The Visual Advocate Blog


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).


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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!