The Visual Advocate Blog


Leave a comment

Guest Post: Gary Dowd on excellence in our craft

Gary Dowd is Humanitarian Photographer, Producer, Writer, Creative Director and Photojournalist extraordinaire!

Anyone who knows me knows I love networking almost as much as I love photography. One of the latest folks I have connected up with is an excellent photographer and multi-media producer named Gary Dowd.  We have had great discussions about how photography and visual storytelling is changing and more. We are even working on planning some future workshops together which I am excited about.

As I got to know Gary I asked him to guest blog on something he was really passionate which he has been kind enough to do. I know you are going to enjoy his thoughtful ideas here on excellence in our craft. Enjoy!

My 1967 Triumph Bonneville 650 was very “customized”, a nice way of saying it was a patchwork of parts all put together.

This was my 1967 Triumph Bonneville 650. I loved that motorcycle. Riding it, I felt like I was a part of a grand history and tradition. Actors Steve McQueen and James Dean were synonymous with Triumph motorcycles and to me, the British motorcycle was the standard of mechanical excellence.

Looking back, I’m probably very lucky I survived owning that bike. It was very “customized” – a nice way of saying it had parts from this, parts from that – and not all were designed to play nice together. The Triumph I rode was no longer an example of excellence – but it wasn’t until years later that realized it. It was a make-do attempt and at best, a mediocre one at that.

Mediocrity in any given area or discipline can masquerade as excellence. It happens all the time. Sometimes it’s intentional; sometimes it’s a lack of knowledge. Either way, only until we understand context and gain knowledge can we then recognize the difference between the two. And that is the crux or point of a decision we have to make; accept mediocrity and settle for less than our best effort – or reject it and strive for excellence.

As visual storytellers we must learn to differentiate between mediocre and excellent images if we are to tell visually and emotionally compelling stories.

As I look back at my early efforts in photography and video, I see a lot or work that would be a stretch to even call mediocre. But as I’ve grown in my understanding and experience, so has my understanding of what excellence should look like. Now I simply can’t be satisfied with anything that is less than my very best effort. If I don’t consider it to be excellent, then how can I expect anyone else to?

Now, let me take a moment to clarify one thing; I do think there is latitude for personal interpretation of what excellence is, especially in the creative arts. One man’s creative excellence may be misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. This isn’t the excellence I’m referring to. I think most would agree that in photography, video, and other creative mediums, there are standards and best practices that help us define excellence.

So why is mediocrity tolerated in our chosen and beloved craft, or anywhere else for that matter? As the poster says, “It takes a lot less time and people won’t notice the difference.” As a choice, mediocrity is characterized by a complete lack of self-criticism. Sometimes, lack of self-criticism is simply born of laziness. My advice? Run away as fast as you can.

Unintentional mediocrity is different. In scientific terms, it’s the “bell curve principal” at work. Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, called it “The Supreme Law of Unreason”. Simply stated, if you take a sample of 100 random people and measure anything – height, weight, blood pressure, IQ, for ex., the majority will fall towards the mean, or middle, with a few individuals clearly above or below the norm. Simply put, I think that the majority of people simply don’t know any better. Which also means that they can learn.

So where’s am I going with all this? As the cost of technology has decreased, more and more people have access to some pretty sophisticated equipment. Now, almost anyone has access to hardware and software that only a few years ago was available to a chosen few – typically ones who studied and practiced to become masters of their craft. Today, if you want to believe all the ad hype, anyone can be a master if he or she has the right tool. Technically speaking, that can be true – to a point.

We must not forget that while equipment can help us achieve excellence in communicating our vision, simply having expensive equipment doesn’t mean we will be excellent.

It used to be that one studied and practiced to master one’s craft. There is a process of learning and application that cannot be circumvented. It may be shortened or altered by technology, but it cannot be avoided if one is achieve excellence. In order to master something to the point of excellence, we must go through what I call “The Steps of Awareness”, and it’s truly a lifelong, dynamic process. The learning curve never stops for the one who is committed to achieving excellence.

So, what can you do about it? The good news is that it’s not rocket science.

First, be critically honest about your work. Learn by studying the excellent work of others and choose to strive for excellence in your own work. Don’t be afraid to fail – but be willing to learn from your failure. Pursue what you love and practice, practice, practice intensely. Seek expert feedback on your work (that can be a hard one). Become a crusader for excellence. Stand up and don’t be afraid to say “it ain’t good enough, it can be better”. Say it to yourself. Say it to others, especially your clients. Say it loud and often.

Craft and Vision offer great resources that can help you pursue excellence in your photography and storytelling.

A good friend (and one of my favorite photographers), David duChemin, has published a wonderful series of ebooks under the title Craft and Vision. They’re fresh, with lot’s of info, exercises, and knowledge and they’re super affordable. If you haven’t already, I’d highly recommend adding these to your own resource library.

I think you’ll find it incredibly exciting to discover that you’re capable of getting far better at your craft than you ever imagined.


2 Comments

Guest Post: Heber Vega and the One-Shot Project

I want to thank Joe for giving me the opportunity to share about the most exciting and inspirational project that I have ever been part of. As I’ve been thinking through different aspects of The ONE-SHOT Project, I want to encourage other people out there, photographers, artists and anyone, to believe that a sound idea pursued with the right motivation and key people, can become a new starting point for your life. More than that, it can become a life-changing situation for people who are eager for the opportunity.

Let’s talk about the heart
In one of the darkest hours of my life, I doubted every aspect of my life and work (both my NGO work in Iraq and my photography). Feeling crushed by my own beliefs, I had one of the most sincere and honest conversations with my partner in life, my wife Belen. You see, although we had a beautiful life in Iraq, serving people through a number of social development projects, and had a wonderful family and three great sons, and were living what seemed to be a “dream life” for many, that day we realized we weren’t satisfied with the things we were investing our lives in. There was nothing wrong with our jobs, but there was clearly a problem with our inner visions, with the fulfillment of who we think we are and what we were created to do. That day, we recognized that we weren’t living our lives to the fullest.

That was the genesis of ONE-SHOT. Our darkest hours were the spark that is
lighting our way today. If you are in the middle of an identity crisis, that could be a perfect point to make a u-turn into a new beginning for your life. The important thing is to learn how to find direction in those hard moments, seek the right voice, and always keep in mind that life is about giving; our happiness depends on that specific base.

The closing ceremony for the 2011 One-Shot project workshop.

So, what is ONE-SHOT?
It’s not an organization. It’s not an NGO. The way I see it, it is an ‘organic’
concept or idea, put into practice by particular people, in a particular place. The
aim is to provide an opportunity, a chance, a SHOT if you will. In this case we
happen to be talking about some photographers, artists and my own family,
using photography as a means to serve and empower the children we work with.

An One-Shot Project image by Dyar.

Why children?
-We have about 4 million orphaned children in Iraq. Knowing that fact has moved our hearts.
-Children are our future.
-They will have the power to shape our world.
-They have an incredible eye for seeing the world we live in, in a totally unique way that is worth preserving.

A One-Shot Project image by Dyar.

Our ONE-SHOT students lack of opportunity, trust, and training. To be given a
gift of these things… makes a better future for the children, or a future at all.

A One-Shot Project image by Hamza.

What about that ‘organic’ thing?
I don’t know how else to express this idea, but we are talking about something that grows and develops without being dependent on an organization for it’s very existence. Individuals collaborate to make it a reality. There’s nothing wrong with organizations. They have a place. But I feel that there’s also a need for initiatives that are carried out by us, the ‘regular’ people of this world. We have learned to depend on governments and organizations, but there is beauty created when people, for no personal gain whatsoever, try to make this world a better place to live. That’s inspiring and we need a lot of that.

A One-Shot Project image by Hussain.

At ONE-SHOT, people that we know have been raising funds, and investing their own time and money to share this idea. Most importantly, they have been spreading the word to their own circles. You can read at our blog about people hosting dinners to raise some funds, or asking their wedding shower guests to participate. That’s why I feel so inspired about ONE-SHOT.

A One-Shot Project image by Shabaz.

You don’t need an .ORG behind your idea to start changing your world. You
know people, you have a great idea, and you can make it happen. It’s all
about working honestly and passionately with your idea. People are not
indifferent; they will join you.

A One-Shot Project image by Bzhar.

Who are working with ONE-SHOT?
We are Muslims and Christians; Easterners and Westerners. Any ‘type’ of person
who wants to collaborate is welcome. We do have a lot of photographers helping
us to spread the word about our current workshops and needs. We do also have
other artists helping to do the same thing. Donations have come from all over
the globe. But the people behind all tweets, posts and articles are myself and
Erin Wilson.

A One-Shot Project image by Sizar.

If you only remember one thing, remember this…
I’m not asking for your money although that would help. I’m not asking for your
time, although that would make a difference to some people in Iraq. And I’m not
asking you to join us, although that would be fantastic and would be a step
forward in providing an opportunity for some of the children that we want to
serve.

Not, what I’m telling you today is this: take a minute and think. Think about your life and reflect on how you are spending those very precious minutes of your life. Are you making any positive difference? Are you leaving the world anything worth keeping? Are you leaving anything at all?

A One-Shot Project image by Sizar.

I’m not asking you to come to Iraq; I’m telling you to look around right where you are. Is there anything that you can make better right there? Is there anything you can do that would make a positive change? Does the word ‘redemption’ ring a bell? Is there anything worth trying? Is there anyone who could benefit from your effort?

A One-Shot Project image by Tuana.

I’m totally, 100% sure that I CANNOT change this world… I can’t change you either, and I wouldn’t even dream that I could change the hard reality for millions of people living in despair. But what I can do is to NOT give up! To think that it’s not worth trying, or that I’m better off living a life blind to the things that really matter and happen to our own people… that would be tragic.

Today, with all my limitations, I believe that dreams like ONE-SHOT are worth the investment of my life and yours, my time and yours… even if it doesn’t bring change to a whole nation. Why? Because the change has been made in US at that point. In US! You are smashing the status quo. You are not letting the obvious reign over you… you have somehow defied the law of gravity pulling down much of this sad world.|

Go… and give that one shot to yourself.


1 Comment

Guest post: Craig Ferguson

The last couple of weeks have been crazy! I am preparing for a trip to Ethiopia on April 16th, which has meant updates on immunizations, getting gear ready and doing research. I have also done some work for a local NGO called Peace of Thread, which I will be telling you more about soon.

Peace of Thread is a local NGO in Atlanta that employes refugee women from around the world.

Craig Ferguson is an outstanding travel photographer based in Taiwan. You can see his work at http://www.craigfergusonimages.com/

Today, I wanted to share this guest post from Craig Ferguson, who is an outstanding freelance travel photographer based in Taiwan. Enjoy!

What Matters Most

Consider for a moment the two magazine covers below. The Taiwan Review cover is a current issue and the Centered on Taipei dates from summer 2011.

Obviously they are of different subjects but they were also shot with very different cameras. Despite both having been published within the last 8-9 months, one was shot on a Canon 5D Mark II and the other on my very first DSLR, a Canon 20D. Can you tell which photograph was taken with which camera?

Can you tell which of these images was shot with a Canon 5D Mark II and which one was shot with a Canon 20D?

The photography world has been buzzing over the past couple of months with the announcements and releases of new DSLR’s from Canon and Nikon as well as Fuji’s new mirrorless X-Pro 1. There are probably a few other recent introductions as well.

And all of that is great. If you’re in the market for a new camera then having all these options gives you more power as a consumer. How do you know if you’re in the market though? Is it simply because a new tool is available? Or because you have just finished paying off your credit card from your last camera purchase?

Do you even need to upgrade your current gear? Any DSLR camera that has come to market in the past few years is so good and so highly evolved that for the majority of users, you can use it until it breaks and not miss out on anything. Sure, shooting clean images at ISO 12800 is great but how often do you really need to do that?

