Photography Nerds Discuss CSICon
April 13, 2017
An integral part of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project (GSoW) is not only to create well written, strongly cited Wikipedia pages for the people associated with the skeptic community, but to enhance the story with photographs, video, and audio. As a professional portrait photographer, I don’t feel that a Wikipedia page is completely finished until we have added at least one quality photograph. What few people understand is that Wikipedia has very strong licensing rules. Only media released to WikiMedia Commons by the owner of the content is allowed to be added to a Wikipedia page. We can’t grab something we find on the Internet.
You would be surprised how few of our people have great quality and current photographs of themselves, and have ownership and the understanding of how to upload the image to WikiMedia Commons. We have learned over the years that the easiest way to find these photos, and get them uploaded in a timely manner, is to just do the photography ourselves.
The photographers that work with the GSoW project volunteer hours of conference time photographing not only the speakers, but what happens in the hallways. Yes, I know everyone these days carries around a camera in their pocket or purse. But we aren’t looking for photos of the speaker standing next to their fan; no need for selfies either. We are looking for something specific and I need them uploaded quickly.
GSoW has had assistance from many people over the years, all over the world. But in this interview I’m going to be talking to two very helpful men who worked all weekend at CSICon 2016. Let me introduce you to Brian Engler and Karl Withakay.
Brian and I go back many years; I can’t quite remember a time I didn’t see him, camera in hand, photographing the conferences. Karl is a more recent friend; I think we shared a bus ride from the airport at a past TAM, since then he has been a great help gathering photographs for our use.
Susan Gerbic: So, Brian, Karl please tell the readers a bit about yourselves. What was your first skeptic conference?
Brian Engler: In late 2007, I had decided to retire within a year from my paid career—at the time, I was Executive VP of a national nonprofit. That—as well as previous careers as a defense consultant and a flight officer in the Navy—had kept me so busy that I hadn’t found time to attend conferences or conventions outside the scope of my work. For years I’d been an avid reader of Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, and similar periodicals; listened to Skepticality, Point of Inquiry, and the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts; and was a member of the JREF Forum, so I decided I’d look around for some skeptical and atheist conferences that seemed interesting. The first I attended was not a conference per se, but was the first live appearance that SGU made. It was held in Brooklyn in August 2007. I went, first met the Novella brothers, Evan Bernstein, Rebecca Watson, and many other fine folks, and had an absolutely wonderful time—walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, touring Bodies-The Exhibition with Steve as a guide, and of course partying into the early hours. Lots of photo ops too—so that prompted me to look around for more events. The first formal convention I found was located in northern Virginia in September 2007 and was called Crystal Clear Atheism sponsored by AAI—at the time a single organization both inside and outside the United States. Again, I took my camera (an early Minolta digital SLR that I’d used in my day job at our own meetings and conferences). As I walked in the door, who strolls in behind me but Richard Dawkins straight from the airport and casually dressed. Since I’d read and enjoyed several of his early works and most recently The God Delusion, I introduced myself and he graciously spent some time talking and had his assistant take a picture of us. I was impressed and had the opportunity to meet and talk for the first time with many other authors that the conference organizer and AAI President Margaret Downey had gathered for what turned out to be an historic meeting: Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Eugenie Scott, Matthew Chapman, and many others. I got some good photos and decided that I needed to go to more events with freethinkers and skeptics—and to always take my camera. I decided that I’d try an out-of-town conference and attended TAM 6 in Las Vegas in June 2008. I reconnected with Margaret, with whom I’ve become good friends through the years, and first met some more great skeptics: The Amaz!ng Randi (of course—a nicer guy I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging out with), Neil deGrasse Tyson, Penn & Teller (the latter of whom is a fine conversationalist, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), Adam Savage, Phil Plait, Richard Wiseman, and the list goes on—all genuinely accessible and interested in dialogue with attendees. I subsequently was fortunate to attend TAMs 7, 8, 9, 10 (called 2012), and 13 (the last—in 2015). I met you, Susan, at one of the early TAMs—perhaps 6—and I remember you calling a few of us together for a meeting in the South Point hallway at a later TAM to talk about forming what has become GSoW. We’ve come a long way since then thanks to your leadership! That original SGU Live event in Brooklyn led in part to the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) series, and I’ve been able to attend NECSS 2011, 2014, and 2015 in New York City so far. As an active member and volunteer in the CFI–DC community, I attend and photograph many local events but I also have made it a point to attend Center for Inquiry conferences (the names and themes of which vary) starting with the CFI World Congress in Bethesda, MD, in 2009 and continuing with CSICon 2011 in New Orleans, CSICon 2012 in Nashville, the CFI Summit in Tacoma in 2013, CFI Reason for Change in Buffalo in 2015, and CSICon 2016 in Las Vegas. To round out major events, I’ve also attended and photographed all four Women in Secularism conferences (2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016) as well as both Reason Rallies (2012 and 2016). During the latter, I was honored to be a part of the official Reason Rally Photo Team where I learned a lot from the real pros.
Karl Withakay: I’m an IT systems engineer by profession, a skeptic by philosophy, and an amateur photographer by hobby. Whatever you do in life, you can use skepticism and critical thinking, and that especially applies if anything you do involves problem solving, as IT often does. Start at the beginning, assume nothing, don’t accept claims without evidence, reason it out logically, etc.
TAM7 in 2009 was my first skeptic conference. A friend of mine and I were talking not long after TAM6 about how we really need to get to a TAM to see people like James Randi in person. So, we went to TAM7. The following year, Richard Dawkins was appearing at TAM8, and that was a strong enough draw to get me to go to TAM8 despite that fact that it meant flying back from a vacation in Barcelona and spending only one day at home in St. Louis before boarding a plane for Las Vegas to attend. I just kept going back every year until there were no more TAMs and CSICon has filled the void.
Gerbic: I have a fun story to tell about Karl before you get started. A few years ago, someone wanted to use a photo of me in an article. They asked me for a photo, and I supplied one Karl had taken. I told them that the photographer was Karl Withakay. I got a query back saying “Susan are you sure you spelled his last name correctly?” I went to Facebook and made sure I had it spelled correctly and wrote back. They again questioned me and I said, “What’s the big deal?” It took me a while to notice it. What’s the deal Karl? who are you really?
Withakay: I’m Batman. OK, seriously, I’ve spent my whole life living with the fact that most people outside of Germany or German backgrounds assume my first name is spelled with a C. Because of that, I got into the habit of saying “with a K” when giving people my name for any semiofficial purpose, as in “Karl, with a K.” I started joking that I should just change my middle name to Withakay to make it easier, and that’s the name I eventually adopted online, Karl Withakay. I’m not the only person to think it up: five seconds of Googling will turn up others; the bald guy with the guitar is not me.
Gerbic: The readers that are photographers are going to want to know about the equipment you use. So, go ahead and get technical and geek out.
Engler: First of all, I’m an amateur, so my equipment probably is simpler than someone with a pro kit. I currently use a Sony Alpha 77 body, and at conferences and events tend to swap between a Sony 16-50mm/f2.8 zoom and a Tamron 70-200mm/f2.8 zoom as I move around the room. Occasionally I find use for my Tokina 11-16mm/f2.8 zoom when I want extra wide angle shots and my Sony 50mm/f1.4 for very low light and when I want to minimize the camera size and weight, for example at a welcome mixer or party. In all cases, I use fast enough glass that I seldom need flash. When I do, I have a Sony HVL F43M flash and a number of Magmod modifiers. I like Sony and think I get some good shots with it, but I came to that brand sort of by default. Many years ago while in the Navy I had purchased Minolta film gear. When the digital age came along, I naturally moved to the Minolta digital body that I mentioned earlier in order to use my old lenses. Then Sony bought Minolta so I went along as I upgraded and eventually bought new lenses to fit the newer Sony bodies—and so it goes. As a side note, if you look at the Sony Alpha 77 article on Wikipedia, the photograph at the bottom of the page (showing the camera back with a photo of lenticular clouds on it) is my camera and my photo. I have since procured a far superior strap.
Withakay: OK, you asked for it. Well, I’ve been using the Micro Four thirds platform since I got back into semiserious photography seven years ago on the eve of a western Mediterranean cruise out of Barcelona (right before the aforementioned TAM8). I wanted to get a good interchangeable lens system camera for the trip instead of the point and shoot I had been borrowing from my parents when I previously went on vacations, but I didn’t want to lug around a big camera and large, heavy lenses like I had back in the 35mm film days. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, and he told me about a relatively new platform he had just read about that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for: Micro Four Thirds which uses an intermediate sized sensor, larger than most point and shoots, but smaller than most DSLRs. The intermediate sized sensor allows a balance between the advantages of large sensors like depth of field control, low light performance, etc., and those of small sensors like smaller, lighter lenses and bodies, longer effective focal lengths, etc. For me, it’s all about the weight. Photography isn’t fun for me if I have to carry 20–30 lbs of equipment in a backpack or alternately, I have to leave behind some of my favorite lenses to keep weight down.
