Tales of Birth and Rebirth

Back in the days when the American West was wild and untamed, young men would traverse the country to prove themselves and older men would undertake the journey to reinvent themselves. The lure of a new life and better opportunities drew men to cross the continent into unknown territory. In North Dakota, the promise and the lure of the American West live on.

Young men come here to kickstart their lives while older men come to begin anew. And, just like in the days of yore, the women either remain at home or follow in support. Instead of homesteading in log cabins and traveling in covered wagons, the modern day pioneers come by pickup and find lodging in all manner of trailer – from tiny things barely larger than a walk-in closet to monstrous fifth wheel trailers that are larger than my first apartment.

Regardless of what size trailer someone may inhabit, everyone has a story to tell. Everyone. They share it with the willingness and ease of a policeman giving directions to an old lady. Some almost wear it on their shirt like a badge of honor.

young man and girlfriend in North Dakota

There was Scott from Maine who had a thriving business until the economic crash. He managed to hang on for a few years until he finally had no choice but to close up shop and give up everything he’d worked so hard for. He found rebirth in North Dakota as a drilling rig worker.

Then there’s 23 year old Kami with her tales of sex abuse, a mean ex-husband, cancer of the pituitary glands, and relentless physical abuse from her foster parent that she suffers from epilepsy. Hard work is her savior and steadying hand.

Welder from Williston North Dakota

Or twenty something Chad from Northern Michigan where good jobs are as scarce as the trees are plentiful. North Dakota was his escape from an unappetizing future of $10 per hour jobs.

These guys are tough. Hard workers. No messing around here. One wrong move on an oil rig and lives are lost. At the end of the night, the guys take taxi’s home from the bar because a DUI will mean the end of their time here. Pot smoking is verboten with all of the drug testing. More than that though,  these guys are here to work. This isn’t summer camp; this is about buckling down and making money so that when the time is right, they can move up or out.

Truck driver, Williston North Dakota

Still, there’s an underlying vulnerability here that, perhaps because I’m a photographer whose method and goal is to connect, is shared so readily. Whatever the reason, I’ve learned so much here that I can’t help be touched and changed. I came here expecting a wild west of testosterone gone rampant. What I have found instead is a story much more tender and inspiring.

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Like every other new arrival to Williston, I’ve come here to seek my fortune. To be sure few come here with an eye to get rich quick. Instead, it’s with the hope to draw a steady paycheck and live out the American dream of bettering one’s place in life. Though the fortune I seek comes in the form of photos, not an immediate paycheck, I feel a kinship with all the other migrant souls who have gathered here.

That sense of kinship is not necessarily reciprocal however. Upon rolling into town yesterday, our first thoughts were to find a place to park my camper van for the coming nights. There’s not much by way of campgrounds in this town to start with and a couple of calls revealed that they were full. What we didn’t know is that every campsite in every campground is spoken for either by full-time residents or those who leave for the Winter but hang onto it so as not to lose it come Springtime.

Our first stop was the Buffalo Springs campground a couple of miles north of town. Although they’d claimed they were full when we called, I figured we should check it out all the same. In driving through, we discovered a small village of fifth wheel trailers and their long term inhabitants. After connecting with a few friendly folk, we continued our way down the road, but not before I secured my first photos of the trip.

Life at the Buffalo Springs Campground, Williston, North Dakota

A couple of miles later, we pulled into a much larger and even more bereft of landscaping trailer-filled parking lot. Tulsi, my companion and one-woman support crew, checked in with the office to see if there might be a spot for us road weary travelers. No luck.

As we stood outside our parked van and I snapped photos of the site’s playground, Bill, the trailer park manager, came out to let us know that we needed to move on since my van sat in reserved spot, though its occupant had yet to return from his winter hiatus. Bill’s underlying message though came through loud and clear, “You liberals from California aren’t welcome here.” My long hair and California license plate told him all he needed to know about us.

That was fine by me, but Bill wasn’t done with us yet so the lecture carried on. After a little bit of cajoling and passionate discourse with him about my desire to document the lives and work of the oil field’s men and women, he flipped course and offered to let us stay for a couple of days – no charge.

