Out of the East

Ken Lee, the creative force behind Eleven Shadows, was born in Frankfurt, Germany, but moved to the U.S early on. Ken is of Chinese ancestry, although it appears that he may have a little Mongolian blood as well!! Ken has 10 years of classical training on piano. He also started recording experimental sounds on cassette, as well as creating recordings of radio stations that didn't actually exist (these often had commercials for non-existent products and concerts that weren't actually happening, strange playlists mixing rock, Bollywood and experimental songs, and then playing this for unsuspecting listeners. He creates music in collaboration with a number of talented people from Los Angeles area.

Ken has played keyboards, guitar and Javanese gender in Hollywood-area bands such as Holy Sisters of the Gaga Dada, Twist of Fate, Pendu Femelle, and I Am Love (which included the engineer/producer of Henry Rollins and Filter as well as the singer from Danse Society), Nectarphonic and The Mercury Seven.

He also runs a recording studio, Blueberry Buddha Recording Studios in Los Angeles, CA.  Ken is also an occasional review contributor for EQ Magazine, a recording engineering trade publication, and has been interviewed for his drum recording techniques in DRUM! Magazine).

Ken is also a professional photographer.  His pictures of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Kashmir, Peru, Burma, India, China, Thailand, and elsewhere have appeared in books, newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, web sites, and galleries internationally.  His photos have also been featured as the Smithsonian Editor's Pick Of The Week, National Geographic, and Travel and Leisure. 

Revolution caught up with Lee to talk about his new found passion for travel photography and taking the road less traveled.

R. You've covered much ground on this planet, where is the next destination?
KL. I am seriously considering going to southern Namibia, but if that falls through or I cannot afford it, I may go to India again or visit Viet Nam.

Each year, it's something different.  Last year, I really wanted to be immersed by strange rock formations, geysers, and so forth, so I picked Iceland.  Later, a tour I had booked fell through, and I realized that the trip was really too expensive for me, so I instead went to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, which has the El Tatio geysers, strange rock formations, salt plains, and other things.  It's funny that one would choose Chile in place of Iceland as a similar substitute, but that's what I did.  The experience was fantastic.  Not many people travel to Chile just to go to the Atacama Desert, but I had a great time. Lovely people, too.

R.  Some of your images reflect the extraordinary faces from varies cultures oftennotseen by many. What attracts you to these subjects and these remote places?  
KL. I'm not sure. I haven't thought about that much, but I think it's for several reasons.

I'm attracted to certain unique cultures or certain regions of the world, first and foremost, so that probably just reflects my interests. If the people are involved in arts or music, and especially if they have a unique perspective, I'm interested in meeting the people there and experiencing everything.  I also often like to avoid large crowds of tourists, so I suppose that increases the likelihood that I go to a more remote place, although I found Salvador in Brazil fascinating due to their deep love of music even though
that is the third largest in Brazil.

Also, I'm attracted to unique geology.  I love immense, dramatic mountains, so many of my trips are to the Andes or the Himalayas.  The jungle fascinates me as well, so I'm attracted to the Amazon rainforest or certain places in India or Ghana.  And I love things like the unusual salt plains and geysers and the unusual arid features in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Sometimes, the weirder the better.

And since I live in Los Angeles, even though I love meeting people, I think there's a part of me that wants to go to a place that simply has less people and more nature.  My girlfriend and I often go Joshua Tree, out in the desert, and we have also visited Humboldt Redwoods and the Lost Coast in Northern California, the most isolated stretch on the West Coast, and I think some of this is just to appreciate the beauty of nature and have less mini-malls getting in the way of that!

