documentary photography

Photographing 20 Strangers in Isla Vista

Step out of your comfort zone and photograph 20 random people on the street.

I studied photography at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara. Known for educating students on the highest level of technical skill when it comes to photography there was one (amongst others) infamous assignment that dealt with approaching a stranger in order to photograph them. This was obviously not intended to teach a technical but a communication skill. It also forced you to deal with your fears and doubts. It challenged your comfort zone. It was called 25 Strangers.
Basically you had to produce a portfolio of 25 random strangers. Build a pop-up portrait studio in a park, photograph the strangers in a bar, at the pool, the retirement home or at the law firm on the corner of your street. I don’t remember the specific rules of the assignment but I put up a white background and had each of my strangers add a word to a sentence on a small chalk board and then I photographed them with the chalk board. I called it: 25 Strangers build a sentence. Surprisingly they didn’t. The sentence was grammatically and logically just … not a sentence. No idea what went wrong there…?

Anyways. The other day I remembered this assignment and decided to revisit it. 15 years and many strangers in front of my lens, from celebrities to homeless people in the back alleys of Mumbai, later I figured I should be a lot better at this. But it still was challenging the comfort zone a little. No control over the situation and you have to talk a random stranger into taking their portrait.

So Hugo and I went into Isla Vista on a Friday morning and approached a bunch of strangers. Isla Vista is a blend of University students, homeless people and middle aged surfers. Generally a demographic open to random experiences. This worked in our favor I think. Still, it took a little time to get groovy with.

The amazing thing about doing this was people opening up and telling stories. As you can see in the video some of the strangers shared memories, vented or maybe simply wanted to chat. It was amazing to see how quickly one can dive a lot deeper into a community by simply striking up a conversation with random people on the street. And using a portrait project like this is of course the perfect ice breaker.

I do this type of thing on assignment all the time but it is different when you go into your own community and when there is no agenda or story that you need to tell. Just letting your ego go, the creative juices flow and welcoming any input with open arms. Fun!

Everest in a Stairwell

Climbing 29,097 feet in a LA skyscraper

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The idea is simple: climb 29,029′, the equivalent of Mt. Everest’s elevation, in a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles in one day.

Obviously when one climbs the real mountain there is much less vertical elevation to deal with. But the lack of oxygen and exposure to the elements more than make up for that. Let’s just be clear from the beginning. Climbing Everest is much harder on every level.

Still the idea is enticing so a group of nine men entered a very tall building in downtown Los Angeles one morning after driving down from Santa Barbara and got ready to ascend the 55 floors via the stairwell over and over… and over and over and over again. It would take 40 ascensions to make the 29K feet of elevation gain. There was also a cut off time since the building was shutting down and the security guards who had to be in the building wanted to go home.

I was one of those nine men but I wasn’t there to reach the goal, I was there to document. To photograph the ordeal. Capturing the climbers required me to sit and wait in the stairwell for extended amounts of time and carrying my camera gear up the stairs didn’t help either. At the end of the day I did 10 ascensions and was perfectly fine with that.

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One of the unforeseen challenges that started impacting climbers was motion sickness. constantly turning right in the stairwell started really messing with them. To the point of puking. Not pretty but part of the game.

Mid-day everyone had their groove going and in the early afternoon there was a scheduled break so that one of the climbers could propose to his girlfriend on top of the roof. This solid hour of break time would bite the remaining climbers (the newly engaged left after to celebrate) in the end. At 33 ascensions they ran out of time. They had climbed a respectable elevation of 24,000 feet.

The Young Man and The Island

a story about Barbuda

On the night of September 5th to 6th, 2017 Hurricane Irma made landfall on the Caribbean island of Barbuda. A category 5 hurricane, the strongest ever recorded, its destruction of Barbuda was practically complete with 97% of all structures rendered uninhabitable.

This body of work is as much a personal response as it is a document of an event. I approached this project without an agenda and the product aims not to point fingers, I just wanted to tell a story of a man visiting a place.

The day before I left for Antigua I went to the local bookstore, explained my adventure and asked if there were suggestions for books by Hemingway to take on the trip. The Old Man and the Sea walked out of the store with me that day and by the time I boarded the plane the next day I had mostly finished it. It immediately consumed me and became the inspiration for the narrative part of the project. Little did I know at that point how well my adventure was going to align, if only in my head, with the old man’s.

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He had never been to The Island. He had been close. One hour and a half by motorboat close but never any closer. But he had felt an odd attraction towards it. The name of The Island had felt so exotic to him back then. The first time he was close and even more the second and third time.

Now it was destroyed. Wiped clean by winds so fast one could not experience them by sticking a hand out the window of most cars going as fast as they will go. Gusts as fast as the wind blows in a sailors worst nightmare, and faster. Wind like he had never experienced, not even close. He grew up in a city and lived by the sea now. But a sea that does not rage like the sea raged when The Island was destroyed. The only rage he had felt that could compare to the rage of the sea and the wind that day was the rage of the earth. The rage of the earth that made buildings swing and crumble, bridges collapse and brought with it death. Death in the literal sense for many people but also death in the conceptual sense for him. He had never experienced certain death before, nor after. It had changed him. He had also learned that certain death was not certain.

When he learned about the destruction of The Island he had not thought of it in a while. It came as a shock and he was deeply saddened for days. Then he learned more and saw a report about it on TV. Then the reporting stopped and the world lost interest. About 1600 people lost everything they had and the world watched and then changed the channel. The world that was likely responsible for the pain did not want to feel it. Pain and suffering were nothing new to The Island but this time The Island had nothing left to give and it’s people had to leave. There was nothing there for them anymore. Of course the sand and the rock on The Island didn’t care, nor did the shells and the water in the lagoon. They were just part of it all, have been forever. But the soul of The Island felt the pain. It felt betrayed, it felt sad, powerless. He felt like he wanted to go to The Island. But it was far away and going there wouldn’t make much sense. He was busy, his wife was even more busy. His kids needed him, who was he kidding?

But The Island didn’t let go. It kept calling. At night he would lay awake, his wife deep asleep next to him and he couldn’t stop thinking about The Island. He couldn’t really make sense of it but for weeks his mind kept going back to it.

Then he went for a run on a trail. As he was running his mind became very focused and it got stuck on The Island again. Why was it calling so strong? He ran through a dried out creek bed. He realized that he knew someone on the island next to The Island. She had just returned there and oddly the day before she left he had talked with her to learn of her departure. He was running uphill through a bunch of sage bushes now, running his hands through the dried out leaves and taking in the scent on the skin of his fingers. Maybe he could fly there on miles, stay with his friend, it would be much easier to convince himself if the trip didn’t cost much money. Twentyfour hours later his trip to the island, the one his friend lived on, was booked, he couldn’t believe it. It was impulsive and a little out of character and it also wasn’t.

For a week he arranged transportation to The Island and assembled his tools and the anticipation built. He had been looking for this. For many weeks and months he had yearned to find a project for the soul. A project that was his, a project he could dissolve in. He had produced valuable work but nothing like this. It had been nagging him, keeping him up at night but now his aim was focused. He knew what he needed to do.

On a Monday evening he kissed his family good-bye and boarded a plane to go far out, far out of comfort, far out from home. To feed his soul. To find what he was looking for. To follow the penetrating call. The sun set and the orange glow dimly shone through the airplane window when they took off. And the familiar mountains disappeared below.

On the plane next to him there was a man. A very social man and they were in conversation for the entire duration of the flight. The young man saw it as a good omen even though he did not necessarily believe in omens. But it was exactly what he was looking for. Connecting with the world. So he was happy.

The young man arrived on the other island, the one he was staying on since The Island was destroyed and nobody could stay there and he was excited but also nervous. He felt clumsy. He was hungry since he hadn’t eaten during his whole trip which had taken many hours. He also had not slept much. He felt that his interactions with people had an undertone of insecurity. Finally he got into a taxi and got more comfortable, finding his groove back.

Then he met the architect. At first the architect looked like Andy Warhol to the young man but it faded over the days. He immediately liked the architect. Over the course of the next two days the architect showed him around, and told him many stories. Some of the stories were outrageous, some sad and some funny. But all of them stemmed from experiences that make a man wise. So the young man appreciated them. And he learned that the architect was a wise man, having experienced so many stories.

Every night the young man would eat fried chicken and pre-cut watermelon and cold beer. He would sit on the patio in a comfortable chair and eat the chicken straight out of the paper bag. When he glanced up, there between some branches and many leaves, perfectly framed, was yet another island. A small one. But it had a little shack with a bar and chairs on it for people to picnic at and a small but perfect little beach of white, clay-like Caribbean sand mixed with tiny little pieces of broken down shells. The young man paused upon this view every time and the world around him would disappear for a moment. He then would take a sip of his beer from the can and continue with the chicken.

For the first two nights he slept on the couch in the living room. He could not sleep though. All the windows were open and a strong breeze cooled him but it was still too hot to be under the sheets. And without the sheets the young man was getting attacked by what seemed like an army of mosquitoes. The young man hated mosquitoes. It was because they loved him. They loved him like anything hungry loves a meal, but more. He was a tasty meal. He fought. He cursed. Half awake, half asleep. He covered himself with the sheets completely, over the head. It was too hot and he had to face the bloodsucking creatures again.

The area he stayed at made him dependent on transportation. He had to accept the fact that he was not mobile. For two days he mentally prepared for the day on the island. He spent much time looking at the sea. He watched the rain and took walks along the coastline.

The young man was a photographer and normally he would have taken many photographs and made a big effort to move around and capture scenes, people’s faces. But he was too consumed with the island and so he just observed and prepared, taking a few photographs here and there just to keep the muscle memory sharp but nothing that took away from his mental focus. He had traveled many miles and invested a lot of energy for this and he wanted to be sharp in his head and strong with his body when it came time to go to the island and photograph it.

The night before he was going to the island he slept in a proper room. On a proper bed. There were less mosquitoes and he slept good. He woke at first light and lay in bed for a few minutes collecting his thoughts. He was excited. He was nervous. He also felt like something was a little off. He knew the feeling of excitement and nervousness. It always happened before an important project was about to start. But the other feeling concerned him.

It was raining hard outside. A storm system was moving across the islands but he was prepared for that. It didn’t bother him. It wasn’t ideal but he could deal with it. He got up. His pack was assembled and ready but he was concerned with its weight and once he added his drinking water to it he realized it was too heavy. In a quick decision he shed a lot of weight by taking out his back-up camera. The one that was in a watertight bag for the case that it was raining too hard to use his main camera. This was better and he was still confident in being able to do what he came for.

At seven o’clock he was waiting outside for the taxi he had scheduled. At 7:10 he got nervous. The boat he had secured a ride out to the island on was to leave no later than 7:45. The wife of the governor of The Island had personally initiated the aid he had received which had made his trip possible. The boat captain had agreed to take him under these conditions. The car ride to the boat would take about 20 to 30 minutes and the young man had given himself almost double this time. He hated to be late. He was never late. He was known to always be early or right on time.

He reached out to the cabdriver. After a few painful minutes the cabdriver apologized and insured him that he was on his way. The bad feeling the young man had felt earlier came back. Or maybe it had been lingering. He could not miss this boat. No way. It would be disaster. He felt it. The fight. It had intensified. He was aware of the need of it. He had been seeking it out. This whole undergoing was intended to challenge him. No challenge, no real success. He wanted this fight. And it had just intensified.

