Flying a Camera on a Kite over the Statues on Easter Island

Melissa did a video that chronicles my difficulties putting a camera (and eventually in frustration, a computer) up on a kite string to shoot an aerial photograph. I needed a different angle on the Moai of Easter Island because they have been photographed to death. There are so many ways to get a camera up in the air these days. You can look at Nick Nichols’s Field Test in National Geographic about flying helicopters over lions, but you have to realize there are many people and a lot of time and money involved in that. This was not the case. I went through my equipment closet before I left and the guys in photo equipment at NG went through their equipment closet and we patched together a bunch of stuff that MIGHT WORK. I don’t even own a kite. NG sent me a “fighting kite” they had left over from an arctic assignment that would be good for cutting the strings of someone else’s kite in Lahore in a fight, but not to carry a camera. Luckily my 85-year-old father is still paragliding and he arranged for his instructors and their friends to help me get a kite big enough to carry a camera and a computer. I had to get a camera up in the air quickly, so this ended up being a “seat of the pants” experiment that only netted one photograph. One is all you need, however, and that photograph was in the layout for awhile, but disappeared with some later decisions. This aerial-by-kite was a side-note to my main mission, which was to photograph the place and the culture. I was particularly interested in the people because there are direct descendants left on the island and I did a search through all the agency and photo sites before I left and there were 30,000 photographs of the statues and about two of the people in their homes living their lives. But in the middle of the real work, if the light was good, and if the wind was good I would run out with my little team and try to make a kite photograph.

Melissa at Lumix Photofestival in Germany

These are just a few photographs from the archives Melissa has been scanning for her talk at LUMIX.

LUMIX Photofestival

The third LUMIX festival opens June 13 in Hanover, Germany, with lectures by Joankim Eskilden (Denmark) and Melissa Farlow (USA).  Other speakers during the week include Munem Wasif (Bangladesh), Stuart Franklin (UK), Rena Effendi (Aserbaidschan), Darcy Padilla (USA), Anja Niedringhaus (Germany), and Craig Walker (USA).

More than 20,000 visitors attended the 60 exhibitions of print exhibits and multimedia stories in the past Lumix festival where participants receive portfolio reviews and attend lectures and panel discussions.

The Photofestival for Young Photojournalism testifies to the power in our image-oriented world by contributing to education and teaching photography that can touch people emotionally. Photojournalism and documentary photography studies at the University of Hannover in Applied Sciences and Arts organizes the festival in cooperation with German photojournalist association FREELENS.

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Small Town Desperation…

Sign in Fredericksburg, Indiana 

I ripped my shoulder in Suriname trying to avoid falling down the waterfall-of-death and now I find myself in a small town in Indiana.

I forgot my TheraBand—basically a big rubber band that physical therapists hand out in the same way flight attendants hand out peanuts—which I’m using because I have this idea that I can work my way out of this ripped shoulder instead of going through surgery.

But, there are no TheraBands for sale in rural Indiana. There are plenty of pills and creams to passively apply to your suffering body part—you can even buy Godiva chocolates next to your diabetes needs in the local pharmacy. But nothing to physically work your way through an ailment.

Because of urbanization there are not many young people left in this town. The store that caters to elderly with medical needs is thriving so they were able to order a TheraBand.

On the drive to this town there is another small town that went completely bankrupt. They propped a sheet of 4X8 plywood up in front of their town hall and painted: “Town of Fredericksburg needs money for upkeep and their monthly bills.” They hoped motorists would stop in and give them money. So we did. But it was such a sad situation. is doing a great job of documenting these kinds of issues.

Why in the world am I rambling on about this?

National Geographic sent me around the world multiple times on a story about 7 billion humans inhabiting the planet in 2011. They did not use much of the work, but you can see the photographs about urbanization HERE.

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The Collateral Damage Of Doing “Good.”

I live in a normal neighborhood but I do not lead a normal life.

