Queen for a Day

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a project I was super jazzed about. But I had one earlier this month, and I figure these are good images to break the dry spell with.

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I spent a few days in late June and early July following the three young women on the St. Paul Rodeo Court. After meeting them at a function earlier in the week, we got to talking about their schedule on the first day of the rodeo. They planned to wake up at 2 am, get in full hair and makeup, get their horses ready, start TV interviews… and that was only until 10 am. They still had afternoon appearances and the opening night of the rodeo to ride in. I knew I wanted to be there in the early hours of the morning as they got ready, and, after asking me if I was serious, they happily agreed to let me join them early in the morning. So on Friday I got up at 3 am and drove to St. Paul.

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I spent much of the day with the court, their families, and members of the rodeo, and over the course of that nearly 20-hour day I learned a lot. Yes, about horses and rodeos, but also about family and community. St. Paul is a small town that hosts the nation’s largest Fourth of July rodeo, and it was a treat to get a glimpse of the hard work that everyone pours into the event. Including the court.

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The three young women – Melanie, Morgan and Britney – are smart and funny, hardworking and dedicated. Being on the court is more than looking pretty and waving. They needed exceptional horsemanship skills, a large knowledge base of rodeo history, and the ability to work a crowd and make conversation with everyone from the smallest fans to the oldest community members.

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Watching the camaraderie between the three – who met when they tried out for the court, and have now spent months together traveling across the state – was great fun. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how welcoming their families and friends were; the court continuously told me they couldn’t have done the job without their family. I can see why.

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In short, I couldn’t have asked for a better group to work with. There are always things I wish I could improve on, always things I wish I’d done better. But I came away excited again about work and making images, and that is such an invaluable feeling.

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2016 in Review: A Year on Staff

So my 2016 review is being published a few days into 2017, but I’ve got a good reason (I think). Yesterday I completed one year as a full-time staffer at a daily newspaper. And even in the last day or two, I’ve shot two assignments that made it into this review – so I figure that’s a good justification for leaving it until a year to the day.

365 days. Mix in the weekends – when I still thought about this job, edited for this job, planned for this job – and I’ve been a staffer every day for a year. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating that there were many days when I thought I’d never get here.

On the way, I’ve made many friends. I’ve learned a number of things about photojournalism and myself and what it means to be a full-time employee. I’ve remembered why I’ve loved photojournalism since I was a sophomore in high school; I’ve remembered why it’s given me many headaches and sleepless nights.

Here are my moments from 2016. I hesitate to call it a best-of, because one thing I learned this year is that I’m not always the best self editor. I have a bad habit of picking photos for the moments they remind me of, for fleeting feelings that don’t always translate. I hesitate to “kill my darlings,” as they say. That’s a goal of mine for 2017: edit myself better, and reach out to my many resources for a more critical eye.

With that in mind, here are some of the things I saw in 2016. And here’s to another, better year.

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And a small shout out to one of the best things I ran into on assignment this year, Samantha the Bernese Mountain Dog. Her owners are also pretty great. And yes, a puppy really is one of the highlights of my year. Just look at her.
Photo by Michael Cary Arellano

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Catching up to U.S. Olympic track

I’m still behind on blog posts for the year and working to catch up. Some of the images are a little past their shelf life now – this set is from July, after all – but I wanted to share a few anyways.

Back in July I got a chance to go to the U.S. Olympic Team Track and Field Trials in Eugene, where the best track and field athletes from around the country came to compete for spots on the U.S. Olympic Team.

The athletes weren’t the only ones at the top of their game that week. I found myself sitting next to photographers for Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, the AP, The Register-Guard… you name it, they were probably there. And many have photographed track and field longer than I’ve been alive, or have been at Hayward Field so many times they know it like the back of their hand. I’ll admit that it’s intimidating to sit next to such talent and know it’s only the second time I’ve set foot in Hayward, and one of maybe a half-dozen times that I’ve photographed track in the last eight years.

Thankfully I had some room to experiment and try different angles, as the paper had been planning to run wire images for the duration of the trials. It took a bit of the pressure off me, knowing that if I failed it wasn’t the end of the world. I tried some angles that didn’t work out, shot some pan-blurs that didn’t go as planned, and made a whole lot of other images that won’t see the light of day. But you know what? I’m glad I tried some things out of my comfort zone. I’m even more glad I’ll have time to practice these things before the next big track event. So often I am afraid to take risks in case I miss the critical shot. But if I practice these things, they become less about a blind risk and instead become another tool I can use. So, here’s to trying. Sometimes you might come in last place, but the journey is (at the very least) half the fun.

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Throwback: Australia

It’s been a year to the day since I returned from my summer in Australia. As with many things, that feels both so recent and still so far away.

I was working for Rustic Pathways, who I also worked with in Southeast Asia two years ago. It’s hard to explain what exactly Rustic does, because there is so much wrapped up in it, but the short story is that it’s a travel company for high school students. They work with local communities to offer immersive, educational travel programs, many with service components. As a photographer for the company, I was responsible not only for taking photographs but also taking care of the students.

I always intended to post this last round of images from Australia when I returned to the U.S., but several things held me back. The same as when I left Asia, it was almost too hard to look at the photos again. I both missed my travels but was happy to be home; I was still processing everything I had learned but also figuring out what my next move would be.

Coming home after Rustic always left me a little lost. You spend all summer working with teenagers and co-workers who both inspire you and challenge you – and who you will probably never see again. You come home to people that don’t understand the experiences you’ve just been through, and there’s no way to put it into words.

So I let myself put off the final blog post I had planned in a series of three (parts one and two here). I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what to show. And then it felt like it had been too long to post them. With the year anniversary of my return looming, I decided to look through the folder of images again.

What I found are the images I have replayed over and over in my head for the last year – a whirlwind final 9 days in which I traveled from the Great Barrier Reef to Uluru to Sydney with two co-workers I loved and a fantastic group of students. I haven’t forgotten the images I looked out for this blog. I just didn’t have the words to put to it.

What I was really grappling with was, that was probably the last summer I’ll travel with Rustic Pathways. I love the work, but it’s a challenging thing to drop your life every summer to go abroad and then come back basically unemployed again. It felt like going back to square one. I knew that it would probably be my last time when I went to Australia. I knew that when I returned. But I don’t think it really hit me until this summer. It’s the first I’ve spent stateside in three years, and I’ve seen all my co-workers, friends and students from previous summers back out there traveling. And it’s not like I’ve been “stuck” here. I’m living in a place I love, I have a great life here, I have a job in an industry I spent many years dreaming about. But the wanderlust still pulls me, as I think it does for every Rustic traveler. That’s why we keep going back. The promise of more places to discover, more people to meet, more connections to experience.

Safe travels to my friends out there. I know many of you are returning home this month, and I know it can be both a wonderful and difficult time. Here’s to the last days of my summer down under.

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This is one of the last photos I took in Australia. It’s not my favorite image by far, but it was a special moment for me. It’s self portrait taken only hours before I boarded a plane home. My friend and mentor Jose Lopez always encourages us to take self portraits – it was the first assignment he gave us at the New York Times Institute a few years ago. That was the first time I’d taken one, and this is only the second one since that assignment. But as I ran through this park in Sydney at 4 a.m. trying to catch the sunrise over the Harbor Bridge (the image above this one), I thought so much about all of the lessons Jose has taught me. And I thought, what the heck. Just one. You have a few minutes. So I set the camera down, ran to this spot, and gazed up, looking into the future and also at the last Australian night sky I would see.

Sweet light at the rodeo

It’s summertime in Oregon and we’ve had a very busy few months at the paper. Between various staff vacations, extra events and the nice weather, there’s a lot going on. One of my favorite recent assignments was the Santiam Canyon Stampede, a small rodeo east of Salem. It kicked off at 7 p.m. so I was hoping for great light – and it did not disappoint.

Planning to crank out quite a few blogs in the next few weeks, here’s to the first of many! And here’s to the rodeo, one of my favorite things to photograph.

 

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Two lenses are better than one

It’s not often that I find myself shooting alongside another photographer. With the exception of sporting events, most of my assignments are solo affairs. It’s usually just me, and sometimes the reporter, and whatever event or person we’re covering that day.

So when I got two weeks of vacation to take a road trip to some great national parks with Michael, I was looking forward to seeing what our different creative eyes would come away with. Though we’ve both worked as photojournalists before (he at his college paper), he now works as a wedding photographer while I’m still at newspapers. I find my style is more photojournalistic, while his eye is more artistic.

We’ve been on many hikes, road trips and adventures together. We’ve even photographed a few weddings side-by-side. And I’ve often found myself marveling at the compositions he finds. This trip was no different. It feels as though a lot of this comes down to a willingness to experiment and look beyond the obvious. With newspapers, you are doing these things but you are also trying to communicate as much information as you can with one image, and it doesn’t always leave a lot of room for something out of the ordinary.

A lot of this is, I’m sure, my own worries. Yes, newspapers can be more traditional, but I also know that there are many fellow photojournalists who take chances with their images every day and come away with something beautiful. Whether it comes from the culture of their newsroom, personal drive, or some combination of the two, I’m not sure. It’s been a long while since I’ve had a photo editor that has encouraged me to push my boundaries and appreciated something a little different. Now that I’m really the only one approving my photos for (online) publication, I find I’m picking my compositions more conservatively. Perhaps it comes down to my own hesitation to push the boundaries of what can/should be published. I know what I like, but I pick the safer choice. Some of it is also me getting into a rut with my shooting style.

The point is, when I went on this trip I tried to let my eye wander a little more. I looked for something I may not have noticed before. I think having a bit of friendly competition helped. The first few days of the trip I’d come away from a scene sometimes a little frustrated that I couldn’t make something more out of it, already knowing I hadn’t got what I wanted, and then I’d see Michael’s frames and go, “…how?!” And it made me realize – we’re in the same place. We’re shooting with the same gear – passing back and forth two identical cameras with different lenses – and I’m still getting my ass kicked. Time to step it up.

So I did. Or I tried, at least. None of these photos are groundbreaking. They won’t make your jaw drop. But they did help me break out of a bit of a rut and attempt to capture the beauty of some of the places we saw. Now that I’m back to work, I’ve tried to bring some of that inspiration back with me.

Here’s a look at some of my favorite images from our National Parks trip. We had an ambitious schedule and a lot of hiking, but it was an amazing trip. I already miss the great outdoors.

Portland > Redwoods (CA) > Yosemite (CA) > Zion (UT) > Snow Canyon (UT) > Bryce Canyon (UT) > Provo (UT) > Grand Teton (WY) > Yellowstone (WY) > Sun Valley (ID) > Bend (OR) > Portland

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As a footnote, there are two reasons for the title of this post. Often I write the title last, with whatever random phrase has popped into my head. This one partly refers to the gear we used. Michael and I shot this whole trip with a collection of prime lenses, and we were forever debating which one or two to take with us on hikes. Inevitably, we’d always wish we’d brought a different one or an additional focal length. Every time.

It was also inspired by (stolen from..?) an article I read on PDN about photo power couple Brinson + Banks. I’m no where near the skill level of either Kendrick Brinson or David Walter Banks, but these two really inspire me. I really enjoyed this read (here!) about their partnership, both personal and professional, and the advice they had to give about working as a photographer.

Settling in

If the first two months on the job were a little quiet, things definitely picked up in the spring.

It’s finally sinking in that I’m not an intern and I get to stay here. I’ve had long-term internships in the past, and I haven’t yet been at the Statesman as long as I worked at those places. I’ve had internships where I worked 60 hours a week and might as well have been a staff member, save for what was basically an unseen asterisk by my name. Molly J. Smith, Photographer*.

(*intern)

I’d say there’s a certain weight that comes with that, but upon further thought I don’t think there is. As an intern I tried to work like a staffer, and as a staffer nothing is good enough for me. There is always room to shoot better. I was dissatisfied with a lot of work from March. I saved the few frames I liked to combine with April images for a longer post, but then I got to the end of that month and wanted to go back and re-shoot most of those, too. I guess that’s a good thing – better to feel this way than content, which I find can lead to laziness.

We’re heading into summer now, and it’ll be my first summer in three years working for a newspaper and not off traveling for Rustic Pathways. I’m missing the idea of being abroad, but I’m really looking forward to spending a summer as part of the community I live and work in. The people in this area were really good to me in March and April, and I continue to feel fortunate to be welcomed into their private moments.

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at the Titan Track Classic at West Salem High School on Friday, April 1, 2016.

Quick shout out here to Salem hip-hop artist Matty – I did a shoot with Matty for the release of his upcoming album, but after reviewing the images I thought I could do better. He was great to oblige me in coming back for a quick 15 minute re-shoot later in the week. I really wanted to experiment in the industrial space attached to the paper’s building (where they used to house the printing press), and Matty was a great sport about trying out a few locations around the warehouse. There’s a lot of interesting textures, including this wall splashed with castoff ink. This second round, with an assist from Michael holding some LED lights, looked much more dramatic and interesting.

Salem hip hop artist Matty will be releasing his new album on April 5.

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___ at the YMCA on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

___ at the YMCA on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

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