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Ed Kashi

After publishing Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta in 2008, Ed returned to the Delta in May for nearly seven weeks to shoot a video for the State of Bayelsa. Despite his extensive experience in the area, the experience was a constant trial. For photographers who have worked overseas, this will no doubt sound familiar — for those who look at their images, it’s a compelling glimpse into how they are made.
The congested and broken down streets of the oil city of Warri, in the Niger Delta, where "hawkers" sell fuel illegally.

The congested and broken down streets of the oil city of Warri, in the Niger Delta, where hawkers sell fuel illegally.

May 15, 2009

Yenagoa….this is the capital city of the federal state of Bayelsa, which is only 12 years old. They have put me up in the bosom of the state, the Government House, a large compound for hosting guests and dignitaries. I have not been put in the VIP building. The furniture is broken, many of the lights don’t work, the TV is useless, there is no internet, the bed is a piece of foam on a piece of plywood, and it’s not clean. On the bright side, there is electricity, a functioning air conditioner and some lights. I have to focus on what I do have, not what I don’t, otherwise I’d go downhill fast.

This is so typical of Nigeria. I am in a grand compound, with a sense of decrepit grandeur on the surface. Yet inside so much is broken, unfinished or just done poorly. The irony is, being hosted by the government I have less than I would in one of the privately owned guest hotels in the town.

May 21

I went out in the afternoon with an engineer from the Dept. of Works to shoot road building. We went to a location where there was a giant Shell gas pipeline project about 30 yards away. I started to shoot innocuous activity: workers hanging out along the pipes, big machinery working in the muck of the swamps. All of a sudden, five Nigerian Shell workers in bright orange jump suits and hardhats start yelling and motioning me to come. I realized immediately I was in for it. Even though I had an official from the State Government and was not a journalist, they freaked and did the threatening, aggressive, and aggrieved trip on me. I didn’t get permission, etc, etc. Then they said I could not leave without erasing the tape.

Anytime this happens I get pissed and push back, which I did. I could see it was getting uglier and the fact I had a state official with me didn’t matter squat to them, so I called Von Kemedi, my main contact in the Delta since 1994. He threatened to send the MOPOLS, mobile police, to arrest them, and they let us go with further admonishment. What was upsetting and revealing was, when I said I was working for the State of Bayelsa, they said, “This isn’t the state of Bayelsa!” Shell owns the game down here and doesn’t have to answer to anyone.

“Shell Oil owns the game down here and doesn’t have to answer to anyone.”

May 25

Hitting a wall today of fatigue and burnout. So many appointments are changed or canceled last minute, Von continues to delay certain actions, Patterson Ogon (one of his deputies) is MIA, and I have to push everyone to get anything done. At least my core team is in place and seemingly responsible and loyal. If my assistant/videographer Sokari or my driver stop being responsible, I’ll truly lose it.

We started the day at a market by the river, next to a big new bridge. Then we went with a water commission official to a small village to show how potable water is brought to their community. It was raining the whole time, so I don’t know how the footage will look. Then we went back to the water commission HQ and did an interview with another Minister, of Agriculture. Then I hit the wall. I’ve been doing so good for the past days, but today something snapped. I have to get the rhythm back. I have no choice.

May 28

After our interview, we went to the Health Ministry to get details about an upcoming polio vaccine exercise, which is starting in a couple of days. We went to three offices, spoke to four different people, then went to a place where the vaccines are stored a few blocks away and spoke to someone there. He gave us a cell number and when Sokari called he basically was told we needed to come in and speak to this man. I hit a wall of frustration and lashed out at Sokari. I felt terrible afterwards and apologized a few times in the course of the day. I just get so frustrated with the hapless and clueless way so many people here work and think.

May 31

It was a whirlwind day with the Governor. First we started at the Govenment House Church, which is literally 100 yards from where I’m staying in the Government House compound. It’s incredible to think that this is exactly where that military helicopter dropped Elias (my fixer) and I off in June of 2006, handcuffed, after we were taken from the flow station out in Nembe creek. How life plays it’s tricks.

We finally got to Amassoma, which is almost an hour away on a mostly very rough road. We filmed the war canoe contest and got some good stuff, probably, although I was fried from all the pressures of the day and this trip. I realize I cannot control everything and, here, almost nothing, but sometimes it just becomes too much.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What’s the hardest country you’ve ever had to work in?

RESOLVE contributor Ed Kashi sent me some notes last week from his recent trip to the Niger Delta about the creative differences between shooting video and stills. This is an evolution many photographers are going through right now, so I decided to ask a few other multitaskers to share their thoughts. Please share your own experience with stills vs. video in the comments!
Ed Kashi – Ed has integrated video with his documentary photography for years, but recently shot his first video-only project.

