I am afraid of heights, and my fear falls more into the genre of phobia - which is an extreme or irrational fear of something. My height phobia is not extreme. I can usually manage it, but it is irrational in that the needle really starts to red line on man made heights as opposed to natural heights. For some (irrational) reason, a fire escape or balcony terrace makes the lower body clench a little tighter than a granite cliff or oak tree.
Late last year, I was approached by the Golf Pros at Safaa Golf Club in Saudi Arabia for a commercial photography campaign. Safaa Golf Club is a 9 hole, par 36 golf course that rolls out to just over 3,500 yards. The holes are lined with stadium style lighting and you can play under the lights until 10 pm - which, in Saudi Arabia, can be a relief in the hotter seasons and a novelty on the cooler evenings. It also provides a green space oasis in our predominantly beige environment, and the course is closed to golfers once a week but remains open for community members to walk or jog the meandering fairways.
The Golf Pros contacted me after they saw a creative portrait session that I had done with Jim Daum where we built some “exploding” golf balls and had Jim smash them into clouds of beautiful color against the dusty backdrop. The Safaa Pros liked the creative imagery and details of that session and asked if I could spearhead a photo campaign for the club that incorporated a similar style. In one of our first meetings the idea of some aerial shots came up, and this is where my nerves started to kick in as well. I believe the conversation went something like,
“We’d like the whole place covered and a variety of shots - landscape photography for the course, some portraits sessions with the golf pros, junior golf lessons, the clubhouse and restaurant, and we want you to do a walk around with a four ball to get the players in action.”
“Yep, I can do all of that.”
“And we are thinking we could get some aerial shots during the next tournament.”
“We can get the lift that we use for maintaining the floodlights and we can put you up there.”
“Up there? Like how high?”
“Well, they can go above the light fixtures.”
And this is the part of the creative process when you don’t tell them you are afraid of heights because if you tuck that in your back pocket and face that challenge head on - you get to spend the day in a boom suspended above the world churning below. And the calm is only broken by the comforting hum of the camera shutter that is making for excellent company in that little pocket of time and space.
A few behind the scene shots
At that time, one of our players put me in touch with a gentleman named Emad who is the manager at Al Shallal Ice Rink in Jeddah. I had been playing the text message negotiation game with Emad for almost six months trying to get us ice time again, and since Mohammed mentioned Emad's name, I thought at the least I should acknowledge Mohammed and keep things copacetic. Still feeling a little dubious by Mohammed’s request that we play in an “ice hockey show” - I decided to reply. A cordial and perfunctory thank you, but no thank you.
But, true to his name, Mohammed was resilient. He skirted my initial response and responded with more details about the underlying effort and the urgency of his request. His team had played in the Gulf Cup in 2010, but then lost their national sponsorship - shockingly ice hockey in Saudi Arabia failed to remain at the top of the bureaucratic priorities and the team had faltered. His team was now making a come back and this was a crucial part of that process - a hockey scrimmage as part of a larger Saudi National Day celebration at Al Shallal Ice Rink where his team was trying to establish a new home. It is impossible to explain the complexities and layers of trying to get things done in Saudi Arabia, and if I hadn’t already been here six years I would not have understood, but I got it. They needed to show the Al Shallal management, and the branch of the Saudi government that bank rolls these kinds of endeavours, that this was not a fledgling idea but a concept that could gain enduring traction.
I started messaging my team and very quickly it went from a text message that I almost deleted to almost the entire team agreeing to drive to Jeddah on Saudi National Day (read potential for the worst driving and traffic on earth!) and into an unknown scrimmage against a team we had never met. I love this kind of stuff so I was tingling, but we were still unaware of what was to unfold and the stride that this would be for our team.
When we arrived at Al Shallal they were still prepping the ice. We were scheduled to play somewhere in between a “freestyle ice skating exhibition” and a traditional performance celebrating Saudi National Day. Everything ran about three hours late, which is also something that you become accustomed to after living here for half a decade. The celebration started with the freestyle ice skating display: young men and women ripping around the ice, doing handstands and backflips on their skates, and jumping over each other and coming insanely close to ripping someone’s face open with a skate. It was kind of like the Vans Warped Tour meets Disney on Ice, with a big smack of socio-political whip cream on top in the form of partially covered women taking the ice in Saudi Arabia in front of a crowd of fully covered spectators. Given some of the recent social progression in Saudi, and some of the larger geo-political events in the last few months on this earth of ours, this was quickly developing into the “something to tell your grandkids” genre.
The freestyle show was followed by a traditional Saudi performance on a stage that had been erected on one end of the ice. At this point, we started gearing up for the hockey show that was to follow, and indeed it was a hockey show for the audience. We started by skating out with a group of young kids who were very eager to play hockey, but barely knew how to hold a stick (we were coaching them backstage). We warmed up without our helmets on so the crowd could see us (and most of the Saudi team continued to play the entire game sans helmet), we watched from the side while the kids took penalty shots on the goalies, we stood in parallel lines for the playing of the National Anthem. And then we played three periods of ice hockey in front of hundreds of people, in an incredibly dimly light and green tinted ice rink that somewhat resembled the surface of Venus (I don’t normally show my editing process but there are some before and after pics below to show the out of camera vs. color corrected shots). There were announcers and a staged hockey fight and even a trophy for the “winning team”. I was interviewed for a broadcast station (I have yet to find it), and we lined up for the ceremonial handshake at center ice after the last buzzer. It was our first skate in our new home. It was hockey night in the Kingdom.
OUT OF CAMERA VS. EDITED IMAGES
I am obsessed with light. It is a compulsion that consumes my attention throughout the day. When I enter a room I am reflexively gauging the natural light coming in through a window, the temperature of the artificial glow from a lamp, the direction of the source and its resulting shadows. Setting up and manipulating studio light combines both technical and creative elements that are equal parts challenge and reward. Having that control over light, and making subtle adjustments with finite precision, is a powerful experience. But whenever I look through my archives, the photos that always stand out the most are the ones shot with natural light. For me, there is something about natural light that can’t quite be matched in the studio. Soft light spilling through a window, harsh sunlight that is quietly reflected off a bright wall and softly falling across a subject, backlit silhouettes shot against a midday sun that would otherwise be the perfect time to put the camera away. Those are the shots that always grab my attention in a profound way.
We were sitting outside when the the light began to change. The smoke from the Yolo County Fire, the same fire that eventually left a 100,000 acre gash across the face of Northern California, was crawling across the summer horizon; the clear blue skies to the west swallowed up by the encroaching smoke cloud form the east. The summer afternoon transitioned from crisp blues and hard shadows to a dull flat light, and when the smoke finally covered the whole sky and muted out the sun behind it everything took on soft pastels of orange, pink, and red. During those later moments I grabbed my camera and started shooting some family and friends that were in the front yard - the sun had the ultimate diffuser on it, creating an ideal softness for some impromptu portraits.
The following evening the fires were still going hard. After a quick survey of Google Maps, I grabbed my camera and drove up to the top of Atlas Peak. On the ride up I could see the fires raging on the next ridge across the valley. The sun dropped. The smoke continued to stream west. And the rocky outcroppings, tall grasses, and scraggly oaks of Atlas Peak patiently waited their turns as subjects in the silent contrast of a natural aesthetic created by its own harsh destruction.
After a long photo editing session, I often find myself scouring Google Earth late into the night. I am mildly obsessed with trying to find new places and locations to shoot in Saudi Arabia. Last year, my Google Earth wanderings brought me to the Al Fahad Shipwreck located south of Jeddah. The word ‘shipwreck’ carries romantic connotations of adventure and exploration and secrets locked deep under the sea. But, Al Fahad is no secret. In fact, a Google Map search of Al Fahad will bring it right up - along with a handful of selfies from the wreck that squats just off shore. The boat, originally called the MV Free Enterprise III, was built in 1966 in the Netherlands, sold in 1986 to an Egyptian company that renamed it Al Fahad, and the vessel foundered in 2004 due to engine problems. Since then it has slowly decayed in the Red Sea while fish and marine life have found sanctuary in its damaged quarters.
The drive to Al Fahad amplified the usual anticipation of exploring the unknown. Just south of Jeddah the street lights disappear and the path darkens; the apartments and office buildings slowly fade away and a large wall of black swallows the road just beyond the reach of the headlights. I turned the music off and embraced the quiet. My plan was to reach Al Fahad just before sunrise and, for some reason, even though I knew other people had been there and the GPS was clearly showing roads straight out to the thing - I had this sense of foreboding. There is something about driving to a shipwreck at 4am that feels haunting. Would there be other people out there? How low would the tide be? Would I be able to walk right out to it? Swim out to it? Climb aboard? Would it finally tip all the way over while I was standing there watching it? No one actually died when the ship hit bottom, but I still had that feeling like I was approaching a graveyard.
Just after 5am the call to prayer broke the silence, and my thoughts.. An hour later the first hints of daylight began to creep over the horizon. The black skies slowly giving way to the first deep blues of sunrise, soft pinks quickly following. I turned off the highway and started down a paved road that eventually crumbled away into hard packed dirt. I peered into the darkness as the Red Sea drew closer and strained my eyes to find the wreck. I approached slowly. The dirt road disappeared and a maze of tire tracks zigzagged through the crusty sand leading to the water's edge. The Al Fahad came into view just before sunrise as a ball of mushy grey sinking into soft aqua blues. I slowed to a crawl and turned off my headlights and my eyes adjusted to the ambient light, and that’s when I realized I was definitely not alone. Not at all. It turns out the ghosts of Al Fahad are alive and well.
I arrived at Dochula Pass on a Tuesday morning. The heavy fog and cool air were a welcome change after the winding car ride up to the 3,100 meter mountain pass. On clear days the Himalayas welcome visitors from a distance, but on this socked in morning the 108 memorial chortens that make up Dochula Pass were left staring at a wall of white and soft grays slowly rolling up the mountain side. I can not speak for the brick chortens, but that was okay with me. I was not on this trip to see the Himalayas. I was on this trip to be with people.
I had not seen my friend Andy in almost four years. He was one of the people that I was most excited about spending time with and it was his spark that launched us to Bhutan in the first place. We had also decided, early in our planning, to stay in traditional farmhouses with local Bhutanese families for the entire trip. The experience of living and eating and laughing with our host families nurtured the life of this ‘people trip’ in the best way. The theme was also strengthened when we met our driver, Kencho, and our guide, Pema, outside of the airport. Within a few hours any barriers shed away and we quickly became four young men driving around Bhutan together, trading dirty jokes and calling each other out for stinky farts. This was, at its core, a people trip.
The people of Bhutan, and visiting Buddhists, come to Dochula Pass to pray. It is customary to walk clockwise around a chorten while praying (during our second farm stay we woke up each morning to find the grandmother of the house walking around a single chorten that was built on the farm, quietly praying and thumbing her prayer beads) and at Dochula Pass visitors walk a large clockwise circle around the outside of all 108 chortens. Several people were already walking their loops when we arrived, and after a morning coffee and Q&A session about Dochula Pass with our guide, Andy and I set out to capture the scene.
I started up close, moving slowly through the white and red chortens working on some detail shots of the tiered layers. The gold trim and ornate details pulled me in and the fog set a consistent tone as I worked the camera. And then I had that feeling that I dread. A feeling that sweeps in suddenly and obscures my view like the heavy fog obscuring the Himalayas in the distance: This has been done before and I am doing it no better. This has been photographed a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times and I am just adding to the gigabytes of stock photos of...The Pyramids, The Eiffel Tower, The Alps, or Dochula Pass. To be fair, this is a good problem to have. To be able to travel and capture these images in the first place is something that I should never take for granted. And, this is Bhutan. A place with limited tourism and the very phrase Dochula Pass is sure to raise some eyebrows when trading travel stories. But, once that ‘it’s been done before’ feeling kicks in - it is very hard to shake. I decided to try a fresh angle. I moved away from the chortens and backed away from the close up shots. I decided to take a stroll in the surrounding hills and see if I could get a fresh perspective on this place. I started walking up the nearest hill across the road and it was there, casually strewn below a large Cypress tree, that I found exactly what I was looking for.
The five ladies that I met that morning had come to Dochula Pass to walk the circular path and pray, as they do once or twice or month. I had stumbled across their morning break and I was immediately captivated by the close knit group. The vibrant colors of their clothing, the anachronistic feel of their cellphones being pulled out of their traditional Kira, their genuine smiles and friendly teasing with each other. I asked if I could take a picture. They asked if I would like some tea. We sat together and spoke broken English and sipped black tea with sugar and powdered milk. They gave me chhurpi (an incredibly hard cheese made from dried yak milk that I eventually had to give up on after an hour of trying to get it to soften in my mouth), and the ubiquitous betel nut that stains everyone’s teeth red. They asked me many questions about my trip to Bhutan and offered me their daughter’s hands in marriage. I told them everything I had done already on my trip and politely declined the marriage offers. They took selfies and sent text messages. I took pictures and chewed on the betel nut. At the end of our time together they packed up their small picnic and headed back to the chortens to continue their pilgrimage.
