A letter to those people building my website

Millions of years ago, in internet years, all websites were custom built. They were either expensive, or horrible to navigate. I learned how to build my website in photoshop of all things, and each page was an image designed to look like a website, and it was horrible.

Not everybody was as talentless as a web designer as I, in fact some people managed to make masterpieces with the limited technology. The best sites are the ones that just work. By default these websites end up looking extremely simple. Subtle things like a change in the color of text hint at another level of depth in the page. It took me weeks to build my websites from scratch, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing and would have to start from scratch every time I learned something that improved the site. Also, because I was trying to build websites in photoshop.

Now I can “build” my site in a few hours, and that’s just a matter of filling in blanks in a pre-built template. It’s simple, looks expensive, and best of all, it’s cheap! I think that there is a sort of “moores law” of websites though, that states that every 18 months we will pack twice the amount of coding into a website designed to do the same job. What once was just a simple portfolio has turned into a complex pop up with buttons, fades, and a cute little jingle. There’s now slideshows in the background that somehow are supposed to make the photo that you’re looking at more interesting.

As a result, I’ve spent three months looking for a good template to replace my current site.

I understand, web design has come a long way, and you are flexing your coding muscles, but I just want to show my photos. If you went to a photography gallery, how are almost all photos framed? Thin black frame, white matte, nailed to a wall. Simple.

Take a look at Sebastian Kim’s website, Simple, elegant, no frills, perfect.

If you build it, those of us who want to avoid learning code will buy it.


One of the Longest Days of my Life – On National Geographic

How to Skin a Polar Bear

While I was in Baffin Island training for my Ellesmere Island Expedition we did a 300 mile race across the frozen landscape to a little village called Kimmirut.  This little village is made up almost entirely of Inuit, and though they now live in modern homes, much of the rest of their lives is still very traditional.  Hunting, surviving on the ice, and dogsledding take up a good portion of their time.  The hunting they do provides them with their meat, much of their clothing, and with a sense of tradition that may be impossible for someone like me to understand though I really do try.  It was found out that I’d done a lot of work involving sharks, and one of the students in the local school was doing a project on sharks, so I was asked to come in and speak to the class.  To my surprise, upon entering the classroom, they were in the midst of skinning a polar bear.  My conservation oriented mind was horrified, but as it is often necessary to do, I put my personal feelings aside and tried to see things from their perspective. 

In some villages, foreigners will come in and purchase the rights to shoot a polar bear for up to $60,000.  The inuit are allowed to take so many bears a year for their needs, and sadly, many of them are now more in need of cash than fur and meat.  Kimmirut was not one of these villages, they had the bear for their own purposes.

Later on in the expedition, I was in another town further north, and their economy had become largely dependant on foreigners coming in to hunt bears.  This town was much richer than Kimmirut, and had little need for the bears who’s lives they sold.  Walking down the street you would see dogs sitting there tied up, chewing on a frozen polar bear leg.  At some point I’d like to get back there to do this story, but in all my efforts, I’ve been turned away from the village where I saw this.  Perhaps I’ll have to go under the guise of a “hunter photographer.”

People, if you want to hunt a polar bear, I challenge you to even the odds.  Walk out there onto the ice, survive off of what you can find in the frozen landscape, and at least use a knife instead of a long range rifle.

The furs rarely leave the village anyway because it’s illegal to take the fur across the border from Canada, so all the foreign hunters get in the end is a photograph with them a the dead bear.

Better yet, challenge yourself to take a good photo of a living bear, it’s harder than killing it, and the bear gets to walk away.

leaving the Jungle

I don’t necessarily have good luck, or bad luck, but the luck that I do have is pretty strong.  Whatever happens to me usually happens in full force.   I showed up in Corcovado ready to work, ready to get some amazing photographs of bull sharks that we could use for conservation.  Alas, on the first day I started shooting, my camera decided it was no longer going to turn on.  Luckily I brought a backup, alas, it was a cheap substitute for my professional camera.  I have put my equipment through so many rough situations that I had faith it would handle this 1 week shoot with ease.   My faith was unfounded, as I was to find out as my equipment started to fail en mass.  Of the equipment I brought with me, a full two-thirds of it failed.   I count myself as being lucky though, because even with everything going wrong, my  canon g11 continued working, albeit barely as I had to turn it off between each shot, and pry the shutter button back out with a knife point so I could take another frame.

I’m very impressed with this little camera, but at the same time it is very limiting not to have a choice which lens I am going to use, or even the ability to zoom (the zoom button was no longer functioning either.)  That said, I look at these situations as opportunities to learn how to be a better photographer.  Point and shoot cameras generally don’t have very much control over depth of field .   This is one of the professional photographers tricks that they can use to separate their images from those taken with a “point and shoot” consumer level camera.  In order to get some interesting background blurs and such with these cameras, it is necessary to get extremely close to your subject, which is good as well.  It seems everybody can take photos of something from far away, but getting close to your subject provides a view that few people see, even in photographs.

River Turtle

A terapin hides just below the surface of the water in Rio Sirena, Corcovado national Park.

Even with all of this bad luck, or poor foresight (depending on your understanding of luck)  I found some amazing places where i will be able to return and get the shot next time, when my camera is working.  I figured out where and when to see the baby sharks in the river, and made some great friends with the rangers in the Sirena ranger station.   I’ve also tamed my fear of crocodiles a bit, though my respect for them has grown.  They are the limiting factor here.  They are what keeps you from jumping into a dark green pool of water to look for baby sharks, and they were the main reason it took me so long to find a safe place to get in the water.    When I did find this spot, it was the last day, and my camera had finally died.    It is a place where the river is pinched down to only about ten meters wide, where sharks and crocodiles are forced  through one small passage.  The water is clearer than the rest for some reason.  It’s got a long shallow river bank, with a conveniently placed log that separates the shallows from the depths.  It is just big enough to put your head through and snap photos into the deep, croc and shark infested river.  I think this is where I’ll probably spend a lot of my time when I return, just laying in wait like those crocodiles that seem to always have an eye on us.  (Sean once looked into the depths just in time to see a crocodile sneaking up on him not 5 feet away)

The Spot

Just below the surface beyond the canoe lies a log which I can use as a hide.

So, am I lucky or unlucky?  Yes I counted 25 different species of bugs feasting on my flesh, and yes my camera equipment failed me.  But I’ve learned enough that I can return with confidence, and get the shot that I need.   I’m also very happy with some of the shots that I did get, and being forced to shoot with a handicap (little broken camera) meant that I really had to test my knowledge of the finer points of photography just to get anything at all.

So now, I’m back in the city of San José, Costa Rica.  I’m getting ready to head north and surf for a few days before I head back to California.  My mind is still in Corcovado though, and I’m anxious to get back there and get some amazing photographs!

A New Beginning

Today I found myself wondering, what did I go through to become who I am today, and at what point did I stop “becoming.” I’ve decided that although I’ve been in a period of my life that I am very proud of, it is time to reignite the flame that drove me to be who I am.

I believe that I’ve gotten to where I am today because of the personal work that I’ve done in the past. My favorite photographs and adventures were all created in the beginners state of mind, when the goal was not to simply satisfy or impress a client, but to create something that I would be proud of. What makes me proud? I’d say projects that take all of my ability in order to accomplish, as well as projects that better the world in some way. Photography is a medium that has enabled me to travel the world, and it is also a way for me to give back.

I have been one of the lucky few who have been able to work with companies like National Geographic and International league of Conservation Photographers. It is necessary to remember though, why I have been able to do these things.

Personal work is why I am where we I am now, and I can’t stop doing it if I want to keep moving forward.

The creative spark that I had felt dwindling the last few years has recreated itself, and I’ve found myself once again walking around with a camera in my hand for no reason. Trying to learn more about the art, and better my abilities so that when the time comes to go back into the field for an assignment I will do the best that I can possibly do.

As of right now, my plan is only sketched out roughly, but over the next few months I hope to develop an idea that will carry me forward to new adventures, and will help me make the most of what I love to do. I aim to use photography as a tool to change the world, even if my impact is a small one.

In April, I’ll be leaving on an adventure, I don’t know where yet, but I have a few ideas. I don’t know for how long yet, but I know that I’ll be shedding the baggage that is a stationary life by getting rid of my unnecessary possessions, and whittling my life down the the bare necessities.

I hope not to simply return a better photographer, with a better portfolio and a great story to tell. I hope that I will send myself down a pathway that will never end, a pathway of learning, experiencing, and bettering myself and the world around me.