Shoot to Thrill

Sparring Red Hartebeests, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Sparring Red Hartebeests, Etosha National Park, Namibia

“When this is in your hands, you are the center of the universe. Not that anything else exists, it certainly does. You are important, this thing empowers you to do whatever the hell you want.” – Mel DiGiacomo, photojournalist

“On the barrel, pretty white letters spelled out PARTY STARTER.” - Ilona Andrews, Gunmetal Magic

On the tediously long flight from Washington to Johannesburg, I was seated among a small group of middle-aged men decked out in the latest camouflaged fashions. They were, as they say, all in. The affected clothing items and accruements included, but were not limited to, jackets, ball caps, handbags, boots, eyeglass and phone cases, one eye patch, and a tee shirt emblazoned with block letters:

GUN CONTROL IS BEING ABLE TO HIT YOUR TARGET

A hunting party, no doubt.

At this realization, I was for the briefest of moments shocked that these grown men were traveling a great distance to kill the same creatures I was planning to photograph. I was also somewhat shocked at my own naïveté since African hunting safaris have a much longer history and steeper tradition than wildlife photography after all. Grainy black and white photographs of the be speckled Teddy Roosevelt, rifle in hand grinning over the corpse of some poor Cape buffalo, come immediately to mind.

While casting no judgments on hunting in general – for sustenance (if and when necessary) and as a management tool with oversight by the appropriate authorities (for the benefit of wildlife or a specific species) – I must confess that killing for sport or trophy alone sickens me, especially African megafauna which has been in precipitous decline in recent years.

Either way, for better or worse, I have zero interest in participating myself. I know many wildlife photographers who are former hunters and they’ve all intimated that the primal “thrill of the kill” is the same, only a good wildlife image is much more challenging. The human predatory instinct is propitiated but without the blood, guts, and guilt. Photography is also more of what I would call a sporting proposition, in that both participants are able to safely walk away from the encounter.

Still, in many ways, photography and firearms are inextricably married, with language the most common bond. For instance, a camera is still said to be fired and so is a flash gun. A collection of lenses is often referred to as an arsenal and all lenses of course have a barrel. Super telephotos are big guns while small fully automatic, pocket-sized cameras are point-and-shoot. So without even having to mention headshot you should already be getting my drift here.

I feel the primary complication lies with the ambiguity of the words shoot and shot. A portrait photographer’s Twitter bio might include “I shoot people,” a joke that ceased being funny a long time ago, if for no other reason it’s breathtakingly unoriginal and old. If they mention that they can legally cut people’s heads off, well, then that makes it fractionally funnier.

Shot is a cute, amputated form of the word snapshot, borrowed yet again from weaponry and born in the early 19th century meaning, “a quick shot with a gun, without aim, at a fast-moving target.” Some photographers, I fear, might feel this definition hits a bit too close to home.

I use the words shoot or shot from time to time, but I try to do so as infrequently as possible. It’s not because of the words’ possibly violent tones but instead I find them to be rather inelegant and crude. As a substitute for shot, I prefer image or photo. Image is snazzy and modern, fully appropriate for the age of digital cameras and smartphones – digital imagery. Stretching photo all the way out into photograph sounds a bit too old fashioned and implies, at least to me, a tangible print. The same goes for picture. The slang pic should always be avoided if you are older than 25 or if used outside the context of an online chat. Under no circumstances should it ever be verbalized. Capture, used as either a noun or verb is gaining in popularity but has never fully caught on with me. Epic capture or I captured the sunset tonight is either too disconnected from photography or far too hip for its own good.

I think it’s time we all joined together to find some new terminology.

On the same recent flight mentioned earlier, I was told of a U.S State Department bulletin warning travelers to Johannesburg’s Tambo International Airport of thieves and muggers posing as taxi operators, an unsettling possibility.

As I carefully deliberated over my transportation options upon arrival, a friendly young driver approached and offered a ride to my hotel at a reasonable price. I searched for any clues in his appearance – a ridiculous and futile exercise – then followed him out to his car, which had an illuminated “taxi” sign perched on its rooftop – a good sign indeed.

When he asked about the purpose of my visit, I cryptically replied, “Shooting animals,” just as he reached for my luggage and opened the trunk.

“Ah yes, hunting?”

“You could say that.”

Before the trunk was closed, I reached for my oversized camera pack and said casually, “I’d prefer to keep the guns up front with me.”

