How the Dutch Park Their Bicycles

I'm back for a visit in Holland.  My daughter commissioned me to take an artsy photo of a very common sight here:  bicycles!  So far I haven't succeeded.  It's not that there aren't enough bikes. Believe me:  there are!  It's feeling the pressure to create something stunning and possibly overthinking it.  

Yesterday I decided to try my luck in Rotterdam, the city where I was born and home of the very best Dutch soccer club Feyenoord.  I thought that for sure there'd be many bicycles at the train station "Centraal Station".  When I got there I saw a brand new, ultra modern, striking building but NO bikes!  That just couldn't be right!

I walked around the building and definitely saw many people with bicycles. What did they do with them? Curious now, I followed them to this escalator specifically designed for bicyclists.

And the mystery was solved.  I had never seen this before: an entire, huge space devoted to a bicycle-parking-garage with numbered lanes, arrows, mirrors, signs stating number of free spaces and two-tier bicycle racks.

It was an amazing sight! 

I spent a wonderful day photographing the rest of Rotterdam. Unfortunately I still haven't produced a beautiful, artsy photo of bicycles for my daughter to put on the wall of her new apartment.  Unless she thinks this will do:

Labor Day Parade

Labor Day!  Sigh!  Bigger sigh!  Huge sigh!  

For all of you who experience the Labor Day blues:  here are some photos of the Gaithersburg, MD Labor Day parade that might evoke a little smile, a warm feeling, a fond memory or just a moment reprieve from the daily routine that has us all in its grips again at the start of a new cycle of seasons.


The Firecracker 5K...raining cats and dogs but still such a fun and festive (and competitive) race!

July 4:  the best American holiday!  It embodies everything I envisioned about America and its people before I moved here from The Netherlands. What's made it even better the past few years is photographing =PR= Races' Firecracker 5K and Fun Run in Reston, Va. Imagine thousands of runners, dressed in the colors of the flag or sporting a similarly cheerful patriotic outfit with little or big hats, glued-on mustaches, gigantic colorful glasses, tutu's, necklaces, etc.  Imagine beautiful American songs over the loudspeakers and later live charging up the athletes.  Imagine face-painting, food and lots of activities for the crowd that came out to cheer on the runners.  Imagine kids and adults alike waving little american flags on short sticks.  Imagine all the military groups good-naturedly participating in the "Battle of the Branches" competition.  And imagine beautiful blue skies and nice warm temperatures (well: a little hot and humid maybe!).

All that was true last Saturday except for the very last part!  It was raining and not just a nice little summer sprinkle.  It was pouring rain or in the words of the British:  it was raining cats and dogs!  But it didn't damper the atmosphere nor spoil the fun.  Indeed, like always it was yet another fun and festive morning. 

My job is to photograph the runners and take some candids.  When that's done I go home for the post-processing part:  download to a photo software program, apply rough edits and upload to Potomac River Running's flickr account (which takes hours).  When that's done I leave  the photos on my computer and go about my normal Saturday routine.  A few days later I go back to the photos and look at them one more time before deleting them forever.  But that's never easy.  I always get attached to them and I compromise by keeping just a few.  I just want to show you the photos I kept from this last race.  I don't have a specific explanation about this selection but I think they resemble the spirit and the gist of a typical July 4th Firecracker 5k!

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima in DC.

This morning I did all things Dutch.  I rode my bike for a few miles to the Metro dressed in the red, white and blue of the Dutch flag.  Then I used public transportation (Dutch people do that a lot) and finally walked (Dutch people do that a lot too!) up hill and down in searing heat.  While walking I mingled with many Dutch people, also dressed in red, white and blue or wearing a huge orange flower.  Our destination? Arlington National Cemetery. Why?  

Their Majesties King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima are in town for their first visit to the United States after ascending to the throne two years ago.  And they were going to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at 9 AM sharp.  DC Dutch ("the best Dutch club in the greater Washington, DC area", according to its Facebook page) and the Embassy of the Netherlands in the US sent out mass invitations to the Dutch community to join the Ceremony.  

So I went.  I had not arranged for a press credential thinking that I could probably wriggle my way into the press corps but it wasn't as easy as I thought.  In fact I was relegated to some spots far away from the action.  Nevertheless I got some photos and in retrospect I'm glad that I was off the beaten path because the photos I got are more my style - not too posed, not too perfect and in candid style.

Tonight the Dutch Royal King and Queen will attend a baseball game, the Washington Nationals against the Toronto Blue Jays.  A special section of the stadium is reserved for the Dutch community.  I have tickets but kind-heartedly (not!) gave them to my youngest! It's going to rain "cats and dogs" with a potential flood warning in effect and I can't find my red, white and blue or orange umbrella!

Photography Classes at the Local Shelter and more...

In the past year I taught photography at a local shelter through the Back-to-Work vocational program.  Class size was limited to five.  The group of students varied each class.  Some men participated because they were truly interested in photography.  Others were just looking for a distraction. They all had a story to tell and more than anything I wanted for them to express that through photography.  And if they acquired some helpful skills in finding their path that would be a bonus.

Since I never knew exactly who would participate beforehand I would bring with me a mixed bag of stuff:  cameras (lent to me by a local community college), newspapers, books on a variety of topics and a flexible lesson plan from which I could pick a specific one depending on the students who would show up that day.

Photo by Jack

Photo by Jack

I soon learned that after teaching the basics of a camera and photography each student had different needs.  One student had a Masters of Fine Art in journalism from Columbia University and we therefore focussed on taking photos that would illustrate his written words.  Another student took photos to help him express his innermost thoughts.  He always just took three or four photos and then during class discussion left everybody awestruck when he explained what he meant with them.  Yet another student whose fine motor skills caused severe limitations and therefor couldn't handhold the camera without shaking nevertheless was able to explore his creativity by taking abstract photos with a little plastic bag over the camera lens scribbled with different colors sharpies.  There was also a student who used to be a photographer and took the opportunity to refresh his skills.  He always surprised me with the way he came prepared to class.  He helped me cover a few events through the shelter.  And finally there was a student whose sole purpose was to take photos that could express the turmoil and misery he felt.  He would spend lab time at the computer writing long letters for each photo.

We were limited to the premises around the shelter and furthermore limited by the fact that only objects, not subjects (except for classmates) could be photographed. There wasn't much in terms of beautiful scenery.  But something worth photographing could always be found.  And there never was a dull moment!  One time I wanted to explain about capturing motion and we spent the entire time photographing twirling umbrellas and scarves.

Photo by James

Photo by James

After about an hour of photographing we'd go back to the lab to upload the photos on the computer.  This was the highlight of the class. It was gratifying for the students to see their work.  And it was gratifying for me to hear their narratives.  What especially struck me was how supportive and encouraging the students were to each other.

Photo by Suk

Photo by Suk

During all this I got to know a lot of men at the shelter.  So when I was asked to create a series of dignified portraits needed for a fundraiser I had no trouble finding men willing to be photographed and agreeing to sign a photo release.  In the following weeks I spent a lot of time at the shelter.  Some students from my class assisted me with the lighting and paperwork.  When the project was done I gave each men a large print of their photo.  The entire series can be found here:

Sometimes a resident of the shelter would ask me to come take a headshot for a resume or a photo for a christmas card (below) for family and friends abroad.

Another project for the local Coalition of the Homeless actually involved house visits.  The assignment was to portray formerly homeless people in their new homes holding up a sign of what home meant to them.  I cannot begin to tell you how much that project meant to me: it embodied happiness, excitement, laughter, positiveness and many joyful tears.  These photos can be found here:

An especially emotional moment during this assignment was when this beautiful women (below) gave me her last copy of a book of poems that she had written while she was still homeless and alternately living on the streets or in a shelter. 

Back to photography classes.  Here's the first group of students I taught and following that is some of their work.  The photo credit only mentions first names.  They were MUCH more than names to me - I bonded with these men in a very special way.

Photo by John

Photo by John

Photo by Charles

Photo by Charles

Photo by John

Photo by John

Photo by Daniel

Photo by Daniel

Photo by Jack

Photo by Jack

Photo by Daniel

Photo by Daniel

Photo by James

Photo by James

Photo by Charles

Photo by Charles

Cherry Blossom Parade...this is how I experienced it!

The National Cherry Blossom parade in Washington, DC encompasses just about everything good about spring in the Nation's Capital:  festivities, lots of happy people, gorgeous scenery, monuments providing a beautiful setting, stunning cherry blossoms, boundless activity and joyful excitement.

