Breaking Free from the Unseen Force

Interview with Firefly Institute Teacher Brooke Shaden

Brooke Shaden is known for mysterious fine art images imbued with a dark fantasy. Her subjects levitate, submerge, shed rose petals and blend with smoke and trees. The women are always real, and are often self-portraits of Brooke herself; it is the settings and the secrets they disclose or hide that are otherworldly. A viewer can return to her depthless images again and again, finding more to see each time.

Brooke’s latest series The Fourth Wall was recently on display at the Joanne Artman Gallery in New York City. I spoke with Brooke about the series and her process for creating it. We also talked about teaching, learning the practice of creativity and, of course, Firefly Institute’s fall photo camp for women.

I read that when you prepared for this Fourth Wall series you asked others to tell you what they felt they couldn’t tell other people. How did you use that in your work on this series?

I asked people, very simply, “If you met a stranger right now, what do you feel you couldn’t tell that person, what would be the thing that you wouldn’t want them to see?”

There were two common answers. One was a feeling of loneliness. The other answer was feeling trapped—by themselves, by time, by their circumstance. We all feel that way at some point in our lives, like there’s some unseen force holding us back.

I pulled a lot of inspiration from those conversations.

When you asked others the question, did anyone ask you?

Yeah, definitely. What I don’t like to tell people about is feeling fragile, feeling like I am weak or that people view me that way. So I wanted to deal with fragility in one of the images.

I had this image planned in the series from quite early on where I knew I was going to do a self-portrait and have that be my very personal image in the series. It’s an image that features egg shells.

And how did you feel after that—not just sharing with other people, but creating the self-portrait with the thing you don’t like to share with others?

I felt proud. Once you communicate the thing that scares you the most then suddenly you realize that nothing is that big of a deal and, not only that, but everyone feels similarly. They might not use the word fragility to describe themselves, but nonetheless there is a feeling of being less somehow, in most people, somewhere in their life.

When I attended the big gallery opening, to talk to people about it, and say, “This is my picture, this is me, this is my emotion,” and then hear people’s responses was powerful. And the response is always, “Me too.” That’s what everybody says.


In your New York gallery opening, you had a glamorous setting very different from these intimate conversations that inspired your work. You were on display! People were all dressed up.

It is quite a different experience, and of course I showed up looking like a little pixie, so out of place!

I know that in pretty much any situation, I am going to be the weirdo in the room. That has just been my experience for the last few years! Any convention where I speak, I’m always saying something quite drastically different than most of the speakers there. I have come to embrace that element of surprise with people when I’m talking to them. If I am going to be in a social situation--which I don’t generally like, I am a very shy, timid person a lot of the time--so if I am going to be in that situation I am going to embrace it fully. I like to walk right up to people and ask what their greatest passion is, or what they feel they can’t tell other people.

They don’t expect me to just ask outright: “How do you relate to this, or what are your innermost workings?” But that, to me, is always the best part of a social engagement.

You talk about yourself as being shy, and then you come to this place where you love sharing yourself really authentically. There’s a journey there. How did that come about?

I started to realize that nobody cares about me, in a really good way. Not poor me nobody cares about me, but strangers don’t care about me. I care about me more than any of those people do, so as long as I can get over my embarrassment and fear there is nothing to worry about. It was very freeing to realize that, at best, I’m going to be somebody’s fun dinnertime story at the end of the day.

Let’s talk about your teaching a little bit. You have this wonderful fine art career: why also teach?

I wanted to be a teacher from the earliest I could remember. I have always loved the idea of exploring something with somebody. And I love anybody who is willing to learn because I find that I myself am not always so willing. I love meeting people who are, and who seek to know themselves more through their art.

You say that you can learn creativity, is that right?

Yes, I definitely think so.

Creativity happens when you are able to access yourself with no outside inspiration and come up with something to create. If you simply spend the time doing things that force you to look inward, then you will find that something creative comes out of it.

You’ve got four classes at Firefly Institute camp: From Blank Space to Beautiful Image, Video Storytelling, Creating a Levitation Image, and Creative Compositing.  

Pick one of those and talk about what you would like students to feel and to learn and to do. 

The Blank Space to Beautiful Image class--that is one of my favorite topics because when you say, “We’re going to start from nothing and we are going to make something from that,” it’s a very interesting process to watch. Some people really thrive from that place of having a blank canvas. And other people really freak out because they would like some sort of inspiration already. What’s so beautiful with this class is that we are going to start from the ground up. We are going to learn techniques where you can build a set with no budget, you can composite even if you don’t know Photoshop that well. We are going to go on a journey, where we all start from nothing and get to the creation of a well-rounded fine art image. 

Why are you excited about being part of Firefly Institute’s Photography Camp for Women?

There is a certain vulnerability in a space that is all women. You will be understood more intimately than would happen in an impersonal situation.

I also love the camp style: this little contained space where you are with people who inherently understand you because you are there for the same reason and have the same passion. It is a bond and sisterhood that is just phenomenal and I am so excited for it.

The World Above, by Brooke Shaden

The World Above, by Brooke Shaden

Welcome to 2017 Firefly Camp

My daughter is almost always right. She picks the best food at restaurants, wears the right thing, always knows which direction to turn. So last year, when my daughter announced, "You should like your job as much as you like vacation," I listened. I made the move to work at Firefly Institute. 

Firefly Institute's 2016 camp was an actual vacation for me. I shared the quiet sunrise above the fog with fellow campers, learned new lighting, editing, and compositing skills, and enjoyed time for quiet self-exploration. I talked, sang, and laughed with all the wonderful women at camp 

Just before sunrise: Firefly Institute Camp 2016

Just before sunrise: Firefly Institute Camp 2016

Of course, working at Firefly Institute is ... not like vacation. It takes coordination, attention to detail, follow-up, research, scheduling: all things that are, in fact, very much like work.

But my daughter did not charge me to find work that was vacation; she wanted me to find work that I liked as much as I like vacation. Everything I do as the Director of Firefly Institute is to extend an opportunity to women to explore their photography and creativity in the company of other fabulous women. And it helps that I love all the parts and pieces that go into making that possible 

I love finding and talking to inspirational teachers. Take a look at the work of Laurie, Brooke, Pei, Meghan, Suzanne, Courtney, and Michelle: each has such a distinct visual voice. In addition to her talent, each of these teachers is generous in spirit and wants her students to learn and grow.

I love organizing the class schedules. I wish that I, and all of you, could take every class. Check out a few of the classes and you’ll see why I’m so excited about the 2017 schedule.

I even love the logistics of managing our time at Westerbeke Ranch. Camp is more than the classes. It's about fun, music, and laughter. A visit to the Testimonials page gives a sense of the community, creativity, and inspiration last year’s campers found– and how much they enjoyed the wonderful food!

Directing Firefly Institute is not a vacation; but, lucky me, I love it just as much!

With joy,

your 2017 Camp Director



Letter to My Fireflies

Dear Fireflies,
Please forgive me for taking so long to write to you ... As soon as camp was over, it was time to start planning for NEXT year!
Rest assured that
 returning Fireflies will be able to pre-register for next year's camp. Pre-registration will open in early February; camp is October 11-15, 2017. We think camp will fill quickly next year, so remind your friends they'll need to sign up early to get a spot when regular registration opens. We'll keep you posted on classes, teachers, registration dates and other details.
Camp happened a month ago and my heart is still so full ... I hope each and every one of you knows you shined your light to help create the magical time that was Firefly Institute 2016 ... Meaningful connections, belly laughs, stunning property, amazing food, warm light, with such awesome women ... and our teachers above and beyond generous and kind!

Photo by Kim Thompson Steel

Photo by Kim Thompson Steel

You made my dream come true well beyond the way I had envisioned it. Thank you, truly, from the top to the bottom of my heart.
And you know how we grow and evolve and dreams change? Well, my new dream features an organic/biodynamic farm with chickens, goats, and a giant vegetable garden, maybe with a B&B or farming classes. What do I know about farming? Nada! But I didn't know anything about running a photo camp, either. I figure if I can run a camp, I can learn how to become a farmer, too.
I was hoping to find a terrific new Camp Director for Firefly Institute, and guess what? The absolutely perfect person showed up! I am so pleased to announce that the new Camp Director of Firefly Institute is Pam Sogge!
As you know, Pam was a Camp Counselor this year. I have known Pam since college at Lewis & Clark. She is super smart, thoughtful, organized, kind and downright hilarious. She has been involved in photography forever ... at her father's photography studio, forming a digital imaging company, running marketing for Lightroom at Adobe, and attending Camp! Pam was involved in Firefly from the beginning – I talked to her about my ideas, she helped me with strategy, and she introduced me to Julianne. Pam has a marketing consulting business and she has been looking to increase her connection to photography in her work. You see - It's a perfect fit for her, for me, and for Firefly Institute!
Please welcome Pam and give her the same love you have so generously given to me! Here's a message from Pam:

Hello Fireflies – I watched Hillary hatch, build and live her dream of a women’s photography camp. I am honored and excited to help that dream live on, and to host a camp that makes Hillary (who will be a camper herself next year) proud. Next year, this year’s activities will become traditions. We will get to welcome back teachers, take classes we missed, meet new teachers, hang out with friends new and old.
Mark your calendars – it’s only 10 months away!
Love and good cheer,
Pam, Your 2017 Camp Director

Sending big hugs and much love from Camp HQ,
Hills and Pam (


Putting Fears to Rest

Camp is now at capacity and we will be filling all the beds at Westerbeke Ranch! The reason to celebrate is that we have a fabulous group of women coming to camp! We are 42 campers (including 5 camp counselors) + 5 resident teachers + me! We also have 4 teachers coming in to teach one or two classes. Some stats on our campers:
-       Ages 35 - 72
-       From 12 states
-       1 from New Zealand!
-       Encompassing a wide range of experience with photography offering many perspectives!

