My Top 3 Tips for Photographers and Filmmakers

I’ve had a long career with a lot of successes and failures. Gail in Window1983Here are 3 tips with examples of lessons I learned along the way.

Get rid of the resistance in your life – Long before I became a photographer, I was on a different path. I was studying architecture at Syracuse University. During the summer of my sophomore year, my friend and I went on a hitchhiking journey to Canada. Along the way, we met and stayed with people we met. I remember one such stay very well. It was pouring outside and we decided to just hang out, rather than face the elements. There were quite a few other travelers sitting around the room, smoking dope and talking about what everyone talked about those days – their disenchantment with the war (Vietnam) and everything else that was status quo, when one fellow erupted and said – “I’m sick and tired of hearing the same old complaints – why don’t you all do something about it.” That stayed with me my whole life. To this day, I try to get rid of the whiners in my life and be the one who does something. My proudest achievement to date has been making the documentary Opening Our Eyes, a film about individuals who are creating positive change.

Don’t hide your vulnerabilities – It took me a long time before I could tell anyone one of my biggest embarrassments, but when I did it was liberating. I was working on an assignment about Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. I had made an appointment to photograph Walter Cronkite, who was a well-known figure on Martha’s Vineyard. The day before our scheduled appointment, I called Mr. Cronkite to confirm. This was way before cell phones and email and even before everyone had answering machines and his phone just rang and rang and rang. I kept calling throughout the day and the same thing happened. By evening, I was upset because I thought that Mr. Cronkite had stood me up. That night, I had a terrible feeling. I thought perhaps that when I had re-written my production notes and contact info for the job, I might have written down the wrong number for Cronkite. I had kept my old notes and discovered that I had been calling the wrong number all day. Imagine how horrified I was when I discovered that it was I who had stood up Walter Cronkite – not the other way around. I called the correct number, Walter answered and I was profusely apologetic as I explained the situation. He was kind and understanding and rescheduled and then he said, “Why didn’t you look me up in the phone book?” I replied that I assumed someone of his stature would not be listed.   I learned never to make assumptions. It took me years before I could tell anyone this story. It’s really hard to admit mistakes but when you do, you gain trust.

Be who you are – not who you aren’t – I had just graduated from Brooks Institute and I wanted to pursue my passions. I wanted to be a photojournalist and use my craft to gain access to a world full of stories. Before I enrolled at Brooks, I had spent a year backpacking around the world. I had one camera and one lens and came back with my snapshots and a whole lot of desire. But it was a bad time for magazine photojournalism – Life Magazine had just folded (the second time) and everyone was telling me that if I wanted to make a living as a photographer, I needed to do commercial work. I bought into that and built a pretty good commercial photography portfolio. Then I went to see legendary NY photographer Jay Maisel, a man known for being blunt. He looked at my work, threw a print at me and told me it was “garbage”. Then he asked me if this was what I wanted to do.  I told him no, that I wanted to be a photojournalist but that everyone had been telling me to pursue commercial work. He asked me how old I was and I replied “25” and then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises”. It changed my life and I remind myself every day to be who I am and dream big, even though I may have to settle for less.


When “We” Became “Me”

It started happening after JFK was assassinated, followed by Martin Luther King’s death and finally the brutal slaying of JFK’s brother, Robert in the kitchen of a hotel in Los Angeles.  We were beginning to shift from a culture of “we” that began after the troops came back from the “big war – WWII” and everyone wanted to get back to normal life – having families, friends, and earn enough money to take a vacation every year, pay your bills and be able to educate your kids so that they would have a chance at a better life.

I was a kid in the fifties and it was a time when there was a real sense of community – definitely a “we” feeling in many ways.  Our backyards all connected into one big play field for all the kids in the neighborhood with the “woods” being the un-chartered territory beyond. We ran free, till dark, feeling like our own tribe of “we” with our own set of rules. Everyone pretty much looked out for one another –parents looked out for their neighbors’ kids, kids watched out for other kids, moms helped out other moms and dads the same.  We had a sense of community.

In the late sixties things began to change.  The Vietnam War was in full swing, along with the Civil Rights Movement and student unrest was building to the “Arab Spring” of its times. Our dreams were beginning to fade – our friends were coming home in body bags, our cities and neighborhoods were being destroyed during the riots of the late sixties, and our leaders were assassinated, one after another.  A shift was starting to happen.  We were becoming divided.  Fences and hedges started to divide our backyards, breaking up that once endless playing field.  We were starting to become more about “me.”

As a culture we roared through the 80’s and 90’s following a path as a society that believed that in order to win, others had to lose.  We became greedy, thinking only of our personal gain and caring little how that affected others. The divide among us has exceeded beyond what most of us would have ever thought possible.  We have made an art of  “ how to get nothing done” with our political system and no one is getting anywhere.  We are expending so much negative energy and if we don’t turn that around, we are all doomed.

I’m not a pessimist – just the opposite. I think if we can all just stop and flip our mindset into what we “can do”, instead of slamming the “other guy”, we just might be able to turn things around.  I see a younger generation, the 25-30 year olds who are thinking more in terms of the “we”, and getting away from the “me” mentality.  I have great hopes for this generation. We are at a turning point.  I’d like to look back at this time 10 years from now and say to myself  “I’m glad I did something.”

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How a Film Can Make a Difference

I never fully realized the power that is within me to make a difference, until recently.  Last summer, my daughter and I spent time with extraordinary people who were providing homes for orphans, feeding the hungry and curing the ill.  They were all people we met while making a documentary about the change makers in our world – people who are making our planet a better place.

Our goal was to inspire and motivate others as to what they can do to make a difference in their own communities. Our goal was to cause a shift, in culture and in thought – from “what in it for me?” to “what can I do?” We’ve just begun to submit this documentary to film festivals and show sneak previews to small audiences but I can already tell that this film has affected change and the potential it has to move people to action.

From our first sneak preview at the beautiful State Theater in Traverse City, MI to a recent screening at MIS in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I feel the energy in the room and the collective desire to strive for a better world.  I feel the power of film and the power within me as a storyteller and filmmaker. I feel the time for this film is now and that people are hungry for hope.

Many documentaries take the critical point of view and certainly have more conflict. Opening Our Eyes is different from other docs in that it shines a light on what IS being done to create positive change by individuals all over the world.  Somehow by showing the small acts, this film makes all of us believe that we can create change as well. It empowers us to believe in the possibilities and gives us the hope we seem to be yearning for these days.

When I first conceived of the idea for this film, inspired by friend and neighbor Maggie Doyne, I was looking for some positive hope myself.  I was tired of listening to the hundreds of “experts” on TV talking and all of them needing to be “right” – and nothing was getting any better. That was long before the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. What I was sensing was the rest of the world was feeling the same way I was and decided to do something about it.

Time will tell if the film continues to create awareness and moves people to action, but at least I’m hopeful again.

Please consider supporting our effort by making a contribution to our IndieGoGo campaign, which only has a few weeks, left to go. And it’s tax deductible.

We can’t do it without your help.

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Crowd Funding and What I’ve Learned

There’s a scene at the end of my favorite holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”

It's a Wonderful Life

where George Bailey, a character played by Jimmy Stewart is surrounded by his friends as they come to his aid and bail him out of his financial shortcomings, caused by his crazy Uncle Billy. I’ve seen this film at least a dozen times and ok – I admit it – I cry every time George Bailey’s little girl opens a book that mysteriously appears under the Christmas tree with the inscription “No man is a failure who has friends”.

I felt like George Bailey today when I saw the email from Kickstarter telling me that my daughter’s and my film project, Opening Our Eyes had been officially funded.  We actually exceeded our goal of $7500 and raised just over $10,000! What a feeling – what a triumph and all possible because of our “friends”. Through crowd funding – our friends had helped us reach our goal and made our film a reality.