1. How much do you shoot video compared with stills?

I have been working on a film in the Niger Delta, and although I’ve been shooting video for the past nine years, this is the first time I’ve shot a complete film without any stills.

2. What tools do you use to shoot video?

When I contemplated shooting this film in the Niger Delta, one of the toughest places I’ve worked, where most people don’t want to have any kind of camera pointed at them unless you explain yourself or you pay them, I was initially considering using the Canon 5D Mark II in video mode, thinking it would make me less conspicuous. That was a silly thought. In the end, I decided to work with a great standard definition video camera for excellent sound and none of the unresolved issues in video with the 5D.

3. What is the biggest difference for you between shooting video and stills?

Whereas still photography resides in the fractional moments, video lives in whole moments and complete segments. Keeping the editor’s needs in mind, you must provide sustained coverage with video, instead of pecking away at the fractional moments with your still camera. This can be a killer on your back, neck and/or wrist. The physical strain shooting video is definitely increased, at least for me since I work quite light, with one camera and one lens, when I shoot stills. With stills I am also slavishly dealing with the light, beholden to it’s patterns, moods and dictates. Light is important with video too, but I can still make a compelling video in almost any light. Then of course there is audio. I often ponder situations in terms of the audio it will render, what it will say and how it helps shape the narrative.

4. How do your still and video work influence each other?

Shooting stills is more torturous mentally but ultimately more deeply satisfying. I am a photographer at heart. Video is interesting, vital, challenging, relevant and captivating, but photographs are sacred to me in a way that video is not. It has something to do with my long relationship to photography, but more metaphysically, it relates to the stillness, the quiet and meditative quality of still images. No matter how enveloping and captivating video can be, there is an essential truth in still images for me. And I am finding that I miss working with my images — looking, editing, thinking about them, sending them to friends and family. They are much easier to move around, share and work with.

Bill Frakes – Bill has always mixed it up, but has been stepping it up lately with lots of great videos for Sports Illustrated and his many clients.

1. How much do you shoot video compared with stills?

It totally depends on what I’m working on. I’m just finishing a short documentary now that is entirely video. I’ve directed music videos and television spots for years. Usually I let the subject matter make the decision for me about the amount of video vs. stills that I’ll shoot.

2. What tools do you use to shoot video?

I shoot primarily with the Nikon D90, which allows me to switch between video and stills very easily. I have several professional-level video cameras, but the optics I can use with the D90 makes it a superior choice. I gather audio separately and I have had the D90s modified so they can accept outboard microphones.

3. What is the biggest difference for you between shooting video and stills?

From a physical standpoint, shooting video requires a tripod — otherwise it’s just not going to look good. From a photographic standpoint, composition still rules, but what works for each is totally different.

4. How do your still and video work influence each other?

My video and still work is totally in sync. Each is meant to enhance the other.

Guy Rhodes – Steeped in lighting and film techniques, Guy shoots a lot of independent films plus still images to keep his eyes fresh.

1. How much do you shoot video compared with stills?

The majority of my work over the past five years has been video-related, much of it in the independent film market. I shoot stills in my downtime to supplement my income and to keep my creative eye fresh. Over the past month, I’ve been out on three independent short film shoots, two as the director of photography and one as a Steadicam operator. I also had a handful of still shoots. Shooting video and stills at the same time is not generally required by my clients. Most hire me for one or the other, as they understand that trying to do video and stills at the same time often results in both suffering to some degree. The two mediums require different thought processes, and it’s very challenging to go between the two and do it well, especially in a deadline situation.

2. What tools do you use to shoot video?

I shoot on a Panasonic SDX900 for much of my independent film work. I’ve also shot several indie films on the Panasonic DVX100, which records in 24p, but on the more affordable MiniDV format. The short film I ran Steadicam on last month shot with Canon’s new 5D Mark II cameras. It was pretty exciting shooting HD video on a full-frame SLR, being able to use very wide aperture lenses to emulate the shallow depth of field of the 35mm motion picture format. For the rare instances that 24p is not required, I shoot on my Sony VX2000 MiniDV.

3. What is the biggest difference for you between shooting video and stills?

One large difference between shooting video and stills for me is lighting. Still images are pretty easy to manipulate after the fact, but you really can’t dodge and burn video. That’s why I try to nail my video lighting setups so I can hand the client a DVD of my camera raw video without color correction and not be embarrassed by it. I studied lighting in college so it’s not uncommon for me to spend an hour or two lighting a scene for film shoot, with only the last five minutes of that time devoted to setting up the camera and framing the shot. I think a lot of new video shooters and photographers get so wrapped up in the camera technology that they forget how important lighting really is.

