Photography 101: Gain Some Inspiration

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Are you a photographer or would you like to be? What’s the difference between just taking pictures and being a photographer? Photography is a great art form but it’s getting increasingly deluged and diluted with technology.

Ken Van Sickle is world-famous for his photographic interpretation of life around us. And he’s even older than me by 15-years (which should make him 86 today). Interestingly enough we share a similar biography and background.

His father taught him to shoot at the early age of 5 (same), he had interest and training as an artist (same), he spent time in the Army and served in the Korean War (for me it was the Marines and Vietnam) and we share an interest in eastern martial arts and philosophy including T’ai Chi Ch’üan (he is an expert in many disciplines where I was only a rank amateur). I don’t think he claims any particular genre of photography as his own (I also see myself as more of a generalist when it comes to photography) but his black & white street photography is especially compelling in my opinion. For inspiration you need look no further.


Romania: Myth, Folklore, Legend or (Scary) Truth

Stephen F. Dennstedt

What do you think of when you think of Romania? If you’re an American like us (or other Westerner) you probably think of the dark, cold and brooding Carpathian mountains, ruined castles, Gypsies (Roma), wolves and Nosferatu (vampires).

Nosferatu is an archaic Hungarian-Romanian word synonymous with vampire. However, it was largely popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Western fiction such as Dracula and the film Nosferatu. Alas, poor Romania.

Romania is so much more than myth and folklore—it is a modern vibrant country full of amazing people, sights and experiences. Romania has a Dracula problem: tourists love it, locals hate it. We are now in Transylvania the setting for Bram Stoker’s infamous 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula: Though Dracula takes place in Transylvania, Stoker never actually visited the place. And while it’s destined to be forever associated with the book’s lurid content, the people who live there are none too pleased about it. Dracula and the whole vampire thing can be fun (okay, scary fun) but cultural sensitivity should prevail when visiting.

Vampire Slaying Kit

I am an admitted smart-ass (there’s no getting around that) but I try to keep my Dracula comic relief among the two of us. The problem is I’m an old man who is kind of hard of hearing and I often speak louder than I intend to. God only knows what culturally offensive things I’ve said without meaning to offend. For instance—the day before yesterday (Sunday) we were visiting the largest cemetery in Cluj-Napoca when we saw a guy in front of us carrying a large bag of wooden stakes—before I could stop myself I blurted out: what the hell. Transylvania, cemetery, dead people and wooden stakes—what would you think?


On another occasion Joel and I saw the Bank of Transylvania and we both wondered aloud (and in unison) if it was a blood bank. See what I mean—we just can’t help ourselves. And I swear to God some of the really old ladies here look just like the witch (with the apple) in Walt Disney’s 1937 animated classic: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Myth, folklore and legend often have their roots deeply imbedded in real events—easy to dismiss in the bright sunlight of day but not when the sun goes down. Vampires, werewolves, zombies and witches all seem more possible in the dead of night. One last Transylvanian anecdote.

Dracula Castle

A couple of days ago we were walking down a crowded sidewalk when walking towards us came a very pale young man dressed all in black (except for a white shirt) with what looked suspiciously like a cape draped over his shoulders. I’m just saying. He never looked us directly in the eye but we gave him wide berth nonetheless—funny thing is I saw our reflections in the storefront window but I didn’t see his. This was in full daylight. I immediately bought the Vampire Slaying Kit (pictured above) in a secondhand store: silver crucifix, mallet, wooden stakes, garlic, mirror, pistol and silver bullets (for the odd werewolf).

The Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Field Notes: So I was having some fun writing this article and it was mostly tongue & cheek. We did see the guy in the cemetery with the bag of wooden stakes, we did see the pale guy on the sidewalk that looked like my idea of a vampire, we have seen branches of the Bank of Transylvania (and we have wondered aloud if they were blood banks) and some of the really old ladies are scarier than hell. I did not buy the pictured Vampire Slaying Kit but there is still time. Romania is an amazing country (the traveller’s cliché) to visit and we still have 2½ months remaining before moving on to Bulgaria. I meant no disrespect in writing this piece. SFD

A Modern Romanian Beauty (Ingrid Uszkai – Oradea, Romania)

Wandering the Botanical Gardens in Cluj-Napoca

Stephen F. Dennstedt

We spent the morning wandering the grounds of Alexandru Borza Cluj-Napoca University Botanic Garden in Romania. It’s only about twenty minutes from our hostel on foot but lightyears away from the big city hubbub—beautiful.

The entrance fee was modest at 10 RON or $2.50 USD pp and we didn’t begrudge it at all—it seemed a small enough price to pay for a few hours of peace, quiet, beauty and sublime tranquility. We might end up going back again before we leave.

We walked the various trails and explored the huge tropical greenhouses that seemed to house entire primordial jungles. It’s hard to believe that in just a few months time it will all be under a thick blanket of snow—yep, winter is on the way. I’m including a few photos from this morning’s walkabout but I’m not a trained botanist so I can’t name the various flowers for you—sorry. The weather is staying nice with afternoon highs in the 22°C/72°F range with overnight lows of about 5°C/41°F (though it was 39°F when we left for breakfast this morning). I hope you enjoy the photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Field Notes: I captured these photos with my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM telephoto zoom lens. I shot most of them wide-open at f/2.8 for the shallow depth-of-field. The 70-200mm zoom lens is a big, heavy and cumbersome lens to shoot with—especially when it’s mounted on my 5D Mark IV with its battery grip but it can produce some great shallow depth-of-field effects. I like using it for street portraits and it does a nice job on flowers too. I know practically nothing about flowers but I think they’re pretty and I like photographing them. SFD



Photography 101: PTSD and Photography

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Can photography help those suffering with PTSD? I suspect that maybe it can but I have no scientific or clinical proof to support that suspicion. I’m not even sure I have a clear understanding of what PTSD is or all of its potential ramifications.

When I came home from Vietnam in 1968 after the Têt Offensive all the civilians stateside were saying things like: all you Vietnam Vets are just fucking crazy. And maybe we were. I certainly felt crazy enough and couldn’t find my footing or balance.

For Marines like me our combat tour of duty was 13-months in-country (for the Army it was 12-months). I deplaned in Vietnam as a nineteen year old Corporal in early January 1967 and returned to the USA as a twenty year old Sergeant in February 1968. Going to Vietnam was like dropping down Alice’s rabbit hole and coming home again (for those of us who did) often wasn’t any better—disorienting to the max. My war was fifty-years ago and is increasingly forgotten as new wars take its place. But as is true in all wars veterans are still suffering and dying—often by their own hands.

Upland Geese (Male & Female) – El Calafate (Southern Patagonia) Argentina

I was never officially diagnosed with PTSD largely because it didn’t exist after Vietnam—well, it existed but it wasn’t defined or diagnosed as a thing. The military and the Marines in particular didn’t believe in victimhood—just pull up your big boy pants and get on with life. Except that a lot of us didn’t—alcohol and substance abuse, failed personal and work relationships and anger and distrust dogged our heals. Some Marines saw more combat than me and others less (some never experienced combat at all even though they were in Vietnam) so I never thought of myself as a victim.

Orange-winged Amazon Parrot – Northern Amazon River Basin, Ecuador

I thought of myself as weak as my life would periodically implode over the years: failed marriages, failed relationships, failed jobs and failed attempts to quit medicating with alcohol. Weak. Weak. Weak. And Marines (and men) aren’t supposed to be weak—they’re supposed to be strong. Over the years I gained some professional success but failed miserably in the personal arena—seven years ago I abdicated completely: I quit my thirty-year job as a bank vice president, accepted my wife’s filing for divorce and left the USA for parts unknown. I still don’t think of myself as a victim.

Male Chimango Caracara – El Calafate (Southern Patagonia) Argentina

I haven’t solved my problem but I’ve come to terms with it in my way. I know my triggers and I know my responses. Big cities, crowds of people, manmade noise, electronic devices (like iPhones) and social media make me crazy. Nature, peace, quiet and solitude make me sane. Patriotism, nationalism, racism, bigotry and politics make me angry, cynical and distrustful. Authority and rules make me aggressive and combative. Long periods of inactivity or routine (sameness) brings on boredom and with it depression. Removing stress from my life has taken away the need to medicate with alcohol.

River Crossing – Rio San Juan, Nicargua

My motto or mantra today is to: live simple, live cheap, live free. I accept the fact that I’m damaged goods but I don’t accept that I might be a victim. I cannot live in harmony with others so I don’t. No more romantic relationships for me—I just can’t make them work. I’ve tried and failed. Oddly enough my relationship with animals is completely different whether wild or domestic—maybe it’s because they don’t ask for anything in return. They just accept me for who and what I am. I’m an introvert, a recluse, a solitary figure but I’m at last modestly content. I don’t have the stress of trying to please anyone else.

Galapagos Sea Lion – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Sometimes you reach a point in life where being content is enough. The triggers haven’t gone away I’m just better at avoiding them. And through it all I’ve had my photography and writing—perfect creative outlets for a solitary man. I have good Facebook photography friends who hookup for group outings, I envy them but I could never do that. I like being alone with my camera, thoughts and photographic subjects. Nature is best but I can even find peace in the big city when I’m behind my camera—it’s my shield against the world (it’s my crutch). Can photography help those suffering with PTSD—yes I think it can.

Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) – Northern Amazon River basin, Ecuador

Field Notes: This post is not meant to be a pity party. You don’t have to feel sorry for me. I am not a victim. I am as content as I’ve ever been in life—life is good. I know who and what I am. I have a plan for how I want to live my remaining years. But if you’re struggling with life, as we all do from time to time, you might consider photography or some other creative outlet to give your life direction and meaning. Activity (of any kind) is a great way to treat routine, sameness, boredom and depression. We can’t always fix broken but sometimes we can mend it to a point where life has meaning and purpose. SFD 

Me Chill’n on the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua: Live Simple, Live Cheap, Live Free

Photography and Consumerism—a Buying Trap

Stephen F. Dennstedt

In this short video photographer Jamie Windsor clearly articulates my thoughts on the subject of photography and consumerism—in fact consumerism in general. He talks about the competition (and confusion) that exists between instant gratification and hard work and sorting out buying needs versus wants. Consumerism is a never-ending buying trap that can eat you alive and make you really unhappy. To develop and perfect any craft is hard work but the effort has staying power—instant gratification, on the other hand, is fleeting at best and can be destructive to psyche, emotional health and wellbeing—enjoy.

Albert Einstein & Me—a Math Prodigy

Stephen F. Dennstedt

I’m a math whiz but Albert Einstein had other strengths too “relatively” speaking. See what I did there? Oh c’mon—think about it. The Law of Relativity—now do you get it? I wasn’t always a prodigy, math used to be my worst subject.

In school I had no mathematical aptitude at all—except for geometry and only because I could draw triangles, parallelograms, trapezoids and circles. I could do art I just couldn’t do math. Then four years ago something fizzled in my brain.

I was in Panajachel, Guatemala (a small town in the Maya heartland) when I had a medical emergency that put me in critical care for three days. You can read about it here: Small Explosions in My Head. Before the incident I had terrific geographical awareness—I was a navigator and trailblazer par excellence. Give me a map and a compass and I was your guy. After the incident I couldn’t even find my butt with both hands but could suddenly do math in my head—the brain is a mysterious walnut for sure. I used to have supreme confidence in my memory and pathfinder abilities but not anymore.

Now what I can do is quickly compute foreign exchange rates in my head and nail food server tips without even thinking about the process. Math. The downside is I can’t remember a damn thing and get lost in a heartbeat. I’m exaggerating, somewhat, when I describe my newfound abilities and increasing infirmities but there is a core of truth to it all—my granddaughter Jaimee simply says: grandpa lies. But the difference between hyperbole and lying is intent—and my exaggeration is well-intentioned. Growing old is an interesting experience when looked at objectively and downright weird when experiencing it personally.

Back in the Land of Cheap

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Cheap as in inexpensive—not cheap as in low quality. We had heard that about travelling in Eastern Europe as opposed to Western Europe and we really wanted to believe it. And so far at least, much to our delight, it is true.

Overall, prices seem to be about half of what they are in Western Europe with one notable exception: taxis are at least three to five times less expensive. We’re only paying $3 to $4 USD for trips lasting up to twenty minutes—Western Europe $20 USD.

Lodging has dropped to $15 to $20 USD pp per night where in Western Europe we were often paying $30 to $40 USD pp per night (sometimes more). In Oradea our private room with private bath and free in-room Wi-Fi only cost us $15 USD pp per night and here in Cluj-Napoca our private room with private bath and free in-room Wi-Fi is costing us about $20 USD pp per night—and Cluj-Napoca is a big city with over 300,000 residents (though it seems bigger to us). Main course dinners are running $4 to $5 USD pp and a pint of beer is less than $2 USD pp. This all adds up to a budget-friendly experience.

