Morning News

As I waited for my taxi at the main train station in Bratislava, Slovakia, I looked over and noticed this gentleman reading the paper. My immediate urge was to photograph him, but with my camera packed away in my luggage, I walked past and continued on my way. I glanced back again and felt an inexplicable desire to talk to him, to connect. Despite the need to find my driver, I walked over and introduced myself. He put his paper down and started a conversation that lasted until I finally had to leave.

Despite the fact I regularly photograph people on the street, I usually assume the person I’m approaching will be bothered or have no desire to talk to a stranger. I am almost always wrong. People want to talk. They want to connect. They want to learn about and share with others, even strangers. For me, it’s one of the pleasant surprises of life. I think in today’s world of social media and impersonal communication, this reality is even more pervasive. As I looked at the portrait above I recalled something photographer Sebastiao Salgado once said: “I tell a little bit of my life to them, and they tell a little of theirs to me. The picture itself is just the tip of the iceberg.”

What is it about a photograph, a sound, a smell, or great literature that makes us feel and compels us to connect? I began re-reading Beach Music by Pat Conroy this week for at least the third time. Regardless of how many times I’ve read the same words, they connect me to my home state of South Carolina in ways nothing else does. He tells the stories of other boys’ youth, but they connect me to mine. To accurately explain why his books fill that need in me I could only re-type his words here. A description is impossible. Have words ever effectively described a great sculpture or famous painting? Art would not be art if words could explain it.

My experiences in Central Europe remind me real, meaningful connections happen when we are open to them more often than when we seek them. Conroy’s words let me feel, smell, and taste home because I let them, not because I try. It’s the same with the people I approach on the street. I simply walk up and allow the connection to happen. It almost always does. I believe it’s something inside us we all share, and why Desmond Tutu’s quote appears on my website and above – “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”






People often ask me why I love Central Europe more than any other part of the world. I will explain at the outset, if you’ve never been here it will be hard to understand. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland each exist in their own world of contradictions.  They are a crashing point where East meets West in an explosion of pleasures and challenges. At once, they are wild and calm, civilized and primitive, unrefined and cultured, indifferent and passionate, extreme and mild.

Exploring the great cities of Central Europe is one of the rich adventures of a life lived fully. One can shop in the finest stores on earth, and within a block buy cheap vodka from an un-airconditioned neighborhood store. Tourists’ cameras are constantly aimed at some of the most beautiful and historic architecture in the world, often standing meters from endless Stalin-era apartment buildings, laundry drying on every balcony, which often house the same families to which the Communist gave the apartment 60 years ago. You can hear virtually every language spoken as you wander but don’t have to search far for a pensioner who has never left Budapest or Bratislava.

For anyone who loves adventure, there are few places on earth that compare. The memories one can accrue, if willing, are ones that will last for generations. As I stood near Budapest’s majestic Chain Bridge last Saturday night, the most modern and expensive sports cars zooming by en route to chic clubs and restaurants, I couldn’t help but feel the east slamming into the west in a feast for my senses. Another memory for life.


My heart is warm with the friends I make,

And better friends I’ll not be knowing,

Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,

No matter where it’s going.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

What is it about trains?  When an author, poet or screenwriter wants to make us feel an  indescribable yet tangible emotion, they need simply pen the word “train.”   Just typing it floods my mind with memories of my youth and dreams of adventures yet to come.  The mere utterance of the word or sound of one passing evokes both a childish excitement and a melancholy longing for the past which coexist in a way only those who love trains can understand.

Trains have always held a romantic place in my memory, starting in my youth as our dad would put my brother, our mom, and me on the Southern Crescent to visit our grandmother in Mississippi.  I can still see the conductor leaning out the door in his formal Southern uniform and cap yelling “all aboard for Tuscaloosa!” The smell of the diesel engine mixed with the fresh air of the South that attacked our senses as we ventured from car to car is etched in my memory.  The vastness and uniqueness of the land I will always love first appeared to me through the rectangular windows of the Crescent as strangers around me became friends.

I’ve traveled millions of miles on airplanes.  I’ve undoubtedly logged hundreds of thousands of miles in cars, many while trying to get lost on country roads where I may stumble across a subject to photograph.  Why am I not moved by those events the same way I am traveling on trains?  I find it fascinating the mode of transportation that cannot turn left or right, is bound by steel, and must deliver us from A to B along the same route each time, is the one that leads our minds to dream most?  I have no answer.  The late photographer Diane Arbus said, “A picture is a secret about a secret; the more it tells you, the less you know.”  Perhaps our fascination with trains are like photographs.

If anyone needs me this week, I’ll be in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Budapest, Hungary.  I’m taking the train.


Hidden Treasure

The late photographer, Dorathea Lange once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.”  As I wander the streets of Prague with or without mine, I try to see.  I think my camera has taught me to do it better, particularly when it’s not with me.  It’s easy to miss some of the treasures that hide throughout a city filled with so many landmarks, historic buildings, and beautiful landscapes.  I have made it my goal to find them all.

One of the things I love most about living here is that travel around the city can be slower and more deliberate.  I ride the tram.  And I look.  I walk a lot.  And I see.  It always amazes me how slowing down opens my eyes to things I’d have otherwise missed.  So often in the world these days we tend to rush from one thing to the next, with the “one” or “next”- work, school, theater, the game – defining our existence.  Life in Prague reminds me that it is often the things between “one” and “next” that make it special and valuable – conversations, discoveries, smells, sounds.  I frequently forget the “one” and “next,” but the little secretes and hidden treasures stay with me forever.

The statue above sits inside a small courtyard, just meters from Charles Bridge.  Tens of thousands of tourists walk by it every day on their way to see the bridge or from another tourist attraction.  Few, if any, have ever stopped to notice it.  The day I noticed and photographed her, I wasn’t on my way to anything.  I hadn’t come from anywhere.  I was just there, slowing looking, deliberately living.  What a nice secret to discover.

Life of a City

What defines a city?  Is it the architecture, landscape or history?  Or is it the people who live there; the descendants of prior residents and others who immigrated there for some reason or another?  As those who have seen my previous posts know, I’ve spent a significant amount of my time in Prague looking for her beautiful landscapes, buildings, and sites to reveal themselves to me in special ways.  While I love doing that, it is getting to know, even if just for a moment, her residents that truly enriches my life.   There is something revealing in talking to someone who has not only lived in, but actually “lived” a city.  I find that only through connecting with them can I really start to understand a place.

When I travel to new cities, I frequently visit flea markets.  I don’t go there for the trinkets or treasures, but for the people who want or need to sell pieces of their history.  I’ve found there is almost always a story to be told in their faces.  Last weekend, I wandered around the Kolbenova Flea Market in Prague.  It was the last day the market would ever open in that location, so it felt somewhat special.  At over 50,000 square meters, it was one of the largest such markets in Europe.  In my endeavor to find interesting subjects to photograph, it did not disappoint.

Someone once said, “There is an eternal humanity that crosses through all people, and it’s often more interesting when it’s about struggle – not about people with champagne glasses.”  I believe this to be true.  My life is always enriched when I take the time to meet and talk to people, and particularly when they are among the “lesser” class.  For me, they are the greater and higher class, because they exude humanity.  So many people today follow and are fascinated by those with “champagne glasses.”  For me, real humanity is found within those who have less.  As I wandered, I talked to numerous sellers in the market.  Because many were from an older generation, most still spoke or understood Russian.  The ones who didn’t and I still managed to communicate through hand signals and a special language that seems to exist between seller and buyer in the remote markets of the world.  In each instance, after getting to know each other, my new friends agreed to be photographed.  Most even posed for me.  The great photographer Sebastiao Salgado said that a subject must give you a portrait, you cannot take it.  I was honored when these interesting men gave me theirs.

Each time I stop to meet someone new, especially those who others ignore, I find that my life becomes infinitely more meaningful, if only for a moment.  I always walk away asking what life lessons are being imparted through these brief encounters.  If I’ve learned anything, it is that often the simplest are the greatest, the poorest are the wealthiest, and the least count most.


I recently heard someone say “art is not what it is, it’s what it does to you.”  What a fascinating and insightful description.  It’s not the symphony itself that is art, but the emotion it evokes when you hear it, the feeling you can’t avoid when it’s played.  It is not the notes written on a page, but the unavoidable sadness or inspiration or pride you feel when they’re played together.  The same can be said for a great novel or painting.  It’s only really art if it does something to you personally.

I thought about this description recently as I climbed to the top of the Old Town Hall located in Prague’s Old Town Square.  Yes, I admit I went there to photograph, but I also went there to see, to experience, to absorb.  When I got to the top viewing area, it was packed with tourists, and every single one of them had a camera – either an iPhone or a professional tripod and camera.  What interested me most was how most people were jockeying for position, setting up tripods, framing their shots, all while seemingly missing the entire point.  Many of them probably got great photographs, but few, if any, seemed to even see the scene before them.  They were so pre-occupied with the photograph they wanted to view from their computer back home, or on social media, or even in print, they seemed not to have allowed the art before them “do something.”  It reminded me of the great part in Good Will Hunting when Sean McGuire tells Will he could probably tell him all about Michelangelo, his political aspirations, his relationship with the pope, etc. then says, “But, I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.  You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

Perhaps this insight hits me more because I do love to take photographs.  I have been the guy who focused so much on framing the image that I missed the art itself.  This post is most likely a reminder and lesson to myself.  I don’t want to miss what the art surrounding me in Prague will “do to me.”  So, I will wait next time.  I will smell next time.  I will feel next time.  I will live.

Midnight Vision

Jonathan Swift said, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  I began to understand this idea Friday night as I explored Prague without plan or intent.  I picked up my camera, and started walking.  I didn’t know where I was going, and carried no “to do” list.  I simply wandered.  See, I realized a long time ago that “hunting” for a great photograph or simply an inspiring view usually proves quite futile, at least for me.  How do you look for what you don’t know exists?  Sure, I know the Charles Bridge is majestic, the Prague Castle is grand, the streets of Prague can be beautiful.  But I don’t know when or if they will reveal themselves in a way that could make a great photograph or the most beautiful view.  So, I wander, patiently, observantly, and it’s amazing what appears.

If you have never slowed down and wandered a great city without a list of attractions, shops or sites, I urge you to try it.  It may take a little effort for many of us because it just feels inefficient or a waste of “valuable” time.  I promise you it’s not.  You will see things others don’t.  You will smell and hear things others will never even know existed.

After simply meandering through Prague the other night, I looked at my watch and realized it was midnight – I had been looking, listening, smelling, and most of all, living Prague for over six hours.  It had been everything except a waste of time.  As I wandered toward the tram that would take me home, I turned around to look behind me.  St. Nicholas Church was lit up in a way I’d never seen.  At most other times of the day, the streets would have been clogged with cars and tourists.  But for now, the view was mine, and mine alone.

Aristotle said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”  As I looked back at the church, I began to understand why men toiled for 51 years to build St. Nicholas Church in Mala Strana, pictured above.  For them, I am confident, the structure was not a building, but art.  While I pass the church every day, it was only at midnight, standing alone on the street, that I began to really see.

Healthy Addiction

Will I ever tire of this view?  While I’ve already been to and seen numerous amazing and beautiful places in Prague, it seems I can’t resist this one.  Monday night after work, I noticed the sky filling with clouds, and an irresistible pull drew me to the tram.  I stood there on the bank of the river, staring at this scene.  I’ve already stood there, both with and without camera, numerous times and haven’t begun to feel the slightest twinge of boredom.  What amazes me is that every moment of every single day is different here – cloudy, clear, day, night.  It doesn’t matter – the view is overwhelming.

As I stared at the Prague Castle and Charles Bridge last night, an interesting thought struck me.  The castle, the oldest in the world, was begun over 1,000 years ago.  Charles Bridge’s construction started in 1357.  So for over 600 years, people have been able to stand in the same spot where I stood and look at this.  Maybe the roads were different.  Maybe there were no paved sidewalks.  But the view – it hasn’t changed.  It amazes me to realize people stood in that same spot hundreds of years ago, and undoubtedly were just as overwhelmed.  I don’t think I will ever tire of it.  Something tells me my last day in Prague, years from now, I will stand in this spot and be just as amazed.  Definitely a healthy addiction.

Saintly Reflections

I’ve often thought one of the ways to judge a city is by how it looks in the rain.  Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris talks about how he loves Paris in the rain, and it often makes me look at other cities with the same judging lens, so to speak.  Arriving here in April reminded me of the old saying “April showers bring May flowers.”  We got a lot of rain in April, and I didn’t mind a bit.  Prague is possibly her most photogenic in the rain.

There are a lot of things to love about Prague:  tram lines running down quaint streets, cobble stone sidewalks and boulevards, and architecture that rivals any in the world.  I love wandering after the rain, staring down at the puddles.  I’m quite certain I look funny to others, based on they way they try to figure out what I’m searching for.  But the search sometimes pays off.  The reflection above is of one of my favorite buildings in Prague.  St. Nicholas Church is located in the Mala Strana section of Prague.  Its construction was started in 1704.  The church is a Baroque Basilica, and was built where the previous Gothic St. Nicholas Church stood since the 13th Century.

I’ve tried to photograph St. Nicholas so many different ways.  I walk past it almost everyday, and it almost feels familiar to me now.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to photograph it in a way that makes viewers feel what it’s like to actually look at her.  I’ve tried from many angles, at virtually every time of day, and I’ve yet to capture the essence of its true beauty.  Maybe I never will.  Maybe it’s one of those buildings that refuses to let others enjoy her fullness without standing there.  I kind of like that idea.  I’ll keep trying, but I’ll respect if she’s going to guard herself that way.  For the time being, I’ll settle for sneaking a glimpse in a reflection.

Castle Stroll

One of the  many things I love about Europe, and especially Prague, is how its inhabitants flock to the parks as soon as spring arrives.  I wandered today around Petrin Hill, which sits near Prague Castle.  I’ve learned today the park was featured in Franz Kakfa’s short story “Description of Struggle,” as well as some other famous literature.  It’s a beautiful park, scattered with trails and paths.  The Petrin tower sits atop, and is a miniature version of the Eiffel Tower.  A funicular train, first built in 1891, takes visitors from the streets of Prague to the top, but it’s much more rewarding to walk.

The most incredible aspect of the park is its inhabitants.  Today, there were people everywhere in the park, but not the crowded touristy “everywhere.”  These were obviously residents of the great city.  They were in the grass, having picnics, reading peacefully.  There was an amazing solitude and quietness to it, despite the number of people who were actually there.  It seems impossible to describe in words or even photographs what it feels like to lie out on a grassy hill and look out at the incredible architecture of this city.

I loved the scene in the photograph above.  As I stared down the winding path which seems to meander eventually to Prague Castle, I wondered what it must have been like when King Charles IV built the Hunger Wall in the park in 1360.  The park itself was once his vineyard.  As I daydreamed, the couple walked down the hill onto the trail.  I wondered if couples did the same in the 1300s.  My guess is they did.  Anyone who ever visited this beautiful park would be hard-pressed not to explore it.

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