I just love when a photo tells a story. Not in a video-like sense, where in most cases, they actually tell you what happened after an event. Rather, in the world of photography it is generally left to the observer to fill in the blanks, to complete the story or make it up through the power of the imagination. That is precisely what I like, that teasing of the imagination by a single frame, by that 1/500th of a second. As I stood there taking the photo above, the gentlemen in the photo never moved. Not once. One obviously relaxed and and resting, while the other seemingly at the border of despair. The short distance between them perhaps a lifetime away, an immeasurable life gap where endless choices, fates, and circumstances are grossly misrepresented by the emptiness between them. In a sense, they are us, and we are them. So close we stand together, and apart. A few feet, a million miles. Too often it doesn’t make a difference. But real or imagined, I have come to realize that it is not oceans or continents that account for that gap between people, but rather people themselves. Amusing, then, to say the least, that in an age where technology has made the closing of that divide between us about as easy as it will ever be, we have grown too comfortable with the physical detachment between us, with a space primarily punctuated by the lack of connection rather than by distance.
If there is a secret in the travel world, that secret must be called Slovenia. Granted, that recent world events have brought some much-deserved attention to this Alpine wonder, but if you ask anyone around you, you’ll find out that Slovenia has yet to make it to most people’s bucket list. That’s a shame, because as I recently discovered, it is not until you get there that you realize what you’re been missing all this time. Incredible natural beauty, a hiker’s paradise, castles, crystal clear lakes, fantastic food, and the rich history that accompanies a country that sits on the crossroads between Europe and distant lands in the East. Don’t get me wrong, Slovenia is as European as they come, with its feet firmly planted in the west. But there is a freshness to it that is reminiscent of an Europe from long ago, from a time when mass tourism and globalization had not yet arrived with the intensity of a tsunami to transform the local atmosphere in most European capitals. And believe me, that lack of overwhelming feeling is indeed a good thing.
I only spent a week in this wonderful country, but judging from the “I’m not ready to leave” feeling I had at the airport, I know that I’ll be back someday soon. The rain in the mountain region did change my hiking plans a bit, but perhaps it was for the best, for I had a chance to spend more time at Ljubljana, the wonderfully romantic capital bordering the Ljubljanica river. To the traveler, it appears that everything in Ljubljana emanates from the Prešernov trg square and the adjacent Triple Bridge. Every visitor to Ljubljana find his or her way here, and for good reason. The number of restaurants and coffee shops along the banks of the Ljubljanica river will put most capital cities to shame. And did I mention that Ljubljana was named the Green Capital of Europe for 2016? Sitting under the green canopy of one of its luscious trees by the river enjoying a leisurely afternoon Macchiato and a flaky croissant would make it almost impossible to argue with that. Add to that the friendliest, most approachable people I’ve met in Europe in a long time, and you can see why this country has made such an impact on this tired traveler. Slovenia is simply a refreshing take on Europe, and as such, it is a place that rekindles your appetite for wanderlust and those feelings that only take form when we travel to distant places and are moved by all that appears before us. I only regret that it took me this long to visit, but I can assure you, that it won’t take me as long to go back.
Seriously. Have you noticed how serious and intolerant the world has gotten lately? That’s not to say that there are no serious issues confronting humanity that need urgent addressing, but any cursory review of history will show that this has been the case since Adam and Eve left paradise. Rather, the point is that no matter where I look these days around the world, people seem rather morose and depressed about everything around them. Happiness, and its pursuit, are taking a bit of a beating as negativism and mistrust continue to become the mainstream attitude for far too many people. And this is not the case of any particular country, mind you. It seems to be everywhere. Everyone hates their government, everyone hates their institutions, everyone hates the corporations, everyone hates the price-gouging retailers who charge too much for roadside food and trinkets, restaurants are killing you with butter and salt, vegans can’t stop criticizing meat eaters, meat eaters can’t stop mocking vegans, parents don’t understand the young, children are considered lazy and unfocused, hospitals everywhere are letting people die, etc., etc., etc. The list is endless, and it is gradually inducing mass depression on populations all over the world.
