Hello everyone, it has been a very busy year and a half since I last did a Guest Blog Wednesday. I would like to thank Scott Kelby and Brad Moore for the chance to share what I have been up to with the community once again.
The busy year and a half has been filled with fighter jets, muscle cars, helicopters, armored tanks, jet-powered boats, rock stars, athletes and general adventure and mayhem. In other words, work has been loads of fun and I feel extremely lucky and thankful for every moment. Here is a short video with highlights from the past year or two:
You may recall that I work very closely with my retoucher, Justin Paguia, who also was a previous Guest Blogger. About 3 years ago I decided that I wanted to accomplish something visually with my photography that I was unable technically to do on my own. I could imagine what I wanted in my head, but didn’t have the time or advanced Photoshop skill to create these final images I dreamed. Thus, I began my adventure to search for a retoucher that I could establish a close working relationship with that would understand my style and my passion for the action/rock and roll/gasoline/bright colors/adventure. I did some Google searching and I asked for referrals. Nobody seemed to be the right fit for me until one day NY art director & stylist “Jersey” introduced me to Justin. We hit it off right away with our immature love for 80’s action movies and similar artistic visions.
Over the coming months Justin and I would slowly train each other how to work in order to achieve the dynamic “look” I was striving to achieve. Before each shoot/project/campaign I intend to be retouched, I will normally call/email Justin (he is NYC based and I am always on the road) to consult the creative concept I envision and what elements I would have to capture on-set (extra ground elements, sky, articles of clothing, various portrait poses, etc) to make his job easier. After 3 years of practice and training and experience, we have become quite a team. Justin won’t retouch every shoot, but I always have him working on something.
Some of the best work in my portfolio (in my opinion) are images I did for myself or for my portfolio. If I were to give any photographer a piece of advice, it would be to always shoot something for yourself. Sure, we all have to pay the bills and you may say to yourself you are too busy doing the “bread and butter” jobs, but let me tell you, I am crazy busy doing photography and co-running a film company, but I make time for personal work because whenever I shoot something for myself that I am passionate about, new and better paying gigs come from it. Trust me on this.
Today I will be sharing with you two projects I did as personal projects and Justin will be chiming in with his retouching process. I hope you enjoy!
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…
Thirty-two years of professional photography and the best advice I can give to any photographer is: Change is always coming…be ready to alter course, reorganize, try something new.
Adaptability and flexibility are crucial attitudes for navigating through abrupt challenges and difficult seasons both personally and professionally. I’ve found that being willing to adjust to unforeseen circumstances can lead to a new assignment, project, or even a new genre of photography I may not have discovered otherwise.
Back in the early 90’s I was loving my job as a photojournalist for a newspaper’s Sunday magazine. I had been in the position almost ten years and assumed the ride would continue forever. It was a golden era for photojournalists.
Then, one day the staff was called in and we could all hear the proverbial pin drop as we were informed that our staff positions were being eliminated. When I called my wife, Vivian, to tell her the unsettling news, she replied with, “How exciting!” She was envisioning an open door to a myriad of thrilling opportunities but all I saw was a grave. A black nothingness of self-pity.
Vivian helped me see this “crisis” as a possible answer to spending more time with our growing family and traveling internationally together. I left the newspaper and we moved to Atlanta. Vivian and I began working full-time on conceptual stock photography (for what later became Getty Images). Looking back, the metamorphosis from employee to small business owner was not really that difficult. It was more like trading a pair of well worn shoes for a new pair that somehow felt already broken-in.
Even so, photographing spinning gears, happy couples running on a pristine beach, or creating the illusion of birds flying in a perfect arrow formation was a definite departure from my photojournalism roots. But the flexibility it gave me for overseas travel opened new avenues for my photography. I got connected with several faith-based groups who were helping people all around the world, and began to document their stories. Within five years of leaving the newspaper magazine, I had traveled to more than 40 countries shooting for various non-profits and NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) aid groups. Once again, staying flexible had led to a new kind of photography. This time, it awakened something inside me.
Shooting for NGO’s and non-profits has become a calling. Like David duChemin describes in Vision Mongers, “It’s as though there’s a voice beckoning us to distraction, a preoccupying whisper that, at some point, we give in to and follow.” I can’t NOT shoot this type of work. Stock is still a way to put bread and butter on the table. More than that, it gives me the freedom to engage a world that is hurting.
“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless. Maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4) This verse from the Bible is the “why” that keeps me pursuing humanitarian photography. Do I think I can change the world? Maybe not…but I want to help in whatever ways I can, small or big.
I don’t have the skills of a doctor to ease the suffering of a refugee from Sudan. I am not a logistician that can organize massive airlifts of food to Haiti. I am not a missionary that can comfort a crying child day after day in a Kenyan orphanage. I am not a writer that can craft a book of golden prose to change the course of a nation. I am simply a photographer. However, I am aware that good photography has the power to open closed doors and hearts. Photography can change the destiny of people. By staying adaptable, I have found my own.
Adjusting to change hasn’t just affected the type of photography I do, but most recently, has led to an idea for a fun personal project. Vivian and I call it “Visitors.” With the current emphasis on social media and internet, we wanted to get more “face” time with people. So much of our interaction with others is via Facebook, Twitter, etc. To remedy that, we determined to be more intentional about inviting people into our home. I then decided to take a portrait of everyone that visited, be they family, friends, workmen or random strangers. Now, more than a year later, 150 plus visitors have come into our studio to be photographed. Check out the first 100 in the video below.
Many thanks to Scott and Brad for this opportunity to share. If you have any questions on gear or photo techniques, feel free to ask. I try to be an open book! Oh yea…one more thing…here is a link to my packing list should you be interested. Be blessed and be a blessing!
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.
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…
Holy crap. The time has arrived. I’m blogging here today thanks to Matt Kloskowski, who stumbled into my Photo Plus seminar last year. During the presentation, Matt was amused by my ramblings, texted Scott multiple times to come take a look, and presto, I now find myself in unbelievable company teaching for Kelby Training. I was asked to be a guest blogger last fall, but my wedding schedule was out of control – so I asked Brad if I could delay it a bit. Truth be told, I had no idea what to write. Truth be told, I still have no idea what to write, but I suppose I’ll figure something out along the way. When I blog, I blog photographs, not words! I find it pretty darn funny that when someone tells you that you can write about anything you’d like, writer’s block sets in like rigor mortis.
I suppose, the first step would be to quickly let folks know who the heck I am, and why I was given the honor of guest blogging for Scott. I’ll work on the former… I’m a wedding photographer in the Philadelphia region, and I’ve been shooting professionally for a whopping 29 years. I’m only 48, so if ya do the math, I started getting “paid” for this stuff when I was a 19 year old college kid. 29 years in professional photography… there’s got to be some conversion we could do – sort of like dog years, only photographer years. It’s just about the only thing I’ve ever done for a paycheck, with the exception of the swell jobs my dad used to get me loading trucks in a meat warehouse in Newark, NJ when I was in college. Man, those jobs sucked, but I learned a ton about life.
After 6000 assignments during a 15 year career with the Philadelphia Inquirer, and after 750+weddings (haven’t really counted), I’ve never really looked back, until recently. I’ve been pretty damn fortunate to have made a living pushing a button for all these years. While I was certainly no star in the PJ world, I did get to meet people, see places, and experience things I’m incredibly grateful for. I loved photojournalism, and while you can take me out of photojournalism, you can’t take the photojournalism out of me.
When I first started at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1985, the staff was ridiculously talented. I used to sneak peaks at the negs of some of those I admired most- Larry Price, Sarah Leen, Akira Suwa, Michael Viola, John Filo, Tom Gralish, and so many others. The Inquirer staff was like a Pulitzer factory. So many great people to learn from, and be inspired by. My beat, generally, was the suburbs of Philadelphia- specifically, South Jersey. Elliot Erwitt once said, “You can take good pictures anywhere, you can even take good pictures in New Jersey.” I’d love for Mr. Erwitt to come to Deptford, NJ to shoot. He may change his mind. However, every once in a while….I’d make a picture I’d really like. Elliot Erwitt remains an inspiration to this day when I’m reminded that sometimes there’s a picture to be made just about anywhere.
