Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sticks, Bricks and Education

Classrooms separated only by a reed screen.
Lessons in the village school.
           Giggling and shouting filled the air, the volume growing to match the rumbling and banging of the approaching pickup truck, tenderized by the harsh village roads of central Uganda. As we crested the hill, the school of bricks and sticks came that into view, the school yard alive with playing children.
          Our second stop on the day's phtographic agenda, the need for better facilities was immediately evident as David, the director of Bega Kwa Bega (Shoulder To Shoulder) and approached the scene.

          While part of the school is made up of a more solid, brick and mortar structure, the dirt floor and basic surfaces are beaten down from heavy use. The majority of the students at this village school, actually attend class in the adjacent wooden-planked building in classrooms barely separated by paper-thin, reed walls.

An independent school in Kampala, children receive instruction in a
well-constructed environment, using more varied educational tools
than are sometimes available in schools with fewer resources.
          Breached in many places, the walls provide minimal separation for wandering eyes and diverted focus from adjacent classrooms. It’s a testament to the will of the children to learn, that they filter out sights and sounds spilling through the holes to neighboring classrooms to absorb the lessons of the teacher in their own classroom.

           The village school was quite a contrast to the school in the capital, Kampala, where we started the day. Built with finished floors and walls, well-furnished with child-size chairs, bright educational materials and a small library the school appeared closer to it's overseas cousins than it did to the schools only a few kilometers away in rural villages. Our mission on this day to simply document the variety of conditions in the area where Bega Kwa Bega, supports children by covering school fees and other costs, and provides ongoing teacher training, knocking down barriers to attending school.

Deteriorating screens of reeds are the only thing
separating classrooms in a village school.
          Although public school in Uganda is technically free for primary schools, families have to buy uniforms, shoes, lunches, notebooks and other supplies that often take schools out of financial reach. When they are attending class, students are frequently sardined in with as many as 100 children in a single class. A number of other systemic problems (A 2012 study found that two in 10 seventh-graders couldn't read at a second grade level) drive parents to try and get their children into one of the many independent schools for a decent education. Also, when children fail to learn, parents begin keeping their children home, not seeing the value of going to school.

          BKB allows parents to chose where their supported children go to school and will try to get them into the private and better schools whenever possible, not only for quality instruction but often for more convenient location. Even in that context, private schools sometimes started by village and religious leaders for their own children, struggle for resources and teacher training to educate their kids as best as their resources will allow.

          As those resources flow or trickle in, school operators make progress, purchasing more educational and construction materials, improving conditions incrementally while moving education forward,  conducting classes in partially finished structures, until more resources allow completion.

Children work on a lesson while facing their teacher, as other kids face the opposite
direction to participate in lessons provided by the teacher on the
opposite side of unfinished brick room.
          At a third village school on our two-day agenda, children attended class in small brick classrooms, the walls unplastered, the tin roof not completed. A chorus of voices work a recited lesson while others sit facing the opposite wall and a second blackboard as a second teacher conducts a different lesson: two classes in the same tiny building with nothing but focused attention to the lesson forming a barrier between the two.

          On my many assignments in other countries I always seem to learn something or see something I've never seen before that either startles me or simply gives me hope for the future of the people I'm photographing. This one was no different. The meager dividers and the complete lack of dividers between classes was a new one for me, but I think it also tells me that the world of development is an always changing always improving world, always with the goal of trying to bring forward a better world.

School lunch program
Storytime over, lets put away the chairs.
Vocabulary and reading flashcards.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

No Faces, only challenges

Erica Garcia feeds toddlers at meal time.
Playtime with dedicated volunteers like Kathy Brady.
          You can come make photographs, but you can't show the kids faces.

          Okay, usually the best thing about photos involving kids, are the expressions on their faces, especially when you're shooting for a parenting magazine. Yes, photograph a news story but don't show what happened. Ouch!
          Photographing a people-based story, which is to say photographing most stories, means telling peoples stories and showing their faces. It is a counter-intuitive challenge that is a little like telling me not to breathe.

