Archive for May, 2011

Massive water

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011
Massive water

I have seen some big water over the years.  I have sailed across and around the Pacific Ocean.  I have driven across the Yukon River.  I have hiked the shores of Lake Superior.  But I have never seen such a massive convergence of water and gravity such as Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in Zambia.

Known locally as Mosi-o-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders), Victoria Falls lies on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It can be rather challenging to photograph, as the spray coming off the falls is pretty immense.  Best times are when there is absolutely no breeze; I noticed a sharp difference in photo opportunities from my first breezy evening and my second attempt, a calm morning.  There are several vantage points from which to photograph the falls, the Zambezi River as it flows toward the falls, and the nearby Victoria Falls Bridge, or Livingstone Bridge.  In fact, the bridge is the direction you want to be pointing your lens when the first light washes across the land.

Tips for photographing the falls are the same for any waterfall.  Protect your gear, as the spray can be pretty intense; I had to frequently check the face of my lens for water droplets.  Use a graduated neutral density filter before sunrise or at sunset to balance the exposure between the shaded area of the falls and the sky.  When the sun comes up and the light strikes the top of the falls, simply slide your GND filter down on your brackets to cover the entire face of your lens.  Then, you will still be able to use a slower shutter speed in the brighter lighting conditions.

Nakatindi School

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011
Nakatindi School

For each of the Anthony Robbins Platinum Partner events, the Platinum Partners engage in a “contribution” during the event.  Simply put, the contribution is a day-long community service project that has been thought out and carefully planned.  For the Africa event, the group chose the Nakatindi Community School of Livingstone, Zambia for its contribution effort. They could not have found a better focus for their efforts.

Education in Zambia is provided at two levels: primary education (years 1 to 9), and upper secondary (years 10 to 12). Some schools provide a “basic” education covering years 1 to 9, as year 9 is considered to be a decent level of education for the majority of children. However, tuition is only free up to year 7, and UNESCO estimates that 80% of children of primary school age in 2002 were enrolledMost children drop out after year 7 when fees must be paid.  In addition to tuition, students at the government schools must also pay for textbooks, supplies and uniforms.  Both government and private schools exist in Zambia. The private school system began largely as a result of Christian mission efforts during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For the Nakatindi School, the government only provided an annual funding of $150 for the last two years for supplies, maintenance, and other needs.  The goal, then, of the Platinum Partners contribution effort was threefold: (1) raise a significant amount of money to provide much needed supplies, staffing, and facilities; (2) collect a significant amount of books to aid in the education of the students (who all learn to speak English); and (3) personally visit the school to perform a massive and coordinated maintenance effort in several needed areas: windows, desks, doors, walls (painting), floors (concrete patching), and gardening (the school endeavors to grow all of the food it feeds its students).  According to the Anthony Robbins organization, the group conducted an exhaustive search to find a school where the community, faculty and students would fully commit to the effort.  I can say they roundly succeeded.

Before arriving at the school, I learned that the school had dramatically increased its proficiency test scores in the last five years since its new headmaster arrived.  I also learned that of the approximately 800 students at the school, the majority of them are orphans, who attend primarily so they can get at least the one meal a day that is provided at school.  I did not know what to expect in what I would see or find at the school, but what I did find was beyond my imagination.

When we pulled into the school, all of the children – all of them – were out on the grounds, playing, running about in their white and blue uniforms.  In the middle of the yard stood a tent with stacks of thousands of books collected by the Platinum Partners as part of the contribution.  After a few minutes, I turned to Karl, who works for Robbins Research International, and asked, “What, is this their recess period or something?”  His response reflected the impact of three days of travel to get their on my mental faculties: “No, it’s Sunday.  There’s no school today.  All of these children came here just for this.”  I had completely lost track of what day it was.  I suspect the travel and my previous day’s sudden and violent illness probably had something to do with it.  “Wow,” I responded simply, dumbfoundedly.

Then, for the next half an hour, I was mobbed like a celebrity by dozens upon dozens of children who wanted me to take their picture.  I quickly learned that showing the kids the LCD with the capture of their photo was also a part of the ritual.  I also found it was impossible to take a photo of just one child; once I started to set up a shot, the nearest six to eight children would force their way into the shot.  I soon learned some deceptive techniques: I’d tell the child I wanted to photograph to stand off to the side, then I would pretend to set up a shot of a mob of children – then quickly turn over and photograph the child I originally wanted to.  Then, of course, I would have to turn back to the mob of kids so that they would be satisfied.  It was a bit overwhelming, this very outgoing, friendly and fearless group of children, taking pleasure out of such a simple act as having someone take their photo.

After a while, all of the students lined up on both sides of the driveway coming into the school to greet a caravan of jeeps carrying the Platinum Partners.  The greeting was much more orderly than I expected, given the energy level of the children and the significance of what the day would have in store for them.  As I waited for the jeeps to arrive, I noticed a small boy sitting on a stump with a patch sown into the left leg of his pants: “Barack.”  I asked him, “You like Barack Obama?”  Enthusiastically, he responded, “Yes.”  If only the POTUS’s own people felt the same way about him, I thought.  But as I saw throughout every aspect of what happened that day, having the right attitude is a vital foundation for any success.  Believe that you will succeed and, with a little help, you will.  Believe in failure or hope for failure, and it is bound to ensue.

After the Platinum Partners arrived, everyone gathered for a celebratory dance and drumming, followed by an announcement as to how the maintenance teams would be divided.  For the next few hours, I simply went around from station to station, trying to capture a glimpse of the spirit and heart of these children and the Platinum Partners, and to somehow document the significance of the work that was being done.  While being a photographer can be a privilege at times like this, being witness to significant events and recording them in detail and artistry, it can also be a barrier.  As much as you can get caught up in some of the energy of an event like this, as a photographer, you are somewhat removed emotionally and unable to fully participate in a way that is as meaningful as those you capture on pixels.

I photographed kids and adults hauling buckets of water to soak newly planted trees, working together to hammer nails into repaired desk legs and seats, and getting messy together to paint walls and cement-patch floors.  I gained a new understanding of the term “heat in the kitchen” by joining the local women and Platinum Partners (oddly, only the women were assigned to kitchen duty) in the open-air tent that served as the kitchen.  With kettles sitting on open, hot coals, it did not take long to get hot under the hot Zambian sun.  I thought of the occasional barbecue we have held in our backyard when I contemplated how much food these women had to prep and cook for the 800 children of the school. Given the small space available for those children, it took several hours to run them all through the cafeteria to eat the one meal they would be served that day.

After work, the students and Platinum Partners played soccer and football, danced, shared stories, and posed for more pictures.  On one of the newly-painted walls, they all put hand prints in various colors to reflect the bond and partnership of the day.  Then, there were many, many more pictures.

The impact of that day and the effort by the Anthony Robbins Platinum Partners simply cannot be grasped; only an examination of the numbers gives a glimpse of how much this contribution meant to the staff and students of the Nakatindi Community School.  As of the day of that event, there was only one teacher for every 75 students.  There was only one book per classroom.  Most of the desks and chairs in the school were broken or damaged in some way.  By the day of the contribution, the Platinum Partners had raised over $40,000 dollars to contribute to the school, as well as collect thousands of books.  That money would provide salaries for three more teachers for three more years, provide new facilities, and build a fence and pay for a security guard to keep the new, massive book collection from being stolen (a likelihood given the rarity of books in the country).  As if that was not enough, later that evening, at the closing social event for the Zambia part of the trip, the Platinum Partners collected $3,000 more to go the next day to purchase tools to donate to the school so that it could continue its maintenance efforts.

The Royal Livingstone

Friday, May 20th, 2011
The Royal Livingstone

During the Zambia portion of the Anthony Robbins Platinum Partners Africa event, we stayed at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, just outside of Livingstone on the banks of the Zambezi River.  Identified as a five-star hotel, the Royal Livingstone resides on secluded property owned by Sun International (which also operates the Zambezi Sun hotel on the same property).  Due to the historical influences of the area, it possess an old-world, British colonial charm.  From the uniforms and service of the staff to the furnishings and decor, the Royal Livingstone Hotel exudes colonial luxury.  The true shocker of the experience came when I learned that the hotel is only ten years old.

From having my own personal butler to frequently encountering wildlife (zebras, monkeys and giraffe) on the property grounds, I enjoyed every aspect of the charm and service the hotel had to offer.  The food was phenomenal and every staff person I encountered was friendly and helpful.

The only drawback was the spotty Internet connection offered in the hotel’s “Internet Room.”  In this modern day and age, normal people really do not need to have access to the Internet when the travel.  But Facebook and Twitter have become such a regular aspect of people’s lives – just for personal use – that they become irritated if they don’t have access to those social fora while traveling.  My story is different from theirs, though; I need regular, reliable access to the Internet as part of my business.  And my preference would be to access the Internet from my laptop so I can upload images directly, rather than transferring them to a flash drive and plugging it into a guest computer.  I could have done that if I wanted to pay the equivalent of ten dollars for thirty minutes; but I wasn’t interested in that.

At Arlington, a place for serious reflection

Sunday, May 1st, 2011
At Arlington, a place for serious reflection

Michelle and I made our way on the blue line of the Metro today over to Arlington National Cemetery, just on the other side of the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.  Visiting Arlington is quite unlike visiting any other location in Washington, D.C.; at least it should be.  Visually, Arlington was everything I expected it to be, with endless possibilities for composition, the beautifully laid-out lines of rows of headstones, giving testament to those who have served our country in the Armed Forces and in various federal offices, from President to Supreme Court Justice.  Psychically, for me, it was also everything I expected; a somber, humbling location, recalling the history of our nation through names, words and phrases describing the contribution of our countrymen throughout history.  I was appalled, however, at how many people visited Arlington and treated it as simply another stop during the visit to D.C.

A prime example of this phenomenon can be illustrated in recounting a conversation between a young boy and his mother, shortly after watching the changing of the guard and laying of wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  Boy: “Mom, why do they snap their shoes like that?”  (During the regular patrolling of the grounds in front of the Tomb, the U.S. Army guard on duty will snap his shoes together after completing an about-face or when making any turns.)  Mom: “It’s just pomp-and-circumstances.  They just need a reason for a ceremony.”  I had to keep myself in check, as I am not sure I could have been diplomatic with my response.  “The snap,” I should have told her, “is meant to emphasize the precision of the movement.”  As for needing a “reason” for a ceremony, I could have said, “These guards are honoring a person who, although we don’t know his name, died serving his country.”

I am not one to get jingoistic or nationalistic.  But, I am a veteran and have tremendous respect for all who have served, whether in the Armed Forces or in some higher office.  They have all done something that so few Americans have; they have sacrificed a term of years, or even their lives, to ensure that the greater good that is our United States continues to move forward, continues to fulfill the ideals set forth by a group of men in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century.

When visiting the grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy to pay respects and see the eternal flame, I had to wait for a while to get a view, as a dozen or so teenagers were crowding the front, taking snapshots with their iPhones and turning to each other to chat about all matter of things … other than JFK and his legacy.  I wondered to myself, then shared with Michelle, whether these kids had any appreciation for whose grave they visited given the current state of public education in the U.S.  What did they learn about JFK?  Was it just that he was assassinated, and that his brother, interned about a hundred feet away and marked by a lone cross on the hillside, was assassinated a couple of years later?  Did they have any understanding about the change that these men represented and how forces gathered to make sure that their change never occurred?  Did these kids have the capacity to consider what our country could have been had John and Robert Kennedy lived to die of old age?  Unfortunately, I am sure they did not.

As I stood at the Tomb of the Unknowns, simply watching the member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, or “Old Guard,” stand guard over the tomb, I pondered and reflected on who was interned inside, what sort of life he lived, who he was, how he died.  Unfortunately, many of the other dozens of people standing nearby watching and waiting for the change of the guard were not so reflective.  Despite the many signs requesting quiet and respect, these visitors were being neither.  I gave a little “hoorah” inside when the soldier came out of his guard shack, did a sharp right face, snapped his boots, and rather forcefully but diplomatically reminded people to be quiet and have respect.  With message delivered, he returned sharply to his station.  That soldier gets it; of course he does, there is a reason he is serving in the most revered post available to any member of the U.S. Army.  And I think it is fair to say that anyone who has ever served in uniform gets it.  Perhaps that is another reason why the United States should have compulsory service like so many of its allies; at least its citizens would then understand better the meaning of sacrifice.

Moment after moment, so many people who were at Arlington today were simply there to catch the highlights.  Crowds flocked at the Kennedy family plot and the Tomb of the Unknowns, but no one stopped to visit the grave of Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who authored so many of the decisions that make up the foundation of criminal procedure rooted in the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments.  Or how about the many chaplains who ministered to the fighting, the dying, the serving; men and women far from their home churches who needed to be comforted by a man of God in some rather trying times.  From presidents to senators to associate justices or even private first classes, so many men and women in so many ways had so many stories, represented so much history, and yet remained so lost and unheard of to the many crowds who flocked to Arlington today.

I suppose I should not be surprised.  When visiting national parks in general, tourists tend to stay to the road system and only stop at the pullouts because anything else just takes too much time and effort.  National parks are merely destinations, places to see with things to do.  Most people do not take advantage of the chances for reflection and exploration that await them.  Arlington is no different.  For most people today, it was a place to see a military ceremony – like the 3rd Infantry changing of the guard of laying of wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns – or visiting the burial sites of famous historical figures.  But, what it really offers is a chance to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice, on the meaning of service, of the lasting impact that every person can have on the lives of others and on the shape and direction of a nation.