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 http://ow.ly/I0kY303lQUQ #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.

 

 

 

What I Would Say to my 30-Year-Old Self

Most folks would write about what they would say to their 20-year-old self, but I chose to address myself a decade later when I’ve had some time to experience more of life.

You’ll be OK – How many of us have thought at times that things will never work out? I have survived a lot of experiences that I thought I would never get through. I’ve done some stupid things and made some dumb decisions. Some have taken their toll but I’m OK.

Don’t confuse “young” with “emerging” – It’s common in our culture to equate youth with fresh or emerging. Don’t tell yourself that this will be the only time in your life that you will “emerge”. I was young when I first started out but I am only now “emerging” in terms of my craft. I am creating from a lifetime of experience and my authentic self.

 Business is personal – Relationships are what it’s all about. People will come and go in your life in both business and personal. Be mindful of the relationships that have value and keep those connections secure. As singer/songwriter Don Henley wrote, “you get the best light from a burning bridge”.

Don’t preach to the choir – Don’t just hang out with likeminded people. It’s boring and provincial. Broaden your perspective by connecting with people who are different ages, genders, races or religions. It will bring more understanding and tolerance in your life and others.

Don’t be a quitter – but know when to walk away – I tell folks, “I’m not a quitter. I don’t even walk out of a bad movie”. I’m tenacious and it has gotten me far in my life. At a film festival where I won best documentary, I told a filmmaker that I might have never started to make my movie if I knew that I would still be involved with it, 3 years later. He told me “that’s normal” and then said “you’ll know when it’s time to walk away”. I have found that to be true with all kinds of things – not just making movies.

Make each day count – I’m paraphrasing a bit,

LeonardoTitanic
Leonardo di Caprio, Titanic

but in the movie Titanic, Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Jack makes a remark about making each day count. I love that scene. Life goes by in a blink.

Are You a Woman in a Man’s World?

“Hey, it’s an ice cream man who’s a lady!  I was the lady…

It was the first year that Good Humor hired women as ice cream truck drivers. It was the summer after my freshman year at college, when I applied for a job as a driver. I fibbed and said that I could drive a standard transmission so I would get the job.  I got the job and as I bucked out of the Good Humor lot on my first day, I learned how.

I have always been the “token” female in my professional circles throughout my life.  To be honest, I never set out to be a front-runner for my gender or to prove a point. I simply followed my interests and and didn’t let the naysayers stop me from what I wanted to do. I just went for it.

In my profession of still photography there are definitely more women in the business now, than when I started.  At times it has been challenging and no doubt many opportunities were lost simply because of my gender.  But I was tenacious and I was passionate about photography and the access my cameras would give me to the lifestyle I wanted. I wanted to explore the world and experience places and events and share them with others. I’ve spent a lifetime doing just that.

I’m amazed at what technology has enabled me to do in my life and in my profession. I have been able to utilize the tools of today and the plentiful electronic distribution portals to bring awareness to various issues or cultures through my still images and motion. Currently, I’m working alongside my partner, Tom Kelly on a project entitled Like a Woman. It’s a series of short films and environmental still portraits of women who are working in male dominated professions – a subject I can certainly relate to.  We’ve just finished our

Taylor Laverty, Pilot of Good Year Blimp, Carson, CA
Taylor Laverty, Pilot of Good Year Blimp Spirit of America

 latest film about Taylor Laverty, a female pilot for the Goodyear blimp, the Spirit of America. She is one of only three female blimp pilots in the world. Taylor amazes me with her skills and professionalism and I am grateful to see the strides going forward in gender equality. 

Change happens slowly,  until it eventually becomes the norm.  By creating these short films I hope to nudge change along a little quicker and  inspire other women to reach for opportunities that are out there and used to be off bounds – not that long ago. I am always looking for interesting stories about women who are paving the way in fields where few women have gone before.  Please contact me.

What’s Next for Still Photography?

One of the only good things about getting older is that I have gained a lot of perspective.

Shooting photograph with an iPad, New Zealand
Shooting photograph with an iPad, New Zealand

I never speculate what the future will hold by limiting it to what’s possible now because………when I began studying photography at Brooks Institute in the early 1970’s,

I never would have imagined:

  • That I would own a personal computer that would change the way I communicated with people and ran my business.
  • There would be the Internet, email and mobile phones.
  • There would be auto-focus cameras and lenses.
  • Cameras would be fully automated – if you choose to use them that way. When I began my career as a photographer, I needed to be a technician, and that meant understanding aperture and shutter speed and a lot of other things that went into making a still image.
  • I would be shooting still images without film.
  • I wouldn’t be limited to 36 frames on a roll of film.
  • I could change the ISO on my camera, as need be.
  • I could change the white balance on my camera, as need be. (No need for different types of film)
  • I wouldn’t need to “get it right” in the camera because I could “fix it in post”.
  • I could see what I shot – right after I shot it, without waiting for the film to come back from the lab or taking Polaroids.
  • There would be data cards and hard drives that are able to store hundreds of thousands of images at affordable prices.
  • I could transmit my images digitally and globally with ease and speed.
  • I could share my portfolio electronically with virtually anyone, anywhere in the world.
  • That still cameras would be able to shoot video.
  • That video cameras would be able to shoot at high resolution with fast shutter speeds – good enough to take still images for frame grabs.
  • My mobile phone would be able to shoot high res still images and video.
  • Magazines and newspapers would publish electronically.
  • I would be able to watch a movie in my own home.  (without being wealthy enough to build a home theater with an analog projector and sound system).  This was before the VCR was invented.
  • That feature movies and TV shows (other than soap operas) would be shot in video.
  • I would be able to make a feature length film without a Hollywood budget and a big crew.
  • I could self-publish and distribute my book or a movie without a publisher or movie studio.
  • My TV would have access to the Internet (what’s the Internet?)
  • The Internet would give birth to “new networks” producing original content.
  • I would be competing and doing business on a global scale  – as a small business owner.

A lot of the things I listed seem commonplace now.  But, I when I first began my career as a photographer, I never would have imagined any of them – not in my wildest dreams.

What do you imagine the future will bring?  There’s one thing for certain, if you limit your imagination to what’s possible now – you probably won’t even come close to what’s in store for the future.