          That said, in this case it was necessary. Child Crisis Arizona is a shelter for children with families in crisis. Hiding their identities is a necessity.

          Full disclosure, several years ago, the Virginia Piper Foundation selected me to photograph what was then known as the Child Crisis Center to provide them with professional-quality images without having to hire someone out of their own budget. It was part of the Picturing Maricopa project that matched 15 photographers with 15 Maricopa County organizations. It was a challenge that I spent parts of five days working through. It worked out with a significant amount of experimentation, searching for interesting compositions that also told us stories without visually disclosing the identities of children who lived at the shelter. 

          Given enough time and situations, it's doable and, in reality, is a great exercise in pushing outside your own creative boundaries to pull it all together.

RAK Article online

Long-time volunteer Chris Paulley gets into Play-Doh action with a little one.

Monday, March 6, 2017

No Flinching: Grinding out the shot, and the art of not turning away


          Brumble, brumble, pop, brumble, pop, pop, brumble, whoosh, it sounded like medal against a grinding wheel, but felt more like a passing top-fuel dragster.

Levy makes the turn at the top of the ramp.
          As the 10-year-old skateboarder passed within inches of my head, and then pivoted at the top of the ramp and passed again, I flinched and missed the peak moment of the shot. Twice.

         I thought of the bizarre sensation accompanying the covering of drag races, years ago, and the counter-intuitive mindset needed to figure out my timing for the image.

          If you're not familiar with live drag racing, imagine standing next to the track, as the engines fire up. Imagine the air molecules around you begin vibrating at high speed against your skin, gaining in violent intensity as the car approaches. It's a bizarre sensation that forces you to reflexively and simultaneously turn away and duck as the car approaches.

          In order to make photographs, I had to struggle against the base-level reflex to turn away as the car passed. Of course, if I turned away, I would miss the image.

          Over the course of this shoot I developed a great deal of confidence in these young ladies I was photographing. I had already witnessed Mia's and Levy's skill as we created several options for the Raising Arizona Kids Magazine cover story. They flew through the air over five-step staircases and ground out a slide maneuver along a metal railings in this indoor skatepark.

     They knew exactly what they were doing.

Mia on the cover of RAK
Skate with your own personality
          I love to cover programs that not only teach fun things but also try to make a difference in their little corner of the world.  When it comes to giving girls the same opportunities as boys, it's how it should be. The fact that in the past, and, too frequently even today, there exists this strange division on these things is absurd to me. If someone, regardless of gender, likes flying on a skateboard off stairs and over railings, or loves science or fixing cars, who is anyone to stand in that person's way? In breaking down these barriers, we only help our whole society to benefit from the best of 100% percent of the population.

          On this recent Saturday this took the form of making sure the young ladies had the space and instruction to pursue a hobby that is not only just a lot of fun, but is a great confidence-building exercise as the skaters build their skills. A skate clinic for girls.

          Surrounded by great moments, finding images was simple, getting to them safely, a little more daunting.

Taking instruction

          Navigating traffic as skaters as little as 4 years-old made moving about the indoor park proved as tricky as crossing rush-hour traffic. Once finding a small island of safety I kept my head on a swivel, emerging with no more than a minor bruise on my shin from an errant board as a result. 

          By the time we completed some of the options for the magazine cover, Mia, 9, and Levy, 10, demonstrated just how skilled they are as I photographed them sticking their landings like Olympic ski jumpers (ever see Eddie the Eagle?).

          Impressed enough that when my art director Michelle and I wondered about me lying at the base of a tall ramp to shoot up at the skaters as they passed and made 180 degree turns above me, I thought it was worth considering for something a little different.

          So we conferenced with the final authority on the matter, Mia and Levy, describing the idea and letting them decide whether they felt safe and comfortable with the plan.

