Narrow Alleyways, Wide Angle Lenses

October 5, 2006

Doujiao Hutong SignMr. Shi waved for me to come, and I followed him through the heavy wooden doors through a series of haphazardly arranged passageways. We were in a compound that was home to a dozen families. There were low old buildings with new air conditioners perched awkwardly on top of the tile roofs. There were shelves filled with neatly stacked coal, and piles of not so neatly organized building materials that appeared to have been forgotten. There were hanging plants, bicycles and laundry drying.

Then we turned a corner and, suddenly, there was an enormous ornate archway with hundreds of intricate carvings. I lay on the dirty stone floor trying to capture the entire arch, oblivious to the dirt collecting on my jeans and shirt. I called out to Soyan asking her to bring my tripod so I could try and capture the arch in in a series of shots. Mr Shi, pointed at my lens with a sad expression, observing once again that it was a shame I didn’t have a wider lens. That was a disappointment to be sure, but I was having way too much fun to care.

As we walked back to the street Mr. Shi smiled and pointed to the stark warning on the front door, “Private home, keep out!” I smiled too. I am a laowai, a foreigner, and we were in smack in the middle of the squat ramshackle houses of Beijing’s hutongs. But I had the ultimate backstage pass - I was accompanied by Mr Shi, a Beijing photographer who grew up in a hutong and has spent years photographing them. He knew every street, door and drum stone. Mr. Shi loves the hutongs, and he was delighted, that I loved them too.

A drum stone and doorThe drum stones are a tourism draw today, but as recently as 20 years ago they were all but ignored, and a foreign buyer exported many of them before anyone thought to stop him. The long ignored ornate carvings are often, but not always, round and shaped a little bit like drums, thus the name. They are the outside portion the heavy stone bases used to support the large wooden doors to the many compounds that comprise the hutongs. The hutongs are the quickly vanishing neighborhoods of narrow alleys running only east/west so the entry gates of all the homes face south. This insures both lots of sunshine and compliance with feng shui, protecting the homes from the northern negative forces. Even smaller alleys run north/south connecting the main streets. This design was first implemented after Genghis Kahn reduced the city to rubble. Now their biggest threat is the impending Olympic modernization.

It was a lucky series of events that brought me here. I was at the Panjiayuan market on Saturday when I stumbled across Da Kang Photography Studio, a retail shop selling spectacular black and white photos of Beijing and China. I looked around the shop and I was immediately drawn to a framed photo of a small boy crouching over a large bowl, sucking up a long braid of noodles. I picked it up and motioned to the woman working there.

“This is a fantastic photo,” I said. Yan Bei smiled and said, “You’ve picked my favorite, that’s the one I put on the cards”. She handed me a small pamphlet for the shop bearing a copy of the photo I had seen, as well as information on the shop and the photographer’s resume. I looked at several more photos and I thought they were very good. I asked Yan Bei who the photographer was and she replied, “He’s my husband.”

The resume hanging on the wall revealed that “the husband”, Kang Xue Song, had been the executive police photographic journalist and had worked for the Beijing Morning Post. I decided I’d try to arrange to spend a couple hours with him in the hutongs. It turned out, he was heading to Tibet for two weeks, so after a flurry of Yan Bei arranged for a friend of his to come with me, and agreed to be my translator. We set a time to meet on Monday near the hutongs.

I was pretty excited, because I hadn’t yet seen the hutongs and having somebody who could teach me about photography and knew the hutongs was an ideal combination. On the other hand, I had really only met Yan Bei for 10 minutes and it was not her husband that would be meeting us, but “a very talented friend.” I was at least pretty confident that they would show up, but I was, by no means, certain.

Mr. Shi and gearI arrived at 7:30 am, a half hour early, and called Yan Bei’s cell phone and she assured me that she was on her way, and twenty minutes later she appeared with Mr. Shi right on time. He was wearing boots, army pants and a photographer’s vest over his shirt, but sported no equipment or camera. After a moment of disappointment, I was relieved to discover that not only did Mr. Shi have a camera, he had an over-sized tricycle with a passenger’s seat that was also a locking equipment cabinet and, a large wire mesh basket carrying a heavy duty tripod that looked like it had seen regular action for 20+ years.

Old woman in front of her home in the HutongMr. Shi seemed to be as purpose built as his bike. He was spritely and energetic, graceful and powerful. Even with my complete lack of understanding of Chinese, it was quickly clear that he was a charming and gregarious. As we began to wend our way through the narrow streets of the hutong, he seemed to know many of the local residents and to put almost all those that he met at ease. We strided through doors marked, “Keep Out” as if they said “Welcome”. Mr. Shi alternately persuaded the locals to let me photograph them and distracted them, long enough for me to shoot a few frames. He whisked us from spectacular doorway to doorway, proudly announcing, “these are the nicest drum stones”, or “do you know the Chinese actor who lives here?”. But he was not a tour guide, he was a photographer.

He produced a portable light to illuminate dark corners, and he critiqued my shots offering insight on the composition. “Yes, the carving is very pretty, but you can’t tell what it is, try shooting from an angle to show the the stone, the hinge and the door.” When I returned with my new shot, he reviewed it and either told me to try once more or beamed like a proud teacher. Sometimes he’d offer a thumbs up and a cheerful smile that said, “that a boy”. Of course, my favorite response was when the smile was followed by his leaping into action with his own lens raised to capture the shot himself.

Just as I had been struck by the intense physicality of cooking during our the cooking class Soyan and I took here in Beijing, she was struck by the physicality of photography. There was equipment to carry and move, and I was constantly climbing, crouching, and stretching or just sprawled out across the ground trying to get the right angle. Mr. Shi was constantly manipulating the environment to get the shot he wanted, moving trash and bikes, opening and closing doors and pulling back errant branches.

Hot Pot Lunch
Five hours after I started shooting and 903 photos later, the four of us finally stopped for an enormous hot pot of lamb and vegetables accompanied by several enormous beers. It was then that I thought I understood a local saying rooted in the knowledge of the strict geographic organization of the hutongs.

“Wo gaoxing de wo bu zhi bei le.” I was so happy I didn’t know which way was north. Indeed, my joy was so complete as to be disorienting.

See a selection of my Hutong Photos. You can also browse Yan Bei’s husband’s photos.

Funny Signs

March 20, 2006

I am fancy myself something of an intellect. I like to think I am a mature and thoughtful individual, above lowly bathroom humor, but for the second time in a week I guess I am proving that not to be the case. For some reason, I am just compelled to take pictures of establishments featuring body parts in their names. Let he who is with out sin cast the first stone…

Mr. Cock in Bariloche, Argentina
Mr. Cock in Bariloche, Argentina

Helados (Ice Cream) TIT in Calafate, Argentina
Helados (Ice Cream) TIT in Calafate, Argentina

Labia movie theater in Capetown, South Africa
Labia movie theater in Capetown, South Africa

Watch this space…

January 30, 2006

Lions MatingI have been so consumed with trying to catch up on photos I am way behind in writing… Coming soon is a write up on Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, Safari, and the Train to Zambia. In the mean time I am off to Bovu Island (an island 30 km outside of Livingston in the Zambezi) for a few days, but here are a few safari photos as a teaser in the meantime.

Tanzania Safari Photos

Dar Es Salaam to Zambia by Train

January 25, 2006

A boy in the Mpika train station We took the train from Dar (Tanzania) to Kapiri Mposi (Zambia). It was supposed to be a 41 hour trip, but actually arrived 47 hours and 45 minutes late! 4 days is a long time to be on a train! I am in the process of writing up a detailed account, but in the mean time here is a link to the only high point of sitting in a train station all day:

Photos of Zambian kids in the Kasama and Mpika train stations.

Krishna and Budda and Santa, oh my!

January 18, 2006

Moshi was our jumping off point for our Kilimanjaro trip. This meant we spent Christmas in Moshi. So how does a part time Jew and nominal Buddhist spend Christmas in Tanzania?

