The 2015 Belmont Stakes

In the winner's circle at Belmont Park with friend and colleague Andy Hancock before the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes. Photo by JC Carey.

In the winner's circle at Belmont Park with friend and colleague Andy Hancock before the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes. Photo by JC Carey.

I have a confession. I have never enjoyed horse racing. 

I’m not a fan of large crowds, and have never been particularly fond of horses. While I recognize their strength and beauty from a distance, I don’t choose to be close to them. Their faces are too big, legs too strong, hooves too heavy. I don’t trust them, and they know it.

With that said, I feel incredibly lucky to have spent as much time covering horse racing as I have. It’s a strange and seemingly outdated sport, but it brings masses of people together and is an incredible spectacle when you have the chance to be a part of it.

There is one race in particular that will be forever burned into my - and the many other’s - memory. The 2015 Belmont Stakes.

Three years ago - almost to the day - I was standing in several inches of mud, surviving on little sleep and several donuts (compliments of the Nikon Professional Services staff), wiring remote cameras on a rainy Saturday morning at Belmont Park in Elmont, NY, to setup up for - what I hoped - would be an historic day.

The track at Belmont Park on June 6, 2015, the morning of the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes. By race time, the track was dry and sky blue.

The track at Belmont Park on June 6, 2015, the morning of the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes. By race time, the track was dry and sky blue.

Later that afternoon, American Pharoah and seven other thoroughbred race horses would run Belmont’s 1.5-mile track under a beautiful, sunny sky to the chorus of 90,000 fans hoping the 37-year Triple Crown drought would finally, mercifully end. No horse had taken the crown since before I was born (Affirmed in 1978 was the last winner).

Thirty seven years of anticipation and disappointment were all resting on the shoulders of one 3-year-old colt and the jockey (Victor Espinoza) who would lead him.

I had been in that exact position before. 

My first Triple Crown chance was in 2008 when Big Brown barely crossed the finish line in dead last after giving up along the final stretch. 

The second was in 2012 when I’ll Have Another was retired on the eve of the Belmont Stakes due to a tendon injury. 

I didn’t even go to the 2014 Belmont Stakes when California Chrome had a chance at history. I just assumed he would lose. He did, finishing 4th in the 146th running of the race. 

But then 2015 rolled around with another chance at the elusive Triple Crown, and it somehow felt different.

American Pharoah getting walked around the paddock at Belmont Park.

American Pharoah getting walked around the paddock at Belmont Park.

American Pharoah had won the previous two jewels of the Triple Crown - the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes - in dominating fashion. He appeared healthy and unfazed by the fast turnaround and travel.

It was agreed by everyone who knew anything about horse racing that American Pharoah was the sport’s best chance to win the crown in nearly four decades.

I was hopeful this would be the year and traveled to New York to cover the race with Sports Illustrated.

I wanted to approach the race differently. I knew there would be a slew of photographers taking pictures head-on from the finish line to capture history the moment it happened. I wanted something different.

Once I finished wiring cameras under the track's rail I went up to the second level of the stands to find my spot. I wanted to silhouette the fans in the grandstand against the horses on the track to (hopefully) show the excitement at the park. 

I found where I wanted to be between the 16th pole and finish line on an apple crate behind the last row of seats. I talked to an usher to make sure he knew I’d be there at race time, checked off with broadcast, and waited.

My only concern with the spot was that I would get blocked. I’m not very tall, and the apple crate wasn’t either. If the crowd was on their feet - as I assumed they would be - I might not be able to see anything through my 600mm lens. To give myself a little insurance, I put a 70-200mm lens on a Nikon D5 and attached it to a pole a couple feet above my head.

When race time finally rolled around, the anticipation was palpable. The stands seemed to vibrate with excitement.

A fan of Pharoah wears a homemade Egyptian Pharaoh hat fashioned with an American flag and gold horse.

A fan of Pharoah wears a homemade Egyptian Pharaoh hat fashioned with an American flag and gold horse.

As soon as the starting gate opened, so did the crowd. The entire grandstand shook as fans watched American Pharoah stumble before taking the lead. I have never and don’t think I ever will again hear a crowd as loud as the crowd at Belmont Park that day.

And they're off! The eight horse field  bursts out of the starting gate.

And they're off! The eight horse field  bursts out of the starting gate.

The horses were out of sight almost as quickly as the race started, covering a quarter mile in 24 seconds, and disappearing to the backside of the track.

