I am sitting in Port-au-Prince, Haiti right now trying to work on this guest blog post, but all I can think about is that across the street from me at this very moment, not far from the collapsed National Palace and Ministry of Finance, taking up every available green space, there lies rows and rows of improvised tent cities. “Tent” is a generous phrase. These are mostly tarps strung loosely over sugarcane framed boxes. Discarded cardboard and worn vinyl. It’s hot and it’s raining. Water trucks show up nearly everyday to throngs of people clamoring for their allotted 700 ml. It is chaos, it is overwhelming, and most surprising, it is the new normal.
I say all of this only to remind us that in so many parts of the world tonight families will sleep on the ground without shelter. For many, clean water is a rarity at best. Many are hungry. Many are sick. The world is an impossibly beautiful place and photography is such a conduit to truly seeing that beauty. But the truth is that when you really start to see, and I mean really, really open your eyes to the world around you, you find dichotomy. Beauty and suffering seem to co-mingle. I only bring this up so that we may not forget the silent majority in this world that lack even the most basic of elements. Water. Food. Shelter.
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION…
Now I know that you don’t have any idea who I am. And for that reason alone, I am thankful that you are reading this post. I, like many have said before me, am honored that Scott and Brad have asked me to share with you today. I appreciate that they give the opportunity to those of us who may not be recognizable names. Most of us, as media professionals, hobbyists, semi-pros (or whatever moniker we operate under) labor away in the “shadows” struggling to get better, to create compelling images, to tell moving stories… We are explorers, adventurers mining the deep well of craft and experience. I know that it can feel like no one knows who you are or appreciates all the work that you put into developing, but trust me, it is worth all the effort.
When someone connects (and I mean really connects) to something that I’ve made, then everything just feels right in the world. There really isn’t a feeling like it. I believe that media professionals endeavoring to create things that cause people to pause and reflect more deeply on their lives and what they believe is important. When I think about it like this, I find that I don’t need to be a well known creator to find satisfaction in my work and in my life. I hope that you feel the same way.
A BRIEF HISTORY…
Five years ago, I began my professional life. I graduated school and essentially flipped a coin. Los Angeles for filmmaking or Nashville for music. You see, I still didn’t have a clue what I specifically wanted to do. The only thing that I knew is that stories were intriguing to me. I had a sneaking, yet-to-be-solidified belief that the chief function of art (of media, of literature and film and painting and photography) is that of conveying story. To help us to see the world not just as it seems, but as it really is. I knew that I wanted to be a part of this long tradition. I just had no idea the form (discipline) that it would take.
Through an interesting series of events, I threw my few belongings in the back of my car and was Nashville bound. I had the opportunity to work in a recording studio for an incredibly generous producer/engineer who took me on as an assistant though I had absolutely no audio training. I got coffee, I met and worked with some of my favorite bands. I wrapped cables. I worked late. I learned how to start and to finish a project. Then one day, a few months after starting in the studio, the first record that I ever worked on showed up in the mail. Standing there in the front yard, album in hand, leafing through the cover art for my “assisted by” credit, I knew that music would be part of my professional life.
My camera was my constant companion during my time in the studio. I used it for making portraits, documenting, and generally experimenting with storytelling through image-making.
Then, through an interesting series of events, I found myself on the back of a Tuk-Tuk flying through the streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia, camera in hand, on my way to shoot under the direction of Gary Knight (a VII photographer). It was a ten day, life-changing experiment in visual storytelling. I created a photo essay over that ten days by wandering down streets and dark alleyways. I moved in and out of homes, shops, and shacks. I saw extreme poverty butting up against extreme wealth. It was overwhelming and exhilarating to really see the world outside of what was familiar. I knew right then and there, standing on a busy street corner during the Angkor Photo Festival looking at my work projected for the town to see, that storytelling through still photography would be part of my professional life.
I bounced back and forth between audio and stills for the next couple years…
My producer boss in Nashville used to tell me over and over again; “The key to this job? When someone asks if you can do something, always say yes. Just use the time between saying yes and the gig to figure out how to do it.” Now of course he was exaggerating, but the general idea had already worked its way into my professional life. I said yes to the first video gig I was offered. I didn’t even own a DV camera. I had to scrounge up gear from friends and rental shops, hire an editor, and consult with some friends to help me with deliverables. It was terrifying. Yet, not long after that initial yes, somewhere outside of Chicago, sitting in the back of a tour bus making shot lists waiting to interview the band, I was suddenly taken with the three dimensional nature of storytelling through moving images. I knew that this kind of storytelling would be part of my professional life.
This began the next few years of bouncing back and forth between audio, still, and moving image projects…
“FINDING YOUR VOICE”…
I’m not sure if you dread the “so, what exactly do you do?” question as much as I do, but given that I make records, shoot still images and create motion projects, the question tends to come up.
I’ll be at a party or dinner or something (I live in a big city in Texas, so most of the guys are engineers for oil an company, or lawyers for an oil company, or in a service business selling to an oil company), and guys are standing around “talking shop.” Finally someone turns to me and says, “So what exactly do you do?” In the second before I answer, a loop begins to play on repeat: Should I answer photographer? Yeah, but what kind of photographer? Am I a documentary photographer? Sort of. I did just shoot that gig in Uganda. But I guess I’m shooting that album cover soon. Music photographer? Wait, but should I answer audio engineer? Yeah, I have tracked 5 albums this year. But I’m currently shooting a couple promotional videos right now. I guess I should say video. No wait, I’m starting that record next week… All I usually manage is some form of, “Uh, I’m a media producer…”
It isn’t that this isn’t accurate, it’s that it just feels incomplete. I haven’t found that succinct, tied-up-with-a-bow-on-top, elevator pitch length answer that both impresses and provides enough information to satisfy the question asker. Really though, I dread the question because it hints at a much more foundational issue. Not what do I do, but rather who am I as a media professional. In other words, what and where is my “voice?”
As a photographer/storyteller, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that you have to find that one thing that you have to say that no one else can. The thing that is yours. The “ah ha” moment, the place where style and substance intersect. And to be totally honest, I feel haunted by this statement. It isn’t that I don’t believe it. I do. I absolutely do. I know that our “voice” is what allows the images/songs/films/media we make to truly connect with people. Sure, we might make fancy looking stuff, but it is YOU, your voice, the way that you see the world, that is that undefined secret ingredient that makes stories stick. Your “voice” is what causes us to connect, regardless of whether or not we can relate to every facet of the story that you are telling.
Yet, given that my work is a mash-up of my experiences, my taste, my mood, my history, my age, I often stumble over questions. How do we know when we have found our unique “voice?” How do you know when you’ve arrived at that place? Do you ever arrive? How do I know when I am just making something derivative? I see the Boy (and Girl) Wonders of the world seem to figure out this “vision” part while they are still teenagers. I’m not intimidated by their talent because, amazingly, talent alone won’t get you there. And for that matter hard work alone won’t get you there either (though you obviously need generous portions of both). It goes beyond that. I shake my head in disbelief because it seems that some people are able to stumble upon their style, their substance, their sense of who they are and what they want to say so quickly. Because, for me, sometimes it seems that the only thing that I can really articulate is that I know, but know that I want to be a storyteller.
AN EXPLORATION IN SMALL VICTORIES/FAILURES (PERSONAL PROJECTS AS YOUR VOICE)…
This year, I have been taking stock of these first five working years. I’ve been thinking about where I have been and where I’d like to go. I’ve been thinking about what I’ll say next week at that party when the question inevitably comes up. I realized that I’ve really spent the vast majority of my time shooting paid gigs. I have been bouncing from one client to the next, one discipline to the next, meeting expectations, pitching ideas that fit within their directive, bringing their vision to life. It’s been wonderful practice, but without that “voice” guiding you, you tend to say yes to anything, regardless of whether or not it is a good fit creatively, financially, or professionally. I finally put it together that the sage advice from the pros to not wait for a paid gig and to shoot personal projects has less to do with practice, per se, but more to do with the fact that often it’s through the shooting and exploring and experimenting (and the inevitable missteps) that you begin to find your “voice.”
When you execute a personal project (and not just start, but FINISH it), you are forced to make creative decisions without someone else’s money or timeframe or direction dictating the choices. In other words, you don’t have anything to hide behind. Personal projects begin to reveal the patterns that lead you to this elusive “vision” that we all have tucked away somewhere.
For me, I realized that I had been neglecting this part of my creative work, and so I have set out on an exploration of sorts. An exploration in occasional, small failures. I’m making room for attempting things beyond my reach and for working without worrying about getting paid (what a novel idea!). 2010 has been the year of “personal projects” for me. I wanted to quickly share three of them with you in the hopes that you might join me on the journey:
The Anywhere Portraits:
This idea is simple. Anywhere is a good place to make a portrait. To set up a backdrop on a sidewalk in a random town to make portraits of those passing by isn’t a unique idea. I’ve seen Avedon’s street portraits. I’ve seen Irving Penn’s Worker portraits. I’ve seen Clay Enos’ Street Studio. But for this particular project, that wasn’t the point. The point is to set up and to practice being brave. It is terrifying to ask someone who is busy going about their day to stop. Especially if that particular someone doesn’t speak the same language (or particularly if that person is flying down a busy street in Manhattan).
I have put up a backdrop in cities across Texas, SoHo, Uganda, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and all over my neighborhood. I am rejected at least five times to every portrait that I make. Occasionally that rejection feels pretty personal. I give each of the subjects a card with a portrait number and an email address. If they email me later, I send them a copy of the photo. Nearly everyone who stops for a photo sends me an email. The interactions I’ve had throughout shooting for this project have been completely worth any of the rejection experienced.
