Amos Chapple – an award-winning photographer from New Zealand – is one of the most traveled photographers I know. I’ve been following his work for a while now and it’s an honour to have him as a guest on this blog. Be sure to check out some of his photos at the end of the interview below and also on his website at www.amoschapple.com
Two Svan men in Mestia, Upper Svaneti, Georgia. Photo: Amos Chapple. ©OUR PLACE Publishing. Taken on assignment for OUR PLACE, a project which documents all World Heritage sites. See www.ourplaceworldheritage.com
Amos Chapple, it seems you have a special love for Russia and the former Soviet republics. How does one grow up Devenport, Auckland and develop a passion for countries and cultures so distinct from New Zealand’s?
It’s hard to explain but I know a lot of people who have the same intense relationship with ex-soviet countries. There’s a scene in Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines where Arkady is explaining his feelings towards Russia. He describes it as a place where “just when you fear the worst something wonderful happens.” From a photographer’s perspective it’s bleak and it’s dark, and you never get to the bottom of it.
Graffiti on the roof of an apartment block in the abandoned Ukrainian town of Pripyat, three kilometres from the Chernobyl Power Plant. Photo: Amos Chapple.
Your visual talent and extensive travelling are at heart of your images. More recently, you photographed in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Armenia. What motivated this project?
This was a contract for the Our Place project (OP), I had been lobbying to get to The Caucasus for a long while. Georgia in particular had obsessed me for years, I was pretty excited about looking up into the mountains where Prometheus had been chained by the gods! I had a map of the Caucasus up in my flat in Auckland, in the months leading up my departure I’d stand around with the other flatties and we’d marvel at how foreign the whole region was. There we were in Newton Gulley munching on Frujus, while on the streets of Gori there were people milling around Stalin’s old family home and repairing the bridges Russian fighter jets had blown up a couple of years before.
What were the most memorable moments of your time in Armenia and Georgia? How were you perceived by those you photographed?
Georgia is a land apart, I was trying to describe it to friends with a clever adjective but it’s impossible to sum up the character of the people succinctly. They’re as hard-living as Russians, as flamboyant as Italians and as affectionate as Thais. The only relevant adjective for these people is “Georgian” and they are fantastic. Tbilisi has this faded grandeur to it, with crumbling stone lions on top of gates and grapevines strung over courtyards. The streets are leafy and wide and when you walk down them with the sun low it’s just achingly beautiful. Armenia isn’t the kind of place to sweep you off your feet but I was lucky there in falling in with a young Armenian guy, Aram Vardanyan and a British girl working for an NGO, Vanessa Boasian. They took me under their wing while I was in Yerevan and through them I lived like a local for two happy weeks.
Azerbaijan is next-door to both of these countries but I had a rough time there. The country is awash with oil; on the train-ride into the country I was talking with a guy in my cabin who said swimming in the Caspian sea is refreshing, but you come out “smelling just faintly of benzine”. Because of the oil it’s insanely wealthy. The centre of town has public facilities fit for a Roman emperors palace. For whatever reason though, the people in Baku were deeply unpleasant to me and to all the people I was staying with in my hostel. One couple arrived late one night and the girl was in tears; they had gotten lost and a passerby had given them directions to the hostel, when they turned around to thank him he demanded money and he wouldn’t relent. One day I pulled up to a policeman and asked in perfectly good Russian if I was on the right track for a particular town, he just said “nope” and then ignored me. Another time a man I saw every morning asked me “why are you still here? I will pay money for you to leave.” A French couple arrived at the airport and when they baulked at the price of the Visa the official replied, “go back to France then”. One of the sites I shot, the Petroglyphs at Gobustan, involved driving about 60 kilometers on the highway out of Baku. They have big fast roads with desert on either side. The drivers were aggressive & the police stopped me twice to try to extract bribes – I was always nervous. One morning I saw a crowd on the side of the highway; as I got close I could see the aftermath of an explosive head-on crash, with people milling around the wreckage of the two cars. No one would have survived. I carried on driving just thinking “please, please don’t let me die here in this awful place”. I felt very alone there.
Photographers always bring a lot of themselves into the images they make. Do you think there is large portion of yourself in your pictures or are you able to make them in a purely journalistic sense?
It’s just hard work. Virginia Woolf talked about the agony she used to go through writing and writing and straining to create beauty on the page. Hemingway rewrote the last page of “Farewell to arms” thirty nine times. Yet their work reads as if they’ve tapped a pen on their teeth a couple of times and then settled down to bring narrative effortlessly to life. I’m not saying my photos are anything like Woolf’s writing but it always made me laugh when I’d hand in a completed assignment and my former project manager and good friend Raewyn Mackenzie would say “Good work, your eye was in for that last one” I’d spent the past six days hiking till my feet quivered, clambering over razor-wire & up radio masts, sneaking past security guards and generally working like an ox day after day, literally from sunup till sundown, then poring through the hundreds of dreary photos to find a handful of lucky ones. And I’d think “My eye? Hell” you know – I wish it was that easy!
There are other aspects; I think its important not to make it about you. No one cares how clever you think you are with your camera, but a lot of people would love to be on an path in the mountains of Nepal chatting with a family of Chepang tribespeople. It’s like the old adage with writing, “show don’t tell” – don’t fill up the page with clever adjectives, just let the reader create their own connection with a scene using the information you give them. In doing this though you need to make that information compelling. It’s just about content; no one cares about your photo of a duck on Lake Pupuke, but it would be pretty interesting to see a baby Pukeko being fed by its parents.
Is there a photograph you are particularly attached to?
This was taken in the Khao Yai Jungle in Thailand. I had met an amazing Dutch girl in Bangkok a couple of weeks before. She headed down south but I wheedled and pleaded and convinced her to fly back up and meet me in the jungle. She was in her last year of a psychology doctorate but she was very thoughtful and engaged in the here & now. She would often make these cultural observations that would just knock me out. This was the last night we had together and I had been starting to think about what was happening between us. It was not the average travel fling. A local guide had told me about this bat cave deep in the jungle somewhere that comes alive at dusk, so the Dutch girl, her friend, me and the guide shared two motorbikes and headed down an abandoned old jungle path. When we got to the end of the track we had to bush-bash straight uphill for 20 minutes or so until we got to the foot of a bluff with a cleft in the rock where the bats were supposed to live. When we made it to the cave we all stayed dead silent and waited for the sun to set. I started getting really concerned that nothing was going to happen, I was dreading my last night with this girl having one of those “oh well, at least the sunset was pretty!” kind of vibes. We were hunched up in the nooks of this cliff for a half-hour or so and then finally as the sun was sinking behind the hills I turned to the guide and snapped that obviously this was a dud, nothing was going to happen. I wanted to see if there were even any bats in there so he & I crept into the cave with our t-shirt over our faces to filter out the stink of guano. As we rounded a corner this vast whirring sound started building and building and we looked at each other like “what the hell?” Then, in the dark we could see this storm of bats. It was a solid living ball, about 20 meters across, of bats all swooping in one mass, moving towards us. We slithered over all the guano trying to get the hell out of the way and the moment we left the mouth of the cave the bats roared out. The air around us was vibrating and it went on for minute after minute, it was the most spectacular natural sight I’ve ever witnessed. On the way back, as we drove the motorbikes through the jungle in the dark the Dutch girl put her arms around my waist and rested her head on my back and I remember thinking: “now THAT is how to finish a romance”.
You have been to more than fifty countries and photographed many of the Word Heritage Sites as part of UNESCO ‘Our Place’ project, the first official World Heritage Photographic database. Please tell us how you became involved with this amazing project.
I was working at the NZ Herald in the two years before I got the job with OP. I’m originally from Devonport in Auckland so when I arrived at the Herald’s branch office in Hamilton I was a pretty wide-eyed 22 year old kid. I didn’t have any social life, but I had a company car, so I spent a mad amount of time shooting and I was getting a lot of work published. The man behind the OP project, Geoff Steven, who splits his time between Paris and Auckland, saw my work in the paper here. When we met and he discovered I wasn’t married, didn’t have a mortgage, and was desperate to leave the Herald he offered me the job – which cost me my long-term girlfriend!
More recently, you traveled to Bangladesh. What did you do there?
Again, this was for the OP project, I shot two UNESCO sites; one up in the north, one down south. Bangladesh was pretty overwhelming. I remember trying to describe Dhaka to a friend in New Zealand. I was on the phone saying “Sacha, just imagine old Delhi, but with literally twice as many people; that is what this place is like” I could hear her jaw drop. I spent a lot of my time with an extremely devout young Muslim guy called Jashim Uddin which was great, I learned a lot about Islam and we had a long-running debate about whether or not music was a good thing. We were both totally bullish on the issue but it was very good natured and enlightening.
A boy shelters from a rainstorm in one of the mosques in the town of Bagerhat, Bangladesh. Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat. Photo: Amos Chapple. © OUR PLACE Publishing. Taken on assignment for OUR PLACE, a project which documents all World Heritage sites. See www.ourplaceworldheritage.com
In 2009, you were awarded the Cathay Pacific Travel Photographer of the Year Award. In previous years, you’ve also won multiple awards in New Zealand (Young Photographer of the Year, Environment Photographer of the Year) all of which are evidence of the caliber of your work. Your interests in Linguistics have now taken you to Hong Kong. Is this a departure from photography?
This is just a university exchange I’m on in Hong Kong. University was initially just something productive to do in my time between contracts. I had always felt like I was missing out on the nuts & bolts of the English language; there I was at age 25 & I had no idea how to use a semi-colon, so linguistics was an obvious choice. Then last year in New Zealand I was doing commercial photography work and I remember thinking that, although it’s fun, I don’t want to have to rely only on photography to make my living. When your camera is a tool for making money, the last thing you want to do is pick it up and go somewhere grungy in your down time.
Also, the work with OP was getting increasingly intense for me. I find it next to impossible to shoot anything interesting in countries where we have a visual template in our heads already. We all know what Germany looks like for example. Even if we’ve never been to Cuba we know what visual signature Havana has. Most of the world has been entered into our consciousness visually but in say, Uzbekistan it’s more like, “ok, lets find out what the this place is about. What does an Uzbek wedding look like?” So in the last couple of years I was lobbying to be sent to more and more places which are visually undefined, and that’s hard work. I spent five days stranded in a village in Kazakhstan with food-poisoning, I was assaulted up in a stairwell in the Ukraine, and I was attacked by a dog in the Pirin mountains in Bulgaria. Working in distinctive countries alone is very tough and it didn’t feel right to be giving away the copyright to images which are so hard-won. In a few months I’ll be a qualified English teacher which will enable me to fund the work I want to do, in the countries where I want to work.
Do you have plans to exhibit your photography in NZ?
No plans for an exhibition. I’m currently working on a story on Hong Kong for North & South magazine, as usual with them the brief is fantastic.
To see more of Amos’ photography scroll down or visit his website: www.amoschapple.com
Directional arrows deep in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland. Photo: Amos Chapple. © OUR PLACE Publishing. Taken on assignment for OUR PLACE, a project which documents all World Heritage sites. See www.ourplaceworldheritage.com
A man walks through the town of Mestia, Georgia. Photo: Amos Chapple. © OUR PLACE Publishing. Taken on assignment for OUR PLACE, a project which documents all World Heritage sites. See www.ourplaceworldheritage.com
Two Alpine Ibex in the Upper Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland. | A young girl reaches into a shaft of sunlight inside the Geghard Monastery, Armenia. Photos: Amos Chapple.
A girl from the Chepang tribe in the mountains near Chitwan, Nepal. | Labourers between shifts laying tiles on the roof of Victoria Terminus, Mumbai. Photos: Amos Chapple.
A Spanish woman walks her dog through the streets of Toledo in early-morning light. Photo: Amos Chapple. © OUR PLACE Publishing. Taken on assignment for OUR PLACE, a project which documents all World Heritage sites. See www.ourplaceworldheritage.com
The Darjeeling “Toy Train” puffs through the thin mountain air in the Indian Himalayas. Photo: Amos Chapple. © OUR PLACE Publishing. Taken on assignment for OUR PLACE, a project which documents all World Heritage sites. See www.ourplaceworldheritage.com
Communal meal being prepared outside Shait Gumbad Mosque during the month of Ramadan. Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat. Photo: Amos Chapple. © OUR PLACE Publishing. Taken on assignment for OUR PLACE, a project which documents all World Heritage sites. See www.ourplaceworldheritage.com
Young Hong Kong locals on the Kowloon side. Photo: Amos Chapple
Bulgarian men in the traditional Kukeri costume head towards the centre of the town of Pernik. The Kukeri festival is held each year in the town to frighten away the evil spirits of winter. Photo: Amos Chapple.