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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Remember the day you first picked up a camera? What were you thinking about? I’m guessing the camera. I did. I remember thinking if I could just understand the buttons I would be on my way to becoming a photographer. I remember thinking about my vest. Yes, I had a vest. Didn’t everyone at one point in time? I also remember thinking if I just had the right film, the right strap, the right tape in the right place THEN I would be on my way to being a photographer.
I had no real plan in terms of what I was going to photograph. I remember a landscape shot from the roof of my parent’s house, directly into the setting, South Texas sun. I remember a long exposure night shot from a strange Austin neighborhood with only the moon for illumination. I remember a motor drive sequence of my father who was a competitive shooter at the time. (Pistols not cameras.)
Typical scene from where the kids were completing their daily assignments. This was a school in El Cua, Nicaragua.
What I don’t remember? I don’t remember ever thinking about any of the things that are truly important when it comes to actually being a photographer. Things like light, timing, composition and perhaps most importantly meaning. Why am I doing this? What am I trying to say? Why should people care?
Our classroom in the mountains of Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
I, like many, was distracted by all the trivial gadgetry of our photography universe.
Over the years I began to understand the bones of what comprised great photography, and for me it all begins with light. I can’t stress this enough. I’m serious people, don’t make me threaten you. LIGHT is the catalyst for my movement in the field. The SECOND my mind flips to “photographer mode” the first question I ask is “What is the light?” If the light isn’t great, I’m not moving. At least not to actually work. I might scout, interview, wander, sit and watch, speculate, articulate or attempt to be productive in another way, but unless the light is working for me I don’t burn film.
Quality of light is a phrase that gets tossed around these days, like passion and storytelling and all of the other catch phrases of our time, but I actually think “quality of light” is worth repeating to yourself at least twelve times a day. Even when you aren’t shooting you can practice by asking yourself about the conditions you are in and whether they would work if you had to make pictures.
Managua cemetery, midday, and not a photo I would normally take.
Here is the fun part. Quality of light various tremendously. State to state, country to country, season to season and second by second. Noon in New Mexico isn’t the same as noon in Los Angeles. Your style can take advantage of certain light while ignoring others. Light is a language, a nuanced language of the most intense beauty you can possibly imagine, and when the good light hits it can and will stop you in your tracks. Ever been with another photographer when great light happens? Suddenly everyone is frozen. “Oh God, look at the light,” as people fumble for ANY recording device. Sometimes when the light is good enough it can carry a picture on it’s back. Moments of great light carry with you, the same way your “life” images do.
Near sunset, shot wide open and into the light to accentuate the flare and beautiful light. (Flemming, that IS a spaceship in the sky. FYI)
Nicaragua and the workshop presented moments of wonderful light. We were stationed in Matagalpa, in a coffee rich mountainous area, and were greeted by a range of weather from intense sun to torrential rain. There were clouds. Often times the sky worked as an enormous, broad source, lightbox style diffusion system. The kids were on assignment, so picking and choosing shooting times wasn’t possible. They shot what they needed to shoot when they needed to shoot it. Thus, they had to learn how to spot the moments happening in the light that worked for them. Imaging putting together a puzzle while someone sat next to you with a timer. That’s what this reportage life is all about.
Arguably the coolest and funniest translator in the history of the world taking a short, afternoon, backlit break.
All of the images in this post reflect what I consider to be a good quality of light. This is the light I continually hunt for when I’m navigating the world with a camera in hand. Once you set a bar for yourself you get greedy with light. When it’s good nothing else matters. And when the light is bad you have plenty of time to reflect on all the lacking portions of your life. That’s what I do.
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.
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.
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.
And just to show you what “left of camera” was offering up. There was much going on.
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.
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.