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.

New Year New Adventure

As many of you know, I hung up my photo spurs at the end of 2010, never to undertake another assignment, ever again. Well, I lied. Kinda. What I am embarking on isn’t your average photo assignment. In fact, I’m not looking at it that way at all because the actual work, and subsequent legacy, will have very little if anything to do with my actual photography. What it WILL have to do with is the education and opportunity we leave behind with the kids we are fortunate enough to work with.
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Let me rewind for a moment.

Fred Roberts is a friend from Los Angeles, but lumping him in the “friend” category is a dangerous business because I don’t really know anyone else quite like Fred. You know me, I like to ramble, but when it came to writing a basic “take” on Fred, so you would have an idea of who I’m talking about, I found myself suddenly mired in my online Spanish program. “Los ninos beben leche.” In other words, I didn’t know where to start. Fred is a photographer yes, and he went to Yale and he worked in the financial world, but this does little to educate you about who he really is. Start here.

Sometime last year my phone rang with a “unknown” caller and like I always do when I get that message, I immediately said “Hello, Center Intelligence Agency.” What I heard from the other end was “Danny Boy, I’ve got an idea.” What came from that call and subsequent MASSIVE amount of logistics(undertaken by Fred), leg work, phone calls, fund raising, texts, meetings and incense burning strategy sessions was a plan. A master plan.

Seven days. Twenty students. A new language that will last a lifetime.

The Fredric Roberts Photography Workshops are led by the award-winning photographer as he brings his passion for storytelling through still images to underprivileged children around the world. Each workshop will train a group of 20 high school aged students, half from rural areas and the other half from urban households. Over the course of each seven-day workshop, using a format developed by Mr. Roberts, the participants will take photographs centering on a particular theme, such as the environment, health issues or education.

When each workshop ends, Mr. Roberts will donate two cameras plus computer and photo software so that participants can continue to develop their skills. (He will also work with local partners to secure photographers from each country who will participate in the workshop and will continue to mentor the novice photographers.) He will also use a private website so that students can continue to improve their skills and continue their photographic education.

The guts speak to storytelling, photography and empowering underprivileged children around this magical world. These workshops will be in partnership with the leading development organization Save The Children.

This project, for me, came at the perfect time. Well, seeing as I had a kidney stone and I still have Lyme Disease, which is keeping me off of the team leaving for Bhutan as we speak, it might not have been the perfect time PHYSICALLY, but mentally it was. There are more trips coming and I’m a patient man. But there is something else at work here, at least for me. One of my goals for 2014 was to think about other people more than I think about myself. When I first heard of this plan, this project, my first thought was about the kids. I thought back to the time when I was of the age we will be working with on these trips, and I put an honest eye to the reality. I had everything. Really. I had great parents, all the material things like a roof over my head and food, but most importantly I had opportunity. I was told the world was open, ready and shapeable into whatever form I so desired.

But this isn’t true for a lot of folks, and my first thought addressed this idea. I want to help. I think I can help. I KNOW I can help. I am a true believer in story. We all have them. We all share them, and most of us like to listen to them. What if? What if I/we can help someone else tell their story, share their story and BELIEVE in their story.

Often times, in today’s world of the informational, immediate share, things are discussed, plans are made yet ultimately nothing happens(Discussion is still essential). And this is where I get back to Fred. When Fred says Fred does. Simple as that. There were many requirements to get this baby off the ground and one by one they were ticked off the list in impressive fashion. Now, you KNOW me. I can be a skeptic, healthy of course, but when I first heard what Fred was going after I was thought the odds were slim. But like I said, if Fred says, Fred does, and suddenly the stars were in alignment.

In some weird way I had hit the wall with my own photography, and this workshop series shined a light into the darkness of the creative unknown and illuminated the path toward these places and these kids. You can view the group’s website again here. There will be postings made during the trips, from these locations, which should give all of us a taste of the daily dance. The website was created and is being monitored by friends of Smogranch Flemming Bo Jensen and Charlene Winfred who form the power base of “Coffee and Magic.” A few of the other players on this first trip include Sarah Megan Lee and Mike Sakas. When I begin to wonder about each one of these folks and what they could accomplish on their own my head begins to spin. Add them together and……

I don’t often ask for people to share what I write, but in this case I’m asking (please). One of the reasons I’m asking is I don’t have kids. I photographed kids for seven years but every single time I gave them back at the end of the day. In addition to wanting to hear the feedback that YOU have about this project, I’d love to get some feedback from kids. What does a 14-year-old person in Newport Beach have in common with a 14-year-old in Bhutan? Santa Fe and Managua? Laramie and La Paz? I don’t know. One of the things I LOVED about photographing kids was that they didn’t know they had a “good side” or a “bad side.” Kids were honest. In a thirty-minute span they would laugh, cry and tell me a secret. The honestly and purity was so refreshing, and consequently the imagery felt powerfully real to me. For most children the future is a long, long way away, and often times doesn’t appear to have any landing lights, so to speak. As an adult, and a storyteller, I have the ability to power up those lights, to some degree, with the idea of showing these kids how to do this on their own. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.

I should also note that I am jazzed about aiming my camera at these places. Not to mention my pen and my audio recorder. There will be subsequent publications, posts and potentially films, but they will not be about photography per se. These outlets will be about story, what the imagery means and how we, and they, aim to follow it through.

Well, in the time it took me to write this post the team has made their way to their destination. Check them out at LAX, photographed by security, probably wondering who in their right mind would carry ALL that gear.
What most interests me in this project is the unknown. How can I possibly know what will come from this? But here is the rub. Something WILL come from this. About this I am absolutely sure.