Capturing the world with Aaron Ashley

My interest in travel began in my early 20s when I moved in with my longtime friend Adrien B.  He opened my mind to the concept of travel with many tales of far away places told over dinners of regional dishes.  We religiously watched every Lonely Planet episode when they would come on and I found myself developing an awe of the intrepid fearlessness of Ian Wright.  I still feel excitement when I hear the opening music.  He made me look forward to hurtling down narrow mountain roads in the back of open pick up trucks

My need to travel hit a critical point when Departures debuted.  The combination of Scott Wilson’s travel acumen, Justin Lukach’s free spirited “Jesus Christ Air” leaps into experiences and the stunning video work of Andre Dupuis had me hooked.  This show had a temperature and pace that really excites the travel bug.  The concept was what I had dreamed my whole adult years.  Putting down the life style of waking up every day with very little purpose or meaning, doing a job that didn’t move my heart to go, and just make travel my entire life style.

Many a night I would stay up way to late watching it while drinking a bottle of wine when I should have been sleeping.  I would re-watch the episodes – each one a full inspirational mini- holiday.  I travelled Jordan and saw Petra with them.  Got a fresh new taste of India as Justin, a person debuting to the travel lifestyle within one of the most interesting and diverse countries in the world.  Watching him experience Varanasi as people were cremated on the shores of the Ganges made me realize how disconnected we are in Canada from the continuum of life and death.

I lived with a lot of depression in my life.  And around me, in the city I grew up in, Edmonton, Alberta I realized that most of my friends and family were literally crawling with depression.  It was the silent sad sigh always brought in with the snow.  The hiccup that would interrupt the summer nights.  Was is the seasons?  SADS?  Or something else.

After travelling I can say it is something else.  It is a country where the generations are largely separated, where the old are packed away in residences where they live lives largely devoid of purpose.  I have watched their progress through the eyes of my father as he goes through this system.  They are often checked in through the medical system for some minor aspect of aging.  Due to insufficient financing they are offered limited amounts of exercise and eat big plates of food to make up for the absence of community connection in their lives.  They gain weight and lose strength.  Before long their balance goes.  They take a bit of a tumble.  Maybe break a hip.  End up in a wheel chair.  Even less exercise, more food to cover up the boredom of their days.  Soon they need oxygen.  They get a pneumonia and they die.

This is the fate of many Canadians.  Literally eating themselves to death on GMO food without much love catered to by overworked kind strangers who in many cases come from totally different cultural backgrounds.

Meanwhile their children are working long hours, disconnected from their own children.  The generations are separated.  They are alone.  The wisdom of the elders expires with them and the resurrecting vivacity and energy of the children do not reach the elders.

This is the tip of the iceberg of why depression is rampant in the Canadian culture.  We’re a country of relentless work in harsh conditions with little light and comfort.  It hurts my face to go outside and there is a constant backdrop of low grade suffering to most things I have to do in a day.  We have little identity of what our culture really is and if you are of European stock it feels often as if your some sort of offspring of a lineage of oppression, a sort of unwelcome blight.  I realized that I had felt from my birth, a stranger in my own country.  My grandparents on both sides had fled the largest genocide during war in history – the slaughter of 11 million Ukrainians within the few short years of World War II.  My parents came from disparate, disconnected pasts. They had no connection to their cultural heritage.  My dad had frequent entrances into the mental health system, my mom, born in an orphanage where she experienced decades of abuse still resonated that abuse across her lifespan.  The woman who helped raised her in the orphanage was denied education after grade two and in the 1970s the government of Alberta sterilized her because she was “retarded.”  She is probably one of the brightest women I have ever met and though she still lives in poverty she has taught herself to read.  And society blissfully ticks on with this constant background noise of “WORK AND PAY TAXES”  for an infrastructure and health system that had failed my family and was dilapidating more every year.  I felt disconnected from my heritage, from the ancestral language and culture of my past.  I am Caucasian but I am not British.  My ancestors played no part in oppression of any people in modern history.  I am lucky to be Canadian because like so many Canadians it means that my family escaped slaughter.  And I will always thank Canada for that.  But the grand son of refugees, and the son of parents with shattered lives I felt a stranger in the land I was raised in.

I have often heard it said that “a place is what you make it” and “the grass is greener on the other side”.  As if the space one occupies is irrelevant and the entirety of experiences is defined by some inner fortitude.    I can say safely from the other side that in most cases this logic is wrong.  Sure some folks, through sheer will and determination can eck out happiness and success no matter their conditions but for most of us, we are animals of reactivity.  When we are hugged we hug, smiled at we smile.  Pricked, we bleed. We resonate and reflect the environment around us.  At its most obvious one can imagine a concentration camp, where, like in “A Beautiful Life” some rare few are shielded from the trauma but for most it is a life defined by horror.   I have always appreciated the thoughts of Viktor Frankl, the observation that what is human completely dissolves after repeated exposure to environments that dehumanize.  But still Frankl offers us hope; those that survive this are the ones who do not let go of some sense of meaning.  They maintain a sense of hope.  That hope however is only realized in little ways until that person can make it to a place where conditions are right again for their life to bloom.

All this comes with a caveat.  I am so lucky to be born Canadian.  I have met some of the best people in the world here.  I have had the opportunity to be educated, to camp, to see nature in the raw.  And I maintain a sense of gratitude every day for it.  I just feel like there is something more.

This blog will follow my most recent travels with my best friend and travelling companion, Chrissy Champagne.  She is a kindred spirit who also feels like jettisoning the place where she was born is running towards not running away.  We share a common nomadic drive where it seems that each new place we fall in love with more then the last.  Like her I find peace and well being in the unseen sights and surprises that always seem to lurk around the next corner and every day we banter about what we learned about ourselves and humanity and reality by seeing how others live and comparing it with what it was about home that left us feeling so meaningless there.  And we both want to ultimately become treasure hunters.  How cool would that be.  Some people want to be rock stars, others want to go to the moon.  But me?  I always wanted to be Indiana Jones.

I am a photographer, and more recently I have forayed into video to capture what we are doing.  When I was young I dreamed of being a writer and I thought that was my purpose.  I couldn’t draw and I thought visual arts were something to purely create aesthetic pieces.  As I have matured and picked up the art and science of photography I have come to realize that it is fundamentally an art describing meaning.  Humanity.  The suffering eyes of photography hold whole Hemmingway novels in them.  Single images have broken and mended hearts by the millions.  I grew silent in my writing as I sat there in awe, speechless at each singular image which through the culmination of technology and the old science of optics humbled me with each press of my finger.

As a photographer in the modern age most of us start out spray and praying.  We have these devices that freeze reality like the spells of a wizard and drunk on power we just go at it, not really attuned to anything much.  We weren’t blessed with the wisdom of the older school of thought when film reigned supreme and where the photographers knew each capture was a precious act, costing money, opportunity and the gut wrenching moment in post where you would be thrilled or ashamed.  We have no sense of patience when we start, no need to carefully set up the architecture to cultivate the mystery that will unfold in the darkroom.  No sense of the gravity and honor afforded by the craft.

Over time we all change.  My first awakening was inspired by the climbing writer/photographer Jon Popowich.  Over evenings of barstool philosophy and street shooting I became aware of his absolute disgust at how I would hammer away at my shutter with 1/125 of a second at iso 6400  while he sat in silence surfing 1/10 of a second shutter speed maxing the Leica m9 out in the evening bars and streets at the lofty height of iso 800.  Still – those images sung.

We would part evenings, me with my few hundred photos of stuff, him with maybe 5 or 10.  Each highly intentional.  Each a deliberate act of focus, timing and framing.  I was pressing a button, he was painting with darkness and blur.

Jon taught me about timing and the decisive moment.  He introduced me to all the greats of photography and what distinguished them from most others who picked up a camera.  He enlightened me to how gear, while helpful, never ever defines the artist.

Later I began to understand the importance of color and light.  Klyment Tan, a superb printer, photographer, videographer would talk for hours to me about it.  Later Tom Ohle, also a wonderful photographer continued this discourse with me.  Over time I started to see the light.  Its hardness or softness.  Its colors and tones.  I began to understand Photography is the marriage of objects relationships in space revealed by light and it through this that it must tell its story.

Part of growing as a photographer is in learning that the act of taking a photograph is as complex as any act of art.  But this progress doesn’t occur in a vacuum.  There are mentors along the way.  The video side of what I am doing in these travels wouldn’t be possible if it were not for the tutelage of Ryan Hetherington-Keys.  It is his technical expertise and the reminders from the photographer Karl Domning to always keep a sense of humor that set my compass in this work.

My next post I will be setting my life in Canada aside to start this trip.  The work me and Christine are intending is ambitious – a vlog, and to hope beyond hope to build a lifestyle and a future in it.  I hope you enjoy what we do and for those of you who aspire to or do similar things please take the time to review my more technical articles on the gear I use and why I use it.  Ask questions as I LOVE to discuss techniques and equipment.   And should you feel inspired please take the time to share your tips with me.  Travel, cultivating a sense of peace, how to capture beauty, or criticism – I am always up for a good conversation.

Aaron Ashley

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Aaron Ashley

Photographer at Aaron Ashley Photography
Aaron has a Degree in NeuroPsychology/Biology from the University of Victoria, he also has a background in Project Managment. When aaron isnt busy being busy…you can probably find him sitting in a local Cafe, drinking some fancy hot bevy whilst knee deep in books, researching and learning all he can about all things "Photo", travel, stocks basically ….anything and everything nerdy! Aaron has a passionate enthusiasm for photography which is complemented by his love for travel. Aaron is a avid explorer, he is always on the lookout for authentic experiences wherever he travels -- especially if it involves a cool glass of bud and a well plated cultured and delicious taste of local cusine!

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