Monday, September 28, 2009

An Artist is Driven By Demons?

Photo by: Fernao Silveira
Filming in Downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil

The days are long and the nights, are just not long enough. Waking up, I'm lost--dazed and confused in a myriad of motion, scrambling for time, searching for reason, settling for the rhythmic beat of life behind a lens. Leaving my hotel room, I run through a gauntlet of vacationers, maids and matrons of wealth and fame. I hear them talk of Champaign wishes and caviar dreams, see the sparkle in their smile--and just when I thought I'd passed them all, another one bumps me from behind--too busy talking on his phone to see the man with the lens--a mere soul trying desperately to capture life thru film and glass.

A mere soul--that's exactly how I feel right now. Life is hectic. My schedule is taking me from one realm to another--an itinerary that stretches far beyond my wildest imaginations.It's daunting at times--but I'm not complaining.

William Faulkner once said, "An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn't know why they choose him and he's usually too busy to wonder why." Do you think he's right?

Blogger Note: I'm currently in Brazil. The country is absolutely amazing. I'm sorry I haven't had much time to post, but I do promise to write soon. I hope all is well with my dear readers.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I'm Tired of Being Blamed!

This is what happens when the graphic designer at work gets a hold of your profile picture. Pretty good, eh? I sure would love to read that article entitled "I'm not a womanizer, I'm in love." Anyone happen to pick this issue up from the newsstands?

I'm currently on foreign assignment--writing to you from Dallas, Texas, en-route to Sao Paulo, Brazil. I'll update soon when I'm on location.

Be well!


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What Will Become Of Me

Photo: In the jungles of Honduras, December 2008.

After every major assignment, my boss and I have a sit down meeting to discuss the mission, debrief on the events that unfolded and catch up on loose-ends. I sit at one end of the room, he sits at the other, and eye to eye, we talk story, logistics, the economics of our trade, and most of all--life in general.

But after this past assignment in India and Pakistan, he asked me a question that he normally doesn't ask: What do you want to do?

At first, I thought he was referring to my vacation time, where I wanted to stay during my next assignment, or what equipment I needed to replace. But the question was beyond that, far beyond the realms of what I had anticipated. Caught off guard, my mind began to ponder, the air got thicker, and in the synapse of a moment I saw my youth flash before my eyes.

It was like being twelve again when I sat face to face with my guidance councillor--nervous and light headed, I had to decide whether I wanted to become an engineer or a doctor, a teacher or a cop. Slowly tilting my head from the ground, I looked at him, noticed the custodian cleaning behind his shoulder and replied, "I want to become a janitor, sir." My voice shook 5.2 on the richter scale.

But this time was different. This was seventeen years later--and believe it or not, I'm a bit smarter now--more confident, too. After a brief moment to let the question sink in, I knew what he meant. He was simply looking out for me. It's not a secret--it's inevitable that one day I'd have to put my camera down, smell the roses and maybe even build a white picket fence of my own. There's more to life than traversing the world, going in and out of hostile zones, or surviving in jungles and rainforest's. There's more to it, I know.

But for now, I told him this is all I know. This is what I'm good at--and to be quite honest, this makes me happy. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make, a step forward I'm determined to take. I don't know where I want to be five years from now, who I want to become when I'm distilled and wrinkled, or why I've decided to take the road less or most travelled--but what I do know is that everyday is a new day for me, every morning is a new destination, a new background and new people to meet. And to me, right now, at this very moment in my life, I'm richer because of it--wealthier than any silver lining to hug the contours of my soul.

You know what, I wake up every morning in amazement--sit on my bed and wonder to myself how lucky I am. It still brings a smile to my face when I realize that people actually pay me to do what I do. Wow...who'd ever thought?

Come to think of it, I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Behind the Scenes: India/Pakistan

When it's too crowded to set up shop, you improvise.

Smiling for my camera.

My extended family.

More than one ass here.

He who wears a hat like Ed is askin' for trouble.

Call them if you have problems.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Into The Heart of Darkness (Pt 3 of 3)

Blogger Note:
I'm not a war junky, nor I thrill seeker. I'm not a writer nor poet, philosopher nor philanthropist. I'm just an average guy off the street, a fellow tax payer, common citizen, and a disgruntled Walmart shopper. I am just a man behind his lens--trying desperately to tell a story--a story that cannot be left untold. It is my duty, my calling and my obligation to tell these stories--to live up to the gift that is bestowed upon me--even if it means going Into The Heart of Darkness.

Finding Salvation
A man once told me that by becoming a photographer, I'll be throwing my life away. He looked me in the eye, put his hand on my shoulder and said it straight to my face--point blank. He called me a fool, a lost--unguided soul. I was in eighth grade at the time.

I wish he'd see me now--throwing my life away head first--traversing the world from one country to another, from coast to coast, end to end. And like a lost and unguided soul, I have no limits, no boundaries to tell me where I can and cannot go. If he was here right now, I'd stick my middle finger in his face, tell him to fuck off and eat my shorts.

I don't know why I'm telling you this, but in Pakistan, this was all I could think about. I guess, when you're down to your very last drop of energy, you find ways to dig deep into the depths of your soul to find that sliver of hope you have left. You bring it to surface, and with every breath, you savour it like it's your last.

Not In Kansas Anymore
During the day I walked the beat of a scavenger, hunting for shots to tell a story. I'd pay close attention to where I'm standing, who's around me and why that person a hundred feet from me is doing what he's doing. I question every move, every detail and every fragment of my inner psyche. Like a lion on the prowl, I watch my prey, slowly creep up to it, find it's weak spot, and in a synapse of a moment, I decide whether I shoot it--or be shot. Sometimes, the hardest thing for a photographer is to decide whether the shot is worth shooting--whether its worth paying your life for. I've been told by many that no shot is worth it--but when you're in this profession, you take the risks.

Being covert in a hostile environment is different from being an embedded photog--the technical term journalists use to tag along with the military. In Pakistan, there are no such programs that exists, you're simply here on your own. In many ways, it's much more dangerous than being with the military. There's no one else but you and your team, alone and desolate, left to fend for yourself. And if you some how go missing, no one will know. Scores of journalists and photographers go missing every year in Pakistan and surrounding countries. Some will make it out alive, others will end up on the streets--stuffed in a garbage bag--cut up to pieces. But if you're lucky, you might make the cut of a highly acclaimed video of you being beheaded.

In Pakistan, the cities are owned by government forces, loyal to America--but by being so, they face a constant threat of attack from Muslim Extremists who are against the western world. In the villages outside of the city, Mr. Taliban rule the people. So no matter where you go, you're constantly surrounded by danger. There's no way out.

Mr. Al
So there he was, looking into my lens. Through light, we spoke. Through sound, we listened to the tune of fear thumping through my heart. I turned around, started walking to our car. My team quickly followed suit. It was an orchestrated melody without the quartet--just the glance of each others eyes, and we knew it was time to leave.

Through miles of dust and debris, I looked back through the window, saw a faint shadow of a man in uniform--dressed in signature white, long beard and a distinctive head ornament that clearly proclaimed him as a member of his country club. There was no doubt he was a member of al Qaida. Our fixer later confirmed this.

Laying in bed that night, I played back that vivid moment in my head. I remember his black hallowed eyes, the way he stared at me, ripped through the chambers of my chest and choked every drip of blood streaming from my heart. It skipped many beats. But for a brief moment, while trying to put myself to rest, the fear within me had subsided--and instead of being afraid, I became utterly angry. Flashbacks of the September 11 attacks played back in my head, images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers billowed in my nocturnal haze.

And within the blink of an eye, I wanted to kill the coward. I wanted to go back there and strangle him with my bare hands, pull his eye-balls from its sockets and make him eat it whole. I'd burn him alive, drop his body from a thousand stories up, and watch him suffer a million times more than the thousands of Americans that perished that fateful day.

The devil had taken me over. I slept great that night.

All is fair in love and war, right?

To my readers, thank you so much for your kind words of support and for the prayers that you've said for me and my team. You are more to me than a name, a picture or a blogger. You are a friend--and beyond the virtual networks of this inter-galactic universal web(try saying that five times), we are a group of strangers that are united towards a common bond, a common belief and a common foundation of love and freedom, the pursuit of happiness, and the notion that we are all truly grateful for each other.

Many readers have suggested that I one day write a book--etch onto printed pages a collection of my stories, my moments of sheer adrenaline and aftershock. I thank you for the compliment, but believe me, I am not a writer. I spend hours articulating my thoughts, finding the right words to describe emotions that I don't even know is real, reading over and over again to make certain I am still within the context of what I started to type three hours earlier.

