Feel-good story about 2 photographers competing. Won 2nd in the Cross Timbers Contest
It looked like the trip of a lifetime.
Finally, my dream of an African photo safari seemed within reach.A week long stay at a nature resort in Kenya, mere feet away from wild and incredibly photogenic animals, called to me from my laptop screen. The best thing was that I had saved enough money to cover it. I booked my flight and hotel late one summer night and went to bed dreaming of my upcoming adventure.
As an international nature photographer, I always dreamed of shooting contest-winning photos in Africa. I found the Studio 84 Wildlife Photo Contest and immediately planned on entering. First Place gets you $2,000! As I scrolled through the past winners, I saw that many came from African photo safaris. Would I be able to shoot a winning photo there, too? I knew I would face steep competition, but I still had to try.
Shortly before the start of my trip, I meticulously packed all my gear. I checked, double-checked and triple-checked that I had everything, including the giant zoom lens I recently purchased. I boarded my first flight from California on my way to Africa. After nineteen and a half hours, I stepped onto Kenyan soil. I looked around at all the open space with scattered trees and a mountain looming in the distance.
"Welcome to Africa, explorers!" said the guide. "For the next six days, we will ride around the savanna in this cart." He gestured to the vehicle. "I am committed to making sure you enjoy your safari. Let me know if I can do anything to improve it. Take tonight to get situated, and let's meet back here at eight am tomorrow for our first ride!" After a delicious meal, I settled into my room. It had a giant bed, with a tribal pattern on the bedspread. It also had tribal decorations on the walls. As I went to bed I fantasized about the amazing photos I would come home with.
The next day, it rained in the morning, delaying our departure. Once the sky cleared, the other photographers in the tour group and I took a ride around the area. The cart passed herds of zebras and elephants. I couldn't stop hitting my shutter. A cheetah ran by, and fortunately I was on a fast shutter speed and was able to get it. The feline was slightly off-center, with a narrow depth of field. The vehicle stopped under a tree with a leopard lounging in it. I aimed my camera upward and photographed the gorgeous cat. A group of meerkats stood at attention about twenty feet away, and luckily I had brought my huge zoom lens that allowed me to shoot them. I "chimped" at my photos. Wow, I should be able to win some contests with these, I thought as a smile crossed my face.
After an awesome week, I headed home. On the flight back, I had the chance to really look at my photos. While I usually delete all but the best photos, I decided to hang on to all of them because of how special this trip had been. The aggregate of all the good photos I shot were enough to make a calendar, and I decided on the ones that I would enter in this year's contest: The one of the meerkats at attention, a photo looking up at the leopard, and the picture of the running cheetah.
I soon found a nasty surprise in the mail. My credit card had been overcharged and the trip cost more than I expected, and if I paid it off on time, I wouldn't have enough left for rent. I had already missed rent once before. My landlord's words played over and over in my mind, "I will forgive you this one time, but miss rent again, and you will be homeless." I looked around my apartment at all the nature photos on the walls, the antique furniture, and the nick-nacks collected from old shooting trips to Europe and the Pacific Northwest area of the United States. My eyes watered at the thought of losing it all. My only hope would be to place in this year's contest. Otherwise, I would end up on the streets.
A week after I entered, I got an email saying my cheetah entry qualified for the next phase of judging. Now, I had to deliver it in person.
It's a bummer about the two that didn't make it, but at least one passed. That's better than nothing, I thought. I printed the passing photo, bought a frame for it, and brought it to the delivery site. I stood in line behind a heavy-set, red haired lady with a ton of prints. Looking over her shoulder, I saw gorgeous dolphin photos. "Your photos are beautiful," I said.
"I know," she answered. "I am a professional photographer and have won first place in four of the last five years. I am also generous with my winnings."
My heart sank. If I didn't win, I would lose my home. How was I going to beat her?
"What is your name?" I asked.
"Alexandra Simons," she answered. "I have a degree in photography and a grip of publication credits. Who are you and why do you even try? "
"Well... I am Ronnie Adams. I do photography because there is no greater thrill I have experienced than getting a beautiful shot. I see other photographer's work, and I feel like there's a fire under me that will only be quenched when I have taken an equally great photo. Photography is my life's passion, and while I may not have your success just yet, I will do everything I possibly can to get there. How did you get into photography?"
"Both of my parents did it. I grew up associating it with them. Now that they are gone, I do it in memory of them," she answered, looking down at the ground. "I used it as an emotional outlet after they passed in a plane crash on their way back from a shooting trip." She let out a sigh.
"I am sorry for your loss," I said.
"Thanks. It was almost twenty years ago. I found the contest through a friend and am entering in my parents' honor."
"I am entering to advance my career," I said. "Also, I want to accomplish all I can so when I die, I will have something to show for my time here that will outlast me."
"I feel like that, too," she said. "I want there to be proof centuries from now that I existed." We looked each other in the eye for the first time.
She approached the desk and handed over her stack of entries. "Good luck winning against me," she told me before strutting off.
I handed over my one entry. I don't have a chance.
A few days later, I got an email saying my entry had advanced to the next round of judging. Now, I would have to appear before the judges and pitch my photo to them.
The day of the pitches, I took my place onstage next to Alexandra. "This was taken on a whale watching trip," she said as she displayed her first print, a photo of five leaping dolphins. "It placed first in the show at my local fair." She proceeded to the second print, which depicted a red fox. "I shot this in Yosemite last year. I have sold five prints of it..." She continued to brag on each of her prints.
"They are stunning," said one of the judges. "Thank you. Next?"
I stepped forward, displaying my fast shutter speed cheetah photo with the words, "This is the only photo I have that passed, yet I shot it with love. I took the trip of a lifetime to Africa and fulfilled my dream of shooting there. I have looked forward to getting a photo like this for my entire life. To actually go there and experience this in person was something that will always stay with me. While I wish more of my photos had advanced, I am grateful that this one managed to accomplish that. "
"Thank you. The next and final stage of the contest will consist of the entries hanging in a gallery. We will make a decision and notify you of who the winners are at the awards ceremony next Tuesday," said a member of the panel.
As we descended from the stage, Alexandra said, "You honestly think you can win against me? I have to win so I can maintain my winning streak and get more publications."
"I don't know. But I have no choice but to try, or I won't be able to make my rent," I answered.
For the next week until the ceremony, I felt a constant knot in my stomach. How much longer would I have a home? How would I win against the pro Alexandra? I tried to get my mind off it by riding my bike, doing crafts, and filling the wait time as much as I could.
Finally, it was D-Day. I donned my church outfit and drove to the ceremony. As I arrived, I saw hundreds of theater-style seats, with most being filled. Alexandra sat up at the front. I took a seat in back and tried to quell the nauseated feeling in my throat.
The head of the contest stood and took the podium. "We are pleased to announce the winners of this year's contest," she said. "Third Place goes to... David Smith, with "Wolf at Sunset." David ascended the stage and accepted the certificate and check, pausing to pose for a photo.
"Second Place goes to... Ronnie Adams, with "Sprinting Cheetah." This is awesome, but it looks like I won't make my rent, I thought with a sigh. I ascended the stage and accepted my prize, forcing a smile for the camera.
"Finally, the winner of this year's contest, and the $2,000 prize is... Alexandra Simons, with "Jumping Dolphins". Alexandra rose and accepted the award. All three of us winners posed for a photo onstage before descending and receiving congratulations from the audience.
Afterwards, I approached Alexandra. "Congrats on winning again, " I sighed.
"Thanks. I have been thinking since the last time we talked, and I know you need the money a lot more than I do. I would like to give you my winnings so you don't get evicted." She put her hand on my shoulder.
"Wow! Really?" My jaw fell to the floor. "You don't seem like the kind of person who would do that."
"You apparently don't know me very well. Helping you was the right thing to do." She winked at me.
She may come across as stuck up, but she has a heart, too. Even she has redeeming qualities, I thought.
"This means so much," I said, wiping a tear from my eye. "I can't say thank you enough times." We hugged.
In the following weeks I made my rent payment and relaxed, realizing I would not end up on the streets. Alexandra and I started to go on shooting trips together. Before long, we had a friendship. I learned that even if things don't happen the way I want them to, I will still be okay. Plus, I have a new friend! Life is good.