The driver pulled up at 7:25, barely enough time to make the boat. A young guy. Apologetic but immature and not a man. He had no fuel in his car and had to stop to fill his tank. The clouds were dark and evil looking. The young man was getting very nervous and communicated to the kid that there was no time to waste. The kid then started driving like a madman. Passing rows of cars stuck in traffic and speeding along the narrow, pothole-lined streets like a mad kid. Rain pouring out of the dark sky.

At 7:52 they were coming down from the mountains and towards a bay and a harbor. But it was the wrong one. The kid in his immaturity had not listened to the instructions and gone to the wrong harbor. The young man was feeling afraid. This fight had picked up intensity yet again and was overwhelming him. The kid was driving even more mad now and the world was falling apart. Fear crept into the young man’s mind. Fear of losing this fight.

At 8:06 the greenery outside the window was a blur. The raindrops hit the windshield and were rapidly pushed across it by the air rushing at the flying car. The young man was holding on and the boat had left.

He had been writing text messages with the captain and had just received the final message. The message that meant that he had lost the fight. The message that rendered all his efforts useless. His body went from tense to slack.

At first he didn’t believe it. It couldn’t be. All this and a dumb kid taxi driver destroys it? That wasn’t even a fight! That was getting shot in the back! He told the kid. He looked out the window, out at the sea. It sank in very slowly. He could not believe it. It just could not be! The kid got on his phone while still driving frantically. The young man didn’t care. He couldn’t look at him. He looked out the window. He thought about what this meant. What he would do now. What would he say to the many people that had been involved in making this happen? He was not sad. He was not angry. He was numb.

After about five minutes of mental break-down he switched back into fighting mode. This was not happening!

He got back in touch with the captain. And after some back-and-forth he miraculously found another boat that would take him. They raced to yet another harbor.

The events had taken a lot of energy out of the young man. He was tired and felt weak but he knew what he had to do.

The new boat was supposed to leave at ten. He got to the dock just after nine. The boat got to the dock at 10:36. The young man feared of losing valuable time on The Island but this crew did not care about him or his needs. The girl at the dock who signed everybody in walked so slowly it looked like she did it intentionally to piss someone off. And once everyone who had come in on the boat had left it, the boat left as well. To get fuel.

When the young man finally boarded the vessel he had waited for three hours. He was really worried about how much time he would have on The Island.

There had been a few very nice islanders waiting with him who told him stories about the big storm and how they had survived. Running for shelter during the eye of the storm since the roof had blown off their house. One of them was sitting near him on the boat and she told him that her nieces two-year-old son had died when the ocean came into their house, swept him away. So much about a fight he thought to himself.

The noise on the boat was deafening. The young man was mentally exhausted. The engine was emitting a constant high-pitched, whining sound on top of its deep rumble. Outside waves were getting hit by rain and the boat was climbing the waves and then sinking into the valleys. Loud island music was blaring out of metallic sounding speakers. The whole thing was an insult to the senses. The whole boat vibrating from the impact of a large wave, the music, the events of the recent past. The young man was tired.

But then during the heaviest of downpours of rain the wind died down and the waves calmed and he looked at the sea and it looked so peaceful, so inviting. Large raindrops hitting the glassy surface in the fog. It reminded him of a time when he was surfing in these same conditions back home, with a close friend. A fantastic memory. They still spoke fondly of that time whenever it came up. Sitting in the sea with water below and above and in the middle. The glassy surface broken by large drops of rain, in the fog. Magic. It revived him. It got him excited! He was on his way. It was happening. The fight wasn’t lost!

And then the fog lifted. And he saw The Island for the first time and it was hit by the rays of the sun. And the dark clouds parted and were behind The Island and it looked incredible. Emotions overcame him and he cried a little. And out of the metallic loudspeakers came:

“I can see clearly now, the rain has gone, I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day...”

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It overwhelmed him. He had made it. Now it would be easy. He was the first person off the boat. He only had 50 minutes to do his job. Laughable considering the amount of time he had spent to get there. But he knew what he was doing. He was a young man but he had decades of experience on him. He went. And he saw. It was overwhelming but it was what he had come all this way for.