I’ve talked about it before, and you’ll hear it often if you talk to enough photographers, that taking photos of people is a privilege. It’s a privilege to get a peak into their lives, whether it’s home, hobby, work, or whatever, you often find yourself in completely different worlds than your own. And while it’s usually only a short time, it’s usually enough to leave a lasting impression. I’m always happy to share some of my favorites. And this being my first professional gig, was a doozy.
The assignment was for a local nonprofit called Rural Development Initiatives (RDI), an organization that provides leadership training to enhance community development in rural areas within the state of Oregon. The brief was to drive up to the Kings Valley Charter School in the hills of the beautiful Coast Range to photograph its director, Mark Hazelton, for an article RDI was writing on the inspiring story of the once-closed school and the community’s efforts to reopen it and ultimately thrive. That’s it. It was entirely up to me to come up with something visually interesting to accompany the article. Most of the time these are dream assignments for photographers….no editor telling you what to get, how to get it, etc. BUT, this was actually my first professional editorial gig and I was nervous as all hell to put it mildly.
It was a typically cold and rainy winter day in Oregon. I left the house with plenty of time for the 70-mile drive up. Unfortunately, despite the beautiful scenery…remember Coast Range….I wished I could’ve enjoyed it more, but thoughts of fantastical failure seemed to be the only thing I could focus on. To be honest, I was pretty clueless. I had no idea what I was gonna do. In some ways, though, I think this worked to my advantage, as my general awkwardness seems to play on people’s sympathetic tendencies, even today. Or they just think I’m weird.
In any case, I arrived and immediately made my first mistake. I started taking some scene setting and detail shots of the school from the parking lot without first going inside to introduce myself. They were expecting me, but given the sensitive nature of strangers with big cameras and lenses on school grounds, I should’ve known better. I’d chalk it up to fear and nerves, though. Nothing was said, but yeah, 20-20 hindsight.
I finally worked up the courage to actually do what I was there to do and went inside. Keep in mind, this was a small elementary school with only a couple hundred kids, if that, with a small staff in a small office. But you could tell immediately it was filled with big heart.
This is Mark. What I found the most fascinating about him was that he was an engineer for HP before becoming an educator. And it was the manner in which this change took place that made it all the more interesting. Before it was the Kings Valley Charter School, it was a traditional school that was closed down for a year in 2001 due to low enrollment and a general lack of resources. But the small community rallied to reopen it as a public charter school that could better address the needs of its children within the Kings Valley area of the Philomath School District, and that’s when Mark stepped up. (You can read a more complete story here.) In my previous life as an urban planner, I worked with engineers on a daily basis…an often contemptuous relationship….and I’d never met one that had taken on this drastic of a life change at such a late point in a career. It proved to me that yes, engineers actually are capable of having more heart than smart. 😉 To wit, there are those things they call labors of love and this was a perfect example, as Mark has two children that attended the Kings Valley school, and had the project management experience and passion to lead the reopening.
It’s pretty important for me to spend as much time as I can with my subject before photographing them so I thought the best thing for me to do was, rather than to start shooting Mark right away, I’d tour the grounds to see what I was dealing with, all the while snapping shots of whatever I found interesting. Mark was fine with the idea, and probably relieved he didn’t have to put on his game face just yet. I saw it as a chance to get everybody a little more comfortable with having me around.
The weather was still iffy and the rain was off and on, but there was a hint of some blue sky back there. And if you know western Oregon, sun, rain, hail, and snow isn’t unusual over the course of a 12-hour period. Wouldn’t you know, the sun came out just in time for the next recess.
I don’t know what kind of curriculum this former engineer had come up with for the school, but this kid wanted to talk nuclear fusion with me. And I’m not joking! I love the body language and seriousness of his friend’s face there, too.
I was surprised to find that for the most part, the novelty of a photographer being at their school wore off the kids pretty quickly.
And it was fun watching them and remembering my own experience of recess. Pretty much nothing’s changed, except for the end when a teacher dispensed hand sanitizer into all their hands. Definitely didn’t have that when I was a kid.
I was lucky enough to be there on an assembly day, too. Weren’t those the best?
And then back to class.
And back to work.
As it usually goes for me with almost anything I’m nervous to do, the whole thing worked out great. Mark and the staff I met were gracious and more than willing to open up to me about something they obviously care deeply about. You can’t ask for more.
But the coda to this story is where it gets good….
I left the school that day feeling AWESOME. My first paid professional editorial gig- boom! I drove home (enjoying every mile of it) and immediately started transferring the files to my desktop to see if I actually got anything good. I had high hopes. Once the file transfer was complete I double-checked to make sure I had everything and proceeded to format/erase my CF card (the one that goes in the camera and holds all the original files.) This was back in the day when I would shoot RAW and JPEG files, and I’d inevitably delete the JPEGs right away because I knew I’d be editing the RAW files to some degree. So I highlighted the JPEGS and deleted. (But not just the recycle bin kind of delete. I’m talking the permanent shift-delete kind of delete.) The weirdest thing happened- there were no more files left in the folder, i.e., the RAW files were gone, too. My heart literally skipped a beat.
I promise you’ve never seen somebody go from a euphoric high to outright panic so fast. What the fuck just happened??? There was no possible way I could’ve deleted ALL the files, right???? Ho. ly. shit. I did. I frantically scanned all my photo folders to see if maybe I had mis-filed them. But no, they were gone. I sat and stared at the monitor for at least a minute before I exploded in anger. Then I felt like crying. Then I walked to my bed, fell face down, and started pummeling it with both fists, belting out a loud, long, and muffled “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”
I was in shock. I just couldn’t imagine I would do something sooooooooo stupid. I had already formatted the CF card so there was no going back to it (a horrible workflow practice I immediately abandoned for obvious reasons). When I finally accepted the fact I just royally fucked up what was to be my triumphant first gig, my stomach knotted up at the thought of the painful embarrassment of telling RDI what I had done. There was no point in waiting…the sooner they knew the better…so I picked myself up, sat down at the computer, and started typing out a pretty pathetic email. The only thing to do was to hope they’d give me a second chance.
Before I was done typing I decided to check my recycle bin folder, knowing full well that I never use it. Remember, I shift-delete my files if I don’t need them, that way they’re gone for good and not taking up valuable space on my hard drive.
And whattaya know, they were there.
The only thing I could think of was that I must’ve lifted my finger off the shift key a fraction of a second before I hit delete. In any case, you can imagine how relieved I was. I was in almost as much disbelief they were there than I was when I thought they were gone. Don’t think I’ve ever been on such an emotional roller coaster in so short a time span. Needless to say, I now make sure to back up my files at least twice BEFORE erasing my CF cards.
When all was said and done, having this happen on my first real assignment was the best way to learn a valuable lesson on file management for clients. And though I still make mistakes, I’ll NEVER make that one again. 🙂