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.

The baker of Dire Dawa

Leave a comment

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.


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.


Leave a comment

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.


3 Comments

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!


1 Comment

Shooting for Peace of Thread

The last few weeks I have been working with a local NGO in Atlanta called Peace of Thread which is still very young but growing fast. My assignment with them has been to create images they can use on their new website that is soon to launch and in other promotional material.

Peace of Thread empowers women who have come to the United States seeking refuge from war, persecution & poverty to make a new life for themselves and their families.

It has been fun in a lot of ways but challenging as well. One of the challenges is that I have to create images for where none of the women’s faces are visible because of fear of retaliation against family members who are still in their home countries if they are seen on the internet.

One of the challenges of this assignment has been creating images of the women that do not show their faces.

Yesterday I spent about an hour shooting images of the ladies all sitting in a circle looking through the repurposed fabric they will be turning into bags and purses soon. What was most fun was just shooting as the women were laughing hysterically and chatting incessantly in Arabic.

The women of Peace of Thread gather around Denise, a champion for them and Peace of Thread, to look at fabrics they will be using to sew new purses and bags.

Many of these women had to flee their countries after having their houses bombed and several family members killed. Now that they are in the United States Peace of Thread is helping them make money that helps support their family and start their lives over. One one woman who is helping as a champion with Peace of Thread on behalf of these women is Denise, with whom I want to later post an interview.

Denise is serving as a champion for the women of Peace of Thread and is a good reminder of how just one person can make a huge impact in the lives of so many.

Make sure to check out their website and even buy a bag or ten! Here are some other images from my time with the women of Peace of Thread.

I am leaving for Ethiopia on Monday and will be gone for a couple of weeks. When I get back I am going to be reviewing some new ebooks, Blackrapid gear and sharing some images of Ethiopia. I am going to try to blog while I am there but as you know internet in developing countries is often pretty sketchy.

 


8 Comments

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.

%d bloggers like this: