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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.

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10 steps to better portraits: a review of “Forget Mugshots”

Don't miss the awesome photographic resources found at Craft and Vision.

Over the last couple of years David Duchemin and the crew at Craft and Vision have put out some amazing resources for aspiring and professional photographers. The latest eBook by David Duchemin titled “Forget Mugshots: 10 steps to better portraits” is an example of this and will surely benefit even the most seasoned professionals!

There are number of great things I could say about this eBook, but if I had to choose just one thing I would say what makes this resource so great is that it not only talks about making great portraits, it challenges you to go out and do it. Like Malcolm Gladwell says in his book “Outliers: The story of Success”, those who become great in something do so primarily because they put in at least 10,000 hours of practice!

Like the other Craft & Vision ebooks, the regular price on this book is only $5, however, I have some discount codes available for my readers; these discount codes are valid through Saturday March 17th. Buy Forget Mugshots using this link and the discount code MUGSHOTS4 to get the book for only $4. If you want to buy a few of the other Craft & Vision ebooks, buy them using this link and use the code MUGSHOTS20 to save 20% off your entire order of five or more PDF ebooks.

In closing is an overview of the David’s 10 steps, with images I created employing these helpful hints.

RELATE: A key to make great portraits is to slow down and take the time to relate to your subjects. When you do you will find that people let their guard down and your portraits will become more authentic.

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT: This Indian boy was running around in this field with his friends. I was hoping he would stop and even get down so he would be surrounded by the grass...and eventually he did! the flower was just a fun addition.

USE THE RIGHT LENS: I came upon this guy in the middle-of-nowhere Rajastan! When I took this image I wanted to capture his whole bike as well as the road that he had used to get to the middle of nowhere. To do this I needed my Canon L series 16-35mm 2.8.

USE MORE THAN ONE FRAME: The more I kept shooting, the more this woman's smile grew! Some times one frame is all you need and other times it is not enough!

UNDERSTAND THE SMILE: Not all smiles are equal. When you are shooting try to get people to move past the fake smiles we all put on and really open up in some good-old belly laughing!

WATCH THE EYES: Where your subject is looking can dramatically change the feel of image. Try having them look in different directions and see how it changes the portrait.

PLAY WITH THE LIGHT: For this portrait of a Rajasthani shepherd I played around the light and decided I liked the image best with back-lighting.

CONTROL YOUR BACKGROUND: Unless there is a reason for something to be in the background, keep all unnecessary items out. For this portrait I wanted to include the chalkboard because I was doing portraits of schoolchildren in rural Rajastan.

GET LEVEL: Whenever I am doing images of kids, I love to get down on their level. For this image, I got down on my knees because I loved the angle she was looking and the catch-light in her eyes. Point of view can make a big difference in the feel of our images.

POSE CAREFULLY: I worked with this woman to get her positioned just how I wanted her to capture her anticipation of school children coming by soon on India's Independence day.


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Free people find true success

Over the last couple of weeks I have been rolling a lot of different ideas around in my head, some photography related but mostly just about life in general. One thing I have been thinking about lately is how attractive “free” people are. Let me explain what I mean.

As I get older, I am realizing more and more how attractive people are who are not impressed with who they are, where they have been, what they have seen or accomplished or who they know. These people have dealt with and are dealing with their own fears, guilt and shame (the very things that keep us from being free people), which frees them up to be focused on others.

Now I am nowhere near perfect (and if you don’t believe me just ask my wife!), and I have definitely been THAT guy who talked about himself for like 15 minutes straight or tried to sell myself just a little too much, but I so want to be this kind of free person.

The other night I had the opportunity to talk to about 80 college students at the University of Georgia about which peoples and cultures in the world are in the greatest holistic need and how they can use their skills, passions and degrees to bless them. After the talk ended, I was in conversations with students for over an hour, just talking about what they are passionate about and how they can use what they love to change the world. It was so fun to not really share anything about me, but just to give these students permission to dream big!

So how does this relate to photography, and more specifically humanitarian and cultural photography? Well in my opinion, it has everything to do with our craft as photographers. If we are not becoming truly free people, we will not be able to really serve our clients and the peoples and cultures on whose behalf we create these image and stories. Instead, we will still be trying to make a name for ourselves, which will affect the way we do business and the way we approach our subjects and stories.

Now this doesn’t mean we give our work away free or volunteer for assignments for free, though it may me mean that in some circumstances. We as creatives absolutely need to be masters of our craft, which includes being smart and determined business people. Instead, what I think it means, is that we will be free to esteem our clients and the peoples and cultures we are photography higher than ourselves in every way possible, and if in nothing else, at least in our attitudes!

I could go on but I won’t. In closing, I just wanted to share some resources that have influenced my thinking as of late. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on what I have written here. In fact, we can help each other become people who are more free by sharing our stories.

Here are the resources:


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Interview with Photographer and Visual Peacemaker, Nicole Gibson

Unless you’ve taken up residence under a rock as of late, you have no doubt seen the extensive media coverage of all the riots and protests in the Middle East. I know for me it is so easy to quickly grow calloused to the coverage and forget that the freedom and lives of real people are at stake.

This point was driven home for me again today as I chatted with a good friend living and working in Bahrain. As a photographer and visual peacemaker, he has had some wonderful opportunities to capture images of the peaceful protests. But he also said it has been very hard to know what to do and how to help as the protests have turned violent. We chatted back and forth about how it is world events like this that reaffirm to us and so many others the need for visual peacemakers.

Click here to check out some of his images of the protests in Bahrain.

Now for what I really set out to write about! Over the last couple of weeks I have been posting different interviews of photographers who are committed to be visual peacemakers. I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed reading what these different photographers have had to say about their journey as a visual peacemaker.

Today, I am posting an interview with Photographer Nicole Gibson. She is an internationally-recognized, award-winning photographer, and her desire is to see visual media used to break down barriers and stereotypes, and to promote peace. Nicole is also a founding member of the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers. Find out more about Nicole at www.nicolegibsonphotography.com.

When and how did you get your start in photography?

I took my first photography class about 11 years ago, when I was in high school, and I always knew it would someday become a more significant part of my life. But I didn’t really start calling myself a photographer until about 3 years ago. I went on the very first Lumen Dei trip with Matt Brandon and David duChemin to Kashmir, India, and it was then that I really began to do photography seriously.

2.When and how did you first become involved in using your photography to advocate on behalf of humanitarian issues, peoples and cultures?

I think a major turning point for me was when I was in India visiting an Islamic shrine one time. I sat down amongst the crowd, and I soon had a group of Indian women and children around me, wondering what was the deal with this foreigner. Of course they didn’t speak a word of my language, and I didn’t speak a word of theirs, but we communicated pretty well just the same. And as I laughed with these women and played with their kids, I found myself surprised that they were so much like me. They were just people, and we really weren’t that different after all.

And as I asked myself why I was so surprised by this big revelation, I realized that I had somehow expected them to be distant and far off, strange beings, people that I’d have nothing in common with, people that I wouldn’t be able to connect with at all. Somehow I had not expected them to just be people. And then I was shocked not at them, but at myself. How could I have thought that way? I realized that I had had these ugly – and just plan wrong – ideas and hadn’t even known it until that moment. Where had these ideas come from? As I thought about it and realized that media had been a major factor – movies, news, etc. – I looked down at the camera in my hand and knew that I, as a creator of visual media, had to use my own work to say something different than what I had heard and seen so many times. If I was going to travel and make images of people, I wanted to make images about people like the ones right in front of me.

3.What are the humanitarian issues you are most passionate about, photographically speaking and why?

If I’ve adopted any issue or cause, what we call “visual peacemaking” would definitely be it, because of the very story I mentioned above and because I feel strongly about the power that visual media has to influence the way we see the world and those around us. I want my work to help break down stereotypes and help people see one another as fellow human beings. I want my work to break down barriers between people instead of reinforcing them.

4.How have you seen your visual advocacy bring real change to the peoples or issues you are passionate about capturing photographically?

Well, like I said, I’ve really only been at this for the last three years, so I’m still fairly new to photography. I can’t say that because of my work, a whole village in Africa has come out of poverty or something. But I think my work has brought change in a different way. I think that real change happens when individual people begin to see the world and those around them differently. One of the most rewarding things about what I do is hearing people tell me how my work has moved them, how it’s helped them as Westerners see Muslims in a more positive light, or how it’s encouraged them to work toward peacemaking themselves. That, to me, is real change and something that makes me thrilled to get to do what I do.


5.What are some future humanitarian photography projects you are excited about and why?

To be honest, I really don’t know what’s up next for me. I’d love to say I have the whole next year planned out, but I don’t. Right now I’m taking one day at a time and looking forward to seeing what the future holds.

6.What is the most challenging part of using your photography to tell visual stories about humanitarian issues around the world?

Well, I actually wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “humanitarian” photographer. My work takes many forms, some of which may fit the “humanitarian” mold and some of which may not. But whether I’m doing a more conceptual fine art project or traveling to another culture, my work touches on themes of humanity and the human condition.

That said, I think a challenge for me right now is learning how to develop work that effectively communicates what’s in my head. Thinking things out instead of just shooting from the hip, so to speak. Creating images that form a cohesive body of work that will together tell a story or make a statement.

We’re talking about “telling visual stories,” which requires putting some forethought into things and really developing an idea – and that’s an entirely different thing than just looking at a scene and making a nice-looking image.

7.How have you seen your photography help change the way your viewers see the world and the different peoples and cultures you have encountered and photographed?

I guess a short answer here since I kind of already mentioned this. But like I said before, I think this comes in the form of chipping away at those unknown assumptions that a lot of viewers have about certain peoples and cultures, especially Muslims.

8.In your opinion what are the most important skills and equipment one needs to be effective in advocating on behalf of peoples and cultures?

I think that doing this kind of work is more about our heart for what we’re photographing and what we have to say than it is about any kind of equipment. I personally shoot with gear that most photographers would laugh at. You don’t have to have great gear to make great photographs. Whatever equipment you have, use it! Push it to its limits. You can do more than you might think.

Another thing that I would say is extremely important is time. The “skill” of patience. We photographers have a tendency to get somewhere and want to start grabbing images the very first second. But to really be effective in communicating about an issue or a culture or a group of people, we have to be willing to spend some time. The more the better. We have to get involved in the issue or culture or place and get to know it. BEFORE we start photographing. If we do that, our images will have a depth and a perspective that will make them more powerful than any piece of equipment ever could.

9.What is that drives you personally to use photography to advocate on behalf of others?

Today’s world is united by media. Particularly visual media. Unfortunately, much of it serves to propagate stereotypes and demonize those who come from different cultures or faiths. But we all have common ground as fellow human beings, and I want more of the world’s media to say that. So as a visual artist, my goal is to use my work in a positive way. To promote unity between people instead of division, understanding instead of hatred and fear.

10. What advice would you give to others who want to begin to visually advocate on behalf of the peoples and cultures of the world?

Honestly, I don’t feel qualified to be giving advice, being so new to this myself. But I’d say a good place to start is to focus on learning as much as possible about the people or culture you’re interested in. Spend time in the culture. Spend time with the people. Immerse yourself and gain as much perspective as you can.

Don’t be afraid to practice and get experience. Start wherever you are, doing local projects, telling local stories. But most importantly, my advice is this: Be respectful! Wherever you are, make an extra effort to treat people like people. I’ve seen way too many photographers travel and treat the people around them like animals in a zoo. Please, I beg of you, don’t be like that. People are human beings, with intelligence and feelings, no matter what they look like or what language they speak. Remember that they have their own lives and that you are coming into their space. They are not there just for you to get pictures of. A practical tip that may help: If you’re traveling, think of how you would treat the person in front of you if he/she were in your own country or if you didn’t have a camera in your hand, and keep that in mind as you interact and make photographs.