Talking about a change of scenery. No sooner did I return from discovering parts of Eastern Europe that I found myself at the shores of the Potomac River in Maryland watching Dragon Boat races. Sure, it’s not the Danube, but what can you say; it’s water, and if you can put a boat on it, then you can certainly have a race. Ever heard of Dragon Boat Racing? I must admit that until a few days ago, this form of competition was a foreign to me as what’s located on the other side of the moon. And from the looks of it, I was definitely missing on something. This Dragon Boat racing is serious stuff, with teams all over the country competing for a chance to go to what I was told, would be the world championships in Italy sometime next year. Italy? It’s already sounding interesting to this humble traveler.
After reading on the web that this regional competition was to take place at Maryland’s elegant National Harbor development, I simply had to go check it out. Since the event description had the word race, I sort of expected a little competition to take place. To be perfectly honest, and considering that we live in a city where underwear races and national pillow fights take place right under President Lincoln’s stony gaze, I was sort of expecting another “fun” event to help mark the dwindling days of summer. What I saw could not have been more different. Early morning group calisthenics, groups of people rhythmically air-rowing with the kind of facial expressions that reminded me of Mike Tyson, corporate teams, and a team consisting of visually-impaired folks that was being assisted to their boat, but who looked like they were there to kick some you know what. And while these folks were seriously pumped-up for competition, they were also some of the nicest people I’ve met in a while (could it be because I wasn’t competing against them?). So here I am, fresh from the cafes of Vienna and Krakow and now becoming a Dragon Boat racing closet expert. Well, not quite, but I surely had a great time meeting these folks and watching the regatta; and who knows, maybe I’ll check out some of their future races. Did I hear someone mention Italy?
Every year I tell myself that I have seen enough 4th of July celebrations to last a lifetime, but every year I keep returning as if in a pilgrimage to enjoy just one more. I can’t help it. Sure, it would be a lot more comfortable to stay home and watch these celebrations on TV, but no matter how much I sometimes get tempted to do just that, I just can’t seem to fathom being idle on a day like this. Too much happening out there. Marching bands, dancing groups of all kinds, ceremonial guards, and even pimped automobiles. It’s all out there amongst the thousands of people who show up in Washington, DC to celebrate our Nation’s independence. Frankly, our Nation’s capital is one of the best places to be at during this long weekend, if anything to actually witness locals acknowledging other human beings. That’s right, even the most hardened local bureaucrats seem to show a softer, human side during this time of the year. But more than that, if you drop by you’ll be amongst some of the proudest Americans you’ll encounter anywhere. The kind of American President Ronald Reagan had in mind when he uttered some of his most famous lines: “Our country is a special place, because we Americans have always been sustained, through good times and bad, by a noble vision — a vision not only of what the world around us is today, but what we as a free people can make it be tomorrow.” Well said, Mr. President.
Just when you convince yourself that our nation’s capital is a stiff place, along come events like the Tour de Fat to prove you wrong. Wacky, irreverent, and wonderfully weird, this annual cycling event by the Navy Yards is about as fun as they come. It must be, because how else would you explain why all these folks ventured out on a hot, 92-degree day to party while pretending they were there to bicycle. OK, maybe it had something to do with the post-ride “beverages” available to them, but whatever the case, no amount of heat appeared to dampen the enthusiasm of these revelers. Too bad that the venue chosen is somewhat off-the-radar for most people. Put this event in the Dupont Circle area or Georgetown and they are going to have to triple the amount of “beverages” available. But maybe that’s the whole point: to be out of the way so people can let loose a bit. Whatever the case, it worked, not to mention that it was a great day to be around with a camera. I’ll definitely be back here next year, and who knows, I may just dress-up for the occasion.
