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Failure was my accomplishment: My time at the DoD Visual Storytelling workshop

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Michael Shawn, an Australian skateboarder, wipes his face in exhaustion at Washington Street Skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 21. Shawn, from Melbourne, Australia, is visiting San Diego for the month to skate. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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A local skater performs a line at Washington Street Skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Washington Street Park is a do it yourself skatepark, made popular by Grind Line skatepark creator, Mark “Monk” Hubbard. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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Michael Shawn smokes at Washington Street Skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 21. Shawn failed to complete a Smith grind and used the smoke break to calm himself and focus. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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Shawn Crews converses with another skater before leaving Washington Street Skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Shawn Crews is a former skater and was at the park to support his seven year old son, Lux. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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Lux Crews skates at Washington Street Skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Lux is the youngest skater at the park and grew up visiting the park as his father skated. “He only wants to skate,” said Shawn Crews. “I am surfer and he's good at that too but he only wants to skate, all day, every day.” (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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Noah Corona, is a skate historian and artist who designs mosaic glass artwork featured at Washington Street skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Corona placed three murals in the skatepark dedicated to skateboard icons and local legends who recently passed away. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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ason Parkes skates before class at Washington Street Skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Parkes is a former Marine and Department of Defense employee who considers the skatepark a sanctuary. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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Shawn Chevy, a local skateboard legend, waits his turn to drop in at Washington Street Skatepark skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Chevy was a member of the famous H-Street Boyz, a group of skaters who formed the first skateboard company managed by skateboarders. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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Lux Crews performs a frontside grab over a gap at Washington Street Skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Lux is a seven year old who is sponsored by local companies but not contractually. “I didn't want him to have any contracts,” said Shawn Crews. “I don't want him to do contests or be in a business, I want him to just have fun.” (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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Jason Parkes, drops in from a 15 foot ledge at Washington Street Skatepark in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Parkes received extreme head trauma from dropping in while skating. The injury left lacerations scars on his head and lead to problems at work. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II)

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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II, 377th Air Base Wing, Public Affairs photojournalist greets his subject at the Washington Street Skate Park in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Strong was accepted into the 26th Annual Department of Defense Visual Storytelling Workshop. (U.S. Air Force photo by MSgt. Russ Scalf)

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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II, 377th Air Base Wing, Public Affairs photojournalist photographs a subject at the Washington Street Skate Park in San Diego, Ca., June 20. Strong was accepted into the 26th Annual Department of Defense Visual Storytelling Workshop. (U.S. Air Force photo by MSgt. Russ Scalf)

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- “If you don’t fail here, then you didn’t try.”

This is what was told to me by Col. Bernard Koelsch, director of Defense Media Activity at Fort Meade, Maryland, on my first day of the 26th Annual Department of Defense Visual Storytelling workshop.

The workshop helps combine visual communications skills with photographic knowledge, proficiency and qualifications. Selectees work with an acclaimed faculty of experts who provide professional instruction and critiques in assigned small group settings designed to challenge visual communication abilities.

I entered the weeklong course prepared to do my best, but I was not prepared to fail. But rather than sticking to what has worked for me throughout my public affairs career, I decided to challenge myself by trying something new and outside my comfort zone in an effort to grow into a better storyteller. I mentally prepared myself to accept all that came with this new experience, even if it meant failing.

During the learning process, it’s normally easier when there is a mentor, instructor or teacher involved. The workshop was no different and had an all-star cast of professionals from around the photojournalist and video broadcasting world. They weren’t only the best at what they do but also at bringing the best out of us. They had a unique way of pushing us past our photography ceiling into a higher atmosphere.

The mentors continually challenged us throughout the workshop. They not only challenged us to learn new skills and techniques, but also with new equipment, ideas and concepts. I learned that being a storyteller is a lot harder than I thought.

I am a sound photographer and there aren’t many experiences I haven’t had in my career. I have flown in jets and heavies documenting air-to-air missions. I have documented crime scenes and crashes, military exercises, studio portraits, sporting events, changes of commands, retirements, and much more. I always aimed to get great photos but never really worried about conveying an interesting story. It’s easy to put together photos of an event, but it’s much harder to make your viewers feel what you have photographed and for them to see the whole picture.

For my workshop project, I chose the skateboarding culture in San Diego, one of the birth places of the sport/past time. It was a broad idea and my team focused me in to one park, the Washington Street Skate Park. It is a do it yourself skate park, created in 1999 by skaters for skaters when there were zero skate parks in San Diego.

Telling the story of this iconic place challenged me in so many different ways. But I powered through the obstacles and focused on the cast of characters that frequented the park. Artist, historians, school teachers, DoD employees, children, addicts and foreigners all convened at this location for sanctuary from the outside world and all the struggles it brought. Every person was kind, willing to be photographed and spoke to me at length about their lives and passion for skating.

After three days of documentation, I finished the project. I studied the process my mentors used to select the photos and made 10 selections of the best storytelling photos for my presentation. After presenting my project to my peers and instructors, I realized that although the photos I’d taken were excellent, I fell a little short at the most important point of the workshop: storytelling. But I am determined to learn from this and improve at using my photos to tell a better story.

Many people can take good photos. It takes a professional to use those photos to tell a story, and the workshop has driven me to become not just a photographer, but a story teller. Thank you to my mentors for pushing me beyond my wall. Thank you to my peers for making each day an adventure and for making the demanding workshop feel like fun and not work. Thank you to the Washington Street Skate Park for allowing me into your world and for trusting me not only with your story but your image.