Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Training For The Unknown

I close my eyes, pretend to sleep. Maybe I'm dreaming. Maybe I'll awake soon. But as I lay here, reality kicks in and I'm no longer asleep--instead, I'm laying flat on my stomach, head buried into the ground, arms and legs are spread apart in a most awkward position. My head is completely hooded with a black cloth--and I'm gasping for air as it envelopes my entire face. Darkness never felt so real.

When you're held hostage, there are too many thoughts running through your mind. Too many scenarios unfolding in a theatre of unforgiving plots. It's almost like dying a slow death, wondering when that moment will come.

Loud explosions erupt around me, but I cannot see a thing. I can hear it. I can smell it. But I cannot tell if my fellow photographers are dead or alive. And for a brief moment, under complete darkness, I had to remind myself that I've yet to die--so I continue breathing, gasping for air, looking for light.


As a photographer on foreign assignment, one of the scariest and most deadly scenarios we face is that of which I've described above. Time and time again, foreign journalists and photographers are held hostage for ransom, political gain, or other terrorist related ordeal. It's a nightmare that I hope will never come alive--but lately, it's horror that I've had to face in reality.

Thankfully, it was only a training exercise.

I'm currently in Strasburg, Virginia--deep in the mountains of a remote training ground that caters to photographers and journalists who cover stories in the developing world, conflict zones, and in hostile environments. I've been here since Monday, and so far, I've been killed many times, set off booby traps that desolated my entire team, and even managed to accidentally enter a field littered with landmines.

The training that I'm currently taking is put together by an elite team of seasoned military professionals. My group consisted of 16 people, most of which are photographers and journalists from the BBC, Associated Press, CNN, and Non Governmental Organizations that operate in foreign countries.

So far, as I'm going thru this training, I'm amazed at the amount of information that is flooding my knowledge bank. Things like choosing the safest hotel room, back tracking your way out of a field of landmines, treating shock and trauma victims, finding bullet wounds and shrapnel, dealing with check points and security details--most of which I've faced before, but never with such strategic precision as this. It's knowledge that can one day save a life--or my own. Hopefully, I'll never have to use it.

I'll be here until Friday. Tomorrow, I'll be trained how to dodge incoming bullets, evasive body maneuvering, stop arterial bleeding, and how to bandage shrapnel wounds.

I'll be writing more descriptive in a future post. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 22, 2009


In my office, this picture hangs on my wall. It's an image that I turn to on a daily basis.

In the midst of rising chaos and tension, a little boy calmly awaits his turn. His eyes did not blink. His hand never extended beyond his reach. And like a metaphor out of the pages of our favorite novel, he did not speak a single word--yet his facial expression spoke to me in a language full of hope and pride, dignity and patience. I saw in him the type of person I wanted to become.

Finding meaning and metaphor in images is the job of a photographer. It's one that, no matter how much I practice, is simply never perfected. And for that, I'm grateful.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Surreal Life

Words on the side of a house in the mountain jungles of the Dominican Republic.

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately--a lot of contemplating about life and the work that I do. Normally, as my readers know me best, I'd be writing more often, but lately, I've been spending my time trying to navigate my way through life, through trepidation, fear, and the unknown.

But as I sit here typing this, there's a sense of sorrow that relinquishes from my heart--escaping through the pores of my soul, separating fact and fiction, rhyme and reason. Feeling the sweat between my fingers evaporate with every keystroke I type, I can't help but feel like I'm venting--transcribing every syllable of my emotions into an essay of potent prose. I really don't know why, but I just feel like typing. I just feel like writing to you, my dear readers. I wish I had felt like this more often as of late.

You know, it's been one week since I've returned from my last assignment in the Dominican Republic and I've yet to even tell you how it went--and for that, I am sorry. My excuse to you is quite pathetic: because as someone who see's the world through a lens, I've yet to accept that I was even there. Sometimes, I'm so lost in motion that it doesn't matter what country I'm in, where I'm going, or who I'm shooting--all that matters is that I'm capturing it the best I can. The task is embedded in my soul, which in the end, makes life feel formidably surreal.

