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On Being Human

September 22, 2015

They asked me to sit down and join them for grilled fish dinner.

They had no clue who I was-other than a dumb blonde wearing a pink Hello Kitty shirt,  balancing on a broken straw chair at the waters edge of a port side restaurant, trying to make a picture of hanging octopi.

“Please be careful, that chair is broken.”  His English was perfect.

Finished testing my inevitable liquid fate below, I dismounted my stand and glanced his way-to give the quick non-committal nod and a smile of acknowledgement.  He sat with a young boy,  an older boy, and a woman wearing a hijab.

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I didn’t want to engage-I was emotionally spent.  I wanted only to ensconce myself in my wildlife world, even if it was merely with dead octopi.  I tried to walk by.  But I’d seen too much in the last 24 hours, and the words simply exploded.

“Where are you from?”

We locked eyes, he knew what I was asking; knew I already knew the answer.

“We are Syrian, from Syria.” He paused, eyes sparkling, and sabotaged my next question:  “Yes, we came in as refugees, on one of the boats.”  He added quickly, “But we are still normal, we have money, we eat in the restaurants too.”

Perhaps my pause was too long, or it was the look on my face, but, he started to talk.  The conversation was raw and real-we were low on time, no reason for bullshit; a conversation one has when there is nothing left to hide;  and only reality to face.  An open explanation of identity; a conversation one has when an entire life is left behind and, the search for a new one has begun.

The four of them had come onto Lesvos island the night before on an overfilled black dinghy from Turkey, for which they paid 1200 dollars per person for passage.

“Our boat capsized; it turned over.”

His accent was barely apparent—he could have been Greek; could have been from any other European country, could have been my neighbor in Washington, DC.

He went on, as if we’d known each other for more than the four delicate minutes I’d been standing there.  “I’ve cried twice in my life; once when my mother died, and yesterday, when I saw my child and wife in the water in front of me.  I didn’t have a life jacket.  I knew that I would not be able to save them.”

I choked back my own tears.  I asked him why they left Syria.  My question sounded ignorant, but, I was desperate to hear the stories.  I’d spent the day watching black dinghys race from the Turkish shore, powering their ways like ants over the water; little torpedoes with a destination.  Some of them made it, some of them stalled and needed to be rescued, and some of them sank.  But, all were overflowing with lives coming to shore to find something better–grandmothers, grandfathers, infants, teenagers, men, women, mothers, daughters.

A Danish volunteer group welcomes a dingy with refugees from Afghanistan. Once ashore, refugees, walk several kilometers up mountain roads to get to a bus station, that takes them to one of two camps on the island. There they will be processed, and then allowed to buy ferry tickets to Athens. The procedure takes days, forcing some to sleep on the streets.

A Danish volunteer group welcomes a dinghy with refugees from Afghanistan. Once ashore, refugees, walk several kilometers up mountain roads to get to a bus station, where buses will shuttle them to one of two camps on the island. Depending on the day and the bus stop, able men and boys are turned away to walk the 50 kms to the camps on their own.  At the camps they will be registered, and then allowed to buy ferry tickets to Athens. The procedure takes days, forcing some to sleep on the streets.

I’d stood on the beach and waved with the volunteers as Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians climbed out of the water with a backpack, or a baby, or a garbage bag filled with their possessions;  while they shrieked and cried and laughed and hugged each other as their feet connected with Greece’s rocky ground.

An Afghan refugee hugs an aid worker in sheer relief of making it to shore.

An Afghan refugee hugs an aid worker in sheer relief of making it to shore.

They took selfies on the beach.  They called their families to let them know they were alive.  They hugged each other; they hugged the volunteers. They smiled at me, knowing little English, and gave me thumbs ups, and cheers, and motioned me in a universal language, to take their picture.

A Syrian family, celebrates making it ashore.

A Syrian family, celebrates making it ashore.

A Afghani refugee makes a phone call home. One of the biggest needs of refugees when they land on Grecian shores is wifi so they can send What's Ap messages to family and friends to let them know they are alive. Many of them have been on week long journeys, and this is their first contact with home.

An Afghan refugee makes a phone call home. One of the biggest needs of refugees when they land on Grecian shores is Wifi so they can send What’s Ap and Facebook messages to family and friends to let them know they are alive. Many of them have been on week-long journeys, and this is their first contact with home.

He went on.

“There is nothing left.  Our home is destroyed, my oldest son was arrested for no reason.  We had to leave-there is nothing for us anymore, everything is gone.  It is not safe.  But, in that water knowing I could not save my family, I thought, why did we leave?  I regretted leaving.  At least in Syria we would be bombed, and I could die quickly, and not watch my family drown in front of my eyes.”

He didn’t stop there.

“I want to tell you something.  I want you to tell people.  I want the world to know: we Syrians-we have money.  We have food.  We are not poor people asking for help.  We are just people.  We want a life where there are no bombs, and where we can just live.”