After a dinner with a handful of other would be Kilimanjaro climbers, we all took a walk to see what was happening in town. Moshi boasts a Catholic diocese, an Islamic mosque and a Hindu temple all with in a few blocks of each other. We made the obvious choice and picked the biggest party, and that was the Hindu temple.

Madhu, an Indian in our group, approached the temple to see if it would be alright if we took a look around. After waiting for a steady stream of cars to exit the gate, we were welcomed into the compound and sent to find the temple entrance.

We clustered by the door and large open windows peering into the temple, afraid to take off our shoes and enter, as if it might some how commit us to a conversion. It was an unusual sight with open fires of enormous logs in the center of the floor, huge display of offerings, ornate sculptures of Hindu gods and people in traditional Indian dress moving purposely to and fro.

Woman praying
Once we worked up our nerve to leave our shoes we were almost immediately greeted by a temple official who offered to show us around and explained that it was the 50th anniversary, the golden jubilee, of the temple. He was very gracious and made us feel comfortable quickly.

Despite our protests that we had just come from dinner, he begged us to have something to eat. When he finally gave up his mission to feed us dinner, he urged us to return for lunch the next day.

Thousands of miles from home, on my first trip to a Hindu temple, nearly a dozen of us tumbled through the door at 10 PM in grubby backpacker clothes during the biggest event in the history of the temple. Not only were we welcomed, but people dropped everything to explain the Hindu religion and show us around. It is hard to imagine the same reception during midnight mass at any Church or during the high holidays at any Synagogue. I am sure that nobody has gone to such effort to make me feel welcome in any place of worship, ever.

After our tour, he had some official business to attend to, so he left us to wander on our own. Before he left I inquired if it would be all right to take some photographs. He said that the Hindu religion had no problem with photos and we were free to photograph anything we liked. I was thrilled, since the setting was fantastic and I was anxious to capture it. I refrained from using my flash, because it felt disruptive, even though there was not much light.

Minal Patel It was warm and generous beyond all reasonable expectations and I felt very lucky to be so included, but it was getting late. So, after an hour of wandering among the hundreds of people speaking a mix of Gujarati, Swahili and English we decided to call it a night, but I resolved to come back the next day for some lunch and take advantage of better light.

The next day a small group of us headed back to the temple and found that last night welcome had been no exception, but the rule. Many people welcomed us and those that recognized us from the night before were thrilled that we had returned.

We met a charming woman, Minal Patel, and her younger brother. Their grandfather had founded the temple and and they had come from London for the celebration. They were wonderful guides (and models). There are several photos of them in the set of photos linked below. These are the wonderful sorts of people and events that travel lets one happen upon and I feel terribly lucky to have happened upon at just the right time.

Krishna must be looking out for me.

You can see all the Moshi Hindu Temple Golden Jubilee Photos here. I’d love any constructive criticism to the photos.

Flickr lights my fire.

December 20, 2005


I W+ant



I love flickr! It is a great service. I use it to upload and archive my photos on my trip around the world. I use it to share them with my friends. I use it to learn about photography. I have have sponsored other users.

The problem is that 2 gigs a month is not enough for me. It is not enough for three reasons: I take lots of photos. I take high resolution photos. Some months I can´t get a good connection and the photos back up so I have to upload them the next month.

I wrote to flickr and explained my problem and asked to pay more. A very helpful flickr rep told me that I could not buy more upload capacity, but he reset my account for me so I could upload more that month. It was very much appreciated. The problem is that this was a one time deal.

I have purchased a second flickr account in the mean time, but this is really inconvenient. Now I have to remember in which account I put a particular photo. I have to tell friends to look in two places. People who discover me through flickr will only find half of my photos. etc. etc. etc.

I understand that people who use the full monthly allocation of bandwidth are the exception. They cost more than the average user. If they want double the bandwidth they should pay more than double. That is fair! I am hereby offering to pay flickr $75/year (triple the normal price) for double the upload capacity. Or even better I´ll pay $100 (quadruple the price) for triple the normal upload capacity.

Hopefully Jeremy Zawodny will see this and somebody at flickr will take notice (and my money).

All photos used in the rebus above are flickr photos licensed under the creative commons license.

