Category Archives: News and views

What’s the latest in the world of photography? This category features the latest entries.

Where would Jesus be born? A self storage unit perhaps?

Nativity scene taken with iPhone4, edited in Instagram. (Sam Lucero photo)


Note: This blog entry originally appeared as an editorial in The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay, where I work as News & Information Manager.


If Joseph and Mary were alive today, looking for a place where Mary could give birth to Jesus, where could they find solace? After some online and empirical research, I’ve concluded that it would not be in a stable filled with animals. No, today it would probably be in a storage unit.

This theory first came to me while driving to work recently. I noticed construction workers pouring concrete in a lot next to an already existing storage unit facility. Apparently the units were all filled and more were needed. On my five-mile drive to work, at least four storage unit facilities exist. Two of them are “climate controlled” and one is heated.

No swaddling clothes needed to stay warm here.

I confess to knowing something about storage units. Before moving to Green Bay in 2008, I rented one to store goods while waiting to buy a new home here.

According to the Self Storage Association (yes, there is such a thing), the self storage industry has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. commercial real estate industry in the last 35 years. There are approximately 46,000 primary self storage facilities in the United States with rentable space that totals 2.22 billion square feet.

That’s a lot of space for wise men, kings and barn animals.

Nearly one in 10 U.S. households currently rents a self storage unit, reports the Self Storage Association, which is up from one in 17 in 1995. It’s a profitable business as well, with the industry grossing $22 billion in 2009.

What do these statistics tell us? I believe they indicate that we Americans are controlled by our possessions. Rental units are no longer used simply to store furniture while a family relocates. Today they serve as long-term rentals to store goods. We own so much that we have to rent storage space to hold all of our stuff that doesn’t fit into closets, attics and garages.

Not all Americans rent storage units. Not the estimated 2 million to 3 million who are homeless every year, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Most of these Americans cannot even afford to rent an apartment. Fortunately, churches and communities team up to provide shelters for the homeless, especially during the winter months.

Isn’t something wrong in our country when there is such a disparity between the haves and the have-nots? When an estimated seven square feet of storage space exists for every man, woman and child in this country, yet homeless shelters struggle to find enough space to accommodate people living on the streets?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the modern-day Joseph and Mary wouldn’t take shelter in a storage unit after all. Storage units have locks to protect all of the worldly possessions inside. Jesus, the Son of God, was born to give hope to the hopeless, to unlock the hardened hearts that bind us to our possessions and blind us to the suffering of others.

Given the choice between a heated storage unit and a crowded homeless shelter, Mary and Joseph would choose the latter. For while the cries of the poor are heard here, so too are the voices of justice that give shelter and comfort. Isn’t their example why the Son of God was born among us?


Below is a gallery of stained-glass images I’ve taken over the years that relate to the Nativity.

Facebook: ‘Repost if you agree’

Facebook is a great place to connect with friends and family across the country and around the globe. It’s also an easy way to reconnect with classmates from long ago. But with the excitement of communicating with people from our past comes the reality that we don’t always share the same views.

This fact was driven home recently as I read a status update from a grade school classmate now living in the southern United States. Like many people on Facebook, he shared an opinion and then ended his comment with the challenge, “Post this as your status if you agree.”

To be honest, I’ve never reposted anyone’s comments on Facebook. The closest I’ve come to doing so were two pithy status updates: “If you agree, repost,” followed by, “If you disagree, repost.”

Those comments led to a few curious responses. I guess the sardonic humor evaded some folks.

Now back to my Facebook friend’s comments.  Not one to reply to opinions contrary to my own, lest I open myself up to an electronic scrum, my friend’s words struck a chord and I found myself writing a quick response. His topic: immigration.

He wrote: “If you cross the North Korean border illegally you get 12 years of hard labor. If you cross the Afghanistan border illegally you get shot. If you cross the U.S border illegally you get: a job, a driver’s license, a place to live, housing benefits, health care, education, child benefits, tax free business for seven years. No wonder we are a country in debt! Post this as your status if you agree.”

Not only did the comments take a complicated issue (one that our federal government and state governments have grappled with for years without consensus) and boil it down to the supposed overriding source of our country’s economic woes, it unjustly condemned our brothers and sisters south of the border who had no vote for the choice of country in which they were born.

To top things off, my friend uses analogies from countries with fascist leanings to describe supposedly better options for treating people who cross borders illegally.

No one denies that immigration is a critical issue that has to be resolved on the federal level. But the problem is that simplistic, draconian solutions will not end illegal border crossings. In so many ways, unfair trade policies and illegal drug use in the United States have caused the migration of Latin America’s poor, seeking a better life, to our country and the onslaught of murders by drug lords along the U.S.-Mexico border.

I had an opportunity to visit the U.S.-Mexico border in 2007 during a border immersion experience sponsored by Maryknoll Lay Missioners (see photos and video below). We visited with missionaries who serve the undocumented along the border of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez and we met many people who crossed the border illegally. Their stories were always the same: An inherent desire to provide for their families, even at the cost of imprisonment and death.

Yes, there are bad apples among the flocks of immigrants, just as there are within any group of people. But to condemn an entire group as thieves, terrorists, law-breakers and worthless freeloaders is inaccurate and an affront to the God who created them.

Back to my Facebook friend’s comments. Without being preachy or condemning, I wrote in response: “And aren’t you lucky you were born in America? Can’t say the same for those not as lucky as me and you.”

Facebook isn’t the place to debate political or religious issues. It’s a platform to state one’s views on these heavy topics and then hope friends will give a “thumbs-up.” It sort of satisfies the shallow approach we take to forming opinions on life-and-death issues. Sometimes I wish Facebook offered a “thumbs-down” option.

Here is a photo slide show with images taken during my border immersion experience in 2007.

Below is a YouTube video I created during my 2007 visit to El Paso. It features West Cosgrove describing the border immersion program sponsored by Maryknoll Lay Missioners.

Meet the man who photographs the pope

I had an opportunity in early May to visit with Paul Haring, staff photographer for Catholic News Service who is based in Rome. Haring has been shooting images at the Vatican since 2009 and his photos are used by Catholic print and electronic publications around the world.

Before moving to Rome, Paul worked five years for CNS in Washington, D.C., where he edited and captioned photos used by the wire service. “The bulk of the editing I did was photos of the pope and the Vatican,” he told me over a bottle of Peroni in the lounge of the Hotel Cicerone, about a 15-minute walk from the Vatican.


Paul Haring photographs in St. Peter's Square during a rare snowfall Feb. 12, 2010. (Photo by Giovanni Lin)

While editing photos from the Vatican, Haring said he realized he could be taking the photos.

“The opportunity came along in 2005,” he said. “CNS wanted to create a staff position. … I volunteered myself for it and in August 2009 my wife and I came over here and we began this grand adventure in Rome.”

Haring says his schedule is based on events at the Vatican.

“I adhere to the schedule of the Vatican, following the activities of the pope. He has two regular events every week — the Wednesday general audience and the Sunday Angelus,” he said. “I photograph both those events and other events the pope has and many other Catholic events throughout the city.”

Haring also does a lot of international photo editing. “I work with L’Osservatore Romano and another agency, Catholic Press Photo. I try to get some of that editing done and some of my own pictures.”

Many of Paul’s images of Pope Benedict are shot with long glass. Most of the close-up shots of the pope are taken by Vatican photographers. Haring said he is within close distance to the pope only on rare occasions.

“I consider it a very privileged opportunity to be close to the pope … maybe less than 10 times a year,” he said. “For the most part we work with long lenses and we try to do the best that we can in that way.”

Asked if he had a favorite image he’s shot, Haring described a photo taken in 2010.

“Every photographer wants to get a good picture of the pope kissing a baby or something like that,” he said. “There was one moment in the basilica where the pope spontaneously went over to a baby. Sometimes the children are brought to him by ushers, but this was completely spontaneous. He was processing out and the baby gave him this angelic look and I got the moment.

“It was very rewarding because it’s very hard to get” engaging photos of the pope, noted Haring. “We have to compete, in a sense, with other photographers who are closer and are trying to get that moment as well. That was a special picture for me.”

Check out the audio slide show I put together for The Compass, which features numerous photos shot by Haring in Italy — including that angelic baby.

Ordination season

May and June are traditionally months set aside for celebrating ordinations in the Catholic Church. In the Diocese of Green Bay, six men were ordained to the diaconate by Bishop David Ricken on May 21. Four of the men, who are married, are permanent deacons. The other two are transitional deacons who will be ordained to the priesthood next year. Next month, Bishop Ricken will ordain two men to the priesthood.

Poor lighting and lack of close proximity to the sanctuary make ordinations — as well as any service — at the Green Bay cathedral a challenge. I usually focus on interesting shots that happen before and after the liturgy, as well as scenes in the pews. Below is a slide show of photos I put together from the May 21 ordination.

Catholic Rules for Twitter?

UPDATE: Jonathan Sullivan (@sullijo), who tweeted the first “Catholic Rules for Twitter” on April 1, is now looking to raise funds for Catholic Relief Services by selling T-shirts and other featuring the logo below. Says Sullivan in a post on Catholic Tech Talk:

“Once the meme took off, I thought it would be cool to make it work for good. To that end we set up a #CatholicRulesForTwitter store where folks can buy shirts and mugs featuring an awesome #CatholicRulesForTwitter logo graciously donated by Jackson Alves. All proceeds go to benefit Catholic Relief Services!”

What started out as an April Fools Day tweet by a Catholic blogger from Washington, D.C., morphed into a humorous “Catholic Rules for Twitter” trending topic on the social networking site Twitter April 1. Within 24 hours, more than 400 tweets and retweets with the Catholic Rules hashtag were posted on Twitter.

Jonathan Sullivan (@sullijo), who tweeted the first "Catholic Rules for Twitter" on April 1, is now looking to raise funds for Catholic Relief Services by selling T-shirts and other items with this logo.

For those unfamiliar with Twitter, it  allows members to send short text messages, 140 characters in length — called “tweets” — to  friends or “followers.” The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a tweet.

The topic, Catholic Rules for Twitter, began Friday morning when Rae J. (@VitaCatholic) posted a tweet that was misinterpreted as critical of a Catholic organization. That organization (@NCBCenter) was trying to attract more Twitter followers.

Wrote @VitaCatholic:

“Apparently @NCBCenter thinks that they deserve to have you following them, even though they don’t actually use Twitter for more than RSS.”

“My dry tweet worked for a few of my followers who promptly followed @NCBCenter, but one took offense on @NCBCenter’s behalf,” Rae J. explained in an e-mail April 2. “After trying to clear up the confusion I tweeted ‘Can someone give me the link to the Catholic Rules For Twitter? I never read it and apparently missed the rule that joking isn’t allowed.'”

Jonathan Sullivan, (@sullijo) who serves as director of catechetical ministries for the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., responded to the tweet.

“I thought I would be helpful and post some rules for her,” Sullivan said in an e-mail reply April 2.

He jokingly wrote: “@VitaCatholic: Never tweet quotes from the NAB without express permission of @USCCB.” He then added the hashtag, #CatholicRulesForTwitter”.

In response to his note, @VitaCatholic posted: “@sullijo: Never retweet @USCCB without their express permission. #CatholicRulesForTwitter”

USCCB stands for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. On Twitter, the conference is identified as @USCCB.

What happened next caused Catholic Rules to go viral.

According to Sullivan, @USCCB jumped into the fray. “Not realizing this was a joke, @USCCB replied, ‘Correction: You do not need permission to retweet our content. Retweet away. #CatholicRulesForTwitter.'”

Within minutes, said Sullivan, @USCCB discovered the Catholic Rules topic was in jest and sent out another tweet: “Okay, okay we get it. You guys got us good. #CatholicRulesForTwitter #AprilFools”

@USCCB, with more than 7,500 followers, then sent out one more tweet: “If you want a good laugh, check out #CatholicRulesForTwitter.”

Soon after the @USCCB post, the Catholic Rules topic went viral, with new rules being posted from around the country.

If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still check out the Catholic Rules by logging on to Twitter and in the search engine type in #catholicrulesfortwitter.

Here are my personal Top 10 Catholic Rules for Twitter, tongue in cheek of course. What are yours?

  1. @iTh0t: Mary turned to the disciples & said, “RT whatever he says.”
  2. @CatholicWAHM: You shall not tweet the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  3. @blueberries4me: Married couples should not block the act of tweeting, but may abstain from tweeting on certain days if necessary.
  4. @MisterRae: Blessed are you when people RT you without credit and tweet all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
  5. @FatherChristian: Tweets about Mary should not imply worship, but rather devotion to the Blessed Mother.
  6. @helenlee27: While tweets should generally be in the vernacular, a concerted effort should be made to preserve the Latin & Greek.
  7. @sullijo: A coadjutor bishop immediately takes over the bishop’s Twitter account when he retires.
  8. @uvaldeattny: Women are not required to cover their heads while tweeting, but in some parishes this is still customary.
  9. @MustBeTheJanay: The mission of the Church is to make known through twitter the love of God to the world.
  10. @KevinBohli: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, tweet.” – St. Francis of Assisi

Lifest: Entertaining Christian music

Christian music can be loud and fun. That’s an indisputable fact. Just ask the thousands of people who attend Lifest, the annual Christian music festival held at the Sunnyview Expo Center in Oshkosh, Wis. This event has been taking place since 1999 and includes five days of music, ministry and fellowship.

This year’s Lifest will be held July 6-10. The headline bands include the Newsboys, Mercy Me, TobyMac and Skillet. I’ve had the opportunity to photograph several musical acts at Lifest the past two years. It’s a great venue with lots of people who are enthusiastic about faith and music. Here is a gallery of photos I put together of Lifest concerts.

Japan’s disaster: Its impact on photography

The human suffering in Japan caused by the massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake and the subsequent 30-foot tsunami has led to an outpouring of relief and prayers from people around the world. With thousands of lives lost and a continuing nuclear disaster that may lead to untold suffering for years to come, it seems a bit flippant to discuss the economic impact, especially as it relates to photography.

Reports are now being compiled by industry leaders that indicate just how severe of an impact these natural disasters will have on the camera and consumer electronics industries.

As we all know, Japan is home to most of the world’s top photo-related products. And while it seems employees of Japan’s camera and consumer electronics companies escaped serious injuries, the same cannot be said for the immediate future of those companies.

Nikon and Canon, the top camera and lens manufacturers in the world, have suffered huge hits.

Nikon’s Sendai manufacturing plant, where the company’s top professional film and digital cameras have been made for decades, is shut down.

Canon’s Utsunomiya plant, where most of the top lenses are made, is also closed. No one knows how long the plants will be out of commission. Nikon cameras that recently went out of production, such as my Nikon D700, now are in shorter supply, sending the prices of available cameras spiraling upward. The D700 jumped from $2,350 one week ago to $2,700.

Prices on cameras like the Nikon D700 will be rising due to Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

New York-based Adorama Camera, one of the top photo retailers in the country, has compiled a damage report of the major consumer electronics manufacturer in Japan. Even companies that were not directly damaged by the earthquake or tsunami are feeling the effects.

Rolling blackouts instituted by the Japanese government are disrupting companies throughout the country and the tsunami has destroyed many freighter ships that transport photographic equipment around the world.

What all of this means to photographers and consumer electronics buffs will be a shortage in supplies and rising costs. Photographer Ken Rockwell, who has an engineering background, has been posting reports about the nuclear cataclysm taking place in Japan, as well as the impact on the photography industry.

“What few others seem to realize is that not only have we lost our camera plants for a while, and maybe longer, is that the plants that make just about everything else we appreciate are dead. Unlike primitive areas, Japan makes a lot of important stuff. The factories that make the chips that run everything are closed, and worse upon worse is that the factories that make the equipment used to make the chips that run everything are closed,” writes Rockwell.