I cut my teeth shooting local news, sports, politics, and features that were incredibly eclectic. Some were fun, some were dumb, some were hard, some were easy, some were sad, some were inspiring. Yet collectively, all were part of a learning process – a cumulative experience that I still call upon. Well, with the exception of the assignment I had in Audubon, NJ… “Cliff, there’s an odor in Audubon, we need art for B-1 tomorrow, go make something, here’s the address”…. Um, huh? A photo of an odor? As assignments go, it wasn’t as bad as my friend Dan Johnson’s assignment when he had to photograph a controversial purple house out of place in an historic district… yes, they ran it in B+W. But I digress.
In 1998, after 15 years doing what I loved, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Newspaper Guild had, well, a little disagreement, and I found myself one of the odd men out. So, I did what several self respecting out of work photojournalists do – I shot anything I could – corporate events, ad work, public relation events, grip and grins, product shots, brochures, and just about anything else for a buck- including a foray into the wonderful, wacky world of wedding photography.
I first began shooting weddings with a massive chip on my shoulder. I thought weddings were a bit of a joke, and to some people – maybe those who’ve never shot them – they still are. However, I quickly learned that besides the fact that they were NOT a joke. The moments I was able to capture for my clients were incredibly satisfying to both the client, and myself. It didn’t take very long before I was able to plant my feet firmly on the ground from a business standpoint- developing strong relationships with venues, floral designers, musicians, and other photographers – all of which are essential to the success of anyone in the wedding biz. However, I felt like it took some time for me to evolve photographically. I mean, I was pleasing my clients, and I was making some money, but it wasn’t until I began to learn how to use light that my style began to evolve.
Evolution! That’s what I’ll blog about! It only took me several paragraphs of rambling nonsense, but I’m on it. Now, I’m the first to admit that some wedding photographers take themselves, and their work, way too seriously sometimes. Nonetheless, it’s still an important genre to those who need us most- the families we work for. When I first began shooting weddings, I thought I was doing pretty good work. I’d pick out 15-20 images from a wedding and included them into whatever marketing attempts I was making.
A year or two later, I was selecting fewer and fewer images to include into my portfolio. As the years passed, it took so much more to make the cut. A few years after that, I found myself selecting fewer and fewer images from each wedding to include into a portfolio. Jump to today. It takes quite a bit to satisfy me now. I work my ass off each and every wedding. However, I may only LOVE a few select images in an entire year. Now, before you jump to the conclusion that I completely suck, you must first understand that as time passes, as your work evolves, and as you become more critical of your own work, your standards are set by what you’ve accomplished in the past. This, in turn, makes you better, and more consistent as a professional. The few images I make per year that I love are what keeps me going in this business. If I can make one or two during the year, I’d consider it a pretty good year. Just the feeling I get – the spine chilling sensation that occurs every blue moon – is more than enough to remind me that I thoroughly continue to LOVE being a photographer. I don’t care whether you’re a commercial shooter, portrait shooter, or product shooter, the feeling is the same. The feeling that you just created something special. I mean, that’s why you’re even reading Scott’s blog to begin with – the passion we have for the craft.
With this mantra, hopefully, the level of work I produce continues to evolve. I strive to reset my standards week in and week out. In essence, if I became completely satisfied with my work, I’d never evolve. The lesson here, in a half serious tone, is to hate your work sooner, rather than later! You’ll evolve faster, I promise.
Now, please don’t interpret any of this to mean that I hate everything I shoot. That’s not my message. On the contrary. It’s more about a search for the photographic holy grail – something you’ll never find. If you do, it’s time to quit. That’s my message, in a nutshell. I’ve selected a few wedding images below that I still like quite a bit, and hopefully that some people will even remember.
Evolution of style means so many things to so many different photographers. In my opinion, the only way to develop your style is to make sure your technical abilities and fundamentals are completely, and utterly innate. Your camera needs to be an extension of your mind’s eye. If you’re too concerned with F-stops, shutter speeds, ISO’s, focusing, and achieving accurate exposures, you’ll NEVER develop a style. If you find yourself struggling with the basics, you’ll struggle even more with composition, and other elements that make up your style. And, don’t even get me started on the subject of light. I mean, heck, light is everything. Joe McNally, a man who I admire a great deal says it best when he talks about “the language of light”. Talk about inspiration… Go see this man speak, BTW. Anyway, light is just about everything in photography. That is, everything AFTER you’ve taken care of the small stuff – exposures, lens selection, composition, and all of that other insignificant stuff. I try to create texture, dimension, and mood with my lighting. That’s what I find compelling. That’s what I try to teach.
My goal as part of Scott’s online training team is to help empower photographers with the skillset needed to go after a style of their own. The wedding photography industry is chock full of homogenized work, and if you’re going to survive in this business, it’ll take more that a fancy blog and social networking to keep paying the bills. My friend David Williams, terrific photographer and educator from down under, preaches “skillsets before action sets”. I developed my Lighting and Skillset Bootcamp to teach just that. I’ll be sharing whatever I can with the Kelby team to drive that same message home. I hope I’ve connected with at least a few of you out there, and I can’t thank Scott enough for the opportunity he’s given me.
Life has taught me that photography is more than a photograph. In the past few years my career has taught me that photojournalism is also more than a photograph. Photojournalism is a relationship, a catalyst for change, and it is ever changing yet still the same. Great visual storytelling can hit us in the heart and leave an indelible mark. It is my hope; it is my prayer–that you come away from my story about cameras, taking risks in South Africa, and prison with more than a photograph. I am thankful for Brad and Scott who provided me this opportunity to share my heart in words, pictures, and sound.
Photojournalism: It’s about relationship.
I wasn’t born with a camera in my hands. I think I grew up creatively challenged with no apparent inclinations for drawing, painting, or anything musical. While at University at the age of 20 I submitted to what seemed prudent and declared my major to be Economics with an emphasis in accounting. It seemed as though I was destined for a creative wasteland. That same year my Father (whom I admire greatly) gave me my first camera. It was his Nikon N8008 SLR, the very camera that captured the memories of the later years of my childhood and family life. It was the same camera captured the beauty of my mother, the pistol-like personality of my sister, and the annual Easter family portrait before church. I tried to use this camera to capture the pain behind the food eating contests with my seven roommates, the wondrous beaches in Santa Barbara, and the majesty of the mountains on rides with our Mountain Bike team. As I engaged with my friends and watched any part of my life unfold I tried to capture it. I just put it on “P” mode because “P” is for Professional :)
My life and work now with USA TODAY and with my wedding storytelling business is far from my college dorm, regrettably far from the beach, and definitely includes less saddle time on my bike. But in some ways, little has changed. Even after my degree in Visual Journalism at Brooks Institute of Photography, hundreds of thousands of actuations on my cameras, and developing my own personal vision, many of the principals are the same. I am still photographing real people who are allowing me to tell some part of their story because they trust me. I have learned that the extent to which I can make a good photograph and the extent to which I can tell a good story is predicated on the extent to which I am trusted. This trust and this relationship is why people invite me into their lives for times of celebration, heartache, and healing. This trust I gain with the stories I tell for USA TODAY is so similar to the trust my clients have in me to tell their wedding story. I truly love getting to know my clients before hand so that on the day of the wedding my clients families and friends don’t know me as “the photographer‚” but know me simply as Garrett. My clients’ trust in me is why my they invite me into the center of their lives for one of their most important days to tell the first chapter of their story. AND they ask me to celebrate it with everyone else in the world who is important to them. Love my job!
My life was forever changed in the summer of 2002. I had just graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara with my Economics and Accounting degree with grand plans of continuing on for a fifth year on a fast track towards my CPA license. That summer after graduating I should have been at an accounting internship furthering my career plans. Instead, I spent my summer serving people in the townships outside of Cape Town, South Africa. I will tell you that this did not come completely out of left field. You see I had been reading much about the life of Jesus and what kind of company he shared. I learned that he hung out with corrupt tax collectors, unfaithful spouses, social outcasts, and the poor. These were all the people that the religious people (who were charged with being God’s ambassadors) would call “sinners” and with whom they would not be caught dead. Not only did he keep company with the lowest of people, he had a profound impact on their lives. I found this to be radically beautiful. I soon realized these scriptures were transforming my heart. As I found small ways to do this with people in need in my community I found great joy in loving people like Jesus did. I believed I needed to step outside of my western comfort zone to love and serve the poor, broken-hearted, and suffering cross-culturally. I did just that in the summer of 2002 and my life was never the same. It was in South Africa that I learned new definitions of suffering, faith, perseverance, and joy. I lived through stories there that I will never forget. Some moments of these stories were captured on that same Nikon N8008 my father had given me.