The world just needs to lighten-up a bit and remind itself that overall, humanity is perhaps living in one of the glorious era in the history of mankind. Problems all over? Sure, but so are solutions and resources. Most of the world is indeed at peace. Most of the world is not starving. There are plenty of reasons to laugh, to be optimistic, and to show compassion, love, and humanity like at no other time in history. Want to support a cause in faraway Nepal? You can do that, but don’t forget to look also around your neighborhood for opportunities to express your altruism. It will be a sad day when people stop actively looking for the good in things and just squander their time on earth interpreting everything as being bad. Walk around anywhere and it is the long, strained faces devoid of smiles that will confront you. Happy people? Where? Time to lighten-up a bit? Absolutely. A world that forgets that there are plenty of reasons to smile and be grateful for is a world doomed to live in self-induced depression and despair in spite of its riches. Perhaps Martha Washington was on to something when she said, “I’ve learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our disposition and not on our circumstances.” My sentiments exactly.
Ever noticed how most travel photography seems to be sometimes about the same old things? Not that the world’s most famous landmarks are not worth visiting, on the contrary, they are, and we should all be so lucky to have seen a few of them. Finding them is also rather easy, as every travel guide in the world points directly to their location and to the logistics of making it there during the best times of the any travel day. All this is good and well, but just like our own countries of origin, there is a whole new world of undiscovered possibilities in every country that are totally ignored by travel guides and tourists alike. To a large extent this is quite understandable, as time and resources are necessities that most of us don’t have in great quantities. One single trip to Italy in your lifetime? Then it is time to choose appropriately and wisely as to what to see, and the well-trodden tourist path is definitely the way to go. And as we all know, there’s a guide book for that.
But there’s also another world out there, and one that hardly ever makes it into any travel guide, but which is full of rewards and undocumented beauty. Yes, Madrid has the Prado, but it also has off-the-beaten-path cantinas where locals will treat us as family if we are willing to relax our western stiffness for a second. Same in Copenhagen, Berlin, and Kyoto. But these off-the-city-center experiences do take time and somewhat of a personal involvement. Like making friends in our own neighborhoods, we are required to sit, linger, and be willing to engage in conversation. These are things that are hardly, if ever, addressed by travel guides, and if it were not by some very creative bloggers and YouTube folks, they would remain unknown to the world. Alternative media is where it’s at, if your goal is to get off that beaten path. After all, who needs to be eating at the Ritz in Paris anyways when you can be having a great conversation with the locals at a German currywurst food truck. Ok, that’s a pathetic stretch, but let’s just say that if you cannot afford the Ritz, then that food truck is a great place to hang out while meeting the locals and dreaming of the Duck a l’Orange at the Ritz.
Why is it that we search for more meaning in a photo after we have taken it than at the time the photo is being captured? I’m sure that there are many explanations for this, but for me, it all has to do with frame counts. Let me explain. In the process of acquiring a particular photo, we observe the world as a continuous video, a sequence of fast-moving frames that get processed inside our brains with a refresh rate that mimics the speed of light (or so it seems). If we watch a person walking, we don’t particularly remember the uniqueness of any particular step, or gesture, or scene complexity. It just flows from one side to the other in a perpetual motion, and at the end we kind of remember the overall occurrence of having seen someone walking. It is a factual story that in all its generosity, allows our imaginations to rest without bother.
Photographs, on the other hand, disrupt our imagination’s slumber and literally compel us to “fill in the blanks” of the story. In true Sherlock Holmes fashion, it makes us leap from that frozen fraction of a second into all sorts of directions and plots. A delayed reaction from the moment of capture, for sure, but perhaps the essence of why we capture images in the first place. That is not to say that seeing life as a moving video is any less rewarding, but rather that just like we tend to remember particular scenes in a movie, photographs are the particular scenes of our visual movies. They anchor us to a place and time like no moving object can, and feed that which is the essence of us all: our imaginations. That is why in the photo above I simply do not want to know more about this couple, for it is more fun to “imagine” lovers on a sunny day reading from her latest writings and oblivious to the passing of time. Reality? Perhaps not, but as long as I look at that photo, I’ll pretend that it is.
