Molokai: Where everybody knows your name

Sunset at Kepuhi Bay, Molokai
Sunset at Kepuhi Bay, on the west end of Molokai, Hawaii.

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.

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Hawaiian Wedding Fantasies

Hawaiian Wedding Fantasies

Whenever I have the time or the will, I head down to Waikiki to capture the randomness of life on the beach.  I’ve always wanted to be a street photographer like Garry Winogrand, Bruce Gilden, or Martin Parr but instead of the cold streets of Manhattan, I’m stuck with bad Hawaiian shirts and endless sunsets.  There’s always something quirky on the beach whether its the sunburned Midwesterner in socks and sandals or a self absorbed Japanese girl with a selfie stick.

So the other day, we took a sunset stroll down Waikiki and encounter the usual oddities out and about on the beach.  A tout pushing exotic birds photos onto tourists for pictures, nouveau riche Chinese obnoxiously dressed in beachwear, and families scrambling to capture themselves with the fading Hawaiian sunset. We also spotted a Japanese bride and groom dressed up in full wedding garb with their photographer taking sunset pictures.

Many Japanese tourist purchase the Hawaiian wedding fantasy by renting wedding dresses and tuxedos to pose for pictures even though they might not be married or they’ve been married for years.  It is an odd sight to see but they are as common as the sunset in Hawaii.  So we watch the wedding couple with little interest until my wife notices a group of young Micronesian girls sitting in the surf watching in awe at the Disney fantasy happening right in front of them.  With mouths agape, the little sea urchins stare at the ivory skinned bride in her billowing white dress fawn as her tuxedo-wearing prince kneels in front of her for a picture perfect moment with the sun dripping behind the Waianae Mountains.

The photo wasn’t perfect as the kids were just a tad bit too far away and the sun was directly behind making them completely backlit.  I quickly maneuvered myself around the scene trying not to catch the attention of the bride or the kids to capture the moment but technically realized it was too hard to capture.  So I snapped off a few frames and moved on.  Things happen so fast I when you do this type of photography that you can’t dwell on a missed opportunity.

But it wasn’t till we got home and I ran the images through Photoshop that I saw what caught my wife’s attention.  I had to pull lighting the shadows shrouding the girls’s expressions and crop tight to balance out the composition but the image captures the fantasy of the little girl’s wedding scene. It isn’t one of my better images but I think it is one of my nicer beach pictures.

In a way, I captured the inequality of life in Hawaii, the life of those who can afford to spend time on the beach and those who have few options otherwise. The young girls appeared to be homeless or at the least, their families were not economically stable.  They were playing in front of a larger group of Micronesian adults who were cooking and sleeping in the small pavilion facing the beach.  The family also seemed to be harvesting a meal from the sea by spearfishing.  Now this is not a bad thing as I would love to spearfish a meal or two every so often but it seemed that might have been the only way to make due for themselves.  Many Micronesians immigrants arrive in Hawaii with little and struggle to live in paradise.

My image shows the haves and the haves nots in Hawaii yet none of that really mattered to anyone in the picture.  Before they walked off the beach, the Japanese bride sweetly waved at the kids and they screamed and laugh in joy that she recognized them.  They yelled “Aloha! Aloha!” and jumped around the sand, thrilled the bride spoke to them.  But as quickly as the girls lined up to watch the Hawaiian wedding, the squealed away through the surf when a relative returned from the depths with what looked like an octopus on the end of his stick.

Surely both would enjoy a lovely meal that night, the Japanese eating slices of tako sushi at a fancy restaurant, and the young girls undoubtedly slurping on a similar dish of octopus…just with a better view of the ocean.

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 sort of wedding…

A sort of wedding...

I’ve done a handful of wedding in my career.  Mainly friends, actually almost all friends.  One or two were actually paid gigs by clients but its never been part of my business plan.  I don’t really care to do wedding but I’m finding I’m pretty darn good at capturing moments.
The New York Times hired me to shoot their Vows sections…which is actually their society wedding page…and shot a couple from the East Coast on Kauai on Secret Beach.  Its online here.

The Times editor emailed me today and stated “…LOTS of compliments for the photos.”  I guess I did the right thing.

The above photo is of tonight’s spectacular voggy sunset.  Everyone was out at Magic Island and I watched a Japanese wedding photographer (package deals where a wedding company books the entire lot into a set where they get dress, hair/makeup/church, flowers, and photographer for said amount) snapping photos of a Japanese couple’s dream wedding.  They seemed young and pretty happy to have such a great sunset although I am not sure if they realized what they were doing as the photographer had them posing in all sorts of cheesy wedding poses.  Flashing shakas, putting their hands together to form a heart…very cookie cutter images.  Blah…just not my thing.  Either way, the couple will go home with a nice photo book of memories that will get dusty over time.