Archive for the ‘Writings’ Category

A look back on 2011, Part I – “What was I thinking?”

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Here is a quick look back on a few of my favorite images, thoughts and experiences from 2011.  This is part 1 from before I went to Africa.  I wasn’t doing much photography in the spring, and this post doesn’t include the many, many personal experiences with friends and family that were totally seminal to my work and my life.  That would make it a much, much longer post.  I have a vast and almost inexpressible gratitude for the support of my community of friends and my family.

This has been a bit of a crazy year, and it looking back over my images I realized how transformative it was for me. You’ll see the transformation from here to the end of the year, so here we go, starting in January…

I write poetry. I started several years back as a way to understand things in my life that needed words. I usually only share my poetry with a few close friends, but I’m going to include some in this post that are relevant to this year.  My poetry is pretty romantic and tends to be filled with night imagery. I love the night. Bear with me or skip past them, but they do say something about this last year.  In December my friend and fellow poet Paul had requested a poem about the eclipse that was happening on the winter solstice.  I didn’t finish it until the first of the year.  When I wrote it I didn’t realize that it would foreshadow the coming year a bit, since I would find myself seeing some of the vast range of the human condition as I started out on the ENEMIES Project.  Here it is…


solstice eclipse


Minute by minute,
under the gaze of the waning moon, 
the dark burn of winter has turned and is falling away.

Last year the night sky was shattered, and
now the solstice moon is hiding, 
eclipsing in silence
behind a thick ceiling of gently-lit clouds.

In the distance a siren is wailing,
but I hear only the dropping
of minutes into an empty bowl.
And now even that has stopped 
as the earth swings on her pendulum
back toward another season of seasons
and I hold on to keep from falling away into space
where the broken pieces of older nights
drift out beyond the pull of gravity.

I see you moon,
behind the clouds,
I see you.
I know you have hidden 
behind the earth this night
for a moment of reprieve 
from the glaring gaze of the sun. 

The siren has faded,
and the long night, once split and broken,
is whole again. 
I know you are here 
even though you are shy and hiding.

Somewhere tonight lovers are laying under you,
and other poets, better than I,
are writing words about you.
Somewhere tonight people are killing others under your gaze
and you hide from it all
eclipsing behind clouds on this longest night.

Perhaps if I had to watch both the lovers
and the killers, the sated
and the starving,
I would hide as well.

You don't know that the night was broken
and you don't care 
that I will run through your touch once more,
or that sometime again I will swim naked 
through a sparkling sea under your silken gaze.

Now that this longest night has passed and you have hidden,
I will still wonder about you 
when I am gazing across meadows
of dancing fireflies,

And you will caress me 
again without knowing.


Midway through January I was driving back to Austin from Salt Lake City when I passed this refinery.  The previous summer of 2010 I was photographing National Forest Roadless Areas that had been leased for oil, gas and coal – it was my last major work for my ROADLESS project.  On the way back to Austin I photographed a few refineries that I happened to pass by. I stopped to photograph them, because of the connection to the Roadless work.  The first refinery I photographed ended up in a show in California called Earth Through a Lens. I called this first image “Dante’s Refinery” – it is chilling and surreal – worth a look, but this one below was in New Mexico.  I saw it from the road, and when I drove up I noticed that it had been built around this little cemetery.  Also a completely surreal scene.

In a way, these refinery photographs were fitting images for the new year transition – they are refining the leftovers of old lives to power new ones, and I was just about to embark on a new project that would take my work into a totally different direction. Until last year, a great deal of my photography had been natural history.  It was an amalgam of my training in the arts and my work in the sciences. But several things were changing. I needed to get back to an art that was more purely expressive, and I had become obsessed with understanding how people step back from truly dark places. So while I was driving back to Austin I was making calls and starting to strategize for the ENEMIES project. The ENEMIES project was to be that first stepping stone towards moving my art.

The last couple months of 2010 I was a visiting artist at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana.  I worked on a few projects at the Bray including photographing the resident artists and their work. This all started out by photographing my friend Kevin who was a resident artist there.

Kevin Snipes at the Archie Bray Foundation

While at the Bray I also created a set of mixed media works that I called Fall of Man. These were a set of installations of ceramic torsos that I sculpted and then photographed inside an old abandoned brick factory while projecting images onto them.  I did these photographs the day before I left the Bray and only finished working on them when I returned to Austin.

Fall of Man #1, Archie Bray Foundation

It was at the Bray that I decided that I really needed to pursue my desire to push my work beyond photography, incorporate more media, and allow myself more expression.  In the past I’ve worked in glass, ceramics, drawing, sculpture and printing, and I wasn’t happy that my works had fossilized into one media. My time at the Bray was the start of this, and I spent hours sketching and sculpting. Towards the end of the year I became obsessed with the ideas behind the ENEMIES Project – conflict, peace, hate, forgiveness.  Right away I realized that  ENEMIES would have to be transitional – it would have several layers, a layer that is mostly documentary, and layers that get progressively more expressive, further from the lens, and more about my vision and experience.  It seemed to me that this might also be an interesting way to present art anyway – so that the pieces also show the process.  The photographs would be raw material – paint that I would go out and gather.

So back to 2011, as I was driving through New Mexico on my way back to Austin I got a call from the President of the US Institute of Peace. I had sent him an email message at the very beginning of the year. He was calling because he liked the idea of ENEMIES and encouraged me to seek collaborations with the Institute. Just after that call I got to Chaco Canyon. This felt like a major life step, so I climbed the cliffs above the ancient dwellings there and made this balance.  It was a small one, but it was my first balance of the year ( more balances here if you’re curious). Balances are a meditation for me and with this balance it felt like I was somehow making a connection with the past before I stepped off into the future. This was the day that really felt like my new years day.

Chaco Canyon balance


Back in Austin I spent most of my time trying to organize logistics for ENEMIES – figuring out how I could make it work and where I should go first.  This meant an immense amount of time on the phone and the computer, and very little time taking photographs or creating art.  Logistics take ages.

In the spring I started hanging out with some very fun new friends including Jean Krejca, a well-known caver. Jean took a few of us up in these hilarious little machines called “powered parachutes” (I’d call them flying mopeds). Too fun. This is still one of my favorite images from the year.  It made me want to start hang-gliding again.

Flying mopeds

Throughout this time I was on the phone a lot trying to do logistics for my trip to Africa.  I had decided that I would start ENEMIES in East Africa, because I had been invited to go to South Sudan with the US Institute of Peace.  At that time South Sudan wasn’t even a country yet – it would become one on July 9.  It seemed totally appropriate to start ENEMIES in the newest country in the world. A country that had endured forty years of civil war.


Just before I left for Africa I finished a music video project that I had shot at the end of 2010 in Helena, Montana for my friend Ryan Rebo. This video was shown in the Holter Art Museum in Helena, Montana this summer.  Here it is below.  Click on the little symbol in the bottom right corner to make it larger or go and see it here on youtube. It’s called the Lonely Scientist.

This is a bit of a snapshot picture, but I love it.  Barton Springs is one of the things that has kept me in Austin. I spent a lot of the spring and early summer there. I often went there at the end of the day and sat by the pool as the sun set.   It is a place of community and healing for me.  This photograph was from the night before I left for Africa to start the ENEMIES project.  I met there with a few of my closest friends to say goodbye.

Barton Springs, Austin, TX

That day a friend from my community at the springs gave me an idea and a piece of string, which I soaked in the pool right where you see this picture, cut in half and tied half to my ankle and half to one of the trees next to the pool. This was my connection to home when I left for the ENEMIES project in Africa.

Next stop, Africa…

My foot with my tie to home, and the foot of a Samburu man in northern Kenya.


Your Elephants, Our Children

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Driving into Transmara from the Rift Valley around the Masai Mara is a bit shocking. Lush green hills heavily patched with old forest roll away as far as you can see.  It looks so completely idyllic that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a hobbit wander up to me and offer me breakfast. And so it is hard to imagine the battles that happen here. A few days ago I came out here to Masai-land in southwestern Kenya to look at the conflicts between elephants and the Masai communities.  I spent the first two days in Lolgorien, which is just west of Masai Mara National Reserve.  I came here because Noah Sitati of the World Wildlife Fund asked me to look into the conflicts between elephants and school children in the Masai communities.

Elephants are intelligent, emotional and beautiful creatures, but they can also be extremely dangerous. When surprised an elephant will often attack people, and they frequently kill.  The elephants come to the villages to raid the fields, grain stores, and houses for any grain they can find, and they have an excellent sense of smell.  They move back and forth between the forests and the villages in the early morning and late afternoon, exactly the times when kids are going to and returning from school.  There are no school buses, and the kids walk most of the way through the bush – often walking up to 5km each way.  The children are afraid, and for good reason.  Several school children in the area have been killed in recent years – one was recently trampled to death. So, many children stay home out of fear or arrive at school hours late.

Masai school kid

All of the Masai land around the Mara is having elephant problems.  The human population here has been steadily increasing – people are making more farms and cutting down more forest, which is reducing habitat for the elephants.  So people and elephants are in conflict more than ever.  This  brings up the basic question that conservationists don’t like to address: can people and wildlife coexist in the long run, or will all wild animals that don’t mix well with people end up being confined entirely to parks and reserves?  It isn’t an easy question.

I’ll say this up front… I have always felt more sympathetic to the plight of nature than to the plight of suffering people. This doesn’t mean at all that I don’t care about people, but in my experience man is the ultimate survivor in this world, and our survival and prospering has come at the great expense of the natural world.  Of course it is easy for me to say this. Here I am tapping out a blog on a laptop computer in a country with an average annual income of $315.  Most of the people I have met here cannot imagine even what I am doing now – waiting for dinner with a middle class Kenyan dinner, drinking a glass of wine and writing this blog.  Simply by being a middle-class American, I was born among the fortunate prosperous few in the world.

Ray Bohlin, Photograph by Phil Borges

Years back I walked into the office of Dr. Ray Bohlin, an evangelical preacher and publisher. His office was filled with dozens of versions of the bible and stacks of the pamphlets that missionaries hand out on street corners. Dr. Bohlin has kind eyes, and yet because of our differences I sat down with a bit of hesitation. Dr. Bohlin is a pro-life, god-fearing Christian and evangelicals have typically been opposed to the environmental movement. but he is also a staunch conservationist which is why I was visiting him.

When it came down to it, we shared far more morals than we differed in with regard to both nature and people.  I had been fighting for conservation because I felt a need to protect what I saw as the most threatened and beautiful parts of our planet, Ray was fighting for conservation because he feels that God commanded man to be the steward of his creation. Still, when it comes down to it, Dr. Bohlin would put more of his energy into fighting to help man, and I would put more energy into fighting to help nature. Are we so different? I don’t think so.

Yesterday I woke up in Narok, Kenya, the closest big town to Masai Mara National Reserve.  I woke to the scratchy, amplified calls to prayer from a nearby mosque.  Below the hotel crowds of people swarmed the pitted and rutted dirt roads of the small city.  On the way out of town I drove by a cow quietly munched rotting vegetables from a smoking and overflowing dumpster next to an outdoor church blaring with the rage of a fiery sermon in Swahili.  “What am I doing here?” I thought to myself as I crept my car between the masses of people and decrepit stalls.

Elephant damage to a Masai house

I came to Narok after Lolgorien, because the Masai communities around Narok have been terrorized by elephants that raid their crops and break into their houses in search of grain. We drove up into the hills east of Narok under a grey sky and stopped at a small school on the dirt road. Kool, my Masai guide (yes that’s his real name) works for little to no pay for WWF monitoring conflicts between elephants and the communities here.

Kool showed me where the elephants had broken through the barbed wire surrounding the school. They live in the forest below the school and walk through the school grounds to get to the farms up the hill. Later that day we went to look at several houses that had been broken into by elephants in search of grain.  This one to the right was the last one we saw.  In the middle of the night an  elephant broke through the wall of the bedroom where a mother and her children were sleeping.  It took a 50 kilo bag of maize and then went around the other side of the house and ripped the upper half off another wall to get at the wheat stores. In the end it took all of their food.

Masai teacher injured by an elephant

The next day after a torturous drive out muddy dirt roads I met a Masai man, a teacher, who had been attacked by an elephant two months earlier. He and his cousin told me what happened as we sat on a rough bench overlooking rolling hills of patchy farm and forest land. When the elephants came to steal his crop he went out to scare them away with a flashlight. Two left but when he turned around there was a large male still there, and it attacked him. He ran but the elephant knocked him to the ground and tried to impale him with its tusks. Though he avoided being impaled, the elephant stepped on his leg before leaving. This educated man said that he doesn’t care about the elephants anymore. If it were up to him he would cut all the forests down and “turn the area into a dessert” just to get rid of them.

What is right and what is wrong here?  When I decided to look at this question, I knew I was stepping out of my comfort zone.  I am comfortable in the wilderness.  I feel most safe away from people – surrounded by nothing but forest, stars, sea, meadow.  But that world only exists in patches now.  People used to live in a sea of wilderness, but now we have built a matrix of human influence that wraps over every square inch of the earth and wilderness exists in patches and scraps embedded in that matrix.  This isn’t my comfort zone, but this is the world now.  It is a human painted world, but nobody knows what we are painting. We are blind painters of our own landscape.

Kool's kid wearing my sunglasses

There are some possible solutions.  Maybe.  I’ll end this here and write about them next time.  “your elephants”?  I’ll write about that too.  It’s complex, like everything.  I video recorded several of my talks with people who have been attacked.  Maybe I can get some time to edit and put some of those up as well.

Until then, the kids in Masai land are still laughing at themselves in my camera and pushing each other away to see themselves.  Even the kids that had been screaming two nights ago as an elephant smashed the wall down into their house still ran after me laughing and jumping in front of my camera.  Sometimes laughter can fly in the face of fear and drive it into the past.

If you haven’t already read it, this post relates to my previous post about moving elephants.  Definitely worth a look – truly surreal. You can see it here: moving-elephants

Me & the Masai kids whose house was pummeled by an elephant

ENEMIES: The newest country in the world – South Sudan

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

The airport in Aweil, South Sudan

This post is from the first trip for my ENEMIES Project.  Read more about it here:

I love the airport in Aweil, South Sudan. A thatched grass hut, with a giant hanging fish scale to weigh the luggage. Wouldn’t it be great if our airports could be so simple?

South Sudan was nothing at all like I imagined. Maybe because of it’s proximity to the arid north Kenya, I had imagined South Sudan as infinite stretch of arid semi-desert. So as the airplane was descending towards Aweil, the third largest city in S. Sudan, I was surprised to see a sea of lush green surrounding the airport.  Hundreds of acres of flat and flooded land that sparkled like the new green of freshly planted rice paddies. But after leaving the luxurious Aweil airport waiting area, we stopped by the local Ministry of Agriculture on our way to the hotel, where we found out that none of the land we had flown over is cultivated.  In fact, very little land in South Sudan is cultivated.  Now that South Sudan has gained independence after decades of civil war, the people of South Sudan are coming back from the north or other places in the region where they had been hiding. But they have largely forgotten how to do agriculture. The UN Food Programe is predicting a serious potential for famine in this newest nation for the next year. So the sparkling green of these vast fields seem like a cruel irony.

I went to South Sudan with a peace-building mission from the US Institute of Peace (USIP) to get images for my ENEMIES project.  The USIP group, led by Jacki Wilson, was there to follow up on a peace-building project in a grazing corridor on the border of South and North Sudan east of the contested Abyei region. Jacki has been trying to help negotiate a peace settlement here for nearly five years.

In this part of South Sudan / Sudan, the main conflict is between the Dinka people who are black Africans related to the Luo tribe of Kenya and the Misseriya, who are Arabic Africans more closely related to tribes further north.  The Dinka and Misseriya have been in conflict for generations – as long as anyone can remember.  The Misseriya are nomadic and historically they have moved in and out of Dinka territory with the wet and dry seasons. Unfortunately the Misseriya also have a long history of abducting Dinka children as slaves and Dinka women as wives.  The most recent abduction of children happened two years ago. The Dinka and Misseriya also have a long history of stealing each other’s cattle and reprisal raids for cattle theft. This year a few dozen Misseriya cattle were stolen, and we heard that the Governor is in the process of trying to have them returned.

Nhial Deng and Fatima Ali Ahmed

Aweil was only a stopover, we were actually going to a town on the border called Warawar. I dont think you could have invented a more ominous sounding name for a city in a country that has recently come out of twenty plus years of civil war and genocide. On the way to Warawar we passed through the village of Wanjyok, a town almost entirely comprised of people who have moved back to South Sudan from Khartoum after fleeing from the decades of civil war in the south. In Wanjyok I photographed Nhial Deng and Fatima Ali Ahmed, a mixed Misseriya/Dinka couple in which the wife was Misseriya and the husband Dinka. Normally Misseriya never allow their women to marry Dinka, even though they regularly take Dinka wives for themselves. This couple met when they were living in Khartoum, and Fatima’s family was happy for them to marry. Soon after marrying they moved back to S. Sudan and settled in Wanjyok where Nhial’s family had been from.   Both the Dinka and the Misseriya pay dowries in cattle (more on this later), but Fatima’s family accepted a dowry of cash.