The reason I wanted to host two camps each year (Fall camp for more experienced photographers and Spring camp for beginner-beginners) was to offer the appropriate classes to each group of photographers. In our upcoming November camp, we have photographers coming with a wide range of experience and EVERYONE is welcome.

Camp is a non-competitive sport! Remember that I come from the very competitive and male world of photojournalism? One of the reasons for making this camp all-female was to remove the element of masculine competitiveness. My deepest hope is for Firefly Institute to be a welcoming, nurturing, safe space for all women photographers, regardless of experience with photography.

I've been hearing campers' concerns about their level of experience, as well as other concerns. I'm writing today to hopefully put these concerns and fears to rest.

Some of the fears I've heard about coming to camp:
-       I'm intimidated by such talented photographers
-       I'm probably the least experienced photographer
-       Coming to camp is way outside my comfort zone
-       I'm scared to share a room with strangers
-       I need peace and quiet and time alone

While we're at it, I'll share some of my own:
-       What if camp is a complete flop?
-       I'm not funny or witty enough to host this whole thing
-       I'm scared I'll get so excited/ungrounded, I'll speak too loudly or quickly
-       Yikes, bathing suit!

All of these thoughts that go unchecked in our minds ... They are unfounded insecurities. They are not true! Let's catch ourselves when these painful comparing thoughts come up and turn our minds toward something positive. I know, easier said than done. There are things we can do, though, read on ...

Comparison is so human. We view others' photographs and decide ours suck. We see everyone's "perfect" lives on Facebook and feel like failures. We see her body and criticize our own. We do this all the time, hardly conscious of our inner dialogues and the damage we do to ourselves, unaware of the way this causes us to be small and timid. "Comparison kills creativity and joy. Stay in your own lane." - Brene Brown

Regarding experience levels with photography at camp ... This is not a competition. There is no portfolio review. There is no one you need to impress. There will always be people with more and those with less experience than us. Can we remember that we are here to learn from those with more experience and to share our experience with those with less experience? Can we remember that we each need to find a way to be comfortable with where we are on our photographic journey? On our life's journey?

If you think someone's photo is fabulous ... Instead of comparing yourself and your work to hers, ask her how she made that photo! Tell her you find it beautiful/interesting/insightful... Tell her you'd love to try and make a photo like that, that she has inspired you!

Regarding coming to camp ... Of course it can feel awkward -- for all of us -- to suddenly live/eat/sleep/learn with others. What can we do to ease the awkwardness? How can we help each other and ourselves?
-       Try reaching out instead of letting shyness take over
-       Be kind and generous to each other and to ourselves
-       Offer a hug -- ask for a hug
-       Treat each other gently (every one of us is harboring pain and challenges ... relationship issues, health issues, self-confidence issues, etc)
-       Be accepting of people's idiosyncrasies and our own
-       Keep sharing your fears/concerns. When you share them, you release them!
-       Assume that we love each other -- warts and all -- already (so we don't waste time, because we WILL love each other before this thing is over!)
-       Watch Firefly Teacher and Camp Love Guru Meghan Davidson's talk on exactly this topic:

I just returned from a grand vacation in France. On the plane ride home, I read a quote that has stayed with me: "Go toward those who love you."

So let us befriend each other, shower each other with kindness, and have fun in the process. We all love photography so much, we find creative freedom and the joy of self-expression doing it. Let's celebrate that, love each other, and put our concerns to rest. We're gonna have a great time together!

“Today you are You, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” 
- Dr. Suess


Camper Close Up With Louann Brizendine

Hello Friends,

Here is our fourth in a series about a few of our photo campers ... Who they are and why they are coming to camp.

Ready for her Close Up, here is Louann Brizendine (with a few of her photographs):



Would you please tell us a little about yourself? 

I’m 63 years old, mother of a 27-year-old son, wife of a neuroscientist, author of “The Female Brain” and “The Male Brain” and a retired doctor.



How did you first get into photography?

I had been avidly taking cell phone camera photos for several years and for my retirement gift, my husband bought me a real camera.

How do your previous career and your photography intersect?

They did not intersect at all, that was the whole point!

How does your "female brain" apply to your photography?

Hmmm, not sure I know if it does, but I know that the guy photographers I meet seem like a different breed than me; which is ok, but they do like to gear-head out a lot and one-up each other as often as possible ... Just sayin’ not judging.

What are the benefits of attending an all-female creative workshop?

Well, well well, see my answer to the previous question!

Why did you register for Firefly Institute? What part of photo camp are you most excited about? 

All of it, I have so much to learn! And since I have been doing it for two years now, I have already hit some motivation-blocks so I hope to get inspired and see how others approach their photography. I met Hillary at Rancho La Puerta and then we both lived in Marin and joined the same photographers’ group in Mill Valley.

Thank you, Louann, for sharing yourself with us! 


I know first-hand that Louann is an excellent and generous hugger. Photo campers, get ready for Louann's hugs! 

You can read more about Louann on her website.


Camper Close Up with Staci Kennelly

Hello Friends,

Here is our third in a series about a few of our photo campers ... Who they are and why they are coming to camp. In this case, our camper is also a "camp counselor" which means that she will participate as a camper in all classes and activities, as well as assume the role of helping other campers in her cabin acclimate to camp life. 

Ready for her close up, here is Staci Kennelly (with a few of her film photographs):

Would you please tell us a little about yourself?

I am a film photographer living in Los Angeles. After homeschooling my three girls for the last 23 years and graduating them all from high school, this Fall I am going back to school myself. I am married to a film photographer, so I always have a partner ready to go out and shoot a roll or two. 

How did you first get into photography and in particular, film photography? What do you most enjoy about shooting film?

While on a trip to Ireland with my husband, we started fighting over who got to use the one camera we owned. Everywhere we went, we wanted to shoot. When we got home, we bought one more camera, and we have been addicted to the craft ever since. I started shooting film when one of our friends bought a film camera and started telling us how much he was enjoying it. I love how shooting film has become a time of meditation for me. Shooting film forces me to slow down and really think about each shot. It has made me a better photographer.

What is the Viewfinders collective? How did you get involved?

Viewfinders consists of 15 photographers dedicated to recording the world around us. We have a beautiful manifesto that I personally go back to over and over again to remind myself why I shoot. I was honored to be asked to join over a year ago at its formation. They are a group of photographers that continue to inspire me.

Are you a professional photographer? Why do you make pictures?

I have struggled with the word “professional” for some time. I have shown my photography work in galleries in Pasadena, Malibu, and Los Angeles. I have been featured in magazines. I have sold my images through stock companies and the monies earned pay for my film habit.  But do I live off the money made from photography? Do I think of it as a job? No. I would be afraid of losing the love of it. Photography is my passion. It is how I find the deeper places of myself. I take pictures for me, and it would be hard for me to change that right now.  

Why did you register for Firefly Institute? What part of photo camp are you most excited about? 

I am beginning a season of my life of finding myself and my passions. After being a homeschool mom for so long, I am excited to see what else life holds for me. I know that photography is part of that. And because of that, I want to get better at creating images. I feel like this camp is a great opportunity for me to not only learn new things but have time for myself. I am in awe of the talent who will be offering classes at camp. I can’t wait to learn from such inspiring ladies. 

What appeals to you about being a "camp counselor" at photo camp?

I was a big nerd growing up. My experiences of camp involved being left out and picked on.  And while we are all grownups at Firefly, it is easy for the “little girl” in each of us to be afraid and intimidated. My heart wants each woman to feel welcomed and included. I also look forward to making new friends who share the same passion as I do. I am also looking forward to the wine tasting, because wine.  

Thank you, Staci, for sharing yourself and your world with us ... We look so forward to meeting you in person at camp! 


You can read and see more of Staci's film and digital photographic work on her website.



Camper Close Up with Leigh Love

Hello Friends,

I hope you're well and having an enjoyable summer in whatever way makes you happy! 

We here at Firefly Institute HQ decided to give you a close up view of several of our photo campers. We thought you'd like to learn more about what kind of person attends a creative retreat or photo camp, and why?

Ready for her close up, here is Leigh Love:

Would you please tell us a little about yourself?

Sure! I was born and raised and still live in Oklahoma City. I have two children Jack (13) and Molly (10) and I've been married for almost 18 years. I am a landscape designer with my own design/build business. I have an interesting family dynamic, "officing" in my family art gallery The Howell Gallery along with my interior designer mother, architect father and gallery director sister. I feel very lucky to be surrounded with such creative vibes every day. 

What's the most interesting thing about having the last name "Love"?

I would like to think that having Love as a last name makes me a little more approachable. I get comments every day about what a cool name I have. The worst thing is when I introduce myself "Leigh (pronounced Lee) Love" and people think I’m saying Lela. The alliteration of my name drives me crazy!

How do your landscape design and photography intersect?

I spend my days creating outdoor spaces for people who want to extend their living beyond the walls of their house, so being in nature is part of my daily routine. Not only do I get to draw plans and render them with beautifully colored markers, but I also get to be at the nursery selecting the plants. I spend time evaluating the light of an area and what textures and colors to put together. It has always felt natural to capture it with my camera as I experience it. I like to seek out beauty that might otherwise be overlooked. Being in nature with my camera is a meditative experience for me.

What is the Focusing On Life collaborative? How did you get involved?

Focusing on Life was started in January 2012 by a group of women photographers who were connected through Tracey Clark's Big Picture photography classes and Shutter Sisters. Our goal is to create a caring community for people who are passionate about photography and life. We hope for our blog to be a place that will inspire, teach, nurture, support and accept one another; a place where we can grow in our craft and as individuals. Fellow camper Kelly Ishmael is one of my FOL sisters :-). We all take turns blogging every other week.

What's your experience shooting for Stocksy?

I was accepted to Stocksy in April 2013 shortly after it was started. The first year there were 10,000 applicants and only 500 artists selected. I felt very honored to have been chosen (and honestly…a bit surprised!). What I love about Stocksy is that it's an artists' co-op. We are compensated fairly for our licensed images and also share in the profits. It's not easy shooting for stock as their aesthetic isn't always what I tend to shoot. I've learned that not every image I submit will be accepted, so it's been a learning curve for a sensitive soul like myself in dealing with rejection.  

Why did you register for Firefly Institute? What part of photo camp are you most excited about? 

I registered for Firefly Institute because I feel like I've stalled out a bit as a photographer. I want to jump-start that passion again and continue to learn and grow. I'm most excited about connecting with like-minded women and learning from each other. Plus five days to myself in Northern California in a camp-like environment with my camera sounds like heaven!

Thank you, Leigh, for sharing yourself and your world with us ... We look so forward to meeting you in person at camp! 


You can see more of Leigh's photographic and landscape work on her website.

Camper Close Up with Katrina Kennedy

Hello Friends, 

I hope your summer is offering you expansive wide angle spaces, and that you're getting close up to many a BBQ! 

We here at Firefly Institute HQ decided to give you a close up view of several of our photo campers, starting today. We thought you'd like to learn more about what kind of person goes to photo camp, and why? 

Ready for her close up, here is Katrina Kennedy:


Would you please tell us a little about yourself? 

I am a mom, wife, gardener, business owner, photographer, writer, and lover of learning. I train trainers (the corporate kind, not the athletic kind) by day and run CaptureYour365 -- a community inspiring people to make pictures every day -- in the nooks and crannies of my life.

What inspired you to start a 365 project?

I was inspired by friends to try out a 30-day photo project. On day 31, I was hooked and just kept going. I’m a sentimental, memory hoarder, so a 365 project was made for me!

You missed one day since starting your 356 project in 2008 ... What happened that day?

I didn’t even realize I’d missed that day until much later in the year. Looking at photos from the day before and after I know that I was being mom to a toddler and cleaning house in anticipation of houseguests. Just living life.

Why did you create the CY365 community? How did that evolve?

I wanted to create a community to share ideas, inspiration, and support about everyday photography. I wanted to share my passion for capturing life with others who felt the same need. I was involved with the scrapbooking community, teaching photography classes and writing a blog. It was a natural next step to create a community focused on all things everyday photography.

How do you come up with your monthly Photo Challenge lists?

In our first years, I created the CY365 lists letting the time of the year drive my choices. I now write the theme for each week and the CY365 Creative Team add the rest of the prompts. I love the variety of perspectives the team brings.

Why did you register for Firefly Institute? What part of photo camp are you most excited about? 

As my son gets older, the focus of my photography is shifting. I signed up for Firefly Institute to reignite my love for my photography, to be reminded to see the beauty in daily life, and to slow down. I'm excited to hold my camera for myself, for the pure love of the art without deadlines or requirements. And the friends. 


Thank you, Katrina, for sharing yourself with us ... We look so forward to seeing you in person at camp! 


You can join in the everyday photography movement at CaptureYour365, with the help of Kristina's August Photo Challenge list of prompts. Happy summer shooting, everyone! 

The Firefly Story

My dad gave me my first camera at sixteen – a sturdy black Minolta. After my teenage years spent in photography
classes and studying National Geographic magazines, losing myself in daydreams of the world inside that thick yellow frame, I was hooked on photography.

