Monthly Archives: May 2009

THE RUNES AND SPELLS OF DANGEROUSLY FAST TIMES

My deeply analog orientated brother-in-law walked into the studio today and watched bemused as images were digitized across the computer screens, pixels healing, colors adjusting. He commented that it reminded him of Soviet propaganda days when those who had fallen out of favor were “disappeared” from official photographs.

It got me thinking about the power of published images, and the seemingly irresistible pressure to manipulate them for unwritten agendas.

Yet in the end the manipulated is never quite as powerful as the decisive moment perfectly seized.

There are public images which stay with us. The mushroom cloud of atomic bombs. The Fabulous Four. Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blowing. Che Guevara and his defiant cigar. Mao Tse Tung’s shining face. New York’s Twin Towers crumbling. Obama’s inauguration.

We respond, across cultures and linguistics, to an international visual language. Not everyone reacts the same way to the same image, but iconic images force their way into our shared communication and perceptions nonetheless. There are photographs which make some of us uncomfortable, there are those which make us feel sad, there are those which us feel elated.

And then there are our private favorites – evocative, sometimes forgotten but not quite. Photographs are the modern magical symbols. Flutter or tempest, every photographer who shows his or her images to the public has a butterfly wing effect on what is happening in the world. For the effect to soothe or stir, the photographer must be taken by the picture.

There is no perfect camera, there is no perfect lens, no perfect technique. There is only the perfect moment, and the perfect heart for it.

INDONESIA’S ELECTION LINE UP

Musing over how the strangest of men can hold their nations in thrall (think Kim Il Jong, Papa Doc Duvalier, Hitler, Napoleon) it was inevitable that I should fall into contemplating the Indonesian political landscape. There is an old, tired Indonesian joke about how our first President was mad about women (Soekarno), the second mad about wealth (Soeharto), the third just plain mad (Habibie). Well, the road to democracy hasn’t really been that smooth since either.

Since then we have had the tragic Gus Dur (undone by his own hubris), a man who was brilliant in opposition but was not equipped to actually run a country. Then we had the completely ineffectual Megawati who came to her throne with a sense of dynastic entitlement.

And of late of course we have had Soesilo Bambang Yudono, better known by the acronym SBY. At times he would frustrate this particular fuming citizen with his seeming indecision and slowness to move. His rather strange cabinet left me wondering. Among others: a Coordinating Minister for Welfare whose legacy in the business world includes the infamous Sidoarjo mudflow (resulting from reportedly incompetent drilling procedures) which has destroyed the homes and lives of tens of thousands. Then there is a Health Minister whose portfolio seems to be more paranoid Islamic/chauvinist than scientific (one of her latest classic, controversial statements is her publicly voiced speculation that swine flu was deliberately engineered by ‘the West’ – this after all but accusing the US of engineering bird flu). Needless to say the country has been held hostage by the kind of political compromise that comes with coalitions and ends up infecting cabinets.

I once asked a friend who is a very savvy, behind-the-scenes political advisor how it is possible that a nation of 250 million people can’t come up with one brilliant leader and a decent cabinet. He looked at me deadpan, and said: “You don’t understand democracy. It’s not about who is best.”

Yet despite my early misgivings, I have to begrudgingly admit that SBY has actually moved Indonesia back from the brink to a more comfortable economic zone. Now he is testing the strength of his alliances by choosing a running mate other than their recommendations. One backer, PAN party boss Amien Rais made a contorted statement reiterating his support for SBY – but not for his VP candidate Boediono, ex-gov of the central bank. I am not so sure how that divided affection adds up at the ballots. In any case, if you look at the competition, any rational person would conclude it’s a no-brainer to go with SBY for his second and last term.

Our problem is that it is a no-brainer because there are no new fresh faces up there. Once again we have a succesion problem looming on the horizon.

Megawati hasn’t yet given up her obsession with her ‘birthright’ and has chosen another old face, Lieut. General (retired) Prabowo, as her running mate. Prabowo has displayed some pretty erratic and controversial behaviour during his military career, and his foray into politics really hasn’t been more fortunate.

“Sister” Mega stalled the nation’s reform after 32 years of dictatorship, and allowed the final implementation of special autonomy to Aceh – which basically sealed Syariah rule and led to many other regions in the country declaring syariah law in various degrees. She is now promising double digit economic growth (which has now been modified to the lowest double digit: 10). Backing her up, her VP candidate just happens to be an ex-son-in-law of Soeharto, and a special forces black-ops loose canon with a tarnished human rights record. Born into good fortune and amassing more (including 95 racehorses) during what was arguably a colorful (blood red perhaps) career, he now is selling himself as champion of the poor. What a team.

