I went for a walk on a snowy morning in Calgary. I loved the geometry of these rooftops set against the blank canvas of a snow-filled sky.
It’s 6pm. I sit on the deck on the 6th floor of the hotel while my camera perches on its tripod, taking time-lapse shots of the traffic on Road 22. The sun’s gone down, just a burnt smudge on the sky where its fleeing rays catch in the city smog. Sunday evening traffic rumbles, steady but not chaotic. The air is cool, refreshing. I’ve an Amber Beer on the table beside me, the latest release from the local St George brewery, just a few months old, and with its sweeter notes of burnt caramel and hops, one of the continents better brews. As I look out over the city skyline, it’s a muddled jumble of mid-rise towers, basilica domes and construction scaffolding, all backed by the lurking hills that ring the city basin.
The two weeks I’ve been here since starting my contract feel like two months. At least. I’ve stepped- finally- into a senior role in an HRI-affiliate (Coming to a Community Near You™). The mental overload of learning the ropes of a new job have been overlaid with learning a new city, a new country, and the nuances of a new culture.
To say nothing of memorizing Ethiopian names.
It’s November. The rainy season has been, and the skies are blue. All day, every day. A few clouds lurk in the evenings behind the hilltops, but that’s about it. One morning a smog so thick it recalls a winter fog in the home counties chokes the city. Rush hour traffic tumbles from the murk, darkened silhouettes dashing from the throat-burning, eye-tearing fug, until a brisk midday breeze sweeps the air clean. The wind is cool and fresh and fidgets with plastic bags and the airborne detritus of the city.
Poor is layered on rich here. There aren’t clearly deliniated quartiers split between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Here, a hotel backs onto unpaved tracks and run-down alotments. There, street children gather outside an expat-frequented supermarket stocked with Malaysian imports with Arabic scrawls and stamped حلال. I join new friends and eat at a fancy French restaurant that sets us back forty bucks a head- a pricey night out here where you can buy lunch for a dollar and a dead-jarring coffee for fifty cents. Through the cracked windshield of my taxi heading back, I see the homeless lying in rows beneath the overpass fifty paces from my hotel.
I spend a morning getting my medical checks done, a part of the work permit application process. It’s a slow, bureaucratic tedium that involves drifting from one department’s waiting line to the next. When I get my ECG done, I’m one part amused, one part appauled by the contraption, all crocodile clips and vacuum-bulbs wired up to a device like the electro-shock therapy machine in Return to Oz. As the doctor smears a conductive jelly over my bare torso, I’m just impressed they have an ECG machine. Three days later I still have the bruises from the suction cups beneath my nipples.
A Kenyan, a Ugandan, a German, an American and I sound like the start to a bad joke, but we head out to dinner at Face of Addis, a restaurant perched halfway up one of the hills overlooking the city. The little blue taxi of Eastern European design fails to scramble up the angle of the crushed rock street and we get out to alleviate its weight, wherein its tinny motor wails and eventually convinces it up the ascent. A glass frontage gives a magnificent view over the blooming metropolis. We watch plane after plane land at Bole International, one of Africa’s busiest airports and a hub for European access. Ethiopian Airlines is the newest member of Star Alliance, and we watch five jets come in to land in no more than ten minutes, their starlike landing lights queued out to the horizon one behind the other.
Our conversation is banter, periodically dark. We’re mostly emergency response folk. With us is the manager for one of our refugee camp responses, and three of the staff are based in Nairobi, where tensions run high ahead of the upcoming elections. Our Kenyan colleague, half Kikuyu (infamous for their business acumen), bears the brunt of our humour. We promise to hold her a spot in our Ethiopian refugee camp when she has to flee her country next March.
“How can you tell if a Kikuyu is dead?” Jokes the Ugandan. “You take a ten cent coin…” He mimes dropping it in front of the presumedly-deceased.
Growth is constant here. As with elsewhere in Africa, the Chinese are huge investors. They can be seen throughout the city. Another night we eat at a cultural restaurant, popular here as they showcase local food, music and dancing. Over a meal of tibs and gitfo (cooked), we watch a Chinese businessman lose his inhibitions over beer and tej, the local honey wine. When one of the lithe dancers invites him to dance, he gives a performance worthy of a YouTube phenomenon, one part jitterbug and one part funky-chicken. He lurches onto the stage and after embracing a drummer who goodnaturedly surrenders his instrument, animates the drum with much flailing of the arms. The dancers subsequently adopt his movement into their routine, to much appreciation from the crowd, but our table is torn between laughing at the smooth adaptation of the performers, and the cubit-lengthed rat that has emerged from the straw roof and is now picking its way along the top of a wall at the back of the stage.
