Beyond Rangoon (Part Two)

THEN: BEYOND RANGOON (PART TWO)

APRIL 1989: As you might remember in Part One of this story (see my post on 9/27/11    if you missed it), the last time I hear from Jeffrey is when he’s in Bangkok, on his way to Rangoon to photograph a seemingly innocuous story about daily life in Burma for The Christian Science Monitor.

Photo of a vendor in Mandalay, Burma

These are the days before email, iChat, text messaging and the constant stream of news gliding across our televisions and computer screens, so while I’m aware of Burma’s dark history, I’m unaware of Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent arrest or the military crackdown Jeffrey is about to drop himself into. We are completely out of contact for ten days.

Now, if you will, flash forward with me to when Jeffrey arrives home from Burma…

I can tell by Jeffrey’s glassy eyes that he’s exhausted. The kind of exhausted that makes yawning feel like too much effort.

When I ask how his assignment went, all he can say is, “Insane.”

I can’t tell if it’s a good insane or a bad insane. Then he grabs a box of slides out of his carry-on bag. I try to imagine why he would have had his film processed in Asia instead of the lab at home like he always did, but instead of asking, I open the box, grab a loupe and take a look at the slides.

When I see Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s most powerful symbol of hope and freedom, staring back at me instead of water buffaloes and golden temples, I’m stunned.

“How in god’s name did you photograph Aung San Suu Kyi?” I stammer.

“It’s a very long story,” Jeffrey says, exhaling deeply and throwing himself into a chair.

It isn’t until the following evening over dinner and a bottle of wine that Jeffrey finally recounts the details of his trip. Goosebumps rise on my arms as he describes it all.

This is but a tiny portion of what he experienced…

Photo of martial law in Rangoon, Burma 1989

Excerpts from Chapter Three of my book…

Ko Ye’s leathery brown hands grip the steering wheel, slowly navigating the embassy car through the streets of Rangoon. Armed soldiers lining both sides of the road peer inside the windows, and beads of sweat drip down the driver’s temples and neck.

The only sound in the airless car is an unspoken symphony of anxiety created by three pounding hearts, the rumble of the diesel engine, and Ko Ye’s laden sighs.

At the first roadblock, the driver’s eyes flash in the rearview mirror to Jeffrey and Andrew, the two journalists in the back seat, reinforcing the insanity of what they’re doing. Upon order, he slowly rolls down the window; nobody dares breathe.

Photo of martial law in Rangoon, Burma

Jeffrey carefully shifts his knees to make sure his camera bag is covered on the floor below. Andrew looks straight ahead. Angry Burmese words are launched at Ko Ye. The passengers have no idea what’s being said, but somehow the driver’s shaky, high-pitched response convinces the soldier to wave them through.

Nearly a half hour later, after several more chilling roadblocks, they arrive at a compound near Inya Lake. A wall of soldiers surrounds the entrance, and it’s clear that whomever’s inside, is at the will of the AK-47’s outside. The embassy car is the only reason the solid metal gate opens, and as Ko Ye slowly pulls the car forward, Jeffrey and Andrew finally allow themselves to exhale…

______________

…On the veranda of the faded two-story colonial villa, a slender woman wearing a simple flowered blouse and a green traditional longyi sits waiting. Her thick black hair, pinned back with a hibiscus, frames her high cheekbones and delicate oval face.

Portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi at her house in Rangoon, Burma, 1989When Aung San Suu Kyi stands and graciously welcomes them in her perfect Oxford English, Jeffrey takes a moment to center himself, trying to remember how he arrived at this unexpected moment in his photographic career.

He flashes back to breakfast earlier that morning. His camera bag is sitting in the chair next to him, and he suddenly notices a foreigner watching him. Not sure what to make of it, he half-smiles, then finishes his breakfast, all the while trying to imagine what this guy is about. Before he has a chance to speculate further, he hears an Australian voice say, “You’re a photographer, right?”

Jeffrey cocks his head and looks up out of the corner of his eye, instinctively putting up his defenses.

“Nope…just here on vacation.”

Before Jeffrey has time to ask him who he is or what he’s about, the Aussie interrupts and sits down at the table, throwing his hand out to shake. “I’m Andrew Walsh,” (his name has been changed to protect his identity) he announces, then lowers his voice, “I’m a reporter for The Age in Australia.”

Then he quickly begins telling his story in a hushed tone. “Listen, my country is the only democratic country in the world right now that hasn’t broken diplomatic relations with Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.” He looks around to make sure nobody else is listening.

“I have an opportunity to use the Australian Embassy car to go interview her this afternoon, and I need a photographer. We’ll be going under the auspices of checking on her—sort of a diplomatic mission for the embassy—to make sure she’s all right.”

Jeffrey has a hard time believing the proposition he’s hearing, but Andrew continues, “In exchange for this exclusive opportunity, I just need one photograph of her for my story. Then you’ll have free reign of everything else. We’ll even pay you for licensing the photograph.”

Andrew doesn’t need to sell Jeffrey. Exposing human rights abuses and injustice in the world drives Jeffrey from his belly. Grabbing his camera bag, he asks, “When do we leave?”

___________________

…Inside the heavily treed compound humidity and oppression hang on Andrew and Jeffrey like wet quilts. The stifling air doesn’t budge, but the energy radiating from Aung San Suu Kyi swirls into an electrifying breeze.

While Jeffrey patiently waits for Andrew to interview her, he mentally composes photographs in his head. He’s also swept away by the poise and defiance of this striking 44-year old woman. A wife and mother, and Burma’s most powerful voice for change, she exudes grace while fearlessly trying to lead her party and country in a new direction…

In perfect English, she articulates her hopes and dreams for her country and reveals the reality of its past. “Our party is expected to win the majority of parliament seats during the upcoming election,” she explains, “but the junta is cracking down, afraid to lose its power. You can’t have power without responsibility.”

… Jeffrey, knowing there isn’t much time left before the light disappears, begins photographing. Quickly placing the bright red flag of The National League for Democracy behind her, he shoots frame after frame, capturing the mix of intellect, warmth and defiance in her eyes.

Portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi at her house in Rangoon, Burma, 1989

Portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi at her house in Rangoon, Burma, 1989Her chapped lips and the shadows under her eyes reveal the vulnerability of a woman who’s been treated harshly, but also the stoicism of a leader whose fortitude could never be underestimated. Then he captures the family connection and the love of her country as she sits near a large portrait of her father, General Aung San, who negotiated Burma’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1947. As she tells the story of how he was assassinated when she was just two years old, the harsh reality of her country is hammered home even more.

In no time, the light fades and they know they must leave.

As they depart the compound, Aung San Suu Kyi’s last words grip them…“Let the world know.”

______________________________

When Jeffrey finishes telling me this story, then shares other details about the sketchy drive back from her compound, how he duct-taped his undeveloped film to the bottom of his hotel bed to keep it safe, and how he and Andrew also used the embassy car to photograph a demonstration in which dozens of protesters were slaughtered, I count my blessings that he made it home safely.

What resonates most though, are Aung San Suu Kyi’s words, “Let the world know.” Jeffrey and I both know it’s our responsibility to get his images published so people can see what’s happening in Burma.

In the coming months and years, that is exactly what we try to do. Not only does The Age publish one of Jeffrey’s photographs, but his portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi become the most published photographs of her ever. One graces the cover of Time Magazine when she wins the Burmese elections, and later when she wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Others are splashed across dozens of magazine covers in Europe, Asia and Latin America, in every kind of publication, large and small.

Time Magazine with photo of Aung San Suu Kyi

Her face becomes the light in the midst of Burma’s darkness, a symbol of courage and strength around the world. Like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, she gives up everything for what she believes in, and its her sacrifice and fortitude that inspire veneration around the world.

Her words are also one of the reasons I’m writing my book…to let the world know.

____________________

Postscript: In November 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released, after spending most of the last 21 years in some form of imprisonment. She continues to fight for democracy and freedom for the Burmese people. The billboard below is an example of the challenges she faces. Click on it to view it larger.

Photo of a government propaganda sign in Rangoon, Burma

Photo of a government propaganda billboard, 1996

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Saturday’s Sizzle: Rick Smolan Tells the Story of a Girl

Each Saturday on my blog I will be posting “Saturday’s Sizzle,” something I think is hot in the world of photography, art, travel or writing.

My first Saturday’s Sizzle features “Rick Smolan Tells the Story of a Girl.” This TED presentation tells the unforgettable story of a young Amerasian girl, a fateful photograph, and an adoption saga with a twist. I hope you are as enthralled as I was.


Portrait of photographer Rick SmolanRick Smolan is a former Time, Life and National Geographic photographer who is best known as the co-creator of the Day in the Life and America 24/7 series. He and his partner, Jennifer Erwitt, are the principals of Against All Odds Productions, which specializes in the design and execution of large-scale global projects that combine compelling storytelling with state-of-the-art technology.

Jeffrey is privileged to have worked on two projects with Smolan: One Digital Day and American 24/7.

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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Beyond Rangoon THEN…A Feather in Her Cap NOW

THEN: BEYOND RANGOON

APRIL 1989: Jeffrey and I have been together little more than four months when I get my first taste of what life is going to be like with him.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tianamen SquareFirst, if you’ll flash back with me briefly, you might remember that 1989 is a year of extraordinary change around the world—everything from China’s Democracy Movement to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Dalai Lama winning the Nobel Peace Prize to Gorbachev being elected Russia’s new president.

Another dramatic event taking place is that Aung San Suu Kyi is about to be voted Burma’s first democratically elected leader in nearly thirty years.

Jeffrey is in Bangkok finishing up an assignment for Newsweek when he receives a call from The Christian Science Monitor. “We have a project for you in Burma,” he hears.Those few words are all it takes before he agrees to the assignment.

Burma has been closed to the outside world for decades—at least to journalists—isolated by its brutal military dictatorship; Jeffrey knows this is an unusual opportunity.

At one time Burma had been the wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia and the largest exporter of rice, oil and teak. Its capital, Rangoon, often referred to as the “Queen of the East,” had been a vibrant metropolis brimming with a highly literate population. But a 1962 coup d’etat, followed by rampant corruption and the catastrophic economic plan, The Burmese Way to Socialism, turned this country upside down.

With Burma’s current economic bankruptcy and the UN’s label as one the least developed countries in the world, a tiny crack has been pried into this iron-fisted country, one just large enough to allow a handful of tourists to visit–along with their money. Jeffrey is one of them.

Abercrombie & Kent, one of the few tour companies operating in Burma, organizes a seven-day visit for Jeffrey, the maximum time allowed by the Burmese government. His itinerary will take him to Rangoon, Pagan and Mandalay, where his assignment is to capture the stark beauty of the country and the everyday life of people in this isolated land.

Photo of Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of a monk at Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of pilgrims praying in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of a watermelon vendor in Rangoon, BurmaPhoto of vendors in Mandalay, BurmaPhoto of Pagan, BurmaPhoto of a monk at a temple in Pagan, Burma

Inside A & K’s air-conditioned Bangkok office, an employee, Ms. Too, hands Jeffrey his plane ticket, visa and itinerary. Then she says, “Mr. Aaronson, there’s just one thing: there’s been a terrible crackdown in Rangoon. Martial law has been imposed. The elections are coming up and Aung San Suu Kyi has been placed under house arrest by the junta to prevent an uprising. It’s not safe for you to go.”

The nervous employee, of course, is sharing this news so that Jeffrey will postpone his trip, but Jeffrey’s mind is working in the opposite direction.

“Is the airport still open in Rangoon?” he asks.

“They haven’t said otherwise.”

“Then I better get going.”

“Mr. Aaronson, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. No journalists are allowed.”

Jeffrey, not to be dissuaded, replies, “Who said anything about a journalist? Remember, I’m a tourist, going on vacation to visit the beautiful country of Burma.”

