Journal

Omni Montelucia

Twenty six. That's how many months have passed since I joined The Richards Group. And, it turns out, twenty five months — to the day — since I last posted anything. Sorry about that. Since making the move, I have tried to keep my head down and simply do great work

While I'm incredibly proud of what I've made since joining the agency, most of that work has been without a camera in my hand. As a director, my job is to interpret the creative, communicate a production plan and lead a talented team of craftspeople to bring the idea to life. So, when an opportunity to shoot presented itself — like, hold-the-camera-look-through-the-viewfinder-and-press-the-shutter shoot — I jumped at the chance.

Before we even landed, it was fun collaborating with the creatives on ideas for making the most of our time on property. Finding ways to creatively push the boundaries of various ad spaces — like Facebook's carousel ads — was rewarding, as a photographer and a storyteller.

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The benefit of a well defined plan, however, is the confidence it affords you to follow your nose away from the trail, chasing light and finding unexpected inspiration along the way. And it's those images that fall beyond your imagination when making the shot list that end up being the most true to the plan anyway.

To paraphrase Annie Leibovitz, you do the work to make room for the magic. And, in Arizona, I was blessed with healthy doses of magic.

Omni Hotels are, in a word, incredible and their Montelucia resort & spa in Scottsdale, AZ, gave that word new definition. The grounds were immaculate, the views breathtaking and my two days there weren't nearly enough.

#MakePortraits: Monday Spotlight: Steve McCurry

 
The countenance is the portrait of the soul, and the eyes mark its intentions.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero
 

You may not know his name, but you certainly know the work of Steve McCurry. If not the broader body of images by this amazing photographer, you know this image.

 
The Afghan Girl on the cover of National Geographic. Photo by Steve McCurry.

The Afghan Girl on the cover of National Geographic. Photo by Steve McCurry.

 

Given a word to describe McCurry's work, I believe I would choose prolific. He seems at home in almost any possible photographic situation. His documentary work from abroad is stunning. His work in conflict areas, arresting. His dedication to the craft of storytelling, renown.

He's a film student turned photographer who travels the world, invests himself into other cultures in order to tell stories of global significance. I see so much of who I want to be in who he is both personally & professionally. So it made sense, to me, that Steve McCurry be our next stop on this journey toward fluency in craft.

Of his own portrait work, McCurry says, "Most of my portraits are not formal situations; they are found situations." And this, I believe is one of the hallmarks of his genius. I mean, just look at the work:

 
Portraits reveal a desire for human connection; a desire so strong that people who know they will never see me again open themselves to the camera, all in the hope that at the other end someone will be watching, someone who will laugh or suffer with them.
— Steve McCurry
 

In an interview with photographer Oded Wagenstein, McCurry was asked about the importance of story in his images, specifically as it relates to portraits.

 
We connect with one another via eye contact, and there is a real power in that shared moment of attention, in which you can occasionally catch a glimpse of what it must be like to be in another’s shoes. I think this is one of the most powerful things about a photograph... It is a question of the moment to reveal something interesting and profound about the human condition.
— Steve McCurry
 

For me, this is key. If you want to be a brilliant photographer, you have to have a hunger to understand the human condition. As I've said several times before, if we want others to listen to our story, we must first listen to theirs.

And these portraits are really a massive testimony to the way in which McCurry, who is famous for discovering a place & her people by wandering, listens. Guided by instinct, he has learned that the details make us different, but deep down we are profoundly the same.

 
Everybody wants to be respected, to have a sense that you’re trying to understand their culture.
— Steve McCurry
 

In doing the research for this spotlight, I came across this 5 part interview series by Scott Schuman, aka The Sartorialist. It's very, very good & each "episode" is quite short, but Schuman & McCurry touch on a range of questions relating to portraiture, mobile photography & working in foreign cultures.

Here is part one. Chase down the rest here.

In parting, I will leave you one more quote on which to chew. In a world dominated by digitally based shares, I find McCurry's thoughts on the requisite technology of photography to be quite inspiring.

