A New Chapter

I’ve tried to start this blog so many times. I write a few lines, I erase them all. I step away and say I’ll do it next week. Next week rolls around and I make more excuses for myself.

The last few months have been exciting, difficult, turbulent and wonderful. In February, I finally made the decision to move to a city I’ve talked about every day since I left a year and a half ago. I emptied out my childhood bedroom, packed up everything that would fit into the back of my small sedan, and drove up to Portland, Ore., to start a new chapter in life.

Two days before I left, I went to visit an old friend in Southern Arizona. Dennis Moroney welcomed me to his ranch two years ago when I was a senior at Arizona State working on an in-depth reporting project about the lives of those who live along the US borders. I spent several weekends with him and his family, talking to them about their experiences running their cattle ranch only 20 miles north of the US-Mexico border fence. Dennis is intelligent, articulate and wildly interesting. He is also incredibly warm and welcoming, and I have wanted to return to the ranch many times in the two years since my last visit. I finally got my chance just before I left for Oregon, and I couldn’t have picked a better weekend.

Turns out that Dennis’ wife, Deb, and some of their friends were finishing up shearing the last of their 118 sheep. I got to the ranch just in time for the most beautiful late afternoon light, with a golden glow and a pastel sunset.

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I cannot begin to explain how lucky and thankful I felt. To make images just for myself, to be surrounded by some of the most kind and welcoming people I’ve ever met, to see all of these beautiful things bathed in this beautiful light… I was drunk on the wonder of life and my fortune to be where I was at that exact moment. It was exactly what I needed before jumping into the crazy adventure of moving.

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I’ve tried to hold on to the way that afternoon made me feel. How in love with life I felt and how lucky I knew I was to be doing something I loved just for the sheer joy of it. That’s when my images are the best: when I have a camera in my hand and I can’t stop repeating in my head, “you get to do this for a living.” That’s a feeling worth chasing.

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I haven’t shared these images because that high fades. Because many times when I looked at these frames I was reminded that I hadn’t photographed anything like that since I got to Oregon, and so I’d broken a promise to myself that I would keep pushing myself and pursuing this way of life. Every time I sat down to edit these frames and write this blog, I still felt like I was in this hole that I couldn’t get out of and that I wasn’t about to share with anyone.

That I’m sharing these now doesn’t mean I’m out of that hole. There are days where I still wonder what I’m doing and where I’m going. But I’ve learned to accept that, and to accept that I can’t have a plan for everything. Which is a very good lesson to keep in mind as in just a week I’m headed to Australia for two months to work as a photographer for Rustic Pathways, the company that I worked for in Southeast Asia last year. A summer with Rustic means a summer of unpredictability, of last-minute plans and adaptations and flying by the seat of your pants and making it look easy.

I’m very much looking forward to getting back to making images for a living. I am looking forward to getting that feeling back. And I am determined to bring it back with me, to remind myself every day that I am lucky to do this. I am lucky to see the beauty of this world and to meet people like Dennis and Deb and Penny and Vanessa, who made me feel at home the moment I walked into that barn. At the end of the day, it’s the people that make this the best job I’ve ever had.

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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.

Lockdown

I got the chance to follow the local Sheriff’s SWAT team and Guttenberg police department as they conducted a school lockdown simulation. It was a fun exercise, although a little difficult as it all moved so quickly I was rushing to keep up while trying to look for different compositions.

Also this is now my third blog post in a week. I’m thinking about switching to something more like a tumblr format, because I don’t have words to go with all of these posts but I still want to post images. As I have to post such large galleries for work, this blog is a good way for me to show my personal edits from each assignment.

Hudson County Sheriff's Department and Guttenberg police conduct school lockdown drill

Hudson County Sheriff's Department and Guttenberg police conduct school lockdown drill

Hudson County Sheriff's Department and Guttenberg police conduct school lockdown drill

Hudson County Sheriff's Department and Guttenberg police conduct school lockdown drill

Hudson County Sheriff's Department and Guttenberg police conduct school lockdown drill

Hudson County Sheriff's Department and Guttenberg police conduct school lockdown drill

Hudson County Sheriff's Department and Guttenberg police conduct school lockdown drill