paradise found?

I finally went to the Zanzibar tourists come for. I’ve been holding out for a while partly because it’s so completely divorced from the reality of the rest of Zanzibar and also because I’ve been caught up working on my shellfishing story which took me nowhere near Nungwi or any of the other beach resort areas. I have to admit, however, that Nungwi, which is on the northern tip of Zanzibar, has perhaps the most surreally beautiful beaches I have ever seen.

Because the sand is so white, the water looks as clear and blue as a swimming pool. A mix of traditional dhow boats and modern fishing boats bob on the water and signs advertise for massages and yoga. While Zanzibar’s Muslim culture means people generally cover up, here westerners walk around in bikinis and speedos, their skins tanned dark. Beach bar after beach bar offers exotic drinks and expensive food. A Zanzibarian man walks down the beach with a monkey on a leash, offering to be photographed with his simian friend for a dollar. When I photograph them, the two seem to be locked in some kind of ecstatic embrace. The atmosphere is definitely one of decadence and absolute relaxation.

Ironically the town of Nungwi itself is a small and ramshackled fishing village that was traditionally the center of Zanzibar’s dhow boat building industry. Apparently it was one of the last holdouts on tourism and the villagers opposed development up until as late as the mid 1990’s. Hard to imagine given that the coastline is now dotted with resort after resort.

So this morning I woke up to not only an amazing view of the ocean but a very dramatic sky. It looked like a storm was moving in and the contrast between the placid blue water and the ominous-looking sky was just extraordinary. If I didn’t know Zanzibar, I would have thought a tropical storm or at least a torrential downpour was headed our way. An hour later, the sky had cleared and the drama was replaced by beach goers slumbering in the sand, their barely-covered bums saluting the sun.

I love how man and monkey seem to be locked in some kind of ecstatic embrace.

A traditional dhow sailboat sits in contrast to the more modern fishing boats.

Me on the beach an hour or so after I took the stormy sky photo. All the drama dissapated!

old world Stone Town

Stone Town, Zanzibar has such an old world quality to it. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, most of the town is made of lime stone, much of which is crumbling and moldy. The roads are narrow and maze-like and, without the noise of cars and the flash of neon signs, it is almost as if one had been transported to a previous century.

One of the most striking things about Stone Town is the beautiful and massive wooden doors one sees. Many of them have carvings and bas-reliefs and some even have the brass studs one sees in India which were originally invented to discourage elephants from breaking down the doors. Of course Zanzibar has so elephants so these are purely decorative. I thought I’d post a couple of portraits I shot in which one can see the beautiful Zanzibarian doors. While one is of an old man and the other a young boy, I thought there was something about their body language, the position of their hands and their expression that linked them.

A young boy sits in front of his home with a deflated bicycle tube. One often sees kids chasing a tube like this down the street with a stick.

I love color!

Most of Stone Town, Zanzibar, is white, gray and brown–very textured and beautiful–but yesterday, when I went photographing as I do every evening, I found one of the most colorful sites I’ve come across here.

After winding my way through the maze of Stone Town’s narrow roads and alleyways, I found a group of children playing near a green and yellow wall. I was so struck by their brightly colored clothing, their interactions with one another and by the wall that I decided to hang around for a while.

At first the children were very conscious of me–something all photographer’s struggle with–so I waited and waited until they got bored of my presence and resumed their play. While I love shooting portraits–and did end up doing a few of those–photojournalism in its true essence is about capturing the “moment”. Most of the time this takes a lot of patience as the various elements–light, composition, placement of the subjects and so on–rarely line up.

I really wanted to capture these children’s world, their moments of joy and seriousness, their payfulness and curiosity. I missed many wonderful moments but here are a few images I thought I’d share.

This images was taken early on during the shoot when the children were still very aware of me.

Some kind of face off was happening between these two girls although I don’t know what it was about. It seemed to resolve itself very quickly as you can see in the next photo.

I love this moment of complete spontaneous laughter!

A random guy walked down the street carrying this amazing fish. All eyes were on it.

