Jan 7 2013

Two destinations on the brink of change

CUBA


Cuba 12/2012 #2 – Images by Art Wolfe

If you are considering some international travel in 2013 allow me to share with you two of my favorite destinations that will not be the same for very much longer.

During the final weeks of 2012 I traveled to Cuba with a good friend to explore the streets and culture one last time before the inevitable wave of change crashes over this isolated island culture.

Cuba has been largely cut off from the rest of the world due to a US imposed embargo enacted in October 1960 (el bloqueo) in response to the nationalization of some US citizen and corporate held properties in the country. It has been further reinforced over the years even into the 2000s citing humanitarian reasons for maintaining the embargo. Many of Cuba’s wealthiest families left the country at the time of the original embargo and settled in Florida, this is a powerful state when it comes to US presidential elections and their influence has been cited as being largely responsible for maintaining the embargo.

So essentially you have a culture and a country that has been largely frozen in time. If you owned an American made car in Cuba, you purchased it in the 1950s. If you are still driving a car today it’s because you have managed to keep that old Chevy running over 50 years later. You don’t see advertising and billboards when you walk down the streets. You won’t find the ever present Starbucks coffee shop on every street corner (2 per corner if you’re from Seattle). The people are beautiful and welcoming and on the precipice of major change.

The headlines are already running; “Time to End the Cuban Embargo”, “Waiting for a new Dawn in Cuba”, “Obama acts to Ease Embargo on Cuba”…. and many others. My previous trip to Cuba cost me an extra 1500 dollars when I returned to the US via Canada but today US citizens can travel to the country with the blessing of the US Government under the “People to People” program. Yes there are a few hoops to jump through and yes it is worth the effort. By going now, before the country is fully opened to US tourism you will have an opportunity to see the “old Cuba”, before the inevitable changes that are to come.

MYANMAR


Myanmar – Images by Art Wolfe

Likewise my second recommendation for your consideration is Myanmar also known as Burma. It is another example of a land with wonderful, beautiful people, rich in culture and history who have been under the thumb of a horrible oppressive government who through horrific human rights violations and oppression have isolated the country from the outside, and again, all that is about to change.

Over the last several years Hillary Clinton has laid the ground work for opening up talks with Myanmar and President Obama has even made a trip to visit the country and like Cuba the headlines are stacking up citing improved relations with the country, greater amounts of trade, and an inevitable watering down of their culture as western influences flood the country.

I will mostly likely make my last trip to Myanmar in January 2013. I, along with Gavriel Jecan, will be leading a small tour to see the beauty and rich culture I have known for years. I would like to keep my memories of their ancient traditions intact. The smoke from the morning fires as people wake up and begin the days cooking their meals over an outdoor fire. I don’t know that I could bear seeing giant golden “M”s sprouting up in the major cities as McDonalds and fast food and internationally recognized symbols of American comfort and conveniences begin to take hold on the landscape.

I have photographs I created in the 1980s when I joined the US Everest expedition via Tibet, photographs you simply can not replicate today due to the sprawl of commercialism and buildings that where once there was an open plain leading to a monastery today you find crowded streets and a thick layer of pollution from the exhaust of motorcycles and cars between you and that same ancient building.

Many of you no doubt have seen the castles in Europe still standing today – surrounded right up to the very castle walls with apartments and shops and restaurants and the ubiquitous modern footprint. Now imagine seeing those edifices frozen in time, standing has they had for millennia, untarnished by “progress” and time.

You can still find the local people in Myanmar fishing on Inle lake as they have for generations balancing at the end of long wooden boats using their curious and traditional netted cones to surround the fish for harvest. The cone is carefully lowered over the schooling fish and then tapped with a stick to excite and tangle the fish in the fine net as they try to escape. Witnessing this first hand is like watching a ballet telling the story of life for these people across time. Photographing the scene will provide you with treasured memories and a glimpse into the past. Such are the scenes throughout Myanmar in the streets, the markets, among the temples and the beautiful people who call the country home.

A hot air balloon provides the idea vantage point to photograph the stupas in Bagan. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains and today the remains of roughly 2200 temples and pagodas still stand. Photographing early in the morning not only provides you with the best possible light but the added texture and drama of the smoke from the morning fires serve to enhance the scene.

Change is on the horizon as I have said, we have already seen the hotels we have booked for our tour double in price in just the last several months. While the government has a horrible history of crimes against humanity a change in their government in 2011 shows promise for the people of Myanmar and with that will come improved relations with western nations, increased tourism, trade, investment and a westernization just as I have seen many times before in other countries.

So if you have had an itch to see some foreign lands these are two I recommend seeing first if you wish to see them as they have been, unique in an isolated culture on the precipice of change. As it so happens I have one spot that just freed up on my Myanmar tour in February. Please inquire to info@artwolfe.com. See the details here:
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Dec 27 2012

On Location:
CUBA!


Cuba 12/2012 – Images by Art Wolfe

Last trip of the year is…CUBA!


Sep 8 2010

THE VISUAL STORYBOARD By Kah Kit Yoong

Weathered by Kah Kit Yoong

Weathered © Kah Kit Yoong

Kah Kit Yoong is a Melbourne-based travel and nature photographer. His background includes studies and qualifications in medicine and music. He was introduced to photography in 2005 while exploring the cobble stone streets of Italian towns. Later that year, he developed his skills while tramping the pristine wilderness of Tasmania. Kah Kit’s appreciation of the world’s wild places has inspired him to capture its landscapes. He has been widely published in numerous magazines, including National Geographic, Popular Photography and Nature’s Best. His work has been awarded both in his home country of Australia as well as in the UK and USA. This year he was a prize winner in the landscape category of the International Conservation Photography Awards, as well as receiving an honourable mention in the wildlife section. To view more of his photography visit his website www.magichourtravelscapes.com. News and more articles can be found on his new blog www.magichourunplugged.com.

