Tag Archives: Thoughts

Life on the road

My journey started exactly a month ago, on 5 July. Here are some observations on the everyday life on the road during this month.

One of the loveliest aspects of life on the road in Latin America is of course the chance to practice Spanish.

In Yucatan and Guatemala to understand what people say was actually very easy – I guess the reason was that Spanish was not native for many of them. It’s a good way to get into the groove.

In Peru, especially in Lima, I realised in my first days that I had almost no idea what people were saying – so fast and so particular was their speech. But over time I got used to it. In Arequipa, Cusco and Puno things were a lot easier – a lot slower pace, a lot easier to understand and to speak. It is of course the best way to improve your skill, to immerse yourself in the language.

In Latin America they use a lot of words and expressions which are understandable, but to which I am not used: disculpe to say excuse me, con mucho gusto! to say you’re welcome, any young man is addressed as jóven, generally any person at any moment is addressed to as amigo. It’s fun and it makes you feel like you’ve touched a living language.

Money matters
Major mixing of banknotes and coins in my purse: euros, dollars, quetzals, nuevos soles, pesos, bolivianos, laris, and even some Estonian sents as a memento…

Continue reading Life on the road

The Why

Exploring various materials about round-the-world (RTW) trips, I realised that probably the first question that needs to be answered, RTW 101 so to speak, is the question – why. Why am I really doing this trip?

I must say that over time as my feelings about the trip ebb and flow, or I’m lost in the minutia of preparations and research, I feel at times that I’ve lost track of exactly why am I doing this.

I guess the most important reason for me of what I want to achieve on this trip is to push my boundaries. Not necessarily in the psychoanalytical sense – I mean, overcoming myself to do the very thing I abhor. (For an introvert and HSP like myself, I don’t need to go very far to get to a wildly uncomfortable situation – an evening of working the crowd will do!)

Rather, pushing the boundaries for me signifies this rare pleasure which you experience when you crack some new code, use some new opportunity you weren’t quite aware of, and – yes – touch down with your feet in a new country. So it’s less getting a task done and more getting to a revelation. And by definition where the revelation will come from is unknown and unknowable until it does come.

I guess the dream of a RTW trip also means the dream of freedom, not being bound by a 9-to-5 rhythm, by any rhythm really, by any obligation. The dream of boundless discovery.

Freedom does not mean emptiness. And so the dream is also to use the time to write, to photograph, to conceptualise, to reflect, to self-define.

Main story

I am often surprised by the type of stories that fill our media. Petty scandals, local incidents, elections without choice – all this noise crowds out entirely the things that really matter. I think the main story of our time, the story for which we do not know the ending, or even the way it will develop until its climax, is the story of the climate change. That’s the main story.

Quite a few of my friends adhere to a rather surprising belief, one that says that humanity is bound to find some sort of a technological solution to the climate change. As if the humanity simply cannot lose. To me, this sounds a bit like magical thinking. We are so used to stories that are told in the movies, where we enter unimaginable difficulties only to miraculously come out on top at the end, that we cannot help but project the same narrative onto our common reality, where the major difficulty actually is coming up. I do believe that humanity’s creativity and inventiveness are amazing, and therefore that we will see various ways of combating climate change that we cannot imagine today. However I am also rather pessimistic about humanity’s ability to be altruistic and to abandon the narrow interests of particular groups in favour of the common good. I think that type of reaction only kicks in in view of an imminent danger. But the climate change may provide opportunities to deny this danger for a long while. And as we remember from the famous analogy, the frog will boil provided you increase the temperature only gradually.

That is not to say that this is the only challenge that the humanity is facing, only that it is the single one that characterises our times. There are major global issues that are not however unique to our time. One such challenge is clearly the food crisis, which refers to the fact that a major part of the world’s population is starving, all the while the richest countries consume endlessly. I also think that the major antagonism in the world is between the rich and the poor, and the difference has never been more acute – including within the richest countries.