I talked with many people about the conflict between the Dinka and Misseriya and what they think of it.  Most of the people I talked to said that they don’t trust the other group, but they do have friends who are different.  They trust their friends. This was particularly true among the traders I talked with and photographed in Warawar.

Handstand in rural S. Sudan

I’ll write more about the other people I photographed later, but in the meantime… of course the kids in the villages went crazy over my camera.  It’s fun to be able to be so hugely entertaining to people.  🙂   This guy just had to have me take his photograph doing a handstand – he was great!  This was in a little village near Wanjyok where we were staying in a hotel owned by the governor.  The governor of Bar El Gazah state is reputedly one of the most powerful men in South Sudan.  He’s got 70 wives and according what we heard people who oppose him don’t stay around for long. The hotel had good food, but the rooms were totally filled with dirt and in fact, some of the food had sand grains in it as well.

One of the evenings when we were then I went out into the village with Manal, a Sudanese woman from the U.S. who is contracting for USIP. Manal wanted to show me a small place next door that was making a local alcoholic drink made from sorghum. I took a few pics of them pounding the roasted sorghum, and then a drunk policeman came in and started hassling us.  I don’t know what he was saying, but his tone was aggressive and he was waving an ak-47 around.  Manal hustled us out of there, and he followed.  Finally Manal gave him one S. Sudanese pound, and he went away.  As we were walking back to the hotel, Manal told me what happened.  Apparently she told him we knew the governor (which was true), and then he was said we should give him a pound for a drink.

A few more tidbits…

S. Sudan typical Dinka dwelling

Me with a woman in Wanjyok

A little business in Aweil where you can charge your cellphone. Just a shack - my wide angle lens makes it look bigger than it is.

Paintings on the side of a pharmacy in Aweil

The economics of poverty

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

One of the biggest impressions I’ve had in Kenya is the staggering amount of poverty and the massive income inequality here.  All the cities I have been to are filled with people who are clearly unemployed or underemployed.  Official unemployment figures are 40%, but I’ve heard numbers as high as 75%.  I’ve been to plenty of other countries that have massive poverty problems, but I’ve found the poverty issue here to be different for a number of reasons.   I’ve had a chance to see the lives of foreigners and white Kenyans who live in the upper few percent as well as dozens of people from the slums of Nairobi and poor rural areas. The main question that I have found myself asking is how an economy with such vast poverty and immense income inequality can also be fair and working toward the improvement of everyone’s lives. More importantly, how can someone coming from a country with vastly a different economy treat people here in a way that is both reasonable and fair. This is a harder question to answer than you might expect.

Me with residents of the Kasabuhi slum that I photographed (click to view larger)

Working in the slums around Nairobi has been an interesting and fairly enlightening experience.   The people I’ve met there don’t seem to fit easily into any broad generalization that we might take away from what little we can read in the western media.  Even the writings of Nicholas Kristof, who is one of my journalism heroes, creates an fairly simplistic impression of this vast world of economic insecurity.  The slums around Nairobi are vast, some of the biggest in the world, and the people who live in them cover a vast range of backgrounds and are here for a variety of reasons.

A couple of posts back I wrote about Fred Owino who I met in Mathare.  Fred was part of a youth gang and was involved in the riots that broke out after the 2007 elections. Shortly after the riots he went through an Alternatives to Violence Program workshop (AVP), which gave him a certificate that he was able to present to the police and have his name cleared.  Now he works with the Alternative to Violence Program training other people in the slums about how to deal with problems without resorting to violence.  Fred is articulate and passionate.  He is a barber, and he is actively involved in a church. Fred was part of one of the largest gangs in Kenya. The gangs here are not all what you would imagine. The largest gangs police the slums, because the police don’t. To be a gang member you must have a job, so these are not people who sit around drinking all day. This is not to say that the gangs are saints – I am sure they are not, but the situation here is not what you would guess from the outside.

