Friday, June 15, 2018

Back on the Water

Passing through Ballard Locks aboard S/Y Abuelos, Seattle, Washington
There’s no such thing as a cheap boat. The first nautical joke I ever heard was that boats are holes in the water into which you pour all your money. It’s taken me years to realize that it’s not actually a joke. And to “money” I’d add all your time, effort and dreams
In spite of it all, I have come to love the things. I think about them constantly. Boats in general, and mine in particular. I once lead a happy and simple life. Get up in the morning, take some pictures, cash the check and sleep in a warm bed dreaming contentedly of business class upgrades. 
Now, not so much. 
Instead of f-stops and shutter speeds, I obsess over smoking marine diesels and weepy transmissions and balky electronics. 
I wasn’t even looking for another boat. Just idly following the swirling eddies of my wandering attention over to the online used sailboat listings. My first boat, the long-suffering C-Sick, had withstood much at my hands, enduring ten years of Alaskan and Arctic summers. More than 10,000 collision-prone miles of clumsy seamanship, dubious navigation, and negligable maintenance. We would soon be parting ways. I’d sworn to God and my wife Janet, not necessarily in that order, that if I lived through that final Hudson Bay gale, I’d never take her north again. 
I had convinced myself that a pilothouse sailboat, around thirty feet or so, was just what I needed. Something sturdy with proper sails and a heavy keel and a cozy teak cabin to explore the waters closer to home. If I was going to afford her, the boat would likely be a fixer. A little rough around the edges, but nothing a little elbow grease couldn’t fix. And not twenty minutes up the road floated a prime example of “be careful what you ask for.”
When I first poked my head inside, I was struck by a number of things. The smell of mold and mildew and years of neglect. The scattered chaos of old blankets and fishing gear and damp cushions down below. But it was hard not to focus on the foot of oily water rising above the floorboards. I took one look around, stopping just long enough to peer down into the watery depths of the engine compartment at a half-submerged diesel, then walked back to the dealer and handed the keys back, and said “She’s a project, but she’s somebody else’s project. Good luck with that.” I wanted no part of it.
And yet, I started rolling it over in my mind. If there was ever a sailboat to be bought on the cheap, this was it. I went back. Poked around. Turned the bilge pump back on and a hundred gallons of water into the port of Edmonds before the batteries died. I sought the advice of an wizened Norwegian boat mechanic who pointed at the muck-covered engine and said, “Them things are hard to kill. Bolt on a new starter, change the belt, put in some new oil and see what she’ll do.” Offer a coupla’ thousand bucks to take it off their hands. A bit of hard work and she’ll shine right up.”
Proving that I learn from past mistakes, I ran this one past the Minister of Finance at home. She took one look at the boat and shook her head in disgust. “Did I neglect to mention that I don’t want a boat?” But she never actually said the word “no.” I offered a pittance. We dickered while the boat filled again with more rain water. They accepted a third of the original asking price and too soon Abuelos (Spanish for both “grandfather” and “old codger”) was mine. 
The trail has been long, and the litany of repairs both expensive and exhausting. I bought a new alternator and starter, then followed You Tube videos to bolt and wire them into place. When I turned the key and the 30-year-old diesel coughed to life, it felt like I’d raised Lazarus from the dead.
Encouraged, I tore out the drooping and vile-smelling vinyl headliner and replaced it with cedar tongue and groove planks. Filled a dockside dumpster with debris then scrubbed down every surface with industrial-grade disinfectant. Took a pressure washer to the birdshit-spattered deck and topsides, then dragged it inside and blasted away at the bilges for good measure, washing away a decade of neglect and goo. Her sails hung like dirty laundry from lines rotten and gray with age. Squandering a rare photographic windfall, I replaced them all, too. 
It’s been a long road, but after more than a year of work and worry and the steepest of learning curves, we’re heading out. 
North to Alaska.
I’m not exactly breaking new ground here. Every summer, more than a million cruise ship passengers make the 800-mile passage from Seattle’s waterfront, up the Inside Passage, to the 49th state. There they will gawk and snap pictures and then return once more to a buffet table groaning with food. For me it will be a chance, if the repairs and my spirits hold up, to see a bit of new country, watch the miles unfold at a stately five or six knots, and return to Southeast Alaska, a place I haven’t seen in nearly a decade. There I will gawk, snap some pictures, and then put on another can of soup and pour myself a finger or two of scotch, see if I can find a drifting piece of ice, and toast absent friends.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Published Work - Wild Planet Photo Magazine

Keith Wilson, editor at Wild Planet Photo Magazine, showed considerable patience and forbearance waiting for me to come up with a list of seven “Wild Wonders” of the natural world. I think the hardest part was narrowing my list down to only seven favorite places.
For the record, here's my list in no particular order:
1. Cuverville Island, Antarctica - Leopard Seals
2. Spitsbergen Island - Polar Bears
3. Galapagos Islands - Darwin’s Playground
4. Churchill, Manitoba, Canada - Beluga Whales
5. Ndutu Plains, Tanzania
6. Snow Hill Island - Emperor Penguins
7. Southeast Alaska - Humpback Whales

Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013 National Geographic Photo Contest

Christmas came early this year, when a short email arrived announcing that my polar bear image won Grand Prize in the 2013 National Geographic Photo Contest. I am looking forward to finally, after 30 long years of working as a professional photographer, visiting the Geographic’s legendary offices.

