10 Travel Photos to Lead the Way

2005 — I was a total photographer neophyte nerd, hardly a clue about anything. Picture me complete with a photo vest and hauling every scrap of photo gear I owned on a vacation to Mexico. Digital camera, film camera, tripod, strobe, long lens, wide lens, primes, laptop, pregnant wife, etc. Thinking back to those days and I can’t help but bring a palm to my face and sigh with embarrassment. This photo is more accident than any intentional skill laid to bare. Thousands of snapshots lay as dormant digital bits on the hard drive or as nearly forgotten negatives.

2007 — Traveling to the Philippines prompted the introduction of a photography mentor through my college professor. I was seeking advice on how to be sensitive to cultural issues while in country. The Philippines is awkward for me to talk about because it was a Christian mission trip. A few years later and I “deconverted” to something more like agnostic with atheist and Buddhist leanings. See? Awkward.

I learned the very real implications of income disparity on this trip, seeing so much poverty in one place. Upon returning home, I found myself in a mild depression for a few months trying to figure out why we Americans had so much, with so many trivial concerns, and others had only a fraction — if that.

There was a moment on this trip, almost like God himself reached down and touched me — we were in a little truck-van, crammed in the back traveling from Manila to Bata-an and it was hot, uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. It was as if a divine voice was telling me this is what I was meant to be doing. I tried my best as the trip documentarian, but my skills were still very green. Light, composition, and exposure were easy to figure out. It is the story that has always been my weak link. Nevertheless, I learned that I could be very happy as a full time photographer.

2008 — A year after my travel to the Philippines and I was hiking to a location dreamt about since grade school. With Hiram Bingham’s iconic image in mind, I departed the trekking group early so I could capture the first rays of sun lighting the Citadel. Making this photo required sprinting down a stone path for a mile and seeking out just the right terrace absent of people. Standing on that golden footstool of so many photographers before me, I had created THE photo of the trip. Practically the reason for being there.

Photography was filling a larger role in my life. I was enrolled in a photojournalism course and, like every photojournalist, dreamt of someday having my work appear in National Geographic, the ultimate validation of a “good” photo. Still, something was blocking me. People talked about “feeling” an image, or creating a story with images — abstract ideas that my overly rational brain could not compute. I struggled between believing that maybe there was something there, poorly communicated — or worse, it was shared gibberish.

2009 — Another year goes by with more lessons learned in my photography journey. Finally realizing that great camera equipment wasn’t making me any better, I returned to the fundamentals and shot almost exclusively on film for about a year. With only a Leica M6, two primes, and 30 rolls of film, I flew to Vietnam to stay with my friend Kevin German for 10 days.

Being in Vietnam allowed me to work along side a professional photojournalist and learn. This trip also taught me how similar we are around the globe from the translated concerns and goings-on around us in the country. Families desired the best for their children, local politics dominated evening discussions, and kids played with whatever was available. Vietnam was my last international trip for some time. I intentionally chose to focus on more local projects where I could gain depth of understanding.

My photography was improving through the use of film. Less “run and gun” and more thoughtful compositions. During this trip, we spent a few days in the Mekong Delta at a salt harvesting farm. For a solid day, I photographed the activities of the farmers, from flooding the paddies to scraping and hauling the salt for storage. Glimpses of the photo story started to come to me. Of course, this was an easy sequential narrative — they did this, then this, then this, etc. Almost accidentally I made portraits, contextual wide-angle, and medium photos. I didn’t know any of this outcome until after I returned home and spent a day in the darkroom developing roll after roll.

2009 — After my travels in Vietnam, I was determined to find more local stories where I could practice my craft of visual storytelling. The torch relay for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics started in Victoria, a short ferry ride from my then-home of Port Angeles. Also scheduled was a protest of the relay and the Olympics in general. The overriding argument for the protest being the extreme cost of hosting the Olympics vs. the expense of public welfare.

This would be my last travel destination for quite some time. Partly depressed and disillusioned by the near-collapse of photojournalism, the housing crisis, and later significant life and family events, I chose to pursue other interests such as mountaineering for a time. My archives show a dwindling number of frames each year from here out. 4,144 in 2009 (plus several rolls of film) down to 649 in 2014. It wouldn’t be until mid-2015 when I would almost hesitantly pick up the camera again, most of my gear sold off or in storage.

2015 — After a divorce and facing the likely prospect of having to move out of my house, I bought a “real” digital camera again. Big life events can have this self-reflective effect — what is important to me, who am I? Remembering the joy I experienced with a camera in hand, I tried to rekindle that passion. Just as the flames were starting to light, I moved to a new town, started a new career, and began a years-long journey trying to figure out who this new person was or was going to be. Inconsistently I made photos — recognizing my own talent, lamenting not doing it full time as a professional, and absent a visual storytelling project. In short, lacking an answer to “why am I doing this?”

2018 — Being half Norwegian, it seemed only reasonable to visit the land of my forefathers. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, where the mountains meet the sea, Norway felt very similar in many ways. Sea level to ski level in a few short miles. I loved Norway, it was clean, beautiful, and full of people who believe in the healing power of being in nature.

Photographically, I was struggling. Pulled by this enormous desire to do more, yet unsure where to direct my energies. Once again, my heart was trying to figure out how I might turn picture making a full-time venture. My head was full of hard questions and existential crises. For months I languished in this soup of uncertainty. On a whim, I grabbed my Nikon with a new 50mm lens and walked down to the Northwest Maritime Center to see about making some photos and clearing my head.

2018 — A two-week, 4,500 mile road trip around the American West. No destination, very few plans. Disconnected from the internet, almost completely and socially isolated. For the first time in my life every waking moment, nearly every breath of energy, was put into a photo project that had an uncertain terminus but begged me to follow its path. Plus, I needed the escape.

A few months prior I had nearly quit my job, ready to give it all up and pursue photography as a career. Directionless, uncertain. My lifestyle no longer reflected who I was or where I wanted to be. Still, there is power in doing your own art for your own joy without expectation of financial incentive or reward.

Exhausted by the endless “pretty” photos scrolling through Instagram, the shallow snapshots, and god-help-me-if-I-see-one-more-selfie, I knew this photo project had to be the opposite of all that. More so, this project became a kind of art therapy. Isolation allowed me to explore my own feelings without consequence or explanation. Finally, the realization of this work would be completely and wholly my own. Freed from external expectations, I made the photos in my own way with my own voice. I didn’t care if anybody liked the work. These weren’t for them, they were for me. “Lost & Forgotten” is my own memento mori, becoming comfortable that someday I’ll no longer be alive and being very intentional about how that precious time left should be spent.

2018 — Hot on the heels of my road trip, work sent me to Belgium. A decades-long goal is complete: international consulting work. I was in awe of Belgium, enchanted by cobble stone streets, cafés, great food, amazing beer, and gothic architecture. It felt like I parachuted into a fantasy land. Extra bonus points for having someone else pay for it.

Photographically, I knew more than ever — deep in my bones — that I would never be a “travel photographer.” Despite being in a charming little town, with beautiful weather and beautiful people — I could hardly muster an ounce of motivation to photograph any of it. More out of habit did I carry around a camera than any real desire or idea of what I might photograph. “Lost and Forgotten” was still fresh on my mind, sorting through the outcome and implications. That fateful day back in July at the Maritime Center had sparked an idea to pursue a project on the Maritime Trades in Port Townsend. What I wanted — needed — was to dig into a long term project. To commit myself to a project wholly and fully for an extended period of time. With that energy and time I was determined to learn the context, build the relationships, and slowly create a beautiful body of work on this subject.

2019 — After the dust settled from my road trip, I set an intention in December of 2018: 2019 would be the year of trail running and photography. Recognizing the old lifestyle no longer worked, I carved out anything that didn’t fit. There are things, important things, that I’d like to do before passing this mortal coil — and they’ve yet to be done. Having contemplated this precious gift of time, I was ready to get to work.

A passage by Robert Adams in “Beauty in Photography” struck me like a 2x4, “If however he finds that no one makes pictures like those he carries in his imagination, then he has to try and devise them. New pictures are the only way to not exile himself. Should he fail, he is condemned to live by others’ views, ones that must always seem inaccurate.”

I can’t NOT photograph this subject. After spending days if not weeks researching and asking around a decidedly maritime community, I discovered that beautiful photos of shipwrights and the maritimes trades in general are almost impossible to find. Trade magazines seem to be satisfied with poorly lit iPhone photos — more concerned with the pedigree of the lumber a boat is built with than the decades of skill that went into shaping the wood. Where others might see blue collar workers plodding along straining muscle against board-feet, I see magicians harnessing centuries if not a millennia of knowledge in the creation of sea worthy vessels for commerce and play. Men and women bringing to life and sustaining the dreams and jobs of the vessels’ owners.

Perhaps its my own particular neurosis but I’ve always been drawn to the fringes, the places where other people aren’t, the overlooked, the forgotten and the abandoned. Truly, the trades are well loved in this little town, please don’t misunderstand. Despite the adoration and respect, even here in Port Townsend, my experience shows that nothing is invulnerable to change beyond recognition or disappearing altogether. To loosely quote my friend Betty Udesen, I feel a bit like I’m photographing an endangered species.

My project has been discovered. There are so many possibilities, it’s overwhelming. While I’m not sure where this trail goes, the next several steps have been clear for months and on the horizon I see mountains of possibility.

Writing on things philosophy, photography, running, and life. See my photos at https://beyondthenegative.com and beyondnegative on Instagram

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