After college, I attended the oldest journalism school in the country at the University of Missouri, and one of the best, most professional J-schools (they kept telling us!). It's true I received top-notch training and landed sought-after internships and jobs at newspapers. At the time, photojournalism was very competitive and male (still is), with little tolerance for weakness or fear, but I was able to thrive. I had developed a toughness to survive in that often cutthroat and very male world.

Photographing Italy vs. Brazil in the final World Cup Soccer game, Rose Bowl Stadium, 1994

Photographing Italy vs. Brazil in the final World Cup Soccer game, Rose Bowl Stadium, 1994

I got a job in Long Beach as a staff photographer -- perhaps the only photography gig with a salary and benefits. 
I loved it. Our staff was like a family and I was fortunate to work with many talented photographers, writers and editors. Our photo staff even won runner-up for a staff Pulitzer Prize while I was there. I covered the exciting Los Angeles news -- the Rose Parade, celebrities, politicians, World Cup soccer -- and had the privilege of entering into people's lives to tell their stories. But L.A. and Long Beach were also terrifying. I witnessed in person with my camera many of the horrors of urban life.

And then off-duty one evening, parked in a nice neighborhood, kissing my boyfriend in my convertible, we were held up at gunpoint by teenage boys in a gang.

Suddenly, I wasn’t so tough anymore. Several months later, I moved home to Northern California where I knew I'd be safe.
I gave up my photojournalism career. And I stopped making pictures for 10 years.

Even though I started and ran See Jane Run, a stock photography agency specializing in pictures of active women, I wasn't photographing. Somewhere along the way the joy and spontaneity of my first Minolta had been lost -- and I didn’t know where to find it again. Thinking I was ready for something new, I went back to school to become a Waldorf teacher. 

I think this happens to a lot of us. We get scared, or we get tired, or we forget why we do what we do. Places and people and ideas that used to inspire us don’t hold power anymore. Even when we love learning and growing, we can find ourselves stalled. And sometimes, we don’t know how to move forward on our own.

In 2009, on a whim, I attended Squam Art Workshop in New Hampshire at a historic family camp in the woods with cabins, an exquisite dining hall, and docks on the lake. I took mixed media and painting classes. One hundred and twenty five people, mostly women, gathered to create art and share stories and live in a gorgeous natural setting for five days. This was what I needed all along! On the flight home, my mind was soaring: How great would it be to have a similar workshop with all photography classes? I scribbled notes in a wild brainstorm -- what teachers could teach what classes, evening activities to foster connection, cool speakers … and Firefly Institute was born!

Photography came back into my life. I opened an art photography studio in an artists' building in Sausalito, CA and took a job teaching photography at the San Francisco Waldorf High School (and loving it!). And I started planning Firefly Institute.

Bay Area Shutter Sisters Chinatown photo walk, 2014

Bay Area Shutter Sisters Chinatown photo walk, 2014

I knew from running two successful businesses that creating Firefly Institute wouldn’t be easy, but I’ve marshaled experience from a lifetime of professional photography, my training as a communicator and a teacher, the inspiration I’ve drawn from amazing workshops like Squam and Camp Shutter Sisters (now defunct), and happy weeks at childhood summer camps. It took me a long six years to find the right venue. The vision kept me going, though, because at a time in my life when I needed community and restoration, I found it. Firefly Institute brings that same energy to other female photographers.

Firefly Institute is a place to recapture the fun and creativity of photography -- with a group of kindred spirit women photographers  -- in a special environment that encourages us to stretch, experiment with something new, and remember the magic of using the ephemeral forces of light and time to tell our stories.

Register soon -- Only 11 spots left!



  • November 9-13, 2016
  • Intimate group limited to 42 participants
  • Peaceful, charming setting at Westerbeke Ranch in Sonoma, CA
  • Technical and creative classes
  • Top professional photography instructors, including Julieanne Kost and Pei Ketron
  • Experiential exercises, presentations, and individual and group work
  • Fun, community-building, summer-camp-style evening activities
  • Nurturing, safe setting

My Happy Place

Just a quickie to tell you I was in Sonoma yesterday seeing Westerbeke Ranch again. 
I fall deeper in love every time I visit ...

Top left: Outdoor bathroom; Top right: Outdoor deck; Bottom left: Semi-outdoor dining; Bottom right: Dinner bell

Top left: Outdoor bathroom; Top right: Outdoor deck; Bottom left: Semi-outdoor dining; Bottom right: Dinner bell

The gardens laden with flowers and succulents, butterflies flitting about. The giant oak trees protecting the entire place. The winding, magical pathways. The rustic architecture of days gone by. The feeling of old California family and history. And it is all so darned photogenic!

