I have always liked a challenge. Social media, easy access to cameras and a world that is highly influenced by media has made being a photographer easy — the challenge comes with defining yourself as a photographer.
After getting back from Chris Burkard’s Iceland workshop last year, I wanted more. I wanted to meet more inspiring people- people who were able to define themselves as photographers. So in August 2018, I planned a trip to Asheville, North Carolina to meet a fine art photographer and to learn from a different perspective.
Burkard taught me to think with the camera and to capture extreme action and landscape — Park J Pfister taught me to think before the camera — to create a dream and bring it to life.
I was dropped off at a cabin in the woods in Bat Cave, North Carolina on Aug. 9. Sounds like the start of a horror movie, doesn’t it? Well, in a way it was. Why was this situation so horror-movie like? Because the goal for participants of the Parker J Pfister workshop was to be placed in near-impossible situations and to learn from failure; and failing was expected.
The first morning we were greeted with an initial challenge. Pfister took each of his “victims,” one at a time, and presented them with a time restraint scenario. Honestly, waiting my turn was the worst. I had no idea what to expect. When it was finally my turn, I was given two minutes to shoot in four different locations and to convey the word “journey.” To make it more challenging, in the first two rooms we were not allowed to show our model’s face. Two minutes may seem like a decent amount of time to shoot a photo, but believe me, it was definitely not enough time!
In the first location — a bedroom — I had my model, Holly Laster, act like she was walking outside of the door. I used the blinds on the door to hide her face, as instructed, and chose to convey the shot in black and white because I wanted to have a film like essence. Normally, I would decide later if I wanted the shot to be color or black and white in post processing but Pfister asked us to commit to a single shot and to edit it in camera so that our final product was what came straight off of the SD card. I wanted to convey “journey” by having her step outside and into the light. This shows how a person can overcome their darkness, open a new door and step into the brilliant light of the future. Now, scrambling to the second room – don’t forget the clock is ticking.
My eyes scanned what was a bathroom. How was I going to convey “journey” in the bathroom? I saw a window, a tiled floor, even a toilet, and then it dawned on me. I saw exactly what I needed. Thirty seconds left, and I picked up a box of tissues.
I told Laster to rip through the tissue like she was breaking through or overcoming something. Like seeing the light at the end of a tunnel. Again she had to be anonymous, so I had her hold the tissue in front of her face. When there was a slight hole in the tissue, her “journey” began and I clicked. I conveyed the journey of a woman breaking through a wall, the tissue, to show herself off and to show that she wasn’t afraid to be hidden anymore. We rushed into the hallway and were greeted with an alarm. I had only made it through half of the challenge. I failed...
To my surprise, Pfister walked over to me and hugged me. “You failed, and you were victorious,” he said. He was proud that I found a way to convey my word “journey” with a tissue and take the time to think outside of the box even though did not complete the challenge.
Ready to fail again in the next scene of this horror movie, we stepped outside of our little cabin to the waterfalls and forests that surrounded us. We were given another time restriction, our location was limited to a small radius, and we had to convey movement. Instead of sitting there anxious like last time, I decided to start planning my shot. I watched as the other photographers took their turn, and I scoped out all the angles.
When I found my spot, I planned out what I wanted the image to look like in my head. I wanted to use the falls in our radius to capture movement, and I wanted the model to almost be a part of the water. When a fellow photographer finished, I raised my hand to go next. Unlike the first challenge, I was not on the spot when I picked up my camera. I knew exactly what I wanted to create, and I led Laster down into the water and had her lean into the waterfall. I had her lift and bend her leg so that her blue dress looked like the water flowing off of rocks around her. I had her look down so that her eyes stayed in the frame and did not directly connect with viewers. I wanted her to be on her own, isolated in nature, and not inviting others to join her. I clicked with a few seconds to spare. I felt like I improved my time management, and even though I only got three clicks with her in the pose, I did not feel like I failed but had the courage to step out of my comfort zone and plan the shot before I picked up my camera.
Feeling more confident but still uneasy with time constraints, we welcomed our next challenge with a bride and groom. This was definitely new to me. I had never done wedding photography before, and I was unsure how this was going to go. The group headed down to a stream, and the idea of the challenge was to keep them in the same location and for each one of us to tell an entirely different story. Some used the river to separate them to show a sense of longing, others had them kiss on top of a rock above the world and when it was my turn, I found myself walking down the river to find a rock in the middle. Once I found it, I could step out into the river and shoot down towards them. I didn’t really want to tell an obvious story. I didn’t want to show the kiss or them looking at each other. You see those all the time. Instead, I wanted to create a feeling. People always say that the world is spinning when you are in love. That’s what I decided to go with, and I told it from the groom’s perspective. I had the bride stand up on a rock because in a relationship it is very common for you to put the other one above you and to think of their needs first. I had his back to me and had him look solely at his girl as though nothing else mattered. Then I wanted to show the spin. I focused my camera on the couple, slowed down the shutter and then spun my camera. It definitely took several shots, and the odds of me getting one that I liked was very unlikely. I can’t always control where the spin is, and with that being said, the couple could have been too blurred. I was ready to fail but I didn’t let that stop me. I had to let the fear of failing and not getting a “good” photo go and just try something new and original — something where there was a risk.
Ultimately, I learned you can’t be afraid to fail. Pfister taught us that if we don’t fail we aren’t growing or trying new things. Failure is not a bad thing; it is not a horror movie, it is just part of the creative process. Failing is still scary, but the images you get from going outside of the box and taking risks are much more inhuman. They are spectacular and it leaves people wondering how you did it. It creates this extraordinary thing that even after someone puts the photo down they still think about it, it leaves them wanting more. One more thing I learned, is that if you have a vision, stick with it. You should shoot photography or make art for yourself and not for others. It doesn’t matter what others think; it matters what you think about your work. Does it represent you? That means you have to take what you have and make it work.
If you see model Casey Puhr dressed like she just walked out of “The Great Gatsby,” and you are shooting on a cabin porch, you might have to pick up a black welcome mat to get the look you want. You have to think outside of the box and you have to fuel your own creativity. What I guess I am saying is everyone is creative and that in order to take your trade to the next step you cannot be afraid to fail and you have to shoot for yourself.
According to Google, a camera is “a device for recording visual images in the form of photographs, film, or video signals.” However, that is not what a camera is to me. A camera is a tool that I can use to force people to see something the way I do. It is my chance to make people look at my perspective and hear my voice. I want to shoot for myself more and force people to look at things that matter to me.
In October 2018, I will be heading to Australia for the next couple months. I will be participating in Youth With A Mission, a discipleship training chool for photography and videography. That means that the next six months I can define myself, my faith and my voice with a camera without any distractions. This will be my chance to try and define myself as a person and with a camera.
Sydney Warner is the Montrose Daily Press’ multimedia journalist.