The people are understated, gracious, and quietly proud. Ethiopians speak of how they have never been colonized, quietly brushing over the brief period of occupation by Mussolini’s forces that has left pasta an almost national dish and named the Mercato, the city’s market district and a national monument. I walk a tightrope, trying to build relationship and trust, while following my own instructions of pushing through change faster than any of us are comfortable with. After some meetings I come away with my head spinning from the concentration of trying to maintain a dynamic of respect, while at the same moment having to implement an unpopular decision.
I’m shown round an apartment. It’s spacious, clean, and has a beautiful view of the city. It costs a fraction of what a similar place would cost in Australia. Afterwards I sit down with two colleagues and share a cup of tea. One explains to me how he ‘adopted’ two boys, one off the streets of Addis who used to sell him cigarettes, the other from an impoverished regional town. Both are adults now, one a teacher, the other a scientist. In his own humble way, his pride both at the boys, and the difference he has made in his own country, shines in his eyes. Apparently such an undertaking- to financially sponsor and support the less fortunate in their community- is fairly commonplace among middle-class Ethiopians.
I hurtle along in one of the little blue taxis. They’re ancient, decrepit vehicles, clearly from the Communist era. Sitting in the front seat, safety belt unavailable as we hare down an empty avenue late in the evening, I’m twitchingly sensitive to a sense of my own mortality. The time of the Derg is evident here in the charmless concrete tower-block apartments and the deep respect for government authority. Posters of the late Meles Zenawi, President and then Prime Minister since the overthrow of the communist government and the war with Eritrea, are everywhere. He passed away of natural causes a few months ago, and is revered as a saint and national treasure.
An LED screen is mounted outside Edna Mall. At night time it is garish, blasting colour and movement over the gridlocked roundabout as people hustle beneath its glow, neon-tinted music videos lending a Blade-Runner-esque atmosphere to the crowd. Glass-fronted restaurants and fashion boutiques overlook the avenue. On a Sunday afternoon, Amhara youth in spray-on jeans and designer tops lounge together in cafes and browse their iPhones. I step onto the street with a friend and across the avenue, golden sunlight from the settling dusk paints the domes of the Orthodox cathedral while prayers sing from the loudspeakers. As we pull away, an old man hobbles across the street on makeshift crutches, head weighed down by a vast, grubby turban, a gold cross dangling at his neck.
The food here is good, the coffee better. I read an accurately descriptive quote in a travel article the other day: “The prefered caffeine delivery mechanism here is the macchiato.” It comes at morning-tea time without fail in a shot-sized glass, rich black coffee with milky froth on top. I watch my Ethiopian colleagues spoon two, three, even four shovels of sugar into their brew and suck it down, and feel saintly for my half-spoon concession. I buzz for the rest of the morning and half the afternoon. At lunch I join them in the canteen and pay sixty-five cents for shiro wat and injera– a tasty red sauce poured onto a bed of the spongy teff-based bread that is a national institution. The fingernails of my right hand are already stained yellow with the remnants of spice.
It’s dark now, and the traffic is steady but thinning. Come tomorrow morning, it will be a choked grind up and down the clogged arteries of Ethiopia’s throbbing heart. My commute- a brief walk from the hotel to the office- reaches its climax trying to cross the four-to-six lanes of moving metal, waiting for the right moment when I can step out and not be pulverised. A dead bitch lies swelling in the sun in the lane across from the hotel. In my brief time here I’ve already seen one man hit by a car, but fortunately not seriously.
My waiter comes round with another Amber. He sees me working away on the computer, next to my constantly-snapping camera.
“You make movies with that one?” he asks me. “What software you are using?”
I try to explain the concept of time-lapse photography and fail to find an example on my hard drive. He tells me that in his free time he does video-editting for weddings and likes to integrate photographs into the process. A short while later he brings me a plate of toasted grain, on the house because he wants me to try some. It tastes like roasted corn kernels, and keeps great company with beer.
There’s a lot up in the air here. I’m not sure how long I’m going to be able to stay. Hopefully, a long time. I’m desperate to follow through some of the changes that are already happening, and have a chance to put my experience in this industry to the test, hopefully make a difference in this office and in this program. Some things are out of my control. If there’s one positive in the limbo I’m currently in, it’s that I’m determined to make the most of every minute this place gives me. Ethiopia is fascinating. It’s enriching, invigorating, inspiring. I’m delighted to be here, despite knowing that challenges doubtless lie ahead. So I’ll share what and when I can, and hope you enjoy the journey with me.
