Episode 21

21. Getting (literally) knocked out of a rut

It’s easy to get jaded after doing something for decades, months or even days. But sometimes a routine photo assignment turns out to be much more memorable – and maybe a little painful!

Transcript

It’s easy to get jaded after doing something for decades, months or even days. Then something unexpected happens. Sometimes a routine photo assignment turns out to be much more memorable – and maybe a little painful!

Hello friends and welcome to this episode of Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth.

Of the many annoying habits I know I have, there’s one that stands out above all to me and to those who know me personally. It’s that I jump around from interest to interest, going from deep dive to total abandonment of a topic, sometimes in a period of just a few weeks. A co-worker once told me I had the attention span of a gnat, and I can’t disagree.

There have been several hobbies I’ve maintained an interest in through the years, photography being the main one – although, there have been some periods when even it took a backseat to another past-time – everything from going deep into the world of watching and writing about cult cinema, to the other end of the spectrum, when I lost myself in the highly technical world of amateur radio for a number of years.

Yet, even through those diversions, I still took photos and kept up with the latest and greatest camera technology. I’ve taught photography at the collegiate level, and even if I wasn’t shooting for my own self-gratification, I had a steady stream of freelance work to keep me busy, from family portraits to weddings, to magazine assignments and corporate work.

Last year was a busy one for freelance opportunities, and I found myself not only shooting images, but writing the articles that accompanied them. I also picked up some work from a new corporate client, a local health system. Most of these opportunities involved a day of driving and shooting in varied conditions, from covering a cowboy festival on one of the hottest days of the summer, to getting caught in a violent thunderstorm at a minor league baseball game.

So when I was asked to shoot a small downtown 5K run last weekend not far from my home, I thought “sure, that sounds easy enough.” I typically get pretty wound up before an assignment. I’m a worrier. The dread of the impending job looms over me in a dark way. But for this 5K event, I felt perfectly at-ease. I’ve done these types of events, I know what to look for, I know what the client wants, and the whole thing would be over in less than two hours, then I’d be off to the disc golf course to unwind (and yes, disc golf is another new hobby).

Everything was going to plan when I arrived at the race check-in just after 7 a.m. I introduced myself to the officials and the guest of honor from the sponsoring organization I was shooting for. I made small-talk with some folks, and watched the official event photographer setup his lighting rig. Then I headed up to the arch where the race would start. I shot images of runners and their families posing in front of signage, and so on.

I pulled out the superwide to get a faux drone-style shot over the crowd of runners gathering behind the start line. A local sports mascot showed up and I shot some candids. The sponsor’s representative gave a short pep talk. So far, very routine. My plan was to get about 50 feet back from the starting line, get low and zoom in for a compressed perspective to capture the energy of the start. The compression and lower angle would hopefully make the small group of runners look more epic, mainly owing to the stacking effect imparted by the telephoto.

And here’s where things went sideways. Before I could walk down to get in position, the race started. I was about half the distance I wanted to be, so I turned around and started shooting continuous frames. It wasn’t the look I wanted, but it wasn’t bad.

As my shutter clicked away, I noticed a lady in the center of my frame approaching me. My assumption would be that the runners would see a 6-foot-tall guy with red hair, wearing a bright green jacket, wielding two cameras, and simply run around me, and that’s mostly what happened. Except as I was firing away, that lady in the middle of my frame was getting closer and closer. I braced for the inevitable impact.

My field of vision went dark for a moment and then I was in a confused daze. The runner who steamrolled me was on the ground and I was immediately worried she’d be trampled or others would trip over her. I was still on my feet, unsure of what, if any injuries I’d suffered. As runners spilled around us, I made my way to the side of the road and the fallen runner disappeared into the pack.

My first concern was to continue shooting images, and when I glanced down at the LCD screen on my camera, the field was bright white. I feared the camera was damaged, but then I realized that the camera’s ISO had somehow been knocked to more than 100,000 during the collision, and the camera was simply overexposing. I clicked back to a reasonable ISO and shot what was left of the runners, who were now well down the road from the starting area. I chimped a few shots and noticed that I did get some serviceable images from the start, but I felt terrible for causing a scene.

But I also felt physically terrible because I’d been smashed in the face with a camera, which was heavier than normal thanks to the attached flash and 24-70mm f/2.8. If you’ve never had a Sony a7 III smashed into your face, well, you don’t know what you’re missing.

There was some discomfort. I reached up and touched my nose. It didn’t seem broken or bruised, but I thought for certain I must have blood streaming from my nostrils. It turns out I didn’t, but the impact had literally knocked the snot out of me. More concerning was the dull sensation making its way around my upper row of teeth, from my front teeth, all the way to the molars. I recalled an incident when I was about 3 years old, when I fell off a tricycle and hit my mouth on the handle bars. This felt kind of like that.

The moment wasn’t without some humor. Before I started my trek to the finish line a few blocks away, I looked through my images and found the final one before the runner nailed me. It was kind of funny – the runner’s face looking panicked and slightly out of focus. I transferred a copy of it over to my smartphone using NFC, sent it to the guy who hired me for the job and explained what happened, joking that shooting a 5K is a dangerous proposition. He told me the medical bill would be docked from my pay, which actually did seem funny at the time, since I was shooting for a hospital system.