Sometimes, taking photographs is like watching a movie. You know very well that the scene before you is totally fake, but that doesn’t detract from the impact that it may have on you. This photograph was one such case. A Korean War POW impersonator during last week’s Rolling Thunder event in Washington, DC could not have been any more real to the viewer’s eyes. I tell you, this was disturbing stuff, and it was meant to be. Walking up to this scene was somewhat surreal. People immediately went silent as if they had seen an apparition the moment they saw the man in the cage. Photographers were so uncomfortable with the scene that many of them refused to take pictures, and those who did were mainly using telephotos to stay way away from this gentleman. In fact, when I approached him within a few feet to take this photo, I found myself alone in front of him. Such was the power evoked by this emotional visual imagery. A not-too-subtle reminder of the price too many people pay during times of war. Disturbing? Of course. Necessary? Absolutely, if we are never to forget.
“The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat The soldier’s last tattoo; No more on Life’s parade shall meet The brave and fallen few. On Fame’s eternal camping-ground Their silent tents are spread, And Glory guards, with solemn round The bivouac of the dead.” Theodore O’Hara.
Some of the great things that come with living in large metropolitan areas are the mix of cultures and people that constantly come in contact everywhere you go. Granted, that for some folks those are also the very reasons why they wouldn’t be caught dead in such places. But no matter how anyone feels, there is no denying that cities are beehives of activity for just about every interest out there. And the more international the city, the more diversity its citizens will experience on a daily basis. This diversity has been quite evident during this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC. Take a stroll any morning around the uneven shores of the Tidal Basin and you will experience a slew of foreign languages being spoken, people dressed in varied outfits that reflect their country of origin, musicians banging away in some sort of ritualistic rhythm, lovers kissing under trees that glow with the majestic colors of spring, and the sweet aroma of exotic foods competing with nature for your attention. Photographs may not do it justice, but for the thousands of photographers out there who tried to capture the essence of this brief flowering and human spectacle, there was no better place to be. And to the Japanese people who kindly made all this possible with their incredible gift, ありがとうございます。(Thank you very much).
No luck yet. Today was supposed to be smack in the middle of the peak blooming period for the Washington, DC cherry blossoms around the Tidal basin. Unfortunately, this tree depicted here was one of the very few that had gotten the word that it is time to bloom. No doubt the 32 degree morning temperatures have something to do with this. Mother nature is simply playing havoc with tourist and photographers alike, as they have had to settle with watching the flower buds cuddle tightly on the long Japanese branches. But, there’s always tomorrow. And I have no doubt that the third official “peak bloom” prediction by the National Park Service will be a charm. After all, are we not supposed to be having some spring weather by now? Well, as they say in the great, power corridors in Washington, “someone didn’t get the memo.” But photographers are a patient lot, so we’ll be back there again.
So how do you get Washingtonians to relax? Combine the National Cherry Blossom Festival with an all-out kite festival at the National Mall, and suddenly like magic the city becomes one great, big party. Picnics, laughter, and games do have a way of softening this city’s rougher edges. And if there’s a time when you actually feel that our national parks do belong to the people, it is at times like these that we all feel that the ground we all walk on is part of the great heritage of America. This feeling is always made a lot more special by the yearly blooming of our National cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, which mark the unmistakable arrival of spring. Granted that the blossoms had not fully bloomed yet (next weekend is the projected peak bloom), but for the sun-starved Washingtonians, the start of the yearly festival is good enough transition from the cold, dark nights of winter. What’s more, it was reported that someone at the festival even saw a politician smiling this weekend, and that my dear friend, is a very good sign.
No need to check Ancestry.com to check whether there’s any Irish blood in my family. There’s none. That is, if you do not consider the genetic predisposition to enjoy a pint of beer at all hours of the day (which come to think of it, is a fairly genetic trait in all of Europe). That aside, I have discovered that it is fun being around the Irish, specially when they are not throwing things at each other. I also like the fact that here in America I can actually understand what they are saying without the need of an interpreter. This simple fact was particularly useful this past weekend, when thousands of local Irish descendants celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with parades and copious amounts of beer at local bars. Admittedly, I am not too familiar with the 4th Century saint born in Roman Britain, but something tells me that since then the Irish mindset has changed a bit. And how would I know? Well, all that green beer may have given it away.
