Running a business will bring moments of truth. Mine came without warning after I voluntarily left my job 5 years ago as a staff photojournalist at the Chicago Tribune. A freelance opportunity had come up that seemed too good to be true. It would be years of regular work and position me well as a storyteller in advertising. I felt that I was ready, both creatively and business-wise, after years of freelance work in photography and video and many years on staff at the Tribune and the L.A. Times.
That opportunity was, indeed, too good to be true. In the rough-and-tumble worlds of mergers/acquisitions and advertising, what appeared to be a 3-year opportunity as a visual storyteller vaporized within a matter of months, to both my shock and that of the marketing director. Our carefully laid plans were thrown out the window and I found myself staring into an abyss, having cleared my schedule in preparation for this opportunity.
So where do you go from a moment like that? How do you survive and thrive in an industry of relentless competition where everyone claims to be a “storyteller”?
I’m not in charge of the seminar, but I can almost guarantee that you will save a lot of money, and make more, by the advice that we give. Truly, I wish I could have shared these tips with my 2014 self. Someone get me a time machine for Christmas;-)
I’m excited to announce that after some review of changing U.S. regulations, Cuba Workshops is cleared to move forward with photography tours to Cuba under the category of Support for the Cuban People in 2020. It is an unexpected lifeline for continuing our tours to Cuba and hopefully will continue into the future. Of course, given the fact that we are heading into a presidential election year with Florida up for grabs, it’s likely the risk of politics could affect your ability to travel to what is rapidly becoming a forbidden island. Our recommendation is not to delay any plans when it comes to this fascinating country.
Both itineraries take us to Havana and the colonial town of Trinidad:
January 24 – 31, 2020
Jaime Permuth joins with me to lead this street-photography oriented tour. Jaime is an internationally-exhibited and award-winning photographer based in New York City who is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts and New York University. His i3 Lecture Series has been heralded as an incredible resource of photographic inspiration. A native of Guatemala, he has led workshops to Cuba in the past and will be an outstanding presence for our participants. In addition to three nights in gorgeous Trinidad, a highlight of our tour will be to witness the “Marcha de las Antorchas”, a yearly tribute at the university where students march through the streets of Havana with torches to carry the light of independence hero José Martí.
April 29 – May 6, 2020
Our popular last trip during the International Workers’ Day Celebration on May 1st was an exhilarating experience for all our participants. We will revisit this momentous day in the life of the country, which offers a unique opportunity to understand the country on a person-by-person level. We will have a busy schedule, from bustling Havana to gorgeous Trinidad. Our tours are meant to provide different ways to interact with and support a wide variety of Cubans and their individual needs.
What we uniquely provide are curated experiences for our travelers based on years in the country navigating the often-tough challenges of logistics, bureaucracy, transportation and communication. On past trips we have met and photographed entrepreneurs (“cuentapropistas”) artists, musicians, boxers, ballet dancers, baseball players, farmers, fishermen, bakers and more. This is in addition to meeting the people who own the private homes and private restaurants where we sleep and eat. The trip provides an amazing opportunity to meet and support everyday Cubans and their passionate pursuits, to understand the country in a fun and enriching way and connect meaningfully with the Cuban people. We always try to keep the trips different, adding more unique experiences and finding different groups of people to support and to photograph.
I’m happy to excerpt some wonderfully generous words from previous travelers: “Alex did an incredible job putting together such a dynamic experience for us to capture. Each day unfolded with new backdrops and scenarios to engage and photograph. My goal as a photographer was to get out of my comfort zone, and document the texture, color and soul. I’m grateful to the Cuba Workshop team for all the behind the scenes planning, day to day mentoring, and access to both curated and spontaneous moments – truly an unforgettable trip.” – Kerri Sherman, photographer
“This trip taught me confidence in approaching and capturing candid street shots and I walked away with tangible evidence of every crazy and amazing thing I did, which would otherwise have felt like a dream by the end of it. If you’re debating whether or not to take this ride….A personally-guided tour of non-tourist areas in a communist country with a group of passionate artists is a priceless approach for taking your photography skills to the next level.” – Kat Tushim, art director
“I have been there twice before with Alex Garcia, and expect absolutely nothing but a new adventure around every corner.” – Michael Kaminski, agency production SVP
“If you are looking for an intimate type of trip to Cuba, this is the trip you want to take. When I came back from Cuba in May, I was was not mentally home for a few weeks, because a 40-year-old dream was realized. Cuba is an extraordinary country with warm beautiful people, stunning colors and a fascinating history and culture. Old Havana will fascinate you! You can walk around the city for hours without being bored. Life on the streets is buzzing. Every street corner is worthy of a photograph. Cuba’s history is a story that is told through its artists, art is anywhere and everywhere. Trinidad with its cobblestone streets and bright colors houses is a visual explosion of color.” – Barb Pashup, photographer
If you have any interest in one of our trips, please reach out. The deadline for January is in a month or so, and will be here before we know it!
This week I had the opportunity to be on WGN 720AM with Andrea Darlas on her show, “Andrea and the Reporters”, where she interviewed former Tribune photojournalist Nancy Stone, photographer Will Byington and myself on a range of topics regarding our photography. Andrea (center, middle) is such a pro. Have you known someone so nice and so good at what they do that by the time you’re done with something that might stir some anxiety, you’re like, “Wow, that was too easy!”? We talked about storytelling, favorite pictures, why keeping your outtakes is so important, the kindness of strangers, and generally how our careers got started. It was a fun conversation. I hope you can put it on in the background this week sometime and give it a listen.
Just wanted to give a heads up that tomorrow, Saturday May 18, I’ll be speaking at the Prism Photo Workshop at Columbia College. If you can make it, I’d love to see you. I’ll be speaking at 11am for about an hour about how to take photojournalism and storytelling into other areas to expand your influence and business. I was added a few days ago to the keynote spot when my friend John White had to attend to a personal situation, hence the last minute notification.
For those interested, the Prism Photo Workshop was started by Michael Zajakowski, Alyssa Schuker and Michelle Kanaar with the mission to “provide resources and support for young photographers of diverse backgrounds to tell the stories of underrepresented people and communities with dignity.” We believe it is imperative that news organizations — and the journalists who represent them — are credible, diligent, and reflect our communities accurately and faithfully.”
Over 100 people have already signed up online, and you can do so too. Or you can show up at the door. Hope you can join us!
I’m very excited to announce that I’m launching a photo workshop through a new business, CubaWorkshops.com, this April 27-May 5th! We will visit Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad for 9 days and 8 nights. It’ll be an amazing time as we will be there for the huge May Day gathering in Havana as well as enjoying the sights around the city during the Havana Biennial. We will also head through Cienfuegos to the colonial gem of a town, Trinidad, with its sugar plantation ruins, cobblestone streets and waterfalls.
Our unique trip is in cooperation with Sony, who will provide each participant the option of trying out a camera and two lenses for the 9 day/8 night trip. Free! It’s open for both amateurs and professionals – camera owners of any brand. We will be accompanied by a Sony Pro Support representative who will be there to answer any questions you may have about the Sony gear.
Early-bird pricing will end in a week, so if you’re interested, please check your calendars and sign up through the site. I already have people signing up and I expect this to be a sold-out trip, so don’t delay. I’m limiting the trip to 10 photographers. If you can’t make this one, there’s a newsletter sign-up option as well.
As many of you know, I’ve spent over 20 years going back and forth to Cuba as a student, journalist, tour leader and family member. Creating greater understanding between our two countries is written into my DNA, so this business is an outgrowth of a lot of professional and personal time spent in Cuba. It will be a curated experience for photographers, led by myself and Orietta García, a professional tour guide in Havana and a former producer of one of the country’s most famous musicians.
Please share the word for anyone looking for an adventure!
Everyone has an opinion about border immigration, fewer people have a clear grasp of the facts, and even fewer have the up-close and personal experience to speak from. This Saturday, November 10th at 5 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church/Chicago Temple across from Daley Center Plaza, I’ll be introducing photographer John Moore and former Border Patrol agent and writer Francisco Cantú. Here is a description of the event from the Chicago Humanities Festival page:
“Odds are, you’ve already seen one of John Moore’s photographs this year. Before it became a viral symbol of the humanitarian crisis unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border, a photo with the caption: “A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained” was a real-time, real-life scene unfolding in front of Moore, a Getty Images special correspondent. “This one was tough for me,” he said. “As soon as it was over, they were put into a van. I had to stop and take deep breaths.” Moore, a Pulitzer-Prize winner, has focused on the issue of undocumented immigration and the militarization of the southern border. He has earned access to immigrants on all points of their journey, as well as to ICE and Border Patrol agents and USCIS officials. Moore will join us to discuss Undocumented. Former United States Border Agent and Whiting Award-winning author of The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú will join in conversation.”
I’ve admired John Moore’s work for some time. He’s an accomplished Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist who, after traveling the world for Getty Images has been focusing on immigration and border issues for the last decade. It’s an honor to introduce them both.
After many years on the street in Chicago as a photojournalist, one of the concerns that I heard consistently in underserved communities was the need not just for good jobs, but for opportunities for those getting out of jail. It made no sense to me that someone who paid the penalty for their crime and who wanted to rebuild their life would be denied that opportunity because of their jail record. So when I was approached to do to a video for Recipe for Change, it was meant to be.
Recipe for Change is a non-profit organization that provides mentoring and guidance to non-violent detainees in the jail and prison system through culinary, fine arts and life skills training. It operates an active educational program five days per week in the Cook County Jail. The heart of the program is Chef Bruno Abate, who received a “call from God” that led him to start the program. He doesn’t just give cooking advice, but life advice. An equal dose of inspiration.
Detainees can earn a certificate that sets them up to work in restaurants once they re-enter society. Those who go through the program don’t come back. It’s that effective. That, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, is very unusual. There are currently creating a program in the women’s jail.
