Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Basic Black (and White)

Mourners wait to pay their respects to His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Late King of Thailand, at Wat Phra Kaew. Made with my Pen F, 25mm f1.8 lens (50mm equivalent in full frame terms), ISO 200, f1.8 @ 1/80th. Exposure compensation set to -1 stop because I wanted to keep deep blacks. 

I bought an Olympus Pen F when I was in Singapore last year and reviewed it here in February. It's been my principal camera for most assignments since then. One of the things I mentioned in the review was the lovely black and white JPEGs this camera makes. 
A family in Pom Mahakan. Pen F, 25mm f1.8 lens, ISO 200, f1.8 @ 1/100th. 

I've made more black and white frames in the last two months than I have since converting to all digital more than 15 years ago. Black and white in the digital era is not new. Leica even makes an absurdly expensive Monochrome only rangefinder (though describing any Leica product as "absurdly expensive" is redundant). A quick glance at almost any contest entries will show you that black and white photography is thriving. The thing is though, most of those photos are color photos processed in Lightroom (or Affinity Photo or any other program) and exported in black and white. 
Motorcycle taxis wait for fares on a Bangkok street corner. Pen F, 25mm f1.8 lens, ISO200, f1.8 @ 1/800th.

If I am going to make black and white pictures, I want to make them in black and white, not convert color files to black and white. And the Pen F files, especially using what I've set as my Tri-X simulation mode, generates very nice black and white files.
Feeding pigeons along the Chao Phraya River. Pen F, 25mm f1.8 lens, ISO200, f1.8 @ 1/2500th.

I started with Olympus' basic black and white settings, which had a lot of contrast and a lot of grain, and went from there. I thought the Olympus default files looked like Tri-X pushed to 3200, so I dialed the contrast down a little and the grain down a lot (the default on the grain is High). 

I tried working with grain turned off, but I didn't like that - pictures were too clean (kind of like the BW files from the Canon 5D Mark III bodies I no longer have). I ultimately settled on Low. High was way too grainy for my taste and Medium was bordeline. The Low setting gave me a little of the texture of grain without overpowering the photo. 
Delivering Buddha statues in Bangkok. Pen F, 17mm f1.8 (34mm equivalent in full frame terms), ISO200, f1.8 @ 1/6400th. 

I really like the look I am getting from these JPEGs. I always photograph in RAW+JPEG with my Olympus cameras. Before the Pen F, my JPEG setting was full resolution at "normal" compression and I used the JPEGs to feed my Instagram account, but I didn't archive them. I'm so happy with the Pen F black and white JPEGs that I save them at full resolution and "Super Fine" compression (highest quality, lowest compression), I archive them in my Lightroom catalog and I've started putting them into my online archive
Songkran travelers wait for their train at Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok. Pen F, 17mm f1.8 lens, ISO200, f1.8 @ 1/160th. 

Songkran travelers in the station. 17mm f1.8 lens, ISO250, f1.8 @ 1/30th. 

I still need the color files though because most publishers and photography users prefer color. That's where working in RAW+JPEG comes in. I have the really nice JPEG files for personal use and I have the color raw files for my archive and sales. The raw files I process normally in Lightroom. 

It's the best of both worlds in one camera body. Back in the day, when I was working with film, I always had one body (or more, depending on the assignment) with color slide film and one body (or more) with black and white film (actually, in my case it was Ilford's HP5+, not Tri-X). Now both come out of the little Pen F.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Morning at Boudhanath Stupa

A Buddhist monk prostrates himself as other monks walk clockwise around Boudhanath Stupa during morning prayers. 

One of the most lovely parts of Kathmandu is the area Boudhanath Stupa. It's the center of Nepal's Buddhist community and the heart of the Tibetan exile community in Nepal. Although the exact date of the stupa's construction is unknown, based on the history of the Kathmandu valley it's thought that the stupa was built sometime between 464CE and 604CE, although some put the construction much later - around the 14th century CE. It's been rebuilt since then of course, most recently just last year, to repair damage from the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Rebuilding or not, the sense of history at the stupa is palpable. 
A time exposure of people walking around the stupa before sunrise during morning prayers.

I've spent a lot of time at the stupa during my visits to Kathmandu. But I was never there early in the morning, for morning prayers. This time, I made it a point to visit the stupa a couple of time for morning prayers. I am glad I did. 

