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World view: Photographer travels globe to capture images

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com
EDINBURG -- Like many other valley residents, local photographer Jim Spillane splits his time between homes, spending the warmer months, usually May through October, in Edinburg.

Unlike almost anyone else, he spends the rest of the year traveling the world. Usually he starts in Nepal, and this winter will be no exception, though he plans to wait until January to go.

"It's getting out the door that's the half of it," Spillane says. Luckily he has good friends who take care of his house while he's away.

"Not many people live the life that he has," says Sara Addis who, with Gene Taylor, house sits for Spillane.

Spillane, 69, has been a traveling photographer since the '70s, but has no plans of quitting any time soon.

"That would be an admission that your life's coming to an end," he says.

At one time a lawyer, Spillane began studying photography in 1976.

"I studied under Marion Patterson out in California," Spillane says. "She worked with Ansel Adams for many years."

It wasn't long before he was traveling the world, and even now the photos he took in those first few years remain some of his most popular among fans.

One of them shows four children from Mongolia laughing.

"That one is No. 3," he says.

"Of the top 20, 17 are people," he says. "That's what I do. I kind of only show people photos."

At the beginning of his career he focused on nature photography because he thought that's what his fans would want.

He admits he probably would make more money as a nature photographer, but his heart is with the people he meets for his work.

"This is what a photo is," he says, pointing to an image of a Nepalese woman cupping her chin in her hand.

Does it uplift the viewer, Spillane wonders. "Does it make you think of someone other than yourself?"

"Only certain people ... buy people pictures," he says. "They like it but they don't know if their friends [will] when they come to their houses."

"It's just what I like doing," he says.

"You have to love what you do or it shows."

Spillane looks at a photo he took in Salgado, Brazil.

"This one I like 'cause you've got the rays coming through in the alley," he says. "You get a setting with nice light and then you pray for a person to come through to give it scale."
He's also into photographing people working, he says.

"People working outside, you're already on second base, if you're a photographer," he says.

"The most recent would be this one here, of the boats in Bangladesh," he says. The colorful design of boats forms almost a pinwheel shape on the water.

"I mean, it almost looks choreographed," he says, but its only a matter of going out every day to find the right shot.

Taylor, a photographer and printer in Woodstock, has been printing all of Spillane's photos in his studio on Court Street since Taylor moved to the area in 1995.

"I love printing for him," Taylor says. "His prints are a lot different from my landscapes."

"I compose the music, and he performs," Spillane says, quoting one of Taylor's admissions.

For a short time in the '70s Spillane was a photojournalist, but he preferred to choose his own subjects and let the photos speak for themselves rather than allow others to caption them for newspapers or magazines.

One of his best sellers this year is an image he shot of children and women working in a brick factory in Nepal from more than 100 feet away.

"The idea here is that it's kids, that they're working," he says. That's what makes the image so striking to Americans. Spillane spent five months waiting for that shot, returning to the factory every day at sunrise and sunset.

He was so inspired by the people he watched working in the factory that he decided to put together a book of photographs, which he's still working on.

"I'm going to have to dream on it, I think," he says. "I just can't make up my mind. What I'm doing now is selecting the images."

Other books he's seen don't send the message he hopes to convey through his, which depicts refugees from various countries like Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, El Salvador and the Sudan.

"It's children, women, just people working very hard," he says.

"[Other books are] really not telling the story of the brick factory, which is what I want," he says. "It's resilience, I mean these kids are smiling."

He plans to use proceeds from the book sales to pay for an eye clinic for the brick factory workers.

Though Spillane loves traveling to new places, hoping soon to see Vietnam, he feels connected to Nepal and returns almost every year.

"For photos it's a gold mine. It's inexpensive, the people, their motto is 'Your service is our duty,'" Spillane says. "That's their slogan."

Nepal is also where he met his two primary guides.

His current guide, Rabi "Ravi" Acharya, is 28 now, but he was 16 when they met, when Spillane photographed the boy with his mother.

Acharya is also a photographer, and on a recent trip to Nepal Spillane gave the guide his motion picture camera.

"You need an interpreter," Spillane says. His best interpreter was in Ethiopia, his first time there. "You want an icebreaker. Someone who will easily get permission from strangers," he says. Someone with a sense of humor helps too, he says.

When he traveled from Tanzania to Mozambique, both he and the interpreter contracted malaria.
Spillane had malaria another time, too, years earlier in Uganda.

In '79 he was in Pakistan and Afghanistan shortly after Russian occupation, but before many outsiders knew about it.

"The Russians had already built the roads into Afghanistan," Spillane says. "Afghanistan was so, you didn't know what was going on. So I didn't even want to take my camera out. I took five pictures the whole time I was in the country."

"If I were to do a book on Asia, I would pick Pakistan. ... I mean life takes on a different meaning," he says.

The women weren't wearing veils then, when he was there, he says.

"Everybody was so vulnerable," he says. "It's like being in Black South Africa during Apartheid."

In his photos Spillane shows what's below the surface.

Figuratively, he says, "If you're driving the vehicle, you forget about the passengers." He wants people's souls to show through in his artwork.

"If it's staged it isn't real," he says. "The caricature is easy to do, it's the genuine that's hard."

If he could he'd give up going to shows selling his work in the U.S. each summer and instead travel the world full-time.

When thinking of the future, Spillane says, "I think anywhere in the South Pacific would be nice. I want to [photograph] working class people, and I want to do minorities in developing countries."

For information about Jim Spillane's photography, visit his website at www.jimspillane.com.

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