For those of us that have had the chance to travel the world, we know that it’s both beautiful and brutal. There are rich and there are poor; there are people who own helicopters and others who are happy to get a meal and have a roof over their heads. We also know that everyone has a moving story, but not everyone has a voice. That’s where the power of photographers and filmmakers make a difference. With a simple camera, they bring to life the stories of amazing people, communities and causes across the globe. In their first ever attempt at film, Lost Boys of Paradise, professional photographers Philip and Eileen Blume have done just that. Focusing on zone 18 of Guatemala City, known as “Paradise”, the documentary highlights the lives of the young boys forced to leave the war-ridden countryside, their struggles in the city, and the organization, Engadi ministries, that has made if their goal to give these boys a home.
Earlier this week, we had the chance to ask these two parents how they juggle a full-time photography business and how they still have time for powerful projects like Lost Boys.
1) Briefly, can you explain your philosophy when it comes comes to personal projects and you spend so much time on them?
Absolutely! Well, for one, it’s just way too easy to let your art become impersonal. As a wedding photographer, if I’m shooting 30 weddings every year and that’s it, my work runs the risk of becoming robotic. Not to say photographic formulas are all bad; there’s something to be said for having your go-to shots and defining your style through consistency. But I still cringe whenever I hear a few of the big-name photographers on the circuit, promoting our art form as nothing but a road to riches and rock-stardom. If everything we do is for profit and prestige, we seriously don’t know what we’re missing!
Life is bigger than that. You never see a hearse towing a U-Haul trailer. You know what I mean? For Eileen and me, our belief in human dignity and a good God demands we live for something more meaningful. Personal projects allow us to do that. Photography, as a visual medium, has this unique power to influence the world for real change. In fact studies show that the readership of a newspaper story, for instance, increases by a massive 400% if one simple photograph is included alongside the text. What better way to use that power than to draw attention to people who need our help?
Our documentary film Lost Boys of Paradise, for example, is raising awareness and support for a little-known organization that was struggling to continue its amazing work in Guatemala, rescuing young boys out of the world’s most violent slums and gang culture. Completely unexpectedly, that project has gone on to film festivals and dozens of screenings across the country. If we as photographers turned some of the focus off ourselves and toward the needy, we literally could change the world.
2) Lost Boys is a documentary film, but you call yourself a photographer – how does that work? Was this your first film project?
Film, or videography, is still photography by definition. It’s still “drawing with light” – the drawing just becomes animated! And that’s exciting, because motion gives the photographer a huge new arsenal of storytelling tools. Now that DSLR cameras have become the standard for video, photographers have a huge advantage when it comes to getting started in this medium. And they shouldn’t hesitate to jump on board. I think the industry landscape will greatly favor photographers with video skills in the near future. Clients will come to expect it.
You’re right, Lost Boys was not only our first feature-length movie. It was also our first film project, period. (Neither of us even had a smart phone to shoot back then; so video was brand new to us.) That’s one of the beautiful things about personal projects. There’s no telling where they might take you. When we first heard about Engadi Ministries Intl., the organization working with kids in Guatemala’s slums, all we knew was we wanted to help. Like a lot of humanitarian groups out there, their story was going largely unsung. It wasn’t a rational choice – we had no video experience, our bookings were down and we had to delve into our savings to make the trip happen. But after talking with Nathan, we were inspired.
Nathan is Engadi’s founder and, in my estimation, a truly brilliant visionary. Despite all the pressing short-term needs he had, he recognized that a video was the organization’s single most important need if it was to earn support and survive long-term. So that’s what we set out to do. There was no pressure. We made it clear we had no experience outside still photography and couldn’t guarantee the results. But Nathan was grateful for whatever we could do. The plan was to create a three- to four-minute promo piece for Engadi’s Web site. Clearly, once we discovered how accessible video was to us and, more important, how compelling the story was, plans changed. More than anything, it’s the experience and confidence I gain from personal projects that propels our business forward.
3) Just like great photos, great films are about great characters/stories. Can you tell us how you built this around Nathan and the process of capturing a story from the ground up?
I love raw documentary films, the way they pull you into a real world you didn’t realize existed. I don’t want to hear a contrived script or corny voiceover. In my mind, even if your film is an advocacy piece, it shouldn’t sound like an infomercial. So, from the beginning, I decided the film’s narration should come from interviews with those on the ground in Guatemala, not from me. Nathan was clearly the key player in this story. So I sat down with him first, and we just talked for three hours while cameras rolled from two different angles. That footage went in the box for later editing, but after that conversation I knew exactly which stories and which people I wanted to highlight – the ones whose stories most impacted me personally.
You’re exactly right: great films are about characters and stories. This wasn’t going to be like a pamphlet, highlighting all the facts and figures surrounding Guatemala’s slums or Engadi Ministries. Sure, we learned those figures through research, but then we chose to illustrate them through people: a mother with seven children who lives in a 10’x10’ box; a homeless boy who dresses like a clown and juggles in traffic to feed himself; two young men who risked death to leave the gang and pursue education, who have now returned to work with boys in the same situation.
We spent just one week meeting them, interviewing, and visiting places Nathan had told us about. By the end, the footage added up to a lot more than I anticipated. The vast majority ends up on the cutting room floor. But the visual gems and emotional moments we captured along the way were so many, even editing them down to an hour-long feature was almost impossible. For the record, with the exception of Nathan’s interview, I shot the entire movie with one camera while Eileen shot still photography. I bounced around a lot to create the illusion of multiple camera angles, and a friend came along to record constant audio. Final Cut X made the editing process amazingly intuitive for me as a newbie.
