Lebanon, Part 1

In front of a mural in Beirut, my favorite city.

This week I have found myself thinking about a place that is frequently on my mind - Lebanon.

It’s a place few people I know have had the privilege of visiting, and even fewer understand.

Beirut from a balcony.

Beirut from a balcony.

Beirut is, without question, my favorite city. When I tell people this they give me a confused and concerned look and ask, “Isn't it dangerous?”

My answer is simple - it is the kindest, safest and most generous place I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

Lebanon has long been a place of interest for me. My Godfather, Uncle Michael, is half Lebanese and half Syrian. I grew up with the tastes of the Middle East, feasting weekly on kibbeh, tabouli, hummus, dolmas and lamb served every way imaginable.

I remember reading about Lebanon as a child. TIME Kids was delivered to my 2nd grade classroom every month and I would leaf through the images, many of them of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict and the 7-day war that killed hundreds and displaced thousands in 1993. In them I saw images of war and devastation among the incredible beauty of Lebanon. I kept those magazines in a cabinet in my mother’s kitchen for years, and would frequently sit by the sliding glass door that led to the backyard and go over and over the images.

One of the first non-fiction books I read as a teenager and truly loved was Thomas Friedman’s Beirut to Jerusalem. His depiction of the conflict seemed distant, but incredibly human.

During my first semester at the University of Florida I wrote a 15-page term paper on the Lebanese Civil War for an international relations class and spent weeks pouring over the geography, history and theology of the region.

I think Lebanon was the first place - whether I was aware of it or not - that made me want to be a journalist. It was a vision, a taste and a people I was intimately familiar with and endlessly curious about.

In a restaurant in Beirut.

In a restaurant in Beirut.

I took my first trip to Lebanon in March of 2014 to work with the Khoury family who own and operate Eastwood Schools in Beirut. Bill and I had met Michel Khoury, the son of Eastwood’s founder Amine Khoury, at an education conference in Ireland the summer before. Michel was incredibly kind and charming, and we quickly fell in love with his story.

His father, Amine, had opened Eastwood’s original campus in the Kafarshima neighborhood of Beirut in 1973. Amine’s dream was to provide an equitable educational community for all learners. However, his country’s history made that dream difficult. In 1975 the Lebanese Civil War began, sending his dream into disarray. Through Eastwood’s history, Amine has had to rebuild his dream four times.

I remember that first trip very well. Bill and I had been on a long series of trips and assignments - we had just returned from our first sandhill crane migration in Grand Island, NE, and were set to go to Singapore as soon as we returned from Lebanon. On top of that, my personal life had taken more than one twist and turn that year.

At that point I was tired, and more than a little burned out. I had gotten to a point where I dreaded travel, and that’s a dark place to be. On the flight from Jacksonville to Beirut, I wrote in my journal:

My anxiety before this trip was the worst ever. I didn’t want to go. At all…But it’s strange, as the miles between me and Beirut have dwindled over the last 14 hours, anxiety is slowly turning into excitement…This trip will change who I am, just like every trip, and that - I think - is a good thing.
— Journal, March 23, 2017

Those words seem prescient now. My life began to change the moment we landed in Beirut.

Michel and his father, whom we had heard so much about, greeted us at the airport. We were hugged, kissed, fed and welcomed.

Over the course of the next two weeks, I discovered a home I hadn't expected. When I felt lost, Lebanon found me.

During our time in Beirut, we captured life on campus at the Eastwood schools. We talked to students whose lives were changed everyday at Eastwood, teachers who loved their jobs and parents who cried when they told us of the love their children received at school.

We met the extended Khoury family. We met Michel’s sister Joelle, his mother Queen, his uncle Edmond, and his cousins Gavin and Megan. Each one of them welcomed us as family. We were taken care of with a hospitality and grace that I had never - in all my travels - encountered. They brought us into their homes, fed us amazing food and shared intimate stories. We were never treated as people hired to do a job. We were treated like dear friends; long lost family.

Michel and I are the steps of Eastwood.

There are a couple moments I remember most from that trip.

The first was our interviews with Queen and Amine. We wanted their voices to tell their history. We sat in their beautiful home, full of antiques and religious icons, as Amine told us his story.

It was clearly a story he was familiar with, but not one he was familiar with telling. The stress of that period of their lives was palpable. He said there were days where he was so depressed he could barely get out of bed. Meanwhile his wife and father went on cleaning the school grounds. Then, one day, his father pulled him aside, grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “Amine, stop it! We work in joy.”

Amine’s eyes were wet when he told the story, a broad smile across his face. His father’s words had clearly made an impact on him, and they were making one on me as well. To this day it is a line I recite to myself when the world feels heavy.

The second was the sad part. We were on campus with some students when Bill’s phone starting buzzing and ringing. Friends were writing, spreading the word that Anja Niedringhaus had been assassinated in Afghanistan. I remember Bill’s face when he read the news - a mix of anger, sadness and shock. One of his closest friends had just been brutally taken from the world.

A picture I took of Anja and Bill at the Bird's Nest during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

A picture I took of Anja and Bill at the Bird's Nest during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

In the days that followed, the words “we work in joy” kept circling in my head. Anja’s death - and life - made those words incredibly real.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from tragedy, it’s that - as hard and sad as it is - it’s also joyous. Joyous to remember the life that was lived, and joyous to realize the life you have the ability to lead.

We work in joy. Like Anja. Like the Khoury's. We work in joy because life itself is joyous.

Consistent Players

With Tim after a portrait shoot of him for the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids college football preview cover.  

There are certain people that seem to play a consistent role in your life.

I'm not talking about friends or family - being part of your life is in their job description. I mean people that seem to always be around. People you know in passing. A name that keeps popping up. A face you recognize from days gone. 

For me, that person is - oddly enough - Tim Tebow.

I first heard the name Timmy Tebow my junior year at Nease High School in St. Augustine, FL. Our football team was consistently mediocre until that year when a state championship linebacker transferred to Nease to play quarterback. Suddenly, the Nease Panthers were making every sports headline and winning games with style.

All painted for a football game in high school.

All painted for a football game in high school.

I didn't know much about him past his seemingly super human athletic ability. He and I shared a morning gym class, and I remember watching him and the other football players lift weights and train. He seemed to have a gear that the other players simply didn't. He was bigger, faster and most certainly stronger.

At pep rallies the fresh-faced sophomore would smile widely as our football coach, Coach Howard, would list Timmy’s numerous accomplishments. He was breaking school records left and right and shining a light on a once forgotten football program.

Then I enrolled at the University of Florida and halfway through my Freshman year watched on television as Timmy Tebow announced his commitment to play football for the Florida Gators.

I ran into him on the first day of classes in January 2006. When he saw me his face lit up. I don't think he remembered my name, but he recognized my face. We talked for a moment - he asked how I was doing, I asked how he liked campus - before going to our respective classes.

I moved from fan to professional in college when I started assisting Bill Frakes at Sports Illustrated. Instead of watching the games, I was covering them. In the two years I worked and went to school I think we did 3 features on Tim (I'm not sure when he became Tim instead of Timmy). He was everyone's favorite athlete to love or hate.

In the years since we've passed each other multiple times, mostly at football games he was either playing in or broadcasting.    

I saw him this past January after not seeing him for a few years. We passed each other on the field of the Georgia Dome before the Peach Bowl. We were both there for ESPN but for very different reasons. He was walking across to the Gameday set, I was taking pictures of Alabama's band practice. Still, after all these years, he stopped to say hello, to ask how I was doing, to tell me it was good to see me.

Then, just last month, Sports Illustrated called again. Bill and I packed some cameras and lights and drove to Columbia, SC. Our subject was a familiar one - a consistent player. Tim Tebow greeted us for his portrait before his team, the Columbia Fireflies, took the field. His face a little less fresh but no less friendly than when I first encountered it nearly 15 years ago.

He smiled, asked how I was doing and gave me a hug before dressing for his game.

For me, he's someone I feel like I've grown up with. We met before we became adults and our lives took the shapes they've taken. Maybe for him it's the same - I'm a face from his past, from his home town. Our stories intersected before he was a household name. 

Sports Illustrated is running a story this week - another in a seemingly endless trove - on his transition from football to baseball.

Tim Rohan wrote a story on Tim Tebow for this week's edition of Sports Illustrated. Check it out for more.

Tim Rohan wrote a story on Tim Tebow for this week's edition of Sports Illustrated. Check it out for more.

I wish him well in his baseball career. And if our past in any indication of the future, I'm sure I'll see him again down the road.

The First Saturday of May

It's that time of year again - the Kentucky Derby. This is from the roof of Churchill Downs at some point before some Derby in the last 10 years.

Today I am on my way to Louisville and the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby; the run for the roses; America's most famous (horse) race.

The Derby, in all honesty, is not my favorite event.

For me, it’s several days of early mornings, late nights and crawling in the mud.

It’s an incredible amount of work for one of sport’s fastest events. Two minutes of drama, then it’s all over.

I've been told I look very serious when I'm working. This picture is proof. In my defense I'm carrying a Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 lens on a Red Dragon here, so my expression seems appropriate to me - that setup is no joke.

When I tell people that I’m going to the Kentucky Derby, their reactions revolve around mint juleps, hats and dresses.

I can see disappointment on their faces when I tell them I’m going for work and I will be wearing the oldest, most beat-up clothes in my wardrobe, that I won’t be drinking any mint-juleps, and probably won’t even be wearing make-up.

The Derby for me means old jeans, torn shirts, rain pants (it always rains) and dirty boots.

On Derby day I’ll be up at the crack of dawn, crawling in the mud - there’s a 70% chance for rain Saturday, so the dirt track will almost certainly be mud - setting cameras and wiring remotes.

This actually isn't from the Derby. This is from the 2007 Breeder's Cup, but the idea is the same - mud, rail, cameras, me.

Oddly enough, this is my favorite part of the weekend. The tomboy inside me still loves getting dirty (my mom used to get so mad when my younger self would immediately destroy brand new shoes) and my technical side enjoys the methodical work of setting cameras up; of running wire, balancing polarity and setting shutter speeds. There is a mild thrill to pressing a button and hearing 20+ Nikon cameras fire.

The setup, however, is quite literally a race. We aren’t allowed on the track Saturday morning until every horse is off after their morning workouts. No photographers are allowed to be under the rail - where a majority of the remote cameras are located - while there are horses on the track. Where that becomes tricky is at 10:30am - the first call to post of the day.

Contrary to what you see on TV, the Derby is not the only race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. In fact, it’s race 12 of 14.

That gives me - and every other photographer - a short window to place, wire and set every remote camera. It’s a sprint, and to finish in time and you have to know what you’re doing.

Luckily, I had a pretty great teacher. Bill Frakes revolutionized the use of remote cameras long before I started following him around, and he’s taught me everything I know.

A few years back our good friend Andy Hancock got this of Frakes and I on the backside of Churchill Downs one brisk morning before the Derby.

This year will be different from my Derby’s past. In all my previous pilgrimages to Churchill Downs, I have always worked alongside Bill either as his assistant, a second shooter, a video editor or all of the above. This year, though, I will be covering the race for Sports Illustrated while Bill covers it for ESPN. For the first time in my career we will be in competition, though I’m confident it will be a friendly one.

Wonder as I Wander

Sunset in Nebraska with my FM2 and a D810. March, 2017.

I meant to write a blog last week. It just didn’t happen.

I moved from my old apartment to my new house, edited four videos, made arrangements for shoots in Nebraska and Kentucky, planned ahead for trips to Sri Lanka and Spain, and - in general - felt pretty overwhelmed.

I don’t get overwhelmed often. Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at balancing work and life (though it wasn’t always a healthy one), but sometimes the scale tips to one end or another and things get left undone. The thing that got left undone last week, was this blog.

This week I’m no less busy. Bill and I have been in northern Nebraska working on the next piece for the Nebraska Project.

It’s been hard work full of long days and short nights. We’ve been to a branding, camped in three state parks, shot time-lapses, made portraits and landscapes, and driven about 300 miles.

October 2016 in O'Neill, NE, setting up the Cinevate Motion Control Timelapse. It's not from this trip, but is an accurate representation of what life on the road looks like. The only difference being that it's colder right now, and our minivan is white.

October 2016 in O'Neill, NE, setting up the Cinevate Motion Control Timelapse. It's not from this trip, but is an accurate representation of what life on the road looks like. The only difference being that it's colder right now, and our minivan is white.

While we always work hard on the road, it never seems as stressful as it does when work piles up at home.

There is a freedom in being on the road.

I sometimes feel like I take on an alter ego when I travel for work. I don't shower or wear makeup on a regular basis. I eat peanut butter out of the jar, tuna out of the can, and more bananas and oranges than a captive monkey (they are the only fruits that come in their own, natural wrappers and don't require a fork and/or knife to eat).

I’m Laura Heald, the vagabond photographer, wondering as I wander.

On the road, work is all that exists. There are no friends to talk to, parents to visit or significant others to spend time with. That’s not to say I prefer being away. I don’t. But I also don’t dislike it. (Disclaimer: I would trade days on the road for time with any of the three aforementioned parties 99 times out of 100.)

Time on the road gives me nights alone in tents and hotel rooms. That’s time to think; to sit alone and sort through the weight in my brain that I never get around to when there are better things to do.

My room last night - The Mari Sandoz Suite at the Olde Main Street Inn in Chadron, NE.

My room last night - The Mari Sandoz Suite at the Olde Main Street Inn in Chadron, NE.

Time on the road is time to create. Making images during the golden hour of light just before sunset or long exposures of the milky way on a clear night are pictures I always intend to take when I’m home. But at home there are dinners to cook, runs to go on, happy hours to attend or sleep to be had.

A starry night in Toadstool Geological Park in northwest Nebraska, this is print currently available in our flash sale

Those things don’t exist on the road.

Life on the road is life in a vacuum. It’s easy to forget I have a normal life waiting for me somewhere else. As the road lays out before me, so do opportunities. Getting lost in a moment - a story or a sunset - is the only reasonable thing to do when there is nothing else pulling me away.

That’s why on a cold Wednesday night in Chadron, NE, I’m sitting up in bed writing a blog. I’m doing it because I can. The only other thing to do is sleep, and I’ll do that when I get home.

(Un)Forgettable Images

On set at some baseball field in Naples for some baseball player.

On set at some baseball field in Naples for some baseball player.

Spring means one thing to many Americans - baseball season.

Back in 2010, Sports Illustrated sent Bill on a portrait series of baseball players through the many Florida Spring Training facilities.

This was a test shot in Naples for one of the images we made on that trip. I honestly don’t know who the portrait was of. I haven’t followed baseball closely since John Smoltz pitched for the Atlanta Braves, and it’s been more than a few years since that happened.

I just remember driving from Jacksonville to Tampa to Naples to Miami for the trip. A long couple days in the car down Florida’s west coast.

Florida is a long state with surprising bio-diversity. Many people who visit Florida never leave the metropolitan centers of Orlando, Tampa and Miami, but - like many places - once you get off the beaten track, the place is stunning.

It was the first time I had ever driven the Tamiami trail - a road named for the cities it connects, Tampa and Miami. For much of the Tamiami you pass strip malls and time-share high rises. But as you move south the countless convenient stores fade into the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades.

It’s an otherworldly landscape that seems detached entirely from the manufactured land of Disney World. A two-lane road surrounded by swamp and cypresses.

Bill and I drove through the wetlands quietly until we passed a small building on the west side of the road with a sign that read, “The Big Cypress Gallery.” An art gallery in the middle of a national preserve. We didn’t have time to stop, but we did anyway.

We walked in to find a collection of Clyde Butcher original photographs. If you don’t know who Clyde Butcher is, look him up. He’s Ansel Adams for the state of Florida. His pictures are big and beautiful and seem impossibly simple. They seem that way because they are. There is nothing simple about lugging an 11x14 camera around the swamp, but the images are pure - the way Florida used to be.

My Clyde Butcher print above my (messy) desktop.

I walked out of the gallery with a print from the same trail we had been driving, the Tamiami. It now hangs above my desk. A constant reminder of the simple beauty of a well done photograph, and the (sometimes) forgotten natural beauty of my home state.

Lights, Camera...Strobes

A lighting setup at Florida A&M University for a series on their famous marching band.

A lighting setup at Florida A&M University for a series on their famous marching band.

Introducing lights into a photo is something that terrifies and mystifies many photographers, especially young ones who haven’t spent much time using them.

When I first began this journey a decade ago, I had literally never seen a strobe.

I met Bill Frakes in the summer of 2007. I was set to take a lighting class at the University of Florida that fall, but at the time knew next to nothing about lighting setups or photography in general.

Learning the equipment has been a process, as evidenced here. In fairness, getting under the Elinchrome Octabox is sometimes the easiest way for me to break it down, even though it looks ridiculous.

It was fitting that my second shoot with Bill was a cover for Sports Illustrated for Kids of Philadelphia Eagles running back Bryan Westbrook in his Maryland home.

We flew to Washington, DC, on the first flight of the morning and returned on the last flight of the evening. It wasn’t just my first chance to see a professional lighting setup, it was my first taste of the life on the road with Bill.

There are quite a few things I’ve learned about Bill Frakes in my decade of working with him. One is that he has favorite places all over the world. One of those favorite places is Politics and Prose, an independently owned bookstore in Washington, DC. As soon as we landed and gathered all of our equipment, we went straight to the book store.

The spot had two purposes. First and foremost, Bill wanted to shop for books. But secondly, it is where we met up with John Healy, another more experienced photography assistant. Bill wanted me to learn from Healy; to watch and ask questions about the lighting setup.

When we arrived at Westbrook’s house he welcomed us inside and showed us a room he hoped was big enough for all of our equipment. I watched as Frakes and Healy set up the background and all the lights. I had never seen anything quite like it. I knew what a strobe was, but had never seen anyone actually use one before.

Now, a white seamless backdrop with a seven light setup seems simple, but back then it was impossibly complicated. Suddenly all of those magazines covers I had seen in the past with animated or clearly photoshopped backgrounds began to make sense.

Shooting a subject against a clean, white background allows you to lift the subject off of that background and place them on another in post production. Lighting the subject makes their image crisp with sharp edges and good definition. Where television and cinema use a green screen, photography uses white for the same effect.

Bill made a couple test shots of me and Healy to make sure the light was right before Westbrook came out. With most high profile subjects, you only get a minute or two to make a great portrait. That day, we were in his home and he had nothing he had to do other than be with us. However, as I would learn in the coming weeks, months and years, you can never be too ready to make an image.

John Healy and I on set at Bryan Westbrook's house.

When Westbrook came out in his uniform, we did two poses with him - a stiff arm and him catching a shovel pass. My favorite part of the day was throwing the shovel pass.

The cover mock-up for SI for Kids.

When I was a kid, I had two dream professions. I wanted to be an astronaut and/or a quarterback in the NFL. Throwing that shovel pass is the closest I have gotten to either.

I have now been part of countless lighting setups for covers, multimedias and galleries. Each subject is different, so each setup is, too.

Setting up for a portrait of the UConn women's basketball team in 2011.

On the flight home from DC that night, Bill left his first class seat to come sit with me in coach. He wanted to talk about the day and lighting.

“Light,” he told me, “is language in photography.”

It is how you portray mood and emotion. Where writers use verbs, photographers use light.

It’s a lesson I try to employ everyday.

 

College Towns

Under the Spanish moss of spring in Gainesville, Fl. This was taken on a shoot there in 2009 when I was still a student.

Under the Spanish moss of spring in Gainesville, Fl. This was taken on a shoot there in 2009 when I was still a student.

This has been a busy week. In the world of freelance, it's feast or famine. You're either so busy you can't keep track of what state you're in, or you have so much free time you can't keep track of what day it is.

Lately, for me, it's been feast. Luckily the busy schedule has brought me to two of my favorite college towns - Gainesville, FL, and Oxford, MS.

The trip to Gainesville was a nice change. I hadn't spent significant time in the town of my alma mater in years, and this is a truly lovely time to be in central Florida. The weather is warm, but not hot. The clouds are high and puffy. The smell of citrus blossoms is in the air. And the madness of football season is far away, replaced by the calm of baseball and softball.

It brought me back to warm Sundays as a student, sitting in the sun at the softball grounds as my friends and I burned off the remnants of Saturday night, listening to the tink ofa ball hitting a bat, the scuffle of cleats on clay, and the sweet, unmistakable aroma of orange blossoms wafting in from the grove across the street. A sure sign of spring.

Today, Bill and I will be driving to the second college town on that list - Oxford, MS - for a weekend workshop with some students. Oxford is a place I had always heard about, both as a football fan in the SEC and a student of history. But a place I didn't really start to understand until I first visited in 2008.

The always delicious Ajax Diner in Oxford, MS.

Oxford is the south in a nutshell. It's warm and slow, full of good food and good people. It's what we imagine the south to look like with it's town square and oak groves.

It's a beautiful town with a wonderful literary history. Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, is on the University of Mississippi campus.

On the steps outside Square Books - one of America's great independent book stores - in Oxford, MS.

Also on campus is a Confederate graveyard where soldiers who died while being treated at the campus hospital are buried. As wonderful as modern Oxford is, you can't talk about the place without also talking about it's segregated past and Confederate history.

Nearly the entire student body (135 men) enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 after Mississippi seceded from the Union. During the Battle of Gettysburg, the University Grey's (as they were called) penetrated deep into the Union forces, but sustained 100% casualties. Every man in the unit was either killed or badly wounded. It's no wonder that their mascot for years was Colonel Reb and their symbol a Confederate flag.

Then there's the story of James Meredith, the first black man to attend the University of Mississippi. In 1962 it took 500 federal troops to enroll James Meredith at Ole Miss. There is now a statue of Meredith on campus to honor his commitment to the university and his indelible mark on history.

I met James Meredith in the elevator at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium after the Alabama vs. Ole Miss football game in 2010. He was wearing a white suit and was with a friend. He and his friend said hello to Bill and I when they saw our cameras and introduced themselves. Meredith talked to us on the short elevator ride about the beauty of the campus and the friendliness of the people.

I was shocked. James Meredith was last person in the world I expected to speak highly of Oxford and the University of Mississippi. But there he was, smiling broadly as he reminisced.

That's Oxford. The place is full of history - good and bad, depending on your perspective. It's a place of chaotic paradox, but also a place of calm beauty.

Spring Season

During a TV timeout at an Orlando Magic game. I had no idea the guy behind me was making the same face. Lucky for me, Bill Frakes is always looking for moments like this.

Over the last decade, I’ve spent many beautiful spring days inside basketball arenas. It’s the sport of the season, from the NBA to March Madness.

Basketball is fun to watch - especially this time of year - but I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of covering it.

In fact, my least favorite part of shooting basketball is the game itself. A ball is constantly bouncing, shoes are squeaking across a shined floor, music is blaring and fans are yelling inside the echo chamber we call basketball courts. For me, the games are migraines waiting to happen.
The part I enjoy - oddly enough - is the setup; the hours and days that lead up to the games.

It starts early - sometimes an entire 48 hours before tip-off. Lights are put in place, wires are run and camera angles are decided. Sometimes negotiations with the arena or the broadcast channel are required. Sometimes the catwalks themselves - the scaffolding around the roof of every arena in America - aren’t easily accessible.

Many of the crisp, amazing shots you see from basketball games are shot on strobe. That means someone (me) has to put those strobes in place. Those strobes - along with every light and speaker - are rigged onto the catwalk of an arena. It’s a place you don’t think about unless you have to. I know I had never considered how the lighting and sound systems were hung until I had to do it myself.

Some catwalks have elevators that offload directly onto the catwalk platform. Others have steep stairs that you have to climb with the cameras, strobes and wires you need in tow. It's hard work, but hard work is something I've always enjoyed.

Once the lights and overhead angles are set, there are still plenty of other remotes to put in place. Every arena is different, and every level of play has rules about where you can and can’t put cameras.

Setting up a flash wizard tree. They're called flash wizards because it's what we use to sync all the remote cameras with the strobes in the catwalks. When a camera is fired, so are the strobes.

For the most part, there is always a camera on the side of each hoop (a post camera). Then we try to find a slightly elevated shot that has a clean look at the hoop for rebounds, layups and dunks. There are cameras under the press tables and next to benches. There are floor cameras and glass cams (cameras, literally, behind the backboard glass). And last but not least, our handheld cameras; a telephoto (either a 300mm f/2.8 or a 400mm f/2.8) and a shorter lens (a 24-70mm f/2.8 or a 24-120mm f/4) for near-court shots.

Setting up a camera under the press table. These are placed right at the 3-point arc just in case there is a game-winning, buzzer-beating shot.

This year I took a step back and am watching the NCAA tournament on TV. I find that I am not just watch the games, I look for the cameras, too.

I’ve been in just about every arena that this year’s games were played in. I know why broadcast chose the angles they did. Every arena has slightly different options, some better than others. I can see the other photographers, many of whom I know, on the floor each time a ball goes to the hoop. I can anticipate the images they will make; the ones I will see the coming days online, in the newspaper and in sports magazines.

Like a chef who can’t eat a meal without guessing the ingredients, I can’t watch an athletic event without guessing where the cameras are. A strange, but entertaining occupational habit.

 

 

 

Cover Girl

I was once on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

It was March 2016, the Florida Gators had the best men's basketball team in the south region of the NCAA, and I went with Bill to a cover shoot I hadn't planned on attending.

In the weeks leading up to the NCAA tournament, we had spent a lot of time with the Florida Gators for a multimedia on their senior leadership. 

We went to practice, class, followed them around campus, and back to their dorms and apartments. We went to dinner with them, on dates with them, and to volunteer activities around the community.

The Gators that year were a rarity in college basketball. They were led by four seniors - Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguette - who had been together since day one on UF’s campus. Many of the top schools at the time - and still today - are full of “one-and-done” players; talented athletes who come to college for the mandatory one year before entering the NBA draft. But Billy Donovan and his #1 seed Gators were the opposite of that trend. Each of the four seniors had been through the highs and lows of a full college career. They had - in many ways - grown up together.

After the multimedia came out, Sports Illustrated had another assignment for Bill - a cover shoot with the Gator’s top scorer, Casey Prather.

Every year right before March Madness kicks off, Sports Illustrated does a series of regional covers highlighting the best team from each region. In 2014 the Florida Gators werethe favorite team not just in the south region, but in the nation.

The idea for the cover was to show individual players from each school surrounded by a sea of excited fans. It was a setup shot, intended to feature the fans as much as the players they cheered for.

When the assignment came in, I didn’t plan on going. We had been working a lot that spring - most of it with the Gators - and I was tired. There were plenty of students at UF who could help Bill set up the lights, including our intern at the time. 

Then, at the last minute, I decided to go along for the ride. I didn’t go as an assistant or in any official capacity. I just went as Bill’s friend and a Gator fan. We had spent so much time with the team that spring that not being part of the cover shoot seemed almost rude.

We left Jacksonville early that morning. A couple journalism students met us in Gainesville along with our friend Sara Tanner, another UF alumnae. Sara had come prepared with bags of props - pompoms, hats, foam fingers, t-shirts - anything we might need if a fan showed up under dressed.

Denver Parler, the men’s basketball sports information director at UF, met us at the O’Connell center and helped us set up. He had sent out a discreet social media blast asking students to come to the O’Dome at 1pm for a “special project” with a member of the men’s basketball team. The only problem was that it was spring break, meaning almost no students were still on campus. 

When 1pm rolled around, we were slim on students. Denver went and gathered every student intern he could find in the athletic department and told them to change into their favorite game-day gear. Still, the portrait just wasn’t quite coming together. 

Getting every student to scream, cheer, smile and yell all at the same time AND with their eyes open is no easy task. After a few lackluster frames, I put on my orange and blue, grabbed a foam finger, and headed to the center of the group. I asked Bill if he was ready and he nodded. 

I started screaming and the rest of the crowd joined, yelling and laughing. When the Elinchrome strobe popped, I stopped, waited a few seconds for the power to recycle, and started again.

After a few frames, when I thought the fans were appropriately rowdy, I jumped out of the picture and continued cheering next to Bill as he shot.

When the cover came out, I was surprised they chose a picture with me in it. Clearly, my excitement was infectious.

Looking back, I can't believe I almost passed up a chance to cheer my favorite team into March Madness with some fellow Rowdy Reptiles.

The 2017 tournament begins tonight, and you can bet I will again be cheering on the Gators as they tip off their tournament this afternoon against East Tennessee State.

Second Home

Representing my first home - Florida (go Gators) - in my second home - Nebraska. This was taken in a refurbished one-room schoolhouse in Thedford, NE, that also happened to be on an exotic animal farm - two things that don't generally co-exist, but in Nebraska, you never know.

Today I’m heading back to my second home, Nebraska.

Nebraska isn’t a place I ever imagined spending any time in. I grew up on a swamp in Florida, a quarter mile from the beach. Places like Nebraska weren’t on my radar screen as a kid. 

When I imagined traveling the world, I imagined places like Norway and China, Brazil and France. I wanted to see the northern California coast, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes. Over the last decade I have visited all those places. But no place has taken my breath away quite like Nebraska.

People always ask me why I like Nebraska; what about the state keeps bringing me back? My answer is always the same - Nebraska is the most surprisingly beautiful place I’ve ever been. People don’t expect much from Nebraska - I know I didn’t - but the subtlety of the wide open spaces and endless skies is truly breath-taking.

I started spending significant time in Nebraska in 2013. That spring, Bill and I began working on a story that would eventually become one of the first videos for the Nebraska Project. The Nebraska Project itself didn't start as a concrete idea for a comprehensive web site on the state. It started as one story Bill wanted to tell - an ode to his mother, Agnes Roemmich Frakes.