Westerbeke Ranch is the *perfect* venue for Firefly Institute. 

In my mind's eye, I can see us all laughing and sharing stories and printing pictures and dining and talking shop and reveling in the natural beauty of the Ranch. Hot tubbing and singing. Aha photo-learning moments. Ping pong and s'mores. Photographing. Ahhhh, I can't wait to see the photos that come out of all the campers!

Those of us who are lucky enough to get to stay there for photo camp, living there for five days and four nights ... We are very fortunate, indeed.

Whether you are coming to camp or not, my wish for you is this: That you have or find -- and get to spend time in -- a special place that makes your heart lighten, with beauty and nature and soul-filled goodness; that you find your happy place. 

When the uniqueness of a place sings to us like a melody, then we will know, at last, what it means to be at home. - Paul Gruchow



Rethinking the Retreat

Ahhhhhhhhhhh. Relaxed. Rejuvenated. Refreshed.

Recently returned from a full week of self-care at Rancho La Puerta, many elements made me very happy there: the delectable organic vegetarian meals, the warmth of the Mexican air, the 6:30am hiking up sacred mountains, the daily stretch class, the laughter-filled afternoons by the pool with new friends. But THE VERY BEST part? Being offline. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.  

Off. Line. As in, no electronic communications for a full week. I admit I used my iPhone once to make one photo on the last day, quickly returning my phone to its "Cell Phone Sleeping Bag" that came with my welcome packet.

The pretty pouch came with a card that read, in part: "We invite you to use your Ranch stay to find balance in your digital life. This is the perfect week to set some boundaries. To unplug. We all have great reasons to be online all the time. But we rarely get opportunities to be mindful of how technology is ruling us -- and to make choices about its place in our lives."

When I returned home and told my friend Sophia about being offline for an entire week, she looked at me sideways, with an anxious tilt of her head. I could see her brain trying to understand how that would work, what that would look like. "An entire week?" she exclaimed! She, like most of us, could not fathom being offline. All of our lives are filled with so much "connectivity."

Why go offline? Simply, because it's good for us. Because being offline calms our nervous system, which is usually ... well ... nervous. Because instead of "connecting" with the virtual world inside our computers and devices, when we're offline we actually connect with our immediate surroundings, with the people who are actually with us, with nature, and with ourselves.

I recently saw an excellent show on technology addiction and the benefits of nature on National Geographic channel's "Call of the Wild" show, highly recommended. 

There's also a new documentary "Screenagers" that highlights the perils of screen time and how to manage them. We are ALL screenagers when it comes to our devices, texting, the Face, Pinterest, etc (and other times, too!).

So how can we "Oh, Behave!" regarding technology? How to establish healthy boundaries with our iPhone, iPad, laptop, desktop, computer games, and our wifi lives? How to digital detox?

I am patting myself heartily on the back just for changing my charging station to another room instead of right by my bed. Instead, I now greet the day with reverence and spaciousness in my soul, instead of assaulting my senses with the emails in my phone as soon as my eyes open. 

Like home meditation or yoga practices, relying on our own initiative can prove challenging. Which is why we take classes or go on retreat.

Media maven and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain and her family suggest a technology shabbat. Or perhaps attend Camp Grounded summer camp for adults for "off-the-grid fun" where technology is not allowed, at all. 

I've decided that at Firefly Institute, which is a photography camp and also a retreat, we will be offline for four days ... mostly! We will have a "Tech Corner" for those campers who absolutely must be online. And we will certainly be using our iPhone cameras and our laptops for Lightroom and Photoshop!! And of course, campers will be reachable at all times via camp staff! Yet ... Our time at camp is a place that enables learning and friendships to flourish. We'll encourage campers to take this opportunity to be offline in order to fully engage with each other, the beautiful ranch, the time, the air, the smells, the birdsong, themselves, and their creative inner worlds.

I predict that our Firefly campers will, at first, freak out! Then they will put their phones on airplane mode so they can use their phone cameras without being distracted by emails, texts and notifications. But for a few hours, they'll be jonesing for JUST ONE MORE TEXT MESSAGE! And then they will sink, slowly, in to the luxurious space that being offline offers. And I predict they'll be grateful for the experience.


On our last night at Rancho La Puerta, someone placed her phone on the dining table after making a few photos. In my imagination, her iPhone turned into a loaded gun; I felt assaulted! I asked her to put it away, wanting to luxuriate in the final hours of being free from devices.

However we can create our own space away from technology, we can be sure that it's good for us. The scarier it sounds, the more we probably need to do it. Please share with us your experiments in finding balance in your digital life!