My current camera is a Panasonic Lumix GX8 body, with my previous body, a Lumix GX7 used for stills when I’m shooting video with the GX8.
Before I discuss lenses, I should mention that the Micro Four Thirds platform has a 2X crop factor relative to a full frame 35mm system. To figure the full frame equivalent to a particular M4/3 lens and body combination, multiply the focal length of the M4/3 lens by 2, meaning that, a 12–35mm lens on an M4/3 camera covers the same field of view as a 24–70mm lens on a full frame camera. Also, to assist readers in comparing Brian’s gear to mine, Brian shoots APS-C, which has a 1.5X crop factor relative to full frame; his 16–50 mm has the field of view of 24–75mm in full frame.
My go to lenses are a Panasonic 12–35mm (24–70mm eq) f2.8 and a Panasonic 35–100mm (70–-200mm eq) f2.8 that both work well in most lighting conditions. For longer shots, I have a Panasonic 100–300mm (200–600mm eq) f4-5.6 that gives me ridiculous reach, but isn’t great in low light. For really low light, I use a Leica 25mm (50mm eq) f1.4. For ultra-wide shots, I have an Olympus 7–14mm (14–28mm eq) f2.8, which is the lens I shot most of the George Hrab Sing-Along footage with at CSICon 2016 to get as much of the crowd as possible in frame. I also have an 8mm (16mm eq) f3.5 fisheye I use for fun, artsy shots. I own a small flash that I never use because other than the 100–300mm super telephoto, all my lenses are pretty fast and at least decent in low light. Due to the light weight of Micro Four Thirds gear, I can carry all this equipment at the same time in my Think Tank Urban Disguise shoulder bag, but I usually leave the second camera body behind unless I’m shooting video. I also have a Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod with which I have a love-hate relationship. I despise carrying it around, but it’s invaluable when I actually use it. At the conferences, I use it when shooting video of George Hrab performing.
Gerbic: You both have been to so many conferences. What is it that brings you back to these events? And I don’t want to hear you say “an airplane.”
Engler: Principally, I come for the people who will be there. Over the years I’ve gotten to know quite a few skeptics fairly well—leaders, staff, speakers, and attendees—and while we stay in touch electronically, I like to get reacquainted in person each year if possible, or at least every few years. Also, as new authors and speakers come to my attention, I want to hear what they have to say and get to know new folks. Finally, I’m an inveterate collector of books—I really like to get them signed and talk to the author, and I hate to give up books that I like after reading them. My shelves are sagging, but I come back for more and these conferences are perfect places for that.
Withakay: The people, all of them. I’ve made so many friends at the conferences, including you and Brian. I’m a naturally shy and introverted person, and I instinctively don’t want to talk to or interact with people I don’t already know. I probably come pretty close to a diagnosis on the spectrum for this and many other reasons. I think my first two TAMs, I didn’t socialize much at all, and I only really talked to Dave Gorski who sort of already knew me from the comments section of Science Based Medicine. I work very hard at forcing myself to engage in conversations and make new friends each year at the cons. It’s so rewarding. It’s one on the reasons I try to find interesting T-shirts to wear. They can be great conversation starters. Every year, I look forward not just to the conference itself, but to seeing my skeptical friends and making new ones.
And then there are the speakers. How many other cons can you name where the big name talents like Richard Dawkins hang out with the regular attendees, where you can have real conversations with them, not just shake their hand and get an autograph? I mean seriously, Richard Freaking Dawkins at the Halloween costume party IN COSTUME! And he’s totally open for conversation like any random person you might meet. How cool is that? You can’t get anything close to an equivalent experience from watching videos on YouTube. There’s just no substitute for the social experience of a TAM or CSICon. One of my most prized memories was when Kimball Atwood of Science Based Medicine blog, after realizing who I was, said emphatically, “Oh, you’re one of our favorite commenters!”
Gerbic: Whenever I attend an event, I usually have a photo in mind that I want to make sure I get. At TAM 6 back in 2008, I wanted a photo of me shaking the hand of one of my heroes, Robert S. Lancaster from Stop Sylvia Browne fame. My friend Paulina Mejia took it for me, and that has been one of my favorite photos, even now. Do you two have a story you can tell about a photograph from a past skeptic conference that has meaning for you?
Engler: There have been so many good memories, some preserved in a photograph but many only in my mind, that it’s difficult to pick one. I will say, though, that at TAM 6—my first big skeptical conference—when Phil Plait (then JREF President) presented Randi with a trophy cup that contained slips of paper written by all the attendees stating what he, the JREF, and TAM meant to them as individuals—to a standing ovation—I got a photo of a nearly speechless and very moved man that is certainly near the top of my list.
Withakay: As a photographer, I almost never go looking for any particular shots, and I’ve never gone into a conference with any specific shot in mind. It’s more about finding… stumbling across that special moment. At a con, it can be hard to get the perfect shot of such a special moment because they often occur in the middle of crowds, and it’s nearly impossible to get the exact composition you want; there’s going to be an extra person, or an arm, leg, or head of someone else intruding into the shot. Even the photos I take of the speakers on stage, I’m trying to get that special shot where the speaker has just the right expression on their face, the right pose, the right gesture with their hands…that special moment that makes the shot. Getting a great hand gesture without also getting motion blur is really tough.
So that being said, it leads me a photo of Dave Gorski at TAM2014. I don’t really have a story for it, but it’s one of those shots where it all came together at the right fleeting moment, and I just got the shot. The facial expression, the pose, the hand gesture, no motion blur: boom, there it is. I keep meaning to create a “One does not simply…” meme image with it, but I haven’t gotten around to it. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, do an image search on “Sean Bean One Does Not Simply.”)
Gerbic: What was your favorite photograph from CSICon 2016?
Engler: One that I took during Lawrence Krauss’s address on “Applied Metaphysics: Journey to the Beginning of Time” is my favorite first because I was able to frame him in front of his slide of outer space and work the light, focus, and depth of field in a way that pleases me, and second because when I tweeted it, Dr. Krauss both responded to me that he liked the photo and then retweeted it himself. I think it nicely captured his topic and his passion.
Withakay: I do have a lot of shots that lean more toward the reportage or documentation side of the photographic spectrum, but it’s the more artistic shots that I like the most; the ones that most appeal to me artistically. As a photographer, I generally loathe taking posed photographs. I like shooting people being themselves, being natural and unaware they are being photographed. I hate it when people notice me photographing them and they stop what they were doing and pose, face the camera, and smile right at me. Usually, if I’m pointing my camera at you from across the room, I either already see a shot I want, or I’m waiting for one to develop naturally. I’m trying to capture you being you, and I lose interest if you stop being natural and pose. Of course, there’s the chance that people read this and reverse compensate, and I won’t get any good shots of people in costume at the Halloween party next year, so be careful what you wish for I guess. Anyway, my favorite shot from CSICon 2016 is of Isil Arican, who I had just met at the beginning of the con, sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall during the George Hrab Sing-Along Sunday night after the con officially ended. She’s just sitting there, relaxed, natural, and totally unaware she’s being photographed. The expression on her face, her posture, the direction of her eyes… it’s just an amazing, beautiful shot capturing an amazing, beautiful moment, and I absolutely love it. I mean, some photographers will work hard, sometimes for hours, trying to set up a shot like that with a model, and I just found it sitting there for a brief moment, waiting for me. You can make up a lot of stories about that photo, what’s she’s thinking about, who she’s gazing at…One of my photographic mentors, Freeman Patterson (look him up in Wikipedia), talks about those photos you look at and just go “Umm!” That’s this shot for me.
Gerbic: I’m going to jump in and show the photo I took that most captured the moment of CSICon in my mind. And it was this one, Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins examining my son, Stirling Gerbic-Forsyth’s proboscis. What a proud moment for a mother. I especially like the “busted” look on Dawkins’s face. Not sure what Dawkins would think of this photo, but it is my favorite. And there were a lot of favorites to choose from.
Gerbic: So, in between all the photography you take, I hope you get to enjoy the lectures. What were some of your favorite parts of CSICon 2016?
Engler: There was a lot to like, but I very fondly remember the impromptu sing-along that George Hrab, joined by Karen Hart and Paula Serrano (who had come all the way from Buenos Aires to attend CSICon), held with a bunch of us after the con. Lots of fun to sit back, relax, and enjoy great music after a busy and educational week!
