Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; Jackie Littletaylor in Iraq in 2005 (own photo). Yes, it’s a real tank, which disappeared a year after this photo was taken.
English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King is back with his first “A picture says…” column of the new year. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.
Happy new year, readers! My very first guest of 2014 is 64-year-old Jackie Littletaylor, who, like me, is an expat living in Thailand with a passion for photography. Unlike me, though, Jackie had a past incarnation as a professional photographer in his home country, the United States, which he is now putting to use in his new life abroad.
Jackie keeps a blog as well as a travel site, where he shares information about his travels around Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. He speaks more in pictures, full of vibrant colors, less in words, about what he has seen and observed.
Today I hope he will give us his 1,000+-word story as well as some background behind a few of his favorite photos.
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Welcome to the Displaced Nation, Jackie. I have been looking forward to discussing your photo-travel experiences ever since I discovered your blog some months ago. What first intrigued me was that although you were a professional photographer, you now seem to be intent on breaking the rules and creating your own unique style that flies in the face of convention. But before we go into that, can you fill me in on what led you to travel in the first place?
At an early age, I traveled with my family from Alabama, where I was born, to Texas, where I spent most of my life. My family loved to travel. Thanks to them, I’ve backpacked many of the great national parks including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain, and have seen almost all of Western USA. But I didn’t venture overseas until the age of 55. Never, for a moment, did I anticipate that my greatest travel adventure would come so late in life.
How did you end up in Iraq at the ripe old age of 55?
My approach to life changed after I went through a bad divorce. I thought, why not go have an adventure? I was no longer taking care of kids so there was not much holding me back. I took off for Iraq in 2005 and spent six of the best years of my life there. Actually, I hated it when I was there, but looking back, all I can think is how simple life was: just day-to-day living, with good money and some great friends.
At that time I was living in Houston. I heard about the opportunity to work for a company providing services to the armed forces in Iraq. I went to check them out and the rest is history.
“He’s so busy you’d think he was twins.”
I can relate as I did a similar thing after my divorce at 48. Up sticks and off I went to South Africa. What happened once you arrived in Iraq?
Work and more work. We worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. The first year’s average week was 102 hours. But then every 4-6 months we were given some vacation time. I traveled all over Iraq, from the Syrian border to the Iranian border, and also to Kuwait—that’s where I spent Christmas in 2005. In 2006–07 we were very busy, and there were many days I had no sleep—but it was still the adventure of a lifetime. Many of us left in 2010, when troops were being pulled out. I have a vivid memory of being at the airport in Baghdad and seeing the tears in the eyes of a retired general who’d been one of our leaders. He knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that could never be repeated. I went back for another year and could have stayed when the US military pulled out, but decided six years was enough.
You probably saw and experienced more in six years than many people do in a lifetime, but let’s move on with your story.
I had friends in Iraq who went to Thailand for their vacations and always had good tales to tell. So, having become an intrepid explorer, I decided to check it out. I flew to Phuket via Dubai with a good friend. Thailand captivated me at first sight: the people and the culture, along with the opportunities for more travel. Although most of my time has been spent here since Iraq, I have also visited Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia, Oman, France, and Kuwait.
I would definitely place you in the seasoned traveller category! So where in Thailand do you call home now, and what is life like in a new place?
As I was saying, I fell in love with Thailand—and with a Thai woman. We now have two young kids! Imagine, at my age! So Thailand has become my home. My wife is from a village in Isaan, in the northeastern region, near Sisaket. We live in Phuket because I love the sea, but we visit her family regularly in Isaan.
“There’s no slack in his rope.”
I know Sisaket as I lived in Buriram, which is nearby, for three years. I understand you are retired now. Tell me, how do you keep busy?
I love to work so have taken up fine art photography. Last year I started a blog on life here in SE Asia. Along with taking care of the kids, these activities keep my mind and body busy. I’ve been learning a lot.
But photography hasn’t always been a hobby for you.
No. When living in the US I was a wedding and sports photographer, where the challenge was to capture the shot and, through skillful editing, please the customer. It is a real pleasure seeing the customer’s smile when you present some good work. I discovered Fine Art rather by accident while I was doing post processing.
It’s fascinating how, so often, we stumble across exciting things by pure accident. And now let’s have a look at some of the shots you’ve selected for this interview, which capture a few of your favourite memories.
This first photo, of a rice field in Isaan, is what set me free as a photographer. When taking the shot, I envisioned it in my mind’s eye in a certain way, and through processing I managed to achieve this vision. I took my inspiration from impressionist artists, such as Monet and Gauguin, not from other photographers as you may think. Here is the before and after:
Rice fields in Isaan, Thailand, before and after processing. The experiment led to Jackie’s “a ha” moment. Photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.
I took the next photo on my first trip to Isaan. A young woman, Nicha, took me to Prasat Ban Prasat Khmer temple ruins on a motorbike from her village. She did not know I was taking her photo:
Nicha’s quiet moment of prayer at a shrine in Isaan, Thailand; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.
Preah Vihear Khmer Temple ruins on the Cambodia-Thailand border (Southern Isaan) has been the subject of dispute between the two countries for some time now. On this trip, in 2006, I was with my family. We had no idea where we were going or the significance of what we were seeing. These ruins are now off limits to tourists:
What remains of the spiritual life of the six-centuries-long Khmer Empire, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.
This next one you will recognize: the restaurant scene on the paved promenade along Rawai Beach, located at the south end of Phuket Island. I love taking photos at night or late evening using a tripod sometimes but with a slow shutter. It takes a lot of editing but is fun:
The seafood restaurants along Rawai Beach, Phuket, affording beautiful views on the many nearby islands; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.
On a more personal note, here is an old photo of my parents, in an old-fashioned pose:
Dad and Mom Littletaylor, back in Texas, USA; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.
Last but not least, my two adorable little angels—I love this photo!
Jackie’s kiddiewinkles, son and daughter; photo credit: Jackie Littletaylor.
Indeed, I do recognise the one in Phuket. Thank you for sharing this special collection of your photos, including a couple of family portraits. I wonder, do you ever feel reserved about taking shots of people you haven’t met?
I do feel reserved about taking photos of people unless it’s a crowd of them, and I usually ask if I want only one person in the frame. I don’t find language a problem. People can see there is a camera so they know what is happening. In the Thai villages I now have people who actually ask me to take their photo, which is great. In my wife’s village in the past I made 8×10 prints of the villagers for her to give away as gifts.
“He’s got more guts than you could hang on a fence.”
That’s one way to boost your popularity. I believe there is a history of photography in your family?
Yes, photography runs in my family starting with my great grandfather and then my grandfather. But I think I’ve also been influenced by my time in Iraq. That experience reminded me that life can be short and should not be taken for granted. Without being over dramatic, every evening before we left the “wire” or base, I would get out and look at the moon or setting sun, not knowing if it was going to be my last. No sadness or fear. I feel the same with people. You never know when you see someone if it will be the last time. Photography can refresh the memory even after a long time, so it has become a part of my life and it would be strange to be without it. I also just love the beauty of landscapes. I know my photos are quite different. Some like them and some don’t. But most importantly I like them.
I have to agree with you there, Jackie. Trying to create art just to please others rarely works, and it’s a bonus when you find others with similar taste. On the technical side, some of our readers may want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I have always used Canon and now have a Canon EOS1 along with my L lenses which are in the US. Darn! When I left Iraq the last time I was told not to bring them back. These days I use a Canon G1X, which is small and has a great processor but not much lens for zooming. For post processing I use Adobe Lightroom for my basic editing and Nik for most of my artistic editing.
Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
My advice to others is simple. Take LOTS of pictures. I started in analogue where you bought the film and had to pay for processing to see the good and bad shots. Those were costly days. Now we have digital cameras the exposures are free so you don’t have to worry about cost and can experiment freely. Steve McCurry is the photographer who took that famous photo of the Afghan girl with the green eyes in a refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, which ended up on the 1985 cover of National Geographic. But he didn’t know the photo was so good until he was back in New York editing. That wouldn’t happen now. So, learn what your camera can do. Forget the flash and buy the best lens you can afford. On prints, don’t accept poor printing as no two printers or processors are alike. As to timing, I prefer early sunrise or the last two hours of sunset. But to repeat: experiment and use your own judgement; the photo is yours.
Thank you, Jackie, for the tips and for taking the time to tell us your fascinating story.
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Readers, what do you make of Jackie’s experiences? If you have any questions for him on his photo–travel adventures, please leave them in the comments!
If you want to get to know Jackie and his work better, I suggest that you follow:
You can also contact him by email.
(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Editor’s note: All subheadings in the above post are old Texan sayings or adages.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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