After a year and a half of non-stop traveling with Human Planet, it appears that for me this particular journey is now over.
It’s been an amazing experience and one that has brought me into contact with our incredibly diverse species across almost every inhabitable environment on the planet. I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to learn that I can report back that human beings are the same the world over… individuals dealing with their own versions of personal struggles to secure food, find a mate, put a roof over their heads and protect their offspring. I’m also sure that you won’t be too shocked to discover that no matter where I went in the world, doors were opened to me, food was shared with me, knowledge was exchanged freely and help was offered unconditionally.
I’ve really enjoyed blogging about my experiences… so much so in fact that I have decided to continue doing it on my own website. So, if you would like to carry on following my travels and read about the other work I do outside of the BBC, then please click HERE, or alternatively you can join me on Facebook.
In the meantime, I will leave you with my personal Top 40 roundup of favourite photos from my Human Planet journey to remind you of some of the amazing stories that will be appearing on the programme when it hits your screens in January 2011.
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This will be my last post on this blog. For those of you who would like to continue following my work on my new blog, please click HERE. planeta humano
Alternatively, you can get my latest updates and join in our discussions on my new Facebook page.
The story behind the image
In terms of my photography, the most common question I am asked is “What is your favourite picture that you’ve taken”. It’s a very easy question to ask, but as those of you who shoot pictures regularly will no doubt understand, it’s an incredibly difficult one to answer.
In order to categorize a picture so precisely, I think it’s probably worth mentioning that according to me, ‘favourite picture’ doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘best picture’. The former suggests a degree of sentimental value, whereas the latter would probably best be judged by the objective eye of an experienced stranger and not by that of the image’s originator.
So, after quite a bit of thought, and for many reasons, sentimental and other, I have decided that this image is my favourite from my archive.
For those of you that are familiar with my back catalogue, I’m sure that a few of you reading this may be a little bemused by this choice of image. After all, on surface inspection it is quite a demeaning and derogatory photo – a style in which I am not renowned for shooting. However, for me the beauty in this photo lies in exactly that uneasy predicament that you are confronted with as a viewer, and one that may make more sense after I’ve elaborated a little on the circumstances surrounding its inception.
I shot this photo about 5 years ago for inclusion in the fantastic BAFTA-nominated documentary Taxidermy Stuff the World. The film follows the fortunes of a handful of taxidermists from around the world as they find, ‘stuff’ and eventually show their best work at the fantastically glitzy World Taxidermy Championships in Springfield, Illinois, USA. The photograph shows taxidermist Jeanette Hall from Spring Creek, Nevada, standing with her pedestal mounted Appaloosa horse outside her hotel room in the corridor of the Crown Plaza hotel in Springfield.
Jeanette ended up playing quite a prominent role in the film, not least because she has such a brilliantly interesting and honest character. Amongst her talents at the time, she was most renowned for her love of diligently mounting the testicles of various animals on small varnished plaques, something that the armchair psychologists amongst our crew identified with her recent status as an embittered divorcee and one that her free-standing freezer choc-a-bloc full of frozen testicles certainly alluded to.
Nevertheless, after spending some time with Jeanette over the course of our filming it soon became apparent that she, like many of her contemporaries in the world of taxidermy whose passion often required them to kill wildlife, was in fact blessed with a strangely genuine love of animals. For me this paradox was a fascinating revelation to discover and one that I feel gives this portrait of her and her cherished horse so much more poignancy. For sure, it’s hard to ignore the brutal symbolism of the severed white horse’s head but it is somehow eclipsed by the delicate intimacy evident in the way she’s holding its reins. Similarly, the Mona Lisa smile of both Jeanette and her treasured horse beguile the tragically large and prominent 3rd place rosette pinned to this carefully manicured nape. Of course, quite a large factor in the initial attraction to this image comes from the simple fact that at a swift glance it is surprisingly easy to overlook the ‘minor’ detail that this beautiful horse is not actually alive and indeed doesn’t even posses any body below its neckline.