Space for Women, in honor of International Women's Day

I believe space for women is important ... No ... Imperative. Being a lifelong photographer, I also believe a photography workshop for women is imperative.  

Why do women need this? Because like most of our world, the field of photography has been shaped by male voices, experiences, and norms. The history of photography features mostly male photographers. Coed photo conferences, retreats and workshops offer mostly male teachers and speakers.

Though this is changing. And Firefly Institute is part of this evolution.

This photography camp/workshop is one-of-a-kind with its high-caliber level of learning opportunity and intimate size fostering real and deep sisterhood. This is a workshop for women, taught by women, run by women, organized by women. Our camp is held at a family ranch passed down by the women of the family since the 1930s. This camp is a space that honors and esteems women.

In assembling a curriculum for camp, I looked for qualified women teachers. There are loads of men teaching photo workshops. While searching high and low to find the just-right teachers and classes, I considered including a male teacher or two to give us the classes I wanted to offer. And then I got very clear ...  

Women need to see other women in positions of influence. And women photographers need to learn from other women photographers. We support the "If you can see it, you can be it" philosophy. We women need role models who look like us, even, still, in 2016. So. No boys allowed.

The teachers we have gathered for the Fall 2016 camp are all experts in their field, chosen specifically for camp because they are skilled teachers, generous and kind. Our teachers want to share their knowledge with other women and lift the level of the photo sisterhood to new heights.

Today, women are the largest growing segment in photography and these women are reshaping the industry with female vision. Camera gear is finally being customized to women's needs and preferences. We are seeing more women play significant roles in the ultra-male professions of photojournalism and conflict photography, à la Lynsey Addario and her poignant, funny, terrifying memoir It's What I Do.

With the advent of the iPhone with built-in camera, a photographic revolution exploded on the worldwide scene. Everyone is a photographer nowadays. And with 50% of the population being women, that's a lot of women photographers in the world! Our visual sophistication as a culture has grown enormously and now includes female vision as a much larger part of the whole.

Firefly Institute celebrates women photographers by offering a special space created just for us. Because it's time. 






Ripples of Love

Greetings happy campers!

We love photography, women and girls, and women photographers (they're really cool). And we LOVE sharing the wealth, making a difference and giving back. Right? 


As many of you know, creating Firefly Institute is my long-held dream come true. And I always wanted there to be a non-profit, giving back aspect to this photo camp. But starting a non-profit at the same time as starting this camp was just too much in one year! After a serendipitous conversation with the talented and lovely Ami Vitale, a lightbulb went off ... Let's support the most logical, absolutely-perfect-fit-like-a-body-hugging-well-worn-pair-of-favorite-jeans, already-in-existence non-profit: Ripple Effect Images.

Annie Griffiths, one of National Geographic's first female photographers, started Ripple Effect Images in order to give back in the best way she knew how ...  With the power of images. She gathered several of her National Geographic photographer girlfriends, including Ami, and formed this collective to provide storytelling resources to groups who work to improve the lives of women and girls.

It's a ripple effect of girl power love via photography making an impact. It doesn't get any better than that!

Firefly Institute is the very proud supporter of Ripple Effect Images and we are glad to donate a portion of our proceeds to further their good work. We at Firefly want to spread the love and shout from the rooftops so that Ripple can do even more for women and girls around the world who need our help.

Since it is the season of love, now is the time to give generously. We encourage you to support Ripple and show your love in whatever way feels right and good to you. Maybe you like to make grand proclamations of love, or maybe you prefer quiet murmurs in the ear. Whatever your style, here are some ways to show your love to Ripple Effect Images:

o   Make a donation from the Firefly Institute page:

o   Make a donation from the Ripple Effect Images website: and tell them we sent you!

o   Sign up for GoodSearch or Amazon Smile which will donate a portion of the purchase price while you are doing your regular shopping, with no extra cost to you:

o   Donate specific amounts and receive gorgeous photographic gifts from Ripple (please note "Gift of Ripple" in the memo of the check):

o   Give your appreciated stock and avoid paying capital gains tax (when you donate your asset to a charity):

o   Like the Ripple Effect Images FB page:  

o   Tell your friends and social share about Ripple

Annie Griffiths / Ripple Effect Images

Annie Griffiths / Ripple Effect Images

Another cool thing: Annie is our kickoff speaker at our October 2017 photo camp!

And another funny thing: During a phone meeting with the Ripple team, I was surprised that Annie herself got on the line. I blurted out, "Annie, you're my hero!" Couldn't help myself. She is. 

So may we Firefly Institute fireflies fill the sky with our light and love! Help a woman. Help the planet. Shine your light, spread your love. Give generously. 

Happy V Day. 

Much love,