Rob Verger

journalist and photographer

Posts from the ‘Writing’ category

New Story: “My Guilt-Inducing, Nausea-Provoking Street Photography Obsession”

I have a new story up on about street photography, travel photography, and the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Here’s the first few paragraphs:

“The guard approached and asked me nicely, in Spanish, to come with him. He led me to a man who I assumed was his boss, a man in business clothes, not a uniform, standing on a Bogotá street. With my camera wedged in my front right pocket, I held my hands out slightly, my palms forward, in an I’m-not-a-threat gesture. He didn’t speak much, if any, English, and I know very little Spanish, but what he wanted to know was clear: Why was I taking so many photographs? In Spanish, I said I was an American tourist. (That must have been a shocker.) I handed him my camera, and he looked through the photos, unhurriedly.

“What he saw in my camera were dozens of photos of the changing of the presidential guard, which my guidebook had noted would happen at 4 o’clock on Friday, not far from the expansive and pigeon-filled Plaza de Bolivar. And so I had scurried over there, camera at the ready, thinking that although it was a touristy thing to do, it might yield some good photos. I had taken lots of photographs—not because I felt the need to capture every moment, but because I knew that the more I took, the likelier I was to get one or two good shots. I had snapped a photo, with permission, of two guards standing on a corner, one in a blue and gold dress uniform, the other in a more practical dark green uniform, a machine gun slung around his shoulders and his pants tucked into his black boots. I had taken photos of soldiers—members of the Batallón Guardia Presidencial—lining up, drilling and marching: some of them in funny red and blue uniforms, white gloves, and tall hats with flat tops. When another group of soldiers in blue dress uniforms marched down the street, I had followed along, loving the intensity of the moment: the rhythmic pounding of their boots on the ground, the patterns of the guns and uniforms, the order and military drama. I had taken a few shots, with permission, of guards standing in front of a big, black, ornate gate affixed with two golden seals. Was it the gate to the presidential compound?

“After a minute or two of questioning and further study, I was free to go. It was just a quick conference on the street, and I hadn’t done anything wrong, but the moment was enough to rattle me. As I walked away, and for the next few hours, I felt nauseated and embarrassed and upset with myself. I think I had taken one photo too many. Why had I pushed it? Why was I obsessed with trying to get the perfect shot? And what makes a great travel shot, anyway?

“Something happens when I travel and take pictures, and it’s related to a feedback loop that’s both good and bad. The more photos I take, the more I start thinking in images, and that leads to more picture taking. At its core, this obsession can be a good thing, because it leads to better, more artistic photos. But for me, street photography can be emotionally complicated. Because I love it, and because it brings me satisfaction when it goes well, I continue to do it. But in a lot of places, it’s not a brilliant idea to flash a camera. Also, the more I do it, the guiltier I feel. Not always, but sometimes. In developing countries especially, the more I hold my camera to my eye, the more I feel like the ugly tourist, the man from a wealthy country working to capture a piece of a poorer one—or, more accurately, working to try to capture something beautiful, or some sense of emotion or feeling tied to how I see the place. I ask permission when it’s easy to do so, but sometimes, I don’t. Maybe it’s not just the power difference that bothers me, because I’ll take photos anywhere that’s interesting to me, including my home turf. Maybe it’s just that snapping a photo of someone without asking can be rude, or voyeuristic. My guess is that I’m not the only traveler with a camera and a heightened sensitivity who has snapped a shot or six and then felt a twinge of guilt.”

Click here to continue reading.

Reviewing “A Week at the Airport”

Photo from JFK International Airport by Rob Verger.

I have a new story out in The Boston Globe– it’s a review of Alain de Botton’s new book, “A Week at the Airport.”

Here are the first few paragraphs of the piece:

The title of Alain de Botton’s latest book concisely describes the subject of this brief work of nonfiction. The airport in question is Heathrow in London — specifically, Terminal 5 — and the week that the author spent there was at the invitation of the airport’s owner, BAA, which wanted to showcase the new terminal.

