Kass Mencher's "Fixed in Eternity," Parts 7 & 8

With today's installment of "Fixed in Eternity," we continue our presentation of Kass Mencher's project about Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Kass and her husband Eric Mencher have lived several months per year since 2010 in villages around Lake Atitlan, photographing and observing Maya culture and the landscape surrounding the former caldera of, now one of the world's deepest and most mysterious lakes. In February 2018, the Menchers will co-teach "The Analytical & The Intuitive," a special photography workshop in which they will lead discussions and experiments in Light and Shadow, Space (and How to Use It), Composition, and Moment. Visit the workshop page to learn more: http://www.seekworkshops.com/select-workshop/lake-atitlan-guatemala-mencher
--Andrew Sullivan

All photos and text courtesy of Kass Mencher


silent with stones
becomes day

“We tell ourselves stories to try to come to terms with the world, to harmonize our lives with reality.” - Bill Moyers

The world began on August, 13, 3114 B.C. And it began not far from where my lady at dawn is standing, in the waters off Santiago. “Before the world was made, on Lake Atitlán existed at the center of everything. Everything was covered with water. Then the three volcanoes grew out of the lake and lifted the sky. A cosmic hearth was created which they lit with a lightning bolt igniting new life in a new dawn” - Maya elder


For eons the Maya have fished the same fish in the same way from their cayucos that they gracefully guide along the lake, making the difficult seem easy. And Chaac the rain god, also a fisherman, provided them with a varied bounty of fish for centuries and centuries until 1958, when a plague of large mouth bass from Florida and Alabama rained down through the sky from the wings of Pan Am Airlines. Like many ill-considered ideas prompted by self-interest (tourist dollars) and not much else, this did not end well.

The Maya ended up with less fish--not more--and many local species were devoured out of existence. Pan Am went bust and lake hotels were able to fill rooms anyway, without the help of the U.S. sports fisherman.

Today, fishermen's wives still get up before sunrise to make fresh tortillas for their husbands who still begin their days with the twilight of dawn.

A Simple Camera

Now that Fujifilm has released the X100F, an updated version of their carry-anywhere, photograph-anything-other-than-wildlife-from-a-distance digital rangefinder-style camera, I decided that it wasn't too late to offer my opinion of its predecessor, the joy-inducing X100T (even if I have had it for two years). 

I recognize that cameras are machines, inanimate complex tools designed to serve the whims of photographers, and that perhaps it isn't right to suggest that such a device might have a personality. The idea of the camera's personality emerges from its traditional design and the layout of its controls, how it renders images, and how it operates in the field. When someone unfamiliar with Fuji cameras asks me about the X100T, the consistent question is whether it is a vintage 35mm film-shooting rangefinder. I respond that it's an advanced digital camera with cutting edge design, and that I haven't been as satisfied with a camera since the mid-90's, when my standard kit was two Nikon F3HP SLR's with 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm manual focus lenses. 

Some camera review readers may find that statement puzzling, but this camera encourages a simpler style of shooting that does the most important thing. Used with thought and consideration, the X100T can make you a better photographer. I am convinced it has done that for me. The comparison with the Nikon F3HP comes to this point- I started my career using those sturdy, simple cameras (when I bought both bodies and and the aforementioned lenses everything was already fairly old and well-used), and my work evolved rapidly. The evolution was  due to concentrated effort, excitement about new adventures and the infinite possibilities of photography, but also the luxurious feeling of a reliable camera that essentially disappeared while taking taking pictures.


To me, basic well-designed controls laid out in a way that enables their use to become intuitive is the key to a good camera. Perhaps I am a Luddite, but working with Canon and Nikon digital SLRs and their brethren always left me cold, longing for the large and bright viewfinder of the Nikon F3HP. Reverting to using vintage cameras and shooting film for work wasn't an option, but so much of the joy of taking a photo was vanishing- blotted out by the need to perform gymnastics while pressing intricate combinations of buttons, navigating Byzantine menus, and the feeling I was holding a computerized brick to my eye.

Simplicity in technique and equipment was drilled into me early in my career from studying the books of Cartier-Bresson, who created most of his legendary body of work with one Leica rangefinder and a 50mm lens. Limiting the amount of gear to carry gives the freedom to concentrate on your subject, forces you to think creatively within the limitations of your tools, and gives you the agility to embrace the physical aspects of photography on the move. And after studying in 1994 with iconic war photographer James Nachtwey, who described using two cameras with 28mm and 35mm lenses, the power of the idea of simplicity with technique and equipment was confirmed. 

The X100T insists the photographer embrace limitations. The 23mm lens (equivalent to the field of view of a 35mm lens on an old-fashioned 35mm film camera) is built into the camera. You can't change the lens to a super wide angle or to a telephoto. To get closer to or farther away from your subject, you have to use a primitive form of zoom - your feet. You can buy a camera that has the ability to zoom from the ultra-wide to the extreme telephoto, but it won't necessarily make you a better photographer. Having a camera with those sorts of capabilities may be convenient, but convenience makes you lazy. You won't move as much, you won't think as much about your compositions, or how the light falls on your subject. You'll think about figuring out how your camera works, and you'll wonder at its technical complexity. Unfortunately that may also lead to photographing in such a way that excludes feeling or emotion from your pictures.

If you want to photograph people, whether as a street photographer or in a documentary situation as a reportage photographer, the X100T calls on you to confront any anxiety you might have of strangers - you have to get close to them to make interesting photos. The X100T is also so fast and quiet - silent, if you set it up that way - that many people won't even be aware that you have taken a picture. This silent performance doesn't disrupt the atmosphere where you're shooting. While any printed photograph is a representation of a moment in time, (an actual physical object that is separate and different from the moment itself), photographers working with daily life as their raw material want to make images that recreate the experience of being there  in the moment for their viewers. They want to transmit those uncorrupted candid glimpses into something that can be held, savored, and studied. I contend that the X100T with its simplicity, speed of operation, light weight, and reliability of performance helps me transmit those experiences through light into emotion and feeling. It gets out of the way, and it does its job. This camera makes me feel like a photographer again.

This all may be old news, but I celebrate the thought that the X100T brings photography back to the idea that content, narrative, and even poetry, are the most important things. You don't need 50 megapixels and a $4,000 camera body to make someone's heart sing. Many people intrigued by photography today have more interest in the technical capabilities of cameras, rather than in the power of an emotive photograph. It feels liberating to use this small camera to focus on aspects of photography that matter most. Photography can reflect life. It can reveal beauty in unexpected places. It can celebrate joy. It can show tragedy and pain. My partner in this process, the X100T, helps me share those things I see, and it reminds again and again how enjoyable this practice is, and how lucky I am to have lived a photographer's life.

SEEK Interviews: Q. Sakamaki

This is the second in an occasional series of interviews with SEEK instructors, our colleagues and friends, curators, photographers of all different kinds, our influences, and people who we think you might find interesting. Today we bring you SEEK instructor Q. Sakamaki, a New York City-based two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club Award who has published five books of his work. Q blends coverage of global events with his personal interpretation of how these events affect people's lives and psyches. We are planning a workshop in Mexico City this year which will feature Q teaching with his friend and colleague Spencer Platt. Follow Q's work on Instagram @qsakamaki - and read more about him on his bio page here: http://www.seekworkshops.com/q-sakamaki/ For now, please enjoy this email interview and two galleries of Q's work. The first is from his project, "China's Outer Lands":


SEEK: What is the most important thing when it comes to taking photos? 

QS: To catch emotion related to human dramas, or even to reveal what may be behind those dramas. Through photography, I would like to explore humanity — who we are and what is important or critical for us. Then, I would like to share the work as much as I can. 

SEEK: Can you tell us a little about your friendship with Spencer and how your teaching together will be an interesting experience for students? 

QS: We have known each other more than decade. Both of us cover international affairs, as well as domestic issues in the United States. We often encounter each other in hot spots, including conflict zones, such as Israel, Palestine, Sudan, and Greece (during the recent refugee crisis). We share information and exchange our own views in such places or in New York where both of us live. We share much common ground about humanity, journalism, and photography. However, our style is quite different, since he works for Getty Images as a wire type of a dynamic photographer, on the other hand, I work more likely aiming for magazines, especially for feature stories, often with fine-art like aesthetic images. So, teaching together with Spence will be very interesting for students, since they'll learn different perspectives to swim well in the very demanding seas of photo-documentary and photo-journalism. 

SEEK: You mentioned in your bio that you are combining elements of fine art with documentary photography with aspects of your identity. Can you elaborate on this idea? How does your identity come into play with your photography?

QS: First, any personal expression could be art. Photo-documentary should be so, though in the arena of non-fiction. Due to this nature, I would like to combine my documentary photography with fine art to make my photography grow more.

Second, for me, it is not enough to photograph the moment as it is. Although, again, there is no fabrication and no bias in photo-journalism and photo-documentary, it is also equally, or ever more important to seek something behind the scenes captured in front of us — like something universal, for example, injustice or the human soul. Those have evolved in humanity throughout history, and are nearly always related to identity and belonging of people. However, unlike the general notion, identity and belonging are often changing — at least these are not perfectly definable. This has affected me as well - I moved from place to place many times in my childhood (often facing discrimination), and now I have lived in the United States much longer than I ever lived in Japan. Thus, to explore human dramas, combining with my own identity and belonging is very natural. And through such a process, I would like to figure out what humans are, and where we came from, and where we are heading.

SEEK: And you also mentioned that it could be possible to explore one's own future through photography. Will you tell us more about this idea?

QS: As I mentioned above, photography can be a process of seeking for universal values, since to take photos is to explore human dramas, even the motivations behind them. It also could become a means to figure out what humans are, as any human drama is related to the past, present, and future. So, photography can be a significant process to explore both where we humans came from and where we are heading.

tsunami photo workshops san miguel de allende mexico

SEEK: In your recent project, "Tojinbo: Suicide Cliffs," you've taken on a challenging and sensitive topic. A few of the photos seem to have metaphorical elements. This appears to be an effective way to evoke a deeper meaning within an individual picture and to affect the overall body of work. How do you create a metaphor with a photo?

QS: Yes, that is right. I like metaphors in my photography and it could be very effective for not only an individual photo, but also for a whole work, since the world is not so simple, each subject has very complicated matters and elements around it, even though those are related to each other. So, for the creation of an individual photo, I nearly always look for elements that can be not only related to the theme of the story, but can also give deeper meanings and often evoke something haunted behind the story or scene.

SEEK: Many thanks to Q for sharing his thoughts and his photographs. Please visit www.qsakamaki.com for extended edits and many more bodies of work. We conclude this interview with a selection of photos from Q's coverage of the 2011 tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, both shortly after the event and his return one year later to photograph stories of survival.

SEEK Interviews: Spencer Platt

This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with SEEK instructors, our colleagues and friends, curators, photographers of all different kinds, our influences, and people who we think you might find interesting. Starting off this series is an interview with SEEK instructor Spencer Platt, who is Senior Staff Photographer for Getty Images in New York City. Spencer's long career has taken him around the world, covering international events ranging from wars, famines, and refugee crises to Presidential elections and stories of daily life. Follow Spencer's work on Instagram @plattys1 - and read more about him on his bio page here: http://www.seekworkshops.com/s-platt/ For now, please enjoy this interview (which was conducted by email).

SEEK: Can you tell us a bit about your experience in Albania in the mid-90's? How did you feel working there? What was something you encountered that was challenging, and how did you overcome it?

SP: I went to Albania in 1996 out of the frustration of working at a small regional newspaper. While it was the perfect setting to learn the craft of photojournalism, there was a monotony to my life that I wanted to alter, to throw it all into the sea. I went on the encouragement of my mother and the experience committed me forever to the life of a photojournalist, one of the last romantic careers. The country was in chaos, there were riots in the streets and the old communist order was being pulled apart. At the time I don’t think I was aware of the bigger historical picture or what it all meant for the future. I was simply happy to be roaming the country for 10 days with two film cameras and a rucksack. In one southern city they burned the police station down as I arrived on the night train; I somehow found a hotel and managed to get some food. I barricaded myself in the little room with an old dresser against the door, there was shooting in the street and I was terrified. It was one of the happiest nights of my life.

SEEK:In your bio you mentioned the theme of "a life worth living." What does that mean to you?

SP: I desperately wanted to be a “witness” to history, to be engaged in something larger than myself. What I learned from the experience is the idea of personal agency, how we have the power to shape our lives and careers in ways I never quite understood. Prior to my experiences in Albania I was of the impression that we primarily reacted to external events as humans, that we had only modest control over our destiny. While I was very young and naive on that trip, it taught me that action, decisiveness and original thought will often bring rewards…or at the very least experiences that give your life a durability that you can profit from. I haven’t always taken this lesson to heart in my photographic career, but it I strive to keep this idea in mind and am certain it has shaped my life. We live in an age that is increasingly passive, where too many of us are relegated to voyeurs on social media, television or other forms of entertainment. 

SEEK: How is being a flaneur, or, "a stroller of the street," important to you as a photographer?

SP: The beauty of street photography is that it demands engagement with your world. You can’t pursue this kind of work from an office or bedroom, from looking at a screen or listening to a podcast. One needs to be physically and spiritually in the present moment. One of the most beautiful aspects of street photography is that it’s an instrument you can play for the rest of your life, constantly tweaking it or re-examining it, but it ill always be there for you. I think once a person becomes comfortable with their personal vision it is a very therapeutic way to get through life. 

SEEK: Can you tell us a little about your friendship with Q and how your teaching together will be an interesting experience for students?

SP: I’ve forgotten where I first met Q, but it was certainly while covering a war some place. We worked very differently but somehow managed to be good traveling companions. In conflict situations it is always better to travel with someone else in case you run into trouble. You must also trust this persons advice and feel at ease with their decisions on how to proceed with the day; where the pictures will be made. This is very important and Q has always had a sense for how news events will unfold. Before you make an important picture there is often much thinking and debating, much walking and watching.

SEEK: Can you elaborate on how you think photojournalism and photography can be a way of "demanding more from life?"

SP: If there is anything I want my work to achieve it is the idea of the “rugged” life, both physically and mentally. A life that doesn’t divert from risk or discomfort, that seeks to constantly improve on our skills and to being a committed actor in our time. This sense of engagement involves literature, music, photography and a deep empathy. This sense of empathy, or compassion for others, is only fully realized through art. Street photography, when deeply pursued, it is the study of the theater of the street, of the small and large dramas that define who we are.