I got to the stupa about 05.00, before the crowds arrived. (In this case crowds refers to Nepalese and Tibetan faithful - very few tourists show up for morning prayers.) By 05.30 though the stupa was very crowded with people walking clockwise around the stupa, reciting Buddhist mantras. The monasteries around the stupa open their doors for morning prayers around 05.45. People don't come in and sit in pews as they do in Christian churches though. 

Morning prayers in a monastery at the stupa. 

Monks sit and chant in the prayer hall while people come in and walk clockwise around the room lighting butter lamps and reciting mantras. 

People light butter lamps at monasteries around the stupa. 

The process is always repeating itself, the faithful seemingly unaware of the few tourists who do show up.


In a small prayer area at the base of the stupa people come to pray and prostrate themselves on wooden boards. 

Most tourists go to the stupa in the evening, especially on full moon nights (there's a full moon ceremony every month) but I think the best time to go to the stupa is early. It's a little less convenient, especially if your hotel is across town or in the Thamel area, but the experience is much more rewarding. 


(All of the photos were made with my Olympus Pen F and Olympus prime lenses.)

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Holi in Bhaktapur

A Nepali man covered in red powder at the Holi celebration in Bhaktapur. 

We went to the Holi celebration in Bhaktapur during Gavin Gough's excellent workshop in Nepal. Holi is a Hindu holiday celebrating, among other things, the triumph of good over evil and the arrival of spring. The most visible part of Holi is the joyful spreading of colorful powder, sometimes but not always mixed with water, on people. Which is how the gentlemen in the photo got his complexion. 

Men celebrate Holi in Bhaktapur...
A woman in Bhaktapur's Holi "mosh pit" dances. 

Holi in India has gotten a well deserved reputation for rowdiness and I was expecting Nepal's celebration to be just as rowdy. Nepalese authorities, concerned about the day's increasing rowdiness, have taken a tough love approach to the holiday. Revelers aren't allowed to spray water or throw powder at people unless they get permission first, and, at least in Bhaktapur, the revelers take the restrictions seriously. 
Revelers covered in red powder dance in a public square in Bhaktapur. The man in the middle is holding Nepal's distinctive flag. 
A man under the water spray in Bhaktapur

Everytime someone wanted to throw powder at us or spray us with water, they first politely approached and asked if it was okay. If we said okay (which we always did) then we were pelted. But it was always in good fun and the partiers made every effort to avoid our cameras and bags. It was much different from covering Songkran in Thailand. 
Children on their way home after a Holi party. 

This was my first Holi and it was a lot of fun. There are more photos of the day in my archive

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Still Living in a Camp

A woman left homeless by the 2015 Nepal earthquake does her laundry while her son plays in front of her. She lives in an IDP (Internal Displaced Person) camp in central Kathmandu. Her son was born in the camp and it's the only home he's ever known. 

When I visited Kathmandu in the weeks after the 2015 earthquake I photographed a large IDP camp next to the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Thousands of people living in squalid conditions literally next to one of the most expensive hotels in town. The camp was set up in a large open field and given the nature of the emergency, it was understandable that the camp was created. 

When I was there in 2015, some 1500 families lived in the camp, most from villages in the mountains eight or nine hours from Kathmandu. Although there was no electricity in the camp, enterprising Nepalese found a way to tap into the grid and some of the tents had electric. Water was provided by NGOs who filled large bladders set up around the camp. NGOs also set up latrines on the edge of the camp. Life in the camp was difficult, but better than life in their destroyed villages. 
A woman sweeps out her tent in the camp. Her husband works at a chicken farm about 90 minutes from Kathmandu. He sleeps at the chicken farm most nights and only gets to the camp to see his family one day a week.  

I went back to the camp this week. I was a little surprised to see that, two years after the earthquake, the camp was still crowded with refugees from the earthquake. That better housing arrangements hadn't been found for the residents yet. I walked through the camp talking to residents (with the help of a translator) and I couldn't help but think the system had somehow failed them. Although the population is down to about 400 families now (still over 1,000 people, Nepalese have large families), that it existed at all seems like a systemic failure. 
Children play a hopscotch type game early one morning. 

Many of the people in the camp have found jobs in Kathmandu's burgeoning construction sector. Rebuilding here is being done by hand, and the homeless people in the camp have been to work building new homes for the city's residents. Others work selling street food, like momos, or commute to work at jobs far from the city. 

Camp residents told me Kathmandu municipal authorities are trying to close the camp. Last week they stopped delivering water to the camp and now the only people who have water are those that can afford to buy it from vendors who deliver it in tanker trucks. 
Buckets set up at a water tank that has run dry. The buckets were removed later in the day when people learned the tank will no longer be filled. 
In another part of the camp residents fill their buckets with water they bought. 