May, 2014 – Johannesburg, South Africa

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Of Radiance and Lameness

“Radiance” Some insane light at day’s end. Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah USA

Driving long, empty stretches of highway alone often lends itself to contemplation and introspection. If I’m not listening to audiobooks or music, I’ll sometimes but not always reflect on some of my shortcomings and how I can improve myself as a human being. Those who know me might find this to be surprising, but I do find that examining yourself – from the outside looking in – can be quite illuminating.

In the process, I think I’ve identified two major personality defects in myself that are somewhat troubling. One is a general lack of patience while the other is the fact that I get bored too easily.

I address the former defect by consciously trying to relax and accept frustrating situations that are beyond my control. This is a challenge and a trial to me but still well worth pursuing. For example, tourists in busy national parks tend to swarm into the scene I’m trying to photograph – all while seeming to have far too much fun in the process. At times like these I feel as if I should carry with me a rectal thermometer to gauge and monitor the onset of becoming an old fart.

Then I remind myself that they are, after all, entitled to be there too and I quietly accept the situation for what it is and wait for them to leave. After all, it’s difficult to justify a disdain for tourists while pretending you aren’t one of them yourself.

The latter defect has no known antidote of which I am aware. So instead of fighting it, I usually feed and propitiate the beast it by giving in and letting it have what it wants. In addition to a strong antipathy toward boredom, I do all I can to not be boring. That means that sometimes instead of agreeing with a conventional line of reasoning, right or wrong, I’ll happily play the contrarian or sarcastically protract an argument for its own sake rather than be bored or boring. In some social circles it’s called being a smart ass but it’s how I sometimes amuse myself nonetheless.

So when I wrote on my Facebook page yesterday that Balanced Rock in Arches National Park is the lamest photographic icon in the world, or something to that effect, I wasn’t necessarily feeding the aforementioned demons of ennui, although some of the comments and outraged private messages I received did amuse me greatly. That was well worth the effort.

George Carlin once quipped, “Somewhere in the world is the world’s worst doctor. Has to be! Process of elimination. And what’s truly terrifying is that someone has an appointment with him tomorrow morning.” George wasn’t disparaging doctors. He wasn’t even putting down the world’s worst….well, maybe he was a little bit. The point is that the world’s worst doctor could still be a pretty damn good one, there just has to be a best and a worst if you’re ranking them.

And so it goes with photographic icons. If I had to rank iconic scenes in U.S. National Parks, I would put Balanced Rock at or near the bottom of the list. It just doesn’t do much for me, especially when compared to Yosemite’s Tunnel View or the Tetons’ Oxbow Bend or the dozen or so other vistas that dwarf the bizarre phallic-looking rock formation that draws carloads of tourists with iPads and smartphone cameras in tow. It’s not a matter of respect for nature, as some accused me of lacking, it’s just that I have really good taste, that’s all.

Oops, I think I’m doing it again.

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Oh Man, Oman!

I recently spent two weeks in the Sultanate of Oman, a small Arab state on the Southeast coast of the Arabian peninsula. I admit to not knowing much about the place before being invited as part of an international group of photographers on a customized tour. As a young boy, I remember the country having the name Muscat and Oman on my world map but that’s about it.

So I could say that I was overwhelmed by the photo opportunities in Oman – the colorful, friendly people, the mountains (the only country on the Arabian Peninsula with this feature), beaches, and pristine sand deserts – but I won’t. Instead, I’ll let my images tell the story, with only a few editorial comments sprinkled in.

Parched, The Wahiba Sands, Sultanate of Oman

The scene is extremely iconic and a photographic cliché, but would you turn away from the lucsious backlighting and elongated shadows on the rippled sand? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Hide and Seek, Ibra Market, Sultanate of Oman

Yes, this young boy was half heartedly hiding from me and my lens but it was obvious he wasn’t too distressed by the encounter. In fact, by the look of that winning smile of his, I’d say he was enjoying it! One of the best things about Oman was the simple curiosity and innocence of the people, unaccustomed as they are to tourists shoving cameras in their faces.

Circle of Life, Ras al-Jins Turtle Reserve, Sultanate of Oman

Just the two of us crawling around in the sand on our bellies – me grinning behind a wide-angle lens and this green sea turtle wearing a mask of strength and determination as she makes her way back to the waters of the Arabian Sea.

