Splashing around underground

Sitting on my table is the latest copy of National Geographic. On the cover is a photo of the Eiffel Tower with the headline “Under Paris: Secrets Beneath the Streets.”

The article looks at the hidden world below the French capital. Apparently there are more than 180 miles of underground tunnels, most of which are “blocked” to the public. Nevertheless, a group of folks known as “cataphiles” bring their boots and flashlights and slog through these dank and moldy caverns in search of adventure. Fascinating stuff and I suggest you pick up a copy (it looks much better in print than online).

I definitely intend to head to Paris sometime in the near future and these tunnels rank near the top of my tourist list. I’m not sure why, but I’m fascinated with such underground intrigue. It just seems so mysterious.

Of course, Paris is not the only city that houses some neat sites beneath the streets. Before I went to Istanbul, I chatted with a friend who lived in the city and asked him where I should go. One of the first places he said was the cistern.

Like the other famous places in this Turkish city, the Basilica Cistern is more than a 1,000 years old. Emperor Justinianus I first built this giant underground reservoir in the mid-500s. It was used until after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

It’s a very eerie place. More than 300 nine-metre marble columns protrude from the ground, each lit with a red light. Carp quietly swim through the black water as drips from the ceiling fall on your shoulder.

Having no tripod handy, photos were a challenge as it was too dark to take a decent handheld shot. So I turned the ISO up high, kneeled down on the wet platform and tried to grab as much colour as possible. A little fuzzy, but it works.


Random fact: The Basilica Cistern was used in a scene in the Bond flick “From Russia With Love”

Also, returning to Paris, the CBC Radio world affairs show Dispatches ran a piece about the French catacombs. You can listen to it here.

Posturing in Korea

North and South Korean troops at Panmunjeom JSA

North and South Korean troops face off at Panmunjom Joint Security Area

My last post began with a reference to old vets returning to Korea to remember the past. More than 50 years later, it appears niether side in this conflict has laid down their sword.

Coming from Canada, the one thing that amazed me was the militarization of South Korea. The highway north from Seoul was lined with guard towers, barbed-wire fencing, anti-tank blockades, and signs noting landmines – with increasing frequency the closer you got to the border. I wasn’t surprised by this given the tension between the two sides, but it was uncomfortable.

This was another period of escalation between the North and the South. Apparently there’s a resort along the border where Korean families separated by the war could meet. Only a day or two before we went to visit the demilitarized zone, a South Korean woman at this resort wandered off and was shot by North Korean guards. Because of this incident, an American military officer told me we were heading to the border at a time of increased tension.

The Panmunjeon Joint Security Area is one of the only places along the border where both sides can meet for negotiations. When politicians travel to South Korea, they often come here for pictures (such as our own prime minister). And why not? It’s such a strange and surreal place.

In this middle of this highly-militarized area is an open square with four blue houses. This opening is clearly divided along the centre with a line that marks the actual border between North and South. On both sides of the border are soldiers. The South Koreans, standing at strict attention with fists clenched in tae-kwon-do style poses. The North Koreans, likewise rigid, standing straight in their drab brown uniforms. Both sides are unarmed, but the American officer told me they had a fully-armed quick reaction force that could be at the area within 90 seconds. He suspected the North had a similar capability should the need arise.

And it has. There have been incidents in the past where North Korean nationals tried running across the border at Panmunjeom sparking a shoot-out on both sides. Another such incident occurred not too far from this location when North Korean soldiers killed a U.S. serviceman who was involved in trimming a tree that blocked a UN watchtower.

Panmunjeom is more spectacle than anything however. As soon as we came, the North Korean soldiers began marching along their side, giving threatening glances and staring at our group. The South Korean soldiers responded with their equally tough poses (complete with sunglasses for added effect). The American officers with us, who jointly provide security (there was a Canadian colonel as well, you can read my story here), warned us to be on our best behaviour at the border zone as the North Koreans have been know to re-broadcast images in their propaganda of tourists from the South who were acting in a provocative fashion.

Adding to the scene, tourists gaze from both sides of the border. Canadians on our side and Chinese on the other (I do not know if North or South Korean citizens are actually allowed to visit this border zone given past events – especially in the North).

Should you ever go to South Korea do not miss the opportunity to go to the demilitarized zone. I believe the U.S. Army runs tours, but who knows what’s happening now given recent hostilities.

As fascinating as this place may be, one does hope that its need will eventually be extinguished. But given recent flare-ups, I do not see this happening any time soon.


Korean War veterans at the Korean War Museum

Korean War veterans search for the names of fallen comrades.

I was sitting on the floor of the Korean War Museum when this picture was taken. We were in a long hall with plaques lining the walls on both sides. Behind me was the tablet that listed the names of the 516 Canadian soldiers killed in the Korean War.

I had travelled to South Korea with a contingent of veterans to revisit the battlefields they fought in more than half a century ago. For many of these vets, it was their first time back to this country and they were eager to see the rebuilt Korea while paying homage to the fallen.

The old soldiers pictured above were scanning the plaque to find the names of their comrades who were killed in this war – and it was a WAR as any Korean vet will tell you. Our South Korean hosts were extremely courteous to the vets who were quite proud to see that their sacrifice was honoured.

I have never been in the military, but I covered Canadian soldiers and veterans for more than three years. In this time, I have developed a new perspective for Remembrance Day. Firstly, it is a day to honour those who served their country – soldiers, sailors, airmen, and all who supplied the logistics to keep them marching, sailing, or flying. They did what their country asked them to do and many lost their lives, limbs, and minds doing so.

So wear your poppy, mark a moment’s silence, and show a little respect for our military.

However, for those of us who have never donned a uniform, this seems a half-hearted attempt at remembrance. Of course, the soldiers should be honoured for doing what soldiers do: follow orders. Said Tennyson in his famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

But where do these orders come from? The chain of command extends to the generals who receive their direction from their political masters who receive their mandate from the ballot box. Yes, it is important to honour, but it is also important to remember the responsibility we all hold in this equation. Should our soldiers be in Afghanistan? Should this mission be extended in some fashion? What is the cost in blood and treasure? Are we actually making a difference in this country or simply prolonging a civil war?

As in any conflict, there are many issues that need to be understood. Are we actually showing reverence to our current soldiers and those who served before them by relying on simple slogans to justify sending them to battle?

Our soldiers have done and will do their part. If we really want to treat them with respect, we must do ours.

Back to the bush: Thanksgiving in Bruce County

Bruce CountyI really had no idea what I was going to do for Thanksgiving weekend this year. One option put forward to me was to go to Chicago to see a couple of my friends run in the marathon. This certainly carried great appeal. I have never been to this city and I have always longed to eat a deep-dish pizza, not to mention, of course, I would have liked to see my friends endure the torture of 26 miles.

Alas, Chicago was not in the budget this year.

However, I should note that I did carry some other reservations in planning this trip. I have not been home to the farm since May, and with the changing colours of the season, I really wanted to visit my family and go for a hike back to our bush.

And so, in a roundabout way (Ottawa-Toronto-my wife’s family-the farm in Bruce County) we made the drive home, a trek that added up to about 1,600 km for my poor car over a weekend. Not that I regret it. Not at all.

The weather was perfect and we did manage to make our way back to the bush. The above photo is of my little sister with a few wildflowers in her hair.

The Queen’s representative

Governor General Michaelle Jean

Governor General Michaelle Jean at Canada Day.

A couple years ago I was given the opportunity to take part in an interview with Governor General Michaëlle Jean. There would be two of us and the rules were quite clear from the GG’s people: My editor was to conduct the interview, I was to take photos.

We went to Ottawa’s Rideau Hall and were seated in a fancy room. A few words of decorum were discussed (i.e. do not shake her hand unless she initiates the handshake) and after a bit of a wait, the Governor General arrived.

As a broadcaster, Ms. Jean always seemed to radiate with a charisma and warmth on television. And, I must say, that instantly came across in person. She approached us, outstretched her hand, and we were introduced.

I would be the photographer, her aide said. Yes, of course, she replied, but I understand you are a journalist as well. She then continued on to compliment my work.

To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what  she said, I just remember being quite smitten.

Over her five-year term as Governor General, Michaëlle Jean endeared herself to the country. At events such as Canada Day (above in 2008) I distinctly recall Canadians seeming genuinely happy to see her and she happy to see them.

She will be missed.

A town made of brick

Boston brick

Taken from Boston's North End in May 2009.

So I saw Ben Afflick’s new movie The Town Saturday. It was a heist flick – a few explosions, car chases, Irish gangsters, and the occasional shot fired. Entertaining, I would say, but also a little flat at times. Definitely no Departed.

There is that moment when you leave the theatre that you are struck with an immediate line of conversation, which essentially revolves around your past two hours. And yes, The Town, indeed provoked a discussion. My wife and I generally settled on my review above, but mainly we talked about how we would like to return to Boston.

The film tends to pay homage to this city, although the main character aspires to leave it. We see Fenway Park, Bunker Hill, the skyline and downtown. And of course, there’s the drawl of the accent.

We went to Boston Victoria Day weekend in 2009. The drive took about eight hours from Ottawa and we stayed in a really cool bed and breakfast in Dorchester. I really enjoyed this city. The seafood was great and it was a nice place to tour around. The only bad experience we had was a whale watching adventure, but I’ll save that story for another post.

One of my favourite things about this city was the red brick. I’m not sure why, but it just gives the city so much character. The picture above is from the North End of Boston.


9/11 Reflections

Taken in Greenwich Village, New York City in May 2007.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write another 9-11 piece after my last post criticizing the conspiracy theorists standing at the gates, but following the news over the past weekend, I felt a few more words seem justified.

With our stop at Ground Zero, we reached the end of our tour of New York City back in October 2007. The pictures, poems, candles and other memorials for those that died certainly threw a dark curtain over our exciting day of touring this city. Leaving our group, my wife (then-girlfriend) and I decided to take the short subway ride to Greenwich Village.

One of the more famous hangouts for hipsters and bohemians, the Village was a pretty cool spot. Some neat looking shops, trendy restaurants, and funky bars all gave this neighbourhood a charm of its own. However, this isn’t what stuck with me.

Instead, it was a vacant, ugly lot surrounded with a rusty chain-link fence at the corner of 7th and Greenwich avenues.

Covering this fence were hundreds, possibly thousands, of brightly painted tiles, all conveying a message of remembrance and peace. Some had pictures of doves. Some American flags. Some just a silhouette of the World Trade Centre. They were sad and mournful, but not bitter.

I hope they brought some comfort to whoever it was that painted those tiles. I hope those tiles are still hanging there today.

Ultimately, I hope it is their message that endures and not the one that is grabbing too much attention.

Sell your photos in five easy steps!!!!

How? Well just scroll Twitter and much advice exists. Unfortunately, if you wish to make a profit off your photo hobby, it will take a little effort, a little elbow grease as the saying goes.

From time to time I think about taking that next step and pursuing a little bread with my photos (and please, if you want to buy any of my shots, send me a shout!). But, I’ve got to say, that is not my motivation.  For now, I’m really more interested in the picture than the profit.

At the same time, this does not mean I’ve never sold a photo in my life. And I guess that’s where the above pic comes in from deep down in my vault.

It was 2004 when I began taking photos. I had purchased my first digital camera that summer – a Canon ISOS – and I spent many a day filling up my memory card. One evening I met a friend at D’arcy McGee’s pub in Ottawa after work for a pint and I showed him a series of photos I just printed off. As he was going through them, a waitress stopped behind him and stared.

“I would like to buy that from you,” she said pointing at the shot above of a fountain on Sparks St. about a block and a half away from the pub. “I want to make it big and put it above my fireplace.”

I was a little dumbfounded and I had no idea what to say having never considered selling. I asked for her number and a week later a transaction was made.

Sometimes I wonder if she still has that photo and I wish I could have seen my first sale hung and, hopefully, enjoyed. As I said earlier, there are many experts out there who can offer some great advice. In the end, what I learned from this random encounter seems simple, but oh so difficult. Want to sell your photos? Put them out there and hope the right person comes along.