After attending my second Picture Kentucky workshop, the photojournalism workshop that inspired this blog, I have come back with similar feelings to those I had when I left the first. I couldn’t be happier about that, either.
The workshop assigns the 16 students to small groups, each lead by an accomplished photojournalist from around the country. Mine was the great Matt Detrich, a photographer from the Indianapolis Star and multiple winner of Indiana photographer of the year. He was a coach from the Beattyville workshop, and his presentation on the power of photojournalism had already changed how I perceived the career.
Now, I got four days of his time. I couldn’t imagine how much I would grow with his guidance.
My assignment this year was at the Deaton Funeral Home. The slip of paper I was given said that the embalmer was an interesting fellow, and to see what I could learn about him. When I got to the small funeral home, the embalmer was nowhere to be seen or heard of. The lady who answered the door, Mary Deaton – the owner, and eventual centerpiece of my story – delivered the bad news, but invited me in to talk.
After spending the first day with Mrs. Deaton, a retired Kentucky state social worker, Detrich and I decided she should be the focus of the story. (The embalmer was out of town that week). Her story was touching and real. See the video below:
Deaton and her son had taken over the family business when her husband passed away in 2008. Her home was fixated above the funeral home, keeping her in contact with business 24/7, but also tying her to it. What was special about her was her deep thoughts about death, and how it isn’t something to be feared, something to be ignored. Death is part of her daily life, and in some ways, she has already coped with the looming reality of the life cycle.
Photographically, the story was challenging. Her job on most days was simply to stay close to the phone, in case another body was to arrive, or need to be picked up. Sitting in an office all day doesn’t give a photographer a lot of options. But the light at the end of the tunnel was the funeral on Friday, the last full day of shooting for the workshop, where she would be more busy and interacting with other people.
Some things I learned from my four days as part of the Deaton Funeral Home family:
1. “That body ain’t gonna get ya, child,” – I had never personally seen a dead body in my life, until the day I introduced myself to Mary Deaton. Of course, I had seen pictures and videos, but the sudden rush of adrenaline and shock that flooded me with my first peak into that open casket snapped me back into reality. That quote was Mrs. Deaton’s response to my reaction. Too true, Mrs. D.
2. Don’t forget about that white balance – Natural light, flourescent, incandescent… they were all there. I thought to myself that every room must use a different type of light bulb, because even my automatic setting couldn’t keep up. I’m more aware now of that particular setting’s importance than ever before.
3. Stay focused – I’m talking about the photographer. Sitting in the office all day made me feel like I was wasting my time. That was wrong. Detrich put me in my place when I decided to skip out on Mrs. Deaton to hang out with the grave diggers for the afternoon. They weren’t the story. She was. Stay Focused.
Of course, the assignments only make up one part of the Picture Kentucky Workshop experience. In the evenings, like in previous workshops, each photojournalism coach gave what turned about to be huge inspirational talks.
The highlight this year was Jahi Chickwendiu, a staff photographer from the Washington Post, whose photographs of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East easily awed the audience. But his speech was more than just a display of his own talents. He was setting a fire in us, giving us a piece of his own passion that threw him from being a high school math teacher to his current position at one of the most prolific newspapers in the industry.
Words cannot due justice to the passion Jahi’s speech instilled in me about photojournalism. Here is that speech. Enjoy:
If you are interested in learning about photojournalism, and want to be pushed past your limits and more, check out Picture Kentucky’s website, and watch this video below: