The World Through Art's Camera
(mumbles) I flew to the top of a volcano in the Congo. I waited seven or eight years before an insurgency died down in the Congo and as soon as they signed a peace agreement, I scheduled a trip. We brought a helicopter pilot in from Kenya, flew across Rwanda, landed in Eastern Congo, picked us up, and we flew to the top of this volcano and photographed, then there will be a little bit more of that in the next lecture. So the beauty and the majesty of earth without life, no trees, no wildlife, no humans would be in that, but the beauty of the ancient land. And in the driest, hottest place on earth in the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia, all these minerals come to the earth. They're toxic, your eyes are stinging, your nose is stinging, it's a weird environment and it's way below sea level. It may be 110 degrees when you're walking around there. It's like a land you know you don't want to be in, but for maybe an hour you can withstand all the chemicals. And for primordial, yeah, it's also ...
the different eclipses and last year there was an annular eclipse, which is that ring where the moon passes directly in front of the sun. And finally, I'll take you to India. India, like Africa, is just full of potential subjects. It can be this serene yoga person stretching at the end of the Ganges, or it can be the hectic, crowded streets of Delhi or Mumbai or Calcutta, and this is my playground now, and you'll see this in the third lecture. But I walk the streets just like if I was doing it in Nairobi or Bangkok, and I photograph people in the street, the candid shots, as you saw in Cuba, the workers. Workers could be a great book down the road. So if I shoot everything, then eventually they come together and create a book. And most of my books now in this latter part of my life, the third quarter of my life, they're easier to produce because I've got this vast archive that we can pull together and then maybe I only have to shoot one more year and produce a book. And honestly, to be perfectly truthful, most of the books I do aren't really paying for my income, but they're a reason to get out of bed. I need to have a project, and so the books and having the focus of a project connects my life and some make money, some don't, and quite honestly, it doesn't matter because I like giving lectures and touring the world. But yeah, if people think they're gonna do a big art book and make a lot of money, forget about it. It just doesn't happen. The little how-to books do. You know, if you're educating somebody, it does, but you do books for your heart and your mind and for me, if you're doing something, if you're engaged in a project that excites you, energizes you, we'll call it the word passion, you're more likely to live a longer life. It is absolutely true. In all the artists I studied in the Impressionist period in the late 1800s, they were living into their 80s and 90s, where the average person was dying at 48. So creative brains, passion, healthy for you. So candid shots. A theme of sleeping. I haven't quite figured out a book on sleeping around the world, but I certainly (laughter) have shot a lot over the years. So I'm just roaming the streets and a few of you in this audience have walked those streets with me and I'm just like this vacuum cleaner looking for subjects, you know? And it's so energizing and it's exhausting. At the end of the day, you fall into bed. You just literally are mentally exhausted, but life and recording life, and sharing it with people is really the coal in my furnace, it really drives me forward. This is one of my favorite shots simply because it reminds me of vanishing act. You know, the animals camouflaged in nature? Well, it's really hard to discern in this image where the posters end and the humans begin, and I was shooting with my telephoto lens across the street. Nobody really knew except for the woman in the orange that I was taking the picture, and so I love them lost in thought, waiting for a bus, and this is in Alibag, India. Or even putting pea gravel in the parking lot of a restaurant in Goa, India becomes theater with the right light and atmospheric conditions. Yeah, in Calcutta, like in Havana where I went to the boxing gym, I went to the wrestling area in Calcutta and photographed this. A soft focus. I was looking for subjects, just strange things. These guys didn't have fares, so I drew a sketch and arranged them into an abstract shot. For $1 apiece, you can get 'em to do anything and that's what I did from my hotel window. Speaking of which, when I was working for Earth Is My Witness, did this sketch of mahouts or elephant drivers and their elephants and I climbed a banyan tree in Jaipur, India and I made that happen. So if you have the imagination, you can make things happen, too. So that background in design and art has paid dividends over the years. I went out to Rajasthan and photographed the camel market and I photographed the camels in the dunes and then I laid on my back and all these camel drivers bring their camels up around my head so I could shoot this abstractly, and I kept on thinking as I'm laying there in the sand and these hoofed animals are getting closer to my head, and camels don't like each other. They bite at each other, they spit at each other, so the drivers were getting a little nervous having all these camels face-to-face. And I'm thinking if one just reared up and put its hoof right on my face, what a loss to western civilization that would be. (laughter) So yeah, the formal shots, candid shots, long exposures, people in their environment, portraits, all those are part of the story and then there's this abstraction of culture where you see designs on the floor of their village or on the walls, these beautiful medallions that they naturally paint. I had all of these women scoot up around the medallion. I leaned over and shot a picture and then you