4) You’ve talked about using a personal project like this to boost your professional business. How?
It’s a strange dichotomy. On one hand, you need to come from a place of altruism and self-sacrifice to do justice to any humanitarian project. On the other hand, a starving artist can’t feed the hungry. The message we want to communicate to artists is this: If you have the desire to do something meaningful with your life and work, don’t let the false belief that “you can’t afford the time or money required for a personal project” to get in your way. Yes, you can do it – for so many reasons!
Look at Lost Boys for example, our first large project. The costs were mostly in time and equipment. But the time we took off to travel was during November, the slow season for weddings anyway. And the equipment we purchased has ended up being an investment in our business, which we can now use with paying clients. No one is saying you have to sell your worldly belongings before you can serve the poor. You can be practical about it; but also be willing to take risks.
One of the most important parts of building your business is branding. I can tell you, it does not hurt to have “humanitarian activist” as part of your brand. Clients hear about you because of these projects. And customers want to associate themselves with brands that reflect their values and aspirations. They feel more confident in you and liberal in their spending when they know part of their investment goes to do real good; they know they’re a part of that! Eileen and I have been amazed and humbled by the way local businesses have picked up our projects and run with them – volunteering to promote our cases – and us, by association – across our local market. My barber never seemed interested in my wedding photography stories. (Besides, in our saturated market, I’m probably the fifth photographer in his chair on any given day.) But when I told him about Lost Boys, he plastered our posters and logo across his storefront, sponsored a screening of the film, and started talking to people about us. You can’t buy that kind of marketing.
5) Where should people go and what should they do if they are looking for a personal project with a significant meaning?
I start first by putting photography out of my head. Just ask: What’s important to me? What matters? You don’t have to find inspiration in Guatemala, or Africa, or wherever. Guatemala was personal to me because I spent time volunteering in an orphanage there when I was a college student. But you can start locally. Who are the heroes in your community? Is an organization feeding the homeless? Is a church collecting presents for needy children this Christmas? Is a group raising funds for cancer research? More than likely, those people are making great sacrifices to serve the way they do. They need your help. We found out about Engadi through our church.
After you identify whatever it is that gets your blood pumping, find a way to attach photography to it! How about a short video behind the scenes to open people’s eyes to the feeding program and its needs? Or maybe holiday portrait mini-sessions, with proceeds going to the cancer research fund. Hey, what if the charitable group will even mail out your ads to its list of supporters, allowing you to raise money for them while earning publicity and trust for your business?! Not a bad partnership, right?
But…you asked about inspiration. You know, inspiration, she’s a fickle mistress. She doesn’t show up at your beck and call, that’s for sure. And that’s okay. As an artist, I would love to remain always inspired. But when my creativity is “zapped,” at least I can rely on the solid, routine skills I gain through personal work. I love to hear Garrison Keillor (the humorist and creator of “A Prairie Home Companion”) explain why he never gets writer’s block: “Writer’s block is something you get when you try to write the next great American novel. I’m not Faulkner. I’m a late-middle-aged, mid-list, fair-to-middling writer, and it gives me a lot of pleasure.” He is continually creating something, whether it’s “good” or not. Yet much of his writing is brilliant!
I’m not Ansel Adams, but being a photographer brings me pleasure. I love it because I’m constantly creating, even if the majority isn’t award-winning. But the more I let my creative juices flow through personal projects, the more often those moments of inspiration do come unexpectedly. You can’t stare at the wall and wait for inspiration to arrive. It won’t work. But you can invite her in by getting to work without her.
Your camera probably already shoots video. Pick it up and point it at something! Intentional movement and editing are the things that will set you apart as you seek to use video professionally. Get a fluid-head monopod first – you’ll use that more than anything else. Next I would go for a relatively affordable steady cam rig and slider. If you’re careful not to overuse them, these add hugely to production value. I also recommend you begin shooting in manual mode for your still photography. That skill was an advantage for me, as video requires manual focus, exposure, and white balance skill. New technologies are trying to automate some of those features for video. But, as with still photography, automation won’t ever achieve the finesse or creative choices an artist can make through manual control.
7) How about those that are about to travel abroad with cameras, gear, etc?
Because of some of the dangerous areas we had to navigate in Guatemala, we needed minimal equipment and rigs that could be set up or broken down quickly. I also didn’t feel any need to show off the biggest and most expensive cameras to the gang members in the slums. We purchased a Nikon D7000 (available for about $975) and borrowed a backup. I shot nearly the entire film on a Glidecam 2000, which breaks down to nearly nothing in the camera bag. I could also use it to steady shots without motion or fake a slider movement. Everything was packed in two Pelican 1510 cases, easily small enough to travel as carry-on luggage. (I would never check camera equipment on a plane.) On the ground, we carried just one Pelican case with us, leaving the other in our hotel room. For audio, one Rode shotgun mic, along with a Zoom H4N (on a boom for interviews) and a Zoom H1 (for ambient sound collection) more than sufficed. I brought my smallest, cheapest computer, which I just used to move the data through and onto rugged-style external hard drives at the end of each day.
8) Where can we find out more about you and the Lost Boys?
Thanks so much for asking! For us, this is what it’s all about – getting the story out there for people to hear and, we hope, respond to do just that. Movie info is available on IMDb or on the film’s Web site, at www.lostboysofparadise.com. That’s where you can request a copy of the film, too.
Our fellow photographers and filmmakers can connect with us to chat and learn on our Website, www.blumephotography.com. We love to brainstorm with folks on all the social sites as well. See you there!