Photographer of the Modern Era

I'm not at all comfortable calling myself a photographer. This is not the self-loathing artist in me, but the oversensitive second grader me denying a childhood crush despite all evidence pointing it so. 

My second photoshoot. Ever.

My second photoshoot. Ever.

That isn't to say I don't actually use the term. In fact, I don't like calling most people photographers because the term is more overused than ketchup on hot dogs and condiments don't exactly work on people unless you're trying to eat them (if you're into that sort of thing) or unless you're trying to eat them (if you're into that sort of thing). 

The term "photographer" has lost its effect on me not by its overuse in my industry but by its glaring homogeny, a ubiquitous fact as clear and obvious as "you breathe therefore you have lungs. Isn't that cool?!" 

And yet, the reality is more powerful than my stubborn criticisms allow. We are all this thing. We are all photographers. We are all contributors to this beast called "art." In a world of smart phones and camera apps, everyone is a photographer, or has the potential to be one. Media channels like Instagram and Facebook encourage this trend above all pretense, whether your selfie was shot from three feet above your head or whether you are showcasing food you probably didn't cook. 

I made these with my girlfriend, I swear.

I made these with my girlfriend, I swear.

Yes, you are indeed a photographer.

Regardless of intent or awareness, as both consumers and producers, this is what I've found: we photograph the very things we love. That is a joyous and admirable realization that we all are blessed with the capacity in this giant show-and-tell to share with others the very things we hold dear in this world. 

...until I see things like this and suddenly my rosy-eyed idealism takes a backseat.

On April 12, 2015, a Baltimore man named Freddie Gray died while in police custody, his body beaten and spine severed from the rest of itself. And in what has become a horrifying joke of a pattern as recurring as sunsets, the authorities involved in his death were pardoned of crime resulting in civil unrest amongst the neighborhood. The damages were immense, so much so that the National Guard was summoned from within Maryland and its neighboring bases. 

Some residents of Baltimore resorted to riots. Others engaged in peaceful protest. Police... arrested. And in the way moths are drawn to flames, so too did the media follow

Predictably so, the pundits struggled to convey it as everyone at home struggled to make sense of the agendas being presented. Twitters "wars" erupted. "Look at these ruffians," said Fox News. "GO HOME" yelled Ray Lewis of the Baltimore football fame. "These riots are unprecedented and never before seen," quoted an ignorant CNN pundit. 

Whatever it was, it sucked and hurt to watch. 

Representations like these spur an existential crisis in me. Not the 28 year old me who hates seeing people in pain, but the 28 year old media producer in me who has shot both weddings and funerals, who has seen the richest the world has to offer while being constantly reminded of its worst. 

As a full-time media producer, my skillset is to peddle image. Message. I know how to point a camera in ways that'll make most boogers look like beauty marks. I can forecast the kinds of effects certain words and images will have on people and I know ways to twist those letters and pixels to draw a certain emotion that may or may not be completely honest. 

But tragedies like these will never cease to unhinge me because this isn't at all new phenomena. Media has played this role exhaustively through time of both truther and liar of civil manipulation and coercion. 

In the late 40s, the De Beers corporation tricked people into thinking diamonds are rarer than they actually are.

...because they own a damn monopoly on those shiny things.

...because they own a damn monopoly on those shiny things.

In Vietnam, propagandists painted colorful pictures of their teams.

...because TRUTH DOLLARS can solve everything, duh.

...because TRUTH DOLLARS can solve everything, duh.

A North Vietnamese Armed Propaganda Team in the Field

A North Vietnamese Armed Propaganda Team in the Field

In the late 1700s, the work of prominent artist Jacques Louis David spurred the French Revolution with his classical renderings of .

"Marat assassinated" |  Jacques-Louis David 

"Marat assassinated" | Jacques-Louis David 

And these are images of the Newark riots of 1967 not too dissimilar from the one of Ferguson 2014, freshly wounded by the death of Michael Brown. 

A boy runs away during the  1967 Newark NJ Riots.

A boy runs away during the  1967 Newark NJ Riots.

A young man raises his arm amidst the Ferguson tensions. | Getty Images

A young man raises his arm amidst the Ferguson tensions. | Getty Images

That is the power of art. To communicate message, motive, to lie, to bolster, to battle oppression and to persuade.

I think a lot about the role of media a lot in society. And by extension, my role in the world as a photographer. Whether you realize it or not, media today shapes much of our view of the world at large. It confirms our tastes, our ideals, and our beliefs. It communicates our emotions, our thoughts, and desires. 

Most importantly, it conveys power of the human intention.

I try to always remind myself of this, that twenty years down the line, my nephew will find a picture I shot and ask me about it. And I don't want to tell him I made a particular piece of art because it simply looked good or because I wanted to get off or something asinine like that.

This shot was inspired by the PTSD I still suffer because of multiple inner-city muggings. No, I'm not even joking.

This shot was inspired by the PTSD I still suffer because of multiple inner-city muggings.
No, I'm not even joking.

But rather, I want to tell him I shot what I shot because it spurred in me something emotionally. That what I made inspired me to look at the world in a different way. Confirmed my ideals about the future. Envisioned the kind of society I want to live in and the dreams I had when I had made that particular piece. Conveyed the fears I still hold about myself and the people around me.

I look back at the shocking footage from Ferguson, from Baltimore, and it always reminds me to stay cognizant of the world. To always remember it exist. I don't think it's sadistic to want or even focus on troubling, political content. In fact, it's the most honest we can be about human civilization and its current direction. Perhaps that's what went through these artist and photographers' minds when they covered these riots. "I want to see a different world than the one I'm living in."

Or maybe they just got paid a ton of money. Who knows.

This isn't a change your life post. This is a photo-for-thought post, a kindly reminder to think about what makes your media unique and what you seek to communicate by sharing it with others. Because Facebook and every other social media channel is becoming a parody of itself of actual social interactions, of soapbox activism, of coy and tasteless flirting, of unpunished racism, and of art aspiring to be itself. Good art. Bad art. Whatever art. And as the world slowly tumbles into a mess of apocalyptic income equality, global warming, and social injustice. The least we can do is make the world a less shitty place by conveying its good, its bad, and its ugly.

All of it.

I'm not asking you to become a war photographer or to drop your current job and save the world. I'm asking you to consider the possibility that you are currently living in the noisiest and most restless era of human civilization outside of the Crusades and that whole Black Death thing and that everything you eat and vomit onto social media can have significant impact on the world, whether you realize it or not.

So what will you talk about when shit hits the fan? Your contributions shape this society, so make each one meaningful. 

Because if you can't make it meaningful, at least make it count. 

And if you can't make it count, at least make it good. 

And if you can't make it good, at least make it honest. 

You owe the world that much, photographer.

An Ode to Michael Graves

Rewind five months from today.

It is November and I am standing in a hallowed garden in a museum building in an art exhibit honoring the life's work of a brilliant man who will leave this earth the following April. 

Michael Graves. Photo Credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Michael Graves. Photo Credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

The place is Grounds for Sculpture and his name is Michael Graves. You probably don't know him but he is an architect and who has designed marvels like the Team Disney Building in California and the NCAA Hall of Champions. 

He was a brilliant mind, his design philosophy playing hopscotch along the beautiful seams of art-deco and the shoes of postmodern fit. His creations were bold and curvy and complex and all sorts of sexy if sexy and lines had equitable real estate. In fashion-speak, he was a stylist of space. A haidresser of geometry. The make-up artist of land. 

Crooks House | Fort Wayne, Indiana

Crooks House | Fort Wayne, Indiana

And he is still alive when I am there, singing through the lines of his art. 

Fast forward two minutes later, and I am walking through a gallery of his most notable works, the Sparknotes blurb of his prolific career. The columns are lined with elegant portraits and spotted lights, photos of his blueprints and end works. The blueprints are faded photographs and his blueprints are illegible to my non-mathematical brain and I do not think these do him justice but as a fellow artist I know these are the only ways to celebrate a person who has toiled hours in dim lighting on sharpened pencils, spilling out the guts of imagination on a piece of paper that will find its way into two-hundred other hands and their cranes and steel monster, into places that would look like bustling ant colonies if you could zoom out a few 100 meters. 

Michael Graves, Disney Swan Hotel

Michael Graves, Disney Swan Hotel

And yet, the heart is still there and the arteries somewhere in translation, between time and space and cracks only God can see through. 

On the wall, they hang. Blueprints and drawings. Drawings and buildings. Drawings and then buildings. The juxtaposition is jostling. Time does not exist in this exhibit because it is impossible to celebrate the thens and soon-to-be-thens while standing in the now celebrating the life of a man who kind of looked like Bill Gates in his youth and Mr. Burns of Simpsons fame in his twilight.

Fast-forward a second from now.

And for a second, his works look like colonies and I find myself at the "Make Your Own Architecture!" section of the exhibit sponsored by the one and only LEGO company. I am ungrounded, lost in childhood splendor that is a pile of Legos and pillars of protruding circles, as if the museums screams to me "Now here's your chance to be Michael Graves!" or someone close to him (just not as talented or as imaginative as he is).

Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

And craft I do. As a child of the 90s, I love Legos because their existence represents what I love most about people is the will to create in a world engrossed by rampant consumption. It is easy enough to sit on your ass and play critic to everyone's work but to openly contribute something to the world is what I believe to be the highest form of art

But I dismiss those thoughts. The clanking of plastic makes me smile, makes me reminisce about days before Minecraft existed when a lack of technology forced you to whine at your parents and make them buy LEGOs because you couldn't make stuff digitally and you were a broke five year old who hadn't yet discovered brand name clothing and social media. And when they did buy you a LEGO package, the finite number of pieces and 2x2 blocks forced you to shape little worlds (quite literally) with childish ingenuity and bravery. Those were sentimental days, when digital likes didn't matter because it was pleasure enough to make things for the sake of creation itself, not to impress or influence or wage numbers but for the sheer pride of saying "I made this with my own two hands. I made this damn crooked thing with a smile. I made it with pride." Because ownership—that is the crux of legacy, the footprint that other people will remember about you when all of your body has perished.

Your museum.

Michael Graves | Denver Central Library

And my mind wanders in this Michael Graces exhibit. Makes me realize that I suck as a Catholic because I'm not at all humble and I'm damn well not conservative but I believe everyone was meant to be this powerful, was meant to shape worlds within worlds. Because we were not meant to be servants but creatures of our own destiny. Magistrates of Creation. Of Construction. 

Architects of our own lives. 

I'm not a god but I sometimes feel art is the closest to one I will ever be. This. Playing Legos in a room next to pictures of buildings that both time and love built.

Don’t make something you are not going to be proud of in your lifetime, let alone 100 years from now. Don’t build for the moment…make a classic.
— Michael Graves

Making Art with a Water Gun

The story began in 2010.

I was a 22 year old college undergrad with zero career prospects, no car, and two parakeets I literally couldn't afford to feed. I was surviving on two tablespoons of peanut butter for breakfast and for dinner, ramen infused with tuna chunks and soy sauce. 

It wasn't a very glamourous lifestyle. I wasn't doing too well financially and the $6.75/hr job I had at the bookstore didn't exactly afford me good wiggle room for monthly groceries (which I needed) and the Ferrari I've always wanted (but didn't need). 

Why ask for a camera when my food pantry was empty? I'm not exactly sure.

Priorities, I guess.

Image by Premkudva, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

I got my first camera in 2010. A wonderful friend bought it for me because I had kept complaining about how expensive these damn cameras were and she wanted me to stop complaining.

The camera she got me was the Nikon D80, which was good enough for sunshine and trees but not good enough for...well, candles and bees, if that makes sense. It didn't handle low light situations well and focusing on that thing made my head explode.

Still lost? Here's a better analogy: the D80 is a water gun in a room of rocket launchers and anthrax

HOWEVER, Wesker (aka my D80) was my first camera and a divine creed from the art gods to make things, to make the art I had constantly seen in my own head yet had not the resources to do so.

And art I did. Or at least tried to do.

I shot things up close, like this.

Note the color contrast.

Note the color contrast.

And other things far away like this.

And then I shot my friends doing weird things, like this.

The kid in the graduation photo is actually my brother, circa 1988. He's 32 now.

The kid in the graduation photo is actually my brother, circa 1988. He's 32 now.

Most of my first shots were in the spirit of good fun and curiosity. I hadn't really thought of becoming a professional until the actual inquiries started coming in. "Hey dude! Nice camera! Can you shoot my party!?" "Hello friend! Do you do headshots?"

The post-grad failure in me finally felt needed. Valued.

And so, with little to no business skills starting out, I fumbled most of my gigs terribly. The first prospective wedding client who came to me asked if I could shoot "lowlight." Meaning, did I have the pro-level gear needed to shoot in places like churches or receptions halls.

(Spoiler alert: I didn't.)

My earliest attempts at lowlight photography. Note how low the lowlight is.

Fearing that I didn't have the capabilities nor equipment to shoot in dark places like churches and weddings, I remember dodging the question entirely with a surprisingly stupid response. It went something like:

"Yes, I mean, if you're asking if I can still take pictures in the dark, then yes, my camera can do that. It's battery powered, not solar-powered, sir."

...sure enough, that A-level salesmanship didn't get me the wedding gig.

At the time, I hadn't yet solidified my business model nor attracted the stream of clients needed to run a media operation safely. I still hadn't found work, or at least good-enough work to both cover student loan payments and general amenities, so with no credit and no money to further upgrade, I did what any stubborn artist would do.

I made my own gear.

Here's the makeshift light I made out of PVC pipes and light bulbs from Home Depot.

Here's that lamp in action.

Here's BOTH me AND that lamp in action.

My good friend and colleague Adrian is holding a bootleg color checker I printed out for my first several shoots in the field.

Yes, it worked.

Yes, it worked.

And these are pictures of my friends wearing cereal boxes on their heads.

Don't ask.

It's been about five years since I picked up my first camera. I still look back fondly at these days because they were formative learning experiences in both learning good technique and just getting out there to shoot. The same curiosity I had early on is still alive, flowing through these veins like electricity through wire.

Safe to say, I don't build rigs with PVC pipes anymore and I've long since upgraded my camera and lenses, but I'm forever humbled by the journey that has gotten me to where I am. I haven't forgotten how hard I've worked to get here, and I know there's more work to be done for as long as I keep making things.

Pictured: The ever so talented graphic artist Aishazamm and, right Annpanic to whom I owe my gateway drug into the art high.

Pictured: The ever so talented graphic artist Aishazamm and, right Annpanic to whom I owe my gateway drug into the art high.

This post is dedicated to the friends who have helped me endure the growing pains of learning a new craft. 

To the colleagues who have lent me equipment time and again, to the fans who have believed in my crazy visions since day one.

To the haters who said "I couldn't take a good picture" when I first started out... you were actually right. Thank you for the constructive criticism.

But most importantly, this inaugural post is dedicated to the dreamers who love to make things but don't think they have the means to do so.  Because, spoiler alert: you do.

Find a way. Dig a path. Don't stop creating. Fire that water gun.


(...and if all else fails, annoy rich people.)