Close encounters of a photographic kind

20 Mar

Kon Tum, Central Highlands, the French-in-Indochina’s answer to the British-in-India’s Oota­c­amund: a hill station where Europeans could take temporary refuge from summer’s heat and white man’s burden, a town awash with handsome colonial architecture said to be the best in the country.

The Montagnard church, built in 1913 and constructed throughout in wood, is a particularly fine example. Its generous verandah and elegant gables give a Swiss feel, but stripped of the schmaltz.

Best of all are the stained glass windows depicting scriptural scenes – Moses & burning bush, JC calming storm on Sea of G, ravens bringing tucker for Elijah – with a modernist simplicity quite unlike the heavily ornate renditions of our Renaissance churches.

It’s the golden hour: the setting sun lighting the windows splendidly, with enough left over to warm the rich hardwood tones of adjacent pews, and throw patterned shadows on the floorboards. But the situation is not without technical challenge: specifically, how to bring out detail – in a big, wide angle shot – from the shadowy area around the altar without wash­ing out those sumptuous windows? I’m chuffed because I solved it in a way I couldn’t have a year ago. I hid my flash gun, softened by an orange gel-filter to match the colour of the light outside, in a vase of lilies to point up at the centrepiece Calvary scene. This would not have worked, until recently, without trailing heavy cable: not a tactic I’d advise, even in hard-to-offend Vietnam, without getting permission in advance. In any case, even I have limits on the kit I’m prepared to schlep out here.

Previous Canon and Nikon flash guns could only deliver wireless triggering through infra-red beams requiring line of sight between flash and camera, but last year Canon brought out the RT-600 EX, whose radio triggering opens up a raft of new possibilities.

I’m all the more pleased for the fact that, just as I was packing away my gear, a coach pulled up outside to decant Chinese tourists by the dozen. Someone was looking out for me. When I needed the church to myself, I’d shared it with no one but a pair of worshippers and a girl tending the lilies. I might even sell some of these shots. Church Times last year bought three of my pictures of spectacular St George’s Church in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Good money they paid too, though they were slow to shell out.

Can you take God through the small claims court?

Dead beat, I sit at a pew near the altar. If I’m not careful I’ll drift off but … WTF?!? The serenity of the place is bust asunder by hip-hop ringtone followed by vocal tones neither Vietnamese nor any European language I recognise. I look up to see a pretty Chinese lady striding around the altar as she shriekes into a cell phone.

If I were God I’d strike her down this minute with some terrible ague. Leprosy seems approp­riate. That’d show her!

My sinful meditations on China’s economic miracle aren’t registering on my features. I know this because another of the contingent, portly dude in middle age, had been about to snap the altar on his iPad. Momentarily he catches my eye before stepping – apparently thinking I’m surveying the wondrous cross and pouring contempt on all my pride – respectfully aside. It’s a common enough courtesy, but executed with a grace and elegant simplicity that wash away my impure thoughts on China’s shortcomings. You see Jarvis, we’re not all the same …

* * *

Morning coffee at a roadside stall. A matron cycles up the road, all coiffured grey curls and tailored red blazer. Ten minutes earlier I missed her as she cycled down the road. Now I grab my waiting camera to click in the nick. I wave. Bit cheeky that – like when you cut up a fellow driver then give a wave of ‘thanks’ as though they’d let you in – but she waves back despite knowing what I’ve done, so that’s OK.

* * *

A tiny old woman sells chopsticks by the roadside. I doubt she’s much above four foot, and thin as a rake. I’ve seen many like her. The contrast with worrying signs of obesity in the children of Vietnam’s economic winners symbolises emerging divisions. The town may be awash with hoardings in 1920s Soviet agitprop style – Uncle Ho leading a nation undivided onwards and upwards – but me, I see trouble ahead. Buddhist Vietnam will discover that the promised material progress comes with all manner of hidden price tags. Truly, all is maya.

This diminutive woman has piercing brown eyes and a beauty of bone structure that shines through the wrinkles. I wouldn’t want to repeat America’s mistake of underestimating her.

And I gots to have this pic …

I point to my camera, then her, in the querying gesture I’ve now got off pat. Yes, she signals. I can have the shot, but on her terms. Slowly she raises her aching bones from squatting on her heels to full towering height. Even more slowly she adjusts buttons, straightens cuff and collar. Only when good and ready does she look up, proud and beautiful, into my waiting lens.

It’s a peach of a shot. I show her. She smiles. Pointless to ask – even if I could – if she has an email address. But how to get money from my pocket to hers without it looking as if I’m paying for the shot? (Seldom a good idea, that. It leaves a trail of karma, not least for fellow photographers following on.) With traders it’s easy-peasy. I grab a bundle of chop sticks and two rice paddles, thrust a fifty-k note into her hand and, before she’s cottoned on that I’ve done the equivalent of paying a tenner for a box of matches, I’m away.

* * *

I’m talked out, else would write of many other such encounters. I will too, but not now. The subject of photography on third world streets, and ethical issues posed thereby, demands its own dedicated space.

There’s this too. Once a reasonable level of competence is gained in using your hardware to control light then, assuming a reasonable ‘eye’ for a good shot, the limitations are always the human ones. Laziness and fear are the biggest causes in my own practice of lost or sub standard pictures.

Correction: laziness and fear are not the problem. They’ll always be there. It’s giving into them you have to guard against.

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