He is educated; he has a PHD in business.

He has family in Canada and the US; but, can’t land visas.

He is a father, a man with a family to care for, and he chose to leave.  He has no destination.  He does not know where they will go, other than, “away.”

But that night of broken chairs and sharing, they had another crucial part to their new beginning; they had boat tickets.  After the fish dinner, they would get on the ferry to Athens.

‘And then, after Athens?’  I asked.

He said Germany.  I said I’d heard the borders were closed.

He shrugged his shoulders, and lifted his hands in the air, and smiled a wonderful, sad smile sprinkled with the dust of hope; ‘We will go anywhere. It’s better than there. We will tryWe must try. That is all we can do.’

He asked again if I’d join them in dining, but my colleagues were waiting.  I shook his hand, and his sons’, and his wife’s.  I wished for them strength and hope and luck, and sheepishly gave him my card, with the true hope that one day I will hear from him; one day I’ll receive an email that says, ‘we are well, and safe, and happy.’

I felt useless and somehow ashamed.

He asked me to take a picture of him and his sons.  I snapped just to snap; and now wish I’d done more.

But, my regret is even larger:  I do not know his name.

I hope that one day I will.

I hope that one day, we all learn to ask for names first; and share stories, and put aside our paranoia, and fears, and be Human, to each other.

I hope that one day, we can all know, what it’s like, to be human.

My friend, and his sons, and their grilled fish dinner.

My friend, his sons, and their grilled fish dinner.

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The State of Grace

March 27, 2015

The phone call changed the course of the day, and that’s how I met Grace.

I’d driven four hours across Florida on a whim to photograph half a story–the second half wouldn’t happen till months later–if it happened at all.  I had no buyer, no budget, perhaps no common sense;  just a desire to document complete cuteness; as everyone loves a baby otter.  I raced through Ocala National Forest as the sun threatened to paint the sky perfect for long leaf pine silhouettes. Fighting with my eyelids (four am is no time to start a drive when you get in bed at 1am) I cranked the radio and welcomed the dawdling cars challenging me to pass them on the inky curvaceous two lane road through park.

Nature's incredible artwork.

Nature’s incredible artwork.

I googled the nearest Dunkin Donuts. Apple Maps lied again, and almost two miles further from the highway exit than expected I reached my non-caffeinated patience limit.  I needed my ‘half-hot-chocolate-half-french-vanilla-coffee’, and an ‘everything-bagel-not cut-with-cream-cheese-on-the-side’ pronto.

My blood pressure skyrocketed and my voice came out low and slow and halting.

“You. Don’t. Have. Bagels?!?”

“We are a Dunkin Donuts Express.”

“Maybe you should put that on the highway sign before people get off and drive the four miles down the road to get here.”  Too early, and no bagels; the mouth had opened itself before my filter switch activated.

“Yes. Ma’am, we’ve complained to management more than once on that matter. You are not the only one to complain.”

Apparently I was not the only tired and hungry pissed off customer wanting nothing more than a ‘medium-half-hot-chocolate-french-vanilla-coffee-everything-bagel-don’t-cut-it-cream-cheese-on-the-side.’

Starving, irritated, and one lackluster regular coffee later, I finally made it to my four hour shooting session with the rescued otter.  Adorable is an understatement, but this story isn’t about the otter.  We were finally wrapping up and I was working my way out of the house.

“So, are you spending the night down here?”

It had crossed my mind, but budget was an issue.

“You know,  I was going to, but would rather not spend money on a hotel.”  I said embarrassed, but too tired to care.

“Hold on.  Let me call my friend.  She might have a room.”   Ten minutes later the response came in.  The room would come with a trade.  “Would you mind taking a few pictures for her?  She has an animal rescue too and would love just a few simple shots of her critters.  It will only take a few minutes.”

I’d just driven hours at the crack of dawn to shoot a brown velvet fur ball on spec.  Pictures of animals for a place to sleep?  No problem.

And that’s how I met Grace–and Iggy, and Izzy, Ramsey, the ‘other Iggy’, and Rhonda and Rhett and Casey and Katrina.  And, that’s how I met Lenne, and the Gulf Coast Iguana Sanctuary in Tampa Bay, FL.

Grace.

Grace.

Unbenounced to most people, Iguanas are non-native to Florida.  That means, they don’t belong there and are not supposed to be there, but, they, like many other species that don’t belong-live there. The Orange State is filled with non-native permanent residents due in large part to the exotic pet trade.  Mom’s buy their kids iguanas-the kid goes to college-mom doesn’t want the lizard anymore, and hey, the palm trees in the back yard look like they would make a great place for pet Izzy!  But, it is illegal to release iguanas in Florida.  It is not however, illegal to capture iguanas and sell them back to pet stores.  Makes sense no?

Lenne takes in unwanted iguanas —  they come from all over.  They are found in yards, they are pets that no one wants anymore. Located on the grounds of her St. Petersburg FL, hotel-Lenne has about twenty rescued iguanas that live in a climate controlled enclosure.

Sanctuary residents.

Sanctuary residents.

Lenne and I met the afternoon after my fabulous night sleep, and after my second session with the otter.

“Thanks SO MUCH for doing this.  I just want a few good shots of the iguanas for my website.  This will just take like fifteen minutes.”

I smiled to myself.  I probably invented the phrase, “just one more.”  No photo has ever taken me ‘just fifteen minutes.’  Especially not with an animal as a subject.

One hour and a half later, I emerged from the 80 degree hothouse.  The cameras were wet, I was wet, and my gear bag was wet-as happens when strategically placed under the mister.  Lenne greeted me with a bottle of cold water.

“You must have some amazing shots.”

Natural design.

Natural design.

I laughed.  “I never know until I look later!  So – tell me about the iguana with no tail?”

It was Lenne’s turn to smile.

“That’s Grace-she’s been with me the longest-over fifteen years.  She was in a breeders place in Florida. He’d used her as a breeder, but didn’t want her anymore.

Lenee’s hand brushed back her blonde hair, her eyes sparkling under her large format aviator glasses.

“I went to get her, she was so sick. She had a parasitic infection.  We gave her antibiotics and extra calcium.  But, before we could fix her up some of her fingers fell off, and we had to amputate her tail.  She’s a sweetheart. She loves to be held and pet.  She’s really the only one who loves to be touched.  She’s cute isn’t she?”

Lenne and Grace.

Lenne and Grace.

Cute isn’t a word that would ever cross my mind to describe an iguana—especially not a full grown crumbly creature with no tail.  But, I’d spent long minutes contorted on wooden beams with a macro lens focused on Lenee’s ‘babies.’  Each was a unique character–brown eyes, red eyes, white scales, orange scales, a busted lip, an old man face…Grace, in my eyes was the furthest thing from ‘cute.’

My day had gone from one extreme to another.  My brain tried to grasp the irony—a veterinarian spent her days at work and nights getting up to feed a four week old otter—with the sole intention of getting that animal back in the wild.  And here another woman dedicated space on her hotel grounds to giving a home to animals that were bred by humans, discarded by humans and persecuted out of that same wild.

Sanctuary resident with varying colors.

Sanctuary resident with varying colors.

We parted ways in the parking lot, and I began my trek back to the other side of the state.  My head spinning with the thrill of another creature encounter while a nagging discontent crept in through the crevices. I thought about ‘grace.’  Grace the Iguana, born into a life of captivity in a state she didn’t belong in; and ‘grace’ the dictionary entry:   “elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action”;  “favor or goodwill”; “a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment”; “to favor or honor”, “mercy; clemency; pardon” which perfectly defined the animal, and the actions, of not only the two women I’d met in the past 24 hours- but, all the humans who rescue, rehab, and give their lives to the lives of the creatures many of us don’t think twice about.

Every creature is intricate in design.  What might look 'creepy' as a whole, is merely an intricate design if you take the time to look closely.

Every creature is intricate in design. What might look ‘creepy’ as a whole, is merely an intricate design if you take the time to look closely.

As the road ahead again turned to darkness, and I once again struggled to stay awake, I filed another amazing experience into life’s cabinet.  The one thing I knew for sure was that overnight, I’d had a lesson in grace.  Grace, is two amazing women giving their lives to help the lives of the creatures many of us don’t think about twice.  Grace, is all the beautifully designed creatures that were here before us, and struggling to live by our rules.  Grace, is irony.  Grace, is an iguana.

And perhaps for a tiny fleeting second – that peaceful second before I realized that I’d left my stupidly expensive polarized sunglasses at the IHOP 17 miles back where I slammed down a grilled cheese – I might have been convinced, for maybe a second, that Grace, is also, ‘cute.’

Sanctuary resident.

Sanctuary resident.

In Search of Snakes

March 2, 2015

Dinero, Texas

In search of snakes, I’d been informed that a particular steel piling in the ground next to one of the pasture gates-sometimes-had a snake in it.  Desperate for a subject, but not expecting to find anything at all, I pointed my flashlight into the blackness as my imagination took over and conjured my solo heroic rescue of a feisty, hissing, hungry, twelve-foot rattlesnake trapped for days at the bottom of the pipe.  While half my brain embellished the reptile rescue fantasy–my heart skipped a few beats as the left brain informed my eyes of an actual THING sitting at the bottom of the pipe.  There was something down there—not the scaly diamonds I was hoping for, but the telling stripes and spots of the obnoxiously elusive Texas Spotted Whiptail (Cnemidophorus gularis)—a lizard that had mocked me and my camera for weeks on the other side of the property.

Portrait of the lightning quick Texas Spotted Whiptail (Cnemidophorus gularis).

Portrait of the lightning quick Texas Spotted Whiptail (Cnemidophorus gularis).

I’d spent countless hours; days really-camera in hand-lying on the ground, decorated in cammo,  pretending to be a rock strategically placed next to various lizard burrows.  My disguise was an utter failure.  Dirt was kicked my way;  leaves were strategically moved over holes and occasionally the end of a tail flicked in my direction.  I did not have one clear shot of a lizard-any lizard-and I’d long before given up on the Whiptails.

But now, I had one.  My dilemma:   how to get a lizard faster than lightning out of a three foot deep, six inch wide vertical rusted pipe with nothing but a 12in x 12in container to help me (alas, the fearless snake hunter with no snake hook).

The rescue began; plastic container in one hand;  long skinny stick in the other.  Unimpressed with my presence—the animal looked up as if in challenge: ‘go ahead and try it lady.’  From side to side it jumped as I lowered the branch in to the chasm; the lizard could not, as hard as it tried-get up the rusted walls of the pipe. Stick lowered and in place,  I gently coaxed the lizard onto the branch while at the same time trying to push it up the side of the pipe without impaling it.  After several attempts at launching itself head first back into the abyss, the Whiptail gave in and took the free ride to Rubbermaid incarceration. Proud of myself-I secured the lid and took a closer look at the reptile through the plastic.  The lizard looked a bit thin, it’s skin saggy and dehydrated; but, it’s face was stunning-nothing short of prehistoric.

I didn’t want to stress the animal any further.  But, in trade for immediate freedom-I wanted a photograph. I put what I knew to the test.  I readied the macro lens—I wanted details and scales-I wanted personality. I turned over the container-laying it flat on the nearest rock, slowly sliding the lid out from under it. Down on my knees-one hand on the bin, and the other on the camera, I focused on the end of the container—once I lifted the bin-I needed to be ready to fire.  My experience is that when a creature is covered – there is a several second window after you lift the container before the animal realizes it’s free.  Battling for balance and steadiness I focused and held my breath.  Ever so softly, I lifted the container and pushed my finger into the trigger.

The shutter rattled.

The lizard froze.

I got closer.

Barely thinking, my eyes scanned the edges of the frame which I filled with lizard head, foot, and scales-careful not to cut anything off.  I focused again, and pressed again.  Finally remembering to breathe, I instinctively looked up and over the camera – as if a timer had gone off, and I needed a more personal connection with the animal.  The Whiptail slowly turned its head, eyes locking with mine; ‘are we good‘? it seemed to ask.

It then looked to its surroundings.  Freedom beckoned.  With one last glance my way, the lizard nonchalantly walked down the side of the rock.

“Thank you little guy,” I called out loud, as I always do to the animals that allow me a moment of their lives.

And perhaps it was my imagination at work again, or just the rustle of leaves on the wind, but I could have sworn the lizard gave me a quick nod of that beautiful dinosaur-like head, and whispered ‘No, thank you,’ right back at me.

From Pretty Picture to Portfolio

May 21, 2010

For me, in the beginning, it was about pretty pictures and a love affair.

The affair began simply enough–on the final night of a last minute-two day safari to the Masai Mara–in a safari truck filled with student tourists, parked next to an acacia tree housing a lazy leopard.  The cat had no intentions of getting up, and we had to leave the park.  A duvet of stars spread out above me, and the primal roar of lions echoed in the distance-my heart was instantly stolen.

And so commenced my wildlife photography.  I was a ‘people’ photographer, now hooked on a continent, and also quite obsessed with spotted cats and cameras. At the time, I was a good people photographer.  I could capture “moments” and portraits.  Shooting wildlife?  Never crossed my mind. But, the obvious way to get back to Africa was on a safari, taking pictures.

The trips to Africa began, and the first days in the bush after long absences were like a Wild West shoot-out for me.  Sleeping lions?  Rat-a-tat-tat-tat went the shutter.  Impala herd?  Three gigabytes gone.  Zebra stripes?  More pixels exhausted. Hundreds of fish eagle portraits, dozens of midday shots of giraffe; I filled every second on the vehicle with shutter noise. Each time I returned to the US from a safari, I’d scour my images.  I am a decent editor, so I knew which ones to choose. Everyone loved them. My mother thought they were the best compositions on earth.  My father beamed.  I had parties and showed my friends who ‘ooohed’ and ‘aaaahd.’  But somewhere between my third and fifth trip, something inside me changed.  I was no longer satisfied with my images–ironic, as I’d taken them. I had stunningly pretty pictures of Lilac Breasted Rollers, and leopards in trees.  There was nothing wrong with the images. They were well lit, and well composed. Sure, the cats were different, and spot patterns were unique, and the light varied a bit, but a leopard face was a leopard face.  It hit me. I had these shots already.  At the time, I didn’t know how to fix that.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I am a photo editor by day; a photographer all the time. I know what makes a good photograph, as I’m surrounded by the highest standards, the best images and the best photographers in the wildlife photo industry-on a daily basis.  Unlike most photo editors,  I also know what it’s like to be a photographer: emotionally attached to images and experiences.  I know what it’s like to look at my own images that are “almost there”, and I know all the excuses I use to keep those files from the trash bin.  But, as an editor, I know there’s another pro out there who actually already has the shot I almost got-and has already won some award for it.  The combination makes me my own worst critic.  Which, in hindsight, was the reason I kept going back for more.  I was missing something in my own images, something that others had figured out how to capture.