Another challenge is of course that the natural resources of the planet are limited. In particular there is certainly a limit to fossil fuels, although in the light of climate change that perhaps is not such a bad thing. In any case, the research for alternative sources of energy will only really take off once there is a real need for them and the players opposing these new alternatives lose the enormous political influence they have today, controlling politically the United States, Russia and the Gulf.

I do think that at a certain moment the whole global economic model built upon ever increasing consumption and so-called GDP growth will come to a halt, as it is simply impossible to endlessly grow population while also growing the consumption per capita. Unfortunately this may come in a violent way, as the current paradigm simply does not foresee an exit strategy.

Best photo podcasts

I discovered the entire podcasting culture only last year, and was swept off my feet. It has changed the way I access information, in that now at many of those in-beteen moments out there when you wait with nothing else to do, I can actually use my time to listen to something fascinating and useful.

I consistently listen to two photography podcasts, both in English. I came to these by a trial and error process, adding a whole list of various podcasts and then one by one removing those I found tedious or uninformative. These two are similar in that they are both done by independent photographers who’ve got a natural need for publicity due to the way they organise their business. Their main occupation is leading photography tours and so they need to spread awareness of themselves to gain participants.

Martin Bailey is originally English, but for several years already he lives in Japan, speaks fluent Japanese and has acquired Japanese nationality. He specialises in nature photography and leads photo tours, of which the crown jewel is the tour of Hokkaido, or the snow monkeys tour, by the name of the most unusual animal seen on it. Martin tends to do rather lengthy podcasts in which very calmly and in substantial detail he lays out his recent photographic exploits, be it his most recent tour or a selection of best photographs he’s recently made. Despite his obvious expertise, Martin only switched to full-time photography about 2.5 years ago, and he prepared for this switch for a long time. I find his life story fascinating, exactly because of this aspect of masterminding, preparing and then executing this life-reclaiming plan.

The other podcast is the Camera Position podcast by Jeff Curto, an American photographer. This podcast tends to be very short, 8 or 10 minutes an episode. But every episode is a little gem, in that it draws attention to some artwork or some particular aspect of photography in the way that never fails to inspire me. Jeff also organises photo tours, normally in Italy to explore the Italian visual treasures, with the emphasis on culture.

I tried to find some photo podcasts in Russian, but the choice of podcasts in Russian is a lot more limited. I do listen to some non-photo podcasts in Russian, but so far haven’t found any interesting photo ones. Still, I cannot fail to mention the photo blog in Russian that I follow. It is by Dima Chatrov, who is a rather well-known figure in the Russian blogosphere. Again, his main pursuit is leading photo tours to all kinds of exotic destinations. I have taken part in one of his tours in April 2012, around Myanmar, which was a fantastic experience. I will write about this trip one day here. He has this particular sensibility for foreign lands, seeing them as fairytale destinations shrouded in mystery, and this is very much reflected in his photos (and texts). I know that he likes to do a lot of post-production work with his photos, which certainly allows for a great reflection of his artistic vision. I also follow his Photo Planet community blog, where the participants of his tours publish their photos.

A talk in Käru

Last week I was in Estonia. My brother and sister-in-law recently bought a house in Käru, a small place in central Estonia. In this house they propose to found a Museum of Good Deeds. It’s an unusual step for Estonian Russians, to move like that to a place where 100% of population is Estonian and then to suddenly start rejuvenating it with all kinds of creative initiatives. But very much in the character for Aljona and Sergei.

Anyway, suddenly in conjunction with my visit we had an idea that I give a talk to the kids in the Käru high school about my travels around the world. And it actually got done! Posters were printed, time was arranged, and all of a sudden I found myself standing in front of these 34 kids, the school’s entire student population, as well as several teachers, taking them for about two hours to Iceland, India or Cuba. And of course showing the photos. I loved the experience! To be fair, I think the teachers were actually more involved and interested by the stories. The kids, most of them rather small, loved the photos of animals above all – I could hear a collective gasp whenever a monkey or a lemur or a turtle made an appearance!