4. How do your still and video work influence each other?

My video and still disciplines keep each other in check. I find that after shooting stills for a few weeks, the next time I pick up a video camera, the shots come easier. Sometimes I’ll try things with the video camera that I tried earlier with a still image, such as radically underexposing for a dramatic highlight or colorful costume. I have an equal love-hate relationship with each medium. Video editing is more tedious than editing a still photo shoot, but I do like the camaraderie of video shoots. First and foremost, though, I consider myself a lighting designer. Even when I’m shooting video all day, the majority of my time is spent lighting the scenes. The same goes for setting up a portrait shoot. When shooting on location with available light, lighting is still at the forefront of my mind.

Robert Caplin – Robert has been experimenting with the video capabilities of his Canon 5D, figuring out how to translate it into paying gigs.

1. How much do you shoot video compared with stills?

I shoot about 80% stills. Often I’ll capture video on interesting assignments, but more for memory’s sake. I’ve started working on video projects with my family and friends, but I have yet to capitalize on actually making a living with video. The transition is underway, but I don’t expect to ever give up still photography.

2. What tools do you use to shoot video?

I’ve exclusively used the Canon 5D Mark II for capturing video. For general audio I have a hot-shoe-mount mic made by Sennheiser (MKE 400). For music videos we record the music in a studio and lay it as the main audio track. For my latest project I used a separate sound crew who used professional booms, shotguns, and LAV mics.

3. What is the biggest difference for you between shooting video and stills?

The biggest difference during the shooting process is motion. Moving the camera while recording makes all the difference whether it’s a pan, dolly, crane, or steady-cam shot. I’ve found that keeping the camera motionless makes video more stagnant and less appealing. On the editing end, it’s a much more laborious process due to the file-sizes of the videos. It’s also more difficult to tone and edit 30 pictures per second.

4. How do your still and video work influence each other?

I feel that I’m a photographer at heart. Since I’ve started toying with video, I consider myself more and more a filmmaker as well. I think I have a lot to learn, but the ease of the 5D II makes it enjoyable to teach myself.

Martin Sundberg – Fielding frequent questions from clients about video, Martin recently produced a video shoot to test the waters.

1. How much do you shoot video compared with stills?

I’m still shooting nearly 100% stills for my professional and personal work, but nearly all of my clients are no inquiring if I can also produce video in addition to stills. On my last large shoot I started out thinking I would shoot a little video to show my clients how the activities might translate when we began our video productions. Yet, over 10 shoots at 10 locations, I only shot stills. Right now my mind set is, one or the other — video OR still. I think there have to be two different shoots or I have to have a video camera operator on set who I could direct while I shoot the stills.

2. What tools do you use to shoot video?

I am exclusively using the Canon 5D Mark II. We are capturing audio separately using a Marantz digital recorder.

3. What is the biggest difference for you between shooting video and stills?

When shooting photos I am really focused on perfecting the single moment. One perfect image. Video is about the flow through the frame and linking moments. Not all the moments in a sequence are perfect, but you only spend a fleeting moment looking at any one frame.

4. How do your still and video work influence each other?

I’m a photographer who is exploring video. I definitely think like a photographer… but I LOVE applying that to my new work in video!

Ed Kashi is on the road as much as any photojournalist I know. He leaves tomorrow for a seven-week trip to the Niger Delta, the location of his powerful book Curse of the Black Gold, and then Jordan for a National Geographic Photo Camp. During his decades shooting, Ed’s had time to ponder the impact his perpetual motion has had on his life, especially his family life. I’ve talked to a lot of photographers about the pull of the road and how hard it can be to reconnect with loved ones once you return, about the isolation as well as the exhilaration of photographing in foreign countries. I don’t know many photographers, though, who express that sensation and struggle — a feeling of suspended isolation — as honestly and eloquently as Ed does in these excerpts from his travel diaries.
© Ed Kashi

© Ed Kashi

I remember when my son was only two years old and I was leaving for a two-month trip to Pakistan. As I was saying goodbye, I started to cry. Eli looked at me in puzzlement, not understanding why his father was crying, not understanding anything about what was happening and that I was leaving. Twelve years later now, Eli is 14 and my daughter Isabel is 11, and I still find myself needing to connect, to explain, to seek compliance or understanding from them when I leave them for my latest assignment — and more often than not, it doesn’t register with them.