When a dear friend asked me to go to the parade with her, I was game!  We loaded bicycles on her little lime green volkswagen beetle and drove into the city.  Once there, we rode through the bustling city until we reached our destination:  the Cherry Blossom Parade.  It was crowded, very crowded!  Thousands of people were already lined up along the parade route.  We were early, yet we were late:  all the good spots were already taken.  But as we were intent on photographing the event, we struggled through the crowd and finally found a very small space directly along the street.  

While watching the parade most of my senses were in high gear:  hearing, smelling and seeing were battling each other and begging my attention.  In a good way!  The following images represent how I experienced the parade:  motion, blur, organized chaos, joy and excitement.

Halfway through the parade we took our bikes for a quick ride to the Cherry Blossom Tidal Basin and found a rest stop along the water among my very favorite trees:  the weeping willows.  Beautiful motion and liveliness there too but of a different nature!

Finally we were back at the little lime green volkswagen beetle and loaded the bikes back up.  It was a great lively Saturday morning! 

Paying Attention is Hard

When covering a track and field meet I always like to hop in the holding area where athletes check in and await their turn to race. It's especially fun when the area is filled with young kids.  Chaos, loud chattering, rambunctiousness and lively excitement reign. The race officials who are in charge have a hard job at that!

Here's a young boy (number 269) listening attentively to the official.

Hershey Youth Indoor 3-14-15-1749.jpg

But it didn't last for long!

Hershey Youth Indoor 3-14-15-1751.jpg

The Woman Behind It All!

I spent a joyful Sunday morning at a Salon and Spa.  Not as a customer (unfortunately) but as a photographer documenting a Cut-A-Thon, a fundraiser benefitting local women undergoing cancer treatment.  The atmosphere was wonderful, many hairdressers, even more customers, good food, colorful balloons, beautiful silent auction and lots of laughter.  It truly was very well organized.  And it was all thanks to this woman behind the desk and -I suspect- behind it all!  A charming and gracious hairdresser and multitasking manager.

Road Racers: I'm talking to you and you're responding!

Many Sunday mornings I rise at the crack of dawn.  Sometimes I grumble a bit about that.  Or I grumble about the weather:  it's either too cold, too hot, too foggy, or too rainy.  But once I'm in the car and find some beautiful music I'm allright and I start looking forward to being part of yet another road race and the road racing family. I photograph these races for Potomac River Running Races (=PR=Races) and I have been doing that for many years. 

Last Sunday I found myself in Fairfax, VA for the Rockstar 5K and Fun Run.  Upon arrival I did what I usually do:  walk around, get my bearings, take some candids to warm-up and mentally become part of the event.  I also  check in with the other photographer - my buddy Craig- and exchange stories about our latest photo shoots or talk about technical stuff or new ideas.

By that time I'm all geared up and ready to go! I watch as the runners start gathering at the start chatting with each other, jumping up and down a bit for a final warm-up or in solitude focusing on the race.  At that time I always think:

" Should I?"

I'm usually a little shy.  But I decide to go outside of my comfort zone, grab a chair and before I know it, find myself in front and above the crowd.  And I'm calling out to them:  "good-morning everybody!"

I'm not sure what they're thinking about this weirdo standing there but I'm not allowing myself to wonder about that and as I haven't gotten everybody's attention I'm calling out again:  "Good-morning everybody.  Are you guys ready to race?"  And they all respond!  It feels good to have made contact.  I quickly lift up my camera and shoot several Hail Mary's.  It's always uncertain if and how these photos come out:  they might not be in focus and there will certainly be some odd angles (although I often find myself intentionally tilting my camera). But I want to capture the response.

By this time I feel part of the family of runners.  I feel a bond.  I know that may be strange but it is really true.  And I feel exhilarated and happy! What happens next is just simply amazing.  They don't just respond...they respond tremendously!  

The following photos are a tribute to all the runners.  Please look at the expressions and ignore the background.  I know Potomac River Running likes its new race location in Virginia but from a photographer's point of view it's terrible:  the sun is always in the wrong place and it's not very scenic.

