Syria, 2015 trip

In May of this year, I traveled again to Damascus, Syria, with the al-Wafaa campaign – a Europe based Palestinian NGO. This time I didn’t fly straight to the war zone in an old Ukranian cargo plane, but we flew to Beirut and from there we went by car. That is a 3 to 4 hour trip, which includes border crossings. It’s actually easier to enter Syria than to cross from Costa Rica into Panama over land.

I shot a lot of video that, unfortunately, hasn’t been used for anything. I still have to edit a short spot from it for al-Wafaa.

Circumstances in Damascus were pretty much the same as they were when I was there in December 2013. The same checkpoints everywhere, the same drone of cannons in the evening, and even more refugees stacked in anything that can remotely serve as a shelter.

Everything went pretty well, with the only upheaval being when I had climbed on top of our car to film our convoy and soldiers at a regime checkpoint, thinking I was filming them, fired some shots over my head. They then came running towards us. However, we had our own soldiers with us to protect the convoy, and after some heated debate, hands were shaken, apologies were made, cigarettes smoked and we were on our way again.

We did not get into Yarmouk, but we delivered food packages to its residents, who had to come pick them up in a neighborhood called Yalda, which is right next to Yarmouk and controlled by the Free Syrian Army, such as it is. Yarmouk itself is tricky. ISIS invaded – causing more people to flee – and although they have been thrown out, supposedly, there are still ISIS snipers roaming around. Many people told us about beheadings and other such mayhem.

I did manage to take a fair amount of photographs in between filming. Here’s a selection.

Color entertains, black & white explains

Taboga Beach

I was educated as a photographer, but never really worked as one. Instead, I started video editing and then became a director, and then moved on to journalism. This did not mean that I didn’t take pictures. I took many, and some got published in newspapers or magazines. I also worked for a while at a professional photo lab.

So a couple of years ago I decided to dive into photography again. Things are definitely more complicated these days. Not so much the photography itself, but certainly in terms of technical stuff and workflow. When I went to school, the only way to make a print was in a darkroom on photographic paper. Now you can choose between inkjet, piezo-something, a traditional print, and even digital printers that print with light on photo-paper. And that’s just the print making.

Living in Panama doesn’t make things easier. There are no serious photo supply stores here, and even less in terms of a lab. Dropping off your exposed rolls and getting them back a bit later developed and scanned, like street photography blogger Eric Kim describes – forget it here. One photo store will send your rolls to Miami for you. I tried that once, and got them back all scratched. The climate doesn’t help either: A digital Canon camera I had developed fungus on the sensor filter in no time, rendering it unusable. Hell, to develop film, the biggest challenge is to get water from the tap cooled down enough to mix the chemicals and rinse the film after developing without mayhem.

So, what did I end up doing? I really wanted to shoot black and white. As per the headline of this post, black and white explains where color entertains. Color is great for advertising and sometimes for documentary and street photography, but the entertainment, the visually pleasing factor, I usually find to dominate the actual story or question the photo wants to pose. Often there is nothing wrong with that. Yet sometimes it makes me uncomfortable to find a news photo visually attractive because of its colors – and more often I think the color doesn’t add anything to the picture, it only distracts or even obfuscates.

So while I have nothing against color as such, I want my focus to be on black and white. That posed certain challenges in terms of equipment and workflow.

WHAT’S IN MY BAG?

First, I decided that I wanted to shoot film. Black and white from digital cameras looks too plasticky for my taste. Since I didn’t have enough cash lying around to get a Leica – and I’m not snobbish enough to be a Leica man – I went to look for cheaper workhorses that would take abuse and which would not ruin me in case they get lost when I go to a war zone again. For the aficionado’s: I got myself a Fed-2 and a Yashica Electro 35GS. The Fed came with an Industar 26 lens which some people like but I think it’s absolutely horrible. It produces flares and ghosts not just when there is a bright spot in the frame, but even when there is any bright spot anywhere near the camera. Rule of thumb: If there is light, you will have flare with this lens. Luckily, the lenses on the Fed can be changed and at fedka.com (highly recommended) I got myself a Jupiter 12, a 35mm/2.8 wide-angle lens that is absolutely great. The Yashica has a fixed lens and is already fantastic, no flare whatsoever, even without a lens hood. I now use both cameras for street photography. Then I proudly have been owning for years already the mighty Mamiya C220 with different lenses that will hopefully be doing some portrait work.

Beach
Shot with the indestructible Yashica Electro. Stand development in Rodinal.

Next on the gear purchase list is a Nikon F5. This tank of a camera does everything a digital camera can do, at a fraction of the cost, and on film. Plus you can use it to crush skulls and swat back bullets.

Shooting on film presented various problems. First of all, you can’t buy film in Panama. Second of all, nobody processes film for you in Panama. The solution is ordering film, chemicals and development tools in the US and have it forwarded here from Miami. Long live Freestyle Photographic Supplies. I bought a whole bunch of Arista EDU Ultra 400 ISO film, Rodinal developer and everything else I needed.

That film is from the Czech Republic, made by a company called Foma and rebranded. I first tried it with stand development. Big mistake. Muddy negatives, uneven development, this film is clearly not good for that. Lowering the temperature of the developer and increased agitation improved things a bit, but not by much. I found that you need to kick this film a bit, underexpose and overdevelop, say 1/2 stop, to get better contrast. Maybe use HC 110.

Also, 400 ISO is great if you’re taking photos in Northern latitudes, but here in Panama’s harsh tropical light it’s often too sensitive. Next I’ll probably try the 100 ISO of the same brand or go for the much more expensive but highly intriguing Rollei Blackbird or the Rollei Retro 80s which has a clear film base, making it better for scanning.

Oh yes, scanning.

FROM ANALOG TO DIGITAL

From B&H I got the Plustek 8100. It’s a dedicated 35mm film scanner, not expensive at all and truly phenomenal. The only regret I have is that I didn’t buy the – much more expensive – 120 Film Scanner, which takes 120 film as well. Oh well, I did already find a temporary work-around. In any case, the Plustek comes with Silverfast software – dump it. It looks as if it’s been designed by a toddler and I never got it to work right. Making scans takes forever, it slows down the scanner. I switched to Vuescan and now everything works like a breeze. Having made the scans – at the highest resolution this results in 60MP files, try that with digital – I then edit them with standard software. I mostly use Darktable, which is open source and works great.

So I end up with digital files. Easy to share, and easy to print. I use a printing service in the US, but I might get some really nice paper and ask a Panamanian printer to use that for my prints. Future books I’ll make with Blurb – there’s one book coming about Taboga soon.

It all sounds complicated. People online told me I was crazy, and that nobody worked like this any more. Then I read that this is exactly how famous war photographer Claus Bjorn Larsen worked when reporting from Kosovo, and I stopped paying attention to the naysayers.

DIGITAL FOR COLOR
Who's afraid of yellow and yellow
Who’s afraid of yellow and yellow

Do I still use a digital camera? Yes I do, for color. An old Canon Rebel XS to be precise. Even with the standard kit lens that is a perfectly fine camera, easy to use, with sophisticated features and great image quality. The issues I have with digital black and white (too clean, plastic look) I don’t have with color at all.

In the end it’s all about the pictures. It’s nice to have great tools but in the end, even a paint can will do.