27 May, 2014

In Memoriam

Yesterday was Memorial Day in the US. With the realization that I haven't paid it much attention in prior years, I decided to spend a couple hours meditating on what Memorial Day means to me, and why and how it should be meaningful for me.

I concluded that I want to acknowledge and reflect on the contributions and the sacrifices, perhaps unknown or simply unacknowledged, that have helped shape my life and the world that I live in. First, in its purest form, Memorial Day reminds us to recognize the sacrifices of members of the armed forces who have died while serving our country.
Beyond that, my mom has always held that funerals aren't for the dead so much as they are for the living. One interpretation might be that the reason we celebrate people who have passed is to help us realize things and the people we might have missed in the present, and to also recognize the promise that the future still holds.

With that in mind, I decided to continue this post by simply acknowledging other groups of people whose contributions may have gone unacknowledged. All of the photos are from the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix, held 3 weeks ago at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The Saturday events that weekend also celebrated the United States men and women in uniform.
Meet Rod (left) and Patrick. They're a big part of the races at Laguna Seca, and I didn't realize their role existed until I bumped into them while hiking uphill for a new vantage point. After this portrait, I had a chance to chat with Rod about his history with Laguna Seca.

First and foremost, it's 42 years of history. Rod is 75 now, and when we talked, he brought me back to what this track was like, and what racing was like, before I was born. Initially, he got into motorsports by way of karting and autocross. He raced and he ran track days, and eventually he ended up with a job at Laguna Seca.

Rod's official title is "Active Past Director." He spent years upon years as a race director, and now he continues to hang around and help out. Additionally, he serves as a prison minister when he's away from the track.
Their subtitle is "Vehicle Control," and their post is the White House, which sits at one of the highest vantage points around the track. And near as I can figure out, their job is to watch the entire track and coordinate the movement of pace cars and safety vehicles, and to manage other situations that require immediate context about the state of various locations around the track.

Rod also mentioned that the road to the right side of the picture is the course of the old track, which ran from what is now Turn 2 (Andretti Hairpin), to what is now Turn 5, visible in the distance. The track infield (Turns 2 through 5) was added in 1988 to extend the track for FIA homologation purposes — according to Rod, Formula 1 racing required a minimum track distance of 2.0 miles at the time.
Of course, Vehicle Control is a team, not just a few individuals who sit on a hill. Once the team has a plan, it's up to the people on the ground to execute that plan and, in this case, to get the racecars gridded up for Saturday's Tudor Championship practice session. Members of the Vehicle Control team would line the cars up in order at the track entrance, and then the person in the picture would control entry into the pit lane itself.
The team on the ground also includes the flaggers, who alert the drivers of impending track conditions around blind corners and the like. The waving flag always means "you are approaching an incident; be cautious."
And when the incidents are serious, the pace car comes out to control the speed, and more importantly, the position of the field. This allows the safety crews to safely cross the track if needed, because the pace car can slow the field down in a section of the track that's away from the incident.
Finally, the safety crews help to actually take action on-track when things go wrong. In this case, the #87 Rebel Rock Cayman stopped on-course, likely due to an engine or transmission issue, and got a tow up the hill.

So for now, to all of the people who serve in our armed forces, and to the folks who help support aspects of our lives that are closer to home: thank you.

23 May, 2014

On Candid Photography and Self-Doubt

I was chatting with another photographer, who mentioned "I'd shoot more street pictures of people if I could get over the intimidating/scary part." I hear this reasonably frequently, and as someone who's spent a bit over a decade taking photos of people, I figured I could offer a perspective on how I go about it.

First and foremost, I try to be friendly and confident. When people look at me, I smile at them, and I don't hide my camera. If someone asks me to delete a photo of them, I generally abide. But as some wise photographer once pointed out, you have to decide how much of a jerk you're going to be, and in which situations. It's helpful to explicitly consider that question, and to consciously make a judgment:
Are you going to take pictures of people you don't know? Are you going to take pictures without asking? Are you going to take pictures when people are sad, or angry, or otherwise emotional? Are you going to take pictures when people don't want you to?

Knowing that you have limits, and knowing what they are, is a big step toward being comfortable operating within those limits.
For myself, I basically never ask before taking people's pictures, simply because I strive to capture them in a natural state. It's definitely possible to do that after asking, but it generally takes a lot longer, and my photography is driven by the fleeting moments that I notice.

Another key is that you can't be ashamed of or intimidated by taking a person's picture. It's like if you're walking on the sidewalk and some random guy is walking towards you. You two cross, and then you just walk past him, and you generally don't even think of reading anything into his behavior. Maybe he glances at you. Maybe he pauses. It doesn't matter; it's a sidewalk. Of course people are going to walk past each other.

Next, it's the President walking toward you. Suddenly everything changes, right? You start to doubt yourself. "Maybe I'm taking up too much room. Maybe I should just scoot over so he can pass and then I'll keep walking on the sidewalk. Oh no, did he just glare at me? Maybe I am taking up too much room. Maybe I should walk on the other side of the street to give him some room; doesn't he usually have the secret service with him?" A lot of times, I think that sense of "oh no, I can't do this" is just the same kind of self-perpetuating self-doubt.
The real key here is that the difference between walking past a random guy and walking past Obama isn't him, it's you. It's the doubt in your mind about whether what you're doing is okay, and about whether you need to change your behavior to accommodate the other person. Making an explicit, conscious decision beforehand about what is okay and what is not can help to prevent that spiral before it begins. There will always be questionable cases, but there's a big difference between running into a questionable case once in awhile, and having questions every time you point a camera at a person.

Case in point: I took the picture above while walking behind some people in downtown Palo Alto on a Friday night. Were they friends? Acquaintances? Strangers? The judgment that I've made for myself is that it doesn't really matter. Sometimes you're on a sidewalk, and someone else is on a sidewalk, and then you take a picture of them.

I mean, I'm here, I've got this camera, and I'm taking pictures. I love taking candid pictures of people, and that's what I do. If someone spots me taking their picture, then yes, they spotted me taking their picture. I smile at them and go back to what I was doing (or maybe I smile at them and wait for them to go back to what they were doing). But I try to treat it like the sidewalk situation. If the other person notices that I'm walking on the sidewalk, I'm going to keep walking on that sidewalk. If the person notices me taking pictures, I'm going to keep taking pictures.

11 May, 2014


Our household, in a single vignette

04 May, 2014

Sunset at Laguna

This was a quick shot that I captured Saturday evening, a couple minutes before heading for dinner.

01 May, 2014

BYOBW 2014: Blazing New Trails

This was my sixth straight year covering Bring Your Own Big Wheel. And while at first glance it all looked familiar, every year things change, and every year I see something new. And with luck, every year, I also see and capture the same old things in a new way.

This post is about change.
This year, the big news was this Springfield Elementary-themed big wheel schoolbus. It was constructed out of cardboard boxes, PVC, and wood, and can be seen here in the staging area with Radioactive Man at the helm. The bus was occupied by a variety of The Simpsons characters, but sadly, it wasn't able to drive down the course with all the occupants seated — they had to get out and walk for the bus to even make it down past the first corner.

But that's progress sometimes. I expect we'll see it again next year, with a little bit more engineering.
In last year's post, I had commented on the widening age range of BYOBW participants. I may have simply missed it last year, but this year, parents were encouraged to attach a leash of some variety in order to help their kids down the course at a manageable pace.
Of course, other parents elected for the old-fashioned method.
The businessmen were among my favorite costumes this year. The phone is a brilliant detail, and I also love how you can see everything flying as the guy on the right falls onto his butt.
I've also seen folks riding skateboards down in past years, but I've never seen this close of a near-miss. The skateboarder had to cut to his right after the red guy crashed and stopped on the course. This picture is 200 milliseconds later, as he is in the middle of cutting back to the left to avoid ramming the Eagles guy. Eagles is, understandably, bracing for impact. Wow.
Ghost-riding should be the next big thing in BYOBW trends. In this case, it was accidental, but judging by the adulation for the Michael Jackson lookalike, the crowd loves dance moves just as much as they love seeing riders crash and tumble.
This was the most dramatized big wheel finish I've ever seen, especially given that there's generally no actual finish line; just a finish "zone".

Earlier on that afternoon, I was sitting near a videographer as he explained to a spectator that he and some other folks were working on a Bring Your Own Big Wheel mockumentary. I can only imagine that this finish was part of that project, but really, who knows? The moment was well-appreciated, regardless.
I saw this rocket sled last year, but I don't remember seeing the surprisingly-well-done flames glow in the sunlight like they do here. If you look anywhere other than directly at the thrust nozzle, it's possible to imagine that there's actually a stream of flame erupting from the back of the sled. Pretty cool.
Some changes present a mix of challenge and opportunity. As the event has grown, the cost to run it (legally) has also increased. According to the BYOBW website, the cost to run the event this year increased by well over $1000 from the 2013 level of ~$6,000. For instance, hay bales represented one of the significant expenses (with a $400 increase over last year), but it seems plausible to imagine that the use of hay bales made the event more welcoming for people who might not have participated otherwise.

Here, one of the organizers talks with three police officers at the conclusion of this year's event.
Another ongoing challenge for the event is sustainability. Back when I attended my first BYOBW in 2009, there was a common toy donation at the end of the event, where a fire house would collect a bunch of big wheels, rejigger them into a smaller set of working toys, and redistribute those toys. The common donation stopped at some point, and now bigwheelers are encouraged to take their busted rides home. Clearly, that doesn't always happen.

Could this be an opportunity in disguise? Time will tell, I suppose.
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