Like just about every day, I went walking today with my camera. When I do this, I typically bury my cell phone somewhere in my camera bag where it is very hard to access. I do this because I’ve come to realize that the whole purpose of being outside is to see and feel what’s going on around me. I want to disconnect from electronics and connect with the world that keeps on moving in spite of our interest in joining it. Perhaps this is a photographer thing, but I don’t think so. More than that, it is a fascination with a world that is alive and in motion, a world where glances still hold unspeakable mystery, and where human energy continues to create all things wonderful and all things bad. Humans, in all their shapes, forms, and behaviors are the stuff of life.
That is why it is so hard to positive spin on the modern phenomena of the connected disconnected. The being there in society, but not there at the same time. Like the young man in the photo above, to be actively linked to the faraway world via a cell phone, but totally uninterested in the the world that sits just a few feet away. Connected, but disconnected. A statement about our modern digital generation, I guess. But perhaps, if he would have only glanced up from the screen for a moment like she did to make eye contact, a whole new world connections would have been possible. They shall never know, for at no time did he raise his eyes in her direction. Connected, disconnected. A new form of normal.
I am a people’s person. No, really, I am. But it just also happens that as much as I love people, I also happen to love being alone just as much. This may sound like the beginning of another esoteric discussion on the differences between loneliness and solitude, but I assure you that it is not, as these differences have been amply documented by many others much more qualified to do so. Suffice it to say that my desire to be alone is directly related to the state of mind that comes with contemplation and creativity. Put another way, it is directly related to the wonderful byproduct that results from moments of solitude and detachment from the “noise” of everyday life.
The wonderful thing is that being alone doesn’t necessarily mean to be distanced from other people. I’m talking about the state of being “mentally” alone, of being in the zone, or something akin to an out-of-body experience. The phenomena is not necessarily physical, but mental. It is being in that moment when your reality is only yours, whether you are walking in a crowded city with your camera in hand, writing your next great novel in a crowded library, or pondering your next direction in life. It leads to a place where creativity, meaning, and purpose live in seclusion until we all dare to open the door and free them from that dark place. A state of mental (and sometimes physical) blitz that is as precious as it is short. Eventually, what the world will see of us is nothing but the result of what happens in those precious moments of solitude.
I should start this post by saying that I have nothing against shortcuts. In fact, I’ve spent a good part of my life searching for them, only to discover that there are very few alternatives to old-fashioned hard work available to us all. And yes, there’s the winning the lottery thing, but since that is about as probable as surviving a free fall without a parachute, I’ll disregard that particular shortcut for now. What I’m talking about is our human proclivity to try to find a shorter way to our destination, to compact time so that whatever it is that we’re engaged in, takes a lot less time than what life has already established as necessary. After all, this is the 21st Century, so why should be believe Henri Cartier-Bresson when he said that, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Don’t we get lots of “likes” in Instagram and Flickr? Isn’t that proof enough of our artistic excellence? Well, unfortunately it is not.
But something has undoubtedly changed. And that is that, in the advent of the digital revolution, fame and success are no longer so intimately tied to competence in any particular field. Call it the democratization of opportunity or whatever, but what could be happening these days is that while Cartier-Bresson may still be right in his observation, it really wouldn’t matter for a modern audience. Ever heard of Tardar Sauce? That’s the name for the famous mixed-breed Grumpy Cat that took the Internet by storm and made both cat and owners instant celebrities. No 10,000 photos were needed before the owners started cashing in on the cat’s celebrity status, and while Cartier-Bresson may be turning in his grave as a result, the cat’s photographs and paraphernalia may have achieved about as much commercial success as Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl photograph ever did. I tell you, if it were not for the eternal feeling of hope in us all, it would be enough to make you want to throw your camera away and get a cat instead. But such artistic surrender would not do anything for art in the long run. And just like in the case of the now popular gastronomic farm-to-table movement, it is every creative’s hope that the artistic excellence that they so painstakingly strived to achieve over time in their particular fields, will be similarly valued and compensated. That, at least, is the hope. But I’m afraid to ask what Grumpy Cat has to say about that.
Like any other aspiring photographer, I too get tired of the familiar. I’m talking about those places where we tend to spend too much of our limited photographic time in the hope that on any particular day, that great photo opportunity will simply appear before us. Most of the time, it is a total waste of our time. Same thing, different day. But every now and then, something happens. A spot that we have photographed a thousand times without ever liking any of the photos taken, suddenly rewards us with a moment, a keeper moment, if you know what I mean. Hard drives full of photographic junk immediately evaporate from our consciousness, and for a moment (but what a moment), that simple click becomes the justification for endless hours wasted in pursuit of a reason to get behind a camera again. Perfection? Not by a long shot. Satisfaction? Oh yes. Such was the case with this photograph. A familiar deck in Alexandria that I have photographed seemingly a million times before, but only for what seemed destined to my photographic junk pile. I have photographed the deck from every side and from every angle short of being on a boat in front of it. Nothing. Nada. Photo junk. And then this guy shows up. I watch him walk towards the deck and I just stand there waiting for something, anything, to happen. Pack down, leg up on the bench. Click. Moment over. An imperfect photo for sure, but one that reminded me that being there to take the photo is ninety percent of the way to making great photographs. We just have to keep showing up.
Photographers are never a happy lot. If you are like most photographers, you tend to spend too much time reading photography sites and worrying about the gear you don’t have, or the photos you are not taking. Seldom will you check out a photo’s EXIF data and find yourself rejoicing. No, on the contrary. What’s more likely to happen is that all that technical data contained in those accompanying files will leave you with a sense of quiet desperation. One side of you will see that the great photo you’re looking at was taken with a more expensive camera/lens combination than what sits in your camera bag. Another side of you, and perhaps more painful to ego and wellbeing, will discover that the photograph was taken with a much cheaper camera/lens combination than what you dished-out for your precious. Whatever the case, your mind will immediately begin questioning your choices, and a raging war of words from pundits living in your subconscious will not waste a single second in turning your brain into a virtual battle zone. You need more, you need less, you need different, more time, more knowledge, more, more, less, less. It’s enough to get you committed to an institution. In the end, all you really need is the desire to take photos, and the ability to do so. Time and disposition are the key, and just like wine, whatever you think is good, is good enough. So best to purge those voices in your head and just go out and make photographs with whatever gear you’ve got. Believe me, I’ve been plenty envious of what some people are recording with their iPhones. But maybe it was because I didn’t have the right lens. Oh no, there again are those voices in my head.
Lately I’ve talked to a few folks that seem somewhat morose about everything that’s going on around them. You could actually see the burden on their shoulders, not to mention their cautious, hesitant steps. It is as if this hyperactive world is finally beating them down, leading to conversations long on medical tests and anxiety about a world that has seemingly gone mad. Too many travel warnings, too many terrorists, too many lying politicians, too many medications, and too little time to live a little. It’s all kind of depressing, to tell you the truth, and if you let these worries get into your head, it won’t be long before you convince yourself that life is nothing but a mad dash downhill to the end of the road. What’s so fun about that?
The antidote to all this is nothing less than focusing on always going uphill, rather than downhill. That’s right, struggle more, not less. Celebrate your ignorance, because there will be so much more to learn, but do get on with it. Look in front of you and plan your next move, be it learning something difficult or doing something challenging. Get rid of negative talk and fix your eyes on the hill ahead, no matter how high it is. Look at the stars above and not at the dirt below. Live for the joy of living, and never take that dreaded downhill road. Others have tried that route, only to discover that it leads nowhere. So cheer up, look up, and push up that hill with gusto, because it is along that road where great things always happen.
I am here today to defend the proposition that there is no better part of the day than the early morning hours of a day. That’s right, I am taking a stand. And yes, this is a subject that is much ignored by most folks, but in the name of the pursuit of happiness, I feel that it is my duty to openly declare that those fleeting hours when the sun begins to appear over the horizon are about as close to heaven as we will get on this earth. They are poetry incarnate, manifesting a choreographed rhythm replete with rituals, lights, beginnings, and discovery. When we wake up (and no matter our speed of movement), we tend to do the same things every day, even if during the rest of the day we proudly profess not to be the victims of routine. It is those little things we do without fail that make morning so special. Eyes opening with the first light, setting those same eyes on a loved one, laboring in the kitchen, and going through our mental checklist for the day. It is busy time, but busy with new beginnings and the hope that today will be better than yesterday. So there you have it: I’m officially issuing the “morning is best” edict, so we all better start enjoying them a little bit more. Still skeptical? Just ask the fella sitting at that bench.
Speed. What a noble virtue. Its need is everywhere, from computers to transportation. It saves time, it shortens the undesirable, and it allows us to accomplish a lot more in the limited time we all have in our lives. It is an adrenaline rush too, quite dramatically illustrated in blockbuster movies like Top Gun and the myriad of action movies that inundate our daily consciousness. Smell the flowers? You kidding. Who has time for that?
Well, as it seems, a lot of people do. In the last few days I have been concentrating my photographic time on the number of people that I constantly see moving in what for lack of a better term I’ll refer to as “the slow lane of life.” To a large extent, this slow road exists in somewhat of a parallel universe in society, dictating its own rhythm, its own sense of urgency, and its own rewards. It is not characterized by what it manages to accomplish in a short period of time, but rather by what it manages not to do over a longer period of time. It is subtraction, not addition; forsaking, not gathering. It is finding time instead of lamenting not having any. It is admonishing Seneca’s observation that the lack of time has more to do with how much of it is wasted than with how little of it is available. It is a road as real as the busy one our lives travel on, and it is always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Interestingly, there was a time when I thought that the glorious “slowness” was only possible at life’s extreme ends. That is, when you were very old and financially comfortable (that is, whey you begin to talk about your days being numbered), or during your youth, when someone else took care of the bills and most of life’s worries (when we all believed we had all the time in the world ahead of us). In my mind, the middle was made for the fast lane, for the never-ending “too busy” lamentations, for the social fly-by’s, and for dreaming about that distant, slow lane. The rose garden? Nope. No time to plant it. Need to get going. And so it went for far too many years. And why not? Everywhere I looked people were traveling at the same rate of speed, down the same rocky roads, and in the same general direction. This was normal, and everything else seemed, well, abnormal, or at the very least, too far out in the future. It was all an exciting, zero sum, high-speed journey that if left unattended could have culminated many years later in a place that no one really wants to arrive at: the valley of regrets.
One day, however, I dared to take my foot off the accelerator in order to experience the effects of deceleration on the trajectory I was riding on. I slowed down, took a detour, acted on one long-neglected dream, and surprised a loved one in the middle of the day. Deceleration made it all possible, and clarity, its inevitable result, did its part in dissipating the stubborn forces of obfuscation and neglect. No longer would I drive past that farmer’s produce stand in order to lament later of not having had the time to stop. No, that story was changed to the great time I had while shopping at that very own farmer’s stand during my busy day. I also made it a point to never talk about that abstract walk in the park everyone talks about, but never takes. No, my story changed to how incredible it was to find the time to walk along the the carpet of fallen, yellow leaves that infuse such a bright, golden hue to a cold, autumn morning. Moreover, I made time for my friends so we could spend long hours at the dinner table solving the problems of the world over multiple bottles of wine. And without a doubt, it was a lot more meaningful to say “I love you” to the one I love while staring at her eyes rather than texting the words, Emoji in tow, over an impersonal data network of bits and bytes.
