I’m just wrapping up my work with the Strange Tiny People Project here in Otres village, Cambodia, which became a much longer stay than anticipated.
*note: keep reading here for shenanigans about Otres. Those with a serious jonesing for nutty kids, scroll down to the bottom for the Imagitorium™.
I came to Otres planning to just pass through after a very brief stay in the somewhat springbreaker-hell town, Sihanoukeville. But here’s the thing about Otres beach: not many people realize it’s there, and so it’s fairly untouched by major tourism (although it is rising exponentially), but those who make it there stay for a night, and leave 2 months later.
I came here in April, it’s July now..
There’s two main draws that made it rather hard to leave (read: very easy to just not move). Obviously, one of them is this:
And make no mistake, the beach is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s like someone painted the sky with unicorn-tears-wonder-paint, and some of it dropped off the brush and turned into lemongrass and fish that proceeded to make passionate flavor-filled love, then jumped on a plate pronouncing that their only joy in life is to be covered in curry and devoured by me.
But even living in coconut covered paradises wouldn’t be able to keep me from jumping on to the next adventure. Then I met with Suzanne, the owner of Rise Bar and Hotel. In addition to being a local business owner, Suzanne also has a small non-profit school for the children in the village called Painting Smiles. Paintings Smiles is really big on putting back into the local community, and thus they hire local Khmer teachers. They’re now trying to find funding so they can pay the salary for their teachers, and keep helping children as well as the local economy. Take a few moments to check out their fundraiser here on incitedorg .
It was there that I was introduced to the real reason I stayed for 3 months:
If you want to disappear into a crowd, go to Hong Kong, go to New York, go to a Starbucks and pretend to work on a screenplay. If you want to be a head turning, mouth gaping, gafawing with their friends celebrity, go to the coastal farming villages in the Mekong delta.
While there are one or two large cities (OK, just one) that see some western tourism, 99% of the inhabitants haven’t seen a western face in the flesh unless they’re old enough to remember what they looked like in military fatigues. Now, compound this with a western dude riding beside them on a motorcycle with a bag and tent strapped to it. Vietnamese head asplode. That being said, even though most have never seen a foreigner, they are the absolute friendliest and most welcoming people you can imagine. Being a southern boy myself, these guys blow our US notion of “southern hospitality” to shreds (We gotta get it together, guys. That whole racism thing REALLY doesn’t do much for our image).
May I submit exhibit A: I stopped off at a roadside hammock cafe for a drink and a bit to eat. (Yes, roadside hammock coffee bars. It’s even more awesome than whatever your thinking.)
The lady at this little hut was kind enough to get up from rocking her sleeping child to come make me some food and a coffee, when she noticed my camera. We had some fun non-verbal efforts to communicate about what I was doing while traveling, all while giggling due to the fact she’d most likely never been in a situation where she had to worry about a language barrier. After she gave me my food, she went back to rocking her child, and I motioned with my camera to ask if it would be alright to take a few pics. She smiled and waved me over without a second thought.
Think about that: She was perfectly happy to let a complete stranger, of thelikes she had never encountered in her life, and couldn’t speak to her at all verbally, take pictures of her sleeping child.
In America I would most likely be strangled with my own camera strap for even suggesting it.
The idea that I could have ill intentions just didn’t ever occur to her. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be careful with their children, but I do enjoy being in a culture where they don’t worry about it because it just isn’t an issue. “Why would anyone ever want to harm a little child” seems to be the idea in general around here.
A few moments later we heard some drums in the distance, so she went to the roadside to check it out. Then she motioned for me to get my camera ready towards the entrance. I obeyed, and was rewarded with a small parade of fancy Chinese-style vehicles carrying white-robed villagers who appeared to have started their own party wagons.
I finished my coffee and headed back on the road, only to realize a few miles down what the party had been all about. I came across a huge catholic church with an even hugerer graveyard. All of the “party wagons” were stopped, and laying one of their friends to rest.
Side note/shameless plug: The project is in danger of ending due to lack of funding. If you want to see more of these photos and support creative education, head over to the STP Project indiegogo fundraiser.
But it’s high time I shared some of the photos and stories I’ve been taking while on the road. While most of the project involves creative education, I am still a photographer. The STP project has me doing a lot of traveling so I can connect with children all around the world (As of now, around Asia). Since my funds are limited and I am trying to stretch every dollar/yuan/dong/baht/etc, I had to figure out a cost effective way of hitting these destinations.
But back to the travel stuff. I decided the most cost effective (and coolest) way was to go as long as I can via motorbike.
