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.



Hawaiian Punch

Hawaiian Punch

A dream sort of came true…sort of…as I was hired by National Geographic Traveler to document Honolulu’s Chinatown.

As a kid I had a subscription to the famous yellow framed magazine and would be mesmerized by those faraway Kodachrome destinations.  I marveled at the beautifully bold color images of Africans in the bush, a village hidden from time in Italy, or a Japanese geisha putting on her makeup.  I learned how to see, and for that matter dream about being a photographer.  The magazines were my school books and inspiration for my future career.  The dream to be a professional photographer and take pictures seemed SO faraway and as a kid growing up in San Antonio, I never though I’d escape and see the world through my camera.

Well, I finally reached my goal and technically did shoot for the National Geographic Society but it was for their other publication.  I can’t complain as Traveler is a great magazine and I had hoped to shoot for anyhow.

Traveler page

The magazine had me shoot for their Neighborhood section.  I had about a week to shoot Chinatown and lucky enough it was during Chinese New Year’s so I was guaranteed dancing lions and fireworks along with the usual exotic sights…and smells.  I shot oddly shaped fruits, greasy ducks hanging on hooks, pigs heads, interesting people and places.  I live just blocks away from the Asian neighborhood so its very easy to not see whats going around you.  But when I take a camera out, Chinatown morphs into picture after picture.

I had to cover not just Chinatown but a few shops and restaurants around the neighborhood.  I photographed Jamm Aquino and his band Vejj at Bar 35, fashion designer Florencia Arias, dim sum at Legend Seafood, and ramen at Lucky Belly along with a few other spots.

Bar 35

I was slightly disappointed more pictures didn’t run but I got a great layout and full page.  The editors did promise more pictures on their iPad edition and possibly web so keep your eyes open for those images.

I’ll post more images to my facebook page so please have a look.

Fears of the world wide web.

Fears of the world wide web.

I noticed I had started this blog some time ago but never got around to finishing it…or for that matter starting it.

Technology Review Magazine hired me some time back to take a portrait of cyber security expert Jeremiah Grossman who, at that time, was based in Maui.  He so happen to be in Honolulu and I had a window of time to shoot a portrait photo of him.

Grossman, who founded White Hat Security, was a punk hacker who hacked Yahoo to show them their security flaws.  He went on to be hired on as one of their Security Officer before starting his own security firm.

Jeremiah, who showed up wearing a business type aloha shirt, hulked right up to me and my assistant, Jamm Aquino at the location.  He had that intense stare that looked right threw you scanning your brain for all your passwords and personal information.  After reading a bit about him, I learned he plays rugby and knows martial arts.  So if he couldn’t read your mind, he likely beat your passwords out of you one way or another.

I knew immediately I had to capture him in a dark and dangerous cyber world atmosphere; however, its hard to capture this in beautiful Honolulu with blue sky and sunshine. People don’t think of Hawaii as a dark place so my challenge was to create a moody scene.

I knew I had to get a few shots of him with the standard blue sky and what not.  But I had the idea to drag him into my dark parking garage and shoot him using the available florescent lights mixed with a bit of daylight.  I wish I had had a set of Kino Flos to really make my mood moodier but the overhead strip did its magic as did the odd shifts of daylight falling in the background.

I then dragged Jeremiah and Jamm down to an alley across the way and we shot him with a bare head and 7″ reflector on a Profoto 7B.  It always surprises me what editors pick as I tend to favor my choices but they hardly get picked.  The mag picked the safer shot of Grossman but I really wished they had gone with the garage shot.

What made the job really memorable was hearing the fears of hacking, the vulnerability of web browsers, and general chaos of the world wide web.  He told me of hacker groups in Eastern Europe stealing credit card numbers and making millions of dollars via holes in the internet.  I learned stories of internet security officers from big companies going to far away lands only to be run out by mafia and other assorted criminals because of the money involved in internet crimes.

Its quiet fascinating to learn that many web based corporations account for a certain percentage of uncontrollable fraud and loss into their business plans.  Although security is improving, nefarious groups and governments keep finding ways into stealing from the unaware.  What was most fascinating was finding out how these cyber security plans you can purchase are more like insurance policies where you are actually just paying a part of their premium for the protection…which in most cases is not really necessary.

The reality in my mind is it can happen to you but hardly likely you’ll end up stripped of everything.  It seems most consumer businesses already have security watching.  We got a call from our credit card one Saturday morning because of odd purchases made at Best Buy and the Apple Store which we didn’t make.  My mother found her credit card hacked as well not too long ago.  Chances are you’ll be hacked at some point vigilance can go along way.  Don’t respond to emails from the former Oil Minister of Kenya and don’t use your bank ATM card for anything on line.

Also, according to Jeremiah, don’t use the same browser to surf and do bank work.  Use separate browsers altogether.  Its likely you’ll get hacked at some point but you’re also likely to have your house broken into (once in Jersey City) or getting rear ended while driving (twice in HNL.)  I’m not saying I’m not scared but our pockets are not as deep as Chase or Ebay, meaning, as an individual, you’re an unknown and no one has any particular interest in you.

By the way, if any of the facts of my story are wrong, I’m certain Jeremiah will find and correct.  I doubt his fists will do the talking but most likely his fingers will commit the terror.

You can see the story here.


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.


Thinking in past tense

Thinking in past tense

As I put life in perspective and my career on the right path, I randomly go through my archives for creativity and inspiration.  I came across an image from Tokyo taken in 2008.  Wanderlust in Tokyo overwhelms me.  Tokyo’s facade of neon noise easily cracks open allowing the curious to see Tokyoites grasping on to ancient beliefs.  Whether its for show or true understanding is not for me to say.  But Tokyo’s religion of consumerism reigns true.

This shot, taken right outside of Shinjuku St., if I recall, had a troupe of musicians playing flutes and banging tin drums for some reason or another.  I wasn’t sure but it wasn’t religious.  But this guy in a worn rice paddy had sat smoking a hand rolled cigar.  I don’t know what he was doing, why he was there or why I was there.  Wanderlust, a lack of language, and naivety can lead to some interesting images.