The Visual Advocate Blog

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What makes someone a “photographer?”

These are two pictures of my son taken by my wife who loves taking pictures with her Iphone but doesn’t consider herself a photographer because she doesn’t use “big” cameras like I do.

The last few days I have had various conversations with people who love to create images of food, their kids and other subjects that are important to them. What has struck me about all of these conversations is that each time, at some point in the conversation, everyone has said to me something like “I love taking pictures, but I am not a photographer”.

This got me thinking about what makes someone a photographer. In my opinion if someone loves creating images and living a visual life, then they are a photographer. Now they may not make money from their images, have the best equipment or even be that great of a photographer but who cares! If they love exploring the world visually and creating images of things they love than I say they are a photographer!

The reality is that no matter where any of us are in photographic journeys, we all need to be learning more about craft and sharpening our vision and style. I have been a photographer for over 15 years and I feel like I am constantly learning more about my craft and how to create images and stories that not only move me but also resonate with others.

So as David Duchemin has mentioned in past rants let’s forget the labels of “Professional or “Amateur” and just focus on growing as photographers who do it because we love it.


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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 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.

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Getting high, down and dirty and everything in between!

They say those who can't do teach, but I had fun doing and teaching on this trip.

There were many enjoyable things about this last assignment to India. However, one the most enjoyable elements of the trip for me was getting the opportunity to train some of the staff of the organization I was working for to be better visual communicators and storytellers.

While everyone owned Digital SLR’s and had experimented a little with photography, none of them had ever given much thought to crafting images. Instead, like most people, they just walked around pointing their camera at things that caught their attention and taking pictures.

So over the two weeks we talked about a few core things over and over again that would help them create stronger images and visual stories. One of the things I encouraged them to do at almost  every one our nightly image reviews was to experiment with different points of view. As I did this I would highlight a series of images of one subject that I shot from a variety of points of view. Like most concepts that we talked about, intellectually they got it right away, but it took a few days of reminders from me for them to actually start varying the way they shot images.

For this image I had to literally get down and dirty. The Indian villagers watching us thought it was hilarious that an American would actually lay down in the dirt!

Even for me when I am in the heat of the moment I have to remind myself to not settle for shooting a scene from just one point of view. As much as I can I will experiment with getting up above my subject, getting down low (even lying in the dirt if necessary sometimes!) and everything in between. Then at the end of the day I can look through the images I created from the variety of points of view and choose which one I feel best expresses how I was feeling and experiencing the moment and what I was trying to communicate about my subject.

I created a number of images from different points of view of this particular scene. I liked this one shot from above because I was able to get their waving hands of the kids in front and still all of the kids in the frame.

So don’t be afraid to get high, down and dirty and anything and everything in between. I am confident if you take the time and initiative to mix up the point of views from which you are shooting images, you are going to have a lot more fun and create much stronger images.

Whenever I am creating portraits of children, I like to experiment with getting down on their level.


India: Reflections on an assignment

I was meaning to write this post as soon as I got back, but alas the tyranny of more urgent things has kept me from it until now. In short, the trip was great!

I loved getting to eat with local Indians almost every day as we worked in their villages, I loved getting to make a total fool of myself to get my subjects to loosen up and smile, I loved getting to train some of the staff of this organization to be better visual storytellers, and I just loved the challenge of constantly trying to create the strongest and most visually and emotionally compelling images I could!

For those of you out there who long to do this kind of work, I wanted to share some things I was reminded of again on this trip:

