Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Washington DC Under Moonlight

Living so close to the nation's capital, there is a tendency to overlook what the little city has to offer. For years I ignored the "touristy" spots until friends rolled through, but recently, I have come to enjoy the unique aspects of DC on a more regular basis.

A highly symbolic city, the District of Columbia has been thoughtfully laid out, constructed, and dotted with memorials, monuments, museums, and government offices. Tax money keeps this place afloat, and I never thought that system was particularly fair to those Americans who live too far away to enjoy DC more than a couple times. That belief has helped temper my annoyance at the throngs of tourists who infest the city cyclically without fail. Especially during my years working downtown, I used to seethe at the sight of visitors clogging up the wrong side of the escalators at Metro stops and then subsequently packing the trains during rush hour. It is not fun to step out to lunch in the middle of a busy work day to find hoards of people who are out and about having fun. Never mind the pain of having to wear a suit during the ultra humid DC summers. Unplanned and unintended cruelty at its finest.

Washington DC has been photographed many times by tourists and professionals. I gave up some sleep in this attempt to put my own spin on a place that has been shot to death. I even waited for a clear night under a full moon (adds illumination). I don't believe in trying to be different for the sake of being different. That reminds me of the ironic expression of teenage angst as rebellion and in general counter cultural movements. A person wants to be a rebel, but if everyone else wants to be a rebel, where is the rebellion in that? I find the worst types of work to be produced by people who are trying too hard to be artsy which is sometimes synonymous with trying to be different.

There is no doubt that there is something different about artists. They are actually kind of weird and can even be a bit lazy. I don't believe there are many true artists in this world (even less great ones), and I have no illusions about myself. There are certainly lots of weird people masquerading as artists though. In the end, these strange cats churn out work that looks artificial and unoriginal and saddest of all, not genuine.

Just do you. I tell myself that many times a day. It took a while for me to figure out what "you" actually was. And every now and then, I'm still not certain, but I like that. It keeps me on my toes.

[Two-Headed Penny]

This last shot is my personal favorite. It is a soft reflection of the Washington Monument off one of the marble panels that make up the Vietnam Memorial.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Random Thoughts

I have aggressively pursued photography, and I feel comfortable with where I am right now. That being said, I am satisfied with my progress but am fully aware that I am very far from where I want to be.

One point that continues to get reinforced is that the average person cannot tell the difference between good and bad photography. Spend some time browsing photos and reading comments on facebook, photography forums, and blogs, and it will quickly become evident that the masses don't want toro. They want bad California rolls and imitation crab. There are lots of vendors too.

In general, photographers love talking smack about other photographers. I am ok with this from time to time, but photographers who have no idea what they are doing (who technically haven't even earned the right to call themselves photographers) also partake in this cherished pastime. And the internet has given them a pseudo-platform. Yawn. I love it when someone who has an entry-level DSLR (freshly removed from a box) lectures others on the finer points of photography.

One of my initial goals when starting off was to get good enough so that people could tell I was more than a hobbyist. I now realize that type of validation from the masses is easy to achieve and quite pointless. As cliched as it may sound, I only want to be the best that I can be. Simple. Meaningful. Technically an unreachable goal. Just the way I like it.

I will work on getting better images.

I will let my images speak for themselves.

Over the weekend, I followed a webcast of a rising star photographer who streamed live footage of herself shooting a wedding and discussing it before and after. It takes some serious cajones to do something like that. I don't think she is a master photographer, but she really knows how to market and sell. Not sure her photography alone is worth her $7500 base rate, but if you believe in selling someone an "experience," then I suppose it could be justified. It's always interesting to see someone do their thing, and I am grateful for people in the industry who like to share knowledge.

At present, I feel like I am in a bit of limbo. I've waited to launch a website for a number of reasons, and some of those reasons seem to be no longer valid. Without a website, I have no identity as a photographer. I cannot market myself properly or possibly at all. This must change. Soon.

Photography is an interesting field, and one with lots of landmines that need to be defused or stepped around altogether. If your foot is already on one, it probably makes sense to work on defusing it. Hopefully you learn how to stay out of bad situations in the future.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

a 91 year old in 25 frames

My grandmother was born in 1919. That makes her 91 years old. She has led an incredible and interesting life, and I enjoy spending time with her and gleaning little snippets about her experiences. Life hasn't always been easy for her, but it is a great joy and inspiration to see her in good health and spirits.

