Portland, Ore. – As someone who lives among U.S. troops as an embedded photographer for The Associated Press in Iraq, I like to think I'm no stranger to discipline. But nothing could have prepared me for the rigors of the Platypus Workshop. I'd heard soldiers tell stories about basic training, about being broken down and built from scratch. Effectively, that's what happened to me.
My classmates and I were all grown-ups, established in our fields, good enough at something that we can make a living. We were photojournalists, radio reporters, commercial photographers, professors, and public affairs professionals. But here at Platypus, we were nobodies. We were grunts.
I'd come here to learn new skills and take them back with me to Iraq. I wanted to look at the story, one I've covered for several years, with fresh eyes. I have access to some pretty incredible things that lend themselves well to video and I couldn't wait to get started.
So there I was, bleary-eyed, on a short break from Baghdad. Perhaps I'd seen it as a vacation. Perhaps I'd assumed this course would be easy or that I'd pick it up quickly. But whatever my assumptions were going in, they didn't last.
PF Bentley and Dirck Halstead, both veteran Time magazine photographers, showed us some impressive examples of visual storytelling. One signature story showed female Australian soldiers in boot camp. Some of the recruits wept as they low-crawled through mud. I wondered if I'd cry that week.
We learned the rules: no water, no drinks, no food in the classroom. Be in your seats at 0845 sharp for an 0900 start time. It reminded me of the mantra every soldier knows by heart: If you're 5 minutes early, you're 10 minutes late.
On our first day, we were given HD video cameras and sent out on assignment. The camera felt awkward in my hands. Everyone, it seemed, was a better cameraman than I. As I interviewed a woman wearing bunny ears, her husband suggested I shoot from a different angle. Helpless, I took his advice.
For our next assignment, I found a shop called the "Urban Farm Store," which advertised in the alternative weekly. "Chicks are here!" chirped the quarter-page ad. It seemed perfect.
Back at the classroom, as my raw footage was projected onto a screen, the grilling I received was relentless. My camerawork was a disaster; it shook with every breath I took. I couldn't get the chicks at good angles. There was nothing else all that interesting in the store. Dirck was spot-on when he said I came completely undone at the sight of baby chicks.
Progressively, we took on bigger challenges. Each day, I headed out determined not to repeat mistakes I'd made yesterday, only to discover new ways to screw up.
My greatest mistake was picking ambitious subjects instead of focusing on the assignment. Consider Tony, a tattoo artist working in Portland's Pearl District. I wanted to film a tattoo from start to finish, and Tony's client, Molly, agreed. Tony got to work, and I finally felt like I knew what I was doing. I filmed the sequences I knew by heart now. Then, something happened: the girl in Tony's capable hands got woozy and passed out. I continued rolling as Tony applied cold compresses and Molly's friend fed her a sandwich. The tattoo wasn't finished, but my deadline loomed. Still, I'd found an interesting little story and I felt good about it.
That feeling lasted for about 30 minutes.
As my fellow grunts aired their footage, I saw that I'd picked far too complex a subject. Hot-dog vendors and pizza guys and florists – that's where the action was. I was making the same mistake over and over: it wasn't enough to complete the exercise. The subject had to be worthy of a story.
By the time I was in the hot seat, my good feeling had vanished. Sure, I'd filmed the angles I needed to. But my needle shots were not nearly tight enough. And that brilliant footage of Molly passing out? Unusable. Before Dirck and PF even spoke the words, I knew I would be making the walk of shame the next day: I was going to re-shoot.
All of this was academic until we were introduced to Final Cut Pro – which could have its own workshop – as we edited our stories. Learning the editing program helped me to shoot better.
By the time I started the final project, I was starting to feel something that resembled confidence. I'd found a young couple left homeless by a job layoff. The boyfriend's story was heartbreaking, but homeless camps next to airports are, as a rule, terrible places for an interview. I still felt pretty good about what I'd done, but I was mentally and physically drained from spending my days shooting and thinking and my nights fretting over all the shots I'd missed. We edited until our eyes bled or until PF kicked us out at midnight – whichever came first. Everyone wore the same bleary-eyed expression.
Eventually, we ran out of time. We put the finishing touches on our stories and waited for judgment. My mouth was dry as the lights dimmed. My story, which looked pretty good on my laptop, now glared back at me on the big screen.
My classmates produced some impressive stories. Among the gems were Scott May's quirky take on "the last renaissance man" and Ann Hutchinson's moving and sensitive story of a mentally disabled woman. Kevin Udahl and Greg Fulmes found Lefty, a one-handed guitar player and barfly; Dennis Whitehead made a behind-the-scenes piece on the making of Lefty's story. One by one, I watched as my classmates transformed from shaky amateurs to talented storytellers. We were no longer grunts.
Maya Alleruzzo is a photographer for The Associated Press, based in Baghdad. She previously worked for The Washington Times for seven years. Since 2003, Maya has focused on covering the war in Iraq and its impact at home.