Lessons Through Photography

Zenith_E

When I was nine years old, my aunt bought me a camera for my birthday. She was an air hostess for British Airways and had a knack for picking up weird and unusual gifts from far away places. That year I received a Zenit-E Russian 35mm SLR camera manufactured somewhere in the grim seventies by the Krasnogorsk Mechanical Factory (KMZ) a little outside of Moscow. I guess she picked it up second hand on her recent visit there.

It was a fully manual SLR with a light meter above the lens. Shutter speeds ranged between 1/30 to 1/500 s, and had a bulb setting with cable release for long exposures. It also had a built in timer on the front casing which ticked down like a time bomb. It was magic.

In Russia it was known as rugged and reliable, hence its popularity. To me it was something to be dissected and understood. I removed everything I could with my father’s crude shed tools and set about learning how it worked. Being rugged, it turned out, was vital while in my clumsy hands and victim to the many over sized screwdrivers and dull pliers I could find.

In no time I was able to not just operate it, but understand it after a few short hours poking its innards. I loved watching its mysteries slowly unwind; the snapping iris, jumping canvas shutter and spinning clogs and levers that dragged fresh film from the cartridge and rolled it all the way back again. Over time and many failed results from the local pharmacy, I worked out the basics, balancing light, clarity, depth and color using only levers and dials. It was my own portable chemistry lab fueled only by light. My only expense was the film.

I took the camera everywhere and photographed everything. I talked about it to anyone who would listen and slowly but surely rose up the rankings to an impressive 20% success rate. That is, of the 24 shots on a roll I was producing at least 5 or 6 good ones. I bought a photo book and called it “The Good Ones Book,” posting all the good shots inside it. My mother, my dog Sam, my late cousin Paul, my late great grandmother Whealan, the Concorde when it landed in Dublin airport, and an unhealthy number of pictures of the sky all fell into the “The Good Ones Book”.

As the digital age arrived I held onto my Zenith-E and refused to upgrade. I had seen the 2 & 3 mega pixel photographs and they represented reality just as Madam Tussauds represented real people. All warmth and depth was substituted for convenience. That could be a metaphor for modern living but I couldn’t be arsed exploring it. I also had no money. It was a little more than that though. I loved that camera, we had history. It was a gift from a member of my family, from the side that never really showed much affection. It was also very heavy which I’ve always associated with meaning that it was expensive.    

On January 2002 I left home to backpack around the world and that rugged little camera was the first thing I packed. Recently I found an old travel journal and have been having some fun reading through old entries and emails. I found this entry below, the sorry end to my friend. I don’t know why the love suddenly stopped. I’m guessing the constant heat, the weight of the camera and the 20% success rate took it’s toll and made this entry necessary.  

…on Tuesday we’re traveling to Port Dixon and then onto Malacca, Malaysia. The following day we take a bus overnight to Singapore where hopefully i`ll pick up a cheap Discman and maybe a new camera! The huge Zenith-E 1970 Russian made camera I’ve being carrying around is still very hit and miss so i`ll try to sell it! It’s an antique.

When I arrived in Singapore I bought a new camera, an SLR just like the Zenith but with a 100% success rate. Everything was automatic, no dials or levers and to be honest, it was a lot less fun to operate. Everyone else bought digital cameras but I stuck with what I knew. I could not bring myself to sell the Zenith in the end, and now I was lugging around two rather large heavy cameras in my backpack. I loved it, we would work something out. We’d been together since I was nine. Whatever frustration I had felt was now gone.

Unfortunately bad luck struck when I got to Perth, Australia. Due to some serious money issues I walked to a local used camera store one day and sold it for $30 out of absolute desperation. Heavy no longer meant expensive, I learned. It was a dark day indeed and the memory of leaving it behind in the shop window stayed with me for a very long time.

