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:
The relationships you build with your subjects is at the fulcrum of your success or failure as a storyteller. Teeter the wrong way, and you’ll smack the ground.
I haven’t busted my bottom yet, but I there have been some close calls.
To date, I’ve forgotten to do two simple tasks that might have strained relationships with my subjects; going to an event, and sending a photo.
Of course, it occurred at Picture Kentucky. One of my subjects was a do-it-all man. Literally. He was the county magistrate, taxidermist, funeral director, grave digger and craftsman. My job was to document him in all his roles.
After spending several hours with him, he invited me to come back to an annual festival at his hometown (The Wooly -Worm festival). I quickly accepted. When a few months went by and time came for the event, I was just too bogged down to go.
I had planned to return with some friends and spend the day, but college life and newsrooms don’t allow much free time.
But there are no excuses for breaking promises.
It may not seem like a big deal, but I know Mr. Begle would remember. That’s all it takes. The relationship I built with him and the access I had been granted into his life and community might be severed or compromised for future work on that project.
Think of what could happen if you were a beat reporter, and you didn’t keep a promise to a vital source of information. Your entire job and career in that beat could be compromised.
As journalists, all we have is our name and integrity. Our reputation allows us to perform our job and let the people trust us as a source of accurate and timely information. Don’t go teetering the wrong way.
Stories from the Picture Kentucky workshop which sparked this blog are many. But the first I would like to share was the one I am still living down today. All it took was for Davide Labelle, a very well respected photojournalist, to ask me a simple question.
“Are you a writer?”
Harmless at first glance, but it was so much more than that.
So, at Picture Kentucky, it was a mixed bag of photojournalists and noobies looking to pick up the craft. Many of them worked at my student newspaper in a variety of roles, but all with print journalism backgrounds; writers in other words.
I was the assistant photo editor of my paper, the Kentucky Kernel, and I was proud of that. So proud, I wanted nothing else but to make the best pictures out of everyone, and impress everyone. I needed to prove to myself that I could take on the job responsibilities.
In short, I needed to impress Davide Labelle.
That didn’t happen.
In fact, I did the opposite. After the first day of the workshop, and I had returned with my first set of photos, David, as my team leader, started looking through my take.
He shook his head, muttering to himself “Brandon, Brandon, Brandon…” in that sad tone that any word which arrives in triple succession means bad news. Then, he gave me a good once over and asked, “Are you a writer?”
Or in other words, “Are you a noobie wannabe photographer who doesn’t know what he’s doing?”
Yes, you could say I’ve dwelled on it a bit. And when I told my friends about it, they have drug the joke on well past its prime. But after the incident, I knew I was nowhere close to where I needed to be.
I become a sponge during that workshop. Soaking in all the advice I could fit in my brain that four hours of sleep would allow.
Things like: “Its not what they are doing we care about, its where they are doing it,” a piece of advice that is still helping me today.
I think I’ve become a much better photographer because of that paranoia. To think someone would mistake me again for something I was not has propelled my need to make better pictures.
It’s only one fraction that pushes me to work hard, but its a part thats lasted with me through much of my photographic career.
Got any funny photo stories you want to share?
Email me a firstname.lastname@example.org with “Composition Notebook Post” in the subject line, and i’ll post it on the site.
On Oct. 2, 2010, I was given a composition notebook.
I was told to fill it with experiences and lessons which would make me a better storyteller and photographer. It was given to me in front of other blooming storytellers by a man who possesses my unshakable respect.
Originally, David Labelle, my mentor during the photojournalism workshop Picture Kentucky, told me I needed it because I was having trouble with the composition of my photographs. He said maybe someday I could return that notebook to him with it filled.
I intend to do so.
I have until next year’s Picture Kentucky workshop to fill every page with entries on how to tell better stories, and reach my full potential. I am journalist, and I will meet my deadline.
A person is a composition in themselves, crafted through life experiences. We are molded by the people we meet, the stories we hear and share, the friends we keep and the dreams we work towards. Through this project, I hope to become the best person I can be, and compose within myself the characteristics of a true storyteller.
With this in mind, I want to invite you on my journey to fill that composition notebook. Maybe you can learn from my entries. Maybe I can learn from yours. We’re in this together. Let it begin.