Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Postcard from Damascus

Contemplation, Umayaad Mosque, Damascus.

Well, despite all the hysteria in the West about the 'forces of evil' in the Arab world, civil war in Libya, unrest in Syria, a dictatorial regime and riots and shootings in the southern part of the country, we still got on a plane and headed to Damascus. A lot of our friends expressed concern that we were even considering this trip, let alone going there...

On the day we left Sydney there were three reported home invasions in the west, and the police reported that human remains had been found scattered along the F3 freeway. On the day we returned to Sydney two men were shot in a supposed drug deal gone bad, in our suburb. Funny, while we were travelling we never got any emails saying it was too dangerous to come back to Oz.

Umayaad Mosque, Damascus
The point I'm making is that things are usually never as bad as they are imagined overseas. Because these troubles are 'overseas', and more importantly, overseas in a third world country, they are perceived as being worse than troubles in a first world country. After the tour finished in Dubai, one of the group headed for the UK where, the news reported, 250,000 protesters were rampaging through the streets of London smashing up the city centre!

So, we got picked up (by prior arrangement) at the airport and were whisked into the Old City, a place that's been continuously inhabited for more than 2000 years. We had  to be met by the hotel porter because it's impossible to drive into the tiny streets of the medina. He grabs the bags and heads off into the maze of alleys and the mass of pilgrims making their way to the Iranian shrine close to the hotel. It's mayhem, it's as if you've been tipped into a Cecil B. De Mille movie set. The porter turns off the broader lane way down a side alley and knocked at an innocuous-looking door. It opened onto a gorgeous Syrian courtyard with a fountain trickling in the centre and porters scurrying about with our gear. It's a perfect little oasis in a noisy, bustling and atmospheric part of the city. That's what the rest of the Old City is like: busy, colourful, energetic and friendly. Very friendly.

You sort of expect the hotel staff to be friendly because its business, but in Syria people approached us all the time, ask where you are from and then say "Welcome, you are very welcome in Syria...".
This was the fourth time my wife and I have visited Syria and every time we have been impressed at the politeness of the Syrians. And so gracious. In comparison they make Astralians appear a touch clumsy and inconsiderate.

We hired a vehicle and, after being assured by the hotel staff it was 'safe', drove south to Bosra in De'raa province, where the recent 'troubles' began. True, there have been shootings there, and a lot of unrest, usually after Friday prayers. And true, it seems to be the fault of some particularly nasty secret police that caught and tortured some (incredibly dumb) kids who were defacing or grafitting images of the President (a really stupid thing to do in Syria). When the parents discovered what these ratbags had done, they went ape, and then the riots kicked off. But we trusted the advice we got and they were quite right. We then headed to Iz'raa to see an amazing Orthodox church that had been in existence for around 1500 years. To get into the church the driver had to stop outside the gatekeeper's house, knock on his door and get him to open up! We had to pass through a good few road blocks in De'raa province, kids in uniform mostly, carrying AK47s with bayonets fitted, and then we drove the 150kms back to Damascus.


On another trip, this time on a Friday, we were coming back from a visit to Krak de Chevaliers, a massive Crusader castle 3.5 hours drive north of Damascus, when the hotel rang the driver to check we were OK. Someone there had heard on the radio there were demonstrations in the northern parts of Damascus and were concerned that we were safe. As it happened we saw nothing. The demonstrations (usually called 'riots' in the West) were well and truly over.
We actually got more information about the troubles in Syria from the Syrian news service, and the locals we spoke to, than anything heard or read in the West. Seems that anything reported about this region in the Australian press is cursory in the first instance and negative in the second.

  
In some Syrian restaurants the end of the meal is signified by the arrival pf a plate of Arabic sweets like this. At the Narenje restaurant in Old Damascus this was free, you could eat all you could pack in. Oh Boy!
I can't talk about Syria without mentioning the food. It's absolutely fabulous. Sure, you can always find the usual Arabic fare of yogurt, humous, tabouleh, baba ganoush and fatoush but it's so much more than that. Actually, though we ate in posh restaurants in Damascus, we never got past the mezze stage. This is a series of small dishes designed mostly as appetizers. They are varied and absolutely delicious. We ate everything! Beetroot dip, smoked capsicum, walnut and pomegranite puree, Lebanese sausage in tomato sauce, kebbe done four different ways, meatballs in tomato and yogurt sauce. I could go on. I reckon the food was better than anything we'd had in Morocco and in Oman. In fact, I'd go back to Syria just for the food.... 

We have been back in Australia for 10 days and it seems the situation is now  a lot worse than when we were there. I hope the Syrians get their shit sorted out before too many people get hurt!


Thursday, 21 April 2011

Final Photo Assessment from our North African Landscapes Tour

Here's a sample from our final slideshow - the brief was simple: your three best shots from the trip. At least I think it was three. Several members from the tour submitted more than that, which was fine. Here are my thoughts...
Ian Caldwell.
Great shot of clay pots hanging 'somewhere' in Oman. Good, solid, black-and-white with a nice contrast and depth to it - a lot of greyscale images can come out flat and lacklustre. This isn't.
Ian Caldwell
Hungry Bunny, Nizwa. A weird Omani fast food restaurant given the over-the-top, painterly treatment in HDR software. I'd fix the perspective using the Transform commands, other than that this is a really strong image. It's strong, weird and surreal and a totally suitable treatment for the subject matter.
Ian Caldwell
I rather like this one too - literally oozing with atmosphere and texture...
Ian Caldwell
Cool panorama from Sur in Oman.
Good stitch, needs tilting to the left a bit and also the contrast might need a boost - it's that evening light that often reproduces as flat and boring - you see the same thing in JG's Muttrah harbour fort shot - both need the contrast ramping up to add impact...
Ian Caldwell
Colour version of the monochrome below - I far prefer the BW version. Just a personal thing. Both, I think could have their contrast increased a bit - to lift the highlights. The colour version in particular looks a bit 'muddy'.
Ian Caldwell.
Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Muscat - impressive looking mosque and quite the best photographic 'treatment' of it - black-and-white HDR. Needs straightening a bit and maybe some perspective correction? Otherwise nice job!
Glyn Patrick
Muscat fish markets - great place for shooting and a great 'detail' shot. Actually it looks more like a hand-coloured black-and-white image which I rather like.
Glyn Patrick
A tongue in cheek shot of the fish markets, no idea how Glyn got this shot but it works - it has a distinctly surreal aspect.
Glyn Patrick
Not so sure about this one - I think this is government housing under construction?
In the middle of the mountains? Anyway it does not say anything about the region or the country - so needs a caption.
Glyn Patrick
Excellent 'still life' of a typical Omani water pot.
Beautiful black-and-white is near-perfect. I suspect Nik Silver EFEX. Nice app and great black-and-white result.
Glyn Patrick
Great picture Glyn, very direct and almost spooky-clear eye contact, so important in many portraits, great contextual background too. I also like the use of a vignette.
Fay Burdon
Gotta give Fay credit for this one - I saw what happened to her shoes as she slowly sank into the mire while trying to line this one up!
Fay Burdon
Fabulous seascape of Khasab in Oman. Perfect headlands receding into the mist. Nice job Fay - I'd possibly crop a tiny bit off of the bottom of the frame! 
Fay Burdon
Really interesting to see this one - compared to the 2 from Ian. This is straighter and more architecturally-accurate - which I think works nicely.
Fay Burdon
Not a bad result considering the amount of haze on the day - good job on processing this one to bring out the detail in the various ridges off into the distance.
Fraser Burdon
The tones and lighting regime almost make it look like an early Dutch Master (that's a painting!)
Fraser Burdon
Hey Fraser this works really well - like the shot above, the tones and lighting make this look more like a painting than a digital image..
Fraser Burdon
I personally don;t like this one - I know you spent some time chasing the concept of the silhouette - and this example works well - as a silhouette - and maybe as a symbol of the Middle East, North Africa or whatever but I don't feel it's quite enough, if you get my drift...
Fraser Burdon
This, on the other hand, DOES work - it's a cute ramshackle doorway, nicely composed and shot - I'm not 100% sure if the tones in the sunlight have held in this version - it looks OK so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.
I'd be tempted to tint this slightly, with red or yellow, or both. But that's a very personal thing...
Lucie Loane
Another cute, very ramshackle doorway shot. I am not a big fan of total black-and-white selections in a colour shot mostly because they can seem quite extreme, tonally, and therefore a bit 'fake'. OK this also looks fake but there's the allegory of 'a door to another world' here that does work quite nicely. If I had shot this picture, I'd probably have desaturated the front part 30% or so, rather than 100%, just to make it a touch more believable?
Lucie Loane
The village of Bilad Seit. Nice landscape shot - very hard to show in one shot its amazing position in reference to the mountains we drove over to get there!
Lucie Loane
Hi Lucie, I think there's a bit too much foreground interest in this one! And it would be nice to see the dome of the mosque here - but I guess that means you have to stand on the ramparts!
Lucie Loane
Looks like a still from a film set.
I would try to lighten the woman's face a bit - use a mask in Photoshop to do this
Lucie Loane
Like Ian's version, this is a weird place. I think Ian's HDR treatment was better (sorry!)
Because the wacky colour fitted the equally wacky restaurant nicely.

Janice Gursanscky
A nice dark portrait. Looks a bit like an Omani Russell Crowe.
Janice Gursanscky
Classical Arabic architecture, very symbolic of the region. Excellent to see this in strong black-and-white
Janice Gursanscky
Not so sure about this one J. I took a shot very like this a couple of years ago and never really liked it - I realised it was because the light was wrong . Like this one, it's too flat - maybe try to boost it in Photoshop?
Janice Gursanscky
Not a bad study of Muttrah Harbour - the guy in right has his face in shadow - this makes his head look like a dark blob, maybe this could be lightened a bit?
Janice Gursanscky
Not so sure about this one either - if you have never been to the region you'd not know what this is, or why you took a snap of it.
Sue Caldwell
Nice and colourful study - boats and history. BIG forground interest works well I think.
Sue Caldwell
Simple and effective Sue.
It's a very 'Arabic' symbol and will work well in your upcoming book!
Sue Caldwell
We talked about this at the time - I don't like the white edge effect - but that's just my opinion. To me it looks like an old photo from the London Illustrated News. I can't get past the historical context this effect creates. If that's what you wanted to create, fine.
Sue Caldwell
A nice study of street life in an Arabic country. Men out having a natter in the square.
Works for me.
Sue Caldwell
Photo group in action on the road to Bilad Seit
Oh Lordy Lord! What have we here?
This is what happens when you drink too much Lebanese beer!

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Postcard from Oman

Another assignment for the group was to design a 'Postcard from...'.
Under heavy time constraints, but absolutely no creative restraints, here are their Postcards from Oman. (I'd like to add that these in no way reflect our impressions of Oman or the Omani people who we found to be charming at all times).

By Ian Caldwell (with an old Arabic saying)
Sue Caldwell's postcard from our cruise through the Khorrs (fijords) off the coast at Kasab
'Colourful Oman' from Lucie Loane - Oman seems to be a very tidy country - but most of the scrawny trees we saw seemed to have an obligatory plastic bag dangling from one of the branches!
Postcard from Fraser Burdon. The text telss the story..
By Fay Burdon producing the most 'sensible' postcard of the lot!
...
Oman postcard by Janice G
Glyn Patrick (must have been the big lunch)
Oman Photo Tour Workshops by Robin Nichols