So I bought an old Chinese bike in Saigon off of friend, fellow photographer, and advertising Jedi Aaron Johnson, (go check him out at www.explosionmediagroup.com). I’ve been traveling the past couple of weeks from Saigon through the Mekong delta on my way to work with some organizations in Cambodia. So far she’s held up pretty good, plus or minus a few screws..
There’s lots of photos still waiting to be sifted through on the ol’ hard drive as we speak (I carry two 1TB hard drives, Optimus and Megatron) that I will post in the near future, but I really couldn’t help taking a few moments to share one particular story:
The delta is, well, a delta. Which means it is covered in rivers and tributaries, and I found myself on a very skinny island cut off by gaping rivers to the west and the ocean to the east. While I only meant to stop over for 5 minutes between ferries, I thought I would take a quick look around.
At the risk of sounding somewhere between Kipling and Thoreau, what I found was a bombardment of natural beauty and folky charm that will make your southern grandma give up and throw away all of her chicken decorations. These people have obviously never seen a foreign face. I would wager that the last American foot to step on this ground was wearing a combat boot. Children ran out of the school to look as I past, old ladies gave puzzling stares, and other bikers rubbernecked themselves into near extinction.
This little island (which I am choosing to not name so it can continue to be small and beautiful) is about 10 miles long with only one main road running down it, with some small farmer’s trails running off each side, as if the island had a spine. And it did. This was the backbone of the island. This is where life happened . Along this “main road”, which wasn’t even wide enough for two trucks to pass each other and the craters littered every few feet leads me to assume it hasn’t seen maintenance since the birth of Communism, one can pass thatch-roofed supply shops, kids running round the school, stone bridges over creeks of fisherman, old ladies sitting in lawn chairs gossiping, and fields of 10ft sugar canes.
The “ribs” held all of the farmers houses and tons of little streams where boats rested and waited for dark to go night fishing. Speaking of dark. I got a little carried away with all the sites and spent a lot more time on the island than I had meant to. Rushing to get back to the pier before the last ferry leaves, I ran across what looked like, and all good sense would say isn’t, but it’s way cooler this way, so I’m choosing to call it, a guard tower. I used the last waning moments of light to quickly snap a couple of shots when, looking on the back LCD (I chimp, there I said it.), I noticed a small black object dropping from underneath. When I looked up, I noticed more and more falling until the sky was filled with fruit bats, just waking up for their nightly foraging.
I kept shooting and shooting as the night sky filled with bats. Wait, night?
Oh, ummm. Hey there. Sorry to keep you waiting. ..
Hope you weren’t waiting too long. I ran out for some milk and got a little distracted. You know how it goes. Bump into an old friend, move to another country, change your profession and start teaching kindergardeners… Before you know it, 3 years has rolled by and you find yourself with a new language skill and the ability to eat parts of animals you thought were only for zombies..
I’ve also started a blog, called Strange tiny People dedicated to displaying just how punk-rock kids are. I started this when I realized how much cooler my kids were than me. Seriously, if you think kids are lame and boring, then it’s only due to lame and boring education.
Creativity and story telling are a immensely powerful in developing individuality, something Asian education often neglects. This is why I’m pulling myself out of semi-retirement and starting up a brand new photo project traveling Asia and working with children to make some really cool photo-illustrations.
Speaking of children, creativity, photos, and dog collars…
Ok, you gotta bear with me for a sec on this one..
So there is this other project I do from time to time called the Phototronic Imagitorium™. It started as a fun way to remember my friends when I moved away. Basically it involves a photo booth with me snapping away inside and a requirement that you dress yourself with a number of different props on a big table outside. Go check out the shenanigans from the first one here.
So me being the clever guy I am, I got the idea the other day to break out the old Imagitorium to teach my students a little bit about being creative. The premise was pretty much the same: booth, me, photos, table o’ stuff. The one difference was that when I asked my children to use the props, they had to think of a different way to use it besides it’s intended purpose.
“This isn’t what it is” became the motto of the session.
Is this pencil a pencil? No, it’s my antenna.
Is this dog collar a dog collar? No, it’s my bow.
Is this leash a leash? No, it’s my pet snake.
Some kids really took to it and some just liked wearing stuff they don’t get to wear every day. But everyone definitely had fun. And since the last post I put up (over two years ago….) was a class-picture day project, it seems fitting to do another now that they’ve grown up a bit:
For those that aren’t aware, during the day I teach kindergarden in China. I figured we needed a class picture day, and Olin Mills said we were slightly outside of the tri-state region. So I sucked it up and did it myself.
It has recently occurred to me that many of you may not know that I actually do weddings as well. While I don’t regularly promote it on my site, I am not a stranger to weddings and bridal shoots.
