The Greatest Photo I’ve Ever Taken

(Or how I finally embraced my inner artist and found deeper motivation to create beauty and inspire action through photography and design.)

Screenshot of the Adobe Lightroom panel in the moment I saw the photo “Briggs Street” for the very first time. (Photo: Justin Schuck. All rights reserved.)

On June 1, 2015, I captured the greatest image I’ve ever taken.

In 18 years of professional photography, where I covered everything from childbirth to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I’d never wept over a single photo—until I saw the screenshot above.

Let me back up a bit here. I started my adventure in photography with my first job as a fresh-faced 14-year-old working for my godfather’s photography studio in Bethesda, MD where I mastered the art of photo handling, packaging, using entirely too much tape, and taking out the trash. Oh, and I also got to witness the art and craft of photography from behind the lens of some truly talented photographers.

In April of 1997, with the encouragement of my godfather, I started what became my first company, Foster Video Productions, filming weddings, mitzvahs and special events in the Washington DC metro area. Later that year I took on a few photography clients. While my work 19 years ago pales in comparison to the quality of work I deliver for clients today, I still work to experiment with my technique.

As an artist, photographer and graphic designer I have struggled over the years with this notion that I “produce nothing.” Unlike an architect or construction worker laboring over a building, there’s no lasting monumunt to the product of my labor, leaving my work to feel more ethereal than substantive. My artistic expressions—both professional and personal—exist in narrow planes of time and space. And, in the case of websites, my projects are only a zombie apocalypse or change of marketing director away from all my work being lost. This is a common struggle of artists through time, but even more so in the common era.

What have I actually created? Will my work ever inspire? How is this any different from what’s out there? These are the questions that are the driving force behind my artistic experimentation. As with all experiments, many are “failures”—ideas whose physical form does not meet what exists in my mind’s eye. Yet, some of the greatest discoveries in world were created from the ashes of failure in a cauldron of creativity fueled by chance and serendipity.

A series of unforeseen events led to my greatest artistic breakthrough in more than twenty years of photographic experimentation.
-Justin Schuck

After a long, fun weekend of hard partying, I awoke late on Monday to a wonderfully perfect day in the San Francisco Bay Area. As I was reading the news and sipping my coffee, I heard a series of sirens which only seemed to get louder. I felt a flutter of excitement and nervousness in the pit of my stomach when I saw the fire engines turn down the street. Was I finally gonna snap that perfect breaking news photo of a house on fire? Always wanting to capture a great fire on camera—and perhaps get the video or images to an assignment desk for a little extra cash—I hurriedly grabbed my camera from my bag and ran out the door towards the cluster of trucks halfway down the block.

As I hustled down the sidewalk, I pointed my long zoom lens toward the action and snapped the shutter a few times so I could see where the exposure, ISO and other settings were. Since I almost always shoot in full manual mode, with custom functions and exposure settings, I just needed to see if the camera was ready to shoot this fire. A quick glance at the LCD screen showed several areas of overexposure so I turned off my custom functions and put the camera in shutter priority mode. If I hadn’t felt rushed in that moment, I probably would have deleted those first test shots in camera.

The Alameda Fire Department responds to a call on Briggs Street in Alameda, CA. (Photo: Justin Schuck. All rights reserved.)

Sadly for me—but thankfully for everyone else—there was no fire to document. I snapped a couple of shots of the fire equipment and crew, but that was it. Nothing incredibly exciting. And because I had nothing else to do that day, I went ahead and loaded the images into my Adobe Lightroom. I was in no way prepared for what I saw next.

As I cycled through the images, I saw it—there on the screen. It was magical. At 1:28 pm PDT on June 1, 2015, I captured the most beautiful and artistically significant image of my nearly 20-year career as a photographer. I call it simply “Briggs Street.”

What you see immediately above and below is the raw, unedited, unfiltered image. This photograph was captured 100% in-camera. And, I have in no way doctored or otherwise added a “watercolor effect” to this photo. This is my creation.

“Briggs Street” by Justin Schuck. All rights reserved.

So, here is a street I had seen multiple times a day for nearly nine months straight. Yet on that day I saw it in a whole new way. Through a combination of factors, including a series of custom settings I had input into the camera for photographing interior architecture, I had created an entirely new photographic method. For the first time in my life, I fully embraced myself as an artist in the creation of something so new and so beautiful, that I was overwhelmed with emotion. For nearly an hour, I stared at my screen weeping with a mixture of joy, pride and astonishment.

In “Briggs Street” I found my artistic raison d’être.

Since jumping back into photography with both feet last year after a multi-year hiatus, I’ve looked for a new “story” to tell in my photography. I wanted to develop a story that would translate well into a proper gallery show. While it’s been years since my last public exhibition, producing a gallery show of my photographic work still remains one of the most important short term goals.

I consider myself first and foremost a storyteller, not only in my words, but also in my art and design work. Professionally, I’ve worked to create brands that resonate, and tell the stories of my clients and their products with imagery that elicits impassioned and emotional responses. However, when it comes to my own work and self-branding, this is where I have struggled the most.

For most of my life, I have been involved in some way with the cause of homelessness. Whether it was helping my father collect and distribute coats to the homeless from the trunk of our car on cold winter days, or volunteering for homeless shelters as an adult, this is a community that has never been invisible to me. Yet, as a society, we view the street-living homeless as a piece of infrastructure: gray, ever-present, but something to be ignored and forgotten.

“Anonymous” by Justin Schuck. All rights reserved.

And this is my new story. With “Briggs Street,” I created an entirely new way of documenting the anonymous invisible among us. They are right before us every day, yet we don’t actually see them.

“Anonymous 2” by Justin Schuck. All rights reserved.

In my new series “Anonymous Invisible” I am working to capture the honest plight and reality of homelessness in America, concentrating on my adopted hometown of San Francisco, CA.

“Anonymous 5” by Justin Schuck. All rights reserved.

I would never want my work to be exploitative, only illuminating. Through my proprietary artistic photographic technique, I hope I can shed some light on a lifestyle and cause that is very dear to my heart, while also allowing me to create a body of work worthy for a grand art gallery exhibition.

“Anonymous Invisible” by Justin Schuck. All rights reserved.

The biggest lesson of that day: never delete your images in-camera.

ALWAYS view them on your computer. You never know what secret gem may be lurking on your memory card.

The same is true in life: allow yourself to view a moment of perceived failure from a different perspective. Often, that’s when we realize a failure was actually a catalyst to something greater.

If you have enjoyed my work, please visit my website, and make sure to check out my Instagram, Flickr, and Facebook pages.