CPOY 67: Photos, Videos and Animal Crackers.

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Out. Out. Out. IN!”  The familiar sounds of CPOY took precedence over all other activities (including classes) this past week for the photojournalism department in it’s 67th year.  Because my experience has been limited with the competition in the past, I was looking forward to attending at much of the judging rounds as my schedule allowed. After observing the judges at work for several rounds of voting, what struck me most this year compared to last year’s competition, was the range of agreement and disagreement between the judges perceptions of the photos and my own understanding of what makes a “good” photo.  Moreover, my appreciation for this year’s contest was also greatly influenced by the mock judging in which I participated as part of the graduate component for the Photo Story and Picture Essay class, and the brief interview with Wally Skalij on how to conduct a photo story.

Photojournalism is both an art and a science.  Photographers use engineered technology to produce works of art that communicate their vision.  However, the evaluations of photographs is often both an objective and subjective process.  This was particularly difficult for me to come to terms with during both during the mock and actual judging of the Illustrated, General News and Documentary categories.  Playing the role of the judge I felt myself settle into character once the green and red buttons were placed in my hand, and as the photos began to flick across the screen I realized how important my snap-second decisions were.  With hundreds of photos to sort through, a judge must within a matter of seconds determine the quality of the shot presented to them, taking into consideration, color, light, composition, appropriateness of categorization, without the benefit of a caption in the first round.  This was especially difficult for me in the Illustration category because I am not as familiar with Illustration as with a more news or story oriented category.  If Rick Shaw had read the description of the category before-hand, I would have felt more confident in my decisions. Pressed for time, however, I relied mostly upon my understanding of what makes a quality illustration.  Many of them I wanted to know more, and I was surprised by how much the caption made a difference in my attitude toward a picture.

The role of the caption in photo competitions has always been something I wrestled with.  On the one handI feel a good picture can stand on it’s own, as it should have all the storytelling elements a caption would provide.  This is something I’ve heard from many professional photographers and editors in the field; the great photos provide the most information beautifully.  Moreover, if a photo is less superior than others in the competition, should it’s merit be based upon caption information which might place it higher in rank? For myself, during the mock judging, the captions made a significant difference in my attitude toward certain photos.  If the caption implied the thoughtfulness and intentionality of the photographer I was more inclined to vote “in.”  If I sensed little direction or purpose I wasn’t willing to fight for that photo.  For example, knowing the background on the human doll which spoke to the pressure young girls feel to be beautiful, increased my understanding and appreciation for the image.   The judges this year also appeared to rely heavily on captions to inform their decisions.  During the General News session, the photo that would win second place, rose above others due in part to the caption information, that told the judges the situation had been planned, referring to a local organization that helps the poor of Kyrgyzstan.  Captions were also a significant factor in the Documentary category, in which more information provided depth and context to particular images.

As Tatiana, Gan Yi, Carrie and I continued sorting through the photos in Illustrated, I also began to understand just how much concentration it takes to be a judge.  After the first thirty or forty images I found myself going into a sort of daze, where I was no longer as intently focused on the image, moving through the motions of hitting out, out, out.  When I realized I hadn’t been paying the close attention each deserved while voting I panicked.  Luckily safety nets have been set in place, such as returning to the “outs” before moving onto the next round, that prevent any potential winners from slipping through the cracks.

I loved seeing what came through in the multimedia categories.  There were some inventive pieces that inspire me in my own work, and it was clear, as the judges began separating the videos, which would rise above the rest.  The multimedia pieces that stood out were beautifully sequenced and smart about the context and imagery, but it was often the minor details that would distinguish the winners from the losers, just as with photos.  In multimedia this almost always came down to audio and storyline. One criteria that a work needed to fulfill was to reach the “plot” or problem of the story quickly. Just as with a photo story, a multimedia piece needs to be driven forward with strong pacing and a beginning, middle and end.  Long or repetitive audio that provides no new information detracted heavily from stories, and in many of the winning multimedia the plot was introduced in an interesting way to avoid stating the problem in an obvious way.  This was especially true of “Wright’s Law” and “A Beautiful Waste,” that made the viewer go “aha!”  The most exciting part of the video is made even more interesting through placement.  However, if it takes too long to reach that point, the viewer’s attention and interest wanes.

