The Stories Just Below the Surface- finding a photo essay that’s staring you in the face

Everyone has a story.  An overused statement, but true.  Every person has an interesting aspect of their lives and a story to tell.  Sometimes those stories are right in front of us and we just need to open our eyes and look at our surroundings a little different.

Its been a little while since I’ve actually done a documentary photography project, just for the sake of itself.  I’ve spent the last few months wandering about and I’ve run across some good stories but none that leaped out at me and said- “here I am and I’m a fascinating story!”  In fact, most of the stories to this point have been excellent as a written story, which has been a wonderful, happy accident.

But now I’ve landed in this odd little community that seems to have a story under every rock and every RV and its almost overwhelming to know where to start.  I have several story ideas that have been bouncing around in my head since my last visit seven years ago, and while I will incorporate them into the larger story, just knowing where to start and with what person or subject is a challenge.

My Aunt and her cousin playing Skip-Bo before dinner.

My Aunt and her husband's cousin playing Skip-Bo before dinner.

Several nights ago, I sat around the dinner table with my aunt and her friends playing cards and talking about their day.  My aunt had prepared the ingredients for a stir-fry but had yet to start cooking, they were engrossed in their game of Skip-Bo.  My uncle is a man who takes charge when he has a desired outcome, and for a man in his mid-eighties, this has taken him far in life.  So, he just walks over to the stove and starts turning on the burners and fiddling with the food.  My aunt is fussing at him and laughing at the same time, trying to wrestle him out of the the tiny kitchen of the single wide trailer and win her card game.  I started to take photos with my cell phone and as I was composing my pictures, it hit me.  This is my story.  Its right in front of me.

My uncle initiating dinner preparations.

My family owns an RV park in the deserts of Arizona in a town where the population swells from a few thousand to a million during January and February when the snowbirds and the swap meets and gem stone traders all converge on this tiny little town.  Its a clash of so many demographics it boggles the mind when you first arrive.  My uncle bought the RV park, named Happy J’s, many decades ago and has kept his park simple and family oriented.   The surrounding parks have all expended and embraced modernity, adding WiFi and other amenities.  The main house, or single wide trailer is where they stay and is a community gathering location for the residents of the RV park, many of whom are in their 70s and 80s.  Soup luncheons, family style dinners and coffee on the porch are a regular occurrence.  And each person that lives here, be it for a couple months in the winter or year round, has almost a century of history within them.

One of the couples left to return to their home and most of the park stopped by to say goodbye.  They had reserved this spot for many years and made it their second home.  But due to the husband’s failing health, they decided to vacate their beloved spot and return to their permanent home near their children in Colorado.  It was rather sad to watch, because for many of them, this could be their last goodbye.  I started to look at the community a little differently in watching this farewell and began to ask some internal questions.

Will the generation behind this one pick up the retirement reins and follow suit or is this the final generation that will be able to retire and live this lifestyle?  Will there be more people embracing this alternative lifestyle later in life or will they be unable to leave their lifestyles behind for this simpler way of living?  Or will my generation get fed up with the system that was created and implemented by this older generation and embrace their mode of retirement earlier in our lives?

So, my project will be about Happy J’s trailer park.  And will branch into the community through the members of the park, Jack the manager and president of the Gem and Mineral Club, Roma, the sweet little woman in the corner trailer who is a Bingo hound and loves to gamble, and the few who I have yet to meet but whose stories are fascinating- I’m sure.

I believe there is a broader story as well about the town, an essay about Quartzsite.  The Reader’s Oasis with the owner who is a nudist and wears just a hat and shoes to work, the born again christian of the Rainbow Family who bikes to every destination and has chose a life without possessions, the vendors who sell their wares at the local swap meet, the daily auction under the big tent and the desert golf tournament (desert golf involves one club and getting the ball in the giant circle in the sand that surrounds the “hole”).

So, I am going to take you on the journey with me as I document these stories.  I will post an article or essay on the days that I shoot and talk about both the process and the subjects.  I will be shooting black and white film- yes, FILM! And will also take you through that process- once the processing starts.  Join me on the journey of creating a photo essay.  could be interesting!

Carnie Fred, the Greyhound & the Gold Prospector

Carnie Fred

Gusts of air wafted at me from the row of seats a few yards away.  I held my breath and assessed the large man in his late fifties surrounded by plastic bags of his belongings and a child’s backpack.  My internal storyteller instantly compiled a possible scenario of how this man ended up sprawled on a row of benches in the Phoenix Greyhound Bus station at 1:30 am.  I continued to hold my breathe trying to avoid his fanned air and returned to the final pages of my book.  Thirty minutes later, I stood up to stretch a little bit and apparently that proved to open the floodgates from the man in front of me.

“Are you married, How old are you?” Just as before on the Amtrak when JoMamma graced me with her presence, I slowly removed my ear buds and implied that I was really involved in my music– to no avail.

“No- you’re in your 30s and not married, how is that so?  Will you marry me? No, seriously.  Marry me.  I get a check from the government each month.  That’s why I’m here in Phoenix, I have to go to Bank of America and pick it up.  I got that Bank of America in my pocket.  I’m serious.  I can make you happy, marry me.  Give me your number.  Really.  We can go somewhere.  I work the carnivals, run the rides.  I’ll make you happy, you’re really not married?”

“What do you do?  Oh, you’re a writer?”  I began creating my make-believe persona for him and shared fictitious details.  “Really, I’ve got a story for you, I’ve got a big story.  Its huge, if people knew what I knew, well, they wouldn’t know what to do, its huge.  If people knew.  I don’t know what they’d do.  But I’ve got a story.  A big one, a real big story.  You’d be famous, really famous, a huge writer.

At this point, I just started slowly trying to figure out my exit strategy. I looked at the woman behind me, maybe I could just start talking to her and then walk away from the crazy conversation.  She was having none of it.  No eye contact, no acknowledgment that I was even standing in front of her.

“I used to work the carnival in Virginia, and Washington, and Portland, and California, I ran the rides.  I can get you a job at the ticket booth. I’m friends with the owners, the millionaire owners.  They like me alot and let me work the rides at lots of their carnivals.  My cousin is a hair dresser in DC, he does wigs and stuff, do you need a wig, no, you don’t need a wig, you have nice hair.  He could style your hair for you, I can set that up, won’t charge you anything.  DC is great, I used to work at Tyson Chicken in Richmond, VA.  Do you eat Tyson chicken?  Can I get your number, I have a huge story, if people knew what I knew, I’m smart, people don’t think so, but I’m smart.  If people knew, boy, what they would do if they knew I knew.  Its a huge story.  You’d be famous.  A real famous writer, the most famous writer in the world, if you knew what I knew.”

For twenty minutes or longer, Carnie Fred spat out different variations of these statements.  At this point he was getting a little agitated by what he knew and what people would do if they knew what he knew and a little too excited, so I figured now was the time to politely make an excuse to get to the other side of the station.  He would almost instantly forget this transaction, so just sitting on the other side of the room was not a big deal.

“I have to go make a phone call.  It was nice talking to you.” I slowly gathered my things so as to not seem anxious to flee this insane conversation.

“Give me your number, no really.  Do you remember my name.  I can make you famous.  Seriously, just write down your number.”  I smiled and said that I didn’t have a cell phone.  I walked over to the phone booth and pretended to make a phone call.  After a couple of minutes I sat next to the phones, clear across the room and made a sideways glance at Carnie Fred.  Making eye contact could reactivate the desire for Carnie Fred to come talk at me some more.  Luckily, he had dozed off already sitting in his seat surrounded by the plastic shopping bags of his belongings and shoes that were too small to lace up.

Wow.  I don’t even know where to take the possibilities of writing his character into a sitcom one day.  That’s just too rich.  During his conversation at me, my internal voices were having their own conflicted dialogue.  My little internal storyteller was like yes- jackpot- milk it and get more information about his life story, this is fascinating.  My common sense voice worked on the exit strategy, my inner cynic was in denial that this was actually happening at 2 am at a Greyhound station in downtown Phoenix and wondering if my forehead really does have a billboard that says “crazy people start talking now.”  Eventually the common sense voice won the argument, justifying the merits of actually talking to Carnie Fred for another hour and a half before my bus left.  Maybe if my brain wasn’t deprived of vital hours of sleep, I might have delved into the conversation with Carnie Fred.  But alas, this was not to be.

A McDonald’s Fruit Platter?
When I finally boarded the bus, I handed my luggage to the bus attendant.  I told him my destination and he laughed and shouted, “Quartzsite” to his buddies, implying that wow, someone is actually getting of this Los Angeles bound bus in the middle of nowhere.  The workers must have an ongoing pool about people who actually travel to Quartzsite.  The bus driver dropped me off two hours later in Quartzsite at a McDonalds and with a smile he said we’ll see you next time.

RV Park in Quartzsite from the Blackberry

RV Park in Quartzsite from the Blackberry

An elderly cowboy held up by the familiar brick wall of the Golden Arches and took a deep drag off his cigarette causing his skeletal frame to shake beneath his proper white cowboy hat. I entered the domain of the McDonalds and stood staring at the menu, trying to decide which breakfast would hurt the least.

“You don’t have to hold those bags, you can just set them next to your table.  No one will take them,” the immaculately dressed cowboy stated as he shuffled past me, his shoulders hunched from 80 or more years of a rough life.  The implied message of ‘you’re not in the big city anymore’ sunk in and I realized that I have arrived in the oddity that is Quartzsite.

“He’s still going,” stated the woman behind the counter as she looked at the cowboy while she slowly separated a large stack of coffee filters.

“Fill me up,” grumbled another local senior as he shuffled up to this woman.  She gave him some grief, in a playful manner that indicated many mornings had passed with the same ritual.  He turned away after his refill and glanced at me.  “She always gives me a hard time.”

I ordered the only fruit platter in the joint and some espresso.  Being the youngest by 30 years, except for the employees, I felt out of place as I set up my temporary office with my laptop, crackberry and espresso.  And fruit- who orders fruit at McDonalds?

Small groups of retired folks gathered around booths and tables drinking their morning coffee and biscuits.  The group of cowboys sat in a plush semi circular booth fixated on a flat screen with Fox “News” and talked about gall bladder infections and the occasional Fox “News” talking point.

As I opened my laptop, a man sat across from me seeking advice about his computer.  We talked about some of his gold prospecting and the books he authored on the topic and I directed him to the wonderful world of E-Books and E-Junkie.  He glanced at my book, Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klien and commented about tragedy of declining capitalism in our country.  Unbeknownst to him, I am a Liberal of the strongest kind- one of those ‘intellectual elitists’ that certain news shows claim are the devil and that book stated the case that to implement free market capitalism, violence, wars and disasters were necessary.  He said he just read Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck’s books and they were just excellent writers.  Wow.  At this point, I have no comment and just gave a polite smile while my internal cynic, storyteller and common sense voices all engaged in a shouting match of proper responses.  No prevailing voice won and I just heaved a deep and sad internal sigh.

“Our country is in a world of trouble.  Won’t matter much to me, I’m old and won’t be around for most of it.  But you’re gonna have to deal with it,” stated the gold prospector.

Don’t I know it.

The Details of Our Lives & the Catalysts We Become Along the Way

Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.  ~ Hemingway

I’m going to take a moment and delve into this quote for a bit.  I’m sure this topic has been written about extensively in the past, but every so often, I like to contemplate this point.

As a person who tends to value her nomadic tendencies over stability, quotes like this become a security blanket when things get a little grey.  So, I tend to reflect back on all the details of my life, how I’ve lived and if I died tomorrow, what would be my epitaph.  What would people who knew me say?

Playful Cousins

Playful Cousins

An interesting question.  For an artist, I’d like to reflect on a career of tear-sheets from amazing magazines, a couple pulitzers and maybe an award winning documentary or two- yes, I think Oscar needs to sit on my desk one day.  As a writer, maybe a nobel prize in literature or a best seller would help me feel that sense of achievement that has actual tangible recognitions from society attached to them.  Alas, I have achieved none of those moments of greatness- yet.  So, what do I reflect upon when I think of the details that distinguish my life from the person sitting next to me in the coffee shop?

Stories. Lots of stories.  Stories gathered from spending 15 years doing random things and traveling to the far reaches of America and the world beyond.  I look back on all the people I’ve met in my travels-people whose names escape me but with whom I shared true moments of time.  The old fisherman from Alaska who took my for a ride on his Harley in the deserts of Arizona; the driver from Madaba, Jordan who took me all over his town and would stop traffic to come say hello when I was walking down the street in his town;  the woman I photographed for a morning in the hills of Nepal who shared her precious, limited breakfast with me;  the man who shared beers with me on an late night Amtrak and told me the story of the love of his life passing away in his arms or the night I spend with fellow travelers on top of a Himalayan ridge in a chai walla, drinking chai, playing chess and listening to the World Cup on a radio.  Those are the details that have made my life rich.

People. My friends and family.  I can look back at the people I’ve shared moments with, people I’ve loved and laughed with, and feel a sense of fulfillment.  I’m inherently shy, but I was graced by my parents with their love of people and their desires to be social.  Conversation was a high commodity of my home and it was implied that you would partake in a soda, a beer or two or some coffee and conversation with my father on the porch.  Its just the way we were.  So, as an adult, I’ve been blessed with a wide and diverse group of friends.  I look at these interactions as a major detail that makes my life rich beyond anything that money could provide.  And I look at some of these friendships and see that our paths were altered by our crossings.

Catalysts.  I enjoy being a catalyst in people’s lives.  In a good way, of course.  I value this as, hopefully, a major contribution to people’s lives.  We all have catalysts in our lives.  Sometimes it’s an event, sometimes it’s a person; but those catalysts leave us altered.  Hopefully for the better.  I have a dear friend, a soul mate, who is also a catalyst.  She touches people’s lives and they are never quite the same again- her energy just makes people happy and calm.  My mom was blessed with this trait too and I like to think she has passed it along to her two daughters- though its manifestation in us is a little different than in her.  Point being, to be a catalyst in someone’s life that pushes them to see beyond their reality, to embrace the possibilities of their life, to question their role in society and how they live their life, is an amazing gift.  We all have the potential to be a catalyst and I believe that if you can look back on your life and see the positive catalysts that you’ve left behind- be it upon a large population that benefited from your giving or in individual lives that you’ve touched, through actions and words- than you’ve had a life well led.

So when I contemplate the bylines and awards that have yet to be written on my CV, I look to the stories I’ve gathered and shared over the years and I smile.  I look to the family and friends I am touched by and my heart is warmed.  I look to the catalysts I’ve created with those that I’ve interacted with and I think, if I were to face my mortality tomorrow, I’ve had a life well led.

And when I look at the heart-breaking images from Haiti, I wonder, what were the details of that person lying under the white sheet.  What were the catalysts that person left behind?  And what details will never be?

What are your details?  What moments and stories distinguish you from the person next to you?  If you were to leave this world tomorrow, what would people say about your life?

7 Essential Equipment Needs for the Nomadic Digital Photographer & Storyteller

I’ll be placing my digital nomadic visual journalist hat on for this entry.  Whew, a mouthful.

Packing is an art-form and for the digital storyteller, packing is one part art, one part physics and one part miracle.  Anyone who has had to sprint through the Atlanta concourse lugging 40+ pounds of gear in order to catch the last connecting flight home after 4 days of flying from the far reaches of the world can attest to the essential art of packing.

Carrying a Heavy Load in Sangihe, Indonesia

Carrying a Heavy Load in Sangihe, Indonesia

I’m going to look at the essential hardware elements needed to produce your visual content on the road, with weight and space as major elements of concern.

1.  The Still Camera. Obviously, this is one of the most important parts.  Let’s assume that you don’t have the shiny new 5D Mark II which makes this a non-issue. Are you more of a videographer and less of a still photographer?  Then lugging your DSLR might not be the best option for you.  Leica (go to the site and drool, just a little) and Canon both have excellent point and shoot hybrid cameras that can meet your multimedia needs without having to lug the DSLR and all her lenses around in your travels.  The more non-essential elements you can compress into one device, both in size and usability the better.

But for the DSLR shooter whose work is heavily weighted in still photography, the essential hardware will entail the camera (Captain obvious here) a wide zoom and a telephoto.  Or, if you’re shooting heavily for editorial outlets, you’ll want two bodies for each main lens.  Two bodies, a 16-35 mm zoom and 70-200 mm zoom and one portrait lens should do; plus batteries a flash and more batteries. That should fill your bags and your weight limit.  Add your laptop and you’re looking at 40+ lb.  At this point, you’ll want to debate the merits of shooting video as well and the size of your audio equipment.  Or arrange a porter/Sherpa for your destination- not likely.

I often have this camera debate, as I am conflicted when it comes to my DSLR.  I would prefer to shoot my still digital images with one camera at a fixed focal length of 28 mm.  The technology is almost at an acceptable level with the higher end point and shoots and smaller 4/3rds SLR cameras that this goal of one small multimedia device is almost attainable for me.  I would prefer to shift my limited weight capacity and space for my film SLR, my 28 mm and 20-50 rolls of BW film.
2.  The Video Gear. Assuming you’re shooting heavily on the stills, I’d stick to a small consumer camcorder that shoots HD.

I use a Canon Vixia HV30 that shoots on HD tapes and it fits well in my bag and is very light.  I am about to use this for stills as well and test out its ability to shoot small short form street multimedia videos (the Crackberry is only so fulfilling as a multimedia tool).  This topic is open for debate as is its still camera brethren.  If you are a heavy video shooter, you’re video gear will go beyond the scope of this article and you may not have any room left for all the fancy still gear from the above point.

3.  The Audio Kit. This, for me, is almost as essential as the still camera.  If you are a heavy still shooter, you can almost eliminate or minimize the video footage as long as you have excellent audio gear.  Audio is key.  Because no, you can’t just slap some music to your documentary images and have a story.  You need to put the audience in the room with your subject.  And this is done through sounds and the subject’s own words.

Marantz is still one of the best audio device producers with the Olympus Zoom running closely behind.  I have worked with both of the Marantz devices used by most journalists today and chose to invest in the smallest version.  Its not perfect, but the size is.  You will also want some excellent headphones and a shotgun mic.  These are not cheap and they take up valuable space, but they are essential to capturing quality audio.  I always bring two backup XLR cords plus adapters and a cheap backup mic.  And if I’m traveling to the remote jungles of Indonesia, I bring a backup Sony MD recorder.  Just in case.  Seriously, if you’re a multimedia storyteller and you don’t have the audio, you don’t have a story.  No, narration is not an option.  Well, it is, but not the best option.  Your subjects trusted you to tell their story, don’t screw it up by botching the audio.  Enough said.

4.  The Laptop. Essential.  Essential.  Essential.  PC vs. Mac.  Two years ago, I would have said there was no question, but with the advent of the PC net books, I am revisiting the issue.

This all depends on the type of content you are gathering and if you’ll be producing on the road or just downloading the content to your external devices.  If you are producing video or want to work at all with video/audio content, then the Mac is essential.  Net books are great in size, but they don’t have the power for serious processing and obviously can’t run Final Cut.  Mac has reissued the smaller Macbook Pro, so that’s a plus, but they aren’t entering the net book realm, yet.  Besides, could you imagine trying to edit video on an eight inch screen?  I piss and moan when I have to edit without my second monitor, the thought of an eight inch screen makes my eyeballs hurt.  But, the thought of writing in a coffee shop on a tiny little laptop that fits in my hip bag- heavenly!

