Sunday, 24 March 2013

This time, an interviewee

An artist friend of mine, Christine Hall (see her wonderful work at wanted to interview me. Here it is! So if you would like to know where I am from, or what drives me, or why I went the indie way in publishing, and the mondo large scale photo project I am hoping to do, here it is. If not, look away now.

Photo Cheryl McFadden
Christina, you have an interesting background. Can you tell us about where were you born and where you have lived? 

It is certainly, possibly slightly different to most people. I was born in Germany in 1979 to German parents. My father happened to be in a pub one night and overheard a couple of fellows speaking about a wood factory in Guayaquil, Ecuador that was failing. He placed himself squarely in front them and introduced himself as being the man who can change their circumstances.

So we moved to Ecuador. A few years into our sojourn at the Equator, El Nino happened and effectively destroyed everything; the factory, jobs, and houses. Thus, the time came to look for pastures anew where there were jobs. So we ended up in Malawi, Africa for three years, as that is what the contract stated. After that: Washington D.C. 1987. Imagine my shock coming from Africa and finding the sheer volume of food and, well, simply, ‘stuff’. The sprawl found just within a supermarket was jaw dropping. More than one kind of peanut butter. One gazillion cereals. Toys. Kids not wearing uniforms in school. Snow. MTV. Bon Jovi. My most favorite band at the time.

This is where we stayed until I graduated from high school, apart from a year in Germany when I was 16.  Upon graduation, I returned to Europe. Paris, one year. London, twelve years. At one point during those twelve years, in 2005, I came upon the Salton Sea. That changed my life and its trajectory quite substantially.

You recently completed your photojournalism book, Portraits and Voices of the Salton Sea. Why did you choose the Salton Sea and the people it involves? What was your inspiration?

Everything that I read on the Salton Sea and saw in the papers and online did not match my vision. There is “something” about this place that grips me. It is hard to define in words. There are others who also keep on coming back repeatedly who understand this draw. It is a feeling in the gut, it is an indescribable drive, which may appear to others as a strange obsession.  

I see beauty, not just the rawness, the decay. I emphasize the human side of the Salton Sea, not the wasteland it is oftentimes referred to. I have met and continue to meet people who have fascinating stories to tell, insights to give, each different, each unique. I am inspired by the place, the landscapes and the stories. I felt an obligation to put together a book because of this uniqueness and because I had gathered such interesting stories that I wanted to share.

Do you have plans for a new book or new projects?   Is this book part of a series?

I have a dream to continue working on this project but expanding it, by looking at other lakes which are in the same or similar predicament. I plan on putting together an Atlas of the World’s Drying Lakes, which would showcase photographs of the areas. This would include interviews and portraits of the local people, as they are the ones most affected. There would be scientific charts, maps, and explanatory texts. 

My wish for this is to be accessible to everybody, that those suffering by the water crises have a platform to speak out. It would be a book that is inter-disciplinary, mixing science, photography, geography, sociology into one. “Portraits and Voices of the Salton Sea” mixes those components. I like this format and thus want to continue to expand on it.

You are a self-published (Indie) Author. Why did you choose this route?

Punk Music and the Punk Scene. The Do-It-Yourself ethic. Nobody is going to do it for you (certainly in most cases). So best get to it yourself. In London, I was involved in this scene by way of being in bands, organizing and promoting our own shows, designing our own flyers, and recording our own music. It is so very powerful, the idea that you can do it yourself. You do not need to wait around to have someone approach you. 

So when I was looking to publish this book, I did at first look around and wanted to work with a local publisher. However, as the costs were too high for me, I took the route of self-publishing. I am glad I did. I learned more about publishing and I like having control over my book and distribution.   

What three books would you recommend?

My favorite: William DeBuys, Salt Dreams. It is a big book on the Salton Sea. Read it slowly; savor it, like a piece of chocolate that melts in your mouth. His way with words and language is astounding and it brings to you the history and science and incidences of this area in rich velvety tones. The photographs by Joan Myers that accompany it are also beautiful.

Cadillac Dreams, by Marc Reisner to understand the mentality behind water rights, water policy and the development of South-Western US. The updated edition was published in 1993, but to understand what is current, one needs to understand the past. This book does it exquisitely. Did you know that Mulholland of Mulholland Drive fame was responsible for stealing the water from Owens Lake?

To choose just three would be doing injustice to the many books that have touched me in so many different ways. Three photographers: any book featuring the work of Francesca Woodman, Dorothea Lange, and the recently discovered Vivian Maier.

Three authors: “God of Small Things”, Arundhati Roy and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami. Anything by Paul Auster especially “Moon Palace”.  

I have seen your large camera; do you carry it with you at all times?

I don’t. That is my ‘serious’ camera for ‘serious’ situations. Sometimes it is just nice to carry my ‘little guy’ with me: a super cheap, simple, not so great Nikon Coolpix about 5 years old. It does the job. I have used photos taken with that camera on my blog and other online places that I use regularly. But, it is not good enough for larger exhibition prints. 

I do miss my beloved Pentax ME Super, my film camera, which I mostly used in conjunction with slide film. But the costs of developing and getting the images to CD is too expensive. And it’s not like there is a photo lab nearby. Once I start earning more money, I will start shooting film again!

What are some photo tips for us point-and-shoot photographers?

Keep your horizons straight…. unless the non-straight horizon is part of the story.

It doesn’t matter what camera you use as long as your camera serves you in what you need it to do for you.

If you are looking to learn more about photography and become more heavily involved, it is pretty important to learn the techie stuff. And to do so and if you can, I highly recommend using a film camera at first. It teaches you about light, reading light and understanding light as well as what aperture, shutter speed and ISO and what they actually mean in a way that digital does not. Though some would disagree with me on this point.

Photograph regularly and often. Ask yourself, what is the story that you are trying to tell.  What is the purpose of your photographs? Sometimes the purpose is as simple as presenting a little glimpse into your world. At other times, you are expressing yourself in an artistic manner by using the camera as your tool. Or you simply wish to take snapshots of your child as they are growing up in the world, to create a frame by frame story book of their life. A memento mori.

There are no limitations to what you can do with photography – outside of the physical limitations of your camera – there are only the limitations that you place on yourself. Everyone has a story to tell. It is a matter of wanting to tell the story visually and actively clicking the shutter speed, editing and presenting it to the outside world.

What kind of feedback are you getting from your book?

Surprisingly I have been getting a lot of positive responses. To many who have bought it, the Salton Sea brings memories from when they were younger and visiting it during the heyday. They know what it was like when it was described as “America’s Riviera”. They went swimming and waterskiing on that very body of water that nowadays, most people would be too scared to touch. (Unnecessarily scared). 

Others tell me that they had no idea that this massive body of water existed out here. They are surprised that there are people living out here. They are even more surprised to learn that it needs saving and that there are people dedicated to saving it. Generally, the feedback has been one of surprise and thanks.

If you could work on any project right now, what would it be?

I would be in three places at once, working on two stories, both to do with water. The first two stops would be the Aral Sea and Lake Chad, to photograph and document those areas in the same way as I have done the Salton Sea. They would be the start of the Atlas of the Drying Lake of the World.  There are many more lakes worldwide that I would like to visit to include in this grandiose project.

Secondly, Amman Imman – Water is Life. This non-profit organization has been building boreholes in the Azawak in Niger for the indigenous tribes so that they have access to clean water, locally. Previously the female children and women traveled up to several miles to fetch water. This water was often very dirty and diseased explaining the high rate of infant mortality: Only half of the children will live beyond the age of 5 and a high number of them are dying from water-related illnesses. My goal is to document the building of the wells in a village in Niger to highlight the importance of them and how they change the quality of life.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

A must watch: "Chasing Water" - Pete McBride and more

 It has been some time since I have posted on here. At least it feels like some time has passed, perhaps because I have been here and there and up and down and all around doing a great many things.

I was in Palm Springs where I worked as an audio/visual tech for a huge Computer Using Educators conference, otherwise known as .... CUE.I also photographed Haseena and Clay's wedding which was held at a nearby nursery (trees, not babies). I have driven past there so many times and have always wondered the who, the what, the why's and was super happy when I heard where the wedding would take place. Serendipity? Lovely lovely wedding; lovely lovely people.

