Who Needs Travel Guides

Berlin Food Truck

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.

The Quick Shot

Metro Rider

Like most photographers out there, I too spend endless hours looking for that perfect shot. And when I say perfect, I don’t mean that literally, but rather in the context of being able to stand out a little from the crowd of shots we regularly find in places like Instagram and Flickr. The sad thing is that no matter how much I try (and perhaps I’m speaking here for most wandering photographers), those photographs that elicit comments of the “you should take more pictures like this,” are very hard to find indeed. No doubt this is the result of multiple factors, from your timing as a photographer, your choice of venue, or the simple fact that not much is really happening around you. Whatever the case, the point is that while personal photographic and geographic choices have a lot to do with it, luck (yes, that same old variable) has a lot to do with it too. That is why photographers out there (myself included) look like human versions of 360-degree radars. We look right, left, behind us, up, down, and everywhere. We do this while crossing the streets, walking by a construction site, while drinking coffee, wherever. You can imagine the thoughts that cross people’s minds in a city like Washington, DC that is replete with intrigue and spies everywhere. Who is this person with a camera checking everything out and taking photos from weird angles? He looks Russian to me. Yes, that’s pretty much the thought pattern, but in reality what we photographers are after is that quick shot, that unique moment in time that make all those walked miles worthwhile. And that is the story of the shot above. Many hours and sore feet later, this scene revealed itself to me as I was headed for the metro and the comforts of home. My last shot of the day, and like they say in golf, the one that keeps you coming back, again and again, to the unpredictable streets of your city.

Peru In The Heart Of Washington

Rope Weavers
Peruvian rope weavers expertly build super-strong ropes from simple strands of natural fibers. [Click on photo for larger versions]
Cloth Weaver
Weaving colorful cloth requires both incredible talent and coordination.
Dancer Mask
Traditional dancers hide their faces from the audience after making their offerings to the Virgin Mary.
Hat Maker
It takes a minimum of eight hours of continuous weaving to make a single straw hat.
Peruvian Masks
Masks are everywhere at the festival and each one of them had a different meaning for those who made them.
Peruvian Weaver
There is always some curiosity when a camera is pointed at you, but a smile always makes up for the surprise.

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.


Who Was That Man?

Sometimes someone catches your eye by the way they walk, by the way they dress, or by the way they contrast with the scene around them.
Sometimes someone catches your eye by the way they walk, by the way they dress, or by the way they fit into a scene.

I was headed to a museum today to photograph old, Oriental relics for a change.  But as it happens in far too many occasions on my way to a photographic interest, something catches my eye that turns out to be a little bit more interesting (from a photographic perspective) than what I had originally intended to photograph.  It is the proverbial “seeing of a photograph before you actually get to take it.”  So here I was today, standing in the middle of the street while cars maneuvered around me, waiting for this gentleman to fill a little more of my 50mm lens frame.  A quick three-frame burst later I was done and the subject of my photographic inspiration simply continued on his merry way.  Maybe this city is not as hostile to photographers as I once thought, or maybe it was because I was using a Leica instead of a bulky, in-your-face DSLR.  Who knows.  I guess only this “international man of mystery” would know.

What’s Your Schtick?

No matter what you do, what's important is that you perfect your act.  Leica M9, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.
No matter what you do, what’s important is that you perfect your act. Leica M9, Summicron-M 50mm f/2.

Never thought that a street performer would get me thinking about career choices, but that’s exactly what happened recently during one of my photographic walkabouts.  Not that I suddenly had the impulse to trade jobs with this gentleman, but rather that his contagious enthusiasm while earning a living forced me to engage on a momentary self-analysis of my chosen career.  Then again, I didn’t choose my career.  It is more of a case of “here’s where I am,” rather than a conscious decision based on all the options available.  But that aside, here’s what jumped into my mind when I came face-to-face with this street performer: he had a spot on the sidewalk all to his own, he had an act, he worked hard at his act, this act was different from that of the performers around him, he was smiling, he controlled his own timing, he turned it on when he wanted and off when he wanted, he looked poor, he looked happy, he was engaging, and he was unique (I think you know where I’m going with this one, but here I go nonetheless).

Mojo.  Schtick.  Groove.  Raison d’être.  Call it what you may, but I’m beginning to think that our eternal pursuit of artistic and professional individuality has everything to do with finding our own, personal spot on a sidewalk.  Of course, this individual spot can take an almost infinite number of forms, and whether one is better than the other is a matter of never-ending interpretation.  What ultimately matters most is that somewhere along that sidewalk full of performers, we find our spot, our little chunk of the universe.  When we do, our act will have to be different and unique enough to be noticed and appreciated.  Easy?  Not quite.  If it were, most of us would not spend a lifetime searching for that spot.  All I know is that it sure is a lot of fun looking for it.