But my moments of confrontation weren’t over. Just as my conversation with Bill trailed off, two obviously angry and itching for a fight women demanded to know what I was doing taking pictures of their children. Knowing that I wasn’t going to win any arguments with angrily protective momma bears, I showed them the photos and explained the goals of my visit. By the time we finished talking, all was well and my request to photograph one of the women’s family was accepted, though not without the usual grudging ode to female vanity.

Family, Williston, North Dakota

Later that night, we traipsed off in search of a bar. Meeting people for me is the key and I figured that there’s no better place than late night over a beer. Walking into Champs Bar with my Nikon D3s over my shoulder, the bartender immediately instructed me, “No photos.” No problem.

On my way out, a burly, menacing looking guy asked what I was doing with the camera. Last call was over and it was the end of the night – just about fighting time. My first thought was this guy is looking to cause some trouble. I suppose he could have been but in the end, we talked about my project and life in the oil fields. Before I drove off in to return to my new, temporary home in the plains of North Dakota, I photographed him in the headlights of my camper van.

After returning to the driver’s seat, he approached my window where this tough character continued the conversation. He asked me to hold out my index finger. Wrapping his burly fingers around my vulnerable digit, he pulled my hand to his face where he pushed my finger to his cheek. There I felt the smashed bones of his cheekbone as he explained that’s where he’d been shot back at home in the unforgiving streets of the Bronx.

Just like in the days of old, a new life awaits in the American West.

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In the American West

Years ago, I had the opportunity to take a week long workshop with renowned celebrity and portrait photographer Mark Seliger. He’d been cajoled and ultimately convinced by a friend to teach at the Santa Fe Workshops in New Mexico. Teaching proved not to be his thing so, as far I know, that workshop proved to be his first and last.

No matter. We hit it off okay and, like a skilled surfer knowing which swells to catch, I managed to be in the right spot at the right time whenever he went off on some unscripted and impromptu teaching exercise. It was in one of those moments that, in retrospect, changed me profoundly. In the midst of a torpid afternoon where motivation waned in the desert heat, he asked if I wanted to go into town with him to check out some stuff. How could I say no?

Off we scampered to some upscale peddler of southwestern objet de art situated in the heart of old Santa Fe. At the time I was a struggling and quite poor photographer; I vividly remember him just pointing at various furnishings and decorative antiques typical of a southwestern boutique and asking if they could be wrapped up and shipped to New York. That’s how people with money do it I thought.

In the midst of his treasure hunt, he came across a book, grabbed it from the shelf and thrust it into my hands. “Buy this” he matter-of-factly commanded. When Mark Seliger tells you to buy a book, you buy it regardless of how much, or rather how little, cash you have on hand. So I forked over the 50 or so bucks for this plastic sleeved, used 11×14 book of black and white photography.

That book, which I have to this day and will own until the last breath passes through my dying lips, was Richard Avedon’s magnificent book, “In the American West.” Immediately I fell in love with the large format portraits of gritty characters from the small towns and hard-scrabble junctions throughout the western US. His style of direct, simple portraits that connect viewer to subject spoke to my own desire to connect. Without question, Avedon’s influence has shaped the development of my own style over the many years since.

In fact, it’s the reason why  today, as I write these words, I find myself in the passenger seat of my trusty 1988 Ford camper van as I head north along the 15 freeway, my home of San Diego hundreds of miles away in the rear view mirror. A small arsenal of cameras and photo equipment fills every nook not occupied by food or clothes. My destination, the town of Williston North Dakota, is still a couple of days driving ahead. In this unlikely destination lies my own “In the American West:” My opportunity to create a body of work in the spirit of the master and leave my own imprint upon the world.

Williston, for those who may not know, is the center of a an oil boom taking place in North Dakota. Though most regions over the past five years have shed jobs faster and further than a streaker can drop his pants, the oil drilling fields of North Dakota have created more jobs than there are men available to fill them. The result is a migration of fortune seekers to a region that’s become the embodiment of a modern day wild west. A black gold rush town where men work hard, rogues cause trouble, and the women are scarce – except for the prostitutes who are all too easy to find.

Well, so I’ve heard anyhow. I’m about to find out.

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Notes on Photographing the Coachella Music Festival

This past weekend I took the opportunity to attend and photograph the three day Coachella Music Festival in the desert near Palm Springs. I’d wanted to go for the past couple of years to photograph it as part of a book project that I’m working on. Unfortunately, like at many such events, Coachella does not allow the presence of any professional cameras, those being any camera with a detachable lens. That, as you can imagine, presented a bit of a problem.

But I’m nothing if not resourceful. With the blessing of an old magazine art director friend, I applied for a media pass and listed his employer’s magazine as the client in my application. Three weeks ago, much to my elation, I received notice that I’d been approved for a coveted Photo Pass. So off to Coachella I drove my trusty camper van, presumably covering the event for a fairly prestigious magazine. (They’re actually happy to run the photos so it all works out.)

Girl Sprays Water on Dancing Crowd at Coachella Music Festival

The Do Lab at Coachella

Having a photo pass is no blank check nor all access pass however. It allows the bearer to bring in photo equipment, rest their weary feet in the small but welcome press area and enter the photo pit for the first three songs of every performance. Three songs and out is the rule. No backstage nor VIP.

Now most of the press there was working for either news services or music blogs – of which there are no shortage. You could usually tell the music blog photographers since they were the ones with a digital Rebel and a kit lens. The newspaper and wires service pros tended to be weighed down by way too much gear in the form of multiple bodies, various bags strapped to their waists and, for the hard core music photographers, a small stepping stool clipped to a bag with a carabiner. These folks worked hard because, unlike me, they actually had clients to please and tight deadlines to meet.

Press pit at the Coachella Music Festival

I, on the other hand, had no specific responsibilities – other than to myself. My self-assignment was to tell the story of the event. Who are the people, what are they doing, what does it look like and where does it all take place. I wanted to capture the tastes, the smells and the sounds of attending this yearly touchstone of youth culture – no easy task using a tool that that only records what the eyes see – and only a small portion of that at best. Where most of the other pros were focused on getting a great shot of whomever was performing, my camera was primarily focused on the people behind me – on the crowd pushed up against the security barrier.

One of the biggest challenges for me, and one that I’m not sure I overcame, was to avoid the cliche shots of the eager crowds. Yes, I desired to show the excited masses, but I also looked for something more. Something that tells a story that’s both real and unexpected.

Man dancing to electronic music at Coachella 2013

Part of the challenge is the Uncertainty Principle as applied to photography. As quantum physicists have discovered, an observer can never actually know the exact speed and position of a subatomic particle because the very act of observation changes either the speed or position of the particle being observed. So too is it with photography. The very attempt to document something changes it. The closer and more immediate my presence, the greater the impact that I have on the unfolding reality. This is a real problem for a documentarian like me who is constantly in search of real moments.

One solution, and the solution leaned upon by most photographers, is to use a long lens to pull the action in to the photographer and allow him or her to work without imposing themselves upon the scene. I however don’t even own a long lens much less have much desire to use one. Instead, my optical tool of choice is the moderately wide 28mm f1.8 lens. I like it because it gives me more angle of view than the 35mm but without overly wide look of the 24mm. One other benefit of this lens over the 24mm f1.4 (also in my camera bag) is that the tiny AF camera motors aren’t pushing as much glass so it focuses faster – which is super important when working in a dynamic, unpredictable environment where moments come and go often faster than this photographer can document.

Ultimately though, I’m a wide angle photographer through and through. I love the immediacy that it conveys. The perspective of being three feet from a raging crowd of moshers can’t be conveyed with a long lens from the fringes of the crowd. The flip side is that being in close to a testosterone-high ring of buffed young men is not without its risks. As I tracked backward in the mosh pit, camera to my nose, I was sure that a fast moving elbow was going to whack my camera and bust my nose. I took special care to make sure that my nose wasn’t actually pressed against the camera body so that when the blow came, the supraorbital ridge of my skull would take the smack. Fortunately, that never came to pass.

