Last night we had a great event: a Super Moon with a Blood Moon: the world went completely crazy with the #SuperBloodMoon

Opposite to my usual subjects, the Super Moon was motionless while the blood bath of shade covered it. I stood in my balcony, cigar and camera in hand decided to document a lunar event that can compare to the attention obtained by the Pope’s in his recent visit to Cuba.

Anyways, I decided to put together a 20-step process of how a full moon got covered in blood.. sort of!

http://www.mariodavalos.com

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Back in 2011 I visited Alaska in a family trip. Despite being a vacation journey I was able to visit unusual places for the average tourist: Katmai, Kaktovic, Barrow among other more traditional destinations. Since then I have been traveling around the globe, looking for wild places, wild creatures and our connection to them. This obsession has taken me to places like the Okavango Delta, the Namib Desert, the Finnish Arctic, the Ecuadorian Amazonia, the Serengeti and many other of all the magical places in this planet.

After being in constant awe of nature and making it the main subject of my creative process I decided to go back to Alaska and explore some of it’s areas a bit more thoroughly. As an artist I try to go beyond documenting nature and explore a more spiritual approach, aiming to capture the stillness within the wilderness. Inspired by the wine world, I have conceptualised a “photographic terroir”; a combination of light, temperature, topography and geology.

This recent journey, which I’ve dubbed #TheGreatArcticAdventure took me to Cape Krusesntern, the Delong Mountains and the rugged, vertical coast of Katmai.

I have put together ( I apologise for my awful editing skills) a short video about my trip:

And you can see an image selection at http://www.mariodavalos.com/Alaska2015

Photographing wildlife can be very rewarding. There is something fascinating about watching wild animals move freely in their natural environment. I feel complete and whole when I find my self in these situations. I understand my role in nature, my duty, my joy and briefly, everything makes sense.

But there is also an extremely sad side to my job; witnessing in real time the alarming disappearance of wild places and creatures. From the Amazon to the Okavango to Alaska to my home Dominican Republic, wild places are vanishing rapidly.  We keep taking what is not ours and adding things that should not be; buildings, debris, mines, settlements…Things that are now where they aren’t supposed to be.

This is how the idea of “Insertions”, my latest project, came to be.

These are not digital manipulations, but real photographs taken in different places of the world, then printed, mounted and carried around to another location… where they don’t belong. I have placed elephants in the Dunes of Peravia, Dominican Republic, a flp-necked chameleon in Ebano Verde and so on…

This is a on going project and I hope to work on it for the next few years and to take it as far as I can.

These are only the first images, many more will follow.

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Meliton  is named after a second century Archbishop who is considered to be a saint by the Catholic Church. He does not  know this, nor does he seem to care. . . As we walk through the mud in the flooded forest, it seems as though he is always smiling, even when he is not. It is the middle of the night, and we both sweat intensely as we search for frogs in the swamp. He moves much faster than I do, and cuts through the rainforest with a certain agility and confidence that only natives and wildlife possess. I feel as though I am a stranger in this forest. An alien.

Meliton is the son of Silverio, a  founding member of the Kichwa Añangu community.  Along with five  other families, his  came from Tena in the seventies and established themselves  in these lands along the Napo River, in the heart of what is today the Yasuni National Park.

Eight Kichwa communities now live within the park: Sani, Providencia, San Roque, Waoranis, Pompeya, Tagaires, Indiliana and the Añangus. Seven of these groups lease out land to oil companies that ravage  the rainforest, but the Añangus will  not .  Operating two lodges and a fleet of motor canoes that move over three hundred  tourists a month, they have created social system that works like a cooperative. They also built a medical center, a school, residences for teachers hired from Quito, a logistics and transportation center, and four observation towers. Not only have they created  all of the jobs necessary for their own community, but they also employ many members  of other communities. In Kichwa, “Añangu” means  “leaf cutter ant”, and there are at least two stories behind this:In one story, the leaf -cutter ants cut  off their clothes while they were sleeping when they first arrived forty years ago. In Another version draws attention to the fact that, these ants are extremely hard working and united, just like the Añangu. I am not sure which version  is the original, but I can vouch for the latter. 

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I stayed at Yasuni Eco Lodge for the first six nights, which is located within their community and on the banks of the Napo River. It is much more quaintr than Napo Wildlife Center, located deeper in the jungle and only accessible by a two-hour ride in a motor-less (do any canoe’s have motors) canoe.

I guess I expected the Kichwas to be more “savages” some how. Prejudice got the best of me. I did not expected to find Direct TV dishes nor washing machines nor Adidas sneakers in their village. But I did. I did not expected to find such a polished and well-oiled logistics system nor top-notch service, but this is what they’ve achieved, and Meliton is obviously proud when I mention it. 

Every community member is a stockholder of this company when 18 years old – Meliton explains. Again, pride oozes from his words. – I started working in the kitchen, then as a rower and 6 years ago I volunteered as a naturalist guide – he continues. – I’ve learned some english and now know the names of most birds species and mammals in that language –

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As we walk in the jungle, he is able to spot the tiniest frog among the dead leaves or a lonely ant moving across a dead log. I keep asking questions and he is very honest when answering – I have no idea – he says when I ask him the name of a small, white flower.

I came here looking for wildlife to photograph, but the idea of meeting the Kichwa and the Waoranis also intrigued me. I wanted to explore the possibility of a serious of portraits on these tribes but my main objective as pretty clear; to photograph the jaguar. But wildlife is extremely hard to photograph here. The jungle is dense the light is slow and our steps sound like thunder over the dead leaves. I can hear a lot of animals around me, but to get a clean shot is a miracle… is almost impossible. By the third day I am frustrated and I start to go down the usual path – why do I do this? Why in the hell did I came here? –  But next morning I feel refreshed. I know this is a problem I can solve, so I decide to change my approach and document the rainforest itself and not necessarily the animals that live here. The forest as a whole is now my subject. I start paying attention to fungi, to insects, to plants and leaves. It takes me a while to disarm my hunter approach and start to look at the forest in a more analytical way… as a scientist maybe? as a journalist? I am not sure. I am neither both nor I pretend to be, but briefly I feel like that and I take advantage of it. Meliton also seems relieved by my new approach and now feels more relaxed. But he knows people come here to see animals. The Añangus know this pretty well and they have built observation towers as high as 47m where monkeys and birds can be spotted pretty easily and the canopy and the dimension of the rainforest can be treasured. I decided to stay way after sunset on one of the towers. The wind rattles it and it sways from side to side. As it gets darker the horizon starts to glow. – Oil wells – tells me Meliton. – All those little suns are oil wells burning in the middle of the forest – . It makes me want to weep. And I do.

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Getting to know the Kichwa Añangu way of life made me feel closer… similar. Watching the kids form a line to go to school seemed exactly like it did when I was a child in Santo Domingo. The way mothers caress their children, they way teens tease each other, or engage in a passionate, ofter brutal game of soccer… I guess the fact that I expected something else is just evidence of my ignorance and prejudice.

If you want to visit the Waoranis we can – assured me Meliton. – But we have to call first. They charge around 40 dollars and they will perform a traditional dance or whatever you want – .    

I had a feeling the Waoranis, that legendary tribe, was no longer that of wild men, but instead of oil workers with a reputation for being rude and childish, as I was later able to confirm when we weren’t allowed to ride their private bus near the Tiputini river. There are no more wild men. The oil companies got to them first and bribed them sneakers and headphones. Not only are we loosing the rainforest, we are loosing its memory and its essence. The Kichwa wear Adidas. The Waoranis watch the Simpsons on their satellite Dish. Oil killed the jungle stars.

Time looses strength in the jungle. It looses meaning and it becomes extremely hard to tell one minute form one hour. Time, such a strict measure becomes fluid and organic. The canoe moves swiftly through Caño Aguas Negras; a creek that connects the Napo river with Napo Wildlife Center. My tripod is set up at the front. I look up to photograph Squirrel monkeys. A Kingfisher flies by me and perches on a near branch. Sounds invade the jungle. The Red-howler monkey can be heard clearly near by, macaws fly above and water moves back as we get close to the lodge.

Another canoe comes from the opposite direction and tells us about the otters being close by – They are just a bit up stream – . We keep going and we soon can hear them. When we finally spot them I am taken by their human-like aspect; the way the use their hands to eat fish, their baby-is screams, the way they stare at me… Of all the species I’ve seen and photograph, no other is as much fun to watch as this family of Giant otters. I spend a few hours photographing them before they retreated beneath the dense false mangroves.

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We arrived at Napo Wildlife Center and Byron greeted us with some fresh papaya juice. I was surprised by the names used by the Kichwas: Jairo, Byron, Tyson… I find no explanation for it. The lodge is definitely more refined and equipped for receiving tourist. The lagoon is wide and flat as a piece of stretched plastic. Snail Kites fly over in their relentless search for food. I set my gear down at the dock besides the canoe and grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading to the Cari Añango creek in search of Anacondas. I quickly realised how hard it is to shoot from a canoe: there is no full stop, the thing is always rocking side to side and there is not a lot of room to manoeuvre such big lenses and tripods. But this place is filled with life.. most of it extremely small, but a surprise awaits in very turn.

It hadn’t rained during the first 11 days in the Amazonia, so naturally, on the morning of the 12th, when we were getting ready to walk for 6 hours trough the dense forest towards Tiputini, it seemed like the sky had broken. Towers of rain fell down on us. The mud was about a feet deep and the creeks we had to face were waist-high. All my equipment got fogged, all my clothes wet but my spirit remained untouched. This was the adventure I was looking forward to. The jungle was dark even at 10am. I could not tell sweat from rain.

We finally reached the Tiputini ranger station around 1pm and got ready for another canoe ride, this time in a wilder, lonelier river. Macaws flew above in pairs, mealy amazon parrots gathered at the clay licks beside the river banks.  – This must be paradise – I thought. We kept going down the river for hours in a complete dark night and the dangers of fallen branches sticking out from the water. Finally, around 9pm we set camp besides the river. It was just to dangerous to go on. The sound of the night was intense and diverse. Owls, frogs, insects… and full orchestra of wildlife as we dined pineapples and coconut cookies.

The morning arrived with more rain and as we hurried back to the canoe I started to feel  overwhelmed and helpless. I hesitated to get all my equipment out of the bag. But around 7am the sun began to peek through the persistent clouds and a weak, gentle smile appeared on my face. Two tapirs bathe in the shores. A horned screamer (Anhima cornuta) looked surprised to see us. We keep pushing back up the TIputini river and when we finally spotted a bluish hump: the pink dolphins! I stood up on the canoe and almost lost my balance. I took my raincoat off as if was a superhero cape. Now my smile was big and wide. Unlike ocean dolphins, these two beautiful creatures did not go jumping and diving, but rather gently coming up the surface to breathe and we tried to guess where next. As I shot away, I knew these were not award-winning shots, but rather evidence of one of the most exciting wildlife encounter I’ve had.

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We kept going until we reached the Tiputini bridge and from there took a bus until the shores of the Napo river and across to the Pompeya market. This is probably the main commercial scene of the region and people from all communities come to buy and sell fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, toys, ice cream, clothing and an staggering amount of beer. We were surprised to find giant beetles for sale in a dark corner and after some convincing we were able to take the creatures to and set them free in the wild.

This market is a chaotic and gorgeous place and after a watered down cup of coffee and a cold beer, all at the same time, we went back to our journey;  one more in motor canoe and two more paddling across the Caño, until we made it back to the lodge. In retrospective it seems to me the Pompeya market is to modern Homo sapiens what the call lick is to parrots; a crazy periodic gathering to get much needed supplies.

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This assignment in the Ecuadorian Amazonia changed something. I arrived as a wildlife photographer but I left something else. I came here interested in wildlife but left interested in life. I started to see humans as just another species and not something foreign to the violent dynamics of nature. I arrived looking for animals to photographs, but sharing with the Añangus and being able to admire what they have achieved, is like another piece of the puzzle fell into place. The theory has always been with me and know, in a very practical way I feel I start to understand more profoundly life in our planet.

For more photographs CLICK HERE.

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“I arrived before dawn to Antelope Island State Park and stayed pretty much all morning. It reminded me a little bit of Yellowstone. Not much, but just enough. It was cloudy and foggy. It was very silent. Lots of ducks, rabbits, bison and some deer. Also coyotes, pheasants, chukars and robins. I did not see any antelope that today. The air was cool and crisp. It reminded me how much I love winter, the test of winter, the challenge of winter. I may have been born in the wrong latitude. The Caribbean lacks winter as much as it lacks autumn. As I drove back to Park City I crossed the bridge that separates the island and across the lake. Two figures walked in the distance. Their heads down, slowly walking over the frozen ice. I was surprised to see hunters in a State Park. I stopped the car and took a some shots. They looked at me. Not angry for taking their picture, just curious. They kept walking and I went home after some pizza at Little Caesar’s. It was a great day for me, and hopefully for the ducks as well.”

Last year I published my top 20 shots of 2013. Looking back on that selection, I am sure I would have chosen differently if done today. Every week I still review images from three, four and five years ago and I see great images I hadn’t notice before as well as images I thought great and are not so awesome after all. This year I traveled a bit less than previous ones, but I felt my approach to nature photography mature and grew more personal. With my book on Africa published  in november, over 20,000 miles flown, over 50,000 shots taken and countless hours of reviewing and editing, this year was intense. Today I share with you a selection that will surely look flawed and weak just a couple of weeks from now. I tried to choose images that reflect a narrative and my pictorial approach rather than just “pretty” images. I feel this selection represents the way I think about art, photography and nature. Hope you enjoy them and please feel free to share your thoughts.Happy holidays!

20. Snowy Owl in Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, NY. 

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19. Gull over the Mediterranean, Turkey. 
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18. Low tide at Ruby Beach, W.A.
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17. Boreal forest, Adirondacks, NY. 
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16. Lion Cub, Okavango Delta, Botswana.BJ9Q6859

15. Female elk in the rainforest of Lake Quinault, W.A.

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14. Sand snake in the Namib desert, Namibia. AJ4D6132

13.”Esperanza” cricket, Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic.CF6A8002

12. Male lion on the move in Botswana. AJ4D8535

11. Brants in Jones Beach, NYC.CF6A6573


10. Hikers in the desert, Namibia. AJ4D6430
9. Hispaniolan Solenodon, Pedernales, Dominican Republic. BJ9Q0695

8. Snowy Owl in Lake Champlain, Vermont. CF6A5480

7. Antillean bullfinches and Yagrumo, Ebano Verde, Dominican Republic. AJ4D2958

6. Flamingoes in Laguna de Oviedo, Dominican Republic. BJ9Q2918

5. Hippo at sunrise, Okavango Delta, Botswana. BJ9Q4613

4. Lilac-breasted Roller eating lunch in Tau Pan, Botswana.BJ9Q9896

3. The roar of a male lion, Tau Pan, Botswana.
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2. Hippo from above, Okavango Delta, Botswana. BJ9Q5909-Edit

1. Tricolored Heron, Salinas de Baní, Dominican Republic. 

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