"I Trust You"

Every storyteller hopes to hear this sentence from their subject. It's honestly better than winning any award. I heard that from my 30-day final story subject Jessica while frantically cross-checking my notes with them on the phone last night and it's still ringing between my ears.

We hope that we can convince our "subject" to allow us to insert our presence into their lives to document them living by, from, or for causes. Some photographers show their past work or research to show their expertise. Others can sweet talk their way into a story but can back up sweet talk with strong work. I definitely felt like I was 0-2 going into my 30-day story.

Working with Jessica was great because they allowed me to be close in terms of distance and personal connection. Nothing was off the table to discuss or inquire. One of the issues that I had in my previous story assignment was that I tried too hard to be physically close without first becoming personally close. I never felt so welcomed to photograph parts of someone and I ultimately hope I did them justice for the snippet of their life I was with them.

The hardest part about this story, though, was figuring out what exactly I wanted to say based on the pictures I had. My entire pitch revolved around them being poly and showing multiple partners, but I had to reconfigure my story last Thursday after learning that one of my subject's partners was no longer in the relationship and hadn't been for a few weeks. While it was a bit frustrating, hitting the drawing board was extremely helpful because it showed a different layer of what it means to be polyamorous: how one maintains their identity when they don't completely fit the mold.

I've never worked on a truly concept-driven story, so it was a challenge editing something that addresses a subjective topic like identity and what it means to a person. I had so many questions that I wanted to answer, but it was difficult at times to make sure that I answered my questions without opening room for more questions. I think the images do a good job of showing who they are at this moment, but I'm very excited to revisit Jessica as a subject or another topic within non-traditional relationships.

Thank you so much, Jessica, for trusting me.

The images:

MU senior Jessica Duncan puts on their makeup before getting dressed for class on November 30, 2016.

Jessica, bottom right, lays with their partner, Celty Shea, center and Shea’s partner, Angel Beck, bottom left, during a game of Jenga on November 23, 2016. The trio forms a “polycule,” a type of polyamorous relationship where a person can have multiple partners but the partners do not have to be in a romantic relationship.

Jessica cleans their hands after baking on November 22, 2016. The easiest way Jessica finds to describe polyamory is through a puzzle piece. “Every piece can connect to other pieces that can connect to other pieces,” Duncan says. 

Jessica plays with their dogs as their mother, Jennifer Rogers, tries to speak with them on December 3, 2016. Jessica describes their mother’s reaction to them coming out as non-binary and polyamorous in 2015 as “stronger than disbelief.” The two often communicate but Rogers “refuses to acknowledge my pronouns or identity,” according to Jessica.

Jessica, right, watches as floats go by with their roommate Kristin Vela, center right, and friend Oliver Gram, center, during the Jaycees Christmas Parade in Jefferson City, Missouri on December 3, 2016. Many of Duncan’s closest friends are poly, which they (Jessica) consider another family when they don’t feel accepted by their actual family. 

Jessica and Celty hold hands as Celty goes home after a night out on December 12, 2016. The two started dating in July 2016 after Celty, a transgender woman, introduced themselves to Duncan at a gender identity discussion group social. “Celty can be really cocky, especially about cooking,” Duncan says. “But she’s also just as caring.”

Jessica heads out to start their day on November 30, 2016.

On Anne Lamont's "Broccoli"

This post is a bit late and past deadline (apologies, Rita), but I think this reading assignment speaks a bit more to me today having a bit of retrospect.

Lamont spends section two of "Bird by Bird" talking about how we relate to the people we write about and the level of attachment we have towards them. She argues that all documenting has a moral point, whether that is to question one person's morality or society at large's morality towards a subject. She spends a great deal of time emphasizing the importance of passionately caring for the stories we invest our time in while also being appreciative of those that let us document their lives. There should be something you want to convey to your audience but theres also a certain amount of dignity that our subjects have that we have to preserve.

I spent the first couple years of college wondering why we spend so much time wanting to work on stories. It'd be scary for a subject to allow you to insert yourself into their life and document your actions. How does someone force themselves to be "natural" around you or to forget that you're around?

I haven't come up with a definite answer, but I think part of it is allowing yourself as the photographer to open up parts of who you are to show some sort of of humanness or that you're also vulnerable. Access for my 30-day story consisted of spending two weeks waiting and talking to Celty so that she would be comfortable around me. I shared a lot about myself that some of my friends don't know but it felt important so that I could show how invested I am in them and who they are as people.

Jessica and their friends often joke about me occasionally "taking my photographer hat off" when I'm with them to show that I'm not this exploitive figure. I'll sometimes hold a conversation with Jessica or their friends when together when something of interest comes up in conversation or if there's a lull in the time that I'm around. I don't do anything that would disrupt how they naturally live, but I appreciate those small moments to ask questions and better understand this world that I don't fully understand. Stories about a culture or subculture require some communication from those members of it so that I don't misconstrue or mistake a moment.

Lamont also spends time talking about how we should trust our intuition when it comes to telling or showing the truth in a situation. That trust comes from having the confidence that you'll be ready when pictures emerge even in times where moments don't always appear in front of you, but that confidence comes from your preparation and stored up knowledge on the people or ideas you're documenting.

As my 30-day story continually changes for every situation that I'm in, it changes how I photograph. I have an idea of the images that I'm looking for, but I guess I've spent enough time being immersed into this poly community that I don't think about the "checklist" or what someone else may photograph. I realized that the people I'm photographing allowed me to be in their lives because of who I am, so I can only show who they are in the only way that I personally can. My intuition hasn't failed me yet on this story, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it's because of my subject and the people in their lives allowing me to do so.

30-Day Story Works in Progress III

I don't have too much to visually share, but I think I finally narrowed down the question of this story that I'm trying to answer.

I unfortunately found out that Jessica and Lydia had a split up a few days ago. From a personal perspective, it makes you upset to hear something like that happened, but I have to keep my journalist hat on and document this new frontier in their life. The direction of the story will inevitably change, but I think I found a way around the situation.

I copied this from my noted and it's a bit stream of consciousness, so hopefully this makes sense:

Question: What does it mean to be poly when there's only one partner?

How to look at it:
1. Polycule - multiple partners but they don't all have to be dating each other
2. How does life differ when having one partner as opposed to multiple partners at a time?
3. How does a poly person combat this/what does that mean to them?
4. Who are the key players in their life? What effect do these people have on our main character?
5. What are some of the perceptions "mono" people have of a poly relationship?
6. What limitations does a poly identity have on everyday life?

The last few days have been hectic with classes and another story, but I'll have more pictures to share on my deadline day on the 14th.

30-Day Story Works-in-Progress II

"How exactly does someone photograph a polyamorous relationship?" I've heard this question for the better part of the last few months. Yes, I know, the lead image doesn't scream "poly," but I'll get to that a bit later.

My curiosity on the subject started after I took a queer culture class fall 2015, which turned into a curiosity of sorts on what this hidden world looks like (or doesn't). The class made me wonder what exactly defines the bounds of someone's love. But it also made me wonder about the folks that can't be or aren't as open about their relationships that deviate from the norm and how those folks find ways to be who they are and blend into society.

Jessica Duncan is a senior and psychology student at MU that I met back in March 2016 through a magazine writing student also curious about polyamorous relationships. Jessica (who goes by they/them pronouns) came out as non-binary and poly in 2013 and "hasn't looked back since." They're in what's considered a "polycule," where someone is in a or multiple relationships with partners who also have partners, but the primary person can or doesn't have to date their partner's partners. For those of you at home keeping score, that's a lot to take in, so consider it like a puzzle piece: every piece has ends that connect to other pieces and those other pieces can connect to others. It's a bit confusing, and in a way, I have to routinely remind myself how it works so that I can stay focused.

Jessica is involved in two polycules: one in Columbia with their partner Celty, a transgender woman, and Celty's partner, Angel, a transgender man, as well as a one in Fort Collins, Colorado with their partner Lydia and Lydia's partner, Everett, a transgender man. Lydia and Everett lived in Columbia during their time at MU but recently moved in the summer for work.

I've photographed Jessica for the last couple weeks and I'm slowly realizing what it means to truly have access. Even though I started this work in March, I made sure to keep in contact when I could to check in and continue building a trusting relationship with Jessica, and it's easier to do that when the people you photograph have a genuine interest in your cause. I made it a point to develop some sort of relationship with everyone in their world I've come across thus far and it's helped to build trust. Hopefully that trust can continue on as I keep working on this.

So, what exactly does it mean to photograph polyamorous relationships, you ask? I'll be the first to say that it's far from some of our monogamous ideas of hypersexualization or cheating. I noticed that first and foremost, a polyamorous relationship requires a lot of communication and cooperation with every party involved so that no one's left out. No one shares a piece of the love pie, if you will, but rather that everyone can be a whole pie, but a different flavor. Every partner's important in different and similar ways. I think I found that during Jessica's "friendsgiving" celebration (seen below) with how they, Celty and Angel interact, but I'm hoping to find more of those subtle intimate moments that show love in a different, more metaphorical way. It's still the beginning and there's a lot more to photograph, but I think I'll find my way.

"Two Votes to Stay In"

Missouri Tigers offensive linemen Connor McGovern, center, and Evan Boehm, right, carry head coach Gary Pinkel off the field after the Tigers lost to the Tennessee Volunteers 19-8 on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri. It was the last home game for Pinkel, who had announced his retirement due to lymphoma the week before.

©2015 Timothy Tai/Mizzou Athletics
No, this isn't my picture (I was on the opposite side and missed the moment), but it was one of the select pictures chosen as one of the best sports feature pictures by a college photographer on Thursday. CPOY is one of my favorite and most nerve-racking times of the semester, and the stills side of the competition always moves by quicker than you think.

The timing of the competition definitely snuck up on me even though we at Mizzou had the dates in front of us before other students, however, it couldn't be at a better time. CPOY comes right after the Missouri Photo and Eddie Adams Workshops, so I feel as if the last month has been a wonderful visual and social media overload of other students' great work.

I'm always amazed by the different perspectives the judges bring to the table. Unlike Pictures of the Year International where different judges come based on the category, we have the same four judges for every category during CPOY. This means that the work you submit needs to have that extra oomph to transcend multiple visual backgrounds.

I've entered work every year I've been at Mizzou and this year entered work for the Sports Portfolio category. The format is simple, yet daunting: submit eight of your best sports pictures (that cohesively work together when sequenced), wave a roll of Tri-X film over your head and say a prayer that the judges see your vision.

I made the second round of voting before missing the next cut by a vote, but when the judging for the category ended, I couldn't have been happier. Why? Nothing beat realising that I know the photographers that placed and that, yeah, their portfolios were better. I'm not exactly fishing for a silver lining, but I noticed little details that made their work stand out more. It's an awesome learning experience that comes at a small cost of your time to enter work you already felt was strong.

The effect CPOY has on me changes year by year in that the expectations I have for the pictures submitted. Being in the room during judging becomes a badge of honor because we Mizzou students see everything from start to finish and have the chance to pick the judges brains on some of the more thought-provoking/controversial pictures. We're pretty fortunate to host the competition here and it's definitely cool to be bombarded with messages from other students that entered work asking you to catch them up on their category's judging.

With judging for the still division ending Sunday, I'm excited to see what else comes through for the other categories. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to to what I do after every CPOY: frantically re-edit my portfolio through the wee hours of the night.

Practice what You Preach

I had the pleasure of spending the last three weeks working on my character/job profile for my capstone. Rebecca Mulford is the lead pastor at Pleasant Grove Methodist Church in Hatton, Missouri and is a single mom to her 9-year-old son, Nate.

A "city-girl" from Kansas City, Missouri, Mulford began her pastoral career in Vienna, Missouri in 2013 and was relocated to Pleasant Grove in 2014 by the Missouri United Methodist Conference. Her schedule revolves around her child, congregation and community, but she uses her faith to guide her everyday life.

Laid to Rest: A One-Day Picture Story

Some of you all have seen a picture or two from photographing my friend Tyler Romaker's funeral on 7 September, but I finally have a tightened edit for my capstone one-day story. I'm not too sure of the next time I'll shoot something that I have so much connection to the subject, but I won't forget it for quite some time.

I decided that I wanted to show how this funeral affected Tyler's parents and siblings. Doing that in 6-8 pictures is difficult, but I think I was able to create an arc around the event. I would be remissed if I didn't thank his family for allowing me to even be there and to shoot a time that's as devastating as losing a child/sibling at 22 years old. I initially wanted to shoot this and Tyler's candlelight vigil as coping mechanisms for myself, but they willingly let me photograph them at a time when they were most vulnerable.

It's interesting to assess how a set of pictures feel after you allow them to "age" over time. Looking at the pictures a month later, the pictures are more of a shock of reality to me that my friend is actually gone.

I cried a lot that day, but the moments that I get frustrated with "missing pictures" from the shoot are gone. If anything, it was a reminder that I'm human, but that I want to find ways to be stronger and work through those emotions in tough situations. That day gave me an idea how to do my job better because - as Michel du Cille would say - "this is what we do."

Shoutout to my homie capstone professor Rita Reed for coaching me up before shoot and helping me carve an edit from what I feared was a "parking lot of pictures." I'm excited to cull another edit to make the family some prints.

Members of the Delta Chi Fraternity, Missouri Chapter and the University of Missouri Army ROTC watch as pallbearers bring Tyler Romaker's casket into Holy Rosary Catholic Church on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016 in Warrenton, Missouri. Mr. Romaker was killed in an auto collision on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016 in Columbia.
Tyler's mother, Andrea, right, consoles his father, Roger, left, during eulogy readings.
Tyler's sister, Hannah, rests her hand on his casket during the funeral mass.
Tyler's older brother, United States Navy ensign Ryan Romaker, bottom right, watches as mourners console Andrea Romaker, left, during communion.
Andrea Romaker clutches a folded United States flag presented to her by the honor guard as Taps are played. Though Tyler was not an active duty military member, military members who died while on active duty or in the Selected Reserve are still eligible.
Parents Roger, left, and Andrea Romaker, right, pay their final respects before the casket is lowered.

Editing Exercises (and why they make me nervous)

I'll preface this post by saying that I am by no means a page designer. It all makes sense when you see other designers crafting an edit of your work, but gosh is it difficult when the tables are turned. Thankfully, I was able to work with my capstone partner Annalise Nurnberg to cull a pair of edits to *hopefully* make our potential print and online audiences happy.

Editing another photographer's work is something that I'm used to doing after working as a picture editor at the Missourian last year. Even for separate print and web edits, it's pretty easy to make the selects, ship those to their respective desks and move on with your shift. But being the designer can be different in that you're given creative control and may not have knowledge of the story or the visual ideas that the photographer and picture editor may have had. Communication in a newsroom is so important because it keeps everyone on the same page and happy.

We were initially thrown in for a loop working on our loose edits because we had little knowledge of the context of the story outside our perceived notions based on the images in front of us. In retrospect, I'll admit that felt bad for how critical we were of the story, the characters and photographer once we had that information. However, we were struggling to find enough visual variety to find 8-10 images to carry us through the piece without it becoming a chronological narrative, so we made seven and hoped for the best. 

Working on split edits can be fun because it gives us a bit more flexibility to be creative or use the physical print space to give the reader some sense of a break between content. We more or less produced a chronology for the online edit, but we decided that we wanted to differentiate public and private moments for the print package (hopefully our imaginary writer doesn't mind). 

At any rate, here is our online gallery edit:

"The Process" and Shitty First Drafts

There's a list of story ideas (more like concepts) that have honestly gained more digital dust and cobwebs on my phone than actual progression/implementation. They seem fine, and some I've spent a few days or weeks working on with great eagerness and enthusiasm, but the final product just wasn't there.

I used to not be too sure of what the specific problem was until I put the camera down and read a bit of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, where I noticed a pattern in where I get discouraged: skipping through "the process" and not allowing it to merely happen. "The process" is a term we've probably all heard once or twice, but I'm not exactly sure we all know who, what or where it is or how and when it happens.

Lamott spends a great deal of time talking about the stories she wrote with the thought of "This will be my best work yet!" but they would inevitably flop well before publication. It's as if "the process" is the leash pulling Fido back when he runs too far from the dog house. I know that I get way too ahead of myself when I want to work on long-term stories, often thinking about the shooting days and what I'd see days and weeks in advance before I've made the first image. I want to make phone calls to editors I have no business calling and I have little research or content to show. It's a mess.

I personally picture "the process" as a grey, blobby/gelatinous being that is dull yet flexible. It's grey and dull in that I often times want nothing to do with it because it seems so boring. As a developing journalist, sometimes I want to get past the growth stages and get to the biggest stages to show how "great" (but actually decent) I am. However, I'm starting to see that my skipping steps and refusal to come to grips with where I was with the content I was producing set me back further.

The beauty of this being is that while it's dull, its flexibility allows me to continuously slip and fall but doesn't give me a rigid timeframe of when everything is (allegedly) supposed to come together. I was kinda discouraged when I left the Minneapolis Star Tribune in mid-August because I felt that I finally "hit my stride" in my last three weeks. It wasn't until I came back to Mizzou that I realized that it was okay because "the process" is so flexible that we can individually move at our own paces to reach our goals. I needed to slip, fall, shoot terrible pictures, get feedback that my pictures were terrible and do it all over again to "get it."

Maybe "the process," is allowing things to come together for me. Lord knows I have more shitty first drafts coming my way, but I can't wait to tackle them.

Inspiration to create picture stories


I'd be lying if I said that I intentionally ignored my blog during the summer. I wanted to spend that time producing content and to learn how to - as the Tao of Photography says - fully immerse myself in what I was documenting.

Much of the things that I learned from the Star Tribune staffers during the summer translates better now that I'm in my picture story capstone. However, there's a lot about the concept of the picture story that I still don't understand. Looking through a few stories gave me an idea of some of the stories that intrigue me, but Gordon Parks' The Fontenelle Family managed to hit home (again). Bear with me, y'all.

I've always wished that I could call Gordon Parks to pick his brain and get a better understanding of what drew him to his stories. The Fontenelle Family is one of my favorite picture stories because of how brash yet gentle the Parks' pictures are. While we were never to the point of extreme poverty, I see so much of my own upbringing in the images. The New York Times Lens blog edit has 19 images, an amount that I could never try to justify to an editor in 2016, and each image immediately flashes me back to memories as a child in Louisville.

Conceptually, we see that Parks is telling the story of an impoverished family in Harlem. But, he does so in a way that tells a message that translates with many African-American families then and now: "We're down but we don't stop trying." I see my older sibling and me in Ellen Fontenelle crying  after my dad passed away in 2005. I see elements of crossing over Nigerian-American culture while Bessie Fontenelle washes the family laundry in the single apartment bathroom. It was odd and made me uneasy, but it reminded me of why I enjoy what I do.

I'm starting to realize how much I want to spend time working on stories that reflect elements of my childhood and upbringing. It's cheesy in a way, but as my life changes and my family moves to start their own lives, I'm struggling to hold onto the pieces of me. These sorts of intimate stories feel right, even though I still don't know what "right" means.