As I waited at the finish line for the first series of runners, I struck up a conversation with a young guy who was also taking photos. My experience with running into other photographers usually goes one of two ways: You immediately become friends, because you recognize each other as members of the fraternity of photography; or you don’t talk to each other because of competition, snobbery, or some territorial issue. Fortunately, this young guy was a member of the former camp. And he reminded me of myself when I was just starting out – seeking any and all knowledge, and eager to discuss the craft with anyone.

I told him what happened to me at the starting line, and mentioned that in 25 years of taking photos, everything from covering crime for the hometown paper, to photographing psycho wedding guests in a drunken parking lot brawl, I’ve never had an incident like this. His reaction was to tell me that he hadn’t been alive for 25 years, and that made me smile, even while dying a little inside.

It was at that moment I remembered a lecture from my very first journalism course, way back in 1995 – Intro to Mass Communications. On that day, our guest lecturer was the photographer Renee Itner McManus, a shooter for the local newspaper. The slideshow she presented would have a dramatic impact on me as a photographer. At the time, I wasn’t a serious photographer. It would be more than a year later before I even understood the basics of exposure and composition.

But the images from that lecture always stood out to me. For whatever reason, it hadn’t dawned on me until that moment that being a photographer was something I could do with a journalism degree, or that there was more to photography than just snapping photos of people smiling pleasantly. Seeing Renee’s intimate work with wide angle lenses, and dynamic portraits, helped me contextualize the way we interact with and read images.

When I finally did start shooting for a newspaper, I aspired to shoot like Renee. I followed her work intently because I wanted to capture emotion, light, and color like she did. And in this moment, as I stood at the finish line for a 5K race I’d admittedly approached with a lackadaisical attitude, I remembered another image from Renee’s lecture – that of a blurred soccer ball occupying the majority of the frame.

I still recall the story behind that photo. She’d been shooting a soccer game with a long lens when a wildly kicked ball struck her front lens element, which in turn, drove the camera back into her face and broke her nose. The photo of the blurry soccer ball was the frame just before impact.

In many ways, I felt like I’d gone full-circle. Not that I’ve ever been on the same level as the photographer who initially inspired me, but just having that similar, shared experience. It almost felt like a glitch in the matrix, and despite feeling like my top row of teeth had been slightly re-arranged, I couldn’t help but smile the rest of the day thinking about what happened.

Moments later, the runner I collided with crossed the finish line and she didn’t look happy. I expected her to give me a lecture at best, or at worst, punch me in the face, and I wouldn’t have even objected to either because I felt like I got in the way and potentially ruined her time. Thinking this was some leisurely “fun run” was a miscalculation on my part. This was a sprint, and the participants were serious about their finish times.

Later, at the awards ceremony, the runner approached me and explained she was the one who ran into me and wanted to know if I was OK. I told her I was, and apologized for getting in her way. To my surprise, she told me she’d been looking at her fitness watch instead of looking ahead. (the sequence of images would indeed confirm this, but I definitely could have done a better job of positioning myself) She later went on to say that she used the incident for motivation to push harder during the race. I was happy to see she took home an award for third place.

This assignment taught me several important lessons: Namely, that I should never approach photography with a jaded, been-there, done-that attitude. Something interesting can happen at any time. Sometimes you have to create those moments of interest – and by that, I don’t mean causing an incident like I did – I mean, you have to put forth extra effort to seek out those special moments and unique images. Give yourself personal challenges to keep the work fresh and to create images that make you happy. Photos should always be something you create, not something you simply take.

When you’ve been doing something in a field for a quarter of a century, it’s easy to forget the excitement that the work once had. You might become lazy, start taking shortcuts, or start “phoning it in” as an old editor of mine used to say. Worse, you become bored and uninspired.

Maybe you shoot running events all the time, and maybe it has become repetitive, but what can you do for yourself to create moments that elevate your craft? Maybe it’s something physical, like using a wild new lens or a different camera. Maybe you learn to fly a drone for a new perspective, or maybe it’s a mental or internal shift. For instance, when I was trying to create work inspired by my photographic mentors, I told myself I’d make a conscious effort to always try and include an emotional element in my work.

Changing your mindset doesn’t cost a thing, yet it can be harder than changing your toolset. Look at any pastime – take podcasting for instance. I follow a lot of podcasting groups online and by far the most-asked questions tend to revolve around gear. What microphone to buy, what piece of gear will help someone sound better, and so on. The questions they really should be asking are, what can I do to improve how I speak? How can I treat my room so it sounds better? How can I improve my mic technique? And so on.

Maybe we all need to be knocked out of our ruts from time to time. Last weekend was a reminder for me to treat my assignments seriously and plan better, because anything can happen. Just because you’ve been there and done that, doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to capture something unique, in the way that only you can.

Folks that’s going to do it for this episode of Photo 365.

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Keep looking out for great images, keep shooting, and we’ll see you next time!