A few dollars & change

Let’s start with an update. After a long absence from working-life, due to Lyme and co, I am back to working part-time. My health is not yet where it needs to be, but ok enough to put in some carefully planned work hours every day. This carefully exercised balancing act has taken some energy away from writing and photography, but the joy of being around people again, more than made up for it. Who knew that spending a few hours a day around people could be as important as the quiet time I always search out in nature.

mushroom-BW3

Summer approached, arrived and left in a hurry. The most anticipated time of the photographer’s year flew by without me giving it much attention. My photographic celibacy from Spring continued into Summer. Outings were still regular, but less frequent than in other Summers. The culprit was not so much physical limitations, but mainly a lack of inspiration. I had never thought social media could take such a huge bite out of my creativity. Still it did, and the effects are still lingering. I am still not interested much in what other photographers post online. Not that I don’t care about their creative work, but I am desperately trying to cherish that little spark of inspiration that comes to me every now and then through my own intuitive channels.


Ok, so the focus has been less on photography lately and more on other things. After nearly 3 years of not working and getting through what I hope was the worst of my health journey, I have started working again. This Spring, I met with a business owning friend who generously offered me a few work hours per week which would consist of 20% standing and 80% sitting (really this is what we agreed to). The “few” hours have quickly grown into working half days. The other part of the day is still focused on a lot of resting and contributing to a normal household. The health journey with its notorious ups and downs is far from over, but compared to a year ago I can hesitantly say, while knocking on wood, that I am doing better.

combo

Photography has kept me somewhat sane in past years by being able to distract and inspire myself in a healing natural environment. While I need solitude at times, I’ve encountered more than a good share of quietness in recent years. Boxing yourself in is an automatic thing you do when you are tired and miserable. That downward spiral into isolation becomes yet another challenge to deal with. While counsellors and doctors always encouraged me to be around people, I hesitated, fearful of yet another setback. But stepping back into the work place has turned out to be an eye-opening experience for me. Even for a borderline introvert like myself, being around colleagues and customers has made all the difference. Apparently, there is not just a caveman in me, but also a social being. Maybe just not a frantic social media being.

 

I’ve noticed yet another shift in my behaviour. Where I would always set lofty goals for myself and pushed myself to aim for perfection (and consequently burn myself out),  I realized that my appetite in photography and writing, like many endeavours in my life, were also larger than….well….me. With the sabbatical I have taken from a narrow focus on photography and the always awkward race for social media attention, the realization settled in that only very few of us are going to be the next Ansel Adams. If I want to become well-known writer or successful photographer I’d better get comfortable with pushing myself into the spotlight of the digital media world. But, it turns out I don’t feel the need to be on the cover of National Geographic or even the local newspaper. Right now, I am actually quite ok with a modest background role.

mushroom-BW1

Call it a sign of getting older and wiser, or a breakthrough in a midlife crisis, I’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that writing and photography are currently just a hobby, not much more, not terribly less. Surprisingly my ever-so-vocal ego, is ok with it. As a result, my weeks are happily spent working half days with colleagues, helping customers in a perfectly predictable routine, and resisting the temptation of wanting much much more.

 

No doubt the adventurer in me will get bored and look for new dreamy castles in the sky to be conquered. No doubt my demanding ego will drive me out of the present and into the future of “what if” and “what else”. But with a delicate health at stake, I have now a partner in slowing down and cherishing the small victories. Perhaps treating photography and writing just as a hobby, fits perfectly in my newly acquired routine.

 

 

 

ps 2016 Macro Photography Calendars now available!

 

 


 

Let’s talk about me

As part of life on Facebook, I am a member of a highly secretive community of local photographers who share ideas, help one another move forward and regularly make fun of each other. As part of a new initiative to put a spotlight on one of the photographers, Kurtis – a commercial photographer and one of group the moderators – decided to interview me.

The interview took place in one of Canmore’s cozy coffeeshops. Afterwards Kurtis took some photos of me and our dog Charm in the backyard.  I was given four questions to reflect on and asked to select four of my favourite macro images over the next few days. You will find the results below. It was nice to be interviewed in such as professional, yet personal manner. The questions forced me to think more about the intentions and motivations behind my photography and will allow me to move forward.

I can highly recommend Kurtis for his commercial photography work. His website can be found at http://www.spindriftphotography.com

martin_v_011 webMartin was nominated as someone who is working on his craft and giving back to others in his community. ~ Interviewed by Kurtis Kristianson.

For many of us, photography has not only become an outlet of creativity or passion but also a means of therapy. The focus needed to really pursue our craft can at times fill our spirits and sometimes it blocks out our own anxieties. The drive to create can take the place of a dangerous habit or it can take the place of a dangerous state of mind. We all have our reasons and motivations for being in this place, using photography as an outlet and strangely enough, wanting to be a part of this community.

Martin van den Akker has been living in Canmore for around 12 years now but in the last few has found a renewed passion for photography. Primarily a self-described “nature” photographer, Martin has moved from broader landscape work to macro photography partially due to his current physical condition. For the last 8 years Martin has experienced a chronic state of exhaustion of which doctors have recently (past 2 years) diagnosed as Lyme disease. Imagine touring the back country for 2 days straight with no sleep and you will get a sense of the challenge just to get to and from the usual photo locations.

However instead of forfeiting his craft, Martin has found a world close enough to travel to yet far enough away that many of us never get to see. He understands his situation and embraces it for how it has changed his perception and the way he sees the world. Martin is forced to stop and look closely and in doing so has opened up a macro world for all of us to enjoy. How lucky are we that he has chosen to use his personal therapy as a gift to others.

  3-sisters-drop-logo

Kurtis) What is the number one motivator to get out and shoot? What is it that “drives” you?

Martin) What pushes me most often out the door to shoot is the quiet promise that some hidden gem is waiting to be found out there. Much like beach combing or scavenging garage sales, the treasure hunting aspect inspires and energizes me. It also matters that I feel I am continuing to grow as a photographer and as a human being. Without opportunities to challenge myself and “evolve”, I lose motivation in any type of work.

blowing-bubbles-logo

Kurtis) For you, what is the most important part of the photographic process? What matters?

Martin) The photographic process in nature distracts from me my daily realities and is a perfect exercise to slow thoughts down and really experience nature. I always intend to make the immersion process as important as the result. Yet, so often I am still slave to the end product. So even though I am not always successful at a mindful approach to my photography, it is an important objective right now.

Kurtis) How has your current physical condition changed you or your work?

Martin) It has forced me to slow down, become more patient and trust the outcome (not without a kick or scream). My photography has followed suit. Limitations force me to be creative. With the appearance of a neurological condition, I became a lot more sensitive to stressors like certain foods, light, noise, busy places and even loud people. It shows in my photography; aside from the odd rough day where I feel drawn to shoot dark images, I am currently attracted to quiet soothing places, soft tones and intricate details.

soft-landing-logo

Kurtis) What do you hope to accomplish with your photography in the next few years?

Martin) I feel compelled to keep sharing the beauty that surrounds us, but I would lie if I said that the business aspect is not important to me. I would like to find a way to make a part-time living out of photography and writing. I aim to become more fearless in both mediums, fully expose my personal journey through my art and promote my work more confidently. Last but not least I hope connect with more photographers and writers while honouring my own boundaries.

Photography Therapy

 

Close to the ground I feel comfortable. The gravitational force has pulled me on my knees, not by choice. My head is spinning and it’s time to sit down for a break. I’m used to it by now. Through trial and error, anger and acceptance I have come to understand what my body can and can’t do. My body is lacking the energy to hike for miles or get up in the middle of the night, so I have grown to get comfortable to take photos in a relatively small window of time and space. It’s no surprise that one of my favourite topics is macro photography.

dew-drops-fall-leaf-square-

It’s over a year and a half since I created a website dedicated to my photography and ambition to write more. I started a Facebook photography page on which I regularly posted a few photos. It’s not a booming business by any means but I kept going steady with the first and foremost intention to share the beauty that surrounds us.

 

While it’s never been a smooth ride, this winter the posting of photos and writing started stuttering like an old car in frigid winter conditions. Health challenges forced me to surf the couch and stare at the ceiling pretty much full time. A fog settled over me, kept me from writing with the clarity and inspiration I felt earlier. It was hard to accept, but I learned to come to terms with the reality that good and bad periods just come and go in waves.

 

Here’s a rather short explanation about my health to give some context. What started with a mild fatigue some 8 years ago has slowly progressed into a fairly serious condition. I frequently experience nerve pain, muscle weakness and severe fatigue. While I look pretty normal, my body’s energy battery is charged at 20% most days. After what feels like a few hundred diagnoses and treatments over the years, I have recently been treated intensively for Lyme disease. The diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease are controversial; the illness is multi-layered and complex. I generally tell people that my ongoing treatment is based on the doctors’  best guesses.

 

When my photography outings came to a mere stand still, I felt no inspiration to continue writing photography blogs. Why would I write a blog about something I don’t actively pursue? The negative self-talk got a good hold of me. But in recent months, after encouragement from family and good friends, I have pushed myself –often against my body’s will- out the front door again.

fall-leaf-m-square-logo

I typically drive to a familiar spot nearby, walk a few hundred meters and stop. Legs hurt. It’s time to crouch down and look around. After a break, I get up again, walk another couple hundred meters and take a time out again. By then I have usually found an interesting topic for macro photography. On my knees, with my mind in a different world, the pain gradually dissolves. The fatigue goes unnoticed for a while. Time ceases to exist. All the worries and frustrations of a long challenging journey fall off my back for a while. It is only when I stretch my back and waddle back to the car that I realize I am taking part in a carefully planned and paced exercise.

 

After clearly stating my desire to be more mindful and present in previous blogs, it’s ironic how life has thrown me the perfect exercise to learn to appreciate the little things in life and in nature. My photographic journey continues in a different form than I anticipated. I don’t spend all night in the woods photographing the Northern Lights or Milky Way, nor do I dangle dangerously above cliffs trying to get the unique elevated shot. Hat’s off to those photographers who do that. That’s what I would if given the chance and that’s what I’ll do when the tide turns again. For now, this condition has forced me on my knees (in more than one way). On my knees I’m currently most comfortable. On my knees is how my photography currently takes place.

The close-up natural world is surprisingly intriguing and complex like larger ecosystems, with its own vistas and panoramas. The macro world – a world blown up to larger than life size- reveals interesting patterns, hidden symmetry, geometrical patterns and architectural wonders. Macro photography is now pretty much all I do. Once I am focused on something, my mind is not interested in anything else. The more creative the idea, the better. I am grateful I still get to do this. Photography is a creative outlet and necessary therapy I can’t live without.

 

I have started a personal blog to share a bit more about my own health journey. It’s personal and perhaps not for everyone and that’s ok with me. But for those interested in learning more, you can find it at www.exposedliving.com.

Life on the Goat

We live in an incredibly beautiful environment. Surrounded by protected national and provincial parks, you could easily pick a different destination every day of the year and not visit the same place twice. Some people choose to do just that. To adventurous personalities there is an irresistible draw to conquer something new; setting foot on a slice of soil no other human being might have touched, or dropping down an unknown waterfall that was formerly thought to be instant suicide.

 

I approach things somewhat differently lately.  I’m finding out new discoveries can take place in familiar places. The coordinates on the map might not change but the seasons come and go. The natural world evolves and changes; a fact the spring floods starkly reminded us of. No doubt being an adrenaline-fueled adventurer would soothe my ever demanding ego, but my current physical limitations perfectly match my desire to be more present and appreciative rather than always looking for change. It is as if the universe has a way of presenting you with what you need to learn.

 

For me personally, there are a handful of cherished places I return to on a regular basis. Goat pond is one such place.  Even though Goat pond (“The Goat” as I call it) is surrounded by mountains, forest and wetland, at first glance it cannot match postcard-pretty cousins such as Moraine, Peyto or Emerald lake. No turquoise waters, no lazy chairs and cappuccinos, no cute ground squirrels begging to be photographed. One person might look at the Goat and see an artificially controlled lake with a dam and a dusty road along one shore. Another person might see a jewel of a lake with many secrets and surprises. The choice, as always, is in the eye of the beholder.

 

goat-pond-paddle2Close to the dam “The Goat” doesn’t look all that appealing, but hidden at the back of the lake is a marshy area, shallow enough to get your kayak occasionally stuck on pebbles and rocks. A field of tree stumps line the shallows of the lake on one side. On cloudy days they look like the tombstones of a cemetery, reminding us of former forested days. Ironically, nature has made itself a beautiful home here. An osprey nest sits precariously on an old telephone pole, a beaver dam decorates one of the two quaint islands. A common loon commonly hangs out in the deeper parts of the lake.  In late summer moose frequently visit the shallows in search of refreshments and aquatic plants.

 

The lake can be rippled and breezy, feeling cold on the hands and feet. But as if the power to a blowing fan is abruptly being turned off, the wind often dies in the evening. As the sun sets in the early evening behind guarding mountain peaks, a shadow casts over the lake. As a photographer it is easy to get discouraged by the lack of light. It is tempting to leave early. However, in the shadow, with the wind dying, the lake turns into a real beauty. Cars stop driving by, nature comes alive and the water’s surface transforms into a perfect mirror. Only then I start to hear the water cascading from the mountain walls. Only then I hear my kayak slice softly through the water. Only then I notice my own breath and heartbeat.

 

I often paddle alone. But occasionally my friend Graeme joins me. He has come to appreciate the pond. Graeme is built like a brick wall. His Scottish face shows evidence of boxing: boneless nose, some crooked teeth. His legs portray years of football. His biceps are twice the size of mine. His hands are clearly those of a plumber, big and weathered enough to shovel coal into an engine. If it comes to a pub fight, Graeme is the guy you want to have on your side. Still, he is a good-looking gentle giant. Though he appears hard as rock, I also know he is soft as an M&M on the inside. He likes solitude and time to reflect. He sometimes goes missing for days.

 

graeme-on-goat-pond-3-low-rEven though I am the one exploring and chasing the concept of mindfulness, on the water Graeme seems come closer to grasping the practice of being in the present. He just floats in his kayak, his paddle never seems to touch the water. My camera, like my ego, is always reminding me that it wants to be acknowledged and utilized. Driven by potential photographic opportunities I circumnavigate the lake only to find Graeme in the same spot. Like a lifeless doll stuffed in a kayak, he is staring into the distance. I wonder what he is looking at. Perhaps I should take a photo of it. A faint current has moved the tip of his kayak in a couple circles. Sometimes he observes an osprey perched in the top of a tree on the shore. At other times he seems to listen to the call of the loon echoing off the vertical mountain walls. He is obviously in la-la land. When I ask him what he thinks about, he doesn’t know. All he says is “wow, beautiful”. I envy his ability just to let things be.

 

Today is another stunning summer evening out on The Goat. The lake appeared rippled and moody for the first hour. Wildlife seemed to have other plans tonight. It was oddly quiet. But in the last half hour the lake has settled into her formidable mirror look again. Some far away forest fire smoke lingers on the horizon. The sky has turned to a warm inviting pink. A bald eagle has appeared out of nowhere. It graciously circles the lake, no doubt keeping a keen eye on the numerous sucker fish it supports.

 

Graeme-eagle-1-low-resI’ve been here enough times to know no bald eagles nest here, so I’m happily surprised to see this lonely visitor gracing us with its presence. It’s the surprise appearances that make me come back to this place time after time. The eagle has settled on an old tree stump, merely a foot above the water. Graeme and I slowly float towards it. Graeme is in a much better position than me, simply because of my frantic search for photos and his ability to just sit there. Once no paddles are used anymore, our kayaks settle into a silent speed. We coast slowly towards the wonderful creature. Graeme is on the best course. Like a floating feather being softly blown, the lake magically stirs him almost within touching distance of the eagle. The bird is plucking away at a fish. You can smell the meat, hear the ripping of the flesh. It’s a beautiful raw spectacle and Graeme is right in the middle of it. The lake has pushed me behind a tree, partially obscuring my view. Great things come to those who are patient, my mind reminds me.

 

I love this lake. Not just for it’s convenient proximity to town. Not just for its mountain magnificence. Not just for its wildlife. It’s a secret gem that only reveals itself to those with patience. Sometimes a place just wins you over. There are no obvious explanations. Maybe it’s a solitude I experience here, yet so comfortably close to the road and home, the safety of civilization within arm’s reach. Even though this lake is visited by a handful paddlers of the sit-down and stand-up kind, there is a faint feeling that this lake is mine. It is part of me. Next year it might be different; change is both natural and inevitable. My heart might get stolen by another place. So while it lasts I’ll take it all in: the splendour,  the friendship and the subtle lessons.

goat-pond-48x18-low-res-log

 


 

Properly Exposed

It’s been five weeks or so since my camera took the plunge and my backpack went frolicking down a mountain slope. The damage is assessed. Expectations were low. Miraculously, after adding rice to the camera and slow cooking the concoction in a sunbaked car for days, the flat-lined camera surprisingly spit out the moisture and starting showing vital signs again. After doing my ABC’s (checking Airways, Breathing, Circulation), I found out the camera is still usable, although somewhat beaten up, much like my own body. The submerged lens just came out of the intensive care and surgery was successful. So you could say I was lucky. Still, my photography took a small dent this month. The timing is interesting to say the least.

 

Like a backpack tumbling down a mountain, life sometimes takes you on a sudden rollercoaster. It accelerates for no apparent reason. It turns upside down and leaves you stranded in a completely new environment, leaving you clueless as to how you actually got there. My last couple of weeks were a bit like that. I look up to the sky with a questionable look on my face. Call it the universe, god, or whoever runs the grand show up there and down here, he sure has an interesting sense of humor.

 

otello-tunnels-BW-logoAs I mentioned in my first blog, I’m a sucker for the word authenticity; to be real, sincere and full of integrity. I am not a textbook example portraying this character trait, but it is something that I strive towards. While my dominant mind tries to judge everything around me, including my own photography, my heart often softens the view like a filter on a lens.  The result coming out of my mouth is often a cocktail of my true self and what my mind has decided people want to hear. For a long time I’ve been longing to put this blended, tiring behaviour to bed, by finding my own authentic voice and getting comfortable with it.

 

The first blog about four months ago was an encouraging start. I felt inspired to write more in the days to come.  I kept very private matters such as health and personal life to myself. There were enough stories to spread, inspiring insights to share, funny tales to tell. Everyone would go “Wow” at my photos.  I was encouraged and motivated. The great feeling lasted a short while. Then life just went back to being life. My new voice retreated back to a familiar sound. One thing I forgot was that the big word authenticity also meant sharing the not so hilarious days; the days I wrestle in the shit that life sometimes stirs up.

 

The term exposure came to mind. Exposure is one of the first topics covered in any beginner’s photography course. In very general terms, under-expose a photo, it will be too dark. Over-expose it and it will be too light. The trick is to shine enough light on the subject that you want to stand out. You could say the picture of my personal life has not been properly exposed. My personal story remains predominantly in the dark, hesitant to step forward into the light.

 

My quest for health is now entering its eighth year.  It is too colossal of a topic in my life not to be addressed in my writing. I typically share my story with close friends and family, but don’t hang my laundry to dry at someone’s birthday party, nor do I splatter my food choices and emotions on the Facebook wall. Instead, I usually take lots of Pepto-Bismol and try really hard to digest my food as well as my thoughts. Not sure this is a much better approach.

 

In the last few weeks photography outings were scarce, short and close to home. With a brain fogged up in a low hanging cloud, writing takes more effort than usual. My body frequently forces me on the couch or in bed. With a bit of effort I meet with a close friend over tea. The luminous hours of the day, when the sun breaks through the mist, are limited to a few that I want to make count. I’ve been here a hundred times before. And a hundred times I’ve hidden it from the world.

 

tunnel-mtn-shot-2-logoSo once again I am aiming to adjust the tone of my voice and the contents of my writing. I’m cautiously learning to be open about where I am at and who I really am, not just open about the aspiring photographer or educator in me. You could say I’m experimenting to find the proper exposure in the big picture.

 

Therefore, I have decided to more consciously introduce another topic in my writing. It’s a reflection on getting comfortable with being exposed to the elements of this entity called life. It’s about taking the insights and gifts that show up on your path when you’re forced to slow down and sharing them with the world.

 

I am committed to making this new aspect of my writing constructive, inspiring, funny, and most of all real. I still have to find a proper broadcast channel, a second blog, a book perhaps. Filling twenty more journals is not going to cut it. I will keep you posted on what lies beyond the next bend in the river. At the same time the photography blog will continue as it is a great medium to reveal and make sense of life, nature and us in the middle.

Mind’s eye opener

Things aren’t always as they seem. You can look at a painting and see one thing, and it will be all you see until someone points out something you never noticed before.  There are artists who specialize in deception and optical illusions, giving paintings surreal 3D effects or letting images spin while they really don’t move at all. I find it fascinating. On a smaller scale, pretty much in the backyard of our home I witness optical illusions too, hidden treasures in photos and landscape scenes. Faces hidden in rocks, old wise men disguised in trees. I don’t go purposely looking for them, but sometimes an image surprises me and makes me wonder what else I have missed.

 

My curiosity about the “invisible” world didn’t show up overnight. I started with a simple well-known logo that was highlighted in an educational video while I worked at The Banff Centre. image fedexThe FedEx logo is something we all encounter on the buses driving around town and nothing seems out of the ordinary. Five letters, F.E.D.E.X, that is it. That is until someone pointed out to me there’s an arrow between the last E and X. Not a huge revelation by any means. What is huge, is that the arrow is all I see now, on every package, on every van and even in Tom Hank’s Castaway. Whoever pointed it out to me, thanks very much, but not really.

 

It was an interesting discovery that kind of faded into the background until I recently took a photo that brought the whole experience back to light. A close-up of some ice crystals on a frozen creek seemed a nice enough macro shot, but while observing my mosaic of photos at home, all I noticed was a glaring eye staring at me, like father winter was keep a close eye on me.

Despite the image being composed of some feathered crystals called hoar frost, all I see, time after time, is the eye. My brain is relentless and stubborn. It loves the route it just discovered and is determined not to veer off for a while. I wonder if it’s the same route as the FedEx van drives every day.

 

The big revelation lies in the question what else I have missed in life. What crosses my path every day and haven’t I noticed? What is it my mind chooses to see and what is it, even right smack in front of me, my brain chooses to ignore or label as something it has already encountered a thousand times?

 

On many occasions I tried to change habits or behaviors that didn’t serve me, tried to flick the destiny switch in my life. I decorated the kitchen cupboards and walls of our house with fluorescent sticky notes, reminding me of my newly intended behaviors, encouraged by the common concept that it only takes 3 weeks to make a new behavior your own. As I often found, the new behaviors didn’t last. Like the supposedly sticky notes, they eventually stopped sticking.

 

What if changing a behavior was as easy as seeing the arrow, seeing the eye in the snow and never going back to the old routine. What if an eye opener constructed a new freeway in our brain, like a freshly paved autobahn that whole of Germany has been waiting to use. Can one experience, one encounter with another human being, blast you into a permanent new awareness, cause the bridge to old behavior to crumble behind you, disappear into the vast open space of underutilized gray matter? I do not have the answer, but it sure is an interesting question.