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Interns and Mr. Miyagi’s Way

September 25th, 2008

I don’t feel like I know very much. Yesterday I had a great conversation with an editor at MSNBC about story production and, while I felt comfortable with our discussion, I realized there’s still so much to learn to be proficient. I think knowledge perception is similar to age; I don’t feel very old, but I know when I was 18 I thought 35 was ancient. I just “am;” I’m the person I’ve always been. It isn’t until I spend time with 18 year-olds that I realize I am an adult.

So it isn’t until I’m working with interns, or students (I’m teaching another documentary photography workshop at PCNW), that I understand the scale of what I’ve taught myself. I had a modest journalism education at the University of Washington–I would say the school paper taught me more than the Communications Department did. Then, in my slacker climbing years following university, I learned what I could by trial and error and a few mentors.

Now, increasingly, I’m turning into a mentor. I had a few interns who were in school at the UW, but it wasn’t until Andrew met me for coffee that I understood how I’ve incorporated some of the fundamentals; they are second nature to me. He left saying he learned more about documentary photography in our one hour coffee session than in all of his course work. One and-a-half years later he is deeply engaged in a long-term project on traumatic brain injury and is part of the FEAR Project creative team. (at left: in my last PCNW workshop, David has shows how with a little patience and the give and take of relational interaction he made more intimate pictures)

Dan was next; he’s back in Thailand finishing his undergraduate, but he too seems to have grasped some basics that have taken his confidence and focus to a new level. And now John is laboring over how to use his ability to make beautiful images to assemble stories.

These are unpaid internships. I can’t afford staff yet for the work I do, while I feel it’s meaningful, isn’t very lucrative. Having had one internship in my life (from which I was fired for expressing my opinion) was the kind of internship I never want to provide to another. I felt like cheap labor; I had the poor assignments and when I looked to my superiors for advice and knowledge I found very little support. (at right: kaela begins to piece together a story structure, finding the weak spots and the supporting evidence that will lead to better, story-telling images)

A friend once said to me, “If you’re hungry or thirsty in my house that’s your own fault; ask or go get it yourself.” I have a similar attitude towards my interns, but it’s very important for me to provide as much as I can. Typically we start the day with a check in; what are they working on, what questions do they have, how can my experience of making mistakes help them avoid theirs? And then, we practice what I like to call “wax on, wax off” or, the Mr. Miyagi school of learning.

The more competent an intern becomes, the more I can trust him or her with higher-level tasks, but often my work flow and methodology is unfamiliar. And, because a lot of photo post-production is grunt work, I just need hands on the computer. So there is a lot of mind-numbing repetition, but if they don’t do it I’ll be doing it. That’s the trade.

Still, in the home office or in the classroom, I do my best to speak from my experience and help others be more successful in their work. Be it digital post production, doing business or determining licensing, to building relationships, finding access, and developing partnerships; freelance photography involves a diverse skill set, insatiable curiosity, and a willingness to work incredibly hard in spite of seemingly insurmountable difficulties and discouragement. Documentary project photography is all that times ten; it’s not a hobby. (at left: andrew, acting as TA, was good enough to keep the workshop real)

Thus, Wax-on, Wax-off. Paint-the-fence. Learn the skills so you can focus on the story, not the basics. I guess, at 35, I’ve finally learned enough to understand how little I know. But even knowing that, I feel, is huge.

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