I wrote a blog post a few days ago to address a FAQ—how do I shoot the Milky Way. But after thinking about it, this blog is still young, and perhaps further introductions to myself would be welcome. So I’ll push off that Milky Way tutorial until next post, and instead will delve a bit deeper into my own history. I forget that maybe more people than my mother are reading this and don’t know much about me, but Mom, if you are the only one reading this, do you have any leftovers I can take home?
Who am I and why/how did I get into photography?
I consider myself a traveler first, artist second, photographer third. My path has involved a wide variety of life experiences to arrive at where I am today, and will take a lot more work to get where I want to be someday. I have been a student (some of my teachers might say that’s a bit generous), world class rascal, golf course landscaper, Shaw’s shelf-stocker bitch, stone mason, bartender, worst car salesman ever, Jack Daniels over-indulger, Siberian husky dogsled musher, adrenaline junky, irrigation installer, truck driver, horticulturalist, house painter, among other jobs and passions along the way. I currently work in the travel industry—both in Operations, and Product Development manager for North American product. As we all know, generally our jobs don’t define us, but there are influences from every venture which shape and mold our character into who we are today.
My childhood was awesome... Take me back! Great friends, loving family, middle class comfort. The old cliché—we didn’t have a lot, but we always had enough. Thankfully my generation was perhaps the last to experience the true, all-American childhood: we were kings of our kingdoms. Didn’t need toys because we had our imaginations and the great outdoors. My bicycle and my BB-gun were my prized possessions. Each day ended with dusty faces and grass stained jeans. Finding a Playboy under the bridge was the best day of our young lives. Hitting a Little-League home run brought hero status. Summers were spent building forts, jumping off stuff, playing sports and disobeying authority figures. If I was stuck at home I’d read National Geographic magazines, in awe of the wild places and tribes, and I read a lot of Tintin comics over and over— envious of his adventures to far off lands, solving mysteries and fighting bad guys. I am incredibly fortunate to have a mother who runs tours to France each summer and was able to join her on a couple trips to France in my early years. Also, my grandparents ran skiing tours to the Alps in the winter and was able to travel throughout the Alps with them! In 8th grade, our class of around 30 students sold pizza each Friday to the underclassmen, and raised enough money for a two week class trip to England. These adventures inspired me, made me feel alive. At an early age, I had the travel bug.
I wasn’t a very good student. But I was an excellent doodler- my art teachers were so frustrated with me as I had a natural talent for drawing in meticulous detail, but I didn’t enjoy it. Here's an example of one of my doodles-- the writing is lyrics from a Townes Van Zandt song.
Academically, I managed to get half respectable grades with little effort. Not because I was a bad kid, but I felt trapped and uninspired in the classroom. Why were we indoors learning about a world that was just outside these classroom walls? This mentality worsened in high school, supplemented by a growing interest in political injustice. The institution of education itself outraged me; our youth fed regurgitated half-truths their entire childhoods, run through an assembly line for 12 years until they're “prepared” for the workforce rat-race, where they're told to “go to work, come home, watch TV, shut up.” It still outrages me. I was reading theorists and activists like Henry David Thoreau, Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galeano, Paulo Freire, which further compounded my lack of interest in the classroom. Still, during this awkward teenage phase, I was an ignorant punk, who thought he knew it all. That arrogance disappeared when I had my first humbling international trip my junior year of high school.
In the Spring of 2000, I went to Switzerland on a student exchange program for 4 months. I lived with a wonderful family on their farm, and attended school a short train ride away. Switzerland is not dramatically different from the United States—both are prosperous, well developed nations on a fairly level playing field. However, the European culture was radically unfamiliar to me. I had glimpses of it in my earlier travels, but never so completely immersed in it like I was that Spring. It’s something I can’t explain well, and never have been able to convey. But those who have lived in different cultures will understand innately. Instead of a culture revolving around material possessions, ego, individuality and competitiveness like mainstream culture America, it was a culture of community, acceptance, cooperation, compassion. Perhaps if I were older, that wouldn’t have been a surprise. But as a young, impressionable punk, generally ignorant to other ways of thinking and living, it was intense culture shock. New pathways in my brain were awakened. It completely transformed my mind. After a few months, it felt like enlightenment in a way. Instead of obsessing over petty matters in my immediate daily life, I could only see the big picture--- a world filled with diverse cultures, with traditions and local wisdom that I couldn’t even fathom. It was both liberating and frightening to go from feeling like you know it all to realizing that much of what you thought you knew was incorrect and incomplete, and there’s really very little that one can know with complete certainty. The more I see the less I know… that has remained a mantra to this day.
Back home that summer I was unprepared for the cultural reintegration process. Many people don’t realize that returning home after long trips in different cultures is extremely challenging. Nobody truly wants to hear about your trip—it’s like telling someone about your dreams. In your head a dream is exciting, wild, and cohesive, but to the listener it’s just nonsense that you really would rather not listen to. I quickly felt alone. The only cure was getting outside this now boring comfort zone. I still had great friends and family, just nobody that could relate to the transformation I had been through.
The world beyond ones comfort zone isn’t necessarily a distant land—it can be found just outside the daily grind. So I’d find my serenity on weekend camping trips, hikes in the White Mountains, canoeing, fishing, and various other little adventures. Any experience outside the comfort zone felt worthwhile. It should come as no surprise that this is where we learn the most, where we grow, what builds our character and what comes to define us.
I went to Plymouth State University (PSU holla!!) in 2002, with a major in Political Science, and a minor in Cultural Anthropology. I had no idea what kind of career this might lead to, I only knew I wanted to be involved with helping promote the value in cultural diversity, which is under threat from the global political economy. It was mandated that I attend the PSU curriculum on campus my freshmen year, which I did, and made some great friends that year, and probably (definitely) drank too much whiskey. I was able to travel my sophomore year when I heard that a group of graduate students and two kickass Professors (Len Resthma and Kate Donahue, love you guys) were going to East Africa to study cultural ecology during the summer. I asked if I could join. Thankfully, they agreed! I bought my first decent camera—a 35mm Canon Rebel with a kit lens. I knew nothing about photography, and my photos were pretty much shit, but the African experience was unbelievable. We camped in tents between Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Meru in the Tanzanian bush. It was so thrilling I barely slept. Instead, I’d hang out with our armed guard at night, shining our headlights into the darkness to pick up on glowing eyes of wildlife, then quietly stalking them to see how close we could get. Like being a child all over again! It was the best time of my life… besides that day as kids when we found the Playboy under the bridge. Here are some images from that trip to Tanzania, Africa:
Apprehensively taking a bite of raw goat liver with the Maasai warriors, in Tanzania. They suffocated the goat so as not to waste the blood-- goat blood and milk are staples of the traditional Maasai diet, then used my knife to butcher the goat and handed me a piece of the liver. Don't want to be rude! When in Rome...
Young Maasai wives, in their Boma of thorny acacia limbs to keep lions out.
Giraffe at Lake Manyara.
Looking out over the Tanzanian Savannah.
Back on PSU campus, I was now permitted to apply for study abroad programs. Most study abroad programs didn’t peak my interest—many are simply host universities at which you study a semester in a dorm with other foreign students, on a classroom based curriculum. I was seeking a more immersive experience. Thankfully, I stumbled on School for International Training (SIT) out of Brattleboro Vermont. Their wide variety of field based programs generally consist of the following flow: a crash course in the local language, extensive field work, site visits, specialist lecturers, and capped off with a one month independent study. Much further beyond the comfort zone I was seeking to escape! It took me some time to narrow down which destinations to pursue. But ultimately I settled on China-- “Yunnan province: language and cultures.” What better place to witness and study the effect of globalization on rural indigenous communities than China?
I could write extensively about my semester in China, perhaps another day. For now here's a few of my favorite images from that adventure:
The Maoist clothing still lingers with the elderly Chinese.
A Taoist Master in a remote monastery where he lives in solitude.
What I will mention now is that for my one month independent study project, I chose to make a case study of the effects of China’s rapid economic growth on a rural community. So I lived with a family of Tibetan farmers, in a remote, tiny village at 13,000 ft elevation—Nixi, which is a couple hours drive from Zhongdian, a town which inspired the fictional novel “Shangri La” by James Hilton. It was an amazing month. Below is a photo of the village where I lived and the grandfather of the family who enjoyed taking me mushroom foraging, and laughing as he made me try his snuff:
With only a couple days left of this project, I was called to the local police station. The Chinese authorities were not comfortable with a foreigner interviewing the Tibetan populace (because of the political situation between China and Tibet), and had made arrangements for me to leave within the hour. However, the month in Nixi had already ignited my interest in the Tibetan plight for independence and when I returned to the states, I applied for another SIT program: “Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples.”
This program started in Dharamsala, northern India where the Tibetan government-in-exile resides, as well as H.H. Dalai Lama. For 5 weeks in Dharamsala we learned basic Tibetan language, met with members of the government, heard horrific accounts from escapees at the Tibetan Reception Center after making their arduous journey through the high Himalayan mountains, and drank cup after cup of yak butter tea. Below is a drawing from the Tibetan Reception Center, from a children who escaped the Chinese occupation in Tibet. It is a rare glimpse into the military occupation of Tibet.
From there, we flew to Nepal and trekked for 3 challenging weeks in Mustang; the Forbidden Kingdom. It is a valley on the Tibetan plateau that falls within Nepals borders, thus providing a sanctuary for Tibetan cultures to exist without the perils of Chinese occupation. Again, I could write extensively about this adventure as well, but for now just a couple photos:
A welcome sight-- after a long day of hiking, made it to the next mountain village for the night.
Life here has not changed much at all in a thousand years.
Main street's prayer wheels and wind-whipped prayer flags.
Helping the locals harvest a yak in Lo Manthang, capitol of the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang, Nepal.
A changing of the seasons ceremony.
