Photographically, this was a wonderful year for me. I found myself in all sorts of interesting places and situations. And the best souvenir of an experience is either a story or a photograph. The best is when I get both.
Yesterday, I began to contemplate the end of 2013. And I started to grimace at all the end-of-year lists of which we were about to be inundated. Suddenly, I thought the best way to combat the nostalgia those lists always bring out in me would be to put together one of my own. So here are my top ten photographs from my experiences throughout the year. But, I couldn’t narrow it down to ten so here are my top 16 images.
Picking these and putting them in order was a more difficult task than I imagined. Some I loved because of that “decisive moment” I caught, some for the memories, and some for their importance in my life. I arranged and rearranged them in a number of orders. The only one that always was number one remained so and is probably one of the most important photographs in my life. But you will have to wait to the end to see it.
So, in an order that is bound to change, here’s the countdown of my most interesting photographs from 2013. Click on any image to see it larger.
Our trip to China in June and July to show the girls where they were born was a wonderful photographic opportunity and many images on this list were taken on that trip. At number 16 is a photo I took during a long delay, waiting for our flight from Xi’an to Chendu.
In China, when there’s going to be a long delay, they don’t just book you on a different flight. You wait for the plane you’re supposed to take. And wait we did. Five hours. With all that time on my hands I went looking for photo ops and found one in front of the smokers’ lounge near our gate. When we were in China the first two times, back in the late 1990s, smoking was prevalent everywhere. Times have changed and I’m glad to report that smokers at airports must do their business in their own smoke-filled rooms.
I stood there for quite a while, watching men (only men) go in and out of that room and waiting for just the right moment to take my shot. His look says it all.
After a meeting I had at the Smithsonian Castle last March, I came outside to walk back to my office and walked right into the middle of a rally for “traditional” marriage. And, with my constant companion, my iPhone camera, I infiltrated the group as a neutral bystander. That was hard but the images I got more than made up for keeping my mouth shut.
I’m not sure there are many psychologists who would feel comfortable taking this stand. Who here (or anywhere) has a “normal” marriage? Let’s see a show of hands.
Living in Washington, D.C. does have its perks. I’ve been to four Presidential Inaugurals: two for G.W. and two for Barack. It was a lot harder getting close to the front with either of Obama’s ceremonies. And for shear joy, nothing can beat Obama’s first. But despite the Great Recession, Congressional acrimony and before the debacle of the Affordable Care Act website, those who attended this year’s event were all happy to be there and glad to no longer have to contemplate the alternative.
I took this photograph at the moment President Obama was sworn in. Taken with my iPhone, the panorama captured flags waving in a staccato fashion. I think it adds to the feeling I had being there.
Close to Guilin in China is Yashuo, where the Li River runs. Guilin and the surrounding countryside is a Chinese tourist spot and even Americans will recognize the limestone mountains that surround the area.
As part of our trip we took a ride down the Li River on a bamboo raft. When we got off I saw this machine gun arcade-like game. I had to stop to get a picture. I can’t tell you if they used real bullets but the guns looked quite authentic (especially with their red stars). I was always the last to get on the tour bus, lingering wherever and whenever I could to get a good shot. By the end of the trip, Susie, always made sure she could keep an eye on me so I wouldn’t get lost. And the tour guides all knew to wait.
Washington, D.C. is one of those destination cities. At various times in the year we are inundated with tourists: spring break, summer vacation, and, of course, for the cherry blossoms that line the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial.
One of the perks of working downtown is taking my lunch break to view whatever special event might be happening. My coworker Cathy and I once trotted down to the World War II Memorial to grab a look at Queen Elizabeth. I was the designated photographer. Too bad I missed that decisive moment when I suddenly saw her leave in her limo and shouted, “Look! There she is!” Cathy still hasn’t forgiven me.
So, this year I grabbed my camera and went down to see what I could find interesting at the Cherry Blossom Festival in April. As usual, I was more interested in what’s happening at the periphery of events that the more scenic center. That’s where my special images reside. Turning 180 degrees from the iconic cherry blossom shot I spied this one. I think it would make a perfect postcard! I titled this image Visit Washington, DC: Home to the World’s Most Revered Chambers of Government.
It won’t surprise you to know that I love politically-based art. And one of the stars of this genre is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. So I was really looking forward to his exhibition, According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum.
Working in an art museum, interested in the makeup of the art world, and continuing with my peripheral way of working, I love finding those “other” shots that comment on this world. This is the first room you saw when you entered the exhibition. I was overwhelmed with images. But I also spied the museum guard standing against the wall, absorbed in her paperwork. You can barely make her out against the backdrop of Ai Weiwei’s color images. Perfect.
Our last day in Beijing was free of the smog and the humidity that welcomed us to China days before. In fact, it was so clear you could see the distant mountains that surround the capital city! The humidity had been replaced with that “dry heat” I love so much —well, perhaps 105F/40C is a bit too much.
Our itinerary took us to the site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and, of course, the iconic Birdnest Stadium (designed by Ai Weiwei). As we were led inside, I started looking for my shot. When I saw the guard standing with his back towards us, I raced down the steps, hoping he’d stay just where he was.
The first two-thirds of our China trip was devoted to seeing the country. We traveled with a number of other families with their teenage girls, all of us on our first trip back after adopting our children many years ago. The last third was focused on our family’s visit to the girls’ orphanage and the area around it. Our last stop before our group split and went our separate ways was Guilin. Everyone was leaving to their orphanages at separate times and many of us had a wait until we were driven to the airport for the rest of our trips.
We had a few hours wait so my family and I set off to explore the city. It was raining on and off. As we walked down one street I saw this scene. It was like I’d entered the film Chinatown. I love film noir and loved the monochromatic foreground with the colorful neon. I hoped I could capture that with my camera. Seedy and beautiful: just my style.
Photographers have to be ready at a moment’s notice to capture images they come upon. On our China trip I carried two cameras: my Canon G 1X and my trusty iPhone. And, early on, I had to devise a strategy for having both ready to shoot as the shot demanded. I would have my Canon hanging by the strap from my wrist while I’d shot with the iPhone. When I wanted the Canon, I’d slip the phone in my front pocket. It worked well but I had to be on my toes, always thinking just ahead of any potential photo.
I have already told the story that goes with this shot. After a delay in boarding our flight from Guangzhou to Shanghai because of “Super Typhoon Soulik,” everyone was a little testy and eager to be on our way. When we finally were told we could board the plane they loaded us onto a transit bus that would take us there. I thought it would be nice to document this in a photo. I started to take a panorama with my iPhone and suddenly, in the middle of moving from left to right the woman you see just closest to the camera yelled at me for taking her photo. I got one shot off and had no idea what, if anything, I’d gotten. The person in the middle of the image, giving me the evil eye is my daughter, who, afterward, chided me for taking the photo despite the woman’s objections. Yes, I did it and I’m glad I did. Needless to say, the image says it all perfectly.
Our trip to China was special. By that I mean that it was organized especially for families bringing their children back to China. And the organizer, Louie Yi, made sure the girls got a special look at the country. While some of the trip was about visiting iconic parts of China, others were about experiencing the people. We spent two days with a family in a farming village outside Xi’an. This photo was take a few days before when we visited the XiaHe Village Elementary School in LinTong County on the outskirts of the city. It was their last day before summer vacation. And our girls had a chance to talk with these children while the adults watched.
I was, of course, bouncing around the classroom looking for interesting shots. I got a lot but this one resonates with me: their expressions, their body language —I’m not sure what it is about this image I’m attracted to. Perhaps it’s simply the universal human quality of these children.
Our family’s final stop was Shanghai. This was a must for me. I’d always wanted to visit the city after seeing Christian Bale’s first film Empire of the Sun, a film adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s autobiography. It’s one of my favorite films and the soundtrack by John Williams is wonderfully evocative of the young boy’s life during that period (I’m listening to it as I write this).
The story is about a young English boy (Bale), living a very cloistered life in a British part of Shanghai just before World War II. Chaos prevails when the Japanese enter the city and everyone is scattering to get out. On Shanghai’s famous Bund, on the banks of the Hunangpu River that now bisects the city, Bale is separated from his parents in the crowd and spends the rest of the war in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. That sudden separation from one’s parents is a theme that resonates strongly with me.
On the last day of our trip, as the sun was setting, our guide offered to take us on a cruise on the Hunangpu River. Of course, the Bund no longer looks like it did in 1937, although you can still see buildings from that era that line the street if you look closely. Susie and our younger daughter were tired and decided to go back to the hotel. It was just Lily and me. The yellow light from the lights on the boat were such a wonderful contrast to the deepening blue of the evening. Suddenly, I saw this woman taking a “selfie” with the high rises of new Shanghai in the background. I love this photograph. The combination of the city skyline mixed with the self-aware sense to this woman was a perfect way to remember my time there. And, later in the year, I used this image for an essay entitled Uneventful, The Rise of Photography, that was published on the changes in photography at the beginning of the 21st century.
Our trip to China was not the only major event in my life this year. The 16 day shutdown of the federal government by the Tea Party-loyalists in the House of Representatives in October was filled with activity for me. I did a number of Chamomile Tea Party posters protesting the costs of the closure: 1, 2, 3, and 4. And news outlets, scouring the web for new content, found my tweets and, suddenly, it seemed I had become the de facto poster boy for the furloughed government worker. CBS News and then the Washington Post interviewed me and Susie and outlets in Switzerland and France came next. While not a photo I took, the image of me and Susie that accompanied the Post article on furloughed employees’ spouses is one of my favorites of the year.
When I heard there was going to be a protest of the shutdown by government employees on the Capitol grounds I felt compelled to go. This is a panorama I took of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaking, along with other officials who attended. It says it all: the Capitol, the furloughed employees, the politicos, and the media.
How do you take an interesting photograph of something so iconic as Tiananmen Square and the imposing painting of Mao? That’s what I was thinking about on our first day in China. I began looking and shooting. In fact, when our group was set to move on to the Forbidden City, which is behind Mao, Louie, our tour organizer volunteered to stay with me for a few more minutes while I shot. My quest was to find something “different” or slightly askew. Everyone takes this picture postcard image, so I moved just a bit to the right so that the guard’s umbrella covered Mao. You know, to make a point.
The cult of Mao is in transition in China. In fact, in today’s Washington Post is an article about the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth. The writer speaks about a man who, on the one hand, brought the country together during the 1949 revolution, yet was responsible for thousands of deaths during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Yet, tourists are tourists, no matter where they’re from. And Chinese tourists visiting Tiananmen Square are no different than the Americans I see on the National Mall, taking pictures of loved ones in front of the Capitol and Washington Monument. So, the photo above of Chinese taking photos of their family was a good catch for me.
The day we took the two hour drive from Beijing to The Great Wall of China was foggy and it was drizzling —not your ordinarily optimum conditions for photographing the Wall. But I was totally excited. Again, who wants a typiclal pic of this tourist attraction and one of the Seven Wonders of the World? Not me. Not me. Not me!
I couldn’t wait to see what things looked like up there in the clouds. I felt bad for my daughters who wouldn’t be able to see the wall stretch out forever across the Chinese landscape but I put that temporarily aside as I looked through the lens. This photograph captures a sense of time for me. And the tourists in the background look like ghosts of generations past.
I mentioned earlier that I happened to walk right into a traditional marriage rally on the National Mall after coming out of a meeting. This photograph is one of the most interesting images I took. When I saw the family standing there in front of the Capitol, I asked if I could take their picture. I couldn’t resist that Scottish Highlander uniform. It seemed so incongruous and inexplicable. Why was that uniform important to that boy at this rally?
I positioned myself so that Capitol dome would be visible in the background and asked them if they were ready. They smiled and I took my iPhone panorama. The rest of the children look like they were dressed in early 20th century clothes. Where they Mennonites? I didn’t think so. The father’s dress is contemporary. And, as I look at this image, they all seem so happy. I mean, really happy. Who am I to judge their lives? But, alas, who are they to judge mine and others who are part of non-traditional families?
So, finally we come to the most important photograph of my year. It’s not an image that resonates because of its craft or positioning. It’s one that speaks of the transition of my life and the lives of my wife and two girls.
Both of my children come from the same city and orphanage. And we went to China twice to adopt them, in 1997 and in 1999. Both times we stayed at the same hotel. The city, many hours drive from Guangzhou, hadn’t seen many Westerners at that point and the only acceptable hotel for us (according to the Chinese government) was a 3 Star abode. It was the best the city had to offer back then. But it came with a few strings. There was a bordello on the second floor and the second time we came back I warned my fellow parents-to-be that getting off the elevator on that floor would net them an offer they should refuse. The restaurant was also not what you would call first rate. But we certainly accepted this as part of the process.
Amazingly, both times we stayed there we were given the same room. Room 603. The rooms were fine and not as scary as the 2nd floor. So, when we came back this summer I asked our guide if we could see the hotel. He said, “Of course! And, in fact the director of the orphanage wants to take you to dinner there this evening.” Susie and I blanched at the thought. “No,” he said, “this has become a very good restaurant and, in fact, the entire hotel is being renovated right now.” When we got there I asked if we could see the room we stayed in. We were told it was under renovation but, of course, go on up.
This photo of my two daughters standing in the room we first cared for them is the completion of a thread that has been the most important in all of our lives. To see my daughters standing there was very emotional. When we first were handed Lily I actually thought, for the first time ever, that their might be a God. When we came back for Eve, I believed in what adoptive parents refer to as the Red Thread. According to Chinese legend, certain people are destined to meet in order to help each other. These girls were destined to meet us and we them. And all of us have helped each other over the years. And, interestingly, it was only this year that I realized that 603 held significance for me. I was born exactly at 6:03 P.M.
So, these are the photographs that helped define my life this year. I think it was a special year for me, personally and artistically. How about you? What are your important photographs this year?