5.  Backup Storage. Another necessity!!  You must have backups for your backups.  I can’t stress this enough.  Here’s a snapshot of my digital workflow on the road and why backup is essential.

After I upload the images to Lightroom, I export them to my external hard drive.  I use a Lacie Rugged. No, you can not use your normal external desktop hard drive.  It is not meant for backpacks and hostels and will crash and burn with all your content inside.  Poof, gone.  After the content is on the Rugged, I take the top edit and export it to my thumbnail 8 gig flash drive and put it in a separate bag from the rest of my gear.  This contains only the top edit due to the size of the drive.  I then take the top edit and second edit, and depending on the internet speed of the country I’m in, I upload it to my Photoshelter account and/or my server.  This is backup for my backup.  Once the images are in the ‘cloud’ I can sleep.  If my gear is stolen or dropped in a raging Himalayan river, my images are safe in the arms of the internet.  If internet speed is a problem, I burn DVDs of the top edits and mail them home.  Yes, its anal, I get that, but I’m not traveling across the world, risking my sanity to tell a story and then lose all the images because of human error.

6.  A Bag.  Or two.  I daydream and concoct elaborate schemes to cary all the above gear in one rolling bag that converts to a backpack.  Good luck with that.  I envy the flash-packers and would love nothing more than to toss a couple shirts and pants into a backpack with a net book and call it done.  But that’s not going to happen.

I use Think Tank, love them, love their work and they make my life easier.  I am currently using the Urban Disguise 50 that holds my still, video and audio gear along with my laptop.  Its a tight squeeze, but it fits.  I also use their hip belt with a few bags connected for shooting in the field.  I try not to check bags on overseas flights, so this gets a little dicey when it comes time to pack.  I usually spend between 5-8 hours packing, repacking and analyzing every item in my bag and its relevance 48 hours before departure.  The timing also gives me time to make any last minute major equipment adjustments.  I am still reevaluating my approach and my shooting methods in order to keep the bag as light as possible.  Its a never ending process, but with advancing technology, the chore gets a little easier each year.

7.  Moleskins. Yep, Moleskins journals are essential and I never leave home without them.  Not even to go to the grocery store.

You never know when a story will cross your path, so a moleskin is just as important as the camera.  And there’s nothing more exciting then embarking on a journey with 2-3 blank journals just waiting to be filled with your brainstorms and brilliant ideas.  And don’t forget your lucky pen.  You know you have one, the pen that just feels good and inspires greatness.  Bring it.  The chewed up pen from the hostel front desk won’t do your Moleskin justice.

I’m sure I’m leaving out a few essentials and there are 1000 ways to pack for a digital storyteller.  This is just my way.  I will be revisiting this topic often in the near future!

Feel free to post your essentials below!

Be thankful…

After spending the last day watching media coverage of the disaster in Haiti, I am struck by so many thoughts.  The initial emotion is a profound sadness.  That any human has to bear such pain and sorrow makes my heart sad, particularly in a country that has already carried its burden of pain for many decades.  The second emotion is gratitude.  Gratitude that, as my mom would say, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’


There are many links surfacing throughout the internet with Facebook and Twitter contributing a large amount of content and resources emerging for this ravaged country.  It is amazing to me the role the social media is playing in today’s media climate.  Spend some time with this story, and be thankful.

The Miami Herald has some excellent images and reporters on the ground in Haiti- they are graphic and intense.  A fellow classmate from UNC has an excellent blog about multimedia and has highlighted some of the aid being generated in social media and the multimedia coverage throughout the media industry.  The BBC also has done a good job of covering a timeline of the events.

As these stories continue to emerge from this disaster, we should take the time to engage with the story and make some sort of contribution of time or resources to those in need.  And, of course, be thankful for the privileges we have and the resources our country can provide.