In my newspaper days, we were all contest hounds, living and dying by the monthly press photographers’ clip contest results. Our 2% merit raises were on the line. I was happy to leave that all behind, telling myself the every time an editor licensed and paid for one of my images on the Corbis or Getty sites, I won the most important contest of all. 

Upon reflection, I was an idiot. 

Without a major publication backing me for assignments and publication, most images are so much ‘content,’ disappearing into the vast publishing maw. I am one more anonymous stock provider. For a long time, I was content with that. I made a fine living licensing images that I created on my own projects. So long as my royalty check arrived on time, I could buy another plane ticket and go merrily on my way.

But high profile contests like the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and National Geographic’s contest offer something important for those us who are not utterly shameless self-promoters or contract photographers. An audience. It’s a chance to show photographs and tell their stories to a far wider audience than any blog or stock sale can match.

And to be honest, the money doesn’t hurt either. 

I've posted National Geographic's announcement and interview, but the video of the contest's judging offers some wonderful insights as well.

The 2013 National Geographic Photography Contest Winners

During the month of November, National Geographic magazine invited photographers from around the world to submit photos in three categories: People, Places and Nature. We received more than 7,000 entries from over 150 countries, with amateur and professional photographers across the globe participating. You can view all of the winning images here.
We asked Senior Photo Editor Susan Welchman, and National Geographiccontributing photographers Stephanie Sinclair and Ed Kashi to judge this year’s photo contest at the Society’s headquarters in Washington, DC, on December 9th.
Imagine a darkened room with images projected on a huge screen, and almost total silence except for the ‘yeas’ and ‘nays’ of the judges and the occasional discussion over specific photos. Several hours later, after multiple rounds of editing, the finalists became clear and the real debate began.
Ultimately, the judges unanimously agreed the Grand Prize should be awarded to Paul Souders for his image of a polar bear lurking beneath melting sea ice in Hudson Bay, Canada. After realizing the photographer had won an award in another contest for a very similar photo, we thought it would be interesting to hear from Paul directly.

Grand Prize and Nature Winner Paul Souders, Seattle, Washington The Ice Bear A polar bear peers up from beneath the melting sea ice on Hudson Bay as the setting midnight sun glows red from the smoke of distant fires during a record-breaking spell of hot weather. The Manitoba population of polar bears, the southernmost in the world, is particularly threatened by a warming climate and reduced sea ice.
Grand Prize and Nature Winner
Paul Souders, Seattle, Washington
The Ice Bear
A polar bear peers up from beneath the melting sea ice on Hudson Bay as the setting midnight sun glows red from the smoke of distant fires during a record-breaking spell of hot weather. The Manitoba population of polar bears, the southernmost in the world, is particularly threatened by a warming climate and reduced sea ice.

MONICA CORCORAN: How long have you been shooting wildlife and how/why did you get into it?
PAUL SOUDERS: I’ve worked as a professional photographer for nearly 30 years. It’s the only job I’ve ever had that didn’t involve pumping gas or pushing a lawn mower.
But I never set out to be a nature photographer, I wanted to be a news shooter, and I started my first job at a small daily paper in Rockville, Md., with dreams of journalistic glory. I covered a lot of high school sports, portrait assignments and weather features. It felt like telling the story of my community, one day at a time. At some point, I decided a change of scene was in order. Never one for half measures, I packed up everything I owned and drove 4300 miles to Anchorage, Alaska, to take a job at the state’s biggest newspaper. It was 27 below zero the day I arrived, but it was entirely new and magical. There was a moose in my backyard and I could see bald eagles on my morning commute.
And that’s when I started moving away from news work and toward photographing wildlife. But it’s still the same mission, telling stories about the places I see and the wildlife I encounter. I left the paper 20 years ago and I’ve worked as a travel and wildlife photographer ever since.
MONICA: A near frame of yours won the Animals in their Environment category of the 2013 Wildlife Photographer of the Year photo contest. Tell us the story behind these photos.
PAUL: I had two sharp frames of the underwater bear, and the framing was only very slightly different. I entered the BBC contest right at their deadline, and never compared the two side by side. Once it won its category in BBC (but failed to win the grand prize), I kept staring at the lower right hand corner, where the ice edge is cropped, and it started to bug me. I do prefer this frame, since it has the entire ice edge. It’s one of those little details that can make a picture work just a bit better, but not something I even noticed or cared about initially.
The bear swam up to the iceberg, ducked under and stayed underwater for several seconds as I moved my zodiac into position and then held out the camera on a six-foot boom near the entrance. I didn’t fire until she came up to breathe and take a look at me, and I kept firing the shutter as she submerged again. She hung there, just below the surface, watching me, then came up for another breath before swimming away. I couldn’t see her from where I sat in my small zodiac boat; I was shooting blind with the wide angle. I sensed it was a unique situation, but the first thought in my mind was that I really didn’t want to screw up. I’d already dunked the remote radio trigger and camera into the salt water, and had to jury rig a replacement cable by chewing off the copper wires and hand-splicing it together. I don’t know how, but somehow it worked.
MONICA: Do you have any advice for other wildlife photographers?
PAUL: My standard advice is to marry well. And don’t quit your day job.
It is REALLY hard to make a living at this. I was lucky enough to begin a photo career at a time when you could earn at least some sort of meager living at it. A newspaper photographer’s salary wasn’t much, but at least it was a job, and an amazing training ground where I got to shoot pictures every day. I worked around other, better photographers who helped me learn my craft. And I actually got paid to do it. I worry that it’s much, much harder for the next generation of photographers to make a living and build a career.
I consider myself very fortunate to continue to make a living pursuing work that I really love.
MONICA: What are your thoughts on entering photo contests?
PAUL: I like to think I’m past the point in life where I live and die by contest results and the momentary ego boost they provide.
What I do appreciate is how contests can bring storytelling photographs to a wider audience, and how they can captivate an audience of millions to see the natural world’s fragile beauty, and to motivate them to take an active interest in experiencing and protecting it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai, China

I thought I’d gotten away with it, the old cheerful trespassing thing. Right up to the moment I saw the fat girl in the mini skirt.
I’d just brazened my way past a bored security guard downstairs, hopped an elevator to the 22nd floor and then scurried up a darkened stairwell onto the roof with whatever stealth I could muster carrying a tripod, backpack of gear on creaking knees. But now we stared at each other across the abandoned and not open-to-the-general-public rooftop.
I’m not sure who was more surprised, but I just smiled by biggest, dumbest smile, pointed out at the view and chirped “photo…okay?” and went about my business like I owned the place. She had just finished a cigarette and in her imagined privacy, was beginning to hawk up something that seemed to start from down around her pelvis.
Our mutually exclusive language skills kept any unpleasantness to a minimum. She unhappily swallowed, blinked, and went back inside. I gave a cheerful wave before crawling out onto the building’s ledge.
My second grade teacher wrote all the way back in 1967 that “Paul thinks rules are for others.” I often think of her at times like this, wondering if she had any idea how right she was.  Below me, a view of the double-helix Nanpu Bridge, scenically clogged with traffic, lay swirling and aglow in all it’s engineering glory across the Huangpu River 25 floors below.
Since I was here, I might as well take a picture or two.
Shanghai, China: October 30, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

Shanghai, China

Another day of the new Chinese century begins. I blink awake in darkness and with scrambled time zones and dulled senses, I hit the streets. In the hours before dawn, kites dangle blinking and flashing UFO lights in the dark sky. That most Chinese of sounds, the deep throat clearing haaaaawk fills the air. It is accompanied by bellows of conversations, blaring tinny music, taxi horns and the rumble of coal barges heading up the Huangpu River’s murky waters.

Across the river, the old tallest building in China (c. 1998) stands dwarfed by the recent tallest building in China (c. 2008), but both look positively quaint beside the rising new tallest building in China. I’ve come in part to update my image files of the city skyline, but like a lot of things, I can’t tell if I’m early to the party or late.

A crescent moon rises and the skies begins to lighten, and soon traffic springs to swerving, honking, chaotic life. It quickly achieves its default setting: Gridlock.

Along the river’s cement promenade, a pensioner unfolds hand-crafted and beautifully painted kites in the form of eagles. He heaves one skyward in the morning light, slinging it in tight circles in the hopes of gaining altitude. It crashes. He picks it up, tweaks a wing, tries again. Crashes again. Smiles as I take his photo. Tries again, utterly serene.

Nearby, a martial arts group mixes tai chi poses with flying leaps. A ballroom dance club competes with an aerobics group for sonic dominance.

All told, it feels like a lot is getting accomplished before I’ve even had my first cup of coffee. Pondering my place in this busy new world order, I stumble off the sidewalk and through the clotted traffic, greeting an uncertain new dawn.

Shanghai, China - October 28, 2013