“Pole Pole” which means “slow slow” in Swahili

My Zanzibarian friend, Ahmed, says “pole pole” (slow slow) a lot. I know that what he’s saying is very symbolic of the Zanzibarian attitude which is to ‘take life slowly and enjoy every minute!’. Coming to this island from the US, I am constantly struck by both the slowness of life here as well as the vitality.

One of my favorite things here that I think embodies this is the nightly ritual of kids jumping off these high poles or over the harbor wall itself into the water below. So joyful and beautiful to watch, they each try to outdo one another and are repeatedly silhouetted against the sky in their various graceful postures. I photographed this last year when I was here and this time again and I never get tired of watching (or photographing) this nightly dance.

my moldy wall project

Today I found a fantastically moldy wall in Stone Town, Zanzibar, where I am working on a photo project about shellfishing. It was such a wonderfully textured wall–really like a painting more than a wall–that I couldn’t tear myself away from it. I decided to stay there for a while and photograph the wall as people passed by.

Stone Town is a beautiful old town built by the Omanis a long time ago when they ruled Zanzibar. It has a wonderfully old-world quality to it, full of tiny twisting stone alleyways and massive wooden doors. Old men drink coffee and argue politics while children bicycle wildly through the narrow streets.

The Omanis used limestone to build the town just a they did back home but apparently they didn’t count on the fact that Zanzibar, unlike Oman, is very wet. As a result, over the years water has seeped into the walls of Stone Town and the walls are slowly disintegrating. Hence my beautiful moldy wall which I felt was the perfect canvas against which to capture some of Stone Town’s people as they went about their day. I will probably have to go back to my moldy wall for a follow up shoot.


The plottings of Winnie the Pooch

I love photography for its ability to capture the ordinary moments in life. Last night Mark and I were playing chess. We had a fire going and the dogs were lounging happily at our feet. It was about as cozy as it gets on a winter’s night.

For anyone who knows Winnie the Pooch (or vizslas in general), you will not be surprised to hear that soon into our game, Winnie began his slow creep onto my chair. Vizslas are nicknamed “velcro dogs” for a reason–they want to be as physically close to you at all times as possible and preferable snuggle up in the warmest, softest spot they can find.

So Winnie slowly, methodically starts climbing up the side of my chair and wedges himself behind my back. Perhaps he is convinced that I won’t notice since I have my back to him. As he settles and stretches, I find myself with less and less room on the chair until I am balancing precariously on the very edge of it.

To complete his position of total comfort, Winnie rests his head on the arm of the chair, as if to observe from close-up the action on the chess board. At this point I’ve pretty much been ousted from my chair and decide to move to the floor. Yup, I can’t help myself. This dog has me wrapped around his little doggy finger (wait, he doesn’t have fingers). Anyway, I decided to take a photo to capture this delicious moment in my domestic life.

“The Art of Reconstruction: Tattoo Artist Helps Breast Cancer Patients Reclaim Their Identity” by Michelle Gabel

Cherie Mullen, 40, of New Haven, NY, is one of many breast cancer patients who have been tattooed by Kim Leach, owner of Phoenix Rising Tattoo. After her breast reconstruction, Mullen, shown with her daughter, Desiree, 11, had Leach cover scars from her treatment. The butterfly covers her scar from her chemotherapy port and the vine covers a mastectomy scar.
Michelle Gabel/The Post-Standard

Photojournalist, Michelle Gabel, has long been one of my photo idols. I met her while interning at the Syracuse Post Standard back in 1999 when I was a photojournalism grad student at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. Her work had a delicacy and visual subtlety about it that seemed to put it in a different world from the more brash, graphic photographs many of her peers were making. She seemed to be in just the right place when a quiet and particularly meaningful interaction happened between her subjects or when a spontaneous moment of humor unfolded.

When I got to know Michelle as a friend, I began to understand why she was able to capture these moments. Michelle is a disarmingly gentle person and she is passionate about her work. She invests herself so deeply in her projects–particularly when working on long term stories–and her subjects trust her implicitly. Michelle also seeks out subject matter that interests her and she brings to her stories an empathy and intelligence that makes them both informative and very moving. I asked Michelle to choose a photo from her recent project about women getting tattoos on their mastectomy scars to talk about.