While I'm photographing I'm talking, just to myself or to the runners.  I tell them that they're almost there.  I tell them it's a great way to start their day and I tell them that my camera loves them.  If I had more time, I'd tell them a lot more:  how they inspire me, how impressed I am with them, how much I appreciate them and definitely how much I enjoy being part of their family.

The joyful expression on this little girl's face -painted during post-race festivities- resembles how I feel.  Yes, it's another great early sunday morning!

A Quick Journey Through Holland

I recently made a quick visit home.  That home is in a tiny little country in western Europe:  The Netherlands.  More specifically, home is in that part of this tiny little country that's actually below sea level, also called Holland.  Even if you have never heard of this country, you probably recognize it when you see this...

It's a very flat countryside in Holland.  There are no mountains and to say that there are any hills is an overstatement.  In fact, my son complained that when he was there last year he couldn't really get a workout while running or biking.  It's along this particular lanscape that I biked to high school:  15 kilometers to and 15 kilometers from!  Weather or no weather; rain, hail, heavy winds included.  And believe me:  I didn't think it was a breeze.

My high school was in the idyllic little town of Oud-Beijerland.  Most students came from villages scattered around by bike and I cannot even begin to tell you about the bike-related pranks such as smearing glue on the seats or...well, let me not go into much detail.  Besides, of course, diligently attending classes and so forth, students occasionally snuck out to the village center for a snack (think frietjes - fries -with mayonnaise) or a drink (starts with a "B" but I won't go into that either because that was and is a big no no) or just to hang out at the harbor.

Market day, every Wednesday, was and is especially fun.  A variety of products, from bike parts, drop (licorice), fruits and vegetables, fish and meats, flowers, clothing, household wares to...ultimately cheese.  My country just wouldn't be the same without its large offerings of cheese.

Lots of bricks in The Netherlands:  brick walls, brick houses, brick streets.  I stumbled upon a very ingenious way to pave a street in my neigborhood with bricks.  I was so enthralled that I followed the progress for a few days (off and on).

Dutch people love biking.  And if they're not biking, they're hiking.  Not once a week, not twice, but practically every day.  And they enjoy it

Recently in Holland parts of the country are "given back" to nature and reclaimed by water, creating  a beautiful countryside with polders, dijken (dikes), water, land, water, and more water.  

The small village I'm from is Maasdam.  It's surrounded by water and in the summer we'd go windsurfing, sailing, canoeing or swimming.  And if we were lucky, in the winter we could ice skate to the elementary school.  The school was along this little waterway.  Sometimes on hot days, little boys would strip to their underwear and jump in the water straight after school.  

There's a lot of agriculture in Holland.  Think sugar beets, beans, cabbage, potatoes and the by young children much disliked brussels sprouts.  I have to admit that I am very thankful that as the years went by many different preparation methods have been developed, all better than the plain (over) boiled or steamed small green rascals.  

A large part of agriculture involves cows.  Dutch people like, no, love milk and karnemelk (buttermilk).  But actually, there are many sheep to be found too.  I want to say that they're mainly around to keep the grass cut and  to fertilize the land.  But I'm not certain about that.

Soccer may be a huge national sport and certainly is engrained and intertwined with the Dutch (I probably knew how to sing soccer songs before I could say a coherent sentence) but field hockey takes a prominent place.  It's not just popular with girls and boys but also with adult men and women.  I always make it a point when I visit the country to go watch a game or two when one of my nieces or nephews plays.  They play amazingly well:  the skills, energy, speed and dedication are unbelievable. My brothers and sister all coached at one time or another. Here's my youngest brother addressing his team during halftime, while they're enjoying a healthy snack of apples.  A little tidbit, and I'm not saying I agree, but Dutch people frown upon volunteer coaches dressed in sweats during practices or games.

Speaking of apples:  Dutch people eat healthy (well, when they're not enjoying their "friet met mayonaise").  Home cooked meals rule.  And sit-down family dinners are required.  The latter applies to breakfast as well.  My sister still makes her children get up early (even on weekends or no-school days) to have breakfast together.  She sets the table for breakfast the night before!  It may have changed a little, but when I grew up, there was one ingredient that was always present on the plate:  the good old white potato!

I started this blog with the windmill.  I want to finish with something that Holland is truly known for and can be found in abundance on each street corner, shopping center or marketplace.  Something that costs practically nothing.  Something that is a required part of the shopping list and finds its way in every single Dutch home.