Neidong Falls, Taiwan

Before you fork out a large amount of money for the latest and greatest, ask yourself if it’ll make you a better photographer? Will owning a camera with all the bells and whistles help you improve any? Will your images be stronger as a result? Consider the new Canon 5D Mark III. It’s available at B&H now for $3499. No doubt about it, it’s a great camera. If you buy one, you are unlikely to be disappointed. $3499 is a fair chunk of change though. Will buying one help make you a better photographer? Is there a better way to spend that $3499?

Instead of spending all that money on a 5D Mark III, why not consider a 5D Mark II? They are going for a little over $2000 right now. That leaves you $1500 or so to invest in your photography skills. Looking around the web today I see that Joe McNally is leading a 4 day National Geographic small group workshop in New York in June for $1395. Will a four-day workshop with one of the world’s leading photographers help you improve your photography more or less than buying the latest body? Which do you think will be best in helping you create your own great photographs?

Ultimately, what matters most is the image. How you get there or what tools you use to do so have lesser importance than whether the photograph at the end of the process says what you want it to say. A great photographer can make compelling images with even the simplest and most basic of tools. If you desire to become a great photographer then you’re going to be involved in a lifelong learning process for which there are no shortcuts. A 36 megapixel camera may allow you to create gigantic prints but if you’re like the vast majority of photographers, your images are destined for Facebook or an 8 x 12 on your living room wall, not an advertising billboard.

The seven photographs here have been shot with seven different cameras (Canon 5D Mark II, 5D, 40D, 20D EOS 300 with Kodak 800 and HTC Android Desire) . They all represent my vision and intent at the time of photographing each one. At no time did I feel let down by the tools I had at hand. All the matters to me, and hopefully to you, is what that final image looks like. If it represents what I aim to portray, then the photograph is a success. Equipment and tools are nice but at no point do they replace vision, learning, practice and skill.


Leave a comment

Guest blog post: Nicole Gibson

It has been my privilege to interact with Nicole Gibson periodically over the past few years. I love what she is doing as a photographer and a person which is what led me to ask her to guest blog. You can check out her work at www.nicolegibsonphotography.com and read more about her at Peace Catalyst International.

I was not an art major in college, but I took some art classes and did photography in my free time. I still distinctly remember the day when I showed some (I can now say, admittedly, boring) photos to professor of mine. He looked at me and said something I’ll never forget: “Yeah, you know, these are fine, but I don’t see YOU in these photographs.” It was, of course, harsh to hear at the time, but it was probably the best thing he could have said, because it has pushed me in my work ever since.

A friend recently asked me what the big questions are that I ask myself as a photographer. And two that I’m constantly asking are:

“Does my work accurately reflect me, my point of view, or something I have to say?”

“Does it say something meaningful for others?”

I think those are common questions that artists ask themselves – and helpful ones at that, because they push us to invest more of ourselves and create more meaningful work.

There are a couple quotes that have had me thinking about this lately, and I think they’d be helpful to share here.

The first is Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and it goes like this: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself.”

The second quote that I have been thinking about lately is from Chris Orwig, Brooks Institute of Photography instructor and photographer. He has this to say: “The best and strongest pictures are those that most strongly reflect who you are.”

I think we as artists know it’s true that the best art is work that has a great deal of the artist in it. I think maybe that’s because when we put our humanity and our own selves into our work, it’s then that we create something others can relate to and resonate with.

Now, let’s be honest and say that creating work that truly communicates us as artists is something we can spend a lifetime working on. It’s definitely a constant journey for me and something that I’m always striving to get better at in my own work. But it is a journey that makes me a better artist and helps me to continue growing. So for those of you who like to have some sort of takeaway, this is it. I’ll give you the question that I often ask myself, and if you so choose, you can ask yourself the same: How much of “you” is in your work?

When others look at your work, will they see “you” in it? May this challenge all of us and push us to create more honest, revealing, and meaningful work, whether we photograph foreign cultures, weddings, or landscapes.