It’s Thursday evening and I am feeling uncomfortable, trying to balance the issues in my universe with a chocolate cake and a glass of wine. It’s not working. I have only couple of days left to come up with something for my next challenge which is “out of my comfort zone” – in terms of photography technique or topic or the photographer himself/herself feeling uncomfortable in the act of taking the picture. Sigh.
What makes me feel uncomfortable in the photography world?
It is indeed overdone HDR but I do not want to venture down that road. Tastefully executed HDR photos are fine and I look forward to those in other people’s submissions.
Another nemesis of mine is “pretend photo journalism” equaling capturing poverty or controversial social or political issues for pure gain of fame / money / both with little or none whatsoever return to the subject. I am not going to travel to the rubbish dump of Siem Reap to capture the miserable life of those living off the scraps of the city folk as this has been done before to highlight the said misery – without revealing also the positives and the help that is provided to those living in the harsh conditions. I am not going to capture the non-glamorous nightlife in the Asian cities and nor am I going to take a slice off the “orphanage tourism” pie – life in Asia is one big controversy and surely great stories along with powerful pictures are to be had almost on every corner but I believe in researching the topic and then coming up with something little more complex than a simple caption leaving the viewer hanging in the air. It is almost too easy to generate emotion with pictures of struggle, abuse, poverty, misery and the like and today’s world is full of them.
I feel nauseous viewing overly cheesy wedding or family photography so let’s steer clear of that as it is definitely an issue of taste and also fashion stamp of the times we live in. Luckily there are many talented photographers who manage to take great lifestyle shots leaving me with assurance that there is hope. This is also only my humble opinion on the matter.
I don’t really have issues with snapping photos of strangers. I enjoy low light photography and experiments with speed – capturing movement or movement blur. I am not saying am the master of all but these topics are definitely in my comfort zone. Crouching in the undergrowth in search of 8 legged creatures with many (eight at times) eyes comes close to being a pleasure so I won’t be able to use this venture either.
At this stage I think my “uncomfortable zone” will be setting the alarm to “silly o’clock”, dragging my sorry body out of bed and fueled by a shock dose of caffeine head out before the big red ball makes appearance on the horizon. I have not seen many of those as I like my pillow too much.
Watch this space…
Well, I have snoozed and snoozed and have not left my bed in time for sunrise. Too bad and expected…. Who was I kidding? I took a picture of my bed to prove that getting up itself is in fact leaving my comfort zone.
But that would be getting away too lightly. Being in a self-punishing mood I have grabbed my tripod and headed to the local markets. The light there is difficult, the place is crammed, smelly and hot, fish and shoes and bananas are all on display in the same section and if that’s not uncomfortable then I don’t know what is. My presence with my three legged friend made the trip to the market uncomfortable for others too – do I get any extra points for this? I suspect not. I decided to play with the shutter speed and blur the human element while focusing (mainly) on chicken feet with my own feet unsteady on the slippery and wet floor…. While I am somewhat immune to similar sights and smells I must admit that I was grateful for my slightly clogged up nose as normally the smell of fish and meat in the middle of the day is rather overpowering.
Below is a handful of market shots and these will be similar all over Cambodia. I will pick one before Sunday deadline.
Would you like a chicken claw with that?
Home is where the heart is or at least so they say.
My heart lives in many places, my body is now here – in Cambodia. It was travel that brought me here 10 years ago and on and off I have called Cambodia my home for about 5 of those years. This is where my bed is and I presume my heart is here too, although sometimes I doubt my sanity for having stayed so long. Upon reflection, however, I know deep down that I like it here, just take away the loud music and the crazy drivers…..
The sacred temples of Angkor are literally on my doorstep, I live in a single layer of clothing most of the year and a good friend base makes it a very easy place to settle.
This is not to say that I don’t miss home – my other home, the real one, the place of my origin. Country with deep green forests, rivers and lakes, four seasons, tasty beers and dumplings – Czech it out if you have not already been! This precise topic is the theme of my current local exhibition and I plan to return again this autumn to reconnect with family and friends (and their horses), indulge in beer and cheese and photograph red and yellow leaves, misty mountains and mossy forests.
Then there is my other home – the one down under, where the Goulburn River quietly flows in the shadows of fragrant eucalyptus trees before it joins the mightier Murray. My heart is there, body waiting to return.
Aotearoa also known as the Land of the Long White cloud (in common speak New Zealand) is my other home and I have a tattoo to prove it. The connection was immediate, the landscape breathtaking, the people quirky but open and giving, the sand flies intense, the beaches endless, and the mountains…. don’t let me start on the mountains. Something moves inside me and I yearn to go back. To be on the road again, to swim in crystal clear rivers (and fight the sand flies), to have a campfire on the beach, to sleep under the stars, to hike in snow and marvel at the open vistas… They also have the most amazing wine!
The UK should also get at least a mention despite having featured on the “home” list for good 4 years or so. The memories are hazy and grey, face pressed on a bus window, vacant look and daydreaming of sunny places while travelling to work.
