Tag Archives: photography

Story Behind the Story: Ethos Magazine Guest Post

Ethos Magazine recently published my second guest blog for them since I graduated from the University of Oregon. The article titled “The Responsible Traveler: Understanding Beauty and Ugliness” explores what it means to understand the good, the bad and the ugly while touring a foreign country. I wrote about how before I came to Nepal I pored over magazine articles and the Lonely Planet guidebook pictures and formulated a kind of image of Nepal that was completely idealistic and overly majestic. How could I not? The Lonely Planet showed pictures of the Himalayas and small rural villages, Buddhist monks and Hindu city shrines. I came to Kathmandu expecting all these things. I found them, but I also found another side of the picture: glue-huffing children, trash everywhere and extreme poverty.  (Please read the full story to find out more.)

For my Ethos, I also must provide pictures to accompany my articles. I wanted to provide a picture of the “ugliness” that I am taking about in my article, i.e., extreme poverty or the glue-addicted children. As I wrote about on a recent blog, I am opposed to taking pictures of people living in extremely poor conditions or in fragile situations, like beggars, because usually I find that sort of thing to be patronizing and inappropriate. So, I suggested to my Ethos editors that we use a Creative Commons picture of a beggar on the streets of Kathmandu instead. They replied that it would be better if I took my own pictures. I rationalized that taking photos of the homeless children would be okay for journalistic purposes because I was trying to bring awareness to the problem, so I equipped myself with my Canon and hit the streets. I think I was originally resisting taking my own photos of the homeless kids because I was intimidated. As I walked from my home in Sanepa to Thamel, where most of the homeless kids congregate, I tossed around the idea in my head. I wondered why I was intimidated by these kids, because after all, they were just that: kids. But the homeless, glue-huffing boys always exude a sort of hard outer shell, that is often aggressive. Their sickly condition is also so startling to me that I shy away, avoiding their eyes and their pleas for money or food.

I arrived in Thamel, took a deep breath and surveyed the scene. I quickly approached a homeless 11-year-old named Suraj who was stumbling around high on fumes. Although he was one of the homeless gang, he was perhaps the least sickly looking one of the bunch, therefore, the most approachable. He still looked like an innocent kid, while many of the others who are slightly older have a disturbingly hard look in their face and in their eyes. I struck up a conversation with Suraj and asked if I could hang out with him for a while and snap some photos. I told him that in return, I would buy him a meal. Suraj and I roamed around together for a while and he introduced me to a few of his friends, also homeless boys who were permanently attached to their glue bags. I didn’t want to prolong the whole event, so I took some photos of them and did a few short interviews. After I decided I had sufficient material to accompany my article, Suraj led me to a local supermarket so I could buy him some biscuits, as he requested. His friend came along too, a 13-year-old who looked especially gaunt and unhealthy, and I told him I’d treat him to some food also. At first the boys asked for biscuits and I told them to pick out which ones they’d like from the supermarket. I was surprised that when I allowed them to pick out what they wanted for themselves, instead of picking out biscuits, they headed straight for the bags of milk powder. The only thing they asked for were large tins of powdered milk, which I purchased for them. I’m not sure if they knew that powdered milk has at least some nutrients, or if it makes them more full for longer than biscuits, but they obviously had some reason for picking out the stuff.

I waved goodbye to them and they very politely said thank you and requested that I come again whenever I wanted to. The two sauntered off down the street, cradling their powdered milk in one hand, huffing glue from bags in the other hand. I watched them go and felt a heaviness in the pit of my stomach. After three years of traveling and living in Asia, I feel that I’ve gained a certain hardness or immunity to things I see, but no matter how many times I see these sickly, young homeless boys, I feel an indelible wave of sadness.

Although I was dreading this assignment when Ethos asked me to take my own photos, it ended up being just what I needed to prompt me out of my comfort zone. Photography is still an art that I’m learning, but I think good photographers are adept at being out of their comfort zone all the time. With a camera, you are inherently crossing a personal line and stepping into someone’s life and often into someone’s problems.
Above: Suraj, the 11-year-old boy I followed for the afternoon, huffing on the streets.

Above: Suraj and his 13-year-old friend beg outside a supermarket in Thamel. They say their main complain is hunger and safety concerns when sleeping on the street at night. Because of their young age, they are often targets for robbery or violence by the older, stronger homeless people or gang members on the Kathmandu streets.

Taking Pictures of People: How to Get the Perfect Shot

Let’s say you’re strolling through a crowded market nestled deep in the heart of Old Kathmandu. The buildings are crammed and crumbling, giving the area a weathered, medieval look. There are vegetable vendors lining the streets. They’re sitting on ragged tarps covered with a landscape of vegetables stacked in pyramids. There are red tomatoes, yellow lemons, some green bumpy vegetable that you don’t know the name of, dark purple eggplant and heaps of green chillies. Out of the corner of your eye, leaning against an ancient-looking door frame is an equally as ancient-looking woman. The lines and wrinkles on her face probably hold more stories than an entire library. From her ears drip traditional gold jewelery. In her hand she holds a beedi cigarette, which she takes long pulls of every minute. The woman is perfectly framed within the rectangular door setting. “This looks like a National Geographic shot!” you think. You grab for your camera, but hesitate for a second. “Should I take a picture? Would it be rude? Should I ask? The shot would be so amazing, though!” And in that few seconds of apprehension, the woman and the possibility of a photo have vanished.

Some version of this scenario has happened to me many times. I’ll see someone that I really want to take a photo of and then in the minutes of mulling it over, the person will move or disappear. I usually carry my camera everywhere and have taken thousands of photos on my travels through Asia over the last three years. Looking back through my photo library, out of thousands, I can probably pick 100 really, really good ones. Out of those 100, probably 80% are of people. I’m a strong believer that people make the best photo subjects. Obviously Mt. Everest is one of the most majestic spots on earth, but are you really going to capture its essence and beauty in a photograph. Probably not. Forests and lakes are spectacular sites to visit, but, honestly, landscape photos can get boring quickly. After some time, a lake is just a lake. A mountain range will always look dwarfed and less amazing than it did in person.

But people never get boring. It is the people who live in a place that bring the whole scene to life. When I travel I like to see what the people are doing. I want to see how they live their lives, what they do everyday, how they spend their mornings, what they eat, where they work, who their children are, what they wear and what they do for fun. Ultimately, I want to see how other people’s lives around the world differ from my own in the United States. After we strip away the religion, the food choices, the morals and ethics, the language and the education, we’re all the same: just people. I think that is why people photos are so interesting: because when we see someone else’s eyes and face, we can inherintily relate to them, no matter if they are the nomads of Tibet, the city slickers of Seoul, the coffee-shop owners of Singapore or the cowgirls of the American West. Take a look at some of the most successful travel photographers like Steve McCurry. Almost every single one of his famous photos is of a person. Perhaps his most famous photo, the one of the Afghan girl staring out of frame with hauntingly green eyes, is noteworthy for many reasons, but mainly, we can relate to her through her eyes.

Although pictures of people are probably the most interesting and beautiful mementos from travel, they are also the most difficult to take. I often think about what it would be like if I were on the other side of the camera, the subject of the photos rather than the photographer. I would absolutely NOT appreciate having my picture snapped as I went about my daily life, eating breakfast and going to work. So, how can you get good photos of people without being intrusive, rude or imposing? It is a fine art that I am learning slowly but surely. Practice makes it slighly easier, but I still have an awkward feeling whenever I am trying to get a close-up photo of a person’s face. Here are some thing’s I’ve learned in my practice and study of photography that will help when trying to get good photos of people:

1)Ask

This can be difficult, especially when there is a language barrier, but it is the most surefire way that you won’t upset your proposed photo subject. If you don’t know how to ask, or the person doesn’t understand your question, just point at your camera and point at them? They’ll probably understand that you want to take a picture and respond accordingly.

2) Offer Money, When Appropriate

I think if you are going to take a picture of someone, it is sometimes fair that you pay a bit of money to them. I usually never pay anyone in the city, but if I am trekking or in the countryside and see someone I want to photograph, I’ll take their picture and then give them whatever small change I have in my bag. Sometimes the person will straight away ask for money, but if not, it’s a nice gesture.

3) Learn How to Say “Can I Take Your Picture” in the Local Language

I asked my Nepali photographer friend how to say: “Can I take your picture?” in Nepalese. Learning this phrase in the local language can be helpful.  When you whip out the phrase in the local language, your potential photo subject may be more willing to agree if they feel that you have made an effort to learn a bit of their culture and language.

