Journal

Fifty Dollar Bills

Do you remember that scene in Goonies when Data accidentally bumps the counterfeiting machine in the basement of the Lighthouse Lounge? The machine rumbles to life and sheet after sheet of "fifty dolla bill!" come rolling out. In a fleeting moment before the story even starts, the counterfeiting machine nearly brings an end to their quest for the real treasure that will save their town.

And that's the the thing about the counterfeit - it's so convincing, it promises us reprieve from the hard work ahead. I can't tell you how many times I've chased the counterfeit when real treasure was waiting for me, if only I would join the quest.

WELD life is good life.

WELD life is good life.

About 5 years ago, my buddy Steve & I had an idea for a co-working space in Dallas. I only mention this little detail because what I did with the idea stands in stark contrast to what my friend Austin Mann did with a similar idea. I looked at the cost (financial, personal and professional) and balked, whereas Austin sacrificed everything to bring WELD to life.

And, make no mistake, Austin has sacrificed everything he once treasured — a blossoming career as a photographer, numerous opportunities to have his work (which is brilliant) featured in national publications, stamps in his passport from far flung and exotic places and adventure. He's sacrificed so much adventure.

WELD's founder, Austin Mann // a birds eye view of the WELD Dallas patio

WELD's founder, Austin Mann // a birds eye view of the WELD Dallas patio

But, as he heads off today to start WELD Nashville, I see that, maybe just maybe, his sacrifice of the very things I was unwilling to let go of is a statement of faith in what he deems to be treasure. And what he considers true adventure.

To enable, inspire and grow the creative communities of Dallas — and now Nashville — is a gift that multiplies Austin's heart for people a thousand fold. And amplifies the impact he alone can have in the world.

WELD-003

Five years ago, I said no to that quest. I didn't have the capital or the desire or the stomach to risk everything for others. That's hard to admit, but it's honest.

So, when Austin came to me and asked if I'd be willing to move into the roll of "Chief WELDER" in Dallas, I was faced with a similar dilemma. And there were a hundred reasons to once again say no. I mean, $50 bills are rolling off the machine, y'all. But, as I thought about my friends in Dallas who come to WELD every day, and this city my family calls home, and the deep seated beliefs I have about who we creatives are supposed to be in society, I realized those $50 bills are a sorry substitute for the quest that I was being invited into, which is the real treasure afterall.

I'm incredibly thankful to Austin for cultivating this community and revealing the deep truths of life to me in all he does. And, I'm incredibly honored that he'd hand me the opportunity to care for the fruit of his sacrifice.

I don't know what will happen next. Starting today, I'm in the tunnel, juggling my workload as a storyteller and the needs of the WELD community, and I'm sure that both the reminders of other's failures and a few boobie traps lay in front of me (that's what I said, 'boobie traps!!'"). But I also know that there is a treasure out there & I have a group of people (and, I genuinely love those people) who have climbed into the tunnel with me. And all any of us want to find is something better than the comfort of the counterfeit.

So, WELDERs, here we go.

Where Goes Light

Last fall, en route to Ethiopia, I stopped and spent 48 hours in Oman with my closest friends in the world. In life, there is the family you are born into and the family you choose — Amber & Brady, for my wife and me, are the latter. In our hour of deepest need, they were there. In our moments of greatest joy, they were there.

Amber and Brady are "there" kind of people — and not just for my wife & me. Which is what makes them living in the effing desert of Oman* so tough to deal with. As much as I've travelled the last few years, you'd think I would have had a layover or two in their vicinity. Nope. Not one. Until Ethiopia.

I think it's safe to say that my visit was as glad a day for them as it was for me. I know this because we packed an epic discovery of their adopted home** into a matter of hours; they didn't want me to miss a thing.

Along the way we came across Seb, an abandoned village above the Ben Habib Wadi, and Harith, a man who was raised there. He made sure we had the chance to see his former home from it's most stunning angle.

Seb Ruins, Ben Habib Wadi, Oman. Oct. 2012.

Seb Ruins, Ben Habib Wadi, Oman. Oct. 2012.

To be honest, I was blown away imagining anyone ever living there. Humans have an amazing ability to dwell in such inhospitable environments. Nothing about life on that hillside, at any point in history, would have been easy. I asked Harith why his family abandoned the village a couple of decades earlier; what pushed them away? He told us the story of a government's unwillingness to run electricity to their homes, making modern life nearly impossible. After decades, possibly centuries, of living on the side of a cliff, the lack of light was what ultimately drove his family away.

Several months after returning from Oman, I came across this image on The Atlantic:

Palangan Village, Iraq. Photo by Amos Chapple.

Palangan Village, Iraq. Photo by Amos Chapple.

Palangan's resemblance to Seb, Oman is remarkable. Both share an architectural style, seem to have a similar number of dwellings, and their proximity to the wadi — a valley that fills with water in the rainy season — appears comparable. And, from my perspective, both seem equally inhospitable to human life. How exactly does one live on the side of a rocky cliff?

There is one striking difference, however: light. Palangan does not appear to have suffered Seb's fate. Where Seb is now a pile of crumbling buildings, the mere shadow of a fading story, Palangan is vibrant and alive. It may seem a simple thought, but I can't help but be reminded: where goes light, goes life.

Which brings me back to my tour guides in Oman. The landscape isn't the only inhospitable aspect of life in the Middle East. Culturally, life there is difficult for a Westerner. There are political, cultural and religious issues that make daily living as inhospitable as a rocky hillside. Maybe even more so. And yet, in today's world, with the global strains we see between Christians & Muslims, never has it been more important to get light onto those hillsides, both at home and abroad.

In the darkest hour of my marriage, Amber & Brady were life giving light to my wife and me, simply by being there and loving well. Today, I think our family life more closely resembles Palangan though it could have easily become Seb. That's the difference "there" people make in the world.

*Amber's pet name for Oman // **What Brady wishes Amber would call Oman

Against The Grain

Effective storytelling in the world of photography - or image making in general - requires one very well honed aspect of the craft: a unique perspective.

A victorious Adam Scott poses for photographers in his Green Jacket at the 2013 Masters (photo by Scott K. Brown/Augusta National)

A victorious Adam Scott poses for photographers in his Green Jacket at the 2013 Masters (photo by Scott K. Brown/Augusta National)

Kudos to Scott Brown understanding how powerful pointing your camera against the grain of all the other cameras can be. This image should remind us all to not get swept up in the tidal pool of trend or common wisdom. For your work to stand apart from the crowd, you must literally stand apart from the crowd.

Tap into and seek out your unique perspective. It's the only thing in the world you have that no one else can claim.

I must tip my hat to my friend Allan Thompson for sharing this image. His passion for story & golf are second to none.

When Facts Fail

Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow…
— T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

In recent weeks, the conversation surrounding the age old question of image manipulation in photojournalism has hit fever pitch - again.

First, there was this story by Dallas Morning News photographer Louis DeLuca about a Sports Illustrated image that ran in their "Leading Off" section back in November. DeLuca broke the story on SI's choice to change the color of Baylor's jerseys from black to green.

The photo by Matthew Emmons/US Presswire as it appeared in Sports Illustrated

The photo by Matthew Emmons/US Presswire as it appeared in Sports Illustrated

Matthew Emmons original photo as submitted through the wire service

Matthew Emmons original photo as submitted through the wire service

Then, last week, PhotoShelter Co-founder, Allen Murabayashi railed on several of the recent winners in the World Press Photo of the Year 2012 competition. In both of his articles on the subject, Murabayashi took issue with how much digital color toning took place & argued against using such techniques, saying:

I know what the world looks like when I step out the door [emphasis his], and it doesn’t look like some of the news images I’m seeing nowadays. And I am arguing that this is having an insidious effect on how we perceive reality.

He goes on to ask:

If photojournalists, their organizations, and their industry care about veracity, what is there to argue about when calling for the RAW when the truth is in question?

Ah, that great & confusing T word - truth.

Paul Hansen's winning World Press Photo of the Year

Paul Hansen's winning World Press Photo of the Year

As a storyteller, this is a word I've reflected on quite a bit and before we get too far into my rebuttal, I want to make one thing explicitly clear - I am not a photojournalist, so my perspective isn't bent in the direction of The Preeminent Fact, neither do I believe this invalidates my position. Where most of the conversation around this topic takes place in either the blacks or the whites, I want to assert there is in fact a shadowy gray we, as image makers and storytellers, should consider. In my professional life, I have come to understand that the facts are always subject to the Truth and, truth be told, I believe the facts can often be incredibly misleading to anyone pursuing the Truth. Admittedly, I'm far more Hunter S. Thompson than Joseph Pulitzer. And I'm okay with that.

So, when Sports Illustrated makes a choice to change the color of the jersey, I nod in agreement because I believe, while the original image is factually correct, it is at the same time completely misleading. The black jerseys against the dark background, while factual, obscure the story. The SI edit alters the facts, yes, but it allows the audience full, unencumbered access to the emotional truth of the story - a team triumphant.

Maybe, just maybe, war photography pioneer Roger Fenton understood this basic idea when he chose to move the cannonballs in his iconic image Valley of the Shadow of Death. Errol Morris hints at this very idea in the first article of his tremendous 2007 series on the two versions of this historic image:

In this version of Fenton's 'Valley of the Shadow of Death' the canon balls have been removed from the road.

In this version of Fenton's 'Valley of the Shadow of Death' the canon balls have been removed from the road.

And in this version, the canon balls either remain in the road, or have been arranged there.