Last week I went to another slum called Kasabuhi. It is a relatively small slum compared to Kibera and Mathare. Fred arranged for me to meet a large group of people who he has brought into AVP.  All of them talked about their experiences during the post-election violence and something about their backgrounds. One story I heard over and over was of people who had small businesses and lost everything to looting and fire during the riots. Many of these people had taken out small bank loans for their businesses, and now four years after the riots they are still struggling to repay loans for businesses which no longer exist. They don’t have their businesses to earn money from and repay the bank, and they cannot get loans to start new businesses.  It is a vicious cycle of poverty.

Also last week I met another guy from the slums in a capoeira group that I’ve started training with in Nairobi. He is from Mombasa, and he moved to Nairobi to escape a bad life, and he admits that he has been involved in drugs and crime.  He has gotten himself out of that cycle and he attributes it largely to the capoeira training he started getting from a local teacher who teaches capoeira in the slums. Now he helps teach other kids in the slums and he has dreams of becoming a capoeira teacher and starting a school himself.  I played capoeira with this guy in class, but I got a chance to talk a bit more with him when I accidentally ran into him at a concert at the German Goethe institute – a cross cultural arts institute sponsored by the German government.  It was very esoteric – not the type of event where I would expect to run into someone from the slums. Again, these slums are big places with complex communities that defy the expectations I had come with.

These men and their lives paint a complex picture of low end of the economic spectrum here in Kenya. When you start meeting people here, you realize that these large communities cannot be easily delineated with a single brush stroke.  I could write pages about them.

Right now I am sitting in a lovely house on the beach in Mombasa writing this on a laptop computer.  The sun is shining, the waves are rolling gently against the sand, and inside the house the paid servant is cleaning up the living room. It is lovely. It is the house of a friend of someone I met here in Mombasa, a couple who live like most other foreigners in Kenya.  However embedded in this scene is another side of the issues of poverty and income inequality. Here in Kenya, where so many people are unemployed and there is no social safety net, normal wages can be pitifully low. Everyone above a certain income, which includes almost all foreigners and certainly all politicians here employ guards to watch their house and people to clean and often cook for them.  A typical wage for guard or house servant is 5000 Kenyan shillings a month, which is about $50.  Most of the foreigners I’ve met consider this impossibly low and pay their employees twice that – still only $100 per month. Typically most workers also only have off one day a month, and again most foreigners give their employees one to two days off a week.

Five thousand shillings a month,  160 shillings per day, is abject poverty. It is not enough money to pay for food and housing let alone school fees and medical costs. In Nairobi to get across town and back on a matatu, the cheapest form of public transportation, is 80 shillings – half of a day’s pay.

Why are wages so low?  People here are desperate.  Many parts of Kenya are over-populated, meaning that there are too many people for the land to support.  This is obviously true in the southwest where people crowd the fertile land intensely and regularly kill family members in disputes of land inheritance.  It is also clearly true in the arid north, where the population is sparse but the land is clearly over-grazed.  Desperate people will work for whatever they can get, and if someone is unwilling to work for 5000 shillings a month, there is always someone else to take their place.  It is easy to understand the economics of this situation, but it is hard to understand the morality of it.  It is an issue I have been struggling with since I arrived.

Can economics and morality be separated?  It doesn’t feel to me that they can.  Next time I’ll write more about my own interaction with the economy and what I’ve run up against in dealing with these issues.

Hand in the slums

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

in Mathare

She reached out her hand.
it was small,
delicate like a flower.
And when I held my hand
she tentatively took one of my fingers.

"How are you?"
Her voice was small and full of innocence.

While we held hands
a sea surged around us
"How are you, how are you, how are you?"

And beyond them a forest of hardened faces,
beaten down by years of compromised hopes,
and certain about the desperate
unfairness of the world. 

"How are you?" I ask
And a riptide of laughter
ran across the muddy path.

In the shadow of a nearby doorway
an older woman smiled
as the giggles bounced down the street.

We look at each other and she smiled again.
Her bare feet are dirty and worn.


Northern Kenya, part 2 – Aug 22, 2011

Saturday, August 27th, 2011


Crisp desert sky, thin boys asking for coins.
Looking through the restaurant door, one is sniffing glue.
He is the most persistent as we head back to the truck.

Down the street we stop to buy tobacco
for the villages we will visit.
It seems dirty
but they chew it or sell it
and there a life of 60 years is a rarity.

While the bags are stuffed
another boy takes me by the wrist.
I pull away, my fingers enclosing two bills,
but he is just pointing to my bracelet
that was made for me by a school headmaster to the north.

“Kenya,” he says.

“Yes,” I reply. “Kenya.”



The sun has set,
dripping down the wall of sky
and spreading across the horizon
into a low orange blur
behind the acacia.

One man waits with a gun
while the other tests and adjusts a remote camera.

As they work, the night is washing away
the last smears of daylight,
and the sky is being overtaken by stars
that are flickering into the hush
of the rising and falling winds.

Walking back to camp
I talk with the scout
about the city and the bush.

“Here,” he says, “there is space to breathe”
“Space to think.”

“Last night,” he goes on. “A lion called behind camp.”
“We found it’s spore here.”

I sit out to listen to the stars.
As the Milky Way floods into view.

“ENEMIES”: Project planning, Step 1

Friday, June 17th, 2011

This post is about my ENEMIES Project.  Read more about it here:

This past winter I had an idea for a project about people who live on opposing sides of violent conflicts around the world.  After a lot of thought I decided to go ahead with the idea.

I’m calling the project ENEMIES.  Specifically I am planning on photographing pairs of families from opposing sides of violent conflicts who have lost loved ones in those conflicts. My artistic vision for this is complex and I will write and post more about that later.  In short I envision the photographs displayed side by side, and in at least one case I hope to be able to photograph the two families together.  This will be an intense experience, and it will take me in a completely different direction from most of the photographic work I have done over the last five years. So it will be a serious exploration in many senses of the word, and I plan to write about it as well.

Why on earth would I want to do this?? I have spent a lot of my life exploring and photographing the wilderness, and now there is something driving me to understand the wilderness of the soul.  I recently went through a very difficult separation, which led me to places of anger and dark emotions that I had never experienced.  Now I want to understand the extremes of these dark places.  What drives people to do horrendous things to other people?  How does it happen?  What are the consequences?  What does it mean to everyone else and to the planet?

Potential partners: Next week I am meeting with three potential partners in this project: the US Institute for Peace (USIP), the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and Madre, a non-profit that helps women in developing countries around the world. Since contacting people in these organizations, things are suddenly moving much faster than I anticipated.  There is no funding for the project yet, but I have decided to self-fund the travel part of the first trip with frequent flier miles in hope that more funding will materialize.

After a first set of phone conversations with Madre and USIP, I had planned on a trip this August/September to start the project in Kenya and Sudan.  Kenya has had a rash of election violence over the last five years in which many people were killed.  Sudan just came out of a decade long civil war with vote to separate the country in two. I’m writing this post from my friends’ house in the mountains of West Virginia.  The forest up here is peaceful – filled with the soft singing of crickets in the evenings and the bright calls of hawks in the morning.  Lulu, one of the two friends I came to visit here in these mountains is dying of cancer and is now in hospice care.  He has lived an amazing life and has no regrets.  And yet death comes in many forms.  As I write this Sudan is falling into civil war again (news here).  It is hard to imagine.

What am I getting myself into?

The night woke me

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I shot the timelapse below in the Ragged Mountains Roadless Area in western Colorado for a campaign to stop energy development there.  The journal entry is from that same night.


The night woke me.

Her hair brushed across my face, and I fell from her embrace into her presence. I blinked. It was almost midnight.

I unzipped my tent and crawled out. I hadn’t needed the tent – the clouds were gone, the ground was dry and hard, and I stumbled as though the earth beneath my feet had swayed gently.

The meadow, cold and silent, was drifting through space. The pines around the edge were the end of the earth, and as I stood watching, a star shot past and disappeared behind them.

I looked around and saw the Milky Way rising overhead, shooting skyward from one large tree at the edge of the clearing, and I realized that this was what she had woken me for – to see her tapestry spread out above the meadow across an unimaginable stretch of millennia – a million, million dreams laughing and crying in silence, and here was this little clearing floating among them in the long flowing locks of night.

Hours went by as the hard ground tilted slowly through the night sky and we watched each other until finally she was swallowed up by the rush of morning.

Piano music performed by Patches King.

Starfall morning


A moment with a lion.

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

I don’t know how many minutes had passed. I was engrossed. Sitting cross-legged and looking at my journal I was concentrating on the words I was crafting.  Around me the sky was slowly shifting from light to darker blue as the sun retreated westward and Aspen shadows were moving imperceptibly across the dust in the trail.  The trail was lined with grasses heavy with pollen, and my eyes stung and watered.  The only sounds were my allergic reactions to the grass, which hung like shouts over the valley that I was waiting to photograph at the end of the day.

After a spell of silence I looked up and she was there, staring at me with coal black eyes. The mountain lion crouched down as our eyes met, and the ten feet of space between us pulled taut, filling with the tension of unknown outcomes.  I couldn’t tell for sure that she was female – a small male would have the same stature. What was going through her head?  How long had she been watching me?  I had no idea. As we stared at each other, the only thing I knew for sure was that I was larger than her, which wasn’t much of a consolation at the moment.  I’m a skinny guy and sitting cross-legged I don’t look very big.  And I don’t have claws.  Or teeth.

She stood immobile, crouched down and watching me.  And I watched her.

I’ve seen other big cats in the wild before, mostly jaguars in Central America.  Only one of those encounters had unnerved me. That one was a female too, but the only thing I could see in her intent eyes was the bright green reflection of my headlamp.  Now here I was facing down a female again, and the deep black of her eyes didn’t waver from me for a second.  Mountain lions are notoriously unpredictable, and are statistically far more dangerous to people than jaguars.  But for some unexplainable reason I didn’t feel threatened.  She didn’t move a muscle, and I sat still. We just stared into each other’s eyes across that short space between us.

Out of all the wild cats I’ve seen, I’ve never photographed one except with a remote camera trap. My camera lay on the ground a long arm’s reach to my left, my heavy tripod a long reach to my right.  After a brief internal debate I reached for my camera, and then it was over.

The instant I moved she rotated and disappeared around the turn in the trail behind her.  I jumped up, ran to the spot and looked around the trees to see if I could catch her, but she had already gone – as silently and completely as she had appeared.  The trail was dry and there weren’t even any tracks.  If I was a puma or a dog or most any other mammal, I would probably still smell her, but I couldn’t and it was suddenly as if she had never been there.  There was only the sky, the trees and my watering eyes.  After a moment I could hear my heart beating.  The sun was lower now, so I put away my journal and started to set up my camera.  The moment was over.

thoughts on learning photography

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Just the other day I got a message through my website from someone who liked my photography and asked for advice about where to learn more.  I ended up writing him a long reply about seeing your own work and then seeing the world through it.  Here it is…

Last month I visited Bruce Barnbaum, a friend of mine and very well known photographer who regularly teaches workshops around the world.  He told me that he likes to start his workshops with two questions.  First he asks the students to write down what they want to learn.  Then he asks them to write down one or two of their favorite photographers and what they like about their work.  Then he asks them to compare those answers.  Invariably, in response to the first question people put down technical questions that they want answered.  For the second question they talk about composition and the feelings, emotions conveyed by the works of their favorite artists.  There is the dichotomy.

Technique is important, but it is so much easier to learn technique now, because with digital photography you can experiment infinitely and see the results immediately.  But beyond technique is the need to learn how to capture what your mind sees and what your heart feels in a way that will cause other people to experience something strongly from looking at your photograph.  It’s not always easy to do this.  The biggest piece of advice I can give is to learn how to be your own harshest critic.  I shoot a lot of crap, but have no problem trashing it.  When I was teaching myself landscape and wildlife photography, I was working in the rainforest in Costa Rica and shooting film.  I would often come back with over a hundred rolls of slide film and then edit that down to a couple dozen decent photographs.  And out of those there might only be a few that I thought were truly excellent.  It is hard being honest about your own work.  It still is for me.  The hardest thing is to distance yourself from your feelings about the subject and look at the work itself honestly.  There are so many times when I become entranced with a place or a thing, and then when I edit the photos I sometimes have to be honest with myself that I have just not effectively communicated whatever magic it was that I felt or saw there.  It’s hard to make that decision, because your impression of the place influences how much you like the image.

There is another thing that comes with really learning to look at a place or thing and trying to express it with a photograph.  When I truly focus like this it burns the experience of the place into my memory in a way that just being there never can.  I can remember even the sounds and smells of a place more clearly if I have been trying to find a way to express it to others.  It seems counter-intuitive, because it can feel as though the camera is a wall between you and the world.  But when you start really finding your vision, it becomes a door instead – a door to a different type of experience with the world.