A Tribute to Phyllis Brandon, My Mother


 

My mother is what Christian’s refer to as a “Godly woman.” To take that out of Christianese and put it in plain English, would be, she was a woman that mirrored the teachings of Jesus Christ in her life. She loved things that were good; she hated that which was evil. She was concerned for the unfortunate and the downtrodden. She “lived in peace with all men in so far as it was possible” and more. She brought up her children with these morals and ethics as well.

This past week on March 21st, after a running battle with kidney disease she passed away. She went to be with her loving Lord and those of whom she love that went before her.

It was a struggle to be here. Not because I had other things to do – but, because I had to watch my mother die. She passed under the care of my sister Terry Brandon who lived with her for the past eight plus years. Terry devoted her life to Mom, and I am sure extended her life by many years. But in the end, after only eight months of dialysis Mom couldn’t take the pain and suffering of the treatment. So, on the 3rd of March, she stopped her treatment.

I was in India running my workshop knowing she was planning this decision. I prayed I would be able to make it back in time to see her before she slipped into a toxic sleep. In fact, Alou and I did, and Mom defied all odds and lasted for three weeks off dialysis.

In tribute to her, her life and what she meant to her family and friends I was asked to make a short video of her life. The video will be played at her memorial service today. This project has been an excellent way to grieve and process this time with my family. I even was able to interview Mom for the video before she lost the ability to speak near the end.

As you can imagine this has been a hugely personal project for me. I want to thank my sister Mindy Brandon Hamm for many of the photos and her creative collaboration.
Music by:

Song: Quiet City
Artist: Aaron Copland, London Symphony Orchestra & New Philharmonia Orchestra
Album: A Copland Celebration, Vol. I

Song: Nonet for Strings: Slow and Solemn
Artist: Aaron Copland, London Symphony Orchestra & New Philharmonia Orchestra
Album: A Copland Celebration, Vol. I

Matt Brandon Vlog 13: Photographing Iconic Scenes

In this video I look at my struggle to photograph the iconic Tak Bat, alms giving ceremony that takes place every morning in Luang Prabang, Laos. The inherent problem with photographing something that has been photographed millions of times is there is very little chance of making a unique photo.

In this video, I explore my struggles at photographing an event that has been happening every day for who knows how long? This was not an easy task, and frankly, one that I think I failed at. But we learn from our failure, and this is why I am sharing the experience. The big difficulty is the culturally sensitive limitations that are put on the visitor during the Tak Bat, and rightly so. Here are just a few are:

  • Keep your head below that of the monks.
  • Don’t touch a monk.
  • Don’t use flash
  • Keep a distance from the monks.
  • Be respectful of the devotees.
  • And a few more.

 

This was my first time to watch this event. We choose to go out where there were not tourists. It was an area that my host knew and had relationships with the devotees. We check with the devotees if we could sit where we sat. They granted us permission. Honestly, I was extremely tempted to use flash, but I resisted and did not use it. Granted, I did push the boundaries on proximity to the monks and in looking back, I probably wouldn’t do that again. But in my defense, we asked, and we got the locals devotees approved. I sat on the ground, so I was never above even the smallest monk. I say all to help you understand the extent we went to be both culturally sensitive and still get the photo.

In this video, I also give photographers a quick tip on how to better view your vertical (portrait) images on the back of your camera’s LCD.

Below are the images that appear in this week’s video.

 

Here I was literally sitting in a drainage culvert to get this angle.

 

This was close to what I imagined. But without using a flash, the morning clouds proved why too bright and overpowered the scene. My attempt to burn in some sky was useless and did more harm than good.

 

By switching locations and shooting across from the procession I focused on the devotees rather than the monks. This was better but I don’t like her hand in front of her eyes.

 

This is perhaps the best image as I manage to arrange all the element close to what I want.

 

Later that same day we stumbled on a gathering of monks. It was like a school assembly.

 

Children get bored with assemblies no matter what the culture.

 

This photo is my favorite image of the trip. So much emotion and life in this photo.

 

Here is one of those images that you see a setting and you wait for someone or something to enter the frame. That is just what I did here.