It takes time to begin to learn that photography, if you want it to be, is more than just an exercise in shutter depressions.  It is more than just taking images.  For me, this lesson was an accident. Five trips back and forth to Africa, and a few key experiences later I began to understand the nature and satisfaction of the photographic wildlife game.


Two years ago, I spent two consecutive weeks in Zimbabwe with the unique opportunity to follow African Wild Dogs. I had no interest in the dogs as a subject (and secretly figured that I’d be able to see a spotted cat at least somewhere during that time), but the opportunity was in front of me, so I went along for the ride.  For two full weeks, morning and afternoon, I followed dogs.  We napped with them in the heat of the day, and raced alongside them at dusk; we watched while they greeted each other as the sun came back over the horizon.

I was forced by circumstance to ignore every other photographic subject, and forced to quell the urge to take ‘pretty pictures’ of everything we were speeding by.  I was forced to relax, and forced to focus.  I was forced to give up the need to constantly shoot, and was forced to figure out when to shoot.  We had one subject-it was my only choice.  The first week, was filled with pretty portraits of dogs.

And then, I started to shoot.

I became driven; by the shots I missed, and the shots I didn’t have yet, by the behavior I was learning but had not yet been smart enough to capture.  I wanted the chase, the kill, the greetings, the licking, the frolicking and the blurred motion. I wanted dogs on green grass, and puppies and play.  My editor side kicked in-I was going to be brutal to myself-if it wasn’t 100%, then “DELETE.”  There was a tomorrow, and I would try again.  If I could say,  “I already have that shot,” then I needed to look for new ones, and new ways.  I didn’t want pretty shots.  I wanted compelling ones.  I wanted ones that others didn’t have.

And that’s when it hit me.  The feeling I’d been missing in my images was now clear: there was no Intimacy, and there was no Time.  I’d never taken the time.  I had been a ‘drive by shooter.”  It finally clicked-this time in my brain.  This was how I wanted to shoot; in horizons lined with black storm clouds, in the wind and pouring rain; in air too hot to breath, and mornings too cold to get out of the sleeping bag.  The only way to truly capture behavior is to witness it in all situations.  The dogs were dealing with their environment, and the only way to tell their story, was to be doing the same as them.

It’s a simple equation.  Time.  If you are not there, you can not capture it, and if you don’t spend the time, you won’t know HOW to capture it.  Time teaches behavior, and behavior teaches anticipation.  Anticipation of behavior, let’s you better position yourself for the possibility of shot you don’t already have.

The beauty of photography is that it is completely subjective.  There is nothing at all wrong with ‘pretty pictures.’  But, if you want to create a solid body of work, or a thorough portfolio of a subject, you must push yourself further.

Find a subject-like it or not-but, stick with it.  Shoot that subject at night, shoot it in the rain.  Shoot your subject with a long lens and a macro.  Shoot it at slow shutter speeds. Get on the ground.  Get in the air.  Use a pole cam and a remote.  Study what others have done, and then try everything they haven’t.  The more you work one subject, the better your images will get.  Spend the time, go back again and again and you will reap the rewards.

I’ve finally graduated from the portraits, and pretty pictures.  Today, getting the images I want, means day to day with my subject.  I didn’t know that until I actually did it, and for me, living on a continent 14 hours away, makes it a much more difficult task. Two years and many trips later, I’m still not done with my dogs. I don’t yet have all the moments that I want.  But, I do have a solid, intimate portfolio of a highly endangered species that has not only taught me how to shoot, but how to fall in love all over again-cats might just have fallen to number two-I never did see that spotted cat in Zimbabwe.

Post Script:  I’d like to thank Gerry van der Walt who has a great site:  www.photo-africa.com, and who asked me to write a guest post for his blog last week.  He gave me the space to write this posting, and I liked it and wanted to repost it on my own blog.  You can see the original posting here:  http://bit.ly/cQ5Hbo.  I changed a few of the pictures-and added a few others,  since the BBC article has some of the same ones on the original posting on Gerry’s site.  Thanks again Gerry, it made me really think about my own photography, and my own learning experiences.

Living Dreams: BBC Wildlife Magazine

May 14, 2010

Sometimes, I think we overlook the fact that at times, we actually are living our dreams.

My first ten page “report” was for Ms. Anderson’s science class in middle school.  Internet was a mere figment of the future, and I was left to conventional sources:  the stale pages of Brittanica, and the glossy spreads of National Geographic – both educating me on the biology of Cetaceans. Slouching over my desk twelve hours before deadline, I tediously hand wrote each sentence with a pen, desperately hoping that simply rearranging the words counted as original thought. But, at that moment, more clear to me than anything else, was the effect of the images behind that yellow bordered cover – the creatures below the waves seemed alive.  The Sperm Whales gazed at me, watching me.  I remember thinking, “I want to be right next to you guys, just like the guy who took this picture.”

I turned in the report, and never gave it a second thought.

If I look back at all my seemingly small decisions, and the places I’ve ended up without even thinking about those decisions-there’s a pattern.  Each choice was made by following something that I felt within, but could not necessarily define.  It sounds simple and trite.  I chose to follow the moments that defined what I loved.  Looking back, if I had to explain those choices now, I’d say they were my Dreams and Aspirations-in chemical form.

Growing up overseas changes your chemical makeup-at least, that’s my excuse. Sentenced to an American high school at 14, I held on desperately to all things over the ocean. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but I never felt like I belonged, and  I missed my home; a home made of my past in another country.  From high school to college to real life after college, I spent a summers in France and Switzerland, and vacation weeks with family in Europe.  I signed up for a semester on a ship that went around the world.  I signed a contract to teach English in Taiwan.  I travelled alone.  I took off, I came back. I lived in New York where I unconventionally worked my way into a job at NBC TV by hostessing in a restaurant in the base of the NBC building–I met the night crew that came for breakfast; they brought my resume upstairs.  I later quit.  I traveled more.  I was a photographer’s assistant.  I got fired for disinterest.  I traveled again.  I waitressed again, I temped again, and I finally lied my way into a photo editing job-with nothing more to show than a portfolio of pretty pictures and some long eyelashes.

I made seemingly little decisions, I didn’t look to the outcomes.  I didn’t think.  I just called, or inquired, or desired, because I felt like it, and I could. I could not describe what I wanted.  I truly did not know.  All I knew, was how to hold on desperately to the few things that I knew I loved.  My friends were on paths to big careers….Doctors and Lawyers and Teachers.  They knew what they wanted to be.  I knew how pay the rent, and most of the time, I knew how to choose things I liked to do, to make that rent money. In the end, unbeknownst to me, those little paths, put me on a collision course with a fate that somehow I chose.

My grandfather was a photographer.  I barely knew him.  We made short infrequent visits to his house over the years.  He was often with a camera.  I never made the connection.  Had I known what I wanted, I could have learned from him.  I could have also majored in photography.  I did neither. I often wonder where I would be today, had I made those choices.  I’ve often wondered what my grandfather would think of me today—he who photographed Einstein and Mussolini, Louis Armstrong, and the first African American baseball team; he who has so wonderfully captured history.  I take images of animals.  If I could change the world with them, perhaps he’d be proud.  My father’s father; I grew up on the other side of the world from him. Our paths barely crossed – and now, I see, we loved the same, and followed what we loved.

National Geographic happened because I was bored at my job.  I took a workshop, and I kept in touch with the teacher.  A year later, I invited her to lunch one day while shooting in DC.

“I’d do anything to work at NG. “  My mouth had a mind of it’s own.

“Really?”  She sounded genuinely surprised.   “Well, there’s a position available down the hall from us, and one upstairs.  If you send me your resume, I can pass it along.”

And that’s how it happened.  Over lunch. I realized a dream that I never specifically set out for, but a dream that somehow, one long night, through the jaundiced light of my pink desk lamp, engrained itself for the duration, in my head.  It was the Sperm Whales.  There are times when I wish they had yelled from the pages:  “Go be a photographer! Go take a photo class. Here are the rules!  Here is the recipe!”  But, in the end,  their silence led me to the dreams that were already mine, they were just not yet translated.

My life has been defined by adventures, and places, and colors and faces.  I knew what I liked, but not what I wanted.  Along the way I picked a lot of the correct paths.  No one told me what to do.  I made many mistakes.  But, I stayed true to the only drives I knew–to see and experience—I found ways, and subconsciously perhaps, knew that I wanted something that all these things embodied.

I reflect, because today, I stand here in my life, and take a step to the side for just a minute so I can see it all clearly.  Again, at the end of a roundabout path, I am again, staring at one of these amazing unintentional dreams that has become real.  I fell in love with Africa years ago.  I spent all my free time going back.  My heart said I had to.  I knew no other reason why.  I took pictures.  I liked the pictures I took.  I went back.  The pictures got better.  Did I want to be a photographer?  I honestly never thought about it.  I just did it along with my day job.