Withakay: Well, I love everything from the Thursday workshops to the Sunday papers, and hey, anyone who goes to CSICon needs to move heaven and earth to stay until Monday to get the full experience. DO NOT MISS OR SKIP THE SUNDAY PAPERS! And then, there’s the perfect way to wrap it all up and wind down: the Official Unofficial George Hrab Sing-Along on Sunday night. I’d go just for that, seriously.
Gerbic: One great thing that sets CSICon apart from other conferences is the Halloween party. I know I had a blast last year photographing the costumes.
Engler: Well, every conference I’ve attended—or coordinated back in my working days—has some event where attendees can just network—or not if that’s their choice—and let down their hair. CSICons, since 2011 at least, have been held on or near Halloween, so a costume party has been a natural choice. In New Orleans, it was held in conjunction with a Mardi Gras–like parade through the streets!
Withakay: Yeah, even TAM didn’t have anything quite like that. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that party and the thought many people put into their costumes. We do still need to figure out a Del Mar Lounge equivalent for CSICon, to provide a good, nightly venue for even more socialization though.
Gerbic: Completely agree with you Karl; the South Point Casino had an area that you could find skeptics hanging out in almost at any time, which was called the Del Mar. CSICon 2016 was held for the first time at the Excalibur, and we struggled to find a location we could call “home base.” This year we will again return to the Excalibur, October 26–28, so I will make a few suggestions. We found the Hotel Lobby Bar a great choice as we could watch people arrive as they checked in. If you are interested in being social at this year’s CSICon and you don’t know anyone, please post on the Facebook event page and start to get to know people. We are as interested in meeting you asyou are in meeting us. When you are near me, you are always welcome to have a place at my table, there is always more room (okay maybe not always, but you understand). Looking for where we are hanging out? Need a room-mate? Want to learn more about the conference? Post on the event page.
Gerbic: I understand that Barry Karr has a new plan for this year. A zombie disco theme (Lord help us!).
Engler: I think he’s just gathering ideas at this point, but who really knows—it’s Barry after all. I’m sure it’ll be fun in any case.
Withakay: Yeah, I’m not sure about that one. I like the seeing the inventiveness and variety of different costumes that a theme-less party delivers.
Gerbic: I want you both to know how much I appreciate all the work you do for our community. I don’t think people really thought about it before, but when the event is over and you start uploading the images, people all over start changing their avatars to photos you have taken. I know I love seeing the notifications. What people don’t really remember is that after spending a lot of time roaming the corridors and haunting the speakers during the conference, you spend hours going over the photos, cropping and enhancing them, and uploading them. That takes hours.
Withakay: Yep, I love it when I see a like or notification that someone used one of my photos for their Facebook profile. I take it as a real compliment. Way back, I used to only upload the best photos I considered most worthy, but I noticed people were frequently liking and using for their profile photos ones I considered borderline and almost didn’t upload, so I starting just doing photo dumps and uploading everything. A “bad” photo I took might be the only photo someone has of them with one of their skeptical heroes. Any time. It’s very validating as an amateur photographer to have someone want to use one of your photos, especially if it’s for something important, like a GSOW project. It’s my small contribution to the movement.
Gerbic: You both have been so generous with your time helping with this, and might I add patient with me. I start on you right after I get home asking when I’m going to be able to see the images. Then all through the year I send you messages asking for specific photos, and we always seem to need it uploaded right away.
For readers who think they might have photos we can use, please email me at SusanGerbic@yahoo.com and include a link to where you have your photos uploaded. I’ll be happy to take a look. High res is not as important as just good quality. And if you think you would like to help out at future conferences and events, please let me know. We can always use more help; all are welcome.
Withakay: Yeah, most people only look at the image that fits in the Wikipedia article, so massive megapixels don’t mean too much and don’t worry about not using a pro camera; good composition trumps premium equipment most of the time. It’s possible to take really good pictures even with an iPhone.
Here is a link to the Lanyrd page for CSICon 2016. This is a catch-all place for all things concerning conferences.
I’m sure people will want to see some of the work you have uploaded to WikiMedia Commons.
Engler: The photographs I’ve uploaded to Wikimedia Commons are here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:ListFiles/BDEngler&ilshowall=1
Withakay: Here’s my Wikimedia Commons page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:ListFiles/Karl_Withakay&ilshowall=1
And here’s my blog page with all my personal skeptical media links, including links to all my skeptical related FB albums, YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles featuring my photos, etc., to which I will be adding a link to this article when it goes live.
Gerbic: And here is my list of contributions to WikiMedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:ListFiles/Sgerbic&ilshowall=1