A rolling boom reaches the table we’re seated at and I glance over at the Mt. Yasur Volcano to watch smoke billowing from it.
Mike, his mom, and I are seated at a small table under a natangora-styled roof (with coconut leaves instead of natangora). We just finished a lunch of kumala and zuzut and we’re sitting around talking. Mikes mom is giving me all the dirt on him and I’m soaking it all up, while being sure to inform her of how mean he is to me. We’re on the island of Tanna for a couple of days giving Mike’s mom a snapshot view of a piece of Vanuatu before heading to Santo.
Mike’s mom and I gang up on him so Mike whips out his camera, ignores us, and instead starts taking photos of the sun slicing slivers of light across the volcanoes ridges. He grumbles something about how there’s a tree ruining his shot before threatening to cut the thing down. We roll our eyes and laugh it off. But within 5 minutes he’s got a ni-Van out there, happily and cheerfully cutting the tree down for him.
He thanks the man while his mom and I shake our heads, both secretly knowing that we’ll probably love the shot that he created because of it. And anyway, this is Vanuatu, the tree will grow back in about a day and a half.
For my past newspaper writing gigs, I’ve often had to take photographs to illustrate my words. I’ve taken about a thousand photos and not for a single one of them did I know what I was doing. It’s possible I have taken a good picture a couple of times now, but if so, it was entirely by accident. Mike is the opposite, he can see beauty or good aesthetics in a single sweep of the eye.
Even now, as I lay in one of the beds at the bungalow scratching these words into my notebook, I’m watching him twist and turn each gear, nob, and switch of his new camera and tripod (that his mom brought over from the U.S.) until he’s sure of each function.
Mike’s got an eye for light and color, it makes his photography vibrant and captivating. He’s also phenomenal with people and is able to draw out emotion and feeling in the single split second he captures, whether by goading them into a smile or by seeing the feeling or moment in time to snag it.
I’ve never actually seen a photographer at work so I have nothing to compare him to but I like to catch him working because it’s something he’s so good at doing in the most private, subtle way possible. He fades as much as he can into the background before he takes a shot. Mike at his quietest is Mike in action.
It’s a rare sight –or sound really- to not hear him talking, so I’ve developed an extra sense. When I haven’t heard him in a while I know that if I look around I’ll probably find him with his camera out, capturing a moment that no one else noticed. He’ll be standing off to the side with his shaggy head of hair and full beard, his treasured Ray Bans perched on the top of his head, his clothes vibrant with complimentary yet obnoxious colors, and his feet bare and brown with dirt. There’s usually an all-encompassing energy possessing him, pulling him into his own world.
When we went to the top of the Volcano, the earth rumbling and shaking below us, spewing out molten lava rocks every few minutes, he was- in a way that is reflected spectacularly in his work- completely engrossed in the beauty and might of the volcano and the process of attempting to capture its energy in the small square screen of his camera.
Mike enjoys pretending he’s not good at anything and a few years ago even left his successful photography career (with professional gigs like photographing the Jonas brothers, Macklemore, and many others under his belt). He’s yet to give me a believable reason for why he did this. I often think he’s terrified of being so good at something. Because the second you’re good at something, expectations are created and more than anything, I think Mike’s terrified of failing- failing himself and failing other people. I think that’s what keeps him from reaching the full potential of what he’s merely scratched the surface of.
I wish I could see a little of the world through his eyes but my vision is constantly interrupted and bombarded by words, by the flow of ideas and feelings constantly firing off responses to everything I see and experience. But I think Mike’s photos will always be a reference point for me, something I can look back on and bring all I felt and saw back to life.
And of course, aside from being a great photographer, Mike’s been a great friend, a kava drinking buddy, and a comfortingly consistent pain in the ass. When I’m on any kind of adventure I sometimes get very caught up in my own thoughts and observations of the experience I’m having. Which usually means interaction with the world around me becomes more challenging, and making friends even more so.
Mike talks a lot, energetically, with new people, making me feel at ease and able to observe more openly and freely, giving me the time and space to become comfortable with strangers. This basically means he talks too much and hogs the attention, but as I talk too little and hate attention, we compliment one another quite nicely as travel companions.
While we were talking, Mike’s mom said to me “I wouldn’t be surprised if I got a phone call from someone on Santo saying ‘Jess axe-murdered Mike” (actual quote). I’m not going to lie, he can be a huge pain in the ass and is often so ridiculous that the only possible reaction is to laugh. He’s constantly prodding and poking me (like an annoying younger brother) until I stop ignoring him and get legitimately angry.
But honestly, if I had to be stuck on an island with anyone for two years, I’m (most times) glad it was him. After all, who you’re on the adventure with is half the adventure. And if he’s anything at all, Mike is an adventure.
See Mike's photos here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelshawkins