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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Maggie Doyne – a Bright Light in Our Troubled World

The other night, Maggie Doyne of Blink Now,  became the CNN 2015 Hero of the Year. Maggie is a 29 year-old American woman, who has 50 kids and lives in Nepal!

Maggie Doyne, Erin and Gail at the Kopila Valley Childrens Home, Surkhet, Nepal
Erin and I with Maggie Doyne and her children, Kopila Valley Children’s Home, Surkhet, Nepal

Maggie’s story and the path she decided to take early on in life, has touched the hearts of people around the globe and changed the lives of hundreds of Nepalese women and children.

Maggie was a high school classmate of my daughter, Erin. After graduation, Maggie decided to take a gap year and travel before heading off to college. Eventually, she ended up in Nepal and saw a country devastated by 10 years of civil war and thousands of orphaned children left in its wake. She used her babysitting savings to buy property and build a home for herself and orphaned children – she was 19 years old. Maggie has 50 children now, has built a primary school for 250 kids and is currently building a high school.

When Maggie accepted the Hero of the Year award the other night, she said; “ And to all of you in this room and who are watching, please, please remember that we have the power to create the world that we want to live in”. She’s done just that and has inspired countless others, to do the same.   She inspired my daughter and I to seek out other individuals all over the world who were creating positive change and to make a film about them, with the hopes it would inspire others to make a difference.

Imagine if we all thought like Maggie and believed we all have the power to create the world that we want to live in. The fact is we do have that power. It starts with the little things we can do – in our own lives, in our family’s lives and in our communities. Small things have a way of growing into big things. When you educate one child, you change a life that has the potential to change other lives.

Maggie, you continue to inspire me. You are a bright light in a troubled world and a beacon of hope. Congratulations for this well deserved honor.

 

If you’d like to watch Opening Our Eyes, a film about Maggie and other change makers, you can view it here. Use the code THANKS2015.

Labels, Finger Pointing, Fear, and the Real Value of Photography

I read an interesting blog post “On Real Photographers” by David duChemin recently. He talks about growing weary of the photographers’ complaints that “now everyone has a camera and suddenly everyone’s a photographer”.

My first experiences of being part of a group of my peers did not go well. My memories of being in school are mostly filled with my efforts to fit in, and the efforts of others to keep me out. The new kid. The smaller kid. The kid with the funny name. So I come honestly by my desire to see others included.

 So when I hear people complain that “now everyone has a camera and suddenly everyone’s a photographer” I hear the same old, fear-driven, mean-spirited, zeitgeist of the schoolyard.

 The same craft, beautiful for it’s democratic nature, that admitted you, and admitted me, will admit others. And with the same tools we picked up with such wonder, those others will make photographs. That’s what cameras do. And it’s what people who own them do. And they will, in that moment, become photographers: makers of photographs.

They are not faux-tographers. They are not necessarily “just camera-owners”. Neither are they DSLR-monkeys, or whatever other pejorative seems clever at the time. Shame on you. Shame on us as an industry.”

Gail shooting feature doc "Opening Our Eyes" at the Kopila Valley Primary School, Surkhet, Nepal
Gail shooting her feature documentary “Opening Our Eyes” at the Kopila Valley Primary School, Surkhet, Nepal

It hit home. As the perennial “new kid” (moving 11 times before I graduated from high school), being one of only six women when I attended Brooks Institute and now being dismissed or frequently feeling invisible because of my age, I’ve personally faced a lifetime of the “same old, fear-driven, mean-spirited, zeitgeist of the schoolyard.”

I despise our seemingly human need for “definitions and categories” and placing people into boxes defined by gender, age, race or religion. So I question why do we determine the creative value of photographers based on whether they are “professionals” or “amateurs” or if photography is their sole means of making a living? It’s exclusionary and judgmental based on fear and the notion that someone has to be excluded for the rest of us to win. This attitude has no business in a creative business because creativity has no boundaries dictated by “who’s in” or “who’s not”.

I have always been more interested in the power of what a good photograph or film can do – not who created it and what box that creator fits into. I’m interested in the story one has to tell. We are visual communicators and we are all unique but only if we listen to our own voice and create from that voice. Whenever I have trusted and listened to my internal voice and created from my own unique perspective and my life’s experiences, I have been “on purpose” and my work has resonated across genders, race and age. I suppose I could copy or mimic the “style du jour” whether it is HDR or photographing hipsters with tattoos and attempt to be someone I’m not. I don’t have the desire to do that because that is not why I became a photographer or filmmaker. That’s not to say that I don’t like and appreciate photographers who are following these styles but it’s not me and creativity doesn’t come from mimicking others. I’ve seen a lot of styles and techniques over the decades I’ve been in the photo business. They come and they go – just like the photographers who chase after the latest trend.

David states so eloquently:

‘Our categories are useless. Harmful, even. They separate us. They keep us siloed and cut off from generosity and openness and collaboration. They keep us focused on our own “qualifications” and not on the audiences and markets we should be finding new ways to serve, to inspire, to connect with. Our scarcity mentality is hurting us. It’s stopping us from being creative about making a living. The world owes us nothing, which is hard to accept when we’ve paid for a degree, invested in gear, or bought business cards, only to find out the universe doesn’t give a damn, and cares only about what value we bring.’

I too am weary of the blame, the finger pointing and all the stupid human tricks based on fear, and the notion that someone has to lose in order for me to win, because ultimately that comes from a place of insecurity and ego and rarely does that produce something of value. I don’t need a license that proclaims I’m a professional or feel the need to hide my age in order to compete. My value comes from a lifetime of experiences that made me who I am. If I choose to allow someone to define who I am or what I am capable of, or allow myself to be stopped by the naysayers, then I only have myself to blame.

It would have been so much easier to quit or stop myself every time someone threw roadblocks in my way based on their own notions of “what’s in” or “what’s not” and that would have led to an empty life. I chose instead to follow my heart and my convictions and accept the rejections that ultimately come when one faces their fears and stays true to who they are. It has never been easy but I’ve never sought easy. I’ve too busy living a full and rich life, using my craft to create awareness, impact social change or just to bring a smile to someone’s face and create a memory.

My Top 3 Tips for Photographers and Filmmakers

I’ve had a long career with a lot of successes and failures. Gail in Window1983Here 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 met and stayed with people we met. 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, when 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.” That stayed with me my whole 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.

Commitment

Commitment is everything.  It’s what makes us get things done.  It’s what makes relationships work.

Gail in bamboo hut in hill tribe village, northern Thailand
Gail in bamboo hut in hill tribe village, northern Thailand

It’s what makes us not give up, no matter how bleak it may look at times. It’s what gets us to stay focused on “the story” and be true to ourselves.

To some people, commitment can be frightening.  Their heads are filled with negative “what if” thoughts of failure that hold them back.  So, they plod along through life letting things happen to them instead of going after what they want. Those are the people who let resistance win.

I’ve always been a determined and committed person – if I say I’m going to do something, you can count on me to do it.  It’s tough sometimes though, to stay committed to myself and to what my true purpose is – it’s far too easy to get caught up with the regular flow of work and life.  But every now and then I get an idea for a creative project that just won’t go away.   When I finally decide to stop ignoring the idea and do something, I have a mechanism I use to help me make the commitment – I tell someone about it.  I’m the type of person that feels, once I’ve told someone I’m going to do something, then I have to do it – just to save face.  I call it “forced accountability.”

Seth Godin writes today about commitment: “One way to play in the digital age is to appeal to those that browse, the window shoppers, the mass audience that can’t and won’t commit.  The alternative is to focus on impact, not numbers and impact comes from commitment. “ He says: “ price is more than an exchange of coins. Price is a story.” Essentially, Godin is saying that in our noisy digital world, where ideas and content are free – we’ve got to be better, to make an impact.  In order to connect with the buyers on an emotional level, we’ve got to be “better than free”.

Every commitment that I’ve ever made has come with tremendous personal growth.  When I traveled around the world a couple of years ago making a feature length documentary, Opening Our Eyes, I not only challenged myself physically and creatively, but spiritually as well and I feel that I became a better person because of it.  I would not have been able to endure the hardships of that journey, nor the intense workload of post production had I not been committed to the idea.

What are you willing to commit to?  Commitment may be frightening, but without it, you may be spending your later years wondering, “what if I had”

Letting Go

This past weekend our film, Opening Our Eyes, Kathmandu, Nepalhad its premiere in New York City. We have been in dozens of film festivals and events all over the world but for whatever insignificant reasons, we had never screened in New York.  I think of NYC as my “hometown”, even though I have never lived inside “the city”. It’s where many of our friends, clients and colleagues are and it has been our “home base” for over 35 years.

Despite the fact that the temperatures were in the single digits and there had been a major snowstorm the night before, so many of our oldest and dearest friends, along with some new ones, showed up. Even Nisha, a young Nepalese girl who is in the movie – came out on that cold night. I have been in front of many audiences over the years and have enjoyed it immensely, but I can honestly say that this was the most meaningful experience I’ve ever had. To be able to share my film – a body of work that I put a lot of hard work, heart and soul into – with my peers and people I’ve known since my beginnings, was pure joy.

In a way, the night brought things full circle in regards to the film.  A lot of filmmakers “open” or premiere in their hometowns.  Once again, I did things a little backwards, by “closing” in my home turf, as this may be the film’s last festival screening. I don’t have plans to pursue more festivals – but I never know what’s lies ahead, in the way of opportunities, and am open to possibilities.  This project and this journey have rewarded me in hundreds of ways and no doubt will continue to enrich my life. The film will still be available for screenings at educational venues and community events.  It’s also available on DVD and streaming.  My daughter, Erin and I made this film to inspire and motivate others to create positive change in our world, and we hope that message continues to spread globally.

A young filmmaker I met at one of the festivals I attended told me, “a filmmaker never finishes a film – he(she) just knows when to let go.”  I am able to “let go”,  because I know that this experience has set the stage for the next events in my life.

“Everyone has Oceans to fly, if they have the Heart to do it. Is it reckless? Maybe. But what do dreams know of boundaries?”
 
– Amelia Earhart

The Biggest Mistake Photographers Make in Video Post-Production

English: High end linear editing suite, 1999.
English: High end linear editing suite, 1999. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll make it simple and provide a quick answer to the title statement  – “What is the biggest mistake photographers make in the post production process, when they are just starting out?  They think they need to do it all them selves.

Photographers are independent creatures by nature. Most are solo entrepreneurs who create visual content for a living. But when they enter into the business of video production, unless they have decided to work solely as a hired camera operator, they will have to deal with a lot of other creative needs and variables – producing, lighting, shooting, sound, editing, music, motion effects, sound mixing, and color grading to name a few.  Unless you are pursuing a career as a backpack journalist, which I have the utmost respect for; you can’t possibly do it all.  If you try, you will either go broke, or you will put limits on the quality of your product.

I know how to edit – meaning I know the editing software.  But that doesn’t make me an editor.  I realized early on, how the craft that a good editor brings to a project could greatly raise the bar on what I produce.  Generally, I try to look at all my shot footage and do a very rough first edit.  This not only familiarizes me with my material, it helps me keep costs down. I did that on my film, and with 150 hours of footage, it was a long and tedious process.  But it also made me intimate with what I had shot so I was helpful to my editor and it made the collaborative process very creative and focused on the story.

Too many photographers stop them selves from getting into video because they think they have to learn how to edit and that it would be another huge software program to learn.  Don’t let that be a stumbling block.  You can delegate that task to someone who already knows how. More than likely you won’t be composing music for your videos or creating complex motion graphics. You don’t need to learn and do everything and in fact, working with an editor frees you up to start working on another job.  It’s a more profitable use of your time, especially when you are invoicing the post-production costs as part of the job.

There are times when I love to work in a solo style or with a very small crew.  I love the intimacy it brings to the production.  But when it comes to post-production, working in a collaborative way with other professionals is one of the things I love most about video production.  It has been a very powerful and creative force in my life and has challenged me in wonderful ways.