I cannot remember feeling this sick.
Lying on my bed in Tangier, Morocco I can feel the strange parasite consuming my body and I cannot help praying that I have not contracted Ebola, which is wreaking havoc across western Africa right now. My only consolation is that Asha Leo, the fashion model turned television host who is presenting the Style Out There show, is also very sick indeed. In between bouts of raging fever and violent stomach cramps, I think back over the past month and the amazing people I have met on this epic global odyssey…
Six countries in 30 days
It was back in August I was asked if I was available to join a small documentary team as a second camera unit to film a series of fashion programs around the world – six countries in 30 days. They weren’t offering a huge fee, but it was all expenses paid and promised to be an epic adventure, the only catch was that they would leave NY to start filming in seven days! My wife Georgia insisted that I should go (leaving her to look after our two children for a month!) and my business partner at 3C International, Phil was also very supportive. So after a quick visit to the GP to update my inoculations I jumped on a plane and headed for New York.
The programmes had been commissioned by New York fashion house Refinery29, heavy hitters in the cut throat world of fashion, lifestyle and gossip. Corporate funding came from mobile phone giant Motorola who wanted the series to be released to coincide with the launch of their new product lines and so the production was going to be slick.
The Refinery29 Manhattan offices are on Broadway and I made my way up to the 23rd floor to meet the team and start sorting through the $40,000 worth of kit we would be travelling with. My friend Liam Le Guillou who was the Director of Photography and Producer for the shoot had procured two brand new Canon C300 cameras as well as a bunch of other state of the art equipment.
The fourth member of the team, Jay Alaimo the Director, was swearing loudly at his laptop as he tried to tie up the hundred or so loose ends before we started shooting in the morning.
Brooklyn, New York
The NY shoot got off to a false start but soon we were on location in Brooklyn filming two Hasidic Jewish girls and their families who had started a fashion label specialising in ‘Modest’ clothing. Hasidic Jews believe in modesty at all times and the women wear wigs to cover their own hair. The parallels with Muslim culture soon became very evident as we were joined by two Muslim women who also believed in modest dress. Halfway across the world in Palestine the Jewish and Muslim cultures are constantly at war with one another, but in New York these girls were united by fashion and it was really touching to see them connect and engage on a personal level with religion pushed to one side.
Jewish and Muslim communities make up a huge percentage of the world’s population and whilst this ever growing market for modest dress is booming, it is heartening to think that perhaps it will be fashion that unites these cultures above their opposing religions.
Japan has always been very high on my list of places to visit and the Decora girls we would be filming are one of the most interesting groups on our list. Followers of Decora cover themselves in all sorts of garish accessories – fluffy monster beanies, hundreds of hair clips, bright stripped tights, face stickers and cuddly toy backpacks. Japanese culture is very demure and there is a social expectation that is almost self imposed to be very subdued in your dress and manner. I think that with such pressure from society to conform it is inevitable that many Japanese people feel the need to express themselves and this often takes quite extreme forms. We spent a fascinating four days filming around the city particularly in the shopping districts of Harajuku and Shibuya but also out in the suburbs following a group of hardcore Decora girls as they spent hours getting ready before heading into town to meet friends.
On our last day Asha and I went exploring which was a great adventure as no one speaks English and all the signs are in Japanese! After negotiating the spotlessly clean subway we spent the day on foot exploring ancient temples, trekking through the humidity to find the Japanese Sword Museum, then ambling wide eyed past the enormous gambling dens in the back streets of the red light district before the heavens opened and the monsoon rains sent us running for cover. Getting lost in a city like Tokyo is an awesome experience!
For me this was the standout leg of the trip for many reasons. I had very high expectations of India and it delivered on every level, from the chaos on the road and the vibrant colours at every turn to the warmth of the people with sparkling eyes and glistening white teeth, India is a photographers’ dream. We were based in a small city called Coimbatore in southern India which is a long way off the tourist track and our crew were the only westerners I saw the whole time we were there.
Our fixer in India was the south eastern Asia correspondent for CBC, Rohit Ghandi and he had arranged for us to meet a core group of Hijra transgender eunuchs. The Hijra are an ancient tribe that traces its history back 2000 years and though they are recognised today as citizens in their own right they have a dark and torrid history. Traditionally, Hijra are regarded as shaman and whenever a new baby is born, a new house built or marriage celebrated the Hijra are invited to bless the ceremony. There is an even darker side to this as if you decide not to have the ceremony blessed by the Hijra then many believe the Hijra will put a curse on the baby.
We drove to a shanty town on the outskirts of Coimbatore to meet with some Hijra who were going to bless a new born baby. Our small convoy arrived and we were greeted by lots of very excited children who crowded around wanting to ask where we were from and when I told them I was from Australia they all wanted to talk about cricket!
We started filming and followed the Hijra women into a small dark house smelling of incense and spices. Inside the small room the mattress on the floor had been rolled away and smoke from the cooking fire caught a small beam of light from a crack in the wall. The Hijra, dressed in elaborate traditional saris, were dancing and singing in a trance to a clapping rhythm while the baby looked over its mother’s shoulder with wide startled eyes. It was like being transported back in time and I could picture this scene dating back millennia. I don’t know if that scene will make it into the final film but the footage we filmed that day was breathtakingly beautiful.
Originally we were supposed to be arriving in Congo to film the Sappeurs (the immaculately tailored gentlemen in the famous Guinness commercial) but with Ebola running rife in that region the call was made to divert our attentions to Morocco. Tangier is the most northern city in Morocco and from my dark wood panelled hotel room I could gaze access the straights of Gibraltar to Spain. Every morning before the sun rose the call to prayer rang out across the ancient city and the hotel porters, traditionally dressed in Fez, would laugh and wave as we walked down the hill to film in the narrow, crooked streets of the walled Medina.
The houses we filmed in the Medina were like something out of an Indiana Jones film complete with dazzling white painted walls and views across the eclectic rooftops. We spent hours filming in one of the oldest antique merchant’s and in between clouds of sickly sweet hash smoke, he told stories of nomadic Saharan tribes and his travels across northern Africa. His collection of authentic antiquities, including a personal collection of 60 million year old amber which is not for sale, is becoming more scarce by the day as the nomads these days use plastic tarpaulins and water bottles instead of goat skins and woven rugs.
And now on the last night of the trip, as we prepared to spilt up and return to our normal lives, the enormity of what we just done was starting to sink in. Liam and I had known and worked together for many years but the four of us had been thrown in together and aside from a few minor stressful situations we had all got along brilliantly. It was always going to be strange to go from living in each others pockets for 30 days to suddenly saying goodbye at the airport. It’s not just the banter I miss, but the strange chemistry that united us as a team and I know that we all have our fingers crossed that the show will be a success and we will be invited to film a second season.
A savage twisting cramp jolts me back to reality, nevermind a season two, tomorrow I will have to travel across Europe, negotiating five airports in one day to get home to my family in Jersey – which wouldn’t be a problem if I could be away from a toilet for more than 15 minutes at a time!