After a hepatitis you need some time of rest. I had a friend in Los Angeles, so I went there and somehow I was able to enroll and study for one semester at UCLA, where I took course of anthropology, linguistics and documentary film making. These days are vague in my memory. I left UCLA jobless, but checking the bulletin board regularly. One day I saw an offering for an assistant film editor at Pantomime Pictures, a small cartoon studio in North Hollywood. They accepted me, and I worked there for about a year. Next to the studio was the headquarters of the California Sports Car Club (if I remember the name correctly) where I learned about a new category of automobile racing, the Canadiian-American Challenge Cup (CAN-AM). Somehow I was able to convince my boss to send me to the races and film them. It was the begining of a new period in my photography. It lasted 4 years, during which I photographed the CAN-AM races, Grand Prix races (during the years of Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme, Mario Andretti etc), and some sports-prototypes races at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans 24-hour race.
Studying botany was really a parenthesis in my life. I had always liked plants, but this is not really what I wanted to do. Circumstances irrelevant here (well, I realy wanted to study anthropology) made it that it was botany that I studied, specializing in taxonomy and in ecology. I must confess that, although I am not a militarist, military life was much more pleasant than academic life, either as a student, or, years later, as a researcher. The military encourage companionship, as, in case the soldier next to you gets wounded, you have to go assist him under flying bullets, whereas in the academic world competition is ever present, competition for grants, for prestige, for being the first to publish something. Anyway studying botany gave me the opportunity of a trip in Africa, first in Ivory Coast and its rainforests (years later I photographed the Ivory Coast rainforests again) then in Burkina Faso (then called Haute-Volta) where I stayed in a village to prepare a thesis on savannas (no African savannas online yet). The trip ended in Niger, reached by camel from northern Burkina Faso, where I had a brief glimpse at Fulani nomads and at the Sahara desert and Tuareg nomads. Once finished studying, I didn´t wait for the graduation ceremony and I went traveling.
So there I was, on my first trip to the Latin America, specifically Central America. I flew from Brussels to New York, took a Greyhound bus to Miami, and flew to San José, Costa Rica, to join a volcano specialist who was studying the eruption of the Irazú volcano. We didn´t get along well, so I split and I went to Guatemala, a trip I will always remember. I first wondered around the lowlands. The highlights of that first part were the Maya ruins of Quirigua, and a colorful procession with women wearing beautiful ceremonial huipiles in one of three Ixil (a Maya language) villages, Nebaj. I went then to Huehuetenango at the base of the Cuchumatanes mountains. I had seen colorfully dressed Indians at the market. Showing a map to a local resident, I pointed to an empty space, and I asked him: “What is there?” He replied: “Nothing”. So next day I was taking a bus on a dirt road to nowhere… and to an experience I will never forget. I asked the driver to stop at the bifurcation of a smaller road going to Todos Santos Cuchumatanes. I had a 16 km hike to reach the village as night was falling. In the first few days I spent the night in the Catholic mission, eating in a local Indian “comedor”. Todos Santos lied in a beautiful valley among mountains, unfortunately I don´t have images online yet because I was shooting Kodachrome, which my Nikon 5000 scanner cannot handle; I will need to have drum scans made. (I am told the Vuescan software can hadle Kodachrome, I will try it). A characteristic of Maya Indian villages (and of many Indian villages in Mexico) is that each one has its specific identifying dress, especially the women; in Todos Santos Cuchumatanes the men also wear very distinctive red and white striped pants I will illustrate the difference in dressing of two neighboring villages speaking the Mam Maya language with images of two little girls, one from Todos Santos Cuchumatanes, the other from San Juan Atitan, the latter showing a beautiful handwoven huipil (a kind of poncho-like blouse worn by Central American Indian women) with a traditional pattern specific of the village.
A parenthesis here: I don´t remember if it happened in Costa Rica or in Guatemala: my Canonflex (a wonderful concept camera) had a problem, and I had to go by bus to Panama, where the Canon representative for Latin America was then, to have it fixed. While In Panama I bought a Miranda tape recorder, with which I later made recordings of native music of Guatemala, later published by Folkways Records (now Smithsonian Folkways): Music of Guatemala, Vol.1 and Music of Guatemala, Vol.2.
I hiked from one village to another, once the night fell with no moon or strs, I had to feel the trail with my feet, until I saw a light… A house! I spent the night there. Somewhere along the way I strained a muscle or a tendon on the side of my knee and I could hardly walk any more. With great pain I reached a road or a village… After a few weeks of rest I was well again. I went to the latest villages in the Cuchumatanes mountains, San Mateo Ixtatán, a town with a beautiful colonial church and where women wear the most colorful huipiles. But it was to be the end of my trip. I got sick and I had to go back to Guatemala City where it was found I had hepatitis (I later found that I had antibodies for hepatitis A, while doing lab tests for a hepatitis B I got in Brazil years later). I was hospitalized, then I flew to Los Angeles where I had a friend from my military service days. It was a disappointment as French archeologist Pierre Becquelin had invited me to be his assistant for his excavations in Nebaj.
… more SOON …
Headnote… I try in my photography to show people or nature just as they are, trying to remove myself from the photograph. When I work with people I may spend days without taking pictures, until I am no longer a stranger to them. For nature I may go for a hike without my camera, to get a feel of the environment. I am not a “special light only” or a “sunset” photographer. I emphasize the content and the functional relationship between the elements presented by the picture. Of course if I happen to carry my camera and I see something unexpected and interesting, or the light happens to be special I will photograph it.
I am re-publishig some text that was in my previous blog, now extinct.
Early days in Belgium.
As a teenager I had taken some landscape pictures with my father´s Rolleyflex. Then, maybe for my 16th birthday, I was given a Leica F III with an Elmar 3.5 lens.
A wonderful camera, with a wonderful feature missing from more recent cameras: a focusing lever, that allowed you to preset your distance and with experience have very little focusing to do. Then some “genius” came up with the idea of a focusing ring. Among my of my first pictures, and my first “anthropological” pictures, were of Gypsies in the Brussels suburbs where my parents lived.
I also photographed the 1955 Belgian Grand Prix from the grandstands.
Giuseppe Farina (Ferrari), Juan Manuel Fangio (Maserati); Paul Frère (Gordini), Sergio Mantovani (Maserati)
Somehow around the Leica period I got to like jazz music. I still do, especially the period starting in 1941 at Minton´s Playhouse in Harlem where Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian and others gave jazz a new form that came to be known as bebop. The apogee came, at least to me, in the fifties, best illustrated, perhaps, by the works of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. It lasted into the sixties when it morphed into soul (some great soul music, by the way). But I was talking about photography, wasn´t I? So I started photographing jazz musicians giving concerts in Brussels: Jazz at the Philharmonic with Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz etc; Lionel Hampton; Count Basie; the Jazz Messengers…
Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington´s star also sax player.
Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge
The most emotional moment was in a night club after a concert when Bud Powell, completely doped, gave a marvelous version of Round about Midnight. Everybody had tears in their eyes. I never heard something that beautiful and emotional. It was my last high school years, and my first two university years. I quit studying as It was not exactly what I wanted, and I did my military service as a paratrooper. Then I did a first and last experiment at spelunking, and the Leica found its way to the center of the Earth. My next camera was a Canonflex, the first Canon SLR I believe, in 1959, not long after it was launched. A thing I loved about the Canonflex was its bottom left winding lever. You didn´t need to take your eye off the camera to advance film. Apparently (from a Google search) some photographers didn´t like it because it made it difficult to follow-focus or to use on a tripod.
The Congo days.
I used the Canonflex during my military service in the Congo (then a Belgian colony). I was using the first Kodachrome which had an ASA (now ISO) of 10. When my military service ended I stayed in the Congo, hitchhiking across the country from Katanga in the south-east to the Ruwenzori Mountains, the Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira volcanoes in the north-east.
Independence day was coming. From Kisangani (then Stanleyville) I went to a small town in Central Congo to assist at more traditional festivities, essentially dance to the sound of drums.
After a few days rumors started running that a revolt was happening in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) – or was it in the Katanga, or both? Anyway I hiked a ride on a truck back to Stanleyville/Kisangani. Once in Kisangani, I was in a friend´s car with my luggage. I must confess that after my military service I “borrowed” a few military clothes because they were good to go in the bush. And is it not that we were stopped at a military checkpoint? They opened my luggage, and found the military clothes. OK, I was a Belgian spy, and I was taken prisoner. They took me to the military base, where,while going to the commander´s office, the soldier´s wives were throwing earth at me. The commander started questioning me. I said me I was just traveling around to know the country, but he didn´t seem to believe me and at a certain point he pulled his gun, made the sign of te cross and pointed his gun at my head. Then, for some reason (maybe he had never killed someone before), he changed his mind, but he placed three soldiers, each with a gun pointed at my head from a different direction so I couldn´t move, to guard me. Later on I was taken to the civilian Province Governor´s office. He looked at my notebooks, and concluded that I was really traveling and not a danger to the country. He decided that I should go to the civilian jail. At least I was away from the military. Next day United Nations troops from Ethiopia had arrived, and it was decided I would be expelled to Ethiopia. I was taken to the airport, and while I waited, a Congolese military jeep arrived and took me back. They said: “Today we will kill you”. But I was taken instead back to the civilian jail. A small historical interruption: a riot in which the then Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba participated had taken place in the Congo in 1959. Lumumba was imprisoned in the same jail where I was. The jail Director came to me and told me proudly: your cell is next to the cell where Monsieur le Premier Ministre was imprisoned. So I was there for ten days, having the right, being white and as in colonial times, to meals from the city´s restaurants. The Africans had just prison food. I was expecting all the time that the military would come back and execute me. Then on the 10th day, a surprise: I had a visit! It was a red cross representative, who had come to rescue me from jail. His name was Mr. Senn, a Swede living in what was then Rhodesia. He took me out, got me on a plane to the capital Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, flying with me, and staying with me all the time to make sure the military wouldn´t get me back, until I was on a refugee plane to Belgium. I learned later that Mr. Senn had been head of the prison system in Sweden, and was now the Red Cross specialist in visiting jailed political prisoners and in taking people out of jail in troubled countries. I also learned that Mr.Senn later visited Nelson Mandela in his jail, and that he was able to improve his prisoner´s conditions. So I was back in Belgium. But the story doesn´t end here. I read months later in a Belgian newspaper that, in the Congolese political and civil war turmoil, both the Province Governor and the military commander who nearly killed me were made prisoners by one of the fighting political factions, taken to the Province of Kasai and executed, then… eaten. I got back to studying botany, which I had abandoned before my military service.