Acadia Institute of Oceanography

After finishing the shooting for Try This: Extreme, my second National Geographic Kids book last summer (see how I name-dropped right there?) I had something of an epiphany: I really like photographing kids as they learn and explore. Witnessing kids tackling a problem and solving it (in often unexpected ways) is really fun. The experience of shooting both books reminded me of my two summers at the Acadia Institute of Oceanography in Seal Harbor, Maine. The experience had a huge impact on me– not just because of what I learned, but because of the kids I met, the music I heard, and the overall experience of getting out of my small world and exploring a larger (and wetter) one.

Reflecting on all of this, I contacted Sherry at AIO in the summer of 2016 and arranged to head up there to make some images. I was surprised at how it still seemed so familiar—the ping pong table, the salt water tanks, even the tie-dyed shirts! It seemed like very little had changed about the program in the 25 years or so since I had been a camper there. I don't know if the lack of cell phone reception in the area kept most of the modern world at bay or if it was just that the camp philosophy that I remember—relying on your intelligence and observation rather than technology, has held true. However refreshing, this anamnesis presented a challenge right off the bat. Was I photographing kids doing science or just documenting a mirror of my own childhood?  I only had a few days to shoot, so I was worried about tackling too much and coming up with an incomplete story.

In the end, I kind of punted. I decided to pursue the science/learning aspect of the camp, and only document the lifestyle, more personal side of the summer camp experience as it came up. I figured that I could always revisit camp in a year or two. The idea of poking around tidal marshes, climbing mountains, and snorkeling on the most beautiful coast in the world? The things I do for my job.

You can find many images in the Learn and Explore section of my website.  Here are a few other favorites showing the more personal side of camp.

Another New Beginning

“We just had our second child” might be an odd way to start off the first entry for a new photography blog/website. But hey, you know, why not? My work is, if nothing else, about documenting real people doing real things. I bring up the whole subject because when I'm in the hospital at 4am, holding my wife’s hand, counting down the minutes between painful contractions waiting for the freakin' epidural,  my mind tends to wander. It's what I do.

(Sorry honey, it’s true.)

Whilst in the midst of triage hell, I began thinking about the work/life balance that many people, of all different professions, struggle with. When our first son, Alex, was really young and the photo business was slow, I had him at home a few days a week. I remember being with him all day but thinking about unanswered emails and upcoming shoots. But, when I was editing images or trying to find clients, I'd find myself worrying that he’d be hungry when he woke up from his nap. No matter what I was doing I seemed to be feeling guilty about something else. People talk about an entrepreneur's business becoming a second marriage– to me it felt like a second child that just couldn't get along with the first.


As most things do it worked itself out soon enough and life hummed along. Pretty soon I figured out that being a father wasn’t competing with my career–it was actually making me a better photographer. Having a child who had to do what I said and who couldn't cross the street on his own gave me the flexibility I needed to experiment with more documentary techniques and styles that I never would have tried with a commercial client. (Capturing a lawyer eat a lemon for the first time has yet to be on a creative brief.) Having a digital camera with a classic manual focus 50mm lens was making me better at seeing and reacting. I became more observant and decisive, yet more selective, and more willing to experiment with both the shooting and post production styles. Pretty soon, I started seeing some of the ways I photographed Alex trickling into editorial work. The aperture moved from a relatively safe f4 or f5.6 to a finicky f2 or wider. I have almost stopped using zoom lenses completely and my lighting is more about subtle texture and feel.

I started to focus on the subject.

It broke my heart the first time I heard Alex say, “cheeeeese…” 

“Alex,” I told him, “we are NOT a cheese family!” I want him to be him, not thinking about what he thinks I want him to do. When he does direct his baby blues my way, I know that he’s looking at me, not the lens. (Okay, sometime he’s looking at his own reflection in the lens...) We have other rules too. If he wants me to put down the camera and play, I drop it and we play. While my little runny-nosed muse makes me a better photographer, I need to be sure that the camera does not make me a worse father. iPhone aside, I rarely have my camera on me. A camera can be a way to experience and record life but it's no replacement for the real thing.

Photo by Betsy Rakola

Photo by Betsy Rakola

Samuel Nathan Rakola was born on a windy Monday morning in November. It will be interesting to find out how he affects my career. Is this a new body of work or will the images just look like copycats of Alex's? Will the images be less about him and more about the two of them? I remember as a kid going through the photo albums and noticing that there were many more pictures of my older brother and sister than there were of me. I've already made two books about Alex for family and friends, how can I give Sam his own sense of history, as an individual, as opposed to just being "Alex's little brother"? I've find myself thinking about this a lot in the last few days, both as a photographer and as a father, and wondering if I can once again find that magical work/life identity balance.

This blog post is named ‘Another New Beginning” partially in an effort to sound clever, but mostly because, as we've explained to Alex, having a new little brother doesn't mean that we're replacing him–just making our home just a little bit bigger. Similarly, this new website/blog, are also a new beginning of sorts. It's design and ambition reflect where I want my business to go over the next few years. It's built on the foundations of my career thus far, and I've got plans on making it even bigger. 

Thanks for reading.