2018 - A Year in Review

2018 was a year that stretched my photography skills like never before. I began to use speed lights as my client work moved indoors. I re-learned to crawl with the best of them as my littlest clients (and son) got even younger. Perhaps most important, I tackled new challenges of time management as a new dad, team leader, and photographer. So, to kick off 2019, I’m sharing a visual recap of all that 2018 brought in.

There were events, family photos, and a few side projects. There were hikes, food projects, garden wanderings, and some street venturing too. From Brooklyn to St Lucia and a lot in between, my camera came with me as a trusted friend. Someone who challenged me, pushed me, but ultimately helped me be my best self and see the world in a new way.

Thanks to everyone who’s followed along the blog here and I hope you continue to join me in the months to come.

The surreal, ‘public’ beaches of St Lucia

The surreal, ‘public’ beaches of St Lucia

The year began with a getaway. A pre-baby moon if you will but also a kind of trip Katie and I almost never take. Don’t get me wrong - we love a good beach and splash in the ocean, but rarely seek those features out when we travel. St Lucia was simply sublime. Cliche perhaps, but we leaned into it. Not as much as, say, our resort neighbors who got out their sun oil, cubans, and rum punch by 10am at the beach. But hey, to each their own.

The vibrant colors begin to take shape as a cold spring season begins at the Gardens

The vibrant colors begin to take shape as a cold spring season begins at the Gardens

I spent hours - probably days worth of time - in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. I especially loved the early spring - as buds burst forth after months of careful cultivation from the fall by gardeners who could only hope that nature would partner in their designs. Each week seem to bring new textures, colors, and choices and for me, getting close or and playing with movement felt like the truest way to capture the feeling of being both big and small, rushed and frozen all at once.

The Japanese Gardens were a favorite - finding new ways to see them was a challenge

The Japanese Gardens were a favorite - finding new ways to see them was a challenge

As spring turned to summer, walks in the parks turned up fun surprises that you only get in a city where it’s entirely possible that a dog’s wedding gown was more expensive than my own wife’s. This was one of my favorite street photos of the year and for me it captured much in what was changing in my photography. While many others turned their lenses on the couple, or even the dog while it was in their laps, I tried to position myself to where it was going to go - to create the juxtaposition of the two brides. Of course I got lucky, but I also set myself to maximize that luck too.


But May also brought us other surprises - and while I won’t be posting any photos of our son yet, the cake below was our first celebration of the incredible news. He has brought so much joy and happiness into our world and it’s hard to imagine life before him.


Even with our new addition, I made time to reflect and explore the gardens in new ways. From macro to blur, I wanted to tell the story of change without losing the importance of the individual elements. Some of what I created felt dull and unoriginal, but the creative constraint helped me develop both new techniques and perspectives.


The summer also began my first family photos of the year - this one with our neighbors who had a child only two weeks apart from ours. Watching them grow up together has been hilarious and illuminating and I loved working with our friends for an intimate session in one of my favorite spots.


I was also thrilled to work with my close friends when they had their second child. We’ve been through so much together - our early years of teaching, weddings, illnesses, and just about everything inbetween. We’ve toasted each other, cried on each others shoulders and I loved working with them to capture this precious moment in time.


One of my favorite client groups to work with are entrepreneurs who are seeking ways to capture the value of their work in distinctive ways. From events to editorial pieces, portraits and headshots, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a number of clients this year who have exciting new businesses and a powerful story to tell. My goal of making high quality photography at accessible prices makes me humbled to work with such hard working, creative folk.

Callan from a Spark Collective

Callan from a Spark Collective

Larnell and Jonathan at a Soulful Experience

Larnell and Jonathan at a Soulful Experience

As fall rolled in we took a trip to Lexington, KY and had a chance to soak up the quiet beauty of the fields and farms. I realized how long it had been since I had been out in more rural country that seeing even relatively small farms triggered quaint (and naive) thoughts about life away from Brooklyn.


As the year came to a close I did a final gig with a family who we’ve been close to for over a decade - the couple that introduced me to Katie and with whom we’ve stayed close ever since. Sharing their joy as they welcomed their baby into the world was icing on the cake.


Thanks for reading and joining in a complex year filled with joy, new beginnings, new ventures, and new ways of seeing familiar sites.

Fear is real, but so is overcoming it (or how FDR was wrong)

About a year ago I started on a journey to become a professional photographer.  Whatever that meant. At the time, it meant that I aspired to be paid for my photography. Seems simple enough. And when my first client threw in their hat and gave me a chance, and then another, then another, I thought I might be on to something. 

My beautiful amazing wife.

