SAN SALVADOR – Sometimes it is hard to get a sense of terrain and space while driving. You know you are on a road, in the desert, or mountains, or a forest. You know you are going somewhere, but the overall picture is indistinct, at least until later when you look at the map, your photos, your memories, and piece the whole thing together.
This is not the case for the road between San Salvador and Guatemala City. I had never driven the route in my own car but had taken it several times in a bus, from one city to the other and back again. Leaving Guatemala City you travel up and over the mountains through a misty zone of pines and hardwood, crossing the rim of mountains separating the two Central American countries. When you crest the mountains, you drop down to a hot plain that calls to mind parts of Texas and Mexico, distinct from the cool Mayan highlands. The highway is not straight but somehow feels that way. Up and over the mountains, across the plains and valleys, a stop at the border, across a river, and into El Salvador. The road continues on, close to the coast but never so close as to see the ocean, until you join the sprawl of San Salvador or turn off somewhere along the way.
This amazing and affordable little focus-free lens turns any digital camera into a gloriously trouble free point and shoot like those of days gone by.
GUATEMALA CITY — It’s a little-known fact that when Cindy Lauper sang her iconic 1983 hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” she was lamenting how her second career as a photojournalist, a career that had led her to cover the Iran Hostage Crisis and the early stages of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, left her little time to simply enjoy the pursuit of photography and her love of music.
So, yeah, I just made that up completely out of Wednesday-morning boredom but hey, you read it on the Internet so it must be true. But I was, quite honestly, thinking about having fun, about the lack of it, about how our deep and serious pursuits (and what seems like an increasing inability to simply have fun) has led the world to some pretty dark places. I think the general public’s reflexive, addictive need to document everything, every meal, every meeting, every little moment where we used to have space to disconnect, is a large part of that. And somehow we still end up with no actual pictures. Instead of having a few snapshots acting as touchstones for memory and nostalgia, we have what amounts to stop-motion movies of our entire lives, movies that are increasingly complete as people take more photos and videos, start using dashcams, bodycams, and action cams that record automatically, film every mundane moment with a cam on a selfie stick, reflecting their own images back to themselves in an endless feedback loop that leaves less and less time to actually live life. It’s a terrible thing, a strange and brutal way to live where nothing is experienced for what it is and simultaneously, we have created a record whereby nothing can be forgotten.
GUATEMALA CITY (HOME)—Keeping a journal seems to be one of those ideas that the world repeatedly rediscovers. Lately, I see it mentioned in articles on wellbeing, mindfulness, and productivity, and as a way to deal with the stresses and uncertainties of the pandemic. These are all well and good and potentially effective but keeping a journal, is still something surrounded by confusion and fear which is unfortunate as it is once of the few activities accesible to almost anyone.
I have been keeping a journal off and on since I was a freshman in High School and (without stating my exact age) I can say that means I have some years of experience in the process! I have also lived most of my life professionally involved with the written word, studying English Literature as an undergraduate, Writing for my MA, and working as a newspaper reporter, an independent journalist, and media director for international relief organizations. My current job requires a high level of organization and more technical, official reports and, obviously, I continue to write on my own as well as for various online publications. And like everyone else I am trying to navigate the waters of the pandemic and the ongoing process of figuring out my own life. Along the way I have learned a few things about keeping a journal.
I am not one for including too many disclaimers. Obviously this is my own opinion, my own process, and you are free to use or discard any part of what you read here. But I do mention it here for a reason. A journal is a very personal thing and writing for many people is an activity fraught with uncertainty and misconceptions. Lots of articles recommend you keep a journal but very few offer any good advice on how to do that. Here is what I have learned in a life spent with letters.
First, and most practically, you need a journal. Keep in mind that if money or access to buy a dedicated journal is an issue, all you really need is a pencil and some paper. I have my preferences, which I will elaborate on, but any cheap spiral-bound notebook and #2 pencil is essentially as functional as anything else.
I have a strong preference for the regular, black, 8 by 5 inch Moleskine (or it’s many imitators) (WalMart sells one by Mead that is probably better made and definitely a bit cheaper). If you’re not familiar with the Moelskine I will tell you why it is the best. First of all it is a great, practical size. I like the smaller Field Notes booklets for lists and notes (and longer writing in a pinch) as they fit in a pocket. The Moleskine, however, is a good trade off between having enough space to get your pen or pencil moving across the page and fitting neatly in a bag or purse. I find it slips perfectly into the back pocket of my Domke camera bags and can be held in one hand to take notes. The Moleskine has a couple other features that makes it, for me, the journal of choice. It is a standard, first and foremost, that has been made for decades. Once it is full, it can go nearly on a shelf next to its predecessors. My earlier journals were randomly bought and a disorganized mishmash of sizes and colors and cover materials. Second, the physical book has several simple but well-thought-out features: an elastic band to keep it shut, a place-marker ribbon, and, to me the most important feature: a pocket inside the back cover that can be used to store receipts, ticket stubs, and other ephemera acquired during the same period the journal was in use.