April 2016

Welcome to May, y’all!
April gave me an opportunity to recollect myself, plan better, and think more critically about the images I’m making. There were a lot of “bat-and-ball-sports” days, but it was great to spread my wings and work on non-sports projects. I haven’t had this much fun shooting since January, and I’m excited to take my April momentum into May to round out the semester.
As the winter sports came to a close, baseball and softball were trudging along. I felt that I was starting to hit a wall with my edits in March, but it made me realize that my edits were monotonous because I wasn’t moving around as often as could have and I was missing the absolute peak of a moment. The beauty of shooting baseball and softball with a Canon 5D Mark III is that its low burst (6.5 frames/sec.) forces you to be precise and patient to capture the “decisive moments.”

I feel that the time I spent working on precision and looking harder for pictures in baseball and softball helped to translate into my other work. 

February 2016

Though I hate to admit it, one really does learn much more from failure and mistakes than victories. However, it’s not always all bad. 
February wasn’t necessarily the friend I wanted but the friend I needed to remind me of the things I needed to improve. I didn’t realize until the last few days of the month that it is possible to work as often as I did before classes restarted in January and still keep my head on straight. And while the semester is in full swing, it’s nice having a more open schedule to give myself more time to focus on staying organized and managing time better. You can’t expect to be successful in a profession fuelled by planning (and advertising revenue) if you can’t plan, but it’s a necessary challenge to accept. Thankfully the year is still young(ish) with plenty of time to improve day by day.
This month kept me busy with college football National Signing Day, men’s and women’s college basketball and the SEC Swimming and Diving Championships to name a few, but they were a great challenge to work on vision and timing. However, I’m looking forward to spending the next couple months working on stories and essays that have little or nothing to do with sports. A little change of pace is never a bad thing.
A few of my favorite pictures from February:

December 2015/January 2016

While copying folders from my cluttered desktop to my external hard drive I realized a couple things:
1. I need to do this significantly more often, and
2. I shot a ton of sports in the last two months.

Spending most of winter break in Columbia isn’t too bad because the Mizzou Athletics schedule runs through almost all of break. It was hard at times to find interesting pictures, but it forced me to look harder and more carefully.
I compiled a list of 10 photo-related goals before the semester started. Something tells me that a few might not be too feasible by the end of May, but it’s still great to actually cross off some goals now that I have more time to find stories on subjects that interest me. And as much as I love sports, it would be great to find something different and offer a new challenge.
Here are some of my favorite images from December and January:

Wet and Wild Weeks

Whether it was shooting cross country in a Texas-sized torrential downpour, almost losing a 5D mark III to water damage during a sloppy Thursday night football game or spending a day decompressing in Hallsville, I finally found a time to show some of my most recent images. Per usual, there’s a ton of sports pictures, but after spending a couple days traversing mid-Missouri, I found a few new story that I can’t wait to start.
This past week in Columbia was emotionally and physically draining for a multitude of reasons. While editing at the Missourian during the student protests and the subsequent resignations of former UM System President Tim Wolfe and former Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, I began questioning my role as a journalist, specifically how I edit. As a journalist, it’s easy to compartmentalize personal emotions and ignore taking care of oneself. Last week took a toll on all of us in the newsroom (and in the community), but it wasn’t until shooting Saturday’s football game against BYU in Kansas City that I realized how much I need my job to keep me mentally and emotionally stable. Journalism is one of the most hectic and adrenaline-pumping professions out there, but often gets a ton of scrutiny for doing both too much and too little to serve our communities. Last week showed me that journalism is still needed by communities and that more people need to face the reality that smaller newsrooms are a greater detriment to a publication’s readers (which can grow exponentially online when big news rolls into town). Now that I’m off my soapbox, let’s look at some pictures:

Lock-tober: The Start of Something New

It’s always fun to see the Tigers back to winning ways, especially at home. From start to finish, true freshman quarterback Drew Lock took the reigns and led the Tigers to a 24-10 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks. Some people aren’t the biggest fans of 11 a.m. kickoffs, but this one surely was a blast. Games like these can be a struggle, particularly because of the harsh light that comes during the second half. It’s a struggle to work around, but you can still find pictures everywhere you look. Homecoming heads our way under the lights next Saturday, and I can’t wait to have a night game at Ol’ Faurot.

Thanks for looking!