My words fall short in sharing with you how much the life and death I encountered changed my world. After nine weeks of community development work with my friends from church I returned with a story to share. What I had experienced was not necessarily new to many people around me, but the way I shared it was. After all, they had heard about HIV/AIDS ravaging much of Sub-Saharan Africa because many of them chose to watch news outlets that shared stories outside of the U.S. When I showed them my amateur photographs, they wanted to find a way to love and serve my South African friends; friends that they would almost certainly never meet. This was my first encounter with the radical power of visual storytelling and it was not to be my last.
It turns out that I was not as creatively challenged as I had once thought and I had some sort of talent that I needed to explore with photography. However, talent was not enough to cause me to leave my pursuit of my CPA and my Bachelor of Arts behind, but purpose was. It was my belief that visual storytelling could be a catalyst for change, a means to communicate why we should care for the poor, the outcast, the widow and the orphan. I don’ care about these things out of the goodness of my own heart, but because God has showed me his mercy and put these desires in me. Could there be a better tool to communicate God’s heart for people than photojournalism in the most visually literate society that this world has ever known? I wasn’t completely sure how I was going to make my expensive education at Brooks Institute of Photography come together but I knew why I wanted it. A new risk was upon me and I took it.
Photojournalism: Ever changing tools yet still the same
I went to prison in April. Thankfully, the warden let me out every night and let me back in the following mornings. I was there to tell a beautiful story of repentance, reconciliation, and fatherhood. I came armed with a Sony XDCAM EX1 HD video camera and two Canon 5d Mark IIs. I went in knowing full well that most of my efforts would be geared toward my documentary video story “Fathers for life.” I wanted to tell a story about men in Louisiana State Penitentiary, America’s largest maximum security prison which also used to be America’s bloodiest prison.
I’ve heard it said that the news business is great because it’s new every day. As if my job wasn’t dynamic enough, the rapidly evolving technology has practically made storytelling different from day to day. If I were telling this fatherhood story just 10 years ago, I guarantee I would be going with still cameras to tell a “photo story” which is a carefully edited sequence of images (usually 6-12) with robust captions that would pair with a writer’s story to go in the paper. Today it is much different. I come to every story with my DSLRs and my HD video camera. I don’t always use both, but I always have them. This is largely due to the way we consume our news online via computer, smart phone, iPad, etc. Many photojournalists have embraced this brave new world and have learned multimedia and video storytelling and see them as additional tools in the toolbox to tell the story. I am one such photojournalist/video journalist/visual journalist. Most of those who have refused to adapt and learn have been let go in the massive buyouts and layoffs in the newspaper industry. In spite of all this change in Photojournalism, its purpose remains the same. Photojournalism is still about relationship and being a catalyst for change through education.
For this story, like most, I did a lot of reporting, research, and pre-interviews before I even set foot in prison. Once inside, I worked alone, like I often do which gives me the freedom I need to tell the story as it unfolds before me. This freedom also leaves me with the responsibility of being the still photographer, producer, reporter, videographer, and editor. So here is the story about some incarcerated fathers who want to reconcile with their children to break the generational cycle of incarceration.
Not all stories I tell for USA TODAY are as serious as my Fathers for life story. Some are quite light-hearted, like this story I did about a young guy who after making videos in his basement made his way out to Hollywood.
Other stories can be pretty physically demanding like 24 Hours in the ER where I was shooting stills and video for 17 straight hours. On this story I teamed with the talented Thad Allender for the shoot. I shot from before sunrise for the next twelve hours and then he came on and we overlapped for four hours, then he carried us home for the final 12 hours. Steve Elfers, my boss and director of Video at USA TODAY helped prep us for the shoot, with our editing, and voice over.
You can check out more of my video stories & projects here.
In a few years, we all might be telling stories with 3D cameras, who knows? After that, the next generation of technology will present itself. I will learn it and I will learn the technology after that because I am a visual storyteller who wants to reach you.