Michelle Gabel: I began this project, “The Art of Reconstruction,” with writer Janet Gramza, featuring former nurse and tattoo artist, Kim Leach, who uses tattoos to cover the scars of mastectomy patients. In the process, we also ended up documenting the stories of two breast cancer survivors whose recoveries were aided by having Kim turn their scars into works of art. These women said getting the tattoos marked the first time they were able to take control of their bodies since being diagnosed with cancer and also helped them to feel better about their appearance after painful and frightening treatments and surgeries. The story was published in The Post-Standard, the daily newspaper in Syracuse, NY.

The woman depicted in this photo is Cherie Mullen, 40, one of the breast cancer patients tattooed by Leach. After being diagnosed with cancer in her left breast, Cherie endured chemotherapy, a mastectomy, a second round of chemo, and 33 days of radiation. When a test showed she had the BRCA2 gene, indicating a high risk of recurrence, she decided to have her other breast removed. After breast reconstruction surgeries, Cherie, shown with her daughter, Desiree, 11, had Kim cover her chemotherapy port with a tattoo of a butterfly and her mastectomy scar with a vine and breast cancer ribbon.

My challenge with this portrait was to show the artwork on Cherie’s chest, just above her reconstructed breasts, portray her demeanor, choose a setting, create the right light, and also drape her clothing in a way that wasn’t considered too revealing for a family newspaper. (My editors nervously stressed “no nipples.”) I arrived at Cherie’s house midday, tried a few different backgrounds, and ended up choosing the window because it was draped with a garland that kind of echoed the theme of her tattoos. Cherie, who was very committed to the story, was incredibly patient with me during this 2-3 hour long shoot. After photographing Cherie alone for a while, I asked if her daughter, Desiree, would be in the photo too. I used three lights: One on their faces, one on Cherie’s tattoos, and one on the background. As depicted in the photo, Cherie and Desiree are very close and this image went well with Cherie’s emphasis on “Faith, Family, and Friends,” words inscribed above a tattoo on her back celebrating her five-year anniversary of being cancer free.

to see the complete photo essay, go to:

or to see the photos with text, go to:

first snowstorm of the year

A tree emerges from the water at Big Cliff Pond in Nickerson State, Park, Brewster, MA.

Today it finally snowed. Not just a dusting or an inch or two..real snow! I love snow for its ability to transform our every day world into a sort of magical space full of curves and softness. The dirt and grit disappears and a monochromatic dreamscape replaces it. As photographers, part of our job is to show people the world in a way they haven’t seen it before–whether it’s an unusual angle, justaposition of subjects or a moment frozen in a way we don’t usually experience it. For me, snow does exactly that–shows me the world newly imagined.

Snow covers the thin layer of ice in patches on Little Cliff Pond in Nickerson State Park, Brewster, MA.

the dolphin mystery continues…

Two stranded common dolphins wait to be transported to a waiting vehicle by a team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare at Herring River in Wellfleet, MA on Thursday, January 19th, 2012. The dolphins are two of 7 in the latest batch of dolphins found today bringing a total of over 80 stranded on Cape Cod shores in the last week.

Since I last blogged, over 50 more dolphins have stranded on Cape Cod, bringing the total to over 80. Yesterday I photographed the latest stranding in Wellfleet’s Herring River. While the setting was exquisite, the dolphins struggling and vulnerable on the flats, clearly expressing their distress, was yet another painful image I’ll never forget in this strange story.

No one knows why the strandings are happening on this massive scale. At the very least, the story is finally getting coverage in the mainstream media, with CNN running a lengthy piece on it this morning and most major papers reporting on it. I cannot help but wonder whether this is a natural phenomenon or whether, like many of the other cries of help nature seems to be sending us, this is indicative of an imbalance created by us humans. Here are some more images from yesterday’s stranding.

International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) volunteer, Patty Walsh, monitors the breathing of a stranded common dolphin while behind her a team prepares to move anther dolphin to a waiting vehicle at Herring River in Wellfleet, MA.

