It’s A Big But Small World

For the last 7 months I’ve been travelling, never spending more than a few days in one place. Last July I started in Oregon and drove with my two best friends across the United States  teaching workshops before beginning my job as the main photographer for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour, visiting more than 80 countries before the FIFA World Cup. As of today it’s been 195 days travelling and 68 countries.

Going to all these places!

 

It’s been a humbling experience, visiting all corners of the earth in just a few months. I’ve found myself walking through the poorest neighborhoods in the world, seeing the poverty that so often only gets seen through a computer or television screen. Often in the same day I’m taking photos of presidents, sports figures and important people from the country we are in. It’s a strange line to walk along, seeing and being a part of two very different worlds that not many people experience. For the first time I was left being the only English-speaking person in a room, the only Caucasian, the only person wearing shoes or with access to clean drinking water.  And it was powerful and life changing. These times of being a minority have humbled me, changed the way that I feel about myself and about the world around me. It’s inspired me to keep giving back and to keep making sure that I feel these places, not just see them. I feel that the short conversations, the high fives, the hugs and the smiles that I’ve shared with people from countries I never thought I would set foot in have built me up like a puzzle. Each of those faces and voices, matching together to put build who I am now.  I didn’t know when I started this trip, that I was missing all these little pieces in my heart, in my mind but now after reflecting on all of these moments, I see that they’ve helped me feel more complete.

 

 

Some of my favourite memories of the last few months have been those quick moments, kneeling in the dirt to show some kids how my camera works, watching a couple share a kiss in the setting sun, seeing families spending time together and watching people share their love of football through dance, laughter and tears. From living in a small town tucked away to being in the biggest cities on earth, life has changed. Every day while travelling I try to find a quiet place to give thanks that I’m breathing the air that I am. That my feet are touching the ground that I’m on. I’ve done this ritual as we flew next to Mt.Everest, I gave thanks as I gripped the railing of a stadium that fits more people than my town, while I walked barefoot through a Grand Mosque and ran my hands along one of the Great Pyramids.  I had tears while I prayed next to the tomb of Mother Teresa and silently smiled as I watched Buddhist monks meditate in Myanmar. I like to think that if I take a deep enough breath of the air in these places that it will stay inside me, that it will help me feel connected to these places for the rest of my life, maybe it will lead me back to them.

 

One of the elements of this trip and of my life in the last few years that I never expected was to be able to meet so many fellow artists and photographers. Throughout the last year especially, being able to spend a day or a few hours with another photographer has shown me how small the world can be. It’s incredible to me to see how art and photography can truly connect people from all corners of the earth.

In Egypt, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Ecuador I found people who recognized me from my work. I say this not to sound high on myself but because it was the first time in my own life that I realized that the work I’m creating actually does exist outside of my own head. That people see my photos, they like them and they remember them. Never in my life would I ever have thought that someone would like my art enough to remember me and want to actually travel to say hello.

In the last few weeks I was lucky enough to be able to meet with some long time photographer friends who I have admired for quite a while. The thing that I love about meeting other photographers, especially ones who a part of the small but growing ‘conceptual’ community, is that it never feels strange. Meeting Adam Hauge, Anh Minh, Diego Chavarro, Tasha Faye, Alyssa Amaro, Mikael Aldo, Daniel Adams, Reem Eissa, Sammy Tagir and more never felt weird even though we’d never met before. To me it’s like seeing a friend again after a few months apart. There’s a common thread that runs inside artists and I think that the thread keeps us connected to the same feelings. Being able to look out over Bogotá, wander through Kuala Lumpur or buzz around the streets of Hanoi showed me how big the world is, but how small it can be at the same time. That those moments were created because of how connected people have become through the internet, through photography and through these wires both physical and invisible.

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It’s amazing to me to think that my life has changed entirely because of the internet, because of how small the world can be. This job, travelling the world came from me sharing photos online and having the right person see it. We live in an age where there is SO much content and so much happening all the time online but we can use this opportunity to help create new paths for ourselves.  When I first picked up a camera 5 years ago I never imagined I would be doing any of the things that I’m doing now and I recognize that it’s this “big – small world” idea that has helped me get there.

My friends and closest people in my life have come from the same thing, sharing myself and becoming connected through the small world that we share. Coming from a place a few years ago where I felt isolated, friendless and without a direction, I can say that I’m blessed to be able to be a puzzle piece in this big, small world. The community that exists within the photography community is shifting from one of competition and criticism to one of support, friendship and admiration. I think that one of the most powerful and selfless things that a person can do is support someone else who is reaching for the same goals they are and that’s what I see amongst the photographers that I follow and admire. I read a quote once that said “Someone else’s success is not your failure” and I believe that. In this big small world, there are opportunities for us all. We all have a vision, something that makes us unique and that will lead us all down different paths that are just that, different and not better or worse.

So with that, I’d like to thank YOU for being a part of this big and small world. For looking at,  enjoying , commenting and appreciating my work and what I do and for helping me find the path that I’ve found.

Worldly Balance

Tales From The Road #3

The last few months have quite literally flown by. I had intended on staying on top of writing and sharing my experiences with the Trophy Tour on this blog as frequently as possible but time really slipped away. I now find myself in Qatar, awake from jet lag and a mind full of anticipation for the next two months on the road and some much-needed time to catch up on the past few weeks of life.

 

It goes without saying that this job is intense and filled with a variety of emotions and feelings ranging from ecstatic to lonely to humbled and inspired. The last few legs of the tour were truly for me, a mixture of so many of those emotions and many more as well. My life, my inner voice and heart all changed during those few weeks and I’m so fortunate that I was able to see and feel all that I did.

Haiti, for me, was a life changer. I flew into Port Au Prince from Ottawa after getting some paperwork/visa stuff sorted and I was totally unprepared for the overwhelming emotion and energy that Haiti had. Right from the airport there was so much noise and so many people, grabbing at my clothes and trying to offer me things to buy. I was escorted to waiting car that didn’t look too official but I got in and we drove to the city. I didn’t expect to cry on that first day there but as we swerved through thousands of cars and around piles of rubble and crushed homes still present from the earthquake in 2010, it hit me. I remember the sun, starting to set had set an orange glow to the streets and in one moment that seemed to slow right down I saw a boy and a girl, about 5 years old sitting on top of a pile of garbage and I couldn’t hold it in. Crying because it was overwhelming, because there wasn’t much I could and because I felt totally uncomfortable knowing I have so much in my life while others have absolutely nothing.

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The stay in Haiti was punctuated with moments of shared joy and moments of sadness. For every smile I saw and photographed there was a far away look in someone’s eyes, that told me that there was so much hurt still left. I focussed a lot of my attention on the kids that surrounded our event, trying to make them laugh and taking their photos. During one morning when we invited a few hundred orphans to see the FIFA World Cup trophy, I met a young boy that, to this day, still lingers in my mind. He followed me the whole morning, holding on to my elbow and asking me a lot of questions. I let him take photos of his friends with my camera and he laughed and smiled each time I took the camera back. Then, out of nowhere he asked me to kneel down so he could tell me something and in the clearest voice he said “I have no brothers, no sisters. I have no mother and no father. It’s sad, very sad.” I could see him looking to me to say something, to acknowledge this sadness and this hurt and all I could say was “it is sad, but I know that there is a lot of love for you in the world, people love you and I hope you know that”. For days, this conversation replayed in my mind and combined with so many other sights and sounds of our stay in Haiti, helped me to realize that I have a blessed life with a lot to be thankful for, and I also have the opportunity to give back and help much more than I do. I made a promise to myself, and in some ways, to this boy to give back as much as I can and to make the world a better place. I’ve been much more aware of being more appreciative and compassionate and positive and I’m hoping that I can keep trying to give back throughout this tour and beyond.

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After Haiti we spent a few more weeks travelling through the Caribbean visiting places like Guyana, Grenada, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curacao, Nicaragua and El Salvador. In each of the these places there were moments, times when I had the chance to meet someone and talk to them that I felt truly connected to the world. There are so many people who are so willing and open to share moments of their lives with me and I always find myself caught by surprise how much they will share when asked. This tour truly is a happiness sharing tour. There is nothing quite like seeing people of all ages, races, abilities, and economic backgrounds laughing and smiling and sharing the same experience. I constantly feel so lucky to be able to see so many smiles every day.

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The next leg, and my last few stops before taking a break, were also huge moments in this tour and for me personally. The tour made history in November after visiting Israel and Palestine in the same day. We arrived in Israel and there was immediately an air of kindness and positivity in the airport. After giving a team of boys some key chains, their coach gave me what is one of my favourite keepsakes from the trip so far, a fair play card which is given to players who promote kindness, compassion and fair play during the game.

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After a short half day stay in Tel Aviv, we continued on to Palestine and even though the air was full of nervousness and anxiety, the drive went well and we quickly made our way through the secured wall separating the two. It was a surreal and tense afternoon driving through the border, history making for Coca-Cola and certainly something that not many do in their lifetime. Our few days in Palestine were eye-opening, not quite as immediately overwhelming as Haiti but still in the sense that it was a totally different place in the world and it was fascinating to me to just look out the windows as we drove, trying to soak in as much as I could in the few hours we were there. There was no secret in the tension that exists in this part of the world, it was obvious to us and clear to us how much struggle there is, but still we were greeted with such excitement and passion and happiness.

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We drove to Jordan and I really enjoyed our stay there as well, so many kind and happy people filled our stay there and some of the moments of that stop are among my favourites. Meeting kids in the street, playing football and having a crazy car dance party on the drive back to Amman.

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Egypt had been a place I’d always wanted to visit but honestly never thought I’d actually visit it. When we were in the plane circling over Cairo and I had my first tiny glimpse of the pyramids, my heart jumped a bit and it hit me that we were actually there. I had no idea that we’d be spending the next 3 days within a stones throw of the Great Pyramids of Giza and that I’d be getting to see them from morning until night without any obstruction. Our stay in Egypt was easily one of my favourites, not only because of the view but because the energy during our entire stay was filled with happiness. It was so easy to take photos because there were so many truly happy people all around us. We were able to sneak off for a short tour around the pyramid, the sphinx and ride camels in the sand. It was one of those “is this really happening?” moments for sure.

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Throughout the last few weeks, my heart has been filled with so much happiness and love for the people in the world and I know that, even though sometimes what we are seeing is difficult, that it’s teaching me a lot about myself and about how I want to change the world for the better. I went home for the first time in almost 3 months and spent some time reflecting on the trip so far and prepping myself for the next 40 countries and 6 months and all the memories and experiences that are awaiting me.

 

Here’s a short slideshow of some photos of the last few stops we’ve made.

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Thank you so much for reading this and for supporting me in my photography and this new chapter in life, it really does mean so much to me. You can follow my trip either on twitter at @trophytour or on Instagram at @findjoel.

Tales From The Road – #2

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The last few weeks have been a whirlwind, both of activity, travel and emotion. Since I wrote my last post, the Trophy Tour has been island hopping around Central American and the Caribbean which we will continue to be doing for the next couple of weeks. Our first stop after arriving back in Atlanta at the end of September was Costa Rica. This day was a big day for the tour as it marked the first flight of the entire team, as well as the first flight in our very own plane! It was a bit surreal for me to arrive at the Atlanta airport and see the bright red jet that will become my home away from home for the next 8 months. The entire team was impressed and excited and the energy of that first flight was buzzing. I was interview by Jay More, writer for Coca–Cola’s Journey blog and it was a bit surreal talking about my role on tour, being on the plane and really feeling it all happen. You can read the interview here:  http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/finding-focus-photographer-lands-picture-perfect-gig-with-coke

 

 

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Our first stop on this leg of the trip was Costa Rica, we had a huge event planned with over 17,000 people in attendance throughout both days.  It’s amazing to see the detail, energy and passion that is put into these big events. There are dancers and music, people performing football tricks, a huge hologram, art walls and of course the FIFA World Cup Trophy. Being around such a positive and energetic environment is contagious and it’s hard not smile with people when they react to the whole event. The second day in Costa Rica a few of us drove out to a smaller town to watch a local team play a match and then we explored a bit of the beach, it was nice to get a chance to see a different part of Costa Rica and meet some local people.

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Next up was Honduras, a busy few days for the tour. We met the President of Honduras on the plane which was exciting, there have been a few presidential meetings so far and it’s always thrilling to be able to shake hands with a head of state. Vincent, one of the videographers on tour, and I set out into the city of San Pedro Sula to capture some content. We explored a windy road up a mountain and found the perfect little football pitch at the top, unfortunately nobody was around to play in it. After that we wandered around some of the streets in San Pedro Sula and eventually found a small team of boys practicing in the setting sun. That evening we took a small commercial plane to one of the most difficult landing airports in the world, Tegucigalpa. Our event there was great, another big event with a lot of people and again it was amazing to see the energy around the entire event.

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After leaving Honduras we headed over to Panama City. I was surprised by how big the city was, how many huge skyscrapers built up the skyline. We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, which was a pretty cool place to stay. I had a bit of a chance to explore a bit of the city to capture photos for my job and it was a  really cool afternoon. We had another big event there and it was strange to be in such a commercial area after being in so many smaller countries and places. We had a nice stay there before heading off to Jamaica.

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Jamaica was one of my favorite stops on the tour so far. The Prime Minister, a really energetic and spirited lady came onto the plane to greet us and I even got to have a short conversation with her about why she loved football. My role in the tour gives me a really great opportunity to actually get out and see the communities and countries that we are visiting, while much of the team stays behind to set up events, organize the day and meet with local teams, myself and the video team get escorted off into the cities. In Jamaica, we sped through the city of Kingston on our way to photograph and meet a local young football star. Driving through these cities is probably the biggest culture shock for me. There aren’t really solid rules on the road and at times we are dodging goats, dogs, children and bicycles sometimes a combination of those! While we were shooting in Angels, Jamaica a young boy wandered over to our little set up and immediately started asking questions about my camera and phone. I let him take some photos and he loved it so much that he must have taken about 500 pictures of everything he could. It was a happy moment that brought a smile to my face when I explained it to the rest of the team.

