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: Russia

Photo or restoring Russian church in Moscow

Behind the scenes: It’s 1991 and Jeffrey is working on assignment for Travel Holiday in Moscow. Preeminent writer, Orville Schell, has written an in-depth piece about the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox church, and Jeffrey has been hired to photograph the story.

It’s a mind-numbingly cold January day when Jeffrey walks through Red Square with his interpreter, Alexi. People all around are dressed in heavy wool coats and classic fur caps. Jeffrey wears his American version of warmth—expedition weight Patagonia gear—but he still cannot feel his fingers or toes.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, RussaOnce he enters St. Basil’s Cathedral though, Moscow’s iconic nine-domed masterpiece, and he’s lead through a series of dim, narrow chambers, he is instantly warmed by what he sees transpiring behind closed doors. A small group of artists is painstakingly restoring the frescoes and woodwork of this magnificent16th century structure.

Jeffrey and his interpreter see a dark-haired woman perched high atop scaffolding, restoring the face of an angel on one of the domed ceilings. When the woman sees the two, she immediately stops what she’s doing and looks down from above.

Jeffrey simply smiles and says in his best Russian, “ZDRAST-vwee-tye” (hello). “KAK VAS za-VOOT” (what is your name)? “Menya zavut Jeffrey” (my name is Jeffrey).

She can tell by his clothing that he’s not Russian. A broad smile crosses her face when he continues with every Russian phrase he has learned. Even though his grammar is nowhere near perfect, his accent is strikingly authentic, and in a matter of minutes he has endeared himself to the artists around him.

Restoration of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, RussiaIn no time they are all laughing and showing him into other back rooms, speaking to him in Russian as if he should understand every Cyrillic word. Jeffrey doesn’t need to comprehend a thing; their pride in what they are doing says everything.

It is a new era in Russia. Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership and policy of Glasnost (openness and freer discussion of issues), the Russian Orthodox Church is slowly coming back to life.

Prior to Gorbachev, the Soviet regime was committed to the complete annihilation of religion. Based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, atheism was the official doctrine of the Soviet Union and it became a high priority for all Soviet leaders in the Communist Party.

Not only did the state destroy churches, mosques and temples, but it ridiculed, harassed and executed religious leaders, flooded the schools and media with atheistic propaganda, and promoted ‘scientific atheism’ as the truth that society should accept. And just like all private property, any Church-owned property that wasn’t destroyed, was confiscated and put into public use.

_____

When Jeffrey arrives in Moscow, he senses the delicate dance of the new political and social freedoms unfolding around him. Russians are clearly embracing change, but they’re also cautiously optimistic, knowing things could change again quickly during this turbulent political time.

Russian woman praying at a Russian Orthodox chuch in Moscow, RussiaDuring this assignment, Jeffrey photographs nearly a dozen churches—previously confiscated religious buildings that have been returned to the church–some still surrounded by barbed wire, some with gilded onion domes shimmering in all their glory, and some even holding  elaborate services once again.

As Jeffrey climbs up the rickety scaffolding inside St. Basil’s Cathedral to photograph the artist painstakingly restoring the frescoed ceiling, he knows he’s about to create an image that perfectly symbolizes the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church. One person at a time, one brush stroke at a time.

Russian Orthodox Church ceremony in Moscow, RussiaEleven months later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the government of Russia begins to openly embrace the Russian Orthodox Church, and the number of the faithful rises once again in Russia.

The photograph above was created with a Nikon F4 camera, a Nikon 24mm lens, SB-16 flash, and Fuji Velvia film.

To view a few more of Jeffrey’s photographs of Russian Orthodox Churches, click on this link:  See More Churches

Vote for the Next Picture of the Week

I want to know what you think! Take a look at the four photographs below and let me know which one you’d like to hear about in next Thursday’s Picture of the Week. Leave your vote in the comment box and whichever image receives the most votes will be the next Picture of the Week. Voting ends Wednesday (11/16/11) at noon (so I have time to write the story)!

1) Saigon, Vietnam

Photo of Muslims in Saigon, Vietnam

2) Moscow, Russia

Photo or restoring Russian church in Moscow

3) Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Photo of Khmer dancers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

4) Champagne, France

Photo of Champagne, France

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.

