Journal

Omni Montelucia

Twenty six. That's how many months have passed since I joined The Richards Group. And, it turns out, twenty five months — to the day — since I last posted anything. Sorry about that. Since making the move, I have tried to keep my head down and simply do great work

While I'm incredibly proud of what I've made since joining the agency, most of that work has been without a camera in my hand. As a director, my job is to interpret the creative, communicate a production plan and lead a talented team of craftspeople to bring the idea to life. So, when an opportunity to shoot presented itself — like, hold-the-camera-look-through-the-viewfinder-and-press-the-shutter shoot — I jumped at the chance.

Before we even landed, it was fun collaborating with the creatives on ideas for making the most of our time on property. Finding ways to creatively push the boundaries of various ad spaces — like Facebook's carousel ads — was rewarding, as a photographer and a storyteller.

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The benefit of a well defined plan, however, is the confidence it affords you to follow your nose away from the trail, chasing light and finding unexpected inspiration along the way. And it's those images that fall beyond your imagination when making the shot list that end up being the most true to the plan anyway.

To paraphrase Annie Leibovitz, you do the work to make room for the magic. And, in Arizona, I was blessed with healthy doses of magic.

Omni Hotels are, in a word, incredible and their Montelucia resort & spa in Scottsdale, AZ, gave that word new definition. The grounds were immaculate, the views breathtaking and my two days there weren't nearly enough.

A NEW ADVENTURE

On the 10th of June, I started a new adventure as a director at Fathom 100, which is the monicker of my new department at The Richards Group.

It’s in its infancy & we are working to define what our core mission is, but for now, it’s safe to say that I will be doing work very similar to that which I’ve always done. As of now, we are just me. However, my collaborators on that work are 750 of the brightest minds in advertising. That part really excites me.

It’s a pretty incredible opportunity to begin something new inside an organization with their creative track record and reputation.

Since making the change, there's one question I have received more than any other:

WHY?

A few weeks before I began, Stan Richards (in case it’s not painfully obvious, he’s the owner of TRG) asked to meet with me. I was assured this wasn’t an “interview”, the job was mine. He just wanted to talk.

After 20 minutes of get to know you talk he shifted in his chair, looked me square in the eye and asked, “You’ve been making a living for a long time, why would you want to leave that to join us?"

This was my answer:

There’s a big difference between making a living and thriving in life. The last few years, I felt like the opportunities to thrive have waned. It’s as if I ran through the doors of a great looking building, climbed all it’s stairs and was now frustrated by the ceiling above my head.
 
I thrive when I embrace challenge and there were no more challenges to take me higher. To grow, to thrive, would actually require me to find a new building.
 
I had some great times, but a few years of introspection made it pretty clear that my successes would always be minor. I was, at best, a very reliable minor league ball player. And the Yankees called to say they had a spot for me.
 
I made the change because I wanted to see if I had what it takes to play major league ball. I wanted that challenge more than I wanted to be on the top floor of a short building.
The view from my new desk.

The view from my new desk.

This wasn’t a decision I entered into lightly. I operated as Trey Hill Photographs for 7 years and there’s something to be said for the fact that I could have gone for 7 more. But, for the sake of complete transparency, my wife & I had been talking about making a change like this for many years. Owning your own business is really tough and we have more than our fair share of scars to prove it.

This change means giving up some things. My time operating as the photographer for the Dallas Stars coming to an end & no longer acting as an auteur on projects come to mind pretty quickly. Some of the things I leave behind, I do so with a very heavy heart. But, the upside is that none of those things mean walking away from the people who made them special.

The relationships were always my favorite part of self employment. The work was occasionally cool. The opportunities were often once in a lifetime. But the people were what kept me going.

Thankfully, I take all of those relationships with me into this new season of life. And, whatever it is that gets built will benefit greatly from knowing them.

FILMS NOT EXCUSES

I have a problem with perfectionism. Especially so when it comes to my work. But, maybe that's a good thing, I'd tell myself. It's necessary, right?

The business of making images is incredibly competitive. To stand out, you have to obsess over the details.

The margin between the awesome work and everything (and everyone) else is a chasm of lesser choices. So take your time & consider your steps. 

Seems like wisdom, but I've come to believe that these are not statements of truth, but crutches of fear. And fear is a barrier to the revelations that creating things reveals.

This may not be a universal truth — hear me when I say that — but it's definitely true for me. My perfectionism is a delay tactic, a way to keep a project from crossing the finish line, because I'm scared. God forbid it wouldn't be liked or up voted or, hell, seen!

What if no one likes it? What if no one cares?

Yeah. What if?

And this begs a much bigger question: Who am I creating for?

Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of why I did any of this in the first place.

I remember, as a kid, sitting on my bedroom floor for hours on end drawing army trucks. I made sure that the camo patterns were all different. I would draw one truck per sheet of paper then line the sheets up so it would make a convoy of trucks & tanks. And the only person who ever saw those machines of my imagining was me. But that didn't stop me from breaking out pencil and paper every. single. day. because, simply, I loved to draw.

Today, I make a living creating things for others — the clients who pay me or my followers and their digital affections. But that's a backwards economy. I should be living to create. I should create for the sheer enjoyment of seeing, feeling and translating the world around me.

Actually, this whole line of thinking started right after seeing that Casey Neistat film I wrote about back in April. And the big lesson I've arrived at boils down to this motto I adopted:

MAKE FILMS NOT EXCUSES

Since that day, I've made about 20 films. Twenty, since April 10th. I've made some of them for clients. I made some using my normal mode of filmmaking. Some have been shot but not edited. I've even taken to Snapchat (add me: squarerootof9) to tell stories.

MAKE FILMS. NOT EXCUSES.

So, last night, when the storms blew through & the sun was going down, it felt natural to just grab my camera and run down to the lake. It felt natural to find a way past the construction barrier & tell a tiny story about a magnificent sunset. One lens, no tripod, but more than enough enthusiasm to make up for all I lacked.

The sharing is still part of the equation. I don't see that as the issue. We create because we enjoy and we share because we want to share that enjoyment. It's a small adjustment in the heart with pretty profound consequences.

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WHAT HAS CHANGED

Have you seen the Time Magazine cover featuring the unrest in Baltimore?

It's amazing.

The May 11, 2015 cover of TIME Magazine. Photo by Devin Allen.

The May 11, 2015 cover of TIME Magazine. Photo by Devin Allen.

Amazing. And shot by an "amateur". A guy from West Baltimore who hasn't missed a march. Who protests while he shoots. Whose photography is a remarkable protest, all of it's own.

His name is Devin Allen & I'm blown away by his story.

For starters, his work was discovered on Instagram (after Rihanna posted one of his images) by Time's Director of Photography Paul Moakley

In digging through his Instagram feed, Paul said he saw "a singular vision throughout the work and we laid it all out. It runs through six pages in the magazine and it’s our cover now.”

Yes, you read that correctly. The head of photography for one of the biggest publications in the United States sourced work for the magazine on Instagram, a social media platform. You probably just thought it was for lunch & baby photos.

I would recommend checking out Devin's Instagram feed to fully comprehend why Moakley made the decision he made.

Anyone else having their mind blown?

This is the Revolution I wrote about last week. I'm telling you, the establishment walls are coming down. In Devin's words: 

 
Somebody tell the [Baltimore] Mayor that Time put a thugs artwork on the cover of with a full spread.
 

With our art we protest broken systems and inspire a better world. From Instagram to TIME, talk about a further definition of a medium. 

For those of us who desire to tell great stories, to use our work to make change in the world, we should read this story and take heart. Our time is coming, if it hasn't arrived. 

If you learn anything from Devin, learn this:

Be thoughtful, be thorough, hone your voice & be patient. You'll get your shot.

I know Baltimore is an explosive topic. This is a story about a story being told, yes. But it's also more than a story to many, it's life (and death). Should you feel led to leave a comment below, I simply ask that you keep it civil & respectful. 

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The Fighter

I'd like to congratulate my friend Ralph Strangis on one of the most shocking, ballsy moves I've seen a guy of his stature make. When you have a chair like he has — one that comes with a great paycheck, an all-access pass to some of the world's greatest assets & a touch of celebrity — it's hard to not be handcuffed to it.

It takes massive guts to be in control of your destiny. It's no small thing to muster up the courage to walk away. And on your terms.