Meet celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart

Cowart speaks at Southwestern Photojournalism Conference

FORT WORTH, Texas — Viewing Jeremy Cowart’s celebrity photography portfolio is like paging through a copy of People magazine. Since switching careers from graphic designer to full-time photographer six years ago, the Nashville-based visual artist has photographed some of the most popular singers, entertainers and professional athletes on the planet.

But capturing images of beautiful, wealthy people is not what defines Cowart’s career. Far from it. Instead, it’s a means to what’s really important in his life: using his God-given talent as a platform to help other people.

“People are very impressed with the fact that I’ve worked with Britney Spears, that I’ve shot Sting, that I’ve done all these different things,” said Cowart. “But to me, at end of day I couldn’t care less. If I’m famous at the end of my life, seriously, who cares? It only means something to me to have a platform if I can use that to point to bigger things than myself.”

Jeremy Cowart

Jeremy Cowart at Southwest Photojournalism Conference (Sam Lucero photo)

Cowart spoke to more than 100 photographers and photojournalism students March 5 at the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. The annual conference is sponsored in part by Christians in Photojournalism.

During his presentation, Cowart described how his career evolved and how he has used it as a platform to call attention to humanitarian causes.

After graduating from college in 1999, he began doing graphic design work at an advertising agency and started his own graphic design company in 2001. He purchased his first digital camera (a Canon G1) in 2003 to shoot images used in designing CD covers. “I really fell in love with photography,” he said. “I took that first leap of faith (in 2005) saying, ‘God here we go. I want to be a full-time photographer.'”

That same year he joined friends who traveled to Africa on a mission trip. “I went on this trip, one month long, and just took pictures,” he said. Images from that trip were featured in a photo book created by one of Cowart’s friends in the publishing world.

Back in Nashville, Cowart’s growing portfolio of local musical artists, caught the attention of an agent in Los Angeles who represents photographers. Cowart flew out to L.A. to meet the agent, taking along a copy of his photo book with images from Africa, and was introduced to her television clients. One client, the E! network, saw his images from Africa. “They loved my Africa book and the next thing I know they hired me to shoot a lot of reality TV shows,” he said. “That was the beginning of my relationship with Hollywood clients — from a link to friends in Africa.”

Cowart displayed many of his celebrity photographs and described how determination and initiative helped make them possible. He also sees God’s hand in the progression of his career.

“Most of the things that have happened for me are small steps, these small moments where God has whispered something in my ear,” he said. “A lot of times you’ll hear people say, ‘How do you know God told you?’ It can only be God because, a lot of times I will have an idea hit me so powerfully, so full of detail, that I’m literally scrambling, opening up my iPhone … and typing these ideas as they are hitting me. The process is so fast. It’s literally God saying, boom, there you go. I’m just trying to write them down. That to me, it could only be God.”

Jeremy Cowart speaks to photojournalists at SWPJC March 5. (Sam Lucero photo)

Cowart said his goal is not to be “a rock star photographer, but to be excellent at what God has called me to do. To use (his skills) to somehow leave a different type of legacy — for the industry, for my children, whatever.”

Oftentimes people ask him about the celebrities he’s photographed, but Cowart said he would rather talk about the humanitarian projects that he’s initiated.

“People are like, ‘What was it like to work with the Kardashians?’ I’m like, it was fine, but what was really cool is what happened the first time we did Help Portrait, the first time that woman saw herself in that portrait.'”

Help Portrait is a project Cowart started in 2008. He and nine other Nashville photographers got together and held portrait sessions for 60 homeless people, then presented them with photos. “What impacted me was how other photographers responded,” he said. “They said, ‘If you ever do this again, let me know. So that’s what gave me the inspiration to turn this into a bigger thing.”

Jeremy Cowart

Jeremy Cowart: "I had no idea the impact that Help Portrait would have." (Sam Lucero photo)

In 2009, Cowart was asked by photographer and Photoshop expert Scott Kelby to write a guest blog on Kelby’s web site. He used that platform to invite other photographers to hold Help Portrait sessions. “Something amazing happened,” said Cowart. “I had no idea the impact that Help Portrait would have.” On Dec. 12, 2009, hundreds of photographers from 42 countries held portrait sessions for more than 40,000 people.

Help Portrait is now a yearly project. This year’s Help Portrait will be held around the world on Dec. 3, 2011. More information can be found at the Help Portrait site.

Following the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010, Cowart flew to Port-au-Prince with his camera and an idea. He wanted to ask people how they were coping. He traveled the streets and hillsides with an assistant and took photos of Haitians holding up makeshift signs. “My question was simply, ‘What do you have to say about this?'” he asked them.

The collection of 56 portraits, now online at Voices of Haiti, was displayed at the United Nations when world leaders met in March 2010 to discuss Haitian relief efforts. Cowart sold 16″ x 20″ prints for $65 to raise money for A Home in Haiti, which helps rebuild homes for Haitians.

Jeremy Cowart founded Help Portrait in 2008. (Sam Lucero photo)

“Those are the things that I look back on and am proud of,” said Cowart. “I don’t really care to have a shelf of awards. I want to have a mental mantle, a place where I can think back at the end of my life and say, ‘Wow, that project I did in Haiti was really fulfilling.’ Or more importantly, the biggest thing so far in my life is the fact that I’ve traveled the world, I’ve worked with all of these celebrities and I have a really amazing marriage. That is such a rare thing these days.”

Cowart was applauded when he told the group that marital fidelity is what makes him complete.

“This is an awkward thing to say publicly, but I’m really proud of fact that I’ve slept with one woman in my entire life,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder, why does our culture celebrate men who sleep around? It takes so much more manpower to stay faithful to your spouse. I really wish our culture would start to celebrate faithfulness.”

In response to a question, Cowart said he saw no conflict working in a culture that is often at odds with his morals. Instead, he believes that is what God asks from people of faith.

“I’m really passionate about truly being in the world and working with people I disagree with,” he said. “I think that’s what we’re supposed to do — to be a light into the world. I’m not going to go as far as shooting nudes. What it boils down to, probably everyone I shoot, I disagree with on issues. But I think it would be silly for me to say, ‘Oh, you’re not a Christian. You don’t go to church, sorry I can’t do this job.’ That Britney Spears tour, I spent three months on a bus with …. a beautiful mix of people. I felt like that’s right where God wanted me to be. I really think that we need to be out in the world and be engaging  with the culture.”

While he does not wear his faith on his sleeve, Cowart said, he hopes to inspire by example. “I’m hoping someone can see something different in me, and see that I’m not the typical diva. If they go to my web site they see there’s much more to me than just trying to take pictures. That’s my hope.”

His closing message to photographers was that they all can make a positive impact.

“You guys can do all these things I’m doing. You’ve got the same gifts and you’ve got the same opportunities,” he said. “God has given you a platform, all these relationships, your camera and social media. You’ve seen what all I’ve done in five years. The point to all of this is you can carve out just as an amazing path if you just listen and take those steps of faith.”

See more of Jeremy Cowart’s work here. Follow Jeremy on Twitter.

New photo assignment

One of my projects at The Compass is a photo story about Hand-N-Hand of Northeastern Wisconsin, a program that provides classes for children experiencing hearing loss. The director, Jenny Geiken, offers a class for children from birth to age 5 each Monday. Geiken is very expressive and her interactive approach makes for some nice photos. Here is one of the photos from my recent visit to Hand-N-Hand, located at St. John the Evangelist Church property in Green Bay.

Jenny Geiken interacts with children during class


One of the newest niches in photography is taking photos with cell phone cameras. Smartphones, such as the iPhone, have taken point-and-shoot photography to a new level, especially with a variety of apps available such as Hipstamatic and Photoshop Express. Creating eye-catching images with a camera phone is easy to do, especially with the convenience of the portable cell phone camera. Many new photography web sites have evolved specializing in what is called iPhoneography. Photographers not only share their images, but offer tips for taking creative camera phone photos. Here are a few of my iPhone photos.