A few months after I got back from the shoot this particular image was included in an exhibition of photojournalism and ended up framed in a London gallery sandwiched between photographs from the war in Afghanistan and the Asian Tsunami. In my experience, most people’s initial reaction to the photo is one of either disdain or mockery and this was very much the case at that time. At the private view I remember wondering what Jeanette would think if she knew that people were sniggering at her portrait in a well-to-do London gallery. It was an uncomfortable feeling, so I tracked down her contact details and sent her an email asking for her opinion. Her reply was swift and brilliantly comforting. She wrote that she absolutely loved the picture and that her horse looked beautiful. She said that she had given framed copies to her family and friends and that in fact, her personal copy took pride of place on her mantelpiece at home. She didn’t care what other people thought of her picture.
I think that is why I like this picture so much. To some it’s disgusting, to others beautiful. For me it is deeply ironic… for Jeanette it’s just a lovely picture of her and her beloved Appaloosa horse. It can mean so many different things to different people but most importantly, it does so without actually causing offence to the person who originally posed for the photo in good faith, something that I think about a lot when people allow me the opportunity to photograph them. All in all it’s a picture full of paradox and irony and I like that. Ironic too that the picture I have ended up choosing as my favourite was, out of necessity, shot with flash, something I normally can’t stand and almost never use in my photography.
I suppose that one of the prominent qualities that keeps me enamoured by a picture is whether or not, as I study it more and more, I discover things about that image that I would like to change… things that I feel would improve it somehow. In the case of this image, after quite a few years I am still happy with it just the way it is. Well, almost. I’ve often secretly wished that Springfield’s Crown Plaza Hotel had had a slightly more garish wall paper adorning its corridors. But then again, nothing’s ever perfectly right when you’re a photographer.
As an amusing postscript to this story, I am including the link below to an article about Jeanette that I found in The Telegraph and which I think sums up the complexities of her philosophy on life brilliantly. Absolutely classic!
To see more of my photos from the World Taxidermy Championships.. click HERE
The story behind the image
I shot this picture a couple of years ago whilst on a 4 week trip through the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan can be a complicated country in which to travel since, as a visitor you are required to take a guided tour as your means of travel through the kingdom. Of course, nothing is ever set in stone and it wasn’t too long after meeting my guide and driver that we agreed to modify our pre-planned itinerary and tread a rather less travelled path through this fantastic country by visiting Bhutanese people in their own homes.
This image was one of the first photos I took in Bhutan, and still one of my favourites. On my first day in Thimpu, Bhutan’s sleepy capital city, I asked my guide to take me to visit his relatives and on the way we passed an old friend of the family slowly trudging his way up a road quietly chanting and spinning his prayer wheel. That day it was Neowney, a week long religious duty of mantra chanting and fasting that most of Thimpu’s elderly citizens were taking part in at the time. The family friend agreed for us to come with him and we followed him up to Changangkha Lhakhang temple.
As a first introduction to Bhutan, I think you would struggle to find a more atmospherically charged scene than a room full of meditating people lit only by two small doorways at the front left and right sides of the room. Needless to say, this image was one of an abundance of photographic gifts being offered at that time. Every face in the room told a different story, but it was this lady, quietly sitting at the front in deep meditation who stole the show for me. Later on in the day, outside the temple we showed her the image on my laptop. In that beautiful way that only wise old Buddhists know how, she smiled and carried on about her duties at the temple, unimpressed.
Taking a photograph like this is not hard at all. The only prerequisites are a darkish background and a suitable light source emanating from only one direction, in this case an open door. One thing you must be sure of is to remember to meter for just the highlights that you can see. This will involve shooting with your camera set to manual and adjusting your exposure accordingly, something I would advise you to get into the habit of doing at all times if you are serious about your photography. By exposing for just the highlights on the woman’s face, the rest of the dimly lit background disappears into complete darkness.
As you can see from this second frame. There was no shortage of images in the room on that day. For me though, the tight framing of the lady gives the first image a greater sense of the intimacy of a quiet moment such as meditation.
Today was a great day.
This morning I got up. Had breakfast. Brushed my teeth. Picked up my cameras, and then rode across a snowy Gobi Desert on a camel. Today just entered my top five best days of traveling.
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Interested in more stories from Mongolia? Try HERE