Nicaragua Notes: Love Thy Bus

There is something so fascinating and fantastic about the Latin American bus. ANYONE who has ever spent ANY time in Latin America has surely, at one point or another, spent time on some type of bus. In my experience, the lower level the better they are. Not to say safer, or more comfortable, just more interesting. I’ve spent considerable time on these babies, but Nicaragua was another story, one that involved lack of time and great distances, so our required mode of transportation was the Land Cruiser.
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During a workshop shoot in El Cua I was loitering around a small recreation center where the kids were assigned to photograph group activities. From a great distance I heard the roar of a metallic beast, one that was ALL TOO familiar. My heart began to race in anticipation. Would it be a “normal” bus, standard yellow, maybe a roof rack, or would it be the heart and soul of a risk-taking nomad? What turned up was something in the middle. The overall look was standard yellow, but the owner had spent considerable funds on better suspension, heavyweight tires, and luckily for all us, chrome grill work. But people, there is so much more. So much. The sound. You HAVE to know the SOUND.

The one thing you can’t know is the smell. These babies are ALL diesel and pollution control isn’t a top priority. I grew up on a ranch, surrounded by a bevy of diesel things. Heck, I even drive a diesel now, but theses buses are an entirely new level. I also wanted to include another view of these buses, one that you will surely experience if you find yourself on the roads of Latin America. When you add the smell, dust and crawling speed it adds up to a memorable, extended moment. Trust me.
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Finally, I want you to notice, in the color photograph, the guy standing near the door with his head down, leaning against the great beast. This is a common look when surrounding these beasts because they do more with these machines than you can possible imagine. This photo doesn’t look particularly scary or risky but that bus is at a nice angle and the rear end is backup against the Earth itself. The bus is also twisted, and with each millimeter the beast groaned and strained. A serious “pop” would impact a significant number of people.

In the background the kids worked the scene like pros. Ducking and dodging in and out, working on their backlighting skills, panning skills and just the interaction and dialogue required by entering an unknown situation with the goal of emerging with top level imagery. Also remember that many of these kids hadn’t touched a camera until the day before they were standing here.

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And just to show you what “left of camera” was offering up. There was much going on.

Archiving Digital: What the Hell am I Going to Do?

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I need your help. I have no idea what to do.

Sitting at home with my wife. We are both in the office. I look over and see my Firmtek SATA drive system I use to backup my wealth of digital files. Staring at this machine I realize I’ve had it in play for at least five years, probably closer to seven or eight. A two-bay system partnered with matching sets of 2 terabyte drives and coupled to a Mac Pro tower of the same age. At one point a state-of-the-art system. But now?

“Man, I need to transfer all that data,” I said to my wife. “How are you going to do that?” she asked. I sat wondering, thinking for a brief second that this little issue was no big deal. I figured something would pop into my mind. A mega-drive? A cloud solution? Something. Anything. “I have no idea,” I answered. “I actually have no f%$#$%$ idea.”

Days go by. A friend faced with a similar situation plugs in a drive from 2005. Dead. Tries another from 2007. Dead. Pays for salvation, but is only partially saved.

An event in LA. Filled with high-end still shooters and filmmakers. I begin my informal survey. “No idea,” is the answer I get. “Well, how are you doing it?” Each and every person has a different solution, each as flawed as the next. There are admissions of guilt. Lost images. Lack of concern with anything really lasting over time. The changing face of archiving and even how it’s viewed by the generations. What there isn’t is an answer. Not blaming these folks. We are all in the same sinking ship, but that does not change the reality that I need a solution. A few feel offended by the question, quickly offering the standard “Just use the cloud,” answer, but when I explain the AMOUNT of data I have they look confused, guilty even and walk off. (This has been happening since about 2002.)

Yes, the amount of data. You see I’ve been doing this for quite some time. I’ve been shooting jobs for clients, since the late 1990’s, and having to reflect on this gave me even greater fear. Yes, fear. You see the SATA solution is the least of my issues. There was digital life before the Mac Pro and SATA were a reality. Long before. I have boxes, crates, stacks of 4x DVD’s burned in triplicate from hundreds of prior jobs. Even years ago, a short time after these jobs were completed and burned, which is what EVERYONE did at the time, these discs were already beginning to fail. Yes, it’s true. Regardless of what the hype machine says about portable media. The idea of this being a long-term solution is a myth because the odds of finding a disc made of the right material, A PLAYER THAT IS MANUFACTURED AND SUPPORTED FOR MORE THAN A TEN YEAR PERIOD is also a myth. Just look at history. Kodak Photo CD anyone? Laser CD anyone? 4x DVD anyone? All of these portable media platforms were undone by the parts surrounding them. Great, you have a disc made of gold, awesome, but what about the player? Who makes it? How are they doing? Where will THEY be in five years? Ten?

It gets worse. Lets’ say I have 50 terabytes of data, which is not a stretch. Remember, I’m not a “Just save the JPG” guy. No, I need/want those RAW files. My cabinet is FULL of drives, and then I have all those discs, at least the ones that still work. How would I even begin to get that on a cloud and how much would that cost? How many years would it take to upload to the cloud? And is the cloud really responsible for my work? Ever read the service agreement from online services? Typically within the first page you are signing something agreeing to the fact they are not responsible for your data. Okay……….

So what if a mega drive exists? How great would it be if I could go buy a 50-terabyte drive, times three, and just slowly migrate all my data to those and let them sit? What do I do in five years? Ten? I do it all over again. All of you should know, whatever you create with digital today you will be handling and migrating for the rest of your life, on about this same schedule I’m guessing.

This is NOT a popular topic. In fact through the years when I’ve brought up these questions at industry events I’m met with anger, denial and defensiveness. “What are you going to do?” people ask. “Just keep buying drives.” “Hard drives are cheap now.” Jesus, is THIS really the solution we need? Why does our industry spend the bulk of their time and revenue on promoting the FRONT end of photography while ignoring the back end?

And here is the final reality. I’m getting off easy. I’ve been shooting film, at least in part, all these years. How about you guys and gals shooting all digital and compiling even more data than me? I’ve been to some of your studios. I’ve seen the daisy chain of drives. I’ve seen the fans blowing to keep things cool. I’ve heard the anger from lost drives, images and any hope of salvation. I’ve even seen this digital frailty change your mentality. I’ve seen the client contracts about NOT being responsible for their work, for their archive, for their history. Sound familiar?

So I sit here today no further along than I was a week ago. What to do? My 50 terabytes. Heck, even if I had 20 terabytes, what difference does it really make. This problem is snowballing every single moment of every single day. My industry says “Someone will figure something out,” while they promote the seventeen new cameras….from this week.

We live in a time when I’ve been accused of being egotistical because I’m even THINKING of making an archive. Yes, true story. Well people I could give a s%$# about the now. I don’t care about the now because so few people are actually paying attention. I AM interested in the future, the distant future, but I’m realizing the reality may be that NOTHING I create digitally will be around.

Just so you know, this is NOT the first time I’ve made this inquiry. Back in the early 2000’s I knew I had the same problem and I spent one year researching, asking “experts” at archiving houses what they were doing and I received the EXACT same answers I’m hearing today. “We don’t know.” “We don’t throw away ANY equipment and we can’t fire anyone who knows how these old machines work.” “Don’t worry about it, someone will figure something out.” I wish this was a sad dream, but it’s not. I know for a fact a lot of those around me have already come to terms with NOT having anything more than a few images left over. I think we are all so overloaded by imagery and the disease of social media that it has someone allowed people to think, “Well, I can see these things in social so even if I don’t have these images any longer, there is NO WAY I can remove it from social,” and because of this digital Coolaid their fate is sealed.

This is a REST OF MY LIFE situation people. And yes, I know you can say “Well, things could go wrong with film.” True. Fire, flood, etc. Exactly. But Jesus, I’ll take my chances with that over realizing every five years for the rest of my life I’m going to have to figure out a way to migrate my entire digital archive. That is just plain depressing.

If ANYONE has a solution I would love to hear it. But if you are going to say “use the cloud,” or “just keep buying drives,” then save your energy. I’ve heard it all before.

Because I Can: The Postcard Book

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Hey Folks,

This is the latest post in the “Because I Can” series about making Blurb books in an edition of ONE. Yes, you heard and read correctly. I’m making books with the intention of capping the print run at ONE book. Why? BECAUSE I CAN. We have really only had this option since about 2006, yet photographers ALREADY seem to take this for granted. I know, there is so much change on a daily basis that we are perpetually thirsty for the new, always wanting the latest and greatest. I get it. However, I for one cannot overlook the power in having the ability to make a single book. I wrote about this in a previous post, so if you want the background then go back and have a look. I pulled a selection from that prior post to set the table for this one. This is a series people. I’ve made at least a dozen books already and have eighteen more in the pipeline.

This book was created after overhearing a conversation between two young girls in a Japanese stationary store. They came across postcard material and said “Remember these? I really miss getting these in the mail.” Then they spoke about “giving up” and going with email. I asked myself “Why?” Why do we do this to ourselves. We give in, give up, cave to what is happening these days, as if we don’t have a choice. This book was crafted from found post cards, scanned front and back. Postcards were then sleeved and inserted into airmail envelopes.

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Tarantino

A few months ago I wrote a post about photographers, young ones or those new to photography, NEEDING to do their research before embarking on projects, and also before they begin to bombard the world with marketing their project. Now this post was well received by some, and like you would suspect, others labeled me with colorful names and thought that I was just grinding the proverbial axe. As for those thinking it’s the axe, sorry it’s not. I really meant what I said. This little debate was very interesting to me because it spawned a side debate, or discussion, about knowing what came before or taking the modern route of saying, “Well, I don’t want to know, I just want to be pure.” Well, when I hear this expression I don’t hear those same words. I hear “I don’t want to take the time to actually learn about the industry, business, etc. I just want to go out, shoot, get published, get a gallery, get a book deal and become famous.” Okay, maybe not those EXACT words but something along those lines. Oh, and I also hear, “And I want to do this VERY quickly.” I don’t see this changing anytime soon. As they say, the proverbial cat is out of the bag, or in the words of Homer Simpson upon delivery of his first microwave oven. “What do you mean I have to wait thirty-seconds, I want it NOW.”

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A few nights ago I did something very Hollywood. I went to a screening of “Django Unchained” and immediately after the film the director, Quentin Tarantino, someone who is celebrating his 20th year of film making, got up and did a question and answer session with the crowd. This was my first time around this type of scene and frankly I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d been to screenings with camera operators and DP’s before but never the director or the stars themselves. Say what you will about Tarantino, he has a style that is unique. In other words you know his work when you see it, something I have A HUGE appreciation for. I could say that about the Coen brothers as well. There are certain people who see in certain ways. This is not to say I like everything he does, but I don’t see this as a bad thing.

When the Q and A began something became VERY clear in a short amount of time. Tarantino knows his history, and when I say this I mean he REALLY knows his history. He and the MC referenced to at least TWENTY films in ONE specific genre, black exploitation westerns. TWENTY FILMS. And the references didn’t stop there. The soundtracks, actors, timelines, influences and success and failure rates were all angled in, illustrating how all of these things influenced and effected the film of the night. Frankly, I was really impressed. Plus, Tarantino had the ability to explain himself while also admitting there were certain things that happen, and certain themes in his work, he doesn’t want to talk about now so that he doesn’t let these things influence his future work. Now I know that some of you will see this as an out saying, “See, he doesn’t want to know about these things so he can stay pure.” Sorry, he’s talking about his OWN work, not the work done before. PHI SLAMMA JAMMA to you. Now sit down and keep reading.

These references to past work mean different things to different people. The masses out there eat fast food on average of twenty times per month. The masses out there also consume a mind-blowing level of fast food like s*** when it comes to motion pictures. Several times in the past year my wife and I decided to go the movies and each time, after searching high and low for something we both thought was interesting, we walked away saying “nothing out there.” Hollywood is primarily about sales. I get it. They will pander to just about anyone or anything it if means a buck in the South American reprint market. See, I just made that up, don’t even know what it means, but it SOUNDED great. Keep reading.

Hollywood seems to be about formula, about slam dunks and about maximizing profit while minimizing cost. That is why we NEED people like Tarantino. We need people who buck the trend, and this applies to ALL CREATIVE ARTS. It even applies down to things like shooting family portraits and weddings. I’m thinking of filing criminal charges against some of the “photographers” out there who have actually been accepting money for the s*** they are producing for some of these holiday cards that have arrived on my doorstep. Good grief. I recently rode around the Newport Back Bay Preserve and noticed no less than NINE “photographers” out shooting portraits. Just based on how they were treating the light, which was incredible, I KNEW that NONE of them had a clue, or any training for that matter. The world’s best light and you are in the shade with a strobe? But I digress. Like I said, people love fast food.

Before you go dissing or sending me hate mail just take a look at this list. True Romance, Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill (2003, 2004) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).

When I first saw Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction I knew I was seeing something I hadn’t seen before. These were more than films. These were statements about history, culture, violence and Hollywood done with flash and cinematic style, not to mention a cast that was OFF THE CHARTS. When I was sitting there listening to Tarantino speak about these other films the description that came to mind was “respect.” He’s not watching, listening and adapting to take. He’s doing it because he respects what’s been done before and wants to make sure when he’s referencing, or adapting, he’s building on what’s been done.

Maybe the guts of this post are about originality and how difficult achieving that really is. Heck, I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything original, maybe I never will, but I respect it when I see it. Photography is EASY. Anyone can do it today. Anyone can proclaim, “I’m a photographer.” Just look around. Making movies has become easier, but not to the degree that still photography has. It requires a far larger footprint and consequently it’s far more difficult to find success. With this comes failure, but with it also comes those with pure voice, vision or point of view. Keep your eyes open. You will know it when you see it, hear it, smell it or feel it.

Research + History = My Thoughts

I came across a link on twitter about a recent “photo-essay.”

The essay was hyped as “great,” “fantastic,” “amazing,” as well the rest of the modern single-word comments associated with online photographic expression.

The only problem was the essay wasn’t great, and it surely wasn’t original, but it was written about and hyped and tweeted and commented on as if the photographer had broken pioneering ground or exposed the world to a story that we had never seen before.

I have a little advice.

We need to learn our photo-history and do our research before we do this, otherwise we do little more than prove our lack of knowledge and prove our lack of ability to judge whether a body or work is good or not good.

Look, I understand we have the ability to do this. We can instantly carpet the world with an image, a story, a post, etc, and sure, there is an upside to this, or at least there can be. But if you are touting yourself as a professional photographer you should know better, and ultimately what you are doing is lessening the impact of the story you are trying to hype because the real audience for that piece visits the link and says, “This isn’t good.”

I’m not sure what can be done about this because many of the people doing it have successfully built audiences of followers, some of them sizable, so I can’t see this slowing down. We as a public, as an audience just need to stop participating in the charade.

This particular story had not only been done before, but it had been done more successfully, skillfully and by someone I actually know. So when I saw the link my first thought was “Nice, I can revisit this story.” And then I saw the work.

It is VERY easy to say, “Everything has already been done,” which is a complete and total cop out I’ve heard countless photographers make, but let me just say that is complete and total shit. It’s not true, but it sure provides an easy excuse for copying someone else or taking a lesser stab at a well known story.

As a photographer you have to do your research, but I’m actually thinking now that a lot of photographers aren’t doing research at all. In fact, I would guess the photographer who did this story might not have ever even searched for prior projects regarding his chosen topic. I reviewed portfolios a while back and when I reviewed the documentary photographers I referenced prior stories which were directly related to their work and all I got in return was utterly blank stares. It is so easy, so damn easy to become so completely and utterly self-centered in this photographic world, and being blind to history is a great first step. There is such a rush today to be known, to be famous, to make money, to sell prints, to get likes, to be shared or to build an audience that it absolutely takes over and in many cases ruins the chances of making anything memorable.

A few years ago I did a project, a strange one, and during my research found out another photographer had done the same story ten years prior. He was European, did the story in a matter of days, and had a different angle, so I decided to do it anyway. I got into the field and KNEW what this person had already done. I made sure I kept to my storyline….MY storyline and put my own fingerprints on the project. I also suffered the ramifications of working behind someone who had promised everything to everyone and delivered on nothing, so be careful of that as well. After five chapters of the project I quit after realizing the work wasn’t good enough. I knew I had to begin again, make it better, and stronger, and reinforce MY view on why the story was important to tell. I’ve not yet begun to redo it because I know I can’t half-ass ANYTHING. If I do I’m selling myself short, I’m selling the story short and I’m selling the people in the project short.

I guess the question I have is “What the Hell are we doing?”

I think what the lack of knowledge regarding history and the lack of research, coupled with the successful exposure of second rate work proves is that VERY few people are actually paying attention. The photographer who created this work and the people that helped blanket it around the world surely aren’t, but ultimately it could potentially gain them followers, but what good is it if these followers aren’t paying attention?

There are more people wanting to be photographers than ever before, and it appears that the VAST majority of these people want the entire world to know about their work. This is like a traffic choked freeway of content. There is no possible way for anyone to keep up with this.

When you do a project, come up with an idea, for the love of God do your research and learn your history. If you do this and you create a unique and strong voice you won’t need to hype yourself to exhaustion. The real audience will find you.

We all want to be encouraging, especially to young photographers and people doing the right thing, but we can’t give a hall pass for BASIC responsibilities that come with the title “professional”. Slow down, do your homework and provide us with something of quality. You won’t always succeed, nobody does, but don’t let that deter you, and just because something has been done doesn’t mean you can’t do it. If you understand your story, and what has been done before – where it fits in history – you can ADD to the legacy, history or understanding.

One of the best things photographers can do is talk to other photographers. And when I say this I don’t mean someone with 10,000 followers on Twitter. Likes and screen after screen of one word comments might mean someone likes to write about equipment, but it might not signify good photographer.(Yes, this was a slam.) And remember, many of the world’s best photographers are nowhere near social media. Why? Because they are out making work. So when I say show your work, discuss your ideas with other photographers I mean real working photographers with a track record and portfolio to prove it. These people, when willing, are a HUGE resource who want nothing more than to help you and to help photography. They can save uneducated photographers from themselves.

If we do this we can all celebrate, not just our own work but the further progression of the industry and craft of photography.

When I write a post that takes a stand or sheds light on an issue I always run the risk of getting the usual comments of “Oh, you are just being negative,” or “What gives you the right?” or “How dare you question the power of social media?” About 99% of the time these comments come from people who are trying to build an audience. You know the type. Everything is unicorns and rainbows and every shoot is perfection and photographic life is akin to a suburbia lifestyle catalog. When your business is on the line and you are trying to create a facade of happiness to gain more business I get it, but I don’t have to live like that. I’ve always tried to be honest and gaining followers is not my priority. I’ll take truth and honesty over followers any day, and I’ll never stoop to writing about equipment all the time.

All I’m doing with this post is pointing out a pattern that is VERY CLEARLY going on. But I’m also pointing out how to change things for the better even though I have little faith anything with change. But, you never know. It’s worth putting out there and maybe somewhere something will stick.

Creating original art isn’t easy. Blazing your own path isn’t easy. Breaking from the herd isn’t easy. But the great artists do, so next time you have a story idea or are about to hit “retweet” make sure you get a second opinion. It can help us all.