I haven’t taken vacation in close to three years. It’s clear I have trouble relaxing. I decide in this Obama mania of Change, Change, Change that I will take five days off. What to do? What to do? I receive my National Geographic Expeditions catalog in the mail and decide to sign up for the DC four day photo-journalism expedition.
First, I can add simple numbers. It’s not four days. It starts Thursday night at 5:30 PM and ends Sunday at noon. That’s two and a half days. Duh. Ok, rise above accuracy in logistics and get with the program.
I tell my friend Paula about the trip, and she decides to join me. I love Paula because she always reads everything associated with anything she does, and I know she will have the whole thing figured out by the time we get there.
One Month Before My Vacation Expedition
“You have to get a Mac and download Lightroom.” Paula is on the phone after having received her kit in the mail that I received weeks earlier and haven’t read.
“Huh? It’s a photography class.”
“Yes it is, and you need Lightroom which costs three hundred dollars, and you should be on a Mac.”
I always follow Paula’s directions and order one Mac laptop, one major screen, one cordless mouse and keypad. I buy Lightroom and add $5,000 to the $2,000 cost of the trip. Well, I needed to move to Mac anyway; everyone who is really creative uses a Mac and after the class that will include me.
One Week Before the Class
I put my camera in the car and take it with me to be ready for a few practice shots on the days before the trip begins. You never know when the next Katrina can hit when you are driving to and from work the week before your first photo journalism class. My camera is stolen from the back seat of my car two days before we are heading to Washington.
I go to the camera store and buy a new camera and lens that will serve as my “sure I know what I’m doing” calling card. $1,500. We are up to $8,000 for the trip. I’m realizing that perhaps there is a reason I never take vacation.
I’m ready to go. Bags packed. Check. New camera. Check. Batteries charged and ready to go. Check. DC here I come. On the way to meet Paula at the train station I make a mental note that I could be sent to Africa shortly after being discovered in DC as the best photo journalist discovered in a two and a half day class that so far costs $8,000.
Night One — Dinner with the Group
We head down to registration, drinks and dinner right on time and start to meet the group. No one talks about photography much, but instead get acquainted with where we are all from and what we do outside this trip. I look for those with indented shoulders thinking the professional photographers are worn from carrying bags, etc around the globe in their amazing assignments. Not too many are admitting they are photographers professionally. I start to relax.
We eat and then see a presentation by our PPL (Professional Photographer Leader), Mark Thiessen. He presents his work on fires and as he speaks I look around a bit wondering if anyone has the same thoughts as I do about how pyromaniacs love fires and perhaps the fact that for six years he pursued his fire story should be a tip off to the feds. That, of course, makes me wonder if we are going to shoot any FBI stuff and so the evening went.
Day Two: Really Day One After Night One
Everyone is stoked. We head over to National Geographic Offices. (Who knew they have three buildings and call Alexander Graham Bell their founder? Turns out that Bell left them a ton of telephone stock, and so they have plenty of real estate to call their own. I wonder what I will leave them when I win the Pulitzer for a shot I take after learning everything I need to know in the next four days, or two and a half depending on whether you are the payee or the payor.)
After breakfast we head up to the editing classroom we will be using. They tell us in the elevator that we are assigned seats. I say out loud, “Please let me be in the back row. Please let me be in the back row.” Everyone laughs but I know two things. You have to say what you want in life, and being in the back row means you can see what everyone else is doing on their laptops and know whether you should check out or not. We arrive, and no surprise to me I’m in the back row with some fabulous people.
Kate on my right and Martha on my left. Jack sits next to Kate, and they happen to have the same last name. We later dub our back row, Back Room Alley, and we know that we are the finest in the land for sure and support each other better than my Playtex bra in 1993 when I went through menopause and my breasts fell to my knees.
The morning is a presentation by Todd James, one of the editors at National Geographic. I’m sure he’s a very very nice man to have as a father. That said, his presentation was more a review of his favorite National Geographic stories over the past years (not sure but could be quite a few years).
He offered the following elements of editing:
Know your subject. Research Up; edit down. That was interesting. I’m not a strong researcher, but it makes sense. Learn about where you are going before going and then you will know the shot.
Find Meaningful Surprises. Are you kidding me? That’s like saying, “Make a lot of money,” or “Eat well and you will be thin.” How to find meaningful surprises would have been nice. Some examples of meaningful surprises would have been nice and how it wasn’t dumb luck (or was) would have been nice.
See what others miss. He’s kidding right? Todd, again, how does one see what others miss? How do you even know if others missed it?
Photograph what you feel. I have spent thirteen years in therapy trying to figure out what I feel. By the time I figure out what I feel darkness has set in and the shot is lost. But I know what he means. I do. I know that I need to shoot people not places because I feel people. M on my left who aspires to be a photographer and is one already shows me a shot on day two where there is a line of WWII vets lined up at the memorial, and I start to cry as she remarks, “You know they won’t be around much longer.”
