Journeys of a Lifetime

Four very different trips change the lives of four very different photographers.

Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime

Gregg Bleakney

A two-year bicycle journey from Alaska to Chile ends with a new career in photography.

In July 2005, two good friends from Seattle set out on a journey that was, from the beginning, meant to be life-changing. Two years later, one would complete the trip. His life would indeed be profoundly different from when he started. But not in any way he expected.

When Gregg Bleakney began his epic bicycle trek from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, he was a former software salesman who was crossing the threshold into his 30s, a onetime track star in the triple jump who had blown out a knee and missed competing for the Olympics. When he finished his trip two years later, at the southernmost tip of Chile, he had become a photographer with a brilliant eye for landscape.

For Bleakney, the trip was the culmination of years of pent-up wanderlust. While attending the University of Oregon he founded a dot-com travel company, thinking it would be his ticket to see the world. "Instead I was in the office doing all the business stuff while other people traveled," he recalls. He later went to work in software sales for Oracle and another company, but never forgot a promise he'd made to himself to one day take an extended trip ... somewhere.

An avid cyclist -- he took it up to rehabilitate his knee -- Bleakney came up with the idea of pedaling the entire route of the Pan American Highway. He enlisted a friend, Brookes Allen, to join him, and after four years of planning they began their journey. Bleakney rode a custom-made steel bike and carried a Fujifilm FinePix S7000 digital point-and-shoot. "I just wanted to take snapshots to remember the trip with," he says.

At first, on the road in Alaska, the two friends were most concerned with grizzly bears. "Brookes and I shared a tent, and every night I'd wake up thinking I heard a bear," Bleakney recalls. "I'd sit up and grab my can of mace. Then I'd realize it was just Brookes snoring."

Down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California they rode. "Somewhere in Southern California I met all these surfing people, and they were doing a lot of surf photography, and I saw the creative options you could have with an SLR," says Bleakney. Just before crossing into Mexico, Bleakney visited a camera store and traded in his point-and-shoot for an entry-level digital SLR, the Canon EOS Rebel.

"On a big bike trip the one thing you have is a lot of time," he says. "I just took pictures all the time, playing with aperture, ISO settings, shutter speeds. Then at night in the tent I'd look at everything, to see what worked."

The trek continued through Mexico, and, Bleakney says, "It was like two good friends conquering the land." Then, on a lonely jungle road in the Chiapas region, the cyclists were ambushed by machete-wielding bandits. "They took everything we had, except the bikes, which were too heavy," says Bleakney. They also missed his camera.

Allen decided he'd had enough. "He didn't feel comfortable any longer, and I supported his decision," says Bleakney, who chose to go on alone.

From that point on, however, the purpose of the trek seemed to change. The idea of photography began to seem indistinguishable from the journey itself. "I had been terrorized, so I felt I had to surrender myself to the world," he says. "That is also when I started to become passionate about the camera. Photography became a way of accepting the otherness of the land, of looking outward."

Bleakney would go on to ride down the spine of the Andes, through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, pedaling through mountain passes at 16,000 feet. He ended his trip in Tierra del Fuego, in the southernmost city in the Americas, Urshuaia.

On his return he decided to continue taking pictures. Last October he attended an adventure-photography workshop led by Corey Rich and organized by Rich Clarkson, the legendary former photo director of National Geographic. Clarkson was so impressed by Bleakney's images of South America that he decided to publish them in an upcoming book, titled The Bicycle Diaries. "I started the trip to see new places," says Bleakney, "and ended with a new life."
-- David Schonauer

© Fiona Aboud Photographs 2008
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A documentary portrait photographer finds her signature style amid the chaos of Carnival.

Like many professional photographers, Fiona Aboud's interest in making pictures began long before she considered it a viable career. As a child she was the designated documentarian of her family's frequent travels, and later she wandered Asia for a few months, photographing everything around her. Along the way she picked up a degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University, but for Aboud the allure of travel was always about taking pictures.

"Travel is at the center of my photography whether or not I am shooting a travel story," she says. "The way one looks at the world as a traveler is what I strive for in my daily life shooting: the wonderment, curiosity, and total absorption in one's surroundings."

Aboud's first big trip as a photographer was to Rio de Janeiro in February 2001 to make photos of Carnival. Born in Brazil but raised mostly in Boston, she'd never been able to attend the monthlong celebration, so it was with nervous excitement that she packed her Nikon F100 and headed south.

That first trip was a learning experience on many levels: Not only was Aboud teaching herself photography amid the chaos of hundreds of thousands of revelers but she also danced in the parade and got to know her extended family. While the keen observational skills of a photographer helped her absorb information about the place she was born, the slice-of-life Carnival images she came home with left her feeling unsatisfied.

Four years later, while Aboud was working as a photo assistant and building her own fashion portfolio, she became interested in costumes and how they change the wearer's projected personality. "I thought that shooting people during Carnival against backdrops would make the perfect merger between fashion and portrait photography," she says. In 2005 she returned to Brazil to do just that.

This time Aboud traveled with a clunky large-format camera, a seamless, and her husband, who served as her assistant (plus cousins in Rio who helped translate). Three nights in a row the small crew set up along the side of the parade route, arriving early (around 8 or 9 p.m.) to stake out their spot among the small vendor stalls. While Aboud's husband and cousins plucked people from the crowd, she had a few minutes with each subject to create a portrait, usually on Polaroid Type 55 P/N so she could give them the positive and throw the negative in a water bath. Around 1 a.m. they would return to Aboud's uncle's apartment, where she would wash negatives for several hours, sleep until noon, then get up and do it all over again.

Despite losing chunks of a few negatives to the brutal Brazilian heat, Aboud ended up with a large body of dynamic portraits. "Something just clicked during [that] shoot, a feeling that this is what I was meant to be shooting: people in their environments but set apart by a backdrop," she says.

By merging documentary and portrait photography, Aboud got to know Brazil through its people, a technique that gratified her anthropologically inclined mind.

"The most important thing is that I like to interact with people as opposed to just take their picture and walk away," she says. And she found the two- to three-minute connections she formed with her subjects just as exhilarating as dancing in the parade.

Aboud's Carnival portraits not only helped her connect with the country where she was born but they also marked a turning point in her career. The work landed her a spot at the Eddie Adams Workshop, got her published in Photographer's Forum magazine, and led to several other "on the scene" portrait assignments -- now her trademark. For one Sports Illustrated piece, Aboud set up a portable studio in Central Park during the New York Marathon and photographed runners just after they crossed the finish line.

Now 31, Aboud is an accomplished editorial portraitist who collaborates with Time, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times. Despite cutting back her travel time since having twins in 2006, Aboud is hardly immune to the travel bug. Not three months after she brought her babies home from the hospital, she was in Sierra Leone creating portraits of amputee soccer players.

"I feel like travel makes me a better person," Aboud says. "It opens your eyes and makes you see the world from a fresh, childlike perspective."
-- Miki Johnson

© Doug Menuez
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Seventeen days at the top of the world provide a glimpse of post-Soviet Russia.

The 3,014th person to set foot on the North Pole was a photographer. The experience of standing on top of 30 feet of ice at the top of the world with several SLR camera bodies dangling around his neck was, says Doug Menuez, "profoundly moving."

It was the perspective that mattered. "You recognize on some deep level how vast the planet is and how small you are in comparison," he says. "You feel connected to nature and humbled by it at the same instant."

Some of the images Menuez snapped at the Pole reflect the spiritual transformation he felt that day -- images that show great sheets of blue ice stretching into the distance, as far as the eye can see.

Other images, however, depict a different kind of experience -- one that, looking back, sticks indelibly in Menuez's mind. In those pictures, the captain and crew of the Russian icebreaker on which Menuez had hitched a ride are seen in their underwear, diving into the frigid water cleared by the ship. "Everyone was drinking vodka, of course," he says. "They had giant speakers down on the ice blaring rock 'n' roll. They even unloaded a car and drove it in crazy circles around the Pole for hours. They wanted to drive through all the lines of longitude."

As someone once said, the real value in travel is not arriving; it's getting there that counts. For Menuez, getting to the Pole involved spending 17 screwball days at sea on the Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Yamal in the summer of 1994. Only a few years before, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and Russia had become a land of wide-open entrepreneurial opportunity. A company had licensed the Yamal to take paying customers from a port in Murmansk, Russia, to the Pole at a cost of around $20,000 per ticket. Menuez proposed a story about the venture to Condé Nast Traveler, and the magazine sent him on his way.

With him on the ship were 67 passengers, including a number of Western scientist/lecturers, and a crew of about 130. Menuez expected an interesting trip featuring beautiful vistas and opportunities to learn about the earth's natural history. Instead, the voyage was, as he says, "a window for me to see into the Russian world at that time."

The window first opened after Menuez flew to Helsinki, Finland, where he boarded a bus "that blew down dirt roads at 80 miles an hour" to deliver him to the ship in Murmansk. The Yamal itself was comfortable, if not luxurious. Menuez learned to respect the former KGB agent who guarded the ship's nuclear power plant with a shotgun.

Soon, the Yamal's security crew took a liking to the photographer. "Once, at about three in the morning, a few of the security guys pounded on my door and dragged me to the back of the ship, where they had a cargo helicopter," Menuez says. "They had a bunch of girls from the ship's crew in there, and they were passing around a bottle of clear liquid that turned out to be de-icing fluid. That was a party." The last to drink was the pilot, who then lifted the chopper off the deck, swung it dramatically through blowing snow, and landed it directly in front of the fast-approaching icebreaker. "They were showing off to this American photographer," Menuez says.

Later, the Russians and Menuez helicoptered to the island of Novaya Zemlya, where they hunted reindeer. What followed was a surreal barbeque at an abandoned Soviet Gulag. "There were survivors of the work camp who had nowhere else to go, and they were just squatting there," says Menuez. "They were playing guitars and singing and drinking vodka with us." The reindeer was delicious -- until one of the scientists in the group told Menuez that the reindeer in the area had been feeding on grass irradiated years ago by above-ground nuclear bomb tests.

Then came the Pole itself and another mighty celebration. Menuez broke away from his traveling companions to gaze out over the world of ice. In recent years that scene has come to haunt him. "I read that in 2007 there was no ice at the Pole during the summer because of climate change," he says. "I may have witnessed something no one will ever see again." -- D.S.

© Jim Lo Scalzo/U.S. News & World Report
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Or, how a travel-addicted photojournalist learned to stop moving and love the calm.

Many a photojournalism student has lain awake at night dreaming of a career like Jim Lo Scalzo's. A staff photographer with U.S. News & World Report, Lo Scalzo has made photos in countless countries, many of which he revisits in his recent book, Evidence of My Existence (Ohio University Press, $15). Lo Scalzo earned a B.A. in creative writing from Baltimore's Loyola College before getting his master's in photojournalism from the University of Missouri, but his fascination with travel is the root from which all other passions stem. As a child, he writes, he concocted his own "photo safaris" to photograph nearby areas of interest.

"While they didn't result in any pictures I can remember," he recalls, "they did deepen my certitude that the twin pillars of my early well-being -- my wanderlust and my picture-making -- shared a single existential tenet: place means everything. In order to reveal what matters in the world, you have to put yourself square in front of it. Photography is about being there, as the saying goes."

It didn't take long, however, for Lo Scalzo to realize that his passion had a dark side. "Travel was a compulsive craving. An addiction. Heroin," he writes. And that addiction frequently wreaked havoc on his personal life, especially his relationship with his wife, Deirdre Shesgreen. After a rocky patch in college, they both learned to live with life on the road -- Shesgreen is the Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- but as both pursued their careers, a note of melancholy lingered in the space between them.

"Even proposing to Deirdre was a travel opportunity, one driven by love, I assured her, because with so many places yet to see, how silly to propose in Washington," writes Lo Scalzo. "So off to Ko Samui, to the porch of a teak beach house, the moon glittering off the Gulf of Siam, the whole of our journey still before us. And after she accepted and we ventured farther south, down the lush and sultry tail of Thailand, the limestone cliffs, the long-tail boats, the emerald lagoons, I flew off to India, to Kashmir, another assignment. She flew home alone."

For Lo Scalzo, the career he was building was nothing less than his childhood dream come true. He photographed Antarctic islands for one job, then found himself skirting land mine fields on the way to Baghdad for another. But that dream job was often a nightmare for his marriage. And when the question of having a child came up, Lo Scalzo found himself questioning his perpetual motion.

"I felt like I'd gotten it all wrong," he writes, "my raison d'etre, and now it was too late to turn it around. I felt like I'd spent all the years of my youth gathering speed, moving faster and faster, and now that I had achieved the desired orbit and was hurtling through time and space, there was no way to slow down, nothing to grab onto, no inertia. A body in motion stays in motion, says Newton's first law, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. An unbalanced force. I wasn't sure what Newton meant by that, but knew in my case it meant having a child."

When Lo Scalzo's son was born in 2004 the photographer finally figured out how to stop moving. It started when he made the difficult decision to stay in Washington, D.C., for Lamaze classes instead of taking a dream assignment in Libya. And by the time an editor called to ask the new father to cover John Kerry's presidential campaign, Lo Scalzo had no trouble turning it down. "It was so easy to say no -- not a guilty concession but what I truly wanted," he writes. "On those days that I couldn't get out of it, had to fill in for just a few days and zip up to Ohio or down to Florida and join the press bubble, I felt as if I had nothing to offer. I couldn't make a picture to save myself because of how silly this effort was. This stress. Seventeen years of it. Not time wasted but time overplayed, trying to inflate a finite ability through sheer force of will. To be comfortable with one's limitations, for me the toughest challenge as a photojournalist, suddenly came naturally. So I wasn't a player in the pantheon of shooters. Who cared? In the field of fatherhood, to one little boy at least, I had a chance to become a legend."
-- M.J.

Excerpts courtesy Ohio University Press/Swallow Press and Evidence of My Existence, James Lo Scalzo

Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a Lifetime
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Journeys of a LifetimeGregg Bleakney
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Journeys of a LifetimeGregg Bleakney
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Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a LifetimeGregg Bleakney
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Journeys of a LifetimeGregg Bleakney
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Journeys of a LifetimeFiona Aboud
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Journeys of a LifetimeFiona Aboud
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Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a LifetimeFiona Aboud
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Journeys of a LifetimeFiona Aboud
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Journeys of a LifetimeDoug Menuez
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Journeys of a LifetimeDoug Menuez
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Journeys of a LifetimeDoug Menuez
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Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a LifetimeDoug Menuez
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Journeys of a Lifetime
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a LifetimeJim Lo Scalzo
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a LifetimeJim Lo Scalzo
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a LifetimeJim Lo Scalzo
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a LifetimeJim Lo Scalzo
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a LifetimeJim Lo Scalzo
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys-of-a-Lifetime
Journeys of a LifetimeJim Lo Scalzo
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