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  • My father bought a Pentax 35mm camera when we arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1971. The combination of shutter speeds and f-stops were a little more than he had bargained for so he gave it to me. I figured out what the red needle meant that bounced up and down inside the eyepiece and soon I was producing decent images. Five years later when we moved to Iran I still had Dad's old Pentax. None of the pictures I took during my years in the Middle East have survived, but my love of photography never went away, though it did cool from a fanatic's devotion to one of a hobbyist's appreciation.

    In college I wanted to be a fine art photographer. I also wanted to be a rock star, a lawyer and a ladies man. I took three years of photography classes, interned after college, did stringer work for newspapers, and worked for a digital imaging house for about a decade. I kept at least one camera with me at all times during those years. It would have been tragic to miss a shot just because the camera was sitting back at the apartment.

    In the late 1980s I went to Guatemala with a crew of work friends, and of course, I took my cameras. We all worked for a couple who ran an "Ethnographic Art Gallery" in Austin, Texas, which meant that we gathered folk art from around Central America and sold it at exorbitant prices, taking advantage not only of the indigenous artists but of the Southwestern art craze that was sweeping the country at the time.

    Guatemala was immensely photogenic as were its people dressed in their beautiful, hand-woven fabrics. I was burning through film like a madman and enjoying the vibe as we bussed around the countryside. I remember going to the market at Chichicastenango and being swarmed by a group of children begging coins.

    My boss, an expat who'd grown up in Columbia, shouted over to me, "If you give them anything you'll never get rid of them."

    I handed out what coins I had and then turned my pockets inside out.

    "See? No more money. You've got it all."

    A couple of the kids checked my rabbit ears just to make sure there was nothing else, then satisfied that I had nothing left to give, they all dashed away. I shrugged at my boss who rolled his eyes back at me. It was obvious to him that I didn't understand the ways of Latin America.

    We made it to Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America (so we were told) and stayed the night at a swanky resort hotel. The boss had chartered a boat for the next morning that would take us to an "authentic Mayan village", and it was there that we would load up on local fabrics to take back to Texas thus paying for the trip and making a nice profit to boot.

    The weather was perfect as we crossed the lake. The sky was clear, the wind crisp and fresh, and the water looked black and bottomless. As we approached the village I saw them all getting ready.

    "Here come the gringos and they're ready to buy!"

    Little children carrying bolts of beautiful fabrics and trays of multi-colored pulsaras rushed down the stone pathway leading to the dock. As we disembarked they called out to us, each trying just a little harder than the other to get our attention and make the sale.

    I saw three little girls standing off to the side. They seemed almost bored with the proceedings, or perhaps they were new at the game. I dashed over to them and whipped out my camera. It was a perfect moment. There were volcanoes in the background, a rustic stone wall, beautiful Mayan girls wearing fantastic clothing. This was Nat Geo stuff and I clicked away knowing that I was getting the goods.

    After I'd taken my fill of pictures, I thanked them, purchased some friendship bracelets and gave them each an extra coin for the pictures. I was very pleased and happy with myself and couldn't wait to get the negatives processed.

    A couple of weeks later in Austin I got my proofs back. Wow. Incredible...exotic... beautiful... except the girls weren't smiling. Strange. How did I miss that? I was goofy enough to make them smile if I had wanted to. I should have caught that. What was I thinking? Was I so intent on the image that I didn't see what was before me?

    I made a 16x20 color print, but it wasn't the picture I thought I'd taken. I'd been experimenting with coloring negatives and then oil painting the photographs, so I decided to enhance these three little girls. Mind you, this was before Photoshop when a photo-realistic image with painterly qualities was something of a novelty. I made twenty hand-painted prints and sold them all. All of my clients were in love with the image.

    "It's so beautiful and their darling faces - why, they look almost asiatic!"

    I enjoyed the praise but I didn't like what I'd done. Something was wrong. What I felt at that time was not in the print. I blew it. I totally blew it.

    It would take me years to figure out what was missing, and when I did, my devotion to photography would end.
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