Failure was my accomplishment: My time at the DoD Visual Storytelling workshop
By Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II, 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Office
/ Published July 06, 2018
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.