Category On Assignment

Recent Work: Maine Standards Company

It’s surprising to realize just how many amazing, world-class companies we have in Maine that fly under the radar. Maine Standards Company is one of those. Based in Southern Maine, Maine Standards develops and provides kits for the precise testing and calibration of medical diagnostic equipment. They’re doing cutting-edge stuff using some pretty cool tools. My job was to spend the day photographing their lab, testing kits and analyzers for use in trade show materials. It was a jam-packed day of setting up and breaking down gear, gelling lights and blocking light from reflecting everywhere in those shiny lab surfaces. I love, love this stuff! Check out some of our results.

 

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Recent Work: ecomaine

This is the second time I’ve showcased some of my work for ecomaine, a non-profit waste management company.   That’s due in part to the fact that the work they do is so interesting and their industrial environment lends itself to amazing images.   This time around, I spent a day following around the people who work at ecomaine’s landfill, waste-to-energy plant and recycling facility.   The job can be difficult and the environment is ever-changing, which makes it a photographic challenge.   I opted for a very portable lighting kit that I could set up and take down at a moment’s notice.  Even though the lighting looks complex, I kept it fairly simple, choosing to incorporate ambient light into the scene whenever possible.   Here are some of my favorites that I think really capture both the environment and the diverse people that work there.

 

 

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Inside the machine shop.

 

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Operating the Recycling Facility compactor.

 

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Inside the “tipping hall”, where garbage is unloaded into a seven-story bunker.

 

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The ultimate result of all that garbage is tons of ash.

 

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A view of the landfill through the window of a vehicle.

 

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Recycling Facility supervisor.

 

I can’t say enough positive words about the ecomaine crew.   It’s not fun to have a camera in your face, and likely it’s even more uncomfortable when you’re operating heavy and fast-moving equipment.   They were fantastic to deal with and I think the images make them look like the rock stars they are.

 

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Make them love you. Hint: it’s in the details.

 

Storytellilng detail images from an assignment about a local water district.
Storytelling detail images from an assignment about a local water district.

 

No photographer is an island. We own our creativity but everything else—our technology, our access, our assignments—are enabled by others.  Even our creativity is enhanced by our collaboration with the art producers, editors and designers with whom we work most closely.  These are the folks that take the work we create and publish it, display it, print it and turn it into amazing displays, stories and campaigns.

Without them, we’re just shooting cool photos and sharing them on Facebook.

I try to approach each assignment as if I were back at the newspaper. Even if the assignment was to make a single simple portrait, I went into each job thinking about what else I might photograph. Back then, I challenged myself to come back with a three-picture package that told the story and might give the page designers more options. I always looked for storytelling details to include, too.  That approach gave the designers the ability to use images as teasers on the front page, for example. Sometimes designers used none of it.  Months down the road, looking for a timeless detail image to illustrate a different story, they’d see my image and  find it a perfect fit. This storytelling approach challenged me creatively, led to better visual play and better designer/editor kharma that I’m hoping will benefit me in my next life. It’s something I still do today, reflexively.

The editorial assignment photographer needs to always look for telling details. Sometimes these visual metaphors are more compelling, more storytelling than the ‘main’ image itself. In commercial photography, these types of details are just as important. In an era when companies have greater ability to publish content on their sites, there’s an even greater need for storytelling details that can be used as evergreen content, on company blogs and in ad campaigns.

Details also come in handy for designers who need a key visual element, or require ‘filler’ content, etc. These details solve a lot of visual problems. Having a photographer who actively looks for them is a big win because it gives the designer options.

The thinking photographer who goes the extra mile for their editor or designer will be the go-to photographer for those people. Realize that the assignment isn’t just about the image being requested, just as your job is not solely about you.

 

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Native Sons

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Back in the early part of the 2000s, I was chief photographer of the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, a Seattle Times Company newspaper centrally located in the part of Washington State Seattlites refer to as “the Dry Side”, among other things.

Yakima derived its name from its nearest neighbor—the sprawling reservation of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.    Comprised of 14 separate Columbia River tribes, the Yakamas now occupy a 2,185-square-mile sized territory that includes a portion of nearby Pahto (12,281-foot-tall Mt. Adams).

Growing up in Northern Arizona, I’ve always lived around and interacted with Native Americans.  My first reporting job out of college was to cover the Yavapai-Apache in Arizona’s Verde Valley.   When I moved to Yakima, years later, I was eager to explore the Yakamas.   A proud people, the Yakamas still live on a portion of the ancestral lands and practice their hunting, gathering and fishing traditions as best they can.   They fought the US Army in the 1800s until a federal treaty recognizing their rights was signed.  They fought many battles in federal court since, with precent-setting law the result.

For much of five years I met with interviewed and photographed many Yakama tribal members, and met many new friends along the way.  One of the results was a project with writer Phil Ferolito, published as a special newspaper section, called “Native Sons:  The Men of the Yakama Nation”.    As best we could, we attempted to show the unique struggles, challenges and triumphs of different generations of Yakama men and their families.    I’m proud of what we were able to do, but so much more could have been done to promote understanding and appreciation of Yakama, and native, culture and life realities.  See the pages of the published project below.

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Storytelling for John T. Gorman Foundation

One of my favorite projects this past year was working with the John T. Gorman Foundation here in Portland.  This unassuming group directs their resources to many significant non-profits statewide, from early childhood education to homeless teens and more.  Especially at a time when the state has cut its funding back of such groups, private foundations like JTG have become even more important. 

My assignment was to document the people and faces of some of their supported programs, and to show the human impact of what they do.    Over the course of a month and a half, I created a series of images that tell the story of what JTG does by showing the lives of those impacted by their efforts. I was given wide discretion over what I photographed, and focused on populations served by the foundation, among them single mothers, early childhood education and teens.  Here’s a sampling of my favorites.

Enjoy!

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Limit yourself—and become a better photographer

I suspected things might end badly when Garin’s pickup ran over a Gila Monster.   Then again, I always figured that my week-long trip photographing a ‘tough-love’ camp for teens was going to contain some ups and downs.   We were reporting on one of those organizations that parents bundle their troubled teens off to, figuring that six weeks spent sleeping and hiking in the middle of a southwest desert can reach them in ways they haven’t been able to.  They aren’t usually wrong.

I pitched the story and a writer,  Garin, was assigned.   We would be backpacking and living with the kids for almost a week, at least 50 miles from the nearest town in the middle of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.    We had to pack in water, and weight was an issue.  Due to the lack of ability to recharge my digital cameras, I shot with a reduced kit:   two Nikon film bodies, three lenses and a flash.   A couple of hours into our hike towards the first night’s camp, I forded a river, slipped on a rock and went down hard.  I emerged from the waters with my primary camera body soaked, the electronics fried.  My 80-200 mm lens dripped water, the front element smashed on the same slippery rock.

There I was, miles from anything, down to one film body (a Nikon FM2) and two lenses—a 24 mm f2 and a 35-70 f2.8.     I had approximately 5.5 days of our six-day trek left.    And I was sweating.

That trip was when I learned a fundamental truth:  that limitations can be a great thing.    Freed of the need to switch camera bodies, and forced to use a wide-angle and a medium telephoto lens, I adapted.  I spent time with each lens and worked them.  I got in close when before I might have stayed at a distance.  I didn’t worry about the shots I couldn’t get and focused on the types of shots I could.    In the end, I left at the end of the week with a set of images I was very happy with, and the sense that I had learned something important.

Why is this pertinent?   Because today it’s all about choice.    As a photographer, I’m always tempted to buy the newest gear or learn the latest technique, but I know that sometimes imposing limitations on myself makes me a stronger shooter.   Instead of taking all of my lenses to an assignment, I might force myself to shoot with just my 50mm lens.   I might forego the larger studio lights I typically use and instead shoot with speedlights or just a large window and a silver reflector.   It’s very, very easy to get distracted from the actual story that you’re trying to tell.   Too many gear choices, and too many possible locations tend to muddy the waters, sapping your energy and leaving you with weak images.   Better to commit to a couple of visual situations, and to a limited selection of gear, and then spend your time actually thinking while you photograph.

 

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Stories from the past: John and Zelda Robertson

Over my career as a photojournalist I’ve met some amazing people and been fortunate enough to photograph incredible events. When I reflect on the stories I’ve done, however, one really stands out: the story of John Robertson. I’m revisiting his story because I think John and his wife, Zelda, have a story that’s worth telling even today, more than a decade later.

At that time I was photo editor at the Provo (Utah) Daily Herald newspaper, a scrappy 30,000 circulation daily newspaper situated in what truly must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. In between the Pet of the Week and the required weekly commercial construction feature photo (titled, of course, ‘What’s up!”), the four of us staff photographers were constantly on the lookout for meatier fare: long-term photo documentary projects. While our daily diet of spot news and features and sports kept us busy and shooting, the photo projects we started (and did largely on our own time) stoked our souls and fed our passion. I’ve worked for larger newspapers in my career, but a 30,000-circ. paper has about the right combination of resources and autonomy to allow motivated photographers to do great project work.

Often these projects would grow out of daily stories that we connected to and felt there were more visual potential in. That’s how I met John Robertson. Our health reporter, Ann Potempa, was doing a story on hospice care in Provo. The story centered on an in-patient hospice facility, with patients having six months or less to live. I met a hospice nurse named Kit who visited patients not just at the center but at their homes. As I learned more, I knew that I wanted to explore the idea of terminally-ill patients who decide to live life on their own terms, often in their own homes. Kit introduced me to the work of Dr. Ira Byock, a leading figure in hospice and palliative care. Ultimately, she introduced me to John Robertson, 72, and his wife Zelda.

On the surface of things, John’s story is about hospice care and the comfort it can provide during the final months, days and hours. For me, John’s story is about living—and then dying—well.

I met with John and Zelda and the first thing I noticed about this former school teacher was the long braid of hair running down his back. The elderly couple both ran marathons until John was diagnosed with cancer. After a long battle, he was placed on hospice, and true to his independent spirit had no intention of dying anywhere but at his home. I explained to them that I wanted to document their hospice journey. Amazingly, they agreed, but with one caveat—John wanted to hide nothing, and wanted me to be there for everything—the towel baths, the emotional visits with their many children and grandchildren, and ultimately, his final breaths as he lay on a hospital bed in his living room surrounded by family. The graciousness of the entire family to me, and their grace throughout what was obviously a painful journey was awe-inspiring. A month after John passed, his adult children invited me to hike to his favorite fishing lake deep in the Uinta primitive wilderness area in Northern Utah. We hiked in, camped, and the next morning committed his ashes to the winds and water. Much like they had been able to do during the period of hospice care, each of his children were able to spend a moment alone with John and say their goodbyes. Humbled by it all, I photographed as little as I needed to.

In all, the series ran in six weekly parts. The newspaper got some criticism for showing images such sensitive images of John, but mostly the reaction was positive. Frankly, hospice is an easy sell—the idea that one can die well, even in comfort, and on their own terms—is an attractive one. The Robertson family was thankful for the coverage, though I always knew they’d given far more to me than I to them. I think from the pictures below, it’s possible to see John and Zelda as the people they really were—not victims, but strong and courageous people.

Note: all photos courtesy of the Provo Daily Herald.

 

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Everyday Heroes

 

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I’m very excited to finally be able to share one of the coolest projects I am grateful to have worked on this year. It’s a project that combined both my interests and my skills and best of all….it benefits a great and worthy cause.

The Cause
The Fight for Air Climb is a fundraising effort that benefits the American Lung Association.    Firefighters and others from around the country participate in these ‘climbs’, in which entrants are timed on their ascent of a skyscraper or other high structure.   The Firefighter Challenge pits teams of firefighters against one another, each vying for the best time, the most money raised (and bragging rights).   Unlike other competitors, firefighters are required to wear their full gear—turnouts, helmets, gloves, boots and oxygen tanks.   In the process, these teams raise big money for ALA research and advocacy.

 

The Project
In 2013, a 12-member team from Auburn, Maine climbed 41 floors (82 flights) during the Boston Fight For Air Climb (each wearing more than 50 pounds of additional weight)  and crushed the other 40 firefighter teams from around New England.   On the heels of their success, this year the team set the goal of raising $10,000 for the charity.  They decided to do a charity calendar, and earlier this year approached me and asked for my help (Hint: I said yes).

 

The Concept
I first met with Team Captain Dan Masselli to discuss several concepts for the project.   I think he was a bit nervous, thinking that I might propose doing a “beefcake” style shoot with half-naked and oiled firefighters.   I’d done some research and found plenty of examples of such calendars done by other departments, that varied from high-production fashion shoots to glorified ‘selfies’ printed on what looked like a mimeograph machine.   What I didn’t see was much in the way of a unified conceptual approach that told a story of the team and showed the kind of personality that I knew would resonate better with the community.
Dan and the team loved my initial ideas, which led to the “Everyday Heroes” concept.    While firefighters are often portrayed as heroes, 90 (maybe even 95) per cent of the time they aren’t actually doing impossibly heroic things like pulling people from mangled cars, manning hoses at  high-rise apartment blazes or giving oxygen to a kitten.   Most of the time, their heroics are of a decidedly mundane nature: changing a baby’s diaper, putting out a smoking BBQ grill or mowing a senior’s lawn.  We’d show that stuff….just in full turn-out gear, of course.

 

The Challenge
As a photographer there were some obvious–and not so obvious–challenges to overcome. One was how to create 12 different conceptual images on location—each requiring lighting and planning, props and ‘models’—and to make it all happen within their tight deadlines.  The other was how to make the scenarios both realistic and over-the-top at the same time, all the while contending with logistical challenges like the weather.
We eventually photographed everything over the course of three jam-packed days in October.   Each shoot was planned down to the detail,  but with plenty of flexibility in the case of last-minute changes to plan.   It was a good thing we did.
The final image we made—of the entire team, standing in front of their firetrucks—is dramatic and one of my favorites from the whole shoot.  It also almost didn’t happen.   We originally planned to photograph the team just after sunset in front of the city’s ”burn building’—a concrete structure behind the Central Fire Station that the firefighters fill with smoke and use for training. When the time came, the burn building wasn’t available. So we ended up at at a different station entirely.   One of the trucks we needed was missing, and when the firefighters went to retrieve it, they were diverted to take an emergency call.    With daylight burning, we were out a second truck and half our firefighters.  Nervously we waited, prepping our gear and going over various other scenarios for how to salvage the shoot.  Three minutes after the sun disappeared, the truck rolled back in, we positioned it, set up our smoke and lights, arranged the group and shot 69 images, including the tests. The one that we used was taken at 6:18 pm.

 

The Result
As fun (and sometimes nerve-wracking) as the shooting days were, I am very happy with the final results.  I’m most gratified that they capture the personality of the Auburn team, and that they show them as what they are—a bunch of hard-working, good-natured guys who do a lot besides save lives and property.    The calendars are printed and are available for sale—primarily at locations around Auburn, but I’m told that if you email Dan Masselli he can help you to trade $15 for your very own copy, delivered to your home.     It’s a great cause, and certainly worth the price of three coffees.

 

The Video
Charlie Widdis, assistant extraordinairre, put together a short behind-the-scenes video of the project as well—it’s especially impressive knowing that he did that in between helping me set up and shoot my stills.  I hope you like it!

Smoke and fire in Auburn

I’ve been busy lately, working on a somewhat hush-hush project in the Lewiston-Auburn area.   Last night as we finished the 12th and final shoot, the Lewiston Sun-Journal showed up and so the cat’s partially out of the bag.  Here’s Charlie and me at work in Daryn Slover’s photo from today’s Sun-Journal, ….followed by an outtake from that same shoot, just to show what it looks like in-camera with all of the smoke and lights. Once the everything is complete, I’ll post more images and explain how I approached this complicated (and extremely fun) project.:

 

Photo by Daryn Slover/Sun-Journal
Photo by Daryn Slover/Sun-Journal

 

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It’s the story, stupid

Telling Stories: Jim Twombly

You’ve heard of the acronym, ‘KISS’, right?  It stands for ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid.’   It’s mantra that software engineers, among others, use to keep them on track during development to guard against product bloat.  I keep a similar line in my head when I’m approaching an assignment:  It’s the Story, Stupid.

Now, maybe you’re one of those rare photographers who can always stay focused and zeroed in on your work, but me—I get distracted.  I’ve been known to set up a bunch of lights in a daisy-chain, lighting up God Knows What just because I could. This is a photographer version of tunnel vision, and it makes you a slave to a concept rather than what you should be:  flexible, in the driver’s seat,  and  asking yourself the kinds of questions that lead to images that truly tell the story you’re trying to show.

On an assignment, lots of things are going on:  you’re interacting with clients or subjects, fiddling with your gear (why won’t that PocketWizard remote fire??), keeping an eye on the clock and the shot list, managing your assistant or team.  It doesn’t matter.  You always have to be aware of why you’re there and what story you’re there to tell.

It’s that awareness that leads you from the image you (by necessity) planned for to the one that Serendipity bestowed upon you that works much better.

Recently I photographed Jim Twombly, a retired Portland police officer, at his home for a story featuring patients of a large medical practice group.   Jim was diagnosed a couple of years ago with diabetes and was facing a slew of health issues.  He worked with his doctor to completely change his lifestyle.   As a result of eating healthy and exercising regularly, Jim dropped more than 50 pounds and is stronger and healthier than he’s been in years.     I was there to photograph Jim as he did his morning routine—exercise followed by an oatmeal breakfast.   During my earlier scouting visit, we had decided to move his starionary bike to the more visual solarium he had built onto his home.   Early in the morning, as the sun was coming up, it would make a great visual.

Telling Stories:  Jim Twombly

And it was.  The only problem is that, devoid of the usual clutter, it made the solarium look a little bit sterile.   After photographing Jim in his home, I asked to go photograph him in the workshop above his barn.   Once we stepped into the sawdust-infused atmosphere, stacked with woodworking tools, Jim seemed to relax.   This was his element, clearly.   I set up a couple of lights but wanted to keep the portrait low-key, focused on Jim in his world.    We chatted a little, Jim settled into a comfortable position, and the image at the top of this post was made.   Once I took it, I knew it was my favorite image because it told more of a story about who Jim really is–a hard-working guy, a Mainer, a craftsman.  A guy who is tough enough to stick to a complete revamp of his lifelong eating habits because it just needed to be done.

Good on you, Jim. For more about Jim’s story, check out his feature on InterMed’s website.