Friday, November 6, 2009

Listening For Photographs and Looking For Sounds

I’ve just returned from more than two weeks traveling in the ethnic Tibetan regions of
Western Sichuan province, the mountainous areas abutting the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as the People’s Republic of China describes what we call the country of Tibet.

This fifth trip to China was my first where I started listening for photographs, and looking for sounds.

When we first drove up a steep hill to the Huiyuan Temple in Bamei, looking down onto a temple carved from the earth, dozens of  spinning prayer wheels and hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims marching clockwise, I was overwhelmed and unable to pick up a camera. Just too many sensations to absorb at once. Heck, there were even dozens of young monks swarming all over painting the decorative roof.

I put on my headphones, turned on my tape recorder, attached a microphone and started listening. I heard the shuffling feet, and spin of the wheels. I followed a tinkling bell to the far side, recorded the low chants, creak of the prayer wheel. I noticed the steady thump of walking sticks. I started to see photographs and got to work.

Play the 30 second clip under the photo and experience how the ambient sounds inform the photograph, and how the photo amplifies on the recordings.

After dedicating my entire photographic career to photojournalism and commercial photography by capturing a single image distilling an entire story into a single frame, Henri Cartier-Breasson’s famous “Decisive Moment”, I’ve begun working in multimedia production. I’ve become fascinated with the expanded dimensions of story telling that capturing on scene ambient sounds and interviews with photo subjects add to my still photographs.

Ultimately I will combine the sounds and still photos from Sichuan into a multimedia slide show that will tell a story over time, linear story telling, but that will be a topic of a future post.

At a Tibetan cultural dance festival in Danba I loved photographing these men wearing hats made from wild cat skins ( and hoping they were not endangered species ), yet when I recorded their call and answer singing with their female partners, and their skin boots stomping, the entire experience came alive.

Back in Chengdu, a very laid back and friendly city of 10 million, I was walking through the quiet gardens attached to the Wenshu Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in China. It was overcast, air yellow with pollution. Bad light, my photographer side said. While listening to the monks chanting during their mid-day meal, I heard a bird at a distance, and followed the sound. Then more birds, playing off each other, rising and flowing through the trees. I did not recognize them as wild, they were so melodic.

Under the low hanging bamboo trees were six song birds in cages, enjoying the “fresh air”, with their six elderly male owners sitting on stools and animatedly discussing the affairs of the day and the relative skills of their birds. Another combination of photographs with sound.

It all started last summer. For years I’ve  spent a lot of time capturing landscapes and photographing the wildlife in Everglades National Park, using the subtleties of sunrise light or catching the glint in an alligator’s eye to tell my stories. Of course I was aware of the sounds around me, buzz of the insects and calls of the birds. But they were just part of the enjoyment of being out doors, not being in an office cubicle to make a living. But this summer when I ventured into the same familiar wetlands with a tape recorder and shotgun mic, suddenly my visual world really came alive with the sounds that surrounded me. A thunder storm, rain drops and running water said “Everglades” in a way none of my photos ever had.

Be warned, it's three minutes long.

I was unable to post to this blog while in China, as the government has blocked practically all access to social media from within the country, including Blogger, Face Book and Twitter. An internet search from within China yielded complicated articles on how to use proxy servers to read and post to overseas blogs, but I decided that was way too complicated while I was working up to 14 hour days and sleeping poorly at 10, 000 feet.

Heck, the PRC has even blocked access to the iTunes store, making it impossible to catch up on the National Public Radio shows such as “Car Talk” that I missed!

Here's a link to more editorial photography from Sichuan China.

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