The Ralph we love on Dallas Star broadcasts, as we've heard many nights, is a poet and brilliant storyteller. 

Ralph reciting Ernest Thayer's Casey at the Bat.

Ralph reciting Ernest Thayer's Casey at the Bat.

A couple years ago, we sat in my studio & he recited poems and told me hilarious stories while I shot photos of him. Good light & good company. What more does one need in life? 

Not much.

As we were wrapping up, he looks at me says, "Hey, I brought my gloves. You mind if we get a few of me boxing."

Ralph's a fighter. He's fought addiction. He's fought for a team that wasn't very good for a very long time. And he fights for his friends.

Last summer, I was in a pinch. I had an actor fall through at the last minute. I didn't know who to call or what to do. I called Ralph.

"I don't have second thoughts. Character defect. For you — I'll do it."

That's how he responded when I offered him an out.

Poet. Storyteller. Fighter.

But most of all: friend.

This is going to be one of those news stories that will have the Stars universe in tears. Literal tears. People love Ralph. He's been invited into the homes of Stars fans for 27 years, for Pete's sake. People feel like they know him, in part because he's done a remarkable job of telling the story we care about hearing. 

We — me included — will miss that voice.

But here's the deal. It takes guts to control your destiny. As Ralph said, this isn't "The End", it's intermission. Act two is around the corner. He's not done telling stories.

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REVOLUTION

Okay, so several years ago I learned about this renegade filmmaker named Casey Neistat through a film he made to help promote (one of my favorite movies!) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Fast forward a couple or three years to last week, when a tweet led to me clicking a link & seeing Casey's distinctive, friendly face making a promise to create a new film every day until he got bored with the idea. He had successfully caught my eye again.

There's something incredibly refreshing about his unpretentious style, as well as the ambition that compels one to hack together a film every. freaking. day.

I've enjoyed every one of his vlogs, to date. But, yesterday, I watched one from earlier this week that has me fired up. Someone questioned why in the world he — a serious filmmaker — would vlog. Like somehow he's slumming.

His answer was awesome:

 
Our job as creators is to further define any medium.

I paused the film and sat with those words for a minute. It hit me:

We no longer have to rely on distributors to validate us. Or studios to fund us. We no longer have to rely on theater owners to screen our films. All we have to do IS MAKE FILMS. And make them our way... whatever way WE MAKE UP.

I felt like he was saying, "MrGorbachev tear down this wall!"

If you're a creator, you should be pumping your fists in the air right now. If you're a student, you should be jumping up & down because the wall has come down. We are living in a unprecedented time of creative freedom, especially if you aspire to create stories using images.

If you haven't done so yet, I would highly recommend you watch that whole video up there. Watch the whole thing. Subscribe to his YouTube channel. Watch them all.

Maybe you're like, "just show me the best part, Trey". Fair enough. Click here. Just, whatever you do, don't ignore this.

If you've enjoyed this post, then maybe we should stay in touch. Consider signing up for my newsletter here, following me on twitter and/or Instagram.

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LIFE ON THEME

I've read a fair bit of cynicism, recently, espousing the contrived nature of "new-ness" at the New Year. The majority of these critics take issue with some perceived falsehood present in the practice of making resolutions. The most well intentioned of them employ a line of logic that typically goes like this:

Everyday you have an opportunity start fresh. Don't let the arbitrariness of a calendar define your story.

But, I take issue with this line of thinking.

Life is Story

 
Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time.
— Robert McKee
 
Don't let cynicism keep you from the change you desire. (photo by Trey Hill)

Don't let cynicism keep you from the change you desire. (photo by Trey Hill)

Much has been written by more accomplished men & women than me about the subject of life as story. I believe this line of thinking to have great value & will proceed from this point assuming you agree. We are living lives that (we hope) will be worthy tales, inspiring adventure and noblity and come to a happy end. The best of them will echo in eternity, to quote Gladiator's Maximus. 

Stories have a few key ingredients — character, conflict & theme among them. So if stories have these things & we are living stories, then life should have these things as well. 

You are the character in your story, therefore you must want something & will have to overcome much in pursuit of that desire. It's this desire that compels us at each new year to resolve in our hearts to be, do or change something. 

Where we are is not where we wish to remain.

