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.

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For the Pleasure of It

Many years ago, I had one of those memorable dream assignments. I was doing a story for the National Geographic Traveler on Manor Homes in Ireland – places where tourists could stay.  They ranged from small, historic homes to grand estates. My husband and daughter came along, because this was one of those opportunities I wanted to share with them.

One of the homes we stayed in was actually a large farm owned by the Allen family.  It was a delightful family and everyone was involved with the operation of the farm, the restaurant and inn, and the food – the glorious food.  When I arranged the dates to photograph this property, the inn was full, so they graciously put us up in their private quarters.  That ended up being a blessing in many ways.

One morning, Mr. Allen, the patriarch of the family told his son Rory that he was going to the village to get a flat tire fixed.  When he returned, Rory asked his father how much they had charged him.  His father replied “they did it for the pleasure of it.”  There’s not a day that I don’t think about that remark.

I have never thought of my work as “work” at all.  The line between work and pleasure has never been present in my life – at times it has been a blurred line at most. Sometimes because I didn’t make this distinction, I found it difficult to stop “working” at the end of the day.  My husband, who is also my partner, would occasionally tell me “enough” – but for me there were days it was never enough.  I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.

I attended the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival last week as one of the filmmakers who had a film in the festival.  It was incredible in so many ways.

Erin, Gail and Tom at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival

For starters, I got to share it with my family and friends.  I watched films, went to symposiums and workshops and networked with all sorts of people at parties and events.  It was my reward for all the blood, sweat, tears, hours, days and months that I have invested in this project.

As I met and talked with other filmmakers last week, I was reminded of why I was here, with a film at a film festival. I’ve been doing my work “for the pleasure of it.”  It’s what I love to do.

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Travel and Video

When I started out as a still photographer over 30 years ago, I knew I wanted to travel. And that’s exactly what I did, I traveled the world on assignment for magazines such as National Geographic Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Islands, Smithsonian and many more. I shot over 18 stories for National Geographic Traveler alone.

Over those years, I found myself doing a lot of observing as well as interacting and listening to people from cultures around the globe. I was fascinated by their stories. I documented my observations through my images and when it all came together perfectly my visuals told their story.

Many times I would feel the need to add audio or movement to fully capture the spirit of a place. When digital video came along and now HD it was a dream come true. Technology making all that possible for an independent shooter.

Travel and the medium of video are a perfect match. Adding the sounds of a destination or a recorded conversation adds another dimension to a story. Much of what I remember from past trips I’ve taken are the sounds of the environment. The prayer chants from a mosque in Giza at dawn – the bells of a sleigh in the snow in Banff- a yell from a street vendor in NYC – children laughing in a school yard in Blarney, Ireland. All ideal elements for a video format.

As well as adding the dimension of sound, shooting video allows you to add movement. Photographs are moments in time – video is time in motion. When you shoot travel, you want to immerse yourself in the place you’re in to get a full sense it. Whether it’s dance or a bustling market or a ferris wheel, video captures the energy of a place. I got fabulous footage from shooting from a ferris wheel. It acted like a giant jib when I shot from the ride as the wheel came around.

As far as shooting travel, adding video to my skills has opened up new ways of seeing many places I had been to dozens of times before. And with smaller and more discreet cameras, I can be less obtrusive. Video and travel – a perfect match.