Dogs of India

dogs of India

Long time visitors to this site have no doubt noticed very different content here lately. In the past decade my website has existed in a variety of forms but always has been a repository for my research, my interests, and things that I’m working on. For the past six months I've not been working as a technician in the Film & TV business and instead have been photographing the cultures and peoples of Asia. This was a long gestating personal project having far more to do with my own curiosity and desire to explore the world than any work related ambition I may have. Needless to say, it was a rewarding experience on many different levels and I’d now like to take the time to share my stories and images with anyone interested. I'm still researching and writing about digital imaging technology but for now, I'm somewhat consumed with getting through the 10,000 images I brought home from my trip. Once this work is done I can move on to some other topics but for the time being, count on a few more photo essays and similar projects from me. 

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With at least 1.25 billion, most people today are aware that India has an absolutely massive human population. Prior to coming here I was expecting visual evidence of this but the one thing I hadn’t considered was the seemingly equal amount of domesticated animals choking the streets. Monkeys, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, donkeys, horses, maybe an elephant or two, and of course the staggering number of stray dogs. With no less than 30 million, there are more semi-feral canines here than anywhere else in the world. They're in any city or village and found wandering in packs in remote rural areas. Because of the sheer volume of the dog population, 36% of the world’s rabies deaths are in India; 20,000 per year out of 35,000 documented infection cases. These numbers suggest that if you do acquire this very treatable virus in India it's likely that you will die. This is a public health problem of massive proportions. 

Prior to British colonization and the arrival of other breeds, the most commonly found canine on the subcontinent was the ancient, indigenous Pariah Dog, also known as the Pye Dog or India Native Dog. While generations have left the breed mostly mixed today, this dog I saw in Delhi exhibits many of the associated physical traits. 

While it refers to an indigenous Indian breed, the name "Pariah Dog" has come to encompass all street dogs here. This name also suggests a scavenger species largely regarded as a threat or nuisance and living on the fringes of society. Their connection to people is ancient though, one of the oldest in the world, and many are put to work as guards in overpopulated slums in exchange for meager offerings of food. Because of the ancient and socially accepted relationship between people and dogs in this part of the world, this problems of their modern co-existence have proven difficult. The colonial solution was to round them up and kill them. As of 2001 this is illegal but without a real national policy in place, the problem of stray dogs biting and infecting peoples remains largely status quo. 

For a scavenger species, large amounts of exposed garbage found all over India provide an abundant food source. Innumerable slums here are the biggest refuse producer and as long as human beings are living in these conditions without access to proper sanitation or waste disposal, there will always be strays and killing programs have been deemed an ineffective measure. 

As two dogs can multiply into three hundred within three years, sterilization is a far more humane approach. Cities such as Jaipur and Mumbai have been successful in their programs to neuter, vaccinate, and then return animals to their territorial areas. This keeps other dogs from coming in and breeding and they will eventually die naturally, reducing their overall numbers. Implementing measures such as these on the national level has not happened and proposals have been made by politicians like rounding them up and sending them to China where they’re likely to encounter a grisly fate

Exactly as is found among the growing middle and upper classes across developing Asia, it's becoming rather posh to keep thorough-bred dogs in India. However the average visitor is far more likely to see evidence of the wretched state of street dogs rather than well cared for and loved animals. 

As a nonfiction writer, I endeavor to be as objective as possible but on a personal blog such as this I can be pretty liberal with my own conclusions. As difficult and occasionally overwhelming as it is, I love India. Two months was only enough time to scratch the surface and I found myself leaving more perplexed by the place than before coming. The strays dogs here are indeed a real menace and on several occasions I felt genuinely threatened by packs of roving animals. Generally, if you leave them alone they’ll leave you alone but but if they feel at risk or emboldened, they can be extremely aggressive and deadly even. Really any solo traveler in India should never let their guard down for a second. Parts of the country are safer than others but India loves dishing out surprises so one needs to keep their wits about them and hope for the best. It may sound nuts but I honestly can’t wait to get back. I found the chaos of it, the filth, the contradictions, the horror and beauty everywhere to be endlessly fascinating and inspiring. 

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Photographic Optics and Human Vision

Ganges Aarti ceremony in Haridwar, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

Photographic Optics and Human Vision

I left New York early September, 2014 with the intention of screenwriting in Asia but photography and cultural studies ended up my main focus. On the other side of the earth I found everything around me to be just way too interesting to retreat to an inner world. If you want to write a screenplay hole up in a hotel room, don't go to a country you've never been to before. The things you learn on the road! I was in Japan and Korea from 1999-2000 and unfortunately was unable to get back to this part of the world until almost 15 years later. As of this writing, I've spent two months in China, two in Southeast Asia visiting Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, and am now in India until I return to New York end of February. I've been wanting to explore these countries my whole life so the only way to really do it the way I wanted to was to just commit to a lengthy block of time. While six months seems like quite awhile, I've found it to be not nearly enough. Enough to get a good taste of it but that's about it. 

The regional diversity of this continent is staggering and thus incredibly visually inspiring. India, where I am now, is in my opinion the crown jewel of this. Despite some common threads, every sovereign state here couldn't be more different from one another, nevermind the countries within countries that define this part of the world. Surrounded by such natural and cultural beauty, I've found it difficult to put the camera down. The other side of it though is widespread, tragic poverty and I've seen things here that have completely transformed my perspective. I think coming to the other side of the world not only is a wonderful opportunity to explore the cultures of billions of others but also makes you acutely aware of your own and the values that define it. If as a westerner you have these experiences and remain unfazed by them then your fashionable armor of cynicism is truly impenetrable. 

I've forced myself into the discipline of shooting with only four Leica prime lenses. A very wide 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4, the standard street shooting lenses 35mm Summicron f/2 and 50mm Summicron f/2, and a very long 90mm Summarit f/2.5. The goal I've arrived at for these images is Naturalism and in trying to achieve this I've come to many conclusions about how the recreation of human vision is affected by various photographic optics. 

The Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4 is my newest addition and has been a bit of a revelation. This lens is very light and compact for a 21mm and is the closest analog to human binocular vision I've found. Standing there looking at a scene with two eyes open, this lens does a remarkable job of reproducing what you see. This has everything to do with the lack of exaggerated perspective, barrel distortion, and chromatic aberration in this Super Elmar which is the problem I've had with most other 21mm lenses where there is so much edge distortion that only the center of the image is useable. By cropping in so much you're defeating the whole point of using such a wide optic. 

I just started shooting in India so these aren't necessarily the best images I'll get here but are good examples of what I'm talking about. They were all shot with a Sony A7R which is my preferred daytime camera. At night, the A7S comes out. I didn't do any cropping on these to illustrate the actual Field of View of the lenses. The new version of Lightroom has profiles for every lens Leica makes and it's amazing how effective they are removing any remaining unfavorable optical characteristics. 

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

On any other 21mm lens you would never be able to get this close to a subject without really warping the perspective. The 21mm Super Elmar is amazing.

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 21mm Super Elmar f/3.4

For comparison, here are a few uncorrected images right out of the Sony A7R shot with a Voigtlander 21mm Color Skopar f/4. As is evident in about 30% of the image, this is not a high quality optic. Fortunately this camera outputs a very robust file and many of these issues are correctable but it's a time consuming process. 

Uncorrected Image - Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

Uncorrected Image - Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

Uncorrected Image - Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

The Leica 35mm Summicron f/2 is the king of 35mm manual focus lenses and is in my opinion, better than the more expensive 35mm Summilux f/1.4 as it's noticeably sharper, has cleaner optical separation aka Depth of Field, and is quite a bit lighter. I would compare any 35mm lens in Full Frame format to human monocular vision, that is what you see looking at a scene with one eye closed. The 35mm is widely considered to be a "Normal" optic for a Full Frame imager; one that does not create photographic distortion or magnification like wide angle and telephoto lenses do. Technically, a 40mm would be the Normal lens for the Full Frame format as the the diagonal of the 24x36mm imager measures 43.3mm. 35mm is quite close to this as is 50mm so these lenses are both considered Normal or "Medium" focal length as supposedly they, "reproduce a Field of View that generally looks "natural" to a human observer under normal viewing conditions."

In my opinion this notion is worthy of reconsideration as it's true but it only accounts for how we see with one eye which does make sense for a single optic and single imager. It does not take into account the fact that our vision is binocular and the Field of View our brains resolve is actually far wider than either a 35mm or 50mm lens reproduces. As I mentioned, I've found the 21mm Super Elmar to come very close to what we see with both eyes open even though we're actually seeing even a touch wider, more like a 18mm. Some of this extended field is in our peripheral vision though which is not fully processed by our brains and the distortion found on most lenses wider than 21mm mitigates any real authentic increase in Field of View. In practice, a 24mm or 28mm is also a good choice but if the optical quality of the lens isn't there, what you photograph will not be a good reproduction of what you actually see with your own eyes.

The 35mm lens is still a relatively wide Field of View, reproducing most of what we would see with our binocular vision but attractive optical separation is also possible because this lens is actually very slightly telephoto. This is why it's the preferred optic for street and docu photography; the context of the subject is nicely reproduced but the depth of the scene is well defined by separation.