And because of that, I've paid the price. It feels like I'm living a dream. The world to me is a kaleidoscope of moving shapes, appearing and disappearing, never the same. To me, nothing is obvious. For instance, when it rains I don't see puddles of water or feel the rain drops pelting my body, but through my lens, I do notice the way it slices the air, the way it ricochets off the ground and how it collectively bonds to everything it touches. Adjusting my aperture and rack-focusing between foreground and background, I'd bring to life the budding flower that feed off the water. It scares me how I see this, but if I would have taken my eyes away from my viewfinder for just one minute, I might've realized the fact that I'm 3000 feet above sea level, standing on sacred ground, and witnessing what few will ever see. I've missed the feeling of what it's like to be there, to see, to hear, to embellish and lose myself in the environment I'm in. Most times, I'd return home a few days later and never realize where I'd been until weeks or months after I'm back. It makes me wonder what else I've been missing in life. I see so much, yet I miss so many. But please don't get me wrong, I'm not blaming my job or my camera. I blame myself.

A few months ago a good friend of mine told me to "stop and smell the roses." To which I replied, "I do. But just in a different way."

I guess, for me, seeing and experiencing the world takes time. And like a flower flourishing in the midst of thunder and lightning, in time, beauty will prevail. Roses will bloom. The sun will shine. But before you know it, time is no longer on your side. The winds change. The sun sets--and like the tide that recedes when seasons change--we too, must change with it.

The hardest thing for me in life is not finding direction or knowing where I want to be or who I want to become, no--but finding balance--finding an equilibrium between family, career, myself, and the world I walk upon. It's about finding the change I need to make in order to better balance my life. And maybe when I do find that change, I'd see so much more than just what the lens can capture.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ebay Dreams

It was in the summer of 1996 when I got fired from my very first job. I was thirteen at the time--fresh out of grade school, new to the working world. It was only my second day.

You see, it all started a few weeks earlier when I had spotted a pre-owned SHARP VHS Camcorder sitting on display at our local Goodwill store. I remember standing there--amazed, caught in rapture at the way she gleamed at me, the way she spoke to me in cinematic prose, the way she made my heart thump every time I touched her. And when I looked through her viewfinder, I saw the world unfold before me--an array of images flowed like wax melting from a flickering candle in the wind. An Elton John song played proverbially through my head.

Running my fingers through her buttons, I'd caress her in my arms. At times, I'd lift her thru the air, sit her gently on my shoulder and just listen to her purr to the sound of a VHS tape threading through her internal drums--an orchestrated symphony of gears and mechanical magic making love to the crescendo of my imagination.

Sick, I know. But hey, I was thirteen--going through cinematic puberty. And like all kids, I was willing to do anything to get what I wanted. Anything. So my plan was to get a job--a real job.

With the help of my best friend Ian, I was able to land a job at a nearby tomato farm. At the ripe age of thirteen, I became a tomato picker. Making seventy-five cents for every bushel of tomatoes I'd pick, I was determined to raise the $220 I needed to purchase the love of my life. Nothing could've stopped me--not even the scorching sun that burnt my face or the fuzzy caterpillars that crawled into my pants. Like a true romantic, I tucked a picture of her from a magazine in my empty Superman wallet. When the sun was too hot to bare--I'd stop and pull her out--stare at her and imagined what my wallet would look like with 220 dollars in it. Superman would've been proud.

And then it happened. On the second day of my job, there were no red tomatoes to pick. Little green tomatoes hung rampant on rows and rows of weird looking vines. The farmer had left Ian and I alone for the morning to run some errands, so we had the whole farm to ourselves. Birds chirped sharply in the distance as Ian and I sat there--picking our brain, trying desperately to figure out what to do with all the useless green tomatoes.

Being the baseball fans we were, we decided to kill time by playing a few innings of stick-ball. With a log the size of five baseball bat, Ian stepped to the plate while I pitched. Green tomatoes flew from one end of the field to the other. Slimy neon green seeds rained down on my head as it hovered above me. Spat. Spat. Spat. Home runs all around.

Needless to say, after sixteen innings, the farmer finally came back. My tomato picking days were over. My dreams--shattered like the green tomatoes puréed at the end of the field. Sadly, I never did raise the $220 I needed for that camera. I spent the rest of that summer cutting grass, pulling weeds, and being chased by dogs. In the end, I was $130 short.

To this day I still think of her. I still dream of holding her in my arms, putting her on my shoulder and making movie magic--just the two of us. So here I am, bidding for her on Ebay!
Wish me luck!