Here’s the catch though: I’m not afraid to shoot you, but I urge you not to be afraid of letting your speacial day actually be, ya know, special. There are a thousand white dresses holding flowers in a park or against a floral background. Choosing this path is the same as saying “I’m going to go get some Starbucks, but my latte will be the most important and memorable there, because I’m going to throw a lot of money at someone to take pictures of me drinking it.”
I’ve done bridal shoots on rooftops, in warehouses, with dresses made entirely out of recycled plastic bags, and even a divorce shoot (which involved the refashioning of the wedding dress into a queen of hearts). Think about why the hell you are getting married and why the hell do you want it documented. How about a highway engagement shoot, or combat boots and white dresses. Many don’t even realize that there isn’t a law saying that your dress has to be white (although some areas of Texas may say otherwise). And don’t forget, I’m always available for consolation or a good keister kick in the right direction, which is another reason to always keep those combat boots handy.
Last month I was bored and called up my friend Leru of Beijing’s Moonglow Burlesque to see if she wanted to have dinner. She told me that she couldn’t really have dinner because she was doing a show at Club Scarlett that night, but I should come hang out at the club. I decided to bring the camera along, and we decided to run around and take advantage of the club’s very fun backdrops. Keep in mind these are all spur-of-the-moment shots with pretty much only available light.
The Buzzcocks came to Beijing. I didn’t get to go.
I was pretty annoyed about this, until the next day when one of my friends told me that it was worth it to save the 200RMB anyways since good punk rock does have an expiration date. So this turned out to work in my favor, since I really like the Buzzcocks, and would prefer not to have the image of Pete Shelley breaking a hip and wearing a life call on stage. I did, however, find out about a pretty rad punk show the following night that was much cheaper.
Some of you that fancy yourselves as aficionados of punk might remember the girl punk group from Beijing (I know, right?) called Hang on the Box, or HotB for short. They were one of the biggest punk groups to come out of China and one of the only ones to ever have an American tour. You can see some of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66MK9NrB_XI (Yes, that is the most effeminate punk club announcer I have ever heard too..)
They broke up about 3 year ago, but recently reformed with a slightly more mature sound. I got to go to their reunion show at Beijing’s Infamous Mao Livehouse.
While there are still many pages left to transcribe from my personal logs over the past few months, I’m going to break continuity here for a bit to post an update from a recent event I not only photographed, but performed in.
Yes. This one has photos.
I have been keeping up fairly well with my poi practice routine (ie: to stretch in the mornings and whenever I’m bored in my apt/at a bus stop/showing off to students) since I’ve been in Beijing, but about 3 weeks in I got that ever-persistent urge start setting things on fire again. I found a juggling supply/fixed gear bike store called Natooke, run by an Italian performance trainer, Federico, and a German former-member of the German National Trick-Bike Team, Inez. Federico (“Just ‘Fede’,” he tells me. “Otherwise I think you’re from the government”) is a performance arts extraordinaire. Fede juggles, Fede spins fire staff, Fede eats and breathes fire, Fede balances things on his face, Fede does card tricks, Fede rides a bike with a front wheel that is over 5-foot in diameter. Turns out, he runs a juggling club which is welcome to all skills in street performance arts. After hanging out with these guys for a month or so, Fede comes over and asks if I wanted to do a fire performance with them For the China National Holiday Celebration. Far be it from me to let down a friend, especially one offering to pay me to perform in one of the most popular tourist areas in one of the biggest cities in Asia, I accept.
Aside from a bit of diva-ing from some guest Russian stilt walkers and an electric violinist, all goes well with the 2 performances. I ate fire, I breathed fire, and I finally got to use my fire poi in China that didn’t involve my neighbors thinking that Americans must play the weirdest form of paddle-ball ever. When I wasn’t performing and working the crowd, I was snapping pics. While I don’t always plan to pull double-duty like that, I like knowing that I am starting to get more regular gigs through Fede. That being said, there was one snag:
Fede: “I received a call from the police today”
Fede: “They said they were upset with me, and they mentioned you too.”
Me: “meep meep.”
Well it turns out the police weren’t very happy with the venue allowing fire performances with a crowd at such close proximity. I should take a second here to note that there are no real rules and regulations in China for street activities like this. There aren’t any proximity guidelines and mandatory on-site fire marshal requirements like in the states. You just do it, and you only here from the police if they don’t like it. But the trouble is when they don’t like it…
No actions were taken other than us being banned from using fire in any performances in SanLiTun again. However, it is still a bit nerve-wrecking, now knowing that there is a police record with my name on it in China. I’m still booked for at least two more upcoming gigs (including one as host while Fede is working in Tibet next month). There are other venues, and other performances. Until then, I at least have the incriminating evidence to share: