Stumbling into Cuba’s History

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©2014 Alex Garcia

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©2014 Alex Garcia

 

News that Cuba and U.S. might finally normalize relations has put my normal plans to a stop today. I can’t stop thinking about my relationship to the island.

Several years ago, before working for the Tribune’s bureau in Havana, I was a photographer in Orange Country for the Los Angeles Times. I had only been there 3-4 years but had a decision to make. I was in my 30’s, realizing that it was now or never if I was ever going to act on a passion to deepen my connection to my father’s homeland. I could ask for a leave of absence for 6 months to pursue a study program in Havana, or leave the paper and do the same. Gratefully, the editor at the time, Colin Crawford, approved my return (those were different days). I knew that if he hadn’t, I was single and could make it on my own – a “Hail Mary” pass.

It was an incredible trip, and if you ever are thinking to yourself whether to pursue a personal project that could interrupt your life, know that it could be now or never. I went as a student and stayed true to that mission by largely foregoing photography in order to forge connections to family that had been dormant for decades because of our governments’ political divide. I wanted to see what I could experience beyond for the typical narratives that you know about the country.

But I stumbled into history twice, completely by accident. The first was not long after I arrived, when it was announced that the remains of Che Guevara would be returned from Bolivia in a procession that would move across the island. His remains would also lie in state in a very small coffin, where thousands of Cubans waited in the longest lines you’ve ever seen to pay their respects. Since then, there was some doubt about whether it was all just a symbolic ceremony.

The second was the visit of Pope John Paul II. All visitors with U.S. passports had to leave the country prior to the visit, but I was able to return for the week-long event with my student visa in order to witness all the positivity in the Catholic community. From a sad and mourning event to one filled with hope and joy. It was an amazing roller-coaster of emotion. In those days, there wasn’t an internet and this was all on film. My pictures have largely never been seen.

A few years later, however, my experience proved invaluable. The Tribune Company won approval to open a bureau on the island and I hopped to it, staying three months.

As a child, I could not understand why I could not visit my family in Cuba. It affected me so much, apparently, that when my grandmother made her one and only visit, I apparently declared I would see them in Cuba.

Years later, when I finally did make the first trip while at the Los Angeles Times, I rolled into my father’s hometown in a Soviet-made Lada taxi. It was dark and I could barely see the people at the end of the sidewalk outside the family home. I heard the voice of my aunt, the one who had accompanied my grandmother on her one and only visit to the U.S.

She said, “When I heard one of our family members in Chicago was coming for a visit, I knew it was you, Alex.”

 

 

 

What Happened to Soldier Field?

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©2014 Alex Garcia

In case you don’t know about the month-long storm on the lakefront, the architect for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art along Chicago’s lakefront released his design last month. Because of its size and other-worldly appearance, it was widely criticized, most notably by Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin, whose unmincing words can be seen below the screen grab of his article, above. The Friends of the Parks has launched a federal lawsuit saying the city and the Park District overstepped their authority – so the whole thing is a mess.

As someone who used to photograph for Kamin’s articles at the Trib, and as someone who passed by Soldier Field many times a week along Lake Shore Drive, what most bothers me is the architect’s illustration you see at top. It’s inaccurate at best, and deceptive at worst.  At bottom is a photo I took from the closest I could get to the same vantage point of the sketch, which was probably from the roof of McCormick Place behind where I was standing.

The sketch completely eliminates the controversial western part of the Soldier Field addition, which is considered the last big architectural mistake by many along the lakefront. It has a spaceship like appearance. What Blair Kamin calls, “Klingon Meets Parthenon”.

Normally when an architect unveils their project, they are anxious to show how they have shaped the building to fit its environment, both functionally and aesthetically. At least that’s been my experience, unless someone wants to avoid an embarrassing project.

In this case, the other-worldly addition to Soldier Field probably accentuated the other-worldly design of the Lucas Museum, feeding criticism that the lakefront was becoming too, well, spacey. The citizens of Chicago probably didn’t need that reminder, or they thought Chicagoans couldn’t handle the truth about the future lakefront.

That, or the spaceship on Soldier Field was getting maintenance done on the morning the sketch artist showed up.

On Chicago’s lakefront, anything’s possible, I guess.

 

 

 

 

13 Signs Your Politics Might be Seeping into Your Journalistic Storytelling

I was almost a social psychology major at Northwestern. It fascinated me, our behavior as social animals. The Bystander Effect and the Milgram Experiment were the kinds of topics that I still think about, years later. What most struck me was cognitive dissonance and groupthink, when we become unaware of the subconscious decisions we take in an attempt to achieve a cohesive narrative about ourselves and others. These two together are particularly troublesome in a newsroom environment. Once a narrative takes hold, others from a newsroom are less likely to challenge the “conventional understanding” – especially if it’s approved by an experienced journalist or editor.  At some point, the prevailing belief becomes an assumption that informs and shapes future narratives.

I read the news too and probably am not the only person to see that my opinions, ideas and beliefs are sometimes summarily dismissed or completely misunderstood. It’s what happens when your worldview is not part of the groupthink narrative. But hey, we’re all human.

So my 13 signs of encroaching politics within the work of journalists are in part based on my observations as a reader. With the lead-up to this week’s Election Day, I thought to have some fun with my very good-natured editorial colleagues:

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7 Ways Experience Makes You a Better Photographer

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All images ©2014 Alex Garcia

It was déjá vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said. I was roaming the campus of my alma mater recently, taking pictures for Northwestern University. Some 25 years ago this very year, I was doing exactly the same thing as the yearbook and newspaper photo editor. It was a trip down memory lane, and I was tickled at the opportunity, which I explored more than once.

What was instructive was just how much more productive I was this time around. As a student, I remember spending waaay too much time trying to find photographs, carrying my camera in desperate hopes of populating the yearbook with beautiful images of campus. It was crazy. The publisher once found me curled up under a table, sleeping in the office after struggling to make deadlines.

10,000 hours of photography later (at least) I was amazed how much easier it was. I was seeing moments left and right – even pictures I could have made 25 years ago but didn’t. My productivity, as measured in volume and creativity, was maybe 10 times that of my days as a student. I shake my head at the reality of the time spent away from my studies and friends.

What did I realize that my experience brought…?

• Improved cost-benefit analysis – I knew not to waste my time with pictures that wouldn’t yield the most impact. With experience, you have a sense of the best picture that can be achieved by chasing down a bunny trail, and the cost of doing so. There’s only so much quality light you have to work with, and only so much time to wait for a situation to ripen into a fruitful photograph. You know when tremendous patience is warranted, and when tremendous impatience is warranted.

• Accumulated visual memory – Partly what your cost-benefit analysis is based on is your memory of your pictures in similar situations, but also your memory of pictures taken by others. If there are some factors coming into play that you recognize as being rare and unusual, you’re quicker to jump on them to come closer to images that you have been inspired by or found before. With more visual memory, comes more visual inspiration and more excitement to share.

• Techniques – If you want to read about how to get blood from a turnip, read my post about How to Make a Boring Situation Interesting. I toggle through the various options in my mind to make the most in front of me. The more you practice them, the faster you get.

• Problem-solving – If you’re the kind of person who gives up easily, gets flustered, or has a propensity for powerlessness, I can’t imagine you’ll do well in photography. Photography is all about problem-solving, with all the technical, logistical and interpersonal barriers that throw themselves your way. Even if you text someone desperately with more experience, “HOW SHOULD I SOLVE THIS?” they won’t be able to tell you. You have to find ways to deal with issues that are consistent with your own make-up and resources, which no one can tell you how to do.

• Previsualization – Previsualization isn’t just a one-and-done thing that happens before a shoot. It also happens during your shoot, where you are spotting changing circumstances and previsualizing (with cost-analysis and accumulated memory) where the next best shot will be. Generally, the more you practice this, the better you get. Otherwise, you can end up chasing your tail, missing moments that could have happened because you weren’t prepared for them when they sailed by you.

• Mistake avoidance – When you drive down a road many times, you know where the potholes are, where the kids randomly cross the street, where the red light cameras are and where the birds love to dive-bomb cars.  It’s the same as a photographer. With painful mistakes comes mistake avoidance. You know what catastrophic issues can arise, and you prepare for them – humbled by experience. It sometimes takes the pain of a mistake you’ve outlived to avoid repeating.

• Maturity – One of the things I’ve observed is that you get better access to situations when people trust you and learn to let you do your thing. Generally, people watch you and the decisions you make, and make judgments about your ability and skills. They watch how you cope with disappointment and with exertions of power that come to your expense. It’s just the way it is. With more experience comes more maturity (well, ideally) and people respond to that. You’re worth their time and investment, and doors can open with that trust.

All this is why why many professional photographers are counseled not to charge per hour, but per a creative fee. Your efficiency and productivity can’t be measured by time. It’s measured by your creative output, which significantly increases with experience. How can you compare hourly rates among photographers of vastly different experience and talent?

All the experience that photographers gather through their work is incremental, such that you may not even realize it.

Yet it’s very real, and translates into substantial value for those who invest in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upcoming Talk at the Michigan Avenue Apple Store

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I’m delighted to say that APA Chicago has asked me to speak as part of their regular photographer talks at the Apple Store. I’ll be talking about visual storytelling, both in an editorial and a commercial context, and what that means for photographers looking to connect with their audiences. I’ll be there for two hours on Monday, Oct. 20th from 7-9pm. For more details, please go to the APA Chicago website. Please mark it on your calendars!

Enjoying Redmoon and the Fire Festival

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(All images ©Alex Garcia and protected by the Incredible Hulk)

 

For me, the Redmoon Theater is like hot sauce. Everday life is better with it. I’ve always felt that way, even before being asked to be part of their official photo team this year. Their what’s-going-to-happen-next creativity and in-every-neighborhood orientation gives such flavor to the civic life of Chicago.  My designated spot was the lower Michigan Avenue bridge, shooting eastward down Chicago River towards the lake. There was such a build-up to the houses being consumed by fire that I could understand that many people were disappointed by the lack of a cathartic burn. At a live event, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s unpredictable. It keeps you on your seat, better than live television. Yet to me, the ultimate joy of such an event is just being among other Chicagoans from all over the city, feeling connected across divisions that keep people apart.  It’s why my favorite part of the show, a part that many missed because they left too soon, was seeing faces of Chicagoans floating down the river. All of the faces were of people who had surmounted obstacles in their lives, and all were connected to an event that aimed to celebrate a city that has and will overcome obstacles as well.

 

We’re All Media Companies Now

If you’re paying attention to the industry, you’ll notice something very interesting. Media companies are behaving a lot like photographers.

They’re expanding beyond their core business to leverage existing talents and skill-sets.

They’re giving workshops, entering the event industry and selling ebooks. They’re soliciting marketing clients with their finessed communication abilities.

They’re slashing overhead, aligning with existing video companies or expanding their own video production abilities.

They’re outsourcing production (in photographers’ cases, post-production) to other businesses in order to focus on their core business.

They’re aligning with competitors to reduce expenses of printing newspapers, in the same way that photojournalists are collectivizing to share overhead expenses.

What next, weddings?

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