Thank you to: for the dear photo. for the eye photo. for the letter W photo. for the plus sign photo (times two) and the letter W photo. for the ant photo. for the two photo. for the pay photo. for the letter M photo. for the oar photo. for the money photo.

That’s the Money Shot!

November 20, 2005

The money shot.Andy Teman and I had a small dispute over ten dollars. Suffice it to say we each thought we were the rightful owner. Displaying my understanding of Solomonic justice, I tore the bill in two. I agreed to bring my half on a trip around the world and send photos back to Andy. Then, after the trip, if he met me in Las Vegas with his piece, I promised to give him $20.00 for his piece of the bill.

I guess this is my version of the kidnapped garden gnomes seen in Travelocity ads and the film Amelie.

See all my money shots!

It will continue to be updated, so check back often.

Brazil’s Bikini Girls

May 25, 2005

Flickr? More like a roaring bonfire of hot, sexy photo love!

I have started playing with Flickr to store my photos. My challenge is that I plan to produce a lot of photos on my trip around the world. I estimate 200-400 photos per week. A 7 mega pixel jpeg is about 3 megs, so I expect to be producing 2 to 4 gigs a month of new photos. I’d like to store these somewhere other than with me on the road. This way I won’t lose them if I lose a bag. Additionally, I’d like to share at least some of them online with people as I travel.

I had originally planned to host the photos myself on my website, but ultimately I am not likely to do this because…

Hosting them myself is work.
I’d have to pick a software package to use. It would probably be an open source package called gallery, but I’d need to research it some more to be sure. Using an open source package would give me maximum flexibility and control. But, whatever I picked, I’d need to install, manage and customize it. That would take time and effort.

Hosted disk space is expensive.
My web hosting company, Dream Host offers great deals for hosting (use promo code 777 and pay $9.24 for the entire year, not per month, but for the entire year of hosting). However, it is quite expensive if I want to add 40 gigs of additional storage (to the 2.5 gigs I have) for high res photos.

Not hosting the photos makes back up hard and means additional work.
If I don’t upload all of my high res versions to the web then I have to burn them to CD / DVD and mail them back from my year long trip around the world. I may do this anyway as backups between uploads when I am in remote places with little or no Internet access, but having to do so all the time is a burden, it also doesn’t facilitate sharing them.

Since I am still comfortable ensconced in my home office with a cable modem and a large supply of unhosted photos from previous trips, I thought I’d give Flickr a try. I have a little time before I head out on my trip around the world in September, so if it doesn’t work out it is not too late to change.

I decided to try Flickr after being caught in the Yahoo buys Flickr media storm. My interest in Flickr was in large part based on the fact that I have a lot of respect for Jeremy Zawodny and he seems to think about many of the same issues of data storage that I have been thinking about. He is also coming to many of the same conclusions.

As I began uploading my photos to Flickr I found that it was a pretty powerful application and that there was an active community there. It was still not quite as quick as managing my photos form the desktop, but it was pretty good and it offers nice features for tagging, sharing and searching. If anybody from Flickr is reading this I have a pro account and I’d really like to pay double to be able to upload twice as much.

I got a nice note about some of my Brazil photos from Lorenzo and a few people marked some photos of kids or street scenes as among their favorites. This was nice and made me feel good about my photos, but as I uploaded more photos and played with Flickr it seemed that pretty girls in bathing suits (or less) got all the attention.

As an experiment I grabbed a handful of photos form the streets and beaches of Rio De Janeiro and cropped out some women in bikinis. I added some descriptive tags and POOF. Within 15 minutes of uploading the photos in my Brazil’s Bikini Girls set each of the photos had more views than any of my other photos that had been uploaded for days. Now that the swimsuit clad ladies of Copacabana and Ipanema have been up for 24 hours they have more views than my other 600+ photos combined. In fact the only photo that can even compete a little bit with girls in bikinis is Kentucky Fried Santa

I must confess this post itself is a little experiment to see if it too will increase the exposure (no pun intended) of my site in the same way that my flickr photo set has.

For all my friends and colleagues and those of you not looking for sexy Latin ladies, here are some other photos from Brazil: