Monday, August 18, 2014

Motivating Yourself to Do Your Work: What works for you?

@Ralph Basui Watkins
I am involved in a three-year project documenting the transformation of Auburn Avenue in Atlanta Georgia.  I am nine months into the project.  At times it is hard to get excited about my work. I am trying to find new things to shoot, write about and people to connect with, week after week. Going down to Sweet Auburn every week for the next three years is my life now.  So the question becomes how do I keep myself excited about my work and what are those things that motivate me to keep going?

  1. I am passionate about my work.  I care about the work I am doing and the people I am connecting with.  This is central to what I do. I have to care about what I do.  I can’t do it for a grade, money, tenure or some external reward.  My motivation is intrinsic.
  2. I have to believe that my work has the potential to make the world a more just place.  My work has to make a difference that transcends the work and me. It isn’t about me but it is about the cause that I have been called to connect with in the process of doing the work.
  3. I have to find a sense of joy in doing the hard work.  I have always said that the key to success (however you want to define success) is founded on good hard work.  Not just hard work but good hard work.  I have to make good pictures, tell quality stories, not just take pictures and tell stories.  At the root of this is getting up everyday and putting the work in. You can’t just talk the talk but you must get up and make the walk to that place where you put the work in. Discipline is as simple as doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, as well as it can be done.
  4. Finally, to enter my work and creative space I have to read to open my mind up to that creative space.  I have to look at images, read and watch stories and while doing this I make mental and written notes / drawings that inform my work / creative process.


This week I am reading three books:










































I am looking at the images of Charles “Teenie” Harris:



I am watching On The Road with Charles Kuralt:


  1. What are you passionate about?
  2. What can are or you doing that has the promise of making the world a better place?
  3. What is that gives you a sense of joy?
  4. What is it that puts in that creative space that starts you on the creative process?

These are my four questions.  What are yours? What are those things that move you to get it done?  What motivates you and moves you to do you?  When you identify these things and ignite them in your world your creative output will increase ten-fold!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tell Your Story: The Legacy of Charles “Teenie” Harris

Charles "Teenie" Harris
“Embracing the gray area between objectivity and subjectivity, information and interpretation, journalism and art, the create powerful visual reports that transcend the realm of traditional photojournalism.”
Breet Abbott
Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties p.1

While Brett Abbott was talking about the generation of photographers who followed Charles “Teenie” Harris I want to suggest that his definition of the “engaged observer / documentary photographer” fits Teenie and his work.  Tennie was a photographer who documented African American life in the Hill District of Pittsburgh from the 1930 through the 1970s.  Tennie Harris took over 80,000 shots over his career.  He chronicled Black life in the Hill District and throughout the city of Pittsburgh.  His work is considered the most complete document of urban life in American history. 


Teenie was connected to the community.  He felt what he was shooting.  While he was both a freelance photographer and employed by the Pittsburgh Courier  he wasn’t your typical photojournalist.   When I visited the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh this weekend to see his work his images moved me.  I was taken in by his work.  As you look at his work you can see the life of his subjects.  His subjects were not be captured by the camera but rather liberated by the camera.  His images are not still images but rather they are real images.  Teenie’s images are life giving, life sustaining images as his subjects appear to be connecting with you as you look at them.  There is life in the eyes of his subjects. 

Teenie made sure that the African American community of that time was not forgotten.  He took shots of the life of times and as a result of his work we remember as he memorialized the glory days of his community.  Of his 80,000 negatives there are very few duplicates.  “He did not take unnecessary shots and was frugal with his photographic materials, which prompted Mayor Lawerence to refer to [Teenie] as ‘One Shot.’ While other photographers were taking multiple shots, [Teenie] had taken what he needed and was off to another assignment.”[1]  Teenie was a “sure shooter” he knew he had the shot; he got it, and moved on.  He was sure because his work came out of a relationship with this work that assured a connection that transcended the viewfinder. In the end he has helped us remember because he connected.  As I look back at his work I ask what is it of my work? Will my work help us remember?
























































[1] The Spirit of a Community: The Photographs of Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris (Westmoreland Museum of American Art), June 2001.,  P. 8

Monday, August 4, 2014

Straight No Chaser: Remembering My Grandmother

My Grandmother!  May the ancestors welcome her.  They have a new conversational partner!
I know she is talking stuff....
The saying goes, “You marry your mother.”  I believe that I married a brilliant, strong, wise and beautiful Black woman.  While my wife has some of the traits of my mother what I would argue is that the women in my life influenced how I saw women.  The women around me when I was young were brilliant, strong, wise, Black  and beautiful.  Today I want to pause and remember my grandmother, Mrs. Alta Bell Scott.

Today, in the wee hours of the morning my phone rang, it was my mother telling me that my grandmother was making her transition.  As I lie in the bed and clang to my wife the rest of the morning all I could hear was my grandmother’s voice.  She was a strong woman who spoke her mind. She wasn’t afraid of a confrontation.  If you wanted to bring it, bring it, but you might walk back with a limp.  She taught me how to speak up, stand up and be a strong Black man.  There was no apology in her spirit.  She was a fighter, pure and simple.  The fight I have in life I owe to my grandmother who exhibited such for me.

When she saw you she always made you feel good. She would hug you so tight and hit you with those little hands of hers.  She had the strongest hands in the world.  She would say, “Boy you look good.”  She would then go on to compliment you and tell you how well you were doing and how proud she was of you.  She always made me feel like I could leap the tallest building and climb the highest mountain.  When I was a little boy she would call me, "Mr. Burpee" look at me and say, “look at that little man.”  She made me proud to be a Black man.  When she would call me out, I would stick my chest out and walk upright.   She didn't allow you to apologize for your presence.  When you walked into a room let folk know you are there!!!

I remember a picture of her that sat on the mantle in the living room.  She was standing there looking like a queen.  It was one of those old black and white pictures that you would go to a studio to take.  She had a waist line and shape that made this little boy say, “I want my wife to look like that.”  To put it mildly and respectfully, my grandmamma was BAD!

She was a wise woman who didn’t shy away from giving you life advice.  She would talk common sense to you.  I remember her reading the newspaper from cover to cover and then talking to you about what she read.  I truly believe my love for reading, politics and social justice came from the women who influenced my life.  She also loved a good movie. She would read the description of the movie, the actors in it and say, “This is going to be a good one.”

Storyteller, yes she was a storyteller. When I was preaching in San Diego a week ago, Rev. Leslie White said, “This is a storytelling preacher.” My grandmother taught me how to tell a good story.  When we would stay with her in the summer she would tell us stories at night, as we got ready to sleep on the wooden floor in front of that box fan.  I remember one ghost story she used to tell and I am still scared. She would tell us stories about her life together with our grandfather, the things they did, places they went and how they had a good time back in the day. 

As a kid who stayed with her in the summer it was outside or inside.  We played outside all day and she would instruct me on what it meant to be a man. Be tough, be strong, stand up for yourself and don’t take no SHIT!!!  You betta not cry and if someone hits you, “Knock the shit out of them!”  She had a way with flowery language, and I get that from her as well.   I could go on but the tears are getting in the way. 


Did I marry my mother?  I married the good I saw in the women in my life.  As I sat last night talking to my wife about my grandmother I could see my grandmother in my wife.   Life is precious…and at times it seems so short and it goes so fast. It seems like only yesterday I was sitting in St. Petersburg waiting on some northern beans, rice and cornbread to be done so we could sit and eat dinner.  Yea, how I loved those “boiled pots.”  I say to my grandmother, “Thanks for being an example of a brilliant, strong, wise and beautiful Black woman.” 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Taking Your Craft to the Next Level: Steal Like an Artist

“What good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before.  Nothing is completely original…You are, in fact a mashup of what you choose let in your life.  You are the sum of your influences….The artist is a collector.  Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference:  Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively.  They only collect the things they really love….Your job is to collet good ideas.  The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”
Austin Kelon from Steal Like an Artist

There are books I go back to over and over again, and one of those books is Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist.   This little book affirmed for me what I have been doing my entire career.  What I have been doing is picking from those people whom I love, whose work I love, whose work inspires me and moves me.  I realized that if I was to create work that made a difference I had to know what came before me and then ask how do I extend this work.  The work that inspires me is not to be copied but extended or taken to the next point on the continuum.  Whose work are you influenced by and how is their work inspiring your work?  How are you taking what they have given you and moving it along?

I follow some great documentary / street photographers and photojournalist, I am totally inspired by them but my goal is take their inspiring work to that next spot on the continuum.  Recently I began to ponder aerial photography and it’s role in my current work, Faith in Sweet Auburn: The Next Chapter.  I found that a small drone could take my work to that next spot / level.  I have access to a tool that many of mentors did not have.  I have something to add to the work I am immersed in. I purchased the DJi Phantom2  Vison +:



I have been spending the last view weeks trying to learn how to fly the Phantom so that I can use it for both aerial video and photography. I am spending time everyday learning how to fly, how to control the camera, how to compose shots from the air.  Is it hard work? YES!  It looks easy but it isn’t.  While it isn’t easy it is what I am called to next in my work.  The question for you: what are you called to next?  How are you pushing yourself to extend the work of those who have inspired you?  What are you working on that has the promise of taking you and your work to the next level?

Here is a sample video of what I am working on:


Austin Kleon’s TED Talk: