This week I was so honoured to be flown to Washington D.C. as a guest of the nonprofit organization ONE, an astonishingly awesome grassroots and advocacy group co-founded by Bono (yes, that Bono).  ONE's stated purpose is to fight poverty and preventable diseases, particularly in Africa.  I've been a fan of this organization for some time, primarily because their work is advocacy and public awareness:  they never ask for a dime of money, but instead, they use their completely nonpartisan influence to help persuade global leaders to focus on policies and programs designed to save lives, educate children, and generally improve futures -- all causes I can certainly get behind. 

On this particular trip, several bloggers were flown in to participate in the launch of ONE's campaign to help promote the funding of childhood vaccinations again pneumonia and diarrhea -- two of the largest killers of children in poor and developing countries.  The event was held at the National Press Club, and we heard from The Van Zandt family, who shared their daughter's story: she was adopted from Romania and has ongoing health issues that could have been completely prevented had her orphanage had the ability to give her a vaccine.  In addition, Dr. Robert Block, the President-Elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics (shown in the image at the top of this post), spoke on how vaccines have saved countless lives, both in the United States and abroad. 

ONE's hope for this campaign is to save the lives of 4 million children over the next 5 years. It is obviously a daunting task, but ONE feels that it's an achievable goal.  And given the successes that ONE has been a part of, I've no doubt that they can make it happen.

After the press conference, I had the opportunity to walk around Washington and photograph a few of the landmarks.  My, but DC is a venerable city:






It was truly an incredible trip, and I'm so grateful to ONE for letting me be a part of it.  To learn more about ONE and their current vaccine campaign, you can click here, and also watch their brand new, criminally cute video, below.  Then, if you're so moved, please consider becoming a member of ONE (and for those of you who are not in the United States, you can click here to join).  It takes next to no time to do, and again, this costs nothing:  as ONE is fond of saying, they're not asking for your money, just your voice.

Have a great weekend, everybody.


Images:  All photographed with my Nikon D200, 50mm lens.  FROM TOP TO BOTTOM -- The 3 photos from the press conference: aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/160, ISO 400; the street sign, the White House and the base of the Washington Monument:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/8000, ISO 400;  the World War II Memorial:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/3200, ISO 200;  the statue of the Vietnam soldiers:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/1600, ISO 200;  the Abraham Lincoln Memorial:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/2000, ISO 400.

SongOne by U2


Feeling real, deep gratitude for Marcus, today.  I'm very lucky that I have someone who supports me and what I choose to do with my life and career so unflinchingly.  I fervently hope that I return the favour.


Happy Love Thursday, everyone.


Image:  Marcus' orchids -- something else he takes great care of.  Photographed with my Nikon D200, 50mm lens.  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/200, ISO 400.


SongSomebody loved by The Weepies

on taking the bull by the horns

Every now and then I'm possessed of an idea for a project or an adventure that scares the bejeezus out of me.  My first inclination is to forget I ever thought of it.

This doesn't always work.

If I realize that I'm having a hard time letting go of the idea, then I know it's time to actually pay a bit of attention to it, even though it scares me.  Someone told me recently that they heard that whatever it is that scares you is what you should do. I don't know that that's true in every case, but I have to admit that there are certain things that I've done in my life -- like become certified in scuba diving, or write a book -- that certainly started out as a scary idea that I couldn't stop thinking about.  So perhaps there is something to that.

Anyway, first, I figure out exactly what it would take to do whatever harebrained idea is stuck in my craw.  I actually figure out the first steps: for scuba diving, it meant finding a school locally where I could take classes.  For writing the book, it meant connecting with my friend's friend who was in the publishing business, to figure out what was required to get a book published.  Nothing too detailed at first -- just a bit of research to figure out how big of a situation I'm about to get myself into.

And if, after doing that, I'm still thinking about doing it, then it's time.  It's time to take that very first baby step, that very first thing that indicates I'm committed.

Then, it's easy -- just one foot in front of the other, baby.  It's the first step that's the scariest, the rest is just the stuff that has to be done.

So, is it just me?  Do you ever do things that scare you? Do you have any crazy ideas rattling around your brain that you're too frightened to start?

What would it take for you to grab the bull by the horns?


Image:  Photographed at the ranch of The Pioneer Woman last year with my Nikon D300, 24mm lens (borrowed from Nikon).  aperture: 22, shutter speed 1/30, ISO 200.

SongCrazy, as performed by Alanis Morrissette

occasionally technical tuesday: how i take portraits

Sarah.  Playful, quick-witted, warmhearted.


This weekend I realized that other than Kyran's, I hadn't shared with you the portraits that I took at the Mom 2.0 Summit in New Orleans over a week ago.  So as I was processing the photographs, I realized that they gave me the perfect opportunity to write an Occasionally Technical Tuesday post on taking portraits.  Now, remember, I've mentioned before that I'm certainly no expert, and am completely self-taught when it comes to photography; however, I do love taking portraits (and am on a quest to shoot 1000 faces, after all), so I figured I'd share some of the observations I've made along the way.


I don't know how it is for other photographers (and at the risk of sounding really, horribly and almost unforgivably shmaltzy), but taking someone's photograph feels very intimate to me.  I suppose if I were posing people when I took a portrait, it probably wouldn't; however, I hate posed photographs, and actually am less interested in getting someone's "good side" or a "flattering angle"; rather, I'm more interested in capturing a glimpse of a person's spirit.  And when I do, it feels like the person who I'm photographing has allowed me to see something they don't necessarily always allow others to see, and it makes me feel grateful, and frankly, humbled.  It's like I've just seen something perhaps I haven't yet necessarily earned the right to.  It's an incredibly gratifying feeling.

Anyway, for this reason, at times it can be very difficult to take the photograph of a total stranger who simply walks up to me asking me to take their portrait, because unless I'm also of a mind to take a portrait, it can sometimes feel like forced intimacy.  I usually feel the need to connect with the person in some small way, first.  It's important for me to watch the person for a moment, speak to them a bit (or watch them speaking to someone else), just to build an initial impression of their personality before I ever think about raising the camera to my face. I like to watch how their eyes flash when they hear something funny, or soften when they talk about someone they love, or how their brows furrow when speaking of something that concerns them.  Getting this first impression, by the way, doesn't necessarily take a long time -- sometime it's instantaneously -- but doing so helps me find what's beautiful about their spirit, and helps me focus on what I want to shoot.

For example:  the people whose images I shot for this post aren't all close friends -- a few are people who I met only a few minutes before I took the shot.  But in each case, I formed an impression of them before I took the shot, and hoped that I captured that impression once I squeezed the shutter.  (And for what it's worth, in addition to linking to their sites, I wrote my impressions of each of them under the portraits, so you can judge for yourself if you see those traits in their images.)

Does that make sense, or does it seem totally strange?

Anyway, once I've done this, then comes the more technical part of shooting the image.  And the following is what I think about when I shoot:

Jennifer.  Joyful, exuberant, enchanting.


Location, location, location.

I always look for a place with lots of natural light (because, honestly, I don't even pretend to know how to use a flash), without any harsh shadows (which I discussed when we talked about overhead vs. diffused light, here).  If it's bright-sunny-midday light, then I look for some sort of shelter -- shade provided by a tree or the overhang of a building, so I still get the outdoor light, without any of the weird shadows.  Overcast skies (like the skies that were around when I photographed Jennifer, above) are ideal.

Then secondly, once I've found good light, I take a moment to check out what's behind my subject. Nothing is more disappointing than taking what I know will be a great photograph of someone, and then discover that behind them was a pile of garbage cans, or telephone lines or someone's bottom (it happens), distracting the viewer's gaze from the subject's lovely face.  So I'm always very conscious about what's behind the person.  Foliage is always great, or small twinkle lights in the background (as in Sarah's image at the top of this post) or even a strong colour, but only if the colour is a good colour for that person (i.e, someone who doesn't look good in yellow won't take a particularly flattering photo if you put them in front of a bank of yellow flowers).  Make sense?  It's just about being mindful about what's in the entire frame before squeezing the shutter.

Caleb.  Easy-going, discerning, focused.


Anissa.  Indomitable, irreverent, irresistable.


April.  Driven, no-nonsense, straight-talker.


I get in close.

In my opinion, a really lovely portrait often requires getting in nice and close to the subject -- it creates a sense of intimacy for the viewer (not to mention I think faces are generally the most interesting physical parts of people, anyway).  I try to fill the frame with the person's face and neck, usually. Generally, I like to err on the side of being really close than really far away.  And remember, for portraits, lenses between 50mm-100mm usually work best.

Sarah.  Serene, friendly, faith-full.

 Polly.  Light-filled, enthusiastic, lovingkind.


I take tons of shots, always focusing on the eyes.

Back in the day, when I shot with a film camera, I had to be very sparing with my shots -- because, honestly, processing film gets expensive.  So in my world, God bless the digital camera, where I can take tons of shots without really thinking about it.  And therefore, while I don't take a lot of time with people when I shoot (each of these shots were taken in less than 5 minutes), I shoot a lot.  I'm often talking, or making jokes or whatever, trying to help the subject forget about the camera (which obviously, is often easier said than done).  And in a pinch, I sometimes have the person close their eyes and think about someone they love, before they open their eyes and look directly into my camera lens -- and then I take several shots before they realize what has happened.

And speaking of eyes -- remember, the eyes are the windows to the soul.  I always focus directly on the eyes, with the goal of making them sharpest, when it comes to focus.  It's a general portrait photographer's trick in taking a perfect shot, and it's a good one.

Kristen. Guileless, open, sincere.


Rita. Perceptive, creative, witty.


And then sometimes, I just throw all the rules out the window.

In the case of photographing Rita, above, I got several beautifully sharp portraits of her -- but it was this shot, taken while she was rocking forward in laughter over something Polly (7th photo from the top) had said off-camera, that I truly loved:  because as blurry as it is, it totally captures Rita's spirit.  And again, this is always ultimately my goal: to give a glimpse of the beauty that's inevitably inside each person I photograph.

Hope this helps, friends.  And for those of you who are experienced photographers, if you have any additional tips about how to take a good portrait, please share them in the comments below.  I'm always looking for good pointers.


Occasionally Technical Tuesday is a new feature here on Chookooloonks, where we'll tackle topics like choosing a camera, how a camera works, how I choose lenses, how I use Photoshop, how I pack for a photo trip, that sort of thing.  You can see an entire index of subjects we've addressed here.  I'm no expert, but I'll share what I know, occasionally.


Images:  All photographed with my Nikon D300 and 50mm lens.  Sarah:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 250; Jennifer:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 250;  Caleb:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 200;  Anissa:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/160, ISO 250;  April:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 250;  Sarah:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 200;  Polly:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/1600, ISO 250;  Kristen:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 250;  Rita:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/1600, ISO 250.


Song: Beautiful by G. Love featuring Tristan Prettyman


random thoughts: magnolias, ixoras and other cultural symbols

Friday afternoon, as we drove into our driveway after running some errands, I noticed that our magnolia tree was in full bloom.  "Marcus," I said, "can you help me cut down some of the flowers?  I want to photograph them."  So Marcus parked the car, got some garden shears out of the garage and followed me to the garden to help me choose some branches to cut.

A few minutes later, as I arranged them in vase of water to place in our entryway, I thought about how southern magnolia branches are, particularly when haphazardly arranged in a large vase and placed in an entryway. It felt sort of weird that I, who do not consider myself southern American in any way, shape or form, was doing something I considered extremely southern, simply because of where we live now.  Obviously, it wasn't the act of putting flowers in a vase that was southern so much, but more that it was magnolia branches, and standing in my air conditioned kitchen while I arranged them to put them in our entryway that made it so.

And then I thought that if we still lived in Trinidad, I probably would've been doing the exact same thing on a Friday afternoon, except the kitchen windows would've been open to let in the sea breeze, and they would've been branches from an ixora bush instead of a magnolia tree, and placing them in our entryway would've felt quintessentially Trini.   And in England, in the village where Marcus grew up, what would it have been -- standing in a kitchen with the radiator going? Hydrangea branches?

It made me wonder how Alex is growing up -- does she feel Texan?  Trinidadian?  English?  Some sort of weird combination of the three?  With the different foods, the different music and yes, the different flowers in her home and in her friends' homes, will she self-identify with a particular culture?  With all of them?

Does it matter?

To be honest, I don't think it does, one way or the other.  But as I think of all the things that we make a point of doing to make our house feel like home -- my baking (like my mother did), cooking Trinidadian food, listening to music; or Marcus making "full English roasts" for Sunday lunch, and all of us-- including Alex -- drinking copious amounts of tea (hot, like in Trinidad & England, not cold, like in Texas), I can't help but wonder:  when Alex leaves home, and living wherever in the world she chooses to live, making her family however she does, what culture will she reminisce about while standing in her kitchen arranging flowers for her entryway?

I sort of hope she'll think of her Trini mother arranging Texan magolia branches while sipping her English breakfast tea.

* * * * * * *

By the way, the winner of the giveaway for the books Planting Dandelions and The Beauty of Different is Jess, who said "What a great giveaway. Yes Please!"  Congratulations, Jess!  Keep a lookout for my email, so you can send me your snail mail details.  And thanks to all who entered!


Image:  Photographed with my Nikon D200, 50mm lens.  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/200, ISO 400


Song: Trini to d bone by David Rudder

planting dandelions, the beauty of different and a giveaway

This is my friend Kyran, whose book I mentioned in this post, and who I happily was able to connect with while I was in New Orleans.  I talked Kyran into allowing me to photograph and interview her for Own Your Beauty, and I'm so glad she said yes:  not only is she obviously quite lovely to photograph, it gave me an opportunity to compliment her directly about Planting Dandelions.  Her publisher had sent me an advance copy, and I read it while I was on my flight to Towson.  It's a smart read, with certain parts of it that will make you laugh out loud, others will have you choking back tears, and even others you'll find yourself feeling a bit uncomfortable -- and for me, any book that will have you experiencing all those emotions is a good one.  She reminds me of a latter-day Erma Bombeck, writing in a very real and raw way of life as a wife and mother in the 21st century (not to mention that as an immigrant to the US herself, there were certain parts of it that felt very familiar).  Really enjoyable.

After buttering her up, she let me have a second copy of the book, and because I've been wanting to do a giveaway for a while of my book, I thought, dude, it's Easter, Mother's Day fast approaches, so why not give away both books at the same time?

So simply leave a comment below (wherever in the world you may be), and I'll pick a winner at random to win a copy of both books -- I'm kicking myself for not getting Kyran to sign her copy; however, I promise that my book will be made out to whomever you like.  So you can keep them both, or give them both to your Mom for Mother's Day, or keep one and gift the other -- whatever works for you.

I'll pick the winner sometime on Sunday, and announce on Monday's post.  Until then, have a great weekend (and Happy Easter!) to you all.


Images: Both shot with my Nikon D300, 50mm lens.  Kyran's portrait:  aperture 1.4, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 320.  The books:  aperture 1.8, shutter speed, 1/100, ISO 200


Song: I feel it all by Feist.  Today's song chosen for you today by Kyran.

no doubt it's unfolding as it should

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world...
...Strive to be happy.

~ from Desiderata


As an antidote to some of the horrible stories we see every day in the news, for the songs today, I wanted to share with you two videos that I recently found on the internet that cheered me greatly, and reminded me that both our planet and its people are capable of great beauty.


The first was originally shared by my friend Heather Armstrong, featuring dancer Li'l Buck, moving to the music of famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.  The result is mesmerizing:


And secondly, found via awesome travel blogger Andrew Hyde, the stunning photography of Terje Sorgjerd, of the night sky.

The Mountain from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.



Enjoy, friends.  And happy Love Thursday.


Images:  Photographed with my Nikon D300, 60mm micro lens.  aperture 3.2, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 200


list #20: my travel survival kit

Yesterday, I shared with you how I decide what to pack for a trip from a photographers' standpoint; today, I thought I'd share what I pack from a this-is-what-works-for-me-so-I-don't-lose-my-cool-while-on-a-potentially-stressful-trip standpoint.  Because while I was in New Orleans, my roommate, my sweet and long-suffering friend, Maile, was forced to witness some of my obsessive preparations for business travel, particularly when it comes to events and trips where I know I'm going to be crazy-busy.  

"Dude, this is so a blog post," she said, looking at me, somewhat stunned.

"Whatever," I replied.  "Here, take a Vitamin C.  You don't want to get sick."

(I tend to mother a bit. Pray for me.)

Anyway, taking Maile's cue, the photograph above is generally what I take with me every time I get on a plane.  I carry a cavernous handbag when I travel, so the items above are always with me as carry-on, because if I happen to get off the plane at my destination and my luggage hasn't followed, these are often the only things that will help me keep my head on.

So! Starting from the top left, and going clockwise:

1. Halls Defense Vitamin C Drops.  I live in fear of getting ill (because nothing is worse than being sick when you have a young child, am I right?), and sitting in a pressurized tin can with recycled air hurtling through the sky at hundreds of fear-inducing miles per hour seems like a great way to do it.  So I found these awesome Vitamin C drops that taste like sweets (as opposed to some of those other preventative mixes or drinks that don't taste very good).  I always throw a bag or two of these in my handbag, and eat them like candy while I'm traveling -- literally as often as I would a breath mint.  I've also been known to hand them out at conferences to other people who are also traveling.  I figure it can't hurt, and, knock wood, I haven't caught a cold from a trip in a while.

2.  A baggie full of my favourite tea bags.  I'm not sure when I started carrying tea bags with me on flights, but it's one of my favourite ideas I've ever had.  The thing is, I've never had a decent cup of coffee (or tea, for that matter) on a flight, but flights always have hot water, and thankfully, it's hard to screw up hot water.  So I with the cup of hot water kindly provided to me by the flight attendant, I make my tea exactly as I like.  Because the bags aren't liquid, there's no problem getting them on the plane; and then, once I get to my destination, it's a great way to wind down at the end of the day -- I just go to the front desk of my hotel and get a pot of hot water (and most hotels feel guilty about charging you for hot water, so it's usually free).  Similarly, I take tea bags with me to conferences, so that I can just get a cup of hot water and take it with me into the conference room.

3.  Mini-speakers for my iPhone.  These particular speakers were a gift from AOL (part of the swag from some conference or another), and they're great for turning your hotel room into a particularly peaceful place when you plug them into your mp3 player or iPhone (with a pre-established playlist of calming music, of course).  These gift speakers aren't working all that well anymore (which is to be expected from a freebie), so I actually just purchased these really inexpensive ones, which are on their way to me now.  Again, I just keep them in a pocket of my handbag, so I know they're always with me.

4.  My iPhone.  I mean, obviously, I like to travel with my phone on me, but there are a couple of things I do to prepare my phone for the trip:

a)  I preload the phone and cell numbers of anyone I'm meeting on the other end (a car service, the person picking me up at the airport, people who I know I'm going to be meeting), just in case I need to contact them in an emergency;

b)  I preload my schedule into the phone's calendar.  I go through conference schedules and look for sessions that I know I really want to attend, or parties that I know I need to make an appearance, but also, I actually schedule downtime, complete with alarms.  I know if I don't make time to go hide by myself every once in a while, by the end of the day, I'll be really crabby.  So I ensure I've built in time to take care of myself -- go back to my room to read, or do a bit of work, or even nap or shower.  Whatever I can do to keep me calm.  And then I stick to my schedule.

c)  I preload music that calms me, to use with the speakers in #3, above.  Often, it's just my 8tracks mix of the month, but in any event, I've always got my tunes with me (perfect for when I'm back in my room during that downtime, with my cup of tea and my good book).

5.  Business cards.  Not that I give them out all that frequently, but whenever I forget them, I regret it, because wouldn't-you-know-it, there's someone I want to give one to.

6.  My journal and favourite pens.  I journal every day, and the way I journal calms me.  (You can see my favourite journaling tools by clicking on the link here).  It's good to have my journal with me on long, boring flights; but I also try to keep journaling while I'm at the hotel as well, to give me some continuity with my routine at home.

7.  My American Apparel super-sheer circle scarf.  I blame my friend Maggie for this one -- she was wearing one last year at a conference, and I fell so in love with it, I had to buy one for myself.  I wear this thing constantly.  What makes it so great is that it's so large, it can be worn many different ways -- so on cold flights or conference rooms, I can turn it into a wrap or a shawl.  And because it's so lightweight, I wear it year-round.  I love this thing.

8.  An old rosary my mother gave me years ago.  Did I mention I'm petrified of flying?

So that's it!  If you have anything that you keep in your travel survival kit, I'd love if you'd share it in the comments.  I'm always looking for whatever can help keep my travel as stress-free as possible.


Image:  Photographed with my Nikon D300, 35mm lens.  aperture 1.8, shutter speed 1/125, ISO 400.


Song: Come away with me by Norah Jones