I've been in Italy for the last 3 weeks taking some time off from the mountains of Kyrgyzstan that I love so dearly before I return to finish up the last little bit of work I have on my project there. I was given an opportunity to jump out of an airplane in Verona. Quite frankly, I've always wanted to try skydiving, but had been on the fence about whether to do it for a long time, because, well, you're jumping out of an airplane after all. But I took the opportunity, and I certainly don't regret it. What a rush. Here are the photos of me screaming my head off at 4000m. (Photo Credit: Skydive Verona, retouch done by me using my iPhone).
It can be a big headache to spend days on a train or a bus when a 6 hour plane flight is available to the same destination. To stay in hostels, with 6 roommates and a lack of personal space, when a hotel room is available. Personally, I'd never do it any other way though, unless I'm pressed for time.
I set out across China on the train and it took me a week to get from Shanghai to Bishkek. Along the way, I made stops in Kashgar and Osh. Traveling in this way feeds my idea engine. It gives me greater opportunity to interact with locals and travelers alike in an organic way, all who have interesting perspectives on the world around them, and may have suggestions on interesting things to see and do. My project with the shepherds here in Kyrgyzstan grew out of this travel method, which in turn has inspired another project I will shoot next year. Had it not been for my friend I met in that Mumbai hostel, I would have likely never traveled on horse, and never had ideas for either that project or the one I am currently out photographing.
Travel is so much more about who I meet wherever it is I go. People and their perspectives inspire me, and for that reason, I prefer to stay on the ground as often as I can, looking for ways to interact with the world around me. It's a privilege to have the time to travel slow, but it's also a choice. I find that personally, the rewards far outweigh the discomfort and extra time.
Below is a selection of my favorite images from my stop in Kashgar on the way to Bishkek (and one from the drive across Kyrgyzstan from the Chinese border). I'm currently in the town of Karakol (Kyrgyzstan), to photograph the animal market here tomorrow. It opens at 5am before the sun rises, so it'll be an early one. Next week, I'll be setting off into the mountains for a month, to ride horses, live with shepherds, hear their stories, and photograph their lives. It's really a dream to be out here doing what I love; photography, the outdoors, adventure, travel; I'm grateful for the support of VSCO and the Artist Initiative to make this happen. I'll be putting more updates out as the summer progresses, here on the blog and also my VSCO Journal.
Alright, so as promised, I wanted to let you know about an trek I'm leading this summer in Kyrgyzstan in more detail. The trip is being organized through my good friends over at EPIC-ABROAD, and the travel package includes everything you need to get in and out: airfare from your departure city, housing and lodging in country and all transfers between villages and cities. All you are responsible is for is food and anything else you want to do while there! This is not a photo tour per say, but if you like photography, it is a great opportunity to see some really cool stuff. I'll be more than happy to assist you in that regard as well :) I personally will be planning the routes, leading the trek, and showing you some of my favorite spots in the mountains that I have been to. To give you an idea of what scenery to expect, check out the photographs below!
The trip itself will be 7 days of trekking on foot through the mountains and valleys. The official dates are the 15th of August through the 23rd of August (with the trekking in the middle of it), but the airfare can be arranged anyway you'd like, if you wish to see other things in the country while you are there. What to expect and prepare for:
- Elevations of 3000m-4000m (9,500ft-13,500ft)
- Temperatures from -10ºC to 25ºC
- Rain and Snow (at higher altitudes)
- Extremely powerful sun
- Incredible scenery!
The trek itself will be intense, but fun! We will average 6-8km of walking per day, and will be truly out in the wilderness (no cell reception). Weather can swing from summer to winter in a matter of minutes, so being warm and dry is key. Mountain weather is extremely unpredictable!
We'll send you a full recommended packing list when you sign up, but here are the basics you will need:
- Camping gear (warm sleeping bag and tent)-I can help you select the appropriate equipment if you don't have it, and we can work out sharing tents after the final list is made if you are interested.
- Water purification tablets-you can use other means, but this is the simplest and surefire way to guarantee that you have clean water. Drinking directly from the streams and lakes is not recommended, as there is often livestock roaming in the area.
- Camp stove and pot-I will help you purchase food and cooking gas in Bishkek. It's easy and cheap, so don't worry!
- A good wind/rain jacket.
- Sunblock and a hat
- Sturdy boots
- A good backpack that can hold what you need for the trek plus space for food.
If you are interested in some wild adventure, this is for you! If you have questions as to what to expect or pack in greater detail, please don't hesistate to contact me or the lovely folks at EPIC-ABROAD. We want to get you out there to see this incredible place! You can sign up for the adventure here.
See you in August!
Well, I'm really excited to finally be able to share this news, as it's been in the works for some time now. My work in Kyrgyzstan this summer has been awarded a grant through the Artist Initiative fund created by Visual Supply Company (VSCO). The announcement is posted here if you would like to read it! I'm really grateful for their support and for the opportunity to do this project fully.
Last year, I really wished that I could have spoken with the shepherds that I lived with and met along the way during my journey. This year, I'm taking a translator along with me to help bridge that language barrier, and in the process hopefully gathering first hand accounts and stories from the shepherds themselves about life in Kyrgyzstan. The grant from VSCO has made this possible for me to accomplish this piece of the project which is so essential to what I want to achieve with my work there.
