Portfolio Reading Pajama Party, Anyone?

In three weeks we’ll be leaving for the US and I can’t wait to be on the other side of the ocean, where I can stuff my face with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, drive across a state for a day and not meet a single person and finally replace the frosted pyrex dome for my Einstein without having to spend a bazillion dollars for shipping.

For the Phoenix leg, I decided to have both the seminars and workshop at the Courtyard Marriott in North Scottsdale, because I like the idea of a 2-days-long photo extravaganza in which we basically take over the place, spend time together, order pizza, sleep very little, and take photos. If you want me to look at your stuff and give you feedback, saturday night might be the right moment to do it (be warned, though: I tend to be kind of blunt. Improving your portfolio is mostly about killing your darlings, which is why it is hardly ever painless). I’m not sure what’s the Marriott Policy for people not staying at the hotel, which is why if you’re coming from out of town you might want to stay there, but I’d like to keep this informal and awesome.
I WILL be wearing my pajama.

This is open for everyone who participates in the workshop or seminars, in case this is bigger than I expected, workshop people will have priority.
A couple of tips for your portfolio reading, if you are interested:

1. If possible, print your photos. I don’t need huge fine art prints, even a bunch of 8×10 on photo paper will do. A lot of photographers don’t print their work and I promise that it makes a difference (it also makes it easier to work on sequencing).

2. If your work has multi media components, of course, bring the right support to show that. We’ll have a laptop, but don’t count on us: bring your own and make sure batteries are charged.

3. Bring your best and your best only. 20-40 images are ideal. If you only have 10, bring 10. If there’s stuff you’re not convinced about, photos that “almost” work, just take them out. We’d end up spending a lot of time talking about those and you already know they don’t work. Make the most of this experience.

4. Leave your ego behind. Portfolio reading can be a bit gruesome. It doesn’t matter to me if you have been shooting for 2 weeks or 10 years, I will approach this as if you are trying to be hired as a professional photographer right now. I always hated portfolio readings in which you drive for hours to listen to someone say “yeah, it’s allright, kind of a bit too unfocused, kthxbye”.  I will assume what you are showing me is what you think represents you the most, which is why I tend to not listen to excuses. I don’t want to demoralize you, though, and I will hug you and pat your back if you feel like you need it. My students tell me I am a weird mix of encouragement and a steamroller, but I always steamroll with love.

5. Bring your brain, though. Use me, ask me anything you might need to know from me. Do remember that I’m a portrait photographer, with a background and the experience of a single human being: if what I do has nothing to do with what you do I might be able to give you my opinion, but take it with a grain of salt.

6. Come knowing what you would like to know from me. Advices on your technique? Editing? Sequencing?

7. Stay and mingle. Talk with the other people present. Show them your work and look at theirs. If you find your true love that night, I want to be invited to the wedding though.

8. Have fun. This won’t change your life.

9. Muffins are always welcome. If we all bring something to eat or drink it’s going to be more fun.

If you’re planning to stay at the Marriott (we are, and we think you should too), ask for the Scottsdale Airpark rate, which is 15% off the regular rate. This rate fluctuates from time to time and is available dependent upon flow and demand. It’s not a negotiated rate for us, but it’s a discount.

Enroll HERE!

Weaving the fabric of shame

I’ve had a lot of great feedback after my last post about the GPP Shootout, especially regarding the project that stemmed from that. I already have some people lined up, willing to talk to me and be photographed and I am building storyboards for the environmental self portraits, trying to find the best way to make it something a little more dimensional than just an aesthetic exercise. I have a bunch of situations in mind and I’d love to recreate episodes of my life in which shame was involved, but I’ll need to build them as visual allegories rather than actual reconstructions, because some of those places do not exist anymore.

Tonight I shot the first subject, someone I have known for 30 years. It’s someone who I hadn’t seen in a while, doesn’t have the Internet and didn’t really know what this whole thing started from: I had said I was working of a project about shame and they told me they would like to participate, because it was the right moment for them.
I had no idea what they were going through and even though I knew this project would have required presence in a way that goes beyond being behind a camera, I’m not sure I expected the sheer force of someone’s story hitting me in the guts. It was devastating, powerful, raw, humbling. It was beautiful.
I felt honored that someone would put this much trust in me and I need to find the best way to honor their story. I have no intention of sharing it: only the picture will be left, as a trace of our conversation. I don’t want my project to be a banquet of bloody guts for passersby to feast on: in a time where everything private is made a spectacle, I believe in the lost art of keeping a secret.
Shame is all about secrets and keeping things hidden, but I honestly don’t think the answer to that is making secrets available for complete strangers. If shame is about being hidden, what I’m trying to do is making my subject feel like they are seen.