Before a recent trip, I made sure to walk Isabel to school. When we got to the steps of the school, I wanted so badly for us to have a heartfelt goodbye. Instead, she ran off when she saw her friends and barely said goodbye to me. Did this mean she didn’t care? Or was she avoiding “dad’s emotional trips”? Or was she totally unaware of the moment’s importance to me because, for her, our frequent separation is standard operating procedure?

From an early time in my life of constant comings and goings, I’ve realized so much of what I’m going through, I’m going through alone, in isolation. Home has become a base for me, so when I leave it takes time to separate from it. And I never entirely do. Then, upon reentry, I reconnect with my wife and kids, yet I’m often already thinking about my next trip. This constant state of flux creates a sense of being suspended between worlds and always feeling isolated on some level from both — a suspended isolation.

On another trip, I’m flying above Pakistan, en route to Mumbai to teach another workshop, this one for Carlo Roberti who runs the Tuscany Photographic Workshops in Italy. I’m thinking about traces of the familiar. The many good luck charms that Isabel has given me over the years remain in my travel bag, a constant reminder of her warmth, love, good nature, delicious spirit.

My wife Julie rarely gives me mementos, just the constancy of her being, the comfort of knowing she is there and committed. While there is nothing tangible from her in my bag, knowing she is there keeps me going in my darkest hours. From Eli it’s a similar yet more confusing and troubled trace. His love and attention come only with cajoling. He is not forthcoming nor in need of showing me his love or affection. Without these physical and emotional gifts from my family, I’d truly be lost. I can’t imagine a wandering for love and comfort that could possibly replace the firmness of my family.

Without these physical and emotional gifts from my family, I’d be lost.

Part of my sensation of suspended isolation stems from my own personal neediness. I am way too dependent on being connected, and our current climate of digital connectivity only indulges me further. This really started with the cellphone but has accelerated with texting and the ability to have instantaneous communication from almost anywhere in the world. I am addicted. On a good day it’s a wonderful combination, where I feel productive, engaged in the world, and simultaneously connected to my family and studio. On a brooding day, I see it as a character weaknesses that keeps me from engaging deeply with my subjects.

My sense of this suspended isolation started before I even left for my recent trip to Holland and Syria. The morning of my departure it became clear I was already out of my kids’ minds. While saying goodbye, I was reminded that they are living lives entirely outside this internal drama of mine, which only reinforces my feelings of being alone, suspended between my here and there, my aloneness and our togetherness.

This feeling is a semi-permanent condition at this point. This trip has been easy in some ways and quite taxing in others. Syria makes me feel diminished and weak. I know when I get home and review the work, the story will be a success, and I will feel strong and secure. But for now, I am tired and searching for solid ground. That is home, I know. But home is fleeting for me right now. I love you, Isabel and Eli. Our lives are crazy and moving too fast. I hope you and I find a sweet eddy to chill in sometime soon.

The best antidote to all my inner bullshit is to just do great work.

Interestingly, the best antidote to all my inner bullshit (as my wife would not put it but clearly views it) is to just do great work. It’s amazing how much better I feel and how my feelings of isolation suddenly vanish after a great day of shooting, reporting…being engaged. When I’m in the field, my ability to find stories and my desire to report and record are what keep me going and allow me to “forget” about myself. When I already feel isolated, and I’m not finding ideas and stories — that’s when the mental games kick in and life starts to feel desperate.

I’ve observed this cycle over the years, and it’s interesting how I frequently come out of it. Just when I am so goddamn lonely, desperate, burned out and tired, hopeless and depressed — in a state where a normal person would take a mental health day or a vacation or check into the local rehab clinic — I’ll go out that day and have an amazing experience, a great shoot, a wonderful human encounter, or witness something that takes me out of myself. Suddenly I’m healed, re-energized and ready for more. It’s bizarre and runs counter to logic. But I’ve had it happen dozens of times in my career.

For now, my only way to deal with my suspended isolation is to just bull through the emotions. After an exhausting inner dialogue with myself, I pick myself up, dust myself off, and get on with things. Is there any choice? Over the years, the only thing I’ve learned to help me cope with this is that, experience shows, it’s always ok in the end. I will get through these periods of isolation, suspended between worlds. My work always turns out great, my moments of despair invariably pass, and I get home. The key is not to let the conflict in my heart and mind poison my relationships with unnecessary outbursts of anger and pain — so when I am home there is at least the opportunity for us to connect, to find the love and calmness that fills our lives with beauty and health.

April 8th, 2009

Ed Kashi: Why I teach workshops

Posted by Ed Kashi

Ed shared passages from his travel notebook with us after his last trip to India, to teach a National Geographic Photo Camp in Rajasthan. In March he returned to India to lead a workshop for European and American adult students. Here he talks about the differences and similarities between the two teaching excursions and how he makes both into positive experiences.
©Ed Kashi

One of Ed's images from his recent trip to India to teach a workshop. ©Ed Kashi

After wrapping up a National Geographic Photo Camp in January, teaching young Indian students to use cameras for the first time, I returned to India in March to teach a workshop for American and European adults who want to become better photographers — some to make it a profession, and others, who are already professionals, to gain a new perspective that refreshes their work and attitude. The workshop students ranged in age and background: an American in her 60s who is a retired doctor and environmentalist but has been using photography for 40 years; an Italian professional photographer in her 40s who mostly does commercial work and wants to break into photojournalism; a young American just starting out as a photographer; an Italian photography lover in his 40s who is an Alitalia pilot; a German psychotherapist in his 50s who also loves photography; a British journalist in her late 20s who wants to improve her photography to be a double threat.

Occasionally during these workshops, it can feel uninspiring and frustrating when leading a clutch of prosumers, many of whom you know will not become photographers. But I cherish the NG Photo Camps and most of them won’t become photographers either. In the end, anything that allows me to teach, to impart my experience and passions, is satisfying and ultimately useful to my students. If one truly loves photography both as a craft and a profession, whether you want to change the world or just want to learn how to better enjoy your creative process, then it’s all good in my eyes.

As with any workshop, this recent one had a distinct arc: the beginning, always rocky, with people jet lagged, not sure of who is who, what they should be doing and maybe nervous about exposing their work to strangers. Then, just like with the kids in Udaipur, the experiences, breakthroughs, and imagemaking gives them strength, confidence, and joy that reaffirms their desire to be photographers. Both groups of students also come to the initial classes with varying degrees of confidence and creativity — most with timidity and all with the need for guidance, the fear of getting close to subjects and the desire to learn and improve that marks all beginners or intermediate photographers.

Often the teens have never picked up a camera before, so the camp is new, exciting, and overwhelming. For them, becoming a photographer is not a goal, or even a possibility, while the adult students are already photographers who may want to make it their profession. The outcome of their extra experience may come as a surprise, though: The adults bring more neuroses, habits, and fears, along with their more developed talent and purpose. They are hampered, in a way, by their photographic baggage, their professional dreams, or their desire to emulate or outdo other people’s photographs.

For these reasons my adult students are as much in need of guidance as the kids, but in certain ways they also present a greater opportunity for growth. One major challenge for the adults specifically is not being Indian. Photographing in a foreign culture reveals to them the difficulty of getting beyond the surface, and it requires the foreign adults to achieve a different level of inspiration and discovery than the teens from India. I also can be more candid in my critiques with the adult students than the teens and center my comments on their photography. If I know an adult photo student wants to make photography their profession, then I’ll take a more critical approach to their images as well as their approach, behavior, even dress sometimes (especially with females), and I try to get them to express their intentions so they become clearer and stronger about why they want to do this.

The amateur who just wants to improve their photography requires a different approach. To me it’s important to help them grow while also preserving their love and joy for the craft. We all know people who are wonderful in some art form yet drop it because they lose the joy when they realize they’re “not good enough” to “make it” professionally. In fact, many very talented people just don’t have the stomach to handle the pressures, rejection, and bullshit involved with being a professional in something that is so personal and subjective.

The teen, who is being asked to use photography by outsiders to tell their stories, requires a yet another approach. In these cases, I am not trying to cradle or soften my approach for the teens, but what I don’t want to do is snuff out their enthusiasm or courage. And given these NG Photo Camps are not designed to make the students into photographers, my role is one of support and encouragement, to help them tell their stories and open their minds to the possibilities of photography, writing, self expression, and life!

So what do I get out of these workshops? Exposure to other photographer’s concerns, ambitions, ideas, and inspirations. An income stream to make up for a loss of work for serious documentary photography. I can’t deny it also soothes my ego to be, for a short time, among photographers who respectfully listen and appreciate what I have to say. In this subjective profession, we often flourish or fail according to others’ whims and the uncontrollable fortunes of fate (others might call that luck!); the break from that provided by teaching is refreshing and rejuvenating. I also love sharing my work with others and, especially, the chance to help shape photography’s future, teaching human values and creativity by sharing my passion for the craft and my commitment visual storytelling.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What experiences have you had teaching or taking part in photography workshops and classes? Have you found them fulfilling, frustrating, or something else?


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