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Using the new Portrait feature on iPhones

Do you love using your iPhone to create imagery when you are travelling?  I do!  In fact there are some situations where using my phone has not only been a much faster option for photography, it has also been a lot less fussy than swapping lenses and getting ready to shoot a scene – especially when you just want to capture the moment and that moment is so fleeting.

Shortly before I went on my recent trip to India, I upgraded my phone to the new iPhone 10 and I realised that my newer model now comes with a Portrait feature.

This incredible piece of technology allows you to create studio style portraits within your phone so in India, I took my phone on the road and experimented.

India is one of the most amazing places in the world for portrait photography.  Not only are the people there beautiful to photograph, they also love having their photo taken with you.  It’s no wonder that you see so many large billboards on the streets of India advertising “The best phone for selfies”.  I’ve lost count of the amount of requests I’ve had from Indian people wishing to take my photo.  This recent trip was no different.  I’m convinced that I am a super famous star on Facebook in India.  When I ask “Is that going on Facebook?”, I usually get a smiling Indian waggling his head and sheepishly confessing “yes”.  It never worries me.  I simply love seeing a country that is so enthralled by photography and the equipment of choice is usually a phone on the streets of India.

So with phone in hand I went to India where I found myself in speeding minibuses travelling the back roads of Gujarat and watching the world unfold through the windows of a car in traffic.  At one point we came across a large wedding procession in the area so we had to slow down to not hit everyone crossing the road.  All of a sudden we were momentarily swept up with the crowd so we stopped.  Realising I had the wrong lens on my camera, I decided spontaneously to use my phone.  In the crowd of kids who instantly surrounded us, I saw this little girl so I asked if I could take her photo.  Within seconds this is what I had created.


Right then and there I had just shot my most favourite image of the trip – on my phone.

How to Use the Portrait Feature

To use the Portrait feature of your phone just follow these steps:

  1. Open the camera on your phone
  2. In the various camera functions at the bottom of the screen, choose Portrait
  3. Shoot your image

The incredible aspect of this feature is that you can use ONE of the settings within it to shoot an image but later on you can switch between them to get different effects.

So always start with shooting the original image in Portrait mode to unlock this capability.

A Few Tips on Shooting Good Images using Portrait

It is important to remember a few tips when you start to use this new feature of your phone:

  1. Try to ask whoever you are photographing to stand in the shade.  You will find it doesn’t work well if there is direct sunlight creating shadows on faces or the light is too strong.
  2. It is best if your subject is standing a little bit away from whatever background you have.  If they stay too close to the background, parts of that will show too much in the black surrounds of the image.
  3. Keep a bit of distance from your subject.  The camera will tell you if you are too close and that you need to stand back.
  4. There are five different modes to use in Portrait.  Choosing one over another doesn’t matter.  You can edit the photo later by switching through the modes.  So long as you shoot the original image in Portrait mode, you can do this.
  5. Portrait mode editing does NOT work with images shot in other modes on your phone.  You MUST shoot in Portrait to work further in Portrait.

The Five Different Settings in Portrait Mode

The image above can be seen in five different ways.

This is the first (or original) image shot in Portrait Mode’s “Natural Light” setting.


The second image below is using the “Studio Light” setting.  As you can see the lighting on this little girl’s face is just a bit brighter, yet still subtle.

The third image uses the “Contour Light” setting.  You will see the increased contrasts in the image creating greater depth and detail.

The fourth (and in my opinion most dramatic) image is the option using “Stage Light”.  See the instant black background?  To me this setting adds an instant “Wow!” factor.

If you prefer your Portrait images in black and white, the fifth image below is shot in “Stage Light Mono”.  (This is the original image I posted above).

The black and white image above was the mode I shot the original image in when I met this little girl.  Immediately after I took her photo I showed her and this lovely smile washed over her face.  I don’t think she realised just how pretty she looked!

Editing Images Shot in Portrait Mode Using the Photo App

As I mentioned earlier, if you shoot a Portrait image using this mode, you can easily switch it back to the other modes like my examples above.

  1. Go to the photos app in your phone.
  2. Select the image you shot in Portrait mode.
  3. Press “Edit” in the top right hand corner and wait for a second.
  4. You will see the Portrait icon appear in the top middle of the screen, press on that and you will see the five different Portrait modes at the bottom.  From there you can easily switch between each to look at the different effects.
  5. You can also play with other edits using that app but if you really want to bring out the best of these images I would suggest you open the image in a third party app.

Editing Images Shot in Portrait Mode Using Third Party Photo Apps

If you are planning to take your editing one step further, then I would suggest you edit your Portrait images in a third party app like:

  1. Snapseed
  2. Carbon (for Black and White editing)

Using these apps will allow you to alter sharpness, colour saturation, contours, brightness and even change the facial features of your Portrait subject!

Never Underestimate The Powerful Tool You Have With Your Phone!

As you can see from this image and others below, I loved playing with the Portrait feature on my iPhone.  I am about to leave for China and I hope to use it more when I am there.  After all, the image itself is around 2.5MB as shot from my phone in JPEG format, which is a big enough size to use in blogs, Facebook posts etc.

Later in the trip we were lucky enough to do a formal portrait shoot with some local Mir Rajasthani women in Gujarat.  While I shot a lot of images there using my DSLR, I also shot a few using my phone as follows.

The effect is quite stunning isn’t it?  Tell me what you think!

Japan in Winter

I recently returned from a stunning winter wildlife photography tour with Wild Images.  A summary of my work shot on that trip is here:

Our 2019 tour to Japan is already full but if you would like to join our trip in 2020, the details are here: https://www.wildimages-phototours.com/photography-tours/japan-winter-wildlife-spectacular-2020/

The Kids of Kouba Olanga

We saw it shimmering in the desert heat. A tiny squat building that reminded me of the more elaborate buildings constructed by the Dogon people of Mali further west. Rising from the rippled sands of the Sahara, the building immediately caught my eye. We had arrived in the tiny hamlet of Kouba Olanga, near the border of Niger in northern Chad. Describing Kouba Olanga as a town was always going to be a stretch. Essentially it is a scattering of nomad huts constructed temporarily between squat adobe buildings that are weathering the wind and sand.

I sunk to my knees in the powder sand to photograph this building, the most intact example of Chadian vernacular architecture in the area and suddenly I felt myself being approached. Two small children had seen me from their nomad hut and decided to come over to see what I was up to. Initially I feared the worst. After all, we had been met with so much scepticism and fear during our travels in Chad, a country that rarely sees tourists, let alone photographers. As they approached, their faces broke into smiles. I was hooked. I instantly rose up and went to say hello.

We struck an instant connection so I asked if I could take some photos.

And as I did so, other children approached from their huts nearby.

Joining the little girl in orange was another wearing a black hijab

When I showed them my photos of the building behind them they both ran off towards it motioning me to photograph them with the building!

Very soon I found myself becoming the Saharan Queen of the Kids and I was mobbed.  I’ve never minded these situations.  I love children and exercising a bit of crowd control for me is often more fun than frustration.

I quickly discovered I had some favourites amongst them, including this little boy who I thought looked like a miniature man of the desert.

And then came this beautiful little girl who I got so caught up with photographing, shots of her dominated my entire time in Kouba Olanga.

In the end, I wasn’t sure who was having more fun – me or them.  It was one of the best mornings I experienced in Chad with people.  Sadly it was all in the harshest light but I am hatching plans to return to Kouba Olanga with some intrepid photographers who are willing to cross the sands of a trackless Sahara with me to photograph some of the most remote and isolated people in the world.


2017 – A Year in Pictures


Cecil and Xanda’s Prides – Intimate Encounters With The World’s Most Famous Lions

One of Xanda’s females (the one with the zany eye) on a buffalo kill in Hwange.


Just last month I was visiting Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe with my parents.  We were staying at The Hide, which was perhaps one of the most incredible lodges we have ever had the pleasure of visiting.  We were there to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents and our stay in Hwange topped off a large road trip in Namibia and a visit to Victoria Falls.

A member of Xanda’s pride under a tree in the spectacular Mbiza grasslands of Hwange.


On our first morning safari from The Hide, we were driven out to an incredible stretch of grasslands called Mbiza.  Imagine, if you will, a vast expanse of Awni grass dotted with charismatic Ilala Palms and stands of teak and this is what unfolded before our eyes as the sun rose that day.  We were heading out there because we heard that a local Lion pride was on a buffalo kill so, not wanting to miss a spectacle, we made a beeline for them.  On our arrival we met another solo safari vehicle who had arrived also to see what was happening. 

The eye of a Lion.

Since we love lions (my father particularly has a soft spot for them), we decided to stay on long after the other vehicle had left and simply watch the dynamics of this pride with its kill.  It was a good decision.  Over the space of nearly four hours we experienced a breathtaking series of events that allowed us a truly intimate glimpse of what happens at a kill like this.  We watched several lion cubs playing with each other; mothers establishing their dominance over the younger lions at the carcass and we had lion cubs come and rest in the shade of our truck (which made us feel we could literally reach out and touch them – of course we didn’t!). 

Two of Xanda’s cubs playing in the grass.

As news of the kill spread through the nature around us, we watched curious Black-backed Jackals gently approach the scene from down wind and then came the vultures. 

Smelling the buffalo carcass from downwind, a Black-backed Jackal edges his way towards Xanda’s pride, hoping for left overs.

For the first time ever I saw a Black-backed Jackal try to catch a swooping Hooded Vulture from its ambush point deep in the grasses.  Sadly I wasn’t fast enough to get a shot of that but we all laughed when we saw lion cubs getting quite worried that the vultures might steal their food so they too tried to catch these massive birds in flight. 

A White-backed Vulture flies in to the scene.

A Tawny Eagle soars overhead looking upwards to check for vultures in the skies nearby.

Two of Xanda’s cubs chasing vultures. Although this isn’t such a great photo, it was hilarious to watch!

Finding it difficult to tear ourselves away, we decided to distance ourselves a few hundred metres so we could have a coffee.  We moved to the other side of a small reservoir which was kept filled by a whistling, grinding windmill that we could hear while we watched. 

One of Xanda’s females “Stumpy”.

Sitting there we spotted three African Buffalo ambling down to the reservoir to drink.  None of us thought the lion pride would be interested in these buffalo.  After all, they had spent the morning feasting on a buffalo already.  Suddenly, the resting lions sprung into action from their shady spot and hid behind a termite mound to watch the buffalos drinking!  It was like you could almost see them strategising how they might separate a solo buffalo out from the other two to hunt it.  A group of three buffalos is a dangerous thing for lions.  We later learned that the pride leader, a male named Xander, had been at the existing buffalo kill the day before and while he was eating another buffalo suddenly rammed him off the carcass and tossed him into the air.  We never witnessed that but the owners of The Hide were keen to find out if we’d seen him the next day as they were fearing the worst.  Was he fatally injured?  Dead? 

One of Xanda’s cubs enjoying breakfast.

It turned out his pride only mock hunted one of the buffalos while we sat watching them from a few hundred metres away. 

“Which one should we go for?”. Xanda’s pride contemplates another buffalo kill from behind a termite mound.

Stalking African Buffalos.

When a lion stalks its prey, it is surprising how camouflaged they are!

We never relocated Xanda but over the course of that morning we felt we’d become more intimately acquainted with his pride.  All of us were worried about him.  The loss of a male pride leader disrupts the entire pride dynamic and since we saw two females looking after an active group of seven cubs, we hoped that all of the cubs wouldn’t lose their father. 


One of Xanda’s smaller cubs.

After taking a break for lunch back at the lodge, we met for our afternoon safari.  “Where would you like to go?” we were asked.  “Can we go back to Xanda’s pride on the kill?”.  The sun had gone behind clouds by the time we arrived back at the buffalo carcass.  The second visit allowed us to study this pride a little more closely.

And I looked into the eyes of a Lion.

The two main females of Xanda’s pride were a motley pair.  One of them is affectionately called “Stumpy” because the last part of her tail is missing.  The other sported a wicked glint in her eye, the result of a fight or failed hunt perhaps.  Regardless, they both seem to be great mothers of those cubs, that looked like they varied in age. 

Xanda’s zany eyed female.

One of Xanda’s cubs smells its mother.

“Yes! That’s MY mummy!”

Spending time with Xanda’s pride over a whole day left us with memories of a lifetime.  We hoped that we could go back to them the following day but then we also felt we should let them have a break from safari vehicles watching for a while so we went off to explore other areas of the park near the lodge.

The beautiful grasslands of Mbiza, where we spent most of our time with Xanda’s pride.


“Inger!  Are you awake?  There are lions at our waterhole!”  announced lodge manager Leanne at the door of my room after dinner.  I woke and looked out from my bed.  Several pale figures were running next to the waterhole in the darkness.  Suddently an unsuspecting elephant came to try and drink but the lions rounded it up and out of fear it trumpeted loudly, stomped its feet and then ran off. 

Stumpy heads towards us in the early morning sun.

The next morning we learned that the pride we had watched from our beds was the pride of famous lion Cecil.  Early morning safari drivers had found them on a Wildebeest kill so Ian and Leanne asked if we would like to visit them on our drive out of the park.  “Of course!” we replied.  After his tragic death at the hands of a trophy hunter in 2015, visiting the pride of one of Hwange’s most loved lions was almost like visiting royalty.  We found them in the grasslands.  They had dragged their Wildebeest kill into a place where we couldn’t see it very clearly.  Sadly we were on our way out of the park.  It was our last day in Zimbabwe so we had the long drive back to Victoria Falls ahead of us and we didn’t have time to linger. 

Two Lionesses surviving famous Lion, Cecil.


In 2015, Cecil, one of Hwange’s male lion pride leaders was killed by a trophy hunter.  His death caused a justifiable, global outrage and shone a highlight on trophy hunting in Africa.  While several members of Cecil’s pride formed the group we saw on our last morning in Hwange, the death of a dominant male lion completely disrupts pride structures.  Younger cubs could, without the protection of a father, be killed by other males so the females are forced into estrus. 

A new male in Cecil’s pride.

Xanda is the son of Cecil.  It is with a heavy heart that I write this.  Although the news was only made public yesterday (20 July), Xanda lost his life to a trophy hunter also on 7 July, just over two weeks after we enjoyed an entire day with his pride.

Cecil’s pride.

His death was apparently done at the hands of a legitimate hunting tourism operator, it occurred close to where his father died in the same way, and although Xanda also was a collared male research animal, he was over six years old and outside the park boundaries. This means that his death is legal under the law of Zimbabwe.   

Cecil’s pride.

Scientists working with these lions argue that the funds used in trophy hunts like this support their conservation work.  I do wonder if those funds couldn’t come from higher fees charged by lodges to guests who are NOT hunting?  If I knew that a part of my costs of staying at a lodge in Zimbabwe would help prides like Xanda’s and Cecil’s survive into the future, I would pay the fee without hesitation. 

Surely there is a better way than allowing trophy hunting of lions to continue?

Cecil’s pride.

Publishing Update – Africa Geographic

While I was working on my recent Ladakh Women’s Project in India, completely out of range of any wifi (Ladakh lost its wifi on 25 January and while we were travelling there three months later it still hadn’t been restored), I had no idea that my work in Ethiopia was being considered as part of the best shots taken in all of Africa during the last twelve months.

Shortly before I left for the India trip, Africa Geographic published a blog piece from me about how to photograph Lalibela here https://africageographic.com/blog/getting-lost-lalibela/ but at the same time I had also entered a few of my images from Lalibela in their Annual Competition for the best images shot in all of Africa.

When I came home I discovered they had selected the image above for their Yearbook!  This enthralled me completely.  I have just ordered two copies of it – one for Mark and I and the other for my parents in Australia.

This image hasn’t been listed as a finalist in the competition but I’m not too worried about that.  The finalists are all incredible and any one of them would deserve to take the grand prize of a safari for two in Africa.  I am lucky in that I get to travel to Africa five or six times a year for work and now I feel even more lucky that my work from Africa has been recognised in this way, especially when so many thousands (perhaps millions) of images are shot there each year.

I am also truly thankful to the priests I met in Lalibela last December, who not only allowed me to visit their private world, but who also so kindly said yes when I asked if I could photograph them.

For me anyway, this week has given me a lot to feel thankful for!