Shame seems to be something that’s closely related to the idea of being worthy. There’s nothing objective in shame, it’s not about something we have done, rather about something we think we are (or are not). It’s about the whole idea of “not being enough”.

What I love about photography is that it’s the opposite of that: by taking a picture I’m telling whoever is in front of me that they are worthy of being immortalized. By taking the time to build a set and test the lights, I’m letting them know that they matter, to me. Tonight it felt like listening with my ears and with my eyes at the same time. It was physically painful, at times.
By being there for all the time it took, by sharing a moment that was uncomfortable and sitting through it with them we created a connection and it seems like there can’t really be shame where there is connection.

One of my favorite quotes is a line from a Robert Frost’s poem1: “The best way out is always through“.
There’s going to be a lot of “through” to go through, in this project. I don’t expect to be the same person, at the end of this thing, and I’m not even sure the final result is going to be great, but I really think it’s going to be worth it.
I know it will make a difference for the person I was with, tonight. The print I will give them is going to be a reminder of a moment of courage, something they can keep in a drawer or hang on a wall and look at, when they think everything is a little bit too much.

This project was born because, selfishly, I wanted to wash away something I perceived as shameful. Me, me, me, I, I, I. One week into it, I already realized this is not about me any more.
Oh well.

  • 1. The poem is "A Servant to Servants". If you're the kind of person who hears the quote and says "Hey, wasn't that a Bush song?", I'm not sure we can be besties. And yes, I am fully aware that I used a Queen of the Stone Age song in this same post.

GPP Shootout- That time I bombed in front of 400 people and it was ok

After a perfect week of awesome, what could ever go wrong, right? Right?
During the week I had told someone that I would have hated to go second, because I’d rather go first and be done with it, or go last and sit through it somewhere else. I forgot that Zack was there, so of course I was going to go second by default.
Shoot.

The theme was announced and it was “intimacy”. I loved it. Except I was told I had to shoot two people I had never met or talked to, and there could be no physical contact. And then of course I hated it.
It’s a great concept, one I’d love to shoot: in a room, alone with two people.
I can work very fast, but I usually need a lot of time to plan or a willing subject in front of me: I need to connect on some sort of level and I’ve never had to shoot someone who didn’t explicitly asked me to be photographed, for such a short amount of time. I need to talk to people and know what they do and let them know that I have their back. I need to take half an hour to just shoot photos I know I’ll never use or show, not even to them, just because I need them to get used to the camera and the lights and relax. I need time and silence and I knew I’d have none.

I knew I would struggle before I started, but that’s part of the beauty of the Shootout.

I picked my subjects feeling sorry for them, because I, at least, already knew I would be thrown into this situation, they totally didn’t and I think their hearts were racing probably more than mine.

I decided to pick two women and I was told by some that it might have looked like some sort of gutsy political statement, but even though I strongly believe that people have the right to choose who they love, I never even thought about the implications. To me intimacy has never been about lust, or sexual tension: to me intimacy has something to do with presence, understanding and the ability to connect. Other than Alessandro, the people who can read into my soul and make me feel understood are all women.

Here’s my very first mistake of the night, which I realized I had done the second I chose my first subject: I should have asked if the person sitting next to her was a friend or her boyfriend and used him as a second subject. Even better: I should have asked if there was a couple in the room, or two friends, or two siblings willing to volunteer. This would have made things so much easier for them. Nobody said that the two people needed to be strangers to each others and I just assumed they had to be. I was making things unnecessarily harder for myself too.

I resented the idea that I was forced to put people through this, but I should have just snapped out of it and realized that maybe someone was just willing to to it for me.
Thankfully my two subjects (whose names I couldn’t spell to save my life, so I shall not even try to write here) were willing to do their best to help me through this. I am so thankful to them (If by any chance you are reading this: thank you thank you thank you and sorry for dragging you on stage. Contact me and we’ll arrange for a proper photo shoot where we all have fun and I’ll bring cake).

My very first idea was to have them lying on the ground, and have them almost touching, with their eyes closed and then print the photo and use a piece of red string to connect them. I ditched it because I thought it would be too similar in process to last year’s shootout. Then I thought I would photograph them separately and stitched two prints together, but this would have meant leaving them to the side for the most part, without creating any real intimacy, and I thought it would have been like cheating.

This was my second mistake, that I repeated over and over: I kept second guessing myself and thinking that what I normally do wasn’t good enough.

At this point I was trying to think of some sort of background for them which wouldn’t be a seamless and when one of the girls told me she was a fashion designer I decided to go with some of the fabric I had left from my workshops.

I used the same fabric as a blanket to envelop them, mostly because I wanted to create some sort of cocoon for them and to take away any visual distraction and make the photo about their faces only.

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I shot the first shot with my camera still in manual focus and it was completely out of focus and I loved it. My instinct was to ask the girl on the right to almost touch the face of the girl on the left with one hand and then just spend the rest of the time sitting on the floor chatting about girl stuff.
Again, I ignored what I liked and went for something I thought I was supposed to do, which is so strange for me. At this point I was more or less in drone mode.

I decided to try to get a very minimal image that I would have printed and used white paint to cover it almost completely, leaving a hint of the image coming through the thin paint. I needed to get rid of most shadows for it to work and I needed the background to be as uniform as possible, so I moved the light to the front to flatten everything out and make it graphic.
I asked them to close their eyes and then told them when to open them, because I knew that at least for a fraction of a second they would look at each other, forgetting about everything else that was going on in the background. Each time people laughed for something Zack or David said, I could see them tensing up, but they were great and after the first couple of shots, they started to get more comfortable with each other.

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During my workshop I always tell my students that they can have a good time and chat while I shoot, but that if I hear them laughing I will kick them out of the set, because it makes the subject feel like they are laughing at them. I probably should have just taken them behind the curtains and left 400 people with only my voice and the screen to keep them company.

When I printed the image and reached to my suitcase I had a surprise: there was no paint.
We were coming straight from our mixed media class and I realized that the paint was still in the class and we wouldn’t have time to go get it. Which meant I knew I was left with a flat image and less than 4 minutes.

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I saw a white flower that had been used by one of the students and thought that I could try and reference the background. The proportion were off, so I decided to go with the photo as it was, knowing the light was flat and boring. Ale misunderstood me saying “I prefer the one without the flower” and so this was the one who were showed during voting, but I didn’t think to correct it, at that point. There was no point: I had failed.

It’s not the worst shot I ever took in my whole life (as I thought as I was stepping out of the stage), and I could blame it of being exhausted, on the nerves, on the missing paint, on having to photograph unwilling strangers in a very short period for the first time, but the truth is that as a photographer these are only excuses: it’s not in the picture. There was a photo there, and I let it slip away and I felt shame washing over me and burning inside. I wanted to run and hide.

It’s not the first time it happened to me and it won’t be the last, it usually doesn’t happen when there are 400 people watching and cameras filming. It usually doesn’t happen when people  you respect and love expect you to do great and you fall short.
What I found extremely interesting is that there is no real protocol for failure: I could see in other people’s faces that they were aware of what happened and I could see that they didn’t know how to behave. Consoling me would have meant admitting it was a mess, thus hurting me; but ignoring it and telling me I did a great job would have meant bullshitting me, thus hurting me more.
So I smiled and then had a good cry in my hotel room, I slept badly and then I came up with a plan, because anything is bearable if I make it into a photographic project.

Here’s what we do now.
Over the next year I want to take portraits of people using the same fabric and a similar concept. I will shoot anyone who is willing to sit in front of my camera and talk about failure and shame. I will shoot friends, family members, complete strangers. I will keep your secrets, but I’ll try to write at least a sentence for each photo, hoping that each story, each person, each session will shine some light into this weird feeling we share but never really talk about.
Here’s a quick sketch of what I have in mind, but I’m still figuring it out.

thefabricofshame

I will take the fabric with me everywhere I go and I will also use it to take a series of environmental self portraits in which the fabric somehow appears in the frame, but is not as prominent. I expect it will be washed a bazillion times and fade a bit, I’m fine with that. The romantic in me would want it to work to the point the fabric comes undone and fades into nothing, but the practical me will probably just saw a dress when one year has passed and I will call it “my failure dress” and wear it to weddings with the same badass attitude I’m sure the ancient mariner wore the albatross around his neck. Practical me is still a bit of a drama queen, you might have noticed.
That Shootout photo is now the beginning of something that excites me and has the potential to be really good, which is why it now sits on my desk: a reminder to look closely, to go deeper, to follow my instincts and to get better.

The first two years I came back home from GPP and quit photography. This year I got my butt kicked and came home with a long term project I’m excited to work on. One way or another, GPP has always something to do with me growing as a photographer.

Gpp2015 Recap- Mixed Media

Last day of GPP was my mixed media workshop. This is what I love doing, the place where we get to play and have fun and talk about the fact that “real photography” might be what cool people do, but being cool is sooo 2014.
(To those who asked if my Traces of Wonderland project I presented in class could be seen anywhere online, I actually found it on page 48-57 in this very old portfolio on Issuu. You probably want to also go see Geometry Lessons for Flying Seeds on page 153 of the same thing. I might just blow up websites, close old accounts and let go of old projects, but the Internet never forgets).

For the demo I just wanted to quickly go through a couple of techniques, to show people how incredibly easy and low tech what I do is. We played with prints on fabric, which is a great way to deform images without ever touching photoshop.

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I took a photo of Moza and dripped ink into a cup of water with her print.

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I played with a print that was distressed in several ways (and then photographed and printed again. And then distressed some more. And then photographed and printed. Ad libitum…) to demo how most of the time ideas will arise from the work itself, from playing around with the materials, from willing to try out stuff that might not work, until it does work.

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It’s a messy process, a matter of hit and miss (mostly miss), something that needs to be taken seriously and lightly at the same time: in my experience, the more I concentrate on the process, the deeper I am able to dig into meaning and symbols. If I try to say something deep, I always end up being too literal and kinda boring.
Trying to explain everything is one of those mistakes a lot of us do, when it comes to photography: we want to be understood, we want other to see the things we saw, to experience the world through our eyes. But photography is a language and the language we speak is never going to be the same language others will hear. We agree that a words means something, but how can we be sure we are all referring to the same thing?
On of the things that completely messed with my head in the past year was a famous thought experiment by Wittgenstein, known as The Beetle in the Box. Wittgenstein invites us to imagine a bunch of people sitting around, each holding a box containing a “beetle”. “No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.” This, to me, is terrible and beautiful. Terrible because at the end of the day we are all alone on this planet: no one will ever understand our beetle completely, no one will ever really get it. And beautiful because we are a bunch of scared humans holding a variety of “beetles” and we still find ways to communicate, we still strive for some sort of connection.

For a conversation to happen we need pockets of silence, we need the other person to fill in the blanks with meaning, we need to let go of the idea that we can actually control our work. Whenever you create something and you put it out there, it’s not completely yours any more. The soul of any piece of creative work, in my opinion, resides in the relationship between the person who created it and the person who experiences it, just like a rainbow (this is actual physics, I’m not just being some hippy little asshole, here).

All this to say that I was just showing some technical things so that people could play around with paper and one of my students talked about the final image of this series in a way that made me feel completely exposed: I was photographing my exact feeling and didn’t even know it.

The last little fun thing I showed was how I use little videos to grab a frame, print it and use it as the base image for a mixed media piece. The video might be just 1920×1080, but it prints 4×6″ and the final image of the piece is going to be a very high res file. In a world where everybody goes after the sharpest image possible, I’m constantly trying to deteriorate my images to the point where they start becoming interesting to me.

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The state of the classroom during a mixed media workshop is always pretty interesting to see: it looked like a monster ate its way through a craft store and then projectile vomited all over the carpet.
Some people dove right into it, some others were a little tentative at first, but all found out how much doing is a big part of the process, how much easier it is to work on something that’s in front of you rather than trying to make it perfect before starting.

The loveliest thing also happened: one of my students (the adorable Fatema), had a beautiful and yummiest cake delivered for the whole class. It might have been the sugar high, but everybody seemed to be working at double speed.
This cellphone photo doesn’t really show how huge the thing was.

cake

Time flew by and before I realized it, it was time to get ready for the Shootout. But that’s a story for tomorrow.

