Pay it Forward
“Pay it Forward” is a phrase that might sound familiar because it was the theme for a popular book and later adapted into a movie. The concept of Pay it Forward is not about repaying a good deed or a favor to the person who did something for you; it’s about paying it forward to others. It’s how I feel about teaching photography. I’ve received a lot of assistance and good will throughout my career that I can never repay. But I can give back; that’s why I think things have come full circle.
I graduated Providence College with a major in English and a concentration in photography. My dream was, you guessed it, to be a photojournalist. I loved writing, loved taking pictures. But I didn’t have any experience right out of school, so I worked for a magazine publisher as an administrative assistant. Then six years later, after gaining experience as a proofreader/copyeditor/production manager, I was hired as an editor at an international publishing company.
My commute was a long one – over an hour each way. One morning I found myself in the elevator at 6am, alone. Barely looking up, I pressed “2” and the shiny elevator doors closed in front of me. I leaned against the wall and saw my reflection; I looked like a zombie, a robot. It was an ordinary Monday morning. There wasn’t anything “wrong.” I loved the people I worked with – they were good friends. But something was missing. The work itself wasn’t interesting to me anymore and I didn’t want to be there.
What else was I going to do? I didn’t have a portfolio, or tear sheets, or any ideas on how to get back to my original plan – becoming a storyteller. That’s when you sit down and just start somewhere. Didn’t have a portfolio, but I could change that. I started freelancing as a photojournalist on weekends writing travel articles, lifestyle pieces, you name it. What would a magazine find interesting, different? Then it happened. A relative told me about a driving school course at Skip Barber Racing School. “It was the best gift, ever!” She said excitedly. She couldn’t tell me the details fast enough.
This was good stuff! I could write about safety benefits, the notion of “bad” female drivers (a guaranteed hot topic in a women’s magazine! :) ), and hot-looking car photos couldn’t hurt.
I pitched the idea and got the assignment, but had a slight problem. I didn’t know how to drive a stick. Never learned as a kid and was setting myself up to learn as an adult, in a class full of guys. What was I thinking!? (Here’s where the research part as a journalist is key.)
Good fortune did come my way because my teacher was Bruce MacInnes, legendary race car driver and instructor. He agreed to pre-class practice on double clutching – thank goodness! Bruce became a dear friend and mentor; his enthusiasm, positive energy, and passion for teaching were contagious.
“It’s pretty simple,” he’d say, smiling. “I see it like this. Every morning when I wake up I have two choices: I can be happy or I can be sad. I choose to be happy because I’m alive. I could have died so many times in a race car or in an Ultralight. I am so lucky! It just keeps things straight for me.”
Once I finished the driving school, the temptation to “go on” with the racing school was irresistible. I worked an angle to get published in a few more magazines – Smoke and Robb Report – and eventually found myself in a Formula Dodge open-wheel race car.
You know how hooked I got? I traded in my automatic transmission street car for a stick shift. :)
I was the only woman in my class and I didn’t want to be singled out as the “slow one.” You know, that car that everyone is passing. I was very motivated to practice, a lot.
Sitting behind the wheel of a race car means that you have to make split-second calculations. And sometimes, no matter how hard you concentrate, those calculations will result in misjudgments. One day, I miscalculated in a spectacular way. I did the ever-fateful pedal snap (when you lift off the gas too quickly) down the straightaway before Turn 1. I whipped around quicker than my eyeballs could follow. In a blink, I was looking up the downhill, got sideways across the track, and then skidded into the grass. I didn’t get hurt, but I did eat some dirt. It was an especially long walk back to pit lane. I couldn’t have felt more embarrassed, like a big ‘ol “L” was stuck to my forehead.
Bruce told me what I did wrong and was predictably encouraging. I nodded, then walked over and sat on the wall.
“You’re up, Annie,” Bruce shouted when they got my car ready.
I shook my head side to side. “Yeah… no freakin’ way,” I mumbled under my breath as he walked over.
“Nope, this isn’t for me, Teach,” I responded, resolutely. “I’m done.”