The Geography of Bliss

Geography of Bliss book cover photograph

As many of you may know, reading is one of my passions in life. Earlier this year I blissfully added another title to my ever-growing, eclectic list of favorite books — The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Place in the World.

In this funny travel memoir, Eric Weiner, veteran NPR foreign correspondent (and self-proclaimed grump), travels the globe intent on finding the happiest places on earth and discovering what makes them that way.

Using both the wisdom of ancient philosophers as well as the modern “science of happiness” to guide him, he spends a year journeying around the world. Starting in The Netherlands, Weiner tracks down Ruut Veenhoven, the proprietor of the World Database of Happiness and the godfather of happiness research. From there he ventures to Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India and back to the United States.

The Geography of Bliss is not only a fascinating travel memoir, but a funny exploration of the science, psychology, and geopolitics of happiness. It also offers a provocative perspective on what happiness is — and isn’t — and where we might find it. 

Wiener raises such questions as:

Porrait of author David Weiner“What if you lived in a country that was fabulously wealthy and no one paid taxes? What if you lived in a country where failure is an option? What if you lived in a country so democratic that you voted seven times a year? What if you lived in a country where excessive thinking is discouraged? Would you be happy then?”

Kirkus Reviews says, “…this wise, witty ramble reads like Paul Theroux channeling David Sedaris on a particularly good day.

As I romped through Weiner’s book, I couldn’t help but think about all the places Jeffrey has traveled in the world, wondering which countries he might think are the happiest.

While Jeffrey doesn’t have data from the World Database of Happiness to back up his conclusions, he was glad to compile a list of some of the happiest places he’s been to in the world. His findings are based purely on personal experience.

__________


Jeffrey’s Top Five Happiest Places in the World

1) Bhutan: Perhaps it’s Bhutan’s way of measuring its well-being–Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product–or perhaps it’s because Bhutan is a country mostly inhabited by devout Buddhists, but this Himalayan mountain kingdom is steeped in happiness. After working on assignment in Bhutan several times over the past two decades, Jeffrey, like Eric Weiner, ranks it as one of the happiest places on earth. “People seem content without possessions in this remote, landlocked country and find solitude away from the bright lights of nearby bustling civilizations,” Jeffrey says.

Photo of a monk teaching a child in Bhutan

Photo of women in Bhutan

Photo of Bhutan

2) Thailand: Weiner explains that Thailand is one of the happiest places in the world because its residents are taught not to over-think things. While most Americans agonize over every detail of life, Thais are much more relaxed. Jeffrey has been to Thailand too many times to count, and sees the Thais as “Content, confident, and strong people who have a relaxed approach to life.” He reminded me that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that has never been colonized. Perhaps their independence has contributed to their inner happiness?

Photo of kid at the feet of a Buddha in Thailand

Photo of a monk wearing Ray Bans

Portrait of a Karen woman in Chaing Rai, Thailand

3) Ireland: It could be the melodic lilt of the Irish accent, or the ease with which Irish people smile, or perhaps how they genuinely enjoy helping others–whatever the case, the Emerald Isle ranks high on Jeffrey’s list of happy places. Let’s not forget the Guinness!

Photo of an musician in Doolin, Ireland

Photo of Dublin, Ireland

Photo of Stephens Green in Dublin, Ireland

4) Micronesia: This island chain dotting the Pacific Ocean just north of the Equator is home to people who enjoy a slow, simple life, warm weather, bountiful food, and a classic island lifestyle still devoid of hordes of tourists. No traffic jams, no deadlines…just happy, mellow people.

Photo of women in traditional dress in Truk, Micronesia

Photo of a fisherman in Micronesia

Aerial photograph of an island in Micronesia

Photo of Micronesia

5) Australia: Jeffrey has worked Down Under multiple times and each time he has been met with happy, active, and laid-back Aussies–particularly in Tasmania. “There seem to be few worries in Australia,” Jeffrey comments.

Photo of a vendor at Salamanca Market in Tasmania, Australia

Photo of a girl in Australia holding a koala

Photo of people swimming in a waterfall in Northern Territory, Australia

Photo of horseback riding in Victoria, Ausralia

In The Geography of Bliss, Weiner visits Moldova, which according to his research, is the unhappiest place on earth. By illustrating what makes Moldovans miserable he reinforces his findings about what makes other people happy–kind of like the Tibetan proverb, “Pain exists to measure pleasure.”

I’m not sure the happiness researchers ever polled people in North Korea though, which is Jeffrey’s number one pick for the unhappiest place on earth.

Photo of North Korean children

Photo of North Korea

Photo of North Korea

Here’s a challenge for you. Take a look at the list below which features many of the places Jeffrey has traveled, and see if you can guess which country he considers one of the saddest places in the world, but whose inhabitants are still some of the happiest people he’s ever met.

Antigua, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Chile, China, Christmas Island, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, East Timor, England, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Macau, Malaysia, Mali, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Micronesia, Morocco, Nepal, Netherlands, North Korea, Norway, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand Tibet, Uzbekistan, Vietnam.

Leave your answer in the comment section and find out the answer on Thursday! Also, I’d love to know YOUR IDEA of the happiest place on earth!

Photographing Daunting Democracy and Cambodian Peace

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, ChinaSUMMER 1989: Jeffrey arrives home safely from Beijing and I count my blessings that he has avoided harm while photographing the Democracy Movement and its grim aftermath.

I can see in his eyes though, that he’s changed by what has transpired; not in ways that others might notice, but in subtle ways–mostly in the intensity of his resolve.

The brutality of the Chinese government lights a fire in his consciousness that later propels him to create a powerful visual testimony of what took place during the massacre (a story that will be chronicled in my book).

That summer, while we both process everything that has happened, we’re happy to have the luxury of multiple uninterrupted weeks together…at least in between doing several photo shoots for Business Week, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. We’re in the same time zone though, and able to have dinner together nearly every night, so we drink in each others’ presence and appreciate the time we have together. We even manage to squeeze in things like hiking and cycling, concerts and movies, just like other couples.

Normalcy helps balance out the underlying sadness and anger we have about all the young, innocent people in China who have been murdered. Life marches on though, and it becomes clear why journalists must move on too; otherwise they would be paralyzed by what they have experienced.

September arrives in the blink of an eye and Jeffrey leaves me amidst the blaze of golden Aspen trees and heads back to Southeast Asia–this time to photograph the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia. The Vietnamese have occupied Cambodia for more than an decade and it’s a cause for pomp and celebration in Phnom Penh when the last soldiers leave.

Photo of the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, 1989Photo of the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, Phnom PehnPhoto of the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, Phnom PenhPhoto of the withdrawal of the Vietnamese from Cambodia, Phnom PenhPhoto of Vietnamese soldiers leaving Cambodia in 1989Photo of the Cambodian dancers during the withdrawal of the Vietnamese in 1989Photo of withdrawal of Vietnamese from Cambodia, Phnom Penh

In between this assignment in Cambodia and his next one in China, Jeffrey calls me from Bangkok. My heart melts from the sound of his voice.

It doesn’t take long before he’s telling me some crazy story about sharing a ride across Vietnam to the Cambodian border with three journalists from the Iranian News Service.

Knowing he’s safe and that he’s successfully completed his assignment in Cambodia, it’s impossible for me to repress my laughter when he describes being squished in the back of a tiny, sweltering rattletrap car, suffering through hours of heated conversations with three big Iranians who still consider America the Evil Empire.

“You think that’s bad,” he laughs, “You can’t believe the piece of shit Russian helicopter from the 60’s that I flew in across Cambodia. I thought the thing was going to disintegrate during take off. Parts of it were literally held together with duct tape.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about, but when he begins telling me the details of how a Thai journalist had bribed his way onto the helicopter with a bunch of Vietnamese generals, and had invited Jeffrey to join him so he could save three days of driving to a ceremony for the withdrawal of Vietnam’s military, I can picture it all as though I’m watching a scene from an ill-fated movie.

The barefoot Cambodian pilot. The dripping humidity. The porthole windows. The sickening noise of the rotors straining to lift the aircraft.

I count my blessings that Jeffrey’s story doesn’t end with an explosive crash like most Grade B action movies.

“Needless to say,” Jeffrey sighs, “I’m happy to be back in Bangkok.”

Needless to say, I’m glad he is too.

I also realize at that moment that while this life we’re just beginning together verges on nail-biting insanity, I also know I’m already hopelessly in love with the guy on the other end of the phone.

My Crash Course in Living Through the Lens

JUNE 1989: Jeffrey and I have been together for less than six months. During this time I’ve been given an unexpected crash course in the frenetic lifestyle of a photojournalist, learning quickly what it’s like to live through the lens.

Time Magazine with photo of Aung San Suu KyiYou may remember that 1989 is the year seismic political events begin shaking governments and cultures all around the world.

In April Jeffrey navigates Rangoon’s tension-filled streets during martial law, and photographs Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, when she’s first placed under house arrest. This project is a good indicator of what is to come in this life that Jeffrey and I are now happily sharing (if you missed this story, you can read the details in my two earlier posts):

9/27/11 Beyond Rangoon–Part One

10/4/11 Beyond Rangoon–Part Two

Soon after Burma, in May and early June, Jeffrey spends multiple weeks in Beijing documenting China’s Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, capturing the passion and energy of China’s youth and its demands for change.

Photo of Democracy Movement

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1989

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

It’s an exhilarating and surreal time for me as I watch the evening news every night to see what is unfolding in Tiananmen Square, knowing Jeffrey is there at the front line of history.

I see hunger strikers and workers marching with outrageously bold placards, then witness the “Goddess of Democracy” being erected as a symbol of hope and freedom for the movement. With each new development, threats escalate from the Chinese government. Soon fiery warnings are blasted about the severe consequences protesters will face if they do not end the demonstration and leave the square.

Jeffrey is in a simmering pot of politics, power and impatience, and my jaw grows tighter each day knowing that it’s getting closer to bubbling over–especially in a country in which freedom has never been a priority and brutality has often been a solution. At that moment, the Democracy Movement is no longer just a surreal event half way around the world for me; it is palpably real.

Photo of soldiers in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China 1989, Democracy Movement

It’s then I realize I need to focus on my “own thing” while Jeffrey is gone, otherwise my twenty-three year old dark brown hair will soon be turning white. While Jeffrey is in Tiananmen Square, I spend hours out on the road cycling, distracting myself with Aspen’s intoxicating landscape, centering my attention on simply turning the cranks of my pedals and getting enough oxygen into my lungs, rather than worrying about whether the Chinese government will follow through with its threats. I also immerse myself in work and all the other things I love like reading, painting and writing. I still stay glued to the TV and scour every newspaper, but I realize I have no control over Jeffrey’s safety so I trust in his scrappy ability to navigate through upheaval and create images, while staying out of harm’s way.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tianamen Square

I also can’t help but feel empathy for Jeffrey’s parents. Right before Jeffrey leaves for Beijing, I overhear one of the most endearing phone conversations I can ever remember. “You can’t forbid me to go,” Jeffrey says to his dad as gently as he can, a sweet, appreciative smile crossing his face. “You’ll just have to trust that I’ll be okay. Really. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” he says as tries to ease the concerns he hears on the other end of the line.

His dad’s fear says everything about the love his parents hold for Jeffrey, and immediately makes me understand who Jeffrey is from the ground up.

That same trepidation also makes me think about all the other journalists in the world, and all the spouses, families and friends in the wings supporting what each is doing…and most likely worrying–particularly those going into war zones. I’m thankful Jeffrey has not chosen that path.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square is bad enough.

After nearly six weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the worst happens: China’s Democracy Movement tragically ends in bloodshed. On June 4th, the Chinese government orders the People’s Liberation Army to quash the movement and end all challenges to its power. Thousands of unarmed people are murdered, mowed down by bullets and tanks, and many more are injured as the PLA clears the square.

Photo of Tiananmen Square crackdown, Beijing, China 1989

Thankfully, Jeffrey is not one of them.

In a later post I will share the story of how, in an unusual twist of circumstances, Jeffrey sidesteps the June 4th massacre. I’m a firm believer that most things in life happen for a reason. This is no exception.

 

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

The Art of an Improbable Life Blavatar

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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