Thus, for “A Week at the Airport’’ London-based de Botton became an employee of BAA, which he refers to at one point as his “patron.’’ He could write about anything in the terminal; he was even given “explicit permission to be rude about the airport’s activities.’’ The result is a book, first published last year in England, which feels more like a long essay. As such, it sometimes feels forgettable or strange, and at other moments is sensitively and memorably observed, and ponders important philosophical questions about travel. It’s accompanied by color photographs taken by Richard Baker, many of which are somewhat ordinary, and some of which are quite nice.

“A Week at the Airport’’ begins with a brief introduction, called Approach, which describes de Botton’s decision to accept BAA’s offer to be the “writer-in-residence,’’ and the remainder of the book is divided into three larger sections: Departures, Airside, and Arrivals. In Approach, de Botton describes his interest in the airport this way: “[A]sked to take a Martian to visit a single place that neatly captures the gamut of themes running through our civilization — from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticising of travel — then it would have to be to the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.’’

Continue reading.

New story: A review of “The Great Typo Hunt”

I have a new story out in The Boston Globe– it’s a review of “The Great Typo Hunt,” by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson.

Here’s the beginning of the piece:

If a sign in front of a store mistakenly uses “it’s’’ instead of “its,’’ is the error a big deal? Is it a symptom of grammatical ignorance, or is it just an insignificant typo? Some may be bothered by the mistake, while others might not notice or care.

The protagonists of “The Great Typo Hunt’’ notice, and definitely care. In March 2008, Jeff Deck, an editor with a keen eye for typos and other errors, set off from Somerville with a mission: to correct typos across the country, wherever he might see them. The book, which is funny and original, is written by Deck and Benjamin D. Herson, Deck’s companion for much of the journey. (The story is narrated exclusively from Deck’s perspective.)

The book follows a classic American narrative: a journey across the country and then home again. But instead of travelers looking for a better life, these two men are looking for typos. One of the first mistakes Deck spots is in a Filene’s Basement in Boston, where he chafes at a sign reading “Mens’ Boxed Ties.’’ (That mistake remains uncorrected.) In a diner in Maryland, they change the word “puding’’ on a chalkboard to “pudding.’’ In New Orleans, they change the word “cemetary’’ to “cemetery.’’ Some of the mistakes they spot go unfixed, others are corrected with permission, and some are “stealth corrections,’’ done on the sly. Photos of some of the typos and corrections are included in the book.

The idea came about after Deck attended his five-year college reunion, where he was forced to ask himself what impact his life was having on the bigger world. Later, after seeing a sign misspelled as “no tresspassing,’’ he eventually decides to “change the world, one typo correction at a time.’’

New story: a response to “Up in the Air”

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air." Photo by Dale Robinette, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

I saw the film “Up in the Air” at a press screening in Boston back in early November, and the movie has stayed with me since. Read “Beyond Airworld,” my review and personal reaction to the film, on the Travel Channel’s website

UPDATE: Read an item from The New York Times’s “In Transit” blog about World Hum’s coverage of this movie, and my essay.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the piece:

As a devoted occupant of the window seat, I loved the opening sequence of “Up in the Air”: postcard-like images of the landscape from above, the squares and circles of agriculture, the sense of interconnectedness—land, cities, ocean. All that is set to a soulful version of This Land is Your Land, by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.

I loved the rest of the scenery, too. It’s not all set in Airworld—the realm Walter Kirn described in the 2001 novel the movie is based on—but plenty is, and much of the imagery is striking: metallic American Airlines jets, a white 747 towering in a window, a single plane moving down a runway in snowy Detroit.

Continue reading.

Celebrating souvenirs on Flyover America

Photo by Rob Verger

Over at the blog Flyover America, writers Jenna Schnuer and Sophia Dembling celebrate the parts of the United States that are less likely to be visited than, say, New York City. “The places that many people consider flyover territory—Lincoln, Nebraska; Lubbock Texas; Bayonne, New Jersey, and the like—grab hold of us,” they write. It’s a great place to lose yourself for a few hours in stories from all corners of the States.

Today, I’m a guest contributor to the site, and the subject at hand is goofy souvenirs. I write about a beloved (and cheesy) ulu knife from a long-ago trip to Alaska. Read the story here.


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