I like coffee. Well, more than that, I love great coffee. However, I don’t think you could get two people in America to agree on where you can find the best coffee out there. Perhaps this has something to do with consumer confusion. After all, there are so many cutesy names out there describing this or that variety of coffee, that the consumer has to be forgiven for not knowing what they are getting sometimes. New-wave of coffee labeling has now introduced us to such coffee varieties as blonde, morning mist, or (are you ready for this?) reindeer blend. Where exactly did you say that coffee was from? Then take the traditional cappuccino. The formula could not be simpler: one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, one-third foam, and all served in a 5-7 oz warm cup (no paper products, please). Simple enough? You would think so, but such traditional concoctions are becoming harder to find these days. But when you do find them, then that’s when you know that someone in the heavens likes you and wants you to be happy.
When was the last time you took some time to just walk about town to see what the locals are up to? If you haven’t done that for a while, I would suggest you give it a try, as you will be surprised with the range of human activities that occupy people besides their TV’s and overused computers. Take for instance this past Saturday around the Penn Quarters neighborhood in Washington, DC and the White House. Protesters manned the White House fence with signs demanding gun control laws, construction workers were working against the clock to build the reviewing stands for the President’s inaugural event, young men played concrete hockey in front of Lafayette Park, the Christmas market in front of the National Portrait Gallery was in full swing, and the incredibly colorful and jovial participants in the Naughty Christmas where caroling in front of the Natural History Museum. Songs, laughter, and smiling faces were everywhere. A contagious celebration of life that was as colorful as it was fun. Amazing what your feet run into when you put them to work.
I love a parade just like the next person, but I have to admit that lately, some of the local parades in the area are getting a bit strange. Don’t get me wrong, the bands are still there, and so are the vintage cars packed with local beauties waiving their gloved hands while older men drive them along the parade route. But what has changed from the old 20th Century days is the mix of participants strolling the couple of miles along the parade route. Remember the days when rows of military personnel marched in cadence at the sound of military marches brilliantly composed by the likes of John Philip Sousa? Fast forward to today and you’ll have to settle for the ill cadence of the local Sea Cadets or Young Marines who in most cases are not old enough to have a drivers license. And what about the creative local floats by the various civic and business groups from the community? Well, the eclectic group of walking Darth Vader’s and Viking impersonators may have to do these days. Oh, and if you are in a place like Old Town Alexandria in Virginia during one of their local parades, you’ll be able to watch group-after-group of local dog lovers parading their unique breeds of dogs with enough distance between them to ensure you don’t get them confused. So yes, you can say that times have changed, but it sure makes some of us miss those old days.
I love PhotoWeek DC. Maybe I should restate that: I love everything PhotoWeek DC stands for. Since 2008 some very hard-working group of folks have labored intensely to bring us this celebration of all things photography, with tens of exhibits around town and lectures galore by talented photographers that are pushing the boundaries of their creative and business talents. All of us living in the DC metropolitan area who spend endless hours behind our cameras should feel very fortunate to have such a festival right here in our back yard, and we do. Nevertheless, recent developments in the world of photography have made me wonder whether there are some aspects of photography that are not receiving their fare share of time at these gatherings. Put another way, I’m beginning to wonder whether the world of large prints, large cameras, and traditional portfolio review sessions continues to be emphasized in photo festivals as a defense mechanism against the emerging world of stock photo agencies, Tweeter, Instagram, and digital publications.
There is no doubt that today everyone seems to be a photographer. And without getting into the never-ending professional vs. amateur argument (which by the way is a fruitless discussion, as a good photograph is a good photograph no matter who takes it), it appears that some leading national magazines out there are pulling the rug from under the professional photographers’ feet by growingly getting their photos from everything from stock photo agencies to Instagram. Case in point: the recent (and controversial) Instagram cover photo on Time Magazine. Now, I don’t know that this is the future or anything like that, but judging from the vitriolic complaints about Time Magazine’s moves coming from professional photojournalists, this must be a really sensitive subject, to say the least. An amateur with an iPhone or one of those point-and-shoot cameras getting published on the cover of Time Magazine? Heresy. Unconscionable. The death of quality photography. You name it; it’s been said. And yet, photography continues to be all about “being there.” That is, about capturing a moment that has some sort of meaning to those looking at the photograph. What you use to capture this moment really doesn’t matter at the end. The videos and photos of Muammar Gaddafi during his last minutes on earth are no less valuable (or powerfull) as historical documents as a result of being recorded on a cell phone. In fact, it could be argued that as photography becomes more secularized, as evidenced by the widespread use of simpler and easily-transportable recording devices, the world of photography will be transformed in new and incredible creative ways. Chase Jarvis, the incredibly talented photographer, alludes to this new world of possibilities on a constant basis. Even though he sits at the top of his professional photographic career, he continues to preach the mantra that the best camera is the one that is with you when that great photo opportunity shows up. In fact, Chase celebrates all that is new and innovative in the creative arts, and that probably explains a lot of his success and his large number of followers. The photo industry (and yes, some photo shows and festivals) have yet to catch up to Chase and the legions of amateurs and Instagramers who roam the world and who by virtue of simply “being there” are the ones capturing great footage of events while they are happening. At the end of the day my friend, and as it has been from time immemorial, getting that picture is all that matters.
If you landed on a planet and your first contact with the locals exposed you to freezing cold, mud, and a rough crowd wearing pumpkins on their heads while hurling pumpkin projectiles into the atmosphere at high speed, what would you call this planet? And what if I told you that the crowd you’ll encounter consisted of over one hundred thousand beer-happy revelers wearing funky outfits who cheered pumpkin cannon blasts as if the Messiah himself had made an appearance, would that extra bit of information help? Well, all I can say is welcome to Delaware during the World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition. That’s right, punkin, not pumpkin. It may not be like landing on another planet, but it certainly comes close to it. People from all over Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania were more than happy to make the long trek to Delaware to hang out with these cannon-loving chunkers. In fact, they knew exactly where they were going and drove long hours on a bitterly cold day to the Delaware farm near Bridgeville to gawk at what have to be some of the greatest feats of American ingenuity in our country: pumpkin (sorry, punkin) cannons and catapults. To tell you the truth, I never thought that so many people would look forward to visiting Delaware without the intent of starting a corporation, but there they were by the tens of thousands, tailgating, firing up the grills, and having the time of their lives. Sure, I nearly froze to death, but if the alternative was to spend the day in a warm conference room with a bunch of corporate heads in their ill-fitting Armani suits, I would much rather hang out with the punkin chunkers behind their pickup trucks drinking beer on a cold day. Real people having a good time and welcoming strangers as if they had known them all their lives. Only a couple of hours from our nation’s capital, planet Delaware is definitely worlds apart from its more powerful neighbor. And for the wonderful people I got to meet that day, that was just fine.
Watching the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon from the sidelines this past month, I couldn’t help but be extremely impressed by the number of runners who dared to venture out on a cold October morning to reach that magic 26.2 mile mark. Like most sane people around the world, I have never attempted such a feat, as my knees would surely buckle within the first few miles. Nevertheless, as I patiently waited in the dark for the runners by Key Bridge in Georgetown, I couldn’t help but think of a famous essay I had read many years ago on the issue of transportation, movement, and speed. The name of this brilliant essay was “A ramble to Africa,” by Mary Rhydwen, an Australian adventurer who had sailed to Africa from Western Australia. She had submitted the essay in 2001 for the Economist magazine essay competition based on the topic of “Going faster, but where?” You see, Ms. Rhydwen won the competition not by writing about going faster anywhere, but rather by writing about the virtues of slowing down in your journey. As the first group of elite runners bolted past me at a lightning running pace which I’m sure nature had reserved for cheetahs and gazelles, I couldn’t help but think of what Ms. Thydwen would have made of all this rush to the finish line. Don’t know, but something tells me that she would have told those runners that slowing down to a “ramble” in order to enjoy all that was around them would have been a more rewarding experience, even if that meant forsaking the medal at the end.