And in this version, the canon balls either remain in the road, or have been arranged there.

Morris ponders, "Maybe [Fenton] saw the balls on the road and felt they looked fake, and removed them in the interest of creating a more honest picture." Or, maybe it was the opposite. Whichever came first, maybe, Fenton was simply after a more honest picture.

If only we could all conduct ourselves "in the interest of creating a more honest picture". I believe this is the central question that Mr. Murabayashi is getting to in his argument against the World Press Photo winners. He just wants something honest and believes the facts will get us there. This position fails as a theory, however, because it fails to extend the photographers in question the benefit of the doubt. Since they were present at the foot of the funeral procession and the lip of the pool, can't we agree they understand the complexity of the Truth they witnessed? They, alone, have the full weight of the context in which the images were created ringing in their ears. Should we not extend them the professional courtesy of using their best judgement when it comes to processing technique?

photo by Damon Winter/New York Times

photo by Damon Winter/New York Times

photo by Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

photo by Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

Every photographic decision is fraught with constraint and therefore requires a large dose of subjectivity. Was Damon Winter (easily one of my modern photographic heroes) wrong to "omit" the media horde from some of his 2010 images in Haiti? Or was Rodrigo Abd of the Associated Press wrong to include them? Could the answer not lie somewhere in the middle. Interpretation of fact is subjective, no? I don't want to sound too post-modern, because I don't subscribe to the "there is no truth" philosophy. However, I do recognize that while there is certainly a knowable Truth, no one man or woman can ever discern it fully; we are limited by the facts available to our singular perspective. We must simply do our best to understand what we see, press the camera to our eye and make a choice as to what stays in the frame and what falls away for all eternity.

Complicating this already slippery slope is the fact that technology has evolved to the point where we can make a judgement call on the details that express the emotional truth of a scene. No longer are we limited by the facts as they were recorded by the chemical make up of a roll of film. We can dial in color temperature, add or subtract saturation and luminosity in individual color channels and manipulate contrast, black levels, sharpness, and on and on. Shooting RAW gives you infinite control over not just the basic facts, but also over the emotional truth.

Mr. Murabayashi believes that the truth is in danger; I would argue we're finally at a point where photographers can finally hone in on it with great accuracy.

Most of the choices photographers have to make are subjective interpretations of the less than honest facts available in the moment. They always have been. The question becomes, is the manipulation trustworthy. This morning, David Hobby wrote on the days of the darkroom in a post titled Analog Photoshop:

Many news photographers were publicly sacrificed to the Ethics Gods. Meanwhile, National Geographic Magazine happily moved entire pyramids on their cover photos. Sigh.

I'm not sure if his sigh is directed at the the injustice of The Ethics Gods or at the audacity of Nat Geo pursuing a more honest picture. Again, I believe Nat Geo has earned our trust, just as Sports Illustrated has earned the trust of its audience, over time. On track record alone, we should be praising them for being brave enough to make bold choices knowing there are times when facts fail to render an honest depiction of the Truth.

I, for one, am thankful for where we are in the history of photography. Like Mr. Murabayashi, I know what the world feels like when I step outside my door, but unlike him, I am loathe to consider what it would be like if Marcin Ryczek had left his house with only color film in his bag the day he created this image:

Marcin Ryczek - Swans

Samuel Abate

We were driving north after several days in the Walayta District, when our driver slammed on his brakes. I swung my head around, trying to understand why we were stopping, trying to get my bearings. Out the rear window of the truck, I saw a police officer running up the road toward us.

These kinds of things happen when you're abroad. And to be honest, you swallow your heart every time it happens because it's rarely a good thing.

the road to Soddo, Ethiopia

the road to Soddo, Ethiopia

I was on assignment for SIM USA, an interdenominational mission organization dedicated to reaching the un-reached. Ernie Frey, an American missionary from Tenessee, and I had been working alongside Esayas Ersabo, the Ethiopian visionary behind a project we were covering. We'd gone, literally, to the end of the road, to see the fruit of a leadership program Esayas had developed.

Discipling Emerging Leaders (DEL) trains thousands of lay leaders in Ethiopia every year

Discipling Emerging Leaders (DEL) trains thousands of lay leaders in Ethiopia every year

Kale Hewyet elders

Kale Hewyet elders

One evening, a couple of children invited me to see where they collected water.

One evening, a couple of children invited me to see where they collected water.

Everywhere we went, people warmly welcomed Esayas. And we always returned with more people in the truck than we came with. Every time, Esayas would introduce us to the new passengers who always seemed to be family - a nephew or cousin. It became a running joke that Esayas was related to the whole of Walayta.

As the police officer neared the truck, I recognized the man. His name was Samuel Abate and he'd been one of our passengers the day before on a journey to the village of Areka, where Esayas was born. It was an unexpected but welcome detour. An uncle had passed away and we sat with them as they mourned the loss of a beloved man.

This kind of thing happens when you do what I do. By virtue of the story you're supposed to tell, you are invited into peoples lives. To share their food and their hospitality - and occasionally their grief.

Samuel Abate outside of Soddo, Ethiopia

Samuel Abate outside of Soddo, Ethiopia

I will never forget what Samuel said to us as he leaned into the truck to wish us well on our journey back to Addis:

"You came into our homes; you ate what we ate. This is the gospel in practice."

And to be honest, your heart surges into your throat when you hear things like that, because it's always good to be reminded that what you do is more than a job. These are stories of a real King and His kingdom; the simple act of telling a story like this one is as much an act of worship as you hope the audience can experience in its hearing.

The Art of Seeing

He saw something in my son nobody else saw. And he made a film about it.
— George Monroy, Caine's father

Do you remember that video about the young boy from LA who built a cardboard arcade and stole the internet's heart? If you're not familiar with Caine's story, you need to be. Don't worry, there's no expiration date on awesome story. This is the best 10 minutes you'll invest today:

[vimeo 40000072 580 326]

Well, my friend Heather at Shutterfly (she's the Chief Storytelling Officer, how cool is that?) sent it to me this week & I watched it a few times, including yesterday over a Valentine picnic with my wife & daughter. The story is one of those that's too incredibly heartwarming not to share. And it started me thinking about a few things.

Something Nobody Else Saw. It takes a storyteller to see the world as it's supposed to be (thanks for the phrase Cornelius Plantinga). Most people walk through life and see a hardware store full of boxes. It takes a storyteller to see, to really truly see, past the factual truth of life and redemptively view the details. This wonderful little kid gave the world a gift, but it took a storyteller's perspective to translate what he created into a language the rest of the world could understand. It took a storyteller to show the world an arcade.

Storytellers are First Customers. The Art of Seeing comes with great responsibility. It's a form of leadership. The way Nirvan Mullick (the storyteller behind Caine's Arcade) saw his neighborhood sparked a worldwide movement & literally changed Caine's life forever. Not to mention the change in perspective that occurs in anyone who's ever seen the film. They'll never see a cardboard box the same way again. The world is better because Nirvan needed a door handle and found an arcade.

A Small Gesture. Seeing Truth in the overwhelming presence of contrary facts, takes practice - but it's something you can do anywhere. And it starts with being curious and kind. Nirvan may have truly seen the arcade before anyone else, but it took kindness shown to a 9 year old boy and a willingness to ask, "how much for a fun pass?" to give birth to a story.

This weekend, as you do the things you do, practice the Art of Seeing. Engage someone you wouldn't normally notice, show them the kindness of being genuinely interested in the details of their life. You just might find a story that we all desperately need to hear.

You can learn more about Caine & his arcade here: http://cainesarcade.com/

the original social media

 
The primary question has to be what stories can you tell with what tools... Let’s move the conversation forward to that point, and dispense with the angst and anxiety.
— photo critic David Campbell on the "legitimate vs illegitimate" photography debate
 

I first laid my hands on an iPhone in August of 2007; it was a graduation gift from my mom. When I started college 11 years earlier (that's a whole other story), cell phones weren't ubiquitous, email was a novelty, Google was still two years from making it's debut and I carried a Pentax K1000 everywhere I went. A lot about the world has changed in the last 17 years, but nothing has been more seismic for me personally than that day in 2007 when I first held the iPhone.

early iPhone photos from Sudan, 2009, processed w/ Best Camera

early iPhone photos from Sudan, 2009, processed w/ Best Camera

Photography grabbed me at a very early age and the fascination was never about the technical, but the social aspects of the art. Photography, in my opinion, is the first social media. It was born from our desire as humans to contextualize and record the world around us and to share our perspective. The share has evolved over the years - from those first images etched onto glass plates, to slideshows on living room walls to Instagram - but the point has always been to share.

So, in that spirit, I want to share thoughts, ideas and some of what I'm trying in mobile photography. I want to share because I love sharing things I am passionate about and, if mobile photography has done nothing else in the last five and half years, it's elevated my passion for imaging making.

palm trees outside a taxi window, Havana, Cuba, 2013

palm trees outside a taxi window, Havana, Cuba, 2013

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to share the apps I use most & why I love them, share how you can make your own #panogramtastic images in Instagram & let some of my favorite mobile photographers share their thoughts on mobile photography. In the meantime, feel free to follow me on Instagram and Flickr, which is where I share the majority of my mobile photography.

Part II is coming on Thursday, so stay tuned.

Soho, NYC // Chicago on Lake Michigan (my 2 most 'liked' Instagrams of 2012)

Soho, NYC // Chicago on Lake Michigan (my 2 most 'liked' Instagrams of 2012)