 

Early the next day we went back out to my host’s neighborhood and saw a group of local monks leaving the local Wat (temple). Knowing they would return in 30 minutes or so I set up across the street and got this.

 

 

Interestingly enough, this image was taken at the precise moment the florescent light in the archway was going off. Thus the yellow glow and the lack of light. It also gave it the best look and feel. The only real issue I have with either of these photos is that I have lost the story. These pictures don’t tell the story of the Tak Bat. These are just images of monks walking through a gate in the early morning.

 

Kuang Si Falls, another location that is practically impossible to get a unique photo of.

 

Downriver of the falls is this water wheel. I used off camera flash to light the wheel. Alou acted as my VALS (Voice Activated Light Stand).

 

 

The Coal Haulers of Varanasi, India & the Fuji GFX

The face of a coal hauler from Bihar, India. (Click to view larger)

(Note: All these photos are taken with the Fujifilm X-T2, NOT the GFX.)

Late last month, Piet Van Den Eynde asked if I could help him produce a video. Piet was one of 20 photographers in the world who was invited to use the new, as yet unreleased, Fujifilm GFX medium format camera in their workflow. Piet, Serge Van Cauwenbergh, Alou and I snuck off to India to film him using this amazing camera in the wilds of India. As you will see, Piet certainly put the GFX through its paces, using it in places and on occasions where you would never think of bringing a medium format camera. It was all hush, hush till today. As you can see, Fujifilm has released our video to the world, so now we can talk about it. In fact, we will be doing a lot of talking about it in the weeks to come.

We needed some very special images for this video, and I believe we got them. One of the most interesting places we visited was this train yard. Piet made some amazing images, which you will see in the video and later on his blog. Our time there was very short, yet the scene we uncovered really deserved more than just a few images for the video. So I moved quickly to capture these images. I hope you can get a feel of the intensity of the work these men do on a daily basis.

Varanasi, like most cities in India, runs on both electricity and coal. The coal arrives from the mines by freight trains. Car after car of coal arrives in a half mile long train filled with raw coal. Each car needs to be unloaded and then loaded back into lorries for delivery. The problem is this process of transferring a ton or more of coal from a train car to a lorry is all done by hand, literally. Five to six men are assigned to each train car. It takes an average of 8 to 10 hours for the men to remove all the coal from the car. It is dumped next to the car ready to be reloaded into the lorry the next day by the same men. Then the whole process starts over again. The men wear flip flops or even go barefooted throughout the day. The coal dust is everywhere, including their lungs. Each man makes an average of 300 Rupees or $5 USD a day. I asked them if any of them get sick or have a cough. None of them seemed to want to answer me. I think they were suspicious. Frankly, they need the work. Most of them were from the next state over, Bihar. All their earnings go home to their family. A family that they may never get to see again.

After visiting these men and photographing them, we felt that our workshops need to me more than about taking amazing photos. We need to get involved with the places we photograph. As such, Piet and I are researching organizations that we might donate a percentage of our profit. We are in search of organizations that help people like these men and others we photograph to rise above their circumstances to a better life. If you know of an organization like this let us know.

Note: If you want to join Piet and me on our next workshop to Varanasi, India in late 2017, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to be notified when the registration goes live. We announce open registration first to our newsletter subscribers. This is one of the perks of subscribing to the newsletter. Then only after 24 hours will we make registration public. The last workshop sold out in 1 hour.  When you subscribe, be sure to check your email for confirmation.

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A laborer has to break up the larger pieces of coal so they can be loaded by hand into the lorries.

 

 

 

 

After unloading the coal from the train, they workers have to clear it from under the car it arrived in. No coal can be wasted.

 

Roll after roll of lorries wait to be loaded up with coal for delivery into the city.

 

This and the photo below are of drivers waiting for the coal to be loaded into their lorries.

 

 

 

Saffron Coffee Shoot

From Mountain to Cup – The Journey of Saffron Coffee from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.

This last week I traveled to Luang Prabang, Laos. There’s a small but very significant social enterprise based there called, Saffron Coffee, that benefits both Laotian and tourist alike. Saffron Coffee is Lao-owned, Western managed and Lao staffed. The team that runs Saffron Coffee is a mix of Lao, American and Australian (I don’t think I left anyone out.)

Flying my borrowed DJI Inspire drone to shoot the footage for the video above.

Flying my borrowed DJI Inspire drone to shoot the footage for the video above.

Saffron Coffee contacted me a couple of months back and asked me to bid on a photo job. The company needed some new photos for an upcoming promotional campaign. I made a passing comment how I think that I might have a drone by the time they wanted to shoot in November. Apparently, the thought of drone footage sealed the deal; I got the job. The only problem was I didn’t have a drone yet. I wanted a small drone that was easy to fly and had a good camera. DJI just announced their new Mavic Pro and compact portable drone just days before. As it’s only the size of a water bottle, it fits perfectly in a backpack! Two weeks before I was to arrive in Laos, I received an email informing me the drone I ordered was back ordered for 6 to 8 weeks! What was I going to do? Penang is not like the U.S.; we don’t have places to rent drones or even camera gear. Luckily, Max, the guy I ordered the drone from was reluctantly (I don’t blame him) willing to rent me his personal DJI Inspire. The Inspire is massive and costly! He requested I not check it in the hold of the aircraft, so I schlepped this beast all the way from Penang to Luang Prabang as an unauthorized second-hand carry.

Here I am shooting video of a long black. I was very pleased with the focus of the 35 mm f/1,4 lens.

Here I am shooting video of a long black. I was very pleased with the focus of the 35 mm f/1,4 lens.

I was also shooting the new Fuji X-T2 as both a still camera and a video camera. Frankly, I was just as scared of using the X-T2 as a video camera as I was this borrowed drone. I knew the X-T2 would perform flawlessly as a still camera. I had just used it in Europe, and it was incredible. In the past, Fuji x-series cameras have never had a good reputation for their video, but everyone was telling me how the X-T2 can now shoot 4K video and was far more intuitive.

Well, they were right. The video function of the Fujifilm X-T2 was very impressive. It handled low light and high ISO like a champ. The manual focusing was easy and swift. Everything about it was close to perfect. I do need to clarify; I am NOT a videographer. So I can not speak to this as a pro, but as a newbie videographer it was easy to use, and I was very pleased with the results.

One of the many hill tribes farmers partnering with Saffron Coffee.

One of the many hill tribes farmers partnering with Saffron Coffee.

The coffee cherry is high in sugars and thus becomes quite sticky and will often cause the picker's hands to become covered in whatever it touches.

The coffee cherry is high in sugars and thus becomes quite sticky and will often cause the picker’s hands to become covered in whatever it touches.

The camera performed unbelievable as a still camera, though I never had any doubts about this. The focusing is faster than the X-T1, and the high ISO is very usable. My only issue was remembering that there is now a “un”-lock on the ISO and shutter speed dials. I would keep forgetting to relock it after changing the ISO or shutter speed, and the dial moves quite easily when not locked. So I found myself shooting at 800 ISO when I needed to be shooting more like 200 or 400. But since the X-T2 handles high ISO so well, it wasn’t really a problem. But I have yet developed that muscle memory to remember to relock the dials after I unlock them.

Som Phet inspecting the freshly pluped coffee beans.

Saffron Coffee employee Som Phet, inspecting the freshly pulped coffee beans.

 

Thongsai, shoveling the cherry husk. This will be dried and sold to make cascara tea.

Thongsai, shoveling the cherry husk. These husks will be dried and sold to make cascara tea.

 

I love my job. I get to work with amazing people from all around the world. The staff at Saffron Coffee are an amazing work for and with the Lao hill tribe farmers. A few years back the cash crop of Laos was poppies for opium. The Lao government shut down all the poppy farms and the farmers were left without any income. Illegal logging filled the income void for some farmers. The farmers can cut down trees and make some good money. They also grow rice as a cash crop, but that is seasonal. In the southern part of Laos people have been growing robusta and sub-standard Arabica coffee for years. The folks at Saffron Coffee saw all this as both an opportunity to help the farmers.

Som Phet, is a master roaster for Saffron Coffee.

Som Phet, is a master roaster for Saffron Coffee.

They knew that shade grown highland Arabica coffee could provide a constant income for Northern Lao hill tribes. The altitude and climate around Luang Prabang was perfect, and the people needed a new crop. Today Saffron Coffee is partnering with 784 farming families in 18 villages in growing their coffee. They make specialty coffees with the highest quality Arabica beans.

Coffee and it's lovely crema being extracted through a bottomless or naked portafilter.

Coffee and it’s lovely crema being extracted through a bottomless or naked portafilter.

The traditional Lao brew has been an important part of the country’s coffee culture for years – but Saffron Coffee doesn’t see why specialty coffee can’t find a home in Northern Laos as well.

A little inspiration

httpvh://youtu.be/S3eSMVsRqww

Mary Ellen Mark is one of the few real living legends in photography left today. Her images are full of emotion, inspiring, engaging, captivating, sometimes disturbing or even downright scary. All of them evoke a response. She is on my list of interviews I want to do. Until I get that chance here is a great 23 minute video that will inspire and move you. What do you think? Continue reading

Inspiration: Kevin Russ iPhone Photography

Kevin Russ | A Traveling Photographer from Max Monty on Vimeo.

It has been a long break from the blog. I have been three week with family in the Philippines. That’s three weeks of taking family group shots in front of scenic overlooks and Christmas trees. Too long, I am having trouble jump starting a cold engine. Not that I don’t love my in-laws, it’s just taking group shots of family members doesn’t exactly feed the creative soul. Maybe after your Christmas and New Years you feel the same way? Continue reading

Review: Think Tank Photo’s 4 Sight

Review: Think Tank Photo’s Airport 4 Sight Camera Bag from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.

I know I am not alone when I say, I love photo bags. I have never really understood out why. My wife has told me, a woman can never have too many hand bags. Apparently there never seems to be the right bag for the right outfit, and so it is with camera bags. They are either too small or too big, too heavy or too … something. I think the matrix that informs us what bag to use is just too complex. You have to figure in the amount of gear needed for the shoot, then take into consideration the location where you will be traveling to, the mode of travel, the method of transporting the gear once you arrive at your destination, the weather and more.  So in the end you can never have the right bag. That simply means a photographer needs a different bag for each possible scenario. You heard it here! You can quote me.

A week or so back I received Think Tank Photo’s latest addition to their Airport Series of bags, the Airport 4 Sight. I like it … a lot. It is smaller than the Airport International and it has a completely new form factor. The bag’s lid opens with a hinge on the side of the bag rather than the bottom–like the other bags in this series. Think Tank also changed things up with four coaster wheels rather than the standard two they have always used. Rather than type out my thoughts here, I made a rather lengthy (13 min) review of the bag with the help of my video partner Nathan Watkins. I think it will give you a thorough look at this bag and help you decide if the Airport 4 Sight is the bag for you. The video shows you how I pack my bag and how I use my Think Tank Photo Urban Disguise as an accessory to the Airport series bags. Personally, I think it fits that “Goldilocks” niche of not too big, not too small, but just right!

Editor’s Note: Several time in this video I refer to and compare the Airport Security and the Airport International. I am always getting the names of these two bags confused and I know why. In my mind the Airport International should be bigger as most international flight seem to have larger overhead compartments. But this is not the case for these two bags. The Airport International is the smaller bag and the Airport Security the larger. Sorry for the confusion.

Its features include:

·         High capacity.  Holds Pro DSLRs with four to five lenses. (best without the battery grips)

·         Integrated removable Think Tank Cable Management organizer.

·         Side hinged lid opens bag completely for quick and unencumbered access to gear.

·         Two-position locking handle for comfort and ergonomics.

·         Zippered top pocket for boarding pass.

·         Lockable zipper sliders on main compartment.

·         Reinforced bottom panel for increased durability.

·         User replaceable handle and wheels.

·         Seam sealed rain cover included.

·         YKK RC-fused™ zippers.

Price: $299

For more information you can check it out HERE.

Multimedia: The Cobbler of Penang

The Cobbler Of Penang from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.

 

I love featuring my daughter’s work. Not because she is my daughter. Ok… that is part of it, but also because I think she is very good. I can hear you saying the same thing I said about my wife in my last post, “You are her father, you have to like her stuff.” If you have ever been in one of my classes or workshops you will know that is not true. Continue reading