4) Read Body Language – if they look awkward, put the camera away

If you take your camera out and your proposed photo subject shrugs away, or starts looking awkward, just put the camera back and don’t take photos. Taking pictures of people, if they don’t agree to it, can be very rude and insensitive.

5) Be Sensitive and Don’t Encroach

There are certain situations that, no matter how photogenic they may be, you probably shouldn’t take a picture of. For example, a woman breastfeeding a child or an intimate moment between two people. I also think it is also necessary to be exceedingly sensitive when taking pictures of poor people or beggars.  I say do NOT take pictures of poor, destitute people just for fun (unless you are going to give them money).  If you are a photojournalist or another sort of professional photographer and you are taking these pictures for some assignment or larger purpose, then it can be alright.


Above: Aashish, one of the young monks at Trungram Monastery in Nepal.

Above: A group of Cambodian kids in the village outside of Battambang.


Above: Thuli Tamang, a 72-year-old woman carries grass to her village.

Above: The busy scenes at the vegetable market in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Above: The monks at Trungram Monastery in Sankhu, Nepal.

Above: Nepali school girls walking to morning classes in Pokhara.

Above: A farmer outside of Pokhara takes a tea break.

Above: Two farmer girls rest at their home outside Pokhara, Nepal.

Above: Two inquisitive girls from a small village in Nepal.

Above: Sadhus, the Hindu holy men, hang out and smoke ganja at Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal.


Above: A vegetable peddler on the streets of Kathmandu.

Above: Farmers harvest rice in Phimai in Northeastern Thailand.

Above: Two Akha women on the trail deep in the jungles of Northern Laos.

Above: A toothy child smiles beneath a big red tikka.

Above: A beggar asks for rupees as the Swayambhunath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

PHOTOS: Color and Texture at the Vietnamese Markets

It’s early morning at the market in Hoi An and women donning woven, conical hats bob up and down, organizing their baskets full of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. On the outskirts of the market are vegetable peddlers and inside, under the corrugated tin roof are noodle sellers, who are chopping cabbage and flouring rice noodles.

A walk through the markets of Vietnam reveals an astounding array of colors, textures and smells. Seeing the number of colorful vegetables and herbs at the market makes it easy to understand why Vietnamese food is so incredibly fresh and full of flavor. Pho vendors and banh mi stall owners are able to come to the markets every day and get the freshest ingredients, with dirt and roots still dripping off their ends. The variety of food, of all colors and textures, available at the Vietnamese markets seems to directly correlate to the diversity of Vietnamese cuisine.

Here are some photos that show the rich colors, textures and variety at the Vietnamese marketplaces.



















BLOG: A (Re)Visit to Trungram Monastery

Yesterday I made a trip outside of Kathmandu to visit the monks at Trungram Monastery, where I spent a good portion of my last Nepal trip living and teaching English. Trungram Monastery is located about 1.5 kilometers away from the small Newari village of Sankhu, which is about an hour by mini-bus from the Kathmandu city center.

I caught a bus from Chabahil area, which is near Boudhanath stupa, one of the biggest holy sites for Tibetans in Nepal. I arrived in Sankhu about an hour later and spent some time walking around the town taking photos of the Newari architecture and the small vegetable markets. Since three years ago, I noticed a marked increase in Sankhu’s size (the population of which is estimated at about 10,000). The town now includes quite a few more small shops and even became host to a Kathmandu Bank.

I hiked up to Trungram Monastery from the town, which takes about 30 minutes and winds up a hill, past rice fields and vegetable gardens. It was a walk I had taken many times before and it felt good to let my feet lead me through familiar territory. I recognized the same small houses, resting huts and water taps from three years ago.

Walking up to the monastery, it seemed to me that very little had changed. The grass was still green and velvety, the paint on the prayer room looked fresh and the big Tibetan Mastiff dog was still chained to the dining room door. I found my good friend Jangchup, a 23-year-old monk who I’ve stayed in contact with through Facebook, in his room. He proceeded to give me a “re-tour” of the grounds, pointing out things that had changed since I was living there. Mostly, the only things that had changed were that a few shrubs were now bigger. Also, the stoic guard who used to live there, a villager who spent most of his days flinging rocks at monkeys with his sling shot, had since retired.

I visited the classroom that I used to teach five classes per day. Class was in session and I said hello to all the boys who were my former students. The monastery currently has a new English teacher, a Dutch girl who stays in the village below. Jangchup showed me the library, which is full of Tibetan writings and philosophy books. Several years ago the monastery purchased three new computers, which are stationed in the library for the monks to use. The computers do not have internet connections, but I was nonetheless impressed at their investment and encouragement of technological proficiency. Jangchup spends some time each day teaching the young monks how to use the computers.

Jangchup and I spent the day walking around the monastery and the village, exploring the famous Vajrayogini temple, talking with the locals and checking out the small meditation caves in the area, where reportedly famous monks used to come to meditate for months at a time. After a few hours of exploration, we returned to the monastery for lunch.

The food, which is vegetarian, was simple yet delicious, just like I remembered. Red-robed little monk inhaled their rice and vegetables, excited to go run around outside after lunch. There were a number of new small monks at the monastery that I didn’t recognize, but most of them I remembered from 2007. Many of the boys looked exactly the same, but a few had grown up quite a bit. Some of the boys wanted to chat, but most are so shy, especially around females, that whenever I gave them a smile, they ran away in fits of embarrassment.

After lunch I went up to the small monks’ residence hall and hung out, chatting with those proficient in English and reminiscing with them about our times together three years ago. They all asked me who I remembered and who looked the same.

“He looks the same,” I said, pointing to Pasang. “He looks different. He’s grown two feet!” I said about Nima. They all burst into a fit of laughter at that remark.

Everyone wanted to know if they looked the same or different. I asked if I looked the same or different. They told me I looked the same, except “more white.”

The rambunctious nature of the small monks was surely the same as it was three years ago. During break time, just as I remembered, they spent their free hour karate chopping one another, running around on the roof of their residence hall, playing with a goat left by one of the villagers and break dancing.

I left in the late afternoon to catch a mini-bus back to Kathmandu and said goodbye to everyone. A few of the older boys who now have internet mobile phones said they had Facebook pages.

“Add me as a friend!” I said as I waved goodbye.


Above: Villagers climbing the steps up to the Vajrayogini temple complex. They were just returning home after transporting baskets full of vegetables to Sankhu to sell.

Above: Jangchup stands in front of one of the meditation caves we explored near Vajrayogini.

Above: Jangchup and I examined some of the fine metal work on the Vajrayogini temple complex. The temple had an interesting mix of Buddhist and Hindu deities.

Above: The puja (prayer) room at Trungram Monastery. This is the place that the monks gather in the morning and evening for two-hour prayer sessions. The prayer sessions are amazing to sit in on. They include lots of deep Tibetan chanting, gongs and horns.

Above: Me standing in one of the meditation caves. This is the oldest cave in the area and Jangchup told me that thousands of years ago, monks would come here to meditate for up to six months.

Above: The boys at the monastery. The majority of the monks pictured here are my former students. (So proud of them!) Anyone under four feet I most likely don’t know, as the smallest monks have only recently entered the monastery.

Above: The small monks sit on the lawn practicing their Tibetan after lunch.

Above: Two of the boys run up and down the hill adjacent to the monastery.

Above: On our way up to the Vajrayogini temple complex, Jangchup and I came across this Hindu shrine on the side of the path. The grounds surrounding it were still wet with fresh blood, as an animal (most likely a goat) had recently been sacrificed to the Gods.

Above: Me standing in front of the Buddha in the Trungram Monastery’s puja room.

Snapshot Story: Breakfast on the Saigon Streets

The streets of Saigon have already come to life just after the sun makes its appearance over the ragged, urban cityscape. Motos zoom by with passengers on the back, cyclo drivers push and pull their bandy legs on their vehicle’s pedals and the coffee vendors expertly funnel the rich, black, liquid caffeine from a silver, dented pot to glass mugs with bottoms full of cloyingly sweet condensed milk.

From a corner adjacent to my hostel in Saigon’s backpacker district comes a mingling of smells that is impossible to resist. There is the salty smell of frying eggs, the juicy aroma of sizzling meats and an overpowering and romantic fragrance of just-baked, crunchy baguettes. The street stall is run by a sturdy Vietnamese woman who doesn’t smile, she just concentrates on cooking her eggs to perfection.

I order a bánh mì trung with the works for breakfast. The sandwich, which I think is one of the more perfect breakfast foods in Asia, is a version of the famous bánh mì made with an added omelette. The woman hands me a steaming mug of coffee that looks like tar and tastes like heaven before she sets about making my Saigon street breakfast. With two swift cracks she breaks the eggs into the pan, moving the skillet about with the hands of an expert. A serrated bread knife cuts through the crunchy outside of the baguette to reveal a soft and puffy inside: the perfect loaf of bread, a legacy left by the French. The surly woman slices off pieces of páte and stuffs them into the baguette’s fissure. With chopsticks, she adds fresh herbs and vegetables: green onions, a few sprigs of cilantro, cucumber and shredded carrot.

In just a few minutes the sandwich is finished. The woman, with the corners of her mouth turned down, wraps the stuffed baguette in a piece of yesterday’s newspaper and snaps it shut with a thin rubber band. She hands it over, I pay and then unwrap the sandwich, feeling like it’s Christmas on the hot and sticky morning streets of Saigon. At that moment, sitting on the street corner eating my bánh mì trung off an old piece of newspaper and already starting to sweat from the southern Vietnamese heat, I am absolutely certain that there is nowhere in the entire world I would rather be.

PHOTOS: Colorful Kathmandu

It has become a habit of mine to spend at least one day per week roaming the Kathmandu streets and alleys with my camera.  Every day that I’ve done this, I return home with hundreds, or even thousands of pictures from the photography mission.  On my photography walks I attempt to capture quick moments and scenes that make up everyday life for Nepalis.  These include bargaining at the vegetable market, hanging out on the steps of a temple, prayer or doing a puja and eating street snacks.
I’ve compiled a set of photos below from my photography walk two Saturdays ago.  When looking at these pictures after the fact, one thing stands out to me: the color.  Kathmandu is colorful.  I think the vibrancy of the scenes is what makes photography walks so enjoyable.  There are the rainbow colors of the vegetable peddler’s spreads, the reds of women’s saris, the orange of sadhus’ robes, the green and yellow of beaded necklaces and the gold of traditional statues.  Color can be found around every corner, even in the most unexpected places.

Bargaining on the street near Asan Bazaar.

A busy corner near Asan Bazaar. At this corner is a concentration of fruit vendors, who sell straight off of baskets attached to their bicycle.

In the tailoring district, several shops display their colorful clothes and saris.

A vegetable peddler counts his rupees and organizes his vegetables near Asan Bazaar.

Two sadhus who were eager to pose for a picture near Kathmandu's Durbar Square (yes, they insist on payment for pictures).

A women gets whisked away by a rickshaw near Asan Bazaar.

Two men wait for customers at their tiny incense shops.

Two women selling things from their spots on the pavement near Kathmandu's Durbar Square.

A tiny shrine I saw embedded in the sidewalk. The shrine is covered in tika powder and rice grains given as an offering.

Various green vegetables for sale near Asan Bazaar.

Tika powder, rice grains and other offerings to be given at the nearest shrine.

A woman weaves plates and bowls from green leaves.

Women string marigolds on to garlands to be given as religious offerings.

Flower petal offerings outside a tiny Hindu temple near Asan Bazaar.

PHOTOS: Kathmandu Life

A Kathmandu street scene.

Stop by this restaurant for a "sandwitch," served hot and fresh out of a bubbling cauldron.

The glorious, glorious Kathmandu skyline. My favorite.

The vegetable peddlers on the Kathmandu streets add color to the dusty, brown backdrop of streets and alleys.

Vibrant colors on the Kathmandu streets. These are embroidered and sequined shawls to go with saris.

Washer and dryer? Nope. Most laundry here is done by hand (including mine). Here, someone washes clothing and collects water at the public water taps by the Bagmati River.

This is Gita's hand (my landlady and neighbor). Last week was some occasion where women get henna designs and wear a right on their left ring finger to ensure that ghosts will not be seen for a year. Gita made design for herself, me and her daughter. I learned that after the henna design is on, one should dab it with lemon once dry to make sure the pattern stays for longer.