For those that are not familiar with VSCO and the platform they have created for the art community, go check out the Grid and the Journal. The grid is a collection of images from artists around the globe and the journal is a platform for sharing stories. In addition to my normal outlets for sharing my journeys and travels with you (this blog and Instagram), this year I'm also going to be sharing my experiences and project updates through my personal VSCO Grid and Journal as well. Follow me there to get updates about my travels and how the project is going!
I sat down yesterday and realized that I'm only two weeks away from starting my adventure this summer in Kyrgyzstan. I could not be more excited to get on the road and get after it! I've been somewhat quiet with my plans for the summer, though most know where I'm headed. But I wanted to tell you about what I'm planning to do out there this year.
The idea formed as I traveled through the mountains last year. Traditionally, the Kyrgyz have been subsistence shepherds, meaning that they have been living solely from their animals and trading them. If you haven't seen it, take a look at the article about the Afghan Kyrgyz that National Geographic published back in 2012. When the USSR fell in 1991, Kyrgyzstan fell into economic turmoil, as the country struggled to transition to post-Soviet existence.
A predominantly rural and agricultural economy, Kyrgyzstan has been slowly recovering over the past two decades. As I rode among the shepherds in 2014, I learned how they have turned their history as such into a means of living beyond pure subsistence. In many ways, while they are still self sufficient much like they have been for thousands of years, the shepherds are also small business owners, making an income through the sale of their animals and associated co-products like wool, milk, and meat. This shift to small business in addition to a subsistence living has been successful in combating some of the worst poverty within the country, while helping to sustain the legacy of the Kyrgyz as a people group.
So in early May, I'll be heading to Bishkek to start doing research on the ground, gathering data, testimonies, and first hand accounts from the shepherds themselves. From there, I'll head to the mountains, and photograph their lives as it reflects their heritage in modern day Kyrgyzstan, and the issues that exist in land management and livestock rearing as a business and economic driver for the country. Hopefully I'll get to visit many of my friends from last year, and make some new ones along the way.
Additionally, I have several other stories that I'm going to document while I'm there, including documenting an arts festival (largest in Central Asia) and a chicken farming small business initiative.
Finally, late in August I'm going to be leading a week of trekking out in the mountains. I do this kind of stuff because I love it first and foremost, and Kyrgyzstan is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. If you are interested in seeing this incredible country, this is a great opportunity. I'll share more on this a bit later, but if you are interested, don't hesitate to contact me for more information.
(PS-it seems that I'm using Instagram more and more these days as my blog. If you're interested in what I'm up to on a more regular basis, I'd recommend adding me there using @stturn. I keep it up to date with my whereabouts, micro adventures, and thoughts. Add me there!)
I rode across Kyrgyzstan last summer on a horse that I purchased at a local market. This is a series of images from that trip, that I shared on Instagram a month ago. Plus a few extras. I felt it was best to post them here too, though some have been up on my portfolio website for awhile. I titled the series "Learning To Ride" frankly because that's what I was doing out there! I had little to no experience on a horse, and I learned a lot about how to ride from the shepherds that live in the mountains. It was probably the craziest and most amazing thing I've ever done in my entire life.
The inspiration came from India. I found myself bed ridden in a Mumbai hostel for a week and half with Giardia when the idea originated, something that doesn't really surprise people when I tell them the plan to buy a horse and ride it through the mountains of a foreign country as a completely novice rider came to me when I was sick. I had planned to go to Kyrgyzstan anyway on my trip, as I had some friends from home living in Bishkek, but it was the inspiration of a friend that I met while I was sick in Mumbai that sparked the idea. Months later, I found myself in the Karakol animal market, with a horse on the end of a lead line that I had just spent over a $1000 to purchase.
The 32 days I spent in the mountains proved to be a challenge and an adventure unlike any other I had ever undertaken. A trek between the two major lakes of Kyrgyzstan took me a month, and over 600km of riding. On the journey, my horse ran away in the middle of the night, we got stuck in the mud, camped a little too close to a mountain lion den, ran out of food (and grass), got snowed on, hailed on, and robbed. But ultimately, it was time with the shepherds that made for the most memorable experiences of the trip. As a Kyrgyz friend of mine said, the shepherds live a beautiful and pure life. They are not truely nomadic anymore, most of them living the winter months in the villages, but their life in the summer is reminiscent of the legacy of the Kyrgyz as nomadic herdsman. They know their animals and land well, something that a thousand plus years of experience has taught them. Food and shelter is shared freely, almost as if they consider it a community possession rather than an individual one.
I shot the trip on 35mm film. It's been awhile since I've posted anything about photography related stuff, but looking back on the choice to shoot film, while I love the way it looks, I don't have the budget and it actually slowed me down too much. I think it would have been a better choice to go digital with a solar panel, as I think it would have given me more flexibility to shoot. Next time maybe. Enjoy!
I think its fair to say, 2014 was a memorable year for me. To each and every one of you that I have met along the way this year, thanks for being apart of this crazy ride. I'm amazed at the journey I just finished in 2014. No, I'm downright in awe. Travel is more about the people you meet and less about where you go. Without you all, this would have been one boring year. So thank you! Thank you thank you thank you! And for those that have been so supportive back home, thank you for the love, the emails, and the random check-ins. Hopefully, I was able to return that in some small way as well, though I feel like I received waaaay more than I gave this year. It's humbling.
When I think back over my year, from riding the unreserved class trains in India, to talking with a sadhu in a river bed beneath the Taj Mahal, swiming in the Ganges, sitting on the rooftops of Hong Kong, trekking with Tibetan monks, drinking kumus in a yurt that I rode my own horse to get to, diving in some of the most incredible waters in the world, learning to surf, eating amazing food, and experiencing so many different languages and cultures in such a short time, I'm dumbfounded. I can't process it all in my head. Wait, I actually did all of that?
It simply would not be fair to the year or to you, as I would be breezing over so many details, to try and sum up the experience. A single blog post is not a sufficient platform for the quantity of stories that I have and honestly, I don't think thats really what this post is about anyway. I think instead this is more about what has left me changed, about the vision that my adventure in 2014 has given me, and what that means for 2015 and beyond.
What was 2014? The absolute grandest adventure of my life. I met amazing, AMAZING people. I did and saw the most incredible things I could ever dream up. And for that alone, 2014 was a successful year. The things that I've learned and seen this year will shape me forever, and I'm forever grateful for this opportunity. What will 2015 be? Time to get to work. 2015 is about doing something with that vision and using it to create value.
Personally, here are some of my goals for 2015:
1) Write more. Why? It's a powerful story telling tool and medium. Because as I've traveled, I've realized how much writing focuses my thoughts and in turn, my photographs. It helps me flesh out ideas and it helps me understand the things that I've experienced on another level. It's also a way for me to share what I'm experiencing, through this blog, because something else I've learned in a big way this year is that happiness is best when shared. And not only that, but I think it has a tendency to go sour when it's not. Blogging is a way make the experience richer for myself, by sharing it with you.
2) Make photographs of everything and anything. I'm embarrassed to admit this one. I have to tell you, it hurts to write this in a public space. I regret not pushing the shutter button on my camera more in 2014. 2015 came quicker than I knew what to do with it. And I look back at last year and think "I wish I had tripped that shutter a few thousand more times." I spent a lot of time trying to define what it was that I "did" and all I really accomplished was wasting a lot of time I could have been out shooting. It's not that I didn't make photographs. It's that in regards to creating meaningful photographic work, I feel that I squandered a large chunk of the money and time that I had and didn't make as many as I could have. I was not well organized going into this thing. I had no clue what I was doing. I basically tossed a camera in a bag and hopped on a plane. I wandered. I spent a lot of time in transit. I sat on my butt a fair amount planning my next moves. I felt like I was "always about to go shoot something" and then at one point I found myself being the worst kind of photographer: one who doesn't take pictures.
There is no doubt in my mind, this is what I want to do with my life for the foreseeable future. I want to be a photographer. More specifically, I want to be a story teller. I fought the camera this past year. Hard. I really struggled out here with photography. Wandering the streets for photographs is hard to do for 12 months, and the reality is, it's not enough for me. I'm more interested in stories to tell, stories about humanity, about life on this rock flying through space, the struggles and the successes. The camera and the pen are made for things such as these.
In some ways, photography has become a simile for my life. Not that photography is all I care about, but simply, it's taught me how to live. I laugh at myself so hard, because while being an engineer gives me some incredible skills for problem solving, it also causes me to get too linear in the way I think sometimes. I spent too much time thinking about what I want to do, where I want to go, and what I needed to do to get where I wanted to go, and not enough time thinking about how I could be useful. And I ended up feeling useless. Ha! Imagine that. That's going to change in 2015. 2015 is about using the tools I have to contribute, and do something concrete and valuable with it. I want my photographs to matter. To create value. And just in the way I want my photography to be useful, I want my life to be useful. I'm not living to achieve. I'm living to contribute.
That doesn't mean I won't photograph for myself persay. Having a personal vision is important, and in 2015, I'm going to continue to develop that further. And the reality is, most of what I'll do this year will probably be towards that development. But my real goal is for my skills to be put to good use. So, I'm going to offer this up to anyone who is reading: Got a story to tell? I love adventure and humanity, I've got a camera, and I love to write. Let me know how I can help. Seriously, let's talk. Send me a message here. I want to be apart of what you are trying to accomplish in whatever way I can assist.
I have a feeling that 2015 is going to be another one for the record books just like 2014 was. I can't wait to get back out there in the middle of it all with a camera in my hand and find the light.
It's hard to believe that my time in India is over. Three months flew by like a three day holiday weekend, and now I find myself sitting on the beach in Sri Lanka, a much welcome reprieve from the honking, noise, dirt, and madness that is India. I had originally drafted a really long post to reflect on my time there, but after a while, I realized that my lessons learned there were pretty simple.
I set off with the goal of being an NGO commercial photographer, and quickly realized that actually, I had no desire to do that after all. I'm not wired for commercial photography. And I realized my engineering skills will be way more effective/impactful in the NGO realm. I've seen my photographic tendencies drift significantly towards a couple things: 1) Adventure 2) Remote and wild places 3) Fine art prints 4) Documentary work.
I've always had a strong desire to get to remote places, for adventure in the frontier, and a fascination with the people that live on the fringes of society. And I've recently discovered how much I love seeing physical hard prints of my work that I can hold in my hand. It was the increased interest in documentary work that really developed in India though. I was so frustrated with photography in India. After awhile, I just hated the sight of a camera. I finally figured out why: it has to do with a sense of accomplishment. See, as an engineer, I love having a project to work on. Something with a deliverable, that I can then derive a set of steps to solve the problem and accomplish the task. And I got absolutely NOTHING done in India. It's not just doing things to do things, but really working towards a finished product. Time after time, projects never panned out in India. They would fall apart, I couldn't get started, or I'd get called off to go somewhere else. And it was incredibly demotivating for me.
So this summer, my plans are simple. I've got a list of personal photo projects that I'm going to go do. I'll work through them until they are complete. If I need to, I'll take a break and go find a beach or just travel and resume when I can. Some projects are extreme, and I'm going to want a little time off after I finish most likely. But I'm going to focus my traveling this way for now, for the purpose of completing the projects only. I'm not going to share any of my work on a given project until the project is complete. This blog has mainly been a travel blog since I started, but I don't want to be a travel blogger. My photography interests are different than that.
I've decided that because of this, and some practical issues as well, I'm setting the blog aside for the summer, and I'm selling my digital cameras for film. As a photographer, I've had a soft spot for film ever since I saw that single roll of slides I shot on my trip to Pakistan sitting on the light table. Digital has been a necessity because it was so convenient. I love film. I love the process, the way it forces me to slow down, to be more selective. I love having to wait until I can see the images, because it helps me stay in the moment. I love the way it looks and the way it feels. And I LOVE darkroom prints.
The practical side is that India is a bit of an anomaly in that wifi is (mostly) readily available. The places I'm planning to focus on with my photography, have no wifi. Or even electricity. I couldn't continue to share photos at the rate I have been in India even if I wanted to. I need the fully manual operation certain film cameras offer so I can get to places high in the mountains or out on the plains for days (maybe weeks) that have no electricity and still shoot pictures. I could carry a ton of batteries (big money) or a solar panel I guess (lots of weight and I'm only one man), but I'm just going to simplify the process and shoot what I love. I'll get the images processed and finished and then you'll see the results. But more importantly, I just flat out enjoy film and I need the space to just create work that satisfies me.
So that's really all I need to say at this time about what I learned in India. I had a lot more stuff in the original draft of this post, but I just decided it's not really the root of the issue. I'm a total over achiever I guess, but I hate having nothing to do. Having a project focuses me, and it really gets my creative muscle working. It comes from the problem solving skills I had to develop as an engineer. I get stagnant with nothing to work towards. And as with any art, you really have to do what satisfies you creatively and forget about the rest, so film it is.
I've really appreciated the support you all have shown in the last few months on the blog. There will be plenty of stories and photos coming, but it will take some time to create those. I'm not going to promise that the photos are going to be iconic, or even good, but they will be my best and from the heart. So hang on for a few months. I'll be back before you know it with a whole slew of photos and stories to share!
I'll leave the website up with a selection of my favorite images from my travel so far. Also, I'll be sharing some Instagram snaps from my phone whenever I get wifi access if I can. Make sure you add me (@stturn) if you haven't already, as that will be my main travel update outlet for the summer.
Have a great summer. See you soon!
Many have asked, and I've been dragging my feet, but I'm feeling the need to share some images. I've been on hiatus from the blog lately, mostly because I've lacked any thoughts to put down.
Inspiration is a funny thing. It comes and goes. It seemingly left me 2/3rds of the way through India, right after I came down with giardia in Mumbai. When I was feeling well enough to move, I decided that Rajasthan was going to be for me. To travel, not worry about the camera, the blog, or making any images. I'm working on a rather lengthy post that reflects on my time in India, and there is a lot to cover. India was both frustrating and enlightening for me. I'll leave it at that for now.
I'm in Sri Lanka for the next week and a half, soaking (read: burning) in the sun, teaching myself to surf, and doing a little SCUBA diving. I got the camera out with intention today for the first time in what feels like weeks, and the image above was the result. Here are a few more from the end of India and the first week in Sri Lanka. More later.
Sorry for being absent of late. I took a detour south into Andhra Pradesh to experience a slightly different slice of life, and saw some really neat things. From wandering through wheat fields in the early morning, to bouncing around in the back of a pickup truck, killing a cobra in the street (wasn't me, I just took the picture), seeing fields of chilis, rice paddies, and tribal areas. I also got to go to a wedding, and photograph it. That was pretty cool. I'm in Mumbai again, to send my DSLR gear home with a friend (it's all spoken for already). I got myself a real cup of coffee for the first time in months and I'm wired at the moment, which is good, because otherwise I would be asleep after arriving this morning at 4am from Hyderabad on the train. While I wish I had time to write about everything I did in the last few weeks, I'm going to just rely on the photographs to describe as much of it as possible. I think I need to share more frequently, so the amount that I have to include to catch up isn't so extreme...
I was wandering the dried out bed of the Yamuna river in Agra when I found Amardas. Wild looking hair and little clothes to speak of, it was apparent he was a sadhu, or Hindu holy man. As soon as we made eye contact he motioned to come and sit with him. So I did. I've waited to share his story until now, because I was intrigued, and had wanted to return and find out more. But my travels and other projects have and will continue to prevent me from returning to Agra, so I will share what I know from my encounter with this man.
It seems that from a young age, Amardas was enthralled with things spiritual. As a boy of only 8 years, he left home and became a disciple of a guru at a Hindu temple in Vrindivar. Turning from the life his parents wanted for him of success, career, achievement, marriage, and comfort, he desired to worship. To live a life in worship.
As a teenager, he made up his mind that he was going to take money from the rich and give it to the poor. He joined a gang, and they supplied him with a gun. He attempted to rob a doctor in a tuk-tuk, only to find that the briefcase the doctor was carrying had nothing but papers inside, and at that moment god spoke to him. He realized the wickedness of his actions, and that money would never fulfill him. He threw the gun in the river and set out to seek what it meant to truly know god.
In the hour I was with him, I was unable to understand the rest of his life beyond the present. The conversation drifted and bounced around, Amardas spoke quickly, not giving any break for my friend to translate his Hindi into English. What I do know, is that he found his way to Agra and spends most of his time there. Now in his fifties, he can neither read nor write, but cares for orphans and the homeless, helping all who ask for it in whatever way he can. He bathes in the Yamuna river each morning, and worships at a small temple on the banks. He has stories of spirits and ghosts, souls of the dead that have unfinished business from the cremation ghats nearby that wander through the river at night. He dodges venomous snakes that live in the river bed, trusting god will wake him in the night should he be in danger. In the monsoon season, he lives across the street from the river. He sleeps in the open, and in the temple when it rains (or is too cold), exercises regularly, and eats when he can from the charity of others.
Amardas said some things that I find beautiful: we are all one big family, all of humanity. He thinks often about the world, how people are divided. Muslims and Hindus fighting, countries divided, but as he traveled throughout India, he found that we are all really the same. That there is no distinction between black, brown, white, Muslim, Hindu, American, or Indian. We all toil, and we all need love. And we all turn to dust at the end of our lives no matter what we achieve while alive. As a photographer, one of the things I want to do with my work is show the human moments, the human elements, the things that make us who we are. I love photographing people, because I believe we are the image of something greater. I want to know what it means to be a human being on earth, in all of our faults, failures, differences, and beauty. And I want to put it in front of my lens and capture it. It's why I found Amardas's story so intriguing.
Hello world! Yes, I'm alive over here in India. Like always, my travel plans have been rearranged again. While I had planned to head north into Rajasthan, I've been putting together plans for a project that that will take me a month or two to complete, documenting the culture of a gypsy group in India called Banjara. It's a project that will take me all over India, and I'm just going to get started next week, so that takes precedent over any touristy stuff :) I'll probably wait to post any images until the project is complete, but I'm confident the photos are going to be worth waiting for.
So, I'm in southern India at the moment. I've traversed pretty much the whole country north to south in matter of days, from Agra to Nagpur to Tirupati. Currently I'm in the middle of nowhere, out in rice farming country preparing for my first full Indian wedding tomorrow. It's simply beautiful out here, and I'm excited to go to a wedding ceremony (Indian) for the first time. I'll click a few pics for you ;)
I don't have internet. This is being posted via my phone on 2G, so I can't upload a lot of the images I have made in the last 2 weeks, but here is a view from where I am tonight (above as well). I'll post images as soon as I can, though it may be awhile, because I'm going to be out in the bush for a few weeks.
Wish you guys were here.
Everyone has seen photos of the Taj Mahal. I've seen a million (ok not really). There is no photo that I've seen (or taken) that comes close to capturing the sheer magnitude and intricacies of the structure. It deserves every last bit of its "wonder of the world" status. This thing is MASSIVE (and detailed). It looks reasonably large in pictures. I'm telling you, IT IS HUGE. And the detail of the inlays within the white marble are so incredibly ornate. Most doorways have sections of the Quran INLAID in stone around them. No wonder it took 23 years to build.
There's not much more to say about it. Do not miss this if you come to India, and get up for the sunrise (buy your ticket the day before). I had to leave midday to switch hotels, thinking I could use the same ticket to get back in for sunset. I was wrong, so I bought a second ticket and went in anyway. It was worth it.
Varanasi has been a trying city for me. As I said in my previous post, tourism really has taken a toll here. It has driven the prices up on the cost of living big time and people feel it. My time here can be summed up in saying, I feel like I'm nothing but a bank account. White skin equals dollar sign. It's true, even as an unemployed westerner, I am still fabulously wealthy compared to the overwhelming majority of people here. That's incredibly humbling to think about, but while my eagerness to be generous is there, it dims after being scammed three times in a row. It's a vicious cycle, and there is no telling who struck first, the tourist or the local. I understand both sides. Tourists pour through here everyday, stay for a few hours, days, visit this place like they would a zoo or an amusement park, one of the most holy cities in India, and leave. Slam, bam, thank you Varanasi. But it's also intimidating to be a tourist here. People are in your face for money, to buy things, to use their services, and they are relentless. No doesn't mean no here, it means try harder until there is confrontation or you give in to avoid it. There is no doubt some react poorly, as I did on several occasions. It's hard to be open with people when so many are trying to take advantage of you for a buck. As a guy I actually was able to sit and talk to said (he volunteered me to buy him tea :) ), "why should I change my methods when some tourists will fork over 3000IR ($50) without batting an eye?" after he pushed them to pay him for his time that they didn't ask for. Tough atmosphere to operate in .
There are nice people here. In fact, I'm sure most of the people here are wonderful. Just worn out from the tourism industry. While wandering the back streets, I met several really kind people. I tried to get away from the river. It's beautiful, it's so hard to, but I found myself more captivated by the life that happened away from it, back in the streets of what is known as "The Old City." Most Indian cities have street dogs and cats. Varanasi is the first place I've been to that had street cows, that meandered as they wished, eating from the trash, and stampeding through the narrow lanes on occasion. While I don't feel as though the photographs even come close to doing the experience justice, here are some images from my wanderings. I leave Varanasi today, and I have no idea where I'm going, but honestly I'm relieved to be. I plan to play overnight bus roulette. Wish me luck :)
Wow. I started thinking back on everything that has happened in the past two weeks, and I kind of couldn't believe how much I've done in what feels like such a short time. After Kolkata, I hopped on a train for Darjeeling, which I posted about briefly here, but after spending two nights there with temperatures well below freezing and a hotel without heat (none of the hotels that were within my budget would have had heat) I decided to leave and head back to Siliguri. I had came down with a moderate head cold right as I arrived in Darjeeling, and somehow being cold and sick didn't sound real fun to me. So, although it was an amazing and beautiful place, I left and didn't go north to Sikkim like I had planned. I had a week to myself in Siliguri, which is kind of a town with nothing to do. I spent a lot of time reading, sipping tea, and trying to do laundry (but to no avail, clothes wouldn't dry in my hotel, it was too humid). But near the end of my time in Siliguri, I met a local guy and had a blast with him and his friends. In a lot of ways, it kind of shed new light on what I want most out of this trip. I had such a great time hanging with Salman and his friends that I kind of just put the camera away and forgot about it for awhile. I think really it was a combination of two things: this DSLR is getting really heavy to lug everywhere, and I was having so much fun just hanging out with people. While I really wanted to photograph some of the places we went and things we did, I just didn't want to carry my massive camera everywhere, and to be fair, I'm realizing that I just didn't need to. Those kind of moments I want to enjoy fully and let pass, because at the end of the day, those are the ones that will make the trip, not the images I hang on my wall.
Actually, there were days in Kolkata where I left the camera in the room too, because I was just so sick of the weight and bulk. I saw stuff on the street that I thought would make a great photograph and cringed when I didn't have a camera to capture it. So I decided that I'm selling my DSLR gear and buying a mirrorless camera and two primes (I almost bought just a 50mm and called it a day and I still may, as it is my bread and butter lens). Something I can stick in my day bag and go, that won't wear me out, but still has good image quality. This isn't about image quality at all, it is about the weight and portability, but let's be honest, the 5d is one of the best cameras on the market and it has been a hard sell up until this point to sacrifice any of it for convenience. But I learned my lesson: a camera is no good if it is 1) not with you or 2) wearing you out. Switching is cutting my camera weight by 3/4ths, and leaving room for things like a sleeping bag, my filter set, and a travel tripod which I will want in the mountains to do some landscape work. And even with adding that stuff back in, I still shave close to 5lbs off my total backpack weight and 4lbs off my day bag load. My back will be pleased.
I left Siliguri in high spirits, having met so many great people and headed to Varanasi, a city I've wanted to visit as long as I've wanted to visit India. It's a beautiful and mystical place, but the people are different here, tourism has really taken a bit of a toll I feel. The Bengali were so warm and genuine, I was shocked when I came here and it wasn't quite the same. People are nice (mostly), but just after your money. I feel like some of the genuine spirit of the people I've met in India so far is missing. Maybe it's just this part of the city, where all the tourism is. That wouldn't surprise me.
I find it difficult to photograph here for that reason, but many have done it. Maybe it just doesn't inspire me like I thought it would (frankly that's a lame excuse), or maybe its just that every single tourist has a DSLR swinging around their neck and I don't want to be another one. In some ways, I think it's a progression of my work. I'm having a strong desire to work on "access and intimacy" in my images, as well as creating some sort of cohesiveness to my photos in a particular place. It's something that I feel like in order to achieve, I need to have or develop a story to tell, something to document, something to work towards. I love street photography, but sometimes I just have this urge to photograph something where I can interact with people in a more intimate setting and kind of take my time with it.
I wanted to do a brief photo essay on the Sadhus while I was here, but I have found that there are really none in Varanasi at the moment, and that the Babas or holy men that are here either don't have time or aren't interested in anything other than my money. I may just have no clue what I'm doing (that is probably the case) but trying to get some access is difficult. All part of the learning process I guess. There are some cool back streets here just up off the river in what is known as the "old city" which are barely wide enough for a rickshaw to get through that I'd love to spend some time photographing, simply because I haven't seen many photos of them and there is some cool life that happens there. In all honesty, they aren't really streets, more like pathways between houses. Most of the time when you walk around, you're dodging cows, cowpies, or motorcycles and getting lost. But still, a lot of fun and a lot of character.
