Life and Death and Family Photographs


There are no perfect photographs of my grandmother. Each is slightly blurred, too dark or too bright. Creased, bent, broken, and faded. There are tape spots on them, markings from years spent in family albums and various drawers and envelopes. All are different sizes—taken with different cameras and printed at different labs and worn down by different fingers over the years. It all adds up to a kind of rich tapestry of family history. A randomness of human experience that never feels quite matched with camera phones or digital archives.

She died the other day. So this is what’s left of her—things imperfect and touched and loved and part of a much larger whole.

In my mind, she always looked the same. Nearly identical in 1943 as a teenager as in 1979 when she’s holding me as a newborn baby. It’s not necessarily that she looks old, just aged. Then again, she was never really a child. Her father died when she was young, as did her twin sister and other siblings, leaving just two daughters and a single mother in a rural parish in western Louisiana in the 1930s. Not the kind of place for a young girl, and so she was never really a young girl in any way that anyone can really remember. I’m sure there were stories once upon a time, but we only grew up with the ones that were told afterwards.

She grew up speaking Cajun French and picking cotton and working odd jobs after school to help her mother make ends meet. She didn’t graduate high school. After the war, my grandfather came home from the Pacific and they met at a barn dance and got married and moved to New Orleans to try for a better life. He had worked on the Higgins boats that made the Normandy landing and so when he returned he went back to work for the same company. They bought a plot of land in a swamp just west of the city for a song and when the land finally got filled in they built the house with their bare hands.

The first photos I can recognize of myself are in front of this house. The red yellow bricks and magnolia trees in the background. When I was young I would overturn rocks by the shed to play with the doodlebugs that lived there in the dirt. I would climb the magnolia trees and when the flowers were in bloom I would pick them apart petal by petal in the high branches surrounded by their faint milky perfume. I would somersault and kick and imagine myself a ninja warrior on the two large squares of grass out front of their front room. There was a persimmon tree in the backyard and when it bore fruit my grandmother would call me over to sit sentinel by the roadside and sell them to the neighborhood. So she was my first employer as well.

At some point they stopped taking photographs. There are the odd ones from when my grandparents met. Their first trip together to the city. Friends long forgotten standing in fields, next to fences. Young men in uniforms on their way to Europe. All small cajun men. Picnics or just times that at the time seemed worth remembering. Then the road trips out west when my mom was a young girl in the 60s. Snapshots of her hanging out of a window feeding bears at Yellowstone. High school and beyond and then me as a young unaware thing and then eventually it all fades into memory. Imperfect. Too dark or too bright. Creased, bent, broken, and faded. But loved. And imprinted somewhere far more lasting and permanent, where in the end we all live on.

Taiwan | Stuck Between Stations

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Just a few little scenes from Taiwan, where I spent New Year’s Eve amidst the crowds surrounding Taipei 101, ate my weight in five-spiced street foods, stumbled across a few temples, and generally waltzed around the downtown streets with nothing on my schedule. It was great. A short and lovely little trip. Sometimes I guess that’s all you need.

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Chinatown & The iPhone Diaries

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I make no bones about it: I love the camera on my iPhone. Mostly when it’s being used through the Hipstamatic app. There’s something unassuming about it. The images don’t hold the same gravity as those taken with my Canon camera. The exact same photograph can manage to feel lighter and less consequential. In a good way. I find myself shooting all of the little things that catch my eye and a lot of the fleeting scenes and details from my travels. When I’m walking around on my own, I really don’t like lugging around a large camera. This is something I’ve had to come to terms with, as a professional photographer. These days I’m fine with it. I’ve even gotten some work because of my phone photos. Including a magazine cover story I just finished shooting in southern Cambodia. Some people will always decry phone photography as the death of the art. But they’re no fun. And they’re missing the point. It’s about freedom, not limitations.

This small selection here is from Chinatown in Bangkok. Taken during an afternoon while I was waiting for a visa to be processed. You can see more images in The iPhone Diaries section of my website. Or you can do like the cool kids and follow me on Instagram. Stay beautiful. Stay tuned.

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The Great Wide Open

I leave tonight for a two-week trip in Kenya, and then a week-long visit to Washington, DC. It’s been a long and busy summer, and I’m looking forward to kicking my feet up, reading a few good books, and keeping low-key for a bit. These past two months have been filled with several commercial jobs and fashion shoots, a few newspaper assignments, and a half-dozen editorial stories or so. I also undertook an extensive re-branding campaign with the help of the good folks over at Wonderful Machine, and signed with two new assignment and stock agencies. More on that later, once everything is settled and sorted.

All of these things are very good things. Just a bit exhausting is all. And while I’m excited to see Africa and meet with some editors in DC, I know in three weeks time I’ll be even more excited to get back to Southeast Asia, and back to work. I’ve already got a great October lined up. So here’s to the second half (or so) of the year. See you soon.

Travel Photographs | Ha Giang Province

A few weeks back I took a trip to Ha Giang, in the northern reaches of Vietnam, with a few good friends of mine. One was in from Dhaka, and the idea of a multi-day motorbike trek across the nation’s northernmost province was too good of an idea to pass up. So we packed up our camera gear and took the overnight bus out of Hanoi. I traveled light, with just a single bag: a few changes of clothes and my Rolleiflex camera with several rolls of black & white film. I wanted a camera that would force me to be a bit more thoughtful in my compositions. Or at least one that wouldn’t have me firing off hundreds of useless frames over the course of the trip.

It worked. I shot only four rolls in four days. Less than 50 images in all. Here’s a small selection. Mountains, markets, swimmers, and more. If I were making a list of the top 10 things to do in Vietnam, a motorbike trip through Ha Giang Province would probably be number one. And as always, I can’t wait to get back.