“Good night, sweetheart. I’ll see you in 5 days, okay?”
“Where are you going, Daddy?”
“Daddy’s gotta go to school tomorrow morning, just like you. Except I have to wake up really early and take a plane to get there. I’m going to go learn how to take better pictures.”
“But you already know how to take good pictures.”
“Yeah, but I wanna learn how to take even better pictures.”
“Did mommy make you do this?”
“Yes, Madelyn… yes she did.”
“Okay then, 5 kisses and 5 hugs.”
That was 5 craaaaazy days ago. I’ve since amassed maybe 10 hours of broken sleep. And now I’m on a plane, flying back home, dying to see my little girl again. And my precious little Timmy. And the girl who sent me on this whole crazy adventure… Erika, my partner in life, love, and photography. I have so much to say and share with them about what I’ve learned from this experience, but no words to do so. And I mean that literally… I actually lost my voice entirely last night. So there’s that. But there’s also the cold, hard reality that some things just defy all explanation. Like, for example, how it’s possible for Texas to be COLDER than Canada in the middle of January? Or why, should that be the case, otherwise sane grown men and women might feel the need to repeatedly hurl their half naked bodies into an outdoor, unheated pool!? But back to the point. How can I even begin to describe in spoken words, the transformative experience this has been… much less with malfunctioning vocal cords? I’m guessing that the lost voice is some sort of physiological manifestation of sleep deprivation, emotional unleash, and cheering so loudly and proudly during everyone’s slideshow at last night’s grand finale.
Why do they call this thing ‘Foundation Workshop,’ anyway? ‘Foundation’ makes sense. I get it. It goes deep, to the core. It enforces the basis from which to build and grow as a photographer and as a person. But, ‘workshop’? Come on!? Who are we kidding? This was an ‘intervention’… an “awakening.” I went in there and shot my heart out and poured my guts out. And now, here I am with my voice reduced to squeaks and crackles… reflecting. All the stirred up emotions and self-discovery are settling out… and all that’s left is the truth.
As it turns out, I had unknowingly lied to my daughter. Deep down, I hadn’t gone to learn how to take better pictures. I’d gone to learn how to be a better person…. how to live a happier life. Because in the end, this wasn’t so much about refining the technical art of my photography. Not about learning and perfecting new techniques. Not about refining my lighting or composition. Not about gear, or editing, or workflow, or business. It was all those things, of course. I see light differently now. I have greater control over my camera. I’ve made instrumental changes to the way I shoot and edit. But none of that is what this was really about. This was way deeper that all of that, much more profound. This was about mindset, approach, and soul. I hadn’t come to learn how to speak the language of photography. I’d come to learn my own language of photography, and what I want to say with it.
I was one of 6 sorry fools, lucky (or unlucky?) enough to be welcomed into Ben Chrisman’s “Advanced Team.” Except for myself and one other student, everyone on my team was a returning Foundation student. Apparently, this meant that we were subject to unexpected twists, surprises, and challenges.
The reality of just how deep I was in, began to really set in when Ben dropped my assignment on me by surprise, 1 day earlier than everyone else. “Your assignment is a 17 year old high school basketball phenom. And you start NOW. Go.”
My friend, Tim King, coined the perfect analogy for the assignments that are carefully chosen for us. It’s like in the movie, “The Game,” wherein you’re thrown into a customized experience that’s somehow been perfectly designed to target your deepest fears and challenges and obstacles. Infiltrating myself into the life of a teenage girl wasn’t going to be easy, but absolutely critical to gaining the kind of trust and access that I’d need to be able to tell her story, which was SO much deeper and more complex than what’s visible on the surface (star athlete, ‘A’ student, role model). Finding those deeper layers and telling them through photographs was essentially my assignment. It was the inspirational sports story you might expect. But it was also a love story, a tragedy, a comedy, with a varied supporting cast… her coach, her adoring teammates, her mom and dad, her boyfriend, and her spiritual community. And it was full of many unexpected adventures, like a trip to the E.R., wild, ferrel hogs, and dress shopping with a gaggle of high school girls.
I went into this assignment much like I go into most weddings… firing on all cylinders with cameras-a-blazing, fuelled by a burning desire and self-imposed pressure to “kill it.” Throughout the experience, my leaders and mentors (Ben Chrisman, Anna Kuperberg, Craig Fritz, and Jeremy Minnerick) were able to illuminate the ways in which this approach and mindset were limiting me. They showed me how to slow down my brain, refocus, enjoy myself, and therein tap into a language of photography with more soul (both my subject’s and my own). At one point, Ben said, “Give me a Reason to Care,” and I just can’t shake that idea. It’s refocussed my attention and changed the way I look at and shoot my subjects, their stories and the world around them.
This assignment, and my subject, drove home for me the importance of connection, understanding and compassion in photography. When I started out, I was stuck shooting on the surface. I was looking without actually seeing. Hearing without actually listening. I needed to find a way to shoot with more guts, less brain.
Ben was spot on in pointing out the irony of my failing vocal cords. In a way, I had to lose my voice in order to find my voice. I might not be able to speak again yet… but now, for the first time… I can really hear. The noise has been turned way down. I’ve harnessed the obsession. Gained new perspectives. Rediscovered priorities. Achieved new balance. Re-aligned focus. Shifted attention. Altered motivations. And changed my life.
“Daddy, did you learn how to take better pictures?”
I paused briefly and allowed myself to really think about her question.
“Yes Madelyn, I did. But even better, I learned how to have more fun taking those pictures. And you know what’s the best part?”
“I think I also learned how to be a better dad.”
“But you’re already a good dad.”
“Awe, thanks Madelyn. But I can be even better!”