The Leica M9 in Colombia (and some general thoughts on travel photography) by James Klotz
Greetings! I’m fresh back from 12 days in Colombia with the Leica M9 and thought Steve’s readers might be interested in hearing about my experiences. I had a lot of time to consider what to write, as my laptop battery died in the airport, so 7 hours of sitting next to a fat guy who smelled like garlic on the plane, with nothing better to do, gave me plenty of time to think about what to say. There are a lot of travel blogs on the internet, and I have no desire to add to the noise, so I thought, instead, I’d write an essay on travel photography, using my time in Colombia as a backdrop. So here goes, I hope you find it useful and interesting:
Just the Facts….
Firstly, let’s get the technical out of the way. I’m sorry to report that I had not one single problem with the M9 during the 3000 +/- shots I took. I found the M9 to be a rock solid travel companion. Why am I sorry? Because it gives the photography forums nothing to discuss, analyze and complain about. What fun is that? Actually, most of the gear I own works most of the time. Sometimes I read the forums and wonder what all the fuss is about. Anyway, …
What I took:
An M9 with a Tim Issac “Thumbs Up”
Voightlander 35/2.5 Color Skopar
Leica 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH
Leica 75/2.5 Summarit
2 Leica batteries
6 2-gig SanDisk Extreme III memory cards*
SanDisk USB card reader
Dell PC Laptop running Lightroom**
Domke F-803 Camera Bag
LaCie 80 gig “rugged” back up drive
Leica battery charger
Benro C069-M8 Tripod
*I prefer smaller 2 gig cards. If one gets lost or damaged, there are fewer pictures to loose on each card. In addition, I like the SanDisk Extreme III cards because they work every time and I’ve never had a problem with them. I’m sure others work great, but this is what I prefer.
** I’m a Mac guy, tried and true. So why do I travel with a PC? Simple – nowhere on the planet do you see as many Mac’s as in the USA. Problem is I don’t usually take travel photos in the USA. Should I ever have a problem, my chances of finding a solution with a PC are far greater in a 3rd world country, or just about anywhere for that matter. In addition, the cost is far lower in case it gets stolen, and it’s more low key (more on that in a sec). A nice, new, shinny 17” Macbook Pro in a coffee house in a third world country just screams “I’m a rich gringo, please mug me”!
I’m not going to try to counsel the dear reader with a bunch of lens and equipment suggestions. There’s plenty of that to be found elsewhere on the internet. You can see the list of what I brought above, but that is, by no means, the “ideal” travel kit. Truth be known, what works for me may not work for you. My suggestion? Shoot a lot. That’s the only way you’ll know what does work for you. In my case, I wish I had my 90 Elmarit 2.8 instead of the 75 Summarit, but it was in the shop for a tire rotation and oil change at the time I left, so I took what I had. Point is, there is always some other piece of gear that would make things “ideal”, but use what you have and focus on the pictures. Actually, there are 3 Leica lenses I’d love to own right now that I don’t, but given the choice of going somewhere exotic to photograph, or buying a new lens, well, let’s just say I keep my passport next to my camera bag.
When in Rome…
I make sure to learn at least some pleasantries in the local language before I go. Nothing irritates people more than the guy who expects the rest of the world to speak his/her language. It’s amazing how my photographs from Latin America have improved since I’ve started studying Spanish! For example, look at the shot from the billiards hall. I never would have found it had I not spoken to a farm hand who told me that’s where he and his compadres like to go after work. And I can assure you, he didn’t know the first word in English. It probably kept me out of trouble as well; One woman came out of a store screaming at me in Spanish. If I weren’t able to explain that I was just a “tourist” (my regular line) and not some government or corporate spy trying to bilk her out of her clothing design or make an additional tax assessment, who knows where that could have gone. As it turned out, she was all smiles and apologies afterwards, and invited me in for some fresh squeezed tangerine juice. The more the local language you can learn, the better.
I also try to read up on the local events before I go. For instance, the Colombian President, Álvaro Uribe, has been in office for coming up on 8 years. He has done wonders for his country, always has had very high popularity ratings. He is well loved by most, some even having fought, to change the law, unsuccessfully, to allow him to run for an extra term. The election for a new President will be coming up soon and is the hot topic for a lot of Colombians at the moment. I found that, by simply asking somebody his or her opinion of the upcoming election (without offering one of my own), could give me an instant “in” with almost anybody. It showed I was interested in their culture and not some tourist who was wondering around, oblivious to the world around them. After a little discussion, I didn’t have one person turn me down from taking their picture.
It’s always a good idea to pick up a travel guide before you go (I like the Lonely Planet guides personally, but there are a lot of great ones out there). I also like to consult travel forums on the internet – they are a great place to learn of safety hazards and local events of the moment you might not know of otherwise. A little research can make your trip a lot more productive and safe.
The Invisible Man
I don’t hear many folks talking about this, but a big part of my travel kit consists of a pair of jeans, a non-descript t-shirt, some comfortable tennis shoes and a baseball hat. Why? Because if you want good travel shots, you have to fit in. You’ll never see me with a photographers vest or a professional camera bag. I don’t want to be noticed. I want to be in the middle of the action, interacting with the locals, seen as just another guy. That’s where the good stuff is to be found. If, on the other hand, you prefer a photographers vest, cargo pants and a hat that says Leica, and carry your mono pod and fancy leather, logo encrusted “pro” camera bag with your “Canon Pro Services” ID badge around your neck, held by the bright, yellow Nikon lanyard, and you still get the “good stuff”, then more power to you. After all, I’m just a guy with a camera. What do I know?
Speaking of being just a “guy with a camera”, if you are on Steve’s site, you probably are already “enlightened”, and know the M9 is the best travel camera you can get. It’s small, built like a tank and doesn’t intimidate your subjects like a big DSLR does. If dressed accordingly, you’re just a “guy with a camera”. That’s also why I choose a Domke F-803 camera bag. It doesn’t look like a camera bag. You never hear people mention this, but some of my Voightlander screw mount lenses look like something I dug out of my fathers junk box in the attic. That can be a tremendous advantage when you are trying to blend in. I also have a plastic Casio watch. I’m a watch guy, I love little mechanical works of art (hey, I’ve got a Leica, don’t I?), but nothing says “us and them” louder than a big, shiny new Rolex glistening in the sun while photographing a farm worker in a third world country. Be one with your subjects and your photographs will represent that.
I suppose there are many ways of “blending in”. The trick is to do it in such a way that you are being yourself, but at the same time, conscious of your surroundings and subjects. Ask yourself constantly “how will that person feel?” when he sees me pointing my little camera at them? Do I look like a guy who’s making fun of him or trying to profit from our differences or take advantage of him/her? Or do I look like somebody who has a sincere interest in his culture and country? A smile and a few words in the local language can go a long way when it comes to travel photography.
Safety in Colombia
When most Americans I talk to reflect on Colombia, the first thing they think about is Pablo Escobar, drug lords slaughtering helpless victims, and the FARC kidnapping children, politicians and the like. 30 years ago, these concerns may have been relevant, but today, I feel safer in Colombia than in New York. That’s not to say common sense isn’t prudent. I don’t wander down dark alleys, at night, in Bogotá. Then again, I don’t do that in Atlanta, GA, where I live, either. I present myself in a “low key” way, leaving the fancy watches at home, and I talk to the locals about places to avoid. I am constantly aware of my surroundings and try to pay attention to what’s around me. I’ve traveled half the world like this and have had no issues (except one in Guatemala, but it was because I broke my own rules and didn’t follow the advice of the locals).
So if you are considering a trip to Colombia, my advice is go! The people there are very nice, humble and accommodating, the culture wonderful and the photography ops are spectacular.
Zen and the Art of Choosing a Subject
I used to be one of those guys who’d pack a bag, head out the door, get on a plane, go somewhere, come back, and never take my finger off the shutter release. I shot pictures of people, buildings, flowers, cars, busses, signs, whatever I saw. I’d always come back with some good shots, but when I’d look at them back home, they were just that; a few good shots mixed in with some ok ones (and maybe even one or two bad ones, but let’s keep that between us…). Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed doing it, it was fun, but I never got a sense that my photos, as a collection, really told a story.
This realization led me to question what it was I really was trying to capture. I think of a shot of a guy with an American flag in front of the Statue of Liberty. It “screams” New York. Or possibly a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, 2 wine glasses and a cheese plate with a vineyard in the background – fall in France. These are obvious. These shots, as trite as they may be, are examples of capturing part of a culture; telling the story in a single or series of pictures. But what about a place like Latin America? How does one differentiate Chile from Peru? Honduras from Nicaragua? Costa Rica from Panama? Sure, there are many differences between the countries, but, visually, much is very similar, particularly to a non-native. I wanted to tell a story, capture some aspect of the culture – I never really managed to get that out of my photographs.
As of my last few “adventures”, I’ve changed my way of thinking about travel photography. I’ve begun to research the place where I am going a little more, and tried to pick a subject, or one particular aspect of that culture to focus on instead of going after everything I saw. For example, on this last trip to Colombia, I had access to a horse farm (or Finca, as the Colombians call them) just to the west of Medellín, in a small pueblo called Las Palmes. Around this area, horses and agriculture are the staple economic generators, as well as the main cultural influences of the region. So I choose to focus on this aspect rather than make the entire country of Colombia my subject. That’s not to say I didn’t have a camera with me all the time, and if I saw something of interest, would not shoot it, but rather I took my time and tried to get to know the region and it’s culture.
Overall, I am more pleased with my work using this method than in the past with my “shot gun” approach. I’m not suggesting it is right or matches the goals of every traveling photographer, but the next time you pull that passport out of the drawer and pack that bag, I have a challenge for you. Slow down, find one area of particular interest and shoot that. Spend a little more time in that place. Get to know the light, the fog, the subtleties of the area. Watch the people, know when your subject is most active and try to get to know it a little better. Try to tell a story of that particular aspect of the culture, and see if you agree with me, that, ultimately, this makes for a more meaningful set of pictures than trying to cover an entire country in a week.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it. As always, your comments and feedback are welcome.
James Klotz is a professional architectural photographer based in Atlanta, Ga. He also teaches photography at The Creative Circus, Atlanta, Ga. For more information about James, or to contact him, see his website www.jamesklotz.com