My grandmother is a North Korean refugee who currently resides in South Korea, as are many Koreans of her generation. In the mid 1940s, the Soviet-backed Communist government started to seize personal property, so many people just decided to sell what they had and headed south. My family was one of them. My grandmother's account of escaping the North with three children is very sobering. I can visualize her walking in the darkness carrying her youngest, an 8 month old, on her back, and holding the hands of her other two small children. Hiding during the day, sleeping in stables, moving at night, paying guides, bribing border guards, the story of my grandmother's escape is something that I can hardly relate to, but it is an undeniable part of my family history. An arduous trek like that doesn't come without its share of losses, and my grandmother quietly recounted the last time she saw her younger brother. Somewhere between Pyongyang and Seoul, she lost her brother. For a while she had hope that he might be alive somewhere despite first-hand accounts of his death.

Through these images I hope to share a different type of refugee experience. While there may always be an innately human longing for "home" in all of us, I find the plight of refugees who long for a home that no longer exists particularly tragic. However, surviving and adapting successfully is a beautiful part of a refugee's story. As I learned more about my grandmother's story, it was hard for me not to sit in awe. How could such a small 91 year old woman have experienced and endured so much?

As an American, I relate more to the Jersey Shore than anything happening on the Korean peninsula, but I still like to understand my past and pay respect to the threads of history that are a part of my fabric. As I embarked on this photography project, I knew it would be hard to separate my personal emotion and respect for my grandmother from a clear critique of these images, but I have tried my best to select my favorite 25 frames.

On a rooftop in the heart of downtown Seoul, my grandmother has been pushing the green movement long before it was fashionable to do so.

I used to work for a humanitarian aid organization, and during my travels, I was able to bring back a stone from where my grandmother's home used to be in Pyongyang. She touches the stone each night before she goes to bed and sleeps with it under her pillow. It is the closest she will ever get to seeing her home again.

[On the Road]

When she woke up from her nap, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my grandmother suggest that we head out to get her hair done. My grandmother has been very adamant about not using canes to get around, but at the equally stubborn behest of those around her, she has started to utilize the canes once in a while. It is hard to fault my grandmother for her stubbornness and pride, because it is probably that resiliency which allowed her to carry on through the adversity in her life. Now I know where I get it from. You call it stubborn, we call it resilient.

[Waiting at the Hair Salon]

The hair dresser had stepped out for a bit, so we decided to head back home.

Narrow streets litter the landscape of Seoul, but if there is room for a truck, there should always be room for a 91 year old woman.

[Back on the Road]

To my unborn child, my grandmother wanted to share the following:

1. Study hard
2. Grow up to be strong

I found the order of this a bit interesting, and I pressed her to say more to my kid. She responded that she would like to see my son one day before she says more. I hope they both get that chance.

I don't know how many more times I will get to see my grandmother, but I feel fortunate to have spent quality time with her thus far. Though I have many memories, the following prose will always capture my favorite moment.

Sleeping next to my grandmother is priceless.

She lays out a blanket and pillow for me in her room. While visiting, jet lag often keeps me from sleeping well at night, so I will glance over at the rhythmic rise and fall of her little frame. I find it strangely therapeutic.

At the end of one of my humanitarian aid monitoring trips, I brought my grandmother a bottle of Pyongyang soju, a traditional Korean liquor from her hometown. My grandmother does not drink, but she poured me a shot. I returned the favor. She carefully lifted her cup, and I followed. She softly cried out, 'as I think of my home....' and then downed the contents. Her face immediately scrunched up due to the strength of the alcohol.

I will never forget my grandmother's face in that moment, the picture of unquenchable yearning. I was able to momentarily feel that longing she had for a home that she could never return to, a home she has not seen in over 50 years. I quietly listened to her dwindling hope that maybe, just maybe, despite word-of-mouth reports to the contrary, her younger brother was alive somewhere in the North. I will never know this kind of sorrow. But I unfortunately live with the knowledge that my grandmother's hometown no longer exists, as it was obliterated during the War.

The night gently wraps us like a blanket. I close my eyes and listen. I synchronize my breaths to hers. When she gently exhales, she breathes as if to push life into my still and quiet body.

I dare not breathe too deeply in fear of taking more than she is capable of giving and as not to disturb this delicate balance of tranquility.

This is peace.

This is life.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I am hurt, but I am not slain;
I'll lay me down and bleed a while,
And then I'll rise and fight again.

- Author Unknown

I've always loved these words. They have been on my heart for a while now. Some days they make me want to get up and fight. Some days they make me want to lie down a while longer. But words are merely words, and words that are not backed by action are meaningless. When all is said and done, much is said but little is done.

Mike Tyson once said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Ironically, Iron Mike was also not immune to this real gem of wisdom. Life punched him in the mouth pretty hard, and I don't think he had a plan for it. Even a champion can get knocked out when the opponent doesn't limit itself to the ring.

Rocky Balboa also offered up this pearl: "The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place, and I don't care how tough you are. It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!" I'm not sure what winning looks like anymore, but I would like to imagine that it is more than just taking an endless pounding. It would be nice to get some swings in too.

I don't know why the "life is a fight" analogies resonate so much with me. But they just seem to make sense. We're either fighting ourselves, other people, or life. And sometimes we're fighting them all at the same time.

Ding. Ding.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On the Road

One of the joys of photography is when inspiration hits you unexpectedly. And when it hits, it comes at you with fierce passion. I was on the road when this landscape just made me hold my breath and stop everything for a brief moment. I felt an incredible sense of peace, and I wanted to capture that feeling, relive it, and share it with others.

But of course, I was on my way somewhere and tried to stay the course. I kept driving. But the image in my mind and in my heart tugged at my soul. I finally gave in and turned the car around. 

[Note: These are low-res images, so there is some pixelation. However, the full-size images are silky smooth.]


So I drove back. I stopped the car. I got out of the car. I put a prime lens on my camera. I found a composition I liked. Found one I liked even better. I checked the sun. I adjusted my settings. Finally looked to see if I was far enough off the road not to get hit by passing cars. Click. Click. Click.

I had to do some post-processing work to bring out the image that I felt in my heart. I'm a bit torn when it comes to cleaning up images in Photoshop and Lightroom, because I do like to leave things as natural as possible. David DuChemin writes eloquently on this topic and has a great Lightroom tutorial in one of his newer books. Travel photography in particular requires a bit of post-processing work, because you can't have your entourage sit there while you wait for optimal conditions and lighting all the time. You can try, but it will most likely end with heightened levels of annoyance and unhappy travel companions. Staying on the road means moving with it.


I have been studying the work of master landscape photographers past, and this was a little homage to that old era. There is also a little bit of me in this photograph. As an exercise, I have been trying to express my feelings through photography, but if this blog is any indication, I am still much more adept at using words to tell a story. I won't go into what I felt in my heart when I took the second photo, but perhaps you can manage a few guesses on your own. You might not be right, but that is probably a secondary concern.

I may head back to this location at dawn or dusk, because I have a few ideas in my head for a more dramatic look and composition. I hope I make it back someday.

500+ hits on my fledging photography blog last week. 99% of that traffic coming to check out my Baltimore Ravens pictures. You shoot it, they will come.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Training Camp: Baltimore Ravens

My roots are in Jersey, so I will always pull for the Knicks, Mets, Giants, and Rutgers. Barring a few awesome seasons for the Giants in 2007 and Rutgers in 2006, it's been tough.

Despite living in the DC area, I will never have more than a superficial interest in DC sports. In fact, I hate the Redskins, laugh at the Nationals, ignore the Wizards, and pity anyone who follows the sorry Capitals. However, when the Baltimore Ravens drafted Ray Rice in the NFL Draft, I had to add them to my list of teams to follow.

Here is my coverage of Baltimore Ravens training camp in Westminster, MD:

"And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain 
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;"

Love the contrast provided by early morning light.

Fighting in the shadows

From RU to the Pro Bowl

A Tale of Two Backs

Football is a gritty game that lends itself well to black and white.

See Ray Run

NFL Films does a fine job, and for that to happen, they have to shoot all the time.

Michael Oher of Blind Side fame


Amazing for someone to come back from an injury like Willis McGahee.

Texting Sandra Bullock at the end of practice