I was reminded recently of an experience that I had while shooting a story for Smithsonian Magazine on Arthur County, Nebraska. Truth be told, it was an assignment that I almost didn’t accept. I thought that a story about the least populated county in the United States was not a story for me – I shot city stories for the most part. But then I thought, why not? It ended up being one of the most gratifying magazine assignments that I ever did – on many levels.
Personally, it pushed me out of my cultural norm. “What am I going to do in a desolate part of the country where cows far out number the people?” Photographically speaking as a people shooter, it really pushed me to see and shoot differently. Because there were so few people, I lingered longer and got a closer glimpse into their lives than I normally would have on a 7 day city shoot with lots to cover.
One day stood out for me. I was photographing a cowboy “breaking” horses. I watched as he worked with an incredibly spirited horse, trying at first to calm the animal. I remember asking a question about “breaking” the horse to which the handler replied that he never wanted to “break” an animal’s spirit, but rather to gain the animal’s trust. I thought to myself that this cowboy must be a wonderful father and husband and a part of me fell in love with that notion – his understanding of the difference between “managing” this stunning creature and “breaking” its spirit.
I realized that maybe that moment in time was in essence the story itself and the reason that I needed to take that assignment. I remind myself of that every time I’m hesitant to stray from my comfort zone. That almost always there’s a reward. I was fortunate that the assignment editor on that piece saw something in me that I didn’t. So many times, for a variety of reasons “clients” feel the need to over dictate the visual message and the end piece reflects that, becoming an entity that is neither “here nor there”. The “spirit” of the piece becomes broken.
These days because of tight budgets and fear of losing one’s job – things tend to become more predictible and safe – choosing shooters who’ve done that type of story before or re-doing the same stories that have proven to be “successful” in the past. But every once in awhile – someone (like the cowboy) comes along and recognizes something in my spirit and gives me the necessary “rope” to bring my vision to the project while still managing the “whole” – and marvelous things happen.