Happy New Year / by Laura Heald

2009 has been a year to remember. At Straw Hat Visuals, we have not only worked over 300 days this year, but have had incredible assignments in great locations. We covered major sporting events like the BCS Championship and World Athletics Championships, we ran around Australia testing the new D3s for Nikon and worked on a documentary story in Rome along with many other things. Our year began at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL, where we watched the Nebraska Cornhuskers take on the Clemson Tigers.

From there we went to Miami for the BCS Championship game where the Florida Gators beat the Oklahoma Sooners for their third national title.

Spring found us more settled as Bill was teaching the Advanced Photojournalism class at University of Florida. He was on the road more than me shooting college basketball and appearing as a guest lecturer at various events. My weekends away were spent mostly with family. My brother was serving in Iraq as an officer in the Marine Corps so I had the daunting task of filling his family shoes.

In February we were in Omaha, NE, creating a multi media on the Nebraska State High School Wrestling Tournament. We were there to make a multi media for Sports Illustrated for Kids and do a multi media workshop with Apple at Creighton University. It was a change of pace from the football schedule we had been on in the fall and ended up being a really fun piece to shoot and put together.

Before summer sank in and our schedule sprang forward, we spent some time home in Jacksonville doing a not-for-profit multi media on the Springing the Blues Festival in Jacksonville Beach, Fl. It is an annual free outdoor concert that is literally a sand dune away from the beach. It was a beautiful weekend and gave us a chance to try some new tricks and delve into an entirely new subject matter.

We also spent some time down the street in Gainesville, Fl, doing a piece on the Florida Gators spring training. The defending National Champions were preparing for a daunting season on top of the BCS by scrimmaging in the annual Orange and Blue football game.

Summer started for us at the Kentucky Derby. There we watched jockey Calvin Borel and Mine That Bird win a stunning race along the rail at Churchill Downs. I think this race may have been one of the most exciting things I have ever witnessed in sports. The horse no one thought twice about had the right jockey guiding him and won a thriller at Churchill Downs. It just doesn’t get much better than that. We created a multi media on deadline at the Derby which is always a fun challenge. Fun because it’s the Derby, challenging because you don’t know the end of the story until the end of the day and the magazine needs photos immediately and a video to post by morning. It makes for a sleepless, although not necessarily unpleasant, night.

From the Derby we went to the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, MD, where we watched Rachel Alexandra become the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes since 1924. This was another exciting moment for me to watch, maybe because I am also know what it is like to be in a male dominated business, and maybe because Calvin Borel (Rachel Alexandra’s and Derby winner Mine That Bird’s jockey) is such a loveable character. We also created a multi media on deadline at the Preakness. This one was a little easier in terms of story since Rachel Alexandra was the story whether she won or not. Although we were confident she would.

At the end of the Triple Crown, we found ourselves on a Blue Highways road trip across America, starting in Monterey, CA, with our friend Don Henderson, flying from there to Las Vegas, NV, for the NPPA convention with Nikon, and on to Denver to drive to Bill’s home town of Scottsbluff, NE. From there we hit the back roads. Our journey took us through the rolling hills of Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and home to Florida. It was an American adventure at core. We stopped in small towns along the way. Bill bought boots at Young's Dry Goods in Valentine, NE. Stopped for a look at the Nantahala River, and hurried to Oxford, MS, for lunch at Ajax Diner and a rendezvous at Square Books.

A corn field in Nebraska
Ajax Diner

From our road trip we went straight to Gainesville, FL, to shoot a portrait of Gator quarterback Tim Tebow for the SI for Kids back to school edition. I think Tim Tebow may be the only athlete that has ever asked if he could help us break down, pack up and carry our gear to the car. He's a class act in every way.

After the Tebow shoot we took off to Eugene, OR, for the U.S. Track and Field Championships. Eugene is a lovely town that is always nice to visit. Plus we get to hang out with the likes of Thomas Boyd and Chris Pietch for the week. In terms of sporting events, this one was heartbreaking and exciting. The penultimate moment of the meet was when 100 meter hurdles star Lolo Jones didn’t finish her first heat in the competition. The year before she was the favorite to win the gold at the Beijing Olympics only to stumble in the final and finish 4th.

The end of the Track and Field Championships was the end of June. We flew over night from Eugene to Oxford, MS, to shoot a portrait of Rebels Coach Houston Nutt and have lunch with Langston Rogers, the Ole Miss sports information director. We drove from there to Tuscaloosa, AL, to shoot a portrait of Tide Coach Nick Saban, both for Sports Illustrated.

Then Bill and I went our separate ways for a week as he took off to Venice, Italy, and I went to Clayton, GA, to spend some time with family. My brother had since returned safely from Iraq so this was a time to celebrate.

Soon after the 4th of July, Bill and I were packing our bags and making final preparations to take off to Australia for the rest of the month. Nikon had contacted Bill about shooting promotional work for the then secret and now new D3s. This was an incredible assignment. In three weeks we went to five of the seven Australian states, we watched Aussie Rules Football on a frozen gravel ground in Tasmania, a swimmer in a cold Melbourne pool, dancers at the famous Pinnacles in the Nambung Desert, the sun set over Ayers Rock, a rodeo in the Red Center and motor cross bikers at a dirt track outside Alice Springs. I think it’s safe to say that it was an awesome trip.

When we returned from Australia we spent a week shooting an ad that has not been released yet. We'll have it posted as soon as we can.

We then packed our bags for Berlin, Germany, for the World Athletics Championships. Berlin is in my mind one of the top European city (that I have been to). The event was held at the Olympia Stadion that Hitler built in the 1930s for the 1936 Olympic games. Just that little tid-bit of history made the event fun, but watching Usain Bolt break more world records was worth the price of admission. He is an incredible athlete and is a pleasure to watch.

When the championships were over Bill and I took off on a European road trip to counter our U.S. road trip from earlier in the summer. We had a shoot in Rome three days after the end of the games. We rented a car in Alexanderplatz, took it through the Czech Republic to the capital city of Prague. It was a bit of a detour but worth it. Prague is a city worth seeing. The old architecture is breathtaking although the streets are impossible to navigate in a car. Believe me, we tried.

We spent two nights in Prague before we hit the road again for Rome. In Rome we were continuing a story that Bill had started 25 years earlier in Miami. Missy Koch was diagnosed with cancer 25 years ago and had to have her right leg amputated. Today she is married with three adopted children and living in Rome. We did a follow-up story this summer.

When we returned from Europe we were back in the football grind, which I love because I love college football. We had a few diversions here and there. We had two more trips to Europe after Rome. We first went to St. Andrews, Scotland, with Nikon Europe for the European pre-release party for the D3s. Ten days later we were in London with Manfrotto and Amsterdam with Nikon Europe again.

We are now at the end of December. The holidays have come and gone and we are back where we started a year ago, editing our images from the year and preparing for another Jan. 1 BCS bowl.

First stop 2010, Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.