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The next morning Vincent and I set off again to shoot some photos of our local football star and we found ourselves in the poor fishing community of Port Royal. It was an interesting place, once being the pirate central of the area and being known for its wealth and debauchery, most of the city now lies under the water after an earthquake. I photographed some kids fishing off boats and then a young boy showed up and I asked to photograph him playing football. After a few minutes of taking his picture I asked him why he liked the sport and his answer pretty much broke my heart. He answered “It’s the only thing that I can do to escape poverty, to help my family live a better life”  Here was this boy, only 14 years old feeling like it was his responsibility to find a better life for his entire family. It froze me for a  second and we talked for a few more minutes about how he plans on advancing and making the national team. It amazed me that the power of this sport runs so much deeper than just a love of the game, for some it’s a literal way of life, a way to live a better life.

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After our conversation we walked around the streets for a while, the sun beating down on us on one of the hottest days on tour so far. We came across a group of young kids playing football in street. It was a classic scene of what you might expect in a poor neighborhood. The kids were barefoot, using garbage and crumpled clothing as goalposts and for the most part they ignored the fact that I was there taking photos as they  ran across the scorching pavement in the sun.  As I took photos one of the kids slowly approached and tapped me on the shoulder and whispered “Do you have a drink?”  Again my heart sank, looking at this kid no older than 8, sweat beading on his forehead and without shoes. Right away I nodded and walked over a corner store across the street, I spent every dollar of Jamaican money I had buying drinks for the kids in the street and as good as it felt, I walked away with a heavy heart knowing that there was so much more I could do if I had more money. It was a weird morning of feeling blessed and guilty and humbled all at the same time.

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Jamaica was one of my favourite stops not just because of the culture and the happy people I was able to meet, but because it was the start of me really seeing the bigger picture of this trip and of my own life in regards to how fortunate I truly am. While it’s amazing to experience these really cool cities in fancy hotels and have the opportunity to meet presidents and dignitaries, it’s the moments when I’m sitting in the street, dirt on my pants watching and capturing unfamiliar scenes and people who I truly feel are the highlights of this trip. It’s already inspiring me to give back, to want to make a bigger change in this world and to make the most of the blessings that I have.

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Over the course of the last two weeks, we’ve been island hopping. Visiting new communities and countries almost every day and it’s a constant buzz of energy and happiness. I wake up tired but go to sleep filled with energy of the smiling faces, the laughter, the energy and the positivity that we get to experience every day. It’s a bit of a rush, packing up and flying out each morning but each new country brings with it a new story, a new person that both fills my heart a bit more and yet takes a piece of it away with them. It’s only been 5 weeks and I’m already changing into what I hope is a better, more generous and grateful person.  The next leg of our tour takes us to Haiti, Belize, Trinidad, Nicaragua and more before we head to Africa.

 

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If you’d like to see more photos of my trip please follow me on Instagram @findjoel : http://instagram.com/findjoel#

and follow me on the Trophy Tour’s official Twitter account @trophytour! http://twitter.com/trophytour

 

 

Tales from the Trophy Tour – Part 1!

I’ve finally found a few hours to sit down and write about the first few weeks of my amazing new job. And by finding a few hours, I really mean that the jetlag that I’ve been avoiding has finally hit me after travelling from one side of the world to the other and back in about 9 days! So far as of Sept 27th, I’ve travelled over 44,700km in just over 2 weeks!!

As a bit of a recap to what this exciting job is, back in April of this year I received a phone called from an organization that works with Coca-Cola’s big campaigns and they had an amazing job opportunity that they had in mind for me. The group organizes (among other campaigns) the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour by  Coca-Cola and they were offering me the role on tour as the photographer and blogger. The tour, which is a joint effort by Coca-Cola and FIFA, is centered around bringing the physical World Cup Trophy around the world to 89 countries to unite the entire world around the sport of football. Needless to say the opportunity to travel the world with a company that I’ve long respected and been a fan of was an offer that I couldn’t refuse and as of Sept 10th, I’ve been on the road with the tour.

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Our first stop was Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where the launch of the tour occurred. The first day in Brazil was incredible, my hotel window looked over Copacabana beach and I spent a few hours enjoying the sand and sun trying to wrap my mind around how lucky I am to have such an amazing opportunity in my life. Rio was an interesting and beautiful city to visit and I was fortunate enough to see a few different views of it. The second day of my stop there I followed our video crew to visit a young football fan and player who was being surprised with a ticket to the launch, where he would get to see the trophy at the Cristo statue and also meet 5 Brazil champion players. Getting a chance to go to his neighborhood was eye opening and powerful, his community was so happy and supportive of him and even though it was in a poor area of town, the feeling of pride and excitement made everything feel so upbeat and happy.

 

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The video was just posted this week and you can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXSern9Zqp4&feature=share&list=PLCGIzmTE4d0gBDk0w2z_JoqcSGb1Sr6n2

The launch day was one of the most surreal days of my life. I remember not too long ago reading an article about statues around the world and thinking to myself that I would probably never see the Christ The Redeemer statue in real life. And suddenly there I was early in the morning with an opportunity to see the statue and the view it has with almost nobody else around. The launch was full of awesome moments; seeing the Trophy for the first time in real life, getting to meet the 5 world champions, watching David Correy, Gaby and Monobloco perform the new anthem as it echoed it’s way down to the streets of Rio. It was a day I’ll never forget.davidgabymonoblocotwo

The rest of our stay in Rio was filled with more great moments, some of which are a bit of a secret for now. On the last full night of our stay there I found myself along with 3 of my colleagues going to Rock in Rio to see David Guetta and Beyoncé perform! In a matter of hours I went from sitting in the Coca-Cola Brazil office to a private Coke booth at the concert, rocking out to Beyoncé and pinching myself because it all felt like it was too surreal to be actual life. After a fairly relaxed final day in Rio we set off for literally the other side of the world, Tahiti.

In a matter of a few stops and a nice layover in Los Angeles that gave me a chance to see Carolyn Hampton and her daughter, we were on our way to the beautiful Pacific Islands. The first stop, Tahiti, was beautiful.  Our hotel looked out over an incredible lagoon and the sunset over and island every night. Our stay in Tahiti was short, only a couple days but it was filled with amazing moments. We had our first big event, an football experience at a local stadium with World Cup winner Christian Kerembeu as well as the captain of the Tahiti National Team. It was really neat to see so many people engaged and excited about the trophy and the whole experience.  After our short stay in Tahiti it was off to Fiji!

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Fiji was incredible. We were met off the plane by warriors and then ushered into a huge ceremony where the President arrived to welcome us and hold the trophy. The whole ceremony was moving and it was fascinating to be a part of such a rich cultural experience that doesn’t happen very often. Our stay in Fiji was filled with so much activity, we had a huge event at a football stadium, bringing the trophy and Christian Kerembeu to welcome the citizens of lautoka.  We had another event at night with fire breathers, dacncers and great music. Fiji was one of my favourite stops so far and I’m already hoping that I can go back one day soon for a longer visit.

