Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Vietnam

Photo of Muslims praying at the Central Mosque in Saigon, Vietnam

Behind the scenes: It’s 1992 and Jeffrey is on his way from Thailand to Cambodia to photograph a story about Angkor Wat Temple Complex. In order to enter Cambodia though, he must first stop in Vietnam to get his visa processed. The U.S. still has not re-established diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Pol Pot’s Killing Fields so he’s forced to take a circuitous route.

Map of VietnamIt’s early morning in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and as Jeffrey sits on the rooftop restaurant of his hotel, sipping orange juice and reading his Herald Tribune, he begins mentally planning his day.

Below, the streets teem with motor scooter drivers and vendors as they begin their daily frenetic ritual of eeking out a living. In the midst of the city’s cacophony, Jeffrey also hears another sound warbling in the distance. He knows he’s heard it before in other regions of the world, but never in Vietnam.

An Islamic call to prayer wafts through a loudspeaker, a muezzin’s sing-songy voice summoning Muslims to prayer.

Curiosity instantly changes the course of Jeffrey’s day. Instead of heading to the Dan Sinh Market like he had planned, or photographing the Apocalypse Now Bar or the city’s wide boulevards and French colonial architecture, Jeffrey begins his search for the mosque.

Photo of traffic in Saigon, VietnamFirst he must maneuver through the certifiably insane, always-rush-hour-traffic, then he must get on the back of a motorcycle taxi before he is eventually dropped off in front of the Saigon Central Mosque in the Dong Khoi area.

A sea of motor scooters dots the sidewalk in front of the light blue and white building. Its cool, immaculate structure exudes calm, floating like an island of serenity in the midst of the churning streets outside where sensory overload is the norm.

Jeffrey removes his shoes, and like other men, washes his feet before stepping onto the cool stone floors. The city’s heat, humidity and noise instantly fade away.

Though he isn’t sure what kind of reception he will receive, Jeffrey is warmly welcomed into the mosque and is even encouraged to photograph during Friday prayer.

The men pray on one side and the women on another. Jeffrey’s eye is immediately drawn to the clean lines and undulating pattern of the women praying before him. In no time he raises his camera and begins photographing. After shooting a handful of frames, he  lowers it back down and puts it away, hoping to avoid disturbing this sacred time of worship. Instead he watches and listens, enjoying his unexpected discovery in Vietnam.

What Jeffrey likes most about this photograph is that most people think it was created in Africa or the Middle East rather than Vietnam.  He likes the surprise element, and also the anonymity of the image, which allows viewers to imagine what the faces look like behind the traditional robes.

“It’s also a good reminder that curiosity is often my most powerful tool. If I hadn’t been curious, I never would have discovered this part of Vietnam,” Jeffrey says.

This photograph was created with a Nikon F4 camera, a Nikon 85mm lens and Fuji Velvia film. It was awarded a PATA Gold Award.

Now I’m curious! What is the most interesting or unusual place you have discovered while traveling, simply by following your curiosity?

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: China

Vis a Vis magazine cover

Behind the scenes: It’s 1981 and Jeffrey is photographing in Beijing, China. On this day he’s intent on capturing the beauty of the Summer Palace, the former warm-weather residence of China’s imperial rulers.

As Jeffrey crosses a narrow covered walkway, intricately carved and painted with imperial scenes, he notices an elderly gentleman sitting on one of the wooden railings. The man, who seems content to do little more than take in the day’s events around him, is dressed in a Mao jacket and a traditional cap. He is also wearing some of the most exquisite glasses Jeffrey has ever seen.

Photo of the summer palace in Beijing, ChinaThe spectacles rest slightly askew on the man’s nose. The etched hand-tooled silver that frames the circular glass is worn to a salient patina; the crack in the upper left-hand lens holds a story from long ago.

Jeffrey cannot take his eyes off the man whose face perfectly symbolizes traditional China. When the man glances up, Jeffrey asks—through his interpreter—if he would mind having his portrait taken. “Please be sure to tell him how much I admire his glasses,” Jeffrey adds.

The man’s eyes twinkle from beneath their narrow openings. Then his soft, gravely voice begins wrapping Jeffrey in staccato Mandarin, almost as if the man has been waiting his entire life to share this moment. Jeffrey, who has studied a little Chinese, can only understand part of what he is saying, and must wait patiently until his interpreter finally relays the story.

