In the Hills of Sri Lanka

From the verdant hillsides and rolling tea plantations of Ella and beyond to the temples and lakes and busy streets of Kandy, there isn’t much about this part of Sri Lanka that hasn’t been written about before. I was lucky enough to have some time for a quick stopover earlier this year on my way to an assignment in southern India. These tourist trails are well-worn and at times a bit worse for wear, but the overall sensation of being in the mountains is still overwhelmingly positive. The air is cooler in tea country and the sun just a bit more golden in the early hours when it crests over the distant horizon. It’s almost enough to make you forget about the 8-10 hour standing room only train ride up from Colombo.

This isn’t much of a narrative post. There are plenty of other blogs that can tell you about how to travel in Kandy and Sri Lanka. It’s an incredible country, but one that defies easy description, even in its most innocuous and traveler friendly form. So in lieu of any grand statements or ponderous observations, I’ll leave you few viewers with a few photographs from the trip. The world is a beautiful place, and I’ve always had an easier time of showing than describing it.

Vietnam | Remembering My Lai

The river wound through the outskirts of the town flanked by tall trees and small homes. Women pushed bicycles over a bamboo bridge and boats ferried families and goods across its banks. Further along, farmers worked their rice paddies as children watched over grazing water buffalo. Mountains rose in the distance. The sea bordered to the east. This was My Lai.

It had been a long drive from Danang. When we arrived, we grabbed sandwiches from a nearby cart and walked along the dirt paths that crossed through the farmlands. The same dirt paths American soldiers walked when they landed here 50 years ago and made their way through the villages killing innocent men, women, and children in what became one of the most brutal and senseless massacres of the Vietnam-American War.

Some of the trees still wore the scars, the grim carvings of American bullets. The Memorial Museum was built on the site of the massacre and the burned foundations of homes stood as testaments to the horrors of war. But things had also moved on. Restaurants lined the nearby waterfront and men drove the boulevard with karaoke machines balanced on their bikes, stopping for customers to serenade fellow diners. The seafood was bountiful and you could sit on a small plastic stool and drink beer and eat like royalty every night.

We were in My Lai doing a story on the survivors of the massacre. Those who lived through March 16, 1968. An estimated 504 people were killed that day and graves and memorials dotted the landscape, rising out of the rice fields. Most of the roads off the main highway were still dirt and gravel. Power lines cut through the paddies. There were gardens and shops and teenagers and large trucks transporting goods up and down the coast and if you didn’t know any better you’d never know a war was fought there. That people died there. Were killed there.

Five hundred and four people. Shot, stabbed, and raped. Beaten. Gutted. Massacred. The American soldiers had spent weeks being haunted by ghosts in the jungles and when they found living flesh they were frightened and they reacted and they reacted poorly.

Do Tan Thanh lost his eye and arm and most of his leg. When he was brought to the hospital they assumed he wouldn’t last through the night. Tran Nam, just a young boy at the time, lost his family. Truong Thi Le held her daughter and watched her die in her arms. Pham Thanh Cong took a bullet to the side of his head and lived. Pham Thi Thuan and her daughter Nguyen Thi Lien survived together after being buried with dead bodies as they fell into a ditch. Pham Dat and Ha Thi Qui and Nguyen Hong Man also made it through, somehow. By luck or strength or accident. They all carried memories of gunfire and chaos and darkness, of helicopter blades cutting through the morning sky.

And they all invited us into their homes and offered us tea and sat with us and shared their stories. And in the grief there was no ill will, just a desire for the world to learn from its past mistakes, for history not to repeat itself. As unlikely as that ever seems to be. Anger would have been understandable, but tenderness was heartbreaking. So for several days we listened, broken.

In the end we moved on as well, like so many old memories. We collected their stories and promised to tell them as plainly and truthfully as we could. Though everything will forever fall short of what they deserve. We build our narratives on these small condolences because these narratives are our best weapons against the past. And we scratch these stories onto pages and release them into the world in the desperate hope that they’ll have a fraction of the gravity the 504 names scratched in marble in the My Lai Memorial Museum have.

Back in town the lights were coming on along the riverfront. Women waved us into their restaurants and young couples sang Vietnamese love songs out of busted speakers on the backs of motorbikes. A small market sprung up. The air was alive with neon and possibility. As we dined a group of men came over with rice wine and small tea cups. They were celebrating. They poured shots and in their best English asked where we were from. When we answered America they smiled and said, “America!” and lifted their glasses high and drank deep.

You can read Shaun Raviv’s wonderful and moving story for Smithsonian Magazine HERE.

Travels in Japan

I’m starting this year slowly, considering things a bit more. It’s a nice place to be in life, being able to pause like this. Next month things will get hectic again, but for now there’s a kind of calm. And I’ve learned to embrace that when it comes along. To that end, I bridged 2017/2018 with a trip to Japan and limited myself to shooting one roll of film per day. Twelve frames out of my old Rolleiflex camera. It was meant to slow me down and make me look at what I was photographing a bit more.

We spent Christmas day in Kyoto after a few nights in Osaka, walking through crowded streets and markets and temples and bamboo groves in the early mornings before the crowds descended. Then a few days in Kurashiki where we saw a young baseball team practicing drills and exercises at a temple in the town center. Onto the strange suburban sprawl of Nagahama and finally into Tokyo for New Year’s Eve in a small bar with an amiable bartender singing songs and pouring whiskies. There were other places and moments as there always are, but I’m going to keep this nice and simple and leave off with some selects from those film rolls. I missed more frames than I caught, but I guess that’s always the way. Alas.

Ten Years On

Fair warning, this is going to be a long one. A kind of purge. A meandering document of nothing in particular, of everything in general. Of the past 10 years of work and life and some incidental happenings along the way. Plus way too many photographs.

I arrived in Vietnam 10 years ago. In that time, I’ve been a sub-editor at a State-run newspaper, an intrepid (and incredibly unqualified) television host for a local travel show, an Art Director for an ailing luxury lifestyle magazine, a property-related photo retoucher kind of guy who—you know, I actually had no idea what I was doing on that one—and a Photo Editor for a city publication. I’ve also been a freelance photographer for a large portion of those years. Full-time since about 2011. It feels like forever, but in reality it’s barely the blink of an eye.

In all that time, I’ve grown older. I have more grey hairs now, more laugh lines. Sometimes my back hurts. I’ve seen myself change, for better and worse. I’ve lugged film and large-format cameras across continents. I’ve broken cameras and lenses. Dropped things. I’ve lost hard drives and once threw a binder of negatives into an abandoned well in a fit of sadness, rage. I’ve made an incredible amount of friends along the way. I’ve also hurt and lost people. I’ve attended weddings and funerals, though thankfully mostly the former.

Over the years, my work has taken me across the world. Fashion shoots on the rolling windswept plains of southern Scotland and in the glittering bazaars and spice markets of Kochi, India. Portraits of artists, activists, and everyday men and women. The death and mourning of Rama IX in Bangkok. The dog meat trade in northern Thailand. Travelogues in Laos and Cambodia and along the Red River in Vietnam. Urban farmers. Agent Orange victims. Traditional medicine. Transgender women and war survivors. I’ve spent time in leper colonies in Shan State and with inmates in Klong Prem prison. I’ve hunted sea urchin in Hokkaido and climbed volcanoes in the Philippines. I’ve crossed the steppes of Mongolia on horseback. I’ve seen mountains on top of mountains in Ha Giang province. I have been—and try to remain—in love with this world and the people in it.

In short and in retrospect, I’ve done more with my life than I ever imagined I would or could, and I’ve set a bar to surpass over the next 10 years. Going through a decade’s worth of photographs for this post, I tried to include a little bit of everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Selects and outtakes and others that I’d long since forgotten about. Some never seen before, some thrown out and resurrected. Hundreds of images amongst hundreds of thousands, most of which only exist in digital graveyards or in my archives at this point. There’s no rhyme or reason here, no timeline. No delineation between travel, fashion, commercial, journalism, or personal work. I wanted everything to coexist, to see what threads emerged. I wanted to look for consistency, not growth. And I wanted to have all of the pieces of this complicated fabric laid out, so I could more readily see where I need to go from here.

As we turn more to our phones and computers and digital cameras, as we snap and tweet and post and like and comment, as we get lost in countless apps and group chats, as we look down more than up and around, and as we become more connected and more inundated and more confused than ever before, I want to take a step back. Consider my images more. I want my photography to feel tactile. There. An intimate part of something much larger. I want it to inspire awe and wonder and empathy. I want it to show our current world, but also evoke the past. I want it to be free from the confines of tradition and journalism. I want it to be ugly and relevant. I want it to be different, which is maybe the most difficult thing. And so with that, here are hundreds of wonderfully imperfect pictures, and here’s to another decade. And here’s to you.