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The original world nomad "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." - Confucius.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

OMAN | Saturday, 16 March 2013 | Views [4664] | Comments [2]

Jason was laying in the dust trying to thrust his camera up the nose of one of the large bulls as it charged towards its opponent,  perhaps an arms length away with mass and momentum to avoid.

Robert Capa famously once said, "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." He didn't mean use a long lense either, but rather get closer and more involved and more intimate with your subject. I'm still not sure how you get intimate with a one tonne bull charging at speed but Jason was having a good go.

We'd been on the ground in Oman for about two hours (after 16 in the air) but I've been on assignment with Jason before so had an idea that this was never going to be any ordinary get-up-at-breakfast sort of trip. Dropped the bags (literally) at the hotel, introduced ourselves to Jake (the World Nomads Travel Photography Scholarship Winner) and then piled in 4WD's to find this evening bull-fight happening just down the road.

Bullfights here in Oman don't involve Matadors & swords but two bulls who charge each other until one backs down. Omani men gather in their brilliant white 'Dish-dash' for the spectacle. Certainly not being able to compete with the bulls, I left Jason to the action and went in search of faces. 

Getting close and personal with the people to get portraits was perhaps no easier than with the bulls as people here generally reluctant to have their portrait taken. 

Late in the day, as the sun was almost down, and after several hours of shooting, as people got used to my presence, a family group began to warm to me, the men with a twinkle in their eyes and the children shy, their curiosity getting the better of them. One boy was particularly shy and I got just one snap before he bounded off, laughing. The portrait might not be sharp but it captures the moment.




Want to know what its like being on an assignment with Jason? 

Every day was a 4:30am start because photography is all about the play of light and the light in Oman is pretty crap, harsh, flat and useless by 9am so the only time to get any great frames are the 'golden hours' of dawn and dusk. Then we had to aim to be somewhere that might yield some good frames - a fish market, a mountain village, pre-islamic burial mounds or a dawn camel race. In-between wasn't a cruise back to the hotel for breakfast and a nap either but was hurtling around Oman seeking that moment of magic … the one that rarely occurs even when you're seeking it.

Then, long after it was dark, we grabbed some dinner, before backing up the days frames and cleaning the gear … leaving a few hours of sleep before repeating the next day.

Like any true professional: Jason can just turn it on; absolute focus to the exclusion of everything else. Breakfast? Lunch? No time or thought for that - every decision was about how we could maximise the time we had to capture the best imagery or video. (The thought crossed my mind that I sounded like a Hobbit in Lord of the Rings - "But what about breakfast?")

A great deal of planning goes into these assignments but as with my own travel experience, the most memorable experiences can't actually be planned: they require a considerable degree of serendipity. The most likely way to experience something special is to put yourself in an environment where something might happen and then hope that occassionally it actually does. 

And so it goes.

If you don't accept this reality and go with it, you'll miss the story. An example was on day 4: we were perpetually behind schedule and racing to get to our evening sunset destination. We kept passing some amazing side canyons and eventually our curiosity got the better of us and we made an unplanned stop to explore. We could have spent all day there, but just as we decided time wasn't on our side a heard of goats flooded up the canyon followed by a local goat-herd boy aged about 11. We all snapped some frames, it was interesting and then there was a debate - do we explore more or stick to the plan and get going?

We chose to keep going - only in the car did we learn too late that the 11 year old goat boy was a local entrepreneur who had a herd of about 50 and was a local sensation! It would have made for a fascinating & compelling story.

Trust your instincts and make time.

As it turned out even this miss had a silver lining: a few hours later, hurtling to our evening sunset destination, we spied an abandoned pre-islamic village dribbling down the side of a mountain, so with 20 minutes of daylight remaining we abandoned our plans once more, skidded to a stop and raced to explore the ruins with the last rays of daylight.

Sometimes you can't have it all.




This theme continued for the rest of the trip: we had excellent guides with Peregrine Adventures and Oman Tourism who weren't afraid to share their local knowledge which took us to places far more interesting than those that we'd planned in advance.

Ali, one of our guides suggested we visit the extraordinary village of Misfat, village perched on the edge of a mountain that they've turned into an oasis through careful irrigation from a mountain spring. The water, from a mountain spring IS the village: without the water it would return to the inhospitable arid landscape that we drove through. 




Saleh, our other guide took us to his boyhood home village of Ibra, recently abandoned due to the effects of climate change. Today many of the buildings are derelict and collapsing, the trees dead and the farms bare. Just ten years ago this was a rich and lush farming community with kids playing in the fields and climbing trees, but for the last decade the rains have vanished and the wadi dried up. It makes you realise how fragile an existence we actually lead and just how fast climate change can actually overtake people. 


But luck, sheer luck, plays its part too and sometimes the very change of plans create yet new opportunities. Racing to reach our desert location for sunset we hurtled past some camel traders crossing the highway - skidded into a u-turn and returned to discover that they were arriving for a camel race the very next morning. 

If we hadn't stopped in Saleh's village for 'far too long' we would never have passed the camels and never found the camel race.

Another pre-dawn start brought us to one of the largest camel races in Oman in some years. All the tribal elders were there dressed in their finest, 

With each race, the local teenagers were hoon around in their 4WD's like a Max Max advert and photographing this was by far the most dangerous thing I've done in a while; standing in the middle of a dusty desert as an armada of vehicles scream towards you, then hitching a ride in the open back to get some portaits as they do it again and again and again.


It was all over by 9:30, as Jake turned to me and said "1,000 frames before breakfast. Cool!"




Time seems to stretch in bizarre ways when the days are so long and full. Catching the sunset in a fort on the second day it barely seemed possible that we'd been at the fish market that morning. While exploring the last Dhow shipyard in Sur at sunset it barely seemed possible that the camel race had only been that morning.


Find more photography from the trip on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonmonk/sets/72157633333752201/



Special thanks to both Peregrine Adventures and Oman Tourism for their fantastic local knowledge and the patience of our guides who went to extreme lengths day and night to showcase this wonderful travel destination.


Tags: camel, mad max, oman, peregrin adventures, scholarship, serendipity, travel photography



You can't beat local knowledge. Amazing what kind of relationship and trust can be built in hours and days. Great story

  Gavin Heaton Apr 25, 2013 11:58 PM


What a great story! Well written, beautiful photos. Thanks for taking me somewhere I probably will never visit. I'd enjoyed the adventure.

  Barbara Hallal May 1, 2013 9:35 AM

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