My Favorite Little Athlete!

Everybody knows it!  I love, love photographing track and field.  The focus, determination, hard work, discipline and good sportsmanship impress me time and again and inspire me to do my very best capturing this all.  What I love even more is when it involves young athletes.

Three years ago, in March 2013,  I was at the USATF Youth Indoor Track and Field Championship in Landover, MD.  Amongst thousands of athletes I noticed a  young boy, so little but so very devoted.  I'm guessing  he was 5 years old.   It was hard not to notice him.  He kept popping up in several races.

When I came home, I started to process thousands of photos.  Although I had many favorites, I kept going back to my little friend.  I "christened" him as "My Favorite Little Athlete".

A year went by.  Then in March 2014 I, once again, went to the Indoor Nationals.  I had set myself some new goals in terms of trying new angles, experiment with a fisheye lens (much disliked by photo editors), more creative shots, applying new panning techniques and so forth.  But above all, I HAD to find my favorite little athlete. And I found him! 

A little face in the crowd, awaiting his turn in the relay.  And entertaining himself, his team, and me;  showing off what else can be done with a baton besides the designated use of it!

There were no tears this time. Just intense focus.

And clearly prepared for the starter's gun; and loud, very loud, bang!

My favorite little athlete ran several races.  

Oddly enough, I never checked what his times were.  I had no idea how he placed.  It didn't seem important to know as I was mostly focussed on keeping track of him and showcasing his efforts and a little of his personality.  But his coach definitely seemed very pleased!

Playing, focussing, working hard and...caring for his teammate.  It all seemed to fit my previous perceptions of this young track star!

At this point the little boy was still anonymous.  I didn't know his name or what team he ran for.  I didn't know his coach nor his family.  So then, after this race,  in the chaos of the moment and the victory, I called out to the coach that I had many photos of his athlete and could he please get in touch with me.

Once home I quickly put together an album of photos of my favorite little athlete, stuck them in a collage and put that on my Facebook page hoping that someone would know this little guy and give me contact information. I really wanted to get in touch with family members.  But that didn't happen.  I was disappointed.

Not a month ago I went to The Netherlands to visit my family and cut that trip short so that I could cover the National Youth Indoors for the third time.  This time it was called Hershey Youth Indoor for #USATFutureStars.  Once again I set out to try new things, thinking of a great photographer's advice to always ask yourself before each new event:  "Why am I here and what can I do differently?" (Ross Taylor).  I had fun experimenting.  But I was a little disappointed because my favorite little athlete was nowhere in sight.  Sunday afternoon, towards the end of the meet and as I was doing different things, I finally saw something familiair from the corner of my eye.  Yes!  It was him!  I quickly spun around and got him a few times during the race.

He had grown and his strides were much longer.

He also seemed a lot faster!

I wasn't going to let him out of my sight.  Even if it meant waiting around the water fountain amongst many sweaty and/or collapsing and/or crying (from pain, joy or relief) athletes!  This time I was hard-set to meet his coach and give him my business card.

But I got more:  his mother!  Finally!  In the victory of the moment I gave her my card.

A few weeks after the meet his mother contacted me.  I explained to her that I had been tracking her son for three years.  It must have seemed a little odd to her!  She told me that she and her husband have been coaching their little boy for several years and that he participates mainly in the 1500/1600 meter run, the 800 meter run, the 4x4 and most recently the long jump.  And in her own words:  "Ever since he started track and field 3 years ago at 5 years old, we (his dad and I) could also see the dedication and heart that goes into every race he runs.  Winning or not, he gives it his all.  But I have to admit he's had a pretty successful "career" so far for an eight year old:). I'm excited to see what the future holds for him..."

So my story has come full circle.  My favorite little athlete has a name now and a background.  I, too, am looking forward to see what the future has in store.  I wish him and his parents all the best.

To see more young track and field athletes in action, look here:








Cool School Plunge 1/30/15

The Cool School Plunge is an annual event that takes place in Sandy Point State Park, Md.  A large number of school teams come brave the Bay to support Special Olympics Maryland.  Air and water temperature are frigid.  I'm literally run over but it is worth it:  the excitement is beyond the imaginable.