 
It’s your work. It’s like a poem. You put the poem on the table and you read it and no one is going to ask you if you typed it or wrote it out long hand. No one cares how long it took or how many re-drafts you did. How many pictures did you shoot? It doesn’t matter. The proof is the final print.
— Steve McCurry
 

Related Content

On Courage & Tiananmen

Today, June 5th, is the anniversary of the Tank Man photo on Tiananmen Square. That got me thinking about life since that fateful day in 1989, the places I've visited and, ultimately, the miracles I take for granted.

Four years ago, I wrote about that image (PS, that link points to some really cool stories behind the Tank Man photo) and two summers ago, at about this time (how could I not have put two and two together?), I had the opportunity to stand just yards from the spot that drew the gaze of the planet back in 1989. As I reflected on the 24 years between Tank Man and today, I'm struck by a single thought: miraculous.

This image has stood as a reminder of the harsh reality that the world we live in is a lonely place for the courageous. Courage is a miracle. But miracles are transformative — just look where the courage of 1 in 1,000,000,000,000 has taken the people of China. In just 24 years this scene has rippled through the collective conscious of the globe, and today Tiananmen Square looks more like this:

A girl and her mother fly a kite in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. July, 2011.

A girl and her mother fly a kite in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. July, 2011.

Ponder that and be amazed. Then, go, and be courageous, too.

Where Goes Light

Last fall, en route to Ethiopia, I stopped and spent 48 hours in Oman with my closest friends in the world. In life, there is the family you are born into and the family you choose — Amber & Brady, for my wife and me, are the latter. In our hour of deepest need, they were there. In our moments of greatest joy, they were there.

Amber and Brady are "there" kind of people — and not just for my wife & me. Which is what makes them living in the effing desert of Oman* so tough to deal with. As much as I've travelled the last few years, you'd think I would have had a layover or two in their vicinity. Nope. Not one. Until Ethiopia.

I think it's safe to say that my visit was as glad a day for them as it was for me. I know this because we packed an epic discovery of their adopted home** into a matter of hours; they didn't want me to miss a thing.

Along the way we came across Seb, an abandoned village above the Ben Habib Wadi, and Harith, a man who was raised there. He made sure we had the chance to see his former home from it's most stunning angle.

Seb Ruins, Ben Habib Wadi, Oman. Oct. 2012.

Seb Ruins, Ben Habib Wadi, Oman. Oct. 2012.

To be honest, I was blown away imagining anyone ever living there. Humans have an amazing ability to dwell in such inhospitable environments. Nothing about life on that hillside, at any point in history, would have been easy. I asked Harith why his family abandoned the village a couple of decades earlier; what pushed them away? He told us the story of a government's unwillingness to run electricity to their homes, making modern life nearly impossible. After decades, possibly centuries, of living on the side of a cliff, the lack of light was what ultimately drove his family away.

Several months after returning from Oman, I came across this image on The Atlantic:

Palangan Village, Iraq. Photo by Amos Chapple.

Palangan Village, Iraq. Photo by Amos Chapple.

Palangan's resemblance to Seb, Oman is remarkable. Both share an architectural style, seem to have a similar number of dwellings, and their proximity to the wadi — a valley that fills with water in the rainy season — appears comparable. And, from my perspective, both seem equally inhospitable to human life. How exactly does one live on the side of a rocky cliff?

There is one striking difference, however: light. Palangan does not appear to have suffered Seb's fate. Where Seb is now a pile of crumbling buildings, the mere shadow of a fading story, Palangan is vibrant and alive. It may seem a simple thought, but I can't help but be reminded: where goes light, goes life.

Which brings me back to my tour guides in Oman. The landscape isn't the only inhospitable aspect of life in the Middle East. Culturally, life there is difficult for a Westerner. There are political, cultural and religious issues that make daily living as inhospitable as a rocky hillside. Maybe even more so. And yet, in today's world, with the global strains we see between Christians & Muslims, never has it been more important to get light onto those hillsides, both at home and abroad.