The elements of storytelling in the multimedia category also apply to well-done photo stories.  This was evident in the Documentary category, where entrants demonstrated projects executed over a long periods of time.  There still needed to be some kind of beginning, middle and end or closer.  Though it didn’t necessarily have to be a story in the same sense as the multimedia pieces, it did need to flow through nice sequencing, show variety of angles and places and demonstrate some kind of interpretation by the photographer.  Each image also needed to be able to stand on its own, yet fit well within the context of the story.  For Wally Skalij, the photo of the house in the winning documentary hurt the overall story, though they all thought it was an excellent body of work.  It was an easy shot to show environment and Wally was hoping for something with more depth or meaning, that could have been provided by simply waiting for the main subject to walk into the frame. “Find a moment, pull back and get a little more context,” said Wally, “That’s the difference between winning and losing.”

In my interview with Wally I asked what he thought was missing overall from this category, and for both him and Kurt it had been the lack of strong images.  While he thought the story content had been really good for the Documentary category, the images weren’t there to support it.  The judges had found the opposite to be true, however, for International picture story.  He also discussed the work it takes to find the right story as the documentary photographers had done.  “Research,” he said.  At the L.A. times, weeks of planning can go into a project before a camera is ever picked up, and when the time finally comes to begin shooting, Wally progresses slowly with the subject, especially if the nature of the topic is sensitive, as with the gold and silver winners of Documentary. Access was key to making the stories as strong as they were and trust is essential to gaining that access.  Wally works slowly with his subjects and stated that, for him, it’s necessary to be receptive to the subject, but also to open up about who he is and his intentions with the project.  The call to transparency is something I had heard echoed in the talks of other photographers, such as Jodi Cobb and Andre Pungovschi, and is something I continue to strive for in my own work.  The more the subject understands what you, as a photographer, are looking for, the more often they are willing to cooperate and open their lives to your work, and this openness will always be the most important part of a photographer’s job.


Hope, Healing and House Calls: Dr. Hope Tinker

October 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I enjoyed working on this project, for many different reasons.  Not only did it bring me closer to a fascinating subject, I also felt more comfortable interacting with her because she was a doctor.  This was a situation, I believe, in which my background helped establish a connection.

My interest in healthcare, especially rural health care, stems from my dad who is a family practitioner in my home town.  It’s pretty rural there too, and while I’ve never really had an interest in becoming a part of the medical field, I’ve always wanted to explore the role of doctors in their communities.  Family practitioners often become the most important medical professional in a person’s life, yet, in my experience, they appear to be the least appreciated, by hospitals, insurance agencies and sometimes patients.  On a daily basis they must balance seeing large numbers of people while devoting the time and compassion each person deserves.  Now, as insurance costs rise for doctors and pay little on behalf of patients, private practitioners are moving away from independent practices to join with hospitals.  This, in turn, pulls them from their country offices to the city, making it increasingly difficult for rural families to find doctors in their area.

Dr. Tinker has established her place in the small community and continues to remain independent, preferring to work closely with the people of Fayette.  Running her practice out of a wing of the town’s refurbished hospital, she is one of the last independently owned family practitioners.  She owns her own space, pays her employees, finances her own insurance costs and does the hiring and firing.  Perhaps this is not be particularly remarkable to many people, but it’s something I have seen disappear in my dad’s life and in the lives of many other doctors who could not afford to remain on their own.  Despite the demands of maintaining her business, she also continues to make house calls, though not in the sense of W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor.  Her house calls are made only to the elderly, whose age typically becomes an obstacle to their clinic visits.

I wasn’t able to spend as much time with her as I would have liked.  In less than two days I was able to cover her making her house calls and working in the clinic, but there were several shots I felt I missed, leaving me with that horrible sick feeling with which I’m sure every photographer is familiar.  Also, the first meeting felt a little set up even after telling her multiple times that what I wanted to do was only what she would normally be doing.  But in the end, I felt I got enough of the shots I needed to tell the story.  Originally my plan hadn’t been to build a multimedia, so I feel I still have some editing work to do before it’s polished for publication, maybe play around with color (just for you Grant and Roxie), but for now it’s posted on my Vimeo site.

