Fear, Loathing and Photography: A Mad Journey into the Heart of the Hunter S. Thompson

Portrait of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson at his home in Woody Creek, CO ©Jeffrey Aaronson 1990

Behind the Scenes: It’s late January 1990 and Jeffrey Aaronson is photographing on assignment in Aspen, Colorado for Town & Country. The magazine is doing a major feature about the shakers and movers of this tiny mountain resort as well as the many bigwigs and socialites who flock there during the winter.

Editor, Anne Hearst, has flown in from New York to conduct interviews and coordinate several of the photo shoots. Her list includes everyone from billionaire David Koch to socialite Teran Davis to celebrities like Jill St. John and Robert Wagner.

“Gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson is also on Anne’s list, which amuses Jeffrey since Thompson has always prided himself on being a counter culture icon–the complete opposite of everything the magazine represents. He’s skeptical Thompson will even agree to be photographed.

Midway into this grueling weeklong assignment, Jeffrey is beat. He’s been on the go since the crack of dawn once again—this time photographing models on snowmobiles in Aspen’s early morning light, in ten-degree weather, no less. Knowing he has another full day ahead of him, he turns in around 11:00 pm, only to be ripped out of his REM sleep an hour later. It’s Anne.

“Hunter Thompson just called and said we can do the shoot right now.”

Jeffrey groans, “You’re kidding, right? What time is it?”

“A little after midnight. Sorry…he said he’s just waking up.” Continue reading

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: President Nelson Mandela

Photo of Nelson Mandela for President South Africa 1994Behind the Scenes:  Johannesburg, May 1994. It’s a new day in South Africa. Historic change electrifies the air. Apartheid, the government’s official policy of racial segregation, has finally come to an end, and Nelson Mandela is about to be elected the country’s first black president in nearly three hundred fifty years.

Photo of a South African Woman

The emotion surging through Jeffrey Aaronson as he photographs this momentous occasion mimics that of the country’s new flag shimmering in the wind.

It’s impossible to repress his awe, remembering it had been just four years earlier that Nelson Mandela had been released from prison after serving a 27-year sentence for leading the armed struggle against apartheid.

Mandela’s prophetic words, uttered upon his release from prison couldn’t ring more true today:

“Our march to freedom is irreversible”

Continue reading

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Hong Kong Handover

Time Magazine 1997 Hong Kong Handover Cover

Behind the scenes: It’s late June 1997 and Hong Kong is about to be handed back to China after 150 years of British rule. Jeffrey Aaronson has been hired by Time magazine to document the events leading up to the handover ceremony, which is taking place at midnight on June 30th.

He has spent the past two weeks photographing all across China with one of Time’s senior correspondents, Joanna McCreary. They’ve ventured to several of China’s outlying cities, showing that while Communist leaders proclaim there will be “One country, Two Systems” with the Hong Kong handover, China is already comprised of a tangle of systems and economic policies created by local municipalities.

This is a memorable assignment for many reasons. One is that it’s an historic event. The other is that Jeffrey is arrested in the city of Suzhou. His visa has expired and the police have discovered he’s been working on a tourist visa instead of an official journalist visa. He’s always done that to avoid being controlled by government minders.

Locked in a jail cell, Jeffrey tries to ignore the sense of dread washing over him. A grizzly policeman glares with distain, then says between long drags on his cigarette, “You have until midnight to leave China. You’d better be on a plane out of here or….”

Once he’s released Jeffrey immediately begins trying to figure out his next move. He discovers there’s only one flight left to Hong Kong (which is still British for another week), but it’s out of Shanghai, which is least two hours away–on a good traffic day. He has less than three hours and he still must go back to his hotel and pack, then get to the airport, buy his ticket and board the plane.

After phoning the correspondent to tell her what has transpired, he’s in a car on the way to Shanghai. His plan is to fly to Hong Kong and apply for a new tourist visa—knowing China is still not computerized and not likely to discover his recent incarceration. Then he’ll fly into Beijing the next day and meet back up with the correspondent.

After a heart-racing drive and an absurd made-for-TV-sprint through the airport, Jeffrey catches his flight just as they are closing the door.

The next day, after working with Mr. Kwok, his seedy connection in Hong Kong, he obtains a new visa and lands back in Beijing.

The correspondent, who is well-aware of what Jeffrey has just been through, recommends he rests and lays low, especially since she won’t be writing anything about Beijing.

Jeffrey, who has never been good at laying low, ignores Joanna’s advice and heads out to photograph anyway. In Tiananmen Square he happens upon a group of school children doing chalk drawings in celebration of the upcoming handover. A large “countdown clock” is ticking down the hours and minutes until the handover, which the mainland is exuberant about.

When he photographs these two schoolboys sporting 1997 glasses, he’s glad he followed his instincts instead of laying low. He knows he has just created an iconic image for their story. And he’s right. It becomes the cover of the magazine.

__________

A week later a similar situation happens. It’s the night of the handover ceremony and Jeffrey has been shooting all over Hong Kong, along with a small contingent of photographers working for Time. Each is assigned a dizzying number of symbolic events as the British say farewell.

Jeffrey is on a tight schedule trying to get from one event to the next. It’s the first assignment his editor has given him a cell phone to help with communication and logistics during this tricky project. It’s the size of a brick, but it’s indispensable.

He has spent much of the day with the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patton, and is now on his way to photograph the Britannia symbolically sailing out of Hong Kong Harbor.

Time Magazine Cover New Guard in Hong KongThe streets are filled with drunk Expats as they try to forget about their future and their certain loss of British freedoms. On the way from one event to the next Jeffrey sees the first ceremonial Chinese soldier standing guard where a British soldier once stood.

It’s dripping hot and humid, and the crowd is growing more and more unruly, taunting the soldier. Jeffrey knows he’s late for his next event, and a call from his editor reinforces that. “Your car and driver are waiting for you. Please get over there now.”

“Give me ten minutes, “ he says to his editor, convincing her that what he’s witnessing could make for a symbolic photograph. While she has the driver circle, he creates another cover of Time, which runs the week after his previous cover.

“It’s often unplanned moments that make for some of the most interesting and important photographs. Sometimes you just have to follow your intuition, even if it means ignoring your editor,” Jeffrey later reflects.

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Los Angeles Riots

Photo of the Los Angeles Riots in 1992

Behind the Scenes: It’s late April 1992 and all hell is breaking loose in South Central Los Angeles. Four LAPD officers—three white and one Hispanic—have just been acquitted of brutally beating black motorist, Rodney King, and the verdict has ignited a firestorm of rage in the black community. After years of police brutality, racial injustice, and economic disparity, hundreds are rioting in the streets.

Jeffrey watches this fiery scene unfold on television, his stomach churning, especially when he sees an innocent white truck driver, Reginald Denny, pulled from his truck and maliciously beaten when he’s stopped at an intersection; then later hears of another man, Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan construction worker, who’s robbed, beaten and maimed—his ear nearly sliced off and his genitals and torso painted black.

Growing up in the Los Angeles area, Jeffrey is disturbed to see this unfolding in his own backyard. The brutality seems more like something he’d witness in a lesser-developed country; one without a democratic or judicial system in place.

When the riots intensify the following day, with thousands now protesting, looting and setting buildings on fire, Jeffrey gets on a plane and heads to Los Angeles. After covering human rights issues and cultural conflicts around the world, he feels compelled to turn his lens on what is happening in his own country.

Landing at LAX, he gets a rental car (with the extra insurance, this time), then drives into the miasma. It’s like a war zone. Four thousand National Guard troops are patrolling the streets, many in Humvees, all with rifles.The smell of smoke and ash assault Jeffrey’s nostrils as he steps out of the car near the intersection where Reginald Denny was beaten.

The muscles in Jeffrey’s neck ache with tension. Even though every kind of law enforcement officer has been brought in from around California to stand guard and try to gain control of the situation, he knows that unlike most other countries where only the military owns guns, anybody is able to own and use a gun in our country. Sniper shootings have been rampant.

In the mix, the Korean American community has been hit hard with looting and has taken up arms trying to defend its livelihood. Gun battles have broken out across Koreatown.

Jeffrey’s intention is to examine the social, cultural, and economic reasons contributing to this explosive situation. When he comes across firefighters putting out the remaining embers of a torched building and an officer guarding them from snipers, he knows he has created a symbolic photograph of this complicated moment in time–especially with the sentiment scrawled in red across the wall.

This photograph was created with a Nikon F4 camera, a Nikor 24mm lens and Fuji Velvia film. It was published in Newsweek, then later as the cover of Architectural Landscape magazine in an issue dedicated to urban renewal.

Where were you when the Los Angeles riots broke out twenty years ago ? Do you remember? And do you remember what your thoughts were at the time?

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: China

Photo of a man doing tai chi in Rutan Park in Beijing, China

Behind the Scenes: The year is 1995 and Jeffrey is photographing on assignment for The New York Times Travel Section in Beijing, China. He’s there to do a story about Ritan (Temple of the Sun) Park.

This expansive park is one of the oldest sites in Beijing and is like an oasis in the midst of a teeming metropolis. Commissioned by Ming Dynasty emperor JiaJing in 1530, it is filled not only with massive trees, gardens, pavilions, and small lakes, but many places for people to gather and recreate. Tai chi and ballroom dancing are common forms of exercise found here.

When Jeffrey comes upon this elderly gentleman wearing a traditional Mao jacket, fully immersed in the solitude of his early morning ritual, he knows he has captured the essence of Ritan Park and also created a wonderful symbol of ancient China–still alive and well in modern day Beijing.

At its core, tai chi is a martial art (also referred to as shadow boxing), but it is now commonly practiced to strengthen and promote mind/body health. Jeffrey loved how the man was entranced in the shadow of his own dance, and how the traditional Chinese red wall and green tiles melded with the shadow and gesture, creating pure harmony.

This image was created with a Nikon F4, a Nikkor 85mm lens and Fuji Velvia film.

Postscript: A week after it was published as the cover of The New York Times Travel Section, Broadway’s legendary song and dance man, Tommy Tune, wrote a letter to the editor extolling the artistic merits of Jeffrey’s photograph and how he captured the magic of the moment.

“It was quite an honor coming from Tommy Tune, whom I admire for his artistry and accomplishments in the field of dance,” said Jeffrey. “The fact that he would take the time to write a letter to the editor…there really is no higher compliment.”

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Cambodia

Photograph of a boy in Cambodia with an AK-47 gunBehind the Scenes: It’s 1989 and the Khmer Rouge are still fighting in Cambodia. Pol Pot’s official reign of genocidal terror has ended, but the aftermath of the “Killing Fields,” as it was coined in the grizzly 1984 film, still lingers.

Jeffrey is in Cambodia with Harry Rolnick, a foreign correspondent for the Bangkok Post. They are there to tell the story of the restoration quietly taking place at Angkor Wat Temple Complex. A handful of scientists from the Archaeological Survey of India have begun work on Cambodia’s most important archaeological site.

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple complex moon riseAngkor Wat, an ancient city built by King Survyavarman II in the 12th century, has taken a beating from years of neglect and non-stop fighting. Khmer Rouge guerrillas have looted temples, decapitated sculptures, and sold the spoils on the black market to raise cash for the war. The site’s exquisite Khmer architecture, which is often compared to that of ancient Greece and Rome in importance, has also been strangled by the encroaching jungle. Vines and roots have damaged structures, causing many of its sandstone temples, reliefs, and statues to crumble.

The restoration of Cambodia’s most important site (and symbol) is a tiny glimmer of hope for a country that has not dared to hope since the Khmer Rouge murdered approximately two million of its people (one quarter of the population).

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple Complex SoldiersBecause the U.S. still has not established diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Pol Pot’s reign of terror, Jeffrey and Harry must first fly from Bankgok, Thailand to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to obtain a visa to enter the country. A few days later they will backtrack to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, then they will catch a puddle-jumper plane to Siem Reap, the province in which Angkor Wat is located.

After a hard and fast landing (to avoid gunfire, they are told), they head to the Grand Hotel, the only hotel operating in the area at the time. Tourism has been at a standstill for more than a decade. When the bellman of this dilapidated establishment leads Jeffrey and Harry to their rooms, Jeffrey notices that his bed is pushed awkwardly into a far corner. When he asks about it, the bellman explains, “That is for your safety—in case there is gunfire. Bullets will not be able to hit you over here if they come through your window.”

Photo of Stone statues at Angkor Wat Temple Complex in CambodiaThe next day an interpreter and several Cambodian soldiers meet Harry and Jeffrey on the outskirts of Angkor Wat. The complex is over five hundred acres, and they must walk through the jungle to the temples where the archaeologists are working. The men are told under no uncertain terms may they leave the single narrow path they plying. Live mines litter the landscape everywhere else. Nearby gunfire reminds them that this is no idle warning.

Jeffrey and Harry walk cautiously and stick closely to the Cambodian soldiers who know every inch of the area. The emptiness of Angkor Wat and the heavy air blanketing the jungle creates an eeriness that makes the back of Jeffrey’s neck prickle. Harry continually looks over his shoulder. Even the slightest snap of a twig from a jungle creature or birds taking flight makes them pause. Jeffrey can’t help wonder, How do we know the Khmer Rouge haven’t laid another mine on the path last night and how do we know we won’t be ambushed now?

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple Complex in CambodiaEventually they arrive where the archaeologists are working. The interpreter introduces the men and points out many of the sites wonders, including giant Hindu sandstone faces, exquisite bas-reliefs, and temples covered in roots more massive than each of them. It doesn’t take long before Jeffrey is able to create a powerful visual story about what is taking place here.

After spending the entire day at Angkor Wat, they make their way back out to the other side where a car is expected to be waiting for them. As they reach the outskirts of the site and walk along a road near a small village, they come upon a young boy carrying an AK-47 rifle. This barefoot youngster, who is wearing nothing more than threadbare shorts, is protecting his village against the Khmer Rouge. As he walks under the weight of his gun, his onyx eyes reveal a life that has already witnessed far too much.

Jeffrey can’t help but think back to his own carefree childhood, and tries to swallow the sadness rising in his throat as he gets down on his knees to create this boy’s portrait. He can only hope that peace will come soon to Cambodia, and with it, a return to childhood for this young “man.”

This photograph was created with a Nikon F4, a Nikor 24mm lens and Fuji Velvia film.

Postscript: Jeffrey has returned to Angkor Wat on assignment two more times since his first trip in 1989, and each time he has witnessed it coming back to life more and more. Restoration is now nearly complete and Angkor Wat has been listed as a World Heritage Site, along with Cambodia’s largest tourist attraction. The best part is that Jeffrey has never come across another child carrying an AK-47 rifle in Cambodia.

If you want to learn more about Angkor Wat, click HERE.

Photo of Angkor Wat Temple Complex in CambodiaPhoto of Angkor Bayon at Angkor Wat in CambodiaPhoto of Angkor Wat Temple Complex restored reliefPhoto of a young monk at Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Belief in Motion

Photo of horses running in a snowstorm

This Thursday’s Picture of the Week has little to do with exotic locations or unusual circumstances. Rather, it has everything to do with what it represents: belief.

Behind the Scenes: Aspen 1981—Snow is falling in fat, heavy flakes. Jeffrey knows it’s a perfect morning to create a photograph he’s been envisioning since he took a photo workshop from renowned photographer, Ernst Haas, several months earlier.

Haas is considered one of the most important figures in 20th century photography and is lauded as a leader in the art of color imagery.

Jeffrey has only owned a camera for a few years and is awash in enthusiasm for the art form, and the unlimited possibilities it offers.

Portrait of Ernst HaasThe workshop Haas leads at Anderson Ranch Arts Center focuses on motion, a technique he pioneered when he photographed bullfighting and the Indianapolis 500 in the 1950′s. Instead of shooting a fast shutter speed and freezing the subjects, as was typical of the time, he shot them with a slow shutter speed to capture the beauty of the motion.

• • •

Photo of race cars by Ernst HaasPhoto of bullfighting by Ernst Haas

“To express dynamic motion through a static moment became for me limited and unsatisfactory. The basic idea was to liberate myself from this old concept and arrive at an image in which the spectator could feel the beauty of a fourth dimension, which lies much more between moments than within a moment. In music one remembers never one tone, but a melody, a theme, a movement. In dance, never a moment, but again the beauty of a movement in time and space.”

–Ernst Haas

The approach Haas teaches at his workshop resonates with Jeffrey, and he knows he wants to capture the beauty and fluidity of horses running in the snow.

• • •

On the morning of the snowstorm, while most people are loading up their skis or hunkering down with a hot cup of coffee and a good book in front of the fireplace, Jeffrey puts on his heavy Sorrel boots, gets in his car and drives up Red Mountain.

After navigating the steep, windy road overlooking town, he parks his car next to a small meadow where horses are being boarded for the winter. The wind is blowing, flakes are sailing, and the horses begin running as soon as Jeffrey gets out of his car.

Jeffrey raises his camera and captures poetry in motion.

• • •

What happens next is where belief comes into play…

A few years later, Jeffrey is asked to be a part of a group exhibition at Unicorn Gallery, an Aspen gallery owned by entrepreneur Randy Woods. Jeffrey is humbled to be in the company of abstract painter, Richard Carter (former assistant to renowned artist Herbert Bayer of the Bauhaus School), and print maker, Tom Benton, creator of the famous Hunter Thompson campaign posters of the 70s.

Portrait of print maker Thomas BentonTom Benton Hunter Thompson PosterTom Benton Fat City PrintPortrait of artist, Dick CarterRichard Dick Carter Art

On the night of the opening, the gallery is abuzz with art enthusiasts, including internationally reputed photographer Ferenc (Franz) Berko.

Portrait of Franz BerkoBerko, a tall, slender, ascot-wearing European transplant, greets Jeffrey with a gentle smile and quiet hello.

Franz and his wife, Mirte, had come to Aspen in 1949 at the invitation of Walter Paepcke to photograph the Goethe Bicentennial. It was during the age of Aspen’s transformation from purely a silver mining town to a world-class ski resort and artist colony.

The Berkos were enamored with the mountains and town and ended up staying permanently. Below are a few images Franz shot over the years, when he not only turned his camera on the Goethe Bicentennial, but the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival and numerous other subjects.

Rubinstein in Aspen, Colorado by Franz BerkoPhoto of Albert Schweitzer in Aspen, Colorado by Ferenc BerkoPhoto of Bayer Wall in Aspen, Colorado by Ferenc BerkoPhoto of ski touring Pearl Pass in Aspen, Colorado by Franz BerkoPhoto of kids walking up stairs by Franz BerkoPhoto of Ballet by Franz Berko

©Berko Photos: Top (L) Arthur Rubinstein, (R) Albert Schweitzer, Middle (L) Work on the Herbert Bayer wall, (R) Ski touring up Pearl Pass. Bottom (L) Children, (R) Overview of ballerina

• • •

Later during the opening Berko approaches Jeffrey once again. This time he simply says, “I would like to buy a print of your horses running for my daughter.”

Jeffrey is stunned.

He smiles and stammers for a minute, then replies, “Franz, I would like to give you a print.”

Franz will have nothing to do with it.

“No, I insist I pay you for it. Your art is worth much more than you are asking. Please make me a print and bring it to Mirte’s toy store next week.”

“There’s only one thing,” he continues, “you must sign it.”

At that moment, Jeffrey knows for certain he is headed in the right direction following his passion for photography.

• • •

Franz and Jeffrey soon become dear friends, and Franz stays deeply interested in Jeffrey’s career, often giving him quiet advice throughout the years, until his death in 2000.

This photograph of the horses running will always remain a special image to Jeffrey because it represents so many things to him: his love of photography, his inner drive and enthusiasm when he was just beginning his career, and most of all, somebody’s belief in him and his ability to see.

“When you’re just starting out and one of the most respected photographers in the art world appreciates your work enough to buy a print, there’s no greater approval,” Jeffrey says.

• • •

Berko Studio on Aspen's Main Street In a “small world” twist, the Berko Gallery, which is run by Franz’s granddaughter, Mirte Mallory, is now housed in a charming purple Victorian on Aspen’s Main Street—a home that Jeffrey and I owned and lived in for many years in the mid-1990’s.Yep, see that brick walkway? Jeffrey and I laid it with our own hands. “Our” purple Victorian will always hold sweet memories for us, and now it’s even more special because it holds the photographs of somebody who not only made a powerful impact on Jeffrey’s career, but also his life.

Now it’s your turn. Who has been the “Franz” of your life? Who has believed in you and given you the confidence to reach your potential? I’d love to hear all about this wonderful person!

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: North Korea

Photo of Kim Jong Il Banner in Pyongyang, North Korea

Behind the Scenes: It’s 1991 and Jeffrey is working on assignment for Time Magazine in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Excerpt from my upcoming book, The Art of an Improbable Life

The stadium is brimming with over 100,000 people, all here to celebrate his birthday. It’s not exactly Jeffrey’s style, being the low-key-birthday-kind-of-guy that he is, but he indulges on this particular April day. First comes music, followed by a parade of synchronized dancers and gymnasts, then flags swirl and paper cards flash into vibrant scenes as they’re turned over by participants. Jeffrey is stunned by the scale of it all.

