Snakes on a Plain: Florida’s Python Hunters

 

Photographer Dylan Johnston shares his images of a competitive Burmese python hunt in the sprawling wetlands of Florida’s Everglades National Park

Florida’s Python Challenge has become shrouded in myth and hearsay, despite having only occurred twice (in 2013 and again in early 2016). Taking place over a month-long period throughout the Everglades, the state-backed competition sees hundreds of snake hunters trawl through the 1.5 million acres of protected wetland that stretch from South to Central Florida.

Their prize is the Burmese python: an invasive species believed to have been introduced into the area in the 1970s. The animal has since flourished, becoming a prime predator of native species – some even put the current number of Burmese pythons at tens of thousands.

The Everglades python invasion is believed to have two causes: Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which tore down an exotic breeding facility, and pet owners releasing snakes into the wild. After 30 years of wild breeding, the abundance of pythons in the state is proving difficult to curtail and it’s fear of the damage and displacement these snakes cause that ultimately led to the creation of the Challenge.

Images courtesy of Dylan Johnston
Images courtesy of Dylan Johnston

Over 1,000 people from 29 states registered for the 2016 event, with winning teams and individuals taking home large cash prizes. Only 106 pythons were captured between January 16 and Valentine’s Day, proving that the competition has some way to go in making a dent in the problem. One hunter, Daniel Moniz, earned US$3,500 for capturing 13 pythons – the most of any lone hunter.

Dylan Johnston has been photographing the event since its incarnation in 2013. Spending nights in the bed of his truck, he befriended and documented many of the hunters, who he describes as “equipped with guns and knives of all sizes”. Here, Dylan gives PORT an account of hunting for pythons in the heart of Florida’s swampland.

Dylan Python Hunt Double
Images Courtesy of Dylan Johnston

When did you start photographing the challenge?

I started shooting the Python Challenge while I was at art school. My thesis focused on life in Florida away from the beaches and theme parks. A friend mentioned the python hunt to me in 2013 and I knew it would make for some great images. I went one weekend just to see how it was and came back with a few shots I loved, so I went back a few more times that year.

Image Courtesy of Dylan Johnston
Image Courtesy of Dylan Johnston

What hunters did you meet along the way and what were their motivations for being there?

This year, almost every hunter I met was there to “help the cause”: to help get rid of an invasive species in the natural environment. While there were also a handful of hunters that were there for the trophy aspect of it – to kill an animal that few people have ever hunted – the majority wanted to help the environment.

What was the atmosphere of the hunt like?

The Everglades is a harsh environment and these snakes are very difficult to find; everybody was excited to be a part of the hunt, but also nervous and tired. Days are spent hiking down dirt roads or through thick marsh with little or no shade, and you’re constantly on alert for poisonous snakes or alligators. Your adrenaline is pumping and you’re physically drained, yet every person I spoke to remained hopeful, even if they were yet to find a python.

Images courtesy of Dylan Johnston
Images courtesy of Dylan Johnston

Has the challenge changed since it began?

This was only the second official Python Challenge backed by the state of Florida. At the first challenge there were a lot more hunters and many more ‘good ole’ boys’ and ‘rednecks’ who were simply excited to shoot guns and kill animals.

This challenge seemed a lot more relaxed because there were fewer hunters – most people were more concerned with saving the Everglades than killing a rare animal. Interestingly, this year the challenge turned into a media frenzy. Many groups I came across had a photographer or video crew following them and documenting the hunt either for publications, documentaries or reality shows.

Dylan Johnston is a travel and adventure photographer. More information on the 2016 Florida Python Challenge can be found here, and from the Florida Wildlife Commission

Airbnb: the Rare and the Remote

Airbnb teams up with British adventurer Bear Grylls to showcase some of the more remote homes in its portfolio

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An island home off the coast of Belize, available to rent on Airbnb

Bear Grylls is suspended 9,000 feet in the air, barefoot with one arm hanging precariously from a helicopter rung, and is about to free fall onto a desert island in the middle of a startlingly blue sea. So far, so Grylls. And, as an owner of a Welsh isle himself, Grylls is more than familiar with the sanctuary such rare isolation can bring. But now, thanks to Airbnb, living that experience is no longer as far-fetched as it would seem.

‘Love This, Live There,’ a new campaign by Airbnb, is concentrated on democratising remote havens like this: from private islands in Belize, to ornate tree houses in the Costa Rican jungle, as shown in another playful video. The recent campaign is sure to quicken the heart of the intrepid traveller searching for something out of the norm.

A personal island, a stroke of green trees and hot pink decking, pocketed in an postcard-like blue ocean is a timely offer of the extraordinary in an increasingly accessible world.

Airbnb is one of the explosive concepts of the millennial age and a product of the sharing economy, where a hunger for the new and the personalised has replaced a previous taste for convenience and conformity.

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A Costa Rican treehouse also features in Airbnb’s ‘Love This, Live There’ campaign

And it seems that the site’s possibilities are still being unearthed; not bound by the physical outline of the hotel chain, its range of homes to rent, quite literally, stretches to the furthest corners of the earth.

For more information on the Airbnb campaign, click here

Italy in Colour: Kane Hulse

Photographer Kane Hulse shares some striking images of his journey through the length of Italy, using colour and form to capture the disparity between regions

Kane Hulse’s eye is led by colour. Having previously documented the sun-washed palette of Cuba, in this most recent photo essay, Hulse turns his lens to Italy, travelling from South to North, via Sicily, Rome, and the historic waterways of Venice.

“I’ve been obsessed with Italy for a while now, visiting more than 10 times in the last three years. Initially, I fell in love with the south and with Napoli in particular,” Hulse explains. “The country is so vast and different from region to region, which is great for all types of reasons – food, culture, etc. – but primarily from a photography perspective the setting is incredible throughout.”
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Along the route, a narrative begins to emerge – from a bright pink door and a collection of weather-beaten chairs, to the soft but striking colours of laundry on a washing line, caught against the corner where amber and cream walls meet. His focus for the essay was ‘form and colour’, found in the shapes of sun-bathed walls, shadowed alleyways, and the birds-eye shot of an ocean, so sun-dappled as to appear metallic.

“I’ll walk around for 12 hours a day down every street back and forth, looking for that form and colour,” he tells me. “Naturally these two things attract everyone visually anyway, but when shooting I kind of program my eyes to just focus on these subjects and hunt them down in any sense possible.” His subjects often seem streamlined, but on second glance, will appear skewed, forming individual portraits of each location. In this way, a story of Italy is told, its age, beauty, and multiplicity reflected.

For more photographs by Kane Hulse, read his Colour in Havana photo essay on PORT

Design Guide: Alvar Aalto’s Helsinki

PORT visits the Finnish capital to discover Helsinki’s lesser known architectural gems and design highlights shaped by the city’s favourite son, Alvar Aalto

The Aalto House living room with a sliding door to the studio behind – Photo by Maija Holma © Alvar Aalto Museum
The Aalto House living room with a sliding door to the studio behind – Photo by Maija Holma © Alvar Aalto Museum

Visiting Helsinki is not unlike visiting Brasilia or Florence. Climate and cultural differences aside, these cities share a debt to the vision of designers and individuals whose influence is tangible around every corner. Just as the urban landscape of Brasilia is dominated by the sensual contours of civic buildings created by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, and any visit to Florence is incomplete without encountering the masterpieces of Michelangelo, Helsinki is imbued with the functional beauty of its most famous son: Alvar Aalto.

Map of Helsinki illustrated by Guy Smith
Map of Helsinki illustrated by Guy Smith

From the iceberg angles of Finlandia Hall to the ubiquitous curves of his iconic L-leg furniture, Aalto’s presence in the city is inescapable. Visiting the landmarks of Aalto’s life and work is to discover the principles of functionality, a devotion to natural materials and a minimalist beauty that have all helped characterise Scandinavian design since the 1920s, and continued to drive its popularity to this day.

Here, PORT visits the Finnish capital on the 80th anniversary of Artek – the design brand co-founded by Aalto in 1935 – to learn more about the history behind the iconic architect and designer, and to experience the subtle pleasures of one of Scandinavia’s lesser-known metropolises.

The Aalto House, exterior – Photos by Maija Holma © Alvar Aalto Museum
The Aalto House, exterior – Photos by Maija Holma © Alvar Aalto Museum

1. Any tour of Alvar Aalto’s Helsinki ought to begin at The Aalto House, a family home and working studio built by Aalto and his first wife, Aino, in 1936. Nestled in the residential neighbourhood of Munkkiniemi, the home is in largely the same condition as it was when Aalto lived here up until his death in 1976. The very fact that he inhabited this house for over 40 years speaks volumes about the philosophy that informed his attitude towards life and design. Never one for indulgence or over-embellishment, The Aalto House was constructed around ideas of comfortable functionality that would last for years. “Alvar could have built another house, but he was just happy with this,” explains architect Jonas Malmberg, while giving us a tour of the residence.

Left: The Aalto House studio in the 1930s © Alvar Aalto Museum – Right: Family life at the Aalto House in the 1930s Photo by Eino Mäkinen © Alvar Aalto Museum © Alvar Aalto Museum
Left: The Aalto House studio in the 1930s Photo by Wolfgang Heine © Alvar Aalto Museum – Right: Family life at the Aalto House in the 1930s Photo by Eino Mäkinen © Alvar Aalto Museum

This said, the simple appearance of the house masks a complex, even experimental, structural framework that incorporates load-bearing brick walls, timber cladding, steel columns and a concrete structure supporting the ceiling – a mishmash of architectural ideas that is counterbalanced by the stylistic coherence of the building’s interior. As expected, wood dominates inside, from the living room floorboards through to the 1920s Italian dining chairs (purportedly bought on Alvar and Aino’s honeymoon) and the large sliding screen that separates the house’s domestic area from the studio space. The studio was the home of Aalto’s architectural practice from 1936 to 1955, until the gradual growth of the business rendered the space obsolete and the team was forced to move five minutes away to a new location named Studio Aalto.

“Alvar’s idea for a studio at The Aalto House represented an important change in ideas of workspace for an architect in the mid-30s,” explains Malmberg. “This is like an artist’s studio, with a large window facing north providing uniform light, whereas the newer space [at Studio Aalto] has windows on all sides to maximise the sunlight coming in.”

Left: The fully functioning Studio Aalto in the 1960s Photo by Heikki Havas © Alvar Aalto Museum – Right: Alvar Aalto at work
Left: The fully functioning Studio Aalto in the 1960s Photo by Heikki Havas © Alvar Aalto Museum – Right: Alvar Aalto at work

2. Studio Aalto is reminiscent of a modern architectural workspace with large desks, computer screens and scale models. Despite Aalto’s death in 1976, Studio Aalto remained as a working practice until the Alvar Aalto Foundation took over the building in 1994. A small group of architects still work there today maintaining Aalto’s built legacy, which includes nearly 200 major projects.

Like the Aalto House, Studio Aalto is experimental in its form. The only office in the nearby residential area, the building seems to, quite literally, turn its back on the neighbourhood, merely revealing a white wall to the street. Inside, the structure curves around a courtyard and amphitheatre (used for film screenings in Aalto’s day), revealing one of the crucial ideas behind the designer’s architectural practice.

Aalto Studio today – Photo by Maija Holma © Alvar Aalto Museum
Aalto Studio today – Photo by Maija Holma © Alvar Aalto Museum

“One of Alvar’s principals was to never build on the best spot in the plot. He would leave that open and build around or beside it,” explains Tommi Lindh, director of the Alvar Aalto Foundation. “‘Don’t spoil the best spot’, he would say, ‘leave it open so you can admire it in the future’.”

Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (Academic Bookstore) – Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (Academic Bookstore) – Photo of exterior by Martti Kapanen © Alvar Aalto Museum. Photo of interior by Maija Holma © Alvar Aalto Museum
Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (Academic Bookstore) – Photo of exterior by Martti Kapanen © Alvar Aalto Museum. Photo of interior by Maija Holma © Alvar Aalto Museum

3. It is from this studio that Aalto designed some of his most celebrated works, including the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (or Academic Bookstore) in the heart of Helsinki’s commercial district. Completed in 1969, the bookstore is fronted by a rectilinear shell of dark copper – a somewhat austere contrast to the atrium space of the bookshop’s ground floor, which is flanked by white marble staircases and sits below stunning, angular skylights. It is the largest bookshop in Helsinki and features an extensive English language books section, which contains work by Finnish writers.

The Academic Bookstore lies at one end of the Esplandi (esplanade), which consists of two major shopping strips full of essential Finnish design stores including Marimekko, Iittala and Aalto’s own Artek.

Ravintola Savoy (Savoy Restaurant) © Restaurant Savoy
Ravintola Savoy (Savoy Restaurant) © Restaurant Savoy

4. On the south side of the promenade, Ravintola Savoy (Savoy Restaurant) sits atop the Industrial Palace building, where it has overlooked the city since 1937. The bespoke furniture designed especially for the site by Aalto and his first wife Aino combined with the views over Helsinki make the Savoy a special site in itself. And that’s all before you taste the authentically Finnish menu by head chef Kari Aihinen, whose dishes include octopus carpaccio, fillet of deer and cloudberry pastries.

Artek 2nd Cycle Store – Photo by Rauno Träskelin © Artek (www.artek.fi)
Artek 2nd Cycle Store – Photo by Rauno Träskelin © Artek (www.artek.fi)

5. Another pit stop for furniture enthusiasts is Artek 2nd Cycle Store, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of vintage stools and armchairs. The store was set up in 2011 to refurbish and repurpose pre-owned pieces of furniture from Artek and other classic designers besides Aarto, including Ilmari Tapiovaara and Charles and Ray Eames.

“These products have been out in the world for nearly 80 years,” explains Juhani Lemmetti, one of 2nd Cycle’s team of furniture ‘hunters’. “They’ve been used in public buildings and private homes, and they’ve shared other people’s lives. But sometimes these buildings are changed or people move on, so why not give these products a second life?”

Artek stool 60 (centre display and stacked) at the Helsinki Designmuseo © Rauno Träskelin.
Artek stool 60 (centre display and stacked) at the Helsinki Designmuseo © Rauno Träskelin.

6. You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate the simple, lasting quality of Aalto’s designs. The iconic stool 60 (“a very important piece of furniture,” says Lemmetti) is a prime example of this. Stool 60’s three minimalist legs curve beneath a circular seat – a design that has remained unchanged since its conception in 1933.

The stool is among a number of other prominent Finnish furniture pieces that have made their way into the permanent collection at the city’s Designmuseo, alongside Tapiovaara’s Domus chair and Kaj Franck domestic products, which are now a ubiquitous part of Finnish life and, like Aalto’s buildings, the fabric of Helsinki.

www.artek.fi

Santa Muerte: Death in Mexico

PORT meets photographer Angus Fraser who discusses his journey to capture the Mexican followers of Santa Muerte, one of the world’s fastest growing religions

Prayers to La Niña Blance (The White Lady), 2013
Prayers to La Niña Blance (The White Lady), 2013

Revellers kneel before a figure shrouded in a purple cloak; flowers, rosary beads and candles lay at her feet. Beneath her hood is not the benevolent gaze of the Virgin Mary, but the deathly stare of a saintly skeleton. This is Santa Muerte, an icon of the what is said to be the fastest growing religion in the world, and the subject of a new book by photographer Angus Fraser, which has received the inaugural Bar Tur Photobook Award from The Photographers’ Gallery in London.

Santa Muerte devotees say prayers to the 'Skinny Lady' at the largest Santa Muerte service of the year in Mexico City
Santa Muerte devotees say prayers to the ‘Skinny Lady’ at the Mexico City’s largest Santa Muerte service of the year

Fraser’s photographs explore the culture around Santa Muerte and her followers; at once eye-catching and disconcerting, his images provide a glimpse into something wholly unfamiliar to European eyes. PORT caught up with Angus to discuss the project’s beginnings, the appeal of this folk saint, and his unexpected discovery of satanic shrines.

Left: Family of Santa Muerte Devotees –Right: Santa Muerte Shrine,Puebla State, Mexico, 2012
Left: Family of Santa Muerte Devotees –Right: Santa Muerte Shrine,Puebla State, Mexico, 2012

When did the Santa Muerte project begin?

In 2010, I was researching pilgrimage sites — both religious and secular — for my Master’s degree in photography. I travelled across Europe documenting different sites and, towards the end of my research, I came across the elaborate and colourful shrines that Santa Muerte devotees create, and felt this could be a new project for me to pursue.

By 2012, I had raised enough cash to travel to Mexico, hire an interpreter and document the shrines. I was happy with the outcome, but after a personal and raw experience with death a few months after my return, I decided I wanted to document this culture in full in the hope that I could try and further understand their perception of mortality.

The International Temple of Santa Muerte, Estado de  Mexico, 2012
The International Temple of Santa Muerte, Estado de Mexico, 2012

What drew you to the culture of Santa Muerte as a subject for your photography?

There is an obvious visual attraction to Santa Muerte the icon. Just as Western cultures have been attracted – in a somewhat macabre way – to the idea of the Grim Reaper for centuries, Mexican and other international devotees are attracted to this skeleton saint. Dressing up a skeleton in a wig and wedding dress and then surrounding her in various paraphernalia just demands to be looked at and, from my perspective, photographed.

Interestingly, being a ‘new’ religion, the self-proclaimed spiritual leaders of Santa Muerte use photography on various social media platforms to advertise their gatherings and meetings. Photographs are placed on the shrines of missing loved ones, deceased family members and individuals a devotee may want to seek retribution against. At times, the visual language of the ‘cult’ and Mexico in general is quite overpowering, so I used my photography to try clear the noise and focus on the shrines, devotees and rituals in a way the viewer can comprehend.

Young Santa Muerte devotee on street procession, Pachuca, Hidalgo State, Mexico, 2013
Young Santa Muerte devotee on street procession, Pachuca, Hidalgo State, Mexico, 2013

What was your experience of working with the devotees?

Before my first trip to Mexico in 2012, I had had no contact with any of the devotees. All I had were some rough addresses gathered from hours on the internet and trawling Google maps. I went to the Mexico hoping that, when I turned up at these shrines, they would accept who I was and what I wanted to do. It was an expensive gamble, but it paid off. From day one, every spiritual leader and devotee I met accepted me with open arms. Over the years, these friendships grew stronger and I am eternally indebted to Enriqueta Vargas who features in the book.

The one religious leader I was wary of, however, was Oscar Pelcastre of the Cathedral of Santa Muerte in Pachuca, Hidalgo State. Of all the Santa Muerte leaders I met, he was the most cult-like in the way he evoked fear in his employees and followers. He is alleged to have a chequered past and is not someone to cross.

At one point, he told me he believed in the devil and felt that Satan was the ultimate decider of life, so that was when alarm bells started ringing. I was invited to photograph Oscar and his underground basement, which contained a purpose-built shrine to Satan. He said this is where he and his “powerful friends” conduct certain prayers. The chamber was exactly how you might imagine a Satanic shrine to be, all made of black marble… On the whole though, the love and kindness I was shown was amazing.

'Hecho en Mexico' (Made in Mexico), 2013
‘Hecho en Mexico’ (Made in Mexico), 2013

How can you explain this figure’s popularity in Mexico?

We have a very sanitised view of death in Western society. In Mexico, and especially among Santa Muerte devotees, the spectre of death is all encompassing. The country is going through political and social turmoil, due to the drug wars, and Santa Muerte is a vivid manifestation of this turmoil.

It is a way for everyday Mexicans to come to terms with the violence and death they see on a daily basis. They need a deity who looks and acts just as violently as the circumstances they encounter, but at the same time can be caring and compassionate as any saint should be. This, I believe, is Santa Muerte in a nutshell.

Santa Muerte statuettes for sale on the streets of Tepito, Mexico City
Santa Muerte statuettes for sale on the streets 0f Tepito, Mexico City

Santa Muerte by Angus Fraser is the inaugural publication for the Bar Tur Photobook Award. Co-published by The Photographers’ Gallery and Trolley Books, the book is on sale from the 15 September 2015.

Photo essay: capturing Kolkata

A new book by award-winning photographer Patrick Faigenbaum aims to uncover the inner rhythm and character of Kolkata, India’s former capital

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In 2013, French photographer Patrick Faigenbaum earned the coveted Henri Cartier-Bresson award – a €35,000 biennial photography prize given to photographers to develop projects that would not have been possible otherwise. Faigenbaum used the opportunity to publish a book exploring a unique terrain: the Bengali metropolis of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).

“I wanted this work to have a narrative based on an intimate exploration of the city,” Faigenbaum explains over the phone. During the course of two years, the Parisian photographer travelled to Kolkata six times, visiting local artists and creative communities in order to catalogue a lesser-known side of the vibrant city.

“After the second and third trips, I began to see past the stage and spectacle of Kolkata,” he adds. “Gradually I was able to become more selective, to convey the interior rhythm of the city.” Here, Faigenbaum shares some exclusive images from his new book.

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Kolkata/Calcutta is available now via Lars Müller Publishers