So the question this week was: “how on earth to summarise the place of my current residence in one photo?” I could go the conventional way and snap away the mighty Angkor Wat itself (although I don’t live there, it’s full of bats…), I could hang around town and get some street shots, I could wait patiently by the road and get some good photos of the crazy traffic and the way goods get transported – from family of five on one bike to live pigs travelling strapped on the back of motos, live chickens and ducks hanging off handlebars by the dozen, overloaded tuk tuks and trucks….. or I could visit the floating communities of the Tonle Sap lake and capture their contemporary lifestyle on water….. But instead I felt it should be something with a temple flavour; the above do spell Cambodia but not necessarily Siem Reap at first glance.
So temples then. It’s almost a “yawn” reaction – but only if taken as prescribed – with masses of tourists swarming the sites and making them most unholy, noisy and hectic. If one wanders off the beaten track a little the reward is astonishing. Some temples hardly see any visitors at all as they are not on the “must see” bucket lists of many. Some do get the occasional visitor quietly contemplating the meaning of life and such – and this is fine. Those structures should be admired - with respect and awe which they deserve.
During 2012 I photographed the West Gate of the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom – the head on which is believed to be the one of Jayavarman VII – the “busy king” as a guide-friend once described him to me (he really built a whole lot of temples!). This photograph was since published in the National Geographic Traveller and other publications and thus I decided to replicate the image for the Week 4 challenge. It spells Angkor but it’s not an iconic image that will be recognized instantly for what it is however it does carry the label “Cambodia” quite clearly.
Replicating an image is an interesting exercise in itself. I found the spot but my camera set up was different and Mother Nature decided to give the King a fringe of branches partly hiding his face. The light and time of year were also different. Oh, so be it…. Trying to get a very similar shot resulted in me nearly falling off the 8 meter high wall but hey, I like to live dangerously!
Cambodian weddings….obnoxiously loud (and colourful) affairs and as good a reason as any to leave my house in pursuit of hearing recovery and this week’s topic – the perfect monochrome. (I do manage to find an opportunity to mention my hate affair with wedding music in almost every blog post... yes, I know)
I am leaving the thumping wedding marquee atop my street behind, turning my colour receptors off and cycling to a favourite spot of mine – Wat Preah Encosai otherwise known as the Upper Pagoda (Wat Leu). In early morning hours an undeniable source of noise this time of day the grounds are quiet apart from the murmur from a nearby school where knowledge is being repeated by countless voices and occasionally laughter rings through the air. I have a small window of opportunity to shoot in peace before the curious and cheeky Cambodian youth are "released into the wild".
Pagodas are by their very nature colourful buildings, walls richly decorated with bright colours and interiors boasting murals depicting religious motifs on every available square inch including the pillars and ceiling. Quite the sensory overload. So why come here for a black and white challenge, has she gone mad? ….. Well yes and no.
A quick read-up on how to see the world in black and white reveals the simple truth – shapes, patterns, contrast, simplicity and texture to name the few key elements. Luckily pagodas have these too aside from being a technicolour dream… There are lines and arches, mosaic floors, rusty old gates, peeling paint on wooden doors and window frames, dirty handprints on walls and an old man who has the keys to the forgotten treasures inside. Occasionally a bright flash of monk’s robe catches the eye adding to the authenticity of the place.
But the week is only in its first half and who knows what other colourless opportunities I run into!
So I keep on looking and I come across images that would please the judges (I hope) if our theme was abstract – IF only! I will have to find other visual pleasers down the line but when I am shooting a promotional material for one of the hotels in the area I come across an interesting image which definitely benefits from monochrome and it ends up being my final choice.
I grew up with black and white photography, negatives drying throughout the apartment, the smell of chemicals in the air and bathroom inaccessible for hours on end. My father is a self-taught enthusiast with his own dismountable infrared kingdom which even now, in the digital age, gets the occasional airing and home-made monochrome images are produced.
There is something undeniably nostalgic in black and white photography but it’s also the “new cool” – whatever it means to you, it’s certain that it’s not going anywhere, it’s here to stay and we shall be creative in both colour and monochrome because we can! So here's to black and white!
…there was a bang. A perfectly plausible theory – at least in Cambodia. Those who have witnessed any of the country’s festivities know what I am talking about. Those of you who have not, just read some of my blog posts on my battle with Cambodian music and noise in general.
The second week 52F challenge starts with a bang then! Well, depending on how you interpret it, doesn't it?
I considered several options. Besides the “big bang” theory I was curious to see what the Buddhists thought of the creation of the world, of the very beginning, only to learn, with a little surprise, that they didn't care altogether that much. So that was out of the question.
I considered spying on my neighbours while they were “at it” but the idea was quickly abolished (ew!) as well. With alarmingly rising numbers in the world population I care more for contraception than conception!
The rhetorical question of “What was first? Chicken or egg?” also crossed my mind and I did snap away one shot to experiment. I was not convinced that the final result would speak much to the audience and relay the week’s topic.
Star trails or star light would have also been great but the Weather Gods have decided not to show their kind face when it was needed.
Earlier this week I was a part of the B1G1 group trip to the Cambodian countryside where a playground was being built for one of the schools there and my role was to record the event in photographs. The colourful audience kept me entertained and at one point I came across this beautiful grandmother with an enigmatic face holding a young child, watching all the commotion with bemusement and a cheeky grin. I snapped away and then chatted with them for a little while also showing them what wonderful models they both were - Cambodian people love to see their images and I like to show them the photos I have taken of them.
Later, during the post processing process, I realised that this image actually fits the week's topic perfectly. We all enter life with a smooth face, skin like a blank page of a book where daily events, our experiences, and growing old make their mark, scar us and leave a deepening map of wrinkles; embedded record of all our frowns, laughter and worries. Here I have the two ends of the scale - the very beginning and the (almost) very end.
New Year is here and with it comes (or should come) the stream of New Year’s resolutions counting the usual suspects: less wine, beer and food intake, more exercise, less stress and more fun. I scrap the first two candidates as I know come mid-January all good resolutions disappear into thin air and I resume living the same old (good) way.
Instead I focus on my New Year’s revolution: self-employment, self-development and in the first week of January ….. self-portrait or selfie – a word which recently found its way to the Oxford Dictionary and the like. Love it or hate it – it’s there.
Self-portrait is the first topic of the weekly assignments in an online community of fellow shutterbugs I recently joined – Fifty-Two Frames. Led by Yosef who is quite a character, the colourful bunch from all corners of the globe proudly present their interpretation of the given topic with a brief caption and Master Yosef picks his top three every Sunday evening. He must have quite fun doing so.
I normally break into cold sweat when the word “portrait”(of me) is mentioned, self-portrait results in a similar reaction – I break into hot sweat. Cambodia does not allow one to sweat “coldly”. How exactly do I want to execute this challenge, how do I see myself and how do I want other people to see me? Does it actually matter? If it didn’t I guess none of us would faff this way, or would we? Left side is definitely my better side – just for the record.
Moving on – my approach is to present Me, Myself and I in a triplicate and to achieve this I must blow the dust off my Neutral Density filters I last used to smoothen the waters of the Gulf of Thailand countless months ago. Neutral Density filters allow me to keep my shutter open for a considerably longer time without the risk of overexposure even in bright daylight. During this prolonged exposure I have time to place myself in one position and hold this for about 20 seconds to “burn” the first image of Me onto the sensor before I move several inches to the right and record Myself with a different hair do. Fast movement is almost non traceable so this is perfectly possible. Last but not least – I gets its firm place in the image, this time smiling. When the time is up (I am guessing here following many trials and errors) I quickly crawl and grab the remote release and depress the button. Needless to say, the mode here is Bulb and remote shutter is a necessity, wireless would be even better!
Voila, couple of post processing magic tricks in trusted Lightroom finish the picture and I am ready to present the triple Anna to my friends near and far – nice to meet you!
As the handmade stands are firmly holding their place in the manicured lawns of the attractive Wat Damnak (pagoda) eagerly anticipating to bear our works of art as of tomorrow for a month I am scratching my imaginary beard and reflecting on photography and motivation in general.
“Beyond Borders” will showcase the work of five artists from five different countries and their view on the world, what they see, how they see it and how they choose to interpret it through their eye and lens. It is a great mixture of photography styles, different stories and takes on what is happening around us, near or far.
Taking off in Cambodia over the flooded plains around the Great Tonle Sap (Kimleng Sang) the viewers will travel above the subcontinent and witness the first light on sacred mountains and over breathtaking valleys of India and Sri Lanka (Holly Barber), touching ground in the sand blizzard of Western Sahara and learning of the fate of the inhabitants of the refugee camps there (Stephane De Greef). We will then move on to Europe and breathe the fresh summer air and walk on damp forest carpet made of moss (my part) and finally be touched by the hands of humanity (Valentina Chiodi).
Having ones work shown – on large prints – is a great kick, especially when all goes to plan. With great help of others and well co-ordinated team of our own we have made it (I dare say) to the deadline with only a couple of stumbles along the way but that was expected.
The main aim of this pilot exercise is to make photography more accessible to the general (Cambodian) public and try and peel off the “label of seriousness”. It can be fun. Photography SHOULD be fun. Everyday is a school day and we learn as we go. I always hated the term “serious photographer”…. What does it mean? Does it mean that the person with the camera frowns all the time? No need for that. It’s meant to be fun and without much attitude and ego the connection between you and your subject shows, there is no denying that.
When photography is not just a hobby but also a job, motivation is important. I am proud to announce that I have joined the ever growing colourful community of the Fifty-Two Frames where weekly challenges are keeping participants on their artistic toes. I love it. Having tried this myself and failed due to lack of self-discipline, I am grateful that the machinery will force me to perform. If not, I am obliged to give Yosef one million dollars… hmmm only joking! Watch this space!
So, let it be a great year – many stunning images are waiting for us just around the corner!
Below are sample images from the upcoming exhibition at Center for Khmer Studies at Wat Damnak, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.