“If you must go, then please be careful,” Ms. Too says with pools of concern in her eyes…

Photo of matial law in Rangoon, Burma 1989

Read Part Two in my next post…Sorry, I don’t mean to leave you hanging, but even the uber condensed version of this complicated story is too long for one post. I hope you’ll check back to find out what happens. In many ways this improbable story epitomizes Jeffrey’s career, and also the beginning of our relationship.

__________________________________________________________________________________

NOW: A FEATHER IN HER CAP

SEPTEMBER 2011: The events of 1989 were hugely memorable, but not be outdone, we also just experienced our own “big event” right here at our house last week. Our daughter, Olivia, got to have two feathers put in her hair.

I know, I know. It’s not exactly the kind of “big,” you might have imagined, but in the life of a 7-year old, it’s huge. Believe me.

photo of feather hair extensionsIf you’re trying to imagine what the heck I’m talking about, let me clue you in to the world of 2nd grade girls. The latest craze is having one or two…or several thin feather extensions threaded into your hair to add a splash of color and pizazz.

When our daughter first told me she wanted a feather like all the other girls, I have to admit I cringed. Really cringed.

I couldn’t imagine our sweet little bean with a Steven Tyler-like feather in her beautiful curly tresses.

Eventually though, because Jeffrey and I try not be ogres (well, at least most of the time), we told our daughter that if she really wanted a feather, we would let her get one if she worked hard at a challenging personal goal she was trying to achieve.

We set a date, marked it on the calendar, and gave her several tools and suggestions to help her reach her goal. Then we set her free to do it.

Somehow it reminded me of when I was training for my first New York City Marathon, and the calendar I had made charting out my 16-week training schedule. It seemed epic at the time, and I had no idea how I’d ever get through my first 10-mile run, let alone get to the finish line of a 26.2 mile race. But having a visual chart made all the difference. It was a constant reminder.

The same held true for Olivia. Like marathon training, many days were tough, but at the end of the day, after she worked her hardest and did what she need to do, she put a check mark on the calendar, and each time we could see her confidence grow.

Well, last Thursday her calendar was finally filled with check marks. She reached her goal.

I never imagined that a hair salon appointment could ever turn into a family celebration, but that is exactly what it was.

Photo of hair feather being put in girl's hairWe took Olivia to the salon immediately after school to pick out her feathers . She chose her favorite colors, pink and red, and the stylist quickly crimped them into her hair. All the while Jeffrey took pictures with his IPhone and I blinked back tears as I watched Olivia’s pride glowing in the mirror.

Photo of Steven TylerNowhere did I see visions of Steven Tyler. All I saw was a sweet little girl who had kicked some serious butt and had grown in multiple ways along the journey.

I clearly never would have chosen a feather for Olivia, but now I adore the look because it represents her hard work, determination, and her ability to overcome a daunting challenge.

The piece de resistance is that she got her feathers just in time for her 2nd grade school picture. Now she’ll always be able to look back at her photo, see those feathers and remember that she can do anything if she puts her mind to it.

Here’s to the feather in Olivia’s cap…I mean hair. This mama couldn’t be prouder (in case you couldn’t tell).

We all need “feathers” once in awhile. I’d love to know what motivates you to stay on track and reach your goals, especially when things get tough. Leave me a comment and share your feathery moments!

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.

10 Things You Learn When The Love of Your Life Is a Photojournalist

When I originally started writing my book, I had planned purely to chronicle Jeffrey’s adventures around the world and not include myself in any way. But then several of my fellow writers, for whom I have deep respect, started nudging me to reveal what our life was like from my perspective. So this is for you, my friends. I’m branching out from my THEN and NOW format just for you.

When you’re married to a photojournalist…

1)  You confirm that Timbuktu really is a town in the West African nation of Mali and not just a place your mother threatened to ship you off to if you “didn’t shape up” when you were a kid.

Photo of Mali

The Grand Mosque in Djenne, Mali, a couple hours southwest of Timbuktu

2)  You figure out how to fix things when they break, or more accurately, who to call when it happens, because inevitably it occurs when he’s boating down the Yangtze River or working in some remote village in Burma. Water heaters, computers, car batteries…you name it…they’ve all called it quits when he’s been gone.