It’s the most surreal birthday of his thirty-six years.

As luck would have it, not only is it Jeffrey’s birthday, but it’s also Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, which means it’s North Korea’s most important national holiday. The preparations for this grand event have been under way for months and its participants are worked up into a frenzy as they celebrate the birth of their “Great Leader.”

Photo of North Korean Kids during Kim Il Sung birthday celebrationAs Jeffrey stands at the top of the stadium stairs, looking out at the sea of North Korean humanity and trying to absorb the magnitude of this patriotic extravaganza, he obediently asks his guide, Mr. Kim, if he can take a picture of the children. He has been told that he must ask permission to take any photograph while in North Korea. When Mr. Kim nods at his request, Jeffrey lifts his camera to his eye and begins capturing the exuberance of Young Pioneers as they shake bright pink pom-pom flowers in rhythm to the booming music.

Photo of North Korea, Kim Il Sung birthday celebration in PyongyangThen he asks if he can photograph the dancers twirling flags and the workers marching with Communist banners. As he does, a thunderous applause suddenly erupts and Jeffrey turns to see what’s happening. Two 1940’s Russian convertible cars emerge onto the stadium track carrying a larger-than-life banner of Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. Jeffrey instinctively lifts his camera and starts shooting again.

The next thing Jeffrey knows, two powerful hands grip his shoulders and launch him down the concrete steps of the stadium. He sees and feels a cascading swirl of music, pom-poms, faces, sky, and cement. His knee hits first, then his elbow and shoulder, followed by his head, as he tries to cradle his camera to protect it from the fall.

Pain engulfs him. As he looks up, dazed, all he sees are two shiny black shoes standing next to his face like sentinels. After shaking off his confusion, fury rips through him, especially when he realizes his 80-200mm zoom lens is damaged. Knowing he must keep his composure in this Orwellian-like country though, he asks Mr. Kim without an ounce of expression, “Why did you just do that?”

Two black marble eyes blaze through Jeffrey. “You didn’t ask permission.”

__________

…After wrapping up one of the strangest and most stressful projects of his life, Jeffrey boards a rickety train heading back to Beijing. His guide, Mr. Kim, looks at him with a cardboard smile and says, “Mr. Jeffrey, I hope to warmly welcome you back to Korea.” Then without blinking, he says, “If the pictures you took are ever used for negative propaganda, you will regret this for the rest of your life. Have a safe journey, my friend.”

Photo of children saluting Kim Il Sung Statue in Pyongyang, North KoreaPhoto of a Kim Jong Il billboard in Pyongyang, North KoreaPhoto of a North Korean maternity ward in Pyongyang, North KoreaPhoto of a typical North Korean home with portraits of Kim il Sung and Kim Jong IlPhoto of a North Korean highway with a propaganda billboard

The cult surrounding North Korea’s leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, is like other place in the world. Every person wears a Kim pin over his or her chest, and every family has portraits of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader in their home. Statues, billboards and paintings are everywhere–from the airport to stores, factories, metros, schools, kareoke clubs and amusement parks. And every child is born under the watchful eye of the Kims, as seen in the photo above of a North Korean maternity ward.

Jeffrey is one of only a handful of American photojournalists to have gained access into North Korea. Not only did he go for Time, but several years later, he manged to get back in for Vanity Fair, a story I will share another time. It only gets more bizarre!

Photo of a North Korean amusement Park in Pyongyang, North KoreaPhoto of a North Korean beauty salon in Pyongyang

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Champagne

Photo of Champagne, France

Behind the scenes: It’s 1994 and Jeffrey is photographing on assignment for Travel Holiday in the Champagne Region of France. His job is to capture the essence of this region with its renowned vineyards and charming, old world towns.

Jeffrey speaks only a little French, but after landing in Paris he loads up a rental car, negotiates his way through the city’s chaotic roundabouts, then finally hits the open road heading toward Epernay, about eighty miles away. His nerves take a beating during the drive, especially without any English signage to guide him, but the beauty of the region creates a soothing natural salve.

The following day several men from the Champagne Chamber of Commerce warmly welcome him with a lavish, three-hour lunch, complete with six different types of champagne.

Vineyard in Reims, FranceJeffrey, who likes to hit the ground running, tries to quell the impatient feeling needling him while the men laugh and linger, making sure the champagne keeps pace with their stories. Eventually the bubbles begin to travel to Jeffrey’s head, forcing him to lose his natural, high-energy need-for-speed, and relax and fully appreciate the lifestyle of this region.

He can already tell that it’s going to be one the cushiest stories he’s photographed in a long time, even if he will have to work hard to photograph everything on his long shoot list.

Haut Viller, FranceDuring the next week he plows through more than 70 rolls of film in the visually rich towns of Reims, Damery, Troyes, Epernay and Haut Viller. He photographs everything from vineyards and chalk cellars to wine bars, restaurants, and galleries to people, architecture, and landscapes. He also shoots details like the street sign honoring Dom Perignon, the monk who discovered bubbly.

After spending a morning photographing the interior of Castellene du Champagne winery in Epernay, Jeffrey heads to his car. Just as he’s about to load up his equipment and move on to the next location on his list, he sees two workers carrying a giant champagne bottle along the road in front of the winery.

Jeffrey knows what he sees before him must be included in the story so he quickly takes out his camera again and begins photographing. He works hard to get the angle which will include both the Avenue du Champagne sign and the shadow. After capturing this quirky moment, curiosity inspires him to find out what they’re doing with the giant bottle.

“Once a week we have tastings in the garden and we bring these large bottles out for ambiance. People enjoy sipping champagne beneath these big bottles,” a worker laughs as he explains in his thick French accent.

Though dozens of photographs from this shoot have been published around the world, this giant champagne bottle has captured peoples’ imaginations the most. It has been published in magazines, on cards, and inside Communication Arts where Jeffrey received an award for it.

This image was created with a Nikon F4 camera, a Nikor 85mm lens and Fuji Velvia Film.

Would you agree that this picture begs for a creative caption? I’d love to hear your ideas. Send me your best!

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Indonesia

Photo of a Hindu ceremony in Bali, Indonesia

Behind the scenes: It’s 1992 and Jeffrey is photographing on assignment for Newsweek in Bali, Indonesia. The king’s wife has died, and an auspicious day has finally arrived for her funeral ceremony.

For Hindus, the days between death and ceremony are spent in intense preparation as they organize the myriad details involved in rituals leading up to the cremation. It’s believed the soul of the dead can only leave the body once the body’s five elements of air, earth, fire, water and space have been returned to the cosmos. Once this happens then the soul can depart and find its new life through reincarnation. Mishandling of any small detail can prevent the soul from reincarnating.

Photo of a Hindu funeral floatThe Balinese have spared no detail in this elaborate three-day event, which is taking place in Ubud, the cultural center of Bali.

Jeffrey has been working in Asia non-stop for over a month, and can feel the weight of the pace he’s been keeping—photographing everything from a story on rice in Japan to a feature on the Yangtze River in China to yet another on Beijing’s lively outdoor markets—but he’s also energized by this visually compelling and culturally important event.

As Jeffrey stands photographing next to his friend, Robin Moyer, who is working on assignment for Time Magazine, the two men can’t help but laugh at themselves. Every person in attendance is required to wear traditional dress during this formal ceremony. Photographers are no exception. Not only are both men sporting batik sarongs over their Levis but also Indonesian udengs (wraps) on their heads. While Indonesian men look handsome, the two of them look absurd.

Photo of a Balinese dancer in IndonesiaIt is over 100 degrees with humidity equally as brutal, but Jeffrey pays little attention to the heat. Everywhere he looks he sees a blaze of color. High priestesses carry out blessings and holy water ceremonies, musicians and dancers perform traditional movements, women adorned in vibrant dresses carry offerings atop their heads, and others lead a procession which eventually arrives at the funeral pyre.

When the elaborate pyre is finally lit, it quickly catches on fire and bursts into hot flames. It is this moment the Rajah’s wife’s soul is released into the cosmos to seek its karma and reincarnation.

What Jeffrey witnesses is an awe-inspiring celebration of Balinese culture. Gratitude brews beneath his sweat-drenched udeng as he knows once again that his camera has opened a door to a place and time that he otherwise never would have experienced. 

Photo of Balinese MusiciansThis image was created with a Nikon F4 camera, Nikon 80-200mm lens, and Fuji Velvia film.

To view a few more images from this ceremony in Bali, click here or on the photo of the musicians to the left.

What cultural ceremony or event has stirred your soul? I’d love to hear your most memorable moments!