No matter what my opinion is though on this city, it's a place that everyone who travels to India must experience, especially photographers. It's worth seeing. It's an important cultural and religious hub with sooooo much history. And frankly, there is a ton of stuff to do besides the river. I took some yoga classes, and really enjoyed it. There is also an awesome music scene here. Many travelers seem to get stuck in Varanasi, largely due to the music. There are a number of schools and shops that offer lessons on any number of classical Indian instruments and there are concerts all the time.
Anyway, not much more to say. I'll be here in Varanasi for a week, and then I'm going to Allalahbad or Agra next. I've got some of my camera gear loosely spoken for already, but if you're interested in any of it, get ahold of me with the contact form above. Here are a few other images from the last two weeks that somehow didn't get on the previous post and a few more from Varanasi. See you soon!
Sorry for being absent! I've been without wifi for about two weeks now, I seem to always pick the guesthouses and hotels that don't have it. Typically, I seem to get ones that have either wifi or hot water. And, well, I'd still take hot water. You might think it odd not to have hot water at guesthouses, or rather that my standards are too low (a possibility) but honestly, it was 85 degrees here today. And this is the winter. So I guess I understand the reasoning.
I don't have a ton of time to write much right now, but I wanted to share a selection of images from the last few weeks. They're not necessarily mind blowing images, but they will give you a good idea of where I've been and what I've seen. I'm in Varanasi at the moment, and I'll be here for a week or two, taking in the scene. Had a great time in Siliguri, which I'll post on at a later date, but for now, enjoy the visual update!
And one or two from here in Varanasi (the photo at the top is also from Varanasi):
If you've ever been to Asia, you know that there is a big difference when waiting at a counter. Lines don't exist really in most countries, and it can be a really frustrating thing for westerners the first time they visit. It's uncomfortable for us to just push our way in, because in our culture that is extremely rude. Well, that's not the case here. Usually. I found the only place it seems to matter.
Turns out, when you ride in the unreserved section of the train, the line matters. Because it will make a difference in what seat you get, or rather IF you get a seat (realistically just for the first half of the people). I found that out when a bunch of people yelled at me to get in the back of the line, because I wasn't technically in it. Great, the one time lines matter here, I'm out of place. Chalk it up for a learning experience.
As for riding in "second class" or "unreserved class", well it's an adventure. Not for the faint of heart. I had a choice for a 14hr overnight sleeper bus ride, or a 10hr overnight train in Second Class. I've heard the bus is so bumpy that you can't sleep anyway, and it was like 3x the cost, so I opted for the train since it was only 10hrs. I'm not saying it was a bad choice necessarily, but I'm not sure given the same situation what I would do next time. People are literally hanging from everywhere in the train car; sleeping on the luggage racks two at a time (sometimes three), on the floors, in the aisles and five or 6 to a seat. It's really an interesting study on what kinds of positions you can fall asleep in. No joke, like something out of a movie, I had two people fall asleep on my shoulders. I didn't sleep.
On top of the (over) crowdedness, people are smoking, it smelled like pee, and there were babies crying. Then again, I was right next to the bathroom, another mistake. My recommendation for anyone brave enough to try riding back here is to do it during the day. It would be manageable if you aren't trying to fall asleep. 6 hours is probably the limit on time too, or 8 if you can deal with crowded confined spaces well.
But, I will add, again, it was not without a redemptive aspect. Again, so many people were so friendly. Most were just curious why a foreigner was riding in Second Class. And where I was from, etc. I had some great conversations with people. I just don't remember them entirely because I was so tired.
I'm in Darjeeling for today, but I will probably head to Gangtok up in Sikkim today and spend some time up there before I have to be back in Siliguri on the 1st. Darjeeling is an amazing place, a town literally clinging to the side of the mountain. It's also where Darjeeling tea comes from (I'm sipping some right now, it's solid). It's cold here, though I won't complain, as it is certainly no Chi-beria (for my friends back in Chicago). Certainly much more so than the other parts of India I've been in recently.
Anyway, gotta run. See you soon.
Madness. That's the only word that can possibly describe the furious pace of life on the streets in Kolkata. Like the boiling pots of curry dished up on the corner, nothing stands still here. More things are in motion, being moved to another location, than any place I've ever been before. It seems everyone has goods on their head, cart, bicycle, or rickshaw, with the goal of getting them somewhere else, almost as if the present location was always unsatisfactory. When I arrived Tuesday morning, I was met by an army of yellow Ambassador cabs left over from the era of the British, in all states of disrepair. Though I've not been there, I had visions of Cuba racing through my head as I wove my way through the bumpers, trying to get away from the hounding of the drivers, my hotel only a short walk from the station. A shower and a place to sleep was all I wanted.
As I walked to my hotel from the train station hordes of men were moving crates of what I later learned was fruit, off of trucks by the thousands. It turns out, the largest fruit market I have ever seen is just block from my hotel. And according to guy on the street, it happens every day. The sheer man power alone required to sustain that kind goods transfer is staggering. Not that there is really any shortage of that here.
