Why You Should Preserve Your Family’s Story

I have fond memories of my grandmother telling stories as we lingered around the table long after the family meal had been consumed.  If she never had a story to tell, my mom would.  Maybe that’s why I became a storyteller, as a still photographer and as a filmmaker.

My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. We had no warning and then one day she was gone from our lives forever.  I’d give anything to hear her voice again. Or hear her giggle.  Or listen to her tell a story that she had told a hundred times. But other than some scattered photos, Mooney Family, Chicago, ILrandom letters and a few mementos, all I have left are my memories of her. But sadly they have begun to fade.

I’m a commercial photographer and videographer and have shot on assignment for magazines, non-profits and corporations all over the world. I love what I do and the value it has for my clients and their products or message and God willing, I will do that till the day I die but I wanted do something more. I wanted to create personal films (videos) about and for families and preserve their legacy in a keepsake memoir. More importantly, I wanted to capture those family stories through the eyes and voices of a family’s loved ones, while they were still here to tell them and before the memories were gone.

After my mother died I did connect with members of the family to interview them. I must tell you that it was awkward at first but somehow I knew that it was important to do. Here is a short trailer about my mom’s story told through her siblings. Her brother had died before I had made this and a sister has died since but I feel very fortunate to have captured their stories when I had the chance.

I am working on a film now about the Pitney family. The Pitneys had inhabited a property in my town for 11 generations and their story is rich in history not only about their family history but also about our nation. Sadly, the Pitney homestead was destroyed by fire this past winter after over 300 years but the family lives on.   I’m so grateful that I was able to capture and preserve a part of their legacy. Please look at the trailer about the Pitney family and the fire and let me know your thoughts.

A film has the power to preserve family stories Nola Mooney, Garden, Michiganwith imagery, interviews, sound and music. Imagine capturing and preserving your family’s story through the power of cinema. Imagine
what a priceless gift that would be for future generations.

A laugh, a giggle, a blurred smile, a glance, a wink, a memory – a life’s story preserved.



“A Photograph is the Biography of a Moment”

Facebook can be a real time suck for me if I let it, but every once in a while I find out about something that makes a mark on me in some way.  Today, I saw an interesting story posted, about a photographer, Art Shay who was in his nineties.  Art was reflecting upon the photographic legacy he will leave behind, when he dies.

Going through his lifetime of images, it was clear what has been his favorite subject matter – his wife. His wife, Florence, passed away 2 years ago, and as Art picked up a framed photograph of one of his favorite shots of her, he teared up a little and said, “a photograph is the biography of a moment”.

That line hit home and it got me thinking about “the moment” People watching, South Beach, Miami, Floridaand how I have spent a lifetime, capturing them.  That is the power a still photograph has – to capture the moment and preserve it in time.

Think about how your recall your own personal history or the era you grew up in.  How do you remember things?  For me, many of my memories of childhood are drawn from old photographs, when someone who had a camera, snapped a moment in time.  We all remember history through images that have become the icons of their time.

Still photography is a powerful medium.  It captures that one special moment in time and preserves it forever.  It has the power to provoke and to move people to action. It can give you hope or fill you with despair. It can bring a tear to your eye or a smile to your face. “A photograph is the biography of the moment”.

Art Shay has an exhibit of his work: “My Florence: Photographs by Art Shay” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago till May 24, 2014.



Let the Good Times Roll (Laissez les bons temps rouler)

If there is one thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of travel, it’s that the more you immerse yourself into the culture of where you are, the more rewarding the experience will be.

This past weekend I flew to New Orleans for a friend’s big birthday bash weekend. 100 of her friends traveled to the Big Easy”Cajun musician playing accordian, New Orleans, Louisiana from all over the world to her help celebrate her 50th in a way that only this city can offer. Most of the activities stayed clear of the French Quarter and the tourist scene and took place in parts of the city that felt “real”.  You can’t help but feel the deep culture and history of this city, once you get yourself beyond the “sleaze”.

We had a couple of memorable dinners but one stands out in my mind, not just for the incredible cuisine, but also because of the company that evening. I was seated between a very distinguished young man from South Africa and a writer from Los Angeles. Across from me was an Italian who was living in London and a couple from Mississippi.  Some folks I had met 10 years ago at the 40th birthday bash. The conversations were diverse and entertaining.

After dinner our group left the restaurant and formed our own parade in typical New Orleans style.  Two NOLA cops on motorcycles led us and a second line band as we marched a few blocks to our next stop. It was a first for me – to be dancing up a New Orleans street, along with 100 other folks enjoying the moment.  It was pure happiness and not just for our group but for all those who came out of their houses or restaurants and bars to watch our small parade go by. I enjoyed every bit of that 4-block walk and it is etched in my mind forever.  And that’s the sort of thing that separates a city like New Orleans from a city like “Vegas”.

I was blissfully exhausted when I boarded my flight home Sunday night. When I ordered a glass of wine, the flight attendant happily announced that the man in 1 A is buying everyone on board a drink tonight. He was getting married and wanted to celebrate with his fellow passengers.  Le bon temps continued to roll.

How This Beatlemanic Became a Photographer

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 50 years since I took these pictures off of our TV screen. Beatles on Ed Sullivan Show - February 9, 1964 I remember that night like it was yesterday, in vivid detail.

The Beatles had just come to America for the first time, and I was counting down the days until they were scheduled to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.  I had been soaking up every bit of news about the Beatles all week. In those days that meant listening to the radio as DJ’s gave a blow-by-blow account of what those “crazy lads from Liverpool” were doing.

My family and I were living in Rochester, NY at the time.  I was not quite a teenager, and it was the very first time I fell in love. First with Paul, because he was the cutest and non-threatening.  Later with John, because he was a bit rebellious and he appealed to the adventurous part of me that was emerging.

The day the Beatles were to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show just dragged by.  Dinner was particularly excruciating and each minute seemed like an hour.  My sister and I had commandeered the TV set and no one was getting near it to change the channel.  It was a black & white set – a color TV was prohibitively expensive in those days. I don’t remember who had the idea to take pictures that night but luckily we had some film in the Instamatic. I took just four shots that night.  It was the end of the roll and each click was precious and I remember waiting for the right moments.

I can see by the date stamps on the prints (March 1964), that it took us a month to get the film developed.  That was record speed for my family.  We usually had a year’s worth of holiday pictures on one roll of film when we dropped it off at the drug store for processing.  Luckily the film in the camera was at the end of the roll that evening – otherwise it may have taken months to see photos.

I pasted those photos into my scrapbookBeatlesTicket4 copy almost 50 years ago and they’ve been there ever since, along with my other Beatle memorabilia including my ticket for their performance at Shea Stadium in 1966.  We had moved to the NYC area about a year after I shot these photos, and I actually got to see the Beatles perform twice at Shea – ’65 and ’66.

As I look back at that night on February 9, 1964, I can see where my passion for recording moments in history came from and I’ve been photographing them ever since.

The Power of Music on 9/11

Today is a day of remembrance – it’s been 10 years since the Twin Towers came down in NYC, changing the Manhattan skyline and our lives forever.  We all can probably remember exactly where we were and what we were doing that terrible day.

As for me, I not only remember that day vividly, but the weeks that followed, even though I felt like I was living in a daze.  What I remember most was the healing power of music.  In fact, music was one of the few things we humans could let into our hearts and minds to try to begin to soothe our souls and deal with our pain and our fears.

Music is a universal language.  Regardless of where we are in the world, music is one of those things that can still define a culture and a people, even in a world that seems so homogenous in so many other ways.  I think that’s why it resonates with me, it speaks to the place I’m in, even though I may not be able to communicate with words. Music transcends any language and connects us on a deeper more primal level that goes straight to the heart. When I was interviewing blues musician Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, he told me “If you sing me the blues – I know exactly where you’re coming from”.

I think all of us can define moments in our life by a song that we remember.  We have all been exhilarated by music and have danced the night away or conversely been healed by music when it seems like we just can’t make it through the day.  What else has that kind of power?

Today, I will pause and remember that tragic day 10 years ago that changed our lives forever and as I do, I will heal my soul with music. I know if Willie “Big Eyes” could heard me singing the blues today – he’d know exactly where I was coming from.

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Change Who likes change? Other than needing a change of scenery every now and then, change is usually tough to take. I grew up with change. My family moved 10 times before I got out of high school.

Kindergarten, Chicago, IL

I was always the “new kid”. (Hint: I’m in the second to last row. I was also the “tall kid” even in Kindergarten)

No, my dad wasn’t in the military and we weren’t on the lam – he was just climbing the corporate ladder. He’d get promoted or there would be a new sibling and we’d move to a bigger house or he’d get promoted and transferred and we’d move to a totally different place leaving our friends and familiarities behind.

I’m not complaining, nor saying that I feel slighted by having that constant change in my life. It was the life I knew and I suppose I always looked at it with open eyes and curiosity about what was next to come. Of course, if I thought about the friends and sometimes family that I was leaving behind, it made it much harder.

Perhaps growing up in a constant state of change made me more flexible in dealing with all the changes affecting my business these days. Both still photography and video production have been profoundly changed by a bad economy and technology. Kind of like a double whammy. At least with technology the sword cuts both ways and also provides opportunities. It’s usually during the tough times when the economy is bad when innovation happens. Sometimes people just have to be forced to make changes in their lives, even if what they have been doing hasn’t been working. I was asked to speak at Cal Poly on the theme The Role of Mass Communication and Media Technology in Today’s Global Economy: A Multidiscipline Approach. Specifically, they wanted me to talk about how I was using technology to communicate in a global market. I started thinking about how this past year I had vigorously embraced new tools and a new business model, integrated with the Internet and social media to create a mixed media project that will ultimately result in a feature film, a book, an e-book and maybe even an exhibition. I didn’t have a big team behind me, nor did I have a lot of money. We had a two-person crew- myself and my daughter, an editor and my husband working the PR, the social media and the back support. We raised some money on Kickstarter with the help of our backers and we’ve had musicians offer us their music and talents to our film. We are extremely grateful for all of the support worldwide and it could never have happened without advances in technology.

The fact is that we live in such an amazing time where something like this is even possible. It is a time of empowerment for the individual. Technology is democratizing and is leveling the playing field especially in terms of distribution. The locks are gone and the gates to distribution are open and affordable. Within a month of uploading the trailer to my film on Vimeo, it has been played in 95 countries – that’s almost ½ the countries in the world. What a staggering thought in terms of mass communication!

Going forward my ultimate plan at this point in time is to distribute the film through iTunes or Netflix and DVD’s through Amazon. More importantly, I would like to set up 100’s of screenings in communities all over America – maybe even all over the world – and use the film to move people to action. Kind of like a grass roots effort to motivate people to make a difference in their communities. Imagine what kind of an effect that would have if it spread virally through the world. Just Imagine.

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Validation No Longer Necessary

There seems to be a prevailing attitude of doom and gloom. We have an economy that can’t seem to turn itself around and we’re bombarded by change that technology continues to thrust upon us.  We’re scared to death of the unknown and nobody seems to know what to do next and how to make any money doing it.

Yet, I’ve never been more hopeful in my life. Why?  Because I no longer need someone else to validate my ideas – and that is a powerful notion.  Those of us in the communication business seem to be particularly fearful. Some believe that the “news” business is dying because print publications – newspapers and magazines are folding every week.  But the “news” business is not dying – it’s just being delivered  in another way – electronically and globally.  There are no longer just a few gatekeepers with a lock on the playing field.

Human beings are social animals and we will always have the need to communicate with each other.  These days we can communicate with one another globally.  An idea or creation can be shared around the world in a matter of minutes.  Think of the power in that and think of how we can use that power and the opportunities it presents.  I could digress into a discussion on the ethics of this thought but I’d like to focus more on the reach and influence that each one of us has in creating awareness.

Many of us get enamored with the latest devices that enable us to deliver and receive information with speed and ease. As technology’s exponential growth continues to change our lives in every way imaginable, we will constantly be incorporating and upgrading new gadgets and devices as part of our lives.  We need to be mindful that these “toys” are merely enablers and that each one of us can use these tools to create and distribute our words, images, designs and ideas across the planet.

I think that we as creative’s or journalists underestimate ourselves sometimes.  Perhaps because we chose professions that aren’t lucrative – at least in terms of money.  However, what one is paid doesn’t necessarily correlate with one’s worth. We live in a time now where we can use our creative skills to really make a difference and to tell the stories that we feel need to be told. Mass communication has been democratized. We no longer need the traditional gatekeepers to validate our ideas.

I never would have dreamed that I would be able to circumvent the globe, create a documentary with only one other person in my crew  – my daughter and then distribute it internationally. I never imagined that I would have the power to create awareness on a global level like I did when I uploaded my trailer to Vimeo.  In a little more than a week’s time people in over 72 countries had played that video. Now in less than a month’s time, that trailer has been played in almost half the countries on the planet.  Staggering thought.

This was not a commissioned project by a network or a motion picture studio. If I had waited for that – it never would have happened. I assigned myself.  I was able to fund it by using my airline points, hotel rewards and doing trades with manufacturers for equipment.  I also successfully raised money via Kickstarter a crowd funding site  that made it possible for me to hire a professional editor. My daughter and I have been building an audience for our film since we started blogging about our journey. Our readers got more and more engaged as they followed us on our 99-day adventure around the world. They spread the word through Facebook and Twitter and via their own blogs and pretty soon word of our project spread virally. That was precisely our goal.  To use our tools and skills to create a film about the change makers of our world so that others would be inspired and motivated as to what they can do.

I often think about how things in my life and in history would have been different if we had the Internet when I was growing up.  For starters it would have had a huge effect on the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and the Vietnam War.  But everything happens in its own time and when it is meant to happen.  Change can be scary or it can be embraced and sometimes both at the same time.

Never stop dreaming. Never stop learning. Always listen to that inner voice.  Then use the means and the tools of the day to do the dance you are meant to do.

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We’ve Lost a Blues Legend – Pinetop Perkins July 7, 1913 – March 21, 2011

Yesterday, legendary bluesman Pinetop Perkins died. Pinetop was 97 years old. He was one of the greatest boogie-woogie piano players ever to strike those keys. I could go on and list all of his awards and accolades because Pinetop has received some of  music’s highest distinctions. He recently received a Grammy, making him the oldest Grammy winner on record bumping George Burns. He had previously been awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy.

But rather than go on and list more of Pinetops achievements, which can be quickly googled, I’d like to share some personal experiences I had with Pinetop over the years. I first met Pinetop and his manager Pat Morgan in 2001 when I was shooting my Delta Bluesmen Project. It was my very first multimedia project where I was shooting still environmental portraits of blues musicians, images and b-roll video of the Mississippi Delta region and interviews of legendary blues musicians from this part of America. I had no idea what I was taking on by myself – I just had this crazy idea that I needed to document these men before they died and I had no time to waste since the youngest was in his 70’s. So, I just decided to do it with the unstoppable enthusiasm of a kid.

When I first contacted Pinetop’s manager Pat to set up an on camera interview with Pine, she quite firmly rejected my request. Pat was very protective of Pinetop and never wanted to overload him with interviews and fan requests and she had already granted an interview to another filmmaker, so I was out of luck. But I was persistent and Pat finally said that I should come to Pinetop’s homecoming party at Hopson’s Plantation in Clarksdale, MS and get what I could catch of Pinetop there. The day of the homecoming, I was allowed to put a lav on Pinetop to get better audio of his interactions with people throughout the day. One reason Pat thought the homecoming would be a good opportunity for me was because Ike Turner was going to be there. Pinetop had taught Ike to play piano during the 1940’s when they were both working at Hopson’s Plantation and this was going to be a true homecoming.

I put the wireless on Pinetop and kind of forgot about it as the day went on. I was roving around the plantation getting great b-roll and then went into the commissary where there was a big music jam going on. I had taken my earphones off outside, but quickly put them back on to protect my hearing in this incredibly loud environment. I dialed the audio way down on the camera mic but Pinetop’s wireless was still loud and clear. All a sudden I heard Pine and Pat talking about giving Ike a little tour and showing him Pinetop’s old sharecropper shack. I glanced around the commissary looking for them and couldn’t see them – I could just hear them. So, I raced outside, camera in hand just in time to see Pat, Pinetop, Ike Turner and a couple of other people walking across the grounds of the plantation headed toward Pinetop’s shack, just as the sun was setting. I caught up to the group and managed to get some great b- roll and audio of this historic moment. With camera running, I followed them inside the shack where Pinetop naturally sat down at the piano and started to play with Ike chiming in. I was in b-roll heaven and just hoping I was getting it right in camera.

After that little tour was over Pat came up to me and told me that she had worked with a lot of photographers and filmmakers over the years but had never seen instincts like mine. She said she was blown away when I just showed up out of nowhere to film this mini event. Then she told me that if I could come by the next morning, I could get an interview with Pinetop. I did come back the next day and spent a memorable morning with Pinetop on the porch of his old shack. I will never forget that morning – the quiet and the warmth of the place and the man and the moment. You can see some of that footage in this 7 minute sample of my film. The still images and video component of that project is still being exhibited around the country.

I’ve stayed in touch with Pat and Pinetop over the years. In 2005 when Pinetop was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Grammy, the producers used some of my interview footage of Pine in his tribute film. I was there with Pinetop and Pat and a whole lot of rock legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and Jimmi Page. Another memory etched in my mind.

The last time I saw Pinetop was at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (aka King Biscuit) in 2009. We were driving somewhere with Pat and she noticed that we had a small army blanket in our car and asked to borrow it for Pinetop that evening. It was a chilly October evening and she didn’t want Pinetop (95 years old then) to get cold that evening as he waited in the wings to go on stage. That night when I was shooting from the photo pit I saw Pinetop sitting just off stage with my army blanket wrapped around him and his customary cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I thought for a second, “I hope he doesn’t burn a hole in my blanket” and then I quickly thought that I wouldn’t mind if he did. In fact if he did burn a hole, I’d be reminded of him every time I saw it. The blanket was returned unscarred – but I still think of Pinetop every time I see that blanket in the back of my car.

I’ll miss you Pinetop. But I sure am glad I got to know you. We’ll always have your music and the wonderful memories you gave us all.

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Monday Morning Quarterbacking

Ok, I’m just going to come right out and say it.  I was one of the few people in America who did NOT watch the Super Bowl yesterday.  Before you try to enlighten me as to the merits of the game and sentence me to watch NFL highlights, let me just say I don’t like football.  Just never got into the touchy feeliness of the sport. And besides, I’m still chained to my editing station – finally starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.

But this morning I couldn’t escape the pundits grading and scoring the Super Bowl commercials as I clicked through the morning programs looking for the “news”.  It was interesting to hear their “take” on what commercials were successful.  Most of the pundits made their assessments through the eyes of their “ad men” (and women) persona, debating which commercials caught the attention of the viewers.

One “expert” frequently commented, “now this one had people telling their friends – be quiet – I want to hear the commercial.  I’m not quite sure what Super Bowl party this person went to, but no doubt it was a party made up of other advertising folks. Now, I’ve had very limited experience attending Super Bowl parties, but as for the ones I have been to – nobody has ever said “be quiet – so I can hear the commercial”.  With that said, as I watched many of the spots this morning via YouTube, some of the most effective commercials required no listening at all. Check out this one for Bridgestone.

I guess the creatives who made this spot go to the same kind of parties as I do –  parties where people don’t ask someone to turn the volume up for the commercials.  Actually, I’ve learned a lot about editing by watching TV commercials with the sound off.  The “story” either becomes apparent – or not.

The New York Times did a pretty good critique of the ads this morning. But what I found most interesting was the running commentary from the “average Joes” via Twitter and Facebook.  No doubt some of these advertising experts were paying as much attention to the social media chatter this morning as Mumbarak’s men were. Hands down, the Chrysler “Detroit” spot won the most hearts – mine included. It drew me in from the start and kept me the entire two minutes.  Imagine that – a two minute commercial! When was the last time you saw that?  A beautiful mini-film told in credible brevity. Quite frankly, to me it would have been just as effective without Eminem or any celebrity for that matter. It evoked emotion – that’s what kept me watching.

At the end of the day, the commercials that resonated most with just about everyone – pundit and laymen alike were the ones that told a simple story that rang true with the human spirit.  Works every time.  To tell those stories, one needs to get out of the meeting rooms and late nights at the office and spend more time living life. Otherwise, what you end up with is a bunch of people creating commercials about what they think life is like.

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Will Your New Year be New?

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.”
– T.S. Eliot

Happy New Year

This is the day that many of us make New Year resolutions. I prefer to look back over the past year and ask myself if I’m on track or on purpose in my life. As I look back, I congratulate myself for my accomplishments and forgive myself for my screw ups. I think about what made me happy and what didn’t. I think about the people in my life – family, friends and work colleagues and how different my life would be without them. I look back at the creative work that I’ve been doing and question – what jobs were satisfying to me and why? Were my creative efforts an expression of who I am and how I see things?

As I look back over 2010, I feel pretty good as far as feeling like I was “on purpose”. The economy was lousy, but I was able to stay afloat and fortunate to be in a position to pursue a “passion project”, that kept me alive creatively and also helped me grow as a human being. But I think the most important part this personal project played in my life was that it pushed me in every way possible and in doing so opened my eyes as to how I want to live my life – the rest of my life, however much time that may be.

None of us know how long we’ll be on this planet Earth. There may not be a next year, when you’ll get around to doing those things that you’re always telling yourself and others that you want to do. All we have is the “now”. So, as I look forward to the New Year and all the promise that it holds, I remind myself that my future is dictated by all those little choices that I make in the “now”.

It’s the little things we do along the way that control the life we live. The choices we make – the way we treat and react to people and circumstances – what we allow in our life that will ultimately determine our year ahead. So, in looking back at the old year, I’m reminded of what did and didn’t work well in my life.

In looking ahead, I won’t be making a list of resolutions, but will try to remember that there will be times, when I need to make those little choices in the “now” along the way. There will be moments when I need ask myself if I should take a job or walk away from it, or times when I need to remind myself that I can’t control how people treat me, I can only control how I react to it. I can only control what I allow in my life. Every day, I’ll be faced with hundreds of little decisions, directions in which to turn that may or may not be good for me. I will try to make the choices that will keep me on purpose.

Like Kenny Rogers sang “You’ve got to know when to hold them – and know when to fold them”. A great metaphor for how to look at life.

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