“Ahh… no you’re not. You are getting in that car again. Right now.” He looked at me with his piercing blue eyes. “Your pride’s a little hurt, but you’re not quitting. Get up…”
That was that. No discussion. I got back in the car. Talk about getting back on the horse again! Those three days changed my life. Dealing with failure, humility, self-confidence – tough stuff. I wanted to improve so I had to push myself, risk failure and learn from it. It’s as true for race car driving as it as about photography. I also saw how important it was for an instructor to believe in his students and not give up. My workshop students hear me say: “It’s not about the pictures you bring home, it’s about the learning process. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone.”
I loved being at the track so I signed up for more high-speed lapping days, more “seat time.” The only way I could afford it though was to publish more articles. A major incentive to keep writing and shooting! When I wasn’t driving, I’d walk around and photograph the instructors, drivers, cars, scenics of the track. Word spread and the next thing I know I became “the photographer.”
“Hey, I hear you’re a photographer. Tomorrow I need shots of me runnin’ Race 5 of the…”
I’d say “yes,” of course. Photographers are always counseled to say “yes” and then figure it out later, right? Feel the fear and do it anyway.
Gulp. Now the pressure was on to actually get professional looking shots of moving cars. I could make pretty pictures in the paddock area, portraits, but I had no real experience capturing moving cars. So I searched out any pro photographer at the track and asked for advice. It wasn’t easy at times navigating my way in a predominately male environment (like racing school), but I just had to prove that I was serious and committed to learning. Mastering the technical aspects of the camera set up was important, so I did a lot of experimenting. But I needed a mentor. Someone to take me beyond the instruction book. A local track photographer tolerated me asking questions, but I needed someone I could shadow.
Thanks to a friend of a friend, I not only got the assistance of a sports photographer, it was iconic Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier. Heinz orchestrated a trip for me to assist legendary motorsports photographer George Tiedemann at the Indy 500. I could barely breathe from the excitement knowing I’d be at Indy, credentialed, with a camera.
George took me under his wing, as did the other Sports Illustrated photographers I met, and told me what books to buy, what to study. The guys filled me in on the “do’s and don’ts” of working in the pits and trackside. It was an extraordinary opportunity. They took me to Roberts camera store and told me which Nikon gear to buy. I put myself in debt, (wouldn’t be the first time for photography!) but I knew it would be temporary. I trusted my instincts that it was going to be OK. It was risky, maybe a little impulsive, but it turned out to be a worthwhile investment. I needed professional gear if I was going to shoot like a pro.
George and the other photographers were so generous with their time and instruction. They were the best in the business, and yet, they took the time to teach me.
One thing everyone agreed on was that there was no shortcut for practice. I was told to photograph anything that moved – including traffic! Dutifully, I picked a busy intersection near my house and practiced panning with traffic. I felt pretty self-conscious at first, but then just concentrated on what I was doing and not on people staring. :) There I was standing on the side of the road, swinging left to right trying to get wheel spin and the “nose-to-tail” of a car in the frame.
My print sales were slowly increasing at the track when I was introduced to the media liaison for Skip Barber Racing School (SBR) at the time, Rick Roso. After being persistent (maybe borderline stalker), Rick gave me assignment work for the pro series at SBR. He took a chance on me even though I didn’t have as much experience as the other photographers. That’s the whole Catch-22 thing with experience, right? Someone has to be willing to give you a chance (and possibly not deliver), so you can gain experience to ultimately move forward. And not only did Rick give me the chance to shoot, I watched him edit. Watching a good editor work through your take is an invaluable learning experience.
I continued to work at my publishing job and freelance for about two years. During that time, I met Mike Corrado, a Professional Markets Technical Representative for Nikon. We became friends and talked about cameras every once in awhile. Then one day I got the call.
“Hey, I think you should interview for a job here – it’s my old job,” said Mike. “You ask me more technical questions than anyone else and you actually read the instruction manual! You wanna be a photographer for real, right?” Mike was being promoted.
I didn’t fully process what he had said until I put down the phone. I read the quote (below) that I’d taped to my wall. I read it again, and again.
“…That the moment one definitely commits oneself then Providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Begin it now.”
I interviewed several times with Bill Pekala, General Manager of Nikon Professional Services (NPS). I knew this was it. I wanted to work for Bill. I wanted to be involved in photography every day. He hired me and I began my training as a technical representative for Nikon @12 years ago. Bill has an impressive, far-reaching knowledge of photography that is unmatched – he’s been with Nikon for over 30 years. He’s widely respected in the photo industry and I can’t even begin to quantify all I’ve learned from him and my colleagues at Nikon here in the States, as well as abroad.
As a Professional Markets Technical Representative (PMTR), I’ve learned valuable information about the cameras, lenses, flashes, software, but I’ve learned so much more about becoming a better photographer technically and also creatively. I’ve been trained by the best there is. I’m privileged to work with an amazing group of talented men and women who are not only accomplished photographers, but also experienced, knowledgeable, dedicated educators.
You’ll see us behind the counter at a photo show, or answering questions during a workshop, or on the sidelines, or in a press center because our primary job is to support photographers – whether it’s answering technical questions, helping with loans or repairs, every day is different! Whether I’m explaining FP High-Speed Sync to a pro or helping a dad take better pictures of his son playing soccer, it’s all good :)
Our customer base consists of a wide variety of photographers, including photojournalists, sports and nature photographers, commercial, industrial, military, and law enforcement. I’ve worked field events such as the Olympics (total of 3), World Cup, Kentucky Derby, Masters, World Athletics, the list goes on! I’ve had the honor of being flown onboard a US aircraft carrier (USS Harry S. Truman CVN 75) twice and shot off, plus photograph a space shuttle launch. Incredible experiences.
I signed up to be a student in as many photography workshops as possible when I first started at Nikon. I was going to be working with the industry’s best and wanted to improve my own skills!
I will always be humbled knowing I not only do what I love, I now teach what I love. Jay Maisel has been that example for me as a photographer and an instructor, and continues to be a source of inspiration.
I took one of Joe McNally’s lighting classes early on and learned that if you really want a photograph, you have to go for it…
NPS sponsors a wide range of workshops and events across the country, but it took all these years before I ended up at a Nikon sponsored motorsports event at my old track Labor Day weekend. I got to work with my mentor George Tiedemann after 15 years! And fate would have it that my friend Rick Roso (who works at Lime Rock Park) would be my contact once again.
“Ok. Be straight with me. I really sucked…! I can’t believe the stuff I turned in. I can’t believe you hired me!” I laughed, reminiscing with Rick about my early years at the track.
Rick laughed harder, “Well, you were OK. It took a little while. Then he paused. “You know. It wasn’t like that; it was really more than the pictures you were giving us. You had such enthusiasm and determination. You just had something. I knew you’d figure it out.” He gave me a chance, the “lucky break.”
Being at my old track, years later, was a blast because I got to shoot pictures, look at portfolios, listen, learn, and it was all a part of my day job. Thanks to Rick Dole, George Tiedemann, and Robert Laberge, all extremely talented, wonderful sports photographers, for a fantastic event and making my “homecoming” weekend so memorable.
Photography has afforded me the opportunity to create, travel, meet interesting people and make lasting friendships. I am very fortunate. Now I’m often in the position where I’m able to “pay forward” the good will that was given to me. Whether it’s young photographers looking for advice and career direction, or looking at portfolios, I am happy to do so.
My travels include teaching week-long workshops, such as the Nikon D-SLR Class at Santa Fe Workshops.
And I am thrilled to be at the CreativeAsia conference for the first time next year in Malaysia!
The best of both worlds is teaching and traveling with my husband, the man I love and admire most, one of the most extraordinary photographers and educators, Joe McNally.
A BIG “thank you” to Scott Kelby for the invitation today and for all the support he and his team have given to photographers. Thanks for stopping by!!
You can find Anne here on Facebook