A room with a view

January 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Malecon is a stretch of sea wall running from Old Havana, past the city centre, and out to the more  modern area of Miramar. It’s where Habaneros go to stroll, hang out, fish, or where young lovers go to share the moment.

My hotel, the Deauville, is a former mafia den right on the Malecon just west of Old Havana. It’s an out-of-place-looking building, a bit gaudy with its 1950s architecture, among its neo-colonial surroundings. And it has long balconies overlooking the Malecon.

I asked when I checked in for a room with a view, and I got one. It’s on the fifth floor, so not  too high up, but from my long corner balcony I can look down the Malecon towards Miramar, and also look the other way to the castle of Los Tres Reyes del Morro, a stone fortification across the water. And of course I can look out over the relatively calm waters of the Strait of Florida, just like the Habaneros who imagine relatives in Miami across the strait.

The flight down was relatively uneventful. I had two seats to spread out over, and though a little girl kept climbing up the seat back to interact with her father who had moved back to the third seat next to me, it was a tolerable flight. As it was from Montreal, the flight service was in French, just as I’m trying to think in Spanish.

The wait at customs and immigration was long and hot, but certainly nothing as bad as I’ve experienced in Miami and elsewhere. They scanned hand luggage coming in, which was a new one, and they photographed everyone. When the people at the scanner saw my cameras on the X-ray, they asked if I was a journalist. I assured them truthfully that I was not, and the cameras were for “uso personal,” which satisfied them. I don’t think a blogger with a very small following counts as a journalist.

It was a long taxi ride in from the airport, but I was able to chat with the driver in Spanish, and view all the billboards. Instead of ads for products, they were revolutionary slogans about the continuation of the revolution. Many were about “el bloqueo” — the U.S. embargo and the cost of it and damage it’s doing to Cuba. Pictures of Che Guevarra were abundant as a revolutionary symbol, but perhaps surprisingly, I saw few of Castro. You can’t judge a country’s infrastructure with just a trip from the airport, but first impressions were that Cuba is more developed than most other Latin American countries, but it’s definitely a third world country facing difficulties.

I was hot, exhausted and had a splitting headache, so only managed a stroll both ways on the Malecon and a walk around the hotel. As the sun set over Miramar at the end of the Malecon, but out of view behind buildings, I shot some time exposures of the traffic and lights of the Malecon from my room.

Your carrion weighs too much

January 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

I once saw a cartoon of a couple vultures at an airport clutching suitcases bulging with animal carcasses.

“Only the carrion,” one tells the woman at the check-in.

And so it was that I arrived at Dorval Airport (Now P.E. Trudeau Airport) with a carry-on bag loaded with camera gear and a netbook — stuff I don’t want to let out of my site as checked baggage.

I had read that airlines are pretty fussy about the size and dimensions of carry-on, but they don’t usually fuss about weight. Alas, I was asked to weigh it, and the woman told me I was a kilo over.

At the last minute I had squeezed a second pair of walking shoes into my carry-on, as that was the only place I could fit it. I now had to open my bags at the check-in and try to juggle contents to get the shoes into my checked luggage. I was flustered and sweating, but the woman told me take my time and not worry. Several times I thought I would have to leave the shoes behind, but at last I managed to zip the bag closed.

I’m now waiting to board for a flight that doesn’t leave for an hour and a half. So far, Dorval seems a less crazy airport than others — carry-on incident aside — and the worst part of the airport experience, security screening, was relatively painless.

I drove to Montreal last night and stayed at the Days Inn, not getting a lot of sleep. I’m too excited.

Now I just want to get into the air.

Take me to Havana

January 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Back in the 1960s, the first airplane hijackings started. Havana was a popular hijacking destination because there were no regular flights from the U.S. and because some people sought asylum in Cuba.

As a result, the phrase “Take me to Havana” entered popular language.

The irony is there were other hijackers in Cuba trying to go the other way, especially in later years. There was even an unsuccessful attempt to hijack a Havana harbour ferry to Miami. It never made it out of Cuban waters.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba has made travel between the two countries inconvenient at best, and at times almost impossible. Fortunately, for Canadians wanting to travel to Cuba, there have always existed other safter options.

Cuba is a popular vacation destination for Canadians (and Europeans), many of whom travel to Varadero or Cayo Coco for all-expenses included resort vacations on the beach and in the sun. Even many Americans vacation in Cuba illegally by going through Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean.

At times the U.S. hatred of Cuba has been visceral — especially among Miami’s Cuban expatriate community for whom Castro is worse than the devil. I’ve never quite understood why the U.S. was so rabidly anti-Cuba when it has been willing since the 1970s to make peace with the repressive regime in Communist China. I understand that many American properties — many controlled by the mafia — were confiscated by the Cubans after the revolution, but that was more than 50 years ago! Probably it has more to do with Cuba’s proximity to the U.S., and remnants of the Monroe Doctrine than with the nature of the Cuban regime itself.

While the embargo has hurt Cuba, and has only succeeded (ironically) in keeping the Castro brothers in power longer than ever, it has also kept Cuba from being globally homogenized like so many other parts of the world. The only McDonald’s in Cuba is at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay.

I have long wanted to see Cuba for myself, though I find the idea of a resort vacation incredibly boring. The 1990s film Buena Vista Social Club, and other glimpses of Cuba have made me want to visit Havana — to see all the old 1950s classic cars, the Afro-Latin culture and music, and the relatively unspoiled colonial architecture.

And so, tomorrow I set out from Montreal on a chartered flight to Havana. I will be very careful though not to make any hijacking jokes.

Take me to Havana.

Changing seasons, changing perspectives

January 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the things I especially like about the Ottawa area is the changing seasons. They offer lots of opportunities to photograph the same subject with sharply different seasonal moods.

I admit though that Ottawa has far too much winter, and not enough of the other seasons. Spring is short, and the tulips bloom for a week or two, and then you’re into the hot, humid summer. Autumn colours are spectacular, but they disappear as quickly as they appear, leaving the trees bare. And then there are months on end of cold, bleak, snowy winter.

This year there was little snow in November and December, and as I write this on January 2, the snow is almost gone after a bit of a warm spell. Still, there are several more months of winter, and if history is any guide, there will be lots of snow before it’s over. Ottawa never lacks humidity.

This year was a challenge for shooting winter scenes. I wanted to refresh my Christmas card shots of the Parliament buildings, but had to leave it until a couple weeks before Christmas for lack of snow. Even then, the snow was light.

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One of my favourite local places to shoot the changing seasons is the rapids at Blakeney, just west of Ottawa. Here the Mississippi River (no, not that Mississippi) tumbles over rocks and twists through forests. Setting my camera on a tripod, and using a slow shutter speed creates a smooth effect with the flowing water. Coloured autumn leaves, or ice on the shores create very different seasonal moods.

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It’s good to revisit the same locations and see how they change with the seasons. As I curse the seemingly endless Ottawa winters, I try to appreciate the variety of perspectives that our changing seasons bring.

My very brief career as a glamour photographer

November 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

There’s a lot to be said for shaking things up and photographing new kinds of subjects. So when one of my Flickr contacts announced that in late September there would be a model shoot in Gatineau, I decided to show up. The event was a fundraiser for the local SPCA, and was billed as a chance for local photographers to meet local models and shoot pictures on a boat.

I’ve had very little experience with this kind of photography. Many years ago I shot a couple rolls of film of a co-worker who had aspirations of being a model, but we did it outdoors entirely with available light. This time I wanted to get some practice shooting human subjects with my Nikon SB-900 flash unit and a diffuser.

It was a fairly informal event, and people were friendly. I chatted with a few of the models. One girl told me she tried to sign on with an agency, but they rejected her because of a cheek piercing. I was a bit surprised that in this day of Photoshop and many different fashion tastes that it would be an issue, but I guess the fashion business is pretty competitive and ruthless. All in all, there were about eight or nine models and a few more photographers — some who seemed to be fairly experienced.

Sometimes several photographers shot the same model or models at once, taking turns shooting, and announcing by counting down so that the models knew where to look. The models all seemed to be experienced, and were adept at changing their poses.

It’s definitely tougher than landscape photography, where you can take a lot of time to set up the shot. Here you have to work quickly, paying attention at the same time to the camera and its settings and also to directing or responding to the model. And the added dimension of flash complicated it more.

After taking a number of shots on the boat and outside it, we headed over to a nearby gym just as it was starting to rain. Here, it was even more challenging because of the tight indoor space and the presence of gym equipment and mirrors everywhere. The mirrors made for some interesting reflections, but it was a challenge to keep photographers and flashes out of the shots.

Together with another photographer, Graeme, we worked with two different models, Isabelle and then Jessica as they used the gym equipment. Sometimes male model, Yan, also posed with them. Graeme was great at coming up with posing ideas, and several times he loaned me his SB-800 so that I could get a few shots using multiple lights, which he helped me set up.

I don’t know that I’m ready to become a glamour photographer, but it was lots of fun and I learned a lot.

Model shoot for SPCA de l'Outaouais

Model shoot for SPCA de l'Outaouais

Model shoot for SPCA de l'Outaouais

Model shoot for SPCA de l'Outaouais

Journey back in time

October 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

After the American War of Independence ended in 1783, many who remained loyal to the British crown fled to Canada, settling in Nova Scotia, Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and what is now southeastern Ontario. The northern shores of the St. Lawrence River, within sight of the United States, in particular attracted many United Empire Loyalist settlers.

Throughout the early 19th century, the population of what then became Upper Canada expanded rapidly with settlement from the British Isles. (Present-day Quebec was then known as Lower Canada). Many settled in small villages, some prospering with the rural technology of the time — water-powered mills, and other such machinery. Attractive communities were built with logs, sawed planks, stone and brick. And many of these buildings survived well into the 20th century.

Fast forward to the 1950s, when the St. Lawrence Seaway was constructed and opened, allowing larger ships to pass from the ocean to the Great Lakes. One of the challenges in the Seaway’s construction was at set of rapids at Long Sault. To allow ships to pass, an artificial lake called Lake St. Lawrence was created, and the water levels were raised in 1958, submerging six villages and three hamlets. These became known as the Lost Villages. A number of historic buildings from these villages were relocated to a site near Morrisburg, which opened in 1961 as Upper Canada Village.

Since then, other historic buildings have been relocated there, so that now there are more than 40 buildings from the area. And for nearly 50 years, Upper Canada Village has operated as a heritage park, depicting life in a small Upper Canada community of 1866, the year before Canadian Confederation. The grist mill operates producing flour, that the baker still makes into bread using traditional methods. The sawmill produces lumber. A cheese factory produces cheddar cheese, making only a few minor concessions to satisfy modern food inspectors, such as using a steel-lined vat and tools. And a blacksmith still shoes horses and crafts implements using mid-19th century technology.

I first visited Upper Canada Village as a teenager in 1969, and have been back once or twice over the years. I returned recently on a gorgeous sunny September day, armed with a camera and several lenses. The enactors were pretty good about allowing themselves to be photographed as they carried out traditional crafts from nearly 150 years ago.

Reflection through the rails, Upper Canada Village

Reflection through the rails, Upper Canada Village

Spinning yarn, Upper Canada Village

Spinning yarn, Upper Canada Village

Making cheddar cheese, Upper Canada Village

Making cheddar cheese, Upper Canada Village

Stroll by the river, Upper Canada Village

Stroll by the river, Upper Canada Village

In the general store, Upper Canada Village

In the general store, Upper Canada Village

Blacksmith's shop, Upper Canada Village (4)

Blacksmith’s shop, Upper Canada Village

See other photos of Upper Canada Village as a slideshow in my Flickr set.

Caribana – the Caribbean in Toronto

September 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

At the end of July, I drove down to Toronto to take in the finale of Caribana, a huge Caribbean festival that culminates in a parade. Over a million people attend, and thousands who participate in the parade get decked out in glittering carnivalesque costumes.

The parade, July 31, was on a hot, sunny day. The sun was brilliant, resulting in dark shadows. As a result, I photographed it using a fill flash a lot, and also took in much of the action from behind barriers using a 70-300mm long zoom lens to zero in on the action from the distance. Before the parade, I took some pictures of costumed participants arriving. Normally, I just asked them to pose, and with the exception of just one couple, all were willing to do so. I know many were proud of how they looked, and when people are having fun, they’re much more willing to let you take their picture.

Here are a few shots I took before and during the parade:

Caribana Parade, Toronto

Caribana Parade, Toronto

Caribana Parade, Toronto

Caribana Parade, Toronto

Caribana Parade, Toronto

The loss of a colleague, and a great Canadian

August 14, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

On Thursday morning, I lost an amazing colleague and Canada lost a great Canadian. Mario Laguë was riding his motorcycle to work when he struck an SUV making a left turn into his path just a few blocks from my home in Ottawa.

Mario worked as Director of Communications to Canadian Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. His office was a short way down the hall from mine. I saw him almost every day, and often worked with him directly whenever my tasks involved communications. He was always friendly — the kind of guy who can be humble and down-to-earthly human in a political world where many others are too full of their own importance.

I don’t normally speak publicly about what goes on behind our office walls, but I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets to say that many of my co-workers at the Liberal Research Bureau were demoralized after the 2008 election defeat of leader Stéphane Dion. A new management team initially brought in by Mr. Ignatieff was smart and energetic, but lacked experience and made mistakes. Then, last fall, Peter Donolo was brought in as Chief of Staff, and he brought with him a management team of stars. One of the brightest of these was Mario.

Mario had a witty sense of humour. It came through in media reports. Invariably a reporter would quote an unnamed “Liberal source” who had some sharply clever response that mocked the bungling of the Harper Conservatives. To anyone who knew him, it was obviously Mario. At meetings, Mario could be decisive and quick to get to the point, but then he would let go a wry comment that would have us all in stitches.

I admired his approach to communications. All too often Conservatives twist and distort the facts, spinning small events and big lies. Liberals earnestly struggle through the weeds of issues, attempting to make logical, but obscure arguments that are lost on the public. Not Mario. He could instantly zero in on the essence of an issue, saying in simple terms why it matters to Canadians. He had an inner gut for public opinion. I never once heard him call for twisting or torquing an issue, but I often heard him urge sensible restraint when colleagues became a bit too enthusiastically partisan. Whenever he questioned my work, I knew after a little reflection that his instincts were right.

I remember when the tragic earthquake struck Haiti and Mario seemed emotionally shaken, quickly realizing how serious it was. In quiet tones, he told us it looked very, very bad, and above all we should not try to exploit this tragedy for partisan purposes. This was a time to be supportive of effective action, while being respectful of those on the government side who would be front and centre of Canada’s response to the tragedy.

I regret that I never got to know Mario as a close friend. From the moment we first chatted, I knew we shared many common interests. We were close in age — boomers in an office dominated by 20 and 30 somethings. We shared the cultural reference points of those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Both of us had a fascination for the world outside Canada — particularly Latin America, where he had served as Ambassador to Costa Rica and in other diplomatic roles in Mexico and Venezuela. I had hoped that one day we would chat about our common experiences abroad, but that’s a conversation that now will never happen.

Not too long ago Mario asked me if I would mind doing him a small favour not related to work. He wanted me to scan electronically some papers for him that he needed to insure a motorcycle. As I scanned the papers, I had a thought — not quite as strong as a premonition, but clear nonetheless — that riding a motorcycle in and around Ottawa was a risky activity, and I hoped he would be okay.

The last time I talked to Mario was a chance meeting in the washroom where he told me he had been out exploring the countryside and had discovered Perth, a town west of Ottawa that I also like very much. He said that while looking at photos on the Internet of local places to travel to, he’d been surprised to come across so many of my shots. I vaguely thought it would be fun if I had a motorcycle, to tag along on his explorations.

But then Thursday morning I got a call from a colleague who gave me the sad news shortly before it broke in the media. I was away in Quebec on a French immersion course and couldn’t share the grief with colleagues and friends who knew Mario.

Today I drove through that intersection at Scott and Parkdale near my home where Mario’s life was taken from him at the age of 52. There were eerie police markings still on the pavement showing where the SUV stopped and where Mario landed. I felt an anger at the attitude of so many SUV drivers who seem to feel that because their vehicles are bigger, they own the road. But most of all, I felt a profound sadness about the waste of a life of a man in his prime, an amazing man I would have liked to know better.

Firing a musket

July 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Firing a musket

Sunrise over the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa

July 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Sunrise over the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa

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