The situation with the camp is not an easy one to resolve. 

It's not healthy for either the residents or Nepali society to have people living in such difficult circumstances in the middle of the city. Although there was water until recently, there was never any sort of a drainage system and domestic waste water ran in rivulets through the camp. Most of the tents don't have electric (the ones that do steal service from main lines) and none of them have heat. It gets cold in Kathmandu. Not Minneapolis cold, but lows in the low 40s to mid 30s (Fahrenheit) are not uncommon. That's cold when the only thing between you and the night air is a flimsy canvas wall or plastic tarp. 
A family warms themselves by a fire in front of their tent. Ten people live in the tent behind them. 

But I also don't think it's healthy for Nepali society if the government evicts them without providing an alternative. The people I talked to said they don't know what they will do if they have to leave. Most of them lost everything in the earthquake and they don't have the financial resources to get new homes in Kathmandu, which is already in the midst of an earthquake caused housing shortage. 
A Nepali Sherpa family dressed in their best get ready to go to a Tibetan New Year celebration at a Buddhist temple about 45 minutes from the camp. 

Residents said they haven't been given an exact deadline for being out of the camp, just that it's weeks, not months, away. It's another sign of how the earthquake has permanently altered Nepal. 

There are more photos of the IDP camp in my archive or available from ZUMA Press.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Consecrating Boudhanath

Buddhist monks participate in a consecration ceremony at Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu Tuesday. 

Boudhanath Stupa, one of Kathmandu's landmarks, was badly damaged in the 2015 earthquake. It's a place of great importance to all Buddhists, but especially Nepali, Bhutanese and Tibetan Buddhists and the neighborhood around the stupa is the center of the Tibetan exile community in Nepal. (And, it is rumored, a nest of Chinese spies watching the Tibetans.) 

Boudhanath is also the first of Nepal's great historic sites to be reopened. The stupa, which was closed and covered in scaffolding when we visited in 2015, reopened with great fanfare in November 2016, about 18 months after the earthquake. 
A woman, framed by prayer flags, prays on the stupa during the consecration ceremony. 

The stupa was not rebuilt by the government of Nepal. Rather international Buddhist organizations set up fund drives and contributed to the rebuilding effort. I was glad to see the work went so quickly because Boudhanath is one of the great religious buildings in the world. 
A monk presents a layperson with a prayer shawl. 

The re-consecration of the stupa was today. Hundreds of Nepali and Tibetan monks performed rituals and ceremonies on the first level of the stupa while lay people prayed with them or walked around the base of the stupa spinning prayers wheels. It was a wonderful ceremony to witness. 
Monks walk around the stupa. 

I didn't know the consecration ceremony was taking place. I just sort of stumbled into it. This was my last free day in Kathmandu and I went to Boudhanath because it is one of my favorite places in the city. My being there was just luck. 


Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Brick by Brick

A worker at a brick factory near Bhaktapur carries a load of unbaked bricks to a kiln (smokestack in the background) for baking. 

I photographed the brick factories in Bhaktapur as a part of my work on the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. The brick factories just outside of town and dominate a small valley off the highway. These bricks are made the old fashioned way. The way bricks have been made since bricks were invented. Clay is formed into bricks by hand, dried in the sun then baked in wood or coal fired kilns for a week. The kilns belch thick black smoke into the air. 
Carrying bricks to the kiln. 

This is hard, backbreaking work. The footpaths workers take to the kiln are slick and slippery. The walk to the kiln is hundreds of meters each way. And because the paths are uneven with large elevation changes, wheelbarrows or mechanization seems to be impractical. The factories a large source of employment for Nepalese people and they draw migrant workers from southern and eastern Nepal to the Kathmandu valley. 
Workers stack unbaked bricks before carrying them to the kiln. 

Many of the brick factories were damaged and closed after the 2015 earthquake. I visited the brick factories then and none of them were open. But rebuilding Nepal requires bricks and the brick factories were quickly rebuilt to provide a burgeoning construction industry with materials. 
Inside a kiln. Unbaked bricks (gray in the background) are stacked up while baked bricks (red foreground) are taken straight to waiting trucks. The bricks are sold to construction firms literally as soon as they are finished. 
A woman in the kiln stacks bricks on her head to carry to a waiting truck. Again, all done by hand with no sign of even a wheelbarrow. Many of the workers in the brick factories are women. 

Although Nepal needs the bricks to rebuild and the brick factories to make those bricks, the factories take an environmental toll. Many burn soft coal, imported from India, and they belch noxious black smoke all day long. 
A woman, working with her husband, put pieces of coal into a grinder to make coal dust. The coal dust is then fed into the kiln as fuel. 
Black smoke coming out of the kiln at one of the smaller brick factories. 

I've often observed that one of the things I like about being a photojournalist is that I get to see how things are made. That is certainly true of the brick factories. It's fascinating to see how something so commonplace, at least in Nepal, is made. It was like stepping into a time machine and going back 200 years. 
The one brick factory I saw that didn't use human power to haul unbaked bricks used donkeys. This was about a kilometer from a narrow country road and we had to walk through rice and wheat fields to get out to it.
A worker delivers finished bricks straight from the kiln to waiting trucks and the bricks are hauled to construction sites around the Kathmandu valley. The red color is not "photoshopped" in. Everything in and around the kiln is covered in thick red dust from the baked bricks. 

There are more photos from the brick factories in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Rebuilding Nepal

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, an ancient city in Nepal. Since the earthquake of April 2015 this charming historic city has been turned into a large construction site. 

I am in Nepal for a few weeks working with Gavin Gough, who is leading one of his excellent photo workshops. I came to Kathmandu early so I could work on some personal projects. The first thing I did was go back to the same places I went to for my reportage on the immediate effects of the 2015 earthquake
In Bungamati, a woman digs out a walkway between two homes badly damaged in the earthquake. 

I would like to say that Nepal (and I've just been in the Kathmandu area, the first to get reconstruction aid) is rebuilt and everything is great. I would like to say that people are no longer living in tents, two years after the trembler. I can't say either of those things. 
Women work on rebuilding a temple in Bungamati. Two years ago, this collapsed temple was an IDP camp. The people who lost their homes in the earthquake have been pushed beyond the city center but are still living in temporary shelters. 

In some parts of the Kathmandu valley it looks like reconstruction has barely started. Workers (mostly women incidentally) are still digging out homes and buildings with hand tools. This is not a sign of search and recovery, this is because this is how reconstruction is done in Nepal. It is manual labor. From hauling bricks in for reconstruction to hauling debris out, it's all done by hand. Even the brick factories rely on manual labor from start to finish, a coming story on the blog.  
In Bhaktapur, a woman excavates a collapsed home with a garden trowel. This two years after the earthquake. 

In most of the areas devastated by the earthquake people still scavenge for usable building supplies, bricks and timbers from collapsed buildings are used in the reconstruction. Timber not worthy of reconstruction is used as firewood, bricks not worthy of reconstruction are crushed and remade. 
In Khokana, a man puts aside wood from a destroyed building that he will later use or sell as firewoord. A building being rebuilt is in the background. Temporary shelters (behind him) are built out of damaged bricks. They are simply stacked up and not mortared together. 

Millions of dollars flowed into Nepal for the rebuilding and it's a question as to where it's all gone. One of the most high profile and successful reconstruction projects, the majestic Boudhanath Stupa, an ancient Buddhist site, was rebuilt privately, with donations from international Buddhist organizations. Money is being spent to rebuild the tourist areas, the Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, but it doesn't seem as though much is going into other areas, and many of the people displaced by the earthquake, even in Kathmandu, are still living in temporary shelters. In many cases tents. 
A woman washes her face with water stored in a plastic drum in front of her temporary shelter in Khokana. She's lived in the "temporary" shelter for almost two years. 

In Bhaktapur's Durbar Square, a craftsman carves stone to go into a temple being rebuilt. 

I think the reconstruction of Nepal is going to take decades, if it ever is truly finished. In two years time, it seems as though the surface has barely been scratched in what has become an ongoing crisis. In fact, the situation is now so normalized, I'm not sure it should even be called a crisis anymore.

Despite all of this, Nepal is still a great place to visit. The people are gracious and welcoming, the vistas magnificent and the history overwhelming. Kathmandu was a crossroads of Asia 600 years before New York was founded. Some of the temples destroyed in the earthquake go back a millennia or more. If you're planning to visit Nepal, don't let the earthquake cancel your plans. Nepal needs the visitors (and their cash) now more than ever. Just know that things will never be the way they were. 
Reconstruction workers at Swayambhu Stupa, a place holy to both Buddhists and Hindus. 

There are many, many more photos from my reportage on the aftermath of the earthquake in my archive and ZUMA Press is presenting some of them in a zReportage feature

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.