Now that you have your journal, the big question is what to write? The answer, quite simply, is write anything you want to. The journal is the first draft of your own history. You can show it to anyone you want to, but it is not intended for anyone else’s eyes. Back in writing school there was one classmate who loved penning un-ironic imitations of 1950s pulp science fiction. He was a nice guy and very earnest and he loved those tales of ray guns and tentacled moon monsters that had thrilled a generation growing up on the cusp of the space age. I have no problem with this nor should anyone else. Having a peculiar genre of escapist literature that makes you happy is a good thing. This guy, however, was taking a senior-level creative writing course designed for students wishing to become published writers in a different day and age. The student objected during his critique that he could write anything he wanted to, letting us and the professor know that this was a free country and these were the things he wanted to author. The instructor was very clear and gentle with him and used the moment to teach us all a lesson. He said, “Of course this is a free country and you are welcome to write whatever you want in your journal, in private, for your own enjoyment. But we are here to learn how to write for publication. In that world you are writing for a public and for an editor and for publishers so in essence you are free to write whatever you want and I am free to grade and critique it as I want.” Another mentor of mine, Dennis, the City Editor to my cub reporter once told me, “Listen to your editor, Tonn. You can disagree with an editor—if you can explain why—but an editor will always make your writing better.”
But we are not talking about writing for publication. We are talking about the journal you are interested in keeping. So what do you write in a journal? As I said: ANYTHING. Really, anything. I think this more than anything else is what keeps people from beginning. There is a blank page of paper in front of you and it belongs to you and no one else. So use it, fill it, it is your space. This means it can be the first draft of your great novel. It can also be a grocery list. It can be bad poetry (or good, but most is bad). It can be lists of the places you want to travel to, the things you want to buy, your favorites types of dogs in descending order of preference. It can be free-form rambling about your hopes and dreams and plans. It can be eloquent story-telling, one true sentence after another. It can and probably should be all of these things (you can skip the dog thing if you want). In other words this is a space for you to write whatever you want without fear that you are doing it right or wrong. There is no right or wrong in how you keep your own journal.
That pretty much covers the psychological. Here, however, on the practical side, I am going to give some more concrete advice. In my experience, creativity is aided by organization and preparedness. As with photography, I can go out and create freely because my camera bags are in order. I know I have the lenses and batteries and memory cards and film (and the journal and pens) I need and where they all are and thus can concentrate on making images. With keeping a journal I do several similar things. First, as we already discussed, I decided on one type of journal and don’t deviate from that choice other than by some necessity. Second, I have developed a way of beginning each entry regardless of what that entry might be and this centers my mind as well as provides continuity and reference information. It is quite simple and I am including a photo of how it looks. I write the date (in military/European format, ie: 24 April 1872) on the left. In the middle I write the day of the week, and on the right the time of day (23:46). Then, before the entry begins, I write what is in essence a newspaper Dateline. The Dateline is the place from which a story is filed, written in all capitals (GUATEMALA CITY—). Keep in mind that this information alone is a valid journal entry. If you don’t have time or inclination for more you can still go back and see that, yes, on April 24 of 1872, at just before midnight, I was in Guatemala City. I often go a little farther with the “Dateline” as well and add a more precise location if I think it important. Remember that this is your information so your “Dateline” can read, “AT WORK,” or, “HOME,” or anything else that tells you where you were.
The most important thing (as it is for pretty much everything else in life) is to begin. If you want to keep a journal then go get a blank book and start writing in it. The above is only a guideline but it’s good to have guidelines, particularly for unfamiliar activities. And really that’s all you need: blank paper (most conveniently in book form), a writing utensil, and the will to put the two together in conjunction with your thoughts.