*PS– watch the bottom left corner of the time-lapse video to see the planes coming in to land at Bole International Airport, one after the other
The year isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot. But by the dearth of fresh photos going up on this blog you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve hung up my lenses and called it a day. In fact, by the dearth of fresh anything going up on this blog you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve hung up my keyboard, too.
Happily, neither one is the case.
I have, however, been a little overwhelmed with the inconvenience that is real life, and it’s taken me a little time to get through a backlog of photos for processing, and eventually, writing some of them up. I’m hoping to remedy my general neglect of this site recently over the next few weeks. Which I’ve said before. But I do actually have a little free time coming my way. So, maybe…
At any rate, as a taster here are a few of my favourite pictures from the last ten months or so, from a few different spots round the globe. Some of these locations I might flesh out a little more as time goes on, but for now, I hope you like this little collection of images.
Top: A muggy and overcast day on Tybee Beach, Savannah, GA. Overexposed in-camera and processed for low colour and emphasizing highlights focuses on the texture and an almost dreamlike view of the ocean. Shot using shallow depth of field means the foreground is soft while the waves beyond are in sharper relief.
Above: A baobab tree rises from rusty soils and a flowering ground creeper in fields outside a village in rural South-East Kenya. I was struck by the lovely contrast between the spray of white flowers (actually weeds), the red ground and the blue sky- all nicely lit on a fresh morning. Baobabs make for a fantastic photographic subject- stark, dramatic and instantly recognizable.
Above: Rounded rocks on a beach at Wilson’s Prom, on the southern coast of Australia, give testament to millenia of weathering at the hands of the relentless ocean. Shot in overcast light and exposing to darken the sky with some differential exposure in post-processing has kept the rocks in low contrast, emphasising their smooth shape and texture, and emphasising form over colour in the muted palette. Wilson’s Prom remains one of the prettiest corners of Victoria in my playbook.
Above: Downtown Phoenix, seen from the air coming in to land, with the high-rise central business district just off-centre and Chase Field, home of the Diamondbacks, off to the right. The way the grid of small streets and roads lead in converging lines take the eye through downtown and on to the hills in the background, and the effect makes this one of the only shots I’ve taken from a plane window that I actually like.
Above: Trentham Falls, outside Daylesford, Victoria, Australia, as viewed from behind the falls themselves. Hand-held at slightly long exposure has given the falling water a slightly silky texture. Among the challenges of taking this image were the issue of shooting from a darkened vantage against a lighter sky and trying not to allow much of the image to burn out. Additionally, several plebs managed to find themselves in the frame, so I removed their pesky presence in post-processing to give the image a more serene look. I actually had to wait up here for a good six or seven minutes for a couple of kids to step out of the frame at bottom, where they had been chucking big rocks into the water. Overall I like the quiet scene and the relatively soft palette of greens and earthy tones.
Above: Highway bridge, Savannah, GA. You don’t generally get many good shots through a car windshield, but this spur-of-the-moment snap-shot (I use the term to refer to how quickly it had to be lined up and taken, not the camera it was taken on) works for me. Again the lines of the bridge struts give a great sense of motion, leading the eye into a contrasty late-afternoon sky, and a broad horizon giving the feeling of wide open spaces. It’s a shot that captures movement and an enjoyable juxtaposition of dramatic engineering and natural beauty.
Above: The sun sets directly over an intersection on a steamy panhandle night near Altha, FL. The warm tones and striking position of the sun are nicely led to by the wires of the phone lines, and I like the faint splash of reflection coming off the road.
While I’ve not been quite as prolific a photographer during the first half of this year (something I’m looking to change), I have managed to break my camera out a few times. And likewise, although my travel schedule has been light-on, I’ve popped up here and there to get a few images that I feel are worth sharing from around the place. Once again, I’ll let the images do most of the talking.
These first few are from the East Coast of the South Island, a ways north of Kaikoura. We were blown away by the beauty of this little pocket of the country. I’ve travelled pretty much every corner of New Zealand, with only one or two exceptions, and this was one of those exceptions. A winding coastal road clings to the rocks and cliffs along this rugged coastline, with dramatic breakers on one side, steep hillsides rising to mountains on the other. The weather was glorious and the scenery rich. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
We found this little church and it’s environs along the same stretch. The churches around Christchurch and northwards are beautiful and would be well worth a photography excursion on their own merit.
Another area of fresh exploration for me was Golden Bay. This exquisite pocket of the South Island, along the north-western tip, is a lfiestyle haven with delightful scenery and a rugged, secluded feel out of the main township areas. We did a short walk to Wainui Falls to one of the more dramatic waterfalls I’ve seen for a few years (partly due to Victoria’s general rainfall scarcity).
The bush walk up is lovely, but the falls make it totally worth the effort. Heavy and gushing and surrounded by dripping temperate rainforest, it’s a gorgeous spot to explore.
Heading northwards through the middle of the North Island and it’s so-called desert centre, we stopped on a windy afternoon for a view of Mt. Ruapehu across the barren plains. Wind-tossed wildflowers made for a nice inclusion into the frame on the first shot.
Catapulting west a considerable distance, I snapped these images of downtown Cape Town, South Africa, from my hotel window. Just to mix it up a little.
And finally, a weekend break took us down the Great Ocean Road here in Victoria, where we came across this little waterfall at the end of a roadside footpath into the Otways. One of the under-rated treasures of Australia, the Great Ocean Road is full of pathways and corridors through the bush to explore, and could be mined for weeks for little gems like this one.
More to come as the camera gets out for more walks…
One of the things I like about Melbourne is that it’s a creative, artsy sort of city. There’s always lots on, and in the city centre there’s lots of space given over to different displays of creativity. Love it or hate it, the highly acclaimed, debated and controversial Federation Square, smack in the heart of the CBD, is a perfect case in point, with its jagged, almost broken architectural lines, post-modern functionality, and use of both open and closed space to house and promote artistic expression. Love it or hate it, it makes a statement.
One of the things I like about being a photographer is being able to grab my gear, go for a walk, and explore different aspects of the visual world we live in. On Sunday I was inspired to explore the colour and character of a little of this creativity that Melbourne exudes. Not by design; it just happened that way. Went for a walk, found some colour, and started snapping.
This installation is on the north bank of the Yarra a five minute walk from Federation Pier. I’ve no idea what it is. In all honesty (and I share my opinion as a non-artist, and one who has little knowledge or appreciation for contemporary sculpture) I think it’s quite hideous, both the structure itself and the detailing on it. Not to disrespect the work that goes into it or the vision that others (the artist included) clearly had. However, what I do love about it is the splash of colour and the way its smooth round forms contrast with the angled skyline of central Melbourne. The almost artificial lighting that appears here is actually a result of the feathery clouds that drifted over the city, causing some areas to be strongly lit and others to be more softly illuminated.
Just behind this amorphous blob is a large ferris wheel. It’s no competitor for the London Eye (although there is one such folly currently being deconstructed in Melbourne’s docklands), but it’s a cute, colourful little thing, and against the cloudy sky the cool weekend delivered, I enjoyed the shapes and contrast as they appeared through the viewfinder.
Around the back of Fed Square I found this cute little block of land, aptly named the Urban Garden. Its purpose and presence speaks for itself, but I again enjoyed the combination of colour contrasts, and the notion of the ‘soft space’ of the grass being compared with the ‘hard space’ of the paved square (at the top of the steps at back). In true postmodern style, the designer has juxtaposed hard lines (the cube-like green squares on the grass) with the soft context to further confuse our notions of green space in the city. Or at least that’s my Geographer’s read of it. Like most of what I write, it’s perfectly possible I’m just making it all up.
Fed Square itself is a curious tangle of creative lines that serve no great purpose other than to entertain the eye and usurp an assumed sense of architectural value. While the corrugated tin roof here harks back to the ubiquitous and utilitarian functionality of galvanized roof sheeting that is found across rural and suburban Australia, it is equally as superfluous here as the jumble of ‘support’ beams, and is more a playful nod to Australia’s architectural traditions in the midst of a contemporary installation. Hard to photograph well, I thoroughly enjoy the flight of imagination that went into creating Federation Square, and personally thinks it adds reams to Australia’s cultural capital and the flavour of the city centre.
I took this shot deliberately while I was framing up different angles of the Split Point Lighthouse in Airey’s Inlet, along Victoria’s southern coastline. On an earlier exposure I could see the different light-sources colouring the image, and it appealed to me greatly.
There are five different sets of light in the image. Balancing them was part of the joy of the photograph.
To the left, and a bushfire burning over the northern horizon behind a crest of hills was reflecting its light onto the clouds above. The wide angle of the lens (about 120 degrees) captured the clouds over that portion of the sky and the red-orange glow which they soaked up.
Moving to the right and the lower horizon, the light transitions gently from orange to yellow. These are the man-made sodium-tainted lights of Geelong, also catching in the clouds. The transition and contrast between the two colours really caught my eye, and I liked the way the sky took on the different hues.
Above both, of course, are the stars- tiny pinpricks of light which the massive eye of the 16-35mm lens was able to pick up in just half a minute or so of exposure. I shot with the aperture stopped wide open (f/2.8) and at maximum sensitivity (ISO 1600), and with the relative lack of ambient light (nearby towns and moonlight) the stars shone through brightly. I especially like the blue hues of the bright star just to the left of the top centre- possibly not a star at all but the planet Venus? But I’m not sure.
Next, of course, is the artificial light of the still-functioning lighthouse beacon- a yellow-white light tinted red where the red glass of the lighthouse window catches in the beam. This light was in a way the hardest to expose for, being the brightest of all (by many orders of magnitude, at that proximity). The saving grace was the fact that while the other lights were constant, the lighthouse beam flashed on and off, with long periods of darkness between, so that while overall it was still the brightest light in the sky and the limiting factor on how long I could leave the shutter open for before it burned out that portion of the frame, I was still able to get up to a minute’s worth of usable exposure when I wanted it.
There is a fifth light source in the image which is far subtler, and that’s the light which is painting the side of the lighthouse. If not for this light (catching on the left-hand or land-facing side of the lighthouse), the whole tower would be a black silhouette of the same level as the right-hand (sea-facing) side of the column. The light illuminating the lighthouse tower is in fact from the headlights of cars passing on the Great Ocean Road a couple of miles away in either direction, where the lighthouse’s high vantage allows it to capture brief seconds of light from cars turning exposed corners of the route. As I was shooting, the faint glow of the lights could be seen moving from left to right or right to left across the inland face of the tower, casting mobile shadows which turn into a gently graduated glow in the static frame.
Photography quite literally means the writing (or recording) of light. Ultimately it’s the photographer’s job to read the light coming from a particular scene, and try and capture that light through a balance of variable mechanisms within the camera itself- the size and type of lens, the aperture of that lens, the length of time the sensor/film/plate is exposed for, the sensitivity of that sensor/film/plate, and the addition of any other artificial light sources. Framing up a shot with a diverse range of light sources can be a challenge (although a joy of the digital photography revolution is the fact that there is some room for experimentation and instant feedback)- but when the pieces fall into place (as I humbly feel they have done so here) it’s an immensely satisfying experience. This particular shoot (I spent 2 nights up at this lighthouse taking these photos) was an absolute joy and goes into my list of memorable photo ops.
Updating a series of articles originally written as posts and now transfered over to the “Articles and Travel Writing” section of the site. This one about my time in Niamey, Niger.
My time in Niamey was by parts exotic and dark. I came under tremendous pressure at work and, being young, struggled to deal with it well. My temper grew short, I overworked, lost my appetite, slept badly, and started over-exercising in an effort to manage my stress. In short, I toyed with the pointy end of burn-out.
Driving has always been a form of escape for me. I like the physical act of being behind the wheel. I suppose if I unpack it it’s some combination of being in control of my surroundings, of being in a private space, and of moving or travelling (the last being something I will probably touch on elsewhere).
I had access to two vehicles while in Niamey, and I was fond of both of them. One was the car which was assigned to our teamhouse, an old Toyota Tercel, an All Wheel Drive hatch which I loved despite it being in fairly rough condition. In fact, as a car ideally suited to the city streets of Niger’s capital, most of which were sand and rutted dirt. We even took it off-road occasionally, for example on afternoons when we might head up to the Plateau overlooking the Niger River for a little scramble on the rocks or an early-evening barbecue. The other was a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, brand new and purchased specifically for the emergency program which I found myself managing at the time. Although it captured what makes me uncomfortable about big NGOs sometimes (we could have found a cheaper vehicle with a little effort) it was a wonderful machine- and it could certainly reach all our remote project sites, scattered as they were over a thousand kilometres of Nigerien bushland. I tended not to drive it in Niamey, partly because I felt it was ostentatious when the decrepit little Tercel did the job just fine, and partly because it was a field vehicle, and more often than not would be with one of our nutrition teams doing follow-up visits in the districts…