These are strange times and if we are to be honest, we could use a little magic. Every day, we do the best we can with our circumstances and sometimes all of that hard work pays off in a moment of magic.
Tenisha Hill and Gillian Young are no strangers to hard work or magical moments. It was an honor to have the opportunity to photograph them wearing Synergy Organic Clothing.
On this evening, there was a brisk wind making the cool temps feel downright chilly. We had a short window of light and we made the most of it.
With all of the strange changes going down right now, it’s important to be able to find ways to adjust your attitude, especially if you do creative work. What gives you a fresh look at things? For me, one of the surest ways to regain my sense of humor and to renew my will to be productive is exercise. Physical activity helps me to stay in a good frame of mind.
I’ve been pushing myself to hike lots of miles during these weeks and that has been a super productive and inspiring practice. Hiking plays a key role in me being my best self and living my best life. I get out to some remote locations during obscure lighting situations for the rarest of photo opportunities. Since photography is writing with light, it helps to have as much information about the terrain you will be describing and the light you will be using.
That is one of your biggest jobs as a photographer. Know the landscape. Because it changes day by day, the seasonal variations you experience are invaluable knowledge to getting the best shots. Hiking is ideal for this kind of practice because of the slow and deliberate nature of the decision to go on foot.
Although I love the minimalism of hiking, especially when I leave on foot from my door, there is another tool I love to use to explore the landscape and that is a bike. One of our greatest inventions of all time: the bicycle. What a slice of freedom a bike can be.
I’ve been teaching my daughter to ride her bike without training wheels for the past week and seeing the amount of joy she gets just by pedaling down the street with me on a skateboard beside her is about the best feeling I have ever had. It reminded me of that pure feeling of freedom you get from movement, with the wind in your face and the ground moving fast underneath you everything feels a lot better. Going fast is fun. Of course, it comes with danger, and learning to be safe is a big part of the project, but seeing the release, especially in this time of emotional confusion and frustration is a beautiful thing.
I have also been watching the homeboy Brendan Schaub become a mountain biking maniac. His podcast The Fighter and the Kid, with Bryan Callen, has been a bright source of positive energy during this quarantine, because he refuses to give into the fear and steadfastly keeps finding ways to make the most of his days. For a guy with millions of dollars, he is getting out and mixing it up on the trails and I think it is about as pure and inspiring a project as I have seen.
I have also been seeing one of my friends, Natalie Earl, posting about her own bike rides. Getting out for some fresh air and sweating out some worries is a great idea and so I linked up with Nat for a ride. We left from her house and wound our way through weekend traffic up the coast.
There’s something so vital and almost primal about getting around on a bike. It forces you to tap into your instincts. You need your gut to guide you. And the rhythm that develops from dodging traffic gives you a kind of sense of flow that is very much related to creativity.
So, this week I joined the Thiccc Boy Bike Club with my friend Natalie and I’m hoping that we can continue to find some joy and release by hitting the road. I’m not going to be giving up hiking, though, because there is no replacing the intimacy of being out in the wild on foot where you can encounter the details and the animals on an even footing.
What are you doing to keep your energy positive? How are you getting exercise while staying safe during these strange times?
Hard times call for simple measures. No room for anything that doesn’t make sense. Less is the new black. Well, clear your listening schedule to make room for something soulful. Anthony Arya‘s music is a recipe for enthusiasm in a bleak cultural moment.
The path of the independent artist matters because it is the purest way to fulfill a vision. Stand-up comics who don’t have to defend their jokes to a network have the chance to speak truth while making people laugh. A writer with a computer can create an intellectual movement. And a songwriter with a guitar can make music that is true and that reflects their love of music.
What a person can do with some simple tools and artistic will is amazing. We live in a time when art is available to us at all times, and there are multiple channels to publish your own work. The freedom of speech has never had more power, and using our time to to debate and to create new forms is more important than ever.
Anthony Arya released his second album this week, and the world is a richer place for it. Arya is about to graduate from high school is on his way to Stanford next fall and is leaving a path of dancing feet, smiling faces and happy people in his wake. Check out The Road on Apple iTunes to experience the latest work from a great young American songwriter and performer.
We make the world. Being born and dying off and in the middle of this maddening froth of grief and fear, the role of music and art is essential: it helps us to understand the ineffable.
We get it, the economy is in trouble, people are scared and fed up at the same time, and nobody seems to have a clear answer to how to solve the problems we are facing. There are plenty of ideas, but the problem is twofold: we need enough political will to execute an idea and we need the organization to keep it going.
While everyone is stuck in this quagmire, many have increased their consumption of social media. This is very understandable as we seek connection, want answers and have nowhere else to look. Social media was already consuming an enormous portion of our collective attention and it now has an even tighter grip on us.
As someone who does social media marketing, I feel a huge responsibility to make great content. Of course, this is a subjective measurement, but I will explain my criteria for creation and selection.
Social Side Effects
First of all, you have to think about the effect your content has on people. You want to put the audience first, and as obvious as this may seem to some it is so common to see marketing that fails at this basic requirement. If you have a brand, an organization or if you are an influencer, then you have to give the audience something they want, something that gives them value.
While businesses have the goal of growing their revenue, social media is not a place to make sales. While it is possible, that is not the ideal use of social: it is more for marketing than for sales. This is possibly the biggest problem that content creators face: how do you satisfy business goals without falling into spammy sales-based content. The answer is: if you do social media well, then people will develop an affinity for the brand and that relationship will lead to an economic exchange. If someone loves your brand, they will support it. If you spam them with obnoxious sales proposals, you not only look desperate, but you repel those relationships that you seek to build.
Professional or Personal?
If you want to reach your professional goals with social media, you have to understand that what you put out there on the internet is not for you. This means separating your personal from your professional work. These spheres are blended often in social media as one of the things that people want to see is what is behind the curtain. People crave and respond to authenticity. So how do your share who you are without it becoming too much information or too self-gratifying?
This dynamic creates a tricky balance. Even if you are showing aspects of your personal life, it is not for your own joy of sharing, but because the public has some interest in connecting with a person behind the public image. Strategy is always important in social media, but now more than ever as people are in heightened psychological states it helps to pay careful attention to why you are posting and what effects it is having.
Social Good or Bad?
Social media is a relatively new phenomena in the world, and its massive influence greatly magnified with the advance of mobile technology. With the coming of 5G it only seems inevitable that phones and social media are likely to be a big part of our lives for the foreseeable future. This means that businesses and organizations really need to participate in this primary form of human communication. Like it or not, the phone is where people’s attention is going.
Because of its recency, the data that we have about social media is difficult to put into a proper context. We are in the infancy of this global development, and we haven’t grown enough with the media to use it in the best possible ways. Of course, there are dangers that we should be aware of and we should strive to create content that is safe and beneficial to human life.
Because of the vastness of social media and the billions of photographs with messages being posted every day there is no way to say if it is good or bad. It is clearly both. People organize social movements for positive change on the same channels that scammers try to steal your information by tempting you to click on a link that is supposed to lead to some kind of sexual fantasy. There are genuinely philanthropic actors making change on social media and there are parasitic mercenaries taking advantage of weakness to make a buck.
Either way, social media is not going to go away, so we can either figure out how to do it well and tip the scales in the balance of good, or we surrender our agency and just accept that the lord of the flies will reign.
What makes social media good?
When you scroll through Instagram, look at your Facebook, peruse Twitter or study LinkedIn what has a positive effect on your mental state and your well being? How does it affect you?
I think that this is a very personal question and the answers must necessarily be personal too, but it has universal importance. For me, it has become a very interesting tool of research. I have created some amazing professional relationships by reaching out to someone with whom I resonated. I like it when people are showing me something that makes me want to do something. Photographs of waves make me want to get in the ocean. Photographs of trails make me want to go for a hike. Great portraits make me want to photograph people. Seeing awesome art gets my creativity fired up. I like the food influencers who are creating delicious looking things that are also good for your body and the planet. Social media helps me to find likeminded people and brands. It can be a source of inspiration and networking
What makes social media bad?
When we see content that doesn’t inspire us or give us something to look forward to it can be a horrible time suck and a distraction from productivity. It is your responsibility to curate your timeline so that what you are looking at is beneficial to your mental state. The things that make social media bad are numerous, but they all come down to causing you to feel unworthy.
At its worst, social media is a huge distraction and a mental health hazard. If we are reckless in our consumption and production of content, then we risk it all. The Internet is a kind of pseudo-public, but we often act as though we are safely at home with the content. The failure to understand the division between real life and social media has cost a lot of people a lot of their lives.
Putting bad content out there is like littering. It is just plain bad for everyone. How do you know if your content is trash? What standards do you use when you decide whether or not to post something? Having some way of measuring what you are putting out there is a good idea. You have to develop some sort of quality control.
How is social media like books and art?
Many if not most people have some degree of discord with the culture they grew up in, whether that is their family, their hometown, or their era in history. Almost nobody is a perfect fit to their place and their time. Many people throughout history have used books and art to connect with likeminded people who are physically unavailable. I remember when I first started taking art and writing seriously, I was obsessed with William Blake. His drawings and poetry gave me a kind of buzz and excitement that I couldn’t find among the people I knew. It was across this vast distance of space and time that I found one of my artistic brothers.
Social media can do this for us, too. But even more amazingly, we have the possibility of connecting with people who never would have been accessible to us in the past. Now, I can direct message an artist in South Africa who is doing something with photography that I find compelling. In this way, social media can be an amazing enhancement to life, and not a negative thing at all.
The Social Future
As we navigate this unprecedented time, and we look at our phones hoping to find some news or inspiration, we have to take responsibility for our part in creating culture and building the world over for the future generations. This means rewarding accounts that post things that you find to be beneficial to your life and ignoring the streams of self-aggrandizing or complaining or otherwise energy sucking media holes.
Your social media is yours to do what you can to make our collective experience better. You can incite hate or promote love. The choice is up to you. What are you going to contribute to our social future?
One of the realest truths that your parents every told you when you were a kid is that life is not fair. This is brutally obvious when you encounter a child like Joaquin, when you meet a mother like Sara Aluffi.
A friend contacted me through social media to make me aware of a charity event being organized as a benefit to fund the research to find a cure for Duchenne’s disease, a form of Muscular Dystrophy. I contacted the organizer and agreed to get some photos of the event. I have a busy schedule, so I didn’t have much time to research in advance of the event, but I figured I would show up get a couple dozen great photos for them and call it a day.
Another truth that many of us have experienced is that there is no love fiercer than a mother’s. What I discovered on Sunday is that there may be a stronger love; a community’s love for a family.
When I showed up to the parking area I started to see how big this event was going to be. Entire fields were full of cars with parking attendants directing traffic to the few remaining spots. A shuttle took us up to the house where the party took place. I was completely blown away by the turnout. Extra Large was playing, people were dancing, drinks were flowing and the mood was high. I started to photograph guests and everyone was happy to pose for the camera wanting to give anything and everything they could to the event. This was a community showing love to the fullest.
I saw so many great people as I walked around and it had the feel of a huge happy family reunion. Kids were running wild, getting their faces painted, playing on a bounce house, drinking lemonade and the adults were eating BBQ and enjoying a few cold ones in the shade. It was as good as parties get.
As I walked around I kept asking if anyone had seen Joaquin. I figured that the day might be a little overwhelming for him, so I didn’t want to force anything, but I wanted to get a photo of him for his mom. Everyone I asked said they hadn’t seen him. At one point during the day, I stopped and looked at an educational poster describing the disease. It is a genetic disorder that makes muscles break down over time and causes problems with the heart. Without a cure this leads children with this condition to rely upon a wheelchair by the time they are teenagers and most don’t survive their mid-20s.
As I read this poster, my heart sunk. I didn’t know Sara before this event, but I had seen glimpses of how much work it was and it made me tired just seeing her stories on Instagram. As I realized what was fueling her passion I froze in my tracks. Life is not fair. I looked around at the amazing smiling people and now I saw their hearts behind their happiness. These were families and anyone who has a child they love more than life itself understands in the core of their being what this means. Life is not fair.
I stayed till the end of the party getting as many good photos as I could and finally took the shuttle back down to the parking lot. I asked on the way down, one final time, if anyone had seen Joaquin.
“Yeah I saw him. He was playing up by the bounce house.”
I had to go back. I took the shuttle back up and re-entered the party looking for Joaquin. I asked a woman who was organizing some paperwork from the day.
“He’s right there!”
She turned around and there he was on the dance floor getting his groove on. I walked up to him and asked if he wanted a picture. Pizza on his face and shirt, a tired smile on his face, he stopped, looked at me and said “cheese!” I snapped a few frames and left him to return to his blissful dance. Right there, looking into that beautiful boy’s face I had an epiphany. The party was overwhelming to me. There were so many people and so much energy that it was exhausting, and here was this sweet five year old wearing a plastic firefighter’s hat two stepping to a reggae song.
Life is not fair, but it’s also a great mystery. There’s so much we don’t know about it. I’ll tell you this, though, when you have a child you love it connects you to the entire history of the human race and when you meet a boy like Joaquin it can inspire you to believe in angels. Life is not fair, but it’s beautiful, and what we don’t know may save us.
I love writing in this Starbucks. There’s something about the corporate feel of the place that brings out my creativity. An instinctive desire for balance prompts me to dig deeper into the recesses of thought to find something gritty and grimy when I sit here. There are other coffee shops close by more brightly lit with more conventionally attractive people and lots of air plants to take selfies in front of but those places feel so uptight and to me it’s sometimes stifling. It’s a class thing, I’m certain.
That’s why I like this Starbucks; it’s more working class. It’s corporate, of course, but not exactly shiny. It’s tarnished and dirty and hosts a cast of unsavory characters, just how I like it. There’s no particular kind of denim you need to wear to fit in and nobody’s sporting an ironic t-shirt. There are people of color, people of all ages, and people with handicaps. It feels like the good kind of American to me. There are other coffee shops in town with a similar working class feel, but it’s 6:30 and they’re already closed. I can’t respect a coffee shop that closes at 6. This may not be Manhattan, but it’s no Myrtle Creek, either. This Starbucks is full to capacity and we’re only a mile away from that other blue collar shop. Being cosmopolitan or provincial has more to do with your mental space than your physical one, especially these days.
But your physical space matters, too, which is why I’m here at this Starbucks surrounded by regular people reading and writing and doing regular things. It’s a happy medium. And happiness matters. It’s a confusing time to say the least but that’s probably always been true for humans. Can you really think of a time in history when everything seemed dandy? I can’t. There’s always been injustice and uncertainty with apocalyptic possibility never far enough away to feel secure. Still, Steely Dan wrote great songs even while the Cold War raged. Because, even when we know that it all could go to hell in a flash, that there is nothing fixed but the election, that all of our efforts and dreams could be crushed in an arrogant instant, we still have to do what’s inside us to do. That’s the human condition; we are swan diving into the great unknown.
It’s in times like these that we need grace. Remember that you are human and that is a tremendous thing to be. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, to feel stressed and depressed. But, succeed or fail, it matters little from the point of view of falling. What matters is style. You have to choose how you are going to be. Are you going to be happy and peaceful, or are you going to be belligerent and grotesque? Many many things are beyond your power to choose, but you can choose this: will you be kind?
This is a kind of meditation, this practice of grace, and it is a powerful way of being human. Recently, I’ve had the chance to work with some people who embody this sense of style this presence of goodness. While I like drinking my coffee and writing among regular folk, it’s an honor to do photography with some truly beautiful souls.
The kind of beauty I’m talking about is much more than a physical appearance. It’s a disposition towards the universe. It’s an aspiration to be good, to act with a respect for others, to be helpful, to add value, to shine light in dark times, and to be human.
Meditation is so hot right now. Actually, it’s been pretty popular since sometime around the 6th century B.C.E. when Siddhartha Gautama used it to become enlightened. Subsequently, Buddhism arose and grew to become one of the world’s biggest religions spreading the practice of meditation throughout Asia and the world, growing and changing forms through time and place. The thing that remained constant despite whatever other changes transpired has been the practice of meditation.
Buddhism and meditation became popular in the United States during the 20th century through a variety of teachers and practitioners including Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac and more recently Jack Kornfield, Ken Wilber and Noah Levine among countless others. It’s been a big part of California culture especially since the 60s and the rise of the counterculture alongside the rise of psychedelics. There’s a collection of essays entitled Zig Zag Zen that explores the relationship between psychedelics and meditation. During the radical decade of the 60s and now, people in California became actively interested in finding ways to create mental breakthroughs. Certain historical periods call for this kind of change.
Who couldn’t use a little enlightenment during heavy and dark times? The thing is, it’s hard to know how to practice meditation effectively. That’s why we need teachers. My grandfather was Buddhist and Quaker and practiced meditation on a daily basis. He held two Ph.D.s: one in Philosophy and one in East Asian Religion and wrote about how those worlds combined and overlapped. What meditation did for my grandfather has always inspired me. He was a seeker and learned a lot about meditation and followed it up with practice. Lots of people use meditation, today, and it has never been more important as we face monumental challenges together.
That is why I was really excited for the opportunity to meet and work with Martina Lin, a meditation specialist in Santa Cruz. During our first meeting I was seriously impressed by her presence. Just talking to her had a calming effect. I always strive to do my best when doing someone’s portrait, but I was especially excited to work with someone doing something so important.
We ended up finding a great window of time together, too. Our portrait session ended up taking place during two separate times as the first meeting was during high tide with a huge swell and that made accessing the rock formation I wanted to work on top of impossible. The second time we met, the skies were clear and the tide was low, so we had full access to the space and a great golden hour. Again, in her presence I felt calm and grounded. Some people have this special thing that you can’t quite explain but can feel, and whether it’s something she was born with or something she cultivated through practice, Martina has this quality. Check out Martina’s 7-day Meditation Challenge and book a session with her to take your meditation practice to another level or to start one if you don’t already meditate. And book a portrait session with me if you have something you are trying to promote your business, an event, or if you just want to record this moment in time.
At the time of this writing, there are approximately 7.6 billion people living on this planet according to the Worldometers website. The United States alone has more than 325 million people and we are only the third largest country behind India and China. NPR recently published an article about the United Nations study, which projects that the population will grow to 11.2 billion by the end of the century, but (good news) also that it will likely plateau at that point. That is, the population will reach and stay at 11.2 billion if we survive as a species that long.
These numbers are difficult to imagine, but they nowhere compare to estimates of how many stars there are in the universe. According to a 2013 article in The Atlantic: “There are roughly a septillion stars in the observable universe. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Which is, for lack of a more fitting description … a lot of stars.” This article also cites a funny and entertaining science YouTube channel called Minute Physics which explains that there are only about 5,000 stars that we can see with the naked eye.
All of this is to say that stars are actually much more common than people. We just don’t always see things that way. So, we end up using the figure of the star as a metaphor to describe someone we see as being extremely rare. When, even if we reach 11.2 billion people, there would still be 892,857,142,857,143, or 893 trillion stars for each person. Maybe there are other reasons to compare people to stars, though. For one thing, stars are the main source of light in the universe, which is why they are important to photographers. No stars, no photo. Humans, as walking talking living breathing experiences of consciousness are a source of light, too.
It’s more than their light, though that makes stars and humans similar. Stars are beyond all else mysterious. Where do they come from? Why do they do what they do? What happens when they are gone? Humans are mysterious as stars and for the same reasons. As much as we might want to define people, to give them labels, to judge them according to various ethical standards at the end of it all there is something deeply unknowable about the human being. And being human is a tricky and complicated thing, to say the least.
This is partly what makes portraiture so powerful. When you really respect what it means to be human, the act of portraying a person is a profound thing to attempt. This shoot in particular was inspired by the stars which is what got me thinking these cosmic thoughts, lol. My friend Danielle is organizing a classical music concert around the theme of Starry Night with a visual art element as well as piano and singing and I’m helping her to promote the event. For this shoot, she arranged to have her hair and makeup done by the amazingly talented Nadine Michelle at Purity Salon on Soquel St. in Santa Cruz. Nadine did a fantastic job with her styling and she put on the dress she’ll be performing in and we set out to get some shots.
First, we went out to the point that divides Main Beach and Seabright Beach. This spot is great for portraits as you can stand out close to the water and have a great distance between the subject and the background. The light was soft and subtle and illuminated Danielle, her hair, and her costume beautifully. Next, we drove over to Capitola Village to take advantage of the holiday lights to create a starry bokeh effect. I think both locations created beautiful portraits and will do well to help raise awareness and sell tickets for the event, which is going to be a really interesting experience for everyone who gets to see and hear the art.
You are a star, too. In fact, you’re much more special than a star, far more rare. You should have your portrait done, too and I know just the guy to do it. In fact, Nadine and I would love to team up again to give you a look that you’ll love to share with your friends, that will help you to promote your happenings, and that will give the grandkids a kick someday. Or you could just keep taking selfies with your phone. Your choice.