race car driver

Today I had a great photo shoot.  I was tasked with photographing a group of 7-year-olds who all have movement disorders.  When I asked for a definition of that, one of the supervisors said that they weren’t especially good at coordinating their left and right sides.  So, for example, one of the kids just seemed a bit lax about using his left hand as much as he should when doing a two-handed task.  The great thing is, kids are kids no matter what’s going on.  And kids that age are just plain cool.  They are still innocent, fun to hang with, fun to goof around with and totally natural in front of a camera.  This group of kids was so much fun right from the start and I got excited to take some cool pics.  Luckily, we were shooting at the Lifetime Fitness workout club who generously donates their climbing wall to these young guys and gals once a week.  So instead of this being “therapy” in the traditional sense, the climbing class was more like on-the-job training for life’s little obstacles, the obstacle in this case being a 35 foot high climbing wall.

As soon as I arrived, I was confronted with a set of “rules” regarding photography.  They were pretty standard, but one stood apart as particularly troublesome.  I couldn’t shoot any photos while the kids were actually climbing.  The suggestion was, tell the kid to stop climbing, have them turn toward the camera and then I can snap the photo.  I knew this was going to be difficult to adhere to as I planned to get good action shots.  They explained that the rule was a safety issue to make sure that no children or adults are distracted by the camera or flash resulting in a dangerous fall.  Fair enough.

At first, it was very awkward.  I chose not to use a flash so as not to be disruptive or alienating.  The room was mostly top-lit with coldish tungsten with tall windows on the sides.  But the sun was going down and I had to push up my ISO to 500 to get the shutter speed I needed, something I cringe doing with my APS-sized sensor.  The logistics of the shots were proving to be difficult as well.  I would ask the physical therapist to ask the kids to pause at a certain height above the ground.  That would be relayed to the kid, the kid would awkwardly stop in mid-climb (something difficult for anyone to do) and I’d try to get a few shots in the one or two seconds I had before they wanted to start climbing again.  Often an arm or a rope would get in the way, and I’d ask to get a second or third shot.  I didn’t necessarily want “advocacy shots”, them looking into the camera, as I wanted more natural action shots.  After a while, I got into the spirit of the rule and used a long telephoto far from the climbers so as not to distract them.  But for the close shots, the kids were great at just acting.  I’d have them look up, reach for a distant handhold, all safely and not when they were actually climbing, and the effect was great.  The kids are natural performers groaning to get into character sometimes.

The great thing was that all of these kids were totally functional and adapted to the task.  Granted, this wasn’t their first class, but I saw the same sorts of behaviors among them that I’ve seen at any child-infested Dicks’s Sporting Goods’s climbing walls.  The kids are just full of energy bursting to get out.  When they aren’t climbing, some would jump and jump and jump on the bouncy rubber footing that was the ground cover.  Even after three or four climbs to the top, they were still ready to rock.  I could also see the direct benefit of the class helping these kids with coordination.  The motivation wasn’t some artificial device in a rehab room and an expectant look, the motivation was to not fall off the wall.  Some of the older kids in the later class also started to pick up the jovial swagger of seasoned professionals, climbing the walls with attention on routes and technique rather than any sort of focus on therapy.

Searching for a different angle, I wanted to shoot down on the climbers from the roof.  There seemed to be a small space at the top of the climbing walls where I might just fit, so I asked one of the instructors if there was a way to get up there.  He said, “I guess we could put you in a harness.”  I was thinking stairs.  So I thought about it, and after seeing these kids climb the extreme parts three and four times now, I figured I’d cowboy up.  I mean, at work I wear 5.11 cargo pants every day and various North Face and REI shirts instead of the usual button down shirt, tie and slacks uniform everyone else is required to wear.  I might as well take advantage of that fact.  So I changed lenses to a 50mm (because it’s physically short), climbed into a harness, changed lenses again (to a 12-24mm because it’s wider to catch all of the kids on different walls), let the belayer guy who I just met rope me in and I tried to prepare myself.  I also took my time retying my shoes.

I haven’t climbed a wall in years.  I slung the camera across my body and tried to keep the three point rule in my head, i.e. always keep at least two feet and a hand or two hands and a foot on the wall at all times.  I also tried not to rush.  I figure it’s like a free-throw, just you and your task.  So I took my time, chose route, tried not to compromise with my handholds, tried to relax and eventually I made it up to the top.  I was really happy, but also straining at the wall at that point trying to relax.  The only problem was, I went up the straight vertical wall because it was easier than the “leaning out over the floor” wall.  The belay rope I was attached to was dangling down the more difficult wall to my right.  So when the belayer was ready, I let go and swung quickly to the right.  Trying not to slam myself or $6000 worth of camera into the wall, I spread my feet apart and landed pretty easily in the right place.  I had kind of planned it and it went how I thought.  But someone down below went, “woo!” which made me happy.  Someone said I was like Spiderman.  Haha.  But I was tense all over trusting their equipment that I hadn’t taken that long to put on.  The belayer was doing a good job holding me in place and I turned my body as much as possible to get an angle on the kids without getting my own body in the shot.

Of course, all of the kids were just watching me, they weren’t climbing.  So I had to wait for them to all get ready, hook up, etc.  So as they did that, I had to stop myself from staring down at them and staring and staring.  I turned and looked back up at the wall, tried to relax, tried to settle into the harness and turned back to see the kids already halfway up the different walls around me.  So I took a few shots, immediately wished I had brought the 50 or the 105mm up with me to get the shot I envisioned, framed and reframed and took a few more.  They weren’t the best but oh well.  I was ready to get down.

When I made it to the bottom, one of the kids ran up to me and handed his two fists to me.  I grabbed his fists but looked confused and he said that he was giving me milk for strength.  I could see that he was holding imaginary straws so I slurped from each one by one and he ran away smiling.  It was awesome.  He reminded me of my 3-year-old niece and I was happy that at 7, kids are still as cool as they are at 3.  Like all adults, I want to be cool to kids, and I felt cool to these kids.

It’s not every day I get paid to have this much fun.  As I walked out into the snowy evening with the tons of equipment that I didn’t use for the shoot, I was happy that programs like this exist.  I am also happy that I was able to experience this one with these great kids if only for a short moment.

  1. Barb Hailely January 25, 2010

    I knew you were going to love this shoot. Wish I couldv’e been there. Hope I can do the program justice in 300 words!

    • Jon Hillenbrand January 25, 2010

      I never know what to expect with any of my shoots. So I was pleasantly surprised with this one. Thanks for coming up with the idea to put it into Inside NorthShore. 300 words doesn’t sound like a lot but something something brevity.

  2. Terra January 26, 2010

    Wow! I love your details in your post…I felt like I was there holding my breath for you!
    Let me know if you ever need an assistant or second shooter…I would be there in two seconds for pennies!

    (please note..if you look at my website, just know I am attempting to revamp…adding portrait shots and experimenting in boudoir. Facebook has my most recent boudoir photos…search Terra Lynn Photography to see)

  3. Anne March 31, 2010

    LOVE LOVE LOVE the milk offering. Thanks for the amazing read, you are such a great storyteller. An incredible trait to one day pass on to your future kids =)

    • Jon Hillenbrand April 1, 2010

      Thanks! I thought that kid was cool too. It’s fun when you meet someone actively using their imagination in an innocent way.


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