How Creating a Family Story Movie Turned into Something Else

I’m a photographer/filmmaker hybrid. I got my beginnings in the editorial world telling stories through my images all around the world for magazines like National Geographic, Smithsonian and Travel & Leisure. Mostly I think of myself as a storyteller. When my mother died unexpectedly over a decade ago I realized that I only had a few photos and mementos to keep her memory alive. I’d give anything to hear her voice or her giggle again or to hear her tell a story that she had told a hundred times.

I knew then that I wanted to create films to preserve a family’s story and legacy.A film has the power to preserve those stories through interviews, imagery, sound and music in a cinematic memoir.

I’ve been working on a film over the last two years about the Pitney family that had inhabited a historic home and farmstead for 11 generations. The farm pitney-farm-before-fire-copyis only about a mile from my house but the family is flung all over the globe. The story seemed almost too big and a bit too distant and I found myself losing focus. Then I met and interviewed one family member, Barbara (Pitney/Lamb) Johnson who had researched and written her family’s biography and was extremely knowledgeable about the family history. She was also incredibly gifted in front of the camera and was able to bring her family’s stories to life through her memories and the warmth and cadence of her voice. It was then I knew that I had the makings of a priceless legacy film.

The farm had not been inhabited since 2013 when the last Pitney to have lived there passed away. The town purchased the farm in 2009 but when the last Pitney inhabitant died in 2013, the future of the historic property became controversial. Some wanted to preserve it for community use and others wanted to sell it. This past winter, one cold February night the Pitney homestead was destroyed by fire. The Morris County, NJ Prosecutor has since been determined the fire to be arson and it remains under investigation.

After the initial shock of the fire pitney-burned-out-shellwore off, I began to realize that I had captured priceless footage of the farm and Pitney family members telling the family’s story. I also realized that I had more than the makings of a just a family story. The Pitney farm had been a binding thread throughout the Pitney family’s history and the property and its demise was another story and a story whose ending has still not been determined.

I finally finished a short preview sample of the Pitney family story . In addition I ended up making a separate preview or trailer of the fire itself. The full feature length film of the family is in production. I’m not quite sure yet where I’ll go with the film about the fire that destroyed the farm but maybe I’ll follow Orson Welles’ advice;  “If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story”.


Professional Photographers and Value

Let’s face it, these days, professional photographers aren’t only competing with other pros – they are competing with anyone and everyone with an iPhone.

Hanoi, Vietnam
Woman with flowers on bicycle. Hanoi, Vietnam

Before you get upset and kill the messenger – ask yourself “What is my value proposition?” What do you offer that your competition doesn’t’?

I started making a list of things that professional photographers could offer to boost their value to potential clients:

  • Skills – Do you have any unique skills that can set you apart from your competition? If you define yourself by a specialized piece of gear that’s new – keep in mind, you may have just 5 years or less before ‘everyone” has it.
  • Vision – Make sure your “vision” comes from you and isn’t just a copy of what’s “hot” or trendy at the moment.
  • Access – Do you have access that others don’t? I realized when I was shooting for National Geographic that I was given access to a lot of photo opportunities that others didn’t have. Sometimes these opportunities yield photo opps that are off limits to others and make some stand out portfolio samples.
  • Rapport – If you are working in video and part of your job is doing interviews, then having a good rapport with your subjects will give you results that only you will get. Good interviews are dependent on social chemistry.
  • Your audience or following – These days, even getting a commissioned assignment may be dependent on your own social media following. Advertisers want to capitalize on that if it’s the same target audience they are trying to reach.
  • Project management skills – Getting the shot is only one skill set that photographers need to compete. Clients expect you to manage the project from soup to nuts and deliver the goods. That could mean wrangling large crews, getting access or simply making sure that everything that needs to get done to complete a project – is done.
  • Sensitivity – Be sensitive not only to your clients’ needs and problems but to whomever you are working with. I know a very good photographer who began burning most of his bridges with his clients. He was more interested in getting his point across and making demands than he was listening to the needs of his clients.
  • Likeability – Similar to above. There are just too many photographers out there to choose from that if you aren’t likable – well – you may want to look for work that doesn’t require any social skills.