Agnes was a lifelong educator, beginning her career at a one-room schoolhouse when she was 17. After she passed away in 2008, Bill found a typed copy of an unpublished story she wrote for Collier's magazine back in the 1940s on her experience as a rural school teacher.

Over the years, he had mentioned the idea of doing a video based on his mother's words, but it wasn't until we had a conversation with Kevin and Katie Morrow at an education conference that the story began to take shape. Kevin and Katie are great friends and Nebraska natives who live in O'Neill, NE.

Kevin and Katie Morrow in the tailgate of their truck on a friend's farm in Holt County, NE. That windmill with the broken blade made several appearances in our “Nebraska Skies” video.

Bill mentioned to Katie and Kevin that his mother had written a long essay on teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. He told them that he hoped to edit it down to a script one day and illustrate her words. 

Kevin mentioned that there were several old one-room schoolhouses in Holt County, where they lived, and he was certain there were more around the state.

By the end of the conference it was settled, we were going to Nebraska.

When we got back to our office in Florida, we scanned the story into digital form - it had been typed out on a typewriter - and sent it to Katie. Within a week Katie had cut down the words to a manageable script and Kevin had sent photos and locations of several old one-room schoolhouses near their home.

The story started slow. We spent our time exploring abandoned school buildings, capturing the dust and cobwebs of untouched years. We ran overnight time-lapses. The beauty of an abandoned building in a fallow field is one of the many reasons I find Nebraska so surprisingly beautiful.

An abandoned schoolhouse in Holt County, Nebraska. It was one of the first locations Kevin took us to and one of the first overnight time-lapses we captured in Nebraska.

An abandoned schoolhouse in Holt County, Nebraska. It was one of the first locations Kevin took us to and one of the first overnight time-lapses we captured in Nebraska.

That first trip in 2013 taught us what we didn’t know. Mostly, that there was a lot of information out there on one-room schoolhouses and one week wasn’t enough to soak it all up. We ended up returning several times, always tying in a paying job to help cover expenses.

Everywhere we went we met a slew of kind and helpful people. It was my introduction to what I call “The Nebraska Name Game.” 

Nebraska is a state of small towns. It’s the romantic America that we forget still exists. Everyone literally knows everyone else.

For example, on this one story alone, the name game went something like this:

We have a friend in Lincoln, Ted, who told us about his friend, Flip, in Thedford. Flip owns an exotic animal farm that happens to have a wonderfully refurbished one-room schoolhouse on it(only in Nebraska). After we visited Flip, he told us about a museum in Henderson with another refurbished schoolhouse. The woman at the museum in Henderson knew that all school records for Hamilton County - the county Agnes taught in all those years ago - were kept in the courthouse in Aurora. The folks in Aurora let us go through the records ourselves, leading us to find Agnes’ hand-written class records with the names of every student she taught. The people in Aurora then sent us to Farmer’s Valley Cemetery, where the Farmer’s Valley School - the one we were illustrating - once stood. In the Farmer’s Valley Cemetery we met a volunteer groundskeeper (he liked keeping the graveyard clean for visiting families) who knew a man that attended Farmer’s Valley School. That man knew the farm where the schoolhouse had been moved to and was being used as a tack shed. The family on that farm showed us a school project their daughter had done on the life of their tack shed, showing it in it's original form as a schoolhouse to where it now stood outside her front door. They then introduced us to Carmen who was involved with the local historical society. Carmen helped us find Arlyce Siebert who attended Farmer’s Valley School in 1942 and kept a portrait of her teacher from that year - Agnes Roemmich - as a bookmark in her Bible. Arlyce invited us to her house, agreed to follow us to a close-by schoolhouse for an interview, and became an unexpected introduction to the video.

The “Name Game” had taken us full circle.

Shooting cutaways at a refurbished schoolhouse in Grand Island, NE.

That’s how “The Nebraska Name Game” goes. It starts with one introduction and a story, and ends in an abundance of hospitality and kindness. The people who helped us on this story - and for every story we’ve done in Nebraska - genuinely wanted to help. They were sincerely interested in what we were doing and it showed. They didn’t help to gain a favor; they helped because they wanted to.

In 2014 we launched the finished product, “A Teacher Remembered,” as one of the leading videos on our (then) new web site, NebraskaProject.com.