A little bio about me...
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.