Canon and Vimeo – Beyond the Still:
I am sure that you are probably aware of Canon’s Beyond the Still film contest running the past several months on Vimeo. It was conceived by Vincent LaForet as a way to provide a structured outlet for still photographers to explore the world of narrative filmmaking. In case you are unfamiliar with the contest, LaForet was supplied a still image by Canon and then created a 3-4 minute short film to expand on that image. He then ended his piece on a still image. That final still was downloaded by hundreds of participants who then used it as the jumping off point for their own 3-4 minute narrative short film (ending with their own still). Judges (some Hollywood guys with impressive resumes) select their five favorite films for the round and the Vimeo community votes on the winner. Then the chapter winner’s final still becomes the starting place for the next round. (There are six user submitted chapters).
I knew from the first moment that I heard about the contest that I had to enter. Of course I was terrified, but it was a perfect opportunity to try my hand at narrative filmmaking. Besides, being afraid of something is usually a good indication that you should go for it. I called some friends and batted story ideas around. I called friends to be my actors. Slowly a script emerged, a plan formulated. I had no idea what kind of coverage I needed. How do you shoot a two page dialogue sequence? How do you film in such a way as to ensure you have enough to cut together in the end? I ended up attempting a chapter and completely missing the deadline. I mean, not even close. I put in a ton of work and just completely missed it.
I had bitten off way more than I could chew and it left me with a decision to make. Should I start over for another chapter? Or perhaps I should just let this one be a lesson learned through failure. I was frustrated with myself. I had to regroup. I called my friends back, re-wrote, re-shot, re-edited, re-scored and this time, made deadline.
And a funny thing happened… I won the chapter. I was completely taken aback. Is the film perfect? Of course not. I see all of the little mistakes. I see everything that I wish that I could change. However, I made something that I could stand behind. And now, sometime this fall, I will get to go make the final chapter with Vincent and an entire crew. I’ll get to watch and work with the big boys.
*A caveat: the above short film is part 5 of a continuing narrative, so if you feel lost, don’t be alarmed. The other winners’ films can been seen here.
I have long been thinking of ways that I could bring something to the table that combined my facets of experience in the music world. I share a studio space with a few other guys that is located within blocks of many of the major mid-sized music venues in town. I suddenly had an idea. What if we invited bands that were coming through town to come to our place to record performance videos. All of us had Canon 5Dmk2 cameras with various lenses, grip, and lighting gear. My audio engineering work meant that I had access to plenty of audio equipment, as well as engineers to run it if need be (including myself). We decided to record the songs as multi-camera, multi-track audio (mimicking a recording studio set-up), one-take live performance videos. No overdubs and no pickups. I asked the bands to play different arrangements of the songs so that it wouldn’t quite be what you would hear at a normal concert and it wouldn’t be quite what you’d hear on the record. It could be a new point of contact.
I knew that we had a shot at making something really interesting, so I got on the phone and pitched and pitched and pitched. Finally we had a band bite and come in and play for us. It was intense. The band only had half an hour to track. We ran four songs, made portraits, nabbed a quick interview on tape. Then the dominoes started falling. All of a sudden we had recorded eight sessions and had to think about how to present the project. We just launched with part one of our Paper Route session. We’ll see how it goes…
IN THE END…
Now, every piece of work I have shown you today was made as “personal work.” I haven’t shown you anything that was made for hire, under the direction of a client, or to pay the bills… This is a small body of work I’m making time to create in the in-between moments. The paradox, of course, is that these projects are paying out enormous dividends in my paid gigs. I have a clearer sense of myself as an audio-engineer/photographer/filmmaker. As a storyteller. I really do believe that we are all Storytellers. The particular disciplines that we choose to endeavor in are tools in the service of Story.
The reality is that very few of us will ever be just photographers. These days, even the pros are often what I call hyphenated content producers. We must learn to create across mediums. We are photographers-entrepreneurs. We are photographer-filmmakers. We are insurance salesman-photographers. We are teacher-photographers. This isn’t something to run away from, but rather, we must learn to survive in this brave new world.
Think of your life experiences as tools in a tool bag. I engineer records. I make photographs. I write and direct films. Not to mention all of the other life experiences I have been collecting. All the mountains I have stood atop, all the books I’ve read, all the road trips I’ve taken with friends. These all mysteriously add up to a unique “voice.” You have this voice and vision too. I don’t care if you sell insurance and shoot on the side. I don’t care if you are a wedding photographer who is beginning to shoot video. I don’t care if you are a photojournalist who is contemplating a buyout. I don’t care if you are stay at home mom who photographs flowers. There is that something that you (and only you) can say.
My opinion? These personal projects are one significant way in which we can undertake drawing that voice to the surface.
What are the tools that are in your tool bag? What are the projects that you are using to root around for this vision and voice?
I’d love to hear about them because trust me, we are all in this together…
Find me on twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ryanbooth
Read my blog: http://blog.ryanbooth.net
Look at my photography portfolio: http://www.ryanbooth.net
Check out my music project: http://www.serialboxpresents.com
PS: Thanks for reading. I know it was a marathon… :)