I am so thankful for getting the chance to work with Dr. Tinker, who was amazingly open to me telling her story.

Hanging on and Holding Tight

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

1. Jeep Steenhoek, a bull rider at the Jesse James Rodeo in Kearney, visits with friends before his event at the festival grounds September 15, 2012. The two-day rodeo was part of the larger Jesse James Festival that also featured a demolition derby, mud volleyball and a carnival.

For my One-Day Shoot I decided to go to the Jesse James Rodeo in Kearney, Missouri.  This accomplished two things for me; it let me explore cowboy culture a little more before the summer was out, and it got me out of Columbia…two hours out of Columbia.  I loved every minute of the escape.  Except for those few moments of panic that I wasn’t getting everything I needed.  And in fact I did walk away feeling I had missed some shots, but that’s typical for just about every shoot I think.

I was anxious about this project since it was to be event coverage, and looking for that five cents of string within the event, that storyline that would tie all our images together.  The initial plan was to go in and follow the story of a cowboy who travels from rodeo to rodeo in the area (even better would have been in the country) while also shooting the peripheral activity.  I did try to accomplish this, but the story took on its own life after I (and the rest of the class) looked through the images.  What started as a story of one man, became an essay on cowboy life, which, to me, is much more interesting.  I love the finished product.  One of my biggest regrets is not finding that overall and not taking a picture of the arena after everyone had left.  I failed to follow the “arrive early, stay late” credo in its entirety.  I also failed to stay within the shooting limit and shot well above 300.  This was due to a combination of things; my attempt at capturing action and having the camera set to rapid fire, my desire to try new/different techniques while still getting the “safe” shots, and boredom.  I was there all day and was keeping myself entertained.

For this assignment I wanted to push myself, to get closer and to not let my self-consciousness get in the way of my ability to take the pictures I wanted.  I also had a couple of other goals in mind including practicing unconstricted awareness and viewing the world from different perspectives.  So often I fall into the trap of anticipating the shots I want and getting only the cliches that permeate our understanding of the world.  Don’t get me wrong, this event was chalk full of cliches, which made my efforts all the more important. I did record some of the stereotypical cowboy pictures, but like Rita said, sometimes you just have to take that expected picture and be done with it.  So I did.  For the most part I did a fair job of not allowing my expectations get the better of my work, but I still have a long way to go.  I worked hard to be bold as well.  When I realized that my contact for the event would be shuffling me from one “interview” to the next rather than helping me find a family or person who fit the description I gave him I changed direction…literally.

I first noticed Justin Williams as he walked over to the shoots just before the rodeo started.  He nodded to a few friends and said hello before beginning to change.  He carried a dirty black duffel bag over his shoulder and was older than the rest of the riders, scruffy, looking like he had just rolled out of bed and was still recouping from the night before (which in fact he was I later learned).  He also looked like he had done this before. As my contact led me toward the announcer stand where I was to interview the announcer himself, I turned around and headed in the opposite direction to talk with the cowboy I hoped would give me my story.  I walked up as he was changing (bold move #1) and asked if he was participating in the rodeo.  He said yes, and that he rides bareback. I asked if he would mind me following him the rest of the rodeo (bold move #2) and he said sure.  I’m always shocked when people say yes for some reason.  I guess I expect the worst.  But it worked out well.  In the end I met some great people, hung out at a rodeo all day, and got a few more story ideas.  Below is the rest of the essay.

As the Jesse James Rodeo gets underway participants sit along the fences where the calves are kept before the calf-roping event at the Kearney rodeo grounds September 15, 2012. The annual rodeo draws cowboys and girls from the region to participate in events such as bull riding, bronc riding, calf roping and barrel racing.