Zen Hostel – Cluj-Napoca, Romania (Internet File Photo)

Yesterday morning, in Oradea, our taxi got us to the bus terminal at 9 a.m. for a 10 a.m. departure (we always try to arrive at least forty-five minutes to an hour early). We were taking a local bus (not an international bus like FlixBus) for the first time and it was great. A quaint little terminal with just locals—no fellow foreign travellers or tourists. In Latin America we used to call this type of travel getting off the gringo trail. One little older lady manned (woman-ed?) the whole terminal: sold tickets, confirmed reservations and sold coffee and other snack items from a separate snack bar.

Bedroom – Zen Hostel (Internet File Photo)

She was always on the move but extremely helpful and pleasant—she sold Joel his morning steaming hot cup of coffee for only 2 RON or 50¢ American. Our bus pulled into the terminal at 9:30 a.m. and we stowed our luggage and paid the driver directly (28 RON or $7 USD pp) for the 3½-hour ride from Oradea to Cluj-Napoca. Joel and I each grabbed a window seat and when the bus departed promptly at 10 a.m. it was only about two-thirds full. Interestingly, a not unattractive (yes I know that’s a double negative) woman of about forty asked if she could sit next to me (remember the bus was only about two-thirds full at the time).

Bathroom – Zen Hostel (Internet File Photo)

I couldn’t quite figure that one out. I don’t speak Romanian and she didn’t seem to speak English (though I suspect many Romanians understand English but are just reluctant to speak it). I still don’t understand why she chose to sit next to me with so many vacant seats on the bus because I was obviously thirty years her senior, a foreigner and not particularly good-looking. She was pleasant enough except for her many cellphone conversations which absolutely drives me nuts. Our bus travelled through rolling farmland, small towns and villages and even up into the mountains with their changing autumn forest colours.

Terrace Area with Dog – Zen Hostel (Internet File Photo)

We arrived in Cluj-Napoca at about 1:15 p.m. in the afternoon and quickly snagged a taxi. The driver was a dour, grumpy old guy who didn’t seem to be into his job at all—no help stowing the luggage. For the entire taxi ride to our hostel he alternated between belching loudly and spitting out his open window—as I was sitting directly behind him I kept expecting to catch a load in my face. It was a long ride in heavy traffic but the fare only came to 11.70 RON (a little less than $3 USD). Because of his atypical rude behaviour and lack of service I only gave him 12 RON or $3 USD which really pissed him off.

Common Kitchen – Zen Hostel (Internet File Photo)

I am a generous tipper—for good service I will often tip beyond the customary 10% in Eastern Europe and tip 15% to 20%. However, I will not tip for lack of service or big city rude behaviour. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph this was atypical behaviour for Romania—we’ve found the people here to be very friendly and helpful. I think it’s just another example of big city behaviour versus small village and town behaviour: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and other large world cities all seem to have this in common. So he drove off pissed but Karma can be a bitch.

Common Area – Zen Hostel (Internet File Photo)

Our hostel, Zen Hostel, is very basic but roomy, clean and in a great City Centre location. As mentioned earlier we’re paying $20 USD pp per night for a private room with private bath and free in-room Wi-Fi. A real surprise in Romania has been the internet service. Through most of our travels in Western Europe the internet really sucked but in Romania it seems to work great—fast and very little down time. Hopefully this will continue. We had an early dinner yesterday afternoon because we had skipped breakfast in Oradea before leaving—and coffee and pancakes (yes pancakes this morning). More to follow.

Upper Level – Zen Hostel (Internet File Photo)

Field Notes: When writing about our travels I always try to stay positive—there is enough negative commentary about world travel on the internet without me adding to it. But unlike World Trek Part I I will make comment during phase two (World Trek Part II) if we encounter a particularly onerous situation—like our taxi driver yesterday afternoon. He was acting like a prick. By and large we’re loving Romania: the people, the sights and the prices (cheap by Western European standards). We have 2½-months left in Romania and we’re going to enjoy every moment before moving on to Bulgaria. SFD