Photo of Burma

Children making their way home after a day at the market in Burma

3)  You learn to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions on a flexible schedule. If the love of your life is in Papua New Guinea on your big day, you learn to pamper yourself anyway and enjoy it with aplomb…then celebrate it all over again once he’s back.

Photo of New Guiena

The Kambaramba stilt village on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea

4)  You stay in tune with what’s happening around the world. If your spouse is heading off to photograph Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in South Africa or Hong Kong’s handover to China, you try to learn as much as possible about the country’s history prior the event, then drink in the details of what it’s like when he’s there on the ground, experiencing history in the making.

Photo of Nelson Mandela's Inauguration

An exuberant supporter of Nelson Mandela shows his enthusiasm during Mandela's inauguration

5) You learn that if you go on an assignment with him, you are NOT going on vacation–even if it’s to Spain or Italy or Tasmania. You will be working your hiney off, getting up at the crack of dawn, chasing the light,carrying heavy equipment, zipping around from place to place, keeping track of all the film and captions, and barely remembering to eat. That’s what photographers do. Still, there’s nothing like it.

Photo of Becky and Jeffrey Aaronson getting on a plane

Jeffrey and I jumping on a plane in Denver. ©David Hiser

6) You learn to be patient with the airlines (well…mostly), even when they snatch precious moments of your time together with delays or mechanical issues. When your husband has flown well over a million miles though, and has been delivered home safely each time, you try to overlook the bad stuff and appreciate what they do. But you do learn to always call ahead before going to the airport to pick him up (even if you live across the street from the airport like we did for many years) because seven times out of ten, his flight will be delayed.

Photo of an airplane window

The view out the window at 38,000 ft. on an assignment we did together in Australia

7) You learn the art of converting a mind-numbing pile of Chinese taxi receipts from yuan to US dollars when billing clients, and you figure out ways to keep your sanity during tax season when wading through wadded up scraps of receipts that need to be converted from Moroccan dirham, Indian rupees or Bhutanese ngultrum.

Photo of a Chinese taxi receipt

A modern Chinese taxi receipt. Most of the ones I converted over the years were funky hand-written scraps that were barely legible.

8)    You learn that little things make a big difference to somebody who lives much of his life on the road. Tucking love notes into his suitcase or using special code words in faxes or emails, which are meaningful to him but leave the Chinese government guessing, helps you stay connected. Also stocking the fridge with all his favorite foods or organizing a massage when he gets home makes him dizzy with appreciation.

9)    You learn that distance really does make the heart grow fonder. Reunions after a month apart don’t get any more romantic.

Photo of an Aspen tree carved with LOVE

Aspen trees

10) Most importantly you learn to have a life of your own and not put it on hold until he gets back. You take advantage of solo time and fill it with all the activities and people you love. In fact, you learn to appreciate it so much that you feel sorry for all those couples who rarely have time apart.

These are but a few things that come to mind when I think about the gift of our relationship and our lifestyle. I’m sure it wouldn’t be for everyone, but for us, it has been a dream. Jeffrey often says, “I can’t believe people pay me to do this job,” and I say “I can’t believe I have the best of all worlds.”

I’d love to know what you think and welcome your questions or comments so I hope you’ll drop me a note in the “Leave a Reply” section below!

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Worlds Away THEN… Gratitude NOW

Photo of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, TibetTibetan pilgrim spinning prayer wheels in Lhasa, TibetTibetan Monk at the Jokhang Temple in LhasaTibetan Pilgrims at Tsurphu Monastery

Photos of Tibet: The Potala Palace in Lhasa, a pilgrim spinning prayer wheels in the Barkhor, a Buddhist monk at the Jokhang Temple, and pilgrims waiting to be blessed by the Karmapa at Tsurphu Monastery. All images ©Jeffrey Aaronson.

THEN: WORLDS AWAY (Part One)

August 1988: I don’t know my husband, Jeffrey Aaronson, yet. He’s photographing on the Roof of the World in Tibet. I’ve just graduated from college in Portland, Oregon, and when I’m not working at my job as a bookstore maven or sending out resumes trying to wrangle a real job in the fields for which I’ve just spent a bazillion dollars earning my degrees, I’m tossing back beers with friends, listening to U2 and training for my first Olympic-distance triathlon.

Jeffrey has called Aspen, Colorado home for the past decade, but spends most of the year traveling around the world, living his dream as a photojournalist. I don’t even know what my dream is yet for sure, but the restless pull of life has me aching for adventure. And the tug of my pen has me writing it all down in journals. Even though I would never call myself a writer at this moment, I do realize that I cannot not write; that I’m compelled to dance with words in some form or another, even if I’m just scribbling down musings for myself.

During that hot summer of 1988, Jeffrey’s and my worlds are so far apart—both literally and figuratively—it’s impossible to believe that they will ever collide. But then something so improbable happens, the only way to look at it is fate or kismet…or any of those other sappy words we hate to admit make our skin tingle…

  • Read Part Two in my next post from THEN. I promise I won’t leave you hanging each time—that’s way too annoying. If you’re interested though, stick with me and you’ll soon find out how this improbable couple met.

NOW: GRATITUDE

August 2011: I don’t know whether to be horrified or humored, but more than two decades later I’m still tossing back cocktails with friends, listening to U2 and training for triathlons.

Becky Green Aaronson at the Santa Barbara Triathlon

My biggest little fan after the 2010 Santa Barbara Triathlon

Well, at least in between being a wife and mom, a domestic goddess and a social coordinator for my family…and when I’m not being tortured by Justin Bieber as I taxi sweet Olivia back and forth to camp or play dates…or when I’m not trying to heal a nagging back injury which has left my running shoes in the closet for the last five months (but that’s a whole other story).

And then of course, there’s the writing. Though it has taken me much longer than I care to admit to finally jump into the world of writing professionally, here I am…at last…a writer…writing my book, The Art of an Improbable Life, as well as magazine articles, and now this blog.

Jeffrey Aaronson driving Mabel, his 1959 Rambler station wagon

Jeffrey and Mabel

Jeffrey has been on too many wild adventures to count, but has magically circled back where he started—immersed in an art project about Tibet, trying to use the power of his photography to make a difference in the world. That is when he’s not feeding lettuce to our daughter’s tadpoles or cooking a fine meal for his family or tinkering with Mabel, his 1959 Rambler station wagon.

So much has happened in the last twenty-odd years—from the life changing to the banal, from the heart wrenching to the absurd—I get vertigo every time I think about it.

But one thing for certain, Jeffrey and I know we are living the dream, and we don’t take it for granted. We are both filled with gratitude for all the things that have happened in our lives—from the extraordinary people we’ve met to the friends we’ve made, to the nutty and loving families we have supporting us on both sides, to the numerous improbable moments that have swirled into this life we call our own.

Even on days when my greatest challenge is picking up yet another pint-size pink clothing item off the floor or answering a mind-numbing mountain of questions, I know I’m lucky. Ridiculously lucky. It’s all about gratitude, and appreciating that the improbable has happened for a reason, even if that reason isn’t always clear.

Portrait of Jeffrey and Becky Aaronson

Improbable

Improbable: Unexpected. Not likely to happen. Events of rare coincidences. Hundred to one. Outside chance. Rare. Slim. Unimaginable. Fanciful. Incredible.

As Madame de Stael once said, “In matters of the heart, nothing is true except the improbable.” And nothing could be more accurate when describing my life or that of my husband’s…and even more so, the life we have created together.

As a young college graduate, it was an improbable moment that changed the trajectory of my life and sent me on a plane heading to Aspen, Colorado. And it was another improbable moment that dropped my husband, Jeffrey Aaronson, onto my doorstep and launched me into a career I never could have imagined. And yet another improbable moment that inspired Jeffrey to trade in his job as a biochemist and cancer research specialist to become a photojournalist.

Our worlds blissfully collided more than twenty years ago from this series of unlikely events, and soon after inspired us to begin working side-by-side in the field of photography. As an international photojournalist, Jeffrey traveled around the world on assignment for many of the nation’s top publications—everyone from Time, Newsweek and the National Geographic Society to Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The New York Times.

Time Magazine CoverNewsweek Magazine CoverNational Geographic Book CoverSmithsonian Magazine CoverGEO Magazine CoverNewsweek Magazine CoverTime Magazine CoverNewsweek Magazine CoverTime Magazine CoverTime Magazine Cover

While Jeffrey was off gallivanting around the globe on assignments, I ran our busy stock photo agency, Still Media (formerly named Network Aspen before relocating from Aspen to Santa Barbara). As Director of the agency, I focused on all the marketing, sales and promotion, and also oversaw the staff and coordinated assignments. On a few occasions I also managed to jump on planes with Jeffrey, learning first-hand the challenges involved in not only getting an assignment done, but getting it done well, and on time.

Photo of Jeffrey Aaronson taking picturesPassport scan

During those two decades, Jeffrey flew over a million miles crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of photographic stories. His passports (all four of them) quickly became colorful art pieces, with stamps from every corner of the world. From the shores of the Pacific to the high peaks of the Himalayas to the heart of the Sahara Desert—he pursued Komodo Dragons in Indonesia, boated down the Yangtze River in China, outmaneuvered the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and ventured into some of the most remote regions of the world. He also photographed everything from China’s Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square to Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in South Africa to life behind North Korea’s Iron Curtain.

Photo of Moroccan woman in a burkaSouth African woman with new flagPhoto of Japanese woman in Kimono, TokyoPhoto of Kim Il Sung statue in North KoreaPhoto of Evzones in Athens, GreecePhoto of Buddhist monk in Lhasa, TibetPhoto of boy with AK-47 in CambodiaPhoto of Muslims praying in VietnamPhoto of Moscow, RussiaPhoto of the American SouthwestPhoto of Rice Paddies in Sichuan, China

We shared both an exhilarating and exhausting life—one that was not only fast-paced and unpredictable, but also deeply gratifying. We breathed news, cultures and world events and felt the pulse of the media through the many talented editors we worked with on a daily basis.

Even though it wasn’t unusual for Jeffrey to be on the road for weeks, if not months, at a time. we still managed to live a completely normal, deeply romantic, and rich life together. Well, normal, I suppose if you consider it normal for a wife to count her lucky stars that her husband wasn’t arrested or killed by an oppressive regime. Or that the airplane he was flying on didn’t go down during a hell-on-earth thunderstorm in the Himalayas, or the duct tape on the antiquated Russian helicopter in Cambodia didn’t fall apart in mid-air. Or simply that he didn’t contract malaria or dysentery while working in one of the many hot spots of the world like Africa or East Timor. Or if you consider it normal to master the fine art of suitcase-packing and airport departure routines, or learning how to speak to each other in code when communicating via phone, fax or email in countries in which it wasn’t safe to talk openly.

Portrait of Jeffrey and Becky AaronsonThis blog, The Art of an Improbable Life, is meant to be a head-spinning look back at the simply complicated, fortuitous, improbable life Jeffrey and I have shared  in the world of art, photography, writing, and more recently, parenthood. On many levels it’s a love letter to my husband, a celebration in words and pictures of all the extraordinary moments we’ve experienced together, and those he’s captured through his lens as a photographer; and all the stories he’s planted deep in my heart after coming home from assignments in far-flung locations.

My blog will contain moments from THEN that are worth re-telling—particularly some of the improbable moments that helped Jeffrey create several of his most important photographs—and moments unfolding NOW in the lives of two creative types trying to chisel out time to write, create contemporary fine art photo projects, and raise a young child with the same amount of love and tenderness they’ve always given each other and their work.

Thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you enjoy the adventure as we travel to foreign lands and navigate through exotic cultures and historic world events. I also hope you’ll join in the conversation by posting your comments, questions or thoughts.

–Becky