I feel quite proud about this experience as I spoke in Estonian, language that I don’t practice actively very often. Another clear lesson from this talk was that it was such a joy. I love speaking in public.

Lighting setups

The other day I experimented with some lighting setups for studio photography. I got the impulse from a CD that comes along with the Elinchrom lighting equipment, in my case Elinchrom D-Lite 4.

The CD includes two explanatory videos, where a photographer shows in a very simple way various setups which are possible with the two Elinchrom lights as well as some reflectors. The delivery was very good as the guy suggested precise measurements for F-stops, time values, distances from light sources to subject (literally in centimetres) and settings for the light sources themselves, and then showed the results that come out of each specific setup.

It was fun applying this info in practice and as I went along, I noted some tips for myself while experimenting. In this case I didn’t have a model, so I photographed myself.
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Visual Acoustics

Watched Visual Acoustics, a wonderful documentary about Julius Shulman (1910-2009), one of the greatest architectural photographers. Even approaching his 100th birthday, he remained amazingly witty and agile (and opinionated). His most famous photographs are of modernist buildings, which he helped the whole world to discover.

I was particularly interested in the way he systematically used the perspective to draw the viewer in. It was in contrast to other architecture photographers, who would often play on emphasising elements of buildings to create a sense of symmetry or to highlight a detail. Shulman, on the other hand, systematically went for these lines gathering from the edges towards some point in the middle square of the photograph. This gave his photos a strong sense of dimension.

Another fascinating aspect was the meticulousness with which he would construct each scene. He would move each object and item of furniture literally by a couple of inches to create the exact effect he desired.

Now I so want to visit Los Angeles, to see these fairytale buildings in its eternal summer.


Today I went to the monthly meeting of Viewfinders, the English-speaking photography club of Brussels.

I joined Viewfinders about a year ago. I find the Club’s meetings consistently inspiring and thought-provoking. Usually the meeting is built around a presentation by one or several photographers of their work and experiences. From time to time, the club also organises challenges and assignments, where members can submit their photos which would compete against each other. During the December meeting for example the theme of the challenge was Night Photography. It was quite refreshing to look at different people’s takes on this subject and to see the preferences of the judge and the public.

This time around the main presentation was by Natalie Hill. Natalie is an English photographer who lives and works in Brussels. I found the most interesting part of her presentation to be some images that she made while living and working in China: a sequence about a native Uyghur rocker from the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, with which I associate particular memories, as well as a striking image of a 22-year wealthy expat enjoying his bath in a flat in a high-rise overlooking Shanghai. Natalie originally studied film and she showed some of her motion work, I particularly liked a very touching ad she made for the Missing Children Europe campaign. The ad is done using Canon 5D Mark II – which again demonstrates the amazing possibilities of this camera.

Lecture by Pinkhassov

A couple of days ago I watched a truly engrossing lecture by Gueorgui Pinkhassov, which he gave in Leica Academie in Moscow, where a number of Magnum photographers spoke. Pinkhassov (I love how his name and surname are transliterated so exotically with Latin letters) is the only Russian-born full member of the Magnum agency. I was so excited by the lecture, I immediately forwarded it to my brother, who is also a photographer.

The lecture itself is in Russian. Below I share some snippets that I found most inspiring.

In a refreshing reversal of the usual order of presentation, he started by showing a lot of his photos quickly, and spoke only afterwards, when the eye was saturated and the viewer craved story. He spoke about his early work and how he was uninterested in reportage, and was rather drawn to the geometry that can be found inside the frame. He experimented at night in his flat with light and geometrical objects, he literally measured angles and lines with a ruler, looking for the right proportion, perhaps the golden ratio.

He further explained how a photo can play two roles:

  • information source, protocol, providing clarity OR
  • a certain sophistication, encoded message, complexity.

The latter, according to him, is art.

These ideas sit very well with me.

In this picture it is not clear in the beginning what exactly is being shown. And yet there is a plot as well as a visual intrigue.

It really touched me how he rejected the populism of bright colours and obvious contrasts, to which we are so used on the internet nowadays, in favour of minimalism, geometry, “fractality” as he called it (and I couldn’t help remembering Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who so likes to apply fractals to every possible situation).

Without compromise, in his photos Pinkhassov stresses the light as the main painting brush in photography, allowing all the rest disappear in shadows.

I later discovered that he virtually doesn’t use Photoshop. Until very recently he photographed using his Canon 5D Mk II directly in jpeg format, as he knew he wouldn’t post process the photos. The reason being, as I understood, not so much the principled resistance to post processing, as simply the lack of skills of working in Photoshop and perhaps the lack of need to do it.

His best work, according to him, is his Tokyo collection.

Annual review 2012

In the beginning of this year, I went for a week to the island of Gran Canaria. The major purpose of the trip was to do the annual review exercise for 2012, as well as to brainstorm on the plans and the ideas for the new year.

Gran Canaria, with its weather reminiscent of eternal spring, was a perfect place to do this exercise. In my mind I had the image of the island as a destination of countless package tours. However since I stayed in Las Palmas, which is just a normal Spanish city, only with a few palm trees, I felt rather far away from the tourist crowds inundating other parts of the island. Sipping a glass of white wine on the promenade of Las Canteras, looking at the unruly ocean lit by the winter sun of Africa, was a great way to reflect.

I do my annual review exercise according to the principles proposed in one of my favourite blogs, the Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau. The idea is rather simple: you look at what went well in the past year and at what did not go well. Then you look at the goals you set for yourself last year and how they got implemented or not. And then you set goals for yourself for the coming year. In general I quite agree with the old adage that 10% of time spent on planning saves 90% of time spent on execution. More than that, I am pretty sure that high-level planning and reflection is a lot more effective than minute day-to-day efficiency management. So I find it very useful to take some time to do the review for the whole year.

Last year was the first time I did this exercise, so this year was the first time I could review the goals I set for myself in an organised way. Here are some flashbacks from the annual review exercise for 2012.

What went well?

The theme of 2012 for me was LEARNING.

It was a very productive year. In my work I got to work for the whole year in the same organisational unit, which meant that I could really apply myself fully. I did a lot of travel for work and got to do some rather challenging missions, including to our most important counterpart. I very much enjoyed the challenge.

Outside of work, I travelled to some amazing places around the world – including Brazil, Myanmar and Japan.

I got to do a lot of learning. In the beginning of the year, I did two film programs in Brussels Raindance, in screenwriting and in directing. In April I went to Myanmar for a photography expedition with a group of photographers. I continued doing my contemporary dance classes in Fred Academy in Brussels. Finally, from September I started participating in regular tennis matches with BGS.

I read a number of amazing books that literally changed my life.

What did not go so well?

Although I celebrated the previous New Year with my brother and his family on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand, overall I did not see my family as much as I would have liked to during this year.

Doing a lot of learning, I did not do as much implementation of learning as I would have liked: I mean the actual photographing and the actual writing.

I met my friends, but I would have liked to meet them more and to organise the events with on my initiative and around some ideas that I have.

Last year I was counting on moving to another flat, but this did not come to pass, as I had too many other activities, including of course a lot of work as well as a lot of business and personal travel that took my focus.


I am still considering what will be the theme of this year. Perhaps it will be CHANGE or DISCOVERY or FIRST ACTIONS.

One of the plans that kind of got into shape during the reflection time in Gran Canaria was to go ahead with this blog. The idea of a blog built around the topic of photography has been simmering in the back of my mind for quite a while already. I hope to write here about the lessons I learn in photography. I will also share my inspiration – be it foreign lands, information resources or my amazing friends and their wisdom.

I also hope that the existence of this blog will kind of push me a bit to look for more unusual experiences, to step out of my comfort zone, and also will inspire me to learn and do new things in photography.