R. You had the opportunity to photograph Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi, tell us about this encounter?
KL. I traveled with my girlfriend Lisa and a friend named Paula to Burma in 2000, going to Yangon (Rangoon).  While returning from the Martyrs Day events at the Arzani Mausoleum commemorating General Aung San’s death, we saw a large crowd outside a building adorned with large red banners with Burmese and English words saying "National League for Democracy". Intrigued, we wandered over and were told that Aung San Suu Kyi would be arriving in fifteen minutes. The crowd enthusiastically waved us in, and we were seated in white resin seats just behind ambassadors from the United States, Britain, and Japan, and in front of a handful of members of the international press. We noticed many people in the crowd training their cameras on us as we walked.

"The Lady" arrived to much commotion. Several speakers gave speeches in Burmese, and Burmese literature was handed to us. We managed to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi briefly – an incredible opportunity, given her limited freedom.  This was exciting for us, like meeting someone like Gandhi, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and worth the risk, I felt.  She was eloquent and charismatic, much like how she is often depicted. After talking with her, as the gravity of our situation continued to sink in, we walked out with one of the U.S. embassy employees to make ourselves feel safer.  "I have no control over what happens here," he said. "We have no diplomatic relationship with this country."  We knew that, nodding glumly. As we exited the meeting, many people with cameras started taking photos of us, their cameras again following as we walked.

We quickly flagged down a taxi. However, a man in a white car followed our every turn. We changed directions several times, the driver growing increasingly nervous, but the car continued following. It was like a movie.  We finally asked the terrified driver to drop us off at the U.S. Embassy, eagerly scrambling inside to report to the Marine on duty that we were being followed. He said that others had reported being followed before, but remained stoic.  We stayed for a while, plotting our next move.  I usually don't scare easily, but I noticed that my legs, my knees, were nervously twitching with a life of their own.

After some minutes, we left the Embassy. As we expected but dreaded, the man in the white car was still there, and rolled behind us on the street slowly, ominously.  Figuring they wouldn't make a scene at an ritzy hotel, we walked to an expensive hotel called The Strand, ordering mixed drinks and burgers to calm our nerves.  We walked back out, looking around. We no longer saw the white car.  Where was he?  Why did he drive off?  Were others following?  We walked the wrong way down one-way streets and traipsed through stores to exit the back side, trying to make certain that we were no longer being followed.

The next day, Paula left. However, her phone call from Singapore several hours later, in a sort of "code" that we had agreed upon before, left us in cold shock.  The airport officials, who had her name on a list, had demanded to search her belongings, confiscating all her film, books, and cassettes. Luckily, she had not been detained.  But we thought, "If the Burmese military identified her, surely they're on to us!"

Nevertheless, I wanted to escape with at least a few rolls of our film. I purchased ten rolls of film, shooting one or two pictures in each before rewinding the film. I then placed these rolls in my lead-lined bag as a decoy. Lisa and I hid the rest of the film in every crevice of our backpacks, including dirty socks, aspirin bottles, shirts, shoes, artwork.  I even jammed a roll in each of my shoes, which caused great pain as the day wore on. "What if they get really upset that we're hiding this?" Lisa asked.  But still we did it.  We had nothing of value, nothing inflammatory, and felt odd to hide such innocuous photos from the military. I locked my backpack several different ways and hoped for the best.

Still completely dark, we arrived early that morning at the dimly-lit airport, checked our luggage in, and sat nervously in the waiting room for two hours watching Bon Jovi videos.  We couldn't relax until the plane had lifted off the ground, one of the most beautiful sounds I've ever heard.

"You have no idea how happy we are to be in India!" I exclaimed to the Indian immigration official.

I feel so fortunate to have met her and photographed her.  I've been very lucky.  I've befriended and photographed Ronnie James Dio while on the way to India.  Well, actually, that's not true - his wife Wendy took the photo of the two of us together.  And I've also met and photographed Jimmy Page and Jack White and a few others.

R. Is there any subject in particular that you would or would not capture through your lens?
KL. That's a great question.  I think, depending on the circumstances, of course, there's few things that I would not photograph.  I have no interest in photographing anything that is against the law, but in the right circumstances, I believe I'd feel comfortable photographing just about anything that doesn't demean or exploit people in a photograph or put them in a bad light.

I was in Morocco in 1999.  Beautiful country.  King Hassan II, who reigned over Morocco for 38 years, passed away while I was there.  The next day after his passing, the streets in Meknes became a river of people, weeping, chanting, singing songs of praise, and streaming through the streets while carrying banners and pictures of their beloved king.  Some other backpackers and I were standing on the roof of the hotel watching this.  After a few minutes, I said, "I really want to experience this" and grabbed my camera and ran downstairs, joining the throng and moving about with them.  They waved me in, even watched out for me.  I was moved by their passion, and they encouraged me to take photos of them and everything that was going on.  That's an instance in which the other travelers were reticent to participate, fearing the unknown, but it just was too difficult for me to not try.  I just began by being respectful and asking if it were okay.

A lot of fantastic experiences and opportunities are out there if you simply ask respectfully if it's okay to shoot and maybe show some understanding or empathy for what is occurring.  Through this, I've shot photos of someone who had just crashed their airplane on the side of a freeway, sacred temple ceremonies in a number of different countries, people getting haircuts by a street barber, people building things or preparing food inside their kitchen, even people cleaning trash.  I photographed people cleaning trash in Dharamsala because I was walking in McLeod Ganj and came across this ravine filled with discarded plastic water bottles.  It struck me like a bolt of lightning that locals never drank plastic water bottles, only travelers.  One of my photos of this was eventually used by some Tibetan organizations to remind people of their responsibility to throw away bottles properly or, better yet, refill their bottles instead. Another time while there, I also took photographs of the Tibetan Transit School, taking photos staff and students washing plates and silverware in a stream to emphasize the necessity for clean water.  The photos helped Los Angeles Friends of Tibet and The Tibet Connection raise US$10,000 to purchase a water filtration system for the Transit School.  There's probably few images I won't take photos of if it feels right.

R. Away from your camera, you are also a trained pianist/composer and have worked with some extraordinary talent, are you working on any musical projects now?
KL. I've been really lucky to have worked with such talented people.  I am currently recording a music project called The Mercury Seven with my friend Chris, who plays bass.  I play mostly keyboards and guitar with The Mercury Seven.  We like to choose different people who have different ways of approaching music, and improvise in my recording studio and sculpt the music from there, being careful to keep the initial inspiration of the music intact whether we overdub other elements or not. I think we're inspired by Brian Eno, Harmonia, Cluster, earlier Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Vidna Obmana, particularly since they frequently also improvised, and achieved a very organic, evocative sound and a beautiful sense of space and physicality even though some of it may have been more ambient in nature. I also am in an acid folk music project called Meadows of the Moon with Lisa singing and my friend Adam, who played in a psychedelic/Cocteau Twins-influenced rock band called Nectarphonic with me a while back (as did Chris!), but we work at a glacial pace and don't have anything finished yet.  Too bad...the Meadows of the Moon stuff is really pretty.  I also record other musicians or groups at Blueberry Buddha Recording Studios…including my friend's Doors tribute band!

R. Which artists from past or present are you influenced by?
KL. I could go on and on for hours about this!!!! So many inspirational artists.

For photography, SebastiĆ£o Salgado and Steve McCurry are definitely influences.  Both are photojournalists with a reach and emotion and purity with the people and lands that they photograph. They may be the pinnacle of photojournalism.  For photographers, it's difficult not to be influenced by "Weegee" Arthur Fellig.  And has anyone ever photographed musicians performing better than Herman Leonard's black and white images of jazz musicians? I take shows at clubs, and have taken photos of Pharoah Sanders and others, and I think my approach must be influenced by Leonard.

I also love night and long exposure photography, with or without "light painting".  I've done this a lot out in Joshua Tree, which seems to inspire this sort of creativity.  Harold Davis, who has a book entitled "Creative Night," discusses these techniques in great detail. There's a real sense of exploration and experimentation that I love about night photography, "light painting", and long exposure photography.  "It's midnight and I've kept this shutter open for seven minutes  while shining flashlights through different colored gels on to this Joshua Tree and these rocks….what is this going to look like?"  Or "I've had the shutter open for 35 minutes while it's facing Polaris while sitting on my anti-gravity chair and looking up at the stars….what are the star trails and image going to look like?" The minutes and hours go so fast when you are so creatively engaged with your surroundings.

There's also a photographer named Michael Kenna who is a fantastic photographer.  And he does night photography as well.  But it's not just his images, it's how he describes photography. He was quoted in “Photographer’s Forum Interview” by Claire Sykes as saying, “Getting photographs is not the most important thing. For me it’s the act of photographing. It’s enlightening, therapeutic and satisfying, because the very process forces me to connect with the world. When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what’s going on around you. In our fast-paced, modern world, it’s a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky.”  When I first came across this quote, I was floored because it described so much about how I felt about photography.

I am also influenced by Kevin Meredith.  He is prolific in quite a few areas of photography, including light painting, running your camera up high on a kite and taking photos, Polaroid, and many others, frequently using Lomos, these cool little Russian film cameras that are considered "lo-fi" but often exhibit interesting optical distortions, light leaks, and so forth.  There's a whole movement of Lomography.  And Kevin takes many photos with Lomos and cross-processes the film, creating vibrant saturated images that really cannot be done with Photoshop, as well as many other kinds of photography.  He has an interesting book called "Photo Op:  52 Inspirational Projects for the Adventurous Image-Maker" that is crammed full of many inspirational ways of taking photos that make your head swim with creativity.

I don't have a Lomo, but I do have a Fisher Price toy camera, inspired by books like "Photo Op".  It creates these odd fuzzy film-like images, but really lo-fi.  I'm a special education teacher, and have students who are severely developmentally delayed.  But since the Fisher Price camera is rubberized and virtually indestructible, I taught a couple of students how to use it. They caught on, and after a while, they ran amok, zooming around the school taking photos, having lots of fun.  And a lot of the photos are really fantastic, interesting images, interesting perspectives of people, even photos of people's mouths opening wide and all sorts of things, and some quite gorgeous.  The other students and the staff thought it was fun, too.

For music, I am definitely influenced by Brian Eno, not only for his music, but general philosophical approach.  I think I'm influenced by Javanese gamelan music, although not overtly.  And definitely Jimmy Page in the way he would select different amp and guitar combinations to layer his guitar parts like an orchestra, such as on "Ten Years Gone".  Also, The Cocteau Twins, King Tubby, Nels Cline's experimental and improvisational live shows, John Frusciante, Sigur Ros, and Radiohead. And of course I've been influenced by all the people that I've played music with over the years.

Last but not Least…

R. You've been sent in a time capsule, back to the Dark Ages. Your mission is to photograph and find three of the most important figures of that time, where would you and who would you photograph?
KL. "The Dark Ages".  Such a funny term since it is supposed to indicate a period of intellectual darkness in the Middle Ages.  But I think there was a lot going on intellectually during this time.  If we're talking about the time between the 6th Century to the start of the Italian Renaissance and my mission is to find and photograph three of the most important figures of the time, I would go to North Africa to photograph Prophet Mohammed, who would be admittedly in the early early part of this time period, would be one.  It'd be pretty hard to find someone more influential than him.  And then I would also travel across the Mongolian steppes to photograph Genghis Khan and follow Marco Polo as he traveled to China.

If my time capsule goes awry and I can go to more time periods, I would consider following Jesus out to the desert or the Sermon of the Mount, or going to India to find Buddha in Bodh Gaya as he attains Enlightenment, or to travel to photograph Mary, mother of Jesus, at the Annunciation.  Or maybe since I would be bringing back photos, I would switch one of those people for Helen of Troy so I could photograph a woman who was so beautiful she launched a thousand ships.

contact Ken Lee: www.elevenshadows.com