Astronaut Chris Hadfield has been shooting the ultimate landscapes. In the below video, he shares his passion and a little how to information for photographing stunning images of the earth, from space, while orbiting aboard the international space station (IST).
Normally, “lunch time,” when the sun is directly overhead, is not a great time to take landscape photos. But when you are in orbit, 400 Kilometers above, and the sun is directly over the land, and you are between them, you can actually have the sun at your back right where you want it, not over head relative to you. Want some great side lit images to make those “edges, borders, and changes” he talks about to pop,? Just wait a few minutes until you zip around to the side of the earth. Traveling at 8 Kilometers a second it does not take long.
What a wonderful opportunity to capture slices of the Earth and the play of light on it in ways not seen from any place else. I love the abstract images Chris gets, and the scale in them which is often completely lost. Honestly I do not know how he gets anything else done up there. I would just be watching and photographing every moment.
The Khmer New Year holiday is also called Chol Chnam Thmay, and the date is based on the ancient Khmer calendar. In Cambodia, so far, I have celebrated 3 New Years – this year, in 2013. There is the International New Year (the one celebrated in the West), Chinese New Year (a big deal here because of the strong Chinese influence), and the Khmer New Year, the most important in Cambodia. Held in mid-April, this year’s celebration was from April 14th through the 16th.
Khmer New Year marks the end of the harvesting season, when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labor before the rainy season begins. People visit each other, often making an exodus to their provincial homelands, wish each other good fortune, health, prosperity, and join in games.
In the days leading up to the celebration, people prepare new clothes, food, and drinks. They also repair, clean, and decorate their house.
This is the shrine and decorations built for the celebration on the porch outside my bedroom.
At the health center, all the trees got a new coat of decorative whitewash around their trunks.
We also had a lunchtime party with lots of food and beer.
My host brother Sarom did the cooking.
Each of the 3 festival days of the Khmer New Year celebration has a different name:
The first day is called Moha Songkran.
It is the ending of the year and the beginning of a new one. People dress up, light candles, and burn incense sticks at shrines paying homage and offering thanks for the Buddha’s teachings.
The second day is called Virik Wanabat.
People contribute charity to the less fortunate by helping the poor, servants, homeless, and low-income families. Families often attend a dedication ceremony to their ancestors at the monastery. I attended two of these one with my current host family, and one with my old host family at Pah’s home village about 10 Kilometers away.
Monks at our monastery passed a long line of people and received offerings of money and rice.
The third day is called Tngai Laeung Saka.
Buddhists cleanse Buddha statues and their elders with perfumed water. Bathing Buddha images symbolizes the importance of water for all plants and life. It is also thought to be a kind deed that will bring longevity, good luck, happiness, prosperity, and forgiveness for mistakes made in the previous year. I did not see any of this happen in my village, but I did get to see a traditional game played at the monastery.
In this game, a clay pot filled with baby powder is hung and blindfolded players are spun around and try to find and break the pot with a bat. If you are lucky and break the pot, you get showered in baby powder and win a prize of money.
Last night, while most here in Cambodia were sleeping, and those of you in North or South America were awake, but without a moon in your sky, I was up at 3 am photographing the third-shortest partial lunar eclipse in the 21st century.
The Earth’s dark umbral shadow barely clipped last night’s full moon for 27 minutes, causing a portion of the moon to disappear under darkness. This event was not as exciting as the annular solar eclipse I photographed last year, but it was still a beautiful event.
I did my best to explain to my Cambodian friends this lunar eclipse was going to happen. Most could not understand what I was talking about, and no one was interested in getting up a 3 am with me to see what ever I was talking about. There is a Khmer word for eclipse. I had to it up in the dictionary. Today when showed the word around, many people had not heard of the word. Most misinterpreted it as a new moon. So I have had several impromptu science lessons today with mixed results.
I am living with a new host family. From left to right, meet Kumpheak, Toum, Thary with little Sreylis, Yea, and Sarom.
I moved in March first. My new family is bigger and much more interactive with me, which I like. Thary is a midwife at the health center, so I have known her for a while. Sarom, her husband, is a stay at home dad and spends most of his time taking care of 19 months old Sreylis and their 13-year-old son Kumpheak. A stay at home dad and a working wife is an atypical arrangement for a rural Cambodian family.
Sreylis toddles around offering endless fun and joy. I feel good that I can speak Khmer better than her too, although I think she understands it better than me. Kumpheak is super nice, helpful around the house, shy, but always cheerful.
Toum is Thary’s younger sister. She runs the family’s small neighborhood shop in the front yard.
It does a booming local business selling coffee, rice wine, ice, and small household needs. Toum is quite camera shy, so for now you only get to see her shop. The shop is very popular especially with the neighborhood kids supplying them with treats. She also does most of the cooking here at the house, which is excellent. Although Sarom is quite renowned for his cooking as well. He is often hired to cook for large community events like weddings.
Ouch Touch, who everyone calls Yeah (which means grandmother) is Thary and Toum’s mother. She is super active gardening, cleaning, and keeping everything here in order. Her husband, Grandpa Som Mon (not pictured), I have never heard speak a word, to me or any one. Quite the opposite of his wife, he sits all day in his bed on the right side of the shop, and I have never seen him venture further than 10 feet from it.
We also have a rooster, 3 hens, numerous chicks, 3 cats, and two dogs. Between the rooster and the dogs that bark and howl all night, I have not had a full nights sleep in two months.
The house itself is not much different from my previous one. In fact my room is essentially the same, but slightly bigger at about 12 by 16 feet.
It’s on the second floor, wood with gaps between the exterior wallboards, and has two shuttered windows. Oh, and it has this styling wall paper with pictures of western babies and random Cambodian wedding photos.
A major differences lie in my overall physical comfort and the cleanliness of my new home. The lack of cement underfoot and metal carport roofing is much more agreeable to me. The surrounding yard, which is bigger, is sand covered, and actually feels cleaner than the cement covered yard of my previous home. The greater property is a mango orchard. For almost two months have been eating fresh mango everyday. There is also sugar cane and banana trees growing around the house.
Stories of my previous host family’s wealth captured the attention of those that are responsible for my well being, and it was decided that their side business (which I think is actually probably their primary business) of lending money, creates a safety and security concern for me. I received a phone call out of the blue one day informing me that I need to find a new host family.
Although they have been extremely nice and accommodating, living with them was challenging. I never achieved total comfort. I never found their home to be physically comfortable or warmhearted. Living with them was more of a tenant relationship and I felt like I was living in garage with nowhere comfortable to be.
Ironically, I just made peace with my situation days before receiving notice of my imminent move, which unsettled me. The several weeks leading to my move were stressful. Sah Paun’s wedding was in the works, and being a small community, everyone knows everybody and their business. Especially mine, as I am somewhat of a celebrity simply because of my foreign status. I had been asked to snoop around looking for possible new candidate families, and doing so made me very uncomfortable. I did not want the family to know because I did not know how moving would be perceived and I am quite ill equipped linguistically to adequately explain the situation.
The move day came. After looking at several other families in the community, Thary, and her husband Sarom offered to take me in to their home. With translating and negotiating assistance from Reaksmay, our Safety and Security Officer, the situation was amicably explained to my old family. I did not move far, I now live in the house next door, so i still see my old family often.
As a photographer that has photographed many weddings, it was very interesting for me to see the many differences between what I do in the US, and what I saw behind the scenes at Sah Paun and Vwin’s wedding. I thought I would share some of these observations in this follow up post.
I have been to quite a few Asian weddings, particularly in India. In fact the first wedding I ever photographed was an Indian-Pakistani wedding. This Cambodian wedding however was the most intricate wedding I have ever seen.
It was clear to me right off that no one person knew every detail of every ceremony and event that took place, particularly not the bride and groom. A wedding like this is really a team effort. To me what looked like chaos, came together into a very successful two-day event with the help of elder relatives, friends, and hired professionals. In particular the wedding photographer seemed to play a leading role.
During every ceremony and event, the photographer was there being very vocal about what and how things should be happening. More on him later.
Throughout the Khmer wedding, the couple is attired in matching brightly colored silk costumes. Often, even the wedding party (groomsmen and bridesmaids) are wearing coordinating colors. Each ceremony has its own color scheme, so the wedding party has to change outfits in-between almost every ceremony.
For the bride, this usually means changing her hairstyle and jewelry as well as her dress. I believe she changed into 7 different dresses.
So Sah Paun had a dedicated team of make up stylists and attendants for her and the bridal party in the back room. they made sure everything was as it should be.
It also meant a photo shoot every time there was a costume change. Before every ceremony, the photographer shot a series of formal photos documenting of all the outfits.
Formal shots like these are at the core of a Khmer wedding photo album. There is page after page of nearly the same pose, just different costumes, and you almost never see any one smiling. Pushing the couples heads to tilt in toward one another seemed very important. Perhaps to show affection? I don’t know. I had a great time capturing my shots like the one above just after his when people relaxed and smiled.
This photographer was a “director”. For every ceremony he shouted and aggressively pushed people into the exact position and pose he wanted for the shot. Sometimes he would even stop the ceremony and tell people to do something differently or again to get what he wanted. No one seems to mind. This intervention seems perfectly natural to everyone.
OK, so those of you who are not photographers, please excuse this slightly techy critique of the lighting. You can sort of see from the above shot that the photographer used a really simple set up for these formal shots. As his key light, not seen, are two bare strobes high to the left and right of the couple giving a sort of rim light. He also had a strobe in an umbrella, seen above, as a fill light high behind him. It was set maybe a stop or two darker. The lights were optically slaved and triggered by his on camera flash. For the ceremonies he took down the umbrella and just used the bare strobes in the same position to blast the whole seen with a relatively even light.
Having his strobes optically slaved was great for me because I could piggy back onto is lighting. I just set my camera flash to a low setting and every time I took a shot, I triggered his flashes. By setting my exposure to match his flash settings, I got the advantage of his lighting with my every shot.
I have been shooting weddings as part of my photography business for years, and it was such a treat for me to shoot this one and not be on the job! It was so much more fun and relaxing. My wedding work is in a totally different style than what this guy did. I shoot weddings in an editorial or documentary style. I try to be a fly on the wall not getting in the way, not directing, or altering the flow of events.
I look for the candid and un-posed shots. The quiet moments that everyone else misses. The shots that tell the story as it actually happened, not as it is expected to happen. I almost never saw this photographer shoot a photograph that was not posed or choreographed.
I’m don’t try to be sneaky, but I like to get shots without the subject even knowing so they are reacting to the people and events around them, not my camera. I feel like that way I am not interfering. After all it is not about me. Of course sometimes I get busted trying like I did here with Sah Paun. Cambodians love to have their photos taken making this hand gesture.
… At any age. I have no idea what it means. I think it is supposed to be glamorous.
This was my favorite photographer moment. When he pulled up a chair right in the middle of the ceremony and sitting there started yelling directions and telling everyone what to do. Actually, I admire the guy for taking control of the situation and getting the job done. However, as a cultural outsider, I often felt like he was rude and made the moment about what he wanted, and not about the ceremony or the the bride and groom. But in the end, it is about making the client happy, and everyone at this wedding seemed happy.
Sah Paun and Vwin’s Cambodian wedding continues with more ceremonies after a beef stew and rice lunch. To my amazement no alcohol has yet been served at this event.
“Honor your parents as you do the gods.” This common Khmer sentiment is rooted in a Buddhist parable about not forgetting “kun” – a kind act or deed for which one owes repayment (a debt of gratitude). Without parents, one cannot be brought into the world to honor the gods in the first place.
Sah Paun and Vwin hold umbrellas over their parents as a gesture symbolizing the protective parental role. This ceremony honors and thanks the couple’s parents by reversing the roles of parent and child. As their parents have taken care of them over the years, now that they’re marrying, it is the couple’s turn to protect and care for their parents.
A traditional song is performed on a two stringed instrument called a Tro, as a singer sings a song telling the bride of the hardships in raising a child. It is a song of parental duty and fulfillment, which the bride and groom will one day experience them selves.
The ceremony has been one of the longer ones lasting over an hour.
In this ceremony, currently married couples are asked to gather in a circle around the bride and groom. Three candles are lit and passed clockwise from person to person around the circle 7 times. The flame of the pure bee-wax candles represents anger, which the couple should avoid as it can disrupt their marriage.
The smoke of the flame, however, is sacred enough to protect them from all evils if they are sincerely committed to each other. Thus, each participant passes his or her right hand over the flame sweeping the smoke towards the couple, sending a silent blessing to them. Only married couples are asked to participate, as it is believed that they will pass along the special quality or essence that has preserved their own union.
Next, Sah Paun and then Vwin’s parents tie red blessing strings around their wrists. Praises and well wishes of happiness, good health, success, prosperity, and long-lasting love are acknowledged and witnessed by the loud sound of the gong and joyful cheer.
Guests now come forth to place gifts of money into the couples clasped hands. This is an opportunity for each guest to personally bestow blessings or well wishes on the couple, and at the same time, get a photo taken of them with the couple.
As you can see the bride and groom did fairly well with their cash take.
The final event at a Cambodian wedding is the dinner banquet or reception party. This is when the real partying begins! The bride and groom stand ready at the entrance to the wedding tent supported by family, the bridesmaids, and groomsmen welcoming guests.
At bigger weddings like this, there is usually a live band. The band plays Khmer and Korean pop/techno music until around 11:30 pm. There are multiple singers and young Khmer dancing girls dressed provocatively in mini skirts. The girls perform slow synchronized repetitive steps (think slow motion go go girls) while making graceful flowing traditional Khmer dance hand gestures.
Now the beer starts flowing, and the best food yet is served. Multiple courses are brought to each table starting with the appetizer of nuts and small processed meat preparations that I cannot really identify.
Then the famous wedding fish arrives. It is a large steamed catfish like fish with moist flaky white meat. It’s great once you learn how to avoid the small sharp bones.
These small birds, which from their description, sound to me as though they are pigeons, are also served. They are all dark meat that is delicious once you get passed their little heads with the screaming beaks.
It is exciting to have Jill, Jody, Ryan, and Andrew, some of my Peace Corps buddies come. The family is also thrilled to have a table of foreigners which brings them greater status as it is perceived that to know foreigners makes you more important. They all made long bike rides to get to my village just for this wedding, and I am thankful for their effort and bringing an extra level of fun to my night.
The bride and groom make a final costume change, that to me looks the most traditionally western. During breaks in the music, the couple gets on stage, and similar to a western wedding, there are introductions, speeches, and thanks given.
Sah Paun tosses her bridal bouquet making one young lady guest very happy.
Typically dancing at a Khmer wedding is a group of people, often mostly the drunk men, moving slowly, clock wise around a table with an arrangement of flowers or fruit on it. No one touches one another. It is a sort of traditional style of movement with small footwork and graceful gyrating shoulder, arm, and hand movements, that are in total disregard and disconnect to the deafening beat of the thumping techno music. The influence of those few Americans in attendance seems to have somehow altered the norm.
This is also the first Cambodian wedding I have been to that I have seen the bride and groom dance touching in the western style. Honestly though, they looked a little like uncomfortable middle schoolers doing their first “slow dance”.
Guests of the wedding banquet are expected to give money to the wedding couple. An envelope is usually included in the official invitation and a table is set up near the tent entrance for collecting. Attendants mark the amount a person gives into a registry and it is often announced over the PA who gave how much. A typical gift is $10, a sizable amount for rural Cambodia. When you make less than $100 per month, attending a lot of weddings in a given month can actually be quite financially straining to a family. The money collected is typically used to help off set the expense of the wedding.
At 11:30 the band stopped playing and started packing up. So did the cooks, and the tables and tent started coming down. Most of the guests left, and a great wedding ended.
As with many of the ceremonies in Cambodian weddings, the Hai Goan Gomloh symbolizes the mythological marriage of the first Khmer prince to the Naga princess Neang Neak. While the bride waits at her parent’s house, the groom gathers a procession of his family and friends, and journeys to meet the bride.
Today, Vwinn’s makes this symbolic journey to meet his bride Sah Paun. Vwin’s procession is especially figurative as our 32 year old groom has already been living with his 16 year old bride in our house for several months now. This pre-marital living arrangement is extremity atypical in Khmer culture.
As the groom’s procession approaches the bride’s home, Sah Paun’s mother, and father meet Vwin and his parents at the gate. Traditionally, after assessing and accepting the worthiness of gifts brought by the groom, the bride’s parents invite the procession into their home. This symbolic inspection is made, and the procession is invited to enter.
As this was strictly a ceremonial procession, members of Vwin’s procession were not obligated to bring their own gifts. As they enter the wedding tent they are handed the silver and gold trays that the family prepared last night.
Once the procession is seated, they are entertained by musicians and singers singing a traditional song telling of the grooms journey, and the wonderful gifts he has brought.
San Paun meets her groom at the gate and escorts Vwin into her home past all the guests.
With her bridesmaids following behind, Sah Paun approaches the parents who sit waiting to receive her.
She performs the traditional Khmer greeting, a bow combined with a bringing of the hands together at the chest known as the ‘Sampeah’. This is presumably to honor the parents for her new husband.
Su Paha, the happy mother of the bride.
Breakfast is served. Bor bah, is a rice porridge and is a traditional food that is eaten almost daily by most Cambodians. It can be very bland and watery with little nutritional value, or enriched with meat and vegitables as families can afford. Today’s offering is rich in flavor and nutrients.
After breakfast, there is a dialogue between the matchmakers, and parents of the bride and groom. This is the presenting of the dowry ceremony. Arrangements, as I understand it are actually made in advance, but this is the ceremonial discussion. Once the dowry’s details are settled between the families, the arrangement is announced over the PA system for the entire community to hear and know.
The groom’s parents officially present the dowry to the bride’s parents. Sah Paun’s Dowry today is $400 US dollars and the wedding rings.
While this is taking place, the bride and groom undergo another costume change, watch, and wait.
A newer Khmer tradition is the exchanging of wedding rings. Sah Paun and Vwin join their parents, and after offering them each gifts of respect, seat themselves for the ring exchange.
This exchange is quick and reminiscent of the ring ceremony in a western wedding. However, there is no exchange of vows, and this does not officially mean they are married yet.
Off for another costume change and to prepare for the next ceremony.
Traditionally, before the bride and groom are officially married, they must be properly prepared through an elaborate cleansing ceremony. Singers, representing visiting devada (deities who watch over the mortal realms), dance around the bride and groom singing songs of their enchantment with the beauty of the new couple. This act is also cleansing, and purifying them, to bring good fortune, beauty, and grace to the rest of their lives.
A modern twist on this tradition incorporated something more akin to a comedy act. Two singers danced and sang, but also flirted and embarrassed the groomsmen with some culturally surprising touching from the female singer.
This is perhaps the most relaxed I have seen the Sah Paun and Vwin during the entire event so far. Everyone smiles, laughs, and for the first time, the wedding couple actually look like they are having fun.
The cleansing of the bride and groom and preparation for their life as a married couple, includes symbolically cutting their hair. This represents a fresh start to their new relationship together as husband and wife. The bride and groom’s parents, relatives, and friends each take turns emblematically cutting the bride and groom’s hair, blessing them, and wishing them well. In the old days, the bride and groom’s hair were really cut during this ceremony.
More to come next time…
Last week was all about Sah Paun and Vwin’s wedding. You may remember my post on Sah Paun’s engagement. Finally, the wedding day has arrived. In a series of posts this week, I’ll share with you the images and as best I can an explanation of this Cambodian wedding’s ceremonies and traditions.
Cambodian or Khmer weddings are long and intricate affairs often lasting for days. They are full of color, festivity, and steeped in tradition. I’ve been to several wedding celebrations, but only to the reception party. This is my first time experiencing a Khmer wedding in its entirety.
January through March is known as wedding season in Cambodia. Choosing the appropriate time to marry is quite an elaborate affair. Families consult fortunetellers, feng shui masters, and Buddhist holy monks to determine the most auspicious date, time, and other ceremonial arrangements. The rainy season from May to October is usually avoided as the heavy rains make it difficult for the reception, procession, and other ceremonies. It is also challenging for travel and farmers are usually busy with their fields.
Weddings traditionally consisted of ceremonies and celebrations lasting three days and three nights. Cambodians consider three an especially auspicious number because of its association with the “three jewels” of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Sangha (brotherhood of monks), and the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings). Due to the demands of contemporary life however, Cambodian wedding ceremonies are now often completed in just one or two days. Although there may be some regional differences, all Khmer weddings share some essential similarities with some being bigger than others. Sah Paun and Vwin’s wedding, a mix of old and new traditions, is one of the bigger, lasting two days, hosting over 800 guests, and costing almost $30,000.
A large truck arrives in the morning, a bunch of guys jump out and run round all day erecting a huge tent that spans across the road in front of the house and consuming most of the neighbors front yard as well.
Stock piles of food that have been accumulating over the last few days are moved out to the improvised kitchen in the neighbors yard. A small army of cooks start the prep work and light fires under the massive pots that cook all the food that will be served over the next two days.
Sah Paun’s grandparents construct an alter piece made from pieces of banana tree to be used in the first ceremony of the wedding.
In Khmer culture, family bonds are very important, and a marriage is the inclusion of a couple into their new families. Family is called upon to share in this celebration and offer their blessings. This ceremony also calls forth those who have passed away, both family and friends, to offer their blessings and observe the wedding.
In this ceremony, two monks invoke blessings that have been specifically chosen for the couple. The couple is showered with flowered water periodically by the monks as the couple and attending close family are blessed. This is a solemn occasion and guests and the couple remain quiet, with their heads bowed and their hands in prayer.
The ceremony completes with Sah Paun and Vwin offering their thanks to the monks.
As the first afternoon turns to night, musicians play and sing traditional Khmer songs as dinner is served to the family. I quite enjoyed this alternative to the habitual loud pre-recorded pop music that I usually hear blaring from the loudspeakers of weddings and events.
The music continues into the night as relatives assemble gifts of flowers, fresh fruit, candies, and other decorations arranged on silver and gold platters. The platters are often placed on the floor or a table in front of the bride and groom and will be used tomorrow during ceremonies.
It was an exhausting first day, and even Sah Paun’s new puppy was done.