One of the unsettling effects of bouncing from culture to culture is the disconnect from my own culture, and even my own neighborhood, when I come home. Spend a while in a third-world country and you’ll return with some funny stories about local customs, but you’ll invariably carry an unsettlingly clearer understanding of the stark contrast between the haves and have nots on our planet, as well as an unfortunate grasp of the good and the bad, not just among those in positions of power, but also individuals and groups “doing good.”

In writing this, I am hoping to explain to my neighbors and in a broader sense for the group that comes to this site, how being a contributing photographer for National Geographic can skew how you think about the world and how it gives you a worldview that can be hard for people in your bedroom community to understand, and why I know how it is that sincere people with good intentions often cause collateral damage they could never imagine.

Last week I was in Suriname, a small country in northeastern South America wedged between the Guyanas. I was with Amerindians (mostly Wayana) who were carrying thousand-pound boats through the jungle around rapids. There were eight of the thousand-pound boats to be exact, and it took 20 men to carry each boat, sometimes dragging them for 3 kilometers. They spent weeks doing this so they could cut a hole in one of the most remote jungles in the world, so that 20 of us could drop in by helicopter.

One of the men that cut the hole in the jungle was this guy:

We were lucky to drop in by helicopter, but we came back out by boat and all those boats had to be dragged back out of the jungle on multiple portages. And, yes it was a mess of equipment, food, chain saws, boat engines, 50 gallon drums of aviation fuel.

This is the hole we dropped into:

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Angel4Glam dotcom

This photograph was taken in a disco in Yelizova, Kamchatka, Russia on a down day when we could not get a helicopter. On the way out we got the women’s names and thought it was funny that one of them said the way to contact her was

I’ve had a number of email requests for this woman’s actual contact information because doesn’t work anymore.

First: This creeps me out.

Second: For the men that are asking for her contact information I can only say: Walk AWAY from the computer. Walk out the front door. Continue walking until you find an actual 3D woman that gives some indication that she will have a conversation with you. Give it a shot.

When you come back to the computer read this: NY Times: The Flight From Conversation


Strange Family Interactions with the Country of Japan

The famous photographer, Robert Capa, was a guest on my grandfather’s radio show in New York in the 1940s. The book he is holding is on my shelf at home just below a shelf of the books that my grandfather wrote.

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John Moore Video

We’ve known John since he was an intern at the Pittsburgh Press where we all worked… We’ve vacationed in Africa together and kept up pretty well until he started covering conflict zones… and for years, we would only see him on CNN every now and then when they would show a brick slamming into his head in SLO-MO while he was covering some uprising somewhere in the world. He was nearly blown up with Benazir Bhutto… and… and… and…

It’s nice to finally see a video of what he’s been up to…

A Travel Story in DETROIT???

Melissa has shot city stories for National Geographic Traveler on Miami and Chicago, which made sense to her… but a Traveler story on Detroit? She didn’t know how great the city actually was until she got there, met some crazy artists, hung out at a turn of the century speakeasy and basically had a great time… her story follows…

When I’m asked where I’ve just been on an assignment, people wait with a dreamy look on their faces expecting to hear some exotic location or far away foreign land that will make them envious. When I tell them I was in Detroit to shoot a travel story, there is a look of disbelief accompanied by silence as though they didn’t hear me correctly. I have to admit that I wondered when I accepted the assignment from Traveler if I would regret it.

Detroit—Rust Belt city in ruins. Unemployment—bankruptcy. Motor City—Murder City. Worst of the worst in many people’s minds. I imagined trudging around carrying my camera, looking over my shoulder with fear that I’d be the next crime victim. The weather was sure to turn cold and snow. On top of it all, the assignment fell on the week of my birthday—so I’d probably be alone.

The urban ruins reinforced my uneasiness when I arrived–large, empty blocks where buildings once stood. I got a tour from a local photographer the first night and she warned me that lots of street lights were out and to take care not to hit anyone walking in the street.

We ate and stopped at her favorite bar hangout where I got an update on the Tigers that were playing in the World Series and realized the Lions were playing in town too.  There was something in her voice—she spoke with pride. I could tell she loved the city. I connected with writer’s contacts and began to work. It’s always hard to begin, but this looked to be more than a challenge.

The first shock was walking in to a Speakeasy close to my hotel and feeling I’d stepped back in time. Talk about atmosphere—people were sitting at little tables pulled up to a beautiful mahogany bar—talking–laughing–what a fabulous place. Actually there were two Speakeasies that had great vibes—Café-D’Mongos and Cliff Bells. The music, the food, but what made the greatest impression were the people. They were so friendly. I didn’t feel like a stranger.

The next surprise was the over the top fabulous architecture. I’d seen photographer’s dramatic images of the “ruin porn” of post-industrial Detroit. But I didn’t know about the Guardian Building, Fisher Building, the Detroit Opera House—just a few treasures that still exist. Many more need to be saved like this one, but the process has started.

Places like the Eastern Market and the riverfront development felt familiar—I live in Pittsburgh and watched the city develop a friendlier interface and has kept ethnic charm. But I don’t know of another place anywhere like the Heidelberg Project. I’m not sure how to begin to describe a 25-year endeavor by a Detroit artist that transformed a dilapidated inner-city neighborhood into Detroit’s third most popular tourists’ destination. A polka dot house? Sculpture of discarded objects make a political statement? The Heidelberg Project is a creative metamorphosis from urban decay to a few city blocks that continually evolve as a whimsical, thriving outdoor art museum.

In fact I met a lot of artists that have come to Detroit. Young creative classes are attracted to places where rents are low—similar as to what happened in Brooklyn. Detroit has a history of supporting the arts. There are commioned Diego Rivera murals that cover a huge courtyard in the Detroit Art Museum but I also found many local artists painting murals on buildings that served as “blank canvases.”

Yellow flowers were a finishing touch on a playhouse in Mexicantown; but across from the now abandoned Grand Central Station, artists worked on the unconventional “Imagination Station” questioning the gentrification of their Corktown neighborhood.

Whether they were on Belle Isle planting trees or swimming on the last warm day of the year in the Detroit River–or urban pioneers pulling up weeds to take back the city to make gardens—people were open and genuinely nice.

One friendly resident that was curious about me hanging around warned, “People come here and get out of their cars and put their purses and backpacks under their front seat and expect to come back and they will still be there. Lady, you are in the ‘hood. Don’t forget that.” But nothing bad happened to me during my ten days in Detroit. Well, except for the three parking tickets I received. I earned them. I paid them, but attached a note saying I hoped they used my money wisely to help pay the city’s bills.

I’ve gotten more emails the past few days over this story than any I’ve had published in a very long time. People are surprised to learn there is another side of Detroit. Those who live there seem grateful to find a bit of recognition for the good as well as for hope in the midst of a very sad story.


Story behind an unpublished photo

Sometimes you go to great effort to make a photograph and it just doesn’t get published… I was asked to write out the experience of taking this photograph when NG called asking to use it in an exhibit of unpublished photographs.

Churchgate Station used to be the easiest place in India to take photographs of teaming hordes coming off the trains. There was a lunch counter balcony directly over the area where everyone got off the trains and came through the station. But then there was a bombing at Churchgate and the lunch counter balcony turned into a military observation area. After that, Anglo guys that looked like the bomber (and me), had absolutely no chance of getting into this secure area..

So my story fixer (Vinay Diddee) and I hired a runner who carried official National Geographic paperwork to all the offices of the bureaucrats that control the station and we had him plead our case for me to have access…. it took the runner two weeks and the answer was always NO… but one bureaucrat said: “If he was an Indian, then I would let him up there.”

So, Vinay was allowed to go up to the military area with my camera and tripod and I showed him a sketch of the photo I wanted. Then I waited in the van and we had the same runner that schmoozed the bureaucrats go between him and me with the camera cards Vinay was using in my camera.. When I received the cards down in the van, I put them into another camera to view them and then called Vinay on his cell phone… the first time saying…. bring the lens down a little… the second time saying it needed a slower shutter speed….. the third time I asked him to put on a darker ND filter… fourth time.. zoom in… etc… etc…

It took eight trips back and forth with cards to get the framing and everything else right… then I just told him to keep shooting whenever there were big crowds that filled the foreground of the photograph. Then for two hours I sat in the van and watched the movie GI Joe in HINDI on the DVD player hanging from the roof of the van. it didn’t matter that it wasn’t in English… it was just guys running around blowing stuff up… so I was working an Indian fixer by remote control while watching a shoot-em-up movie in a van in Mumbai in a language that sounded pretty weird coming out of American actors.

So.. I went back to the hotel and ordered a bowl of soup and a waiter in a tux with a dining room table size cart trundles into my room with one little 6 oz bowl of soup on it… I should say here that Vinay has connections with a very nice hotel chain that is actually cheaper than staying in some businessman hotel. But being in this nice hotel is complicated by the fact I am working in the biggest slums in the world… So I decided not to do the butler in the room thing again and that night I went down to the dining room and had dinner alone and the waiter brought a bowl with two big goldfish and set them across from me at the empty seat to keep me company…. I had my iPad reading the paper… I was fine.. but now I had these two huge goldfish staring at me… sucking their cheeks in and out… the waiter felt sorry for me eating alone… but how pathetic…

The next day was my birthday and I didn’t intend to repeat either of those experiences…

So.. I thought I would just let the day go… disappear…. but this morning as we were getting ready to leave at 5:30AM Vinay said “Happy Bday” and it turns out Vinay’s wife has some weird-crazy-accurate-deal with dates… and she had run my passport thru for visas a few years ago…

And then… after a sucky shooting day… I went back to hotel… the phone rang… and a woman said… Mr. Olson we understand it is your bday and I would like to celebrate it with you… The hotel also had my passport copy… so a guy in a tux AGAIN and a customer relations guy and this woman all came up with what was ACTUALLY a great cake… a HUGE thing of flowers… a brass hindu god kinda gift and took their photos with my arms around them… and sung happy bday…. and then bowed a little bit… did a bunch of Indian head wobbles… said sir a lot and asked if I wanted them to close the door on the way out…


Bill Allard Talks About the National Geographic Seminar

Bill Allard’s post about the seminar… just posted on The Photo Society website… here’s a quote:

During his presentation David La Chapelle made an interesting note of something quite unusual to him: the comradeship he witnessed among photographers who work for National Geographic.  Quite different from what he’s used to in the world of fashion, I guess.  And he’s right on the mark today because the comradeship among National Geographic photographers has never been better or stronger, not because the times are better, but very probably because they are not.  We seek common goals and it isn’t just about making more money.  It’s about getting a fair trade for what we do and what we do has always had maintaining the highest excellence of the magazine possible at the top of our priority list.  We in the newly formed Photo Society, with its dedicated and extremely hard working elected advisory board, have a presence not seen before among our type and I’ve been around National Geographic photographers for 48 years.


I just returned this past weekend from the annual National Geographic Photographers’ Seminar at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Photographers’ Seminar is a time when one might see certain friends for the only time during the year.  They may have come from Paris, New York, Sweden, almost anywhere.  But because many of us lead a semi-nomadic life, crossing paths with others of the same ilk can be rare.  Like the sighting of some elusive species of wildlife.

It’s the one time in the year when many–although never all–of the photographers who contribute to the magazine are brought together to share their thoughts, their work, and to enjoy and contemplate the work of photographers invited to speak and show work, photographers whose photographic interests and aspirations may be greatly dissimilar to those of the Geographic photographers, but still of strong interest and visual value.

There was a time when photographers not part of the Geographic’s stable of staff and freelancers were not invited as speakers.  Fortunately, that changed years ago, notably when Rich Clarkson came in as Director of Photography. It’s not important if the speaker does work that doesn’t come close to what the Geographic might publish; that’s actually often very refreshing and stimulating.  In fact, au contraire.  What a bore it would be if all of us leaned in the same direction in our efforts.

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