          "No problem," they said with confidence and in unison.

        With a bit of lighting adjustment for the odd-ball angle, and a few trial skate passes,  it was time to bring out the drag-race technique, no flinching.

(Raising Arizona Kids Magazine is a regular client that assembles one of the better magazines of its type in the country, telling great stories and discussing tools, events, trends and philosophies for parents to consider in their mission to raise great kids. Click for a subscription.)
Learning to make a turn
Mia working her skill
Waiting for traffic to clear
Taking Turns
The Punisher

Friday, June 24, 2016

Soaring landscape and grain; The Grit Fits

          Re-shooting something when I know there’s another opportunity, to see if I can find a better image than what was made before.

          Four Peaks, snow, saguaros; hot and cold in one. A description of Arizona compressed in one 300mm/2.8, 1000 ISO frame.

          In one frame you see the warmth generated by the colors in the frame. In another there is a sense of puffy softness to the saguaro, like a stuffed animal, maybe, and an otherworldly color to it, with a cold, cobalt sky behind the mountains, suggesting a more accurate coldness of the time of year that the image was made.

          The deep shadows, the distant, tangled, prickly forest makes it an image to linger inside.

          I made the image at dusk, or perhaps even darker than dusk, with a higher ISO that adds a grainy grittiness that usually feels out of place to me in a landscape of beauty, pattern and comfortable light. There’s a smoothness and an uplift that, like with a song filled with major chords, overcomes the grit that, in my mind, suggests an imperfection of execution, some perceived shortcoming of technical practice.

          The grit fits.

          It serves more as an expressive reminder that amid this explosion of visual notes in the higher register of the scale, the warm, glowing, fuzzy leafless giants preside over the hardened, bristling, rocky substrate of the desert. It’s a reminder that this inviting, comfortable colorful fuzz is actually a tough, sharp, perforating defense against forge-like heat that sears its skin against further assault.
It’s also a sort of illustrator of the that these centenarians struggle against every storm and every parched period that seek to contradict and topple their strength in an often unforgiving and unwelcoming environment.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Keeping it simple: learning, photographs and technological health care

Surgical robotics.

          One of the many beauties of photographing for clients, is the constant growth, not just of experience but of knowledge. With nearly every assignment, I'm learning about a new technique, practice or product.
In healthcare many of the advances are subtle or hidden unless you're a patient. The assignments teach me about many things I would have missed.  Sometimes it's a new robot, or a new method of hip replacement or advancements in managing chronic back pain.

          I'm always trying to visually tell this piece of the story while changing up from what I've done in the past.

          Sometimes the most important thing is keeping it simple; doctors and equipment.

         When I'm working on these images I often have a short amount of time to accomplish my final frames for my clients.  Most of the doctors I photograph are specialists and leaders, they are consulted as experts on a particular topic, which also makes them very popular and very busy in their practice. As specialists in the Valley of the Sun, they are at a premium (it seems there's a shortage in many specialties). I'm surprised I don't walk into some of these offices and operating theaters to find docs on roller skates!

          If I'm able to get an hour to work with someone, it's rare, so I try and get to the, um, heart, of the matter, quickly, add some nice indirect light and critical shadow to better define an object, and get as many options into the camera in the time I have, while always looking for something even a little different that that which I've done before.
The heart workshop

Start simple, get a nice image "in the can."
And then try something else if there's time. I've photographed so many
CT scanners over the years, I found something a little different.
Technology and back pain. This one, shot for a possible magazine cover, thus the extra space.

One Hip Surgeon

Monday, June 13, 2016

Light and Granite

Julie, Josh and crew. We added a little light to the forklift driver's face by using a simple
bar clamp, to attach a radio-triggered flash to the forklift's upright.
          Spent some time in Tucson a couple weeks ago doing a couple of business images at A&E Recycled Granite for Local First Arizona.

          Helene and I had a great time working with the owners, Josh and Julie who were patient with the process while being ready to move, clean, adjust or clamp down, anything in order to help make the photograph just a little better.

          These folks take all the leftover granite from other projects and turn it into of a variety of brick, tile and veneer products used all kinds of design projects.

I've never met a ladder I didn't want to climb to change the perspective of my image, or a white wall that I wanted to bounce my White Lightings off of in order to fill a part of the room with soft side-light.
When in doubt, clamp a flash in a hidden space? Why not?

In the small space of their backshop, I wanted to show industrial activity.
I added a small camera strobe on a stand from behind the wet saw to
highlight the dust and water coming off the blade.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Taking the plunge, photographing under water

Underwater play at Hubbard Swim School
           Where will you go to make a different picture?

          Sure this isn't putting on a bee suit to photograph a beekeeper at work or flying halfway around the world to work in a rural environment until recently a war and cholera zone, but it is a little different, shooting a swim article from below as well as above water.

          Sometimes it's about a simple question, what can I do that's a little different?

Whatever it takes for a picture.
          Jumping in at great risk of electronic bodily harm to gear, I trusted an inexpensive camera housing to do something a little different for a cover/feature shoot for Raising Arizona Kids Magazine at Hubbard Swim School in Phoenix. Of course, I tested it at home first, ensuring an absence of leaks. Still nervous about the quality of the what could more accurately be called a waterproof bag for the camera, I held my breath and went under to photograph my first subject.

          (For the record, I used a DiCAPac WP-S10 Waterproof Case purchased from B&H Photo. The material is a thin plastic and it is challenging to manipulate camera controls but it did work and did not leak.)

          In the two minutes or so that I could stay down, I discovered that finding the viewfinder and double-checking focus as the subject moved toward me proved more difficult that one would imagine. You discover just how quickly you're able to retrain yourself when challenged by the shooting environment.

          It became a process, count down with the subject, take deep breath, dive, find the viewfinder, find the subject, shoot, surface, check the bag for leaks, check images and, if necessary, open the now wet bag to change camera settings before carefully resealing the bag for another go. 

Using the fish aquarium method, shooting with
lighting through the side pane of a fish aquarium
          I've only shot underwater a couple times before, the first, long ago, with a disposable, film camera, while swimming the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The extent of the challenge, then: looking through the scuba mask,  and through the viewfinder while watching for the flash ready-light to light up Nemo and his friends.

          The second time, in a freezing backyard pool, (summer covers are shot in the early spring, after all), using a partially submerged fish aquarium to create an underwater window pane through which I could shoot with a dry camera.

           The hardest parts that day, holding the camera at odd angles and aiming it without the benefit of the viewfinder, while two moms held the aquarium, fighting the buoyant force of the aquarium, pushing up against the glass.

          For this latest shoot, I wondered whether there might be a better method, and looked for options and talked to colleagues. I came upon this plastic bag idea which was suggested by two colleagues, one of whom works in the ocean frequently, so I figured it was worth a try.

          When working with uncertainly, never put all your eggs in one basket when your client needs a nice choice of images for the cover of their May magazine. Try multiple methods for multiple results. I kept the aquarium method in my back pocket as a "plan B".

          The bag system did expose a technical wrinkle after I'd spent the first 45 minutes setting up my studio-style strobes in a scheme designed to turn the pool wall that would be behind me, into a wall of soft light for my subjects.  Apparently radio slave triggers don't work very well under even a very shallow amount of water.

          So after experimenting for a while with the bag using available light, I switched to partially submerging the fish tank so that the radio slaves would be able to fire a flash signal through the air space.

In all a fun day at work, breaking from routine, confronting technical challenges and working with a fun group of kids and grown-ups.

Of course, a complete assignment is shot below and Above the water level... Bob Hubbard, at left, the owner of the school and tireless assistant and young-person wrangler.
The hardest job on the shoot, young subjects having a good time.