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The People Behind the Places: What inspires Ken Lee and his photography

For the last several years, we've asked readers to share their best travel photos with us for our annual reader photo issue. We've received many stunning images, and we've gotten to know many budding photographers and travel enthusiasts.

This year's batch of photos has inspired us to reach out to them. To this end, we'll profile readers whose photos have sparked our curiosity.  

These profiles begin with Ken Lee, a special education teacher in Los Angeles. In 2013, Lee's photo of star trails from Trona Pinnacles appeared on the cover of our Sept. 22 issue.

His image of the Mamore River in Brazil appeared online as a part of our first reader photo package.

1. Why do you travel? When did you start?

Traveling is sort of a reset button for me. I also love how it forces me to focus on what is going on around me in the present time since ordinarily, I'm always thinking about what I have to finish before a deadline, what I need to do for work, and many other thoughts.

I began traveling with my family when I was in grade school. I loved seeing and experiencing new things. It really stoked my curiosity.

But I wanted to be freer when I did it, so when I began traveling as an adult, I never traveled with any particular itinerary in mind. I would have some locations that I was interested in going, but nothing more than that.

2. What led you to photography?

As a kid, although I had a lot of close friends, I could sometimes be rather solitary, often busy in my room writing stories with pictures to go along with it, or wandering in the woods, ruins of old houses, or other things, my imagination firing. I think this laid the groundwork for my interest in photography.

But what really sparked photography for me were when I got my first digital camera. I was able to immediately see the image. I could experiment without spending lots of money on film, and immediately see the results when I changed camera settings. And as a bonus, all the camera settings were recorded. I really loved this.

Then, when I began taking photos of the night sky and light painting, I felt like a creative volcano.

3. What inspires you?

For photography, I've also been inspired by some images based on new (to me) approaches paired with some great ideas as well.

I wish I remembered whose photography I first saw while walking down Venice Beach, but it was maybe around 2000 or 2001. I saw someone displaying night photos taken with a film camera in the moonlight. He had shined flashlights on some of the desert rocks, creating shadows while illuminating other parts, mentioning that he might keep the shutter open for 40 minutes.

He explained, "There's much more light at night than you think." I thought, "I think I want to do this." I kept that in the back of my head for a long time, and when digital cameras became decent and affordable, I began doing that. I didn't plan on it being 11 or so years later, but his words stuck with me because they inspired me. I wish I could thank him for that.

4. What do you take with you?

If it's a long trip overseas, I have my backpack, a small travel tripod, one camera, and a couple of lens, with one of them always being a wide-angle lens, and the other being an all-purpose "walkabout" zoom lens.

And I bring a little netbook with me so I can back up the photos, email, read books, and write a journal.

I also bring a smartphone. Besides the usual stuff one uses a smartphone for, I also use it for photography. There's apps for determining sunset, sunrise, positions of celestial bodies, using the phone as an intervalometer for the camera, and other useful things that a night sky photographer find useful.

I also bring either a Protomachine LED2 light painting photography light or a simple Streamlight LED flashlight and a headlamp with a red LED for hands-free monkeying around in the dark. And sometimes on car trips, I also take a Curious George doll. He's a wonderful traveling companion.

5. What's your most memorable photo?

I traveled with my girlfriend Lisa and a friend named Paula to Burma in 2000, going to Yangon (Rangoon). While returning from the Martyrs Day events at the Arzani Mausoleum commemorating General Aung San’s death, we saw a large crowd outside a building adorned with large red banners with Burmese and English words saying "National League for Democracy."

Intrigued, we wandered over and were told that Aung San Suu Kyi would be arriving in 15 minutes. The crowd enthusiastically waved us in, and we were seated in white resin seats just behind ambassadors from the United States, Britain and Japan, and in front of a handful of members of the international press. We noticed many people in the crowd training their cameras on us as we walked.

Aung San Suu Kyi arrived to much commotion. Several speakers gave speeches in Burmese, and Burmese literature was handed to us. I decided to move around to another angle to photograph Aung San Suu Kyi even though nobody else was moving.

I took several photos, but in one of them, she looked off to the left with this gorgeous smile. Even when I was taking this, I felt that this was a special moment. Later, we managed to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi briefly – an incredible opportunity, given her limited freedom.  This was exciting for us, like meeting someone like Gandhi, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and worth the risk, I felt.

"The People Behind the Places" is an occasional series that profiles aspiring photographers and readers whose photography has caught our eye. If you're interested in sharing your work with us, visit our Flickr page. You can also email yourscene-travel@latimes.com.

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