21 January 2015

What's in Central America That Keeps Me Going Back

Tikal, Guatemala

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

I get asked that question a lot these days as I prepare for my next adventure down South. And the basic answer is that I'm not done with the place yet. THIS particular excursion will take me to all 7 countries revisiting a few spots, but mainly checking out new ones. I'll visit the Caribbean and Pacific sides of just about every country I visit. Belize only has a Caribbean side, but I'll be working my way around both sides of it, nonetheless. Most of my time will be spent in Guatemala and Nicaragua, two countries I am already familiar with. So why the affinity for such places in the world...? Well, I'll tell you.

First, its because of Panama. I spent some time there while in the military. Twice, for jungle training and we got sent down there on another occasion. It was the first place in the world that was absolutely totally different from all I had known. I grew up in Texas and RARELY left the state and hardly traveled more than 200 miles from home. Germany was my first duty station after my enlistment. Germany was different, yes. But I still understood the urban landscape, about catching a cab, the weather was a bit cooler most times, and the people were not entirely different from my home with the exception of the language.

Seven Altars, Livingston, Guatemala
The first time I got off the plane in Panama, I could barely breathe! The humidity in East Texas can get pretty damn muggy. The humidity in Panama required GILLS! And the HEAT! Training was restricted to mornings and afternoons. It was forbidden to do anything requiring exertion  in the middle of the day. I could eat a brat from anywhere in Germany. The first time I burst open a coconut in Panama, I had the runs for two days. EVERYTHING took acclamation.

But it was BEAUTIFUL!!

I recall being on patrol once and as lead element, I halted the formation upon coming to a clearing of the biggest tree I had ever laid eyes on. I had seen taller trees before, but this one was bigger around than a house. A few hundred meters of more machete bush-wacking and I rolled up on another one TWICE as big. One tree you DIDN'T want to have a close encounter with was Black Palm. This tree is the inevitable offspring between a palm tree and a porcupine. The spines that stick out will penetrate damn near anything, but break off with the slightest upward or downward pressure. And then there were also things in the jungle that could kill you. Simply by the grace of God, I avoided a face strike by the countries deadliest snake, the Fer-de-Lance, with its neurotoxic venom. Had it been the more aggressive bushmaster, I'd likely be dead. And oh my God, the last thing you would ever want would be to get held up in the jungle after sunset. We had a squad that was so unfortunate as to experience this. I did not get their story. But I saw the evidence in their demurred stature and swollen/bumpy bodies. I didn't need to know anything else. I simply wasn't going to have my ass in the jungle at night.

Hostel Dorm, Livingston, Guatemala

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou

A few times, we got opportunities to visit the nearby city. I stayed close to the base (on one of my visits) at Fort Sherman's Jungle Operations Training Center, but some of us spent time getting into trouble in Colon. I rarely went further than the closest place to get food or see a movie. The times I did get out and about, what I recall most are the women and what I now know were "chicken" buses. If you are an ass-man, you will love Panama. And these buses reminded me of how the homies did their cars with a lot of custom flashy work, but just in a more colorful fashion. I promised myself that I would come back and visit this country again as a civilian without the restrictions I had as a soldier.

Typical Nica breakfast prepared by my host, Dona Lucia!
Another reason is that its CHEAP! Good gracious! My ticket to Guatemala City was listed at $202 one-way. I did some seat upgrades that brought it up to almost twice that, but a round trip ticket can be had for $365 to several places in Central America. I usually have to fly one-way because I'm never certain when I start a trip, when or from where I'll return. Accommodations are also inexpensive. Sure you can pay $100 or more a night in plenty of places. But you can also stay for $20 a night and do VERY well, in some of the most gorgeous spots on the planet. Food can be had for $10 a day and you get FULL. Catch a bus for an 8-hour road trip for $10. If I wasn't moving around so much, I'd probably just rent a residence for a few months for a few hundred or maybe house-sit for nothing. Deals abound! I'll be in at least 20 spots staying in one place for no longer than 4 or 5 days in most cases. I'll be on Little Corn Island for a week in Nicaragua in my own little cottage on the beach. I will even be in a dog-gone treehouse with a queen size bed and hot water shower in Guatemala!

But its also the experiences that keep me returning. I get to better understand new and various cultures. They may be of the same ethnicity, but highland people do it differently than those by the coast. And the Garifuna do it differently than everybody.  Then there are the fellow travelers who come from all over the world just to cross your path. I made many new friends that I still talk to today. And some, not so much. The pics I come back with are some of my best artwork and they make me money. That should be reason enough. And I get better every time I go there. I always come back with great stories. Okay, so I almost got killed a couple times on my last visit. BUT I DIDN'T DIE! And it was mainly my fault. I'll def be more careful this time around. My girl with be with me on this trip so I know I can't take chances like I did on the last one. I love the people. I love the land. What can I say? It keeps me coming back.

Tobacco Caye, Belize

What's next? Well that all depends. I could get a wild hair and keep on after Panama into Colombia and keep skirting South down the Pacific. I'll do that then or on my next excursion, but South America may as well be the next itinerary item, mainly Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. I can break it up and do Brazil and Argentina later. If I don't do South America right off, then Southeast Asia will be the next priority. Now, I'm talking extended visits for the most part. I still want to make my way over to Iceland for a few weeks, but I'm not counting that in my "gone for a while" excursions. I estimate 3 months for this trip in March, but its looking more like a few weeks more if not right at 4. So who knows? Tomorrow is not promised to me. I'll stay focused on the event ahead of me for now.

04 January 2015

Still in Awe of Photography

Art Model, Covenant ©2014 Terrell Neasley

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” 
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I've been in this game for a while now. At least since 2005 on a serious level. At any given time, its easy to get bored, burned out, or just simply tired of a profession, industry, or business of some sort. Its normal. Things stagnate from time to time. Monotony often sets in and you have to look for a little change in routine or maybe take a break to step away from your profession from time to time. In the Army, as well as all the Armed Services, we were all encouraged to take some R&R to blow off steam on a regular basis. Getting burned out could cause lapses in inspections of equipment or result in attention to detail issues.

I can't say this has been the case with me in photography. I am just as excited about it now as when I saw my first print come to life as it sat in a fresh batch of Kodak D-76 developer. And that was something in and of itself that you just couldn't get tired of. It was like magic. After careful exposure, and burning and dodging in a darkroom, a blank sheet of Ilford Fiber-based Variable Contrast Multigrade IV paper, suddenly came to live with the image you previously captured on film. I'll confess, though. I had my doubts when I switched to digital in 2007. I was a film purist because I felt digital took out the craftsmanship in which I made that print with my hands, manipulating light and shadow to make the final print. Photoshop seemed too much bits and bytes, and not enough of a man-made feel. I got over that the more I realized, its not so much the hands, but more the mind that creates and manipulates the light and shadow.

Art Model, Emma ©2013 Terrell Neasley
I can't say its like this for every photog you meet. I have met quite a few who's camera is more of a job than a creative outlet. They work, earn money, and that's it. No personal projects, just take the money and put the camera down til its time to earn money again. I don't begrudge them. That's their choice. As for me, I think I am still in love with photo for a few reasons.

1. First and foremost, I shoot what I like. You gotta pay me a lot of money to make me shoot something I don't really want to shoot. I learned that when I first got to Vegas and got a gig shooting furniture for a business in the World Market Center here in Vegas for showroom ads. Shooting a white couch under 3 different kinds of light on the showcase floor sucked. Granted, I still didn't know near as much as I do now, but I did it for the money. HATED IT! I learned that early on and it was a blessing. Shoot what you love.

2. I have an inherent desire to be good at whatever I spend the most time in. I study my ass off in most anything I want to know about. But for something I absolutely love, my study habits kick into overdrive. Its not always in a desire to be better. Most times, its because I have something on my brain that I want to create and have to learn how to do it. So I am in a constant state of learning to improve and hone my craft. Additionally, I don't stay on the same thing for too long. One day my thing may be landscape. Another day, its portraits. And then I want to kick it up and do extended exposure. Lastly, I simply hate not knowing. The better you get, the more people you attract. I get other photographers who ask me questions about settings or maybe how to shoot something. Often times I act as a forensic scientist to detect what was wrong or troubleshoot an issue with a camera or image. What's that thick black line that goes all the way across the bottom of your picture? Its a result of using a shutter speed high than the sync speed of your camera when using flash. How do I know that? I didn't want to be afraid of using artificial light, so I studied flash. So study your ass off.

Art Model, Covenant ©2014 Terrell Neasley

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” 
― W.B. Yeats

3. I associate with a other photographers and learn from mentors. I started the very first Meetup.com photography group here in Las Vegas. It was the Las Vegas Art Models Group mainly for helping photographers learn to work with the nude model as well as helping nude models get hired by photographers. I then assisted one of the attendees of my group, Garrett Winslow, organize another group, the Las Vegas Photographic Society made for photographers to help them network and grow their craft. Over the years, I developed a good reputation, but sharing my knowledge, but also from increasing my knowledge with mentors like Dave Rudin and Dave Proctor, just to name a few. I have also stayed active in online groups to share my work, get feedback, and offer help to others. So don't become an island.

4. I started working in a camera shop. B&C Camera, owned by my good friend and accomplished photographer Joe Dumic. He bought this camera shop when ever other one was failing, turned it around and this store not only survives, but thrives. He's spearheading his third expansion project for B&C Camera in just 4 years. Joe has helped me immensely in my own business operations. However working in a camera store gives me the ability to tap into a knowledge base you won't find anywhere else. I am there only two days a week, but I get to learn about every new camera system that comes out. Technology is changing all the time. Most industries can't say that. A hammer hasn't changed much since its invention. Devices to capture a still image or record one moving, and all the accessories that are invented on a daily basis are improved every day. I get to try out these new systems and get help from the best gurus from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Leica, and also LYTRO! Just today I got an email from Joe inviting me to an exclusive Canon event. Anther great aspect is the customers I meet. I stay on my toes to help those beginner photographers get the right camera, fix their problems, and get ideas on lighting set-ups. But I also meet professional people coming in to get gear as well. Just a couple of days ago, Adan Van Dam, Las Vegas based film producer/director visited the store and I got to learn about his 4K BlackMagic full frame rig. So don't restrict your universe to just the gear you know. And surround yourself with and learn from other great talent.

Art Model, Faerie ©2012 Terrell Neasley

5. I like to experiment and take chances. I know that every endeavor I take won't pan out. I'm okay with that. Sometimes I lose money. Sometimes, all my efforts are wasted; but are they really? Every time I do something that doesn't pan out, its really a learning experience. I can honestly say, I learn some valuable lessons when I get screwed over, lose an opportunity, or otherwise fail. I learn how to be wiser with my selections on who I deal with, prepare better, and thus protect myself better from unfortunate events. Learning these lessons early on help keep the ripples from these mistakes small. I don't mind small mistakes. And catching them early keeps the big ones at bay. So learn to play and don't be afraid to fail.

I could list several more, but this post is getting long. To add 3 more, persistence despite rough times, doing your own personal projects, constantly looking at other great work, teaching photography, and traveling would be key elements that definitely aid in my ability to stay locked in on photo. In all these years, photo has never been a dried up concept for me. And you know...another great motivator is that if you're good enough, people will pay you to keep doing what you do. So.... Amazing, isn't it?