I have been writing the first sentence of this post for a week. How do you begin telling a story about a weekend that has changed you fundamentally? A story ripe with the most open people, the most basic but transformative ideas that you’ve never allowed yourself to truly follow, that was full of tears from both frustration and breakthroughs and piles and piles of actual steaming cow crap? All I have been thinking since I left (First!) Foundation First is this:
I’ve met a Unicorn.
Not the beast itself, per se, but the idea of something so pure and full of grace that it has been reduced to folklore.
The week after I made J. Petersen Photography public, I saw an ad for FFF that my wedding photographer (who I legitimately want to be like when I grow up) posted on Facebook. I sent him a tentative message asking if a girl such as me, who wants to become more bad ass, would be kind of student they were looking for. His “YES” was all I needed to sign up to study photojournalism from people I have idolized for years in the hopes that somehow their bad-assery would rub off on my through osmosis and I would pick up a tip or two that would help take me to the next level in my photography. While I’ve been technically shooting since I was in high school, I had only given myself permission to pursue this passion of mine fully last year, and MAN what a crutch I built for myself with that excuse.
Admittedly I spent the weeks leading up to FFFF stalking the attendees and mentors online and I could hardly tell one from the other. The portfolios of the other students absolutely blew me away and I could hardly believe that I was qualified to be in the same workshop with some of these people.
I checked and re-checked the description on the FF website, ensuring that I was experienced enough to actually attend. The description of who the workshop was for seemed so vague and far reaching to me. What category did I fit in? I was terrified I would “waste the time” of these ridiculously talented mentors who I admired so much from afar, and almost convinced myself that because I didn’t have all of the gear on the packing list that I shouldn’t even bother to go.
PC: Tyler Wirken
Then on the first day, Huy threw some juggling balls around and buried beneath about thirty “hehe balls” jokes was one of the best nuggets of wisdom I’ve ever really heard: Every time you doubt yourself, re-phrase and add YET. If your goal is worthy and you believe in yourself, and get off your ass and make the changes and you will get there. You just aren’t there YET.
There was so much freedom for me in those three letters that I felt something burst open in me. I mentioned when we went around the room discussing what we needed to learn that I am not good at getting out of my own way—YET. And I spent the next three days making small, incremental changes to take that barrier and knock it down.
PC: Candice Cusic
Rather than eating breakfast in my room, I went downstairs and sat with people who started as strangers, and who I now consider family. Rather than sitting stuck shooting people at the Stock Show that looked like what I was used to seeing, I found and shot the Cowboy-est of Cowboys and learned more about cow hair care than I could have ever imagined. Tyler’s voice in my head saying “Fuck ‘em! Get the shot, apologize later” got me through that last hour, and while some of those pictures are among the worst I’ve ever made there was real freedom in allowing myself the permission to just DO, and question later.
PC: Joe Appel
To be honest, though, it wasn’t until the night after the Stock Show that the Foundation Magic hit me, and it hit me so hard. I realized that night, in that circle of truly beautiful people, that Huy’s description of who should attend FFFF was vague on the website on purpose. Experience had almost nothing to do with the quality of the photographs that we made at the show. Each and every one of us was stuck in one way or another on our journeys and that day full of frustration and piles of poop (both from the animals and our cameras) pulled our feet out of the metaphorical mud. I saw a physical change in each of my classmates and in the quality of their work because they allowed their hearts and minds to meet and work together.
When we sifted through the photographs we had made at the Stock Show I remember the look on everyone’s face when they saw an image pop up that they would’ve never been able to make before. Something unlocked in each of us and we created some incredibly beautiful work.
Whether we needed to get out of our own way, or relinquish control, or admit we need to write more notes, or get comfortable in getting closer, no closer, ok good now even CLOSER to people we didn’t realize we were actually afraid of, we all were able to recognize and acknowledge what had been getting in our way, and take the steps to shove that shit to the side and GROW.
PC: Joe Appel
It was astounding to watch fourteen people, one after the other, admit truths to our group that they may never have admitted to themselves let alone to an audience. I knew while listening to everyone that I had never felt something so honest before, had never been in a group of over twenty adults so willing to bare their fears and struggles and I was unlikely to have the opportunity again so I joined. And I cried (nay, even blubbered), and I hugged and I kissed and I held hands and rubbed backs and pumped my fist in the air because I needed to physically show these beautiful people how profoundly they had affected me, and changed how I saw the world and myself.
PC: Jan Garcia
I looked around our little conference room on the last night amidst the fist pumping and slap-happy laughter and I realized I had learned more than just how to get to the next level. It wasn’t certain technical skills I was missing that I needed to learn to improve my images (although Back Button Focus really does help, thank you Tyler!). It was a mental block, a crutch I’d allowed myself to lean on out of fear that I needed to kick away, and FFFF gave me the tools to do just that. I had found teachers who wanted to teach as desperately as I wanted to learn, and from that incredibly open and generous foundation (WOW that just clicked for me!) grew a freedom in me to stand up and declare that I am a photographer, I want this, I am good at this and I want to get out of my own way and be better and even though I can’t fully do that without fear YET, I know I am on the right path.
I took half of a Moleskine notebook full of notes but my second page really says it all, and proves to me that Huy, Tyler, Sergio, Candice, Joe, Jan, Craig and Gulnara (and Kelly, Sherry & McKenzie!) really knew what they were teaching us from the very first moment:
This is from within
A happier person makes better photographs