Selfie along the trail. This portion of the trail overlaps with the world famous Annapurna Circuit.
During this trip, I had switched from my 35mm film camera to a point & shoot digital camera, and was thoroughly enjoying taking photos. When I returned home, these photos were my companions, my memories, my sanctuary—I could relive the experiences in my imagination, recall the smells, the sounds, the emotions. I think it is this practice which has drawn me towards photography the most. I’m attached to those memories and life altering experiences, perhaps to a fault, and they live within my photography.
My last month in Nepal I had a great little apartment in Kathmandu, looking right out at the magnificent Boudnath Stupa. I apprenticed with a Sherpa woodcarver for a month, explored the area extensively, and even got charged by a rhino!
That's what a charging rhino looks like.
Apartment in Kathmandu. So emo.
View from the apartment. This is a central feature of Buddhist community-- from sunrise to sunset there were thousands of people circumnavigating the stupa, gossiping and accumulating good karma.
At the cremation grounds.
It was around this time when I was fairly certain I wanted to pursue photography. Photography plays into my interests fairly seamlessly—I was naturally artistic but didn’t enjoy drawing or painting. My passion for traveling, nature, wildlife supplemented by my artistic nature resulted in a growing amateur portfolio of pleasing images.
After I graduated university, I worked in construction as an independent contractor. I really enjoy working with stone making patios, walkways, stone walls, etc. but the thirst to escape the comfort zone drove me to fly out to Mendicino County California where my aunt and grandmother, from my father’s side of the family, lived. It was a beautiful town and Native American reservation (Round Valley Reservation), surrounded in National Forest, with a fairly dark history. Dozens of Native American tribes, who did not get along very well together, were corralled to the valley and the Reservation was established in 1856. It didn’t take long to witness the racial tensions between the natives and the white inhabitants. The beautiful town certainly has a dark side. My typical day consisted of carpentry and roofing until early afternoon, then bartending at the rugged Buckhorn Bar until 2am. I witnessed a lot of violence at that bar, was attacked a couple times myself. The local cash crop was/is marijuana, and several locals were found executed in the surrounding hills for stumbling across Mexican mafia grows. It was a strange 6 months—happy to spend time with my 90+ year old grandmother and my aunt, but on edge constantly because of the dark underbelly of the community. Below is one of the only photos of me during my time in California.
When winter arrived, I drove cross country back to my home in New Hampshire where again I contracted construction jobs, until 2008 when the economy tanked and the phones stopped ringing. Out of desperation, I took a job nearly two hours away in western Massachusetts. Six to seven days per week I would leave the house at 4:15am on my 2001 Yamaha R1 sport bike, and wouldn’t return home until 8pm. Once again, I needed change, so flew out to Washington State where I had the opportunity for some odd jobs and exploration. My point and shoot camera accompanied me everywhere I went- to Mt Hood and Paradise Valley, to Hurricane Ridge, and the Ho Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula. And once again, when my jobs were completed in Washington, I drove cross country again to work in landscape construction in New Hampshire. A photo of me in Washington:
A couple years of the daily grind, and my girlfriend (now fiancé) was offered a contract in Phoenix, Arizona for two years. I urged her to accept the opportunity, and we enjoyed a cross country trip together to downtown Phoenix. As a country boy, I can’t stand living in the city, nor do I enjoy hot weather, so I appreciated that it certainly was outside of my comfort zone once again, but let’s just say I was happy it was only a two year contract job. We made the most of our time there—sunsets and sunrises on the Grand Canyon rim, off-roading in Sedona, Canyondlands and Arches National Parks, an amazing hike to Havasu Falls and made some good friends along the way. My girlfriend knew how much I loved photography, and as a ridiculously generous birthday gift, gave me my first professional DSLR camera. That was 5 years ago, and since then I’ve been investing more time and money into photography- building an online presence, and producing a high quality product that I can be proud of and customers want to display in their homes.
The Phoenix contract ended, and we drove cross country again, visiting Austin, Texas, New Orleans and the Shenandoah Valley on our way back to New Hampshire. After a few months back in the construction routine, I happened upon a job listing for an Operations Specialist for a local tour operator whose mission statement resonated with me: “…founded in 1947 with the conviction that travel could build bridges of cross-cultural understanding.” The work is rewarding, and compliments my photographic endeavors nicely. Through my work I’ve been sent on business trips to Thailand, Cambodia, have cruised the Great Lakes twice, northern British Columbia, the Canadian Rockies, polar bears in northern Manitoba, Finland and Sweden. Usually these business trips allow for at least some time to photograph.
Despite what some may insist to me, I am an amateur photographer. I have a day job 40+ hours per week, and don’t make sufficient income from my photography to leave the security of that job. However, my skills are developing, my “fan” base is expanding, my photo sales are increasing, and I’m molding my future to hopefully make a living from my photography full time someday and call myself a professional photographer. That day is likely several years away.
I hope this condensed Bio has provided some insight into my life and what has led me to love photography. Thanks for listening- this was actually a nice trip down memory lane for me!