2017 in Review

For a lot of people, 2017 felt like a dumpster fire that wouldn’t go out. And while I, too, had some ups and downs, I have to be honest… 2017 wasn’t all that bad. At least, once I got over the constant news updates about whatever terrible thing was happening next in the world. Which are kind of hard to ignore when your job is all about the news.

It’s also been hard to tune out or fight back against all the misinformation about “the media,” my job and what I do, the things myself and my fellow journalists care about and strive for… the noise has become louder and louder. It can often feel disheartening and demoralizing. I’d encourage friends of mine who think the media is full of awful, biased people to consider reading more of their local news – it is out there! Talk to a journalist about what they do. Talk to me about what I do and why! I work in a newsroom full of hard-working, dedicated reporters and photographers, and I am proud to call them and so many more across this country friends and colleagues.

But, like I said, this year hasn’t been all bad. I traveled to incredible places, was surprised with some great trips to new destinations (Hawaii and Yucatan, Mexico!), spent time with my family in England, made it to my brother’s Masters graduation, saw my best friend get married, and finished my first photo story in ages as I covered the St. Paul Rodeo Queens. I attended my first conference in April when I went to Denver for The Image, Deconstructed, and I was blown away by the talent and the passion that I saw there. Michael and I photographed some beautiful weddings with really fun clients, including traveling to Boulder, Colorado, for our good friends Rob and Audrey (www.michaelcaryphotos.com). I witnessed – and photographed – a total solar eclipse and all of the frenzy that went with that.

Looking back on this year’s work, I don’t know if I can say I’ve made leaps and bounds from 2016. But I know that I do feel more confident and capable. I’ve also really upped my video skills, and finally tackled my fear of portrait lighting – though that’s still a work in progress, so you won’t see too much of it in here.

My goals for 2018 include (still) improving my lighting and video work, exercising more, cooking better meals at home, and blogging more (which I say every year, but, let’s be honest… with only two blogs, 2017 was not a great year for that).

Without further ado, here’s some scenes from the year, both personal and professional.

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I’m going to end this post with a few personal moments. I didn’t get my camera out in my own life nearly as much as I would have liked, but sometimes it’s nice to just enjoy the moment.

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Paris in 2017

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.

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.

Five countries, 24 cities, 92 days

5 countries, 24 cities, 92 days.

28 flights, 13 buses, 6 boats, 3 overnight trains, 1 motorbike and an infinite number of taxis and tuk tuks.

I’ve boated down the Mekong River, traveled by bus through the Shan state of Burma, journeyed alone through Cambodia, hiked through Laotian jungles covered in leeches, climbed over thousand-year-old temples, cycled through ancient cities, fallen off an elephant in Laos, taken a night train from Hanoi to Sapa in Vietnam and then another from Chiang Mai to Bangkok in Thailand… the list goes on.

And now, after three long months, my Southeast Asia adventure is over. My time with Rustic Pathways ended about two weeks ago, and now that my solo travel through Cambodia is done, it’s time for me to return home. I’ve got a lot to figure out in terms of what I want going forward. What I am sure of is that this summer has been a life changing experience, and despite some of the challenges faced along the way, it was worth every second. A big thank you goes out to the people I’ve met along the way. It wouldn’t have been the same without you all.

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My flight back home also marks a year to the day since I left Portland, Oregon. It’s a little overwhelming to think about all of the experiences I’ve had in that year. In some ways I’m right back to where I started last September 1 – returning to Arizona with no clear next step and no job on the horizon.

But so much has also changed. So much has been packed into that time. Moving from Oregon back to Arizona, beginning to freelance, dropping all of that to move to New York City’s backyard in New Jersey for seven months, and then leaving that internship for Southeast Asia… What a year. I haven’t truly been home since last November; there was only a three-day gap between my move back from Jersey and my departure for Thailand. Now, as I return to Arizona, I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing next. I can only hope it will be as exhilarating and fulfilling as the work I did this summer.

So, without further ado, here’s the last of my images shot for Rustic Pathways. Plus a few at the end from my solo adventure at the ancient temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Until we meet again, Southeast Asia. I’ll be missing your noodle soup and delicious mango smoothies, but not the rice. So. Much. Rice.

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Waterlogged cameras and split-second decisions

It’s been a roller coaster of a month.

A few weeks ago – though it feels like much longer – two of my coworkers and I were dumped into a river in Laos when the basket on the elephant we were riding came loose. My camera body and go-to lens took the plunge with us, leaving me with a dead load of camera gear and some big decisions to make. These are some of the last decent frames taken with that camera – from the end of my Frontier Photography trip and the beginning of the Backroads of Southeast Asia trip I was running during the spill.