Today, the June 2010 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine-one of my bibles of wildlife photography–is on the stands.  My African Wild Dog pictures, that I’ve been taking for two years, are stunningly laid out in vivid color, on 14 glossy pages.  It wasn’t a goal I specifically set out to attain.  It’s another one of my crazy ‘fork in the roads’ that worked out-another one of those little dreams that ‘just happen’ for me, because somehow I made the perfect combination of choices. It’s a publication I never dreamt I could be in, and once again, somehow, my little decisions have led me to this place.

So, dreams happen while we are living our lives. They creep up on us when we shake a hand, or follow-up on a business card exchange, or have lunch.  Whether we know it or not, we do choose to make them happen.  What we need to remember, is to every once in a while for a moment, step outside ourselves;  look back,  smile,  and appreciate that some of our dreams, are what we are living.

*African Wild Dogs are a highly endangered species.  I hope you get a chance to see them on the pages of BBC Wildlife.

Thank you BBC. This dream is real.

Chasing Dogs: Lycaon pictus.

February 3, 2010

Painted Dog.  Cape Hunting Dog.  Spotted Dog.  Painted Wolf.  African Wild Dog.  Resembling a dog, but, not a dog at all—it is one of the most feared and loathed, and endangered animals in Africa.  And, it is one of my favorites.


The decapitated, kitted-out  Toyota HiLux torpedoes through a solid wall of Zimbabwean thicket at 40 miles an hour.  Physically resembling something out of a Mad Max movie, the truck ricochets forward looking deceivingly out of control.  I sit at the front of the flatbed, smack in the middle of a modified rise–the perfect target for blood thirsty Acacia thorns and steroidal Golden Orb Spiders.  I’ve already lost my bandana to a thorn bush, and have unsuccessfully dodged about 143 spiders the size of my hands, that are now crawling over every part of the truck around me.  All I can think of is my 6 foot 2 brother who’d be screaming like a girl if he were sitting in my place.

The truck careens to the left, I fly to the right, and duck as a fat Mopane branch threatens to take my head off.  A camera clutched in the left hand, a camera between my legs, and my right hand clutching the towel on the back of the driver’s seat-i’m being held in by nothing more than a hand and my toe that is wedged in between the seat cushion. It’s just about 5:30 am.  The sun seems to have pressed snooze, and I see nothing but teasing rays of it, glistening off sticky webs and branches headed directly for my face.

In front of us, galloping with certain graceful power and stamina, 17 African Wild Dogs take off at full speed, with a mission:  find breakfast.  And the two people in the Mad Max truck?  Determined to be present when they take it down.

Yes. I’ve come here for a week, to do this for fun.

Every morning since Sunday, I’m up at 3:30 am, in Mad Max at 3:45, and driving an hour to the West where we left the dogs the night before.  They could be anywhere within, or outside of this 50,000 hectare property.  We fly through what’s left of the night on the convulsive red dirt road, passing animals otherwise seen in zoos around the world.  A crested porcupine gives us the blow off as the spotlight brightens him for viewing.  A genet bounds up a tree trunk, a leopard, who’s eyes sparkle as they cross the path of the beam, is startled by the bright-eyed torpedo coming towards him.  Night Jars fly left and right, a croc watches as again, we disturb his post at the mouth of the river.  In the distant treeline, impala huddle together; hundreds of tiny reflected eyes staring out of the blackness.  We stop for none, as the dogs soon will begin to move.

This obsession of mine started by accident almost a year and a half ago.  I needed shots of Lycaon pictus for a story I was editing for NG Kids magazine.  The ususal stock agencies were void of anything that would work as a cover shot.  As a last resort, I checked out Flickr, and randomly found some shots from a wildlife film maker.  I shot him an email to see if he might have what i’m looking for.  He responded immediately.

“I need a cover shot,”  Was my demand.  “I need a wild dog puppy, looking at the camera, and smiling.”

He responded:  “I’m in the middle of filming a dog movie.  I’m trying to habituate a wild pack-spending day and night with it in the bush.  They’ve just moved den to a new, crap location.  They barely let me close enough to film. You’re joking about the smiling right?”

I wasn’t joking.  Several emails later, and with a desire to meet my challenge of  “get me the perfect cover shot,” he called me in the office, from Zimbabwe.  Little did he know that his invitation to “come out here and see his dogs” would turn into more than just one trip, a friendship,  and my own personal obsession to capture these incredible creatures beautifully, with the camera.

The Bio Tracker finally beeps.  We are close.  Faster louder beeps mean close and running.  Slow loud beeps=sleeping, general putzing around, or staring at moving water.   Once again, we slam through the thickest of vegetation, and there they are in the undergrowth, their big ears turned in our directions, as if to say, “You morons.  You left us here last night.  What did you think, we’d be gone?”

