I never believed in love at first sight until last week. I met the Werth family through my boss, who is a family friend of theirs. They have two children – Charlie, 12, and Olive, 4. After Charlie was born in 2001, Katie and Andy tried for several years to have another child, to no avail. However, another friend of theirs was a fertility doctor and agreed to help them with treatments and ultimately helped them conceive Olive. During Katie’s pregnancy, they learned that their baby would be born with Down syndrome. Despite the shock, they embraced the news and have continued to do so as Olive grows. She is a bubbly, creative little girl that will capture your heart with a single glance.

The thought of starting my final project for my capstone photo class was daunting. I love shooting sports because I’m able to stay in my own, little comfort zone. I can refer to a roster or a stats sheet for caption information. I don’t have to interact with people on an intimate level. For this project, I was terrified because I knew that I couldn’t sit back and coldly photograph a story. But when I met Olive, I knew that there would be no problem at all for me to change my tune. The Werth family was fantastic and practically adopted me into their family for a week – leaving the doors unlocked for me to show up whenever I wanted, including me in family time and even taking me out for my first Booche’s experience after I finished my final day of college classes. They made it easy for me to step out of my comfort zone and ask personal questions, dive deeper into their story. I couldn’t have asked for a better family to work with for my final story. They were so open and lovely that the story made itself. I felt incredibly lucky at the end of shooting to have been able to be a part of their lives.

The hardest thing, once I was done, was editing the photos down to a number that wasn’t ridiculously huge. After falling in love with Olive and her spirit, it was hard to detach myself from so many frames. Thankfully, I attend a program full of talented photographers and was able to use my peers’ editing skills to help boost mine. I really wanted to show Olive’s inquisitive, happy nature and show that while she’s “different” she’s really just like any other 4 year old. I could have made a million different edits, but this one is the one that I finally came to, to turn in. I hope you enjoy it.

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It’s important to have other people view your work and to get their insight while you’re working on a long-form photo project. Without the direction or suggestions of others, it can be easy to get caught in a singular vision, which may not be the best angle in which to tell your subjects’ story. I found this statement particularly helpful: “There are probably a number of ways to tell your story right, and someone else may be able to tell whether or not you’ve found one of those ways.”

The days in class when we have work in progress, it’s always nice to have other opinions on the photos you have (or don’t have). Another set of eyes can help you find holes you were unaware of, or suggest ways in which to make photos you’ve already made stronger.

“Letters” put the audience of photo projects into perspective for me. It’s hard to start a story or an essay when you’re unaware or unsure of who will be viewing it. It could benefit your perspective to envision the person or people viewing your work. In the case of my final capstone project, keeping in mind that I want the family whose story I am telling to view my finished work, will help me stay on track and in line.

“All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh and wild way.”

This may be the most important to take away from this section of readings. There’s a whole world of possibility out there, waiting for you to discover it and dive in. Everyone you meet has a story and it’s up to you as the photographer to realize that potential, harvest it, and present it in a way that is both pleasing and truthful.

Sitting in on contest judging is always an interesting experience. Sometimes a judge has a viewpoint that you just can’t get on board with, but I loved the insight that I heard while listening to the Domestic Picture Story category of CPOY. 

Gold medal winner, Sara Lewkowicz, shot an amazing story about domestic abuse that followed the family before and after a tragic event. The amount of depth and emotion she was able to capture in her images is incredible. The judges spoke highly of her ability to make photos that you could connect to and the variety of images she included in her edit. Not only did Lewkowicz use a variety of lenses and shoot from a variety of angles, she captured a variety of emotions. The range she shows in the project, while still keeping it all cohesive is certainly commendable.

Other photo stories that were awarded were boosted because of their tight edits. The judges preferred stories that were concise and to the point. Joe Amon of the Denver Post made a great point about editing saying, “Every time you add a weak picture to your story, you weaken your entire story.” It’s important to avoid repetition and redundancy in a photo story, which is hard to do if you’ve worked hard to make a certain photograph. There were a lot of great stories in the Domestic category that didn’t place due to poor editing. The judges also noted how they preferred stories that were not only edited tightly, but weren’t editing in an A-to-Z format. Stories that felt process-y tended to have less impact. Nice moments aren’t enough. You can’t just scratch the surface of something great. They wanted a narrative that not only moved you along, but started strong and ended strong. They wanted to see stories that made harder situations look effortless – and the winning ones did just that.

One thing that the judges really ragged on were the story summaries. Since a summary is often read with the photos, you want it to be able to speak to them well. Several stories missed out on awards because they buried the lede so far in, that the judges had lost interest before finding out what the story was really about. If you have that five cents of string, throw it out quickly. Don’t leave the viewer wondering or confused about theme of your story.

Another issue some of the stories had, was lacking a sense of the subject. You can show a viewer a subject, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will connect with them or get a true sense of them. Great picture stories take the extra effort to give the viewer a sense of the subject. They go beyond simply shooting well-composed and well-shot photos and reach something deeper.

For me, the takeaway was immeasurable. As someone who has less experience shooting full stories, it was fantastic to have the opportunity to hear what professional photographers and photo editors had to say about my peers’ work. I will definitely be working harder with my 30-day project to make images that are strong enough to stand on their own, yet stay on that five cents of string to connect with the viewer.