Today, the 20th of March, was the 3rd annual Desert Writers Expo, held at the Rancho Mirage Public Library and it was really enjoyable. I got to speak with some super interesting people. Such as T.T. Hartman, who was my tablesharer. He wrote a book called "20 Years to Life... a Memoir". I have started reading it... and can only say, I really want to get to bed, get tucked in, and read some more.
Heather Simonds, a photographer, introduced herself right at the end as she was just coming into the library to update her blog. Couldn't help but ask.... what do you blog about? And so, we got talking, I received her card and went to visit her site upon my arrival home.

I highly recommend.  Beautiful photography. Beautiful stories. Beautiful writing.

Lastly, I was sent a link to a brilliant short film shot by the brilliant photographer Pete McBride. It is on the Colorado River and its journey from "Source to Sea". As the Colorado River and the story of the Salton Sea are so interlinked, it is close to my heart.

Apart from the wedding, and the slots hike, I have not photographed a lot recently. But I leave you with this image of the salt flats and the dust you find here. I was reminded of this shot when I was watching Chasing Water. South of Salton City. Salt Flats. Dustflats.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Environmental Justice and Coachella Valley

23rd February 2013, Thermal. Desert Mirage High School

February 23rd, 2013 saw the inaugural Environmental Leadership Health Summit, as part of an environmental justice movement in the Eastern Coachella Valley. This part of the desert struggles with poverty, bad air and water quality, high unemployment, high levels of asthma, a receding Salton Sea, high levels of Arsenic in well water, pesticide spraying, and the list goes on and on. A far cry from the glitzy, ritzy bright lights that are shining over the golf courses just due West in the other half of the Valley.   

Danzantes del Sol - amazing performance

This summit was organized by the Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto and the Comite Civico del Valle, and had over thirty sponsors. This includes IQAir, Air Quality Management District (AQMD), Imperial Valley Action Network (IVAN) Online, Loma Linda University, and Calexico New River Committee. It aims to bring leaders from the field of education, policy making, and the governmental, private and non-profit agencies and members of the communities together. The focus of the summit is to promote health and environmental awareness, leadership, systems change, and cultural and linguistic competency.

Environmental Health was the main topic and this was broken down into air and water quality, public health and the Salton Sea Restoration. 

Members of different community organizations
This summit had leaders engage with the public - raising awareness on environmental issues, not only explaining what can be done, what is being done, but more importantly, what each individual can do. Knowledge is power and the aim of the summit was to empower residents.

Information was distributed about ways people could for example help clean the air, Asthma management in children, and cleaning products that are safe to use in the home. There were also keynotes, speeches and workshops that visitors could attend.

I was invited to participate in the summit as a vendor, where I could display my photographs and my book on the Salton Sea. Other vendors and info stalls included, Occupy Coachella, Economic
Legacy of Clean cleaning products
Development Agency, Legacy of Clean cleaning products, California Rural Legal Assistance and Planned Parenthood. The high school had its own booth selling drinks and food to raise money for their class. It was great to see the different stallholders share the same vision of environmental health, equality and help where it is needed most.

Further to being a vendor, I was asked to be a panelist on the Salton Sea Restoration Panel as a photographer, author and Salton Sea resident.

Bea Gonzalez  - Mistress of Ceremonies
Dr Raul Ruiz was there to present the panelists and provoke thought into the current situation. It was my first time as a panelist. Normally I am in the crowd, listening and trying to understand what is happening with the restoration project of the Salton Sea.

We were up on the stage hidden behind the curtain as Ruiz was announcing us. Nervousness aside, it was an honor to be there and voice my opinion and to pass on what other members of the community had been passing on to me over the years. 

Along with me were Doug Barnum, US Geological Survey (USGS); Bruce Wilcox, Imperial Irrigation District (IID); Paul Reisman Acting Superintendent, Salton Sea State Recreational Area; Jason Low, SoCal AQMD and Phil Rosentrater, Economic Development Agency (EDA). Jose Angel was the moderator, from the Regional Water Board.

Fossil Fuel Not Cool
We each presented our keynotes and then it was time for the questions from the moderator and then the audience. 

The questions were formed around the needs of the local residents and the needs of the Salton Sea. What do we each think are the most pressing issues? What is the highest priority? If nothing is done, what is your biggest fear? And what about the efforts at making a viable plan to restore the Sea.  

We spoke about how we need to prevent the toxic dust storm from becoming a reality; how we need to prevent another Hydrogen Sulfide event, aka the Big Stink; how we need to focus on health issues; how it would be nice to have a thriving recreational area again, or at least a sea that will not turn into a toxic semi-dust bowl while emitting hydrogen sulfide burps that stink all the way to Los Angeles.

 Dr Barnum spoke about how one of the major issues the restoration of the Salton Sea faces is that there are many, different, not necessarily mutually inclusive problems. One solution for one problem might be to the detriment of another. In no particular order, here are some of the problems we face:

Rising Salinity
H2S - Hydrogen Sulfide, aka Big Stink
Fugitive dust
Nutrients from the agricultural run-offs, i.e. pesticides

The focus has to be on 'keeping the Salton Sea wet" - a quote I used, taken from my favorite Salton Sea activist, Norm Niver (an activist since 1974). There was mention of how the geothermal, algae, solar, wind and other renewable energy industries might be the key to finding the funding so essential to saving the sea. The Salton Sea area is second to none in the US for potential renewable energy. 

I spoke about the disconnect between the community and the agencies, and how there needs to be more opportunities to work together. This summit is a great start. Often, the residents do not feel as though they have a voice. They are not listened to. Residents have been complaining about health issues and high asthma rates for years and have been fearing the demise of the Salton Sea for decades. There have been various plans to save the Salton Sea since ca 1974!

So, to say that the residents are having a hard time trusting the local agencies on doing something about this is an understatement. The current representatives of the government agencies have to work really hard at earning back this trust.

Two members of the audience during the question time stated this feeling of utmost frustration and once again questioned the restoration project. The project as it stands is to start of small by building a few shallow water ponds down at the Southern end of the Sea. This keeps those areas, which are already exposed playa, wet and also serves as habitat for wildlife. As time goes on, and more funding comes in, further small-scale projects will be implemented. In the meantime, the question remains where the money will come from for a large-scale restoration project. 

Not good enough, says one member of the audience. What about a sea-to-sea plan? And how is it that after so many years, only a couple of small shallow water ponds are being built? How can we trust these agencies? Why is the community not being listened to?  And why are there no answers. He spoke about the meeting the day before, the State Oversight Meeting conducted by Manuel Perez, and how indeed, members of the public could come forward and voice their opinion, but they had a single minute to do so.

A single minute. 

Not good enough. 

A young woman stood up and spoke out saying that she felt that as a local resident, she had no voice. She had also attended the meeting the day before, and prior to that, was excited, that finally, finally they have a say in what they have been going through. She felt let down.

Not good enough. 

The panel did not really have the time to answer. Or have the time to even begin to give hope. As it was the summit was overrunning by quite a bit at this time and we had to conclude the plenary session.

My hope? That we all work together. That the man in the audience gets the information as to why the Sea-to-Sea plan will not be implemented. That there will be future summits like this one where all who enter, enter equally and all leave as leaders.

The overriding reason for why this summit must take place and continue to do so is environmental justice. What is environmental justice? I go straight to the source and am copying just a few of their principles.

Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.

Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production. 

Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.

 For more information on the summit please visit

They will be adding the videos from the workshops, keynotes and presentations to their website in the upcoming weeks - once it all has been edited.

 There will also be updates on another summit that will be held in Imperial County, currently scheduled for the end of April, 2013. The summits are free to attend, but you need to register prior to the event.

Simon Silva

On a different note, I highly recommend having a look at Simon Silva’s art work:
Simon Silva gave a presentation on his work. And he is an amazing speaker.

Roy Dorantes - "Proof of Intelligence"
And if you see that Roy Dorantes is performing near you, I highly recommend you attend. His
one-man-show is brilliant and never heavy-hearted though dramatic. He focuses on very serious subject matters, such as immigration, substance abuse, relationships and teen problems.

Other Photos from the Event

Arturo with the Danzantes

Simon Silva and a lady from the CA Rural Legal Assistance

Using the sun to harness heat to cook hotdogs

Arcela Nunez-Alvarez: What Next?

Raffle and End of Summit