In the land of wine and mountains

A Year of Portraiture in the South Caucasus

The Management Dilemma

My Fulbright experience has been an intensely productive one. All of my goals for the year, from photography to teaching to language study, are all part of an larger goal to develop more effective leadership skills. In this line, part of my work here has been to research models of leadership and in doing so I came across this excellent comparison between leadership and management, written by self-help guru Steven Covey:

Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.

You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.

The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.

The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!”

I love the simplicity of this analogy. It’s so easy to get sucked into the details of management and lose sight of The Big Picture. Now to put it to work . . .

The Caspian

28 meters below sea level, with one third the salinity of an ocean.

Haute Couture à la Azerbaijan

Needless to say, Azerbaijanis don’t look like their mannequins. It is, however, an interesting glimpse of the post-Soviet commercial mindset. One wonders not about salesmanship, but about what it is that holds us back.

State of the Caspian: calm, with a blinding mid-day haze.

The Return of Kəndis Xanım

You really can't beat Stalin-era apartments for lighting and decor.

Candice, with a large mustache, in Baku's Old City

The mosque at "Martyr's Lane." Cemeteries are big here.

Novruz (the Persian new year celebration) is the biggest holiday of the year in Azerbaijan. Candice came into town for a visit. Most of our time was spent eating Pakhlava, watching Japanese werewolf movies dubbed into Russian (and then redubbed by me into English), and roaming the polished-stone surfaces of the Caucasus’ most populous city.

Candice left this morning, and seeing her made me suddenly feel like I’ve been gone for years.

State of the Caspian: bright fog with low visibility. Wind, and little time.

Film Production, по Кавказский

The Basics. Photo by Mexman.

The film school in Baku asked me some time back to host a masterclass for the students. Because my background is in film production rather than, say, film criticism, I proposed a six-week production workshop. My main goal was to get as many of the students shooting and editing as possible. With such a tight schedule and limited resources, I decided it would be best to have the students submit proposals for projects they want to shoot and my selection team would choose the four strongest for production. I encouraged the students to keep it simple, and I think for the most part they took that advice to heart, though there were certainly a fair number of deeply philosophical scripts. In a perfect world there would have been time to go through a couple of revisions of their proposals, but it was critical that they shoot over Novruz (the week-long Persian new year holiday) in order to have lots of time for review during post-production.

I am very impressed by the students. They are very well-versed in film history and theory, but simply haven’t had the opportunity to get their hands dirty on set. In this regard I’m a good fit for their needs. We met on Saturday for a camera tutorial and to work out the remaining administrative details. I teach the classes in Russian, but guiding them through what turned into a four-hour tutorial, with all the technical basics of motion picture photography, was almost more than my poor Russian could handle. Thankfully, the photography course I’ve been teaching at the Slavic University had introduced me to much of the basic terminology: aperture, shutter speed, key light, etc. But explaining things light color temperature and white balance in Russian to someone who has never heard of it before was a challenge. But we got through it, and at the end of the day I was able to push them out the door and into production. Sort of like when Dad helped you learn to ride a bike. They’ll wobble down the street at first, perhaps fall over a few times, but soon enough they’ll be gliding along nicely.

I very much look forward to seeing the dailies.

The Absheron Peninsula

From the Absheron, looking eastward.

Home to massive petroleum reserves and aging resorts, Azerbaijan’s Absheron peninsula is a magnificent landscape where Soviet-era industrial conquest meets the frothy green waters of the Caspian sea. Men whose families have fished these waters for centuries wait silently in tea houses for nightfall’s next  excursion. Standing at the most eastern tip of the peninsula, the point where the Caucasus mountains finally dip below the surface of the water, it is difficult not to stare as clouds move low and fast over endless seascape.

I have never enjoyed looking out at ocean horizons: I find its illusion of infinite space disconcerting. If there are islands off the coast I have no trouble, but an endless stretch of water puts me at unease, much in the same way high ceilings in narrow rooms do. But the Caspian is different. There is an energy that it produces that is unlike any other body of water I have been near. The sea feels like a living thing, an organism, and when I stand near it the experience is not unlike that of standing near a large, unfamiliar animal that you have seen countless times on television but never thought you would stand together, staring at each other.

I’d like to stop shooting portraits for a bit and instead photograph the sea.

The Ivory Tower of Baku

As part of my ongoing effort to work on my public speaking skills, exercise leadership, and share my knowledge of photography and cinematography, I’ve been hosting documentary film and cinematography workshops for students and professionals in the region. Shortly after arriving in Baku I was invited to teach an ongoing photography course at the Slavic University. It’s been a lot of fun.

Professor Burns. Photo by Ahmed Muxtar.

My students, hard at work scribbling notes. Photo by Ahmed Muxtar.

Honor among thieves

It is generally accepted by all in Baku that vendors at open air markets play fast and loose with the scales when they weigh out your fruit and vegetables. Everyone knows it, nobody cares. It’s part of life. Often the scales are rigged, sometimes they cook the math. The only surefire way to beat the system is to bring your own hand-scale, but this seems a bit excessive to me. As a foreigner who clearly doesn’t know what I’m doing (why else would a man be shopping for vegetables?), they’ve got me beat on the negotiating front long before the potatoes ever hit the scales.

But today I learned something interesting about the code of the open-air bazar: no one cheats when they sell onions and garlic. Azeris are very superstitious about these two items–something having to do with their strong, “bitter” flavor scares them.

Interesting that these are the two food items that cause me to sleepwalk.

State of the Caspian: white, with no horizon

A shopper’s paradise

Discovery of the day: a store in downtown Baku that sells women’s shoes, women’s handbags, and nunchucks.

State of the Caspian: hazy, with much ship movement.

Thoughts on the digital revolution

Prior to the start of my Fulbright project I thought long and hard about whether I would shoot digitally or on film. I visited exhibitions, taking note of the origination format and examining the photographs from all possible distances. I spoke with labs. I spoke with fashion photographers, journalists and photo-finishing gurus. I spent countless hours trolling internet chat rooms for information on which format is best for my needs. I spent lots of money on camera tests to see, with my own eyes, the pros and cons of each system. Ultimately I decided on film. Generally I am pleased with this decision, though there are certainly days when I pine for digital.

I plan to exhibit 20 large (48″ x 56″) color prints of the project’s finished work. The decision was whether to use my medium-format film camera (Pentax 6×7), or a digital camera that could get close enough in quality for prints that size (I was looking at the Canon 5D Mk ii). There is no question that digital would have been more convenient, both in the field and in post-production. Much more convenient. For example, my first ten rolls of film were ruined by a camera problem that I didn’t know about until developing. With a digital camera I would have known about this instantly. But there’s another side to this coin: I was able to find someone who could fix the camera here in the Caucasus, whereas it is unlikely that a problem with a digital problem could have been remedied in the field.

Though countless technical considerations entered into the decision, it really came down to one question: given my limited financial resources and the shooting environment in the field, which camera platform would enable me to take the best pictures for large-print exhibition?

To purchase the cheapest acceptable digital camera, lens(es) and accessories would have cost no less than $4,000, and probably closer to $5,000. And that’s without an adequate laptop to handle the data flow. I simply did not have this kind of cash. So going digital would have meant buying a camera that was lower in quality than what I identified as the minimal standard for my project.

But most importantly, I feel more comfortable shooting film. After years working with it, I know how it behaves photochemically and how it reads light. Basically, shooting on film is much less stressful for me than shooting on digital. I think about the technology much less. Sometimes not at all. And this is incredibly liberating from a creative standpoint. I’m free to focus much more on the image, not the gear. And that, in my opinion, is what photography is really about.