Something tells me the organized chaos on the streets of Mumbai is not representative of the rest of India. I've been told, Mumbai is the most expensive city to live in, and as such, affords a certain refined atmosphere.
Kolkata, seemingly the exact opposite, does not. From my uninformed perspective, there are no rules here. Rickshaws, both hand pulled and motorized, mix with cars, motorcycles, cable cars, and buses, driving in all directions unchecked.
Roads turn into one way streets until the police signal the other side of the intersection through, at which time somehow someway a lane forms for one row of vehicles to squeeze through. The flow of traffic through major intersections is managed only by the presence of a single intrepid police officer standing amidst the mayhem.
Long associated with pain and suffering, the streets here are cruel. There are an estimated 70,000 homeless in Kolkata alone, a figure that is a three years old. Poverty is gripping in this city.
But there is beauty to the people here that is endearing. They're warm, friendly, and curious. More people have asked to take a photo with me here than I think I ever experienced anywhere else in the world, always with conversation to follow. I've been offered street food from vendors at no charge on many occasions, and had people approach me simply because I was alone and buy me tea.
Many simply ask to have their picture taken by me, while the camera is dangling at my side.
I had a chance to meet up with Matt Brandon and the guys at On Field Media Project on Wednesday, to see what they were up to. They train NGOs on how to use the tools available to them to create media to tell their organization's story. It's pretty cool stuff. If you're not familiar with Matt's individual work, it can be found here. Thanks again for letting me sit in on a session guys!
I've got some work planned up near Sikkim (between Nepal and Bhutan) coming up here in the next two weeks for an NGO, but I've got a little time to kill before then, so I'm heading to Darjeeling for a week to explore what life is like up there. It's going to be a wild ride for the rest of my time in India. I've had some down time at the beginning of this trip that I've been rather slack about doing something useful with but that is going to change quickly. I'll be here in Kolkata for another day most likely doing some serious research for a personal project and also for some of the other cities I'm planning to visit, but after that I'm off and running. I've got some thoughts on blogging I've wanted to blog about (redundant maybe?) that I'll share in the next few days as soon as they are cohesive.
See you soon.
I just finished up a 30+ hour train ride east all the way across India. What an awesome experience. It was quite comfortable actually. Being a tall person (especially by Asian standards) I usually dread these sorts of things. Transport in this part of the world is never designed for a lanky, long-legged westerner like me, and as such, it can be painful. But I was pleasantly surprised.
I spent a lot of time sipping chai, bouncing in and out of sleep and cell service, and enjoying the Indian country side as it whizzed by my window. As the sun set last night, I took some time to photograph life on the train as a way to show you what it's like. These photos are all from my iPhone just walking around the cabin and (Mom, cover your ears) hanging from the side of the train via the open doors. Ok I just stood in the opening, I never actually got outside the train, but having the doors open at 60mph is intimidating enough. I took a bunch of video on my phone too, which I'll chop up and share at a later date if I can figure out how to use iMovie.
I'm not going to lie. I booked sleeper class because it was cheap. $11 to get all the way across India. I sort of did it just to get the experience the first time, thinking I'll splurge later to an AC coach. I'm traveling this way all the time now. Not only is it cheap, but you get to you get to meet some really fun people. I don't think many westerners ride in sleeper. The people I was sitting with we're sort of intrigued that I was sitting in sleeper with them, and it opened up all sorts of conversations. And I didn't see another non Indian person the whole trip.
I met some interesting folks who gave me a few off the grid locations to go explore. That's the kind of stuff I love about traveling with the locals. Telling people that I was a photographer, they started throwing out suggestions of beautiful places to go see left and right, places that most people probably don't know about. You get to tap into the knowledge base of the local people who know their country better than anyone when you sit with them in tight quarters for 30hrs. Especially when you're out of place, because people approach you out of curiosity and ask you what you are doing.
I'll also say that it depends on your level of adventure. It would be pretty adventurous for some to ride in sleeper (Bathrooms? You mean the hole in the floor?). But chances are, if your backpacking around anyway, your already adventurous. Save the cash, gain the experience. Take the same transport as the locals.
Instagram: Follow me @stturn. Most of you all know I love this platform as a way to share photos and experiences when I can't have my big camera out. I use it frequently.
Twitter: Follow me @stturner87. I've fought using Twitter for a long time but recently have seen it's use as a way to keep in touch with people. If you've got a question, or just want to say hello, Twitter is probably the way I'll get back to you fastest. I also link Instagram and my blog to Twitter, so if this is your preferred social media platform, you'll see stuff from me here too.
I hesitated to add these options at first, because I was unsure if I would even use them or not. I decided to get SIM for my iPhone in country so I will be using both of these social media platforms after all. While they won't have all the details and photos of a blog post, they do offer a glimpse into what I'm up to at the moment.
Lastly, Like me on Facebook at Scott Turner Photography. I post just about every blog post through here.
As a note to all you who subscribed through email, for some reason my posts are not being distributed. Sorry about that, I've tried a different distribution service, but it seems to also not work. I'm working to correct the problem.
That's all for now. I've got a 30hr train ride ahead of me to Kolkata. See you soon.