Throwback: Australia

It’s been a year to the day since I returned from my summer in Australia. As with many things, that feels both so recent and still so far away.

I was working for Rustic Pathways, who I also worked with in Southeast Asia two years ago. It’s hard to explain what exactly Rustic does, because there is so much wrapped up in it, but the short story is that it’s a travel company for high school students. They work with local communities to offer immersive, educational travel programs, many with service components. As a photographer for the company, I was responsible not only for taking photographs but also taking care of the students.

I always intended to post this last round of images from Australia when I returned to the U.S., but several things held me back. The same as when I left Asia, it was almost too hard to look at the photos again. I both missed my travels but was happy to be home; I was still processing everything I had learned but also figuring out what my next move would be.

Coming home after Rustic always left me a little lost. You spend all summer working with teenagers and co-workers who both inspire you and challenge you – and who you will probably never see again. You come home to people that don’t understand the experiences you’ve just been through, and there’s no way to put it into words.

So I let myself put off the final blog post I had planned in a series of three (parts one and two here). I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what to show. And then it felt like it had been too long to post them. With the year anniversary of my return looming, I decided to look through the folder of images again.

What I found are the images I have replayed over and over in my head for the last year – a whirlwind final 9 days in which I traveled from the Great Barrier Reef to Uluru to Sydney with two co-workers I loved and a fantastic group of students. I haven’t forgotten the images I looked out for this blog. I just didn’t have the words to put to it.

What I was really grappling with was, that was probably the last summer I’ll travel with Rustic Pathways. I love the work, but it’s a challenging thing to drop your life every summer to go abroad and then come back basically unemployed again. It felt like going back to square one. I knew that it would probably be my last time when I went to Australia. I knew that when I returned. But I don’t think it really hit me until this summer. It’s the first I’ve spent stateside in three years, and I’ve seen all my co-workers, friends and students from previous summers back out there traveling. And it’s not like I’ve been “stuck” here. I’m living in a place I love, I have a great life here, I have a job in an industry I spent many years dreaming about. But the wanderlust still pulls me, as I think it does for every Rustic traveler. That’s why we keep going back. The promise of more places to discover, more people to meet, more connections to experience.

Safe travels to my friends out there. I know many of you are returning home this month, and I know it can be both a wonderful and difficult time. Here’s to the last days of my summer down under.

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This is one of the last photos I took in Australia. It’s not my favorite image by far, but it was a special moment for me. It’s self portrait taken only hours before I boarded a plane home. My friend and mentor Jose Lopez always encourages us to take self portraits – it was the first assignment he gave us at the New York Times Institute a few years ago. That was the first time I’d taken one, and this is only the second one since that assignment. But as I ran through this park in Sydney at 4 a.m. trying to catch the sunrise over the Harbor Bridge (the image above this one), I thought so much about all of the lessons Jose has taught me. And I thought, what the heck. Just one. You have a few minutes. So I set the camera down, ran to this spot, and gazed up, looking into the future and also at the last Australian night sky I would see.

Summer Down Under: Back to the Coast

After six weeks in the Australian outback, I returned to tropical Queensland to photograph programs based in the Glass House Mountains and along the coast. It was strange to return to the place I trained at in-country in early June; after weeks in the Northern Territory I’d almost started to forget about the beaches and forests that awaited me.

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I’d say it was nice to sleep in a proper bed again, but the truth is that missed sleeping under the stars in the outback. It was an adjustment to stay in a nice house near the beach and to have a real kitchen to cook in, rather than the camping stoves and fires we had in the outback. We had lived out of one trailer and the back of the four-wheel drive cars we took everywhere. Now I was driving a 12-seater luxury van on paved roads and I could actually unpack my bag in my room.

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The Queensland programs are based between a beach house in famous Noosa Beach and a cozy home in the Glass House Mountains. Students spend the beach week taking surfing lessons, and the other week volunteering at a local school and staying at an outdoor outback-style camp. So, not a total break from camping for me, but it still had many bonuses we didn’t have for the first half of my summer. Namely the German man who runs the place, Richard, who cooked us all wonderful meals and dispensed great advice to all of the students. Richard built the farm in the style of an old bush camp, and he runs rehabilitation programs for youth on the property. Every summer he kindly opens his home to Rustic Pathways and teaches students to work with horses, as well as a few other skills (spear throwing, boomerang throwing, lassoing, etc).

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I have one more round of photos to share from my summer in Australia, all of which are from my last ten days in country. They’re a mix of coastal photos as well as a brief return to the outback.

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Summer Down Under: Six Weeks in the Australian Outback

I’ll be posting my images from Australia across the next few blogs, this being the first post of (most likely) three. I’d originally intended to blog while I was traveling, the way I did in Asia last year, but that proved to be difficult while spending my first six weeks in the outback. Many of these images I managed to share on my Instagram when I had service, but for some this is the first time I’ve published them.

There are so many incredible things I saw and experienced in Australia, it seems almost impossible to condense over 500 GB worth of images down to just a handful to show. It feels like the easiest way is to split them into regions or segments of my summer, so this post is dedicated to my time in the Northern Territory and the outback. Australia is a beautiful and wildly diverse country, and I’m lucky to have spent time in a region that many Australians don’t even get to see.

(*The first three images are from my week of staff training in the Glasshouse Mountains; the rest were taken in the Northern Territory and Western Australia between June and July while working for Rustic Pathways.)

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Part of the reason I applied to the Australia programs, out of all of Rustic’s travel destinations, is because I wanted to spend time working with and learning about the Aboriginal community there. The Outback Aboriginal Service Program is a trip that spends time volunteering with local Indigenous organizations and schools as well as visiting a handful of sacred sights to learn about Aboriginal culture and tradition. I photographed three of these trips, spending most of June and part of July traveling between Darwin, Kununurra, Katherine and Arnhem Land along the northern end of Australia.

Aboriginal culture is thought of as the longest surviving culture in the world, having been around continuously for at least 40,000 years (though many estimates I heard are closer to 60,000 years and beyond). Many of their stories and beliefs have been passed down orally, and Aboriginals today can still look at paintings from thousands of years ago and tell you what Dreamtime story the images represent. Within Australia, there are hundreds of Aboriginal countries, some the size of small European countries and each with their own unique songs and language. Today it’s estimated that all but 13 of these languages – that once numbered over 250 – are considered endangered.

The challenges this society faces in modern-day Australia are complex, and difficult even for born-and-raised Australians to explain to visitors. I spent time in several different communities and I feel lucky to have witnessed different lifestyles and perspectives on the issue, but I am by no means an expert on the subject. There is so much more to learn and understand. For that reason I won’t expand upon it too much here, except to say a big thank you to those that welcomed myself and our Rustic students into their homes and communities. I won’t forget the magic I saw in this part of the world.

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2014 in review

2014 has been one hell of a year.

I originally wasn’t going to do a year in review. It’s already late in January and I felt like I’d been consistent in sharing my favorite images throughout the year. But last week I was asked to cull some photos for the paper I worked for in New Jersey, and I realized just how many things I’ve photographed in 2014. There are some repeats in here, images which I’ve shared before via Instagram or this blog, and there are others that were originally marked as outtakes. They aren’t all necessarily my best frames, but I’d like to think they’re a good representation of some of the things I’ve seen and done this year.

I started 2014 living in Newark, New Jersey. I learned – among many other things – that even four layers of clothing won’t keep you warm in a polar vortex and that digging your car out of snow takes three times longer than expected. In May I left the cold and headed to Southeast Asia to work as a photographer for Rustic Pathways, photographing travel programs for the company’s website and catalog. I toured five countries in three months, dropped a camera in the Mekong River, bought a new one in Bangkok, and met some wonderful friends and students along the way.

I’ve been back in Arizona since September, and the last five months have been a nice change of pace after the frantic nature of the last few years. I’ve picked up freelance work, taken a few trips to my favorite places, and then closed out the year with a visit to family and friends in England. Now, after some much needed rest, I’m ready to get back into things. Here’s to what 2015 will bring. Big changes and new adventures, I hope.

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St. Anthony defeats Blair Academy 38-45 in the Dan Finn Classic

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Bayonne High School Drama Junior prepares for opening night of Seussical Jr. The Musical

District 16 Wrestling Tournament finals on Saturday, Feb. 22

District 16 Wrestling Tournament finals on Saturday, Feb. 22

St. Anthony's basketball defeats Saddle River Day 77-42 in NJSIAA quarterfinals

New Jersey Golden Gloves boxing tournament in Jersey City

Children learn to swim with help from Bayonne High School swim team

Hoboken Historical Museum's Swingin' Speakeasy fundraiser

Bayonne High School rehearses for performance of Hairspray

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Signs of spring in Hudson County

Hoboken photographer Craig Wallace Dale

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New Jersey Golden Gloves boxing tournament in Jersey City, March 22

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Hudson Catholic softball defeats Morris Catholic 6-5 to advance in tournament

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Five countries, 24 cities, 92 days

5 countries, 24 cities, 92 days.

28 flights, 13 buses, 6 boats, 3 overnight trains, 1 motorbike and an infinite number of taxis and tuk tuks.

I’ve boated down the Mekong River, traveled by bus through the Shan state of Burma, journeyed alone through Cambodia, hiked through Laotian jungles covered in leeches, climbed over thousand-year-old temples, cycled through ancient cities, fallen off an elephant in Laos, taken a night train from Hanoi to Sapa in Vietnam and then another from Chiang Mai to Bangkok in Thailand… the list goes on.

And now, after three long months, my Southeast Asia adventure is over. My time with Rustic Pathways ended about two weeks ago, and now that my solo travel through Cambodia is done, it’s time for me to return home. I’ve got a lot to figure out in terms of what I want going forward. What I am sure of is that this summer has been a life changing experience, and despite some of the challenges faced along the way, it was worth every second. A big thank you goes out to the people I’ve met along the way. It wouldn’t have been the same without you all.

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My flight back home also marks a year to the day since I left Portland, Oregon. It’s a little overwhelming to think about all of the experiences I’ve had in that year. In some ways I’m right back to where I started last September 1 – returning to Arizona with no clear next step and no job on the horizon.

But so much has also changed. So much has been packed into that time. Moving from Oregon back to Arizona, beginning to freelance, dropping all of that to move to New York City’s backyard in New Jersey for seven months, and then leaving that internship for Southeast Asia… What a year. I haven’t truly been home since last November; there was only a three-day gap between my move back from Jersey and my departure for Thailand. Now, as I return to Arizona, I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing next. I can only hope it will be as exhilarating and fulfilling as the work I did this summer.

So, without further ado, here’s the last of my images shot for Rustic Pathways. Plus a few at the end from my solo adventure at the ancient temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Until we meet again, Southeast Asia. I’ll be missing your noodle soup and delicious mango smoothies, but not the rice. So. Much. Rice.

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Angkor Wat

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Waterlogged cameras and split-second decisions

It’s been a roller coaster of a month.

A few weeks ago – though it feels like much longer – two of my coworkers and I were dumped into a river in Laos when the basket on the elephant we were riding came loose. My camera body and go-to lens took the plunge with us, leaving me with a dead load of camera gear and some big decisions to make. These are some of the last decent frames taken with that camera – from the end of my Frontier Photography trip and the beginning of the Backroads of Southeast Asia trip I was running during the spill.

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Though it had a brief few hours of reincarnation, my camera was ultimately dead. The lens, too, clogged with river silt and water. After some time spent assessing my options, I made a frantic journey through Bangkok to purchase a new camera body on a layover between Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Yangon, Burma. The three days leading up to that final decision had dragged on for what felt like weeks. But even in the shop, as I held the new camera I would buy, it felt like an impulsive choice to put down the money. As I rode back to the airport and dashed through security I was wondering if I’d done the right thing. The uneasy feeling stayed with me for the next two days, especially when I began photographing again.

I was off my game. Big time. I’d let the loss of gear get to me in a big way, and I was fighting so much with what I was working with. I’d lost a 24-70mm f2.8 to the river in Laos, and now I was shooting with a fixed 50mm and a borrowed 16-85mm f3.5-5.6 meant for a cropped sensor and not the full frame camera body I own. I missed my old lens. The view, the feel, the quality. I’d worked with it for years and knew its quirks and what it would look like every time I raised it to my eye. Instead, I was looking through glass that I had to fight with. I could see a large vignette around the 16mm view, and a small black rectangle in the center outlining my real frame, and I kept losing sight of the edges I was supposed to line things up in.

I had known this was going to happen. I was well aware of what a DX lens on a full-frame camera meant. I said to myself that it didn’t matter, that a lens was a lens and I would make it work. But with every shot that I framed wrong in-camera or every moment that I missed because the focus wasn’t right, I got more and more frustrated.

More than that, I was frustrated that I was letting it get to me. So much of this work is mental, and I was wasting my energy fixating on the wrong things. The camera doesn’t make the photographer. It’s a saying I’ve heard many times and something I’ve always repeated to young(er) photographers, but here I was letting that hold me back. The trip had been in Bagan – an ancient city of Burma with thousand-year-old temples as far as the eye could see – for a day, and I couldn’t make an image I was satisfied with.

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All this after I’d just started to hit a good stride in the summer. I was happy with the frames I was producing before this. I was getting good feedback from friends and colleagues. A fellow photographer in Arizona messaged me to say keep up the consistent work, that I was pushing myself towards a new breakthrough for “great work.” Then, one spill off an elephant and I’d had a big disruption in the quality I was producing. Because of what? A ‘different’ lens? A new feeling when I looked through the viewfinder? Fear? Frustration?

It’s been two weeks since I made my first frame with my new camera body, and it’s time to put it behind me. I’ve got a week and a half to knock it out of the park on some of my last assignments for Rustic Pathways this summer, and I need to stop letting myself get held back by insecurities and frustrations and different viewfinders. Life rarely works out the way we expect it to. I didn’t embark on this journey this summer expecting to lose my camera and lens to a Laotian river, but it happened. What I did expect was to make some great frames and some unforgettable memories, and I’ll be damned if I let broken camera change that.

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Edit: One thing I forgot to mention is what fun I’ve had with my 50mm lens. It’s one I used to work with a lot early on in college, but something I haven’t used in years. The fixed length is teaching me to get more creative, and it’s got a beautiful feel. Most of the frames on here that were shot post-accident were made with the 50mm 1.8.

Sawasdee from Thailand

It’s been two months since I last updated this blog, and a lot has changed. For starters, I’m writing this from a town called Keng Tung in the Shan state of Myanmar (Burma, to the Western world) (also Kyaing Tong, Chiang Tung, or something else, depending on who you ask).

I left New Jersey a month ago for a new job. I was offered a summer position working for a travel company called Rustic Pathways, and I’m spending three months in Southeast Asia photographing and leading some of their tours through the region. The job combines a few things I’m passionate about: traveling, teaching and photography. After a week of staff training, I spent two weeks at the company’s Thailand base houses in Udon Thani and Mae Sariang, where travelers complete service projects like building local homes and teaching English to local children. I can say hello in Thai (sawasdee ka!) and I’m working on my Burmese (sounds like: min ga la ba).

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It’s been an incredible opportunity so far, and the whirlwind has only just begun. Two days ago I left the base houses to begin leading a trip of my own. Myself and another photographer, along with our fantastic local staff, are leading six students on a photography workshop across Burma and Laos. It’s early in the trip, but I’m looking forward to seeing them grow and learn more as the days go on.

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I’ve also recently passed my one year mark as a college graduate, and what a crazy year it’s been. Photographically speaking, last summer through the winter was a period of incredible growth for me. I made huge strides in my voice and style as a photographer that, for a long time, I was worried I would never make.

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The internship I did in Jersey is probably the hardest I’ve ever worked. But for all the pressures that came with it, I know that I learned a lot and grew even more. After six months I’d really started to feel connected to the community and confident that, when I showed up for an assignment, I could handle whatever came my way. It was tough to say goodbye to that. I don’t know when I’ll be working at a daily paper again, and when I do I’ll probably have to get to know another community all over again.

I was also shooting so much for myself, and in that way, there was less pressure there than there is here. As long as I met my slideshow counts and did a decent job, the office was happy. So I began to shoot to please myself, as I was sometimes the only one that cared if my images were pushing any boundaries or experimenting with my style. Now, I’m shooting for an editor again. The pressure is on to impress them and make sure that they are glad they chose me for such a great opportunity.

I suppose that’s typical of any new job. There’s always a break in period. I just won’t be getting any feedback until the job is done in August. For now, I haven’t shot anything that I totally love, but maybe it’s because I’m also setting the bar really high for myself. Here’s to hoping I rise to the challenge.

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