Its been a great week for work this week as I’ve had two big travel stories on the Big Island and Maui run in the New York Times and the Associated Press released my writing and pictures on a trip to Kalaupapa on Molokai.
But if anyone takes likes as a measure of fulfillment, the shot of the surfer flying off his board at Jaws on Maui got over 16,000 likes on the @nytimestravel instagram page. Impressive!
But more impressive for myself is my new career of writing. In college I wanted to be a writer and took a few classes but didn’t take myself seriously to follow through with any of it. I doodled in diaries and mailed long love letters during my travels in Latin America and Asia. But its only been in the last few years that I’ve gotten acknowledged as a writer and published. Taking pictures has become second nature for me but writing is still the great frontier.
As I made my way down towards the R train at Union Square to catch the subway, I heard the sounds of an accordion playing norteño music, or Mexican polka music, coming from deep inside the station. The melodies quickly transported me back to my hometown of San Antonio filling me with memories of long ago. Over the years I lived in New York, I’ve never heard Mexican music played in a subway station before so I rushed down the platform to find the musician playing these familiar sounds.
People have always entertained the crowds in the NYC subway as it doesn’t take much to set up in an open nook and play for the thousands passing through any station daily. From opera singers to blues guitarists, to a homeless guy banging on discarded trash bins, people have entertained in hopes of being discovered, or just to make a few bucks in tips. In the past, many ethnic groups have also played their music as well. And as Mexican immigrants are the fastest growing Hispanic population in the area, it doesn’t surprise me to hear norteño music now played in the stations.
The musical notes led to me to a middle-aged Hispanic male wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans jacket. He expertly played his Horner accordion and his melodies sang of a town far away, a family separated, a lover no longer waiting. His fingers walked up and down the keyboard and his arms pulled and squeezed air through the bellows. He played the song of immigrants…of people who left for something better and of sacrifice and sadness in the new land. His tunes reminded me we are all immigrants as we have all left something behind in search of something else. I left Texas for New York and then for Hawaii, leaving many people in the past and the memories from there.
I listened to him play for a few seconds but the train arrived suddenly. So I quickly pulled out my camera and snapped off a few frames not realizing my outdoor setting on the camera couldn’t handle the darkness on the platform. Just as the doors were closing, I dropped a few dollars into his tip jar and rode off towards Times Square.
The pictures ended up being “the last on the roll” as I was returning to Hawaii the next day. As I sat on the train, I looked at the digital display on the back of my camera and lamented the wrong settings. The image was blurry but it conveyed, like his music, the melody in the subway. Underneath his hat, I saw a man, not unlike many of the people I grew up around in Texas. He was a neighbor, a stranger I saw at the Lake, or the man playing in the mariachi band at Market Square. He was familiar to me but could not find his face in Hawaii. I can still hear his melody in my head and it tells me he was not playing his music just to make a few bucks, but to remind us of who we are.
Over the years, Molokai has proven to be a difficult island for me to travel and document. I’ve had a few negative experiences including an angry haole transplants demanding I leave his island, to really bad weather, (and I mean really bad weather) to a near fatal ride on the back mule that nearly tumbled down the side of a mountain. Molokai has been challenging to say the least in my photo history. However, the charming island always embraces me and I always capture something fantastic, even though I still fear a confrontation from an angry non-natives.
I took an overnight trip to Molokai trip for The New York Times this past December to capture the island’s small time charm and natural wonders. The focus of writer Lynn Zinser’s story was a character named Waipa Purdy, whom I found almost instantly inside of Kanemitsu’s Bakery, a coffee shop with a Cheers-esque vibe where everybody knows your name…and also knows when you’re an outsider. Purdy, a long time resident with a local lineage stretching back many decades, quickly embraced me and introduced me to a colorful cast of residents, relatives, and a few visitors who had been in town long enough for him to meet. Purdy quickly helped soothe out my position on the island as not just a visitor but also a friend. Small town residences tend to keep their guard up when cameras slinging strangers come stomping through town so it was great to get his blessing in front of what felt like the whole town gathered at the decades old bakery.
After taking many pictures in the small town of Kaunakakai, I headed out see the rest of the island. Although the island is relatively small, there are pockets of microclimates that turn the monochromatic Molokai into a vastly colorful environment. Having traversed the island in the past, I knew what to capture and where to go. But I found some great luck at Kepuhi Bay, on Molokai’s west side as I captured a wonderful sunset shot.
The west side’s usually yields a great images at sunset but having only a few days to capture a famous Molokai sunset, I worried I had chosen the right location. Sunsets always do seem “greener” on the other side but by the time I set up, I had no choice but to stay put and await the drop. As the descent began, I moved myself towards a rocky cliff that bordered the bay to the left and lined up the waves, rocks and sun into what turned into a cover shot for the story. I had been standing next to a group of locals who were also taking pictures and one of the guys turned to me and said I was really lucky, as everyone had recognized the surreal sunset we had just witnessed.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from an editor at Popular Photography magazine asking me if I’d like to be featured in their “How Traveling Photographer” article for December 2015.
Although I had shot a portrait for Pop Photo a few years ago, I was thrilled to be featured as I was obsessed with the magazine as a very young person. Their articles showcased big name photographers, fancy equipment, and different photographic techniques. They published images from far away places that truly did seem so far away from my little bedroom in San Antonio. I fantasized about one day being a Nikon slinging photographer crossing deep valley gorges to capture exotic people and locations.
At the time, I was taking pictures with an inexpensive Pentax with third party lenses, but I longed for a Hasselblad, a state of the art Nikon strobe, and Kodachrome film. The magazine made me believe if I had a camera with an evaluative metering system along with a Vaseline smeared filter, I could be a jet setting photographer and travel the world.
Jump a few decades forward and I have crossed a few valleys and do live in an exotic location. I just did it without the Vaseline.
The assigning editor asked me for a few of my best Hawaii pictures and set me up with writer, Jeff Wignall, interview me on how and where to take the best beauty photos in Honolulu. The writer and I went back and forth a few times and he came up with a great piece. I’m more of a travel guide than a photographer guru as I gave no technical advice, but it is an enjoyable read nevertheless.
I hope the article inspires a young kid somewhere to dream big about making a life with a camera. I know it did for me.
For some reason or another, my older brother gave me my first camera back in what I remember being 1987. He purchased the Pentax Super Program 35mm film camera from someone at work and it started me on my eventual professional career in photography. I remember seeing the cheap blue camera bag on the carpet of our house and marvelling at this magnificent silvery machine with mysterious knobs and dials. I can still smell the silica gel desiccant packets that were inside the black lining of the bag.
The camera came with a 50mm, a 70-210mm, some filters, and another lens or two not worth mentioning. Those other lenses turned out to be really cheap quality and took Instagram quality images. Attached to the camera was also one of those awesome retro camera straps that are sadly found on hipsters who are using retro cameras such as that Pentax.
I loved that camera but it wasn’t my first as I do remember my mother had a 110mm Kodak that I captured some of my first childish imagery on it’s tiny negatives that are still somewhere in the house on Huisache St. I guess my brother saw something in me and thought maybe I had some talent with photography. I guess he was right because I’ve made my career of taking pictures starting about the time I walked out into the world with that Pentax.
The camera still sits on a shelf near all the new fancy stuff. I almost threw it out but Sweetie made me realize the importance of that gift. I would imagine the camera still works if I put a fresh set of batteries in her.
As the last of the photo labs close in Hawaii, the Pentax becomes a relic lost within the pixels of the digital age. Thank you Brother for the most significant camera that helped start my career. But to tell you the truth, you should have given me a damn stethoscope!