I heard fans desperately exclaim that American Pharoah was losing ground, while others excitedly observed that he was winning. No one was sitting. To my dismay, many were standing on their seats, completely blocking my view.

As the horses approached the final turn the cheers grew into a roar as American Pharoah hit the final stretch still in the lead. I stood on my tip toes and raised the 600mm to my face, my line of sight mostly blocked, hoping that the remote above me was firing.

My view through my 600mm f/4 Nikkor lens. I was blocked almost entirely as American Pharoah made his way around the fourth turn.

My view through my 600mm f/4 Nikkor lens. I was blocked almost entirely as American Pharoah made his way around the fourth turn.

I shot continuously, tracking the horse as best as I could through the swarm of fans cheering louder by the second. What started as a deafening cheer had turned seismic as American Pharoah pulled even further away from the rest of the field securing his place in history.

The wait was over. Racing finally had a champion.

I remember quickly breaking down my cameras to get back to the media room to transmit. I nervously checked the 70-200mm remote and was relieved to see that it had worked just as I hoped it would - fans silhouette against the track as American Pharoah dashed towards the finish line.

My insurance remote in case my hand-held camera was blocked. A Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 on a D5.

My insurance remote in case my hand-held camera was blocked. A Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 on a D5.

I jostled my way through the dense crowd trying not to trip, drop a camera, or get crushed in the melee. All around me fans were hugging, high-fiving, and crying. The years of disappointment were over.

I admit I felt it, too. Together 90,000 people had witnessed sport’s longest drought come to an end. The release was cathartic. 

Jockey Victor Espinoza makes his way through a swarm of people to the winner's circle atop American Pharoah after winning the Belmont Stakes.

Jockey Victor Espinoza makes his way through a swarm of people to the winner's circle atop American Pharoah after winning the Belmont Stakes.

This year brings another chance for a Triple Crown with Justify and jockey Mike Smith.

I’m not in New York for this one. Instead of wiring cameras on a soggy track, I’ll be floating on the Ortega River with a few friends and some sunshine.

By race time I’ll be preparing dinner with the TV on, watching closely to spot friends and colleagues along the race track, hoping for good weather, and another spot in history.

Lucille Kester

Sitting with Lucille in her home outside Clearwater, NE. 

Sitting with Lucille in her home outside Clearwater, NE. 

I’ve been blessed in my life. 

Blessed to have seen the places I’ve seen, to do the work I’ve done, and to meet the people I’ve met.  

One of the people I feel most blessed to have known is Lucille Kester. 

I had the pleasure of spending some time with her and her family last summer.

In total, I spent about a week with the Kester clan. I say clan because there are literally hundreds of them.  

Lucille was the mother to 11 children, grandmother to 46, and great grandmother to 105 (with more on the way).

Lucille with her 100th great grandchild, Kinnley Roemmich

Lucille with her 100th great grandchild, Kinnley Roemmich

I was lucky to spend a couple hours alone with her one warm Saturday afternoon last summer. She had been interviewed on camera. But between family members in the background and bright lights in front of her, there were a lot of distractions.

I noticed in our interactions with the family that Lucille tended to find one person and talk with them. My grandmother used to do the same thing. Big crowds, as fun as they are, can be overwhelming.

Running a Nikon D5 on a MōVI Pro at a Kester family picnic. 

Running a Nikon D5 on a MōVI Pro at a Kester family picnic. 

So Lucille and I sat alone together in her house one afternoon with nothing but a microphone between us. I didn’t want to just ask questions. I wanted to talk to her. To have a conversation.

For two hours we talked.

We talked about Harold, her husband for over 70 years.

We cried together talking about Joe, her youngest child who died of cancer when he was 9.

We laughed about Smoke and Paul, cousins and grandsons, who were born together (roughly 48 minutes apart), work together, and joke together.

We talked about her family - the community of people she helped build.

By the end of the day we were old friends. She told me to come back anytime. To visit her again.

Sadly, I never did.

She passed away on March 5.

Her family put her to rest last Saturday.

This is her story, through our lens.

Life, Death, and Sports

Little Laura Heald at 17 (roughly), sporting the softball look.

I haven't blogged in a while.

I sat down to start one a couple weeks ago - on Valentine’s Day - but news of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting began to pour in, and anything I had to say about photography and travel seemed completely pointless in comparison.

Every mass shooting in the United States is an awful tragedy, but for some reason this one struck home. It happened in Florida, at a high school not unlike the one I attended, to kids I could very much relate to.

I, too, went to a great public school. I had teachers who inspired me, administrators who gave me space to grow, coaches who pushed me, and a community of friends who loved me.

I also had traumatic things happen to me in high school. Nothing compared to what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but when young people die - no matter what the cause - it is senseless and tragic.

During my junior year at Allen D. Nease High School in St. Augustine, FL, I lost three friends to untimely deaths. They died as many teenagers do - accidents and suicide. There were no guns involved, just mistakes, emotions, and a strong dose of bad luck.

In the weeks since the shooting, many of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have spoken out. They’ve spoken about guns, mental health, and their struggles with PTSD. When I hear them discuss their inability to focus, sleep, or do any of the basic human functions that used come easy, I can relate.

While I will never fully understand what these students are going through, I have also experienced the unshakeable emptiness that envelopes you when unexpected tragedy hits.

Nothing makes sense when young people die. There is no logic to a life cut short. There is just empty confusion, bottomless sadness, and raw anger.

When my peers died I had trouble sleeping, talking, eating. I felt like a zombie; like I was a shell of a human moving through time and space.

For a long time the only thing I felt was a deep, heavy pain in my diaphragm. It made breathing difficult, and nausea constant.

Two things slowly made it better - time and softball, my sport of choice.

Softball centered me. It gave me something to focus on other than death.

There was a repetition to it - hit, run, catch, throw, repeat. Unlike anything else in my life at that point, it was logical. It made sense.

On the softball field I wasn’t “the girl who knew the dead kids.” I was the third base player, and lead-off batter. I felt needed. It gave me purpose beyond myself.

It became an outlet for my stress and anger (of which I had plenty).

Batting forced me to breath steadily, to focus intently, to forget the world outside me.

Fielding required snap judgements, quick reactions, and a jolt of strength to throw a runner out.

The team itself was an outlet. I was close with several girls on the team, but they weren’t related in any way to the deaths I had experienced. I was able to joke with them in a way I wasn't with my other friends. I think the softball field was the first place I was truly able to smile and laugh again after everything happened.

This was from my freshman - not junior - season, but the feeling is the same.

That year was my favorite year playing. It was also my last.

Still, every spring when the temperatures start to rise, the days get longer, and the orange blossoms bloom, I’m taken back to that place.

The softball field at Nease High School was my safe space.

I think part of my draw to sports photography in college was that experience my junior year. I knew from my own life the power of sport to encourage, unite, and heal.

I was taken back again Friday night.

The Marjorie Stoneman Douglas baseball team is playing in a tournament in Jacksonville this weekend. On Friday they played the TNXL Academy Ducks at 5pm, and I stopped by on my way home.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Eagles warm up at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.

It was a beautiful night. The temperature hovered around 65 degrees, the smell of jasmine and azalea blew through the air, and a group of boys who have been through hell warmed up as the sun sank.

Shortstop John Rodriguez during warm ups.

I watched as the coaches gave pointers and the boys went through their routine.

I wondered if they, too, found solace on the field.

If playing helped them shut out the outside noise.

If they were able to just be baseball players, and not “the kids from that high school where the shooting happened.”

MSD teammates laugh together in the dugout.

For the living, life goes on.

Even if life feels empty at the time, pitches still have to be thrown, bats still have to be swung, and games still have to be played.

Eventually normalcy returns, even if the sting remains.


Horsing Around

Playing with a pony in Iceland in 2014.  

Playing with a pony in Iceland in 2014.  

Iceland is one of my favorite places on Earth. It’s a hard shock to the senses with it’s icy weather and lava hot under belly.

A waterfall and mountain on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

A waterfall and mountain on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

It’s a land that rolls and breathes like the native horses that inhabit it.

The small, stocky Icelandic ponies blend into the countryside as naturally as the water that seems to flow from nowhere and everywhere at once.

Two Icelandic horses in an apparent embrace.  

Two Icelandic horses in an apparent embrace.  

Their hair is wild, like the gusty wind that blows it.


They are small but robust, navigating the rugged land as gracefully as the ice that flows in Iceland’s many glacial lagoons.

A glacier lagoon on the northeast coast of Iceland where sea and sky seemlessly blend. 

A glacier lagoon on the northeast coast of Iceland where sea and sky seemlessly blend. 

I’ve never been a big fan of horses. They’re too big and skittish to be trusted (if you ask me). But the horses in Iceland seem calmer, more relaxed.

They approach calmly, curiously, and accept all pats, treats, and cameras. As my neighbors’ little boy would say, “They like to cozy with you.” 

Our friend Deb with a curious young pony. 

Our friend Deb with a curious young pony. 

I’m not big on touching people or animals I don’t know - I keep my hands to myself - but the ponies in Iceland are impossible to leave alone.  They want to sniff and taste whatever you have to offer, like larger golden retrievers.

They play and pose, then go on their way into the pristine Icelandic wilderness.

A Road Ritual

On the streets of London in January of 2013.

I’m on my way to London. It’s the 6th consecutive year I have traveled to London in January for an annual education conference.

It’s an interesting event where I have been lucky to meet hundreds of fascinating people. Every year we interview roughly 20 ministers of education from around the world and discuss the state of education today. It may not be as exciting from an outsider’s point of view as something like the Olympics, but it is an event I look forward to every year because every year it brings me to one of my favorite cities.

London has always seemed strangely familiar to me.

Maybe it’s because my parents spent the first year of their marriage there and I grew up hearing stories from that first, hectic year in a small apartment across from an Indian restaurant.

Perhaps it’s because many of the people I pass on the street look like distant Heald cousins. I say this knowing any UK cousins would be extremely distant considering my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grand parents jumped ship (literally) and took off for the New World sometime around 1640.

It is most likely because I’ve visited London more than any other foreign city and it IS familiar.

This is my 10th trip to the land of my ancestors and I know parts of the city well.

I have a path I walk from my hotel that first crosses the Thames at the Westminster Bridge, taking me past Parliament and Big Ben.

The Thames, Big Ben and Parliament at dusk.

The Thames, Big Ben and Parliament at dusk.

From there I walk to Westminster Abbey. No matter how many times I pass the Abbey, I am always in awe of it, it's storied past and incredible history.

Among the textured walls of Westminster Abbey.

After the Abbey I head toward St. James Park and the Horse Guard’s Parade. I can’t pass by without remembering the 2012 Olympic Games where I covered several beach volleyball matches. From the top of the stands you could see 10 Downing St and the London Eye in the distance.

Beach volleyball at the 2012 Olympic Games.

From Horse Guard’s I head through Trafalgar Square, past the National Gallery and towards Leicester Square. It’s the long way to Piccadilly Circus, but I pass my favorite coffee shop - Cafe Vergnano - where I can stop for a warm, pick-me-up.

Trafalgar through the trees in 2013.

Trafalgar through the trees in 2013.

After coffee I walk to Piccadilly and peruse the shops on Jermyn Street. I love walking through the rows of hats, scarves, and leather, the smell of sandalwood permeating the air.

After Piccadilly I head back towards the hotel, through Green Park and to Buckingham Palace. After watching the guards march back and forth a few times, I turn and begin the journey back, past Big Ben and Parliament, across the Westminster Bridge, and home to the hotel.

Passing Buckingham Palace on my way out of London in 2015.

Passing Buckingham Palace on my way out of London in 2015.

I have made this walk every year of the past six. It’s the first thing I do when I get to London.

I know there are many more paths I could take around town, but this one is my ritual; it grounds me where I am, and reminds me where I’m going.

Then and Now

A very cold @LittleLauraHeald atop a scoreboard at Gillette Stadium for the AFC divisional playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on January 12, 2008.

I covered my first NFL playoff game on this day in 2008.

My hometown Jaguars were taking on the undefeated New England Patriots in Foxborough, MA.

It was the first time I felt a true northern winter and the last time the Jaguars were in the playoffs. 

I was excited before the game. The week before the Jaguars had defied all odds by beating the Pittsburg Steelers to advance to this game. On top of that, light snow was in the forecast. Snow to a Florida kid is like fairy dust - incredibly exciting to think about but not actually real.

I dressed poorly for the cold. As a lifelong Floridian I literally didn't own a winter coat. Instead I wore a turtleneck and fleece hoodie, which topped off my worse clothing decision of all - rain boots for shoes. In my incredibly naive mind, rain boots seemed logical since it might snow and snow is precipitation. Rain boots, however, are made mostly of rubber. Rubber does not insulate. Not even a little bit.

By the end of the first quarter my feet were 100% numb atop a very cold and windy, metal scoreboard. The Jaguars were faring a little better, though I was more concerned with unfreezing my feet than I was with who would win the game. The Patriots, of course, went on to beat the Jags. And how to NOT dress in the cold became my first lesson of 2008.

I had many real-life lessons that year. 

2008 was a year of firsts. That was my first NFL playoff game. A couple weeks later I covered my first Super Bowl. Later that year I shot my first NASCAR race, first Kentucky Derby, first USATF Championship, and first Olympic Games.

It was a whirlwind of lessons and mistakes, failures and successes.

NASCAR taught me to expect the unexpected, and to never judge a book by it's cover.

At the Derby I discovered that problems are obstacles to overcome, not annoyances to slow me down.

At the USATF Championships I learned the value of preparation (though I still struggle with that one).

Working the Beijing Olympics taught me that I can function for exactly 22 days without sleep before I crash and burn.

A decade later those memories still feel close; as if they only just happened. In some ways they only just have. Memory has a way of distorting time; of making the distant feel present.

I started 2018 much like I started 2008, by going to a Jaguars playoff game on a cold, January day. Only this time I went as a fan (GO JAGS!), dressed appropriately (notice the ear muffs) and the Jaguars won (barely).

Being a fan at the Jaguars vs. Bills game during last week's wildcard playoff weekend. After freezing myself half to hypothermia in my first playoff game a decade ago, I took no chances  with the cold and bundled up with ear muffs, a scarf, a down jacket, and - not pictured - running shoes and wool socks.

Still, 2018 is young, and if the past has taught me anything, it’s that a lot of surprises are still to come.

I will likely not have as many “firsts” as I did a decade ago, and that's fine. Many of the jobs I do now are jobs I've done before - in one way or another - and I now have more time for things like being a football fan (see photo above).

The mayhem of deadline journalism prepared me well for the clients I currently work for, from sports and editorial photography, to cinematography and video editing.

As I look back on what was, I'm excited about what is - past, present and future.

Young Old Friends

@Mollykirky posing in Atlantic Beach, FL, lit by a Hensel Expert D 500 and beauty dish that is being powered by a Power Max L battery pack.

@Mollykirky posing in Atlantic Beach, FL, lit by a Hensel Expert D 500 and beauty dish that is being powered by a Power Max L battery pack.

I first met Molly Kirk (@mollykirky) a decade ago.

I was working on a multimedia for Sports Illustrated for Kids on Kona Skatepark, a famed local establishment. Molly became the opening shot of the video, a small child skating across a “Kona USA” logo.

Cason, Molly’s older brother, was our 12-year-old focus of the video around the park. He was a local kid who grew up on the beach with his local parents.

With Cason at the famous “tombstone” at Kona.

The Kirk’s are my definition of beach people. Artistic in form and practice. They are heavily vested in education, but love to surf, fish, and skate. They live close to the beach and are in lines of work that allow them time to enjoy life’s finer things, and for me as for them most of those things involve an integration with the ocean.

Molly and Cason’s dad, Bob, is a ceramics teacher and artist. He was my brother’s favorite teacher in high school, and my brother was never one to rave about teachers.

Their mom, Christine, has become a friend over the years. Through a decade of photo shoots she has been there, bringing the kids when they couldn't drive and coming to visit with us after they could. She has kept us up to date on the kid’s whereabouts and activities.

It’s no surprise that Cason - who is now 22 - is a student at FAU and an EMT. He works as a lifeguard in south Florida.

Molly, who recently turned 18 and graduated high school, began focusing on surfing a few years ago. For now travel is her education as she spends more time in the water and on the road. The shy but smiling 8-year-old with skate pads covering every extremity of her tiny body is now a professional model, surfer, and charming young adult.

When I had some down time before Christmas I got back in touch with the Kirk's to see if Molly would be in town. She was and was happy to pose. She needed photos for a modeling portfolio, I needed pictures for my photography portfolio. It was a match made in Heaven, also known as Atlantic Beach, FL.

Molly on Atlantic Beach, just before Christmas.

She brought a surfboard and a change of clothes. I brought a Nikon D810, Hensel Expert D 500, Power Max L battery pack, and beauty dish. The north Florida weather did the rest.

Molly on the beach with a Hensel Expert D 500, a Power Max L battery pack, and a beauty dish lighting her in the dusk light.

Molly on the beach with a Hensel Expert D 500, a Power Max L battery pack, and a beauty dish lighting her in the dusk light.

The simplicity of the Hensel gear allowed me to bring a studio to the beach. The Power Max L battery pack allowed me to use the Expert D 500 unit - a unit usually plugged into a wall - on location, allowing incredibly fast recycle times and easily mobility to move with the ambient light.

Dusk in Atlantic Beach with Molly.

Seeing her again after so many years was odd. Some people are forever young in our minds; a baby brother, the youngest cousin, our childhood best friend. Molly is one of those people for me. Seeing her as anything other than an 8-year-old was strange. It was a reminder that in the last decade I have also gotten older, though probably not as dramatically and gracefully as she has.

Molly. Atlantic Beach. December 2017.

Molly. Atlantic Beach. December 2017.

After shooting on the beach, I laughed with her mom about how much Molly has changed and how she and I are both just glad to look the same.

Sunset. Atlantic Beach, FL. December 2017.

Once we finished on the beach, I had to go back to where it all began. We had to go back to Kona.

Molly back at a newly Kona.

As much as anything, I wanted to recreate the opening shot of her from the Kona Skatepark video that is now ten years old. The light wasn’t the same - a winter storm was blowing in - but the same smiling kid cut quickly across the Kona USA logo in the middle of the park.

The paint is a little faded and Molly had to crouch a little lower, but the feeling remains the same.

Things change as we grow older, but some things remain the same. 

Dancing With Light

Making light of a light test.

Dance is a skill I've always respected but never had the time or dexterity to obtain.

This time of year especially makes me wish I had learned to dance. Movies like “White Christmas,” shows like “The Nutcracker,” all make me wish I could move across space gracefully.

Luckily, I know others that can dance and dance well, and with a slow week before Christmas I called an old friend with an idea for a photoshoot. I had a rare few days of free time and a couple new Hensel Expert D 500's I wanted to try out.

I needed a dancer and a little space. My friend had both ready by the end of the week.

The idea was to photograph a dancer in motion. It’s a shot that has been done countless times by a plethora of photographers, but one I had never personally tried. I love the dreamy, fluid imagery others have created with a couple lights and an open shutter. To me it's a picture that perfectly captures the beauty of both arts - dance and photography - and I was excited to give it a try.

The dancer, Jessica, is a high school senior who is applying to just about every art school in the northeast. 

The setup was fairly simple - a black background, two Hensel Expert D 500’s, a Grand Mini 85 parabolic softbox and a 9 inch sport reflector.

The space was the backroom of my friend’s house, complete with a black cat - Bella - who kept disappearing into our background fabric and bolting at every flash of the strobe. The room was small for a photoshoot, but very workable.

Part of what made a small space work was the Hensel strobes. They are lights I have learned to love over the last year. They are compact but strong, powerful but quick, and they have incredibly bright modeling lights. I admit that I don’t usually worry heavily about the strength of a modeling lamp (I’m usually more concerned with the strength of the strobe) but for this particular shoot it was important. 

To accomplish the effect I wanted, I needed a long exposure coupled with a continuous light on the subject to capture her motion across space. I didn’t have a stage with a spotlight, so I created a mini spotlight with the Hensel Expert D 500 modeling lamp and a 9 inch sport reflector.

Jessica, in motion. I had one Hensel Expert D 500 with a 9 inch sport reflector setup as a spotlight behind Jessica. The main strobe - a Hensel D 500 with a Grand Mini 85 parabolic softbox - was setup to the front left of the subject.

I placed the Expert D 500 with the sport reflector slightly behind where Jessica would start her move and pointed it directly toward the main light - the second Expert D 500 coupled with the Grand Mini 85 setup with the modeling light off and strobe on. 

The Grand Mini 85 is a new parabolic softbox that sets up easily like a beauty dish or umbrella, but that can be controlled and softened to create a delicate light. The box sets up easily like a beauty dish or umbrella, but has the control and delicacy of a parabolic softbox.

For the camera, I had a Nikon D850 set on rear curtain sync with a 58mm lens on a Gitzo traveler tripod.

Once the lights and camera were setup and working the way I wanted them to, I went through the look I was hoping for with Jessica. She did the rest.

We spent roughly two hours trying different dance moves with different settings. 

Timing exactly when and how a dance move would start and finish proved difficult. 

To solve the timing problem, I put my Nikon D850 on Bulb. That allowed me to open and close the shutter at my command. I would press the shutter when she began to move, and close it as she hit her final pose. With the sync set to rear curtain the strobe fired as the shutter closed, giving the frame a clear, crisp finish. 

Jessica, in motion.

After playing with fluid motion for a while, we decided to try a stroboscopic look.

We noticed, by accident while changing a setting on one of the Expert D 500s, that they fired incredibly quickly with almost no recycle time (usually a strobe has to power back up for a few milliseconds before firing again).

I kept the camera in Bulb so I could open and close the shutter as I pleased, but set the light I was using as a spot - the Expert D 500 with the 9 inch sport reflector - on continuous fire.

That created an image that showed Jessica’s various stages of movement. Instead of a fluid “swoosh” of color and light, we got little pieces that created the whole.

It wasn't a shot I had planned on executing, but the Hensel's fire so quickly that creating a decent frame proved unexpectedly easy.

Now, with a little more time and practice, it's a shot I'll try again.

The Marching 100

A line of sousaphonists from FAMU’s Marchinng 100.  

A line of sousaphonists from FAMU’s Marchinng 100.  

I first saw the Florida Agricultural & Mechanical  University’s (FAMU) marching band - the Marching 100 - over 20 years ago.

It was halftime at a Jacksonville Jaguars game and I wanted to go inside - probably for some chicken fingers - but my mom insisted we stay. FAMU’s marching band were performing for the half time show.

I begrudgingly sat with her. Until that point, I thought of marching bands as a rather boring distraction from football.

FAMU changed that in one 10 minute performance. The music was good, the dancing was incredible and the energy was contagious.

Twelve years after that first show, I was working on assignment for Sports Illustrated, experimenting with video and multi-media. FAMU’s marching band seemed a perfect story for that format - great visuals, lots of motion and original music.

in he stands with the Marching 100 at a football game at Bethune-Cookman.  

in he stands with the Marching 100 at a football game at Bethune-Cookman.  

The year was 2008, the month November. Barack Obama had just been elected the 44th president of the United States of America, and I was in Tallahassee, FL, at one of our country’s largest and best historically black colleges,(FAMU), to watch their famed marching band - the Marching 100 - practice precision.

Sousaphones at dusk after a practice in Tallahassee. The sousaphone section in 2008 was the largest in the nation with 50 members.

The excitement over the election at FAMU was palpable. Their entire halftime routine revolved around the 44th President Elect. In the stands you could buy t-shirts with Barack Obama's face in FAMU orange.

The band members were particularly excited because they had been asked to perform at his inauguration. They had performed at inaugurations in the past, but the significance of this inauguration was not lost on anyone. An historically black marching band would get to perform during the historic first day of our first black president.

A band member stands ready before taking the field at half time at Bethune-Cookman.

At that time in camera history, November of 2008, Nikon had recently released the first ever DSLR camera with video recording capabilities, the Nikon D90.

I previously had worked on a couple multi-media stories, but had only used a dedicated video camera to record motion. The videos worked, but they weren’t great. I didn’t fully understand how to use a video camera and definitely couldn’t control it the same way I could a DSLR. The D90 gave me the ability to record video using all the lenses I had access to in a format I was already familiar with.

Working on some rack focuses with a Nikkor 300mm f/2 - one of the rarest and most incredible lenses ever made - on a Nikon D90.

I spent close to a week in total with the band. I recorded several practices in Tallahassee, followed them to a football game at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona, and the Florida Battle-of-the-Bands competition in Orlando.

Behind the scenes with the FAMU Marching 100 in Orlando, FL.

Dr. White, who was the band director at the time, welcomed our team with open arms, giving us total access to his band and all it’s nearly 450 members.

Dr. White, right, in the stands for the Bethune-Cookman game.

We became particularly close with Ralph Jean-Paul, a senior sousaphone player and president of the band. He was smart and dedicated. After graduation he was hoping to get an advanced degree, then maybe become a teacher or conductor, or both.

Music and the Marching 100 were his life and he taught us much of the inner workings of the band. Before every practice he gave us a breakdown of what was going to happen, where the best places to stand would be, at what point we could walk through the formation.

When we wanted to make a portrait of every member of the band (or at least every member that wanted to be included) for the multi-media, he helped organize it.

The portrait setup on the right, one of the hundreds of portraits we took on the left.

When we needed a catchy solo for the video, he recorded it.

Since this story was published, the Marching 100 found themselves in trouble. In 2012, a band member, Robert Champion, was killed due to extreme hazing. Dr. White resigned amid the controversy and all band activity was suspended indefinitely.

They reorganized in 2013 under new leadership and with at least one familiar face - Ralph Jean-Paul runs the band's brass section and is an assistant director, teaching and conducting with the band he loves.

Ralph Jean-Paul in 2008.


Sofia's Christening with (from left) Kyle (Adam's brother and co-Godparent), Adam, Sofia and Irina.

Three and a half years ago, my life changed forever for the better.

Two of my oldest and best friends, Adam and Irina, had a baby girl.

They were the first in my immediate circle to take the leap into parenthood, and the news of their impending parenthood sent positive shock-waves through our group of friends.

When the people you're closest to start making major life decisions - marriage, children, home ownership - you start to take a harder look at your own life.

In the moment Sofia was born, I was driving from Omaha to O’Neill, NE, to meet with the rest of the Nebraska Project team. We were deep into production on many of the videos and were scheduled to begin filming the music video for “Little Nebraska Town,” with O’Neill native Rachel Price that evening.

At that point I had spent seven years running around the world. I had done work I enjoyed, met interesting people, seen amazing places. But I didn’t have a path; no direct goals I was working toward. I had no idea what I was doing in the next week, much less for the rest of my life.

I had dinner with Adam and Irina the night before I left for that trip. We sat and talked about how this would be the last time it would ever be the three of us ever again. It was July 22 and Irina's due date was July 26. I wouldn't be home until July 29.

It felt strange, like we were all on the cusp of something big. They seemed ready. I, however, was not.

As I drove along Highway 275 toward Norfolk, NE, on July 23, 2014, my phone buzzed with a message from Adam,

“It’s happening,” was all he wrote.

I squealed with joy alone in the car.

A few minutes later my phone buzzed again with pictures of baby Sofia, and the world’s newest family of three.

I had to pull over. The enormity of the moment was overwhelming, even from 1,500 miles away, and operating a motor vehicle was simply too much.

Adam and Irina had just embarked on one of the most intense and important journeys in life - parenthood. In the blink of an eye they became responsible for raising and shaping a human being. A human. Not a dog or cat or goldfish. A human.

For some reason that reality never sank in for me while Irina was pregnant. But the moment I saw the pictures of real-life baby Sofia, it became incredibly clear.

Life changed in an instant. Before Sofia, I had been perfectly content flying around by the seat of my pants, directionless and happy. Life was good.

Then Sofia arrived, and everything became suddenly unclear. What was I doing with my life? What did I ultimately want?

I had no idea.

Meeting Sofia for the first time in July of 2014.

I met Sofia for the first time a week later.

I spent as much time with her as I could between trips. I’d bring dinner to Adam and Irina, hold Sofia as they folded laundry and took showers, and soak up her infant goodness (anyone who’s ever held an infant knows what I mean by “infant goodness,” it’s a thing).

After a couple weeks they began to plan her Christening and asked me to be her Godmother, or Madrina in Español. It’s the best job anyone has ever asked me to do.

Baby Sofia in her baby blanket.

Being a Madrina is not a role I take lightly. I’m very close with my own Godmother, Aunt Kay, who is also my mother’s best friend. She taught me, whether she meant to or not, what a strong, resilient woman looks like.

Sofia holding her dad's hand to walk at 12 months old. In three and half years I have watched Adam and Irina raise a strong, stubborn and hilarious little woman. She reminds me very much of her mother.

Watching Sofia grow up has been a singular joy in my life. I've watched her turn from infant to baby to toddler to girl. She is smart and kind and awesomely stubborn. She reminds me very much of her mother - my best friend and college roommate - especially when she refuses to bend in her certainty (like in the photo below).

Adam, Irina and Sofia right around this time last year. This was one of my favorite Sofia phases to date - the princess-butterfly-rough-and-tubmle toddler.

Becoming a Godmother gave me greater purpose. I always want to be a person Sofia can be proud of.

Since Sofia was born, I have tried hard to make deliberate decisions about my future, and to be a better sister, friend, daughter and community member.

If there is one thing watching Sofia has taught me it's that change is constant. I still don't know exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life (and honestly who does?), but I do have a better idea of what I want.

I want a home and someone to share it with.

I want a community to give back to.

I want to cook dinners and visit friends.

In short, I want a life I can enjoy.

I’ve made pretty good progress. On Monday I’m moving into my first home, a home I’ve been renovating in historical Jacksonville. Words can't express how excited I am to use my brand new kitchen.

On Tuesday I’m meeting my Little Sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida. Her name is Mariah and she loves to bake and go to the park.

I have holiday plans with friends and family.

And I have a new member of my community to get to know.

James Francis was born on November 28, 2017. Sofia now has a baby brother.

Sofia, now 3.5 years old, holds her baby brother, James.

The little girl that unwittingly changed my life, now has a big change in hers.

I hope I can help her navigate becoming a big sister, and run her around to give her parents a few moments of quiet in the first days as a family of four.

I don’t know what the future holds for any of us, but - right now - life is good.