Monumental Changes

Last week Justinography had the incredible opportunity to film charity work down in Monument Valley.  Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii (meaning valley of the rocks) lies within Navajo Nation Reservation in San Juan County on the Utah/Arizona border.

According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2015 72.6% of the residents in Monument Valley fell below the poverty line. A city just hours away from urban Salt Lake City is living in third world conditions, and Ascend Recovery has seen the need to help out this community as best they could. 

Two full truck loads and a trailer filled with donated goods began the drive down from Salt Lake early Wednesday morning. By late afternoon we arrived at the elementary school to meet with the school's social worker to finalize details of the service projects.

Next, camp was set up. Tents popped up. Horse shoe stakes were set in place. As sunset approached, there remained an important decision to be made: to eat dinner or set up the RED Epic-W for a spectacular 8K time-lapse? I think you know what the right decision was.

Sunrise at Monument Valley

Sunrise at Monument Valley

We began Thursday morning with a beautiful sunrise. We returned to the elementary school but this time to take action. Employees and alumni from Ascend Recovery hauled 1x10' & 1x4' pieces of wood, end blocks, rods, hammers, nails, flowers, and soil across the playground to build three garden boxes for the children. During recess kids came over to see the boxes and some even helped plant the flowers. The excitement was truly palpable. I heard a little girl shout, "I just planted my own flower!" as she ran back to class with a huge smile glued to her face.  Once the boxes were finished and we were preparing to leave, several young students ran over to give hugs and say goodbye. It was thought-provoking to watch the interaction between Ascend representatives & Navajo students. Bonds were already beginning to form.

Assembling the garden boxes

Assembling the garden boxes

In the evening we met with a Native who welcomed us into her home and shared with us the lifestyle of living on the reservation. Everyone listened intently as she shared very personal and even heartbreaking stories. Life on the reservation, to say the least, is not easy. With her help, we were able to gain much insight and understand how to better help this struggling community. 

Friday morning we visited with another local and were once again touched by the troubling stories of life on the reservation. She helped us understand more of the history of her people, and the changes she hoped to see in the near future. 

As the last matter of business, we traveled back to the elementary school to deliver hygiene bags and donated items. While delivering the bags, the school social worker was excited to see that there were a lot of towels that had been donated. We then learned that most of the students do not have running water in their homes and use the school's shower. The school, however, only has two towels. TWO. Who would have known that such a small and simple donation could have such a big impact?

Capturing the rough architecture at sunset.

Capturing the rough architecture at sunset.

With humility in our hearts, we said our goodbyes and set off for home. What an incredible experience it was to see firsthand charity given, and charity received. The people at Ascend Recovery did an amazing job researching the needs of this impoverished community and how to best help them. They plan to continue their relationship with the people of Monument Valley, and already have big plans for the future. The hope is that with small steps, it will produce monumental changes.


A few months back 2 friends of mine who teach at a local middle school wrote me, "We are trying to find cool people with interesting careers that could present about their jobs and Melissa and I thought of you! Would you be interested in/able to present to a bunch of 12-14 year olds about your job?" My response was a resounding YES.


I showed up and the faculty had placed me in one of the oddest rooms possible, the library. They had couches facing TVs, round tables, and low-riding lounge chairs. None of them faced the same direction. Not your most ideal situation, but kids paid attention regardless. My simple set-up with the RED Weapon as well as Canon 5D Mark IV excited them as they walked in.

There were 5 sessions, each about 30 minutes with a different set of students. They asked me many questions, but here were my favorites:

  •  If you could redo college, what different classes would you take?
  •  What brand of shoes are you wearing? (No, I'm not kidding. Yes, this was in the middle of my presentation.)
  •  What kind of car do you drive?
  •  Do you speak Spanish?
  •  How much does your camera cost?
What kind of car do you drive?
— random kid in the middle of the presentation

I gave them over-simplified versions of average salaries, what an average day looked like, tools needed, etc. The following is a list of things I mentioned to describe, "skills needed":


1. self-motivated / leadership (you are the one in charge, you can watch netflix all day if wanted)
2. visually creative (no one wants to hire someone who can’t see things differently)
3. disciplined (no one will hire you a 2nd time if you don’t follow through on what you said)
4. people skills (did you network while on set? did people like being around you? good, you’ll stay in business)
5. salesmanship (can you persuade people you’re worth their money?)

6. resilient (you will likely fail, people will think you’re terrible, rejection comes, you’ll lose money)
7. adaptive to change (technology changes every single day, the way people view your work also changes)
8. ability learn new techniques (you will need to teach yourself a lot about business in general)
9. patience (you will likely get paid days or weeks after any given shoot)
10. tech savvy (you will guaranteed have tech problems to overcome, and you will need to be efficient with tech)


It was fascinating to see how the upcoming generation perceives things, and what they value (for instance, I learned that their age group doesn't use Facebook, but they were heavily involved with Instagram, and some used Twitter). It was also a reminder that if you want to progress in life you have to pay attention.


The age old question of whether one should go to film or photography school (or any vocational school) is no uncomplicated conversation. There are many facets to consider to reach an educated decision (pun intended), and everyone has their own priorities, perspective, end goals, and financial capabilities.

I'll just jump to my conclusion and then follow up with the body. CONCLUSION: If you can obtain higher education, do so. If you can't, don't. Either option won't kill you. And what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger... or something like that.

BODY: May I share the benefits I received by receiving higher education in Media Arts Studies? Feel free to agree or disagree, but I'd simply like to share one additional perspective on this interesting topic.


  1. Networking
  2. Correct principles
  3. Learn the why (theory)
  4. Comprehensive training
  5. Networking


  1. Deeply rooted camaraderie
  2. Bad habits die hard. Real hard.
  3. Knowledge is power
  4. James Bond
  5. Who you know is everything

Networking can be done in various ways, but for me it has proven to be incredibly profitable to have done so through attending a university. I have made friends who I might not have ever associated with otherwise. These are people who you might think are weird at first, but because of constant interaction you learn to appreciate those differences. You end up learning from them and becoming friends with people you never would've suspected. Inevitably you'll gravitate towards different cinematic and photographic niches which will be of benefit when you need help in areas where you're not as familiar later on. You can learn from their strengths making you a more well-rounded creative. Your clients will notice. Or, you can simply hire your colleagues to collaborate with you. Win/win.

Learning correct principles from the beginning encourages grounded habits. It leads to doing things right the first time–no trial and error needed. It develops professionalism. It also facilitates continued education down the road.

Theory is most people's least favorite thing to study, at least where I attended. Just let us go out there and shoot! But getting up at 4am to train at the gym for 2 hours before heading to work is also not highly loved by most people. My point?

Nothing worth having was ever achieved without effort.
— Theodore Roosevelt

To me, learning the why is all about creating habits of ordering your priorities properly and efficiently. This will essentially teach you how to make the most of your particular skill set and therefore lead you to the greatest degree of success.

Many people complain about General Education requirements, or the various required core classes within your major. I've always considered this to be a silly complaint as expanding one's horizons has never caused their downfall. Of course, saying you know what you're going to like before you've tried it is of course a sign of closed mindedness, which I think we can all agree is not a characteristic of successful people. In film school I had to learn things I didn't necessarily care about which later has served me ten-fold as my career has slowly taken paths I originally had not expected. I rely upon the comprehensive training I once considered irrelevant.

Networking has trickle effects that I wouldn't have expected, including a job I took in 2015 to edit an entire reality TV show in Portuguese simply because of a contact I made during my time as a student editor. A week after I graduated I received a phone call from a business owner who needed a long-term contract editor. How did he get my name? One of my professors referred him to me saying that I was the best editor he'd seen. Both of these jobs have proven to be quite financially influential in my professional career and both have related back to my time at BYU. Like I said earlier, you can make it as a professional photographer or filmmaker without college, but it doesn't mean it wouldn't hurt to consider the positive effects of it as well.