyway.. Travel suggestions are ok, but organizing trips through the web is so easy and cheaper.. What should we photograph? And how? but, above all, why? For Whom?
My answer is a cross-border migration. For years now what I shoot, and the way I shoot it, can be defined in between "Travel" and "Documentary" photography (even if, for professional clarity, I keep two separated sections on my web site). If showing how a place is has lost interest, telling stories that happens there, especially in a global environment, has not! I'm not saying that there is a large, concerned public for it, but we must make for what we have: the small part of humanity still capable of using the brain in a personal way.
In other words the Travel Photographer should become a Photojournalist dedicated to show not how the world is but rather what is going on in it. Culture is changing fast, many will say it's disappearing in a globalized market: but this reality needs to be told, denounced through specific stories. Identify these significant stories and tell them in an effective way is today's task. Again, not an easy task when the editorial counterparts don't offer you any feedback, as it's happening nowadays.
Finally, about photographic style. Experimenting in color, light and composition to make a story more effective is a must. We live in a time when technology is revolutionizing everything: it would be suicidal for photography -both as language and philosophy- to avoid it's self-evolution. And really upsets me when I hear comments on what is or is not "real photography" based on the chemical history of the media: like saying that music on CD is not good because it's not on vinyl... But the photographer should never forget that the content (it's subject and the situation he's capturing) is it's primary target. Searching the "photographic effect" for itself may be right in fine-art, it's definitely not in photojournalism (see also my older post on it). I see too many images that are nice, sometimes strong, but then I end wondering what they want to say besides the aesthetic beauty.
And the final question remain. If photography is, as it is, communication, we cannot going on without a public to communicate to, and the media to do it adequately. Is this public still there? And will it be there in the future under-educated-globalized society? I'm afraid of the answer.. I prefer to avoid it...

Feb 17, 2010

DO I REALLY NEED A LEICA TO THINK DIFFERENT?

I've been shooting only with the latest Nikon cameras for the past five years: D3X and now a D3S that has just replaced my gloriously performing D3. And mostly with zoom lenses. The 24-70 is what stays on my bodies most of the time. In my "small" bag are also a 14-24, a 70-200, a 28 f1,4, and a 85 f1,4. That's it. Nothing compared to the years of 3 bodies-12 lenses in a back-breaking Temba bag. And I have no nostalgia for film: D3X is producing images that are better then Velvia while D3S is shooting in a darkness where even 3200ASA would make it impossible to see. Plus, and is not little problem for the travel photographer, I go through airports with no fear of X-ray machines and load problems.
Yet I keep having nostalgia of my Leicas sitting at home for years. Bodies and lenses that were with me in the most memorable trips, in the most difficult situations. Film bodies (M6 and M7), not digital. Too complicated to use them in such mixed works as a several month "trip" requires.
But what is that make the "Leica difference"? No, not quality: Nikon fixed lenses have nothing to envy to the German counterparts. It's the way of approaching photography that is completely different: the need to think twice to overcome the optical "rigidity"; the need to interact with your subject rather then the technical ability to "steal" an image; the lightness of a small body that makes you look inconspicuous..
So, last week in Phnom Penh I decided to give Nikon a Leica try.. I put my (very old) 28 on the D3S and decided that that would be the only lens for the whole reportage. It was a good experience: the need to think twice is a good exercise for the eye.. And I think I'll repeat it..
You can see the Phnom Penh story on my website, and make an opinion for yourself.. Keeping in mind that what really matters is your eye and vision, your idea, last and least your camera!

Feb 7, 2010

MASSES: DID I CONTRIBUTE TO THE DESTRUCTION? AND A REQUIEM

Angkor 17 years after is "same same but different".. Same grandeur and beauty.. Same angles of peace, of deep shadows, of hidden atmospheres.. But different in the crowds that now climb on it's stones, take snapshots in front of the carvings, scream in the corners of the temples.. Tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world (but mostly Chinese) have transformed the place in yet another mass-tourism destination, to be visited with no real interest in mind: just another souvenir photo to show friends back home, of this place "in Asia", no more to add..
I've been complaining of this over and over again. Useless to criticize this business that moves crowds with no real interest or knowledge in the most beautiful places in the world, de facto destroying any atmosphere and pleasure to visit them. Who am I to denounce, coming from Florence, one of the first and most notorious victims of this?
To those that affirm the right of everybody to visit nice places I answer that only people moved by real knowledge and interest should be allowed to go. To go just because a place is in a organized itinerary is just human pollution, depriving really interested people from fully enjoying something they may have been wishing to visit for years.
But my real point is more personal: did I contribute with my work to this pollution? Was my travel photo-journalism encouraging this dramatic evolution (like some friend suggested)?
No, not really, thanks God!!! What I've been publishing for years were ideas and particular destinations.. The magazines I worked for were in fact suggesting how to avoid the clich├ęs and look to different places, or how to look at the same places in a different light. An elite mission that has sinked with the decadence of culture altogether.
It's news of last week that the Italian travel magazine VS has folded. VS was in fact what was left of the original Weekend magazine, the most prestigious travel publication in the 80's and 90's. On it's pages I published the most experimental works: digital manipulations as early as 1996. Video recorded images in 1998. A way of seeing that not even CN Traveler US had started yet.. And many friends contributed to that effort..
Paolo, the last editor, told me last week that "he'll spit to those that will talk of quality again".. and he's probably right, since quality did not save the magazine, the jobs, the message.. Still I think it was worth doing it: for the few and fewer people that appreciated it, for the sake of personal accomplishment, for ourself... Thanks guys, it was great! Let's start something as good as that! Just for the sake of it!!!