Mooo! Milk on Kauai

Mooo! Milk on Kauai

Last April, the New York Times had me document a controversial issue on Kauai.  eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s proposal to create a small dairy farm near Poipu, Kauai has made many sour in the nearby community.  I traveled to area to photograph the area, meet supporters and photographing opponents. I also got to fly in a helicopter over the land where the proposed dairy would sit.

Kauai has a history of fighting development fearing their already shrinking tropical paradise will disappear.  While many locals welcome jobs and the opportunities development brings, many newer arrivals to the Island fight tooth and nail to protect their newly purchased slice of heaven.

The controversy over the dairy stems from opponents fearing environmental damage from pollution and the environmental impact on tourist in the region.  Along with many other resorts and hotels, the Grand Hyatt sits not far from the farm area in Poipu and they fear smells and other issues will affect their high paying guests.

The Ulupono Initiative, Omidyar’s local investment firm, strives to create a more self-reliant Hawaii and a local dairy farm would likely bring Kauai’s infamously high milk prices down.  However, opponents argue the gains do not outweigh the losses.

Past industrial farming has wreaked havoc on Hawaii as plantations once diverted streams to their sugar cane and pineapple fields and waste has polluted once fertile land.  While many initiatives and technologies has improved farming overall, fears still exist over new farming projects.  A recent dairy farm on the Big Island was accused of illegally discharging animal waste polluting local water sources and this didn’t help Ulupono’s case for a new farm on Kauai.

While Ulupono are making great technological strides to protect the land and limit pollution, its not enough for some residents and lawsuits have been filed to stop the dairy from getting started.

While I was there, I met with a few of opponents who took me to Maha’ulepu Beach claiming the dairy’s waste would damage the pristine area.  Its the same beach I photographed from the helicopter that ran big on the front page of the business section.

front page of the business section August 14, 2017
front page of the business section August 14, 2017

At the mouth of the stream that feeds into the ocean, I clearly could smell something foul in the run off.  They said it was raw sewage flowing down from the above farm areas and little was being done to control the pollution.  Warning signs were posted around the stream stating to keep out of the water.

While the bad smells at the stream startled me, Hawaii’s future must create more sustainability.  We must be more independent and depend less on the monopolies that control the shipping of goods to and from the Islands.  The dairy farm is taking great strides to protect the environment and to keep the land in farming hands means it has less chance to be turned into homes by developers.

I believe Hawaii’s future is to be self reliant but at what costs?  If we allow a few to control the future of Hawaii because they fear bad smells, we will continue to be at the mercy of outsiders.  But we must ensure a new farm won’t pollute the environment.  While fresh milk won’t lower the cost of gasoline or other goods, it is a good start for a brighter future.  But we can’t allow sustainability to turn into sour milk.

The NYT article can be found here.

The blue-green “see” from a different angle.

The blue-green

After living in Hawaii for sometime, its easy to forget about the beauty that surrounds us.  The blue-green sea, the white (eroding) sandy beaches, the food, the weather, the mountains…I can go on and on describing wonderful Hawaii.  So its always a challenge when clients ask for something slightly different for as an opening shot.

At any moment, somewhere somehow is snapping a picture, whether it is a family shot or professional shot, around Waikiki.  It is one of the most photographed pieces of real estate in the world.  There are thousands of professional pictures available on line and clients can easily pick a beautiful stock shot for pennies over a custom shot (uhhhh….for pennies—I digress!)  Why hire when there is so much available?  Because a custom shot gets you a unique, dare I say signature, vision from a professional photographer that no other client will have.

The Los Angeles Times asked me to shoot a full page image of Waikiki for their travel story illustrating a budget friendly vacation in Honolulu.  The editor sent along few images taken by the writer and wanted me to capture a similar feel.  My only parameters were to shoot from above, keep it vertical, and ensure I had a killer image at the end of the day.  Jobs like this really get me fired up because no amount of money really accounts for all the time and effort it takes in finding a shot as such.  But the outcome is completely worth the input.  I couldn’t imagine doing anything else as the challenge of my craft is not work, it is just an extension of my life.

The pictures taken by the writer were photographed from one of the better hotel balconies on the beach.  All the elements lined up and and made a pretty different view of Waikiki.  Oddly enough it seemed the picture wasn’t from one of the budget hotels in the story so my challenge was not to present my image as such.  The art direction was to capture Waikiki, not illustrate the story.

Fabulous views command big money and hotels rates are based on the amount of ocean and beach seen from the room.  I could easily have called up one of the beach front hotels and asked to shoot from a room but hotels tend not to help you unless the story relates directly to them.  I don’t have the budget to shoot from a rented hotel room and a helicopter view was not the perspective the client was after.

After living here for some time, I learned it is possible to enjoy Hawaii without blowing too much diñero and having a great time along with tourist who are taping out their credit cards.  I also know how to find the big dollar views without having to shell out big money for hotel rooms or fancy restaurants.  Sometimes just wandering around a big hotel looking like a tourist can help you gain access to views you might not be able to if you wandered in full camera regalia and reeked of the decisive moment.  Looking like a clueless tourist with a Best Buy camera bag will keep housekeepers and bell hops off your tail.

So without revealing too many tricks of my clandestine trade, I got into a hotel, shot down at the beach and made a marvellous shot.  I won’t reveal my location but a Waikiki sleuth might be able to pick it out based on what is in front of them.  Needless to say, the Times editor Tears for Fears (I’m feeling overly cheeky tonight!) over the images as she had a large variety  to choose.   In an email after the article published, she stated “everyone LOVED the photos.”

That kind of praise makes the hours and time put in completely worth it.  Again, it doesn’t take much to sea…err…see things from a different perspective.  I just awaken  my paradise slumber and look around.

ca 1990

ca 1990

In the early 1990’s, I took a design class with a professor whose name escapes me.  He taught 2D Design during my freshman year at UT Austin and I found myself painting, drawing, designing and generally having a wonderful time exploring mediums I had never worked with.  The class he taught focused on basic art fundamentals; the mild mannered professor knew his stuff.  He once claimed he had famed actress Farrah Fawcett in his class back in the 60s.  She was from Texas, you know.

My classmates rebelled against conformity, reality, sexuality, and just about anything to rebel against.  Some thought they’d be the next Schnabel, Basquiat, or Haring.  Mostly they just wanted to get high. I had a hard time relating as I grew up in conservative San Antonio with a Sergeant father, a Bible-beating mom, and a brother who was a cop.  I clearly had no intentions of turning out to be a sculptor, performance artists, or general anarchist.  I knew I would be a photographer but drifted in and out of majors my first few months drawing towards the art department for a few classes.

In class, no one really told us we were wrong; but kept encouraging us to create and explore what we might not know.  I quickly learned that everything in art is subjective but the fundamentals were the bedrock.  In this 2D class, the professor had us do an exercise on a white sheet of paper with ink.  As I recall, he gave us no real instructions other than to draw lines on the paper.  I took my ink pens and ruler and began to doodle.

I had no formal art education at school or in my household.  I drew and colored lots as a child but made nothing extraordinary.  We’d go to the McNay and the Whitte Museums often and I was always enamored with the old masters and the shapes of the sculptures and figures on display.  I guess I had some informal understanding but nothing that an art professor would notice.

At the end of our exercise, the prof came over and critiqued my piece.  I remember so clearly he pointing out my sense of balance, negative and positive space, and weight of design.  I just saw them as straight lines. I didn’t understand his words until later when I became a professional photographer and began my own career.

lines in the real world

I’ll often wander Waikiki in the late afternoon as the tourists begin heading back to their hotels.  As they roam around the sand seemingly astounded by the spectacular sunsets, most drop their guard and I’ll capture some interesting moments.  As I made my way around a group of people, I noticed this woman wrapped in a damp sarong standing on a pier.  I saw her in my peripheral and pushed my way towards her to capture the moment.  I wasn’t sure why I was drawn to her other than I found her attractive and secluded from the hoards of people crowding the area to watch the sunset.  I began talking out loud to myself noting the monotone colors, her curves, the horizon, and the bend of her arm as she brushed her wet hair from her shoulder.  I fired off maybe six frames before the composition was disturbed by people walking through.  It was only when I chimped the image on the back of my Leica did the professor’s words echo in my ears.  I saw the “balance, space, negative and positive, and weight of my lines.”

Marco Garcia

Once I got home, I searched for that ink drawing that I’ve kept with me all these years.  I was astounded to see how my experienced camera eye had now been able to see, almost naturally, what I drew so long ago, but couldn’t quite comprehend.

I’ve never professed to be an artist.  I’ve often said I xerox what’s in front of me.  Nothing more…just pressing the copy button instead of the shutter button.   Yet I’m happy to hear the professor’s words echo in my head when I do push it.  Those words make me realize I might be more of an artist than I think.

A slice of paradise.

A slice of paradise.

Hawaii is a wonderful place to live.  Near perfect weather 365 days a year, beaches, bikinis, mai tais.  Just paradise, as some might say.  But we’re cursed with limited land leading to sky high home prices and a general high cost of living.  Yes, milk does cost $8.00 a gallon and the average cost of a single family home is well over half a million dollars.  And with paradise, everyone wants a slice and people are willing to pay for it.  Developers are trying to cover every inch of Oahu with suburban sprawl and swallow up the air with glass and steel towers.  Currently, developers are planning to build up to seven high rises in the Kakaako area.  The soothing sounds of rolling ocean waves and the rustle of palm trees have been replaced by the beep beep beeps of trucks backing up on the multiple construction sites around town.  The old joke of the state bird being the Hawaiian (construction) crane is again, reality.

Progress can be a helluva thing!  Not many of us want to see Hawaii change drastically but development means new jobs, spending, new homes, tax revenue, investment, and other “positive” changes.  Many old neighborhoods in Honolulu are run down and well-planned development can bring new vitality to the slumping city.  Yet developers only want to build luxury residences for those who can afford it.  High labor and material costs, shipping, land value all force developers to think luxury rather than affordable.  Many companies are lobbying the State and the land holders to rezone no longer used farm land so they can build homes.  Where there was once pineapple and sugarcane, developers want to put miles and miles of cookie cutter homes…many which will be priced too high for the average working family in Hawaii.  The union workers who will be hired to build of these condos and homes won’t be able to afford what they built.  More than 85 percent of planned Ritz-Carlton luxury condo in Waikiki sold during a private weekend sale with prices ranging from $750,000 to $15 million.  Brokers had clients in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Europe.  I would assume very few locals, if any, were able to purchase even the lowest priced units.  The American Dream  for many born in Hawaii will never be realized in their homeland.

As Oahu struggles under the weight of all their construction, the outer islands have their own growth and development issues.  Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island have mega resorts and ultra rich neighborhoods, isolated and vastly expensive.  Some would argue the best of the outer islands has been swallowed by developers, gated and closed off to locals.  Although State laws demands public access rights to any beach front area, many developers simply limited public parking or placed lots far away from any access points.  Many claim the rich have privatized Hawaii’s beauty and indeed many projects have but they’ve also protected pristine areas from further construction as well.    Some local residents have not always been the best stewards of the land.  Tourist and rich land owners don’t often smash green Heineken bottles on the rocks, leave garbage strewn in the parks, nor off-road in 4×4’s all over the beach.  Recently a young boy on Oahu severely burned his hands because someone improperly disposed of hot coals from a BBQ by burying them in the sand.  Malama ka a’nia,” as some would say, isn’t always practiced.

In July, I worked on a job with writer Jim Carlton and the Wall Street Journal on a controversial development project on a ridge overlooking Hanalei Bay on Kauai.  The developer is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his investment firm wants to build 30 plus luxury homes on land already zoned for development on the Princeville ridge.  The project would develop the homes which would sit across the river from popular Black Pot Beach.  The community fears the new development would be an eyesore and some feel the rich might demand restrictions at the beach and land fronting the property.  Many just don’t want any more development on their tranquil island paradise.

The ridge, once a Club Med in the late 1970’s, has foundation work built from a prior development plan but the project went bankrupt before any of the units were built.  The ridge now sits undeveloped and overgrown with evasive species covering the area.  Omidyar’s plans to also restore an ancient Hawaiian fish pond along with eradicating many of the evasive species and helping restore and protect the environment.  The fish pond has been ignored and abandoned for decades and its a welcome sign Omidyar’s wants to help the community but the anti-development crowd feel its a band aid for a housing project many do not want.


The community on Kauai last fought the Hawaii Superferry, an inter-island ferry which transported people and vehicles.  The protesters feared additional traffic and population on their already taxed communities and wanted to keep Kauai from being further spoiled.  From the outside, it seemed many malahinis, or newcomers, were the most vocal as some local residents welcomed the Superferry as an alternative to the monopoly of the airlines and shipping companies.

Those who support the development see it as needed jobs for the community.  Kauai’s isolation, the State of Hawaii’s strict business regulations, and powerful unions have kept many businesses away.  Construction, service, and other related jobs can help ensure many Kauaians can afford to stay in the area.  Omidyar’s project could employ many for generations.  The State and local community also benefits as tax revenue will help improve the infrastructure and schools.  Everyone could possibly benefit from his development project.  However, the community remains divided as the development of Hanalei Bay will drive already high land prices higher leading to higher property taxes.  Many old time residents have been forced to leave the area due to an ever growing tax burden.

But sadly, a new wave of newcomers, tourist and new residents, are already changing the idyllic nature of Hanalei.  There’s more traffic, more construction, more noise.  Those old time residents are slowly being uprooted by new faces more suited in Laguna Beach.  This new wave of malahinis can afford to pay the higher taxes and cost of living.   Plate lunch joints and cans of Bud are making way for tapa bars, bottles of merlot, and art galleries.  There seems to be more dredlocked trust fund kids surfing the waves at Hanalei Bay than the locals who grew up in the area.

Change is inevitable.  If something is good and it gets out, everyone wants to go there.  Red Hook, Austin, Hanalei.  And I think its human nature to want to shut the door behind you once you get in.  Many pro development people in the area know the jobs will help but feel those against it are the same newcomers who are against anything that might spoil their slice of paradise.  That crowd already secured their views, their properties, their way of live and now want to limit who can now come in.  Ironically, many of those in the anti-development crowd forced change when they first arrived.

But when you experience Hawaii, whether it’s in Kauai or Oahu, you quickly see how wonderful a place the Islands can be.  Everyone knows your name in Hanalei.  People don’t lock their doors.  Neighbors will help neighbors in that small town way.  That’s the allure.  Its an unspoiled paradise where the sunsets are magical every night.  Yet every year I’ve gone to the area, I can’t help but to see more and more tourist, more and more new residents, more and more development.  Everyone wants a slice.

The genie is out of the bottle and the land has gotten away from the locals.

We’d all like to keep all of Hawaii pristine but at what cost?  Hawaii is paradise but its a prison if you can’t afford it.  And its a beautiful prison to many locals who can’t.  Too many malahinis show up with money who can afford it and force the change.   The locals just can’t keep up.  The anti development crowd can continue to fight changes and they might win this battle against Omidyar but there will be many more to come.  It would be a paradise if many could live their lives growing, sharing, trusting, and enjoying a wonderful slice of Hawaii but everything has a price tag.


Samoan Chicken Wings

Samoan Chicken Wings

As we rolled our gear into the darkened garden center, the overwhelming smell of chicken manure filled the air.  The earthy yet foul odor, as disgusting as it may sound (or smell), helped soothe the pregame jitters I usually get when I show up on a location and need to build a studio.  What made this job different was that I was shooting in the garden center of a well known big box store in the middle of the night.  Well, not that late but when you’re call time is at 10pm, it’s pretty late to be thinking about setting up a seamless, lighting it and bringing your subject to stage—ready to work–at midnight.

Well, it’s all in a day’s work for me.  I never know what strange request I’ll have and hours I’ll need to be available.  I was assigned by a client (who I should probably keep confidential as the article isn’t published yet) to create a portrait of an associate who works at said big box store.  This particular client was featuring an associate, a Samoan woman, who has become famous for her local style chicken wings recipe.  The problem was the associate didn’t show up till 11pm and they required I shoot her on location during her shift.  The client wanted the subject shot on a white seamless backdrop which would be stripped away and placed on a white page with her recipe printed next to her.  I just had to fit the subject onto the provided layout and ensure I had a quality shot to deliver.

Lighting a portrait can be tricky. There are as many ways to light a portrait as there are light modifiers.  In my assistant days in NYC , I pushed to perfect the perfect light.  I learned how to use studio strobes (and hot lights) in just about every conceivable situation and location. Those days were invaluable, as they helped me understand my own work and how to approach different situations.  I learned how to light everything from a tiny tube of lipstick to an entire warehouse.  I learned to get F16 from corner to corner, top to bottom, including the floor, on a white cyclorama.  My light meter and I were best of friends in those days. I loved to work out light ratios and I reveled in my craft.  A photo editor once told me it was obvious I had worked with Nathaniel Welch as she saw the same approach to light that he takes in his work.  There wasn’t a prouder moment than to hear this from a big time photo editor. It was then, that I realized how far I had come from my assistant days.  I wish I had learned more, but you can only assist so much before it’s time to do it yourself.  Again, I think any budding photographer out there needs to assist in the big cities.  Books and your own small time assignments can’t teach you what you can learn from the pros in the big cities.

The one fun drawback to assisting at the top levels was the access to gobs of equipment we had at our fingertips.  At times, I probably had been in charge of $50,000 or more of strobe equipment and had access to so much more –Broncolor and Profoto mostly.  It now seems insane–I don’t have this type of equipment at my fingertips any longer–but I do own quite a nice arsenal of gear.  And fundamentally, the study and methods used in lighting has changed over the years, as well as the camera gear itself.  In my earlier days, I worked with photographers who shot with large medium format systems and which required powerful lights sources to shoot at small apertures.  I remember working with 4800ws strobe packs and bi tube heads.  Now, with DSLR cameras, you can pop on a 60ws on camera flash and photoshop your effects.  My how things have changed.  A lot about lighting that used to require the most acute hands-on skill and craftsmanship can now be done on a computer with a slim collection of modern software–pirated at best.


Lighting setup
Lighting setup


My lighting scenario was pretty basic as I had to light the subject with a nice broad but specular light.  I opted for a Photex umbrella as the main light but fill it in with a Chimera large softbox from the side.  Umbrellas are one of the most classic lighting tools available and frankly, one of the easiest to travel with to a location.  If used a certain way, umbrellas cast a dramatic light wrapping around the subject with a sharp drop off and deep shadows.  Sadly, the client wanted a fairly flat light with little drama so the large soft box was the filler to balance everything out.  The 9′ white seamless was lit by two satin umbrellas and everything was powered by Profoto.  Profoto is the professional standard.  Sure, everyone raves about what an on camera flash can do but try to light a 9′ foot seamless with two Canon 580s.  When I know the art director wants to strip the background out of the shot, I don’t worry too much about being 100% perfect but will strive to get my background nice and clean.


Light study with Paul


Paul, my surfer and dog loving assistant, modeled form my light tests and I found I had great examples of how I used multiple light sources to get the right light.  The first light is to check how the back ground lights affect my subject.  The second shot is to see how the Chimera fills on camera left and the last picture shows all the lights working together.  The light worked well for our circumstances and it does highlight Paul’s perfectly flat feet.  I can’t get enough of those boats he walks around on.  He seems more suited for living in water than on land.  Well, maybe on land, possibly like the base of a tree.  A big tree mind you.  Paul has become one of my better friends and for me to call him an assistant feels like I belittle him.  He’s not a photographer by trade but understands what I need to get done.  What he lacks in technical experience he makes up in people skills and being very bright…but more so, his friendship.  Besides, I’d love to be a Hawaiian surfer dude, flat feet and all.

I did shoot with my newly acquired Canon 1Dx and the new version of the Canon 24-70mm F2.8 lens.  The combo is really nice; I clearly see the advancement of Canon’s newest flagship camera and lens.  The metering is superb and the handing is pretty nice.  I do have to say the older Canon 1Ds Mark III is a great camera but the 1Dx is a vast improvement.

So onto my associate, who I can’t show you, so you’ll just have to imagine Paul holding a plate of chicken wings, Samoan chicken wings.  We got our shot done pretty quickly with a little tough love wrangling to ensure the picture was useable.  It was a tough night but we were able to finish by 1am.  It took us about an hour and change to set up our seamless and lights but took all but 20 minutes to get the hell out of dodge.  We ended the night with the taste of Samoan on our lips and the smell of crap up our noses.  Luckily, both wash off.