Haridwar Station, India - Leica 35mm Summicron f/2

Rishiskesh, India - Leica 35mm Summicron f/2

Though not the first choice of most photographers for a portrait lens, I love shooting them on a 35mm if you're able to get close enough because it creates an image with both a lot of context and very pretty depth of field. 

Footbridge over the Ganges in Rishiskesh, India - Leica 35mm Summicron f/2

The way I'm shooting these days, I'm not using a 50mm lens for much more than portraits. This lens while considered to be close to a "normal" size is in my opinion, actually very telephoto. You still get the context but the subject is significantly separated from it which makes it perfect for capturing a lovely close up from a distance. The Leica 50mm Summicron is tack sharp but because the the focus is so much more selective, getting the image in focus quickly and accurately can be quite difficult. 

Haridwar, India - Leica 50mm Summicron f/2

Haridwar, India - Leica 50mm Summicron f/2

Any lens longer than a 50mm really starts to flatten things out too much in my opinion. You don't get an accurate sense of depth in the scene anymore. This is obviously useful for digging out subjects from a distance or for a particular artistic effect. Setting up a long lens shot in street photography can be quite difficult as you have zero control over your subject. I prefer to just get close with a 35mm, 28mm, 24mm, or even 21mm. I actually love shooting people with the 21 as it forces me to get closer than I ordinarily would which means discretion and sensitivity become even more crucial. 

Here are a few examples from the Leica 90mm Summarit f/2.5. Do your eyes see like this? Mine don't! The truth is, very long telephoto lenses as beautiful as they can be employ an optical trick so will never reproduce an image that is a faithful analog of your vision. 

Rishikesh, India - Leica 90mm Summarit f/2.5

Ganges Aarti ceremony in Haridwar, India - Leica 90mm Summarit f/2.5

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Rural Isolation in Laos

Rural Isolation in Laos

Instastory published 12/24/14.

Laos is a remote and sparsely populated country of unspoiled, natural beauty. You see things there like these waterfalls near Luang Prabang, that don’t look real and yet no humans were involved in the construction of this scene!

Homestays are an excellent way to immerse yourself in the local culture. I've done one in almost every country I've visited on this trip and have had incredibly rewarding experiences that would have never happened on the beaten tourist trail. This is the Mekong River in Laos en route to the remote Khmu village of Dongchieng. 

The captain of the Mekong (Not So) Express. He loved me! 

The people who provide these long journeys down the Mekong actually live on their boats and have evolved this amazing, aquatic culture.

This disabled man on the boat I’m assuming was the son of the captain. He was fascinated watching me process photos in Lightroom so I took a quick snap and pulled it in to show him. I don’t think he had ever scene a picture of himself so was a little moved by it. It was very touching. Though smartphones are becoming prevalent around the world, I've been to a few places so far off the grid it's like traveling back in time. This was one of them.

Religion and ethnicity in Asia is a complicated topic. Discussion of ethnicity at the national level is usually tied to ancestral claims to land so is something often suppressed by the various governments in this part of the world. This is Dongchieng, a Khmu jungle village in Laos accessible only by the Mekong River. 

There are 3 major ethnic groups living in Laos. The Buddhist Lao majority and the non-Buddhist Hmong and Khmu indigenous peoples who are animist, believing in nature spirits, magic, and the practice of complicated rituals to appease evil elements. 

The Khmu live mostly deep in the highlands in isolated villages in Laos where they can maintain their ancient beliefs and lifestyle with little interference from the communist government.

Dongchieng was one of the poorest places I’ve ever been. So far off the grid that electricity, plumbing, and other infrastructure is non-existent. Their limited electricity comes from solar cells, batteries, and gas generators. This was the only place in the world I’ve visited where I didn’t see a single smartphone. Though the people here seemed pretty happy, there is always a palpable sadness in such poverty.

The Khmu are very hardworking, honest people who just want to maintain their way of life as they have for thousands of years. They seemed pretty indifferent to visitors though I learned that they host these homestays fairly frequently as it’s an excellent source of income for the village.

This is Mr. Tong, the Khmu guide on this homestay. He left a village like Dongchieng and was a monk for 8 years so as to gain an education. He recently rejoined the secular life to start a family. In Theravada which is the Buddhism of Southeast Asia, monks are free to leave or return as they see fit. In Mahayana, the Buddhism of the Far East, monkhood is a lifelong vow and to leave once ordained brings enormous shame to the family. I'll save the story for another time as it's a long one, but I owe Tong big. He's a good man. 

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