This would not have been possible just two years ago.  But, Kickstarter and other crowd funding sites like it, provide other options for artists and entrepreneurs who are seeking funds to make their creative ideas come to life. Many times these ideas might not fit within the confines of what a traditional bank would finance, but there are some great ideas that have a chance now of becoming a reality –  and we all benefit by that.

Here are some things that I have learned through the process of getting our film funded on Kickstarter.

•    You have to do the work.  Once you launch your project page on Kickstarter, you need to let potential backers know about it, using social media or email blasts or word of mouth.  Just like getting traffic to your website, you can’t expect people to stumble upon your project and fund it.
•    You have to make it fun.  Have fun with the “rewards” that you offer your backers, and on Kickstarter every project must have rewards.  People love to give, but they also love to feel like they are part of something or that they have helped to make something happen.  If a backer contributed to my project at the $500 reward level, they will receive an Associate Producer credit in the film and on the project’s website, along with DVD’s of the film when it’s completed, as well as a signed print and an e-book from the project’s journey.
•    Keep your financial goal realistic.  Look at other projects that are similar to yours and see what the “market will bear”.  See what has been successful and ask yourself why. Remember that if you ask for too much money and don’t meet 100% of your goal by the time the funding period is over for your project, then you won’t receive anything.  Only projects that are successfully funded at 100%, will receive funds.
•    Use social media and email blasts with common sense – don’t be obnoxious.  If you do send emails – don’t send  an email again to someone who has already backed your project.  Ask people to share your project link on social media but don’t overdo it.
•    Post updates on your project to keep your backers and potential backers informed.  Use visuals if you have them,  both on your page site as well as in your updates. Photographs and videos really give a project presence and are a must have. You want to stand out from the crowd.
•    There is no such thing as a pledge too small.  They say the average pledge on Kickstarter is around $25 and I can attest to that.  Out of our 161 backers – 69 had made pledges of $25.  It all adds up.  And every time someone backs your project there is also the opportunity that they may share it with someone they know who may in turn make a contribution.
•    Be grateful and appreciative.  I made it a point to send each and every one of my backers a personal thank you note.
•    Have faith – because anything is truly possible these days.

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Shooting Video in the Field with the Canon 5D Mark II

The first two days of our Round the World Journey, shooting the documentary Opening Our Eyes has been quite full and I’ve faced numerous situations – really putting my tools to the test.

Our first full day was spent at the offices of Wrap Up Africa, which are located in Kampala, Uganda. In addition to shooting b-roll of tailors at work, we shot several interviews. Our main interview was with Wrap Up Africa’s founder, Letha Sandison, followed by interviews of a couple of her staff members. We also did interviews of some of the cancer victims that Letha has helped. Here is where I not only needed to be attentive to my technical details but be sensitive to the situation and the people that I was interviewing. Hearing some of their stories is heartbreaking and hard for many Americans to fathom. Sure, we all watch the travesties taking place throughout the world on the nightly news, but it’s quite another experience to speak with people who have experienced horrendous tragedies in their lives that are simply unimaginable.

One woman, Evelyn who works for Letha had been abducted and held captive by the LRA, which stands for the Lord’s Resistance Army, and is not exactly a charitable group. She managed to escape after most of her family had been killed in front of her. She is now raising three orphans who had been victims as well and works with Letha, helping others.

Our set up was simple and deliberately so. I set up the Canon 5D Mark II and captured my audio separately with the H4N Zoom. I had two mics – one shotgun on a small boom stand and another lav. I will sync them later in post. We chose a room that had ample window light as we are traveling with only a small camera light and nothing else. Our biggest challenge was that the cabinet installer decided to do his work the day we were shooting – so the sounds of hammering and drilling made up our ambient background sound. But the mics were placed close to our subjects and did a pretty good job of boosting their audio above the din of the environment.

