Behind The Image: Stories From A Travel Photographer

Images are a very personal thing to me. Even though I enjoy sharing them with people and seeing people’s joy when they connect with a picture, in my soul my photographs are deeply personal. They freeze moments of life, capture for me something fleeting and momentary so that I can hold on to it. When I look back at certain images I can feel how I felt then, smell the smells, hear the sounds. My hope with my photographs is that people might feel something too. That they might have that twinge of a spark in their heart that I feel body and soul. But ultimately whether people like or “like” an image is of little consequence to me. My relationship with that photograph runs deep and true, and I will forever enjoy transporting myself back to times I felt pure joy.

In that spirit I thought today’s blog post could be about the stories behind some of my favorite photographs from our years of travel. These moments live in real time inside my mind and heart, like I have not left them. Looking at these images brings me so much joy, I hope it does the same for you.














The first image is really a pair of images. This is Kolena and I with a woman we met named Judith. Judith lived in a small village in Western Kenya and was HIV positive. She was being cared for by a group of local women called “The Amazing Group.” They are a grassroots organization that take it upon themselves to care for those who can’t care for themselves in their community. The group really inspired us and changed the course of our life, as did Judith. Though she could barely walk at that time, she took the time to greet us and make us feel at home. I will never forget the hope that existed there, the genuine belief that through coming together and caring for one another that the world can actually change. That is a powerful message that I think is lost in so many parts of the world.

The next image comes from one of our first trips abroad together, to Thailand so many years ago. I think back fondly on that trip, but also critically and realize how many mistakes we were making then in regards to how we traveled. We participated in horrible industries, injected money into the economy in a very negative way, and had little understanding of how our choices affected local people. At the same time, I remember feeling drawn to people and places not just for the experience, but for the knowledge. We walked through small towns and talked to people, sought out the less traveled areas, and the seed was really growing for our travel life at that time. Though we have grown so much in the years since this trip, it only serves to make me realize how much more we have to learn.

Looking at this image you can see it is not the most aesthetically pleasing or dramatic or profound photograph ever taken. But to me, this image represents the start of a love affair that continues to this day, and will continue for life. This was our first time laying eyes on the Himalayan village of Sibuje during our first trip to Nepal. As we crested the ridge and looked out over the massive valley, this tiny little village sat perched on this outcropping, almost suspended in the expanse below it. At that moment I could have never known the direction this experience would take us and the path that lie before us. We have been back to Nepal many times since then and each time I find something new that draws me in. Among the monolithic mountains and breathtaking vistas, Sibuje’s beauty, to me, rivals them all.

Two things contribute to this being one of my favorite images I have ever captured. The first is the expressions on the faces of each person shown. In the foreground, Ganga, our host in Jogatar Village in Nepal. She seems to be enjoying herself, but what you don’t know is that the smile comes not from profound enjoyment of manual labor, but from the technique employed by Kolena, next to her, in planting the onions. Apparently there is a right and wrong way to plant onions, and we both were doing it so so wrong. You can see from the deep concentration on Kolena’s face that she is giving it her best effort, and she ended up doing an amazing job. The second thing that draws me to this image is the idea that no matter where we come from we all want the same thing. We want happiness, health, love, and connection. We don’t speak Nepali (very well) and Ganga speaks little English, but we spent days and days with her and her family. This was some of the most profoundly joyous time I have ever had traveling and give me hope for the future. That if we can find a way to plant a field of onions together, surely we as humanity can find a way to meet each other over our differences.

I can remember as a youth seeing, for the first time, the granite spires of the Patagonia region of Southern Chile and being unable to comprehend somewhere so beautiful can exist. This very image, this scene has played out in my mind for years, always a daydream and never a reality. Then finally, like the realization of some long sought goal, I stood there in the dark unable to comprehend somewhere so beautiful can exist. No sound. No wind. Just the glory of nature and the speck that is me. Kolena says that I might have lost myself there if I let myself, just stayed forever there and died a happy man. When I look at this image the overwhelming feeling is gratitude and awe. Gratitude for the privilege of seeing my dreams come to life. Awe for, well, I mean look at that! Being able to share that with Kolena remains one of my most cherished experience I have ever had.

I can’t help but laugh when I see this image. Not for anything that you can see here, but for the contrast of this beautiful artwork and the sad, sloppy, poorly made version that Kolena and I tried to do (not pictured of course.) When we visited this Mapuche community outside Santiago, Chile we didn’t yet understand the depth of our inability to use our hands to make art. This photograph reminds me that throughout the world, in indigenous and native communities, there are immensely skilled and immensely underappreciated artists who have passed down these skills over generation. It gives me a sense of responsibility to help empower these people, these traditions, to have a voice in general but also within travel and tourism. The gifts that communities like this give our world deserve recognition and a place at the table, and that is what we want to help make happen.

How small we are as human beings. How insignificant and fleeting our presence on this Earth actually is. It’s an amazing feeling to actually experience your own size against the power and glory of the Himalayan mountains. I have found boundless learning and perspective putting myself in the presence of these mountains over the years, something that has been invaluable in helping me keep perspective on life and my own ability to make change. I hope that I always remember how small I am, how important it is to surround myself with people who amplify my skills and talents that together we might create a ripple of change. I hope that I always remember that change will not come through me alone, but through my willingness to listen, learn, and lift up those around me.

Cold. This is how I feel when I look at this image. When I breath in I can taste the ice that hung in the air and pierced my lungs as we huddled together in our tent. Being able to actually watch your breath rise and turn to frozen water on the inside of your tent is quite the experience. But, even in that I feel a pure joy that comes from being in a place so far and deep and wild. I look at the frozen waterfall in the back of this image, the full moonlight shining bright of its surface, and I am reminded of the true power of nature and the need to protect wild places. How empty would our existence as human beings if places like this didn’t exist? Though no sleep was had, I would trade my cozy bed for this place any day.

It is hard for me to definitively say what images are my “favorite” or which ones are my “best.” You can talk about light and dark and white balance, exposure, and aperture. But to me, the conversation begins and ends with emotion. Does an image capture a feeling? Does it capture the essence of a place or a person? What does it say? According to that criteria, this image might be my favorite and best I have ever captured. In this small Nepali village of Chandani live such loving and open people I wonder if it exists at all, if I might have dreamt it. This image came to life by chance and whim. I was on the roof of a small house taking pictures of the sunset when these two little girls ran up behind me. “Take ours! Take ours” they said. How could I resist those faces. As they jockeyed for position and laughed at each other a moment happened, a frozen second in time that can never be repeated. In these faces lives the quintessence of the world to me, the very idea of love and joy and warmth. The world can be a scary place, but whenever I am feeling particularly pessimistic or hopeless I look into the eyes of these two little children and see the hope of the future, and it makes me happy.

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