Time. Speed. Contemplation. Obfuscation. Neglect. Love. They all do battle in our busy lives. Some of their challenges will be conquered by speed, others by simply slowing down. And just as it seems impossible to always travel at high speed down the proverbial road, it appears just as unrealistic to spend a lifetime on that slow, off-the-beaten-path lane. The secret in dealing with this dilemma may lie on both sides of the spectrum–on the adoption of a “variable speed” approach to life. Never accelerating without a well-developed plan for deceleration. Never decelerating without accepting that in life, even the good things often require a little acceleration on our part. The concepts are not, and should never be, mutually exclusive. Perhaps, and this may be mankind’s eternal hope, meaning and happiness will be found somewhere along that continuum. And at every one of those critical junctures along the way, changes in speed, and the detours we dare to take, will dramatically increase our chances of finding the cherished moments that will weave the incredible stories of our lives.
One of the great things about living in the Washington, DC area is that you get to experience world cultures without having to leave the city. Of course, this is mainly because of the great Smithsonian Institution, which sits royally in the heart of the city and acts as beacon of culture that is second to none in the world. On this particular weekend it is Peru that has their attention, with a celebration of Peruvian culture and traditions at the Folklife Festival smack in the middle of the Washington Mall. In fact, after visiting several of these festivals in the past, it is my impression that this one is one of the best festivals I have ever seen at the Mall, and I’m not just saying that because of the copious amounts of Peruvian food I came in contact with. Really, they even have Alpacas there, which you can go check out after trying your dance skills at the sound of some rhythmic Andean tunes.
But what was most impressive for me was the sight of weavers and boat-makers who could turn simple threads and straw into incredible works of art. In a city where the first thing that comes to mind when talking about “ancient skills” is having to type on a manual typewriter, actually seeing people who can build something with their hands is a quite a big deal. And after several hours observing them at work, I never saw a single one of them using a cell phone. Amazing that people can survive without them. Gracias amigos.
Talk about happenstance. This past week I had a chance to photograph inside a building that I’ve been eyeing with my camera for a long time, but one that is not generally open to the public like other places in Alexandria, Virginia. I’m referring to the Seaport Center, a floating structure that is the area’s only boat-building facility along this part of the Potomac River. Endless times I’ve walked along this building, at times seeing people inside hunching over small tools while chiseling away at curved pieces of wood. But the doors have always been closed, obviously to prevent the inevitable procession of visitors from interrupting the detailed work going on inside. But to my surprise, his past week those same doors were open, and a gracious member of the staff who saw me with my camera even asked me if I would like to come inside and take a tour of the place.
Finally, after so many misses, a chance to step inside this photogenic gem, and with all the time in the world to spare. One problem, though. Not imagining this would ever happen, I had only taken a 50mm lens with me for what was to be a short walkabout, leaving my best-suited-for-the-job wide-angled lenses safely inside a bag at home. This being a relatively small facility, those wide-angle lenses would have been perfect for the occasion, but at the time all that I could think of was the old saying that “now is all I’ve got,” so in I went into the boat house with a grin on my face.
This particular day just happened to be an “open house” day for the Seaport Foundation project. I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of this particular initiative prior to my visit, but after hearing what these folks were doing to help the young people in the area, I had my faith in humanity restored quite a bit. Under a “Building boats, building lives” slogan, the Boatbuilding Apprentice Program run by the Seaport Foundation is not only a one-of-a-kind craftsmanship program, but one that directly impacts the lives of young people by introducing a much-needed environment of belonging and purpose into their lives. These folks are doing tremendous work, one life at a time. As a photographer, I walked through those doors thinking that my day was about to be made amazing by the opportunity to photograph something I’ve been wanting to capture for a long time. Unbeknownst to me, what was about to make my day truly amazing was meeting such a wonderful group of people engaged in one of the noblest causes you could ever imagine. They possess something that I could never capture with a camera, but which served as a reminder that in small places like these all over our country, people are working diligently (and more-often-than-not, anonymously) to make a better world for others. It is humbling and inspiring at the same time, and they deserve all the credit in the world for what they do.