I’ve known him since middle school. We went on road trips to Death Valley and San Diego before we could grow facial hair. We traversed numerous hiking trails throughout California on backpacking trips. He was my best man. I owe a great deal of my photography knowledge and success to him. In 2009, he created an award winning photo documentary of displaced refugees that you definitely need to watch in HD here – Project Transient. Without a doubt, he is the best friend anyone could ever have. And he’s probably the most interesting man in the world.
Chris: Let’s start with a little bio, tell me about yourself.
Anobel: I grew up in San Jose, California (mostly) and love the Bay Area and have fortunately had the opportunity to stay here (here is now San Francisco). I went to med school and am currently a surgery resident, which definitely takes up a lot of time. I’ve always tried to carve out some time for photography, which I really get a kick out of (often at the expense of sleep). I like a pretty wide range of stuff, read a lot and travel every chance I have.
Anobel: I started getting more serious with my photography during my first year of medical school. I had always enjoyed taking pictures and I was looking for a new camera. I decided this was something I wanted to be really good at, and spend more of my time doing. At that point, I got a Canon 20D and started taking pictures of everything I could. I have never had any formal training, so I set out to teach myself.
Aside from taking lots of pictures, I spent a lot of time reading about photographing in the library. I read technical books from the 1970s and 1980s, which do a much better job of teaching proper metering, exposure and composition because they didn’t rely on Photoshop to save them from technically poor images and spent time looking at art history looking at composition and lighting. It also helped that one of my majors in college had been ancient Near Eastern civilizations, so I had spent a lot of time in art history classes looking at images.
I’m not sure when I began calling myself a ‘photographer,’ versus just some guy who took pictures. It is definitely a broad spectrum, and in our development we take baby steps and sometimes big leaps towards the ‘photographer’ side. I joined with two of my friends and started shooting weddings professionally. At some point in there, I also launched my own website and had my first photo exhibition in San Francisco.
I think I became more comfortable with being called a photographer after I spent 10 weeks in the Middle East (mostly in a refugee camp outside Damascus) doing a photo-essay on Assyrian Iraqi refugees that had fled the Iraq war and were living in Syria. During those 10 weeks, there were probably only a few moments when I wasn’t holding my camera.
And I still read, practice, think and write about my pictures to continue to improve, because I don’t think ‘photographer’ is a destination at which you can just sit down and say, “Hey, wow, I guess I’m a photographer now.” I think I’m still just some guy who takes pictures.
Chris: How would you describe your style?
Anobel: I think of it as adventurous and personal. When I travel, I spend a lot of time in unexpected places, lost and not knowing the language, and meandering in general. I’m always approaching strangers and I feel I’m able to connect and enter their private lives. I really try to focus on people and to tell stories. Probably a little bit on the grittier side.
Chris: Why should I purchase one of your photographs?
Anobel: I think if you come across a photo that moves you visually, intellectually, or personally, you should keep it around. Kurt Vonnegut said it best…”Pictures are famous for their humanness and not for their pictureness.” If you look at something and can daydream because of it, wonder what it must have been like to be at a particular place and time, or what it was like to have met the person in the photo and hear their stories, you shouldn’t let it go. Bookmark it and look at it later, share it with a friend or purchase a print.
Chris: If you had to pick your favorite piece of equipment, what would it be and why?
Anobel: I absolutely love lenses (usually carry around a 16-35 f/2.8, 35 f/1.4, 85 f/1.2 and 135 f/2). But I think we focus too much on lenses and cameras because while they do make great quality photos, I think it is only an incremental improvement over what much equipment can do. I look at some of the stunning photos by folks like Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Sieglitz and they were all taken with pretty pedestrian equipment, even for their time. So my favorite piece of equipment, that I always carry when I travel, is a Garmin 60cx GPS, rugged, waterproof and dependable. I like it because it allows me to find and go places I normally wouldn’t be able to (like the top of a volcano in Indonesia) and more importantly, find my way back! It gets me to beautiful places and once you’re there, it’s hard not to make great photographs. It was also indispensable while I was putting together a short documentary film in Syria. The refugee camp I was at didn’t have street names (most of the country doesn’t!), so my editing partner and I would text message each other GPS coordinates and times to meet.
Chris: What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
Anobel: Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to strangers and ask to take their picture. Don’t be afraid to take the long way to your destination and try to meander. Be willing to go places you haven’t been (whether a different country or taking side-streets in your own town) and keep looking around at the world. And just take pictures while you do it.
Sunrise over Gunung Batur volcano in Bali, Indonesia. This was absolutely gorgeous, but hell to get to! I wanted to be at the peak by sunrise, so I was up at 2am and drove my little scooter for an hour and a half across the island. I got to a tiny village at the base, but couldn’t find any trails up the volcano (dormant-ish). I found some local kids coming home from a late night religious ceremony and gave them a little tip to direct me up the mountain. From there, I was able to climb the remainder in pitch black darkness (by flashlight), with rainstorms on the volcano behind me and lightning way off in the distance periodically lighting up the landscape. I made it to the peak just in time for sunrise, overlooking a nearby volcano and the lake within the crater. And thanks to my GPS, I was able to find my way back down to my scooter and get back to my homestay!
I took this photo in Havana, Cuba on a hot summer day at the Malecon, which is a giant seawall. I saw these kids swimming and playing in the warm water and stopped to hang out. I jumped down the wall, nearly falling into the water with all my gear. I ended up hanging out by the water for an hour or so while the kids dove in the water and tried to one-up each other. The only way to get back up the wall was to get a lift from the bigger kids as someone from above lifted me up and over with an outstretched hand.
This was part of a photo essay I created (www.projecttransient.com) looking at the lives of Assyrian Iraqi refugees living in Jaramanah, a refugee camp outside Damascus. I spent the day with a nun, Sister Hatune, as she made house visits on those too ill to leave and attend church, while delivering food and supplies. This photo in particular is etched in my memory from that trip.
I like this portrait because it really captures a friendly relationship. I was walking down the street in Cairo when I came across a tiny truck hugely overloaded with boxes and building supplies. I sat and watched a few guys working feverishly to unload it. One of the guys was carrying more than he could handle and his load began looking unsteady, so I reached over and grabbed the top box to help out and carried it for him. I spent some time chatting with these guys while taking photos. The guy in front loved it and started making some cheesy poses. His friends started making fun of him, at one point, one of his friends reached over to rub his head and distract him.
A simple sunset in Jamaica, taken from the balcony of our abandoned hotel. My travel buddy and I came across this deserted looking hotel and started poking around to explore. We learned from the receptionist that it was currently being renovated and empty. We wanted to stay there, I’m not sure why, and the receptionist let us, for a dirt-cheap price. So we ended up with the nicest suite and a huge balcony directly over the water, all alone in a 100 room hotel. Eerie at first, but very cool.