I’ve been travelling in India for the past month, happy to have published this portrait of a man I met while walking around Agra, India.
Last week, I got to photograph the best baristas in the country at the Canadian National Barista Championships for The Globe and Mail. It was a dream assignment for me because I love coffee culture and also geeking out to delicious coffee. It was also interesting to chat with people who love coffee so much that they devoted a significant amount of their lives to perfecting the skill of making coffee. What drives them? Why are they spending so many hours preparing for a competition?
Here are a few photos from the event, but also check out the interactive feature the Globe put out here.
TORONTO - (March 17, 2019) The twenty-two best baristas in Canada gathered at The Artist Factory to battle it out for the title of best barista at the 2019 Canadian Barista Championships. The event was held to select a Canadian representative to compete in the World Barista Championships in Boston next month.
To earn their spot to compete with the best of the best in Canada, the baristas spend months taste-testing and selecting the coffee bean they will use, rehearsing their routine and practicing to make the perfect cup of coffee. At the competition, each competitor has fifteen minutes to present to four judges their coffee creations. The baristas are judged by the taste and presentation of the cup they brew (latte art), their preparing technique, how accurately they describe the flavour profiles in the coffee they present, their efficiency and cleanliness of their coffee station and also the creativity of a signature drink they create. The event is a fun celebration bringing together fans of the steadily-growing third-wave craft coffee culture in Canada, which uses high-quality Arabica beans, usually sourced directly from a farm in a coffee-growing region, with many cafés roasting their own beans in-house.
I recently photographed the Women’s March in Toronto for The Globe and Mail. The assignment ended up being featured in the Folio section for the print edition, and I was really excited when my photos were given a double spread. I am very grateful I got to photograph such a meaningful event as the Women’s March and document it historically. While there has been so much work done in the past to further women’s issues, there is still so much more work to be done.
2018 went by in a blur for me. I started the year off, January 1st leaving a new year’s celebration on the joyous streets of Puerto Rico where I had spent the last days of 2017. The old town of San Juan, with its cobblestone streets and old colonial houses was alive with fireworks exploding in the background, the steamy night heat on my skin. I counted down to midnight, and toasted a few shots of whatever we drank that night, then headed off to the airport for a redeye flight back to North America. I spent new year’s day in freezing cold Boston at the famous Maritime Museum with its spirited penguins and sea turtles that swam in the huge aquarium that topped a few stories. Then home.
My year was filled with travels to nine new countries (thirteen in total); mostly by backpacking through Eastern Europe; a lifestyle and work adjustment; and many adventures. I visited my 50th country this year (Romania), read 33 amazing books and feel more in touch with who I am as a person. I have shed the idealism of youth and am more confident in handling novel situations both travelling and at home. I recently came across an article I had saved over five years ago called “Ten trips you need to take in your twenties” and realized I had spent the last couple of years doing most of them.
The highlight of my year was not the physical places I went to, but the people I met while I was there. I admire the individuals who choose to pursue their own paths; as strange, unpredictable and uncharted as it might be. Usually, you meet these people by going to off-the-beaten path places, like in Macedonia where I met someone from the U.K. who was pursuing a Master’s degree in Albanian Art History. In Lebanon, I met a solo female traveller who had moved to French Guinea to teach math. She was a Parisian girl who traded in city life to move to a jungle where she found a pamphlet in her mailbox one day from the government titled “Living with Jaguars”.
This year brought a lot more commercial photography assignments, which I am grateful for. As I learn more and more about how to make high-quality images, I realized I am just scratching the surface of the nuances of making technically ‘perfect’ images. With commercial assignment work, the client expects perfectly-lit, expertly staged and styled photos, all of which is possible when you can control many elements such as the models you work with, your environment and studio lighting. With documentary or news photojournalism, most of the elements of that make the photo extraordinary are by chance; if the subject steps into the proper place, the lighting conditions that day and if you happen to catch an expression or an action, most of which will likely never be repeated again. Regardless, all of this work makes me a better photographer overall, which is the end goal.
I’m ending 2018 in great shape mentally, physically and in a good place. I’m typing this up from a beachfront bar on an island in Belize. It is a deserved ending to a hectic year, filled with many blessings but also many new challenges.
For those of you just joining me, every year, I run through a list of key lessons I learned throughout the year as self-reflection with the intent to help others who are reading.
Experience is the name so many people give their mistakes. - Oscar Wilde
Here is what I learned this year:
1. Maintenance is a key and important part of life. I spent a significant portion of this year “decluttering” my physical possessions, a project I first started in 2013. I would spend whole days just sorting out old junk I would donate, organizing things that inspired me from high school, sorting through notes I had made during my college days. At the end of those long days, I would wonder how I got myself into this situation with a closet full of odds and ends. The solution is obviously to not create a mess in the first place, which I am working on. In five years, I plan to not have any junk that requires me to spend days of my life to sort through. Life is short, time is precious!
2. Cultivate good habits! At the tail-end of 2017, I went surfing in Puerto Rico and became so tired from paddling to catch the waves, while the locals seemed to have unlimited reserves of arm strength. As someone who has only limited time in warm climates with good surf every year, this was extremely frustrating, as the conditions were perfect but I was physically exhausted. I realized I had let myself become satisfied with easy workouts at home and hadn’t been pushing myself or keeping myself in tiptop surfing shape. I had unconsciously let the status quo of the people I worked with become my lifestyle too. Whenever they ordered take-out, I would do so as well most of the time. One bite of pastry doesn’t hurt. But If you let pastry pass through your lips enough times without going to the gym, soon you will be out of shape.
3. Actively cultivate a good crew who will encourage your good habits. Good habits will become easier when they are modelled by the people around you as “normal”. I am still working on this, but this year I have started surrounding myself with more freelancers who have to support themselves without a steady paycheque. These are some of the hardest-working people you will ever meet and I am grateful to be in their company.
4. Extra effort gets noticed. Earlier this year, I went to a tea shop that had a loyalty program for tea rewards. I went expressly to get my free bag of tea – nothing else. However the employee working that day had a goal of selling me on anything, he mentioned the special of the day, which was a $1 tea. I didn’t need the extra tea (I had my own tumbler of tea in my car) but I was so impressed by his effort that I bought the tea. A $1 sale is not a lot of money. But from a $0 sale to $1, he increased my spending by 100%. If you upsell 10 customers a day, that is still not very significant, however if you do that every single day, that is $3650 – enough for a round trip to anywhere in the world, or an upgrade in camera gear, or whatever it is that your heart desires for $3650. Another example that really inspired me this year was Ami Vitale’s talk on CreativeLive where she described dressing up as a bush to photograph a panda that would be released into the wild. Amongst dozens of other photographers, she was the only one dressed up as a bush so that the panda wouldn’t realize she was there and wouldn’t be scared of her. The scientist in charge of the release noticed how empathetic she was towards her subject and allowed her access to all of the panda babies, which helped immensely with her photo story. I was so inspired by these two that earlier this year, I went the extra mile for a client, giving them much more photo content than they requested. They ended up buying double the images they initially were interested in because of my efforts.
5. Experience comes with time. This year, on my way home from Lebanon, I had a stopover in Casablanca, Morocco – the confronting place where I had travelled to on my own when I was young and overconfident in handling difficult situations. I learned a lot on that trip about what is accepted behaviour in different cultures, but mostly I learned how to survive in a foreign place where travellers are preyed upon, not just scammed (thank you Indonesia for that lesson). Morocco is a place where men routinely follow tourists around the city and harass them for money, to go to their relative’s shop, to sell their services as a guide, etc. It is quite scary when you are a young woman arriving to this for the first time during the night, which is what happened the first time I ended up in Morocco. Coming back to the same city almost five years later, I now knew what to expect and handled the man who followed me down the street, quite well, despite my frustration with him. Five years ago, a similar experience terrified me and I was able to reflect on how far I’d come.
6. Think beyond the “pretty” photo and think about storytelling. I spent a large part of the year devouring classic literature and iconic photojournalism in an effort to learn from those sources. In my “studies”, I came across a photo by Andreas Feinenger, who made a photo of oil derricks. He described his thinking behind the photo and how he went far back to find the perspective that shows all the oil derricks close together. He did that deliberately so that people remember what oil stands for. When I read that, a light bulb clicked in my head. In 2019 and beyond, I will spend more time thinking about the meaning behind what I want to convey in a photo, as opposed to just making “pretty” photos, which I have finally started making consistently in difficult lighting situations.
7. Spend less time fixing mistakes and more time making sure the mistakes don't happen in the first place. This year, due to recklessness, I ended up with a lot more parking tickets than any other year. In the grand scheme of things (compared to irreversible mistakes), parking tickets are a small issue, but I’d rather not make these mistakes in the first place.
8. Slow down. Earlier this year, I had a free coffee voucher that I was really excited to use. The ‘free coffee’ ended up not being free however because I had been so excited to get to the coffee shop, I accidentally scraped the side of a larger car I was not used to driving while backing out.
9. Always travel to learn. I went to many new places I had no preconceptions about previously and it filled in gaps in my knowledge, which is why I think travel and first-hand experiences are so important (if you’re not able to travel because of your circumstances, that is okay as long as you’re learning through second-hand sources such as documentaries or books). Prior to visiting Auschwitz, my understanding of the camp was limited to Viktor Frankel’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, Life is Beautiful, X-Men movies, Schindler’s List, Son of Saul, and the Berlin Holocaust Museum. The Auschwitz museum describes so much more of what the victims went through and I am glad I went even though it took great effort to get there.
10. Be committed. Tom Seaver, a Hall of Fame pitcher, received the highest percentage of votes to the Hall of Fame. In Angela Duckworth’s Grit, I read that he does not go tanning in Florida on vacation if he thinks he might get a sunburn which would affect his ability to pitch the next day. I love his level of commitment to his sport and have also committed myself to photography in the same way.
Bonus: If something is meant to be, it will happen. – At least, this is what I like to believe. One of the books I read, Marilyn Monroe by Donald Spoto described that as an unknown, Marilyn Monroe worked in a factory during the war when she was married to her first husband. From there, she could have “settled down” and led a quiet and conservative life hidden from the public, but a war photographer found her working at the factory and the photos started her career which eventually led to her to being cast in movies. Her dreams of becoming an actress could have ended when she got married and became a house wife at 16, but it didn’t. It’s almost as if that if someone is meant to be something to the world, it will happen.
The best books I read in 2018 (not in order):
1. The Social Animal – David Brooks
2. How Music Got Free – Stephen Witt
3. In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Odaatje
4. The Magic of Thinking Big – David Schwartz
5. Marilyn Monroe – Donald Spoto
6. Grit – Angela Duckworth
7. Swell – Liz Clark
8. Katerina – James Frey
9. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
10. Tender is the Night – Scott. F. Fitzgerald
I recently had the opportunity to photograph a wedding in Pontypool, Ontario, an area I probably never would have visited if not for this wedding. I love opportunities like these - opportunities that you don't plan for but rather opportunities that present themselves organically to you. It's how I ended up living in Saskatoon for six weeks, road tripping to Washington D.C., road tripping to Maine, road tripping to Sherbrooke, Quebec, camping on an island in Puerto Rico, etc. etc.
In this instance, the bride's family owned an RV park in Pontypool, Ontario, where the wedding was held. The reception took place in a barn, and all the food was cooked by the groom's father. It's always fun to witness how the uniqueness of each couple is shown by what they choose to splurge on (in this case, open bar), the location they decide on, and all those choices that make up a wedding - for example, the practical, no-nonsense bride wore Birkenstocks under her dress - whereas in some other weddings I've been to, the bride had seven outfit changes.
Beyond making beautiful photos and experiencing each unique quirk about each couple, my favourite part of a wedding would be listening to the speeches; I've heard so many memorable ones throughout the years and I love hearing all those little anecdotes which reveal different sides of a person. It's truly an honour to be invited into someone's life to capture such a special day.
I recently visited my 50th country (Romania) during my recent trip to Eastern Europe.
When I first started solo travelling roughly six years ago), I didn't imagine it would take so long to get to 50 countries. That is roughly eight countries a year, which doesn't seem like a lot but sometimes you get to a place and you love it so much you need to visit it thoroughly, from North to South, because usually every region is very different.
Do I plan to visit all 195 countries now that I've been to over a quarter of them? Maybe. Certainly a few people have done it. But most people will live their lives not even seeing 25% of the impressively awe-inspiring world we are on.
It's true. Travelling is not always easy. You have to plan where you want to go, take time off from work, save up some money, book tickets and accommodation and plan out an itinerary.
However, I've found that as I've been to more places with more miles under my feet, that like most skills, travelling does get easier. In 2014 when I first went to Morocco by myself, I was overwhelmed by their aggressive culture that preyed on tourists. I was not used to having a local follow me around (for hours) and ask for money. This time, four years later, the locals didn't stop following me around, but I was more confident. After four years of travelling experience, I was better at asserting myself and telling people to leave me alone when I felt uncomfortable. I sought out interactions with locals where I felt safe - authentic experiences which didn't involve any monetary exchange. I am better at reading situations now and this helps as a photographer carrying thousands of dollars in camera gear (and as a regular traveller) - being able to spot danger and when you need to leave a situation.
I'm not done with my travels though, here's to the next 50 countries. Thanks for joining me on this journey. :)
Here's a compilation of the highlights of my travelling so far:
2017 was a busy year.
I checked a couple of things off my bucket list and lived many vastly different lifestyles during the year – from spending a month living in the Cinque Terre; waking up leisurely to the sound of waves; to spending hours of my life commuting in rush hour traffic in the sprawling Canadian metropolis known as Toronto; something I once thought I would never do.
But what’s fascinating about people in general is our capacity for change, and how each experience in our lives shapes who we become.
I make a year-end review each year, where I recount my biggest mistakes or discoveries aka “learning opportunities”, and figure out how I can live better next year based off of what I learned. What I realize now, after thinking about it for weeks, is that my so-called "biggest mistakes" from this year are actually not so significant in the long run. I missed a couple of flights because of not double-checking details, and had to buy expensive tickets last minute. And made some mistakes with who I thought I could let into my life. But all these mishaps are relatively easy to get over. The most important thing I learned in 2017 is that there are limitations to what one can achieve in a year.
A theme of this year was accepting where my limitations were, in terms of time and resources, as well as my physical and mental capabilities. I was commissioned to do more commercial photography gigs this year than any other year in the past and as a result, I did not have enough time to achieve all I set out to do at the beginning of the year. But I learned to be more forgiving of myself for not crossing everything off the list. That is important too.
January started off haphazardly in Bangkok as I was recovering from an injured knee from my December motorcycle accident in Vietnam. I was in the middle of my South East Asia backpacking trip which I started in October 2016 and was about to go to Laos for the first time. I would like to say I started the year off strong, but the honest truth is I couldn’t walk far from the pain in my leg, and I was drugged up on four different types of antibiotics. I spent the end of 2016 listening to the fireworks from the place I was staying at, then heading to bed almost immediately. Through this experience, I realized how much I valued my independence and health and being able to walk everywhere by myself without assistance. It was humbling to ask for help and to connect with people through their own stories of accidents/adventure. I learned to slow down because I literally couldn't go at my regular speed anymore. For someone who is very driven, sometimes forced relaxation is necessary.
This year, I made a resolution to read 40 books and to visit ten new countries. I failed both, reading only 30 books and visiting only five new countries (Laos, Malta, Croatia, and soon Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico). More and more, as I’m getting older, I’m realizing there are limits to what one person can do in a year, or in a life even. When I was young, I used to have huge ambitions that I have since focused to just one or two big goals. There is just too much to experience in life and to try to do too many things risks not doing each thing fully and in depth. I would rather have a higher quality of experience rather than a quantity. I am grateful I’ve been able to do so many fun and eye-opening things in my twenties so far.
I saw some truly beautiful and stunning sights this year on four continents. I also got to see some old friends I hadn’t seen in years because they moved, which reminded me how lucky I am to have made such idyllic memories with them in different parts of the world throughout my years of travelling and living in various cities. It’s bittersweet and sometimes odd to go through life without the physical presence of friends whom you used to see frequently each week but have since moved away and continued their own lives in different cities. I know this is something I will struggle with for years to come, but I have quietly accepted it as one of the solitary pains of being friends with globetrotters, adventurers and people unwilling to accept the immediate situation they were born into.
In June after a month of living in Italy and travelling around Eastern Europe, I ended up back in Toronto. I was there primarily to photograph the wedding season, but I also ended up experimenting with a new direction in my career by making a transition to work in the entertainment industry. To be clear, I am still a photojournalist and travel writer, but I also wanted to see the world of showbiz for myself because of my intense interest but also because I believe I have a lot to learn from such a tough industry. Growing up in Canada where we are known for our politeness, I used to take for granted how nice and helpful everyone was. Through working with difficult people this year, I learned how underrated niceness is. I spend every day handling many big personalities and big egos. The directness of these people who are used to getting their way was hard to handle at first but the harshness makes me appreciate all the love heaped on me by friends and family. I realize I am extremely lucky and I try to be nice to every single person I interact with.
2017 also brought new faces to my life and I experienced some of the most heart-breaking stories; and made some phenomenal memories. I got back into recreational sailing and made a journey on a small dinghy this summer around the Toronto Island. I tubed down a river in Vang Vieng, Laos, and almost met an unfortunate end, if not for someone who came back to stay with me (I’m not ready to tell this story yet, but one day I will be). I met some people who told me some heart-wrenching stories about their pasts and how they were trying to change their lives and move on beyond what life had dealt them. It amazed me how they were able to be so strong and turn so much bitterness into vulnerability and kindness. Life is not always easy, but we struggle and hope and pull through most of the time.
I like that 2018 is a new start. A new year to prioritize goals, spend time with people I enjoy, and to explore new passions. A new year full of travel, learning and creating.
Now that I am older, I know that there are many experiences in life which cannot be lived at any other time in your life other than the time it was meant for. Last April, I had a pocket of time to enjoy one of the many perks of the freelance life - taking months-long sabbaticals in exotic European destinations because I felt like it and because it was the right moment in my life. These were the moments to savour rich, strong espressos while taking in endless indigo seas, to wake up to the sound of the ocean waves.
I spent my days walking on cobblestone in markets, shopping for leather goods in Florence, tasting the gelati of each city or town, always the same flavours, pistachio, almond, chocolate or hazelnut - to compare fairly. Reading my book in the sun while lying on a rock on the Ligurian coast. Taking my time while the tourists rushed from place to place.
Mornings started with boiling of water for hot tea, then running down to one of the three small bakeries in town, buying loaves of bread for the day, running back up the four flights of stairs to the apartment and making breakfast. When noontime came around, Fabio, the Italian originally from Genova, a city an hour away, would cook pasta for everyone.
There were new and exciting pastas I had never seen before, cooked in new and exciting ways. I clinked glasses of local sweet wines with people who were strangers just days before, on afternoons in small towns no one outside of Italy had heard of. There was that one time my friend Ruth and I took an entire day to hike the Sentiero Azzurro, or the Blue Path, along the coastline of the Cinque Terre and I found the best tiramisu cannoli in Vernazza. There were many stories. Like lying on a lazy beach and laughing at cheesy Italian pick-up lines (Scusami, mi ero perso nei tuoi occhi or Sorry, I got lost in your eyes), and trying to figure out what to do with the Italian boys who delivered these lines (we ran, it was bad).
Then came the evenings. If there was a sunset, tourists would gather around the marina and the large rocks and the beach and we would all watch for a few magical moments where the golden light hit each part of the small village made of stone. Suddenly it made sense why the Italians would move from big cities to work hospitality jobs in a small humble town full of old-world charm.
Afterwards, when I left to travel Southern Italy, many afternoons were spent basking in the Italian riviera, going on long drives along the Sicilian countryside and falling in love with the country but in the back of my mind, knowing my place is not there. And so I left, happy in the knowledge that the Italian people will still be there, living out their lives, enjoying their happinesses, changing and evolving until the moment I get back.
After a brief tour through Malta and Croatia, when I came back to Toronto in early Summer, for the first time since I started travelling, I found I had a longing to nest. I was weary from travelling the world for so long and emotionally tired from seeing so many new things. I needed routine again. I've decided to live in Toronto because this is where I have the most chance to make something of my work. I have connections and friends and family who can support and motivate me when I need help. I know more about how the freelance creative industry works. I am starting to make a dent in my career and getting bigger and bigger gigs. For me, the greatest loss is unrealized potential. At some point in my year of travelling, I realized I needed to stay put long enough to see something come of my efforts. To my friends around the world, if you need me, I'll be in Toronto, working to be the biggest I can be. Come visit.
Canada150: Ten Best National Parks to Photograph, published in Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine /
I'm really excited that my first cover feature is for Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. You can buy this magazine in most bookstores, grocery stores and convenience stores around Canada. For this article, I researched the best national parks to go photograph in Canada this summer, just in time for Canada150, when access to all national parks are free. I learned a lot about how beautiful our vast land is, where to go if you want to photograph a specific animal/northern lights/landscape and a few tidbits of knowledge on outdoor survival skills. Here's a preview.
2016, for me, was a year that could only be described as “FULL”. I spent a record (in a year) total of 110 days (30% of the year) travelling locally and also to other eight countries, five of which were new to me; had a full-time job; on top of another full-time job (freelance photography); on top of helping my best friend get married (almost a full-time job); and also managed to accomplish some personal goals like reading 52 books this year, getting my motorcycle license, finally paying off all of my student loans (phew!) and getting my Open Water Diving Scuba certification. I also finally went on my South East Asia backpacking trip which I had been planning for since 2012 but something always came in the way.
I spent this year climbing, swimming to the depths of the ocean, tanning on exotic beaches, exploring new careers (I spent ten days as a bartender on a Thai island), going on motorcycle trips around Vietnam; and subsequently also spending some time at the hospital getting minor surgery because of the aforementioned motorcycle trip. It’s been a fantastic journey and though it was exhausting at times, there’s no way I would stop living so fully.
While I didn’t get everything I wanted handed to me this year (bummer), I am truly satisfied with where I am in this moment in my life. I am grateful for the richness of experiences I’ve been fortunate to have, for old friends, new friends and beautiful moments I’ve been able to share with people this year.
Here is what I learned from 2016:
1. Don’t take for granted where you are now and have insurance for the future, or at least an exit strategy or escape plan. Earlier this year, I was photographing a news event with a bunch of photographers. There was one photographer who caught my eye because though he was in his late 40s or early 50s, he had sense of style that belonged to someone in their teens or late thirties. It was really cool. I later found out that he used to be the editor in chief of this niche national magazine I loved back in high school. Back then, in my teenage eyes, he had the dream job. Now, ten years later, he was reporting for a publication that no one reads. I do not know his entire story (and also everyone knows print journalism is declining) but was sad to see how his career and situation changed so drastically. What I’ve learned from this is that careers don’t always advance, sometimes they go the other way – have a good back-up plan for ten/twenty/thirty years from now.
2. Spend more time with people you love. Life is short! This year, my best friend of 20 years got married to the love of her life. Her and I had been dreaming of this day since we were six, and how we agreed we would be maid of honour for each other. The wedding was a major milestone – we were waiting our whole lives for this moment and now it was finally here. While standing at the altar, supporting her, I realized how quickly 20 years had passed, and how quickly the next 20 years will pass. Make sure you make time for the people important to you before life passes you by.
3. Follow your own plans, don’t get swayed by other people’s projections on you. Earlier this year, I worked in a fancy corporate office where most of the people had mortgages, multiple cars, and cottages. They had comfortable lives in the same job for several years and were planning to retire in the same state. It wasn’t the life I wanted for myself – at least not yet; but in conversations, I was made to feel like I wasn’t a complete person just because I didn’t own a car like everyone else. In the end, I stuck to my guns and chose not to buy a car (I walked 20 minutes to the office each day) because I knew that if I had to make car payments, I wouldn’t be able to do other things I wanted to do more. Like right now, I’m writing this from a sunny, pristine beach in Myanmar while sipping a pina colada. I can afford this lifestyle because I chose to follow my own dreams and not be swayed by other people’s opinions.
4. Know your own value. This is what I had to deal with earlier this year while quoting rates for photography: “Are you even that good?” “You’re not even a wedding photographer, why are you so expensive?” “The real photographer will be here on Wednesday”. The truth of it is, photography seems like it’s easy to do, but it’s more complicated than that. Behind the scenes, photographers are constantly testing new lighting techniques, reading about new equipment and researching locations. There is so much work that goes into things a non-photographer doesn’t even think about, like photography permits or post-processing. Anyway, I’m not bitter if people don’t understand this all at first. I keep getting photography jobs at rates I’m happy with so I must be doing something right.
5. Great things take time. I think when you’re young and you have the fortune of meeting extraordinary people who have done amazing things, you tend to get overwhelmed by their stories. But over the years, I’ve learned that you can’t do everything (well) in a short period of time. Many significant projects take years. When I was 21, I met so many older, well-travelled people who seemed so knowledgeable and cultured. But throughout the years I’ve been slowly accumulating experience and going to far-flung places myself. Now, I am the one getting asked for advice from 18 year olds. Just be patient, keep working hard, enjoy your life and great things will come.
6. Slow down and do things right the first time. I wish someone had whispered this into my ear several times this year. Once, when I was trying to claim something from my health insurance and got denied because I didn’t read the instructions thoroughly – this led to so much wasted time trying to wrap up loose ends. And second, before I got on the motorbike and drove 182 km on dirt roads during the night time in northern Vietnam. We swerved off an indent in the road I didn’t see until it was too late (it had been a nice smooth road until that point). We were just an hour from our destination before we hit the indent, flew off the bike and I had to go to the hospital to get minor surgery to clean my wound. Three stitches, some morphine and acetaminophen, a tetanus shot and a prescription for eight antibiotic pills a day later, I hobbled out of the hospital and continued my travels around South East Asia, but with much more difficulty, inconvenience and pain. (My friend was fine, except for one cut.) We were rushing back from Halong Bay to Hanoi to catch my friend’s flight that next morning, but I keep thinking that if we gave ourselves more time or if I drove just a little slower, we wouldn’t have had this accident. Of course, at worst, this accident is just an inconvenience in a minor part of my life. There were some things I couldn’t do because of my injury, some days I had to stay at the guest house and rest; and I had to constantly clean my wounds when I would rather be doing other things. Yet, the important thing is I haven’t permanently ruined any lives or done anything that is irreversible; so I think if flying off the bike and suffering the week after while recovering was meant to be a lesson, it was a good one.
7. Be bold and ask for what you want – because sometimes you will get it. This one keeps surprising me: all the times I got yeses when I thought I would be met with a no. Earlier this Fall, I received a photo assignment in Singapore where I had to find someone to model in a product shoot – keeping in mind I know no one in Singapore – I somehow met a girl at a lounge who was willing to let me photograph her and also several people who were just curious and volunteered to help. They became my set assistants for the morning. If there is one piece of good advice I leave you for 2017, it’s this: be direct and ask for what you need/want. You never know what might happen.
My favourite books I read this year:
Fifteen Dogs - André Alexis
What I was Doing While You Were Breeding - Kristen Newman
Catherine the Great - Robert K. Massie
A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway
How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia - Mohsin Hamid
The Song Machine - John Seabrook
Favourite places I went to:
Koh Chang, Thailand
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
Ngapali Beach, Myanmar
Of all of the lives I've led so far, currently, this is the strangest one.
Three weeks ago, I landed in Bangkok to backpack around South East Asia and to see first-hand what it's like to be here. After travelling around the island of Koh Chang, then Tonsai, and Ao Nang; I took a ferry to where I am now: the island of Koh Phi Phi. Originally, I was led here based on the good things I've heard about this island; it being on many of the "most beautiful island" lists of travel publications around the world and also being mentioned in glowing terms in casual conversations with other travellers. Yet initially, the charm of this island escaped me as I had seen so many stunning beaches in the last couple of days that one more picturesque beach didn't quite knock me over the way I see it affects some of the tourists who freshly disembark from the daily ferry boat to this island. But that was all about to change. Something else would grab me.
Three nights ago, I went out to the bars with a bunch of other travellers and I ended up chatting with the expat owner of one the bars on the island and he offered me a job at the bar, which I happily accepted because: why not? I've always wanted to be a bartender.
Now, my days consist of waking up to a beach view, going for tea and breakfast, doing some reading, writing and photography, taking lunch and dinner; then getting ready for work.
The work is not overwhelmingly good or bad, just vastly different. I went from doing public relations for the government to bar relations with my customers.
The secret of a good bartender, as I have learned, not only involves creating tasty and presentable drinks, but also involves making it look effortless while creating said drinks and chatting with the bar patrons. To get to "exceptional level", one must make creating drinks look fun and entertaining; and also innovate new drinks at the bar.
It's a good and fun life here on Koh Phi Phi. My biggest problem here so far was when my favourite breakfast place ran out of ripe bananas so I couldn't eat the Thai Nutella Banana pancake I usually ordered. I spend the day tanning at the beach while reading or going scuba diving. And because the island is fairly small, I've started bumping into friends and acquaintances when I make my way around town. It's nice to be able to say hi to familiar faces, even if I barely know them. I've also started "visiting" friends. This is a new habit for me because when I was in Toronto, I lived so far from everyone I know, that a visit can take up to half an hour to drive. And most times, friends are out. Here, everyone more or less has a predictable schedule and I can drop by in a ten minute walk for a quick chat or a long sunset watching session.
It's very easy to get swept up into the lifestyle and never leave. Most of the bar staff I work with, initially started off as travellers like me. Now, some of them have been living on this island for two years, tanning away their days. In a way, Koh Phi Phi is a small town paradise. Almost everything you need for a happy existence can be found here. There is a good community, plenty of sunshine, a good work/life balance, cheap living, and love, if you look for it. The challenge is giving yourself the push to drop out of this easy comfort and eventually adventure off the island. Because there is so much more out there in the world.
They say with every closed door, a new one opens. And to be honest, I couldn't wait for this aforementioned door to shut fast enough. I've been wanting to do this South East Asia trip since 2012 and each time, something was in the way. But now it's finally happening. I've been in Thailand for the last couple of days and can't wait to see more of the world and take some photos too.
I've been updating Instagram the most often, and you can follow along on my adventures from there.
In mid-June, just as Summer was starting to bubble to its boiling point, I drove East for a week to photograph my friend Flora's Maine wedding. Along the way, I stopped in to say hi to my friends in Montreal (I lived there for a year in 2015), had the best pho in my life, enjoyed poutine in the park, made an awkward rest-stop and had a run-in (literally) with some wildlife. While in Maine, I also managed to stop at Bar Harbor and eat lobster three times before leaving.
The drive from Toronto to Montreal on Friday was uneventful. When I arrived, I caught up with my friend Greg, who was talking about wanting to do some beekeeping when I left Montreal last year. He updated me on his life and I was glad to hear that he had taken up beekeeping with a Montreal non-profit and also now runs guided tours for beekeepers in Nicaragua. Incredibly random, but so awesome at the same time. I spent the rest of my short time in Montreal catching up with friends and stocking up on goodies. The day after, I drove to Maine.
I arrived at the U.S. border around 9:30 pm at night and drove as the sun was fading on a country road for another hour or so. The U.S. board official wished me a fun wedding and warned me about moose on the road (foreshadowing?).
Sure enough, on the way in, I almost hit a deer before it scampered off into the woods. I arrived to the wedding grounds, Lakewood Golf Course, said hi to the bride and groom and headed to bed.
The next day was the wedding. Here are a few highlights:
The wedding came and went without a hitch. I was happy to make some beautiful photos and touched to be included in the special day. I left Lakewood Golf Course in high spirits and headed to Bar Harbor, Maine, which had intense, but charming Dawson's Creek vibes. I had a lunch of lobster with a view of the harbour (fantastic), then stopped for a lobster roll on the way back for dinner (also fantastic). The lobster roll place (on the side of a country road) was also known for winning a couple of ice-cream competitions, so I sampled some delicious ice-cream too.
But of course, the story isn't complete without some mishap along the way. While driving on another country road at night on the way back to Toronto, I came across two moose standing in the middle of the road. I slammed the brakes but still ended up rear-ending one of the moose with my car. The moose ran off into the woods and no one was hurt. The only damages were my shattered windshield, and a dashed perfect driving record.
I began January 2015 in San Diego, California, a place where I realized I was at the happiest in my 20’s. It was a big gamble to go to California for a month at this time because though I knew I needed a break from the Winter in Canada, I still wanted and needed to hold on to my job in Montreal and also I needed to watch my budget. However, the sunshine, break and change of lifestyle was exactly what I needed to refresh myself to get ready for the rest of 2015.
San Diego also taught me a lot about myself and my resiliency, as the second day of my stay there, my wallet mysteriously disappeared. 2015 was a year of great breakthroughs, adventure and double-takes. I got published for the first time in the Toronto Star and made it to Canadian Press’ freelance photographer’s list. I spent a grand total of 59 days this year on the road when I wasn’t in Toronto or Montreal. There were so many good times and laughter, but also a few tough moments, which is where the learning comes in.
This is what I learned in 2015:
1. How to say no to things
Learning to say ‘no’ to multiple projects or people was one of the most difficult things I learned to do this year. It felt odd and there was a tension within myself. But to make room for bigger and better things, sometimes you just have to say no to projects that don’t pay enough or people who don’t respect your time or situations that drain you emotionally. Because I said no to some projects and contracts, I was able to say yes to spontaneous road trips, shooting for McDonald's Canada and shooting for Frito-Lay.
2. Take things slow.
This is your life, enjoy it. As much as you’re supposed to work hard and constantly better yourself (growing up in hyper-competitive Toronto, working hard is ingrained into you), sometimes you just need to relax. After living for a year in Montreal (I moved back to Toronto this summer), I learned to adopt the carefree French attitude of enjoying life’s pleasures. Every weekend, my routine included a leisurely brunch with friends followed by tanning and reading in the park. What is the point of life if you don’t get to enjoy the beautiful moments? I once knew a guy who was hardworking and had a great job and a great salary and a great apartment, but he spent so much of his youth working, he didn't have time to develop his relationships or even go out and now in his late 20's he doesn't have anyone to enjoy his life with and even worse, his social skills are so rusty, he is having trouble finding people to spend time with him. Anyway, the point of this message is: you don't have to be working hard all the time and you should keep a balance in your life.
3. Visualize the bigger picture.
Early on in my photography/writing career I did work for free and I also devoted a large amount of time developing my own blog (which was a labour of love) but with every photo I took and every blog post I wrote, I slowly got better at what I was doing and all my work became my portfolio and ended up getting me into the door of some bigger companies. I made huge strides (Toronto Star, Canadian Press) in my freelance career this year because of all that experience. You give some away, and you get some more. Don’t get discouraged if early on in your career you have to give away some (or all) of your work for free; all of it is coming back to you in experience, just remember to look at the bigger picture.
4. How to tell the client they are wrong (respectfully and politely).
Sometimes you can do all the work the client asked for, the way they asked for it, sometimes doing it several times over and still the client isn’t happy for whatever reason. This is not your fault. Early on in our lives, we learn to make people happy, whether it is our teachers or parents; by meeting their expectations in whatever way they expect from you; or at your first job where you’re told the customer is always right. Yet as you get more life experience, you realize that some people just can't be pleased, and sometimes the customer is just an unhappy person and that has nothing to do with you. The solution to this is to surround yourself with a network of other freelancers who will give you support and encouragement.
5. How to live with little to none (this is especially useful for a freelancer)
As I mentioned earlier, this year in January, my wallet went missing on my second day in San Diego and I had to live with no money for a whole four days before my credit card, which was express-shipped, arrived in California. Through this experience (literally one of my worst fears while travelling), I learned just how little I could live with and still survive and have fun - sort of like how Evey in V For Vendetta, toughens up at the end when V put her through all that crap. The truth is, many of us have all of these built-up fears of “what if”s, but when things actually happen, we cope better than we think we can. Through the experience, I ate a lot of bread, and grumbled about being hungry, but a lot of people live with much worse. Also, a majority of people think they need a lot of money to have a great life (according to a study, after a certain point, money won't make you happier), but really it’s all about attitude, which brings me to the next point.
6. Money is just something that can be made again (spend on people you love). Earlier this year, after making a transition from working at a full-time job to being a freelance photojournalist, I lived minimally for a while – rarely going out or having dinners at restaurants. Then in March, someone I met started taking me out a bunch, spending a lot of cash on food and drinks. When I asked him why he was doing all of this, he said "money is something you can make again", which I understand more now. At the end of your life, it's much better to have memories made with people, facilitated by money, than to die with a pile of money and no fond memories.
7. Be patient, and wait for your moment. Earlier this year, as a newly hired contractor for a project, things at the company shifted and suddenly there was a lot more than the team could handle. It was brought up in a team meeting that there was a need for a writer who could take on a couple more assignments each week. As the new person, I wanted to jump in and show initiative, yet somehow I knew this wasn’t the right opportunity for me as I knew I wanted to focus more on my photography. There was a tension in my chest as I held my tongue and didn't volunteer - they had to hire someone else, but in the end I was glad I didn't jump in as a few weeks later, there was a need for someone with video skills, which is much closer to photography than writing. The lesson to come away with is to wait for your moment. This is true for everything else in life, if something doesn't feel right don’t feel pressured to jump into a business opportunity, buying a property or a marriage, because if it’s truly right for you, it will come again. You just need to have faith!
8. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t ask. Earlier this Fall, I missed my flight home from Istanbul to Toronto because there was this thing called Passport Control where before you even enter security to board your flight, you have to get in this big line where it’s a pre-screen. In my entire life of catching planes and travelling, I’ve only ever missed one flight, so I didn’t accommodate for this extra two hours of waiting before boarding. In Toronto (and other airports around the world), if you’re about to miss your flight, there are airport employees who can push you through the lines so that you don’t miss your flight, but no such thing existed in Turkey. You are on your own in this country. Anyway, as I was about to miss my flight because I was in this line, I started asking people if I could skip ahead of them. I found that many people are surprisingly accommodating if you tell them you’re about to miss your flight and will let you go ahead of them, no questions asked. Unfortunately, I did this near the end of my wait, and still ended up missing last boarding call by 10 minutes. But now I’m less hesitant about asking for things, even from strangers.
9. Photography is not real. I knew this before, but I understand more of the depth of it now. I don't mean obvious things like photoshopping pigs in the sky, but rather things like how lighting can make a picture dramatically different. Through a lot of varied photography jobs this year, where I had to make products or people look good, I learned just how much work goes into lighting or waiting for that one key moment to get a frame. There was this local politician I saw quite often day-to-day professionally, who wasn’t the best looking guy out there in the world – but that’s okay, not everyone needs to be Brad Pitt. But in a photo I saw of him, this photographer managed to make him look attractive, even slightly appealing (with no photo alterations, just good use of lighting!). This is the power of photography. Hire the best photographers you can, it's worth it! :)
10. The gifts you receive aren’t really because you deserve them but because the people you know are AWESOME, big-hearted and generous. This year, I’ve been blessed by so many delicious treats, great meals and fantastic experiences. A lot of it was the plain luck of having the right people in my life or meeting the right people (like when I met my friend Alek who gave me an unforgettable motorcycle ride through San Francisco up to Hawk Hill, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge), but then there are the times when you try to give back to people who gave to you first and they end up giving you even more. And then there are things you receive which you just can't ever repay (like photography advice that ends with you getting published in Rock and Ice), so you just learn to be grateful and try to give back to the world in some other way. What I am trying to say here is that I'm really grateful for everyone who has contributed in some way to my life this year, so thank you.
*Bonus*: Always consider opportunity cost! This year, I found a cheap flight from Oslo, Norway to Crete, Greece. It was $53, what a steal! But what I didn't consider was that the flight time, 6 am, meant that I wouldn't sleep all night and would arrive to Greece sleep-deprived and cranky. It also cost $53 for the bus to the further airport in Oslo that this flight operated from. So if you see something that looks like a good deal, always consider the other factors.
Here's to an even more awesome 2016! Stay adventurous!
Read 'Things I learned in 2014'
I recently photographed a young couple close to my heart. Jess has been my best friend since we were five years old. We played with dolls when we were young and always re-enacted wedding ceremonies with them. When I got a call one night with her excitedly telling me she was now engaged to her long-time boyfriend Matt, I was ecstatic with joy - the moment had come. We quickly organized a photo shoot.
Jess and Matt asked for a vintage look to their photos, so we decided to shoot in the Distillery District of Toronto which has an old-world feel to it with its cobblestone floor and heritage buildings. We also wanted to catch one of the last summer sunsets of the year so we drove to nearby Cherry Beach for a second round of shooting. The couple wasn't camera-shy at all and what you see in the photos is the real emotion of being in love coming through.
I am so happy to be a part of this couple's life and honoured that they asked me to do their engagement photos and to be their maid of honour. I'm looking forward to the wedding in 2016!
Gear: Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens.
While in New Orleans, Louisiana, after tiring of the infamous but touristy Bourbon Street, we went to the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hit hardest after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We were curious to see what the area looked like now, 10 years after the disaster. What we saw opened our eyes to the realities of what the locals went through after the flood.
On our first day driving towards the Deep South, we weren't planning on making a stop in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was supposed to be a straight plow towards Nashville, Tennessee. But we saw the tall buildings and the cityscape and couldn't resist our curiousness so we took the next exit and went in.
Much of the area around hadn't been commercialized yet, but I'm sure this will change in the next few years as more businesses open near the gardens and attractions on the riverfront.
There was a beautifully curated maze garden, swings facing the river (and bridge) and a brand new water park and a very fun-looking playground for children. If I had this kind of playground when I was young, it would have been one of my favourites for sure. (I am still "young" if we are talking about life expectancy - even John F. Kennedy, who was 46, was considered a "young president", but unfortunately much too old to be running around with five year olds on a playground.)
Sometimes I wish I could have toddlers to babysit on particularly amazing playgrounds so I could experience the playground myself without being judged by parents - because no one wants to be the strange overgrown person running around on playgrounds with little kids. If you clicked the link, yes it's a completely different context since the guy was a sex offender and also the movie was a fictional scenario, but you get the idea - parents are overprotective and can sometimes be a little frosty.
Regardless, I was incredibly impressed by the riverfront area and snapped a few photos of the new playground, swings and water park. We did not have time to see the rest of the city before moving on, but if you're ever around the Cincinnati area, definitely stop in for a walk around the water. Maybe you will discover more than we did.
I recently came across a journal entry from two years ago. In 2013, I had been travelling in and out of Montreal for work when I was in public relations and communications.
During those weeklong trips, I spent time on St. Denis and St. Laurent street, and St. Catherine of course, but time seemed so fleeting. My dream back then was to live in Montreal for six months to get the "wake-up and casually walk down to the coffee shop/patisserie" experience.
I want to wake up, stroll down to a local bakery/patisserie, order a fresh, hot croissant, sip my coffee and read the news in French. Then I would call up my French boyfriend and we would have lunch together. After that, he would go back to work and I would go back to my coffee shop work. We would cook a nice meal at home over wine and call it a night.
Then there were the "barely-surviving but glad to be alive" days. Cold Winter nights shivering back to my apartment on Bishop street after a movie at the Forum. Trying to cross the street in the Winter but finding the snowbanks are too high. 3 am poutines after a night out dancing. Quiet nights in the summer on balconies with friends, pondering about our futures while sipping wine. Terribly awkward French parties when you find you're the only Anglophone there.
I never got to visit all of the breakfast restaurants I wanted to go to. There was also a 90's music dance club I never managed to drag friends too. And maybe the next time I step into Montreal, the businesses will be gone, the rising rent driving out tenants, or things would have changed so dramatically they wouldn't be the same.
But nothing ever is. The very last week of my time in Montreal, I discovered a cute, little tea shop just a five minute walk from my apartment. I met a new group of people I knew I could be close friends with, but there never was enough time to let those friendships blossom. C'est la vie. Life is full of goodbyes and hello agains. There will be other times. There will be other people. Always. But this is what I have, these are the memories of Montreal which I hold in my heart.
If you ever visit Montreal and walk down the same streets I did, frequent the same cafes and bars I did - please know, I lived here. I had some of the best times of my life here. It was fantastic. But I had to leave because there is so much more of the world out there, more memories to make, more strangers who might become close friends. I just have to go out and open myself to the world. I know if I do, it will give back to me.
Ever since hearing the catchy Phantom Planet song "California" in middle school at the height of when the T.V. show The O.C. was popular, I've always wanted to drive down highway #1 while playing that song.
I finally got to do that when I visited Sonoma County and went climbing at Goat Rock, about an hour away from San Francisco. Highway #1 stretches all along the shore and makes you wonder why Californians are so lucky to witness this beauty regularly.
Nothing's ever absolutely perfect as you can always improve your craft, but over the years, I've definitely developed a greater personal style and the confidence to try new things, such as purposely shooting into the light, or experimenting with light flares, because who says there's only one way to do photography? And sometimes overexposure looks good. And maybe once in a while, I actually want my photos to look blurred or grainy. Check out one of my first travel photo essays...
Of course a lot of it is subjective. But here are photos from that day I went to Sonoma County and drove along the Pacific Coast highway. We stopped for food at a Mexican market, then continued on to Goat Hill, where allegedly the large rocks there are smooth from mammoths rubbing their itches on their backs against the surfaces. There, we went bouldering for a good couple of hours, until magic hour hit, then we took a few snaps, and watched a sun set from the rock; which by the way, sunsets will never get old for me. Neither will singing California obviously, which we did on the way back before hitting a favourite French restaurant, tucked into a corner of slanted street.