“I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.”
― Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children

Kathputli.  It was the slum that inspired Salman Rushdie’s writings in his famous novel “Midnight’s Children”, a story about the children born between midnight and 1am on the exact day that India gained independence from Britain – 15 August 1947.  The story tells how children born at that hour were blessed with magical powers and the main character, the one born closest to midnight named Saleem, had lived for a short time with Pavati the Witch in a magician’s ghetto alongside a snake charmer named Picture Singh.  I imagined that the magicians ghetto is Kathputli.

Walking the streets of Kathputli it isn’t hard to see how Rushdie gained his inspiration, for Kathputli is not an ordinary slum, it is also home to some of the most talented street and party performers in Delhi.


Visiting a slum can be a very confronting experience.  In 1994, when I first visited India, I visited a large slum in Delhi at the time and I was horrified, shocked and saddened by that experience.  For as far as I could see, there were people living under black plastic garbage bags propped up by sticks.  In the distance I noticed a black bear, in chains, being tormented by people.  Although this first visit was terrible the memory of it has stayed with me forever.

A few years ago I visited another slum, this time it was one outside the Rajasthani city of Jaipur.  I’m not sure of its exact name but people were still living in dire conditions there, however this time I saw that NGOs had set up mobile health clinics, obstetric care facilities and even a mobile school for the children of that slum to attend.  The Jaipur slum gave me a glimmer of hope that life inside the slums of India may be slowly improving.

Fast forward to this year and I arrived in Delhi to start my Ladakh Women’s Project, an expedition I designed to support women living in remote and isolated communities across Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, northern India.  Joining me at the start was one of my guests (now friend) on the trip, Dutch/Australian photographer Ingrid Hendriksen.  It was Inge’s first time to India and I said “How about we visit a slum?”.  Inge, being up for anything, replied “Sure”.  I wasn’t sure what she would think of joining me in a slum for photography.  Indeed, I even had some out-of-character neuroses about visiting Kathputli.  After all, my previous experiences in slums had been very mixed.

Slumming It

Before we arrived in India, I encouraged Inge to watch the well considered documentary presented by Kevin McLeod called “Slumming It”.  As the daughter of a highly awarded architect in Australia I have always been fascinated by the way people live, social mobility, public spaces, communal living and the way communities evolve.  This documentary, presented by Britain’s foremost commentator on housing architecture, provided viewers with a fascinating insight into the society of slums versus our own.  It asks questions about the way our societies are fragmenting, in parallel with slums, which are becoming more and more cohesive.

This documentary is about Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai that is home to nearly one million people in a square mile and the slum that inspired the famous film “Slumdog Millionaire”.  It paints a vivid picture of the daily life of people in slums, how they survive and how their communities are shaped by small industries and communal households.  Dharavi is being threatened with destruction by land developers in Mumbai, who want to relocate the residents into high rise buildings from their current home.  One of the most poignant comments made by Kevin McLeod, to me anyway, was his questioning of the developer “Across our society we are taking down high rise public housing buildings because they foster social dysfunction and crime.  Why do you think that removing people from somewhere like Dharavi into these buildings might benefit them?”.  There was no reply.

Destructing slums in India remains a highly controversial topic.  As the world’s population booms and people from rural areas migrate towards the world’s cities in huge numbers, the slums of India often play a vital role in housing people arriving from out of town.  Some of them simply stay for a short time in these places.  Others move on.  Regardless, the slums of India, in my experience remain a place of transient life and humanity.  They are as much fascinating as they can be overwhelming.

Slums and the Dangers of Poverty Porn

Before we went to Kathputli I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d seen photographs of it taken by other photographers and they all appeared to be colourful and vibrant.  The last thing I wanted to portray about my own experiences in Kathputli is the concept of poverty porn.  For I am neither here to make Kathputli appear glamorous or to sell my images from my two trips there.

Instead I would prefer to share my pondering thoughts about how and why communities like Kathputli differ so greatly from our own.

A Colony of Artists

Kathputli is as much an artist colony or enclave as it is a slum.  Many of the residents of Kathputli have arrived there from two of India’s most colourful and vibrant states, Rajasthan and Gujarat.  Amongst them are some extremely talented street performers including stilt walkers, dancers, puppeteers, fire breathers, magicians and high wire artists.  In this way alone Kathputli is very different from any slum I have visited. Similar to other slums you still have to watch your step in Kathputli (you might end up standing in something horrible) as you walk through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways with rudimentary sanitation.  Often open sewers are covered with large slabs of stone.  In public areas, large spans of rubbish are not covered by anything.  Yet Kathputli feels different. Its narrow alleyways are filled with smiling children, stray cats, people preparing meals or enjoying a wash.  There are livestock animals in there like goats and chickens.  And nearly everyone knows someone who performs professionally.

Our guide, Bunty, provided both of us with an excellent insight into life inside Kathputli.  I asked him what happens when people become ill, when a woman gives birth or what might happen if Kathputli’s residents need dental, optical or other medical care.  He explained that a clinic is nearby to help most people but didn’t really go into any specifics.

He also told us how the colony had changed over the years with homes that are now numbered and how access to water and power has improved for the community.

We were invited into Bunty’s home and in one room we learned that six of his family sleep in the room we were invited into for tea.  All of them joined us to paint our hands with henna while we drank tea and enjoyed Indian sweets.  It was one of the most generous, humbling and beautiful experiences of our entire trip to India.

Kathputli is Surprising

Kathputli Surprises #1  – It Doesn’t Smell.

In the pit of pre-monsoon India we visited Kathputli.  The temperatures in Delhi were nearing 40C during the day and I worried that the entire experience of Kathputli would quickly overwhelm us.  I thought the smell alone would drive us away.  Instead the opposite was more true.  For some reason neither of us could smell anything dire.  The air was simply perfumed by people and it wasn’t unpleasant at all.