Man of Sur, Sultanate of Oman

This guy was one of my favorite photographic subjects and a new hero of mine. I mean, just look at him. He’s got that badass, I-don’t-give-a-crap aura about him and would you get a load of that beard? I shaved mine shortly thereafter out of shame and humiliation.

Diana’s Point, Jabal al Akhdar, Sultanate of Oman

The late Princess of Wales allegedly frequented this spot to get away from everything, hence the name given by the locals. Now I know all about the blown out sky in the upper right corner  of the image but I really don’t care. I found myself taking more of a photojournalistic approach on this trip and that gives me the excuse to just “let it be.” I feels pretty good, I must say.

The Corneche, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman

My friend Sergio and I talked our way onto the roof of an old hotel in order to get this view of Muscat at twilight.

Of Men and Melons, Nizwa, Sultanate of Oman

Melons and men talking about melons, because that’s what men do – talk about melons.

Sidewinder, Wahiba Sands, Sultanate of Oman

The exquisitely sculpted dunes of the Wahiba Sands with low-angled, warm sunlight of early morning. And for just a few minutes, I was a fine-art landscape photographer again and it too felt good.

Ghosts of Mutrah Souq, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman

The main souq (market) in downtown Muscat provided dozens of prime photo opportunities. For this image, I set up low on a tripod in the middle of the crowd and waited for men to walk by in their white robes, using a longish exposure to create an illusion of motion.

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The Gentle Giants

Earlier this month, I traveled to Crystal River, Florida to capture the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatees) with underwater photo gear – essentially a underwater housing for my Canon 5D Mark III.  Following are a few of the photographic results from the trip plus some interesting manatee facts. Enjoy!

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/125 second @ f/8, ISO 800

Manatee Fact #1: Sailors once believed these animals to be sirens from the deep, mythical mermaids coming to call. This certainly says less about the manatee’s obvious sex appeal (they are pretty cute, aren’t they?) and more about – well, how do I put this politely –  the sailors’ loneliness and desperation for companionship after being at sea too long.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/320 second @ f/8, ISO 800

Manatee Fact #2: Manatees cannot survive for long in water colder than 60 degrees F (15C). For this reason, they seek out warm water springs in to seek refuge from the frigid Gulf of Mexico during the winter months.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/30 second @ f/11, ISO 800

Manatee Fact #3: The manatee’s closest living relative is the elephant. By their appearance alone, I thought this to be a somewhat obvious fact but apparently it has something to do with the number of fingernails both species possess.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/125 second @ f/11 ISO 800

Manatee Fact #4: Manatees have no natural predators. The biggest hazard they encounter are the props from motor boats which has lead to them being included on the endangered species list.

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2013 in Retrospect #2

Me and my Shadow, Monument Valley, Arizona, USA. November 10, 2013

As with any good retrospective, it’s often therapeutic to cleanse oneself of the forgettable and embarrassing episodes from the previous year while embracing and carrying forward all that was good and true and hopeful. And while that’s true personally, the same can also be said of our society and culture in general. For example, in 2013 we can and should easily forget the painful and unnecessary government shutdown, the Sydney Leathers and Carlos Danger saga, twerking, the Harlem Shake dance craze, and Justin Beiber’s monkey, among many others. We can only hope these are mere one-hit wonders and not prone to unwelcome resurrections in the near future.

One fad that gained traction in 2013 and shows little sign of going away is the selfie. Unlike the refuse listed above, however, this one hits a little closer to home. Forget the inherent shallow narcissism involved, a selfie is still a form of photographic expression after all.

Selfie was named “Word of the Year” by the Oxford Dictionary which then goes on to define the word as (n.) a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. Yes, that’s the same Oxford as in the great university of England, not the town in Mississippi.

So you might be wondering, what’s the harm? Why, as a photographer, am I so down on the selflie? Well for one, if you have to take your own portrait, it could mean that you don’t have any friends to do it for you. So it could be that the selfie is actually a symptom of a larger personal problem. Then there’s the frequency issue. If you are taking and posting more than one per week, it could also be a manifestation of yet another issue that needs addressing. It should go without saying that selfies in your birthday suit broadcast to complete strangers on the Internet is, at a minimum, in poor taste. More for some than others.

Aside from those objections, I guess it’s harmless enough – maybe even a little fun. So here’s my selfie for 2013, just to show that I’m not entirely hostile to the idea. Just don’t expect an encore for at least another 12 months. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105mm f/4 @ 28mm, 1/30 second @ f14, ISO 100.

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