It’s a journey

by Sue Dawson

ONE OF MY favorite things about teaching is the moment when things click into place. An “aha” moment, where a student gains an important insight, or looks at his/her art with a different perspective. It’s especially clear over time, when we look back at students’ creative work, and see their growth as artists.

Steve Koppel was a member of our first Mentorship group, which began in 2013. When I first talked with Steve, he said he had retired early, and was a “hobbyist” photographer. But he wanted to know if we’d help with a new non-profit he was starting, MyMoments, to “promote recovery and emotional resilience through imagery created on mobile devices.” He’d use his 1:1 meetings with us as consultation on his new endeavor, and would learn from our trainings and retreats as well. The more Steve talked about his idea, I started getting chills (this happens when something resonates for me), and I told him it would be our honor. 

At our first retreat in January, Steve used his Mastermind to do a presentation on MyMoments, and showed some iPhone images as examples of the techniques he was teaching. It was wonderful to see the progress he’d made with his idea, and how quickly it seemed to be catching on. What I didn’t know was that Steve was nervous. Here’s what he said today:

“When I first called, I would’ve called myself a postcard photographer – no sophistication, no subtlety in what I produced. It was in your face, bright colors, pretty postcard photographs. What I wanted to do was figure out how to make photography a meaningful part of my life. Looking back, I didn’t really know what that meant. I remember at the first retreat, being too ashamed to show any of my own work. The decision to show MyMoments iPhone images was a convenient way to participate, without having to show imagery next to the work of the others, who were much more trained in photography as art. The truth is I didn’t have enough confidence to share what I was doing with a DSLR with other people.”

First, it’s important to say that Steve’s early reluctance to share his own work was a blessing, in retrospect, for MyMoments. Now the EDI Institute, Steve’s non-profit organization is helping patients all over the country. EDI, or “Expressive Digital Imagery,” has been incredibly well-received by clinicians and thousands of patients, and plays an important role in therapeutic programs. Steve still donates 100% of his profit on the sales of his photographs to EDI Institute. 

So now I need to connect the dots. I need to get you from the man who was too ashamed to show his work in front of 12 students, to the successful photographer who’s represented by a top photography gallery, and regularly sells his work.

By the April retreat of that first year, Steve was inspired to get back to his own photography. But he didn’t want to shoot postcard photos anymore. He wanted to understand “what expression through imagery is all about – subtleties of light, design, composition.” He started to explore the movement of water, doing long exposures out on the beach in front of his house on Cape Cod. His second Mastermind showed some of the images he captured, which he called “Wave Art.”

The next year, in addition to upgrading his website, Steve worked to capture the “amazing variety of the phenomenon of the Brewster Flats,” a tidal flat where the water flows in and out over miles of beach, with the tides. He set a tripod on a jetty in front of his house, and took images in all different conditions. The artist was beginning to emerge.

Highest - not framed perfectly

During Steve’s third year with us, his second in the Advanced Mentorship, we held our annual retreat on the Cape. Alison’s been represented by the Focus Gallery in Chatham (formerly in Cohasset) for years, and she decided to bring us all there for a visit. And guess what photograph was displayed in the front window…


Cindy Vallino, the owner of Focus Gallery, had begun to represent Steve that spring, and we were all SO excited to see his work proudly on display.  

That year, Steve had chosen a completely different angle on his beloved beach home. He bought a drone, and was able to capture stunning images from above. He also began doing his own prints, on a large Epson printer. At our retreat in October 2016, Steve covered our large table with his gorgeous prints of these images, asking for the group’s help in choosing the best ones. He also generously brought his drone out to Quansoo beach, and gave us all a demonstration. It was a highlight of the retreat (note happy, waving subjects below).


Later that year, he produced a folio of the prints named “Above the Flats,” and gave copies to friends and family. 

above flats 

These days, Steve goes out early, many mornings each week. 
“It’s become spiritual for me. (What I’m doing now is) EDI with a sophisticated camera. It’s all about self-expression. It’s as much about my experience being out there, as the image I’m capturing. It’s about how I’m feeling, mindfulness, expressing imagery from that. I’m not going out for a shoot – it’s really a journey. I’m out there at 4am, while the skies are still dark. The camera is just an extension of my hands now. I know it so well, I don’t have to think – it’s second nature. I’ll notice changes in the light, movement in the water. There hasn’t been a single time I’ve gone out where I haven’t been inspired. It’s not about getting images for the gallery, about sales – I don’t even think about that. I’m capturing what I’m feeling. The camera sees these amazing things happening, that my eyes can’t see. It’s all real, and I could never have seen it, without the camera that I know really well how to use, as an extension of my own being, my own eyes. And that was all inspired by the Mentorship. I give full credit to the Mentorship for getting me to that kind of place with my imagery. And I feel very blessed that Cindy gave me this opportunity, at the Focus Gallery. The only reason I’m there, and able to talk at a professional level, and understand what she’s looking for, is because of my experience with the Mentorship. There’s no question.” 

The feeling that Steve is capturing, in those early morning journeys, looks like this:


I told him how much I appreciate his comments about the Mentorship, but the talent is obviously inside of him. And this is what he said…

“Obviously there’s something inside me that I never tapped before. Without the right inspiration and support, it goes untapped. There’s an ability inside that has let loose, but I credit this wonderful Mentorship program for that. If I had just gone and done workshops and done things on my own, I never would’ve gotten this far. I can really see the difference between what I’ve experienced in the Mentorship, and photographers who just do workshops, and haven’t had the benefit of mentorship, of 1:1 coaching. Having your coaching and nurturing all the way thru is what’s made this all possible.”  

I’m booking spaces for the Mentorship now – it starts this coming week, and we do this program only once each year. Actually, to be honest, each year Alison and I talk about our own plans, and where we want to invest our time. We’ve got our own bucket list, and the Mentorship programs are a huge investment for us. There is always a chance we’ll skip a year or two. 
So if your heart lifts a bit when you think about taking your photography to the next level, now is the time to take advantage of that inspiration. If the Mentorship is on your bucket list, email me right now, 

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