Kathputli Surprises #2 – There was Beauty Everywhere.

Over the 23 years I have been visiting India, the one singular impression I have of the entire country and its people is an affinity with colour.  It’s like complimentary colours are formed perfectly with Indian genetics.  It doesn’t matter how rich or poor a community may be, that sense of colour and beauty pervades absolutely everything.  Kathputli is no different.  Walking through the streets of Kathputli you may chance across a brightly coloured wall adorned with a complimentary coloured shrine.

The women have an innate sense of wearing colours that suit them.  Children dart around courtyards that are painted a rainbow of oranges, greens, pinks and reds.  The colony’s performers move about in a riot of vibrance that includes shades of turquoise, yellow, lime green and purple.

Kathputli Surprises #3 – The People are Extremely Generous and Kind

Everywhere we visited in Kathputli we were literally overwhelmed by the friendliness and kindness of the people we met there.  We were invited in for tea.  Children followed us around simply so we could take their photo.  Many, many residents simply wanted to chat with us or practice their English.

In fact within an hour of us arriving on our first visit, we were spontaneously invited to join in a wedding celebration, the friendliness and beauty of which moved us both to tears!

This level of kindness and generosity surpasses so many of our societies in the ‘developed’ world and one of the things I ponder most about places like Kathputli is how much they remind me of my own childhood, growing up on a fishing trawler with a strong sense of community and purpose.  Our modern world has lost much of this yet Kathputli retains a stronger sense of community responsibility and support.

Kathputli Surprises #4 – Everything That Can Possibly be Recycled Is

When I return home from places like India and Kathputli, I am often saddened at how much we waste.  All over the world, the issue of waste is unavoidable and Kathputli, in some ways, is no different.  They do, however, make use of things way more effectively than we do.  When I was a child we used to be quite resourceful with rubbish and try to waste as little as possible.  I had a childhood that instilled in me the need to use less and waste less but the more I travel, the more I am realising that my own upbringing was unusual.  The incredible amount of single use plastics in our environment is the by-product of our society which has become used to plastic packaging, throw-away cups, bags, utensils and wrappers.  As a child, if our nets on the boat were ever caught up in a snag, we would try to retrieve them and mend them.  I spent many hours watching my dad show my brother how to mend nets.  In contrast, many modern fishermen use nets that are so cheap, if they get caught, they are simply cut free to drift the ocean, indiscriminately killing a lot of marine wildlife.

Kathputli has waste but it only consists of stuff that can’t be used.  Secondhand timber is used to fashion ladders and steps, pieces of corrugated iron are used for building houses, bricks are used for the same, clothes are handed down, tins are used for growing plants and storing food items, the same bottle is used for fetching water every day.

Although some would look at Kathputli and see it as dysfunctional, when it comes to waste I feel they do this much better than we do.

Kathputli Surprises #5 – It Supports An Entire Industry

While many of Kathputli’s residents live in poverty, the community itself supports almost an entire industry of performers that are often hired out to work in events all across Delhi.

Kathputli’s resident artists have been entertaining weddings, openings, parties and all manner of social events since the colony was established over sixty years ago.  We were lucky enough to watch many of these performers during our two visits and they are extremely talented.  I was really left wondering what may become of some of them if, somehow, Kathputli was ever destroyed.

Why Kathputli Should Be Preserved

Kathputli lies approximately 30 minutes drive from one of Delhi’s wealthiest areas, the city’s prestigious Diplomatic Enclave.   The land it sits on is owned by a government body, the Delhi Development Agency, which has earmarked it for demolition.  Currently new accommodation is being created for the residents in Kathputli to voluntarily move to yet few have done so.  Although the destruction of this incredible place has been curtailed for now, I fear that it will only be a few years before that act becomes a reality.

The destruction of a slum like Kathputli perplexes me.  Why would anyone want to destroy an integral part of the social fabric of a large city, especially one that is so charismatic, cohesive and inoffensive?  I understand the incentive of big developers wanting to make lots of money, at any cost but why Kathputli?  In the middle of the night, if I can’t sleep, I often think of communities like Kathputli and what its residents may do if they are forced to move.

My hope is that Kathputli will continue to exist either in its current form or in some altered way that will allow the resident families there to build upon their existing relationships and continue to foster their community’s strengths.

Lamayuru Monastery – A Photographic Essay


A breathtaking sunset at Lamayuru.

My favourite novice monk at Lamayuru, Rigzin.

A young boy stares up at us as we photograph the rooftops of his village from our lofty heights of the monastery.

One of the intricate and ancient mural paintings inside the monastery at Lamayuru.

The moonscape environment that lies due east of Lamayuru. Every time I see this landscape I am reminded of Guge Kingdom in western Tibet, although this patch is significantly smaller than its Tibetan counterpart, it is no less spectacular.

The stupas, or chortens, crowning the Lamayuru Monastery date back to the 10th century.

Colourful Mani Stones.

Konchok Tashi smiles at us from the window of the room where he lives.

Lamayuru is nestled deep within the mountains of the Indian Himalaya.

Lamayuru Monastery at sunrise.

A novice monk seeking light from a higher force during the morning prayer at Lamayuru Monastery.

An old man carries water towards the kitchen of the monastery.

Last light falls on the main building of Lamayuru Monastery.

Konchok Tashi

The elaborate carvings and mani stones at the monastery of Lamayuru are some of the most colourful I’ve seen outside Tibet.

Konchok Tashi bids us farewell after visiting his monastery.

Unreported Africa: Lassarga

The sign that leads you to Lassarga (or Lassaraga) near Dakhla in Western Sahara.

My Journey Through A Remote Fishing Village in the Disputed Territory of Western Sahara

I could feel the salt air stinging my lips.  Lips cracked dry by days of working in the desert.  The ocean was literally rubbing salt in to my wounds.  We were in the windswept coast of Dakhla in the disputed territory of Western Sahara and my lips were stinging like someone had slapped me.

Fishing dinghies and buoys adorn the sand spit at Lassarga.

There is a constant wind in Dakhla.  A wind that fuels a niche kite surfing tourist market yet barely any other tourism exists there.  The town, which lies at the pointy end of a south facing peninsula of sand, has no tourist markets and no souvenir shops.  It boasts a small number of very good restaurants that cater to business visitors but few others.  Nearly all of the visiting tourists stay at fully inclusive kite surfing resorts at the north end of a bay that is home to Atlantic Humpback dolphins and a variety of seabirds including gulls, terms and cormorants.

The Canary current runs rich with ocean life, feeding a small fishing industry and a plethora of seabirds.

At the very southern edge of town lies the tiny shanty town of Lassarga.

Lassarga, or Lassaraga as it is locally known, consists of a small collection of fishing shacks behind a fleet of blue and white fishing boats that are not much larger than dinghies.

Tiny fishing boats lined up on the sand spit at Lassarga.

Approaching Lassarga, the amount of rubbish lying around the settlement is instantly visible.  Stray dogs and cats wander about, scavenging for bycatch from an artisan fishing industry that harvests fish, crabs, cuttlefish, prawns and octopus from the waters surrounding the peninsula.  The air of Lassarga is perfumed with salt, fibreglass, rubbish and  the rotting detritus of bycatch that was thrown aside in favour of a more delectable catch.

Street scene at Lassarga.

Although my lips are stinging, my sense of smell is alive with memories of my own childhood growing up on a fishing trawler in Australia.  This was my first visit to Lassarga and somehow the visions of rubbish dissipated behind a strong nostalgia for my childhood.  A childhood spent around the daily tasks of mending nets, maintaining boats and salt of the earth fishermen whose livelihood relied upon the seasonal fruits of the sea.

The sand is dotted with the tools of the fishing trade in Lassarga.

I am the only woman here.  Mindful of the impact I may have on this masculine place I ask a young lad if it is ok to enter the shanty town on my own.  He waves me on with a nod of affirmation.  I pull the shawl that I have with me out and indicate that I’m putting it on, out of respect for the conservative locals who are Muslims, and who might baulk at a woman entering a world that is normally alien for wives and daughters.  The young lad laughs and gestures to me that the shawl is not needed.  That it is ok for me to go through the village.

Textures of Lassarga. The huts are made from the remains of wrecked fishing boats.

Wandering down sandy lanes strewn with litter I notice that many of the fishing shacks are made with the pieces of old boats, driftwood and fishing nets. Shielding their occupants from the weather is a patchwork of abandoned tarpaulins and plastic garbage bags strung together with twine.

Huts made of old boats, fishing basket sides, timber and tarpaulins, all strung together with twine.

I disturb a feral dog who had found a half dried starfish.  His incidental snack that may be the only thing he eats all day.  Further down the path a feral kitten squeezes its way under a rusting iron door.  Plastic containers, metal tin lids, plastic bottles and other litter is everywhere.  It is a mishmash of rubbish and shacks woven together by a network of sandy paths strewn with the remains of life.

Feral junkyard cat in Lassarga.

At the edge of town a fleet of rusting tractors lies waiting to haul fishing boats out to sea.  Beyond them, across a neck of sand, lies around two hundred tiny blue and white fishing boats.  Each one beached on the sand and surrounded by the essential equipment for the catch – nets, floats, anchors and buoys.

Ready to go to sea at Lassarga.

I walk out across the sand spit and I can feel the litter crushing beneath my boots.  Occasionally I spot murex shells, kelp and fragments of fish net cast aside by the last high tide.  And then I feel lost.  The smell of the sea, the nets, the fibreglass and the paint transport me back to when I was a kid growing up in Australian on my family’s fishing boat.  Back then my playground was the islands of the Great Barrier Reef and the fishing wharves of Gladstone and Cairns.  Fast forward forty years and I am in a similar place on the westernmost extremity of Africa, except the playground of the fishing kids here is the wild beaches washed clean by the Canary current and islands with curious names like “The Dragon”.

A collection of seashells I found on my walks through Lassarga.

On my first foray into Lassarga I thought I might have been there out of season.  Wandering through the sea of fishing boats at the end of the spit I had only met three ageing Saharawi fishermen sitting on the sand mending their nets.  It felt otherwise deserted. For a while I sat with them, trying in vain to tell them how I used to also sit with my family and mend nets when I was a kid.  I asked if I could take their photo, they politely declined so I slowly excused myself from their gathering to continue my stroll.

Mending nets on the sand.

Further into the boats I was stopped by an outbreak of raucous laughter.  I’ve always been drawn to an infectious laugh and eventually I found the owner, a smiling Saharawi fisherman called Haj.  Drawn by his presence I wandered over to say hello and introduce myself.  I asked him what he was up to and he motioned that he was painting his boat.  A couple of minutes transpired where we tried to work out if we could find a common language to communicate and in the end we both laughed and gave up.  I motioned to ask if I could take his photo and he said yes.  I was so happy that he did because my overarching feeling about Haj was one of tremendous kindness.  He was just such a lovely man.

A portrait of Saharawi fisherman Haj.