A Caution Against Cliché

 
A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change.
— Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
 

I think the cynicism against New Years resolutions comes from how quickly we abandon them. If Marty McFly gives up on getting home & fades into oblivion in 1955, we have no story. If Frodo says "to hell with it" and chucks the ring, we have no story. If I resolve to quit smoking and can't make it to the end of January without opening a new pack, I cut the legs out from under the narrative I want to live. 

When you resolve to lose weight or write more or quit smoking, you are making two mistakes. First, you're telling (yourself) a boring story. Second, you're telling that boring story in a completely unoriginal way. 

Find your unique vantage point on life; perspective is everything. (photo by Trey Hill)

Find your unique vantage point on life; perspective is everything. (photo by Trey Hill)

Don't be cliché. Abandoning resolutions is cliché & stories rooted in cliché are well deserving of every eyeroll they receive.  

Honestly, you are wonderfully unique. You see and experience the world unlike anyone else. Why would you waste time & energy on some homogenized version of a story that you can't stay interested in living for more than a couple of weeks?

The answer, I believe, lies at the root of the desired thing. Going back to my smoking analogy, why do I want to quit? Health reasons? Social? Financial? Spiritual? The why behind a particular resolution is the key.

Start With Theme

 
When we want mood experiences, we go to concerts or museums. When we want meaningful emotional experience, we go to the storyteller.
— Robert McKee
 
If stories are trains, theme is the track. (photo by Trey Hill)

If stories are trains, theme is the track. (photo by Trey Hill)

As I said, a story is simply a character who wants something & overcomes conflict to get it. The sum of the waves of conflict one must endure during the course of a story, in the end, means something; this something we call theme. It's the emotionally satisfying nougat core in the candy bar of a well told story. 

To say it another way, theme is the guiding idea that strings together all the choices — success & failure — a character makes and gives them singular, overarching purpose. 

For three years now, when the story title changes — that epic story of endurance called Two Thousand Fourteen ends with fireworks & a kiss; a new story, titled Twenty Fifteen, opens on a cold, quiet morning — I change the theme instead of making a resolution.

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2013 was The Year of Collaboration.

2014 was The Year of Patience.

And 2015 will be The Year of Creation.  

By starting with a theme, I'm able to determine the trajectory of my year's story. The personal & professional choices I am faced with are weighed against their value to the idea of the story I want to live in a given year. A new year is the perfect occasion for such a reset because it offers a timeline (did you read the McKee quote?), beginning and end, complete with a new title. 

So many incredible things have come about because of living on theme. In 2013, I was able to pull together a collaboration between myself, my friends at Ditore Mayo Entertainment, I Am Second & KoRn guitarist Brian "Head" Welch; the resulting feature length documentary should release later this year. 2014 was an incredibly difficult year, but I believe I was ultimately able to weather her storms because I had built the story of the year on a foundation of patience. 

And now, I can't wait for this time next year when I will be able to see tangible things I made with my hands & mind. More than anything, I'm excited because it gives my free time new purpose.  

Conflict Will Come

 
The world has come undone
Like to change it everyday
Change don’t come at once
It’s a wave building before it breaks.
— Pearl Jam, Undone
 
Like the ocean, a new year serves up wave after wave, set after set of possibility. (photo by Trey Hill)

Like the ocean, a new year serves up wave after wave, set after set of possibility. (photo by Trey Hill)

Living life in the context of a story doesn't mean trouble goes away. If anything, bending your conscious mind toward the story you are intentionally living brings a hyper-awareness to the conflicts that stand in your way. And their significance to the story is rarely lost.

I didn't realize just how much patience my Year of Patience would require when I decided to make that the theme one year ago. In fact, I think I failed more than I succeeded in the story of 2014. I lost my patience many, many times. And the stakes seemed to keep raising on me, demanding more patience than I was able to muster. But, for all the failures of 2014, I am better for having suffered her story. 

As Coldplay so eloquently sings, "just because I'm losing doesn't mean I'm lost." You can't fail at thematic living because even failure leads to change.

If you reach deeper than a declaration of changing behavior & instead choose to let a singular idea shape your year, you will find that the behavior changes come along with a holistic growth that you didn't anticipate. 

