When I first started my career as a photographer, I cut myself adrift in South East Asia. Here I hoped to figure out what being a “Photographer” meant. I first encamped myself in the climbing mecca of Tonsai, Thailand and here I met Dan & Lisa. Dan was also starting the same journey, though he’d just left a career at REI back in Seattle, WA. I distinctly remember photographing a random climber as he fell on his project (Asian Shadow Play 5.13c/8a+) then yelling up to ask if I could get a model release. Dan had just introduced me to the concept of a “model release” and I was a little over zealous. I think Dan was embarrassed for me…or of me. Either way, we became great friends that day 10 years ago and that relationship continues to this day.
Last year Osprey Packs assigned Dan and I to shoot a short documentary about a boat captain. The captain, Chu Bien, had helped to shuttle climbers on a shoot the previous year. This time the production crew was returning to the same location just to document this strange and beautiful man. After nearly two weeks of traveling through Vietnam shooting photos and video for several product launches, we were finally in Cat Ba. We were exhausted but thrilled to get out on the water in a live-aboard junk, do some deep water soloing, and document Chu Bien on his boat.
Growing up as the son of a shipwright, I’ve spent a lot of time on boats and know the workings of ship building pretty well. Chu Bien’s boat was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Apparently his little coracle was built the way many small craft are in the area. A mound of dirt serves as a jig and a mat of fibers is woven over that. The hull is sealed in shape with some sort of fiberglass epoxy. These boats look rather like an elongated salad bowl with fitted wood planking on top. Everything is modular and easily replaceable because in most cases it’s tied together with just nylon rope. This is Chu Bien’s floating home away from home (though pretty sure his other home also floats).
Chu Bien lives a deliberately simple life and his boat reflects his utilitarian perspective. Everything has a purpose and a place and nothing is in excess. This leaves a lot of space in his life for the joy he spreads into every moment and every interaction. He seems to constantly be searching for a way to make everything a little better.
The waters of a lot of bays in the world are natural collection points for floating plastic debris. This otherwise paradise was no exception. Chu Bien takes a lot of pride in Cat Ba and often uses his down time to motor around netting tidal jetsam. His efforts are puny compared to the scale of pollution, but it’s an effort at least - and one that gets attention. These are the kind of stories that are worth traveling the world for.
In the bays around Cat Ba, limestone mountains shoot out of the ocean and entire villages bob about in the tide. At the villages you can dock to buy fresh water, food, and beer. Everywhere you look it’s beautiful at all times of day making a shoot here almost impossibly easy. That’s not to say it’s without technical challenge though. Boat’s don’t make great tripods, and shooting with underwater housing is a…unique challenge. Convincing Vietnamese-speaking boat captains to run their limited generators so you can charge a dozen lithium batteries is a tricky negotiation.
Chu Bien speaks almost no English and despite a concerted effort I can barely say “thank you” in Vietnamese. Before this film, I’d never conducted an interview through a translator. I anticipated that it would be difficult to navigate the interview. It was more challenging than I could have imagined. That’s the biggest technical takeaway for me from this experience. An interview conducted in this fashion needs to be heavily vetted before starting in. It’s also apparent that no-matter how prepared you are for it, it’s going to take A LOT longer than you think. Lesson learned. I look forward to my next opportunity to interview in another language.
We collected a lot of beautiful footage on the trip, and while the edit proved to be a big extension of the language barrier issue, I’ve got new friends and great memories from the experience. I even got to sneak in a couple deep water solo runs during shooting (check out the crag at 04:56).
These travel jobs take a lot out of a person, chasing sunrise and sunset every day as we do. After shooting we were all pretty wiped and wrapped our trip back in Hanoi. Showered for the first time in a week, we enjoyed an evening of cheap beer and a new tattoo. Long before I’d met Dan all those years ago I’d been dreaming of this tattoo on my wrist “in the morning this will all be gone…”. Part of a poem I wrote some years before as a reminder to stay present. Back in the same corner of the world where we had stumbled through the start of our careers, now stumbling (a little) through the back streets of Hanoi, it seemed like the time and place to finally do it.
Months later as I was wrapping up the edit of the film I could see the edge of those words peaking around from my wrist. It reminded me of where I’ve come from and where I have yet to go. It also now reminds me of Chu Bien’s persistent efforts to make his corner of the world a better place. When I ground myself in the present I clearly see the way forward for my work. “Studio Iverson” pursues stories that make my corner of the world a better place. Fortunately, as a storyteller, my “corner” is pretty big.
Over the last year or so I’ve been working with an awesome new app called Future. They connect personal trainers with customers via a pretty brilliant phone and smart watch interface. Mostly I’ve been helping build up the back end of the app with a catalog of fitness videos that the trainers use to instruct the users with. At the end of this last year I finally got to work on the front end of things with a stills shoot focused on fitness and the personalities of the individual trainers.
The job called for clean, vibrant imagery that would inspire users and help them understand the trainers better. Future identified 3 looks per trainer, one in an outdoor setting, one in a gym and a standalone studio portrait. I wanted to give each look it’s own feel but still tie the styles together.
To do this, we scouted several locations in San Francisco, California that would offer hard angular shadows and shapes to break up the organic compositions. In the gym, with it’s constrained composition options and strong sense of angularity, I softened the lighting dramatically, giving the interior a prevailing sense of natural light. The portrait setup was a simple white backdrop with a 4 light setup that we put up during lunch time at Future’s HQ (I had too many yam fries and was rather uncomfortable during this part of the shoot).
The setup at the gym was a bit of a feat to engineer as the space was really cramped. I had to press myself into the opposite corner of the room in order to have enough space to shoot - but the backdrop was worth it. We hung a bunch of silk on the big window as the light outside was filtering through green trees and polluting the color of the indoor space. That made things a wee bit dark though, so we shot about 4800Ws worth of ProFoto light through the silk from various angles to get the shape we wanted. That big soft source was lovely, but we needed a little soft fill inside to wrap the side light around. Finally we added an “environmental” light hidden in the corner to give more dimension and to make it feel as if there were overhead interior lights that just happened to be ideally placed for the subject. I also found that a weight rack makes a good desktop for resting my tethered computer on.
I finished the job towards the end of the year and went into holiday hibernation shortly after delivering the images. Just as things we slowing down I received a really wonderful note from the client that helped carry me through to 2019 with a smile on my face.
“Josh and I are sitting around at the office right now, and talking about how much your latest photos have completely transformed our product! It seems subtle at first, but the quality (and diversity) of the photos really makes our trainers come to life. We’ve already integrated them into our homepage and our trainer profiles.
We expected it of course, but your work somehow keeps blowing us away! Thank you :)”
A few years back I made a conscious move to position myself as a director/videographer as much as a photographer. Turns out it was the right choice as I’ve been gradually seeing my photography contracts overrun with requests for video work.
I love the video medium as a creative space so much now. It’s much more involved and stressful than creating still photography, but the end product is just so rich and storied - even when it’s just a short commercial.
This last year I’ve been particularly slow on posting photo jobs because I’ve been completely buried in shooting and editing video. Not the worst thing for a freelancer :) However, I’ve been slow to share the video content and so this is my bid to start outing myself as the video producer I seem to be :)
Below is a piece of video that I recently finished for Osprey Packs. The behind the scenes of this shoot are also worth exploring below…
Alright, here’s some nerd talk about the gear we used on this job - then I’ll tell a little story about the experience.
-Canon 5Div (great 4K camera - however it broke mid shoot and we lost a ton of footage to shabby focus issues)
-Sony a6300 + Metabones Speedbooster + Canon lenses (fantastic 4K s-log footage - but this setup is a focusing nightmare and I’m no longer using it)
-Manfrotto video monopod (the thing with the ball joint at the bottom - love it! It’s also a poor man’s gimbal…in fact all “gimbal” shots in this piece are actually the monopod held upside down for weighted stability)
-Rhino Timelapse slider (beastly heavy, but beautiful for cinematic movement)
-Røde VideoPro Shotgun mics
-Lite Pro Gear Feather Crane (just the greatest invention for backcountry production work ever)
On to the shoot…
Travel from San Francisco, CA to Denver, CO was breezy and I arrived in the mile high city to beautiful warm sunny skies. The crew had already been there for a day (and night) and met me at the train in true America hungover spirit…I saved my complaints about having had such an early morning flight…
This shoot was probably one of the easiest backcountry accesses I’ve ever experienced. After driving the producer’s new TRD Tacoma up some of the gnarliest terrain I’ve ever seen a vehicle on, we only had to trudge our gear a couple miles in/up the mountains. However, conditions turned on us halfway through (as they are wont to do in high altitudes) and we found ourselves the next morning under a wind-crushed tent.
The winds continued to pick up throughout the rest of our shoot, making camera stabilization increasingly challenging (even our low-to-the-ground sliders were affected!) so we did our best to find ways to make the conditions work for us. Ultimately it played out well for the story, making the mountain as surly and tough as the copy we eventually recorded for the VO.
One of my favorite moments in the shoot was getting up at 4am with Alonzo to shoot the scene where he’s waking up to dawn in his 1-person bivy. The light and wind played so well together that morning that it felt like I was photographing a dream. I know that sounds overly poetic, but seriously, it was magical. The moose that walked through our camp at sunset one day was also not too shabby.
I’m so grateful that my career has steered me towards this kind of work. The opportunity to spend time in places like this, with people like these, making work like this is definitely not something I take for granted.