When you ask Malaysians about Ipoh they often get this faraway look and mumble something along the lines of 'You've got to try X, then X, then X..' In short Ipoh is the Malaysian culinary Disneyland. So needless to say, apart from the thrill of shooting for a publication known for the high quality of its' photos, I was also glad to know I was going to eat very, very well.
Or so I thought. Here's the backstory, literally.
We had just returned to Malaysia from an epic 5 week trip in Turkey where too much gear, a steep, winding 5-story staircase and an evil taxi driver conspired to strain my lower back. I've had these kinds of things before so I really wasn't concerned, figuring that with a few days and some ibuprofen I'd be fine.
So when I got the call, a week after arriving back home, from the Saveur photo ed asking me to head up to Ipoh I didn't give it any thought.
The day arrived and I packed the car and headed north - nervous but excited . I arrived at about 4pm and got right to it shooting in and around 'old town'. Later that evening I met the story's writer and her uncle who would be with us for part of the 2+ days shoot. We set out a plan and agreed to get going at sunrise.
What transpired between our meeting and sunrise will probably make this the most memorable assignment I've had to date. I had tucked myself into bed and was reading when seemingly out of nowhere I got a stabbing pain in my lower back, followed by a cramp in my right thigh.
This was not your 'normal garden variety' pain.. it was the kind of physically contorting pain that will send you jackknifing around the room. I popped a few more ibuprofens but nothing I could do would stop what seemed to be a full-on needle attack of my spine.
Lying wide awake at about 3am I started to think that I might need to call Saveur and try to take a raincheck but I knew that wasn't going to happen. Being good folks they probably would have said 'yes' but from my side I knew I couldn't go there. I was hired to do a job and they counted on my doing it. Put on your 'big pants' and do it, I told myself.
I finally passed out from sheer exhaustion around 4am and when the alarm went off two hours later I felt like maybe the worst had passed. I got out of bed -- and fell directly into the wall. My right leg was numb and would barely support my weight. I'm thinking it's just that the leg is asleep, so I proceeded to get in the shower and wait for that needling, tingly sensation you get when an appendage 'wakes up'. But it never came.
My leg stayed numb. And I still had work to do.
One thing that I've learned as a photographer is that the position you get yourself in before taking a photo can make all the difference. The frame isn't going to come to you, you've got to go to the frame. You have to find the 'sweet spot' that gives you a knockout vantage. That might be standing on a chair, or squatting or even laying on the ground.
All well and good when both legs are functioning as they should, but throughout the shoot I found that one of my legs just wouldn't do what I told it to. I discovered this when I climbed on a chair for an overhead in a dim sum shot that ended up being the opening shot to the article. I could climb up but couldn't climb back down.
So I stood on the chair much longer than I actually needed to to get the shot. I stood there for what seemed like a lifetime taking pics and trying to think of a graceful way to get down, short of asking for help, which of course I couldn't do. Eventually I grabbed a corner of the steamer table (which was, uh, steaming hot) and got myself down to floor level.
One challenge down, 48 hours and change to go.
I spent most of the day working around town, walking block by block looking for scenes and people to photograph and scoping out light for shots the next day. By 8:30pm or so I decided to call it quits and grabbed a few beers and ice to take back to my hotel.
Writing this now I distinctly remember that first cold sip as I propped myself up on a stack of pillows, the ice pack nestled in the small of my back. I downloaded the day's images and then waited for what I hoped would be a much needed good night's sleep.
Stupid me..as soon as I closed my eyes it came at me again..that stabbing, now excruciating pain..another 4 am night.
Out the door early again the next day. I wanted to hit Sun Yoong Foong Coffee Shop before they put the chits down, which would block the sun. When I arrived the light was there and I was having a great time -- but for new problem.
Now it seemed that the pressure from whatever was happening in my back meant that I couldn't lift my right foot at all. So when I walked it kind of sounded like when you get a flat tire: flop, flop, flop.
At one point I got on my knees to photograph the vendor above and found that in order to push myself back to standing I had to drop to all fours. The folks in the coffee shop were gracious but clearly concerned for what I assume they thought was a problem with my state of mind.
I still had a fair number of locations to cover so I just kept moving and shooting despite the pain.
The other frustrating thing was that I wasn't eating all that well. The back thing suppressed my appetite. Plus I was in work mode, unwilling to take the time for a meal lest I miss a critical shot.
Later that afternoon I met Shaik Acandeen, proprietor of C-T Corner Cendol . He said I looked tired. He said 'perhaps you should sit and have some cendol'.
And so I did..and he was right. Not that there's any sort of healing properties in cendol but sitting for those few minutes gave me a chance to think about the shoot and realize that I was in the home stretch. I would go until dark and then do a little more in morning but either way I would be heading back to KL by noon the next day.
The next morning I was up before dawn. The light was soft as I shot around town. I was still walking around with my 'flat tire' foot but what kept me going was the certainty that in 5 hours, for better or worse, I would be in my car heading south.
There was one last stop with the writer to shoot Ipoh's most famous dish: Hainanese-style poached chicken with bean sprouts and hor fun / rice noodles.
I photographed the dishes, then did something I hadn't yet done. I ate the props. They tasted very, very good. Maybe not in quite a Lt. Colonel William Kilgore way but close. That chicken tasted so good because I realised I had made it to the end, that I had done my job and finished my work -- something I didn't think I could do two days before. After lunch I got into the car and popped in a CD. This tune came up and I hit the freeway.
No matter how much you shoot or how many jobs you've completed every assignment has its challenges. It's so easy to second-guess your work. These may not be the 'best' images I have ever produced, and anyway that's not entirely for me to judge.
What I do know is that I pushed myself to do something that I didn't think I could do. I'm going to be carrying that around with me for while to come.