Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Honey toast & Iced coffee

Since returning from the Dominican Republic, I've been thinking about the tropics and the trips I took to SE Asia and an iced coffee is like Proust's madeleine–it invariably makes me think of Cambodia. Drifting back over the better part of 12 years into the wet, heavy heat and the pungent, indecipherable smells and the sad, brown, beautiful faces.
The morning was the only time of the day that was comfortable. My moto driver, Koy, would pick me up before first light and we would sail through the cool morning air towards Angkor. The routine was always the same–honey toast and iced coffee in the massive grove of trees that face the main entrance to Angkor Wat. Most days we would drive on again to another temple further away–Banteay Srei or the Bayon or any of the dozens of other temples hidden in the jungle–but always toast and coffee in the growing light and heat in front of Angkor Wat. Once or twice I would let Koy sit on with his moto friends and walk off, alone, in the rising light over the causeway into Angkor Wat, the air alive and dancing with a million dragon flies. Perhaps pausing in the arcades of the second or third level as a massive thunder storm dropped all the heat and humidity and rain which the air could no longer hold. And then climbing again, through the concentric levels of the temple, ascending faster and steeper into the soaring central sanctuary and finally looking out over the thick, green landscape and the strange, dense, white noise of cicadas and birds rising up out of thin, evaporating mists.

But after days and days of temples, I told Koy I wanted to go out into the countryside, to see the people–to see the real Cambodia. He leaped at the idea, said it was what he had always desired to do but that his clients only wanted the temples. Thus began one of the great turning points in my photography–shooting people. We would see the most amazing and beautiful people: a shirtless grandfather holding the tiny hand of his grandchild, young boys fishing with curving, sculptured traps, women with huge bundles of kindling on their heads, walking down the road in peaceful resignation. And for the first time I had the nerve and courage to stop people, to proactively make the picture. Up to that point, my photography, much like my personality, was invisible–like a fly on the wall. Taking a picture was simply the choosing of a moment or a view of which I couldn't interfere–to some degree wasn't even present for. But out in the endless, exposed, flat expanses of rice paddies and floodplain surrounding Angkor, I began to fall in love with photographing people. Just a twin-lens Rolleiflex, a pocket full of Tri-X and the courage to stop a stranger, move them, arrange them–to create an image rather than just taking a snap.


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