This was not a groundbreaking diplomatic connection made between Bhutan and America, and it certainly was not the beginning of a life long friendship or even a digital up keeping through social media. I never even learned their names or anything beyond the surface of their friendship and routine. But it was exactly what I was looking for on that cloudy morning - a brief but genuine moment with people I had never met before. And for me, the best part was not the click of the shutter or the flirtatious giggles. It was not the slurp of the tea or the gentle clattering of the prayer beads. It was the brief moments that we sat in comfortable silence together just looking at each other, and understanding that underneath the immense differences that could possible divide us was a core that made us entirely the same. Behind our cameras and cellphones and colorful threads and teasing and smiling laughter and language we are just people looking for other people to share these experiences. We all walk in circles every day, and whether it is on Dochula Pass or the streets of New York City - we all need some people to walk with.
The same trade winds that Eric and Eva use for their windsurfing sessions on The Red Sea greeted us something fierce on the afternoon of their photo shoot. I was already nervous going into this one for several reasons. First, Eric is a damn good photographer himself and so that always adds a little pressure to a shoot. Second, Erik and Eva were, technically speaking, my first couples session. I’ve done shoots with families, babies, camels, buildings, city skylines - but this was my first couples session. And thirdly, that wind. That wind. That wind. When we met at the location we all shared the same thought, should we postpone? Instead, we jumped right into it.
Eric and Eva came well prepared with ideas for what they wanted and some visions for the final shots. We worked through several different looks across a few locations and their energy was perfect. Our session finished with sunset at the beach, and more wind! Eva was a trooper through the whole thing - adjusting and readjusting her hair and battling back the locks that were endlessly swarming her cheeks. And while we went for some specific looks for the first part of the session, the time at the beach was just a relaxed vibe with Eric and Eva enjoying each other and their time together. The final result is a great mix of style and candid shots that tell the story of our afternoon in the sun.
Every shoot has its own feel, its own vibe, its own quirks and challenges. This one presented some technical challenges with the wind and, as always in Saudi Arabia, the intense natural light. What I will take away from this afternoon is the unique energy that a couples session brings to a photo shoot and how to channel that energy in a way that creates some personal and unique final images. Do you have someone special in your life? Want to create some memories? Send me a message at email@example.com and let’s get the creative process started.
I met Jim Daum when I moved to Saudi Arabia in 2013. Perhaps it was Jim’s relaxed disposition and gregarious personality that sparked an easy friendship; maybe it was the social lubricant of arriving in The Kingdom at the same time and the natural connections that are formed when novel situations push people together in fast ways. But, ultimately, I will tip a nod to the fact that Jim is a fellow Long Islander. Arriving in the Middle East and quickly meeting someone from your home turf is a great start to an overseas stint. Not only do Jim and I share formative roots that have shaped a strong affinity for good pizza and 80s hip hop, but Jim also hails from Stoney Brook. A place where I spent my childhood summers digging up clams and learning how to fish. My family and I would pile into the Oldsmobile and drive up to the north shore to spend the day at my relatives’ beach bungalow, and twelve sunburned and salt stained hours later I would be struggling to keep my eyes open to the passing ticks of overhead lights along the Long Island Expressway, my dad commandeering the concrete vein gushing through dense suburban tissue.
Shortly after we arrived in Saudi, Jim and his wife Dania approached me for a family photo session. That was three years ago and, at the time, I hadn’t really done a family portrait session. Working with Jim and Dania and their two girls was a pivotal step to where I am today. Since then, Jim and I have talked about a golf photo shoot. Jim is an avid golfer and I have had the pleasure of playing with him at our local Safaa Golf Course. He has a strong love for the game and can absolutely crush a ball off the tee. I love playing with Jim. In addition to being a great guy to golf with, I learn something every time I step onto the course with Jim. He has a very laid back and natural way of offering advice and tips that blend their way into our small talk and banter.
At the start of this creative process, I knew that I wanted to do more than just take pictures of Jim on the golf course. Jim is passionate about golf. He golfs all the time. He is a golfer in every sense of the word. But, I wanted something more than Jim on the course. I wanted something that would capture Jim in a unique and interesting way, and something that he could look back in 10, 15, 20 years and remember his time in Saudi Arabia and his connection with the sport that he loves. When Jim is on the course he is in his comfort zone and I also wanted to challenge that concept and put him in a new and novel situation, but still capture his passion. The result is this series called Desert Golf. Jim and I spent two afternoons driving out to the desert and exploding golf balls that I built out of plastic ornament balls and holi powder. As always, Jim brought his love for the game and easy going vibe to the shoot. He was awesome to work with and not afraid to offer some input during the creative process. I also couldn't have done this without the help of Brad Traynor who joined to help with lighting and some behind the scenes shots that I've included below.
Do you have something that you are passionate about? A hobby, interest, or sport that you love? Let’s capture it in a unique and interesting way - contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s get the creative process started.