Use photography as a language to tell your story. I like that one. I try it on, “I speak English and photography.” Yes, that’s it for sure. I realize it was worth the morning just for that. And, there were some shots over the weekend that did just that. One in particular was a line from the military at Arlington taken by John I think (will try and get it to upload). The soldier on one side is barking out an order and his mouth is in a perfect O that reminds me of the carolers that I put out at Christmas. I know he means that order big time, and I can hear the picture. I can hear it.
So, I’m glad that Todd, the picture editor who still prefers film rather than digital, spoke to us. I learned a lot and also I know I want to subscribe again to National Geographic.
We have lunch and head off to our first assignment. We are split into two groups; one goes to Dupont Circle and the other, including Back Row Alley, heads to Adams Morgan neighborhood. We are told to capture the culture of the neighborhood. The only thing I remember about Dupont Circle is in the movie An American President, when she keeps getting stuck in Dupont Circle, and I never heard of Adams Morgan. We are told that they are culturally diverse and that’s it. Now, I am a learner, and we were just told that we should research up and edit down, so I know this is not going to go well but I decide it’s all in the attitude. I put on my Geo (that’s what all the cool people at National Geographic call the company, and since I’m a photo away from my African assignment, I’m sure it’s ok to join them) hat, hop in a cab with Y whose bag weighed more than I do and he,ad out. I leave her at destination Adams Morgan Neighborhood so I can hear my feelings and stand on a corner for awhile waiting for my feelings to hit me. “Shoot what you feel. I speak Photographer. Editing down from researching up (liar!).” That goes on for quite awhile and I am starting to panic.
I see it. Four thug young boys walking down the street. They turn the corner away from me. I’m desperate. I call after them “Hey tough boys, walk toward me. You can kill me when you get here.” I swear to God. Desperation does something to a person. They turn. I start clicking. And, it worked. One of the four kept walking the other way, but the other three turn and start walking toward me with a mixture of tough and fun on their faces. I love them and will pay for their college education.
I spent some time talking to them. It was great. Promised I’d send the shot which I will do shortly.
We arrive back for the editing process and everyone is shaky – wanting like Sally Fields to really have their shots be liked. It was all very touchy feely during the review process and no real input from the professionals on what should have been done or what makes a good picture etc. I realize that two hours to edit (really meaning pick out four pictures to show the class) borders on a new level of narcissism. We in back room alley finish up in a half an hour and chat amongst ourselves as others painfully look at each of their shots over and over and over again to figure out which one pops. Truth is I only have one worth showing – my boys in the hood – and I feel good about it.
Kate starts doing some work on her laptop, and I see she is in pharmaceuticals. I tell her I’m all about the drugs, and she doesn’t offer anything under the table. Martha and I talk about her sherpa husband and the class.
We see each other’s images, and the next day’s assignment presented. We are to go to the Lincoln Memorial at dawn, shoot in the new light and then get shots of tourists and meet back for “editing” after lunch.
A group of us walk to a nearby place for dinner and decide to meet in the lobby at six to head over to the Memorial. I take to heart the research first editing remarks and Google Lincoln Memorial at dawn images and see that the light appears to come from the left hand side. I tell everyone that the next morning. Turns out it doesn’t come from the left, but no one suggests that I was sending them astray on purpose.
My shots of the memorial are not memorable. Martha, however, nails it with a shot of the Memorial with a man mopping the area. Kate and I compliment her shot, and we all marvel at Kate’s shots too. I have asked her to send me some to show.
I am grateful for the morning and my encounter with Reginald in the park. Paula and I go into the park near National Geo after the Lincoln Memorial, and he is sitting on a bench. I know he’s not all there but there was something about his face. I sit down next to him and realize that part of being a photographer is that you are not really you. You can do things like sit next to a schizophrenic on a bench and feel like you have something to say to him.
I hand him my large lens as I’m switching to something smaller, and he and I become friends. Reggie is trying to stay in the real world and in his mind is a great basketball player. He demonstrates his techniques which if I’d read the directions on how to work my camera I could have shot with repeat shutter controls, but of course I haven’t and so I am stuck with Reggie in one still.
I give Reggie twenty dollars. I tell him he earned it for helping me with my lenses He was so happy that he gave me a hug and a kiss. I won’t forget him.
When we got back to the editing room, our leader Mark gave a lecture on elements of good picture taking. It strikes me that having it at the END of the expedition was sort of strange, but whatever. he also shows us pictures from his personal collection. They are awesome. Kate notes that the Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns are all about the candles in them. The birthday cake picture is also all about the fire. She is so smart that Kate, and I tell her so, but she still doesn’t offer me any free drug samples.
We have our wrap up dinner and the helpers put together a video presentation (they are sending it to us and I’ll upload it when they do). I realize that we all learned a lot. I took my first vaca in years, and I realized that it’s about getting out of the house, away from technology. I intend to do it more often.
Paula and I skip the last morning tour of Mark’s lab; I doubt we will be using it in the future. We have a nice leisurely breakfast and talk about our favorite shots from the group. Great wrap. Great weekend with my friend.
Thanks to all for the great time. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
And, check out the pictures from the Pulitzer winner this year. He knows how to take a picture. I am in awe.