27 November 2008

Home for the Holidays

Home for the Holidays

A typical scene in the house of Irons. Mom rests, watching her Bulls struggle and lose. Our dog, Blackie, curls up out after a hard day of, well, sleeping. Usually he is so gone that no amount of blankets atop him will cause a stir. Luckily, on this occasion, it was the head-end sticking out and not the ass-end. That spot is most certainly his spot; and comes complete with a drool cover on the couch. No portfolio is complete without the warmth and everydayness of the domestic sphere. This, my friends, is comfort; as epitomized by my weary puppy.

24 November 2008

In the Shade of Robai's House

The Robai Portrait
I spent two six week periods in Kenya over the last two summers. A fair amount of my time there was spent working with and watching a woman named Robai and her family make and sell pots. This is that photo narrative:

It was after a short, but furiously-paced walk from Robai's homestead that we witnessed the first step of the potting process. No clay, no pots. Simple as that. Down one of the many red-orange Kenyan roads and to the left there was (what appeared to be) a run-off ditch. I straddled the small crevasse and watched as Robai skillfully dug into the wall and pulled out the grey and gravelly clay.

Her face stained with clay, Robai looked up for a moment while she rested. In the next instant she beamed with delight seeing my camera focused on her.

Raw Clay, Raw Potential
Here, Robai's family works over the clay, first beating it with an overturned hoe and then picking out the finer inclusions. Rocky bits within the clay might cause the pot to shatter while firing.

Smoothing the Coils
The potters work with rhythmic skill. They mold the clay into long strips and wrap them around a base to produce the shape. The coils are then smoothed with pieces of wood and plastic. When pots shatter during firing or after being buried, they sometimes fracture in ways that show the weaknesses in the coils.

Smoothing the Lip
In the shade of Robai's house some 13 of us sat quietly, transfixed by the magic in front of us. With great ease and skill the hands of Robai and her family worked to produce delicate and decorative vessels from the raw clay. Light fell in small patches through the fruit tree where the children played. This soft ambiance created a calm unlike any I've ever felt before. Glowing yellow light bathed the earthy pots. Robai and her co-workers muttered in soft Swahili, foreign to my ears, but nonetheless comforting; it was as if there were no language or cultural barriers.

Kiln Floor
After the pots dried slowly in Robai's house for over a week, they were to be fired. A large open kiln was constructed from dry wood purchased in town. The floor rests above the ground so that air could feed the heat of the fire. Pots were then stacked atop this floor, covered in the rest of the wood as well as dry grass and then the kiln set alight.

The Phantom Robai
The smoke and heat from this kiln is intense. A cloud rose for tens, if not hundreds, of feet into the sky above. Robai tended carefully to the fire, continually adding more grass. Here she pokes her head above the thick smoke she was walking through.

Peeking Through the Ash
An hour later the fire dies down. The heat still radiates some 20 feet from the kiln. The pots, now fire-hardened peek through from the ash of the grass. Soon they were removed one by one by Robai and her family. In a stroke of luck, all 102 pots that were made from the clay survived the firing process.

A successful firing means dancing and hugs all around. Maybe she was dancing because all the pots made it through. Maybe it was because she had finished a 3 week long process. Maybe it was because she knew she would be paid in full. Regardless, her mood raised the spirits of even the ill anthropologists.

Robai's Family
Here, Robai (far right) and her family stand in front of their product. These fine pots were collected by the director of the project. This man loves his pots and, in a moment of unprecedented generosity, he let the students choose two pots to take with them as keepsakes.

Face of a Potter
The time I spent in the soft and mesmerizing shade of Robai's house is one of the fondest memories I have of Kenya. Surpasing the grand landscapes of the Rift Valley, the archaeological sites and the rural towns, it is the cool, damp soil behind Robai's house that is Kenya for me. It was this process that caused me, for the first time, to put down my camera (thoughts of photos drifting far from my mind) and simply sit and watch and be.

16 November 2008

Contention and the Sickeningly Cute

Butler University Homecoming 2008

Photos are a contentious thing. Though they are often considered as true reality because of the raw light and physical presence needed to get images, a great deal goes into their production. Filters and editing are physical ways of altering reality. Choices of subject and composition are others. Where is the focus, what is in the background (and what does it mean for the background to be that way), is there action, which subject is hilighted more, color or black and white. Photojournalism creates specific types of reality. Often, when I'm approaching "mundane" things like speeches I consider the possible placements of the photo on the page when considering my shots.

The shot above is unedited. Oddly, it is this photo more than others that best represents the "Bulldog Beauty Contest" of Butler's homecoming. There is no bulldog in this photo and, save for the sash, no indication of competition. But it is the human-dog relationship that makes this contest meaningful. To find beauty in bulldogs is something particular to a school that has such a fleshy and stocky creature as its mascot. For some, this event celebrates the bulldog, the connection to Butler. To others it is the animal bond.

I made this photo moments before the man tucked that tiny dog back into his coat and sought warmth from that damp, frigid morning. That moment is far from what the contest "actually" is, yet it nonetheless provokes something that all who have and haven't participated in such an event can relate to.

If not, then at least its a pretty damn cute dog.

15 November 2008

Of Mud and Famous People

Barack Obama Rally in Indianapolis

I made this photo before Mr. Obama was elected president. I started off naive, unaware of the magic that was held within my press credentials. I stood in line for 15 or 20 minutes and slowly meandered through the fairgrounds as part of one of the largest lines I've seen. I passed two cameras, a bag full of lenses and a cell phone through the metal detectors and fought my way as close to the stage as I thought I could get.

I didn't have a shot.

Long story short, a volunteer saw me with my cameras and led me to his supervisor who, in turn, led me underneath the media riser into the press area. I waded through mud and rain and high school journalists and, though my shoes never smelled the same, produced some of the best images of my life.

Its funny, I didn't have a lot of room (physically and figuratively) for artistry. Mostly, I just wanted high quality images of the man. Yet, somehow, though his gestures are so rehearsed that they are reproduced in nearly every speaking series, the now President-Elect managed to make even a dull rainy image something inspiring.

Let's hope this effect remains true.

13 November 2008

The Maestro

Originally uploaded by The Humanihilsocialist
I decided long ago that I could not pursue music as a career. I knew it would kill the magic and meaning that it had held throughout my grade and high school years.

This man, the maestro, has made very clear that I made the right decision.

I've been fortunate to have won a seat in the Butler Symphony Orchestra, even playing principal flute last spring. It was in this orchestra that I was pushed into a new dedication. I was led here by the unyielding dedication of this man, whose devotion to the experiential (as opposed to professional) aspects of performance knows no ends.

He says, ad nauseum, that in the rehearsal room we check everything at the door. Papers and jobs and deadlines fill the halls outside the room. In there, we become organismic as 80 people literally breathing together; our concentration becomes nearly universal as we are entranced by the beats and "gestures" of the work at hand.

In this space, under the charismatic direction and belligerence of the maestro, music is brought into a communal life under the topsy-turvy gaze of liminality.


I think a good picture awakens an emotion. Sometimes its the pure glee and phantom giggles we might experience with a brilliant shot of a small child. Other times it might be the damp streak left by a tear drop that causes us to hurt.

Then again, some photos are just cool.

This is especially true with sports photos. Action, action and more action is the name of the game. Split second captures reveal human bodies in flex and contorted in strange ways. Human faces are caught in moments of pain and exertion that often are comical.

This photo here did not make it into the paper. Indeed, we of the losing team do not want to remember these moments of, well, failure. Nevertheless, as I fumbled with a loaned D700 and 400mm lens, this was one of my favorite captures.

The two scenes are juxtaposed in so many ways that subtly lead to our understanding of what's going on. The quarterback "faces" the left and the team is running right. The team is up, the quarterback down, in every sense of the word. Finally, his back lies bent, his body nearly flaccid as he recovers. No. 93, however, thrusts his arm straight outward as his team scores.

We see, at once, utter loss (if not shame) and pure celebration. I think this photo comes across as both emotional and cool, as it were; visceral in its dramatic juxtaposition.

Making Pictures

I've noticed (as my interest in pursuing photojournalism grows) that photographers refer to "making" pictures. This phrase comes across the tongue in an awkward way, because I think we are often use to "taking" pictures.

Do we really take anything? I usually say that I capture things. However an image itself is a reproduction and, if it is a good one, a reproduction with an emphasis on the dramatic. Making, then, however awkward it might be, is more apt and I think is the artist's celebration of succeeding in "doing" photography.

If I put aside the words-in-quotes now, what stands? Did I take this image. Did I capture the moment and remove it from some realty? No. I produced a reproduction through which we might relive the tradition that surrounds Butler basketball.