Painfully Slow

Painfully Slow

“When I first arrived, I saw black smoke billowing not so far in the distance – the lava had struck a pile of car tires. When it burns, it’s quite amazing. It’s mesmerizing,” I was quoted saying during an interview with Reuters News Service on their photo blog.  Reuters sent me to cover the impeding doom facing Pahoa Village on the Big Island last week as lava from Kilauea Volcano threatens to split the rural town in two.  A recent lava flow has made its way down the volcano’s slope directly towards the middle of town.  Many residents are able to do nothing as lava stops for no one.

The blog continues with my story:   “Lava is unpredictable. It could go left or right, up or down. It will move 5 meters in an hour, then not move at all. And it usually moves slowly, like squeezing toothpaste down a hill – but it will get there eventually. Unlike a tsunami or an earthquake or even a hurricane, it’s a painfully slow death.”

And clearly residents are anxiously waiting for Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of the volcano, to cast her judgement on the land of Puna.

For hundreds of thousands of years, lava has erupted on the Big Island helping make the island the biggest of the Hawaiian chain.  The volcanoes have not been silence since they formed the Big Island.  Since 1983, lava has flowed from Kilauea and the USGS has reported Kilauea is responsible for creating more than 500 acres of new land.  “The Lava flows had also destroyed 214 structures, and resurfaced 14.3 km (8.9 mi) of highway, burying them with as much as 35 m (115 ft) of lava.”

Luckily for the town, the lava has currently stalled but the threat still remains and nothing can predict whether the lava will stop or continue.  But if Kilauea’s past is a sign of the future, the lava will not cease and will enviably destroy much of the town of Pahoa along with everything else in the flow’s path.

Lava spouts from a hot spot as the lava flow from Mt. Kilauea inches closer to the village of Pahoa, Hawaii

While on assignment, Reuters was granted permission to fly over the flow so we hired a helicopter to get a better view of the flow’s destruction. Luka, who works for Hawaii Volcanoes Helicopter Tours, piloted the tiny little chopper and ferried me over the lava’s path. Very little compares to lifting off in a helicopter, especially one with no doors.  Luka’s chopper was the size of a Prius and as we left the ground, it seemed we stood still and everything fell below us.

The lava flow path from Mt. Kilauea inches closer to the village of Pahoa, Hawaii

Luka took me over the town and up the trail to the Pu’u O’o vent where the lava is oozing slowly down the mountain.  The aerial photos were noticed by Reuters’s London office and Karolina Tagaris called me and had a quick chat with me about my experiences with this natural disaster. You can see the blog here as well as a write up by the BBC’s News in Pictures site as well.  The interview became roughly my story without much of her input.

I continued, “I asked the pilot to follow the path of the lava back to the crater and it was quite amazing to watch the lava flow. There’s a lot of steam and smoke and you can see some lava being created inside the crater, which looks like a bubbling cauldron. It’s so primitive it’s almost as if the world is being created – I found myself looking for dinosaurs!”

There’s nothing that really compares to seeing lava on the Big Island. I’ve tried my best to document what’s going on with the volcano over the years I’ve lived in Hawaii. I’m not a lava photographer as I don’t care to hike out miles in the middle of the night to see nature at it’s best but there are times like this when I have access to fly over it…nothing can really match it.

Smoke rises from the lava flow from Mt. Kilauea as it inches closer to the village of Pahoa, Hawaii


I hear that train a commin’…its rollin’ ’round the bend

I hear that train a commin'...its rollin' 'round the bend

This past September, Hyphen Magazine, an Asian-American publication out of California, called me out of the blue and asked me to do a portrait of an ex con who was on Oahu.  The story focused on Native Hawaiians who were incarcerated and sent off-Island to serve their sentences due to State budget matters.  The ex con was one of the first Native Hawaiians to be shipped off in the late 1970s.  After finding out how much they actually wanted to pay, I turned them down stating it was way too much work for what they expected.  The photo editor, Damien Maloney, who believed I would be the best candidate to capture this unique portrait, then told me the story of Delbert Wakinekona and I was sold.

Its not everyday you get to spend time with a man who broke out of Folsom Prison, the jail made famous by the man in black, Johnny Cash.

According to a legal record found on the web, in 1970, Wakinekona and a partner entered a local store to buy sashimi when the outing turned deadly as the shop owners were robbed and beaten with one later dying of his injuries.   Wakinekona and his partner were “indicted for the crimes of first degree murder, first degree robbery (two counts) and aggravated assault.”  Although he claims he was not part of the attempted robbery and/or the beating was unintentional, Wakinekona was given a life sentence for the murder.  Wakinekona felt he was framed by the others testimony and  flawed court system worked against him.  He tried unsuccessfully to fight his conviction but lost.

After serving time in jail, and if I’m not mistaken, breaking out of the Halawa Correctional Center, Wakinekona was found to be a troublemaker and was sent off-Island to the mainland to serve the rest of his sentence.  Wakinekona was part of the first wave of Hawaiian shipped off to the mainland thus breaking his family and cultural ties to Hawaii.  He sued to remain in Hawaii, even having his case argued in the US Supreme Court, but eventually lost his case.

And I ain’t seen the sunshine,
Since, I don’t know when

So as I drove out to Waianae to meet Delbert Wakinekona and Lilian Harwood, his new wife who helped him get out of prison on a compassionate release due to Delbert’s declining health, I filled with dread and anticipation of dealing with a man who might be maladjusted to the outside world.  But the few hours I spent with ex-con Delbert had me understand not just what life is like inside prison but understood was prison does to a man.  I make no excuses for the crimes Delbert supposedly committed.  He was no angel.  However time does change people and injustice can make a person very bitter.

Delbert, who looks give him the appearance of a weathered Santa Claus, greeted me with a smile but his demeanor made me realize he was a tiger.  He looked through me, intimidated me, and outplayed me instantly.  I immediately knew I was dealing with someone who understood the nature of man and survival.  Delbert lived within a silent world where life and death were separated by a glance, a sudden mood change, a split decision.  There was no trust, no basis of friendship or loyalty in his mannerism.  He was dangerous.  But dangerous as a means of survival.

We began to chat, talk and getting to know each other.  I felt every move I made was watched and anticipated.  Like a wild dog, any movements towards him might have resulted in a snap, growl or worse.  I could sense he struggled with PTSD as he had been in jail for most of his life.  The outside world was different.  He had no constraints yet knew no other way.

I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin’ on,

We talked about his case.  He asked about my ethnicity.  I told him I was Hispanic and he relished time time spent with Mexican Americans in Folsom Prison.  He told me once he was shipped off Hawaii, he entered a world in the late 70’s early 80’s where Hawaiians were only known through Elvis and aloha shirts.  Hawaiians were virtually unknown on the mainland and invisible in prisons.  He was neither white or black so the only people he could visually associate with were the Hispanics.  In his first encounter with Hispanics in jail, they began to talk Spanish which he couldn’t understand.  The Mexicans, finding his disrespect intriguing, demanded to know who or what he was.  He told them he was Hawaiian and quickly the Hispanics found humor in calling him a pina, or pineapple in Spanish.  According to Delbert, this slight was more sexual in nature and he quickly had to establish he was no “fruit” and quickly gained the respect of the Hispanics for his bold stance.  Delbert was then referred to as Hawaiiano which he claims with pride.

He talked about his case, his life, his breakout of several jails including Folsom, and life being outside.  He talked about some of the more infamous inmates he knew at Folsom including Charles Manson and others.  He talked of legal battles with prison wardens, judges, and prison itself.  He talked of life on the lam and shining the light on Native Hawaiian struggle as they are sent off Island.  He mentioned the correspondence from other infamous prisoners he met along the way.  Delbert was a walking history book of American crime figures and prisons.

But that train keeps a-rollin’,
On down to San Antone

As I finally felt he trusted me enough to pose, we went down to the beach near Yokohama Bay at sunset and I was able to snap some haunting images of this man who some might feel he still belongs in prison for the crimes he committed.  It wasn’t hard to have him give me that prison stare as it seemed natural to him.  I never posed him pretentiously or expected him to show me some deep emotion.  I wanted to capture him like the man I saw in front of me.

Delbert Wakinekona

At first he work a dark blue t-shirt with  some type of fishing logo and I really wanted it to come off.  I quickly realized his body was covered in “jail-house tats” and Delbert was more than willing to show me his history told on the folds of his now old skin.  He had the names of his children, Hawaiian folklore icons, dragons, roses, and a half goat man hugging a naked woman.  His crude tattoos told a story that no hipster skin could ever begin to tell.  These were the stories of a man whose life turn a turn for the worst on a faraway night back in 1970.

Across his now flabby belly were the words “Hawaii No Ka Oi’,” or simply, “Hawaii…the best.”

Aside from the convicted murderer who stood in front of my lens, I found Delbert to be a tiger, but an older tiger who still had his teeth but losing his bite.  He was granted a compassionate release from jail as he is currently suffering from advanced liver cancer.  Whether a man like this deserves to be out of prison is up to debate but with cancer quickly advancing, he might not be around long enough to fight that battle.

At the end, Delbert was grateful for the attention and kindness I gave him and gave me a bear hug that clearly wasn’t toothless.  It was kind and tender but quickly felt the power of man who survived prison life.  I learned I wasn’t meant for prison but a young Delbert probably thought the same thing.  We all have tigers inside of us, its just odd we have to be incarcerated to find it.

When I hear that whistle blowin’,
I hang my head and cry.


Not worthy for the wire…

Not worthy for the wire...

A day of shooting election primaries for a wire news agency isn’t loads of fun.  It usually consists of chasing the fake smiles of hopeful candidates and shooting their manicured smiles and prom queen waves.   You drive all around town to different locations where the politicians are doing their last minute sign waving trying to capture that one undecided voter passing by.

So last week’s coverage of the primaries gave me some of the better pictures I’ve taken in some time.  As I drove down Beretania St. on the way to see Ed Case waving down on the Pali Hwy, the traffic slowed down a bit as we neared the Capital.  Several police cars with flashing lights caused just enough rubbernecking to make traffic just that more irritating but I noticed something slightly out of place.

She’s naked!

So I weaved my way through the rubberneckers spinning around the Capital to rush up on the small group of Occupy Wall Streeters turn Honolulu and found a porty protestor, a cop, and a leggy blonde with plenty of tattoos and just enough tape to cover the naughty bits.  With these type of elements forming all around, its hard not to get a great photo.  Her sign of getting screwed bu the politicians works very well.

I had just enough time to capture them waving their signs and cops around them to capture a few pictures and move on. So I hopped back in the car and was driving past the protest when I noticed the large lady in the wheelchair rolling down the cross walk nearing the Occupiers.  I only had my 24-70mm lens at hand and the light was green so I had no other option but to shoot and just crop.  Little did I know I captured a great moment.

So I get back and transmit my take to NYC and sadly found the editors didn’t have the courage to move the “graphic content” or so they say.  They can run headless bodies, blood and guts, and whatnot but no boobs.  Oh well, you can’t win ’em all.

A note on pictures…sometimes you can’t plan it.  It just happens.  Looking through past great photographs, it seems most photographers didn’t plan to be at that place at that moment.  Things just unraveled in front of them.  This New York Times piece has a POWERFUL image of a Tibetan protestor who set himself on fire protesting Ju Jintao’s visit to India this year.  Its a powerful moment that could have never been planned.  I can only imagine the photographer, Manish Swarup, never would have thought he have a shot like this.  There was no time to think about composure, f stops, what type of lens is on the camera, filters, iso, etc…nothing.  Absolutely no time to think as its just a reaction. And sometimes those reactions are things that happen out of no where.

My picture is not award winning  nor is it life changing for me and I shouldn’t event mention my name in the same breath as Manish Swarp, but its those moments that are unplanned and just happen.

Funny, AP ran the image of the self-immolation…but they didn’t run mine.

Blood, sweat, and…ring girls?

Blood, sweat, and...ring girls?

In college, I really wanted to be a sports photographer.  An 18-yrs-old with a Nikon F3HP, a 300mm F 2.8, and a quick finger.  What more did I need?  I worked at the Cactus yearbook and the Daily Texan at UT Austin in the early 90s.  Working there allowed me to shoot presidents, protests, car crashes, rock concerts…everything from Depeche Mode to Hillary Clinton.  But the best for me in those times was shooting UT sports.  Swimming, basketball, football, etc…what an amazing time.  Sadly, at that age, I wasn’t as serious as I should have been as some of my colleagues went onto bright photojournalism futures as I entered graduate school.  But while was an undergrad, I actually considered my future in photojournalism and sports and figured it was a career to nowhere.  I did see the end of the San Antonio Light and that was the paper I wanted to grow up and work for.  Shortly later, the internet took the fun out of the newspaper industry and job loss and newspaper closings became all the rage.

UT woman’s swim meet.  Possibly NCAA championship…1990-91.  Tri-X pushed like three stops to 1600 or even 3200 ISO!  Now that was some film processing.

I did recall a conversation with a staffer from the Dallas Morning News and we talked about the Pultizer Prizes won by several staff members back in those days.  The staffers exact words were “At the end of the day, you can’t hug a prize.”  I never forgot it.  I then continued to put more emphasis on life rather than career.  Whether its was the right decision to make a balance of life over letting a career take you over, I don’t know.

After grad school (international economics) went to New York to learn about commercial and editorial photography as a photo assistant…lots of good that did.  Yet I live in Honolulu and have a great shooting career and life.  Sure I think about moving back to New York but my friend Tracey Woods, a photo at a big mag asked me, “Why?”

She was right…why give up the sun, sand, and bad drivers?

But I digress…

On to the boxing.

I’ve only shot boxing once.  Its a brutal sport.  Too many punches and way too much blood.  On TV and from the stands, its ok..but up close, you get…well, you get the picture, rather you get it all over your picture and yourself.  Sweat and blood splatters all over the place.  And if you are next to the ring, you’ll surely get a shower.  The AP writer, Jaymes Song, told me he covered boxing once all the while drinking fountain cola in a cup.  Jaymes said after one particular bloody match, the inside and outside of his cup was flecked with red spots of…well…it wasn’t Coke.

Pingo got punished!

Needless to say, Jaymes didn’t finish his drink.

Boxing isn’t for the faint of heart.  Its tough to watch if you’re not into pugilism.  I could care less but seeing people get the hell beaten out of them, it can be slightly unnerving.  So last night I had to cover several boxing matches for AP and the big match was the Hawaiian Punch Brian Viloria in a title fight against Mexico’s Julio Cesar Miranda.  They went 12 rounds and Viloria was the victor.  A great fight although Miranda put up a good attack.  Viloria knocked him down a few times and I think the Mexican was shocked Vilora was such a tough guy.

Shooting boxing is tough to do. You have to anticipate each punch if you want to get peak action. If you snap when you see the punch going, you’ll never catch the actual glove connect with face.  All it takes is a little timing (and a fancy camera!) and you’ll eventually get the right moment.  The physically hard part of shooting the bloodsport is being bent over as you’re sticking yourself and camera through a few inches of ring rope.  12 rounds at 3 minutes each times 6 bouts…well…it’s a long time to be contorted over and through the ring and ropes.  My back wasn’t all that happy at the end of the night.

well…at least there are ring girls…

Its a far cry from the chicks I shot in swim suits racing at the UT swim center.  Alas, its a job…and I did have to shoot ring girls as a notation and separation to each round…really…its true.  Ask any of the guys who shoot boxing…

Anyway, I got away from the journalism life only to play one in Hawaii.  I’m glad I don’t have to shoot so much news and sport as I have much more fun now shooting travel pieces and portraits here and around.  But its nice to get a rush shooting a sporting event…all the while getting splattered with long as its not mine.