The other contender is Jusuf Kalla, current VP. A man of reasonable intelligence and business acumen, he is given to favoring Islamic thought over the secular. What has marred his recent political career is a series of pathetic hissy fits. Abandoning SBY to nourish his own presidential ambitions (OK, OK it was always his game plan) he has chosen Wiranto as his pal-for-the-palace. Retired General Wiranto has been dodging harsh international criticism for years over his role in East Timor’s bloodbath and the UN has point blank accused him of violatiing human rights. I am trying to imagine where he would officially visit in the world without ending up setting up a makeshift office in a Den Haag maximum security establishment. Today, according to the Jakarta Post, this team supposedly won over a large number of Islamic votes because their wives wore head scarves. Even no-brainers can lose votes to the brainless.

Where are the new faces? Somewhere suffocated by party politics in the mad mosaic of Indonesia’s coalition map? The big players like Golkar and PDI-P are desperate to hold on to their past power and arguable glory, and all kinds of deals have been done with a patchwork of startups. I guess my friend was right – it’s not necessarily about who is best.

THE A-TEAM: location shoot realities –

1st rule: you’re only as good as your team, 2nd rule: your team is only as good as you allow them to be.

Behind the scenes is where the quality of whatever appears up front is decided, there is no question. We photogs spend a fair amount of time hunting for good personnel to work with us, whether we are photojournalists with heavy loads of editing or commercial photographers who need assistants, art directors, stylists, imaging geeks, you name it. And lord knows we all need help with admin.

As I do both solitary trips documenting people in a more journalistic way as well as commercial work, I really need more of a flexi-time location team with a reasonably solid office anchor. While I doubt anything I write here is new or perhaps not available from more sophisticated sources, I am writing this from a personal perspective of a small operation which has to face up to big demands.

I have had a number of assistants in my time – some big strong guys, some smart techs, others plain useless. Now I don’t mean to be sexist, but the best assistant I have ever had is a woman, and when she came to work with me she had no previous location or studio experience. She showed up out of the blue – I hadn’t advertised at all.

Edwine is definitely a bright and lovely spark, but what got her hired was her love and understanding of the power of images. She fronted up unsolicited because she saw my images online and felt she wanted to be involved – she had studied print making at university. The first time I “showed her how to use photoshop” she sat there quietly. Then when she took the wheel as I sat there dumbfounded while she whizzed through a batch of photoshop commands shortcuts I never even knew existed! LOL now I know.

Edwine does her thing
Edwine does her thing

But the real test was yet to come – our first location shoot. Pre shoot, my provincial, male chauvinist office driver mostly sniggered. Location work for a small crew like mine is back breaking and sweaty stuff. But then he got a shock (he’d never heard of hatha yoga), and I got a pleasant surprise. Not only was she strong, she actually ran to fix the lights! And over time she inadvertently showed him up for the lazy bones he was (in the end he basically fired himself)! That driving enthusiasm, though now more paced by experience, has never left her. Her flexibility and alertness served to let her learn the ropes much faster than some of the macho guys I had employed. And finally she always really looked at the take with an eye for detail and composition. It isn’t just a job for her. I have made sure she knows she is allowed to voice her opinion.

Then my daughter Soma came on the scene. She had done a Multi Media degree at Griffith, then worked for a couple of years designing websites for multinationals. A several months long stint of traveling through Mediterranean Europe was followed by near slave labor at a Jakarta production house Then finally she decided advertising was her gig. She fronted up to JWT with a novel presentation of her work, got in as junior graphic designer, and shot thru to Art Director in a couple of years. Working the TVC scene was a big buzz for her as she loves getting synergy going on set. After 4 years of Jakarta burn out (with a few freelance jobs for me and others on the side) she finally decided it was either her sanity or death by smog – smog lost.

Soma checks an angle at Four Season's in Bali
Soma checks an angle at Four Season's in Bali

Since then we have done a number of shoots together, and it has been pretty fruitful. Soma is good with talent, and has a sharp eye for nuance. I’d like to think that there is a genetic creative streak, but her sisters don’t really have it so I guess it’s just her! The well rounded degree she did at Griffith also gave her some exposure to client relations, so indeed we have a multi-talented addition to our team. Recently someone asked me if we have any ‘family’ tensions come into work, and I have to say it hasn’t even blipped on to the radar. (Soma of course has her own blog, so maybe check there!!!). And if you are thinking nepotism, have another think. I am pretty demanding on set, no room for slackers.

An important aspect that has grown into the formula is that each of us has respect for the others abilities yet are able to suggest and interact creatively. And we actually all have fun together (when I’m not busy barking at everyone). That is important especially when there is a lot of travel involved or when we end up staying on location for days on end away from loved ones. Getting along in close quarters does require more subtlety! Also important is the ability of these two smart thirty yr olds to keep this crabby old photog in line! For it is a lot easier for clients to work and interact with a happy crew!

the crew on a flight for a job in Milan
the crew on a flight for a job in Milan
Me making sure everyone knows who is Boss
Me in Bulgari Milan bathtub making sure everyone knows who is Boss

And finally, let’s not forget that doing a location shoot (or to some extent a studio shoot for that matter) can get quite complex. You end up relying on a lot of different factors and people who are not entirely within your control. It can get frustrating, so having a tight crew who understand each other and have a strong sense of a common goal is essential.

checking as we go (e.g. is this frame straight?)
checking as we go (e.g. is this frame straight?)

We actually work together from the origination (location shot) right through to the final imaging. It guarantees continuity, and mental notes from the shoot
don’t go AWOL. Again, in post production we do discuss and make decisions as a team (well ok, they do gang up on me sometimes!). It is a fact that a photographer can get too subjective when looking at his work, so it is an advantage to have a team you can trust to help edit. Many people think that DI stands for digital imaging,
actually it means ‘dotting the ‘i’s (yeah I’m kidding).

the crew doing final imaging
the crew doing final imaging

Meanwhile back at the ranch you need some solid people too. No shrinking violets please. When Yuli was away for a couple of months looking after her very sick husband we really felt the loss. She is officially office manager but in reality is admin/accounting girl friday cum all round production fixer. It is a good feeling to know your back is covered by someone who knows what the stakes are. Welcome back Yuli!

Of course human dynamics are unpredictable, and there are many factors of impermanence at play. But for as long as it lasts, I am banking on this team by investing in giving people a chance to prove themselves.

ENTER LEFT, EXIT RIGHT

Life and Death as seen from Bali
warning: looooong post!

Last week was for me personally a pretty dramatic one. Sometimes life, like the proverbial stage, has complete act changes, with characters either charging in from the wings or abruptly ‘exeunt right’.

Welcome Lucas!
Welcome Lucas!

On the 8th, my daughter Lani gave birth to little Lucas in London. Whoa – let me catch my breath here: I am Gramps! Beautiful little boy 6lbs 14oz. Not much Asian left in him but hey we love him! For some reason Lani’s husband Nick thinks he is the most amazing boy on the planet. He was not only born on Lani’s in-laws’ anniversary, it was also Lani’s maternal grandfather’s birthday! Spent a lot of time on the phone to Lani’s in-laws and also to her mother Sita. A lot of excitement for sure. There is a distinct possibility that Lucas will be spoiled.

On the 9th, Waisak day, some friends and I spent most of the day in quiet contemplation – how little time we give to taking a breather from the hustle and bustle. Unfortunately, as this “retreat” had been planned for a while, I missed acquaintance Aldo Landwehr’s commemoration at the Green school. Aldo’s untimely death was the result of a motorcycle accident on the notorious Double Six road in Legian at 6am on Sunday 3rd of May. Aldo was in his early thirties, a designer with lots of promise who had designed many of the buildings at the Green School in Bali.

But the day was not to be uneventful: that evening I heard news of the tragic death of Isa, son of friends Nicholas and Indra Schwabe, who was only 24 when he died of an overdose. He had been struggling with the drug demons for years: having spent time working with addicts in prison I know what a terrible battle this can be. Anybody who simply thinks they could handle it better has no idea. May he find an easier path.

Jason's life
Jason's life

Sunday passed peacefully enough and I attended the memorial for Bali based painter Jason Monet in the late afternoon at his hillside bamboo house/studio. It was quite a happening, Jason had led a full and colourful life. His children from two of his marriages were there, in particular his daughters put on a great show with some great eulogies, including one from Barbara Streisand who “with Elliot” apparently bought their first “joint” piece of art together from Jason.

Sayana does "You are my Sunshine"

His little granddaughter, Sayana, really stole the show with a completely uninhibited rendition of “you are my sunshine” for Grandpa. There were plenty of laughs and tears as people recounted their stories of the irrascible (and plenty talented) old Jason. It was a party that would have been to his liking.

But on Monday morning a sad email from old friend Gerhard Veit in Australia popped up in my inbox to tell me of the sad death of Milli O’Nair on Mother’s Day. In my younger days living on the land in Oz, I shared a farm with a few friends, and one of the shareholders was Milli’s mother Tara (Fleischman) and her family.

Millie on her bike...(from Northern Star)
Millie on her bike...(from Northern Star)

In recent years Milli had really come into her own working as a non-violent communicator and relationship mediator across Australia. At home she always travelled by push bike. Last Sunday morning a couple of young guys in a rented truck were driving down the highway after an all-nighter. The driver, at around 110 km/h, fell asleep at the wheel as he came into the stretch where Milli was cycling on her way to see Tara. On the phone Gerhardt and wife Jinta told me she died instantly. We are all shattered.

It’s interesting to see how we all deal with death. The usual cliché goes that in Bali people deal with it much more directly and more acceptingly, and in the west it is relegated to undertakers. Yet in reality its slowly becoming pretty formulaic in Bali too.

A couple of weeks I learnt almost too late of the cremation of the mother an old friend of mine “Gus Malen” who is also in the same banjar (community unit) as me. As I raced off to the cemetery to catch the last moments, people were already streaming home. Not a few kidded me about being late. But as they say in Bali, better late than never, And they have another saying “Kwale Ngenah Gen” – as long as you’re seen. Which kind of sums up a lot of these events for many Balinese.

Gus Malen at his Mum's cremation
Gus Malen at his Mum's cremation

As it was an opportunity presented itself to actually have a chat with Gus Malen, as it was quieter when I got there. It was good to touch base again. Gus has always been a bit of local rascal in a jolly sense, a pretty earthy character. We had a longish philosophical exchange, Gus having that facility that so many Balinese have of simplifying the philosophically deep and accommodating the mundane in a breath.

Meanwhile the professional hired “cremation” expert dealt with the kerosene blow torch-like burners (forget wood these days). Having a professional deal with details has been a growing trend in Bali over the last 10-20 years! But the personal touch is still there – Gus Malen went around himself offering watermelon slices to everyone in the hot afternoon sun, and didn’t neglect to offer one up to the pyre for his Mum. Perhaps Balinese are not as demonstrative because they have such elaborate rituals?

On the other hand on Tuesday, watching the funeral of Isa, I did get a strong feeling of real loving and demonstrative care from the local expat community. None of the couple hundred strong crowd was there because it was their duty – everyone wanted to be there to show support for the family. The slightly new agey ritual kind of made itself up, but there was some rhyme and perhaps reason. Jim Morrison sang “The End” from the other world through the ghetto blaster, replacing the usual Bali gamelan. Indra kept it together amazingly, how gracious she was under such circumstance. There were touching messages from his friends and family. All things considered, it was a good send off for the boy.

Farewell Isa
Farewell Isa

I am looking forward to a hopefully quiet rest of the week…

TO COMPACT OR NOT COMPACT

So you’re a photog. And you want to go out to dinner with friends, but you just know that on the way or where you are going something is going to happen. Or who knows, NEWS could jump up right in front of you. So do you wanna lug your full frame SLR which has super-duper resolution and instant reaction? Or are you going to get stuck with some compact that fits niftily into your pocket but has shutter lag that makes a slug look like lightning?

Not to beat around the bush – by pass all non-raw shooting compacts. If you shoot jpeg, and its an important image good luck to you as you try and resize. So now it’s a megapixel race. But is it really? What is the use of an extra 2-3 megapixels if you have noise ripping your image apart?

When I was shopping late last year, I brought it down to 2 contenders. The Lumix LX3 and the Canon Powershot G10. I had had a LX2 and a G9, so I was looking to see what had been upgraded. This is not going to be a full on review, for that you could check out 60Hz’s quick overview. This is just personal preference.

What drove me crazy with the G9 was the shutter lag. But I loved the solid engineering – unfortunately that means size and weight. In that aspect nothing has changed much with the G10. But the focus tracking (or did I just notice it) on the G10 is pretty good. The weight and size are still an issue – where do you put the damn thing when you go out? Man bag? Hang it around your neck like a hillbilly tourist from some swineflu fearing country?

The Lumix might not have that BMW feeling but it really is a compact, and it is sleek. Might not be as tough, but I don’t have to sit around waiting for the shutter to go off. The big surprise: even if it is still 10.3 megapixels to the G10’s 14 – hey, the little fella has less noise in low light!

Then there is the sexy 24mm equivalent wideangle, the different lens settings for panoramic etc (ok so it is a bit of a cheat but it is cool for framing). Then you can tweak your shooting in a lot of ways which is easy to do, eg just move the joystick around, very intuitive. Changing display mode is synch. What a relief (Imagine having to throw a 2 pound manual in your man bag too). And the girls love it “so cute”. Yeah, that’s why I bought it.