The next situation we faced was shooting b-roll in the dirty environments of a potter’s studio and a foundry. Again we used the Zoom to pick up the ambient sound of the environments. After a morning with the artists, we packed up quickly and headed to Mulago Hospital to visit the children’s cancer ward. We were not allowed to shoot video but we did shoot some still images and was happy to have the hybrid cameras that captured beautiful files – far better than frame grabs from a traditional video camera.

Then we headed to the market, which as usual is always a trying experience. For anyone who has traveled to congested third world environments, you know what I mean by “trying experience”. You must be aware of your personal belongings at all times, while shooting and I wish at times that I had eyes in the back of my head. On top of that I’m sensitive to those that don’t want to be photographed. It’s exhausting but at the same time exhilarating because of the exotic nature of the environment. My daughter wore the GoPro Hero helmet cam that is a tiny camera made for adventure sports but she had a lot of fun walking through the market recording the event with running video as we walked through the market.

I was shooting video with the Canon 5D Mark II and used a shotgun mic on top of the camera and run through a JuicedLink audio mixer. I’m embarrassed to say that somehow, even after lots of testing – I came back with no audio! Luckily the helmet cam Hero picked up very good ambient audio so I’m able to use that and layer it in post. In the chaos and confusion of the market, I probably didn’t set it up right and today I will do additional testing so as not to make that mistake in the future. But the video was captured beautifully and I will interweave those clips into the documentary with sound from the interviews and ambient sound from the Hero.

I am realizing one thing though and that there is nothing easy or streamlined when shooting video with these hybrid cameras. The results are stunning, but the shoot and workflow are much more tedious than when shooting with a video camera. Perhaps at the end of this three-month journey, I’ll be singing a different tune – I certainly hope so.

I’ll keep you posted as I get access to the Internet, which is iffy, and we’ve been off line for the last two days. But there’s something humbling about being off the grid and I’m learning to take it in stride and appreciate what I have. Today is Sunday and we are resting and storing up a bit of energy for the coming week. Please read more about our journey at Opening Our Eyes.

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Looking For People Making a Difference

Maybe it started after seeing James Natchwey speak at Photo Plus Expo – the desire to create awareness with my camera. But I think it started long ago and in fact goes back to my roots and why I wanted to be a photographer. Simply put, I know that a camera can be a powerful tool in bringing awareness to a cause and with that the ability to bring about change.

I’ve always been interested in the power of the individual, those that are so passionate about a conviction they let nothing stop them. One young woman Maggie Doyne who graduated from high school with my daughter 5 years ago, decided to travel instead of going off to college. She wound up in a small village in Nepal and using her babysitting money, started a school/orphanage for Nepalese children orphaned by war. Learn more about Maggie’s Kopila Valley Children’s Home.

But what’s equally impressive about Maggie is that she speaks to students about how they can make a difference, thus planting seeds in the minds of our youth. That’s a powerful thing and each one of those people she speaks to has the potential do something that could make a difference.

This leads me to the point of this blog and how you can help. I’m embarking on an international project – to make a documentary that features people who are truly making a difference around the world. I am currently searching for those people who have a compelling story to tell. For this project, I am not looking for those who are specifically working for an NGO or some type of organization, such as the Peace Corps, because their stories – the stories of those organizations – have already been widely told.

I am searching for individuals who have embarked on their own personal projects to help make the world a better place – people who have followed their passions, ambitions, dreams, to start something that they care about. Their projects do not have to be massive or overly ambitious – it could be something as basic as restoring old churches in Russia. The people can be natives of their country or expatriates, young or old. Ideally, I would like to find 7 people, one on each continent.

So, if you know someone who is making a difference, please let me know. And if you don’t know someone, please pass this blog along and get the word out virally. My hope is that by using my skills to tell these stories, I will play my part in paying it forward.

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