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How I got started
I had just landed in Miami and it was nearly a hundred degrees. I got the rental car and headed straight into gridlocked traffic. The exit was not moving and my time window was closing, so I decided to pass a few cars in a not-so-perfectly-legal manner. Of course, one of them happened to be an undercover cop who immediately pulled me over. Boop Boop. Just my luck. I explained to him the longest story imaginable and he laughed it off and let me go with a warning. Phewf! I was on my way to meet someone off of Craigslist to purchase my first ever DSLR camera. He was gonna meet me on his lunch and I was headed out of town. A few minutes late and I’d miss the chance.
While sitting in a freezing cold, bare-bones apartment in Monte Video, Uruguay a few days earlier I began to hatch an idea that would eventually lead me into the beautiful and magical world of landscape photography.
Over the previous several years I had been working throughout South America from Medellin, Colombia to Cordoba, Argentina. I was moved and shaped by the constant thread woven through this incredible continent of beauty and pain, joy and heartache, and peace and violence. It was like a tapestry, on one side, a magnificent mosaic of all things beautiful in life; stunning mountains and countryside, warm smiles and happy faces, good music, big families, and some of the most beautiful people I have ever met. Yet, like a tapestry, on the other side was a winding chaos of broken lives. It was a twisting of tales woven through long threads of suffering with loose ends dangling in the abyss of poverty and pain.
Above, as the “the worlds greatest soccer player” I show off my incredible soccer skills during an event for underprivileged families in Cidade De Deus, Brazil.
I’ve never had money, but I learned at an early age that while I did not have the means to feed, clothe, or house those who live in such a need, I could feed them with words of hope, clothe them with kindness, and bring love and laughter into their homes. I studied Spanish and Portuguese every day and eventually became fluent. I learned that I could teach at an orphanage, I could accompany the U.N. into the jungle, I could visit homes for the elderly and others in horrible prisons or youth detention centers, I could spend time with the homeless on the streets, and find ways to bring joy and education to children who had nothing. All without having a lot of money.
I often noticed that most of the walls of the homes and facilities I visited were barren, unpainted, and made of crumbling cement or adobe. I imagined waking up every day in such a place. I looked at dense urban cities where homes were shacks, and neighborhoods were stacks of shacks sprawling in every direction. The ambient noise was shouting sellers, honking cars, crammed busses, sirens wailing, and hundreds of stray dogs barking in every direction. A far cry from the solace of the deep forests, quiet peaks, and gentle rivers I have come to know and love in my home country of the United States.
Around the same time, I happened across a video online called The Mountain by an incredible photographer that goes by TSO Photography. It was the first and most beautiful cinematic time-lapse footage I had ever seen. It took my breath away. I was going through a very hard time in my life and this video was an escape. It pulled me into another world far away and melted my problems with perspective. It now has 78M views and I think half of them are mine.
As I traveled through South America I realized most people there would never get to experience this kind of majesty, either in real life or even in a video. I never realized that getting on a freeway and driving into a highly-developed national or state park was an experience unique to a select few countries in the world. I never realized the phenomenal privilege of pavement that reaches some of the most pristine and well-preserved landscapes on earth.
I priced stock videos and photos online and the prices were more than I could ever afford. Stealing stuff off youtube just didn’t resonate with what I wanted to do.
For some reason, I felt it for it to be real, it had to be mine, my vision, my eye, and the places I know and love.
How I learned
“How to make fast motion cloud videos” is what I typed into google on a rickety desk in that freezing apartment in Uruguay. I quickly learned it was a sequence of hundreds of photographs set on a timer and combined into a video. Magic. It was a DSLR camera that could do the trick. So I began researching and found a cheap used camera on craigslist in Miami. It was love at first sight. Messaged the guy and told him what I was planning on doing, he gave it to me for like half of what he was asking for and I was so excited and grateful. Also grateful to the officer who let me on my way without delay so I could buy the camera for a few hundred dollars. It was just a camera, but for me it would turn out to be a one way ticket into adventure.
At that time, I didn’t know the difference between aperture and apple pie. Shutter speed, focus, ISO, Exposure, White Balance all sounded like another language to me. I was overwhelmed by every button and drowning in adjustments. How can taking a simple photo be so complicated? But I began devouring information online almost as quickly as I can devour a box of a dozen donuts. Bit by bit things started to click (pun intended).
I reached out to several photographers and I was immediately impacted by the kindness and generosity within the photography community. I asked for a few tips, and what I got in return were well-written exposés on every detail of this new world that was nearly as vast as the landscapes I intended to shoot. I started posting my photos everywhere I could and was met with warm compliments and helpful advice. When one of my photos got featured on the editorial front page, I felt I had won the lottery.
A Few Of My First Images:
Everyone I talked to, told me the best way to learn was to go out and start shooting. So shot I did… and shot and shot and shot. What ensued was a lot of running, and trekking, and long hikes, and wet shoes, early pre-dawn mornings, and setting-up-tripods “which way do these stupid legs turn?” and trying to focus-in-a-hurries, and check the settings, and “oh no! my battery is dead…” and“oh no! My chip is full!…” and “do I use a UV filter or a CPL here??…” and “why is this so blue?” “what is tungsten?” “and what is that smudge on the clouds…”… It was so exhausting and so exciting. 90% of my photos came out out of focus but oohhhh that 10%. It was enough to carry on.
There was a hail storm on a peak under an umbrella. There was a grizzly that was way too close and an elk that nearly charged me. There was a night in shooting stars till 3 a.m. then came home and accidentally formatted the entire chip. That hurt. There was ratchet-strapping my tripod to a tent stake in a windstorm in New England. And getting rained out of a tent in a Utah lightning storm. A few minor injuries and few lost lens caps and so much more, but all so worth it in the quest to learn how to get that perfect click.
But the serene moments sitting on a moment top waiting for the dawn cannot be matched. There is something magical about hunting for light and something thrilling about capturing it. Something breath-taking about waiting for the skies to light up like a wildfire. Something peaceful about framing the falling waters of a river. Something perfect about freezing a moment that was flying by. And I soon learned that this… this is photography.
My goal was, and is, to capture the quintessential essence of a scene so that the viewer can imagine what it would be like to stand there and be in that place.
I want those who view my photos to touch the earth, to feel the breeze, smell the air, and take that deep breath that makes everything okay, if even for a moment.
Since those early days, I realized the power of the lens to impact someone’s life is far greater than I ever imagined. What began as a small dream in that Uruguay apartment has opened to me the windows of opportunity, reaching others in countries all over the world.
I have since printed, and given out thousands of poster prints in many countries and am touched so deeply by an email, photo, or text message from someone in a faraway land telling me how much the poster means to them as they look at it each day. From a woman in prison who explained to me how it is a portal for her each day to “escape” the confines of her cell and to aspire to be a greater woman when he rejoins society, to a young man, I met during one of my events at a high school in a Rio favela, who texts me occasionally with photos of his room now decorated with my photos, I have been overwhelmed by the responses from so many individuals.
I can’t even believe I finally figured out how to get a shot actually in focus, much less reach over 65 million views, and winning a few awards across some of the leading online photography sites. More than anything, I can’t believe how many incredible people I have connected with through photography and the friendships I have formed that have deeply impacted my life and theirs. From Oregon to Angola, from Colombia to Canada, from to Germany to Brazil, those who have reached out to me because of my photos have expanded my horizons, touched my heart, and changed my life.
I have recently learned French and hope to travel to Africa when I can save enough funds, and when the pandemic is fully over. Until then I will continue to work in homeless shelters, detention centers, prisons, and communities throughout the United States and Canada (once the border opens).
My hopes now are to also begin earning an income from photography, to fund my travels, and work with the poor. It’s a tall order but little by little I am taking steps and making small gains through selling stock photography, donations from my free photos, and I recently started selling prints. I am hoping to one day upgrade the old camera and lens. Until then, I am working on mastering the ins and outs of so many areas of photography and now, video as well, so that I can push the boundaries of creating content that can be an agent of healing, therapy, and inspiration for all those who suffer across the globe.
I hope this post is a reminder to all that achieving your dreams can be possible, even when you know nothing about how to do it! Thank you for reading and please feel free to reach out and connect with me! – Joshua
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