The production team was comprised of myself, producer Kelly Sullivan, my co-creative partner Laura Husar Garcia and Johnny McGuire, who provided the aerial cinematography that you must see at the end.
If you know anyone who owns and operates restaurants or who would like to donate cooking equipment, please ask them to reach out to the organization through their website, recipeforchangeproject.org.
They could transform a life and change a family for generations.
More often than not when creating an image library for a corporation or organization, I am called upon to create portraits or headshots. It’s logical, since the library is often part of a more ambitious overhaul of a website and that includes the “About Us” page.
But because they don’t reside on the home page, these portraits don’t always receive the same creative consideration. You would expect that to be a creative goal to create consistency in branding, so I’m always prepared for that to be the case. My modus operandi has always been to answer the question, “What is the end goal here?”
This all comes to mind on two recent shoots, where careful consideration was, indeed, given to crafting a look for photos of individuals. In the top example for a healthcare company, the agency showed samples of different headshots, had discussions, and issued a creative brief. On set, the agency creative director and the company’s creative reviewed the images on the tethered laptop to make minor adjustments. The goal was more about color and light but not so saturated in color that it set up an odd pairing for the mature leadership. The background was different but similar, to account for what could be future photographs taken in other environments. Thematically, they had to work together without being identical.
In the lower example, the headshots were taken at a Working Not Working creative gathering. Discussions ahead of time were about how they should be a little more moody, muted with a dark background but not so dark as to create jarring juxtaposition with a smiling, happy person. It was to be more personal and intimate. Again, samples were offered but I was given the flexibility to bring whatever look I thought was appropriate within those guidelines. Practically speaking it was also very quick, since we were doing dozens of subjects and it was taken in a corner next to a crowded bar! But it was a crazy fun time.
Both were a success and an enjoyable experience, in part because of creative direction. To me, that element always been essential in order to align expectations. One reason there is a “Create PDF” link in the left column on my website is because it’s a very useful function in creating a mood board. Clicking on the image shows all the images in the website, allowing a person to create a PDF by selecting images that might pair with the creative look and feel they have in mind.
You would think after all this, the only thing missing from having photographs achieve a creative goal is to have creative direction. Yet unfortunately, the head-scratching truth is that there are photographers who don’t know how to follow a creative brief. I don’t get it. I was on a recent multi-city project where a very thorough creative brief was given to different photographers shooting in different cities. It called for a white background, even lighting but a light source not too hard, very shallow depth-of-field, a certain type of expression. Examples were given. I understood what was needed and rented equipment as appropriate to the project. Afterward, the project manager was happy with what I had done but circled back in a group email (mercifully bcc’d) in which he complained to the other photographers about their lack of follow-through while holding up my pictures as an example (with my name redacted so no one ended up hating me later). Honestly, I don’t say this to brag. How can you brag about something as basic as following directions?
This is perhaps fodder for a different post, but in the end, it appears to me that many photographers are not comfortable shooting outside their creative comfort zones. I understand this to some degree. There are natural instincts as a photographer that take over when faced with uncertainty on a shoot. You solve problems a certain way. You subtly adjust to repeat past success. The insecure impulses associated with a challenge can be hard to fight. But having been a generalist for much of my career in which I have been expected to emulate different looks for different editors over the years, I don’t get caught up with what I’ve done but what I need to do. As with the examples above, I echo what Gregory Heisler used to call the “appropriate response.”
So it’s a two-way street between a photographer and a creative director. It’s fantastic and a relief to have a brief written by someone used to directing photographers but it’s up to the photographer to read between the lines of any project description or brief to ask questions and offer synonyms for ambiguous words such as “candid” or “edgy” to get everyone closer to acting from a shared vocabulary.
The example here is portraits and headshots, nothing terribly complicated. But once expectations are aligned and creative flow is moving forward, it makes the process a lot more reassuring for everyone, no matter the size of the shoot.
The “Hang Time with Sam Alipour” show on ESPN is always a fun segment as Sam hangs out with a superstar athlete trying something they always wanted to do. In this case, ESPN “Hang Indy 500 race champion Josef Newgarden wanted to try his hand at improv comedy at The Second City Theater in Chicago. Actually, he’s a funny guy, and very telegenic. A great subject to work with and we had a lot of fun as I took pictures of their hijinks in and around the film crew that was making a segment for the show.
Tennis instructor Kamau Murray, who coached Sloane Stephens to victory at the US Open, is set to create a powerhouse for young African-American tennis players with a new facility on the south side of Chicago. The $16.9 million tennis village will officially launch this summer, but it’s already in use. It’s really amazing, awe-inspiring. His tenacity and vision will bring much pride to the city. My assignment was to make portraits and candids of him for ESPN’s The Undefeated. As he’s an extremely busy guy, much of my work was done in and around practice, where you could get whacked by balls or stray rackets by the exuberant kids. As with most of my assignments, I try to create a variety of looks so much came down to some previsualization and adaptation after arrival. Except for the last image in which I used three strobes in different locations, I used two lights for my set-ups.