Sitting In The Shit Show

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Sitting In The Shit Show

Nearly every creative endeavor I’ve ever embarked on has been preceded by some existential array that generally starts modestly with simple questions like what am I doing? and then ends up drunk in the weeds of holyshitIcan’tfuckingdothiswhydidIthinkthiswasagoodideasomeonepleasestopmefromcreatingnewthings.

Ya know, casual.

But over the years of living with this lovely song and dance on literally every project from portrait sessions, to performances to whole documentaries— some of my greatest innovations in how I create my art come from solving problems while I’m living in them. Some of the most commented or remarked upon features in my work have not come from some mythical, timely spawn of talent or genius we all believe exists in the universe but somehow always fail to recognize in ourselves—unsubtle cough. No, rather it comes from the sweaty heart palpitations of a 24-year-old quietly muttering ah shit how the f*** do I fix that.. beneath a nervous, dead-eyed smile. Now that’s not to say I never learn from my mistakes— it’s the exact opposite. That because I am constantly making mistakes I am therefore always learning.

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These two photos blended together on their own were unremarkable. Each photo on its own held a piece of what I desired in the final product. Instead of scrolling past them as I might do in any stack of hundreds of photos, I sat with the hunch of wanting something more.

To be fair, most of us that are exposed to the American education system are conditioned to see right and wrong as the only true capitalist mode of existence. I was no exception, though I had many great teachers along the way. But sadly, perfection doesn’t make good art. It also doesn’t exist so that's kind of awkward when you think about it. And so this risk-averse, judgment mongering, knee jerk reaction almost comes natural—as best as something unnatural like this can be— as if we are to know how to do something before we’ve ever done it.

It’s so easy to stress. About everything. All the time. But when I’m able to step back from all the static that anxiety bludgeons me with, there’s always a path forward and more times than not, I’m better because of it. The important thing, for me at least, is to always examine the process and to cut myself some slack. Re-conditioning the instinct to sit and be present when things that go AWOL, beyond its investment in stretching me as an artist, is just a good life skill in general.

One of my greatest inspirations as a photographer and probably the reason I started understanding the value of this art form as a platform is Lynsey Addario, a conflict photographer for the New York Times. Not that getting held hostage by the Taliban is a #CareerGoal for me by any measure, but it certainly adds some context and depth to her work. What I admire most about Lynsey, aside from killer composition (holy god), she very comfortably walks her readers through her fumbles is open about how and why those missteps were formative in the development of herself.

And that’s true for us all. We’re always developing, all the time, in everything we do forever, even when we think we’re not so like stop being stubborn.

Also, I bought a cinema camera so hire me for your cool video projects.

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The Lens of the Storyteller

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The Lens of the Storyteller

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The Nikkor 35 MM

The Lens of the Storyteller

Like many young photographers starting out in the business, I used to think that the body of my camera meant more than the lens I was shooting with. Depending on your field of work, this may be true— megapixels, sensor size, dynamic range and lowlight performance certainly have an influence on the quality of, say, a print advertisement.

Unlike shooting on my adjustable 24-120mm f4 lens, the 35mm prime lens allows a sharper, cleaner image because of it’s fixed focal length when shooting landscapes.    Nikon Z6 35mm F 7.1

Unlike shooting on my adjustable 24-120mm f4 lens, the 35mm prime lens allows a sharper, cleaner image because of it’s fixed focal length when shooting landscapes.

Nikon Z6 35mm F 7.1

But for me, the artistry lives within the lens because it is the vehicle of perspective. As I deepened my relationship with this craft, I grew obsessed with collecting lenses— my most recent of which is a 35mm f 1.8. Primarily as a portrait photographer, you may be asking why I invested in a lens like this as traditionally the wide angle of a 35mm creates a small amount distortion when representing your subject up closely. The draw for the 35mm for me is as much artistic as it is challenging to my traditional workflow. With longer focal lengths usually used in portraits—my most popular of which is an 85mm lens— it’s easy to take pictures from afar, tucked behind my camera body.

Taken on a busy day near the Navy Memorial in downtown DC, working closely with the subject on the 35mm allowed me to keep the tourist and other bodies huddling around the memorial out of the shot. The width of the 35mm allowed me to frame my subject between the edge of the Archives building and the Smithsonian museum, creating a path of lines.    Nikon Z6 F 1.8

Taken on a busy day near the Navy Memorial in downtown DC, working closely with the subject on the 35mm allowed me to keep the tourist and other bodies huddling around the memorial out of the shot. The width of the 35mm allowed me to frame my subject between the edge of the Archives building and the Smithsonian museum, creating a path of lines.

Nikon Z6 F 1.8

But as I move into more documentary style work, I find that the 35mm lens puts me right on the forefront of where the stories are happening. Shooting with a 35mm forces me to have a relationship with my subject because of the proximity. It forces me to think creatively about how I compose my images, as more information—more action— is in the framing. Whereas with an 85 I may be able to mask certain things through distance and separation, a 35 forces me to deal with the immediate and to do so in a way that engages all the fundamental techniques in photography.

A technique I developed and used routinely during my time in New York City, working with objects in the foreground has two purposes in the process. Obviously there is the artistic benefit of creating lines and helping draw focus to your subject and introducing soft color/fades. Secondly though is the value it holds in masking unwanted objects in the background.    Nikon Z6 35mm f 1.8

A technique I developed and used routinely during my time in New York City, working with objects in the foreground has two purposes in the process. Obviously there is the artistic benefit of creating lines and helping draw focus to your subject and introducing soft color/fades. Secondly though is the value it holds in masking unwanted objects in the background.

Nikon Z6 35mm f 1.8

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Not Your Typical Stereo

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Not Your Typical Stereo

Diane cautiously slid her fingers along the edge of the worn, hand-me-down cafeteria table. For years she was held hostage as a victim of domestic abuse and although she had escaped, the long winter of her past still lingered in her periodically frozen gaze. To an outsider looking in, one might only see a somewhat frail and distant woman; kind in her smile but possessed by narrowly withdrawn eyes seeming to always be looking for a way out.

“Trauma.” The word falls through her lips to the floor like a dart before she lifts her head level with mine and assuredly repeats, “everybody here is dealing with some type of trauma.”

Diane had been coming to a local food kitchen for many months after having spent all of her money to escape Minnesota. She never thought she’d be homeless— she had a pension, a savings plan, and had lived financially sustainably for most of her adult life. But after having her social security card stolen by her violently abusive ex-husband, trying to rebuild her life in D.C had taken a downward spiral.

The reality for many people in our communities experiencing homelessness is that trauma becomes another layer in an already complicated process of recovery. Though the resources are abundant, the often nebulous and seemingly invasive bureaucratic process— that requires handling sensitive information like social security cards— is an additional hurdle for those who come from a life of trauma.

Shedding the Layers

Diane’s experience is only a drop in a sea of people out on the streets living with trauma. It’s also a story that requires a good deal of vulnerability to hear and an even greater one to share. The problem is that this type of relationship is impossible to form when we listen to the stereotypes surrounding homelessness.

Our country has always been one of divide, despite what the old songs and history books tell us. If it isn’t overtly racist then surely it's divided in wealth, justice and opportunity. But one of the manipulative tools used to keep people separated from each other are stereotypes; the projection of characteristics onto an individual just because they look a certain way or believe a certain thing. Stereotypes stop empathy dead in its tracks because it reduces souls to ideas and most people can’t emotionally relate to an idea. Stereotypes entertain the notion all people of x, y, or z are somehow destined (or doomed) to be what they are. It’s a breeding ground for hate, mistrust, and fear.

Over the past several months, I have been engaged in creating vignettes to demystify the stereotypes that inhibit people from engaging with homelessness in the Washington Metropolitan area. In my work, I’ve learned that stereotypes come from a social form of automation that’s largely influenced by context and environment. In essence, the act of stereotyping someone is a reductive process by higher cognitive functioning that helps us compartmentalize information and assess our safety. When we see someone on the street begging for money, we flip into automated judgement (generally stemming from some sense of fight or flight), cut off our feelings and continue on our way. Over the course of time, it stops being automation and starts becoming instinct.

One of the redemptive powers of storytelling, however, is its ability to crack the shell of stereotype. Our way of seeing, our way of moving throughout the world is largely tuned by habit. But when we experience an image that shatters the pre-existing condition of our casual existence, there’s a breath of a moment where all our balls of existential precedent are just as existentially tossed in the air. And in the lingering milliseconds of their absence, some new seed of perspective makes itself known. Thats why, for me, exposure to art is so crucial to breaking my cadence in the swirling universe before me.

However, if we never break our rhythm we never change. We never grow, we never listen— we exist in an echo chamber of algorithms that make every opinion, every decision about our world for us. But by deconstructing the ideas we have of who people are, we push past the forces that keep us divided; we recognize that the system we live in is broken and we understand that if we don’t act, no one will.

*names in this piece have been altered to protect the identity and confidentiality at the discretion of the person(s) mentioned above.

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“Back in the day they called us ‘hobos’ now they don’t call us anything.”

Chris Earnshaw reflects on his nearly 40 years weaving in and out of unstable housing.

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The Irony of Doubt

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The Irony of Doubt

IN EVERY AVENUE I PURSUE IN THE ARTS, I’m always encountered with doubt and despite how often it surfaces in creative spaces, its appearance is remarkably un-creative. It takes shape in the form of procrastination, excuses, and of course everybody’s favorite—nagging criticism. And yet despite doubt’s regularly unscheduled visits in little rooms across my mind— often times on the verge of some great or daunting project— I’ve come to accept from my moments of doubt that they are the best opportunities to take risks.

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That mindset is a trap

Because it inhibits discovery and exploration.

When I reflect on the anxiety that surrounds doubt, for me, it has everything to do with fear of living up to past expectations. The lurking plot twist of success or even surpassing performance on a project is that the bar is only ever set higher. But that mindset is a trap because it inhibits discovery and exploration. When I feel pressured to live up to work I’ve done in the past, I only ever compare myself to what has already been done before. That’s why inklings of doubt are the best indicators as to when it’s time to approach things at a different angle.

For photography, this manifests as mimicry. I’ll see a photograph in the world, examine the elements that went into the photo, and then shy away from allowing my own interpretation to take shape. For videography, this more commonly shows up as procrastination. Whenever I have a reel of footage that may not have come out the way I imagined or a blurb of audio that clips, if I’m looming in doubt I’d avoid it like the plague. However, all growth stems from sitting in moments that unsettle us— in those flashes of uncertainty where we either make a new choice or decide to do the same thing.

I read in a book once that making new choices is quite literally forging a road where one didn’t exist prior— the only difference is that it’s not a road, it’s a neural pathway. I used to blame myself when new routines fell flat six days in because I didn’t recognize that making new choices with my life required me to linger a little longer in doubt. That, doubt, could in fact offer me a lot of clarity.

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