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*.

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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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Not all who wander

Not all who wander are lost.

But I was.

By many measures, 2015 was a great year for me. I moved to Portland, Ore., the city that I have non-stop talked about since 2013. I worked for Rustic Pathways again, this time traveling to Australia to photograph programs in the outback and along the coast. I went on a lot of beautiful hikes in my new home in Oregon and some great road trips around the Pacific Northwest, and had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted. I picked up a a few freelance assignments in Portland, and I spent a lot of time working for and learning from talented photographers I am lucky to call friends and mentors.

But for the first time in a long time, I also felt very lost. I wasn’t sure what direction I was going in, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do anymore. I’d become disenchanted with newspapers and journalism, but I’d dedicated my college career to that. I’d sacrificed relationships and my personal life for that. And then suddenly I wasn’t sure if it was what I wanted anymore. It’s hard to point yourself in the right direction when you don’t even know what you’re working towards.

And then, in December, in the last weeks of the year, I found me again.

I applied for a job that I thought would be my last try at a newspaper. One last hurrah. And I went in expecting that once again I would be second place. 2015 was full of a lot of that. Close calls, but no dice. Looking back on it now, as cheesy as it is, all of those things happened just the way they should. The jobs I applied for hired people I know or have come to know, and they are great talents that are so deserving of the positions they’re in. And none of those spots were quite right for me, nor I for them. Until I found my place.

I’ve been at the Statesman Journal in Salem for two months now. I’ve been constantly impressed with my colleagues. I have realized just how much I missed that dry, dark newsroom humor. I’ve made new friends. I’ve been pushed to do better, shoot better, create better, and I’ve seen that there is still so much farther to go. I’ve been at assignments that I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear at – like the funeral home sale that was so quirky and weird – and events that made me want to cry – like the memorial for a young, newlywed marine who was killed in a training exercise. I got a call one day from the parent of a local high school student, thanking me for photographing his son in action at a basketball game. I had a stranger hug me in a park because they were so excited to meet someone that worked for the local paper.

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This is my first full-time, official job. One where my title doesn’t contain the word intern – even though, lets be honest, my internships have often been 50+ hours a week jobs. Now I’m on staff, with my own desk and official business cards and a place on the staff list. It’s a strange feeling. Some days I can’t believe I’ve made it, but then when I sit and think about things, I realize this is exactly where I should be. There are not enough words in the world to thank the people that got me here, nor the people that now let me be a part of their lives every day.

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To close… A few weeks ago I met a girl, a University of Oregon journalism graduate, working in a Starbucks post-graduation while she looks for a journalism job. She told me about her dreams and her goals and her frustrations, and I knew exactly how she felt. I’d spent a good chunk of my first year in Portland waiting tables to pay my bills, all the while dreaming of bigger and better as I watched friends and colleagues move up the ranks in our industry. I thought I was done for, many times. So I surprised even myself with the words that came out of my mouth. “Don’t give up,” I said. “It will happen. Work hard, don’t lose sight, and it will happen.”

It happened to me. I’m here. And I hope I never stop being thankful for it.

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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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Angkor Wat

Ta Prohm

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Pre Rup

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Neak Pean

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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.

Sawasdee from Thailand

It’s been two months since I last updated this blog, and a lot has changed. For starters, I’m writing this from a town called Keng Tung in the Shan state of Myanmar (Burma, to the Western world) (also Kyaing Tong, Chiang Tung, or something else, depending on who you ask).

I left New Jersey a month ago for a new job. I was offered a summer position working for a travel company called Rustic Pathways, and I’m spending three months in Southeast Asia photographing and leading some of their tours through the region. The job combines a few things I’m passionate about: traveling, teaching and photography. After a week of staff training, I spent two weeks at the company’s Thailand base houses in Udon Thani and Mae Sariang, where travelers complete service projects like building local homes and teaching English to local children. I can say hello in Thai (sawasdee ka!) and I’m working on my Burmese (sounds like: min ga la ba).

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It’s been an incredible opportunity so far, and the whirlwind has only just begun. Two days ago I left the base houses to begin leading a trip of my own. Myself and another photographer, along with our fantastic local staff, are leading six students on a photography workshop across Burma and Laos. It’s early in the trip, but I’m looking forward to seeing them grow and learn more as the days go on.

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I’ve also recently passed my one year mark as a college graduate, and what a crazy year it’s been. Photographically speaking, last summer through the winter was a period of incredible growth for me. I made huge strides in my voice and style as a photographer that, for a long time, I was worried I would never make.

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The internship I did in Jersey is probably the hardest I’ve ever worked. But for all the pressures that came with it, I know that I learned a lot and grew even more. After six months I’d really started to feel connected to the community and confident that, when I showed up for an assignment, I could handle whatever came my way. It was tough to say goodbye to that. I don’t know when I’ll be working at a daily paper again, and when I do I’ll probably have to get to know another community all over again.

I was also shooting so much for myself, and in that way, there was less pressure there than there is here. As long as I met my slideshow counts and did a decent job, the office was happy. So I began to shoot to please myself, as I was sometimes the only one that cared if my images were pushing any boundaries or experimenting with my style. Now, I’m shooting for an editor again. The pressure is on to impress them and make sure that they are glad they chose me for such a great opportunity.

I suppose that’s typical of any new job. There’s always a break in period. I just won’t be getting any feedback until the job is done in August. For now, I haven’t shot anything that I totally love, but maybe it’s because I’m also setting the bar really high for myself. Here’s to hoping I rise to the challenge.

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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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