Winning a Trip to SF and a Role in a Documentary

It’s only been in the last year or so, that I’ve gotten really into photography, and even more recently, within the last 6 months, gotten into participating in daily photo challenges on Instagram. I opened up my private profile around that time, and now post a few times a day, often as entries into contests.

My favorite IG community is also the largest, JJ Community, and they have a fun challenge every day, that has really helped me push my skills and to try new things. It’s also really inspirational seeing how other photographers take on each photo challenge, and the community is really supportive and inspiring overall. It absolutely fits the description of ‘community and not competition.’

In July, JJ Community hosted a daily photo challenge that was a bit extra-special. They’ve done challenges with prize rewards before, but this time, the winner of the challenge would receive a trip to San Francisco, from Neighborhood Film Company, to meet up with Ricky Staub (from Neighborhood Film), Eric Ward and Craig Hensel (who are crazy-good photographers and big Instagrammers), at the end of a cross-country road trip they were taking, in which they spent documenting how Instagram is truly a real-life community.

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These guys travelled across the entire U.S., camping out, going on adventures, sleeping in Eno hammocks under the stars, doing crazy stunts with a couple of Jeep Renegades (that’s me sitting in the Jeep in that pic!), participating in Instameets, taking amazing photos, meeting friends in person, who they had only ever connected with previously on Instagram, and documenting it all, to prove that social media, contrary to what many say, fosters community and real-life connection. In winning this challenge, one person would have the opportunity to participate in this documentary!

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To take part in that day’s challenge, #jj_connecting, each entrant had to find a photo, and write a caption, that showed and explained how Instagram had helped them connect, in real life. Many entrants submitted extremely moving stories about making real-life friends, having support during tragedy from friends made on IG, and I read through so many of them that reduced me to tears. I felt inspired to submit that day, but I put a little twist on it: I wrote about how photography was a factor in helping get past my postpartum depression, by allowing me to see the beauty in my life with my children, through an outsider’s perspective, and it allowed me to connect with them, and with my own life. Then, sharing those photos on IG allowed me to connect with other parents and creatives, in a really meaningful and supportive way. I truly didn’t think I would even be a finalist in the challenge, but it felt really wonderful to share, and the supportive comments from community members were, as always, lovely and just what I needed to hear after sharing something so personal that day. It was healing to share it.

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(I’ve written here about my PPD journey once before, but I shared it in a different way that day in July, and focused on how I came out of it through photography, being creative, gaining a different perspective, and connecting with my kids. You can see my winning Instagram post here.)

So, I shared my post, hash-tagged it appropriately, read and commented on some fellow entrant’s submissions, and waited to see who won. Nothing was posted that day, and I thought to myself, “oh, maybe they told the winner privately and they’ll announce it when the documentary comes out, or something.” But, I kept checking over the next day. I had poured my heart into my submission, and even though I truly didn’t expect to win, I wanted to see who would!

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Then, a couple of days later, Ricky, Eric, and Craig all “liked” my submission. I thought, “hm, that’s cool! They must be doing that to some of the submissions as an acknowledgement and a thanks for participating.” Then, Ricky and Craig both commented on my photo submission telling me they were moved by my story, and were reading it on the road at that moment, out-loud in their Jeep as they had just embarked on this epic road trip. I thought it was so nice of them and then I knew: I hadn’t won, but they had appreciated my entry, and that was cool.

BUT, then, a little while later that day, I got a direct message telling me I was a finalist and they wanted to Face Time interview me! It was one of those hectic mom days where I had barely managed to brush my teeth, have half of my coffee, and put clean sweats on, while I juggled 2 clingy kiddos, so, I frantically gave my girls their lunches, ran to my husband’s in-home office to tell him I needed his help for a minute with the girls, ran to my bathroom, and slapped some makeup on my face so I didn’t look quite as exhausted, just in time for the FaceTime call.

When I answered and Ricky switched it to visual, the 3 of them were literally driving on the road, in motion, in the middle of the country! Eric was in the passenger seat and I saw about half of his face. Craig was driving and started talking to me first, and I saw mostly a lot of beard, and Ricky was in the back middle and until he had his giant camera up, I saw him the clearest.

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They all said some really nice things about my submission, and my mind and heart were racing because it was a little weird talking to people on FaceTime who I had never met before, and I knew they knew a really personal story about me–which made me feel pretty vulnerable. They asked me to tell them a little bit more about my story, and I started absolutely bawling. Here I was, this frazzled mom, sobbing in front of 3 strange dudes, as they were driving down the road. And THEN, Ricky took out his giant camera and started filming the crying FaceTime session! I could have been so embarrassed, but the 3 of them were so kind and made me feel comfortable being candid. Once I finished with the waterworks, they looked at each other and said, “should we tell her?” “Yeah, let’s tell her, YOU WON!”

I freaked out. I was so exited. Then, both Kevin Kuster and Josh Johnson of JJ Community contacted me personally, just to congratulate me, offer support, advice, and make sure I was comfortable with everything. Kevin took the time to call me and make sure I knew how to contact him if I needed anything during the trip, and I was so touched by that. Josh congratulated me and also directed me to a post where he had shared his own personal story about battling depression from a few years before. I should have known that the positive community of JJ would be led by such kind people!

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The next week, Ben and I flew to SF for one overnight stay, and it was a crazy-fun whirlwind. We started with an Instagram meet-up and it was freezing. Craig was so kind to me, and gave me his sweatshirt off his own back, and froze the rest of the time himself, so I could be warm. At that meet-up, Merrell provided some delicious food and I got to meet some cool Instagrammers from SF, as well as take a couple of foggy shots of the city.

Then, that night, Ben and I got to shoot LATE into the night with Craig and Eric. We did some really cool light-painting shots by the Golden Gate Bridge (like the one I linked above with the Jeep), we were crazy and got out of the car in the middle of a tunnel, twice, to take some shots, like this one (that’s me, too!) and then were chased out by some joyriders. As we sped out of the tunnel, Eric realized with a sinking stomach that he’d left his iPhone on the ground in the tunnel, because he’d had it lighting up one of the Jeep’s wheels for a shot. We waited for the joyriders to clear, and as we drove back in, in trepidation, knowing it was probably crushed, but holding out hope it wasn’t, we saw the faint flashlight light of the phone, beaming upward, a little bit pathetically. It was indeed smashed. It still functioned though! Although, weirdly, Siri gave us some odd directions–I think she was angry she got forgotten and then injured. The best part was, the next morning, Eric, with such a positive attitude, stated, “that was so much fun, I don’t even care my phone got broken.” I completely agree, though that might be easier to say for me since it wasn’t my phone!

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The next morning, we met up for breakfast, and then the amazing Eliu Cornielle took me to film my documentary interview, along with the also-talented Ryan Geffert. The guys are total pros, and I felt comfortable being interviewed by them, if just slightly dorky when I was “acting” for what they call B-Roll. I had to walk down stairs, sit and look out with a forlorn expression, walk to a corner, take out my iPhone and snap a photo and then smile, etc. Even not speaking, it was hard! I don’t think I’d make the best actress. I did my interview, on such little sleep from shooting the night before, and cried a bit. They tell me it was great, I hope it made sense through the tears! I felt connected to Eliu right when I met him at the meet-up the night before, and he completely put me at ease when interviewing me. He and I bonded because he said something in Spanish, and I, the red-haired, white girl, replied to him in Spanish. He told me about his family, his own children, showed me a couple of lovely films he’s made, and he worked hard to get me to laugh during the shooting, so I would feel at ease. He’s a very compassionate soul.

Then, we got to drive to Instagram Headquarters (at Facebook HQ), and we were given a tour by Jeffrey Gerson! Jeffrey might be the nicest guy ever, and hospitable: he pretty much forced us to partake in Instagram’s micro-kitchen offerings, which we definitely did! That place is incredible: I don’t think anyone goes there without wanting to work there/ move in. There are restaurants, there is an ice cream shop, there is an arcade, there is one of those little phone-booth lending libraries, there are micro-kitchens in each building, and so many more things. It looks like its own, sweet little town. Apparently there also used to be a sideways room at Instagram, and I was completely bummed they had taken it down shortly before we visited.

Then, almost as soon as it started, the whirlwind was over and I was headed back home to my girls. Overall, it was an incredible experience. I had the opportunity to meet and befriend such deeply talented, warm, kind and creative people, learn from them, and I feel totally and completely blessed to have had the experience. I’m so looking forward to seeing the documentary!

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There are 2 teasers out so far for the film, and you can see them here and here, if you’re interested!