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.

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.

The New Mexico Project

For those of you who are frequent visitors to the ranch I wanted to bring something else to your attention. I recently started a new site based on my ongoing project in New Mexico. Aptly titled, “The New Mexico Project” this site brings a real time look at how I’m approaching this story, and what actually happens along the way. Stills, motion, audio recordings, Blurb Mobile stories, copy, journals…..ALL OF IT.

Now, this idea is very much a departure for me. I normally don’t really show anyone what I’m doing until the project is complete, so sharing feels strange. I’m doing this not for me, nor for you for that matter. I’m doing this to try and get those IN the photographs involved with the project. I have to say, the fact this never occurred to me before is a bit embarrassing, and points to the fact that as a photographer, often times, one needs to be pretty self-centered, just to be able to get things done, at least in the photo-world. Well, as you know, I’m not really a part of the photo-world now, at least in the commercial sense, so I can do things I could not afford to do before.
It struck me one day as I was working in Espanola(small town north of Santa Fe) but my mind was focused on galleries, magazines, publishers, etc, I realized that if the project were to come to light, and I did a show in New York or Los Angeles, the people LEAST likely to ever see it or interact with it were the people right in front of my camera. I realized that WHEN this project is complete, it needs to be shown IN THE PLACES I’M MAKING THE IMAGES.
So, this is the first step.
A favor if you’ll pardon me. If you like the site, hit the follow button and follow along. If you feel like reblogging, then do so, and if not no big deal.
The images in this post are screen grabs of “typical” content.

THE NEW MEXICO PROJECT

Workshop Photography: The Picture Package

Over the past few weeks I’ve been having conversations with several of the people I’m working with on my upcoming workshops. I’ve also had a conversation or two with people who are taking the workshops. The energy associated with a class like this is creatively intense. People, staff and students alike, want to maximize their time. One of the ways I like to do this when I’m taking a workshop or working on a project is by thinking in terms of the picture package, a half dozen or so related images that tell a small story. Add all the picture packages together and you have a larger theme. This theme can then translate into a book, a multimedia package, etc.

The picture package allows you to feel small successes as the time, or workshop, progresses. If I look at my current New Mexico project, I have completed picture packages on the Spaceport, the UFO Festival, White Sands, etc. I could do an entire project on any ONE of these topics, but my goal is a broader look at a larger idea. So, I create packages.

So have a look and listen and see if this helps.