An International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) team carries a stranded common dolphin to a waiting vehicle while another waits to be rescued.

A dead common dolphin is marked as such at Herring River in Wellfleet, MA. In the background, an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) volunteer monitors the breathing of a live stranded common dolphin while an IFAW team moves another dolphin to a waiting vehicle to potentially be released.

a massive dolphin stranding and thoughts about objectivity

Yesterday around 30 dolphins stranded along the shores of Cape Cod Bay from Dennis to Wellfleet. While strandings happen all the time on Cape Cod, particularly in the winter months, what made this one different was the sheer numbers and how spread out the dolphins were geographically. While no one really knows why the dolphins stranded, the previous day’s intense 30mph winds were suspected of having played a role.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the organization that called me about the story, was immediately overwhelmed with the logistics of rescuing dolphins up and down the shore line and transporting them about 45 minutes away to Scussett Bach in Sagamore Beach where the waters were calmer and the dolphins could potentially be released. IFAW also needed to evaluate each dolphin medically, gather scientific data on the dolphins and tag some of them before releasing them back into Cape Cod waters. To add yet another challenge, the temperatures were frigid and the winds made things worse. As a team of IFAW and New England Aquarium employees worked with volunteers to handle the situation, IFAW’s stranding coordinator, Brian Sharp, kept fielding more and more calls reporting new strandings. To say the least, it was a chaotic and tragic unfolding of events and while some good came out of it–11 dolphins were successfully released back into the bay–there was a palpable sense of loss as, at the end of the day, the 35 or so humans who had put a huge effort into saving the dolphins, walked away to their various vehicles to head home.

As a photojournalist, I was taught to keep a certain emotional distance from my subject matter. “Never get too close to lose objectivity,” is the mantra. Photographing in a rescue vehicle with a bunch of traumatized dolphins struggling and snorting in distress made this quite challenging. Perhaps humans have a particularly strong sense of empathy towards dolphins because their communication is so complex and they are known to be extremely intelligent. Or perhaps we’ve fallen in love with their physical grace and freedom. I found it incredibly difficult to watch the dolphins suffering in this painful state–many were injured and bleeding–but almost all communicated their pain audibly which made it seem all the more difficult. I started thinking about whether the strong empathy I felt for them would affect my ability to document the day’s unfolding. I was still able to photograph and gather information and still felt an urgency to tell the story–perhaps even more so because of my feelings about the animals.

I think that many photojournalists choose their profession because they care about stuff…people, injustice, animals, exploitation and all the other things that are part of the human experience. While I understand that getting over-invested in one’s subject matter can be dangerous and cause one to create reality rather than capture it, I ultimately believe that true objectivity might render a photojournalist uninspired and incapable of doing his/her job. Images that move me are usually full of the passion and vision of someone who does care, who empathizes with his or her subject matter. As I left Scusset beach yesterday, cold and exhausted, I did not regret my feelings. I knew that this story, like many I’ve worked on, made me feel profoundly human and that this was not a bad thing. Below are some images from the story.

A rescued common dolphin is given a hearing test before being released back into Cape Cod Bay at Scusset Beach.

A mother and calf common dolphin are transported to the beach by a team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the New England Aquarium.

New England Aquarium biologist, Eric Payne, sits with a rescued common dolphin minutes before it is released back into Cape Cod Bay.

A team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the New England Aquarium struggles against the surf while releasing two rescued common dolphins into Cape Cod Bay at Scusset Beach.

Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Emeregecy Relief Program, Ian Robinson, watches as a common dolphin swims off after being released.

the story behind a baby elephant portrait

Over the years, I’ve had so many people ask me about this orphan elephant portrait. Many were curious about the story behind it.

I met this baby elephant while documenting a baby elephant and rhino rehabilitation and relocation program in Assam, India a few years ago for IFAW (the International Fund for Animal Welfare). It had been separated from its mother during a flood and the IFAW/WTI Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation had rescued it and was preparing it to be integrated into a family of orphaned elephants at the rehabilitation center.

Because it was so young, it was still being bottle fed and was therefore kept separate from the older orphans. Elephants are extremely intelligent and social animals and have close life-long relationships with family members just as us humans do. One morning, I photographed this elephant being bottle fed and was struck by its need to connect…with the person who fed it, with me, even with the baby buffalo it was sharing a pen with. Its long, sensitive trunk explored every smell and texture it could find.

At one point, it came right up to me and even appeared to be examining my camera closely, smelling and feeling the mysterious metal contraption. I couldn’t help but laugh when it later went up to its pen-mate, the baby buffalo, and pushed it around a bit, as if to assert its intellectual and physical superiority. The baby buffalo stood there, unmoving, doe-eyed, utterly uninterested in this inter-species communication.

I photographed the little elephant many times during my stay there and by the time I left, I was completely charmed by him. On the last day before I left, I went to visit him for the final time to say goodbye. After I left, I turned around one more time to look at the building that housed the little elephant. I saw he had got up on his hind legs and was looking out the window directly at me. His expression was so strikingly human and profoundly expressive in that moment, I found myself feeling an intense connection. I made a few photos of him, struggling to leave. Later, when I saw this photo, I knew I would never see elephants in quite the same way again.

The baby elephant was eventually integrated into a herd of orphaned elephants who were then released back into the wilderness. The last I heard they had made a good transition.

“The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza” by Greg Kahn

Amalia Mendoza turns her head as she is fitted with a wax prosthetic, a template for David Trainer to make a mold for her new face

A few months ago at the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, photojournalist Greg Kahn presented his extraordinary story “The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza”.

In 2001 a woman named Amalia Mendoza was in a car accident on a rural Colombian road which resulted in the loss of most of her face including her hair, both eyes, nose, and sections of her skull. After years of frustration, one of Amalia’s daughters brought her to America to seek the help of David Trainer, a specialist in facial prosthetics, in the hopes he could give Mendoza her identity back.

Watching Amalia’s story unfold, I was so struck by Greg’s visual story-telling and the intimacy of his images. One had the sense that he was capturing the story from the inside and had earned Amalia and her family’s trust in a way that rendered him invisible–quite a feat given the difficult subject matter. Greg’s work so beautifully depicts Amalia’s gradual transformation and her eventual return to her life in Colombia where many see her almost as having returned from the dead.

While this story could so easily feel sensationalized, Greg’s respectful approach really captures Amalia’s humanity and by the end of the piece, one feels so powerfully her renewed sense of connection to the world as, for instance, she returns to her restaurant and animatedly tells the gathered crowd about her trip to America. For a woman who could barely leave her home before, this moment just embodies her return to life and the viewer cannot help but celebrate alongside her.

I asked Greg if he could choose an image to talk about for this blog and explain why he felt it was significant. He chose the above image and here, in his own words, he says why:

“Amalia originally had been quite shy. It’s not hard to imagine if I lost my face, my visual identity, how timid I would be because of my lack of vision and my perception that everyone was staring at me. Even though she had a full voice, Amalia always talked softly, as if not to draw any additional attention to herself. I’m sure her knowledge of someone taking photos of her constantly didn’t help with her self-consciousness.

So we were all crammed into this very small patient room at David Trainer’s office. He was in the process of sculpting the wax face that would be used to make the final mold for Amalia’s new prosthetic. Trainer used a standard face to start, and then carve away the wax to make the final product. After a lot of initial carving, he went to where Amalia was sitting and placed it on her face to see if the shape was headed in the right direction.

As soon as the wax touched her skin, there was a transformation in Amalia. Her head lifted up, her shoulder broadened. You could see the signs of life beginning. It was such a powerful moment to witness. She had no knowledge of what this wax mold looked like, but she could feel, just by the way it rested on her face, that this was what she had been waiting for. Her confidence only grew from there and within a couple weeks, Amalia was back on a plane to Colombia to reunite with friends and family.”

To watch Greg’s multi media piece, click on The Resurrection of Amalia Mendoza

You can also find a slide show version of the story at Greg’s website: