Making It Personal…

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When I’m speaking to college students about my work, I’m always asked about finding ‘real’ moments while in the midst of a commercial shoot.  I believe it goes hand in hand with developing a personal voice in your photography.  I know students struggle with this all the time.  I’ve thought a lot about this question and in my mind it always comes down to being in touch with who you really are deep down.  We’ve all grown up with a different set of experiences and tapping into those experiences, celebrating them, finding the uniqueness in your self is really what makes us artists.

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That self-realization, combined with an incredible work ethic, is a recipe for success in this business.  It’s not about the camera, digital vs. film, strobe or natural light, or how much gear it takes…

It’s about how you see the world.  It takes time, passion, and perseverance to learn to really look at the world and not just see it, the dance between light and human emotion.  It’s a very interesting dynamic, spending all that time looking thru a viewfinder.  It can be a lonely pursuit sometimes, but provides for a life rich with experiences.  It certainly has for me, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

We are where we come from.  When I was growing up in a small town in Kentucky my father had a Kodak instamatic camera that he would use to take pictures of us. He’d bring it with us when we got in the Chevy to go on the rare vacation.  He would get it out when the flowers would bloom or the leaves would change in the fall.

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Dad would then get the slides developed and park my brother, sister, and me in front of the projector to watch those images appear on the wall in our living room.  It was about as close to magic as anything I’d seen.  Looking at that horizontal landscape with the car, the love of family (and family pets) was evident.  It had a huge impact on me and I can see it now when I look at my work.  I remember when I was a student at The University of Kentucky Sam Abell came to speak to my beginning photography class (we didn’t realize how lucky we were because Sam also attended UK) and he spoke very philosophically about his pictures.  He mentioned how he was molded as a photographer by growing up in Ohio.  That being exposed to the landscape influenced who he was as an artist.  He lingered over each picture and told us his thoughts.  Years later, in his book Stay This Moment, Sam writes, “In my grandfather’s picture of my parents is the same strong horizontal line that so organizes my own compositions and always will.  This line is an echo in my eye of Ohio.  To me that grand level landscape was utterly optimistic.  It said, you can go anywhere.”   He says it so much more eloquently than I can, but boy, do I relate.  I’ve always pressed forward and the camera has been a ticket to see the world.

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I was lucky to be surrounded by incredible talent and mentors at my first job as a photographer at The Courier-Journal in Louisville.  It was like an on-going parade of who’s who in the world of photojournalism.  Many folks went on to work for National Geographic and other national publications.  My time there, along with my photographic  family I worked with, really shaped me as a photographer.  It was an environment where we lived and breathed photography.  As I worked, I found myself making personal pictures on assignment and many of those photographs would end up getting published.  I was shooting not only the obvious for the assignment at hand, but letting the discovery process be driven emotionally as well.

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It wasn’t really complicated, just spending time with subjects, building a rapport.  Finding that people would relax and let you in as they realized you were sincere.  In the course of working at a newspaper, you tend to become an expert at the technical aspects just because you are shooting so much.  I realized this was an important step, because then you could stop worrying about fstops and whatnot and let the camera become an extension of yourself.  As I transitioned into magazine work this idea of personal shooting continued.  When I first went to New York and showed my book to Sports Illustrated I took a gamble and didn’t include a single sports picture.  It was mostly made up of stuff that had never been published…things I’d shot on my own.  I wanted to show them how I see.  They ended up giving me an assignment to go shoot the soccer great Pele on the spot.  I went out to the Meadowlands to photograph him that day with borrowed gear from the Time/Life photo department.  This started a ten year plus relationship with the magazine and work from other publications such as LIFE and Golf Digest soon followed.

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I always approach each assignment with eyes wide open.  I’d find that in addition to shooting the assignment, subject or game, I’d always be looking around the back alleys, locker rooms, and the fringes of the stadium.  Around 1999 I started shooting commercial work for ad agencies.  I still continued my ‘habit’ of finding a personal picture out of each scenario that played out in front of me.  These are the images that continue to resonate with agencies and editors.

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In the course of shooting the commercial work I had the opportunity to work on the sets of many television commercials being filmed.  High budget jobs that employed A-list directors.  I watched and learned.  I’d come home from the road and tell my wife, “ I think I could do that.”  I grew up loving music and film, so now that’s the next chapter…I’ve been directing film and television for the past 8 years or so.  Sometimes it was a steep learning curve (and still is), but I feel I’m still seeing the ‘personal’ moments.

I would encourage you to chase your dreams, never forget where you come from, and shoot the photography from the heart.  Inject your personality into your pictures.  Shoot, shoot, shoot photographs.  Then shoot some more.  Really look at the world and look inside yourself.  It’s a wonderful gift we’ve been given.

I want to thank a few friends and colleagues  who have been a huge influence / inspiration to me over the years.  Joe McNally, Joel Sartore, Walter Iooss, Bill Luster, Sam Abell, Melissa Farlow, Dan Dry, Jim Gensheimer…okay, as I write this list I realize we are in a profession made up of very talented, giving people.  There are way too many friends and influences to list!  Carrying on the tradition of mentoring and giving back to other students of photography is an honor.  That’s what Scott’s site is all about.  So thank you so much Scott and Brad for inviting me to ramble today.  I’m humbled to be in such great company.

Now, get inspired to go out and make your photographs personal!

You can see more of Ben’s work over at BenVanHook.com and can keep up with him on his blog.