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Though it had a brief few hours of reincarnation, my camera was ultimately dead. The lens, too, clogged with river silt and water. After some time spent assessing my options, I made a frantic journey through Bangkok to purchase a new camera body on a layover between Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Yangon, Burma. The three days leading up to that final decision had dragged on for what felt like weeks. But even in the shop, as I held the new camera I would buy, it felt like an impulsive choice to put down the money. As I rode back to the airport and dashed through security I was wondering if I’d done the right thing. The uneasy feeling stayed with me for the next two days, especially when I began photographing again.

I was off my game. Big time. I’d let the loss of gear get to me in a big way, and I was fighting so much with what I was working with. I’d lost a 24-70mm f2.8 to the river in Laos, and now I was shooting with a fixed 50mm and a borrowed 16-85mm f3.5-5.6 meant for a cropped sensor and not the full frame camera body I own. I missed my old lens. The view, the feel, the quality. I’d worked with it for years and knew its quirks and what it would look like every time I raised it to my eye. Instead, I was looking through glass that I had to fight with. I could see a large vignette around the 16mm view, and a small black rectangle in the center outlining my real frame, and I kept losing sight of the edges I was supposed to line things up in.

I had known this was going to happen. I was well aware of what a DX lens on a full-frame camera meant. I said to myself that it didn’t matter, that a lens was a lens and I would make it work. But with every shot that I framed wrong in-camera or every moment that I missed because the focus wasn’t right, I got more and more frustrated.

More than that, I was frustrated that I was letting it get to me. So much of this work is mental, and I was wasting my energy fixating on the wrong things. The camera doesn’t make the photographer. It’s a saying I’ve heard many times and something I’ve always repeated to young(er) photographers, but here I was letting that hold me back. The trip had been in Bagan – an ancient city of Burma with thousand-year-old temples as far as the eye could see – for a day, and I couldn’t make an image I was satisfied with.

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All this after I’d just started to hit a good stride in the summer. I was happy with the frames I was producing before this. I was getting good feedback from friends and colleagues. A fellow photographer in Arizona messaged me to say keep up the consistent work, that I was pushing myself towards a new breakthrough for “great work.” Then, one spill off an elephant and I’d had a big disruption in the quality I was producing. Because of what? A ‘different’ lens? A new feeling when I looked through the viewfinder? Fear? Frustration?

It’s been two weeks since I made my first frame with my new camera body, and it’s time to put it behind me. I’ve got a week and a half to knock it out of the park on some of my last assignments for Rustic Pathways this summer, and I need to stop letting myself get held back by insecurities and frustrations and different viewfinders. Life rarely works out the way we expect it to. I didn’t embark on this journey this summer expecting to lose my camera and lens to a Laotian river, but it happened. What I did expect was to make some great frames and some unforgettable memories, and I’ll be damned if I let broken camera change that.

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Edit: One thing I forgot to mention is what fun I’ve had with my 50mm lens. It’s one I used to work with a lot early on in college, but something I haven’t used in years. The fixed length is teaching me to get more creative, and it’s got a beautiful feel. Most of the frames on here that were shot post-accident were made with the 50mm 1.8.

Self Assignment: Golden Gloves Championship

It’s been a long time since I gave myself an assignment, something to shoot for fun and not for a publication. On Saturday, I worked a full day (with the usual overtime at the end for edits) and then decided to go photograph the New Jersey Golden Gloves Championship that night. Those of you who have been keeping up with the blog know that I’ve already photographed two Golden Gloves events; this was the final round of fights in NJ before the winning boxers move onto nationals in Las Vegas.

For the previous Golden Gloves matches, I’ve had to photograph every round and every fighter. Shooting this for myself, I photographed only the match-ups that looked most interesting to me. In between, I was popping back into the locker rooms and backstage area to get some behind-the-scenes images.

It made for a very long day, with what equated to a nine hour shift and then about four hours of boxing at the end of it, but I am so glad I went. It sounds a little odd to say, but it was one of the more relaxing assignments I’ve had in a while. That’s partly because because my deadline was self-imposed, so I didn’t have to frantically edit a large gallery as soon as the event was done. I could also experiment with some shots and work some scenes a little more without having to rush back to the on-going fights.

So, without any further rambling, here’s a few frames from my best boxing tournament yet.

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Something unexpected – the first round was a ‘PeeWee’ boxing match. This little champ won his bout against an equally pint-sized boxer. I saw him backstage before the fight and thought – despite the serious headgear and gloves – that maybe he was just here with an older brother or was an aspiring fighter. I didn’t realize he would actually be getting in the ring.

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This scene is one I waited for and kept coming back to. There’s a few similar frames, and I’m not sure this is even my favorite yet, but I’ll stick with it for now.

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Something a little different for me. My photographer friends from high school will laugh because there was a time when all I wanted to do was shoot verticals, and yet in the last few years all of my images have been horizontal. This is probably the first vertical image I’ve shown in a while, and it wasn’t even originally shot in this orientation.

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More hanging out in this courtyard, and then straight into the action. The last few bouts are usually the best fights, so I made sure to capture those.

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Moments from the week

There is a professor at my university who, every time he would see me outside of the school events I spent four years photographing, would joke that he didn’t recognize me without a camera in front of my face. Sometimes, I think this is perhaps the way people see me the most. Peeking over the top of a lens.

I forget how obscuring it can be, until I get my photo taken and that photographer’s face disappears behind a big camera. It’s necessary to put the camera down sometimes, to connect with your subject and get them to open up. Particularly in the case of portraits, I try to chat with the subject for a few minutes before I start taking their photo, and then (if it doesn’t distract them from the moment) I continue to peek up and chat with them throughout the assignment. It puts them more at ease, and they get to look you in the face instead of your lens.

The other side of this is that sometimes you can miss quiet moments if you can’t raise your camera fast enough. Photography requires a lot of patience. And I probably wouldn’t have described myself as a patient person too much before this job, but it has really taught me to sit and wait for just the right moment. When a person cracks a smile or they look lovingly at a friend or their face settles into that perfect expression for the moment, that’s what you wait for. And these moments can last only a second before they’re gone. I’ve missed a few lately because I haven’t been as vigilant, but I’ve also had a few frames where the shutter clicked and I knew I’d captured that split second.

Here are a few moments from the last week, some of which I caught as they flew by.

Hoboken Historical Museum's Swingin' Speakeasy fundraiser

Hoboken Historical Museum's Swingin' Speakeasy fundraiser

New Jersey Golden Gloves boxing tournament in Jersey City, March 22

Bayonne High School rehearses for performance of Hairspray

Bayonne High School rehearses for performance of Hairspray

I don’t normally caption this blog, but these last three need a little context. There’s a lot of construction going on for a bridge in Bayonne, a town in the south of Hudson County, and this couple has a house right next to this bridge that leads to Staten Island. They called the paper because they’ve started to notice tiny cracks developing on the walls, door frames and other parts of their house from what they say are the vibrations caused by the construction. Lucia and Dennis gave the reporter and I a full tour of the house, and I’m glad they were unfazed by the camera after I introduced myself and listened to their story for a bit.

Lucia Frazier stands in the stairwell leading the second floor of her home next to the Bayonne Bridge. Frazier has noticed the stairs beginning to crack and separate from the wall in places after construction started on the bridge. Molly J. Smith/The Jersey Journal

Lucia Frazier stands in the stairwell leading the second floor of her home next to the Bayonne Bridge. Frazier has noticed the stairs beginning to crack and separate from the wall in places after construction started on the bridge. Molly J. Smith/The Jersey Journal

Bayonne residents Lucia Frazier and Dennis Sharkey stand in Frazier's bedroom, where more cracks have begun to appear in the door frame and walls after construction started on the nearby Bayonne Bridge. Molly J. Smith/The Jersey Journal

Bayonne residents Lucia Frazier and Dennis Sharkey stand in Frazier’s bedroom, where more cracks have begun to appear in the door frame and walls after construction started on the nearby Bayonne Bridge. Molly J. Smith/The Jersey Journal

Lucia Frazier looks out her kitchen window at the Bayonne Bridge as she spreads out some of the reading material and contracts she has gathered concerning construction on the bridge. In addition to dust and noise, Frazier reports that areas throughout her home have started to show cracks along walls, door frames, and other areas. Molly J. Smith/The Jersey Journal

Lucia Frazier looks out her kitchen window at the Bayonne Bridge as she spreads out some of the reading material and contracts she has gathered concerning construction on the bridge. In addition to dust and noise, Frazier reports that areas throughout her home have started to show cracks along walls, door frames, and other areas. Molly J. Smith/The Jersey Journal

Diners and flags

I’ve shot over twenty assignments in the last four days, and somewhere among all those images I made a few that I’m pretty happy with. At most assignments, there are always the shots that you know you need to get for work, and then there are the images that you make for yourself. They might not be traditional newspaper fare, but something about them speaks to you as a photographer.

Some of the assignments I’ve had lately have given me room to be a little more flexible with that, whether it was the subject matter or the extra time I was given for the assignment. This is a bit of a sampler plate, pulling from three different assignments, but they were all made within the last week and are all images that I feel are indicative of my growing skill set. One or two of them feel like they are the “almost there but not quite” variety – like I knew what I was going for, but the pieces didn’t quite fall into place. But I’m glad to notice the improvement in my seeing.

Coach House diner, a North Jersey landmark, celebrates 75 years

Coach House diner, a North Jersey landmark, celebrates 75 years

Coach House diner, a North Jersey landmark, celebrates 75 years

Coach House diner, a North Jersey landmark, celebrates 75 years

Irish flag raising at City Hall in Jersey City

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2013 in Review

What an incredible year.

There is so much I could say about the things I’ve learned and the people I’ve met in the last 12 months. But I think I’ve documented those lessons thoroughly in this blog, and I can only hope that all of the friends I’ve made this year know how special they are to me. If someone had told me last New Years that by the end of 2013 that I would have worked with The New York Times in May, gone to Oregon for a summer internship, and then moved to New Jersey by Thanksgiving to begin a nine-month internship, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here I am, getting ready to ring in 2014 with the New York City skyline in my sight.

Just before I left for Jersey, a photographer whose work I have always admired complimented me on the improvement he’s seen in my recent images. He’s part of a group I’ve been meeting up with for a while now, and they’ve been looking at my work for what feels like a long time. At our first meeting about a year ago, I briefly considered saying I’d left my hard drive at home and had nothing to show that night. After seeing all of their photos, I was too nervous.

But I stuck around and showed a few images that night, and I kept coming back to more meetings. I might have felt completely out of my league at times, but that group is where I learned the importance of surrounding yourself with work and people you admire. Having a photo community to participate in, whether it’s a set of photographers who you follow online or a group that you have pizza and drinks with every month, is one of the best ways to improve. Whether they know it or not, that group inspired me and pushed me to look for new ways of seeing things. And they – in addition to the great photographers I worked with at The Oregonian and The New York Times Institute – taught me more than I could have ever learned on my own.

Last New Years, I couldn’t have dreamed of producing so many images that I am this proud of. This year, I’m looking forward to seeing what I can create in 2014. So here’s some of my favorites from this year, both for the memories they represent and the improvement they show.

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NJSIAA Non-public, Group 4 Championship

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NJSIAA North 2, Group 1 Championship

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Three months later…

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog, and I’ve had an interesting few months.

My last update was a few days after I finished my internship at The Oregonian. It’s been exactly three months since then, and in that time I didn’t shoot much. I was too busy settling back into life in Arizona, and trying to come to terms with my new status as an underemployed college graduate.

I let it get me down. Really down. Between my 50-hour-a-week day job and adjusting to being back home, I wasn’t really making images anymore. That was my first mistake.

My second was thinking that I had disappointed myself and others because I didn’t have a job in my chosen field yet. I spent months listening to people tell me that they thought for sure that if anyone was going to get a job, it would be me. That I’d worked so hard in college, how did I not have one yet?

But there are many others more talented and qualified than myself that were – and still are – in the same position. That’s the reality of this business. It’s something that you try to push away when you’re in school, because part of you wants to think it won’t happen to you. But another part of you knows it easily could, no matter if you’ve had one internship or nine. And I know from my summer at The Oregonian that this will probably always be a fear, whether I’m 22 or 50.

I count myself lucky to have found a job I love doing, and I know that every image I get to make for a living is a gift. I’ve talked before about the trust people place in you when they allow you to photograph them, and that’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. I’m back in a newsroom now, and I know I’m lucky to be here. I’m also in a city I’ve never been to before, and that’s taking some adjusting to. I moved to Jersey City last week, and I’m trying to get used to the cold weather, crazy driving and the different attitudes that come with the East Coast. I still get excited every time I drive to work and see the Manhattan skyline just over the water. Six days in and I can’t believe I’m so close to New York City.

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I’m working as a photo intern at The Jersey Journal in Jersey City now, on a nine-month stint. I’ve only worked for two days and I’m still getting a feel for the place, but I can already tell it’s going to be different from the other two papers I’ve worked for. I’ll cover that next time. For now, welcome to my first images from the East Coast, and get ready to follow me on this crazy adventure.

(I had two really great freelance assignments for Phoenix Magazine last month – images that I’m really looking forward to sharing with you – but I can’t publish those until the magazines come out in December and January. So keep an eye out for those in my next post or two.)

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The above are from the first football game (high school or otherwise) that I’ve photographed in a very long time. And below are some pictures of cute dogs, too. This pet expo was my actual first assignment for the Journal.

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