“He says that he is 84-years old and these glasses have been in his family for two generations. His father wore them most of his life, then when he died, they were passed on to him. He said he would be willing to sell them to you for ten dollars.”

Jeffrey is horrified by his offer, imagining all the things that have passed through these lenses. He takes a moment, then simply says to his interpreter,

“Tell him ‘thank you very much for your generous offer’, but I will pay him double if he promises to never sell these glasses; to always keep them in his family.”

The man squints his eyes in delight, then agrees. Finally Jeffrey creates his portrait. A few years later it becomes the cover of Vis a Vis, United Airlines’ inflight magazine, when they publish a 10-page portfolio featuring Jeffrey’s China photographs.

This photograph was created with a Nikon FE camera, a Nikon 85mm lens and Kodachrome 64 film.

Photo of rowboats at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China

PS: The answer to Tuesday’s challenge is Tibet (November 8th post). You’ll have to wait to hear Jeffrey’s stories to fully appreciate his reasons.

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Machu Picchu

Photo of Smithsonian Magazine CoverBehind the scenes: It’s 2002 and Jeffrey is photographing on assignment for Smithsonian. His job is to capture the mystique of Machu Picchu, Peru’s famous ancient Inca ruins.

The name Machu Picchu, or Old Mountain, comes from the Quechua Indian term for the 9,060-foot peak looming over the site.

Renowned author, Fergus Bordewich, the writer for this story, describes it like this:

“Although I had seen many images of Machu Picchu, nothing prepared me for the real thing. Stretching along the crest of a narrow ridge lay the mesmerizing embodiment of the Inca Empire, a civilization brought to an abrupt and bloody end by the Spanish conquest of the 1500s. On either side of the ruins, sheer mountainsides drop away to the foaming waters of the Urubamba River more than a thousand feet below. Surrounding the site, the Andes rise in a stupendous natural amphitheater, cloud-shrouded, jagged and streaked with snow, as if the entire landscape had exploded. It is hard to believe that human beings had built such a place.”

Jeffrey, after five days of walking every angle of this massive site, climbing slippery mountainsides with his heavy camera fannypack, meeting with archaeologists, trying to scope out unique views of this much-photographed destination, realizes he still isn’t satisfied that he’s created a cover photograph.

On the last day of his assignment, he’s up at sunrise once again trying to capture the best light. While standing at a common overlook, where most tourists go, he gets his bearings for the day and begins fiddling with his camera, choosing a lens, making sure his equipment is set properly.

When light hits the ruins he shoots a few frames right where he’s standing. He’s so focused on the composition that he jumps when something suddenly enters his viewfinder. Our of nowhere, a llama has walked into his photograph.

Photo of a girl in Cuzco, PeruIt’s like a gift, a quirky detail of Machu Picchu that brings the ancient ruins to life. Jeffrey does not move, and is able to shoot three or four frames before the llama walks away. Fortunately, Jeffrey knows he has just nailed the cover–especially before a gaggle of tourists rushes over, trying to create the same photograph.

As he ponders the luck of that moment, and thinks back to how hard he has worked over the past five days, he knows his credo couldn’t be more true:

“The harder you work, the luckier you become.”

This photograph was created with a Canon EOS 1V camera, a Canon 20mm lens, and Fuji Velvia film.

To read Fergus Bordewich’s mesmerizing and extensive article about Machu Picchu, click on this link: Smithsonian Magazine—“Winter Palace.”

I’d also love to hear from you! If you’ve been to Machu Picchu, drop me a comment and tell me your most memorable moment. And if you haven’t, would you ever like to go? It’s now in the running as one of the NEW Seven Wonders of the World.

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Morocco

Photo of a Moroccan woman wearing a hijab

©Jeffrey Aaronson

Behind the scenes: It’s 1999 and Jeffrey is photographing on assignment in Morocco for Travel Holiday. The story he is working on highlights the important role women play in this North African country, even though many are not allowed to work.

As Jeffrey strolls around the lively Jemaa el Fna Marketplace in Marrakesh’s old medina quarter, he breathes in the savory aromas of late afternoon. Along the way he photographs an array of vendors selling fruit, spices and kabobs as well as several flamboyant water sellers, fire eaters and snake charmers.

In the midst of this bustling scene, he notices a woman wearing a blue hijab. Her striking almond-shaped eyes dance beneath her blue head covering as she paints intricate henna designs onto a woman’s hands.

Jeffrey is intrigued, so through his interpreter, he asks the woman if she would mind if he made a portrait of her. Her eyes instantly light up, unmistakably flattered. Looking around though, she quickly replies in an overly loud voice, “No, I’m sorry, I cannot without my husband’s permission.”

Map of MoroccoEvery nearby vendor is now watching. She glances down at the ground and shakes her head, then looks at Jeffrey with a feisty twinkle in her eye before she repeats: “No, I’m sorry, my husband would need to give you permission.”

Jeffrey can tell she is up to something, and would clearly like to have her picture taken, so he says louder than usual, “Yes, of course, no problem. I understand. But do you think it would be okay if I just photographed your hand to show your beautiful henna artwork?”

“Oh yes, of course…of course.” she replies, her eyes indicating her happiness that they have figured out a way to make this work. “That would be no problem,” she says again, if it is just showing off my artwork.”

“Great,” Jeffrey says as he brings his camera up to his eye.

Then he lowers his camera back down. “But do you think you could bring your hand up to your chin so that your artwork shows up better in the picture?” he asks, grinning.

She knows exactly what Jeffrey is doing and quickly raises her hand near her face, Jeffrey shoots a few frames, then the artist quickly goes back to painting another woman’s hand, while all other vendors go back to their own business.

Jeffrey is sure that he has just created a stunning portrait—one that symbolizes the beauty and strength of Moroccan women. He also senses that this woman, by navigating around the suffocating constraints of her culture, feels a tiny bit more empowered by her conspiracy in this photographic moment.

To see a few more of Jeffrey’s images from Morocco, click on the fire eater below:

Photo of a fire eater in Marrekesh, Morocco

©2011 Becky Green Aaronson The Art of an Improbable Life

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: A Day in the Life of Africa

Photo of the Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali

Behind the Scenes: It’s February 28, 2002 and Jeffrey is working on A Day in the Life of Africa, a book project in which nearly 100 photographers from around the world are participating in a historic, one-day documentary of Africa.

Photographers are spread out across 50 nations, from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope, all trying to capture what is unique about the people, geography, and customs of this continent.

Jeffrey has chosen the West African nation of Mali—specifically, Mali’s medieval city, Djénné. He is intrigued by its massive Grand Mosquée, which is not only the largest mud-brick building in the world, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 1905, it was modeled on a mosque first erected on the site in the 11th century. Every year, after the rainy season, much of the population helps repair and resurface the mud walls.

Book cover photo of A Day in the Life of AfricaOn the day of the shoot, Jeffrey and his interpreter Musa (Moses), drive all the way from the capital of Bamako, about 250 miles away, then immediately seek out the Imam, the leader of the Djénné Islamic community. They know they’ll need his permission to enter the mosque.

The two venture down narrow dirt alleyways, passing modest mud-pressed houses, eventually ending on the steps of the Imam. When the leader welcomes them inside, Jeffrey can’t help but notice an exquisite Swiss-made grandfather clock as well as a large-screen television.

As is customary, the three men have tea, then Jeffrey finally asks the Imam (through Musa) if it’s possible to photograph inside the mosque. The Imam rubs his chin, then promptly says, “No, it is not possible.”

Jeffrey, who has flown half way around the world to photograph this landmark, tries to keep his cool. “Why?” he simply asks.

The Imam replies, “No non-believers are allowed inside the mosque.”

Then he begins a long, convoluted story about how an Italian fashion photographer had recently been allowed in, deceiving them with his project, and bringing shame to their community. “He asked my permission, which I granted,” the Imam fumes, “then he took a woman there and had her remove her proper clothing to be photographed in a swimming suit. That is against our beliefs. We can no longer allow non-Muslims or non-believers inside.”

Jeffrey can feel the weight of his response pressing on his optimism. Not to be dissuaded though, he continues his appeal. “I will only be going in with Musa, and I will abide by all your rules. My only objective is to show the world what a magnificent place of worship you have here in Djénné.”

The Imam does not budge in his response. Jeffrey continues, “All the money raised from this book will go toward AIDS awareness in Africa. I only want to do something that is good for your people.

The Imam listens to Jeffrey’s plea, then suddenly begins hinting at a bribe. “See this fine grandfather clock. A very important person donated this to me when he wanted to see the mosque. And see this television? That was another donation by another important person.”

Jeffrey is immediately disgusted. “I’m sorry, but my only donation will be making a photograph that will show the beauty and magnificence of your mosque. And that donation will contribute to the book, which will raise money for the African AIDS Education Fund–yet another donation. If that is not enough, then I will not be able to photograph inside.”

As Jeffrey and Musa leave, Jeffrey starts thinking of Plan B. He tells Musa, “We are going to walk around this entire mosque—all 360 degrees—until we find a place that will be even better than if I had photographed inside.”

It doesn’t take long because as they’re walking down a narrow alley, Jeffrey notices a man praying on top of a nearby house. Musa talks to the man and explains what Jeffrey would like to do. In no time, they are up on the roof creating the photograph you see above. It not only captures the grandeur of the mosque, also but gives a broader glimpse into the culture of Mali.

Jeffrey had several other photographs of Mali published in the book as well.

Photo of Jeffrey Aaronson at the Day in the Life of Africa opening in Grand Central Station

Jeffrey Aaronson in Grand Central Station during the opening for A Day in the Life of Africa. Here he's standing in front of another of his images published in the book.

You can see the tapestry of images from this project and a list of the participating photographers by clicking on the links below:

Washington Post slideshow of images from A Day in the Life of Africa.

Photographer profiles and the countries in which they photographed.

Photo of photographers Paul Chesley, Jeffrey Aaronson, Michael Lewis

Photographers Paul Chesley, Jeffrey Aaronson, Michael Lewis in Grand Central Station at the opening for A Day in the Life of Africa

Photo of photographers Jeffrey Aaronson, Larry Price and Michael Lewis at a book signing for A Day in the Life of Africa

Photographers Jeffrey Aaronson, Larry Price and Michael Lewis at a book signing for A Day in the Life of Africa

Photo of Jeffrey and Becky Aaronson at the Grand Central Station opening for A Day in the Life of Africa

Jeffrey and Becky Aaronson at the Grand Central Station opening for A Day in the Life of Africa

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Thursday’s Picture of the Week: The Winning Caption Is…

“I have no idea what she’s saying, but I think I’m getting a car!!”

Congratulations to Caryl

You will be receiving a $20 Amazon gift card for your winning entry.

Photo of monks watching television

Behind the Scenes: It is the year 2000 and Jeffrey has been hired by Wired Magazine to photograph a feature story about Bhutan, the last country in the world to get television.

Map of BhutanBhutan, known by its people as Druk Yai (Land of the Thunder Dragon), is a small landlocked kingdom sandwiched high in the Eastern Himalayas between Tibet, China, and India. Primarily Buddhist, it has been named numerous times as one of the happiest places on earth. Its king proclaimed “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.

Bhutan has held on tightly to its culture for centuries. It only allows about 7,500 tourists a year to enter, and within the country police are empowered to detain any Bhutanese not wearing official national dress, the robelike gho for men and the jacket and apronlike kira for women. The king is only allowing television to be introduced because he feels his country needs to keep up with the modern world.

After flying on Druk Air into Paro, Jeffrey travels to the capital of Thimpu. Here he’s lead to a small hamlet on the outskirts of town, where the Oko Thsering Family has just acquired a TV. They are the only ones in the entire area with this new contraption and they aren’t sure what to make of it yet. Jeffrey photographs the family, along with several of their friends as they watch it.

Much to Jeffrey’s dismay when the television is turned on, the first thing they see is World Wide Wrestling, followed by Felix the Cat cartoons, then finally Oprah, which you can see in the image above. He knows at that moment, Bhutan will never be the same.

If you want to know how television has affected Bhutan, take a look at this 2003 article in the Guardian called “Fast Forward into Trouble.” Perhaps you can tell by the title that introducing western values into this culture has not added to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.

To see more of Jeffrey’s photographs from Bhutan, click on the picture of the monk below:

Photo of a monk in Bhutan

ALSO, there were so many creative captions for Jeffrey’s photograph, I wanted to give a shout out to several runners-up. 

Marcia: “And this week’s selection for Oprah’s Book Club is…”

Jennifer: “I heard Oprah really is God.”

Claire : ‘Om mani padme hum’
‘O Prah me find me hom’
‘Oprah me find me mom’

Michael: The guy on the far right says, “I heard that she and Steadman are having problems again.”

Cathy: Is this America’s new president?

All I could think of was, “AND EVERYONE WINS A YAK!”

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Thursday’s Picture of the Week PHOTO CAPTION CONTEST

Photo of monks watching television

Take part in our first ever Improbable Caption Contest and win a $20 Amazon gift card.

First of all, please be assured there are no strings attached whatsoever. This is just my way of having fun and celebrating creativity.

Now, take a close look at who these viewers are watching on TV, and submit your best caption by simply drop it into the comment box.

Next Thursday, October 13th, I will select the winning caption and announce it here on the blog. The person with the most creative caption will be emailed a $20 gift card from Amazon.

Good luck! I can’t wait to hear your creative ideas!

Oh, and also, of course, I’ll be sharing the story behind this much-published photograph.

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Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Japan

Photo of a woman in Tokyo, Japan wearing a Kimono at Shinjuku train stationBehind the scenes: It’s 1992 and Jeffrey is working on assignment for Travel Holiday, doing an editorial feature on rice in Japan. He’s photographing everything from sake factories and rice farmers to the cultural and religious significance of rice.

Because taxis in Tokyo are exorbitant, he decides to do his client a favor and take the subway to a Shinto shrine where he’ll be photographing a ceremony involving rice.

Inside Shinjuku Station, as he stands in line waiting for the train, he notices a woman near the front wearing a traditional kimono–something seldom seen in modern Tokyo anymore.

Jeffrey knows this is a perfect opportunity to create a photograph showing the contrast between old and new. Quickly he pulls out his camera, steps out of line and tries to frame the image. Within minutes the train arrives. He has just enough time to shoot off two frames, capturing this fleeting moment, before jumping aboard the train with the rest of the passengers.

This picture, which was created with a Nikon F4 camera, a Nikon 85mm lens, and Fuji Velvia film, has been honored with a PATA Gold Award and has also been published on the cover of several magazines.

Earlier this year Jeffrey also donated this photograph to Life Support Japan to help Japan’s tsunami and earthquake victims. The fundraising relief effort was organized by Crista Dix of Wall Space with the help of Aline Smithson of Lenscratch, and raised over $50,000 for Direct Relief International and Habitat for Humanity in a matter of days.

If you’d like to know more about this project you can click on this link: Life Support Japan.

If you’re interested in seeing more of Jeffrey’s photographs from Japan, you can click on this link: rice in Japan.

Look for my next regular THEN and NOW post on Tuesday! And as always, I’d love to hear from you. Leave your comments or questions and I’ll be sure to reply.

Thanks for being a loyal follower!

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Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Thailand

Each Thursday I will be posting one of Jeffrey’s photographs from around the world for people who have subscribed to my blog via email or RSS. It’s my way of saying, “Thank you for your support and interest in what I’m doing.” I hope you enjoy this image and the brief story behind it.

Photo of monks in front of a Richard Gere American Gigolo Poster in Bangkok

Behind the Scenes:  It’s 1982 and dense golden light bathes the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. Jeffrey is in the city photographing the 200th Anniversary of this vibrant and complicated capital. As he walks through the downtown area at dawn, he spots a large hand-painted movie poster about to be erected for American Gigolo.

The billboard, laying on its side, is a visual feast, and the perfect backdrop for creating an image that represents the often-unusual contrasts found in East meets West moments. Jeffrey composes his photograph then waits until two monks begging for morning alms walk into his frame, capturing their curiosity as they stand face-to-face with American heartthrob, Richard Gere.

Photo of Richard GereSquint and turn your head sideways and you can almost see Gere’s resemblance in this Asianized version. If not, you may need to squint a little more!

This photograph was created with a Nikon FE camera, a Nikon 24mm lens and Kodachrome 64 film.

It has been published several times, acquired by private collectors, and has even caught the attention of Richard Gere.

Look for my next regular THEN and NOW post on Tuesday! And as always, I’d love to hear from you. Leave your comments or questions and I’ll be sure to reply.

       Thanks for being a loyal follower!

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PS: More of Jeffrey’s Thailand images can be seen by clicking on this link: THAILAND.