But I'll admit I didn't think I could make it as a full time photographer. I was indoctrinated in the gospel of the 'real job' and even if no one said this to me explicitly, I felt it in what everyone did around me. When I wanted to apprentice myself at a restaurant where I had made friends with the owners and chefs, ultimately I was my own barrier (that one may have been a good choice - professional kitchens and epilepsy don't go so well together).

That fear of revealing yourself to the unknown is all too real and faced down by entrepreneurs and go-getters the world over. I'm not just talking about start up silicon valley types who so frequently have a comfy safety net to fall back into (as did I). I'm talking about people who feel the fear and face it down - the teachers who chose to join a profession that's getting hammered from every side, the women who don't just break through the glass ceiling but imagine a new sky, the justice fighters who shove aside snide labels and bigots on social media to do work for a higher cause. That kind of fear.

It wasn't too long after I began working as a semi-full time photographer that I also came to a realization about where I got my energy. What I wanted most was to bring people joy, to tell their stories, and capture portraits of nature so that we might treat it better. I started spending more time talking with strangers and working on special projects with friends to help build their brands and personal branding. I waded into the world of engagement photography to celebrate the love of two dear friends.

In the end, I didn't want photography to be a full time thing - at least not yet. I couldn't give up my other passion working in education to help build and grow the teacher talent pool our city needs. But I also couldn't let photography go and I'll admit - I get a thrill each time a client shares an idea for a project or expresses interest in a particular print.

And that's where this story goes. The fear of reaching into the unknown, of taking a risk, is quite real. But one of the great rewards of taking that first step is that you realize how little we actually know and control in the first place. And once you're able to let go of that, you can open yourself up to new opportunities. Like selling prints. 

I don't mean to be trite. It hadn't even occurred to me that people might want to buy images that I had already taken. It's like a restaurant selling leftovers (oh hey, brunch!).

Far from letting me settle in, the requests pushed me to go further. To know that someone might one day pick a piece of mine to hang in their home or gift to a friend is just pure joy. For all the benefits that digital photography has brought, there are few things like printing, framing, and hanging a piece of art. I hope I can hang one for you.

SXSWedu 2017

I've been to one other conference before - a "web 2.0" type thing in Boston focusing on collaborative and open work. I went alone, met some interesting people, attended a few thought provoking sessions, but overall embraced my inner introvert and went all wallflower. 

So my expectations for SXSWedu were all over the map. I knew it was going to be different - I was traveling with a group of folks from the NYCDOE and that companionship alone would make a big difference. I had an opportunity to meet up with friends and former colleagues who I hadn't seen in years - some in over a decade. There were workshops that provided an antidote to wallflowerism and truly engaging sessions on race and equity that by far bested more traditional panels.

But I also knew that it could be completely overwhelming.

In the end, it was all about the people. There were courageous conversations on race and identity, practical workshops on making design thinking less racist and more oppression-aware. There were early morning taco runs and late night food truck jaunts with friends new and old. There was Chris Emdin who spoke truth to power and, at the opening event of the conference, called out over half the audience as frenemies. Yea, he did that.

Sure, there was also Tim Ferris doing a great job of showing what a frenemy looks like while espousing the values of Japanese Horseback Archery that you can learn in a week.

The most valuable time was what happened in-between and after though. That's where conversations went from abstract to personal, flush with emotions, rants, raves, and everything in between. I met with a group of past and present data fellows who were working across the country to help districts and schools do better for kids. I connected with local entrepreneurs who are helping teachers innovate in their classroom and others who are providing coaching and funding for entrepreneurs of color to address a systemic gap in venture capital.

And then there were the pedi cab drivers. I'm not sure what drew me to them, but their stories were illuminating. From the Golden Lion, an aspiring ukulele player, to Yaw, a music producer from Nashville who comes down to Austin during the festival to make some extra coin. Their stories brought home the changes and challenges that the rapidly gentrifying and changing Austin is feeling and I'm grateful for the time they spent to chat with me and share some of their story.

My first engagement shoot

Portrait photography is my thing. I love exploring new ways of seeing people, of sharing their stories, of sharing the spectrum of human emotion.

So when I offered a pair of close friends the gift of an engagement shoot I was totally upfront with them: this was my first, I would probably be gaining a lot more from the experience than they would, but they would be happy with at least one thing from the shoot.

But I was scared - feeling perhaps I had stepped farther outside my comfort zone than I was ready for.

I've been thinking a lot about creative fear recently as my team at the DOE embarks on designing new tools for educators and support staff. It's hard to break away from conventions. Bar graphs are easy. Good bar graphs are really hard.

And so when I first began to look for ideas an inspiration, I realize I went about it all wrong. I looked at Pinterest boards with titles like "top 50 engagement poses for the fall" and other eye-glazing leads. I was preparing for an engagement shoot by doing what other people did, not by reflecting on why they had agreed to do it with me.

That was the most important insight I took away from the day. I was so worried about delivering something conventional and "likeable" I lost confidence in what they liked about the work they had already seen. It was only until later in the shoot, when I began to feel my rhythm more, that the shots we took together were more inspired and authentic to my style.

Not gonna lie - when their invite came with a few photos from the shoot I was over the moon. I'm pretty sure I would have paid for the opportunity for the chance to make them something special.

My pledge

After a week of sorting through my thoughts and reading my friends articulate, pointed, but still painful reflections, I want to lay out here what I can and will do not only to defeat Trumpism, but also to galvanize good.

1) Remember and say their names. I understand that much of the police reform dialogue and media attention has faded in the wake of the election, but that lived reality of fear and death at the hands of the state is still so true (and now likely to get much worse) for people of color. And yes, even in "safe" cities like New York. So not only will I continue to financially support Campaign Zero, but I will also take a moment each morning to remember their names to keep me grounded in the fight to come.

2) Double down on STEM education and sustainable energies. There are very real consequences of having the head of the EPA deny climate change and global warming. Many academics, environmentalists, and politicians are predicting an upcoming tipping point within the next few years. We need collaborative and unprecedented focus - a la Manhattan Project but without the government. Forget about Mars. Mark Zuckerberg wants to end disease - this needs to come first. Personally, I will both give my time and resources to organizations that: 1) create economic opportunity by engaging students in authentic STEM experiences and learning, especially in rural areas, 2) invest in, and create an ecosystem of competitive and collaborative innovation that is needed to spark change, and 3) bring educational opportunities to those especially in rural areas.

3) Greet strangers and share stories. I've been reminded of the importance of stepping out of my comfort and overlapping bubbles more than ever post-election. For me, my photography, blog, and connection to a few other projects will continue to be my motivators and media of choice. I'm grateful for the gift and will continue to use what I have to help others connect.

4) Confront complicit white people. White people elected trump. White men in particular drove him to power. Clearly people painting swastikas, joining the KKK, and committing other overt racist acts need to be stopped, but I fear more for the person who continues to sit by and let it happen. I don't know exactly how I will do this, but it is what I will do.

5) Get local. This is what the republicans have been doing for decades and they keep reaping the rewards, from the House to city councils, and now finally the Presidency.

6) Read differently. In particular, ensuring that I read more than 75% of my books this year from authors of color. Additionally, and stealing from a great list a friend of mine put together, these:

  • White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
  • Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
  • The New Jim Crow
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
  • Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger & Mourning on the American Right

7) Shop differently. Our dollars can make a big difference, especially when we choose to spend them on businesses owned by women and people of color. I will be much more intentional with everything from things that I buy for myself and as gifts for others, where I eat and drink, and who I choose to avoid at all costs.

To be continued

The difference between good and great

"What did you say your name was again? Why haven't you been around before?"

That's what the director of the bands said as we were tuning up at my first audition for the jazz band at Cornell. The memory is still exceptionally vivid - more lifelike than most I carry with me. I was nervous, insecure, but excited. I suppose everyone is a bit nervous at those sort of things but I was extra nervous. Like most tryouts of the sort, it was a group audition that essentially played to all my weaknesses - sight reading, well structured improv, and the insecurity that comes with being surrounded by enormous talent. Many of the folks there that day have gone on to careers in music.

But I also remember the way the fear rolled off my back when I heard the director say those words. He sensed something in just that one note that ultimately led him to ask me to join the band. I fumbled my way through the sight reading section, botched my solo, and sweat buckets waiting for the results. Sure, I was only in the top band for one semester (apparently playing a good C isn't enough) but it was a transformative experience. 

While the moment stood out for me as something wholly distinct ("hey, you've got something special") in my 20+ years playing the sax, it really shouldn't have. That's where the insecurity and lack of awareness came in. I had heard that refrain before. Just a few years earlier a top music professor asked me to be his student at the Manhattan School of Music prep program because he "heard something" - potential. He also said he heard that I had "no tone", but that's another story.

And a few years before that I was in a music shop trying out mouth pieces when a few fellow musicians said off handedly how I sounded like another musician they loved. I ignored the signals because of my own self-doubt. I knew I was good. I worked extraordinarily hard to be good. But I also felt I didn't have what it took to be great and that expectation always limited me.

So I learned to listen to signals better. I began to realize that others would value me only as much as I valued myself.

What I began to realize as I did more photography is that people stopped asking how long have I been doing photography but rather were more interested in what I focused my efforts on. What interested me. What drove me.

There are days I miss my sax but more importantly I remember what I've learned because of it.