Sunday, March 8, 2015

How A First Camera at 18 Led Me To A Life Of Adventurous Travels And Enriching Experiences

At 18, looking ahead to a long exciting life.

Today, much of that life is behind me. Not so my quest for the lesser-known members of our fascinating humanity.

Once, in what now seems like another life, a friend lent me the money to buy a camera--a small Kodak Retina with a fixed 50mm lens.  He used it to take this picture of me. I was 18 and obviously happy, as if I knew the wonderful turn photography would give my life, years later, far from my native Belgium. But I knew not, of course. And it was just as well, for I would have to beat worse odds than I could ever imagine, starting with the need to self-educate.

This friend had been my scout master until, at 15, I was forced to leave school and the boy scouts to go work 12 hours a day, often with no days off.
He used a Leica to shoot action pictures that thrilled me. Besides helping me to buy my first camera he spent two days teaching me the basics of photography. I quit my job to free myself for this opportunity.

I wonder sometimes what direction my life would have taken, had that loan not been offered. For life is a net of possible paths, every one leading in a different direction. To excitement or boredom. To success or failure. To happy or failed marriage. To longevity or early death... And we rarely know which path is best before having followed it for a while, sometimes too far. But I was lucky. I did not know it, but that precious little Kodak Retina was the first of many steps that would lead to a life of wonderful, though sometimes dangerous, adventures in Africa, Asia, and South America.

At 21, after two years of military service as a sergeant in Occupied Germany, I worked on a ship bound for the Belgian Congo. There, spending my only two free days on land photographing the natives, I had an epiphany. As a kid I had dreamed of becoming an explorer. Since then, having learned that the world no longer needed explorers, I had cursed the fate that had brought me to this world too late. But now photography, I thought, could help me live the explorer’s life. I would seek out the little-known regions of the world and their intriguing people with a camera and a pen. I would produce magazine stories and books. I had no idea how difficult that would be, but I was ready for a conquest.

To start, I needed money. And luck this time arrived with a Sabena Airlines three-year contract in Congo, where my salary would triple what I earned in Brussels. I was 22, and got married before leaving.

At 24, having rebelled against an injustice, I lost my job and was flown back to Brussels with my wife and a Vespa 125 cc I owned. Three months later, now the proud owner of a Leica M3 and two lenses, I mounted my Vespa and rode it all the way to Cape Town, through the length of Africa and across an Algeria at war with France. It was not an intelligent idea, but that’s what occurred to me then. My na├»ve plans were to write a book about that adventure. I had read many travel books and thought I could write one too. And in my mind that book would pave my way to more adventures.

That 1957 journey, along nightmarish trails rarely traveled by other vehicles, was lonely. Especially when my Vespa stopped working, and help, in the middle of nowhere, could take two days to arrive. Sand, rocks, and later the mud of a rainy season constantly catapulted me over my handle bar. To protect my tiny capital, I ate at indigenous markets and slept under the stars, occasionally pulled out of my sleep by prowling wild animals. Wildlife was abundant in Africa. Much more so than people.

On my return to Brussels the Vespa Company invited me to speak at a press conference it convened in my honor. In exchange for the 125 cc beat-up Vespa, which the company would exhibit around Europe, it offered me a brand new 150 cc Vespa, which I accepted.

I enjoyed a moment of fame, and a magazine editor approached me, interested in reading my story. But he found it unpublishable. I did not know where to seek editing help and the story was not published, except for free in several installments of a Vespa Club magazine (recently, I also told it in a memoir, which is in the hands of Neil Soderstrom, my agent). But nothing was lost. The Vespa journey had taught me much of what I would need to succeed later.
For now, I realized that, as a solo traveler, I would have to learn not only to shoot better pictures, but also to write better. I would eventually learn to write for publication not only in my native French, but also in English and Spanish
(25 years later, while living in Colombia, I would self-publish nine photo books on that country).

The next six years brought me different kinds of adventures. First two kids. Then Immigration with my family to Montreal and, 15 months later, to New York. But my focus remained unchanged. Sleeping only five or six hours a night, I worked two jobs the whole time, always to earn enough to pay for another cheap African journey.

I was finally ready for it in 1963. I was 30. This time my wife would not let me go alone, and my father-in-law thought aloud that I was a boy scout who would never grow up. We hitchhiked from Algiers to the coast of Benin and back, and hired some Tuareg nomads to guide us through the Sahara on a month-long camel journey between Niger and Algeria.

Venture magazine gave my story its cover and ten pages. Argosy magazine, a photo agency, and other photo buyers paid me enough extra money for the use of my photography that I more than recovered the journey’s modest expenses and extra photographic gear I had purchased before leaving.

National Geographic had also shown interest in my story. But I had shot it in black and white, and its editors had recently decided to go all color. They hesitated a whole year, but in the end decided against making a last exception. So I persuaded them to let me ride with a Sahara salt caravan, which they accepted. The story made the cover of their November 1965 issue. It also spread over 16 pages of Paris-Match magazine and covered more than half the pages of a French book on the Sahara.

This sudden success started many decades of other adventurous travel assignments, for those two magazines as well as many others, besides books.
I would eventually document the cultures of some 30 indigenous people in three continents, sharing their lives for weeks or months each time, and learning that below the surface humanity is one big family.

I taught this to my children by taking them to many of my favorite places, including a five-month trans-African jeep journey:

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