I’ve traveled a fair amount while shooting documentaries. Here are some photos I took along the way.
All posts in Travel
Andrew Blackwell’s book Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places has come up a few times recently. I wrote an Amazon review for the book when it first came out in 2012 — the only review I’ve written. Here it is:
Visit Sunny Chernobyl: Or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Polluted Planet.”
I’m a fan of both adventure travel writing and ecological nonfiction, and Visit Sunny Chernobyl is a solid, highly entertaining instance of both. Blackwell doesn’t necessarily claim to be writing either, though — he’s just a tourist who wants to vacation in the world’s most polluted places, and has written the missing travel guide for pollution tourism.
It’s a brilliant conceit. But what makes the book successful is that, while partially tongue-in-cheek, Blackwell is serious. He found something captivating in one of the world’s most polluted cities in India, which contradicted his preconceptions of nature-is-good and pollution-is-gross. That’s not to say that he’s pro-polution. He’s absolutely not. It’s that these places are usually presented as news, or obscured by political agenda, or simply invisible to the rest of the world, and the real world is always richer than any one view. It’s not human vs. nature: everything is far more mixed up than that.
Blackwell gets the story from the people he meets. The world’s most polluted places are usually someone’s home — pollution is, after all, the result of human activity. And as with the best non-fiction writing, the result is compassionate and humanizing, erasing the easy idea of “other.” It turns out that this is the fundamental key in solving any problem.
Blackwell is humorous without being glib, satirical without being dishonest, personal without being self-indulgent, and insightful without being ponderous. He weaves separate trips into one complete narrative, each building on the previous chapter. The book contains an important (and urgent) ecological message, but does so without being preachy. It’s too much fun to read. Highly recommended for anyone.
After a week in the London area, I headed out to Somerset to get my feet wet traveling in England. I picked Wells Cathedral as my nominal destination — I’d take a picture of the Chapter House steps like one I’d seen in a photography class. Getting there involved trains, busses, lots of walking, and two nights in the Street Youth Hostel.
This was before widespread internet and I was traveling alone, so my journals from that year are the best I’ve kept. Right now I’m having a hard time keeping up with reading them in real-time+15-years. I think I eased up once I started filming.
Street, Somerset, England, 7:30 pm
… The countryside here in south-west England is almost entirely identical to that of Vermont, but slightly different in every respect. The fields – not as big here – roll in a similar manner, but there are no mountains along the edges. The placement of shrubs, trees, cows and sheep is the same as the Champlain Valley, if you squint. But the shrubberies are a different type – thick briars instead of the thinner New England blackberry bushes – and the leaves on everything are a slightly different shape. The corn makes the same sound in the wind – the dry leaves brushing against each other. But the tops are darker and redder, and none of it is too tall. All of the cows are miniature, too. I stopped to look at one today, and she looked back with wall-eyes and drool pouring from her mouth. Perhaps she is mad.
[First cow: “Are you afraid of mad cow disease?” Second cow: “I’m not afraid. I’m chicken!”]
I dove deep into bell ringing the day I got back.
Fifteen years ago this week, I arrived in England to spend a year documenting change ringing. This is the uniquely English method of ringing church tower bells, also handbells, which is based on mathematical permutations rather than melodies or randomness.
My dad’s into bells, and I’d been fascinated with change ringing since I first heard the sound on a trip to England with him ten years before. We heard the bells at Winchester Cathedral, and he explained that it was a band of people who went around like a baseball team, climbing up into the towers of various cathedrals and pulling the ropes. I was 12. How cool was that.
Cut to college, where I was studying English, film, and music. I figured I could go to England and make a movie about bells. As it turned out, so did the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, who awarded me a fellowship to do just that.
So on August 14, 1998, I arrived at Heathrow Airport with a Sony VX-1000 camera on my back, with a mission to learn about bells.
The film was always intended to be experimental and interactive, and at the end of the day, after returning to the States the next summer with 70 hours of footage, I didn’t have the resources to complete it. It became my long-unfinished personal project.
Many of the interviews focused on this ancient technology and social art as it entered the new millennium, and participants said, “what will really be interesting is to look at our current efforts in ten or twenty years.” Well, it’s been that, and some fellow filmmakers recently informed me that this project is not “unfinished,” but “LONGITUDINAL.” I’ll take that.
So I’m dusting off the old Mini-DV tapes and travel journals, and revisiting my year among the bells.
Included here are a few excerpts from my first journal entry. I’d arrived almost a week earlier, and was staying with Tina (then-editor of the Ringing World weekly change ringing journal) and her fiance Simon in Ashford, outside London.
Windsor Great Park, Surrey, UK
… On Saturday, Simon and I bought day travel cards to London (£3.85 with young-person’s discount card) and went to Queen’s Tower at Imperial College. There Simon rang a quarter-peal of Steadman something. Queen’s tower is a free-standing structure – tall – with ten bells. From the top you can look out on the back of the Natural History Museum and the Royal Albert Hall. The bells are particularly heavy, and the tower is made of brick, so when they are all going, the tower sways like a ship at sea.
After an hour, we went to a pub. I had met one of the ringers last time I was in London. Tom, the conductor, I believe. Everyone treated him as their leader.
… I went into London again on Monday to look for an NTSC television and some maps.
… Yesterday, returning from Staines on bike, I stopped to watch a little-league cricket match. It looks like a pitcher tries to knock down sticks, and a batter tries to hit the ball far enough to run back and forth with another batter between another set of sticks. A gate, I think. A bunch of people stand in a circle around them in the outfield. Simon says that some matches last only a day, while others last for five. And polo – I didn’t watch it long enough to see if it was as straight-forward as hockey, but Simon says that they switch sides when people score. In that sense, it’s like ultimate frisbee. That would explain why the polo player let the ball die when he missed it, rather than letting someone else leap on it to score.
Speaking of British things, I saw someone buy a 12-pack of crumpets today. They looked like spongy English muffins.
[The following posts were written in Dharamsala, India, in Feburary, 2007, while shooting Tibet in Song.]
Hello from India
Hello from India. I’ll write more when I get a chance, but here are a few pictures in the mean time.
1. My room at the guest house in the middle of town. It’s the door on the left. It’s a rooftop room.
2. The view from the rooftop outside my room, with part of town on the left and below, and mountains above.
3. The monkey that wouldn’t let me get my pants down from the clothes line one morning.
4. A monkey mom and baby (you can only see its hand).
5. Beware of Dog, also in Tibetan.
6. a view of mountains from the pine forest where I took a walk yesterday.
The town is McLeod Ganj, the upper part of Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama.
More photos from McLeod Ganj.
1. The street outside the guest house, which is one of the main streets in town.
2. Two streets going up and east from the taxi/bus area at the top of the street. It’s Tipa Road and Bhagsu Road, for those with a map.
3. Tibetan woman hanging laundry to dry.
4. St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopal Church, est. 1852, about 1km or so down the hill from town. I went there to check out their bell. It’s a Mears & Stainbank (aka Whitechapel), 1915, with the inscription “SOLDIERS OF CHRIST, ARISE / AND PUT YOUR ARMOUR ON.” The bell was in a cage on ground level, as it had been stolen once, and had no clapper for ringing. Meanwhile, I could hear the Buddhists blowing horns at the Dalai Lama’s temple on the next ridge over.
5. Monkey picture of the day. They stole our oranges.
Dogs on the Roof
Today’s Monkey Picture features something I haven’t quite figured out: Dogs on the Roof. These dogs live on this roof, and I’m not sure what scraps they expect to find when sniffing around. In case I hadn’t mentioned, dogs bark thoughout town 24 hours a day.
Today’s picture features dramatic light. Monkey is at bottom of frame. Actually, I took this picture earlier, during a very brief moment of sunshine. It’s been completely cloudy and cold since then.
Monkeys in the Mist
Still raining. Less cold. Monkey pictures.
1. This is at the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts (TIPA). There are two monkeys in this picture. Find them if you can.
2. Wet monkey
3. Moving monkey
4. Dry monkey
5. Clouds clearing out of the valley for about an hour around sunset. Then more rain. Yellow buildings at the far top left of the picture are TIPA as seen from the center of town.
6. Answer to picture #1.
Into the Woods
The rain cleared yesterday morning, and I had a chance to take a walk through the woods above town. Monkeys abound. There were times when I was surrounded by a dozen of them, and didn’t stop to take a picture. I had been warned that they’ll attack. It felt ominously Wizard of Oz. They weren’t bothered as long as I kept walking, but I don’t think they like cameras. In any case, I got a few close up shots. That accomplished, I’ll now limit monkey pictures to the extraordinary. I’m not sure how I can capture them swinging rooftop to rooftop Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon style with my camera. It’s amazing. I’ll see what I can do.
In other news, Tibetan New Year (Losar) is on Sunday, so kids are setting off firecrackers all over the place. It’s insane. I don’t mean insane like “crazy and festive,” but insane like “not sane.” They buy explosives, light them, and they blow up right in the middle of the busy, narrow street. Some launch sparks all over the place, and some go BOOM. I’ve been too busy plugging my ears to get any photos of that. I’ll see what I can do.
1. a monkey in the woods
2. a monkey mom and baby on a former house. Judging by the surroundings and age, it looks like something the British built when they settled McLeod Ganj as a hill station in the mid 1800s.
3. a house with terraced yard (for farming in the summer) half way up the mountain. The whole hillside is like this. The town is actually either Dharmkot or Bhagsu, which is the neighborhood past McLeod. Populated mostly by Gaddi Indians (the original inhabitants of the area) and a bunch of Israelis, who come to chill out after their mandatory two years in the army.