A veteran I met in my travels

A few years ago while on assignment in Southwest Florida, I wandered around Sanibel Island and J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge one morning, in search of some images, and met an older gentlemen fishing. I thought he might make a nice subject fishing in the mangrove-lined refuge, and approached him.

Lee McMichen was in his early eighties, open to chat since he had been fishing for three days, casting his net without a catch. We talked a bit as I tried to figure out how I could capture a decent photograph in the harsh mid-day light. My first thoughts were all about creating an image, but as we spoke more, he shared a few stories of his life, and it became more about our personal interaction instead of producing an environmental portrait.

Sometimes, even when I’m on assignment, I stop, put down the camera, and listen. Although I might not create photos at those moments, and maybe miss memorable scenes, I believe this process brings me closer to the area I’m documenting, and in an indirect way helps me produce better overall images.

As we continued our conversation, he began to tell me about his experiences in war, and his time stationed in Pearl Harbor. You see he was on one of the four battleships bombed that morning, Lee deep in the hull when the explosions crippled the ships and the alarms to abandon ship sounded. He described his rush to escape from down below, only to have the main hatch be closed off in front of him and three others. Panic ensued as all four seamen realized the fate had been sealed, yet only seconds after the hatch closed, it reopened, and they were able to get out before the ship sunk.

After sharing this information, he didn’t talk of the joy he had at that moment, his life saved. He only spoke of all the others who weren’t able to get out. Yet because of the few seconds in his life where one sailor saved four others, he was given over sixty more years on this earth.

As we stood along Wildlife Drive, me fumbling through my camera bag, I heard him yell out – he had caught a large mullet, the first of his trip. “Looks like you are my good luck charm young man”, he said to me. I smiled, yet could only think of who his real good luck charm had been years before. You see, it’s not always the locations you dream of visiting, the adventures you hope to take, or even the images you produce as a travel photographer – it’s really about the people you meet.

Here’s to the men and women who served our country in all of our wars on Veteran’s Day. Although I prefer to follow the anti-war beliefs of many leaders such as the Daila Lama or Mahatma Gandhi, I will always honor and support our troops – those who do a job where so many lives are lost. To those who weren’t able to be saved, rest in peace, and thank you for your ultimate sacrifice.


Injuries & illness- the norm for a nature/travel photographer

As I type, I refrain from itching my right shin – what I thought was a small scrape from hiking through some bushes on a recent assignment in Monterey,might be a small case of poison oak. It reminded me of all the injuries and illnesses I’ve had while on the road, capturing images for my clients – nothing compares to what some photographers have experienced – cerebral malaria, acute mountain sickness, gun shot wounds, and even death – but here’s my small list of some of the memorable ones…

Attacked by wasps, Mendocino Coast: This, by far, was the worst experience in nature I’ve ever had. While on assignment for Sunset magazine, I was capturing a mountain biking guided ride. The guide and I went ahead of the group to scout for shots, and when I found a place, I laid my bike down – unfortunately on a wasp nest (burrowed under the leaf-covered forest floor). By the time I knew it, I was stung multiple times as the guide and I ran, dropping all my gear. We had to go back for our bikes and gear and was stung numerous times- in total, I was bit 25 times and the guide about 15. For the next 4-5 hours a weird rush of adrenaline flowed through my body every 10-15 minutes. All in all, I completed the day of shooting, but in some good pain, with scars lasting a few month.

Food poisoning, Acapulco: On a magazine shoot in ’03, I drove from Mexico City to Acapulco, on my way up the coast to Mazatlan stopping at many cruise ports. My Acapulco hotel was renovating their first floor, including their restaurant, so our room service was Hooters- that’s right, Hooters. I only had one dinner (delivered by a man may I say), but the next day I couldn’t eat without it coming back up. Another day later, the heat was sweltering as I went to photograph the famous cliff divers, forgetting my water in the car. And although I was carrying a lot of gear (a 35mm backpack, large tripod, and a very heavy medium format case), I assumed I wouldn’t need much water – sure I was walking down a few hundred steps to find the angle I wanted, but my car was right there at the top, in the parking lot. Unfortunately I was wrong. After a day of not eating, the heat, and the exertion, I was soaked in sweat and very tired. I shot images for a hour or two, but as I headed back up the stone steps, I was exhausted and baking hot- my body screaming out for water. I knew as was in the first stages of heat stroke. It took me 45 minutes to hike my heavy gear to my car and as I arrived at the top, I was pale and a wreck. I tried to eat some watermelon but that too decided it didn’t want to stay in my body. Although I rested with my head between my knees for 45 minutes, I knew I couldn’t rest much more- I had to check out of my hotel and drive 7 hours to Ixtapa for my next stop.

Montezuma’s revenge in Borneo: Traveling through Sarawak for three weeks was an amazing experience- and luckily I avoided any food-borne illnesses – that was until I arrived at the coastal town of Miri, on my way back home. A day away from my flight home, my stomach began to rumble as I walked the markets looking for a few trinkets. I won’t go into much detail, but the next day was spent very close to my hotel room and the bathroom- too much information? 🙂

Headaches atop Whitney: Backpacking to the top of Mount Whitney’s 14,500 foot peak was a wonderful experience with a few friends, a 300mm lens, and my tripod. But as the highest point in the lower 48 US States, I knew we would be tested with altitude sickness, especially coming from sea level the day before – nothing compared to what Everest climbers go through of course, but enough to become serious if not monitored. Although I made it up and back, the headache I had on the summit was excruciating and that night of sleep was a rough one.

Swollen leg in Sarawak: Wasp sting: While I hiked, 4-wheel drove, and helicoptered through the jungles of Borneo, I saw many large insects and bizarre wildlife. I had cut my knee the day before my trip (broken Snapple bottle), requiring stitches (along I never got ’em). My fear was the large gouge on my knee would get infected by jungle parasites, but luckily that never happened. One day however, while in the Penan village of Patik, I was stung on my calf by a wasp- hurt like hell. Over the next few days, my lower leg got larger, began to tighten up, and was covered by a rash- I had no idea why, nor did the doctor who traveled with our group of photographers and journalists. It took a week or so to go completely away, and although it was painful, it didn’t compare to the bizarre feeling a got from taking Larium (anti-malaria medication)- that’s a whole other story.

Air cast while covering the Eco-Challenge British Columbia: A few days before covering an adventure race assignment in Canada, I torn my ankle apart and had to wear an air cast. I still traveled to Whistler BC, covered the event for about a week even though my ankle was a mess. By the end of each day it would swell up and couldn’t fit in my boot. On the second night, the whole thing was turning blue and purple, from my toes to my upper ankle, but I toughed it out – not enjoyable but that’s part of the job.

Houseboat fall, Lake Shasta CA: If there’s one thing I’ve learned with photography is that the more you get into it, the stupider the things you do. On one Sunset magazine assignment while on the third deck of a houseboat, looking through my 24mm lens and walking at the same time (I know, not smart) I stepped into the hole that was the ladder down to the first floor. Luckily I caught myself albeit half way in the hole, smashed my back, and had a nice welt for a few weeks.

Face plant in Montana: I had a mix of magazine assignment’s once in Western Montana, spread out over a 10-day road trip. Of course dealing with weather and planning each shoot meant keeping up with a tight well-organized schedule. So on this particular day near Seeley Lake, I was due to capture sunrise, meet a few people to canoe down a stretch of river, mountain bike up to a waterfall (to save time), and connect with a group for some horseback riding shots before rounding out the day at sunset. The first part of day went off without a hitch. I rented a mountain bike and rode up a narrow technical single-track trail to the waterfall, got the images I needed, and as I headed back I silently was patting myself on the back- not only for being able to make each shoot happen in that day, but also how I was handling the tough trail with my photo backpack. Spoke (or thought) too soon. A 1/2 mile from my car I hit a tree root in the trail and took a nice face plant- broke my watch and sunglasses, and although I wore a helmet, scratched up my forehead nicely, not to mention my arm as well. The bike was in worse shape forcing me to carry it back to the car. That was the end of my day.

Back spasms in St Croix: I learned in my early 20s I was born with a small case of Spina bifida – my first lumbar never forming completely leaving a large gap. In high school I injured my back and ever since then I would have my back go out from time to time. With workouts and proper posture, I’ve been able to fend off back spasms over the year, but once in the US Virgin Islands, upon arriving for a two week photo shoot, my back gave out- most likely due to carrying so many heavy bags of gear. Models were on the way as well as my client, and luckily after a day of rest, Daypro and Soma, I was able to release the spasm and get back to my job.

Homesickness in Buenos Aires: I know, not really a legitimate injury, but it does come with the territory. Three weeks after being married, I was on the road, traveling to Argentina to capture an adventure race in Northern Patagonia. Once I arrived in Buenos Aires, I felt the overwhelming feeling of being homesick. “What am I doing here” I asked myself as I tried to communicate with the little Spanish I knew. Nevertheless I was aware that I had no other choice but to find a hotel, catch my Andes-bound flight the next day and to tough it out- I needed to be responsible and knew I’d regret it if I turned back. When I was younger I thought homesickness would go away with age and wisdom, but it doesn’t – Steinbeck proved that in Travels with Charley.

Although I still get homeisck when on assignment, it’s a little easier to deal with since with age comes the awareness of simply putting one foot in front of the other- just as long as it’s not into a hole I might fall through.


Nevada 50

Old West Highway, desolate road, traveled one summer week,
Blue sky days, sagebrush seas, mirages from asphalt heat

Mining towns far apart, dreams of prosperity gone so fast,
Jets thunder over petroglyphs, native hunters present and past

Countless characters with tall tales, life engraved throughout their face,
From Austin, Stagecoach, Middlegate, Cold Springs, & Majors Place

I drive the waves of mountain ranges, ridgelines of Pinõn pine,
The type of scenery to help the thoughts depart a cluttered mind

This desert is often branded as a vast and wasted land,
I see its stark and wild beauty touched by a higher hand

2002 poem by Sean Arbabi while on assignment capturing Nevada’s desolate Highway 50


Photo of the Week

I’m starting a “Photo of the Week” section of my blog, to display an image, describe how I shot it, and what my thought process start to finish – here’s my first:

USA: Nevada: Clark County: Las Vegas: Visitors watch the amazing Bellagio water show at night along Las Vegas Boulevard

This image was part of a week-long assignment to capture Las Vegas for a photo essay for Endless Vacation magazine.  I prepared the job by contacting dozens of casinos and resorts, acquiring permission to photograph on various properties, submitting my million dollar liability insurance (which is required for many different types of photo shoots, especially resorts, casinos, and large corporations), then driving from the San Francisco Bay Area to Las Vegas (just to lug more gear without the airport hassle since I was on my own for the week).

This evening I went out with my Fuji 680 III camera, a bulky medium format beast that I love, with a large tripod and walked along the Strip.  I shot many angles of the Bellagio water show but this one was one of my favorites.  The first thought I had while finding a spot to shoot was incorporating all the elements of the show- the water, the glow at night, Bellagio Hotel and Casino, and the visitors gathering around to watch it.  I backlit the entire scene using the tree to help frame my composition hoping it would be outlined by some of the high shooting water.  I metered the front facade of the building to get a reference, took other meter readings around the scene, and used my best guestimate for the shot (shooting film, I wouldn’t see my results until a week later). The lights on the tree and the nice spacing of the people was a nice small addition.

Once I received my film and picked the top selects, I scanned them in with my Nikon CoolScan 8000 (not available anymore- today Nikon makes the CoolScan 9000, they turned digital in a 300MB file, and a tiny bit more detail was pulled out to stretch the contrast ratio to fit what I saw – for the most part, 99% of what you see is in the film.

My editors thankfully loved the shots I captured that week.  It ran as a cover story and feature spread, and some of the work now rests in my files as well as my stock agency’s files.  I’ll be back in Vegas in March to capture new images of the ever-changing resort city.

When it comes to digital photography, exposure, technical details, and photographer theories, many feel you simply can’t lose your highlights in the shot – you can’t cut them off on your histogram, have ‘blinkies’ (showing you in your digital image where the detail is lost) etc, etc.  I don’t necessarily believe for all instances.  To me, photography is also about capturing mood, a feel, a glow, a moment, the heart of something – that’s when technical aspects are important but throw out a bit- it’s about the final image.


My Flomax commercial…not really

Okay- here I was, up in the state of Washington heading over the border to British Columbia, shooting a few editorial magazine jobs in both areas- combining it with a sports / road trip, just happy to be with good friends – something I’ve needed for a long time.  

And as we drove from Seattle to Vancouver by way of Snohomish, I sat in the back seat (a place I’m definitely not use to) with a smile on my face and a slow heartbeat.  We joked about someday renting a convertible and being the guys in the flomax commercial.  As we headed up Interstate 5 towards the US/Canada border, we past a beautiful forested area near Bellingham and Mt Baker where I shot this image.

Although it was an impromptu capture of friends on a road trip, and a nice but not once-in-a-lifetime-photo, it still took all of my photographic exposure experience to meter the outdoor light, use my pop-up fill-flash to add detail in the backlit shaded interior (couldn’t use my strobe flash unit since it was just too large in the Acura TL we were riding in), chose a super wide-angle lens to frame the scene, all the while driving 70 MPH in the small sedan with the sun shining straight into my lens (an aspect I desired since I knew it would add an extra spark to the scene).

My exposure was f/5.6 @ 1/200 second in manual mode, spot metering, using ISO 100, fill-flash, and a 12mm lens…not that this would help a ton to reproduce the image – only the specs of what I chose for the particular situation.

Dope road trip – cool assignments – great sporting events and outdoor activities.  Maybe in 20 years I’ll try the same shot in our convertible, as our grey hair flows in the wind.  🙂