Below are some random photographs (badly scanned) I took in no particular order with the Zenith-E. In retrospect I could not have picked a better camera to take with me through deserts, jungles and filthy overcrowded cities. It was dropped, kicked, splashed with water, caked in dust and covered in sand but I could always fix it with what I had on hand. It never failed to give me its best 20%–and that’s better than most people I know.

Zenith-E  Photographes 2002

Vietnam.

An American Tank in the jungle close to the Chu Chi Tunnels, just outside Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam. I remember putting my fingers in the deep bullet indentations of its hard metal. You can see two on the end of the turret. A local explained how the tank had its track blown off and caught fire. It lay in an area that had become a bizarre tourist attraction promoted by the government.

Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.
We were to take a small boat to meet up with a ferry that would sail us down Tonle Sap Lake from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A pickup truck gathered us from our $1 a night motel to the lake shore. As we boarded the comically small boat, its wood creaked and moaned until eventually giving way and sank at the shore line. We were going to miss our ferry! A passing motorboat was flagged down and a few of us boarded it with our heavy bags and gave chase. By the time we got there it was so overloaded we had to sit on its roof. We sailed forever under the baking sun and I managed to avoid sunburn with creative use of a towel, a hat and SPF 50 suncream. That’s my mate Stephen reading in the bottom left. 
Mekong River, Vietnam.

The locals go about their business.

Cambodia.

My ex-girlfriend’s feet somewhere in Cambodia in a $1 a night motel. It was always so hot we never once slept below the covers.

Traders, Vietnam. 
School Bus/Boat, Vietnam.
Floating Village, Vietnam.

A floating village which I think was near Chau Doc in the An Giang province. I have a vague memory of sitting on a long narrow boat passing through this eery place. All of it floated in silence on the water, including the power cables–one of which we had to duck under in order to pass through.

Muslim School, Vietnam.
We visited a small town in which the population was entirely Muslim, not too far from the floating village. This isolated minority were flourishing deep inside an overwhelmingly Buddhist country. The locals let us enter a school house to watch the children have lessons. They seemed quite excited by it all, as were we. 
The Killing Fields, Cambodia. 

There were hundreds of skulls on display at the various sites we visited. It was a sobering experience, seeing so many human remains. The memorials, mass graves and our visit to S-21 left a lasting impression on me for a long time after. When I was walking around taking various photographs I had only one thought in my mind, that these once were people.

In amongst all this horror you could be suddenly swamped by a group of happy children demanding that you give them pens. Up to this point on our trip we had been asked for money or pressured into buying goods we didn’t need. Being harassed for pens because the local schools didn’t supply them was a welcome relief.

Brother & Sister, Vietnam

Our bus stopped on the road for reasons I can’t remember. The older sister was taking her younger brother somewhere when they stopped to watch us out of curiosity. They spoke no English but I managed to get them to pose for this shot.

Vietnam.

Stephen was snatched from the street by two very excited children who wanted him to meet their family. Stephen is the most stubborn person I have ever met but these kids really wore him down. They tugged at him with every ounce of strength and were unrelenting in bringing their find home. I managed to grab this shot just after he surrendered to them.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Fish Market, Mekong River, Vietnam. 
Mother & Daughter pose on the Mekong River, Vietnam.

Sunset at The Angkor Wat Temples, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

It took a lot of time to set up every shot with the Zenith. This along with it’s 20% success rate meant I had to choose carefully each photograph that I took. There was limited film and if I really liked what I was shooting I’d take two for safety. Each shot meant something, it suddenly became excitement and anticipation that I carried with me everywhere until the roll was developed. Even the ugly ones. This slow and deliberate approach remains a habit even now when I snap something with my iPhone.

The main difference now is that with the Zenith, I was forced to have conversations with whomever I was photographing. I had to be there. There were no quick snaps. I’d have to set it up while making conversation just to pass the time so the subject wouldn’t lose patience and walk away or hide in the growing shadows. The moment itself and not just the shot were captured. I remember standing with my great grandmother explaining why she couldn’t move while I took her picture due to the bad light. The same for my cousin. I remember those moments more than the photographs themselves. That’s what was special for me. All those beautiful moments, like standing in a field wishing my pockets were bursting with pens so I could throw them like confetti over a dark and ugly place.

     

A Nice Find.

I recently found an old journal I kept while backpacking for over a year after I left college. It contained a mixture of handwritten entries, ticket stubs, worn out maps and printed emails. I don’t know if there was any other reason why I kept journals other than the fact that I just liked writing them. I remember the moments I often enjoyed most were siting in an Internet cafe writing long emails to friends back home detailing all I had been up to. I’m glad I did now because as I read through them, I realize just how much I had forgotten.

Below are parts of a long email I sent home. It’s funny reading back on it now ten years later, especially as I had no memory of it until now.

May 13th, 2002


Hi ____

I just thought i`d let you know that I’m still alive! After leaving Cambodia we went back to Bangkok for a little while as we had split with Stephen*. After we met up we traveled down to Kuala Lumpur, it took about 25 hours so we were all a little tired.

Malaysia is a hell of a lot better than anywhere we’ve been so far. It’s a lot cleaner and the people are very friendly. You still get a few places where it’s a bit dodgy. Two nights ago we went out for food and Stephen and I were checking out a restaurant. It looked okay, it was cheap. I wanted to see the kitchen**. As the guy was showing us a curry they were making, a huge rat ran out from behind the cooker and ran across my bare feet! (I was wearing sandals). Not good. The last thing I remember leaving the restaurant was the guy shouting and laughing after us “Hey! Where you from? You don’t have rats in your country too?”

………………

I bought a hammock to use in Bali. When we stopped off at Koh Samui, which is an island on the east coast between Bangkok and Malaysia, I was hopping to use it. It was so hot
I couldn’t find the energy to string it up!***

………………

Regards
Colin
*My best mate Stephen and I stayed up singing Karaoke in a small seaside village in Cambodia the night before we were to get a boat and train back to Bangkok. The next morning Stephen was so hung over we had to leave him behind and wait for him in Thailand to catch up.  
** A habit I got into from being in some very poor areas was to check the kitchen before deciding to eat there or not. It would be a good indication on how you would spend your night, peaceful in bed with a full belly or talking to God on the big white telephone. 
***It was the first time in my life I was subjected to heat greater than that produced from a large sweater or radiator. There was a lot of things I couldn’t do because of it, mostly physical activity.  

Neil Armstrong

I can’t remember if I heard it, or if I read it, perhaps someone just told me but it was the best possible advice at the right time.

Sometime after Neil Armstrong returned from the moon a reporter asked him if there was anything he regretted about his trip. ” Yes”, he replied “I wish I had looked out the window a little more”. He went on to describe how he was so consumed with the mission that he rarely looked out a small window just above is head.

Shortly after hearing this I left Ireland in January of 2002 and backpacked around the globe until finally settling in New York in July 2003. I remembered what Neil Armstrong had said and I made sure to stop and look out the window a little more along the way. It may sound a little over dramatic but constantly moving and living from a backpack, sleeping on buses, trains or in dodgy motels it’s easy to be blind to life going on around you. No matter how stressed or lost I always took time to stop and take it all in. I bought a camera and took pictures as often as I could. Someday I’ll upload them and bore the hell out of everybody, yes there’s that many.

I’m very headstrong and focused. When I set my mind on something I can get a little blinkered to everything around me at times. Thankfully I still manage to adhere to Neil’s response to the reporter’s question to this day. I don’t regret a single thing about my trip, I feel I took in all I possibly could. I made time to stop and look out the window and have beautiful memories because of it. I have Neil Armstrong and his words of wisdom to thank for that.  

From stardust to stardust, Neil Armstrong. RIP.

Moon Through Apollo Window 

Far Away From Far Away Places.

By the time we landed in Fiji we had been backpacking for just over a year. Our remaining stops were Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York and then home, Dublin. We would be jumping from fall to spring and reliving the same seasons all over again by crossing into the northern hemisphere. We had already done it from north to south a year earlier. It occurred to me that in less than a month we would be very far from these far away places. This was to be the last of these moments.
There are hundreds of islands that surround Fiji, but we picked one that was suggested by some locals. It was a small island with an even smaller population, known for welcoming visitors. That night on the mainland we hit a local bar, got drunk and barely made it to the boat the next morning. After sometime at sea we passed several small islands. One in particular seemed to be nothing more than the exposed tip of a white blade cutting through a blanket of deep blue. All I could think about was the towering mountain that lay underneath, and the unnoticed life that clung to it.
We arrived at the island and sailed through a small channel they had cut out of the coral, just wide enough for our small boat to enter. The island rose up high in the center and was surrounded by several distant and smaller uninhabited islands. A group of local women waited for us on the beach and gave us gifts as several men played native songs on their guitars. There have been times when I’ve felt further than I could possibly be from where I started, and it can be a soft immovable calm and it can be frightening at the same time. That day, as the islanders greeted us from the boats, I felt nothing but calm.
We walked into the village and were shown the huts we would be staying in for the next three days. They had several on the island for tourists like ourselves and they differed only slightly from the ones the locals lived in. Breakfast and dinner would be served at 10 am and 6 pm at a communal eating area.In the center of the village was a bar with one single small screen TV–that was it.
That evening–and for the next 3 days–we explored the island. This was not a difficult task. We could walk the perimeter in just over an hour and each time we did, we discovered something new. Locals went about their daily routines while we walked alone, swam alone, collected shells alone, but mostly just stared out into the ocean, alone. There was nothing to do and it was magnificent.
Connected Horizon

As often as possible we would climb to the highest point of the island to view it in its entirety. I had never seen the horizon meet the water on all sides before. It was impossible to see exactly where the sky stopped and the water began. My best guess was at the center of where white and blue became the same color.

Looking North

In those moments on the hill, even for a non-believer it was hard to block out those feelings. I had many moments when those feelings stirred unexpectedly in the most remote places, and it was only ever in those remote places. It was a sense of connection, that you belonged to the world wherever you were, that loneliness was the result of distraction, doing something wrong. It’s hard to describe so, like many other things, I just never talked about it.

Growing up in Ireland where dusk lasts forever, you can see clearly the tear between day and night. Walking along the beach or in the park, in those moments when the trees are black against a sky shaking out its stars, you suddenly realize that it’s here where all folk tales, music, poetry and those feelings are born and live. Then it’s gone, and there is darkness but the feeling lingers so you chase it with a pen or a song or to the bottom of a glass. Maybe it’s just a simple form of happiness, being lost in familiar woods or falling asleep to your favorite song.

Looking North West
Looking South East
Looking North West From The Coastline
Exploring & Finding
On the last night we were treated to a fire show by the some of the locals who danced, spun flaming clubs around their half-naked bodies and sang their hearts out. It was not for tips, we paid no money, all that was required was our undivided attention to quietly view and absorb their culture. It was amazing. Afterwards we sat in the bar, slowly got drunk and talked to strangers.
A short time later the bar owner shuffled over to the small, battered TV that clung to the wall and switched it on with a loud ‘click’ that got everyone’s attention. Its tiny screen lit up with fire and explosions as a British accent perfectly pronounced the devastation and horror that was unfolding in night vision and shaky hotel balcony footage. The Iraq war had begun. It had found its way through the corral. The bar went silent. I felt all the calm drain from me as easily as I had gained it the last few days on the island.
We finished our beers and returned to the cabin under the piercing stars I had grown accustomed to in the past year. The sky of the southern hemisphere didn’t seem so alien anymore, but the following night we would be in Hawaii, in the company of familiar constellations, our old friends. I couldn’t sleep for the longest time, but I had the sounds of the island and the ocean. And they had me.
In the morning we got the boat back to Fiji and a plane back across the equator to Hawaii. I dreaded Hawaii, I dreaded all its noise, colors and distractions. But upon arriving we checked into a cheap motel and in a few short hours I fell in love with the place for all the wrong reasons. The smell of fried food, the beer-soaked mahogany bars, overly lit gift shops, neon lights and loud retirees in louder shirts telling us were it all went wrong. I felt safe. People laughed a lot less but were more confident, happy but empty. We spent a few days in Hawaii and besides visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial we swam most of the time. We swam in crowds, ate in crowds, shopped in crowds, walked in crowds, and back at the motel we had a fight like we wanted the people in the next room to hear us. On the last night as the motel slept, I sat on the balcony downing beers looking out over the city lights and felt absolutely nothing. I was calm again, and alone.
We lived through the same seasons but this time around it felt different. I never had those feelings anymore and I probably never will, not if I’m always far away from those far away places.  I don’t think they exist now anyway, not anymore.
One Of Hundreds.

There’s something ugly in those woods.

Road To Albany
It had been raining on our road trip the whole day. The long straight roads that cut through the empty spaces of south western Australia made us feel like we were stuck on an infinite loop. We had been warned that the weather that time of year could be unpredictable. It was. In a break from the downpour we parked the car and hiked into a wood to stretch our legs. The dark overcast sky hung low above our heads and it became increasingly uninviting the deeper we ventured into it. We eventually stumbled upon this unearthly creation: A deformed human face crossed with an octopus in tree form. What a find, all the way out here, alone!  It started raining. 

Welcome food, I mean friends.

We returned to the car and continued on our infinite road trip to Albany in silence.

Not Quite Obnoxious Enough!

Somewhere on our road trip from Canberra to Sydney, Australia we decided to take a detour and visit the Blue Mountains. A really nice place to get a photo some people told us along the way. I had purchased my first ever proper camera some months back and was determined to take as many a fine a picture I could on my travels. It really was an amazing scene. Beautiful.  
Lovely stuff, got my Kangaroo skin hat on and everything!
Then I spotted this particular rock formation jutting out over the plain below. It was famous for looking somewhat like a face. That’s when in all my youthful inexperience I thought of an even better photograph to take at the Blue Mountains. 
I have an Idea…
I ran over to it, climbed to the top and posed for what I thought until I developed the film was the best ever photograph ever taken at The Blue Mountains by anyone, ever. See below:
Twat!
Obnoxious, arrogant and somewhat unsettling. Oh to be young and stupid. I really thought I was the bee’s knees. 
Don’t ever tell me growing old and wiser is a bad thing.

Scenery

We took the Indian Pacific Train from Perth to Adelaide. It would take three full days on the world’s longest stretch of straight rail track through the unchanging scenery of the Australian bush. There would be two stops along the way so we could get out and stretch our legs. I had my camera, my journal and my guitar. I would take photos, write, play music and enjoy the experience as best I could. That was the plan at least. Taking a year off to backpack around globe meant I had already had my fair share of long train and bus journeys. I was well used to it, or so I thought. 
We slowly pulled out of Perth and through the course of the day watched all signs of civilization fade to red dust out the window. It was exciting to be moving again. The romance of departure always outshines the harsh reality of arrival. 
I was glad to leave Perth, work was hard to find and when I found it, it was backbreaking. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, just a tough one. I had been unlucky for too long, too many times. I needed a change of scenery, we all did.    
Our first stop came that night for a few hours at Kalgoorlie, a mining town known for its topless bartenders (skimpies) and brothels that straddle a colossal open pit gold mine. We took a brief tour of the town, peered in some brothel windows and then grabbed a few beers at a local skimpy bar. We sat amongst the tired locals and joined in the admiration of the busty skimpies. Later when the train’s horn cut through the town we reluctantly made our way back to the station as sure-footed as we could. 
By day two I was slowly starting to lose my mind. The overpriced toasted cheese sandwiches on the train were as bad as the tea they served, as bland as the view out the window. It was unfortunately the only nourishment that was palatable from the kitchen. The train unexpectedly slowed to a stop beside what looked like the set of a Mad Max movie. Corrugated sheets of metal formed a perimeter wall and large truck tires weighed down sheets of plastic placed over the structure acting as a roof. The train’s horn drew out from it a tall old man with long hair and even longer beard. There was a conversation and food and water were thrown from the drivers section of the train. The conductor explained that the man had built his house from trash found along the railway line and the passing trains stopped to check up on him, unofficially of course. He seemed like quite the celebrity in this empty part of the world.   
As the scenery repeated itself outside the window I moved around the train in a desperate attempt to occupy my mind. I could not write, my guitar lay silent on the seat and my camera was rendered useless after just one single photograph out the window a day before.  
An hour ago, 72 hours ago – An Unchanging View

Cook was a ghost town in the middle of nowhere. It was our second and last stop before Adelaide. We all abandoned the train and wandered into what was once a railway support town to stretch our legs again. Miles from anywhere, it had been bleeding its population for the last decade or so. As I bought come chocolate from the town’s only shop, an old woman explained that the population was currently only 4 people.

The Edge of Town

I don’t have any photographs of the town itself, as the first thing I did was walk to its edge and photograph nothing, miles and miles of nothing. Roads disappeared to nowhere, I had never quite seen anything like it. Absolute silence. Of course it had numbed me for two days as it sped by through the window, but to stand in its static beauty was really something. I kept an eye out for snakes and other such bush fare but my overall concern was the fear of being consumed by the growing feeling of not being wanted. I was an unwelcome visitor. I looked back at the town, the scattered buildings and the hulking train laying beside it. Year after year it would slowly fade away like a veterans parade.

I can remember the remaining town folk being friendly and we acquired water and snacks and a splashing of the local history. I explored a few of the empty buildings to kill time and to attempt to build an idea of what it must have been like with, well, more people. I remember peering into the window of an old school, I remember the shop and a few smaller houses that had belonged to workers and abandoned mechanical equipment that lined the tracks for supplying the train with fuel and water. Most of all what I remember was the surrounding bush. Unmoving, it stretched forever.

The Road To Nowhere
Beware of The Bend

Maybe it was the heat, the bland food on the train, or the almost two thousand miles of straight track and unchanging scenery but this road sign cracked me up. I fucking lost it. Out here in the middle of nowhere in a ghost town of only four people was a road sign warning of a bend in a road that went nowhere. This photograph was worth the journey alone.  

A fellow passenger told me to look at the front of the train. I asked why and he told me that it was covered in kangaroo remains and splattered with blood. The train had been hitting them as they crossed the tracks for the last two days and the front had apparently acquired a monstrous deathly facade. I decided to pass on the spectacle. As I boarded I saw him with his friend standing at the front of the train giggling and taking photographs at what I’m sure was a baked on memory I’m glad I don’t have.

The train pulled out and we pursued the horizon for another day until we arrived in Adelaide early the next morning. After a few days of exploring the city we took another train to Melbourne. We rented an apartment on Little Bourke Street right in the heart of the city. I got a temp job filing claim investigations at an insurance company and ended up by accident/paperwork error with a 12th floor corner office overlooking the entire city of Melbourne. Not bad for a temp but I kept my mouth shut, dressed nice and made sure I came in early and left late. For some unknown reason, luck was always on my side while living in Melbourne and I had three long months of it.

Every evening I relived the most beautiful vision of an entire city lighting up at the end of the day. It pulsed and it heaved and it slowly burst into colorful life in absolute silence far below me. Constantly moving and changing it was always that much more beautiful when I thought of Cook, and that bend in the road.