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How I Got That Shot

Photos and stories by adventure traveler Jock Montgomery ’83.

Photographer Jock Montgomery

Jock Montgomery ’83 has a profound curiosity about people that turns any walk into a quest. On his way home for lunch in Bangkok, he stops on a sidewalk crowded with students and idling motorcycle taxis to ask a construction worker what he’s eating. “Are there really 10 different chilies in that dish?” Montgomery marvels in Thai.

As a photographer and the owner of Bangkok-based Compass Rose Expeditions, Montgomery leads small groups on photography tours and custom adventures in Asia, Africa, and South America. In September, he led a photography tour in remote eastern Tibet. In December, he was white-water rafting on the Subansiri River in a far corner of the Himalayas. January and February found him in the state of Gujarat in India. 

When approached with a perceptible interest in discovery, learning, and respect—and often with a sense of fun—most people are delighted that you are going to take their picture.

—Jock Montgomery, shown with his camera in the Old Quarter of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India.

Hints of his far-flung career came early: At UMass, Montgomery was a geography major, contributing to a new atlas of Massachusetts. He captained the ski team, took sculpture classes, and made enduring friendships canoeing, hiking, and climbing with the Outing Club. On winter breaks the ski team skied for free in exchange for clearing ski runs at Berkshire East with forest management professor and ski coach William “Mac” MacConnell ’43.

Soon after graduating, Montgomery made his way to Nepal, and began a lifetime of leading others on whitewater trips, treks, and mountain bike adventures. To teach himself photography, he traveled for six months throughout Asia shooting through the 300 rolls of Kodachrome in his backpack. Subsequently, he combined tours with shoots for calendars, travel companies, magazines, and books.

After decades exploring, Montgomery’s expeditions smack of amped-up UMass Outing Club trips full of like-minded friends and regulars. He revels in the connections with local people that  photography makes possible. And he believes that the best travel and the best travel photography are like kayaking: “You’re immersed,” he says. “You’re feeling the place you’re in.” More of Montgomery’s work and his commentary can be found below and at jockmontgomery.com.

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A boy in Zanskar, India.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Zanskar, Himalayas

Zanskar is a region in the India Himalayas that is extremely difficult to reach; it’s also the name of a remote whitewater river that I traveled on a few years ago. The locals will tell you that the easiest way to reach this region is to trek up the frozen Zanskar River in the dead of winter. The river cuts through an extensive deep gorge, sometimes called the Grand Canyon of Asia. Due to numerous rapids along the way, the river is never totally frozen and walking on the ice can sometimes be quite treacherous. It took our group a week to reach the administrative center at Padum. This photograph was taken at nearby Karsha monastery on the side of a cliff near the headwaters of the Zanskar River. A group of novice monks were carrying driftwood up from the river and I figured there could be an interesting moment worth capturing, so I waited. On this boy’s third wood-carrying trip I took this photograph. He was lugging a large log that to many viewers and me appears to give him wings; and from the smile on the boy’s face, it’s as if he knows it too!  

 

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Photo by
Jock Montgomery

The Mongolian Steppes

We were camping in Mongolia as part of a two-week bicycle tour across the steppes, when this Kazakh man, who was herding sheep and goats, came wandering up to our tents on his horse. He hung around talking to our Mongolian guides for about half an hour and so I sat down beside him. In a casual, friendly, yet persistent manner I quietly took pictures of him using a silent mirrorless camera, and in this way, he soon forgot I was there. The tricky part was waiting for the horse to turn to one side and appear more three dimensional, and then when the man put a piece of grass in his mouth I got my shot.  Sometimes the shot comes to you—maybe on horseback.

 

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Children in Kham, Tibet.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Kham, Eastern Tibet

There is a grade school for the children of yak-herding nomad families that is associated with the Shechen Monastery in Kham, a remote region in eastern Tibet, at an elevation of nearly 13,000 feet. I was part of a nonprofit foundation’s team of volunteers who spent three weeks at the school. We installed insulation, double-pane windows, and a water treatment system. We also got the students to help us paint a large mural in their dining room. To document the project and thank the sponsors, my wife and I published a coffee table book. For part of my work as a photographer, I chose to shoot a series of informal portraits of some of the teachers, parents, students, and our volunteers. I used a white backdrop and added just a hint of light with a softbox and strobes. I also focused on the lives of this sister and brother who I had photographed with their family in their home (a tent made of yak hair). When their teacher put his arms around the children, I knelt down to focus on the children and captured this heartwarming image. It’s my hope that this photograph gives the viewer a glimpse into the children’s personalities: that boy is a bit mischievous and the girl is a top student.

 

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A fisherman in Bangladesh.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Teesta River, Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, I worked on a magazine feature we called “kayaking through climate change.” I traveled via two folding tandem kayaks with a writer, a translator, and a local guide. Navigating customs to fly into the country with the kayaks was the most challenging part of the trip. After two days of waiting and drinking countless cups of tea, we figured out how to read the message in the tea leaves and made a tactful donation to lubricate the bureaucracy. We spent two weeks paddling and camping along the Teesta and Yamuna Rivers to learn firsthand about the struggles relating to climate change and subsequent flooding in Bangladesh. At sunrise one morning, we came across this fisherman checking his nets. His staid expression undoubtedly told me he was wondering where in the heck we came from! It can be a challenge to photograph from a kayak at water level; it’s difficult to stand up and thus the horizon line frequently cuts across the center of the photograph. By lowering my camera just over the water, I elevated the horizon line and enhanced the overall composition in conjunction with the wonderful reflection in the water. But what draws me to this photograph even more is the repetition of diagonal lines and of the two boats, plus a subtle touch of hazy morning light coming from the right, across the fisherman’s face.

 

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A woman in Lhasa, Tibet.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Lhasa, Tibet

Another photographer and I were looking for a place with nice natural light to photograph local people in Lhasa, Tibet. Our guide and translator had a cousin who owned a noodle shop where people were hanging out, eating noodles and drinking tea. We took our time, ate some tasty noodles and then set up at a nice little spot with a green wall and light coming through the window and asked people to pose for us. After we had photographed a few people and the laughter had died down, we eventually blended in with the scene and they pretty much forgot we were there. Even though this is a formal portrait, one can see and feel that the woman is consumed in other thoughts and has forgotten about me. Every time I view this image, I am touched by this contemplative moment, which is balanced by the rich colors and plain background. A meaningful portrait is frequently about keeping it simple, with the focus on capturing a compelling emotion.  

 

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Portrait of a man in India.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Nagaland, India

This photograph is of a Konyak tribal elder in Nagaland, northeast India. Here the jungle is dense, the terrain is steep, and as a result there is intense competition among villages for land and water. Up until around 1950, the Nagas (and the Konyaks in particular), were known for headhunting; there are even some reports that the last beheading was in 1981. The traditional tattoos on this man’s face indicate that at some point he took somebody’s head. His decayed teeth are the result of chewing betel nut; the horns are from a wild boar; the feather is likely a crow’s because traditional hornbill feathers are hard to come by; his hat is made using human hair; I believe the rolled-up foil in his ear lobes is the packaging from inside a packet of instant noodles; and to pull it all together, he has a great twinkle in his eye. I had the privilege of photographing a dozen tattooed Konyak men; there are perhaps fewer than 100 still living. With some subjects, you know immediately that they are going to be easy to photograph; others can’t relax or simply aren’t photogenic. This man stood out to me as a good subject. I remember that even his friends who were watching and laughing beside me seemed to agree.

 

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Mother and child in Bhutan.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Bhutan

When I took this photograph, I was leading a trek across Bhutan, on what is often called “the world’s most difficult trek.” The trail leads over many 16,000-foot and higher passes. The mother in this image was returning from working in barley fields with her daughter, a gust of wind blew on their hair, and there is a rich mix of dark colors and a nice balance across the frame. Had I taken the picture an instant earlier or later, I would have missed the loving way that the mother is looking towards her child. I think this image is a good example of the serendipity of “street photography.” And for me, it is one of the key elements that draws me so intensely to photography as an art form. Sometimes I am in just the right place at the right time and I have to move quickly to get the shot, but this image was taken back in the days before digital photography when I was never 100 percent sure I had the shot until I reviewed the processed images on a light table. Despite this upcoming wait, when I clicked the shutter I distinctly remember thinking I had caught a fleeting intimate moment, and the feeling was nothing short of exhilarating!

 

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A man in Patagonia.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Patagonia

While on an adventure trip in Argentinian Patagonia, our group and I were interested in local culture, so I arranged for us to visit a large family-run sheep ranch and have lunch there. We had an amazing traditional meal of lamb cooked over an old wood-fired cast-iron stove, and this tough-looking huaso (an Argentinian gaucho), who was the head of the family, sat at the end of the table. My charming wife, Annie, sat beside him, and because of the connection they made over the shared meal, I was welcome to photograph him working his sheep that afternoon. Had we not spent time and shown an interest in his work and family, I am certain he would never have allowed me to make this penetrating photograph. Spending time with people in this way can serve to achieve meaningful photographs, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity to get know one’s subjects and develop friendships. As a thank you, when I got home I sent the family a selection of prints. I plan to return to Argentina in 2020, and I will definitely look up this family.

 

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Reflection on the side of a train.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Yanon, Myanmar

I was on a commuter train going around the capital city of Yangon in Myanmar. It is an older, very basic train, a great place for people photos. Any time the train stopped I would jump out and look for people who didn’t mind my taking their photograph. I noticed this man framed by an ad and the other guy behind him in silhouette. There’s all kinds of crazy things going on in this picture, which invite the viewer to pause and investigate.

 

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A man in Nepal.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Kathmandu, Nepal

There are seven Hindu temples that as a devout Hindu you should visit in your lifetime, among them Pashupatinath in Kathmandu, Nepal. This Hindu sadhu, a religious ascetic, lives at Pashupatinath. He typically spends his days reading scriptures and he lives as a devout beggar asking locals and tourists for donations. He also smokes marijuana as part of his spiritual quest. Since I was working with him as a kind of model and stayed with him for a while it felt appropriate to give him a generous ‘donation.’ I spent the morning with him and other sadhus who were chanting, smoking, and going about their morning ablutions near the temple’s cremation grounds. Consumed by a high, he quickly forgot I was there and allowed me to get this smoke-infused image.

 

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A man in Nepal.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Pashupatinath Temple, Nepal

This is a portrait of another sadhu at the Pashupatinath temple. At this temple complex is an important series of riverside cremation ‘ghats,’ where all local Hindus as well as Nepal’s royal family hope to be cremated shortly after they pass away. As a sign of his devotion to Shiva, the god of destruction (from which it is often said comes resurrection and a kind of rebirth), this sadhu covers his body every morning with a poultice of sacred cow dung and ash from the adjacent cremation ghats. He is holding his personal notebook of prayers, and as a Hindu, over his shoulder he wears a blessing thread called Janeu. This sadhu had a remarkable face, but I decided to focus on the texture of his naked ash-covered torso and work the angles created by his arms, robes, and Janeu thread.

 

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Portrait of a woman in Tibet.
Photo by
Jock Montgomery

Kham, Tibet

This woman is a nomad from the area of eastern Tibet known as Kham. She is wearing her best clothes and jewelry, as she is on pilgrimage in faraway Lhasa, in central Tibet. A nomadic yak herder’s life is not easy, but you can feel she knows she’s wearing something beautiful and there’s a certain penetrating strength and pride in this image, with those powerful eyes and a hint of a smile. Her jewelry is stunning—punctuated with real silver, coral, and turquoise. I took this picture on my first visit to Tibet in 1987, when wealth was still stored and shown through a woman’s jewelry. Today the look of traditional jewelry remains very fashionable across Tibet, but it’s primarily fake stones and cheap metal; sadly, to my aesthetics, a family’s wealth nowadays is put towards a motorcycle or a car.