MONTERREY–The Civil War photographer Mathew Brady had to travel with a mobile darkroom in a wagon. The wet plate process with which he worked produced amazing negatives and an irreplaceable record of that bloody conflict. But the process was so slow, so fragile, and the cameras so large, that actual combat pictures were impossible. It is fascinating to read about the lengths that early wildlife, documentary, and expedition photographers Martin and Osa Johnson went to in order to bring back never-before-seen images and films from the South Seas, Africa, Borneo, and elsewhere. That Frank Hurley’s sublime images of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1915 Antarctic expedition were even made, let alone survived, is nearly unbelievable. John Noel ‘s footage and photographs from the 1924 Everest attempt where Mallory and Irving lost their lives took a nearly inhuman effort to shoot and then develop in a high-altitude field darkroom. Taking photos with early cameras in what are still the most unforgiving, deadly, and difficult mountains, jungles, and ice fields of the world is scarcely believable. But the images exist to prove it was done and the more you learn about these feats of bravery, endurance, technical skill, and artistic genius the more you realize that as photographers and explorers we truly rest on the shoulders of giants.
MONTERREY — Most photographers have favorite subjects and preferred themes. Some are obvious and others less so. One person shoots flowers and selfies. Another also photographs flowers and themselves but, as with any art, the subject is not always just the subject. Robert Mapplethorpe’s beautiful black and white studies of calla lilies and tulips are far from ordinary photos of pretty flowers and Graciela Iturbide’s self-portraits are far more than another reflexive selfie.
MUMBAI–Regardless of whether you are a seasoned professional, an avid amateur, or you just got your first camera last week, an excellent way to become a better photographer is to take photo-walks. Walking, of and by itself: exploring a new city, a faraway island, a familiar old trail or a nearby neighborhood is one of life’s great pleasures with or without a camera. But this story is about photo walks and one walk in particular I took with my friend, the inimitable Sebastian John, one hot day over a year ago in Mumbai, India. It was my last long walk in that city I called home for two years and similar to the first long walk I took by myself in Mumbai during the monsoon not long after we arrived. It was not quite as long as that watery hike, because Sebastian and I took our foray into Mumbai’s mad streets in the sweltering days just before the monsoon broke. The heat in that time of year is very nearly hallucinatory. The temperature, combined with the crowds, humidity, smoke and noise, can only be completely appreciated by someone who has been there. Neither a thousand words nor a thousand photos can describe the reality of the streets of Mumbai.
MONTERREY–Part of our mission here at Field Photographer is to help our readers become better photographers. Both in person and from readers on-line, we are regularly asked for advice on how to become better with a camera. The following are five things anyone can do to improve their picture making ability. None of them are terribly complicated or very expensive. There are no cryptic, esoteric secrets involved. I don’t doubt that investing years of study and tens of thousands of dollars going to photography school would make you better than when you started (or maybe not, judging by some of what is currently in fashion from visual academia). I am advising neither for nor against formal education. What I am saying is that there are a number of things anyone who is truly interested in the art and craft of photography can do to become much better.
In the third week of the new year, I have crossed the Mississippi River from my home state of Arkansas and am passing slowly through little Mississippi towns like Rolling Fork and Cary under winter sunlight so pretty I wish it would never end. The Sunday streets are deserted, and the closer I get to the Louisiana border, it dawns on me that everyone is inside, glued to the Saint’s playoff game. Though not apt to follow sports closely, I appreciate high stakes and will always root for all things New Orleans, the great American city that she is. I am listening to the nail-biter on the radio and thinking of everyone I love in the Crescent City. On my approach into darkening Vicksburg: the crushing last-minute defeat just down river, a soon-to-be full moon emerging from a field in my rearview mirror. Evening is falling, and every direction I turn looks the way a Lucinda Williams song sounds.
Travel in the 21stcentury doesn’t often feel much like exploring anymore. Just when you think you’ve had a real Indiana Jones type of experience hiking a wadi in central Oman, you run headfirst right into a Starbucks. A few years ago, my wife and I were living in and had explored much of India. We had just been to Everest Base Camp, had seen a lot of other parts of Asia, and were looking for new adventures. It was around that time that we heard of Bhutan, “the Land of the Thunder Dragon.” Everything about it called to us as travelers and explorers.
There is no question that the Fuji X-Pro 1 was an incredible camera, innovative in ways that both the market and consumers didn’t see coming. But it was also riddled with annoying quirks. The hybrid optical EVF was revolutionary and alone made it the most innovative system to hit the market in a long time, but the early firmware included with the camera was buggy and the camera had issues with the autofocus system. These issues and the choice by Fuji to use the APS-C sensor led to many professionals and enthusiasts simply not taking the new Fuji system seriously. But in time Fuji would prove they were very serious, releasing firmware updates addressing user reported issues and designing a full lineup of fast best in class prime lenses as well as improved telephotos demanded by a quickly growing market.