As we switch off the truck, and pull the spider collection from our brows, the pack starts it’s squealing fit of a morning greeting.  Everyone,  adults and teenagers alike, bound around in an organized chaos,  licking and sniffing, peeing, pooping, jumping and cavorting, as if they’d not just spent the night together in a pile.  Everyone says good morning.  Everyone says hello.  And then, without fanfare, their playful leaps turn to calculated determination; their play turns serious.  The leader moves into a trot, and a single file line of painted fur moves into a unified front.  Every day in the bush is different, every spider and animal count a little less or a little more.  But, every day in the life of an African Wild Dog begins the same way-a welcome greeting, and a plan.

Golden Orb Spider. Erik, this one's for you.

And, so here I am.  In Zimbabwe.  In Orb Spider city. Spending mornings and afternoons, seven hours at a time, sitting in a truck, creating bruises, chasing African Wild dogs.  Sometimes they impress us, sometimes they outwit us, and, sometimes they lay around bellies fat with a kill we didn’t even get to see.  An entire pack melts into the bush in a blink, while we, desperately trying to keep up, can barely make it around the first tree.  Most of the time, we are “just” too late;  pathetic competition for keeping up, leaving us with the after kill scene:  a football team huddle of white tails high in the air, ripping apart an impala at lightspeed.

But we keep trying.  There’s always tomorrows drive, which will be the same, and yet so different, as life is here in the bush.  And, that drive starts for me in three and a half hours.

Sleep well.

Far For a Week?

January 31, 2010

“Isn’t that far for a week?” my colleague asks.

I am on a plane again.  This time to Zimbabwe.  For a week.

Is it far?  Well yes-I suppose, but, San Francisco is 6 hours.  Amsterdam is 8.  Tokyo is a whole lot more.  I’ve never really thought of it in terms of “far.”  For me it’s a routine of Home.  Pack.  Get in cab.  Check in.  Take off boots.  Laptop out.  Ignore the baggie rule and see if I get caught.  “M’am, we need to go through this bag of cameras.”  “Yes, I know.”  Stroll to gate.  Get sushi.  With extra eel sauce.  The guy knows me now.  Board plane.  Have argument over size of camera bag.  Hover and stake out extra seats to sleep on.

If I had a second home, it would be between an airport and a plane, on the way to somewhere.

For me, an airport embodies dreams, and possibility.  You can go anywhere.  Do anything.  Be anyone.  Call me crazy, hundreds of destinations spelled out in lights on a black board.  Pick a gate number-any number.  Where do you want to go? Shopping in Paris?   Melting raclette in Zurich?  Dancing in Rio?  Table Mountain in Capetown?  It’s all possible.  Some you must hurry for-they are boarding.  Others are delayed, another bottle needs an owner in the Duty Free shop.  Some, like mine, are right on time.  Right out of Dulles-straight for Johannesburg.

So, is it far.  In miles.  In mind, for me, it’s right next to my heart, so the hours of stars and clouds that parade by my window at 35,000 feet, are just there to entertain me while I wait a bit-to get to the the place I miss; to the place I hear the Fish Eagle call; to the place where my brain can think again.

I watch two of twenty movies for the offering.  I spread out in the two seats I’ve managed to hoard on a full flight.  I’ve made friends with the preacher directly behind me, and an “airline people” who is based in Johannesburg.  I endure the screaming child strapped to his car seat in row 32 and refrain from the desire to ask his mother if she wants me to walk him up and down the dark sleepy aisles.  We can all hear him loud and clear-even at row 53, and his parents remain deaf to him, and his older brother sleeps.  The flight attendent begs, “please get up and console the child-take him to the back, or try and make it better, but there are other passengers, and they are complaining, so at least look like you are trying to do something about it.”

I stand for a bit as we stop in Dakar to refuel – the preacher and I will that no new passengers get on-the second seat is a blessing.  I take half an ambien after take off, and dream until an hour before landing.  We disembark, I run through the transit hall, through security again.  I’m now in one of my favorite airports.  Johannesburg.  It’s familiar.  I know the store clerk in the safari clothing store.  I buy chocolate and biltong, quickly check email, and then go to A24 for the flight to Harare.  It’s raining.  Boarding is delayed.  We drive around the tarmac looking for the misplaced plane.  I sit next to a sweet Zimbabwean who gives me his card;  if I ever need anything in Harare, please don’t hesistate to call.  We land in the dark.  I pay my 30 dollars for a visa.  And my purple duffel bag shows up.  Success.

So, is it far?  No.  It’s worth it-as I sit here in a pink bedroom in Harare, on the floor at midnight, not sure if I need to sleep, eat or start writing by hand; my laptop battery is at four percent, and I’ve brought the wrong plug.  But the rain patters down in a steady stream just outside the fairy curtains;  a cool warmth seeps into the room.  I am not far at all from where I will be tomorrow.  On a truck, in the hills, chasing wild dogs with the camera.  A week is not too short to live a passion.

So no-it’s never a far journey,  to get to be where you want.