saw the scaffolding was more effective. And as we're photographing them, they're talking a mile a minute and I asked, "Are they talking "about world politics?" Because they're getting more and more heated as I'm photographing, they're ignoring me, they're just yapping and I asked the interpreter, "What are they talking about?" "Well, they're talking about their husbands "and how lazy they are (laughter) "and the fact that "they're expected to go get the goats in the afternoon. "They have to cook the dishes, they have to do the dishes, "and the men are just sitting around smoking." (laughter) So yeah, when you hear a foreign language you think they're talking about worldly things, but in fact, they're talking about the same nonsense we do. So these women in Rajasthan are collecting water for their earthen pots and so I went out with them. I went into Ladakh, which is the mountain state of India, photographed the religious artifacts of the Buddhist culture that live in India, and so all these things that I would naturally be photographing now could easily fit into the book An Act of Faith. So there's a classic case where the book came secondary to the archive that I have and it makes it economically feasible. I never went to India before 1998 because people had warned me don't go, it's hot, it's claustrophobic, it's dirty, you'll be miserable. So I pretty much stuck to going on more level to Asia and to Africa. Then I finally went to India to work on The Living Wild where I needed to get tigers. And so I went in and found tigers, and you find tigers not so much from tracking them in the forest, you find them by listening to the forest and the forest will tell you if a tiger is around because the birds and the peacocks, the langurs, the monkeys, and the deer will call if they see a tiger, and that's how you find a tiger. And it was interesting to me because I remember so clearly in 1980, I read this huge article on tigers in the wild and they predicted by the year 2000, there would no longer be any tigers left in the wild and so I thought that was true, so I had never even tried, and in 1998 for The Living Wild, I went there two years before 2000 and saw a lot of tigers, so they got that wrong. And in fact, right now, there is a bit of a baby boom happening in India. There's more tigers now being born in the national parks and they're actually increasing the land and it's really about habitat and food for the tigers. The tigers breed very well and so that's the good news. In the world you hear negative stories all the time. There's a lot of good stories happening. In America, there's more mountain lions than there has been over in the last 200 years. There's more mountain lions now living on the outskirts of Seattle, and Portland, and L.A. than there ever has been and so these stories need to be told too to give people hope. And tigers need food and from the back of the elephant you find them and from the back of a Jeep you find them and yeah, they're there. And I lead tours. Every year I'll be leading one in two years, out looking for tigers. And it's fun to take people out and see their first tiger. And and in that last shot, you saw that I was up early, I arranged that foreground, I bought things that were being sold on the street in Varanasi, India, and part of the Hindu culture, orange is a sacred color. So marigold blossoms are put around candles and there's leaves from the banyan tree that are formed into bowls, they pass them onto the river, the Ganges, which is the sacred river because the Hindu gods lived in the mountains where the rivers come from. So beautiful tradition, quiet mornings are part of the story. This girl was selling those candles and I photographed her and positioned her against the early morning light, or the late afternoon light, I should say, post-sunset light. And then I photographed the candles on the Ganges. So telling that story. And a pilgrim crossing the Ganges, all very serene, very simple, very emotionally connecting. You don't see the face of the person or do you know the gender. So India is filled with big celebrations and quiet moments and that's all part of the experience of traveling to India and any one of these photos could easily fit into a religious book. The Naga Sadhus or naked holy men come out of the mountains where they've been for six to 12 years, sitting on tributaries of the Ganges, being offered small bowls of rice to sustain themselves and every six years, and to a greater extent, every 12 years they come streaming out of the mountains, high on hash and ready to party. They're crazier than loons, they're colorful, they're a small fraction of society, and they come to the Ganges and they participate in the Kumbh Mela, which is the biggest gathering of people on the earth. And along with that come the Naga Sadhus that wear beads of nuts, it's crazy. It's culture shock, it stimulates the imagination, you see things that you're to prepared for. Oh, by the way, that could fit right into Dogs Make Us Human, right? So it is a fun life, it's a great life. It's culture shock, it's strange food, wonderful people on a world scale. So I have a very positive view of life. And we have a tendency to think everything's at war right now because we hear the latest headlines, but in fact, 95% of humans on the earth would come to your rescue if you fell down or if you were in need. We're hardwired to help our fellow man and that gets missed in the latest news. We live too much on the adrenaline of the latest news that's never good news, but there's a lot of good news happening around the world and a lot of good people, so I don't travel within trepidation, I travel with enthusiasm to photograph all these different cultures. People want to know what I look like after I've been on the road for three or four years, (laughter) so this is a typical shot of me. And hair, again, it could fit into Hair. Oh my God, look at that hair!
There were tigers living in that hair. (laughter) And look at, this dude's walking by a little boy who was looking straight ahead, and as they passed, he had to glance back. Life is pretty fun. And then there's Holi, another big celebration. In Mathura, India, just outside of Delhi, and again, I'll be leading a small group of people to this. It's a celebration to the coming of the warming temperatures. It'll go from the cold and gray of Delhi, India and now it's warming up by the day and so warmer temperatures, everybody's happy, you're no longer cold, and there's this big Hindu celebration celebrated with color. And so I teach the people that go to wrap everything up. We buy things that wrap the camera in plastic. You will be blowing powdered paint out your nostrils for weeks afterwards, but it is great fun. And if you think because you're a foreigner that they're not gonna throw paint on you, you are a target. (laughter) They want you to enjoy their thing, and so it becomes part of the process. Really enjoyable, very artistic, very fun to photograph. And I'll end this lecture with the portraits that started first with tribes but as morphed into more and a broader body of work and in India, you see all these strange things, people that walk around painted like a Hindu God. So this is part of the Hindu experience, the India experience, and different religions. And this recalls that shot of the ballet dancer in India. So yeah (laughs), when I introduce myself, some people go, "Oh yeah, you're the wildlife guy, right?" No, I shoot everything really broad, much broader based. I always thought of myself that way, but now I can demonstrate that with the books I do, and as I say, I have a very positive view of the world, a very positive view of our fellow man and without a specific religion, then I can walk into Muslim countries, or Hindu countries, or Buddhist countries, or anywhere without a prejudice and I think that's a message that I want to get out more now that seems more appropriate. These people, these women are part of desert tribes that are moving all the time. They don't have any sedentary life. They live off where the camels need to go and it's on the border of Pakistan and India and out in that Rajasthan, the great, what is? I forgot, I'm 66 years old. We have short-term memories. At any rate, there's this beautiful area on the border and these desert tribes, Matru, these young girls had never been photographed. They said they'd never had anybody ask them for a photo. I set them in the entrance of their hut and used reflective light from the desert. There's no flash, there's no strobes, there's nothing that intrudes into there, but look at the confidence. You see that in their portraits. They were so confident in the way they looked back at the camera. I was just amazed at that. Yeah, we live in different times. When I first would go to India, I would ask people, of course, if I could photograph them. Today, they're asking if I will be photographed. (laughter) They all have iPhones and cameras and they're photographing everybody, so it's so strange to be walking and somebody will tap me on the shoulder. "Can we photograph you?" (laughter) It's like, of course you can! So that's part of the change of cultures and bringing people along and experiencing the things I love, I love to share. And the last set of shots show that it's not just the cultures that are changing, but animals are changing. When I first went to Honshu Island, I'd photograph these monkeys and they would allow you to get maybe five feet away. But over time now that enough people have gone there and they become habituated, and that five feet has shrunk and the little babies that have grown up being photographed, they know. They look and see their reflection in the camera. (laughter) They're gonna go find that monkey in that camera. (laughter) So you know, 20 years ago this was unheard of, but now, yeah, they're climbing up on your cameras, looking in. And Gabriel, who's my longterm friend and assistant, he's moving the images from one to another so he sees that movement, and I think that's what's attracting that little guy.
Sure, thank you Art for taking us on this wonderful journey of your life. And besides revisiting the many people, places that you have already visited, what's left on the bucket list, whether it be a location or whether it be a tribe you haven't met, or people you haven't met, or maybe festival.
Great question. Thank you, Gabriel. I'm heading to Chad and there's the world's largest herd of elephants are in Chad and I'll be there in a couple weeks. Next year I'm gonna trek over the mountains of New Guinea and visit tribes that are largely untouched and so before I get too old to do it, I want to do it now. But there's countries. I've not been to Israel. I definitely need to go to Israel for the Wailing Wall and the traditions there as part of act of faith. I've only been to Jordan once overnight, so I want to go to the Arabian Peninsula, Oman, I've not been to Egypt or even Spain. So I've avoided the places that I think are relatively easy to travel and instead, the earlier part of my life, I was trekking into the Karakoram Range of Pakistan and things that are very arduous, but now I need to get to Spain. I'll be teaching a workshop in Seville, so I'm going to those places. There's a whole bucket list of places I've not been, but they're all in the radar. So thank you for that.
A question from some folks at home. Now as you've traveled over the many decades, you've been able to return to certain countries like you've said. The question is if you were a photographer and you were going somewhere, that you went to a country that you know might be the only time you're able to go there, would you take your theory of capturing whatever you can, or would you recommend really researching and planning to get a specific subset of images?
Yeah, so that's something I failed to mention, that before I go to a new place, the internet is, well, think about this. Historically, the hardest part of doing what I did, and my colleagues as well, was researching a place. We would spend months, and months, and months, and sending emails or faxes. It was back in the day of faxes, it wasn't emails. There was no internet, there was no Google Earth. And so we would spend months researching a story and trying to collect any information before we would get to location because time is money, as they say, and it's no less true when you're a photographer. You don't want to spend weeks on a location, spending money without getting the goods. And so we would do research before I leave. Today it's faster, but we're doing the same thing. I would Google Oman and scour what's on Google images and educate myself, get a pretty firm idea what it is that I'm going to look for. I also have a huge library of books that I have alluded to. So I go over, eyes wide open, with a lot of ideas in my brain, but I don't do it to the point where I'm blocked from seeing the serendipity. It's often the unexpected that are the best photos of a tour, and so that's the challenge, is to go over there with this set of ideas, and I even draw pictures occasionally of what I wanted to do, but it's often being open to the unpredicted, and those can be the best shots, but research is really a big part of that. And as I said earlier, researching the latest news. Is there an insurgency going there? I'm not a war correspondent. I put myself in kind of situations occasionally, but I'm no hero. I'm trying to stay alive as long as I can, so I'm not gonna be hiking the Iraq-Syrian border right now. That's not on my bucket list. (laughter)