I ran out of time that day and my work in the Sahara beckoned so I had to leave to get some sleep before another marathon drive into the unknown.  Lassarga, had, however, left a lasting impression on me and on every return we had to Dakhla, I hounded my patient partner, Mark, to go back there.

Haj’s catch at Lassarga.

Dakhla’s coast is characterised by the sea.  Wandering around the windswept expanses of each promenade I noticed men returning to town on tiny donkey drawn carts with their catch, or parked tractors waiting to be filled with fish caught by rudimentary fish traps off the coast.  I look at it all and realise that artisan fishing of this style will never create problems in our world.

The lineup of boats on the sand spit at Lassarga.

Instead the world of these fishermen is changing at the hands of much bigger operators, with bigger trawlers and larger nets.  Raping the surrounding seas by catching tonnes of fish, are trawlers from Morocco (who has claimed Western Sahara by a sovereign right), Spain and Russia.  The little guys I met struggle to get by on the catches of their minimal patch, just as my own family did many years ago before the industry changed in Australia.

Going home with fish for dinner. Dakhla.

On my second and last visit to Lassarga, I instantly noticed more gulls flying around the dinghies on the sand spit.  Some guys had brought in a catch!  Fascinated by what they might have caught, I strode down towards them and found small numbers of fishermen offloading cuttlefish, octopus, fish and stingrays.  This time the air was perfumed with an added smell of burning wood and I realised that some of them were cooking fresh fish for breakfast on the beach.

Grilled fresh fish on the beach for breakfast.

Lured by the smell I wandered over and was instantly invited to join them.  The fragrant freshness of the fish was divine and I felt truly spoilt.  While I tried to speak with the fishermen responsible for my impromptu breakfast I pulled out my phone and started to show them photos of my last trip to Lassarga.  They instantly recognised Haj and said to me “That’s Haj!” while they pointed out to other boats on the periphery of the fleet.  In the distance I saw Haj again, unloading his catch of fish.  I yelled out “Haj!” and ran over to show him the photographs I took of him.  He laughed his infectious laugh.  This time he was with his two sons and in very broken English we worked out they were both on Facebook so I said I would send them the photos of their dad if they connected with me there.  I left them my card so they knew how to find me.


After I left Haj and his boys, I went looking at the catches of other vessels.  Nearby some guys had brought in some rather large octopus and as I tried to find out from them what the Saharawi name for octopus is, one of them, another kindly Saharawi fisherman called Ahmed, invited me to tea.  From a tiny mound of coals and ashes, I was served a glass of hot strong tea poured from a ceremoniously high held tea pot.  The tea was sweet, strong and pungent but it served as a wonderful dessert after my fresh fish cooked on coals for breakfast.

Tea with a kind Saharawi named Ahmed.

Reluctantly I started on my stroll away from the fleet.  Time was running away from me again and I had to go back to work.

Waiting for the catch to come in at Dakhla.

While I may have left Lassarga for the last time, a big part of it never left me.  Visiting there transported me back to my childhood in so many ways.  Yet it was indelibly different.  At Lassarga I was not only transported through an entirely alien culture, I was kindly escorted with tea.  Tea with the Saharawis.  And if I concentrate hard enough now I can still feel the taste of tea and salt on my lips.

Motorcycle trailer details in Dakhla.

Sheathbills, Skuas and Stinkers

The Bad Boys of Antarctica’s Avifauna

Each time I work in Antarctica, I am often saddened to hear groans of disgust when people see their first predators or scavengers like Sheathbills, Skuas or Stinkers (Giant Petrels).  Their reputations as “chick stealers”, “poo eaters”, “carcass lovers” and their collective reputations of evil echo that of many mainland scavengers and predators.  Through their natures, smells, behaviour and appearances, they become more difficult to love somehow, more “ugly” than other birds like penguins who are considered “cute” or albatrosses who are considered “majestic”.

Yet each of these birds performs a vital role in seabird ecology and after many years of working with them as a seabird handler and guide, I have found that even the most unloveable species of seabird in the Southern Ocean have loveable sides.

Here are some dark and light sides to some of Antarctica’s iconic avifauna.

Sheathbills (The Poo Eaters) Family: Chionidae

“You are the first birder I’ve ever met who has seen a Black-faced Sheathbill ahead of the White-faced in my life” mentioned my partner, Mark, at the end of our recent trip to Antarctica.  We met on the only island in the world where the Black-faced Sheathbill exists, in the isolated, remote Australian Antarctic territory of Heard Island, deep in the southern Indian Ocean.

The Dark Side

Irrespective of their facial markings, Sheathbills share a rather common and disturbing trait of coprophagia or eating both their own faeces and that of other animals.  Their diets have also incorporated tape worms extracted from the stomachs of penguins, leftovers from any carcasses remaining on the beach, placenta or afterbirth of seals and penguins, kelp, invertebrates and even leftover food from penguins.  On some occasions Sheathbills have been known to attack other birds for food but scavenging is definitely their preferred method of getting their next meal.

The Light Side

Sheathbills are often called “Antarctic Chickens” for their white appearance and their propensity to walk across the ground, rather than fly.  On my most recent trip to Antarctica I was surprised to watch one follow our boat for over an hour way out to sea.  I wondered where it was heading!  The long open sea flight proved to be a big burden on this robust little bird, to the point it occasionally sought a place on the decks of our boat to rest.

On Heard Island I loved watching Sheathbills inspect our backpacks for tidbits and take shelter from the wind behind our dry barrels on the black sand beaches.  They sometimes also followed us around like small puppies.

After becoming acquainted with both species of Sheathbills on Heard Island and also recently on South Georgia, I tend to see them as comical rather than marauding scavengers of the worst kind.  They look like chickens, act like chickens and yet they are tough little birds who have become incredibly resourceful to survive in some of the harshest environments on earth.

Skuas (The Machiavellis of Antarctica) Family: Stercorariidae

Of all the birds I’ve worked with the Skua family is perhaps the only bird I will hesitate to hold during research.  As distant relatives of Gulls; Skuas, and Brown Skuas in particular, have a wicked glint in their eye that gives them an appearance of wanting to kill you.  On more than one occasion I’ve seen a Brown Skua bite a handler on release, not because it has been handled badly, but simply out of spite.

The Dark Side

Skuas are the Machiavellis of the world’s polar regions.  I’ve watched them sneak up on penguin nests to steal their eggs for food, round up unsupervised penguin chicks and herd them off ledges to stun them before eating them, bash their way into a carcass feeding session, fearlessly taking on the Giant Petrels already present in order to get a side meal and also harangue other seabirds in flight to either catch them or make them vomit food up out of panic (in ways similar to Frigatebirds) so they can eat it.

On my recent trip to the Antarctic continent, I was lucky enough to watch a Brown Skua play with its stolen Gentoo Penguin egg in the snow, a bit like a cat plays with its prey before it eats it.  It was a fascinating encounter, even though it spelled the end of a Gentoo Penguin, watching this bird struggle to pick up his egg as it rolled down a snowy slope.  Finally it was joined by its partner to share in the feast.

Penguins are quite fearful of Skuas for good reason.  On Macquarie Island, the most successful Gentoo Penguin nests are the ones located around the buildings of the research base.  Gentoos have learned that Skuas don’t like people and the feeling is mutual so their chicks are safer from predation, simply because more humans are present around the base.

Utilising a wicked combination of a sharp bill, alongside reptilian feet that are a weird evolutionary cross between webbing (for swimming) and talons (for hunting), it’s needless to say Skuas are not the most loved birds in the world.

The Light Side

Yet from a distance I actually quite like Skuas.  I’ve watched Brown Skuas perform the most stunning aerial acrobatics trying to catch food when I’ve been at sea. I’ve also watched Pomarine Skuas performing similar acrobatics when they’ve tried to grab bits of caribou fur from living caribou to line their nests.  All of these manoeuvres are performed with wings in the air and mouths open in a display of dramatic behaviour that would rival any theatre act.

They are completely fearless.  Up close they actually have bloodshot eyes which make them look like they have a grumpy appearance after a hard night on the town.  Skuas don’t care about the size of the competitor, they will fight it regardless, be it another bird, caribou, seal or even a human.

The inside of a Brown Skua’s mouth is actually baby pink.

When Skua couples meet they greet each other with a wonderful display of wings in the air, mouths open, calling and biting each other.  It may sound like rough love to some but for Skuas this is true love and it’s wonderful to watch.

Stinkers or Giant Petrels (The Boofheads) Family: Procellaridae

Giant Petrels sadly have probably the worst reputation of Antarctica’s predator and scavenger birds and of all three bird families, they are perhaps the birds I like the most.

On a very superficial level, Giant Petrels do look ugly to a lot of people.  The gigantic nasal tube that crowns their bills only adds to their overall thumping appearance of heavy, unwieldy on the ground and argumentative persona.

The Dark Side

Giant Petrels are the carcass kings of Antarctica.  If there is a dead penguin or seal to be feasted upon, they are the very first birds there and when they arrive, they don’t just pick around the edges of a dead animal, they plunge head first into the feast, often emerging with a face full of blood or sinew.

Couple that with frequent arguments against other Giant Petrels and a propensity to feast off a carcass with their wings wide spread to insert their dominance over their meal and usually people will walk past them in disgust.

The Light Side

Did you know that Giant Petrels smell like old library books?  I think a lot of people imagine them to be perfumed with a disgusting combination of carcass and fish but in reality it’s quite the opposite.  They actually smell of a familiar mustiness and leathery aroma that is very evocative of old books or old desks.  It is more pleasing than you think.

Their plumage is actually very beautiful.  Up close each of their breast feathers are rounded with a slightly pointed tip, making each look like a tear drop.  Their feathers are also very subtly marked with striped vermiculations in older birds.

As juveniles and immature birds they are chocolate brown in colour and have dark brown eyes making them appear less wicked and evil from their pale-eyed, older counterparts.

There are two different species of Giant Petrels – northerns and southerns.  They are subtly differentiated by a change in their bill tip colour.  The Southern Giant Petrels have a slightly greenish bill tip, whereas the Northern Giant Petrels’ bill tip is more pinkish.  One wonderful aspect of the Southern Giant Petrels is the small population of white morph birds in their species.  These all white birds are neither albinistic or leucistic, they are simply white and in my opinion, they are stunningly beautiful birds to see in the wild.

Many of the Giant Petrels I’ve handled during banding have actually been quite submissive when I’ve held them.  If I’ve ever had an argumentative one, it has tried to spin its head from side to side to make me let go of its bill.  The arguments never last long if you can make them comfortable.  They are often quite nice to handle.

Why Predators and Scavengers are so Important in Antarctica

It’s sad that so many visitors to the Southern Ocean or Antarctica, express disdain at these three bird families when they encounter them but in reality, all three play a vital role in maintaining the health of breeding colonies.

As the cleaners they roam large colonies of breeding penguins and seals in the Sub-Antarctic, feeding off afterbirth, faeces, carcasses and leftovers to effectively tidy the entire place up.  Can you imagine the stench and disease of breeding colonies if none of these birds existed?