I just might be the photographic antichrist.

Earlier today I was searching through seven years of images, all of the same kid, in preparation for a book I’m making. I’ve got eight hard drives sitting in front of me, and during this process I stumbled across a variety of older images that prompted me to reflect. Maybe not such a good idea……
The images were everything from documentary snaps, weddings snaps and portraits. Just like everything else in my digital life, folder names, image titles, all changed over the years as I learned “better” ways of conducting myself in the electronic world. So, certain folders were filled with surprises, both good and bad, and I heard myself say more than once “Wow, I forgot about that.”
Well, something else happened. I found these images. All those years ago I was plodding along as a wedding photographer doing documentary on the side, a practice I found never worked that well. I wanted it to work, it just never did. The weddings were fine, it was the documentary part that took on the limp, damaged feel of someone with not enough time.

And then kids came along, by accident really. “Hey, do you shoot photos of kids?” my neighbor asked. “NO, I don’t photograph kids, sorry.” “Great, I’ll bring them over,” she said. That was it. One shoot. Changed everything. Soon, I was a “kid photographer” a title that strikes a cringing fear in anyone in a “serious” category of photography like documentary, photojournalism, fashion, editorial, commercial, advertising, product, still life, fine-art, conceptual, experimental, etc. Suddenly my wife was introducing me as “my husband the kid photographer.” Gone were the days of “my husband the super-cool, studly, macho, documentary photographer who travels the world and pours himself into his projects.” Gone. The “kid photographer” intro, in most cases, was like casually mumbling, “I have the Hanta Virus.” People would flee in search of more interesting to people to drink their warm, foamy beer with. “Hey honey, that guy works in the dead-letter department at the Post Office, let’s go talk to him.” Me, I found a sick fascination with this, and used it to my advantage making proud announcements for no reason at the hippest of events or parties, just to see the cool people run from my path. “Hey, you wanna see me make balloon animals?”

But you seen now I have the golden opportunity, the 20-15 hind site to look back. I look back on these early days kid snaps and I marvel. You see I was still pure. I wasn’t REALLY a kid photographer yet. I had inherited the title, but I was still pure in that way that comes with first experiencing something. I didn’t have packages, pricing, online crap I didn’t need, business cards, letterhead, newsletters, promos, stock sales, blah, blah, blah. I was just a guy with a camera aiming it at strange kids. All locations were still new. People would call, I would answer. A plan would be made. I would go and shoot. I had no style in mind. I had no preconceived ideas as to what kid snaps were supposed to look like. I had ZERO tricks up my sleeve like “I’ll shoot backlit,” or “I need such and such an image.” It was so simple. It was so pure. And it was so much fun. It was so damn good. And then it all began to change. It all began to be molded, shifted, squeezed, controlled and manipulated by the simple IDEA that I was now OFFICIALLY A KID PHOTOGRAPHER. “Damnit, you’re a kid photographer, why don’t you act like it?”

The mass exodus of photographers from other genres had yet to descend on the poor unsuspecting kid market. Digital cameras had yet to land in the hands of every parent in the first world, and there was ZERO expectation other than “make something interesting that pleases me…the kid photographer.”

The work was good. The work was simple. And then it wasn’t anymore. It’s not that the work got bad, or I stopped being able to make good images of kids, in fact I went on to make many pictures I consider good even recently, but the forces around me began to change and I began to conform. Sales and profits became a larger focus. Margins, print prices, workflow, online marketing and promotion began to take up more time than the actual photography. It was supposed to be this way right? You get good, people find you and you build a business. Yes. That’s right. But as I sit here all these years later, looking back, I have feelings that flow contrary to this learned behavior.
I’ve spoken about this before and each time I do I brace for the fallout. Can we work as artists and make great work. Yes, I used the word “artist” but more to see if you were sleeping. Can we as photographers work and make great work? Short answer. “I’m not sure.” The deadly part of all this is that I see what happened to me happening to many, many other photographers. I meet a young snapper and their work is pure, it’s original and it feels good, and suddenly they find success. In many cases success today comes with IMMEDIATE COMPROMISE. You hear things like “Well, I used to shoot film, but now the client wants digital.” Or, “Well, I used to take my time and work this way, but now I have to have images in by the end of the day.” What I’ve learned is that “convenience” is DEADLY when it comes to photography. If you are allowing CONVENIENCE to dictate your imagery you are on a path that is heading in the wrong direction. CONVENIENCE is based on ease, and that folks is going to get easier. Easier doesn’t always translate to “better.” More people do it, more people think they can do it. More people think they can tell you how to do. Less people pay attention.

Last night at dinner, a casual conversation and a photographer explains where he was working on a recent project. He talks personally of his personal work. “Were you on assignment?” “Yes, a self-assignment.” There is no speech required. Those words come with the meaning of working on a self-assignment because that is where the real work is made, and that this simply would not have happened had he actually been on assignment, something we are all trained to believe is how we should work. I reflect once again on these photographs of kids and I had nothing but warm regard for how I made them and what they meant to me both at that time and now all these years later. My wife no longer introduces me as a “kid photographer” so I’m struggle with a new title that creates the same shock and awe. “C-student” might work, “Recipient of a Class-C misdemeanor” but that might strike a bit TOO much shock and awe. All I can leave you with is the idea that we don’t really have time to screw around. We, as photographers, have to shoot for us. There is no other way. “Yes, but we have to pay the bills.” No, you don’t. You just convinced yourself of that. You can do it, and pay the bills, but you can’t then complain of not making good images. I know cause I did just that. I don’t anymore. For me, there is no better feeling in the world that working on something I believe in and finding success at the purest level. When I look around me at the creative world, at places like literature, photography, art, I see the best work being done, the last working, by creators with a clear mind without limits. When we find commercial success, often times, this comes with boundaries, limits, requirements and expectations that simply don’t allow for moments of greatness. I just finished reading a book, a book by an author I truly admire. He talks about being hired to create a project then coming to realize he can’t complete it under the requirements of his position. He is fired. Then he creates the book I just read. I think beneath this little story is the story of truth, of purity, of working without questioning your motivation and rationale. We simply do what we feel we have to do and not what we think we are supposed to do.

Los Hermanos

So I posted these a while back, in image form, but figured I would show the book as well, just to see how the translation was made. This book was created from a single shoot, in an area new to me. I’d worked, many times, in the general area, but never in this specific spot, which was really nice for me. I’m NOT a fan of the standard, Southern CA beach shoot. I’ve just seen it too many times. I know it’s popular, but I was never popular, so I guess it fits. I’ve done them, don’t get me wrong, and I’ve made some pics I really like, but I never wanted to make a habit of doing beach shoots.

This was a beach shoot, but it was a somewhat off the path little patch and had a history for these little dudes, so it was fitting and a very fun shoot. I have a brother, but never in my life did we ever do a shoot like this. In fact, in my entire life, I remember exactly TWO shoots our family did. First, when I was a baby, and the photographer looked at my mom and said, “The only thing we can hope for from the baby is an alert look.” I guess the same could be said of shooting my portrait today. Who knew the guy was a genius. This first portrait was formal, setup, classic and really nice. It was done in the room of our rural house that held all the fancy stuff, the room we NEVER used. We all sat, or stood, in rigid, formal pose, but the light was damn nice and it is a picture that I really love.

The second of our family shoots did not repeat itself until I was in middle school/early high school, can’t remember for sure. This was more of what I would call a “modern” shoot. Photographer was THE guy in the city where we lived, he came alone, one Hasselblad, one Norman 200B and spent, at most, 30 mins. He shot ONE roll inside, one outside and was gone. He made GIANT, canvas prints. I was literally wearing a plaid sport coat and cowboy boots. And the photo inside I was wearing a suit. Needless to say, these images will never, and should never, get out. Although, one hangs on a wall less than ten feet from where I sit right now.

My point with this is I really like the idea of a brother book. I think it’s important. It also had an impact on how the book was designed. Which photo lead off, which images were paired together, etc. The count, the pace, etc, but I’m sure everyone reading this would do the same things.

Now looking at these two little hombres, it’s obvious they are easy to work with and they are cute little guys as well, so my job was to just leave them alone, get them in the general area and let them be, well, young brothers. You ever notice how the great pictures, often times, come along, after the photographer or the parents and the photographer, get through what THEY think are going to be the best images? And then the kids are “released” back into the kid world, the photographer and the parents take a step back and the kids start being kids again. I think I’m guilty of this at times, for sure. I scout a scene, know what I want, get through what is required and then suddenly I look up and the kids are doing something way better than what I could have dreamed up. Ya, it happens. Then suddenly the last 2.5 mins of the shoot you make like eight images that are incredible.
The best part is, I go to another shoot and do the same thing over again. I was a “C” student people.

Afghan Dreams

I’m in awe of photojournalists.

Those people that put everything on the line to make pictures. The life of a photojournalist is rife with risk, and in many cases, there is little in return other than the actual images and the privilege of being a witness to history.

Tony O’Brien is a photojournalist and has been for several decades. Until recently I had never met Tony, but had heard about him, and seen his work for a long, long while. The mutual friend thing, you know how it is, “Hey, do you know so and so?” “No, but I keep hearing about him,” kinda thing.

Well, I finally got to meet him, and luckily for me, I was also able to attend a lecture he presented as well as a gallery opening featuring his work

This lecture and opening revolved around a recent project dealing with Afghanistan.

Now even mention Afghanistan and my palms begin to sweat, not just because this country is an active war zone, but also because I have had an interest in this region and land for quite some time. But, I’ve never been. Mostly because I’m a total chicken.

Not only has Tony been to Afghanistan, he has been going since 1986, which you history buffs will realize was during the time of the Soviet occupation.

Imagine disguising yourself as a freedom fighter and sneaking across the border into Afghanistan, hiking for miles and miles across some of the most foreboding landscape on Earth, trying to make pictures and praying to any and all gods that you are not spotted by a Soviet chopper or MIG fighter.

Now you know why my hands are sweating.

It takes a certain type of person to do this, flat out, and Tony is one of those people.

I think what carries someone during a mission like this is simply an inner quest they absolutely believe in. They need to see, to record, and nothing will stop them. You can cover different kinds of wars, ones that you can return to a hotel each night, but when you are exposed as this, working perhaps hundreds of miles behind the lines, without support and completely self-reliant, I believe your passion goes beyond being known as a photographer, or winning some prize.

Your there because there is no other place you could be.

Oh, and on a side note, things did not always go as planned for O’Brien. At some point in time, during his travels there, he “got on the wrong bus” as he put it and ended up getting arrested.

This was no simple detainment, and things went from bad to worse, with an eventual outcome of Tony spending six weeks in an Afghan prison. Now I don’t know about you, but the word prison conjures up some nasty visuals in my mind, and I’m talking the “nice” kind of prison with TV, three meals a day, and a nice orange jumpsuit.

I can’t even imagine what the Afghan’s consider prison. Really, I don’t know, don’t want to know, but the visuals I’m fabricating are not good.

I recently had a small brush with the “authorities” in Mexico, and thought for about one hellish minuted that I was going to see the inside of a cage, inside a van, and then a Mexican prison, and if I HAD seen these things I’m not sure how quickly I would have returned to old Mexico.

Not only did Tony return to Afghanistan, he returned again and again. Remember, internal quest, driven, passion, etc,

His recent lecture and gallery opening were regarding a recent project titled, “Afghan Dreams” which is, of all things, a children’s book. The book is a compilation of work that focuses on the children of Afghanistan and their dreams for today and tomorrow.

Imagine what many of these kids have been through, and what they continue to endure. The past saw caravans of Soviet troops and today these children see caravans of American and NATO troops. Many of them have never known a life void of war. When you consider this, the idea of dreams will perhaps take on a different angle.

Tony explained that many of the kids wished and dreamed for things like education and a house. The basics. There were no wishes for Xbox 360 or a Ferrari with a quadraphonic Blaupunkt. Life in Afghanistan is about survival, and these kids just want a chance at a normal life.

The lecture, held at the College of Santa Fe, was standing room only, packed, with several people who stood in the entrance of the building, unable to see the presentation, but still able to hear what he had to say.

Tony’s daughter read passages from the book, which she did with great enthusiasm, which was a nice way to present this material.

Oh, on another side note, Tony had not shot color in fifteen years, and had NEVER shot digital. So imagine going to Afghanistan, not sure what is going to happen, and trying to learn digital on the fly! I had to laugh at that one. Somehow he did it.

Several nights later, Verve Gallery of Photography, held an opening for Tony, which was part of a three artist exhibition.

If you get a chance, take a peak at this book.

Afghan Dreams

Verve Gallery.

So after this past week, I’m more than ever in awe of photographers like Tony who do things like this.
I think those of you who read this who are photographers will know what I’m talking about. An iron will is not easy to forge. There are so many reasons NOT to go, but to the benefit of all of us, he went. And if I had to guess, he will continue to go. Again and again.