Originally, I had wanted to post on a daily basis while in Pakistan. But for security concerns, I decided against it. I went into the country without a laptop. Please excuse me for posting on events that had already unfolded. After leaving Pakistan, I was assigned in India for seven days. Based out of Mumbai, I posted part 1 and 2 of this series. I am currently home now, desperately trying to put my life back on track, readjusting to civilian life, and sleeping in a managed routine. But life for me will never be the same, it will never be like that of a many who enjoy the freedom to walk the streets without having to worry about check-points, incoming fire and being ambushed. Getting rid of that mentality is the hardest part of coming home.

I'll be at home base for two weeks--preparing for yet another assignment. I will keep you posted.

Twelve Days to Next Departure.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Into The Heart of Darkness (Pt 2 of 3)

Blogger Note:
Landing deep into the tribal regions of Pakistan, producer Ed and I are greeted by a team of locals that will take us to our final destination--a remote village to cover a story that will forever linger in my mind, kept alive in my prayers, and cherished in the chambers of my heart. It's a mission that remains classified online, but if you were to one day look me in the eye, I'd spill to you the very essence of why I accepted the job, why I believed my camera would make a difference, and why I ventured Into The Heart of Darkness.

Under Cover:
There was a time in my life when I'd sprint along the shores of Lake Erie, step by step, carefully making sure that the weight of my body would keep me from sinking. I always knew that if I ran fast enough, I'd keep afloat--find an equilibrium between man and nature, and some how, I'd always come out on top. I never forgot that feeling.

Looking at my watch, the date had just changed. But mentally, my mind was a day behind, lingering in an time zone that was yesterday. It's tomorrow now, and life just got complicated. Ed and I are crammed into a Toyota LandCruiser, riding with people whom we knew nothing about, not even their real names. Listening to the sound of horns coming from all directions, I saw flashes of light, high beams and low beams, yellow and white, throbbing its way through the retina of my eyes. I looked for signs of danger, but in the dark, danger lurks where you least expect it. It's difficult to see.

The engine revved high, went up hill and down hill, never finding neutrality. At stop lights, I noted how much distance the driver is keeping from the vehicle in front of us, and how just close to us is the vehicle behind us. I looked for ambushes, people walking by, motorcycles that seemed too loud. It's amazing just how much detail you see when you're in fear, afraid and at the mercy of your new found friends.

We were on our way to a safe house, deep in an urban area where no one knows we're coming. The air was heavy, hot and humid--full of hostility from the rising barometer that signified a change in pace. There's no where to turn but to keep going, keep moving, and hopefully, we're always one step ahead from sinking.

At 2200, we arrived at house tucked in the midst of an urban sprawl. A man opens a gate and we drive through. The gate closes. Our car doors unlock. We're told to get out. And just like that, under the cover of complete darkness, we were ushered into a house that would become our base for this mission. "Home sweet home," said Mr. Nickel.

After a short briefing, we're warned to never leave the house,keep all windows closed and carefully watch our steps--warnings that seemed more like threats. I never slept that night. In my mind, I envisioned a team of terrorists bursting through my bedroom door, slamming me to the ground, and covering my head with a black bag. I heard lyrical voices that I could not tune, screams that echoed to the symphony of fear.

The Eyes of an Enemy:
Waking up in the morning, I felt my stomach rumble, my mind dazed and ears popped. I've been in and out of consciousness, asleep and awake, hovering the fine line between exhaustion and adrenaline.

Strapping on my bullet proof vest, we headed out. Donkey carts and men with long beards roamed the streets while women covered from head to toe carefully moved about. Sand and dust flew through the air, leaving behind a cloud of haze and desert debris. Buildings that looked more like ancient civilizations stood tall, reminding me of how the hands of time had stood still. Walking with my camera, I looked like a soldier. People stared, wondered what I was doing. They never said hi nor waved. Children gawked from a afar, poking their heads through walls to capture a glimpse of the man with the lens. I couldn't shoot at first, too afraid to put my guard down. I looked left and right, up and down, making sure danger wasn't lurking.

But like a fool with a cause, I had to start shooting. I rolled camera, zoomed in and out on a group of people mingling in the distance. I turned the camera left, then right, pulled focus and decided to look into the eyes of a stranger. It was a close up--which meant I couldn't see his full face. A great shot--locked and loaded on a set of eyes looking at me through my lens.

Zooming out, I saw his face, his beard, the white clothing he wore and the signature head ware he adorned on his head. Looking at Mr. Nickel, he said to me a word that sent shock waves to my heart: Al Queda.

Slowly, he started to walk towards me.

Please standby for Part 3.