I took my second ever photography class recently. Once again, the focus was on story. Dorothy Kimmel of the Richmond District branch of the San Francisco Public Library organized this wonderful workshop, which was led by photojournalist Frederic Larsen. The idea was simple: Get people from the neighborhood to document the stories of the neighborhood through photography.
I chose to photograph the community that comes together in the wee hours of the morning at the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. The idea started last year, when I did a six-week stint at Koi Fitness’s bootcamp. The trainers and participants were wonderful, and I discovered that they were just some of many who gathered at that same spot every morning at sunrise.
Not being an early morning person myself, I was curious about who these people were and what drew them to that place. I also realized how beautiful the park is in at dawn and how wonderfully meditative it feels. My goal was to capture the mood and the stories through pictures.
You can view the complete set above or on Flickr, and you can watch me below presenting my work at a reception for the project last night.
I shot this over the course of two weeks. It was a tremendous learning experience. Briefly:
- Telling stories is different from taking snapshots. It takes work and commitment to get the shots you want. More importantly, it takes time to gain the trust of your subjects and access into their lives. I was frustrated and intimidated by this in the early stages of shooting, but over time, I saw what a difference it made to simply show up every day.
- There’s this crazy idea that storytellers are supposed to be passive, neutral observers. There’s no such thing. How you integrate into the story has a huge impact on your ability to tell it. As I got to know people, I gained their trust, and I was able to take more intimate, interesting pictures.
- I was self-conscious about taking pictures of strangers without their permission. What I discovered was that many people invited me into their lives because of my camera (along with showing up every day). It gave me access that I would not have been able to get otherwise.
- Taking the actual shot is actually one of the least important parts of being a good photographer. I’ve already mentioned one — gaining access. The other is curation. The best photographers take bad shots; they’re just disciplined enough not to show them.
- Curation isn’t just about highlighting your best looking shots. It’s about picking the best shots that tell your story. Pruning my set was hard enough, but eliminating shots I loved visually but did nothing for the story was painful. And, it made for a stronger story in the end.
I feel like I’m just beginning with this story, and I hope to continue shooting, but here it is for now. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to do this work and to get feedback and guidance from Fred, Dorothy, Natalie Shrik (who filmed an awesome three-minute documentary of the project), and all of my fellow workshop participants. Thanks especially to those folks who let me photograph them, especially the wonderful folks at Koi Fitness.
As always, I love feedback! Let me know what you liked and didn’t like, and why. Please be honest; I have thick skin!