In the darkest hour of my marriage, Amber & Brady were life giving light to my wife and me, simply by being there and loving well. Today, I think our family life more closely resembles Palangan though it could have easily become Seb. That's the difference "there" people make in the world.

*Amber's pet name for Oman // **What Brady wishes Amber would call Oman

Samuel Abate

We were driving north after several days in the Walayta District, when our driver slammed on his brakes. I swung my head around, trying to understand why we were stopping, trying to get my bearings. Out the rear window of the truck, I saw a police officer running up the road toward us.

These kinds of things happen when you're abroad. And to be honest, you swallow your heart every time it happens because it's rarely a good thing.

the road to Soddo, Ethiopia

the road to Soddo, Ethiopia

I was on assignment for SIM USA, an interdenominational mission organization dedicated to reaching the un-reached. Ernie Frey, an American missionary from Tenessee, and I had been working alongside Esayas Ersabo, the Ethiopian visionary behind a project we were covering. We'd gone, literally, to the end of the road, to see the fruit of a leadership program Esayas had developed.

Discipling Emerging Leaders (DEL) trains thousands of lay leaders in Ethiopia every year

Discipling Emerging Leaders (DEL) trains thousands of lay leaders in Ethiopia every year

Kale Hewyet elders

Kale Hewyet elders

One evening, a couple of children invited me to see where they collected water.

One evening, a couple of children invited me to see where they collected water.

Everywhere we went, people warmly welcomed Esayas. And we always returned with more people in the truck than we came with. Every time, Esayas would introduce us to the new passengers who always seemed to be family - a nephew or cousin. It became a running joke that Esayas was related to the whole of Walayta.

As the police officer neared the truck, I recognized the man. His name was Samuel Abate and he'd been one of our passengers the day before on a journey to the village of Areka, where Esayas was born. It was an unexpected but welcome detour. An uncle had passed away and we sat with them as they mourned the loss of a beloved man.

This kind of thing happens when you do what I do. By virtue of the story you're supposed to tell, you are invited into peoples lives. To share their food and their hospitality - and occasionally their grief.

Samuel Abate outside of Soddo, Ethiopia

Samuel Abate outside of Soddo, Ethiopia

I will never forget what Samuel said to us as he leaned into the truck to wish us well on our journey back to Addis:

"You came into our homes; you ate what we ate. This is the gospel in practice."

And to be honest, your heart surges into your throat when you hear things like that, because it's always good to be reminded that what you do is more than a job. These are stories of a real King and His kingdom; the simple act of telling a story like this one is as much an act of worship as you hope the audience can experience in its hearing.

At The Broken Places

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.
— Ernest Hemingway

Two and a half years ago, I made my first trip to Havana, Cuba and on returning, was rendered speechless. The truth of Hemingway's quote was ringing in my ears - these were people who were incredibly strong at the broken places.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of returning. In the last few years, I've traveled extensively for my clients, working on every continent with the exception of Antarctica, and yet, I've never had the opportunity to return to a place I've been before. So, in many ways, this trip was incredibly unique. And in every way, I couldn't wait to return and bathe in the beauty of their strength.

For the sake of the people with whom I worked, some of whom I count among my dearest of friends, I'm not at liberty to say much in a public forum, however, I believe that you can catch a glimpse of the Truth present in their stories in these images. I hope they speak for themselves.

"Vivan los C.D.R.", Havana, Cuba, Jan. 2013

"Vivan los C.D.R.", Havana, Cuba, Jan. 2013

Both of these women are the epitome of 'strength at the broken places'.

Both of these women are the epitome of 'strength at the broken places'.

The sunrises over Iglesia de Jesus de Miramar, Havana, Cuba, 2013

The sunrises over Iglesia de Jesus de Miramar, Havana, Cuba, 2013

If you have an interest in Cuba, you might find some of the work I've published from there of intriguing:

  • You can find my story, Hope Amidst the Ruins, in my 2010 Photo Annual here.
  • And here is a link to a personal photo essay I shot during my previous trip: Havana Vieja: At Night.