If all this sounds simple –  it is. It’s applying it that’s the tough part. But if you do, you will set yourself apart from your competition.

Thinking of moving into motion?  Check out The Craft and Commerce of Video and Moti

Happy Birthday to John Lennon and Jackson Browne

Today marks the birthday of two of my music icons John Lennon and Jackson Browne. John would have been 76 years old johnlennon1if he had not been killed. Their songs have given me happiness and comfort throughout my life. When I first really discovered music during my prepubescent years, it was the music of Beatles that resonated with me. It woke me up and gave me a sense of belonging along with millions of others inflicted with Beatlemania. As time went by their music changed as they became more experimental and the world changed as well.

I recently saw Ron Howard’s film, “Eight Days of the Week” the other night. It was about the Beatle’s touring years. It was beautifully edited and the sound was superb and I looked at it with the eyes and the appreciation of a grown woman who was now a photographer and filmmaker. It gave me a new perspective about their early days than the one I had when I was a smitten preteen. Back then I was just another young girl who was overwhelmed by these lads from Liverpool.

I had attended both of the Beatles concerts when they played Shea StadiumBeatlesTicket4 copy in 1965 & ‘66. Even though I had been there it was the first time that I had actually heard what the Beatles played that night. My family had just moved from Rochester, NY to the NYC area and my dad had somehow obtained 4 tickets to the show in his company’s box seats at Shea. It will go on record as probably the best gift my father had ever given me. It was more of an event than a concert. It quickly became historic and an event I will always remember.

As I got older and had experienced a couple of real relationships with the opposite sex, I moved to California. It was the early ‘70’s, and it was a different time and a different culture.JB I became captivated by the early California sound of Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash, the Eagles and of course Jackson Browne. Their music defined an era and my young adult life. Jackson’s songs brought awareness of social issues and motivated the huge demographic of baby boomers to take action. To this day I remain a huge fan of Jackson Browne’s and try to see him in concert at least twice a year. In some ways his lyrics became my religion.

Music makes us happy, provokes us to take action and comforts us when we’re down. It’s universal. I think back to the 1960’s and how the Beatles and their music had gone viral. That was way before we had the Internet and social media platforms and I wonder, how did that happen? I suppose the stars were aligned and it was simply “the right time” to create one of the biggest phenomenons in music of all times. Of course it had a little help pushed by the emerging demographic of baby boomers who were ready to take the world by storm.

I wonder what John Lennon would have gone on to do in his life, if he hadn’t have been stopped by a bullet some 40 years ago. His music will live on and I will keep going to Jackson Browne shows as long as he keeps giving them. Their music is the sound track of my life.

Jackson Browne in concert
Jackson Browne in concert

Top 3 Tips for Photographers, Filmmakers, Writers – Everybody

I’ve had a long career with a lot of successes and failures. Here are 3 tips with examples of lessons I learned along the way.

Get rid of the resistance in your life – Long before I became a photographer, I was on a different path. I was studying architecture at Syracuse University. During the summer of my sophomore year my friend and I went on a hitchhiking journey to Canada. Along the way we stayed with people we met while on the road. I remember one such stay very well. It was pouring outside and we decided to just hang out rather than face the elements. There were quite a few other travelers sitting around the room smoking dope and talking about what everyone talked about those days – their disenchantment with the war (Vietnam) and everything else that was status quo.

Sunset, Arthur County, Nebraska
Sunset – Arthur County, Nebraska

One fellow erupted and said – “I’m sick and tired of hearing the same old complaints – why don’t you all do something about it.” Those words have stayed with me my entire life. To this day I try to get rid of the whiners in my life and be the one who does something.  My proudest achievement to date has been making the documentary Opening Our Eyes, a film about individuals who are creating positive change.

Don’t hide your vulnerabilities – It took me a long time before I could tell anyone one of my biggest embarrassments, but when I did it was liberating. I was working on an assignment about Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. I had made an appointment to photograph Walter Cronkite, who was a well-known figure on Martha’s Vineyard. The day before our scheduled appointment, I called Mr. Cronkite to confirm. This was way before cell phones and email and even before everyone had answering machines and his phone just rang and rang and rang. I kept calling throughout the day and the same thing happened. By evening, I was upset because I thought that Mr. Cronkite had stood me up. That night, I had a terrible feeling. I thought perhaps that when I had re-written my production notes and contact info for the job, I might have written down the wrong number for Cronkite. I had kept my old notes and discovered that I had been calling the wrong number all day. Imagine how horrified I was when I discovered that it was I who had stood up Walter Cronkite – not the other way around. I called the correct number, Walter answered and I was profusely apologetic as I explained the situation. He was kind and understanding and rescheduled and then he said, “Why didn’t you look me up in the phone book?” I replied that I assumed someone of his stature would not be listed.   I learned never to make assumptions. It took me years before I could tell anyone this story. It’s really hard to admit mistakes but when you do, you gain trust.

Be who you are – not who you aren’t – I had just graduated from Brooks Institute and I wanted to pursue my passions. I wanted to be a photojournalist and use my craft to gain access to a world full of stories. Before I enrolled at Brooks, I had spent a year backpacking around the world. I had one camera and one lens and came back with my snapshots and a whole lot of desire. But it was a bad time for magazine photojournalism – Life Magazine had just folded (the second time) and everyone was telling me that if I wanted to make a living as a photographer, I needed to do commercial work. I bought into that and built a pretty good commercial photography portfolio. Then I went to see legendary NY photographer Jay Maisel, a man known for being blunt. He looked at my work, threw a print at me and told me it was “garbage”. Then he asked me if this was what I wanted to do.  I told him no, that I wanted to be a photojournalist but that everyone had been telling me to pursue commercial work. He asked me how old I was and I replied “25” and then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises”. It changed my life and I remind myself every day to be who I am and dream big, even though I may have to settle for less.

Flying 1 Million Miles with United Airlines – And Why I Wouldn’t Do it Again

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. I envision the end goal and then break things down and figure out how I will reach it. Essentially, if I don’t have an end goal in sight then I usually don’t start something. I’m a self-inflicted creature who does the work andkeeps my eye on the prize.

I never set out to fly 1, 000,000 miles with United Airlines. It just kind of happened while I was in the process of going somewhere. gail-brooks-institute-263x300I’ve been on roads, trails, tracks, and the sea and in the air for most of my life capturing imagery with my cameras and immersing myself into other cultures in the world.

Before I knew it, I realized that I had flown over 950,000 miles with United – and that didn’t take into consideration the miles I had flown with their competition. I remember looking at my account and thinking – “what’s another 50,000 miles?” and deciding to finish the job and qualify for United’s Million Mile Premier status. I thought it would be a piece of cake.

The act of flying the last 50,000 miles actually was a piece of cake, but it came with incredible frustration when trying to decipher United’s rules and footnotes along with numerous exclusions and disclaimers. After spending hundreds of hours on the phone with countless United employees in an effort to clarify their rules before reserving and paying for a ticket, I eventually learned why I had been getting ambiguous and conflicting information. United airlines outsources many of the agents that answer their phone – even their premier desk lines! I found this out the hard way after spending a lot of time talking with someone who answered the United phone line only to be told that she/he can’t help me and that they would connect me with a United employee. Nine out of ten times – I got disconnected. Now when I call United, the first thing I do is ask if I am speaking with a United employee. I also understand now why I’ve been getting the conflicting information I have received.

Tip: Most likely if you call an airlines, it’s because you have a question that can’t easily be answered online. If so, ask if you are speaking with a United employee.

To be clear – This is not about outsourcing to a foreigner instead of hiring an American. This is about cost cutting efforts for United (as well as plenty of other companies) at their customer’s disservice. We live in a DIY yourself culture and I am more than capable of reserving an airline ticket online – but if I need help, I’d like the option of speaking with a person who can really help me rather than be sent down a phone tree or worse yet go through an online chat with a lot of time wasted ready cut and paste answers and links to more ambiguous information.

I could elaborate and cite numerous examples of how United Airlines simply doesn’t care about their loyal customers who fly their airlines. These days it seems they are more interested in their partnerships and making money on just about everything except aviation. Every step of the way, from making a reservation online, to checking in at the airport, I need to page through a half a dozen or more options on how I can spend more money with United. Check a bag? – more money. Want more legroom? More money. Need a car – a hotel? More money. Want to upgrade? More money. And if you are loyal Premier Gold Elite passenger like myself, you get to stand in line 2 to board your flight – along with other Premier Gold members as well as Premier Silver members, AND…………anyone who has a United Explorer credit card!

I completed my million miles when I flew to Prague, Czech, a fairytale city that I have dreamed of visiting. When booking my flight, I noticed that the miles that I flew on their partner’s legs, (Lufthansa from Germany to and from Czech) didn’t contribute to my Lifetime Miles account. I was told that even though Lufthansa was their Star Alliance partner and that United ticketed those flights and the ticket numbers began with “016” those miles would not count toward my lifetime total.

Tip: Only United or United Express flights on United aircrafts that have been ticketed by United count toward your total lifetime miles account.

I was also told that United couldn’t pre-assign me a seat on the Lufthansa and I found out later that neither could Lufthansa until I was at the airport. Even more aggravating was when I found out that I had to pay for the extra legroom seats designated as Economy + on the Lufthansa portions even though as a Premier Gold member I get those seats on the United legs for no extra charge. I asked a United agent what benefits I did get as a Gold Premier member when flying on one of their partner’s flights that had been ticketed by United?  The agent replied “You get your bags checked through”. Does that mean that the non-Elite passengers don’t get their bags checked through?

United Airlines’ slogan is “Fly the Friendly Skies”. The skies may be friendly and the journey is often priceless but United Airlines and their management have become callous, very impersonal and pretty much anything but friendly. In fact I believe that Peter Greenberg’s latest poll of US air carriers, listed United dead last.

I made my goal, but I no longer have the desire to be loyal to United because I get the distinct feeling that this company clearly doesn’t care about being loyal to me.

In honor of Woman’s Equality Day

Taylor Laverty, Pilot of Good Year Blimp, Carson, CA
Taylor Laverty, Pilot of Good Year Blimp, Carson, CA Shot for Like a Woman

In honor of upcoming Woman’s Equality Day #askhermore #mediawelike #representher #unmasked #notbuyit/ #distrustthenarrativeIn honor of Woman’s Equality Day

Pricing, Photographers & the Race to the Bottom

The bottom is getting crowded.

I read Seth Godin’s blog daily. He’s usually concise and right on target. His post entitled,”Clawing your way to the bottom” really hits the mark as far as what professional photographers and other visual creators are up against.

I used to make a lot of money shooting stock – that is before the consolidation of agencies and the commoditization of stock. While it’s understandable why that happened when the world went “digital”, the prices and value of images has dropped so far that an “average” stock shooter can no longer make a living shooting stock.

I’m grateful that I never relied solely on stock photography to make a living. However, commissioned photography has not escaped the race to the bottom as far as photographers pricing themselves out of business. There’s only so low one can go on their fees. It’s a short fix to nowhere.

The solution is there for anyone who is willing to do the work – that is, make the effort to stay at the top of your game. Focus on the big picture. Be curious. Don’t panic. Stay away from trends., Focus on the story – not on the gear. Tell them a story. Live life because if you don’t – your work will show it.