Ask yourself what you want & then explore themes that will put you on the path to that goal. Do you want to lose weight? Choose to make 2015 The Year of Fit Living, which will impact not just the frequency with which you exercise but how often you take stairs over elevators, bike instead of drive, the food you eat, the people you invite into your life & a host of things that are completely unique to you.

There is nothing more revolutionary for a story than the author writing the first line. Make a new years revolution by picking an idea you want at the center of your story this year. After all, you have to make this trip around the sun so you might as well be in control of what it means.

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Not on the Skies

 
And once this had brought a pang to me,
a sense of pain in my heart to see
The leafless trees and the stubble sear,
and the darkening faces of a dying year.

It is not so now. My heart is glad,
tho’ every sight and sound is sad,
For I have come to realize
that joy depends not on the skies.
— from Clear Skies by Maltbie Davenport Babcock
 

This past August, after a five year absence, I was able to return to South Sudan with my friends from Seed Effect. It was a special experience because when I first arrived in November of 2009, Seed Effect had yet to distribute a loan & in the years since a massive forest of hope had sprung up throughout Kajo Keji.

On the surface, not much had changed... but press in just a little & you could see the tangible difference Seed Effect had made on the area. 

I was blown away, actually.

Anniversaries are cool & this month marks the 5th anniversary of the first Seed Effect loan. Wow.

To help celebrate, I've worked on a few new films while I was with Seed Effect this summer & those will premier on Thursday, November 13th at their #SETurns5 Event. Also, I'll be joining fellow photographer Andrew Slaton in a two-man photography show that opens that evening. 

A storm gathers over the South Sudanese boma of Kajo Keji.

A storm gathers over the South Sudanese boma of Kajo Keji.

On two different evenings, Andrew & I stood together marveling at the power of the storms that swept across the South Sudanese skies (one of those is pictured above). Those two storms really informed the way I framed curating my contributions to this show. I'm incredibly excited about this new body of work & I hope you'll come out to see the show in person.

Here are the details:

Thursday, November 13th, 6 — 9 PM at The Laundry (1818 Chestnut St. Dallas, TX)

Register for the event ($19, which goes directly to the work Seed Effect is doing in South Sudan) by clicking here

I genuinely hope to see you there.


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#MakePortraits Monday Spotlight: Jimmy Nelson

 
Jimmy Nelson is not about facts: he’s a romantic, an idealist, an aesthete.
— from the foreword of Before They Pass Away
 

Recently, I was at a birthday party for one of my son's friends & came across a remarkable book of portraits on the families coffee table. It was Jimmy Nelson's Before They Pass Away. As a lover of other cultures, an occassional adventurer to the places that fall well beyond the end of the road and as a maker of portraits, I instantly fell in love with this book.

At some point, I will own this behemoth.

A behemoth, indeed. My first impression of Before They Pass Away was its sheer size. The 16 x 24 inch book is more than 4 inches thick. It is literally a 464 page mountain of portraits. Five hundred striking images of forgotten peoples from the edges of the earth, to be exact.

This project began, however, so the forgotten would be remembered. So the unseen could come into view. And I think that's the idea that leapt off the pages most. It was not the weight of this giant book in my lap that was pressing on me, but the weight of the idea that was there in clear view on every page. In the photographer's own words, that idea was this:

 
I didn’t start this project anticipating that I could stop the world from changing. I purely wanted to create a visual document that reminds us and generations to come of how beautiful the human world once was.
— Jimmy Nelson
 

And that's why portraiture is important. That's why I am as passionate about the subject as I am, because the human world is beautiful. And it is changing right before our eyes. The people you encounter today will someday be reduced to a bullet point in a history or sociology textbook.

How will people, then, know of our world & experiences now?

We must tell them with portraits, so they can see, and stories, so they can understand. This is not a frivolous task. Wherever you are, take time. Listen. Make portraits. That's what Jimmy Nelson has taught me.

In learning more about Jimmy Nelson's work, I came across his TEDxAmsterdam. If you're into things like how this kind of project happens, what it takes to be a portraitist of this caliber, I'd highly recommend investing the 12 minutes to watch. It's an endearingly vulnerable tale of adventure, connection — connection with self & others, through photography — and the lessons the subjects of his photographs taught him along the way.

 
By being vulnerable, by letting go, by being fallible, you connect with people on any level.
— Jimmy Nelson
 

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