The photograph that changed everything

The photograph that changed everything

*Disclaimer* – this post is intended to speak to fellow photographers.  If you are a bride or groom, you will want to skip ahead to the next blog post :).  If you are a photographer and you have wondered about the Foundation Workshop, or if you are someone who knows me and are curious as to why I was in Texas for so long, this is a post about my personal experience at the Foundation Workshop.  Also, please forgive my lack of writing ability.  I don’t have Kelly here to help proof read this for me 🙂

One of the great things about Foundation Workshop is that you become friends with fellow photographers from all around the world. Here I am surrounded by Judith from Germany, Ashvin from the Netherlands, Christian from Canada, and Philippe from Belgium. And there's lots of Shiner. - photo by Miguel Serrano
One of the great things about Foundation Workshop is that you become friends with fellow photographers from all around the world. Here I am surrounded by Judith from Germany, Ashvin from the Netherlands, Christian from Canada, and Philippe from Belgium. And there’s lots of Shiner. – photo by Miguel Serrano

 

Let me start by saying that I could literally write 100 blog posts about all of things I learned, and did, and saw, and took with away with me from Foundation Workshop.  If any of you are curious about more of my experiences and would like to know more, I am an open book, and would be honored to speak with you further about it.  Kelly also attended the workshop last year, so between the two of us we have tons to share.  Just reach out to us!  For the sake of not boring everyone to death, I have decided to write about the moment that was most impactful for me, and about the changes it has made in me – both as a photographer and as a person.

Before our assignments were handed out, we were asked to write a bio for our mentors and describe ourselves and open up about our fears and our goals and what drives us.  A recurring theme in my bio and my life stems from guilt.  Guilt about time missed with my kids, guilt about missed opportunities with my wife, guilt about not having enough money, and guilt about not being the father or the husband I want to be.  As I was writing it out I realized that much of life was consumed by this guilt, and it was depressing me.  It was clouding me from really even knowing who I was.  I’ll come back to this.

My mentors (Tyler Wirken & Craig Fritz) told me the first day, “We don’t care about the images. This workshop is not about making good images, it’s about learning”.  We are only allowed to post 2 images that we took on our assignments, but really I only need to post one, and that’s the image below.   A lot of you will look at the image and the artful focus and the poor composition and think to yourselves “it’s a good thing for Ben it’s not about the images!”.  But actually, for me, my entire workshop experience was about this one image:

This one photograph, and the context behind it, completely changed my life.
This one photograph, and the context behind it, completely changed my life.

 

My assignment was a simple one; document the day in the life of a beautiful family.  I was welcomed with open arms, and found myself right at home with my family.  I was immediately drawn to their 7 year old son, who reminded me so much of my 6 year old son Karson.  The blonde hair, the mannerisms, even a little lisp – just like Karson.  I was also drawn to their 14 year old son, who incredibly reminded me of my oldest son Kolton in how he was the man of the house, and also to the father who was working his butt off to provide a wonderful life for his family.  The family was rounded out by mom, 10 year old daughter, and 6 month old daughter.  Of course I photographed the girls and their cute moments together, but I didn’t really look for a connection with them as much or a story with them, as it didn’t remind me of home and what I wanted.  Internally, I wanted to tell a story of a hard working Dad and his wonderful sons and the bonds that they had, so I stayed glued to the boys.

After 12 hours of shooting the first day I was pretty tired.  I had a lot of information pounded in my head from my mentors, and I found myself just kind of shooting AT moments by the end of the day to wrap it up.  I was focused on composing and looking for light, and not really allowing myself to be IN the moments.   The bad photograph above was the 7 year old going to bed and reaching out for a light-up globe that sat bedside.  This was the one single frame I took of him at this moment.  To be honest, I don’t know if I thought I got it in focus or not when I took it, but I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal or that important of a moment as I was shooting it, so I said good night and left.

The following day my mentors went through my images, and we critiqued and talked about what to do better, and everything was full of learning and good solid advice.  I felt good about what to do for the next day of shooting.  Until this image came up.  Tyler leaned in towards me.  “You totally missed it”, he said.  “Not just the focus, but the moment.  You’re a father, and you didn’t see the importance of the moment”.  Tyler shared with me that while I was dismissing this moment in my head, Mom was in the hallway telling Tyler that the globe was the most important thing in the world to her son and that it had been by his bed since he was born.  Tyler asked me “can you imagine how important having a photo like that would have been to her?  It likely would have brought her to tears”.  I was immediately crushed.  I paid no attention to the importance of what I was shooting, and I didn’t get the shot that would have meant so much to the family.  My mind went right to thinking about how amazing it would be to have a photo of my own son with his blanky and Sharky that have comforted him since birth; there would be so much meaning in one photograph.  I couldn’t believe I screwed it up.  I was devastated.  For the next two hours I couldn’t think of anything other than how bad I fucked up.  None of the other images I took that day mattered.  The failed shot consumed me.  I needed to make it right.

 

The moment Tyler called me out for blowing the shot. Image by the seemingly everywhere moment getter - Miguel Serrano.
The moment Tyler called me out for blowing the shot. Image by the seemingly everywhere moment getter – Miguel Serrano.

 

Craig Fritz lightening the mood by asking me "what the hell is he reaching for?". An obvious question, but driving home the point. Again, image and moment captured by Miguel Serrano.
Craig Fritz lightening the mood by asking me “what the hell is he reaching for?”. An obvious question, but driving home the point. Again, image and moment captured by Miguel Serrano.

 

My team decided to have an early end to our next shooting day so that we could have more time to critique and learn.  I knew I needed to stay late to get this shot right, so I confided in Tyler and told him how I was feeling and asked if I could go against the team and stay late to redo the shot.  He could have told me no, but he didn’t.  Like a good father, he allowed me to work through my guilt, and gave me his blessing if the team would do the same.  I brought it up to my teammates, and as dysfunctional of a team as we may have been, we were a family.  Like any good family they were supportive of what I needed to do, but they reminded me that pursuing my guilt over one missed shot meant I was going to miss out on hours of team learning and bonding.  Craig told me, “your sacrificing guaranteed knowledge for a shot at a photo that may never happen again”.

That’s when it hit me.  My “holy shit” moment.  My guilt, and my ego to control the situation and make everything right, were deciding everything for me.  They were preventing me from seeing anything other than the fail.  They were controlling not only my thoughts, but my physical actions.  I stopped for a moment, and thought back on my life and how I feel daily, and how I was allowing the guilt I wrote about in my bio to control me.  I couldn’t fucking believe it.  This whole time I thought my guilt was driving me to be better and do better, but in realty it was preventing me from being where I needed to be and from seeing any of the good.  At that moment, I was not allowing myself to feel good about any of the moments that I actually captured and got in focus for the family; I was only focused on the photograph I didn’t get.  I looked deeper, and I realized in life I never allow myself to feel like a good father; I’m only focused on what I’ve missed or haven’t done.  I never allow myself to feel like a good husband, a good friend, a good person.  I’m too fixated on missed opportunities and figuring out a way to try and make them all right.  Dwelling on the past was preventing me from being fully in the present.

I went up to my room and I cried.  I cried because I was upset that I let my guilt and my ego control my life.  I realized that dwelling on moments that I missed was causing me to miss more moments.  I cried because the discovery was freeing, and I was already seeing things so differently.  I missed the shot.  I missed some time with my babies.  I missed some opportunities with my wife.  I don’t have the money I wanted to have by now.  I haven’t taught my kids how to play the piano, or basketball, or how to build something.  But what I didn’t realize until now was that I control the choice to either dwell on the past or to learn from it, bury it and move forward a better more focused person in the present.  Somehow, it took being in Glen Rose, Texas for this light bulb to go off.

It’s amazing what one epiphany can do.  In some way, by realizing this one thing and coming to grips with it, I was all of a sudden open to all sorts of other things and my mind just became a sponge soaking up everything it could.  Not just photography stuff, but real shit!  I was hearing differently and understanding things differently.  Huy spoke the first day about how great photographers are somehow able to slow time; that things just slow down for them and that’s how they can capture such perfect moments.  I never experienced anything photography related like that (someday hopefully!), but somehow my mind felt like it was in the matrix, and I could see all the right things to do and they completely made sense.  I had no idea how to apply any of it, but that didn’t matter.  What mattered was that I could see it.

The next day of shooting I let my open mind guide me.  I followed the boys around as I did the day before, and got some good shots of them but I was realizing that the story I was trying to tell wasn’t really interesting anymore.  Of course the dad was a good dad, and he was amazing with his kids, and the boys had a wonderful bond and connection.  But when I didn’t feel the need to have to tell the story for my own validation, it didn’t seem to matter as much.  And then, as if photo Jesus had just had enough and couldn’t take it any more, he delivered me my story on a silver platter.  Down the hall shuffled the 10 year old daughter, who I had paid little attention to up to now.  She was wearing a bright blue prairie dress from the pioneer days and pigtails; as if to say “hey dummy, pay attention to me!”  I remember thinking, “holy shit, I’ve missed this story the whole time”!

Here I am shooting one of the boys and completely missing the interesting story that was right next to me the whole time. Photo and perfect moment captured by Miguel Serrano.
Here I am shooting one of the boys and completely missing the interesting story that was right next to me the whole time. Photo and perfect moment captured by Miguel Serrano.

 

I wanted desperately to tell a story about a dad and his two sons, because that’s what I wanted to feel.  But that story was obvious, and it was being written by my own guilt and my own desires to show a father the way I would want someone to show me.  The fact was, it didn’t need me to tell it.  Everyone could see it.  But right in front of me the whole time, was this amazing, interesting girl trying to fit in to this pioneer lifestyle by assimilating a prairie girl persona.  She was the interesting story.  I just had to get out of my own way to see it.  With the help of Craig, I was able to talk through where I was and that this new story has emerged.  I was abandoning all I had shot for up to that point, and it felt liberating.  I can’t even describe it.  I found myself from time to time veering off the path and going back to the boys, only to self correct, or Tyler would show up and correct me back to my story.  To photograph this little girl the way she needed to be shown, I had to be ok missing moments with the boys.  I had to be ok missing moments with dad.  I had to take some chances and be ok with missing shots.  And I was.  Photographing this day was so much like my life.  I can’t do it all.  I have to learn to be ok missing out on moments that could be important or could be happening while I’m focusing on moments that are important and are happening right in front of me.

This photograph didn't make my final slideshow, but it is a very important photo to me because it was the first time I was able to anticipate, and wait, and frame and get the shot right.
This photograph didn’t make my final slideshow, but it is a very important photo to me because it was the first time I was able to leave my 16mm in my bag, anticipate and wait, and frame and get the shot right.

 

If you’ve suffered through this post to now, thank you.  Writing it out has been therapeutic for me, and it has reminded me so much of a word that Huy shared with us all the first day of the workshop –  Yet.  It’s a very empowering word.  I am not the father I want to be…yet.  I am not the husband I want to be…yet.  I am not the photographer I want to be…yet.  I have not completely learned how to deal with my new knowledge…yet.  But I will.  I will be all of those things in time.  But being those things is not really the point.  It’s a lot like saying “the images don’t matter”.  The end does not contain the meaning.  The process that we take to get there does.  It’s about learning.  Learning from our mistakes and missed moments so that our present and our future is better.  For me, it’s realizing that my failures can define me, or they can fuel me forward toward success.

I owe a huge “Thank you!” to the workshop, to my fearless leaders Tyler and Craig and Scott, and to my teammates Heidi, Abby, Jessica and Shaun for being there for me, and to the family that welcomed me into their home and allowed me to find myself.  My photographs will improve over time, and that’s completely worth the price of admission.  But emerging from the workshop with a better understanding of myself, and with a more positive outlook on my life and with a calmer more settled approach to my family – that’s a priceless gift, and one I will continue to learn from every day.

My fearless team. Image captured by Miguel Serrano.
My fearless team. Image captured by Miguel Serrano.