Top Reasons for Doing a Personal Photography Project

I have spent a lot of time purging things lately and one being my enormous collection of analog and digital images. For the most part, it became obvious that the commercial work that I had done for the money years ago, looked dated and wasn’t worth keeping. However, the images
Beijing, Chinathat I shot for personal projects were timeless even though they had been shot decades ago.

I  have grown weary in our youth obsessed culture that as an older creative female many times I am being dismissed – I have become invisible. I don’t say this to complain and I’m certainly not the first one to echo these sentiments, but I found that it was beginning to undermine my self-worth. As I looked through some work that I hadn’t seen in many years
Havana, CubaI realized that I am reacting to people who are judgmental and ageist. There are two things that I can’t change – my height and my age – so I thought that it does me no good to care about others who define me and my value by my age. Rather than feel bad about the longevity of my career, I choose to tell myself that I must be doing something right to be in such a competitive business like photography all these years. The answer is that I love to create photographs and now videos – it’s something that I HAVE to do.  It keeps me alive.

Regardless of where Blackpool, Englandyou are in your career, take the time to shoot what you care about. It’s the most important thing you can do, not only for your career but for your self-esteem.

Here’s why:

  • Assuming it’s an idea you are passionate about and not doing it to second guess the market – it will be a reminder of who you were then. It’s  also great to put new eyes on it a second time around.
  • When you’re paying for it yourself, you’ll work harder. Failure is not an option because there is no failure.
  • There are no restrictions or mandates – the world is your oyster. If you dream it, you can probably make it happen.
  • Working on a personal project is great for making new contaPinetop Perkins, blues musiciancts. You learn to be tenacious in selling your idea in order to gain access to someone or a place. It’s much harder to sell yourself and an idea when you don’t have a letter of assignment from a major magazine.
  • Most likely these will be the images that won’t get old even as you do.

 

 

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Teaching and Learning – Four Weeks in China

It’s the start to a beautiful day in Brookside, NJ and I’m home at last after a long and arduous 4-week trip to China.  I had been teaching Chinese journalists, video journalism or new media as they refer to it in China.

I hadn’t fully realized how hard “teaching” really is until after these past four weeks.  To begin with, I was teaching a difficult subject – “how to produce and shoot short video stories”, to journalists at the “state’s” largest news and photo agency.  I had 4 days to teach 4 weeks worth of material –how to think and shoot in motion, edit video stories and upload them online. To make things even more difficult, everything I said had to be translated by my interpreter to my students, making the instruction take three times longer.

Each week my students amazed me by their eagerness to learn, despite coming to the class with the bare minimum in the way of  “tools”.  Some students didn’t even have cameras that could shoot video. Some had dated low res video cameras and no one had any audio gear at all.  When it came to the editing part of the program, their computers were under equipped to handle Adobe Premiere CS 5.5, which they had recently downloaded and installed on their PC’s. And yet, each class managed to produce a short story after less than four days!

This entire adventure was a lesson in collaboration. My students learned to collaborate.  Like most photojournalists they were used to working solo, so collaborating was a foreign concept to them.  But, collaboration is a common way of working when it comes to video and it was a necessity in China, because the students were lacking in gear.

I was part of a team of four teachers on this trip, so I too was working in a collaborative way.  That was equally tough, as I am used to working as an independent producer and accustomed to making my own decisions.  The other three photographers/teachers were also independent photographers, used to doing things their own way.  Egos collided from time to time within the group, yet we ultimately knew we needed to maintain the “group” in order to deal with the angst that came with doing this job. On top of that, our Chinese hosts wanted to control us.

I think we all learned a lot about each other in the process as this adventure played out.  I know I did.  But, I also learned a lot about myself. Perhaps, this was the purpose of this trip – to learn more about myself and grow from the experience.  Time will tell.

I can also say that I learned from my students.  There is always one student who feels that they already know everything, and usually tries to “stump the teacher”.  When this happens, I handle it with humility and thank the student for teaching me something that I did not know. I do not hide the fact that I don’t know everything.  And then I take the opportunity to relay to the rest of the class, that I never want to stop learning, no matter how old I get.  I tell them that in living this way, it has brought many rewards in my life and I encourage them to do the same.

I’m home now.  It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Brookside, NJ and I’m reflecting on my last weeks, which remained an adventure until the end.  Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng was on my flight from Beijing to Newark, NJ, seeking asylum in the US and making a new life for himself and his family.  As Chen adjusts to a totally new life in America, I’m happy to be home again with my freedom and liberties in tact.

The Difference Between TV and New Media

It’s been a tough 3 weeks teaching video to journalists in China – perhaps the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.  It’s not the teaching part that’s hard – it’s knowing if what I am saying is being correctly translated to my students, it’s being away from friends and family and just being away for so long that makes it tough. I have one more week to go and will take a good long rest when I return to the US.

Last week was especially difficult but yet my amazing students got me through it.  They simply amazed me in how quickly they learned.  They learned in 4 days what it takes most photographers to learn in 4 weeks or months.

Every week I have a new group of students and each week there are always one or two students that I know really “get it”.  There was one student who I coined a nickname for “Mr. Question” because he asked more questions than most.  His questions weren’t just about what settings to use on his camera or how to do something in Adobe Premiere, but more about the “big picture”.  His questions always showed me he was thinking.

One question, this particular student asked me this week, really caught my attention.  He asked me “How are we (new media producers) different than TV?

Stephen-Lee-TV-News-Presenter SMALL
Stephen-Lee-TV-News-Presenter SMALL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had just read an article online that addressed this very question and it talked about how newspaper video journalists are now winning more Emmys than TV news journalists.

I responded to my student by telling him:

  • TV news makes the reporter part of the story – sometimes even the “star”
  • New media tells the story through the voice of the subjects – making them the “stars”
  • TV news is delivered to us on the network channels – 3 times a day.
  • Online news is 24/7 and on demand.  We get the news online when we want it and wherever we want it – on our desktop computers, on our iPhones or on our iPads. We also can share the news and interact with others.  We become part of the delivery chain.
  • TV news journalists rush back to the studio to get the story on air by 5 o’clock. The stories are generally very short – limited to their broadcast slot.
  • As new media producers we have the luxury of working longer on feature stories and delivering them online to a global audience.  While print newspapers and magazines are folding – there has been a rebirth of the long documentary story that can now be delivered online.  We are communicating to a wider audience around the world, no longer being restricted by time and space.

In the 1960’s newspaper executives were lamenting about the good old days and predicting that TV would kill them.  I find it ironic that the shoe seems to be on the other foot now.  I teach “motion” and “video journalism” to a lot of still photographers.  There are some who buy their DSLR’s and aspire to make broadcast spots for TV.  There are some who aspire to make feature length films for Hollywood.  And then there are some who tell me that there is nothing new about video and that field is already glutted with videographers and cinematographers. Those are the old business models for video and motion.

The ones who “get it” are the hybrid creatures that recognize that there is a shift in the way we communicate.  They understand that video is really just another medium in which to tell their stories – not a business model, nor a niche market.

My student in China who asked me this question- he “gets it”.  He understands that he is part of the future of how Chinese journalists and others around the world, will deliver the news. That’s why they call it – new media.

Pioneering in Video

I’ve been in China for the past two weeks, teaching video journalism to some of the best photojournalists in China.  Last night at dinner, the top director of the program told me (via my interpreter) that Xinhua, China’s biggest news agency, was setting up their multimedia department to stay current with how news is communicated in this day and age.  She thanked me for teaching and inspiring her journalists in this medium and said that I was an honorable “pioneer”.

I never set out to be a pioneer when I first started shooting video and motion in the mid ‘90’s – I merely recognized that when the “tools” of this medium became affordable, it was now possible for me to tell my stories in another dynamic way.  But I never turned my back on still photography and I would say that it still makes up about 50% of my business – at least in the time that I devote to it.  I would also say that while I spend 50% of my time split between both mediums – I make more than 75% of my income from shooting motion – capitalizing on not just making income from shooting video but also on the other elements like editing.

I started thinking about the aspect of being a pioneer and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t trying to set new ground at all – I was really just challenging myself and more importantly staying true to why I became a photographer and that was to communicate.

I’ve given a lot of workshops to still photographers who want to move into video.  Generally there are two types of photographers – the ones who think that because they have been “shooting” for many years, they “just” need to understand a new mode on their cameras and the ones who embrace the fact that this is an entirely different medium and they understand that they are novices, and are eager to learn how to communicate in a different way.  It’s usually the cocky photographers that fail miserably and end up with a string of unconnected “moments in time” to a music track.

Ever since the first DSLR that incorporated a video mode hit the scene, I’ve seen more and more still shooters, move into motion.  After only a couple of months, I even see some of them teaching workshops.  It amazes me, because many times some of these same shooters have been hypercritical of “amateurs” coming into their profession with their auto everything “point and shoot” cameras.  I’ve had some shooters tell me that they aren’t going into motion, because they think that when these tools  become easier to use and more automated – the same thing that has happened to the profession of still photography will happen in video.  I disagree with this notion but more importantly I think that this attitude is usually a mechanism people use to talk themselves out of challenging themselves and are reluctant to “change. ” Just like when still photography moved from film to digital – the ones who got left behind were usually the ones who tried to convince themselves that digital would never be as good as film.

I cannot take credit for being a pioneer in video.  There are many who came before me that were true pioneers and I feel that would discredit them and their efforts.  I’m simply a storyteller and I’m happy that I’m still passionate enough about telling the story that I continue to find the best way to tell the stories that I am meant to tell.

Thanks to the gracious people in China and the Xinhua News Agency for recognizing and embracing the future and being keen to learn.  Perhaps many of these students will not shoot multimedia – but learning how to shoot in motion has made me a better still photographer and will make them better shooters as well.

Week One – Teaching in China

I’ve just wrapped up week one, teaching Chinese photojournalists, in Beijing, to think and shoot in motion.  Like any new job or new experience – the first day or the first week – is always the hardest.  The week flowed like any good story, with “ups” and “downs” but by Friday afternoon – my students triumphed and amazed me.

It’s difficult to teach any “still” photographer “motion” because so many photographers are so gear oriented, they underestimate the most important part of the process – thinking and shooting in motion.  I find that many times, still photographers think that all they need to do is switch their DSLR’s to “video mode” and shoot.  There’s a certain attitude amongst some professional photographers – that all they really need to do is get a camera that’s capable of shooting video.  But they quickly realize that there is a lot more to learn.

Day one, we talked about thinking and shooting in sequencing.  It took longer to get this message across, simply because everything needed to be translated into Chinese.  I showed examples that helped and then gave them an assignment to shoot a sequence of video clips that told the story.  The next day we reviewed the work of the students and they quickly understood the successful attempts and the not so successful results.  They also realized how different shooting motion is from shooting stills.  I had told them in class that “stills are moments in time” and “video is time in motion” but until they actually tried to shoot that way – and then analyzed their results in the critique – did they begin to understand. Many made the common mistake of moving the camera, rather than letting the motion happen in front of the camera and many produced video clips that didn’t relate to one another.

Day two we started to talk about audio.  That’s a subject that all still photographers underestimate because they don’t realize the importance of capturing good audio.  They think that their camera mics are sufficient in this task. After all, they are capturing sound.  It’s not until they can hear the difference between good audio and bad audio that they really begin to understand that audio is more important than the visual.  I could see the light bulbs going off the next day in the critique that they were beginning to understand this important concept.

Day three we talked more about the importance of audio and that when shooting with a DSLR camera, it is essential that they capture audio with an external microphone and a separate digital audio recorder.  After a morning in the classroom, we all headed out for a field trip.  I set up a situation where I did an interview of a subject and they shot the b-roll.  That evening, we broke into 3 groups (video is a collaborative effort) and they set off to capture a story, using everything we had learned in the past 3 days

Day four, we put a small dent into learning the vast editing application, Adobe Premiere.  That was perhaps the most challenging day for all of us.  I’m somewhat new to Premiere, since I’ve been editing in Final Cut Pro for the last 10 years, but it was the most viable solution since most of the students were using PC’s and Premiere is cross plat formed.  We learned the basics in the morning and in the afternoon – the hard work began.  The next day, we would be joining the other 3 groups who had been learning things like lighting and Lightroom and the clock was ticking to get their assignments edited.  I cannot even begin to tell you how amazed I was at how far these students had come in just 4 days – it was remarkable.

The next morning we showed our completed projects to the entire student body and other faculty.  Based on the resounding applause – I believe we amazed them as well. That evening we were all beyond exhausted, but my students invited me out for a “banquet”.  I was lucky  – many in my group spoke some English – so the evening was spent sharing stories and cultural experiences and food and drink.  It created a bank of memories that I will cherish.

We had two days of rest and our first day; we headed to a remote area of the Great Wall.  I shot some still images and then I needed to just take pause.  As the other 3 teachers continued to shoot – I knew I needed to stop and just take a moment to put the camera down and really “see” where I was.  I needed that time to absorb not only the week I had spent but to relish the “now” and think about where I was in the context of the world.  It’s those moments, when I put the camera down, that always create the memories that linger in my mind forever more.

Teaching Video Journalism in China

Chinese flag, Beijing, China.
Chinese flag, Beijing, China. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sitting in the Continental (United) airport lounge at EWR, waiting to board a flight for Beijing.  I’m headed to China for 4 weeks to teach Chinese journalists, video journalism.  My mind is spinning with ideas, questions and the usual array of “what ifs” as I take on another adventure.

About two years ago, I started saying “yes” to opportunities that presented themselves to me – or at the very least, I began to consider opportunities, rather than to talk myself out of things, right off the bat.  Because, of that mind set, I’ve been going where life seems to take me and it has presented quite a few interesting adventures.  It’s not that I’m foolhardy and doing things on a whim – it’s that I have been listening to myself – my inner voice – and it has been my guiding force.

I’m told that the Chinese are hungry for “western” knowledge.  But what I have to teach them is something universal, and that is – how to tell a story – using the medium of video.  Seems so basic and simple – how to tell a story – and I suppose it is, but like anything else, it’s simple if you understand it.  The key to understanding something is to have the desire to learn.  Some people say they want to learn – but that’s different than really having the desire to learn.

Some folks feel threatened by this seemingly insatiable desire of the Chinese to learn all things western.  I’m also finding that when people feel threatened by something – they try to “stop” whatever it is they are feeling threatened by.  It’s one of those stupid human tricks that folks have played since the beginning of mankind.  I process this behavior pattern as unproductive and unsustainable. It rarely works as far as eliminating a perceived threat.  You simply can’t totally eliminate desire.

Rather than stop others from growth – a better way is to better yourself.  I’d rather put my energies into where I want to go in my life – than in trying to squash other people’s hopes and dreams.  I’ve also found that what goes around – comes around.  When you “give” and “help” others – you ultimately create a better world – or “space” for everyone.

So, as my mind races this morning with my hopes, my expectations and enthusiasm – I try to keep the nagging doubts and fear at bay.  I tell myself that it’s natural to have concerns.  But I also tell myself that I can either let my concerns consume me and turn into fear or I can welcome the “unknown” and embrace the opportunity at hand.  I’ll let my inner voice guide me because it seems to be doing a good job.

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The Love and Angst of Learning

I don’t think there has ever been a point in my life when there wasn’t something that I didn’t want to learn about.  I’m just a very curious person who has an insatiable desire to learn. I’ve been learning about filmmaking over the last two years and I am addicted to learn more.  I am realizing that I have always thought in a cinematic way.  As a photographer, I saw my stories as films – a pagination of images – combining to form the story in my mind’s eye. I am so intrigued right now with the craft and structure of screen writing, and want to learn more.  I have a story in my head that I want to “get out” and I see the visual elements playing out in my head.  Now, I’m starting to “hear” the story and the words and I want to learn how to craft those elements into the beginning of a screenplay.

Last Christmas, I got the Rosetta Stone course for Spanish.  When I was traveling with Erin in South America, she became my translator and I was really frustrated that I couldn’t understand the language, so I vowed to learn Spanish.  I’ve been trying to squeeze in the time to learn electronically, but it’s so hard for me.  Languages have always been difficult for me – even English.  Really the only way to learn a language is to immerse your self into it.  I try to tune into conversations when I hear Spanish being spoken and make feeble attempts to participate.  Slowly, I’m getting better but I doubt I will ever be able to roll my r’s.  I have found though that when I “relax” and imagine myself as someone who is fluent in the language, I do much better.  The same thing happened when I was in New Zealand last fall and I got on an ATV vehicle for the first time.  I just pictured myself as being one with the machine and I did just fine.

Lately, I’ve been teaching myself editing with Adobe Premiere.  With Final Cut Pro going to a completely different program, I wanted to expand and learn Premiere.  But, what really prompted me to learn is that I will be going to China for a month, to teach Chinese journalists how to “tell stories in motion”.  I knew I needed to learn an editing application that was cross-platformed and Adobe Premiere was the obvious choice.  Learning Premiere has been easy, especially with Lynda.com. I am such a big fan of Lynda.com. Of course, knowing how to edit helps.  Essentially it’s not much different than Final Cut.  Things are named differently, but the basics are the same.  There are also a lot of things that I love, especially the easier integration with other Adobe products like After Effects, Photoshop and Bridge.  Now the Adobe Suite has a screenwriting application, Story. Could that be the nudge needed to follow through on the screenplay that’s beginning to play out in my head?

So, my learning path continues. But I’m also playing my part by passing along what I know.  Things have a way of coming full circle.

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