You submit your assignment images each year as a staff photojournalist at a major newspaper and never place in the prestigious Picture of the Year International competition. Then, years later as a freelance photographer, you win first place for a body of work that was undertaken solely as a personal venture. This is the story of Bob Croslin's self-assigned "Grounded," a portrait project of injured birds undergoing rehabilitation at a sanctuary in western Florida.
"When I was actually in the newspaper industry entering that contest every year and never winning or ever being recognized for anything that I was doing at the newspaper, the fact that a personal project placed in POYi is a big deal. It justifies a lot of things about why I left newspapers to begin with," says Croslin.
You may have seen his work on the pages of Forbes, ESPN the Magazine and Smithsonian but Bob Croslin got his start as a photojournalist at the Tampa Tribune right after graduating from the University of Florida. His career path was not unlike others coming out of undergraduate curriculums with small market papers leading to larger papers. After the Tribune, he worked at MSNBC in Seattle for three years on a multimedia production team that included Brian Storm of Media Storm. He then returned to St. Petersburg, Florida in 2002 to be closer to family and eventually ended up as a picture editor at the Tampa Bay Times, a move that eventually led him back where he started — behind the camera. As he recounts, he loved the collaborative environment in the Times' photo department.
"When I was at the Times, the last two years I was there, I had a fantastic job... what I always joked was the greatest photography job in newspapers," he says. "I worked for the Floridian section and did primarily studio work, lit portraiture and special sections. It was fantastic. I really wasn't on the daily books."
Croslin decided to go out on his own and forge a path as an independent photo professional when the paper decided to cut the Floridian section from daily to weekly coverage. He already had a fledgling, yet growing, freelance business outside of his work at the Tampa Bay Times so he knew he would survive and be okay. It was a move he made based on the instability in a media landscape that was shifting as print was being rapidly superseded by the web. The digital product alone was not being monetized and with the Floridian section cut back, his position was effectively eliminated, as he would soon be out of the studio and shooting daily coverage for the paper.
"I needed to be out on my own and really establish myself," says Croslin. "I knew that things would be alright because I already had a freelance business on the side. You talk to any business consultant about starting a new position and they'll always tell you to keep your day job as long as you can and build your business on the side."
The Tampa Bay Times had been a very understanding and supportive employer, providing Bob the flexibility to shoot non-endemic assignments outside of work. The photo department also allowed him to trade days with other shooters, switching assignments and taking less desirable weekend coverage when freelance gigs popped up on weekdays.
"I had already started reaching out to editors in New York at magazines as I had friends who worked at Getty and Corbis so I would meet people in the magazine industry through those connections," he says.
As his freelance business has grown since 2006, Bob Croslin always sought to shoot personal projects as an instrument for personal growth. Essentially, you become your own client and that is often a creative liberation, forcing you to stretch yourself.
Cedar Wax Wing by Bob Croslin
"I can come up with a concept and go nuts with it and definitely see it through as far as I can go with it, which is very different from magazine work where, generally, you are parachuting into something and you are doing the best, most complete job you can with a very limited amount of time," he says.
In many ways, the personal projects that Bob has done grew out of the photo department at the Tampa Bay Times, a place where then photo editor Sue Morrow encouraged photographers to pitch stories and subjects whose stories are worth telling. "My personal work now as a freelancer comes out of that same idea of finding something that is meaningful to me and pursuing it," says Croslin. "If something has a strong enough pull on you, there is a good reason why you should try and pursue it."
An important aspect of the personal project is openness to the experience as a journey. It's important to go into the process with open eyes and flexibility and limit any preconceptions as far as the end result. Croslin is quick to point out that not every personal project works visually and although a recent concept "crashed and burned," it was not necessarily a failure but part of the path of his photographic journey.
He came upon the idea to photograph "Grounded," a portrait study of injured birds and various birds in the stages of their rehabilitation because he wanted his imagery to make a difference and raise awareness for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a wildlife fixture in the St. Petersburg region for 40 years.
"I can remember dropping birds off there as a kid with my dad and I can remember dropping a bird off their a recent as three years ago," says Croslin. "I dropped a bird off there, a blue jay, and when I was there, I had a look around and I was thinking what way besides donating a ten dollar bill could I have an impact as a photographer in helping the sanctuary and raise awareness for these animals. I had the idea to photograph these birds but I didn't know how to approach it."
The idea of photographing the birds with a low-key lighting set up in a makeshift portable studio environment took shape in the days that followed his visit. He made repeated contact with the PR coordinator of the sanctuary but it took months until the first shoot began.
Reddish Heron by Bob Croslin
"She was a volunteer and really busy and just didn't have time to pick up the phone and speak with a crazy photographer," says Croslin. As he explained, "they have people every day showing up with a camera, saying they are a photographer and they want to take pictures of the birds." Finally, one day over lunch, he was able to pitch the project and from there, the sanctuary manager and handlers were on board and supportive.
Every Wednesday for the next five months, Croslin would be at the sanctuary shooting one or two birds in the location studio. The project was captured with a Canon 5dmkII with 70-200mm lens and occasionally extension tubes. "With the smaller birds, I was literally an inch from their beak so a lot of it was macro work." After initially working with small portable Canon speedlites, he switched to Profoto heads, using a beauty dish with a grid as the main light and gridded heads for separation and rim lighting.
The first shoot involved a one-wing white pelican, an “education bird” that often traveled to classrooms on behalf of the sanctuary. Very comfortable around people, "George" didn't sit still and pose but constantly evaded the set and was hiding from Croslin and the handler Greg. "Over and over again the handler Greg kept saying 'I don't know how you are going to make a picture of this.'"
Eventually, after bargaining with fish, George cooperated and Bob was able to make some portraits. One of the images from that initial shoot would make the final edit of the portfolio and is the lead image for the online gallery on www.bobcroslin.com. "I left there knowing that I got something great," said Croslin. By the end of the afternoon back at his workstation, he decided to email a few selects to the handler and a few supporters at the sanctuary. They were blown away by the imagery and Croslin had the "buy-in" necessary for a truly unique and promising collaboration. This sharing was essential to the success of the project, as he would bring prints each week to share with handlers and volunteers that helped him during the process. "It was a way for me to recognize and show my appreciation for what they were doing for me."
Barn Swallow by Bob Croslin
American Crow by Bob Croslin
A lot of ruined black seamless papers, poking injuries from birds and a few encounters getting crapped on by birds were all part of his Wednesday studio shoots during the project. He forged some strong and lasting bonds with many of the bird handlers, relationships that continue now that Croslin is working to help in the establishment of a new bird rehab shelter in Largo, Florida. Although he has taken a break from “Grounded,” he admits that the project isn’t necessarily done.
"I guess it is completed for right now but I definitely would like to return to it with this new organization that I'm helping out with,” he says. “One of my goals is that when we're set up and the new shelter is built and the facilities are there, I'd love to start the project back up. I don't know that it will ever be done."
Moving forward he wants to mount a gallery show and sell prints that will go towards the start up of the new facility. "And that was my goal at the beginning — to raise money and raise awareness,” says Croslin.
A video of Bob's trials on location appears here. To see more of the award winning images from "Grounded" as well as Bob Croslin’s environmental portraiture, please visit www.bobcroslin.com. The images from "Grounded" appear on the pages of Audubon magazine, Wired magazine, The Image Deconstructed, were projected at the Look3 Festival and appear in the POYi awards gallery. For more information on the Gulf Coast Bird Sanctuary (formerly the Suncoast Sea Bird Sanctuary) and how you can help it to get established, visit them on Facebook.
All images and video appearing with this article are reprinted and published with the permission of Bob Croslin.