High On The Road Again

I was recently on the road for two months, flitting from country to country. Sounds good doesn’t it! But I was working; this was no holiday. I was mainly shooting pictures for my “Village” project and that involved spending time in small villages. I needed to stay in the areas where I was working so I could conveniently wander the paths and tracks any time of night or day. Unfortunately, villages often lack for five star hotels but the pensions and small hotels we stayed in were more than adequate, except for one place, which was buried in the side of a hill with an entrance so small that head banging was inevitable if you didn’t duck low enough. Travelling on a trip like this takes a lot of preparation, organization and research. Not only do you have to think about where you are going to stay but also how to travel to places that are some distance from the cities. Often there are language and cultural challenges that also have to be taken into consideration. Sometimes, of course, cross-cultural moments can be interesting. In our Turkish village the afternoon call to pray from the local mosque seemed to coincide with the playing of a Verdi opera by our pension owner. Oh well, it is said that Turkey is the crossroads between Europe and Asia.  Of course from a photographer’s perspective there is the issue of how much and what equipment you should you travel with. Many years ago I assisted a National Geographic photographer who travelled with a suitcase full of film. This caused no end of issues when going through customs and x-ray machines. I also didn’t want a repeat of a problem I’d had in the past with custom officers who when confronted with my boxes and bags of equipment, demanded a briefcase full of money as a “deposit”, but with no receipt. No longer am I travelling with suitcases full of film. That approach, along with its issues, has been replaced with all the paraphernalia that feeds the digital capturing world. I took a laptop so I could download the images and video footage every night. The images would then be transferred across to two spare hard drives. Nothing was deleted from the memory cards until the images/videos were in at least two places. I packed three Fujifilm camera bodies, one X-T1, two X-Pro1’s and four Fujifilm lenses: 35mm, 18mm, 10-24mm, 40-150mm. My preference has always been fixed focal length lenses especially when I’m walking the streets. In the villages I find that working with 18mm on a Fujifilm X-Pro1 is a lot less confronting then a big zoom lens on a larger camera body. Besides I prefer to move my feet rather than carry a bigger lens. I have to confess though that my favourite two pictures from this assignment were taken with zoom lenses on the Fujifilm X-T1 camera. 
One of the images taken with the 10-24mm lens involved a wedding in Greece. We had arrived in a small village in the mountains of central Crete where our hostess explained that it was quiet because everyone had gone to a local funeral. I promptly grabbed my cameras and rushed off to photograph the event. On my way back from the funeral I fell into conversation with a Spanish visitor who invited me to a wedding he was going to attend in a neighbouring village. The entire population of that village and other local villages, with a few foreigners thrown in, was squeezed into the town-square and church. I managed to manoeuvre my way into the church but could barely move. We were elbow to elbow so once I lifted my camera, that’s where it stayed. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to move my feet but luckily I was using the 10-24mm lens. The sun was blasting through the doorway as the bride entered the church and I managed to get an image without elbows and knees protruding into the edges of my picture. Incidentally, on the way back through the village I was invited to another wedding. Two weddings and a funeral in three days! I considered that good networking… and good luck.          I had packed microphones, recorder, spaghetti-like rolls of leads and cords as well as a small tripod, because I’d been asked to shoot video while travelling. Also shoved in amongst my socks were two Sunpak VL_LED-09 Compact Video Lights. They’re just strong enough to kick a small amount of light into the dark corners of a room without overpowering the natural light. Because they’re only slightly bigger than a cigarette pack, they don’t take up much space in my case. Most of my images are taken with short to wide lenses but packing a longer lens was a worthwhile investment. It helped me capture one of my other favourite pictures from this assignment. We had travelled to the north of Vietnam and the electric power in the hill tribal areas was not always reliable. The women of the Dao tribe solved this problem by attaching torches to their heads and thus illuminated continued to work. The light was so low I could barely see the woman in front of me so I dialled up the ISO to 3200. By using the optical stabilizer on the 50-140mm lens I was able to shoot a handheld image on a 1/15 of a second with the lens open to 2.8. Most photographers I know seem to collect camera bags. In my office I have a whole selection of them that come in handy for different assignments. On this journey I was using a variety of Crumpler bags. I had two different sized cross shoulder bags and neither of them looked like professional camera bags. For me this is a great plus because in some of the places I travel to, it’s better not to advertise that I’m carrying expensive equipment. While travelling there are always times of tension, frustration, captured moments and elation. I was determined to photograph a villager smoking opium in Laos. The government has been trying to ban the drug for some time but for many hill tribe farmers it’s their main source of income. There is a heavy fine for drug use in Laos so I had to be careful while carrying out this shoot. After some discrete inquiries I found a guide who was willing to take me to a Hmong village where the smoking of opium was still a part of daily life. In a hut on the edge of the village a man lay on a bamboo platform preparing an opium pipe. He smiled and indicated that it was okay for me to take pictures. I knelt down close and filled the frame of my Fujifilm X-T1 with the pipe, opium and part of the smoker’s body. Focusing in on his eyes I became enveloped in the smoke he was blowing. Six times he filled up his pipe and six times I disappeared into an opium smoker’s world. He wanted to light more but I had enough, both smoke and pictures. After finishing this particular assignment, I decided that this was one of the best journeys I’d ever been on. Well, one of the most euphoric at any rate!