  • Always bring back up gear-While I was doing some personal shooting in Delhi before the assignment began my 16gb card all of a sudden stopped working. Though I had back ups, I went bought two more cards just so I had back ups for the back ups! None of us like to think about the possibility that our gear will fail just when we need it most, but this does happen so plan ahead and bring back up gear.
  • Don’t take yourself to seriously-One of my traits that most came in handy on this trip was the ability to make a fool of myself to make kids and adults crack a smile and sometimes even almost fall out of their chair from laughing so hard (that happened once!). We all want to be taken seriously as photographers and look professional and all, but the reality is that sometimes we have to do the funky chicken or make faces to get our subjects to loosen up. So next time your subject is totally stoic, try breaking out your best dance moves or silly faces.
  • Use whatever local language you know-I am embarrassed to confess that after 3 trips to India I still only know about 5 Hindi phrases. However, when I am in India, I use those 5 phrases like they are going out of style and you know what…almost everyone I meet loves it! So many times on this trip I had people comment on how much they loved to see an American trying to speak Hindi.  So the moral of the story is learn the local language the best you can and use it as much as possible.
  • Know your equipment-Don’t wait until you are getting paid for an assignment to figure out what your equipment can do and where all the buttons are on your camera! The time to experiment with your flash unit or various lenses is before you get in the heat of the moment. So many times on this assignment things were happening so fast in front of me and I am glad I practiced changing every feature on my camera without ever taking my eye away from the viewfinder while sitting on my couch a long time ago.
  • Dot the I’s and cross the T’s before the assignment begins-This group I was working for on this assignment had never hired a professional photographer before. While this did not result in any big problems, there were times we had to have talks about the proposal I wrote up and delivered before the assignment began because they were just used to getting free images from volunteers. In the end everything worked out, but you need to make sure that you have your ducks in a row so that you are prepared when you have to talk pricing, image licensing etc.
  • Under-promise and over-deliver-There is an old saying “Fake it until you make it”, but it is not the time to fake it when you are telling your potential client what you  can do for them. Do you need to sell yourself? Yes, absolutely, but don’t over-sell yourself. Be realistic about your skills and specialties and if what you have to offer doesn’t line up with what the client needs or wants have the courage and integrity to send them elsewhere. I have never had a client who has not loved the images and stories I produced for them. A major reason for this is because I have put in the time to hone my craft. However, another big part of this is that I have been honest and realistic about what I can offer.

Those are just a few reflections from this past trip. I would love to hear from you about things you have learned or been reminded of as it relates to international assignments. If there are things I didn’t touch on that you have questions about feel free to comment and I will respond to your question(s).


To Pay or not to pay: Should we pay to take someone’s picture?

If you have traveled probably almost anywhere in developing  countries as photographer you have probably been asked by someone for money to take their picture. If not, then you are either not being bold enough in approaching people or traveling in countries where they have never seen tourists!

Anyway, on my last trip to India I was asked by so many people who I approached to be paid! Having traveled through North India pretty extensively I have just made it a rule that I never give out money, for a picture or otherwise, except on rare occasions. While I have been swarmed by street kids and been chased by a kid who was trying to throw small boulders at me for not giving out money, I still don’t do it today.

Now, as I said there are rare exceptions to this. On my last day in India I was shopping for some family members and I saw an elderly gentleman without legs pulling himself along the street with a stick while he pushed his begging can ahead with one of his arms. As I watched this man for a few seconds, and then looked around to make sure there were no swarming packs of street kids with small boulders in their hands, I bent down and placed the 20 rupees in my hand into his can.

The other time I gave out money on this trip was actually for a photo, which was first for me. Now again as I said, I rarely do this and was even hesitant this time. The story is I was driving from Jodhpur to Udaipur in a taxi with two South Africans and the taxi driver agreed to stop so I could take a picture of this Rajasthani guy that was hanging out on the side of the road.

The Rajasthani shepherd who my taxi driver insisted I pay 10 rupees.

The taxi driver insisted on walking over with me and while we did, he told me I should give the guy 10 rupees. At first I told him I don’t do that and even if I did, I didn’t have 10 rupees. He insisted and even gave me 10 rupees to give the guy. As I walked up and talked the man with the little Hindi I speak, the taxi driver began talking over me, rapidly reeling off some Hindi, which I gathered by the way the man eyed the 10 rupees in my hand, was a push for the man to take the money.

At first the elderly gentleman denied, but finally at the pushing of the taxi driver and his friend, he took the money. I was still uneasy about the whole thing, but since we were out in the middle of no where, I did feel a little safer at least. Whether I should or should not have paid I don’t know, I will leave that to others to decide. Will I pay again in the future? Probably not except in very rare situations.

Should those who are more fortunate pay those who are less fortunate to take their pictures? I don’t know. My gut is that it is not going to make much of a difference in the lives of those who have very little and it could probably cause more problems. But I could be wrong!

I would like to hear what you think. Share some stories of times you paid and it was the right thing to do and times you paid for pictures and it worked out bad. I am just one voice and I would like to know what others out there are experiencing.

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Looking past the obvious to find the best

Here is a post I started writing during my first few days of traveling through North India. I wanted to post it while in India, but alas I had no consistent internet for the entire three weeks! So I am posting it now! Enjoy.

I once had a non-photographer friend tell me India is one of those places where anyone can make great picture. As I have been traveling through North India for the last six days I have been thinking about during my shooting. While I understand what he meant, I have to disagree and here is why.

While it is probably true that just pointing your camera at the Taj Mahal or a woman in a colorful sari will probably result in a good picture for your scrapbook, it won’t result in a compelling image unless you think about what you are focusing on and why. Personally, as I have been creating images over the last six days in Old Delhi, Nizamuddin Dargah and now Jodhpur, I have been constantly thinking about what I am trying to communicate and why.

What has resulted has been me looking past the obvious blur of colorful humanity to find scenes that to me speak of the essence of the places and people I have been encountering. So the moral of the story is if you are serious about creating stunning images and not simply taking pictures then you need to look past the obvious to find the best. When you do this via careful selection and thoughtful intent there is a good chance, all else being equal, that your images will get stronger.

Here are just a few of my favorite images from the last 6 days:

Two young Muslim girls perform their Salat at Nizamuddin Dargah.

A Muslim family enjoys Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi as the sun prepares to set.

Sufi Muslims pay hommage at the tomb of the highly esteemed Muslim Sufi Saint, Nizamuddin Auliya.

Young Indian girls proudly show off their newly finished Mehndi.

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5 ways to improve your photography in 2012

Recently I read a quote by Mark Twain and immediately fell in love with it, here it is: “Most men die at 72, we just bury them at 27”. Isn’t that true!

However, here is the catch, its not just men, it can be all of us if we don’t make daily choices to tenaciously take hold of life and make choices that help us live life to the fullest.

In light of that I wanted to just briefly share 5 choices you can make as a photographer that will not only improve your quality of life but also improve your craft and ability as a visual storyteller. Here is my list, but I would love to hear what you have to say too!

  1. Slow Down: Recently I met a Somali woman and her family who are living as refugees just 5 minutes from our home. As soon I met them and began to hear parts of their story, my mind began racing with photographic ideas. However, instead of pulling out my camera or throwing ideas at her, my wife and I just listened. Up to this point, I still have not taken any images yet. I want to, but I know that by slowing down and taking the time to develop the relationship, not only will the images be stronger and more profound, but I will also have the joy getting to be part of this amazing woman’s life. So no matter what kind of photography you do, remember to slow down a little and don’t be in such a hurry. If we don’t our images will continue to lack the depth and profoundness we want.

  2. Learn something new: As photographers we must make time to study images, talk to other photographers, get training and learn more about our craft in other ways; if we don’t we soon grow stagnate creatively and professionally. None of us ever arrive, we all have ways we can grow as people and artists so if we are really going to move forward as visual artists we must put in the hard work to be learners.

  3. Walk toward your fears: Too many of us just exist instead of really live because we are afraid of failure, looking stupid, not knowing how to do something etc. This is true of me and I am pretty sure in some ways it is true of you too. However, if we are really going to be the kind of photographers we want to be, we have to walk toward our fears and let the chips fall where they may. I am confident at the end of our lives we will not regret having taken risks.

  4. Fast from Photography: I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just stuck in creative ruts and I can’t get out. When this has happened in the past, I would just try to muscle through it. However, I realizing about myself that sometimes the best thing to do in those situations is just put the camera away for a while, take a deep breath and just be. What ends up happening most of the time is after a short break without my eye glued to the viewfinder, I am seeing life with fresh creativity. So when you get stuck creatively in 2012, just try putting the camera down for a couple of days and see what happens.

  5. Try something new: Whether you are making money from photography or not, it is very easy to only shoot what we like or know. While it is good to be focused as photography and become an expert in one thing, sometimes we need to break out of this and try something new. Maybe its just shooting with one lens for a month or maybe it’s experimenting with creating images that are more impressionistic than realistic. Whatever it is, just try something new for the sake of change. Don’t worry if your experiments will result in any money, just have fun and remember why you started shooting in the beginning.

Good luck and let me know what your ideas are!