Nicaragua Notes: Free Shoot

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Toward the end of the workshop week we had an afternoon staring back at us as wide open. Well, let me rephrase that. Those of us who were not responsible for the technical and production side of the workshop, meaning editing, sequencing, rating and producing films were staring at a few hours to kill. It felt odd due to the frenetic pace of the prior days. The kids were buzzing around like mosquitos, shooting around the lodge and trying to make pictures of each other. We decided to just walk, down the camino tierra leading from the lodge, downhill through farm properties and out into the jungle. Not really knowing what we would see, we just went.
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Remember, photography was still new. Still unexpected, unsuspecting and illuminating. I was amazed at how positive, how forward thinking and how excited they were to shoot anything and everything. There was a purity to their action that reminded me I need to keep things in perspective with my own work. After you do this photography thing long enough you suddenly have an agenda. Some people call it career, but either way it changes you. The kids reminded me about purity of thought and purity of action.
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No matter what we do the world moves along at the pace it chooses to move. Things happen and our job is to be there and witness. A small farm, the foreman with his radio and machete. Moving his cows down the road and suddenly there are a dozen kids in a full-court-press of photography, working the scene from every angle. Helping each other, pointing things out, making suggestion. “Make a color photograph in black and white,” I said. Suddenly they are shooting and rushing up to show the preview screen. Easy.
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Cows on a road might not be your cup of tea, might not be inspiring to you, but I am saying it should be. This little scene reminded me that I’ve taken far, far too much for granted. Star players don’t just play the final match and hold aloft the trophy. Star players grind it out through round after round. They might be the star but they are also part of the foundation. Just as everyday images are to us photographers. Being with these kids and watching them work made me realize the cows, and this road, were the most beautiful thing, and most beautiful place, in the world. What was I waiting for? A Yeti to appear? A dance troupe? Something exotic? No silly, the cows are exotic. The road, the landscape, the foreman, the kids and the MOMENT it all came together. Forget agenda, forget career, forget all that which means NOTHING in the long run, or even the now for that matter.
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Just shoot. Shoot what’s there. Enjoy. Record and reflect. Study. Admire and respect. It’s very, very simple if you get out of the way and just let it be.
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For those of you reading this post who are thinking I’m posting about photography you might be missing the point. This post isn’t about photography, certainly not good photography, so slow down and think about what I’m saying. Life is a seesaw battle, back and forth. Learn and unlearn. Learn and unlearn. I’ll admit, most of the good things that have happened to me in the last five years with a camera in my hand have all been from unlearning. Baggage. Leave it behind and just look. It sounds easy but it surely isn’t. I know this might sound like a sermon, but I keep seeing so many folks go down the road of being liked, being trendy, etc, and what it gets you is simply, at best, a short term gain. All you have to do is channel the feeling you had when you FIRST picked up a camera, like these kids, and use that to your advantage. It had nothing to do with success, a career, books, magazines, galleries, museums or anything else. It was about the hunt and the moment. Crediting what is in front of you and how fantastic that is, long before the idea of filtering it became a reality. Don’t filter, just enjoy. And realize you might not ever walk those same steps again.
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Since returning from this trip I’ve continued to unlearn the things that Nicaragua, and the kids, proved to me I no longer needed to know, or at least respond to. It’s liberating actually. I hope these posts have meaning to someone outside of the guy striking the keys. There is much to do in the photographic world. No time to waste. All we need to do is connect and forget.

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.

Nicaragua Redux:

I must first begin with an apology.

The goal was the write as we went along. A real-time report if you will, but things got in the way. Like they always do. I could give a list of excuses, but in the end they are just that, excuses. I also think my days of being a reporter are long gone. Distance and time play such a role for me now. Greedy? Yes, without a doubt, but I am admitting this to you now.
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Before I pour out my take on Nicaragua I wanted to break down the crew. As many of you know, these workshops are the brainchild of one Fredric Roberts. I’ve written about Fred before, but just know he is the guy pulling the strings behind the scenes. Also on this trip, working as primary instructor, was Sarah Megan Lee who is a San Diego based photographer and someone who has spent considerable time in Latin America. Sarah also has extensive teaching experience, not to mention she speaks Spanish, something that, as you can imagine, came in wildly handy in good, old Nicaragua. Also in attendance was Mike Sakas who should be nicknamed Iron Man. Sakes hails from Hong Kong, so he gets the long-flight prize, not to mention he’s an action sport guy, traveler, dirt-bag (I mean this in a good way and I think he knows what this means coming from the climbing world.) and someone who seems to do well when there is too much to do. Photographer and tech dude, and he’s cool. And finally we had Will Van Beckum, a fellow Santa Fe liver and someone who thrives not only with the kids but with all things technical, Lightroom, Premiere, etc. Will is a big dude but is one of those guys who doesn’t take up much physical space, a trait I see in the best instructors and photographers. Plus, just listening to the kids try and pronounce “Will Van Beckum” was worth the trip. My wife, Amy Kawadler, was also there, as was I of course, but we were more in the background on this one. We did go into the field with the kids, did some teaching and gave presentations of our work, but the uber team of the “main four” had things well in hand. And when I say “things” that is a casual way of saying “A LOT.”

I’m going to spare you the details of the what we had to endure when it comes to logistics, but if you are a glutton you can find more here. Just know that customs detained and held our equipment for the entire trip. LUCKILY, we had a few cameras between us and we begged and borrowed enough to run the workshop. Instead of one camera per student we had one per every two or three students. The kids never blinked an eye and all we had to do was yell “Cambio!” and out went one flash card and in went another. In fact, just so you know upfront, NOTHING phased the kids.

For you photographer friends out there, I need to remind you that this was a teaching trip, not a photography trip. If you THINK you are going to shoot your own work while teaching you quickly realize that is not going to happen. Besides stealing a frame here and there, maybe, if you get insanely lucky, it never really crosses your mind to actually shoot. This isn’t a bad thing. Quite the contrary. Why? Because the kids are so great you don’t really think about doing your own thing. It’s far more interesting to see the kids make images, to see the wheels turning, to see them make manual adjustments and begin to understand things like light, timing and composition.

I think what I’m going to do here, instead of one huge post, is create a series of short posts that recap certain moments.I’m going to include sound as well. Stay tuned.

By the way, we did this pose every single morning as part of our warmup. I was going to photoshop the Managua skyline in the background but ran out of time.

Fred Roberts Goes Global For Kids

I don’t know anyone else quite like Fred Roberts which is what I tried to convey in these “moody” images(another of my ten minute portraits). Just to be safe, however, I did add a few that show you what he actually looks like. Fred has a new mission as of the beginning of 2014, which I mentioned in an earlier post. I wasn’t able to voyage to Bhutan with the rest of the crew, but I wanted to catch up with Fred to see about how things went, and to share a bit more about who he is, how the project came about and to share some of the work produced. The simple truth is that Fred could be doing just about anything right now and what he is choosing to do, and why, is a very interesting bit of information to me.

Below is the “best of” film from the Bhutan trip. Remember, these students were green as fresh picked coffee, and there are images in this show that are as good as anything I see being published today, which is frankly somewhat amazing. And there are two or three that are as good as anything I have hanging on my wall at home. Some of these images remind of the time when I first picked up a camera. At one point I climbed on the roof of our house and shot a sunset with a tree in the foreground. I remember framing it up and thinking “I am a genius.” And how that moment led to the changes in my life, something I hope will happen with these young adults.

SR: What was the first moment you were exposed to art and photography?
FR: I took two courses at Yale that really set the stage for me. The first was A History of Art and Architecture by Vincent Scully (definitely not the sportscaster). The second was The Philosophy of Art by Paul Weiss. These were two wonderful and inspiring courses given by two spectacular professors.

SR: You have an atypical photography history which began after a very successful career in the financial world. Can you catch us up on how and when you found your love of photography and why do you think it impacted you the way it did?
FR: I’ll tell you in person. (It’s a long story people, we decided to save you the the whole enchilada.)
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SR: Why photography and not illustration or painting?
FR: I can’t even write legibly. In fact, the most difficult moment I have with any of my photographs is when I have to sign a print.
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SR: Who was the first photographer who made you stop in your tracks and really consider a photograph?
FR: Henri Cartier-Bresson – no contest.

SR: You have come a long way in a short amount of time and already have three monographs to your name. Tell us a bit more about your books. And what is it about South Asia that attracted you?
FR: The theme of my work derives from an old Hebrew text – the Pirkei Avos. In it, one asks “Who Is Rich?” and the answer is “the person who is happy with what they have”. It is my belief, despite my having been in the finance business for thirty years, that money doesn’t make you rich. I traveled to South Asia when I was working in my previous life, and I saw clearly the richness of life in many third-world countries, despite a lack of monetary wealth. Also, I marveled at the richness of the culture there.

SR: Last year you emailed me explaining a “new project” regarding kids in the developing nations and photography. What is this new project?
FR: I have always been involved in humanitarian projects and charities, and it came naturally to want to take my photography to a new level. The logical next step was to create a workshop for third-world students to teach them photography as a language to tell the stories important to their world.
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SR: You recently returned from Bhutan, the first mission revolving around this new program? First off, and most importantly, what films did you watch on the twenty-nine hour flight over?
FR: None. I always use long flights to read all of the back issues of The New Yorker which I am unable to read at home. Great articles – never enough time, except when I’m trapped on a plane.

SR: Tell us a little about the first mission and the team you assembled.
FR: I always want great photographers. But being a great photographer is not enough. They also have to be great teachers. The combination of the two skills is rare.

SR: Just speaking to the logistics of moving this many people and the equipment required for such a mission, how difficult was it to just get things off the ground? And where did this equipment come from?
FR: Thanks to your wife, we approached a local camera dealer for discounted prices. They came through with both discounts and direct financial support. We were able to purchase Canon Rebel cameras and MacBook Pro computers at advantageous prices. We also bought several copies of Adobe Lightroom, which is important to our workflow in the Workshops.
The logistics are a huge issue. Getting airlines to grant special rates for our substantial excess luggage is a big hurdle. Organizing coordinating flights from all over the world is not simple either.
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SR: What happens to the equipment after the workshop is complete?
FR: We use 20 cameras and 4 computers on a constant basis for teaching. They are transported to and from the Workshops as personal baggage on the flights. We leave behind two cameras and two copies of Lightroom for the students to use after we leave.

SR: You were working with Save the Children as the on-the-ground NGO, how was that experience and had you worked with NGO’s prior to this trip?
FR: Our hope with Save The Children is that they will use the body of work produced by our students for community and government relations, for fund-raising, for general increased awareness of their programs, and to stimulate more students to learn photography as a language through which to tell important stories.

SR: What was the age range of the kids you were working with in Bhutan? And did they have prior photography experience? As Americans we see Bhutan as an isolated Shangri-La type place, is it as isolated as we think?
FR: The students ranged in age from 14 to 17. Most had no previous experience. None had ever used a DSLR nor had they ever shot in Manual Mode. As for Shangri-La, Bhutan is a beautiful and culturally rich country. But, in an age of satellite TV and the internet, no country is isolated.
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SR: It is a very different thing to fly halfway around the world and NOT do your own photography. Was this difficult for you and the crew?
FR: I realized that 3 of the 5 faculty members had never been there before, so I provided some extra time and facilities for them to photograph on their own. It was my gift to them for their dedicated service to the cause.

SR: After seeing a brief review of the work completed during the workshop I can say there were a select group of images that are as good as anything I see being made by professionals. Who ARE these kids and did they have any training prior to the workshop? If not, how is that possible?
FR: One or two of the kids have camera phones. One had an iPad. None had ever shot on a DSLR, and none had ever shot in Manual Mode. Teaching them to take the kind of pictures they did is a function of the strength of the instructors. It’s not good enough to be a good photographer. Being a good teacher is a real skill. And the curriculum is important as well. So, good teachers and proven methodology really work with kids who are motivated. It releases their innate creativity and vision.

SR: There are a lot of NGO projects floating about, but this one is very different in several ways. First, you are planning trips out as far as two years from now. How the heck does something like this come about and most importantly how do you get something like this funded?
FR: STC came to me. At the outset, they had big ideas and big plans. As things developed, they became more realistic about their capacity. We, on the other hand, are a proven entity and know exactly what we can do. So, we are prepared to do at least three workshops per year with any appropriate NGO. As for funding, the initial funding, sufficient for two years of workshops, came from my personal credibility. In the future, it will be based on our performance.

SR: Logistically, these trips must be quite an ordeal to arrange. Is this the kind of thing that you plan for then have to reinvent the moment you hit the ground?
FR: Both. We have a template for the workshops. But, each country and each story is different. You have to be sufficiently proficient to be able to reinvent on a moment’s notice, while keeping the big picture in focus. We also have to constantly recalibrate based on the progress of the students. And, then, there’s alway weather. So, having a plan, but staying flexible, is our life.

SR: It seems that every direction we turn these days there is another photographer related project attempting to gain exposure, funding or visibility. What is the end game with this project? What is the best case scenario and why should people care?
FR: My goal is to empower young students to be able to tell important stories that will positively impact their “world”. Learning photography in this context is like learning to use a word processor or learning to ride a bicycle. After you learn the basics, it’s the content and direction that matters. In photography, the more arresting the image, the more powerful the message, so the craft improves the power of the content. That’s why the competence of the faculty, and the resulting competence of the students, is so important. Using professional cameras and techniques will hopefully help their voice to resonate. Also, we want to give them sufficient skills to continue on their own after we leave.

SR: One of the most interesting aspects of this program is that it doesn’t end when your team leaves. What happens next so to speak?
FR: As I said previously, teaching the students to use professional cameras on manual mode and teaching them to strive to learn professional techniques will hopefully give them a sufficient knowledge base to continue to improve after we leave. We also want to have them send us their ongoing work for critique and advice. We want them not only to continue and improve, we want them to teach others as well.

SR: If viewers want to get involved is there a way for them to do so?
FR: I am always reachable through our website www.fredrirobertsworkshops.org. We are interested in every form of involvement. We welcome more and more participation by those who are genuinely interested.

SR: When I speak to you a year from now, what will you tell me about this project?
FR: Hopefully, that all of the students have continued to improve, that we are going back to previous locations to conduct advanced workshops for previous students and new basic workshops for new students. Also that we have many more opportunities in many more countries to continue to expand our program and the finding to support it. This all presumes that our students have been successfully telling compelling and effective stories, and are positively impacting their worlds.

SR: You are back in Los Angeles now. What is next for Fred Roberts, like right now, today?
FR: Editing the images of the students from Bhutan to clearly tell their stories and display their beautiful work. Also, planning for the next workshop

SR: What are you reading?
FR: A Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr.

Here is a short video recap of the first workshop in Bhutan. And if you want to see all the videos try here.