GPP2015 Recap- PORTRAITS, PROPS AND BEAUTY TECHNIQUES

When I started taking pictures, in the early 2000s, I didn’t have access to models, wardrobe, MUAs, stylist and all that stuff that helps creating a specific kind of image. I had a glue gun and time, though, which is quite frankly all you need.
My Portraits, Props & Beauty techniques workshop for GPP could have been titled “Shit I do for fun as an adult now that playing with Barbie Dolls is frowned upon”, but they went with the safe option.
I was looking forward to this class, because it’s fun to teach and because I knew I was going to work with Sam Tring again. Samantha is a singer from London based in Dubai and last year we crossed paths quickly while she was posing for my students during a portrait workshops. She contacted me in january to touch base and we started planning our photoshoot and exchange ideas. I love working like this, because I think portrait photography at its best is a conversation between the photographer and the subject and I love having in front of the camera someone who’s as invested as I am in getting a good picture.

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As usual, I started super simple: just a bunch of portraits and headshots. The head piece on the right is basically 3 fake birds glue-gunned to a plastic headband
It’s scrappy looking and silly, and you’d never be caught dead wearing it around… but that’s what I love about photography: stuff only needs to look good from one angle and for 1/125 of a second

headband

I’ll build all I can in the real world (I have a degree as an Industrial Designer and worked as a model maker for a while, after all), but there’s stuff that’s just quicker and simpler to fake.
This kind of technique is the simplest way to make a little of something look like a lot of that same thing: you put your camera on a tripod, shoot a series of photos moving the object around and then stack all the photos as layers on top of your favorite one and use layer masks to composite all the elements into the same frame. It’s quick, dirty and easy, if you are careful not to move your camera or lights.

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Balancing this kind of headpiece would have been quite a challenge for Sam, but not as big a challenge as fitting it into my suitcase.

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Then we went for something fun and cute and used the conference room wall to gaffer tape a bunch of balloons to use as a background. I like using white balloons, because light bounces everywhere and they make me happy.

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we then had fun with trims, vaseline, feathers and mirror film that deforms reflections. ‘Cause why the hell not?

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backstage

The beauty of working with someone who’s completely on board is that they don’t even flinch when you do something a bit weird: they trust you and they are part of the team.
Since we still had a little time before breaking for lunch, we also explored using a mirror, which is a fun way to make things more comfortable if you are dealing with uncomfortable subjects (Sam was not), because it creates a way to look at people indirectly and work without facing each other.

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If working with Sam was meant to show how you can try a bunch of different things in a very short amount of time, with Natalia I wanted to show how I build a photo in layers (plus I wanted to show the difference between a beauty dish and a soft box, because a lot of people want sharpness and textures and they think they need a specific lens or a photoshop technique, but light is a big big part of the equation).
Natalia is a firecracker. She’s a dancer, a sociologist, a marketing expert and she’s working hard to start her own business. She’s driven and creative and up for anything: her only request was to not shave her eyebrows.

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I decided to use the same curtains I used in the self portrait class as a background because I loved the creamy color: it totally fits Natalia’s color palette. I thought I’d work in black and white in front of a grey background, but I always try to look around and be flexible enough to see if something might work better.
Again, I started with a bunch of clean simple portraits for the MUAs, before I started ruining their work. I was specific in asking them not to use fake eyelashes or too much rimmel, becasue I knew I wanted to blow flour in Natalia’s face and I like how it rests on natural eyelashes. Is the kind of detail most people wouldn’t care about, but to me it makes all the difference.

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then we started adding flour to the neck, the shoulders, the hand, the hair. Those plastic sheets sure came handy this year.

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I started moving the light around to see what happens. To me this is less pretty and more interesting. This is probably my favorite shot of the day, even if you can’t see her face. To me this needs to be black and white, printed, and then distressed a little bit.

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Adding a white poster board under the camera bounced light back to Natalia’s face and acts as a fill

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For the final picture I opened up the aperture a little because I was too lazy to change the power setting on the flash and I asked people to throw flour in the air behind her.

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For the rest of the day the students worked on their props: they were divided in groups of 3, each group would have 90 minutes with the model to shoot 3 photos inspired by a season.
I was so happy of how much people worked and helped each others and even those with little (or no) experience with a model or studio lights did a great job.

Here’s Hilde shooting Raluca for one of her summer pictures and Aisha taking charge and coordinating people to bury Anna under several kilos of sugar for her winter wonderland (the same Aisha who was super shy and tentative on day one was now coming to set with ideas, references and being completely in control. I’ve never been prouder)

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