Colton Michael makes the final preparations for his bull ride before the chute gate is opened into the arena at the annual Jesse James Rodeo in Kearney, September 15, 2012. Although Michael is a local, bull riders from across the state participate in the Kearney rodeo, competing for money and earning points to qualify for the Interstates Rodeo Association finals in September or the United Rodeo Association finals in November.

A bull-rider tries to hang on with one hand for what has been called “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports,” at the Jesse James Rodeo, September 15, 2012. Although an average bull used in this event can weigh nearly a ton, riders continue participating, even after suffering injuries.

Justin Williams shakes out his legs minutes before entering the chute for the bareback bronc riding event at the Jesse James Rodeo in Kearney September 15, 2012. Williams, who works as a UPS delivery man during the day, travels throughout the region to rodeos and has plans to attend the URA finals in November, for which he is already qualified.

Audience members look on as a barrel racer runs for the finish in the final event of the Jesse James Rodeo. Originally established as a woman’s sport, barrel racing requires participants to complete a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels in the fastest time possible.

While changing shirts behind the chutes as he prepares for his event, Justin Williams flashes his tattoo of a bronc rider, September 15, 2012. Williams, who considers himself one of the “old dogs” of his event, said he’s been bareback bronc riding for 25 years and doesn’t have any plans to quit. Continuing to ride also gives him the chance to pass down technique and tricks of the trade to a new generation of thrill seekers.






School Lunches and Selecting a Subject

September 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Anne Lamott’s chapter on school lunches goes hand-in-hand with the last chapter on first assignments.  She encourages her students if they’re “mewling and puking” over trouble with their writing to write about school lunches.  Why would she choose school lunches?  I think this particular topic holds a special place in many of our hearts.  Lunch time was an integral part of school, and often you were defined by what you did or did not have.  It’s also something we all know and like talking about, making he writing process easier while we rely on paragraphs of straight description.  Hurns and Jay refer to the same technique when they talk about photographing what you know.  If you are not familiar with a particular subject, Hurn and Jay encourage a suggest a substantial amount of research to make up for what you lack.  The method Lamott describes in School Lunches is also just a way for the writer, or photographer, to begin working.  It’s a little warm-up exercise that is required before beginning that opus we all have set our sights on.  In a way, the one-day project is like the school lunches writing assignment.  It’s a warm-up, a practice shoot for our 30-day project at the end of the semester.

The Hurn and Jay reading confirmed what I already believed about personal vision.  Rather than something you decide upon and consciously choose or create, personal style or vision is a byproduct of the photographer’s work on something they are passionate about.  I also agree with what they said about the reasons why students choose photography in the first place.  It may appear glamorous, they may be attracted to the work of past masters, or the equipment, or the idea of travelling etc.  I’m not going to lie.  Several of these descriptions attracted me to photography.  But photography is the the end, it is the means to whatever we wish to communicate.  I realized a couple weeks ago, when asked why I wanted to be a photographer, that my interest in photography and writing stems from the need to communicate my thoughts and feelings in a way I am unable to accomplish when speaking.  This actually works great for me in another regard as well, because I have always been interested and curious about so many other subjects (one reason why it took me so long to pick a major).

There’s so much in the Hurn and Jay reading that resonated with me, but a few things in particular included their emphasis on research and preparation and planning.  I love to plan and make lists.  It’s my type A side’s favorite pastime.  Without research before a project how can we photograph a subject to the best of our abilities?  If it were an event, I would be able to photograph it, but it would lack depth and fall short of communicating an understanding and empathy for the subject’s situation.  And this is what separates really good photo stories from the really bad ones.

Finally, one portion of the reading I continued mulling over long after finishing was the anecdote of the violinist who incorporated his music in every part of his daily life.  While the television interviewer saw this as a very narrow and unvaried lifestyle, the musician instead felt freed by his ability to incorporate his passion in every aspect of his life, allowing them to feed and develop each other.  I have seen this lifestyle in several of my peers who go on to do amazing work, but it’s something I have not yet achieved.  Instead, I’m ashamed to say, photography is only a part of my life, it is not my life as I wish it were.  This is no one’s fault but mine, and I think one fear I have of just snapping away throughout the day is ending up with an inordinate number of photos of my cat. Then I would be known as the crazy cat lady who was never hired because all she ever photographed was her cat.  Okay maybe it wouldn’t be that extreme, but really, I just need to make the effort, or, as Lamott would do, pick up a yellow legal pad and in a very zen-like way pretend to scribble notes.

Editing Exercise: Born to Wear the Crown

September 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

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Perfectionism and Shitty First Drafts

August 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Not only is Anne Lamott a hysterical writer, she is incredibly insightful.  As I read Bird by Bird it felt, quite literally, like she was reading my mind.  Writing and me, well, we’ve had a love hate relationship most of my life, ever since the second grade, when I wrote a short story on ice skating that, as it turns out, wasn’t very good.  There I was pouring my heart and soul and everything I knew about double axels and lutzes down in my Five Star wide ruled notebook, only to realize after reading my classmates work that writing was much harder than I thought, and that my opus needed a bit fine tuning.  That’s when perfectionism kicked in.  I still love telling stories, but I admit, my writing is no where near as fluid a as it was when I was seven.  It’s a struggle, like a battle, and I have frequently used the expression “pulling teeth” just as Anne Lamott did to describe the creative process.  The second paragraph on page six pretty much sums up the majority of my life’s writing experiences. In  the end it is always a “matter of persistence and faith and hard work.”  You can sob, tear your hair out, chew your pencil til you realize it no longer resembles a pencil, pace restlessly or rock uncontrollably, but something will always pull you back down, preserving just enough sanity to eek out a few words.  Then a sentence.  And maybe if your luck an entire paragraph.  When I get to a full page I am always astounded.

What can make writing so difficult is the enormity of the task at hand, compounded by perfectionism which dictates perfection on the first go.  That’s not how writing or any other art form works.  Practice, practice, practice; the motto of anything worth doing.  This includes photography.  Much like writing  a novel, taking on a long-term photo story or essay can overwhelm you to the brink of tears, but the process is the same as writing.  You take it bird by bird.  By cutting the pizza into manageable portions the project becomes a step-by-step process that starts by simply mustering up all your courage and taking the first bite.

Needless to say I’ve really enjoyed reading Lamott and am looking forward to the next chapters of her “workshop.”  What she has to say is useful to, not only writers, but anyone involved in the creative arts, including photography.  Her encouragement to be bold and fail if need be, is refreshing, and reminds me of our readings from the Tao of Photography, which encourage photographers to think outside the box.  Sometimes ideas work and sometimes they don’t, but expanding yourself beyond convention will always result in something far more fulfilling, something that will make you (and hopefully your audience) feel alive.

Inspiring Picture Story

August 24, 2012 § Leave a comment


This photo story I chose for this assignment is titled, “Photographing and Listening to, the Lakota,” by Aaron Huey.  When I came across this story at first on the lens blog of the New York Times the opening image is what initially caught my eye. It’s striking and dramatic and, well, it’s beautiful.  As you progress through the story, however, you see the depth and the purpose to the photographer’s work as he builds his layers of what life is like on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  The viewer progressively views preserved tradition intertwined with the present day condition of the Lakota people and their struggles with gang violence and poverty.  Huey further developed this story for  the National Geographic after concerns were voiced by the residents of Pine Ridge Reservation, that he had not captured the entirety of their story, just a small piece of it.  He returned to complete his work by first listening to his subjects, and then photographing. His work for both the New York Times and the National Geographic demonstrated two very important things which we have touched on already in class. First, without enough time spent on research you run the risk of misrepresenting your subjects and perhaps not getting close enough to draw the viewer emotionally into the story.  Second, that with greater patience and devoted attention, the photographer will be able to find and develop the story that emerges, which is something natural, not an artificial creation from an outsider’s perspective.

Aside from the story itself I enjoy his relatively simple and clean compositions, his use of color and light.  These are the kinds of compositional elements I have always tried to accomplish, and I enjoy seeing it well done in other’s work. I also really like the way he incorporates nature as the people interact with it; in images that portray how they once held their place in their environment and what that now looks like on the reservation.  For example, the juxtaposition between photo 11 and photo 19.