Behind the Scenes

Behind the Photograph

Ethiopia

Ethiopia

There are a lot of hidden stories in the still image. Rarely do they house one narrative. This is a chance for me to tell you about those stories. 

In the past on this series I’ve mainly featured personal work. This time I’m swinging the other way. To fund some of our work here in Ethiopia we often submit proposals to embassies, non-profits and other organizations. Oftentimes we need some images to spruce up these proposals. That’s where this image comes in. It was shot as part of an image library to have for the proposals.

I knew a few things about this shoot before walking into it. We would have some models, it would be in someones home (with no pre-scout) and it needed to focus on the use of technology (because we publish a lot of our content digitally). And I’ve got to tell you, when I walked into this scenario I was pretty nervous. The room had white walls without any decoration, a very busy carpet, and the couch and cushions reminded me of those Magic Eye images from the 90s. It was pretty busy and distracting. So what’s a guy to do?

lighting setup

Get crafty, that’s what! To minimize the impact of the couch and carpet I wanted to go dark. Thankfully we shot pretty late at night so ambient wasn’t a problem. With a friends wife as an assistant and translator I got to work. To light the women I would ordinarily put a white piece of paper on the screen and boom a gridded light overhead, pointed at the white paper, to produce a nice computer “glow”. But due to the back wall this wasn’t an option. Thankfully I was able to jack up my ISO and my 5d Mrk. IV was sensitive enough to read the computer as the key light. Problem 1 solved.

Problem 2 was it left the room as dark as a black hole (which, thanks to modern technology, we finally know how dark that is!). So I pulled a trick out of my bag from my assisting days. I NDed a light to my left and pointed it at a dark window drape to my left to add a kiss of fill light. A bunch of shutter clicks later and voilà!

I really like how this image turned out and it has served us well. The women were excellent at taking direction and it a culturally appropriate image for our audience. I hope to add more images to the library in the near future so stay tuned.

Image Library for Humana

Usually my year ends rather quietly. Budgets are spent, people are gearing up for the holidays and everyone is preparing for next year. Last year was a different story for me though. I got a call from Skystorm Productions asking if I'd like to shoot a couple image libraries for Humana, the third largest health insurance company in the United States. The first library was for their small business division. A few discussions later and the dates were booked. 

This job had a quick turnaround on image delivery. It was a lot of work and several long days but we had a great crew to help pull it off.

Huge thanks to Brittany Lutz and the team at Studio Now for trusting me with this. Thanks to Rob "five minutes left" Micai, the calmest and tallest producer I know. Rocky Frazin did a great job keeping everyone alive. Wally Argueta knows his lights and is a great stand-in. Marjorie Robinson did the makeup. Jennifer Beverly made the people look pretty and Dhruv Patel made the places look pretty. Thanks to David Lawrence for making sure I was always hydrated. And I bow down in thanks to Ben Travers, the only photo assistant who can read my mind. 

Keep an eye out for the next post where I talk about the second library we shot

Joseph Dirand for The Wall Street Journal Magazine

Several months back I received a friendly email from Meghan Benson at The Wall Street Journal Magazine. Architect and designer Joseph Dirand was reimagining Miami Beach's famous Surf Club. Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and even Winston Churchill were all guests back in the day. To say it's a Miami institution would be an understatement. 

Meghan wanted a portrait of Joseph as well as some details from the hotel. This was right up my alley so my assistant and I hopped in the car for the 3.5 hour drive south from Orlando.

Little did we know the hotel was a shell of what it was supposed to be at the time. Hurricane Matthew had just swept through South Florida and set construction back two weeks. It wasn't easy but we were able to squeeze out some images that I feel show the beauty of the hotel. I'm particularly fond the the emerald green accents found throughout the hotel. Enjoy!

Helpers and Healers | The UCF connection to the Pulse nightclub shooting

Their presence was so soft, kind and motherly.

When I got a call from Ron Boucher, the CD at UCF, asking if I would be interested in doing a portrait series on the connection between UCF and the Pulse shooting in Orlando I immediately said yes. A lot has been said about the shooting, much of it more eloquently than I can do justice. 

I've lived in Orlando all my life. Not long ago I wanted to escape this town. I thought it had nothing to offer. I was always annoyed with its ties to tourism, its transitory population and The Mouse. As the years passed I began to see an alternate identity emerge and it started to grow on me. Now we've got a great food culture, several great universities that invest in the community and many more opportunities for artists of all kinds to thrive. Now it feels like a place I'm proud to call my home.

Someone attacked my home. They attacked my people. To be honest I don't think I really processed it all until this shoot. At times photography feels like a job. This time it felt like therapy. I mentioned to my assistant on the day of the job how comforting and kind so many of the subjects were. There were a couple people who I just wanted to hug. And it wasn't that I wanted to comfort them. I wanted them to comfort me! Their presence was so soft, kind and motherly. 

I'm thankful for the people pictured here. They gave themselves to the service of others. They made themselves less to make my home a better place. 

You can read the article as it appeared in Pegasus Magazine here.

Utah State University alumni magazine

 

A few months back I had the opportunity to photograph Deryl Snyder for Utah State University's alumni magazine. Deryl is a really smart guy (did I mention he has a PhD?) who works with aerodynamics and computers and things that cost more than I can imagine. The magazine wanted me to get some photographs of him in his office.

Often times these settings aren't the most ideal for taking photos. Apparently people don't design buildings thinking, "I wonder how we can make this place look good for portraits?" Being in these settings lets me flex my creative muscle. Surely anyone can create a great picture in a beautiful place, but can you create a great picture in a space filled with cubicles? Challenge accepted!

When shooting assignments like this I strive for two things. First, I get the images I believe the client wants. We've usually talked about the concept and direction beforehand which allows me to execute this fairly easily. Once I've gotten those, and if time permits, I try and grab a few frames which are more quirky. After all, images that lead you to ask more questions are more interesting than ones that answer questions (BOOM! How's that for wisdom).

Behind the Photograph

Daytona Beach, FL

There are a lot of hidden stories in the still image. Rarely do they house one narrative. This is a chance for me to tell you about those stories. 

Curiosity is something I treasure and a quality I love to encourage in others.

I love shooting film, particularly when it's medium format. There is something special about the medium. For me it's not the color or the nostalgia. It's the pace I find comforting, a pace that is more in line with the way in which I want to live, particularly in our Facechat Snapbook times. Film forces me to slow down, to think about each and every swing of the shutter. I arrange the frame with intentionality. I think through my actions. And this is not the only thing that is attracts me to it. I have noticed time and time again people appreciate being photographed with medium format film. I can not count the number of people who have been curious to know how this boxy, mechanical contraption works. Often times I will let them look through the viewfinder and teach them a little about it. Usually more questions follow, which I am excited to answer. Curiosity is something I treasure and a quality I love to encourage in others. This curiosity usually leads to an eagerness to have ones photo taken. I do not think of it as a manipulative practice, though one could take it to that extreme. I feel it is more of a collaborative practice. 

Every year I try and make it out to Bike Week in Daytona Beach, FL, which is where this photo was taken. Having lived in Florida all my life I was always aware of Bike Week but it was my attendance at a photo program in college in Daytona that really got me interested in it. Bike Week is an odd gathering. It is slightly off the radar of the general population but it draws a wide variety of people. Lawyers and construction workers, northerners and southerners, soccer moms and vagabonds. The potential for great pictures is endless. 

Film forces me to slow down, to think about each and every swing of the shutter.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted this woman sitting on a curb down a side street. In this packed environment it was surprising to see she was the only one there. As I approached her I remember thinking she looked tired but content. I loved the monochromatic colors of her surrounds and how well they contrasted with her outfit and the curb. Your eye immediately lands on her and slowly drifts to the right, along the curb, to the sandbag. The sandbag mimics her posture (or maybe she mimics the sandbag?). Her posture is so flippant. It says, "I'm tired, I'm sweaty and I don't really care," as a smirk creeps up from her mouth. There is something so oddly comical and touching about it.

I approached this woman and asked if I could take her photograph. She said a simple "yes," I stepped back, took two or three frames, said my thanks and walked away. There are times when photography is a wrestling match. Where you fight with your self and the constraints of time and the medium to make something which speaks to you and the viewer. This was not one of those times. Although it only took a matter of minutes to make this picture it is one I am very proud of.

Behind the Photograph

Manila, Philippines.

There are a lot of hidden stories in the still image. Rarely do they house one narrative. This is a chance for me to tell you about those stories. 

When I was in my early 20s I took a journey to Manila, Philippines to shoot a couple of photo stories. At the time the best dSLR I could afford was a Canon 20d and even then I could only afford to buy one body. Knowing I would need 2 camera bodies (1 for backup) I decided to shoot 35mm film while there. It made things a little more complicated but in hindsight it was a good decision. I did have to fight with TSA on multiple occasions in order to to make sure they didn't scan my film. But having a 2nd body proved necessary as my main camera broke while shooting. The broken one had autofocus so I had to resort to shooting manual focus the remainder of the trip, something I hadn't done in years. Needless to say, to be safe I took multiple pictures of each scene when possible.

I want to show the reality of their situation. It's obviously not pretty. But at the same time I want to give them dignity by showing their strengths, ingenuity and kindness. 

One of the stories I covered was about the residents of Smokey Mountain. Smokey Mountain is home to thousands of people. It's also a garbage dump. The families here live off refuse. They eat from it, recycle it and turn it into charcoal for the city. Shooting stories like this are difficult because they take a lot of mental and emotional effort on my part. I want to show the reality of their situation. It's obviously not pretty. But at the same time I want to give them dignity by showing their strengths, ingenuity and kindness. 

I don't remember how I stumbled upon this scene. I think a resident may have flagged me down to check it out. As I swept back the curtain to enter their makeshift tent my eyes were filled with darkness as I waited for them to adjust to their new surroundings. At first it looked like a simple game of BINGO. Four women were silent as the sounds of chatter and children danced outside, concentrating on a game they were obviously taking very seriously. As I surveyed the scene I spotted the casket. I'm not used to seeing death displayed so prominently so it was a bit shocking. The last time I saw an open casket was at my grandmothers wake and I barely remember it.

Later I asked someone about this. I couldn't figure out what was going on in that small room for the life of me. They explained most people in Smokey Mountain couldn't afford to bury their loved ones. The family would invite everyone to come and spend money on games, karaoke, drinking, and other activities as a way to raise money for the burial. 

Four women were silent as the sounds of chatter and children danced outside, concentrating on a game they were obviously taking very seriously.

There are several small details in this photo that draw me to it. The cross over the casket that has been cropped to look like it's upside down. It's as if God is sad with the situation and the state of humanity. You have a young boy (peering over the shoulder of someone on the very left of the frame), the two young women, the oldest women nearest the casket, and the deceased in the casket. They show the passage of time. Does this scene show what's in store for the young boys future? The ornate and beautiful candle stick holders flanking the casket that were most likely found in the dump. Just as I dress in my nicest suit to honor the dead when I go to a funeral they do the same here by the presence of these candlestick holders. Notice how the table full of BINGO pages parallels the casket? Is this all just a game? Or do we enjoy our time here because we know there's more than death? And I love the movement in their arms. I can hear the BINGO pieces being laid down. 

Part IV: The Promotion - Mr. Gold

Be sure you check out the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd post in this series.

This is probably the question I got asked the most by industry folks. How did you get it to blow up? Obviously the first piece of advice is to have something that's good (hope that doesn't come off as conceited). Beyond that I think there are a couple reasons this film had the legs it did. 

Florida Film Festival

Florida Film Festival

First, and I didn't realize it until after it started picking up steam, Mr. Gold is a very sharable film. It's about a local celebrity barely anyone knows a thing about. Thousands of people know who Mr. Gold is. On top of that the film is an uplifting/feel good piece. There isn't a lot you can argue with in the film. It's not divisive. You end up rooting for Jose in the end. I think it's natural that people want to share these kinds of stories, especially nowadays. 

While those things are important I knew they wouldn't be enough to give Mr. Gold the kind of reach I wanted it to have. After reading a really good blog post on how to promote your short film I sat down and sketched out a marketing plan. I have a cousin who's a great writer and I asked him to write up a press release. I pulled frames from the film so bloggers/publications would have pictures if they wanted to run the piece. I spent days researching people, companies, and websites who may want to see the film. 

After doing all this I put my plan into motion early on a Monday morning. I chose Monday because I wanted the film to pick up steam throughout the week and knew things would pretty much die out over the weekend, making it harder for the film to pick up steam again. So on a Monday morning I sent out an ungodly amount of tweets to website curators, bloggers, publications, etc. Here's an example of the tweet I sent: 

Understanding that blogs want your content I emailed to tell them about the story in hopes they would want to feature it. I also sent them the press release and the pictures in case they wanted to use them as well. I also reached to local news and radio stations, the newspaper, and websites who have previously featured my work. All in all I reached out to over 100 people over several days.  

One of my main goals was to get the film featured on Short of the Week and/or Vimeo Staff Picks, knowing one of these would propel the films reach. Short of the Week liked my film but ultimately decided not to run it because they felt it was too short for their audience and they wanted to know more about Jose (fair enough). Vimeo Staff Picks did pick it up and from that point on people started reaching out to me offering distribution (which I turned down) and wanting to know more about Jose. 

Going the film festival route hadn't crossed my mind. It wasn't until after the dust settled that I thought festivals could be a good idea, the film had obviously struck a cord with people. I entered about 20 festivals and so far have been a featured selection in 4 as well as winning a Gold Addy award (they're like the Oscars for the advertising world). I'm still waiting to hear back from several film festivals.

Our local public radio station did a piece on Mr. Gold.  

And I was on the news!

I cleared a whole week out of my schedule so I could focus solely on promoting the film. It was a lot of work but the result was worth it. For my next film I hope to do some of the promotion and possibly hire someone to help with the task.

I'm pretty excited with how this all turned out. Since it's completion I've received several offers from ad agencies about doing some work for them. We'll see what comes next...

Part III: The Edit - Mr. Gold

I've covered the concept and the process of shooting Mr. Gold in two previous posts. This time I'll tackle the post production side. About three quarters of the way through filming I had an idea of how I wanted this to look. I knew I wanted to introduce Jose in a very mysterious way at the beginning. Showing close ups of his outfit would work really well. Plus this adds some mystery which causes people to keep watching (very important because of our short attention spans). I also knew that I wanted to keep it under 5 minutes. I would have loved to make it a little longer, maybe 10-15 minutes, but I knew this would work well as a web video. From what I've learned anything over 5 minutes on the web gets drastically lower view counts (there are exceptions, like niche markets and if you get featured on a very popular site). Making it shorter would cater to more people.

The first thing I had to do was buy some editing software. After some research I settled on Final Cut X. I know some of you are probably gasping for air but hear me out. I've never edited anything before this so I didn't have the need for an editing program. I wanted something I could learn quickly so I could get this sucker out to the masses. From what I read X was very user friendly. Yes, everyone using 7 hated it because they couldn't import their old projects (I would be pissed at this too!). But I didn't have any old projects. I was starting from scratch so X would work fine for me.

Ok, now for the editing. I'm not going to lie...it was hard. Really hard. Telling the story wasn't the hard part. Understanding the program and all it's intricacies was hard. It's one thing to know how you want something to look. It's another thing to know how to get it that way.  After purchasing a Ripple Training series it became a lot easier.

There were a few things I set out to accomplish while editing. After sifting through the interview I knew it would be a good idea to highlight his background. I really thought the prison photos were great. They were a harsh reminder of his background and I thought the one of him in front of the painted backdrop was funny (I have a weird sense of humor). At one point I looked into filming in a prison but there were too many hurdles to jump through.

It was a windy day when Matt and I were filming high-speed. I had Matt grab a shot of Jose's coat waving in the wind. During editing this became a crucial shot. I used it at 2:36 and it's where the story climaxes. The shot reminds me of a superhero's cape flapping in the wind. I placed it where I did, when the music becomes more engaging and amidst him telling his most memorable story, because I knew it would further drive his story home.

You'll notice that I tried to put more of the personality type shots (him dancing, waving, etc.) near the end. If these were placed at the beginning I feel they wouldn't have meshed well with the story of his background. I think that would be my biggest piece of advice to someone editing, and it's pretty simple. Probably one that doesn't need to be told. But I'll tell it anyway, make sure your dialogue, music, and visuals match. Peppy music and a sad story just don't go well together. That being said all rules are meant to be broken.

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The footage after the credits was too good to pass up. I tried to put it in the body of the film but couldn't find a place where it flowed smoothly. The irony of it is subtle but great. His gold teeth represented his past life (something he talked about in our interviews but didn't get included in the film) and getting them removed represented a new chapter for him. The irony is how well they work with his job. I mean, come on! You're named Mr. Gold and you have gold teeth but you get them removed to shed the old you! It's movie making gold (get it?)!

Seriously though, it was a very moving thing to witness. The smile on Jose's face was a mile wide and he couldn't stop saying, "Woah!" for 30 minutes. The owners of Diamond Exchange found a dentistry practice to donate their services, which made it even more touching.

A good buddy of mine named Kyle Cox scored the piece. At first I wanted some subtle ambient music (think Explosions in the Sky). Kyle did some research and was really inspired by the urban nature of the film and by the score for the move Drive. He had this once piece of music laying around and thought it would be the perfect fit. I'll have to admit it took me a few days to warm up to. The music wasn't bad it just wasn't what I had in my head. But after sitting on it for a bit I was convinced. I think the score really helps set Mr. Gold apart from other shorts because it doesn't sound like them. It's different and catches your attention. Also, Jose's voice doesn't fluctuate much when he talks. The music brings some energy that another score might have lacked.

Have any questions? Leave them in the comments and I'll make sure to answer them.

Up Next - Part IV: The Promotion

Part II: The Shoot - Mr. Gold

After I had approval it was time to shoot. This is my favorite part. It's where the creative side of my brain gets churning. I didn't set up a lot of guidelines for how I would shoot but I did know one thing, I wanted to try and only shoot at sunset. You get that beautiful golden light at sunset and it obviously makes visual sense with a video called Mr. Gold. Plus, I think it framed Jose in a different light. Some people would see this guy working long and hot hours on the side of the road and think, "What a crap job," or they would look at his history and automatically dismiss him. By framing him in the light of the sunset I wanted to show the viewer what I saw in his story; hope, determination, joyfulness, and spunk.

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While I was shooting I ran into a few hurdles. About a third of the way into shooting I started realizing the difficulty of shooting him while he worked. You see, Jose works on a street corner. That limits the angles I can shoot him at (at least on wide shots). Furthermore he pretty much repeats the same actions and motions (I joked with him that he's a master at knowing the timing of the lights at that intersection). I had to figure out how to break things up, which was good because it made me think outside the box. Besides doing the simple wide/long, static, and detail shots I incorporated some steadi shots. Now I'm not a steadicam expert...by any means. I really suck at it to tell you the truth. It's an art. Thankfully I only had to do enough steadi for a few shots. I'm really proud of how they came out, particularly the one at 2:46 (which was fun to do. Probably because it was dangerous).

Speaking of steadi, my buddy Matt Hutchens is an excellent steadicam operator (among a list of other things..ham radio operator, chess master, ballroom dancer, marksman, butterfly collector). He also knows how to work a mean high speed camera. High speed has slowly become a gimmick (ha...I made a pun). Kinda like shallow depth of field was when DSLRs came out. I didn't want the use of high speed to be a gimmick, something to use just because it was available. I think I succeeded in using it appropriately (especially at 1:55 and 2:36).

I had a couple happy accidents while shooting too. The shot where there is a police car in the background (2:30) happened inadvertently (I didn't call a cop for that one). I like how this shot plays off the dialogue of Jose talking about his most memorable experience as Mr. Gold. It was also a great way to juxtapose his past life with his current life. The shot of Jose at 1:06 was also a total accident. I was setting up my camera and checking my exposure and just happened to have the camera rolling. Thankfully he thought I was paying attention and flipped his hat. That scene really shows Mr. Golds character and attitude. The shot at 00:43 of Jose showing me his prison photos on his broken phone was another happy accident. At the end of our interview at his apartment I asked him if he had any prison photos on himself. The phone is such a great illustration of his life at that time. It always pays to be curious and ask lots of questions.

In case you're interested. Here is the gear used in making the film:

Canon 5d Mark II

Sony FS700

Some kind of Nikon Dslr that shoots video (Steve was shooting it for the interview. I'm not a Nikon guy)

Canon lenses (16-35, 50, 85, 70-200mm)

Monopod with fluid head

Glidecam 2000 Pro

Rode Videomic microphone

My Honda Civic for the driving shot

Sennheiser Lavs

Final Cut X

Up next: Part III: The Edit

Part I: The Concept - Mr. Gold

Last year I finished my first major video piece called Mr. Gold. I have done video plenty of times before with other shooters but this was my baby. I've had a lot of people emailing to ask how I did it. Rather than email everyone individually I figured I'd do a few blog posts detailing the whole process. If you're reading this looking for flashy images you'll probably be disappointed. It'll probably be a lot of words. Visually boring...yes. Informative...that's what I'm shooting for. The concept to do Mr. Gold came out of one major epiphany. It was this: I really need to get into this video thing.  You see, the landscape for still photographers has changed. Everyone is asking if we do video now. A few years ago I began to see this and knew I needed to start preparing for this shift. Some old crusty guys were appalled at this shift. They're the same guys who got angry when digital broke onto the scene. Thankfully for me I've always loved the art of "talkies" (as those old crusty guys would call video). I grew up in a movie loving family and looking back on it I believe my first love was film, not still photography. All that to say taking up video wasn't a difficult mental leap for me.

Since this was the first major piece I would be doing alone I knew there were some things I needed to consider. First off, I needed to do something close to home. I had tossed around doing a project in another state/country. Ultimately I decided that I needed to stay close to home. This would allow me to shoot as much as I'd like. If I didn't capture something or the weather wasn't right I could easily go back and shoot. Since this was more of a personal project, being close to home would also mean I couldn't use the distance excuse to not go shoot. "Well it's so far away and I only have 2 hours and blah blah blah..." How many times do we do this? Jose (the subject) literally worked 2 blocks away from me at the time. Distance wouldn't be an issue.

So how did I find Jose? Like I said above, he worked about 2 blocks away from me. While driving I would pass Jose nearly everyday. I would watch Jose while sitting at the red lights (and boy do those Colonial Drive red lights take forever). He'd flip his hat, wave to every vehicle that passed, sing and dance, point enthusiastically with his right index finger at those who honked at him. He did everything with such flair. It was fascinating. And the fact that he did it in the sweltering Florida heat was even more impressive. Something about him reminded me of Rick Flair (yes, I grew up on wrestling. No, I am not ashamed).

The idea I mentioned above of the need to get into video started to creep into my head around this time. I started thinking Jose might be a good subject. After doing some research I found this article in the Orlando Weekly. After reading it I knew I had found my subject.

As a kid there were times when I was nervous to ask for something or ask for help. My mom, the wise sage she is, always gave me this advice: the worst they can say is "no." Pretty simple. Armed with this I marched up to Jose and told him I wanted to make a short documentary about his story (I use the term "marched" very loosely. I'm sure my palms were sweating and my voice was cracking). Jose's a nice guy and he knows his story is pretty powerful so he said yes. After getting the approval of his employers we were good to go.

Be sure to check out the rest of my motion work by clicking here!

Up next - Part II: The Shoot

Concrete Producer Magazine

One of the reasons I love being an editorial photographer is I get to meet such a wide gamut of people and learn about so many interesting things. When The Concrete Producer called I was really intrigued. I found myself photographing Robert Finfrock and learned a lot about concrete, which is actually pretty interesting. Be sure to check out the write up on their website. Here are the photos they featured and some others from the shoot:

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Funny story about this last photo. Robert had the idea of going up on the roof and shooting a panoramic of the plant. I was game for it. While I'm up there he decided to hop up on the edge of the building and shoot some photos of his own (he really loves photography). As I'm photographing him on the edge of death I'm thinking, "These will make great photos, I just hope they aren't the last ones of him..."

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Interview with Ryan Sisson, Account Director at Fifty & Fifty

I discovered Fifty & Fifty a few weeks ago while talking with someone about nonprofit branding. Upon seeing their site I was blown away by the caliber of their work and knew I wanted to interview them for the blog. Fortunately, Ryan was enthusiastic about the idea and got back to me quickly. I think you'll enjoy what he has to say. Ryan Sisson is the Account Director at Fifty & Fifty. Essentially, he’s the gateway. With a blend of common sense, passion, and intuition, Ryan serves as the nuts and bolts. He’s in all parts of the organization, fully integrated with all of Fifty’s clients, while also streamlining how Fifty does business, consistently upping the bar on what it means to partner with and creatively serve nonprofit organizations. In an industry on the bleeding edge, building a dependable but malleable business foundation is critical, and Ryan keeps the inner workings on pace with Fifty’s overall vision and development. In other words, he keeps the pulse steady and beating. Prior to coming to Fifty, Ryan worked in land development and then transitioned over to the nonprofit world, where he spent a significant amount of time in the Thailand-Burma area doing humanitarian work and petting very large cats, also known as “tigers.”  When he finally got back on American soil, Ryan became an account strategist for a digital marketing firm, and then made the jump over to Fifty & Fifty where he daily integrates his passion for humanitarian work and business growth for the greater good. (courtesy of Fifty & Fifty).

What do you find most rewarding about designing for nonprofits? Most challenging?

The most rewarding thing about designing for non-profits is being able to be a part of the larger story. Instead of working in the business world that is focused on selling widgets our clients come to us for help with moving people and increasing resources in an effort to help others. On any given day we get to play a part in helping end world hunger, provide clean water, build sustainable farming methods, build schools in Haiti and help end the longest running war in Africa among many other great missions and causes. We also get to know that our work being done is for the greater good and not just for the bottom line. It's realities like this that help you push through the long days, short deadlines, and many other challenges from this space.

There are a couple key challenges that are present when working in this space. The first on is budgets. Non-profits obviously do not have the financial means that a standard for profit company would have and the resources they do have are better used helping than building websites. Because of this we work at a reduced rate in order to provide an opportunity for as many NGO's as possible and we also very much understand that money going to us isn't going to the ground so it makes staying on budget just that much more important. Fortunately we have been able to do this without sacrificing the quality of the work which allows us to create top quality products for organizations that might not have had the opportunity. Another challenge is that we don't get to work with large web teams. Most of the organizations have a point person for the project but that person is also doing development or running programs or even running the whole organization. Wearing many hats is a common thing inside NGO's and so we work to make it as easy as possible on the organizations point person knowing that this is the case.

What kind of information do you need before you design for them? In other words, how do you get to know an organization before you take on their project and what can organizations do to help their designers in this process?

There are some organizations that we work with that we already know a lot about. These are the World Visions and Invisible Childrens. When it's a well known organization the conversation starts by understanding their needs first. If it's not someone that we are previously familiar with I learn more about their mission, programs, where they work, why they exist. Really just a basic get to know them. If I have time I'll do some research before hand so I have context for your conversation. When we are learning more about the needs it allows us to separate a the type of work we will be doing. Some organizations have different departments that have unique target audiences, some need to do a fundraising campaign, and others want to do a full redesign of their site. Our last step in the process is learning about the goals and KPI's (key performance indicators). This information shapes what the project looks like. From an action standpoint this often takes place on the phone however I also have some documents that I can send over in order to get all the key information we need.

Short of hiring you guys what can smaller non profits be doing right now to visually tell their story?

I think the first thing that the smaller non-profits can do is take the time to figure out what their story is. Most of the time NGO's are so focused on their work that they don't really know who they are talking to and how to speak to them. If you know your story then you can shape it to your audience. The way to speak to a 50+ year old donor base is a lot different than how you speak to a young professional or teenager. After that it really is important to focus on content. Photos, videos, and website copy are the voices of the organization and they need to make sure that they properly represent the brand and speak to the right people. Finally I would say less is more. One good photo is more impactful than dozens of poor quality, also lots of words don't necessarily mean you are communicating. Most people are spending small periods of time on a site so short and concise copy is going to be more effective than lots.

How does original photography play a role in an organizations design?

Photography is really important. Photos engage the visitor, tell the story without words, communicate the topic of the page and even the mission of the organization. When we are working with a selection of good photos it makes the design process not only a lot smoother but much more effective. If we could we would send a professional photographer to every programs our client has.

Who are some non profits who you feel are hitting the mark on design and branding? What are they doing right? 

I think the first ones that come to mind are Charity:Water, Invisible Children, and ONE Campaign. These organizations know that their audience really well. They create a lot if not all their original content in house and have decided that they will spend the money on continuing to do so. A lot of the larger NGO's depend on an older donor base that isn't bombarded with visual media like the younger generation is. With these orgs reaching the younger demo is key and so it is not only worth it but vital to their success that they continue to tell their story in a compelling way which can find a place in their donors lives in between the latest reality tv show and a new viral YouTube video.

How has the feedback been from clients you’ve worked with?

The feedback has been really good. Their new sites have been able to make it easier and more effective for a donor to support the organization, better utilize tools that allow content to be shared online, and properly tell their story so that people can find a way to engage with it and take part. The majority of our clients stay with us long term and work to continue to refine and improve their online experience as well as help them communicate the new developments, programs, and successes of their work.

What's your favorite project Fifty & Fifty has worked on and what made it your favorite? 

I think the hardest but favorite was Kony 2012. From the beginning we we're working with Invisible Children to create a new kind of NGO campaign experience. We we're able to help ideate the project's online tools and function which was a great process. From there is moved into becoming the largest and fastest viral movement in history. It was a very fluid project because it changed so rapidly and threw new challenges at us constantly. It was also amazing to be a part of history and most likely something that I will never experience again...although if we do we'll be prepared. When Kony is captured it will make the whole project and experience just that much more rewarding.

You all seem to emphasize continuing the story. Can you talk about that some? What does that mean and what does it look like?

We set up 50 so that we're in it for the long run. The story of these orgs and the people/causes they serve are on going. There are very few times that the work is done and everyone can move on. Because of that we come along side to not only help in the initial story telling process but also communicate the twists and turns that each non-profit goes through from hardships to celebrations and everything in between. The work is never done so to jump in and do one project and then leave would keep us from continuing the story. Practically this looks like most of our clients moving into what we call a maintenance phase which is a batch of hours that they pay for allowing us to pull any needed resources into their project to work on their site. This also looks like us developing relationships with our clients that lead to conversations about what is next, where they are headed, what they need, and how we can play a part in making it happen.

Technology has certainly impacted this generation and you all really embrace it. Are there any new developments in technology that you are excited about and what are some technologies that you are currently implementing that are helping to deliver a better story?

Donations are a huge if not the biggest resource that our clients are pursuing. I am probably being a little bias in this answer but I think the most exciting piece of technology that we are using is a donation platform that we built called Donately. This system has all the features of your traditional fundraising system such as ability to create campaigns and individual fundraisers but we've added two important elements. The first piece is what we have dubbed project level fundraising. This allows an organization to create projects within campaigns that they can allocate funds to. This allocation creates a connection between the donor and where their money is going. We live in a world of transparency and technology allows for this. The supporter demand is going to be continually pushing into more openness and information on where their donations are being used and this feature will help make that possible. The other part of this system that is changing things is the API we built. Since we are a design company first we focused on creating a system that allows us to design the donation experience they way we wanted to. We are no longer restricted to other systems templates or just your traditional donation page. We can build interactive giving experiences, put donation widgets on any page in any spot, add an iFrame donation tool into a blog post or a just about any other thing we can think of with the donation data. We can focus now on the donor and the experience they are having rather than just trying to get people to the one donation page and convert them from there.

Be sure to stay up to date with 50 & 50 through Twitter and Facebook.

Have any questions for Ryan or 50 & 50? Leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to get them answered.

 

 

From Concept to Execution: Band Silhouette

I love music. I always have. Few people know I used to play the tuba and bass guitar in middle school. I gave them up because I couldn't stand my music teachers at the time and I wanted to make more time for photography. My tuba instructor made me cry on multiple occasions and my middle school band teacher made me feel like I was in a country ruled by a ruthless dictator. That being said I never lost my love of music. Early in high school I began collecting Vinyl and at one point had over 500 records. Over the years I've purged my collection down to about 150 (but it's growing again). I really love all types of music but get a special thrill from watching a live performance. Seeing a band and audience feed off each other is electric. I had that in mind going into this shoot. Initially I wanted to shoot these silhouettes on white, make each of them different colors in post, and combine them in photoshop. I would have overlapped each frame so that the overlapping colors would have created a different color. You can see what I mean below.

band silhouette concept
band silhouette concept

The shoot took place at Orange Studio 4 Rent. Jame Hedrick, Ben Travers, and Chris Hall helped out and modeled. We had two lights pointed at the cyc wall and one light high and behind the person. I wanted it as high as I could get it so I would get a nice shadow of them on the floor. Now here's the funny thing. I always try to go into my shoots with an open mind. If a concept isn't working out or something else comes up that is clearly better I'm more than willing to the explore the new idea. I think too many times photographers get caught up in trying to push something through that isn't working. On this shoot every once in while the background lights wouldn't fire because of recycle time. This gave us a cool black on black silhouette. When I got back to my place to edit the shots I realized these were going to be the photos I wanted to use. It's not that the original idea was bad. I still like the original idea. It's that this new idea was better. Plus, it fits more with my style.

So finally, here is the finished picture. A lot went in to making this happen. Big thanks to Dale Vande Griend at Yellow Jacket Media for doing a great job on the post work. You an click on the image to see it bigger.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. I'd love to hear what music you're listening to now or what music had a big impact on your youth.

Video: Letterpressing My New Business Cards

A little under a year ago I went through a rebranding with the help of Davis Brand Group. I decided I wanted to get some nice letterpressed cards printed up. I met Adrian Gonzalez on a previous shoot and turned to him to do the printing. He did a stellar job and I would recommend him if you need anything printed. Because I love anything that is done by hand, like letterpressing and darkroom printing, I decided to make a short video on the process. Hope you enjoy it and let me know what you think in the comments!

Interview: John Keatley Talks About His Recent Work In The Philippines

John Keatley is a advertising and celebrity portrait photographer who calls Seattle home. John has photographed the likes of Andy Samberg, Annie Leibovitz, Sarah Palin, and Bill Gates. I love his stylized portraits but what I really appreciate about him is his concern for others. He seems very interested in building a body of work that seeks to help others. A few weeks ago I talked with John about his recent trip to Manila, Philippines. He was there shooting for Arts Aftercare, an organization “that brings the beauty and healing power of the arts to children and adults recovering from modern slavery.” We talked about image making, preparing for a trip of this magnitude, and how nonprofits can get better media, among other things.

So how are you doing? Good, I’m still trying to get back into my local time zone.

How was the trip? I know that’s kinda a loaded question with what you were photographing so you don’t have to give me a peachy answer. [laughs]. It was a good trip and it was a bad trip. I’m still trying to process it. People will ask about my last trip and I’ll tell them about it and they go, “Oh...ok...,” and they don’t want to hear about it. I think it was a good trip though. I learned a lot, met some really great people, and I think we accomplished what we intended to do. I’m still trying to process a lot of it. When I got back I got sick and I’ve had to step away from it but as I’ve thought about it I’ve realized it was a great experience.

Yeah, I’ve been to Kenya, Sudan, and the Philippines. People ask, “How was it?!,” And you tell them you saw people eating out of garbage and walked on narrow paths that are surrounded by landmines. People go, “Oh...” It’s not like the Caribbean. It’s not easy coffee talk. Yeah

So you’ve been to Liberia before with Miir Bottles, right? How did that trip compare to this one? The only way I could compare both trips is they were humanitarian in nature. I don’t know how much you could compare the two because they were so different. Maybe there is a way you can compare them but I just haven’t wrapped my head around it. They both had poverty but they both had so much different. In Manila there is a lot of wealth as well as poverty whereas in Liberia it’s mainly poverty.

What was the purpose of this trip? The organization I went with is called Arts Aftercare and they have developed a program that uses art therapy with survivors of sexual slavery. They use yoga, music, and art as a means of healing and expression. They have this new program that a lot of PHDs have worked on and they are starting to roll it out. They are training several organizations that work in sex trafficking in this program and are spending the next couple of weeks meeting with these organizations to follow up and do more training. We got to see a little bit of the program unfold. I was there to document the program and much of my work was to photograph people who are in this industry. More than anything else I was there to try to tell why this art therapy program is even necessary and to bring awareness to this big problem as opposed to make some big ad for the program. It’s not like buying a car. It’s not something anyone would want. I think the people developing this program would rather not have to do this because it would mean there isn’t this problem. They’ll probably show these images to potential donors as a way to fundraise. I’m sure they’ll use them on their website. The big focus for me was to make portraits of survivors. I also photographed some different places that work with kids that have been sexually abused. I did some photography around Manila to frame where this is. It’s a big problem everywhere. It’s a huge problem in Manila but it’s also a big problem in Seattle. I didn’t want it to feel like there was this big problem in this distant land. I may even do some stuff here in Seattle to show people it's not something you can put out of sight and out of mind. It happens everywhere.  I didn’t even know this stuff was going on until a couple years ago.

It’s crazy. I just found out the other day that Orlando is actually a huge sex trafficking destination as well (which you can read about here, here, and here). Yeah, it’s crazy.

Did you have any culture shock? I don’t know if it was culture shock. It wasn’t exactly what I had expected but at the same time I knew it wasn’t going to be Seattle. Some of the things I saw hit me pretty hard. I don’t know if I would call it culture shock as much as I would call it sexual abuse shock. There were shocking elements to the project, that’s for sure.

What did you do to prepare? Photographically, emotionally, family wise? I prayed a lot. I don’t know what else you can really do. I’m kinda the type of person that just needs to get into a situation. You can prepare only so much, at least me personally. I think the first part of the trip was a real struggle and it took me a few days to crack it open. I have to spend time in a situation or get acclimated before I’m able to start working or get comfortable. I certainly did research and talked to as many people as I could. We had some conference calls with some people. It’s like editorial photography in general. Sometimes you get to plan stuff out but sometimes you have to show up and work with what you have. You could envision this perfect scenario in your head but if that’s not what you’re going to get it’s kinda pointless. That’s how I approached this, you just have to see what comes your way.

You mentioned on your blog that you guys were looking for funding for the trip and that it still wasn’t fully funded. Did you guys get it funded and how was it funded? We got over there and we got back but that’s about the extent of it. We had some companies donate some gear that we used (Glazer's Camera & Vanguard). We’re still trying to cover basic production costs. I know the film can’t get cut until we get a little bit more money. We really believe in this and it’s something we want to do. We’re not trying to make money off it but we still have to cover basic costs. I still have to raise money for retouching and for my basic expenses. It’s not something I wanted to preach about and didn’t want to ask for money. I want to be conscious of my blog and my voice and don’t want to be bugging people all the time. If someone hears about it and wants to contribute we’re grateful but I haven’t really said a whole lot about that.

A lot of nonprofits are underfunded and understaffed. Do you have any advice for them for getting better media to promote what they do and their value to others? I think people need to be educated. Everyone wants good media they just don’t want to spend for it. I think what people need to realize is spending money on good media is money well spent if you do it right. I don’t think it should be an issue of how do we get something really great for really little. Granted, I think a lot of photographers would love to work with nonprofits and they’re not going to charge them their full rates but at the same time I think it’s important to realize the benefits of good media. If people realize the benefits of good media they will be more willing to spend money on it. It’s the same for nonprofits as it is for businesses. Marketing is the first thing to go when times get tough but marketing is the most important thing in any business and that includes nonprofits. Right along with marketing comes photography and film. I feel like if nonprofits do good media then figure out ways to raise money to pay for that media it’s going to pay itself off and then some, rather than nonprofits trying to figure out how they can get it for free or how they can get someone to do it for cheap. So to answer your question, the most important thing is educating nonprofits on the value of good photography, good filmwork, and good art in general that can help their marketing.

How did you get hooked up with Arts Aftercare and why did you want to help them? I actually went to college with the founders so I have a relationship with them. They contacted me about doing this project. They were also the ones that introduced me to this story of human trafficking. Over the last 4 or 5 years I’ve noticed nothing makes me more angry than injustice, slavery, and the mistreatment of others in this capacity. I slowly realized that if I get this angry about it than I need to get involved.  I had been wanting to do something in this realm for a while but I didn’t know how to do it or what the outlet was. At first when they approached me with the idea I didn’t want to do it. I had another idea that I wanted to do, a more conceptual project. I didn’t really want to be in the filth of it, so to speak. After some time I thought maybe it was something I should do and maybe it was something I wanted to do but I just hadn’t realized it.

Did your wife encourage you to do it? Yeah, she’s a big reason I did it. We had a talk one night and she encouraged me. She’s awesome because she knows me pretty well and she balances me out. I think we have similar personalities but at the same time we’re different in other areas. She knows how to challenge me when I want to take the easy way out. This was not a very comfortable project so it was easy to decide not to do it but thankfully she challenged me in that area.

Yeah, my wife is crazy cause she married me, that’s how I look at it. You have to be a little bit.

So a little bit more on the photography side. How did you go about shooting. Did you have a shot list. Was it more run ‘n gun? What are the images like? You said the first 3 days it was a little stagnant. It’s pretty different than anything I’ve done before. I think the work is pretty different. It’s a mix of portraiture and still life. Most of it is natural light. A lot of it was timed exposures. It’s a pretty different look, even different from my Liberia work. I like it. I feel like I’ve grown a lot since last year as a photographer. I’m still spending time with the work but I think it’s a good step forward.

I’m curious, how did the timed exposure portraits work out? It’s just natural light and I used a tripod with slow exposures. People had to stand or sit and hold really still. It gives a whole different look and it’s clearly not lit, fancy, or shiny so to speak.

Did Arts Aftercare just say, “Go shoot and document our organization,” or was it more planned? A lot of that was just figured out as we went. We had some ideas going into it but it really took being there and getting a feel for the place. I think a lot of times with nonprofits they know they want pictures but they just don’t know what they want pictures of. You can’t expect someone to be a photo editor and a marketing director all of a sudden. I think there was a lot of trust and we tried to communicate as much as possible what would work best. I think the main goal was to create something great that was going to spread the word about what’s going on. Obviously there’s a lot of freedom there.

Was that freeing? You know, not having an art director there. Or was it nerve wracking? It’s freeing and it’s nerve wracking at the same time. I suppose if there was an art director they would be telling me specific things to shoot but at the same time they would be providing those things to shoot. It wouldn’t be as nerve wracking but it might not be as free. When you’ve got a lot more freedom it’s a lot more nerve wracking. Along with the freedom comes uncertainty and it’s up to you to make those things happen. After a couple of days of figuring out who was who and what the restrictions were I had to start pushing myself into situations and in front of people to photograph because if I didn’t do it it wouldn’t happen. I enjoy working with art directors and I enjoy working alone. I think for this particular project it was nice to do it alone. I could also see a similar project working really well with an art director too.

You always hear people saying, “You’ve gotta keep shooting personal work.” I know you have your holiday promos which I’m assuming are personal work as well as marketing materials. Would you consider this personal work? I think so. There are elements to the project that I would not consider personal work. For example, I’m not going to show the pictures of people using the curriculum or playing the instruments. I think it serves a purpose, it’s beneficial, and it’s a big part of what I went for but it’s not very personal. I think a lot of the work outside of that, telling the story of a few specific people and how slavery effects people, I would consider that personal work.

What do you want people to think when they see these images? What do you hope the first thought in their mind is? That’s a good question. I hope it’s different for everybody. My hope would be that people feel compelled to speak out and to do something. You can’t just come back and get angry at people, judging them for not doing anything about the situation. Life is a process and there was 30 years where I wasn’t doing anything about it. I hope that everyone is honest with themselves and open to the information they take in when they see the pictures. I hope it stirs something in everybody when they see them.

Seeing these things, shooting these things, and helping an organization like this, what has it done for you? Has it changed you in any way? Maybe that’s a loaded question too. If you say “no” you sound bad. Trips like this give you perspective on your own situation and the situation of others. It helps expand your worldview. It’s helped educate me. What do you do when you see human suffering like this and you come back and you have such a wonderful life? I don’t think we should feel guilty but at the same time we shouldn’t feel selfish and complacent about it. You have to be really thoughtful about these kinds of things. Going to Africa and buying someone something isn’t going to solve their problem. Even just building a well for someone and saying, “Here you go, here’s some clean water,” that doesn’t even help. It’s part of a process. There needs to be education and a desire on the behalf of others to make a change. I think the best I can expect from a trip like this is it expands my thinking, it gives me perspective, and helps mold my heart to at care for others and then take the next step, whatever that is.

I think you’ve gotta give in a way that gives people dignity. Or help in a way that gives dignity and not help in a way that just gives things and makes you feel good. Yeah, a gift is not a solution. Gifts, I think, are meant to be signs of appreciation or celebration but it’s ridiculous to think that a gift is a solution to a serious problem. It’s a band aid that’s going to fall off. It’s often times something that feels good for the giver.

So do you have anything else you want to mention that I haven’t covered? I definitely think whatever your profession or your hobby it’s important to help others through your abilities. As much as this is personal work and I’m sure it will benefit me and my career I really hope it just benefits people in general. There was this point in this trip where we were away from a car and needed to be somewhere. There were some constraints and I was getting really frustrated. I just felt God get a hold of me and say, “Forget about yourself for a second.” I was so worried about my portfolio and getting a great image.  The power of photography is much greater than what I want to use it for. So for one afternoon I just took pictures of survivors. It brought them so much joy and they were so excited about it. Some people said it was the first time they ever felt beautiful. That was a big lesson for me. It’s easy to go on this trip and say, “I’m helping people,” but really how much am I helping people and how much I am doing it for myself? That was a good lesson to learn and it put a lot of the frustration of the first few days into perspective. I think the frustration was necessary and it got me to the point of realizing the impact I could have on those people. It’s something I keep coming back to. It’s easy to talk about helping others and going on these trips but still not do anything for others. I know that there are some people that I was able to impact through photography and in turn I was really blessed because I was humbled. I think being humbled is a good thing, especially for me.

I know when I go on these trips I do a lot of soul searching. How much am I doing it for my portfolio and how much am I doing it cause I really want to help? Then there’s that duality in you where you want to get that image but is that image more important than putting down the camera and talking with the person and giving them dignity. Yeah

 

Many thanks to John and Elizabeth for being so accommodating in setting up this interview. If you have any questions make sure to leave them in the comments below. To stay up to date on what John is up to you can visit his blog, follow him on Twitter, or check him out on Facebook.

 

 

The Unethical Executive

Unethical practices and corruption are not new to business. Sadly though, it does seem like we've had many more cases of it in the last decade. Enron, AIG, Goldman Sachs, Credit Default Swaps, and more have had considerable airtime. I don't know many people who are happy with these things. All this corruption got me thinking, "How can I capture these practices in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way?" I don't know about you but whenever I think of corporate corruption I always think of some old guy shredding papers at 3am as his assistant calls and tells him, "THE FEDS ARE ON THE WAY!" I know, I watch too many movies. None the less I thought it would be interesting to expound upon this idea.

The first step was finding a location. Thankfully I can always turn to Julio at Orange Studio 4 Rent in Orlando for some space. Then I had to find some shredded paper. At first I was going to shred it all myself. It seemed feasible until I realized how much paper I would waste, the multiple paper shredders I would go through, and the mess I would make. Instead I turned to a friend who had some connections at a law firm. She hooked me up with LOADS of shredded paper. So much so I filled my car to the brim.

I was able to find a model and round up my two trusty assistants for the job. It was all executed in one day and I'm really happy with how it came out. The original idea was to have the Christopher, the model, making a shredded paper angel. After this we moved on to him just lying in the paper, looking all cocky. With all the paper we had we were able to make a wall and photograph Christopher in front of it (the wall fell over at least 3 times, it was a pain to put up). Lastly, I had his arm poking out of the paper holding an american flag.

Here is a short behind the scenes video followed by the images:

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Thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments be sure to leave them below!