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After Fiji we hopped over to another island, Vanuatu. We met the President here as well and he was very excited to be able to see and touch the trophy. The Vanuatu trip was short and punctuated with rain showers that made exploring the local beaches and village a little more difficult. We managed to visit the market and explored a short section of beatufiul blue water and soft white beach sand.

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This trip so far has been life changing, I’ve learned a lot about myself even in the few weeks that I’ve been on the road and it has opened my eyes to a lot of things. We’ve been fortunate to stay at some of the best hotels there are and at the same time experience the poorest neighborhoods and people I’ve personally ever seen. It’s an opportunity though to appreciate what we have and remind ourselves to give back and share as much as possible.

This is just the first of many posts to come, the next write up will include our first trip on our private jet, our trips to Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama! Stay tuned!

 

Make sure you’re following @trophytour on twitter to get all the updates!

The Wild Ones – The Summer of Sharing Happiness

It’s taken me almost the entire week and a half since The Wild Ones Tour officially ended to actually piece it all together in mind, there is a lot to reflect on, to remember, to laugh about and to feel humbled by.

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The Wild Ones 2013 Workshop tour started out as simply a comment, a desire by Shane, Sarah and myself to travel together during the summer, a road trip fueled by friendship and photography. Like most of these dreams, I never really expected it to go beyond that, but before long we were planning a route, deciding to teach workshops to help fund our journey, and deciding on names, logos and where we’d teach. It became normal to start talking about this epic trip, a travelling class that would reach from Coast to Coast and take us to more than 20 states.

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We decided to teach, at first purely because we needed a way to fund our trip, but gradually and after signing on Coca-Cola and Flickr as sponsors we became less worried about the financial aspect of the trip and more invested in the people, the community, the stories. We believed in our project, we believed in ourselves and each other so much so that each of us quit our regular jobs all in the same week. 6 years of working in a high school, a hospital and in R&D at a major company, we quit to follow our dreams. In early July, after almost a year of talking and planning and emails and phone calls, we finally set out on our way, without any clue of what was truly in store for us.

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Personally, I didn’t know what to expect. On paper the summer looked fairly simple, driving from one stop to the next punctuated by workshops in major cities along the way. It seemed simple, carefree and fun. And it was, even more so than I had ever thought it would be. What caught me off guard though was the community that began to form right in front of my eyes. I’d been to big meetups several times in the last year, and the friendships and bonds that came from them have truly changed my life (including setting me up for this trip!), but I had no idea that our Wild One community would come to mean so much to me.

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I distinctly remember how I felt the morning of our first workshop, we were fairly quiet as we got ready and laid out our supplies in the parking lot of the Portland Arboretum. And then people started showing up, happy to see us and with huge smiles on their faces. My nerves eased as we introduced ourselves and got to know the kind personalities behind the smiling faces and before I had even realized it, the day was over. I’ll never forget though, Kathy, a new friend who I spent quite a bit of time with during the workshop talking about photography, about staying inspired and how to shoot certain concepts. This conversation was awesome in itself but shortly before she left at the end of the day, she gave a hug and told me how much it meant to her to be there. And those words twisted right around my heart and made me feel so humbled and happy and proud.

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And each workshop was just like that, a beautiful collection of talented and inspiring people with stories and hugs and at the end of each workshop day I could think back and hear the words of thanks and kindness that were whispered during those final moments. Little did I know that each of those hugs, handshakes, photographs, and laughs were changing me bit by bit.

By the time we had reached Los Angeles, the halfway point of the tour I could already see it, the reach that this trip was having, not just within the workshops and with ourselves but with the people we met along the way. We were so fortunate to cross paths with so many generous and loving people that fed us, let us in their homes, walked around the city for an entire day, and simply just wanted to come and say hi before we left. I didn’t expect it and each time that it happened I was even more humbled and amazed at how our community was growing.

The trip though centered around the workshops was also an opportunity for the three of us to get to know each other better, and through the many mile we definitely did. A year ago, I never would have imagined that I would be waking up in front of Half Dome in Yosemite with these two, I wouldn’t have dreamt that I’d be teaching a class in Coca-Cola headquarters, spending a birthday walking across the White Sands in New Mexico, watching the fireworks light up the castle at Disneyworld. I came to love Sarah and Shane even more like members of my family, a brother and a sister that have memories with me that will never be taken. I’d like to say that each day of the trip was a laugh filled comedy but truthfully there were some tough days. Days when we weren’t feeling so great, days when the heat affected our moods, the lack of sleep made us grouchy and the long driving kept us quiet, but these tough times only ended up making the three of us better friends because we managed to come together. We trusted each other, applauded each other and supported each other in any way that was needed and I’m so lucky to have spent two months with these two amazing people.

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The tour quickly gained three hashtags, #thewildones2013, #flickrXcountry and #sharehappiness. For me, the Share Happiness tag was the most important, not because Coca-Cola was a sponsor but because we had an opportunity to give back as much as possible to anyone, friend or stranger across the entire country. We knew from the very beginning that this was not a trip we wanted to profit from, and true to this statement we finished the trip with nothing in the bank. We were truly able to bring happiness to people every day. Buying dinners, giving away free entries to deserving photographers who wanted to attend our workshops but couldn’t afford it, feeding stray dogs in parking lots and trying to do as much as we could to fill every city and town we stopped in with a jolt of happiness.

1148768_629056793792579_1078741808_n 20130813_141937Image by Danielle Dautel

I think for me, the happiest moment was the opportunity we had to fly two talented brothers from Illinois to Dallas to spend a few days with us and attend our workshop. Earlier when we had planned the route, I felt bad that we weren’t going to be passing through the Midwest, giving us a chance to meet Jordan and Justin Kuder. But, after a pretty short conversation pretty much consisting of “We should fly them to Dallas”….”Ok!” we had arranged for them to attend, no cost at all to them. It was an amazing feeling to be able to give a gift like that, one that I could tell meant a lot to both of them. It was a highlight of my summer for sure, to be able to not only give them the opportunity to come to the workshop but to get to know them both as friends.

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It sounds cliché but giving back is truly one of the greatest things you can do. I learned this summer, that being able to give and to encourage and to share help fuel the best life you could imagine. During each workshop, I felt humbled that people wanted to learn but I felt even more empowered and inspired because I had an opportunity to share and give back to those very people who helped us get to a point where we could share. The internet didn’t make me a photographer, but it did introduce me to a new life. YOU, the people that support me and believe in me and helped make this summer trip a reality are the reason that I feel so happy to give, because you gave me your support and love and it helped me become a different person than I was 5 years ago before I picked up a camera.

photo by Sarah Ann Loreth

This trip started out as a chance to teach other people, but in the end it taught me more about myself and about the good in the world. Each and every friend that we made and saw taught me something new and helped me feel even more passionate about creating art and about sharing happiness. While I was inspired by the natural beauty of the places we visited I was even more inspired by the openness of those that we met, how much they believed in their art and how much they believed in the three of us. That sense of belief and support and thanks are worth more than paycheck that a job could pay.

 There is a community now, a family of Wild Ones that has been created over these 8 workshops, it’s a family that may never be in the same room together but is still filled with the very best of traits. We are supportive, encouraging, talented, and bursting with excitement and respect for each of the other people in it. And the beautiful part of this community is that it’s not limited to only a few, it’s an open community of friends and photographers and supporters who just want a place to be themselves without judgement and to share happiness. It is because of this community, this family that I feel that The Wild One’s has been one of the most important and valuable experiences in my life.

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We couldn’t have done this trip without you, some of you donated money, some of you let us stay in your homes or fed us or even just spent a few hours touring us around your city, some of you sent messages of support that pushed us to keep going and to believe in this project and for all of those things I say thank you. We couldn’t have done this without you.

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I’m so proud of the last two months and more than ever I’m proud of being A Wild One.

Beginnings and Endings

One of the questions I get asked quite frequently is “how did you start in Photography?” It seems like the most logical question to ask someone, how they began their journey, what motivated or encouraged them to start doing what they love. For me, I always try to think back to my childhood to see where it was that linked me to being a creative person, an artist, a photographer.

Wordly View

I’ve always been interested in “art”. I use the term loosely because as a child, “art” typically lends itself to colouring books and creations with play-dough and lego. But even with those mediums, I loved creating. I loved drawing and making books of my own drawings and I enjoyed most of all making things out of whatever we happened to have around the house. I remember my bedroom as a kid was a treasure trove of odds and ends that I could use for making things. I was also inspired endlessly by Walt Disney and animated Disney films. We had an entire drawer full of Disney movies and when I was about 8 years old I knew  that I was going to try to be an animator for Disney. Little did I know that I would actually have to be a pretty decent artist to do that, but it was all I could think of myself doing.

Disney Geek

In all this time growing up I never really gravitated towards a camera. My mom always shot the photos in our family, books filled with road trips and christmas mornings line shelves at my parents house. But even with an avid photographer in the house I never really felt anything for it. When I was about 16 I found an old pentax and took a roll of film, mostly just some flowers and our dog and other “test subjects”. I was happy with the photos but didn’t see any future in photography for me.

In high school I tried to take as many art courses as I could, media arts being my favourite and in that class I learned how to develop my own negatives and took a roll of black and white photos that I was really quite proud of. Still though, I didn’t pick up a camera and feel anything.

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I started to notice something. I lacked passion. I didn’t really have any hobbies or interests that I felt truly passionate about. It had been years since I had painted a picture or drawn anything more than a doodle and I didn’t really see myself doing anything with any kind of art. Then, thankfully, I stumbled across Flickr.com. I don’t exactly know how it happened but I found a group of photographers who were taking photos each day based around a certain theme and it looked like a lot of fun. I hadn’t really seen anything like it before, people collaborating online and not taking themselves too seriously about it. I joined the group and started taking photos with my rather crappy point and shoot camera. And slowly, after a few weeks of playing along with the goofy themes I started to get more excited about coming up with photo ideas. After the first couple months I bought a dslr and began to actually plan my photos out and began editing them on a free editing program. It was like I had hopped on a train, without really knowing where it was going but I was excited to be on it.

Train

By the time I finished my first 365 project I knew that I was hooked, I enjoyed the process as a whole. I loved coming up with concepts, shooting them and editing them and sharing them with other people. I suddenly felt like a room in my mind that had been locked for so long suddenly opened up and I could see passion and hope and interest and satisfaction inside.

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings and my own beginning on this journey a lot lately. The proverbial train ride is picking up steam and I still don’t know the destination but I’m just as excited about the journey. And just as I’m thinking about beginnings I’m thinking about endings as well.   Today was my final day at a job that I’ve had for about 6 years, working as an educational assistant within the school system supporting students with learning disabilities. . I’m about to make a jump from hobbyist photographer to full-time photographer, supporting myself with my work, my drive and my passion. It’s a little scary to leave comfortable things behind, to say goodbye to a positive working environment with stability and security and trade it in for unknown, but I also know that it’s time for me to try this route and see where it takes me.

These next few months will be a new beginning for me, one that I hope in a few years I can look back on and start a new story from.

Carried Away

Fourth Time’s The Charm?

Day 365

Not very long ago I wrote on this very blog about the end of my third 365 photo a day project and pretty much vowed that I would never do another one. That was in December of 2011 and by January of the next year I had caved in and started my fourth project. And now, exactly 461 (I’m more than 100 days late!) days later, I’m ready to end my fourth project and say with almost 100% certainty that my 365 days are behind me.

Day 1

My reasons for starting another project based around daily photos and journaling last year was because I felt like within those 12 months things in my life were going to be filled with really exciting opportunities that I wanted to try to document. It was true I was surprised with a lot of incredible experiences and I’m glad that I was able to try and interpret them into photographs.

My fourth 365 project was very different from the other’s that I’ve completed. For the first 6 months I was very strict, shooting every day and posting that night. It was draining at times and there were many days in the spring where I was running about 15-20km a night to train for a marathon, grabbing my camera as soon as I was done and shooting for an hour just to get the last bits of light. This started to wear on me and by June I was really unhappy with my work, I was shooting in the wrong light, not thinking of solid concepts, and rushing my editing and I was frustrated. The nature of this type of project is quantity, it’s like a machine making an image a day and by the time summer rolled around I was burning out. I had stopped taking care of myself and my relationships, mostly because of my own internal pressure to try to come up with the next great idea. Instead of taking the time to cook healthy meals, I was surviving on peanut butter and jam sandwiches and apples and spending too much time on the computer and not enough time enjoying all the other parts of my life.

I feel like my turning point was the Midwest Meetup in Indiana in July. It forced me to stop my routine of work, run, shoot, edit, repeat. I felt like I could breathe, I felt like I wasn’t being tied down by a project that even though I had voluntarily agreed to was making me feel like I wasn’t good enough. As a fiercely determined and stubborn person, I like to do a project and see it through and quitting was never an option. After the meetup I started to relax a bit, I took some days off (unheard of!) and let myself shoot when the mood struck and started to become less paranoid about being “on the right day” of the project. In doing this, I felt much better. I felt inspired and motivated and wanted to create work that I was really proud of and now looking back I do feel much more pride in the months following this “intervention”.

midwest gathering – photo by Shane Black

The last 365+ days have truly been incredible. I never would have anticipated all the wonderful experiences that came my way during the course of this project. I travelled to Vancouver, Indiana, Detroit, California, Las Vegas, and Atlanta. I finally met with so many of my photography idols and friends and got to see their talent and beautiful spirits in person. I ran my 4th marathon in my fastest time. I was nominated for an award that took me to an awards show filled with some of the most talented photographers in the world. I was able to pick up a book with my photo on the cover for the first time, I was hired by two magazines to create work for them, I saw my photos on Oprah.com, The Daily Mail, and blogged by celebrities. But most importantly I was able to spend a year (and a bit) expressing myself, my fears and goals through photography and feel so supported and appreciated and understood.

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I highly suggest doing a photography project, whether it’s a 52 week project or a 365 project. These projects allow you to grow, to test yourself and to force your mind to stay sharp. It’s an amazing feeling to go back and see how work and styles and visions can change over the course of a year in your life.

I’m very excited to see where my next adventures take me and I know that my camera will always be there to help me document where I go and who I meet and help me tell the stories that I see in my mind. I have some projects that I can’t wait to start and even though I might miss going out and shooting a photo every day, I’m excited about allowing myself to grow in all ways.

You can view my entire 365 project here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/joel_r/sets/72157629005806697/with/6752321431/

Miniature Life Tutorial

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In the past few months I’ve received quite a few requests and questions around creating a tutorial for how I do photos like these, making myself miniature! I’ve been meaning to write a tutorial for how I achieve this look but haven’t had much time to sit and write one out, until now!

I’ll break the tutorial down into two parts, shooting the actual images and then editing them.

Shooting The Photos!

The first thing I always try to before I take any photo but especially these miniature ones, is make sure that I have a solid concept and an idea of any props or supplies I might need. The more prepared you are for shooting, the easier the entire process becomes. From my experience, shooting miniature scenes works best with simple backgrounds like walls, windows, or lush forest areas. If you have a busy background, even one with a lot of bokeh it can be difficult to make the images match in lighting.

Once you have your concept and your location it’s time to shoot. Here is where you really have to put yourself into tiny shoes and imagine what the scene would look like if you were only an inch tall. I think one of the ways to make these photos look as realistic as possible is to have the focussing and DOF spot on. To do this, you don’t want to just take a photo of an empty scene, you want to have a stand-in for yourself or your model so that the focus is accurate and appropriate to the scene you’re trying to create. I usually use this guy:

wall-e stand in

This Wall-e figure is a great stand-in, it allows me to set the focus on where I will be layering in my own image or the image of someone else and it also gives me the opportunity to use shadows. Shadows and reflections are some of the smaller details that really help to build up an image and by using a toy stand in (lego figures would work too) it allows you to not only set up your focus and scene but also keep and use the shadows that the toy casts.

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After you’ve set up your stand-in and you have the focus where you want it, lock the focus. Take a few shots with your stand-in and then remove it to get some photos of what we’ll call the “blank scene”. This is where you can get creative, you can do an expansion if you like or keep it to one shot. You can start to add in new elements (dropping coffee beans) or you can leave it simple.

Blank Scene

Blank Scene

Once you’ve finished with your blank scene it’s time to take the portrait side of the image. This is where things get a bit more particular. I always try to shoot everything in the same time frame and in the same location as possible so that the lighting and colouring looks as similar as can be. What I tend to do is look back into the first few images of my stand-in to see where my pose should be but more importantly where the camera angle should be. If you’re shooting the miniature at floor level, it means that you might have to sit on a chair or get your camera lower to make sure the angle and shadowing is similar. This is where you can go a little crazy with the photos, take more than you think you need to and check your results often so that you can adjust pose or angle if you need to. After you’re happy with the images, it’s on to editing!

Self

shootingtips

Editing!

The first thing I always do is open up my blank scene photos and expand them (if you’re not doing an expansion, skip this part!) I usually include a layer using my stand in, just in case I need to use the shadows later on. If you’re not familiar with how expansions work, I do have a tutorial here that explains it! http://joelrobisonphoto.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/an-expansion-tutorial/

After you’ve set up your blank scene, it’s time to add in your Mini. Depending on the images, it can be as simple as layering the mini images in and simply masking out the parts you don’t want but usually it involves resizing the “mini” layer to fit the scene.

Resizing the “mini” layer is where things can get tricky. You have to keep in mind the original scene that you set up, how tall was your stand in and what is the focus set to? If you shrink yourself too small or not enough, it sets everything slightly off. So, using a lot of trial and error simply resize this “mini” layer. I usually mask the layer roughly first just to get the sizing right and then do a clean up after I’m happy with it.

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So now you should have the basis of a “mini” shot! This is where those finer details come into play. In the shot below, I knew I would need to have a shadow of my arm and hand over the egg, so using the layer with Wall-e I copied his shadow and layered it into the image. I also knew that there’d be some more shadows needed around my feet and legs so using the burn tool I lightly burned the area to darken the shadows. Sometimes I also use the soften brush on a low opacity to add some DOF to the “mini” layer, this is helpful to give some realistic DOF. Just by doing a very subtle soften of shoulders, knees or other body parts that are a bit further away from the camera it helps to give a more cohesive and finalized look to the mini layer.

Finished

If you’re unsure of shadows or reflections, just return back to your stand-in shot to see where things should be and if you need to add in any final details. Once you’ve finished with the smaller details, you can continue to edit the colour tones, curves, textures etc of the image all at once!

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As always, if you read this tutorial and you enjoyed it please comment below and if you take a miniature photo, please send me a link! I will be drawing a name from all the people who create an image based on this tutorial and that winner will receive a very special “mini” themed prize!

March Madness

It seems like I say this after every trip I go  on, but I have no idea how to sum up how incredible the last two weeks have been. I`m going to try my best to recollect all the incredible memories that spanned 3 cities, dozens of friends and thousands of miles.

My adventure first start when I landed in Vancouver to visit my amazing friends that decided to organize a mini-meetup with local photographers. I first spent some time with my good friend Gurbir, attending a fundraising concert and exploring the UBC campus. Later that night we met up with the rest of our team of amazing photographers; Kindra Timmerwilke, Austin Tott, Noah Friebel, Lizzy Gadd, Emerald Shatto, Esther Gadd, Michelle Ellis, and Sandy Chu.

Noah

We spent the weekend at the lovely Gadd house and had many adventures around the Vancouver area. On Saturday we ventured to Lynn Canyon, stopping for a traffic jam photo shoot along the way. The canyon was beautiful, with huge tree stumps and lush forests leading us down to the river where we posed in each other`s photos and lit about 50 smoke bombs, watching the sun carry the light through the river canyon.

Lynn Canyon

 

We then rushed through Vancouver to drive to Wreck Beach near UBC so that I could shoot a client shoot I had booked. A local singer/songwriter Jordan Klassen had contacted me about doing some promotional photos for him and it was great to meet him and spend some time shooting some conceptual photos. That night we lit a fire on the beach and then stuffed ourselves full of amazing vegetarian food.
dinner

Sunday we spent the day exploring local minnekhada park. The weather was chilly but we made it much warmer by lighting huge torches for photos and layering on cloaks and blankets for photos. I love meetups like these where I can just stand-off to the side and see amazing hubs of activity and photos. We hiked along the beautiful roots and caves and stumps up to the lookout where we stayed for quite a while shooting photos of each other. That night we said goodbye to Austin and Kindra and Sandy and Michelle and our group was suddenly smaller.

groupified

Monday we agreed would be a lazy day and it was spent partially in pajamas and partially in White Rock where we walked along the shoreline with dogs and a kite and prepared to say goodbye to everyone. After another great meal and some late night Harry Potter, it was time to get ready for the next chapter in my adventure.
white rock

Tuesday the 12th I boarded a plane for Las Vegas and was greeted at the airport by a trio of wonderful people, Whitney Justesen, Brooke Shaden and KD Stapleton. After some hectic driving we checked into the hotel and our group grew with addition of Rob Woodcox and Peter Jamus. We explored a tiny bit of Las Vegas before we had to get ready for the whole reason we were all there, the FRAMED AWARDS!  Rob, Brooke and I were each nominated for awards and after taking some prom-style photos we literally ran from our hotel to the exclusive party, twitching with nervous excitement as we were led to the VIP section of the MGM Grand.

airport

pretty peeps

The party was incredible, getting to meet so many talented people who I`ve looked up to for so long was truly an incredible experience. Being able to literally rub shoulders with Aaron Nace, Ryan Brenizer, Kirsty Mitchell, Jeremy Cowart, and so many more was just surreal. Even though I didn`t win my category I felt like the biggest prize was being able to call these people friends by the end of the night. After the party ended, some of the Phlearn crew joined us for continued adventures around the strip and we stayed awake long enough to say goodbye to Rob before crashing into the beds.
Vegas

Wednesday we said goodbye to Whitney before heading off to see Brooke present a speech at the WPII expo. Peter and I sat in the front row and Brooke`s presentation was just as thought-provoking and insightful as I would have expected it would be. After she was done we kind of hobbled around the expo, bumping into all our friends from the night before along the way. After a few more “my life is amazing!”  moments, we left and drove around Las Vegas to find a vegan restaurant. In one of my favourite moments of the entire trip; Brooke, KD, Peter and I just hung out at a cafe, laughing like old friends and enjoying tasty treats. It was a happy heart moment that I`ll always remember. That night, Brooke and KD left and it was just Peter and I left to fend for ourselves! That night we ended up crashing a penthouse party (actually we were invited by Ben Von Wong) and after about a 5 hour conversation with some amazing people on the balcony we finally headed back to the hotel at about 5 a.m. That night really changed my own view on my photography and solidified my desire to become the best I can possibly be.

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After a short but wonderful sleep, Peter and I split off for a few hours. I walked up and down the Las Vegas strip, enjoying the warm weather and stopping to see various things. Randomly saw the Blue Man Group film a commercial, saw a few wax statues and had a great time just walking and thinking.

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Later that evening we met up with a duo of beautiful photographers, Janelle Flom and Katie Ruther and ventured into an aqueduct/wash thing and took photos until the sun went down. It was great to actually get some photography done while we were in Vegas, especially in a spot that wasn’t so traditionally Las Vegas.
group

Friday was our last day in the city and after a great morning coffee with Ben Von Wong, Peter and I walked (it was really more of an epic journey) to Whole Foods so we could finally eat food that was nourishing and not crazy expensive. We then met up with two amazing new friends Samantha and Corey who drove us out to the most amazing place, Nelson’s Landing where we got to shoot photos on a crashed plane, in some cool vintage busses and watch the sun go down behind the Nevada mountains. It was the most amazing way to wrap up my time in the sun there.
plane

 

Saturday was a full travel day. Between 8am and midnight I spent my entire day in airports and in the sky flying to Chicago and then finally to Atlanta. The next day, St.Patrick’s Day, I met up with one of my favourite people, Taylor McCormick and after we walked around downtown Atlanta and saw more than we ever planned to, we met up with AJ Brustein a friend and fellow photographer who works at Coca-Cola and first discovered my photos and started my whole project with them.

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We decided to check out a cool spot, an abandoned train yard which was absolutely incredible. I feel like I could have spent days there taking photos. Big huge warehouses, a train car, trees growing inside buildings, a brick throne and so many cool spots. It turns out the next Hunger Games movie filmed there and I can see why, it’s pretty awesome! I managed to get a lot of photos done in a short amount of time and it was great to be able to shoot photos with Taylor and AJ.  That night Taylor and I met up with another local photographer and friend Patrick Di Rito for dinner and we had a great time hanging out and laughing.
TaylorAJ

Monday the 18th was the big day. The whole reason I was in Atlanta was to visit Coca-Cola HQ and meet the people behind the company, specifically the people who had been a part of my project with them. The day started with a wonderful tour of the HQ, we went to the former president’s office which was fascinating and told a lot about how the company grew from humble beginnings to where it is now. Then I took a tour down to the archives which was incredible. I was shown original Norman Rockwell sketches and paintings, pieces of memorabilia that have been in movies and television shows, I held an olympic torch and a can that had been on the space station. It was so crazy to know that I was actually there!
Torch

Later I met with Wendy Clark, the VP of Marketing Communications and we talked about my project and I had the opportunity to discuss my photography and how I’d love to continue with them in any new projects. Then it was on to lunch in what Casey refers to as the Saved By the Bell Diner inside the complex. In the afternoon I met with Kelly Kozel and the Licensing department where I was able to see how Coca-Cola works with artists and designers around the world to create one of a kind and high-end works of art. It was really assuring to me to see a company actually reaching out to artists in a way that supports and encourages collaboration, something I’d love to keep doing with them. Then I was gifted a huge bag of goodies that weighed half as much as me and was totally a surprise! After that we went to a brand team meeting where I was given the opportunity to voice my opinion on a few topics and share my ideas with the group, it was refreshing (pun!) to see a company valuing a fan’s voice and I felt very comfortable sharing my thoughts and ideas with the group there.

brand team

After the visit at HQ it was a quick trip over to World of Coke where I held a Google+ hangout with a few fans, friends, and fellow photographers. Not everyone showed up but it was still a fun time getting to broadcast a little chat from the lobby! You can watch the whole thing here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vJIY-JXPADY

Then I was given a VIP tour led by a kind tour guide, Linda. We watched some videos, toured the whole museum/world and wrapped it all up with the sampling room in which I probably drank about 20 litres of various flavours of different drinks. Just as I was about to leave, she let me know that there was a tornado warning and that I should probably plan to stay a bit longer. I waiting and drank more and finally headed back to the hotel to change for dinner with more Coca-Cola people! We had a nice pizza dinner and it was great to wrap up the entire trip with a laid-back and entertaining evening.
the vault

The day home was long, about 12 hours of travelling but after a few close calls I’m finally home and reflecting back on what feels like a few months worth of adventures and people. I networked in a new way on this trip, I talked to business and top photographers and met people who inspired me to keep chasing my dream. I always leave these types of trips inspired and fulfilled and this is no exception. I feel almost validated as a photographer to know that just in the last few years my life has become so enriched just because I enjoy what I do and I create what I like to create and other people like it to.

home!

I’m hoping to use this new energy to reach further in my photography and try to become more engaged with the community that supports me and hopefully keep progressing and growing in the meantime.

Now to unpack!

Group

Anti-Bullying Day – Change Starts With Each Of Us

Here in Canada, the last Wednesday of February is designated as “Anti-Bullying Day”. An opportunity for people across the country to stand together and try to eliminate bullying from schools,workplaces, and online. This falls into place almost perfectly as I have been trying to write a post on bullying for quite some time now.

Bullying is a situation that is all too familiar to many of us and unfortunately it seems to growing in impact and growing in frequency. While I strongly support and believe in having a day to focus on this problem, it’s an issue that needs attention every day, not just one.

Be Kind

I have a very personal connection to bullying, in several ways. I was bullied, a lot. More so than I think most people in my own personal life realize or know as I’ve managed to keep it tucked deep inside. I’ve also seen it firsthand in the schools that I’ve worked in. It exists not only in these physical spaces but in the online spaces we frequent as well. I’ve seen my friends, my fellow artists all being bullied for their choice in subject, their talent, their personalities, most often these verbal/online attacks are done anonymously. I thought that I would share with you my own story of bullying, I feel that it has played an integral role in my life and that it has helped to shape the person that I am and even the kind of work that I do, both artistically and professionally. This is probably the most personal and sensitive topic that I’ve ever written about and aside from a small handful of close people in my life, I haven’t shared this with anyone.

I remember the very first time that I was truly bullied. I had been teased growing up, for having a big nose or for wearing the wrong style of shoes and all that insignificant stuff that happens as a young person growing up. But when I reached the 9th grade, things changed. A small group of older guys suddenly chose me as their target, I was small and quiet and I think they sensed all of my insecurities. As fate would have it, I found myself in a math class seated directly in front of 2 of these guys. For months they would stealthily torment me, shining laser pens at my glasses so it would reflect back into my eyes, flicking staples at the back of my neck, whispering names that still make my skin crawl each time that I walked to sharpen a pencil or hand in my work. I was starting to get good at ignoring it all until one day, a Wednesday in fact, when I finally needed an escape. I excused myself from class and walked to the farthest bathroom, a chance to get even a few more minutes of peace. I gave myself 5 minutes, just to stand in the bathroom and not be around anyone else or listen to anything, just to let myself silently cry and try to muster the patience to finish the class. Just as I was about to leave, the two guys from my class swung in through the door and blocked it shut with a garbage can. It was one of those situations where time both freezes and speeds up at the same time, like a car accident or a roller coaster. In one motion, the taller of the two had grabbed me by the jaw and shoved me into the corner. I don’t remember much of what they said to me, it all sounded muffled and like another language. I remember them saying “I should like it” and they laughed. In what seemed like hours but was probably only seconds, the taller one pulled my head up, opened my mouth with his fingers and spit into it. I don’t know why I froze, but I couldn’t move. In this frozen haze I stood there as they laughed at me, spit on me, got their faces nose to nose with mine so closely that I could smell old cigarettes and see my own face in the reflection of their eyes. The principal’s office was mere steps away but I stood and took it. The finale of this two-minute torture was one of the most dehumanizing moments of my life, in a swift motion they grabbed my head and shoved into a urinal, kicked me once each time in the back and left. I remember my glasses cutting into the bridge of my nose and how cold the porcelain was as I pulled myself up. I remember spitting blood into the sink from where my braces had cut my cheeks from being squeezed so hard. I remember smelling of urine and cigarette and embarrassment and yet, I did what so many kids do when they are faced with situations like this or worse, I pretended like it never happened. I washed my face, straightened my glasses and walked back to my class. I walked in and sat just a few feet away from those two same guys who now had smug smiles on their faces. I sat there in that desk every day until the end of that school year and never told anyone.

I kept that story and all the other times that followed, the times I was spit on, had my homework ripped up in front of me, been called names that felt like hot knives in my skin had my hands held behind my back as a group of kids stole money out of my pocket, a secret until just a few years ago. And why? Because I didn’t want to make it worse and because I didn’t think anyone would actually care. And that, is the saddest part of any story that you will hear about bullying. That kids don’t tell because they don’t think that anyone will care or that by getting help it will make it worse. I wish I had told, I wish that I had been strong enough to stand up for myself but I didn’t, and because I didn’t it sent a message to those guys and every other bully in my school that it was ok to do what they did. I started to tell one friend, a few years ago, parts of this story and her response was “well you didn’t tell me this as it was happening so how can I believe that it actually did?” Her reply was the exact one that I feared getting, the response that so many kids fear, that people won’t believe them and that they’ll be made to feel like their experiences are lies. Just because someone didn’t tell you, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Free Your Mind

Bullying is not an isolated event, it doesn’t just happen once to one person in a city far away. It happens all the time to people in your classrooms, in your homes, in your families. Just because you’re not hearing about it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen it just means that there is still too much fear in the way of getting help. I now find myself in an interesting situation, I work in the same schools that I was bullied in. I’ve been in the bathroom that I was attacked in, I walk through the halls everyday that 10 years ago I hated and felt like an insignificant nobody in. But now, it’s changed. Through these experiences and through my own discovery and healing and trust in other people I’ve learned that an end to bullying doesn’t start and end with the bullies themselves. It starts with me. It starts with you. It starts with those that were bullied, that have children who are and were bullied and it starts with those who have never been bullied. We need to stand up together in a united force that says to the sensitive minds and hearts of those around us that we care for them and we’re here to help and protect them and that  it is not okay to belittle or discriminate, taunt or tease, abuse or attack ANYone. That difference in ability, gender, race, sexual preference, identity or mannerism does not give anyone the right to use that as a weapon to bring someone down. Change starts with each of us making the communities, both local and global one that supports each other and protects each other. The anti-bullying campaign is as much a pro-support and pro-change campaign, we can’t focus on just the bullies themselves, for many of them it wouldn’t matter, they would continue to do what they do. But if we can create an environment in our homes and schools and friends that is safe enough for those that we care about to say “I’ve been bullied” or “this is what happened” we can then start to deal with the problems. For me, I had seen posters denouncing bullying my whole life, but I didn’t ‘feel’ support, I didn’t see in the faces of my teachers that there was care enough for me to help me. That responsibility lies in us. I see bullying in the faces of kids in the school that I work in, I see bullying in the ways that my own friends have been treated online, and I see it even in the way that adults interact with each other. It’s up to those of us that have had enough to decide what is acceptable in our society, and bullying isn’t one of them.

So, for this Anti-Bullying Day, I challenge you to make your communities a safer place for all in it. Help me and those around you create a kinder and more supportive environment that helps to foster diversity and acceptance but also shows those that are intolerant of other people’s differences that they aren’t the ones with all the power.  I was recently asked why so many of my photos have messages in them, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively and my answer was this:

I feel that my own life is a collection and reflection of the experiences that I’ve been witness to. In my own art I hope to create images that when someone sees them, they feel something. I  want someone to see a photo of mine that says “Be Kind” or “Be The Change” or has a peace symbol in it to know that I care. I care about a world that is loving and kind and that cares about the other people in it. That is why I do what I do and why I think that it’s important to be a voice of change. I create these pieces for myself, to remind myself to be kind, to be loving, to give back. I create them for those that feel hurt, that feel alone or isolated and I hope that they see my work and feel connected, they feel a kindred heart out there wanting them to keep going. I create them for the bullies too, in hopes that if they see enough messages of kindness and goodness that they’ll start to realize that hate is the minority. All we can do though, is change on behalf of each of us.

I’ll leave this with a simple quote that means so much to be that I have it permanently marked on my wrist

“You Must Be The Change You Wish To See In The World” – Mahatma Gandhi

and I highly suggest you watch this powerful video by Canadian poet Shane Koyczan

Be The Change