The Visual Advocate Blog


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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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The baker of Dire Dawa

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I love getting to shoot stories about people around the world that are using their skills and passions to be a blessing to those who are in the greatest need. While I was in Ethiopia I got to spend a couple of hours (I wish I would have have had a couple of days!) shooting some images for a story of such a person. Her name is Hayat and she is a baker. The greatest thing about Hayat is not the incredible food she makes, and it is incredible, it is how she is using what she has to be a holistic blessing to those around her. Here are some of the images.

Hayat takes a short break from her work. She is truly a woman of joy.

Hayat prays for the needs of one her customers.


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The DR-1 Double Strap: A review and giveaway

The DR-1 Double Strap from my friends and sponsor BlackRapid is an incredible option for photographers shooting with two cameras.

Last month I spent three weeks trekking volcanoes, riding in African buses, and shooting portraits and humanitarian images in Ethiopia and there was rarely a second when I was not wearing my DR-1 Double Strap. While I already knew that Blackrapid made the best straps on the planet, this trip just made even more convinced!

I love the comfort and convenient access the DR-1 Double Strap gives me to my cameras at all times.

I love the DR-1 for many reasons but what clearly sets this strap apart in my mind is how comfortable and convenient it is to wear and adjust. No matter how I was positioned or what I was shooting on this last trip, the DR-1 was just so comfortable and made it so easy to quickly access my cameras.

It took me a few minutes initially to figure out how to adjust the straps and how to turn the DR-1 into a one-camera sling. However, once I got used to how things worked I had no trouble at all quickly making adjustments to how the straps hung or sat, even with it on. For more great images of how the strap sits and is configured, check out the great review by my friend and fellow photographer Brian Hirschy.

The fasteners and carabiners BlackRapid uses stay tightly connected to your cameras so you can carry them with peace of mind.

Beyond the amazing comfort and convenience, I love how the way the DR-1 connects to my cameras. I would be lying if I didn’t say that the first couple times I didn’t keep checking the fasteners and carabiners every two seconds just to make sure they were tight. However, after hours and hours of carrying my cameras with this strap, and never once having an issue with the fasteners loosening, I rarely check now.

Some people might have a tough time with the price, but not me. This strap is worth its weight in gold!

As for the cons, I have to be completely honest and say I can’t really think of any. There are things that take some getting used to when you first get this strap but that is true of everything new. After having used so many straps over the years, even cheaper knock-offs trying to be the DR-1, I am just impressed and have a hard time finding things to improve.

I know for some the list price of $129.95 may be a stumbling block, but let me assure you it will be the best $129.95 you ever spend on a strap. If you still aren’t convinced or simply can’t stop drinking Starbucks long enough to say up the money, then leave a comment on my blog and you may just be the lucky winner who scores the one DR-1 Double Strap that our friends at BlackRapid have agreed to give the readers of my blog!

I promise if you are the lucky winner, once you put this strap on and carry your cameras you will never want to take it off and you will never have a bad day again. (ok, maybe that’s taking it too far, but I still don’t think you will want to use another strap again!)

I will be traveling for the next week and am planning to announce who the one lucky winner is next Friday so make sure to get on leave a comment!

Happy commenting!


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May Desktop Wallpaper

I wanted to try and have this out on May 1st but I was still on a plane at that time. Since then I have been swamped with processing images and getting caught up so finally I am getting this up.

The clouds in Ethiopia were just awesome and here is one image of some of them over a volcanic lake with a lone fisherman. To download the full-size image just click on the image below to open it up in another window.


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Fun on Mount Entoto

I just wanted to write a quick post before I head out of Addis for about a week. Yesterday I made my way up to the top of Mount Entoto which yielded beautiful views of Addis and the surrounding valleys. In many ways the rolling green valleys and peaks reminded of Oregon.

At the top of Mount Entoto, which is 10,489 feet, there are communities of people living, ancient Orthodox churches and even a church in a cave that they told is over 700 years old.

I am going to try to post again but I am not sure what the internet will be like outside of Addis. Here are a couple of images from the last few days.

The road heading up to top of Mount Entoto is quite steep yet you will see school children, elderly woman carrying huge loads of wood on their back and many others making the trip.

This elderly gentleman was a guard on the grounds of the palace that is at the top of Mount Entoto.


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Checking in from Ethiopia

After three long flights I made it to Ethiopia last night just in time to go to bed. I don’t know about you but I never sleep well on planes so I welcomed the sleep. This morning we hired a guide and walked around Addis Ababa a bit just getting a feel for the city and the people. Our guide was overly cautious about taking images of people or having both of my cameras out in the markets so while I did a little shooting I mostly did some scouting of the different areas.

Here are a couple of images from today. I hope to post more but am not sure how the internet will be once we get out of Addis.

This shopkeeper and his employee loved my business cards. I got to give props to the folks at MOO.com because everywhere I go people love my cards.

At first this Muslim man said no when I asked if I could take his picture but after I spent time in his shop talking with him about his love of soccer, his family and other things he finally asked me to take his picture. He told me I am the only photographer that he has let take his picture.

If you visit Ethiopia you must have some Injera, it is pretty good!

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