Several people have asked about the contest in San Francisco, "How did it go?"
My response is usually a brief, "Really hard."
When I found out I was going to San Francisco on the DAY BEFORE I had
to leave, I felt relaxed, telling myself it wasn't a big deal and that
I was already a winner. (Or something cheesy like that). That feeling
didn't last very long. I soon discovered that it was, in fact, a
pretty big deal that meant a lot to many people who put in hard hours
and money to make this event happen.
The three judges (Kirk McKoy- LA Times; Leslie White- Dallas Morning
News; Pim Van Hemmen- New Jersey Ledger) made it clear to the six
photo competitors that this wouldn't be easy. But they didn't need to
say much because the portfolio boards up in the presidential suite
spoke for themselves: the competition was pretty darn stiff. My
confidence plummetted quickly.
At the end of the competition, Kirk admitted that they had gone a bit
overboard this year in their expectations and assignments. We were
given 2.5 days to complete 2 photo 4-10 image stories and 2 feature
singles. The first story on the list was Chinatown. A set up for
failure. Nobody in Chinatown speaks English and they all freak out
with paranoia when they see a camera. So, as you can imagine, getting
caption information was nearly impossible, not to mention THE PHOTOS
THEMSELVES. Next was a story called "Behind the Scenes." I'm not sure
I still understand what that means. We had to go out and basically
find anything interesting that read as a behind-the-scenes look. The
two features were more straightforward- one of ANYTHING in San
Francisco, the other ANYTHING after dark.
Luckily, the environment was incredibly friendly. Most of the photo
<>>guys (no girls this year) exchanged thoughts, ideas and fears- with
due limitations, of course. The judges were very supportive and
careful to remain objective. During the judging itself they didn't
know who was who, as the portfolios were submitted with letters, not
I spent way, way too much time shooting my Chinatown story.
Three-quarters of my time I dragged myself around the steep streets of
this foreign country, racking my brain for ideas. I got on the phone
with several people- John Freeman, John Kaplan, Daron Dean, Rob
Witzel, my entire family, my mother's friend's brother, Sydney, who
lives in the city, my girlfriend Celia....the list goes on. By the
way, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR ALL THE HELP!!! Eventually, I settled on
the idea of the Chinese market, and proceeded to hold down the shutter
button until my finger went numb.
Just talking ideas out with people really helped turn the wheels. In
the end, the mother's friend's brother dude, Sydney, helped me find an
idea that made an enormous difference. He suggested I check out an
artist-in-residence program at the city dump. I had my sister look up
the contact number online, and was fortunate enough to find a current
artist sitting in a studio at the waste facility. Can you believe
that??? I almost fell over, but didn't, then got in a taxi and told
him, "Step on it!"
When I arrived, a very bitchy man named Paul gave me 30 minutes to
take me around the area and allow me to shoot pictures. That's right-
THIRTY MINUTES. Luckily the light was dramatic, the stench was rotten,
and it made for some nice images. The artist also let me spend some
time with him while he sorted through the public disposal area.
The features I shot were of a group of Falun Dafa members meditating
near Chinatown. The night shot was a homeless man in a really sketchy
area smoking a hand-rolled cigarette next to an Armani colgne
advertisement. Both were found while I was scouring the streets for
In the end, things turned out pretty well for me. I won second place
out of 6 very talented photographers. The judges said it was the
hardest year they'd seen, and that the results could have swung in any
direction with just a couple of points' difference. I feel lucky as
hell, but also have a much better sense of what I'm capable of in
certain conditions. We were all forced to squeeze out our photographic
and journalistic voices through a tight filter.
So, to sum this up in the tradition of academics...If you read between
the lines there are some points of advice in this email for future
- Be in contact with past Hearst people, those you trust, and contacts
within the city.
- Nervous energy can be empowering, but it is not necessary. Focus on
the assignments, on your strenghts, and don't compare yourself to
others. Get at least 5 hours of sleep at night.
- Do not settle for weak images. Shoot, shoot, shoot until you find
what you know works.
- Don't be afraid to take chances, but make sure to do your research.
- Really enjoy the experience. It is one of a kind!
I'll post some images soon, after they arrive in the mail. (One of the
photogs burned DVDs for me from his computer).