Rhythm of the City by Kah Kit Yoong

Rhythm of the City © Kah Kit Yoong

Havana – a city of faded glories but still elegant in its decaying state. Nowhere is this more evident than the Prado, a marble-tiled, tree-lined avenue, surrounded by crumbling facades. It leads to another prominent feature of Havana, the Malecon, a roadway and seawall which stretches for 8 kilometres along the coast. In the afternoon, it will become a hub of activity for tourists and locals engaged in banter, people-watching, playing musical instruments or fishing. But this is dawn; the streets are almost empty save for the occasional vintage American car cruising past and the city is yet to rise from its slumber.

As I stroll down the Prado, I consider my options for my sunrise shoot. No doubt the Malecon at the end of the avenue would be an appealing subject. The rain clouds, responsible for the many puddles on the streets are starting to disperse and take on a pinkish hue. I am distracted by the brightness of some buildings at the end of a side street. The warm glow of sunrise is starting illuminate the taller buildings in the distance and my plans to proceed to the sea is abandoned in favour of exploring this part of the old city.

Kids at Condado by Kah Kit Yoong

Kids at Condado © Kah Kit Yoong

Very soon, I come across a beautiful green 54 Chevy. The building behind is in a state of dilapidation, rough exposed bricks showing where a facade had been stripped off. I shoot a few frames of the car juxtaposed against the bricks but what I really want to do is incorporate some of that gorgeous light filtering through the city. When I turn the corner, an even more striking red Chevy awaits, shiny and glistening with droplets after the overnight rain. This time, the effect of the first direct rays of the sun can now be seen on the distant buildings. My tripod is soon set up and I carefully make a composition. Several locals have stopped to watch me and a man in a blue T-shirt across the street appears staring intently at me. I take a few exposures, with shortening shutter speeds to make sure he is frozen in the frame.

Musicians by the Malecon by Kah Kit Yoong

Musicians by the Malecon © Kah Kit Yoong

I had heard that Cuba is a country seemingly in a time-warp, decades behind the Western civilization. Recent reports indicated that this would soon change. Hence, the time seemed ripe for a visit and I spent 12 days traveling around the country in 2009. It was a departure from the nature-based photography that I’m more familiar with. I knew that it would present an opportunity to shoot a wide range of subjects, extending my comfort zone and skills as a travel photographer.

State of Decay by Kah Kit Yoong

State of Decay © Kah Kit Yoong

One of the differences between a tourist and a travel photographer is the mindset in what they are trying to achieve with their images. The former usually takes photographs to preserve memories of the place as a way to document that they have been there. Their shots tell us the story about their trip. Travel photography, on the other hand, is about telling the story of the place. This may be from the photographer’s eyes but the best images feel as though we are seeing the place through those of a local. I don’t believe that you can truly capture the essence of a location in a single photo, but with a portfolio of images I think that is achievable. Certain images may go a long way in revealing the broad character of a place while others may only focus on very specific details. However seeing the images as a visual storyboard, the viewer should be able to get a good feel for the location, replacing the words of a description like the one above.

Dawn in Old Havana by Kah Kit Yoong

Dawn in Old Havana © Kah Kit Yoong

Since taking up photography, I have found that my senses are heightened when exploring a new city or country. I notice things on a grand scale as well as those small details that might have eluded me previously. There’s a process of deconstruction that I run through mentally : city, skyline, buildings, doorways and bricks. Or perhaps : traffic, car park, car, driver, bonnet, wheel, windows, etc. All of these may make suitable subjects in their own way. At the end of it all, by putting the images into a portfolio, the pieces are reconstructed to form a cohesive representation of the whole. I also find that photographing a wide cross-section of my subjects to be a useful and rewarding endeavour. As an example of this approach, when shooting portraits, I was sure to include both sexes in all the age groups : children, teenagers, adults and the elderly. The people of Cuba were very friendly and open to having their portraits taken so this became a major part of my portfolio.

Glory to God in the Highest by Kah Kit Yoong

Glory to God in the Highest © Kah Kit Yoong

Planning a shot list is an important part of putting together a visual storyboard. These may include specific subjects. My list for Cuba would have looked something like this : vintage cars, side streets, cobblestones, peeling facade, old men playing boardgames, doorways, rocking chairs, Malecon at sunset, musicians, instruments, hands, cigars, person smoking, factory worker, Coco taxi, farm animals, architecture, etc. Some of these are quite specific while other like cars are less so and benefit from a broader approach. I ended up with numerous Chevy images, including wide shots from numerous angles while other images focused on various components of the cars. For a different perspective, I took a few from a viewpoint behind the driver and experimented with panning moving vehicles as well as using slow shutter speeds while sitting in a Coco taxi to convey movement and speed. Other items on my shot list included concepts, ideas or feelings. Some examples : children having fun, rhythm, energy, the simple life, decay. Periodically, I made time to review all the photos that I have taken. I recall doing this the night before my last full day in Havana and realized that none of my images adequately conveyed ‘decay’. The afternoon, while exploring the old town, I pushed open the door to a set of apartments and found the exact scene I was looking for. It required some discipline not to photograph the brilliant sunset over the bay but from my image review the night before, I knew that I would have been going over old ground. It was with great satisfaction that I was able to shoot this last scene on a dilapidated staircase, knowing that it completed the story I wanted to tell about Cuba.