Mosh pit at the Coachella Music Festival

Mosh pit during the Social Distortion set

Though my forehead never took a beating, the rest of my body did. Three days of being on my feet marching from venue to venue left my back in spasms, and the soles of my feet sore to the point that I was limping by the end of the second day. Though I might participate in the culture of youth, I am far from one myself.

In the end, I feel like I got what I came for – to a point, though a point not entirely under my control. Actually, it’s control that is the problem. Coachella is incredibly tightly controlled. Access is restricted. Security is everywhere. There is alcohol but good luck getting to it. The alcohol fueled madness of other events that I’ve covered just isn’t there, for better or worse. Though the smell of pot often wafted through the air, it’s not a drug that lends itself to out of control behavior and the ensuing photos. (For a sample of what out-of-control looks like, check out my Lake Havasu slide show.)

Then there’s the event itself. Music, pounding, blasting, thumping, energy inducing music is everywhere. Being able to see and hear bands ranging from Modest Mouse to Vampire Weekend was a real treat.

More than anyone else though, I looked forward to seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform. Even the cynical LA music industry guys I met agreed that Nick Cave a bad ass. To photograph him from the photo pit, you had to be approved by his publicist. Somehow, I made that list. I was positively giddy when he walked on stage, his intensity preceding him like a fuzzy spotlight. The music thundered and his voice boomed. Watching Nick Cave deliver all of his energy and focus to a performance is like watching an earthquake unfold.

Nick Cave performing at the Coachella Music Festival

Nick Cave

We were only allowed to photograph one song instead of the usual three. As we were shooed off by security, Cave said, “Goodbye.” No other band even acknowledged us photographers so, surprised, I turned to look at him. He was looking at me. I waved. Gave him the thumbs up and a “you rock.” He just followed my gaze.

Afterward I pushed my way into the crowd and just took in wall of sound created by his band. The clad in black group of backup singers, violinists, cellos, guitar, organ, guitar and drum was by far the loudest all weekend. I soon saw why he only allowed the press for one song. Once we were out of the way, he leaped down from the stage, went to the crowd and began walking on top of the fans as he sang. Yeah, Nick Cave has been and always will be a bad ass.

Nick Cave at Coachella

Nick Cave

The Red Hot Chili Peppers closed out the final night. Back when I was in college, I’d seen them perform in the small downstairs pub at the university. The venue held maybe 100 people amidst the chairs, tables and pitchers of beer. The band was still knee deep in their punk rock roots; socks over their penises were their only clothing. Their performance and the crowd’s drunken dancing made for a raucous night, though we chalked up the next morning’s newspaper reports of rioting at the show to ignorance of the fact that a mosh pit is not in and of itself a civil disturbance. (Back then the term “mosh pit” didn’t even exist since the whole concept was so new.)

Since then, the Chili Peppers have gone mainstream and bores me to tears. I stuck around for one song and then bid my farewell to Coachella. I’d ridden my bike from one of the far lots – nearly a mile away. Getting to it was a long enough walk for my weary feet so, when I saw that both of my bike’s tires were flat,  only a resigned “aw fuck” passed through my lips. Walking quickly to stay in front of the ever increasing flow of departing festival goers, I pushed my bike along the dirt roads and dead grassy fields back to my waiting van.

Here’s my slide show of images from the weekend. For best results, open it full screen as I posted it in high-res. Enjoy!

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What Do You Do When a Client Asks You to Match Another Photographer’s Price?

There you are, enjoying your morning coffee when your email program pings with a message from a wedding client with whom you’d met the week before. Your heart jumps a little as you hope that they’re sharing their decision to book with you. Instead, you read  something that goes like this:

Hi Photographer Frankie:

We really love your work and want to hire you, but we met with this other photographer in town and they have offered us all day coverage, two photographers, a 24×36 print from our engagement session and a photo album for $499. If you can match that price, we will hire you.

Thanks, Cheapo Client

You’ve been sent the dreaded price-matching email. Ugh.

Before I go into how to respond, let me first suggest that you don’t take this personally. Although this is irritating, avoid getting angry at the client or telling them to get lost. Even though this is your work and your time being discussed here, you’re a business to the eyes of the buying public. That being the case, it’s not unfair to expect people to make economic decisions when it comes to hiring you. Just take a deep breath, vent with a friend or significant other and focus on responding in a positive, professional manner.

The good news here is that the client prefers your work. If they liked the other guy’s work, they’d have hired that person on the spot. So any response that we send should focus on the lifetime value of owning your work over this cut-rate competitor. Here’s what I would respond with:

Dear Cheapo Client:

Thanks for your email expressing your interest in booking my services! I understand that the other photographer is offering you what seems to be a good deal, but their package is missing one crucial ingredient. It doesn’t include me!

It doesn’t include my work, my photographic vision, my (amazing) personality nor my passion for creating work that will make you laugh, cry and reminisce long after after you’ve forgotten about the extra money you spent. Now, if their quote included me in it, I’d be happy to match it. Since it doesn’t, I’ll have to stick with the rate I quoted you – which I’d like to think is still a great deal!

Photographer Frankie

When this topic comes up, I often hear photographers suggest that the respondent should go into some long-winded response about how special their work is, mention their long years of experience, the fact that the other photographer’s pricing is not sustainable or explain why the costs of running a business don’t allow her to cut their prices. None of that will connect with the client though so just don’t even go there.

One common response that I hear from photographers is, “If you can’t tell the difference, then you should hire the other guy.” Whether you realize it or not, this is just a big “go screw yourself” to the potential client. Any chance you had of booking the client, and there’s still a good chance here, will disappear with this response.  Also, avoid denigrating the other photographer in any way. Putting others down is never a good idea; it ultimately just makes you look petty and negative.

Focus on the Positive
The key to your response should be that YOU are the special ingredient and that they will love YOUR work for years to come. Yes, they may save some money in the short run, but that savings will be meaningless if they don’t have photos that they love.

It’s also helpful to keep the conversation going and not entirely close the door to concessions. You can add a line to the effect that, “If you’re interested, please call me so that we can discuss tailoring my services to meet your financial needs.” You’re not agreeing to cut your price here; you’re just opening the door to further negotiations – be they just changing their package around or some sort of deal. Sometimes closing the deal involves just tossing something in to make the feel like the client got a deal. Regardless of what you decide, it never hurts to keep the door open to negotiation.

There is of course no guarantee that the client will come back. Sometimes, they’re just fishing for a bottom-dollar deal and not really appreciative of your work. Whether they do or they don’t ultimately book, by keeping things positive and focused on the unique value that you bring to your clients, you can move the conversation from price and keep your head held high.

John Mireles

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Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight

Today, I worked with a relatively new photographer looking for advice on how to move forward with his business. After discussing a pretty wide range of topics – from his website to building his portfolio to what gear to use – he shared with me his feelings of being overwhelmed by all the work and uncertainty that lay ahead of him. That and my critique of his presentation left him a little down. Depressed even.

I can understand that. We didn’t have much time together so I just cut to the chase and didn’t smooth out the edges of my feedback and advice. It’s tough to hear harsh words that reinforce our fears about the future and insecurities in our work. Believe me, I feel the pain of rejection and failure as deeply as anyone. There’s definitely days when I just feel like a hack photographer who should just give it all up.

But then I remember something an old friend told me back in our rock climbing days: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” We’re all going to get knocked down, but as long as we keep getting up, we’ll eventually succeed. It’s a simple formula but not one without pain.

Pain however is essential to achieve success. When I think about the work that it takes to succeed, I take comfort in the J Curve. Yes, call me a geek, but this little graphical illustration often helps me to keep pushing when I question whether I’m moving in the right direction.

The J Curve

Basically, what it shows is that in the beginning, profit – be that profit of money, pleasure,  results etc – always dips in the beginning. Always. At the beginning of any endeavor, that’s where the hard work comes in. The blood, sweat and tears. Keep at it though and then the  curve begins to head upward as all that effort pays off.

The opposite of the J Curve, an inverted J Curve, is what’s sometimes referred to as the Curve of Addiction. This is where the individual seeks pleasure from the beginning without doing the hard work. The pleasure is always short-lived however and then negative consequences result. Drug use is a classic example. So too is squandering an inheritance or other asset. (Ignore the labels on the illustration below.)

Inverted J Curve

The key here is that once we realize that hard work and sacrifice are always necessary, then we can plan for it, accept it and even welcome it. The pain of failure is necessary to enjoy the fruits of success.

This brings up another point. If we know the challenges that we must overcome in our quest for success, we can plan for them. For example, if we know that we must overcome ten mountains on our quest to climb Mt. Everest, we won’t feel so discouraged when we hit that first mountain. It’s just part of the plan. To put this in the context of your photography business, if you know that you need to call ten clients to get a meeting with one, you know that every rejection is bringing you closer to your goal.

Never judge someone’s insides by what they show on the outside.
When it comes to photography, truer words have never been spoken. It’s so easy for us to look at “successful” photographers and judge them based upon what they show on the outside. Some just make it look so easy. Their Facebook page always shows them having fun with fellow hipster photographers. Their website is filled with wonderful images of beautiful people. If only we could be more like them.

But we don’t know what’s going on inside. We don’t know the hard work, sacrifice and self-doubt that this person is experiencing. Yet we judge ourselves according to this often unattainable facade that they show. Depression and futility often follow. Just know that every photographer working today is dealing with the exact same issues that you are.

That “rock star photographer” is offering workshops not necessarily because of their love of teaching, but most likely because their actual photography business isn’t doing as well as they’d prefer. Believe me, if many of those hotshot photographers were as successful as they lead us to believe, they wouldn’t be doing workshops. Just something to consider as you compare your insides to their outsides. (One day, when I get around to doing another workshop, this statement will come back to bite me in the ass.)

Persistence and Determination Alone Are Omnipotent
To close out my consultation with my budding photographer client, I shared a story from early in my career. Not long after I began doing paid work, I learned of a portfolio review with photographer’s representatives put on by the American Photographic Artists in LA. After signing up, I spent the last of my meager cash putting together what I thought would be a can’t-miss portfolio for the event. I figured that some rep would love my work and then I’d be shooting big-budget ad campaigns before I knew it.

That didn’t happen. They just smiled and passed on me. So I returned the next year with a better portfolio. Nothing. I skipped a year but the next year produced no better results. Determined, I poured my heart, soul, money and creativity into shooting the most amazing body of work that I could think of. I’d been fortunate enough to win one of the most prestigious awards in commercial photography (Communication Arts Photo Annual) so my confidence was high as I created what I was sure was a fantastic portfolio that was sure to make them all swoon with rapturous love for my work.

The results however were not what I’d hoped for. My work was ripped apart. My award winning image was pretty much insulted. Through it all I fumed. Driving back home that evening, I damn near cried. I’d given that book my all. A year’s worth of work and nothing to show for it. I felt so helpless since I didn’t know where to go from there. I wondered, how could I improve on my best work? I received no consoling words or thoughts in response. Depressed thoughts took hold.

Funny thing happened though… after a month or so, I began to look at my work differently. I began to appreciate the rough critique of the portfolio reviewers. Out I kicked the mediocre work. In went new, more interesting work. My spirits returned and I worked harder than ever to prepare my portfolio for the next year (by this time I was a working pro so there were plenty of clients along the way).

When that review came along, I was ready and they were ready for me. Gone were the negative comments. “You’re there” was the feedback. And yes, I landed a rep from that, my final review with APA/LA. Took me years of determined hard work and constantly getting up from rejection, but I did it.

And of course, you can too.

John Mireles

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Portrait Lookbooks on Sale!

Holiday Season is family portrait season so to help you make the most of your family sessions, I’ve put the Lookbook for Infants, Kids and Families on sale. Save nearly 30% from now to the end of the year. Don’t get stuck in the same routine – quickly flip through the pocket-sized Portrait Lookbook for quick inspiration either before or during your shoots.

Portrait Lookbook for Infants Kids and Families. Inspiration and posing guide.


The combo with both Portrait and Wedding combo is also on sale for $30 off. Visit the Photographer’s Toolkit website to order now!

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