I referred to Ford Yates as a kid even before I met him in person. I knew that he was a junior in college, twenty-one years of age, and had a thriving professional career of which many seasoned photographers would be jealous. I couldn’t help it though; I thought of him as a kid. I’d noticed his easy, cheerful demeanor and trusting attitude on the phone. But more than that, it is the way his photos capture life. They tell a story about real life in a way that we all can relate to. It was in an online post by Outside magazine that I was first exposed to Ford’s work: a picture of a simple tent on a floating platform in the middle of glassy lake, another of his friend smoking while duck hunting. His images gave me a desire to see more, to know more.

Fast forward, two months later: I am sitting in the airport at 9:30 PM waiting for a tall college student/professional photographer to get off the plane. I watch as businessmen, grandmas, grandpas, dads, and moms all walk down the corridor. Then I spot someone I am pretty sure is him. He smiles when he realizes it’s me he is looking for. Suddenly I feel like a friend has just returned home. Immediately, he starts talking business with me as we wait for his bags. Little did I know that the business conversations would soon turn into conversations about life, religion, and family. Those conversations would challenge me to think differently.

I have a lot of questions for him, focusing more on who he is as a person than on his photography. A few weeks back, I had offered him several choices on accommodations for his visit. I figured he would choose staying at a nice hotel downtown, and I guessed his second choice would be to stay at our cabin on the back of the mountain. I was wrong: he chose to stay with our family at our house. What? Why would he want to get mixed into our life? I soon realized that is just who he is. He chose that option because he wants to experience life, to get to know people, even if it’s uncomfortable at times.

""I still love to hunt and fish, but if I have to choose, I am going to grab the camera.""

As soon as we step through the door of our house, I realize he probably hasn’t had dinner. I apologize for not stopping somewhere along they way and offer him the usual late night dinner options. He chooses cereal. A big ol’ bowl of cereal. His phone has been constantly beeping and buzzing from a combination of work and friend-related texts and emails. He takes a call from his dad, who wants to make sure he arrived safely. “He always worries about me, a lot more than my mom does.”

Ford’s family is from Texas, and they are all in the oil and gas industry. He is the youngest of three. His dad took him and his brother fishing and hunting at an early age. A few years back, he started to realize he enjoyed shooting pictures of his brother and friends as much as—if not more than—shooting a gun. “I still love to hunt and fish, but if I have to choose, I am going to grab the camera.”

It’s past midnight, and we plan what we are going to wear in the morning and discuss what time we need to get up. I feel bad saying 5:30 or 6:00. He asks how long it will take us to reach the river and then suggests we get up and going around 5:15. He wants to be in the water before daybreak to capture the best light of the day. He explains that he will only have a couple of good hours to shoot in the morning and about the same at night; shadows are the enemy. He also explains how he is used to getting up at 3 AM to hunt public duck lands. I immediately realize that he is the seasoned veteran, and I am the guy who will need to be shown some grace.

Morning comes way too fast. Still, I jump out of bed and quickly get dressed. As I walk downstairs, I hear friendly voices in the kitchen. My daughter and son-in-law are talking with Ford while he eats another bowl of what he had for dinner the night before.

We all head out, and I am surprised at how easily everything flows. It’s his calm demeanor. We continue our conversation from the night before as we drive along in the dark. Ford has his camera going as soon as we step out of the truck. Even though it’s still dark, he’s taking pictures of something, of us. We carry our canoes down a narrow, winding trail and find a good spot to put in. My oldest daughter is a trooper: she has been designated the sole paddler in their canoe so Ford can do what he does best. As soon as we all load up and start to paddle, we hear a big Canadian Goose off in the distance. My son-in-law calls a few times, and it immediately turns and heads our way. The combination of familiar sounds mixed with the new rapid clicking of the camera make the moment seem far from normal. I decide as the goose circles us one more time that we haven’t reached shooting hours. We are probably out of range anyway.

As we navigate down the river, the scenery along its banks starts to become clearer. I can tell Ford likes what he is capturing. His camera is heard nonstop. He directs us at times to stop or slow down as he tries to capture different angles. We see a bridge in the distance, and he tells us to slow down and wait while they paddle off to its base. He jumps out and navigates his way up through the brush. Moments later, he’s standing on top of the bridge. I laugh because he certainly doesn’t look like the typical photographer above us: he has two cameras hanging around his neck, but his old-school camo jacket and camo waders are anything but typical. He gives us some instructions, and we try our best to follow them. He manages to capture an awesome photo of us, despite our weak attempts to stay centered as the river pushes us beneath him and the bridge.

The sun is starting to rise. A thick mist is coming off of the water as the cold and the warmth of the sun meet. Around the next bend, I can hear Ford talking excitedly: “This is awesome.” The mist looks golden as we paddle into what looks like another world.

A couple of hours and several wood duck sightings later, our adventure is complete. We all drink some hot chocolate as we wait for our transportation to find us. As he talks, he can’t help but look through the photos he’s taken. He is excited and anxious to discover what he’s captured.

That afternoon we relax at our cabin on the back of the mountain. He is still taking photos, but he is here to be interviewed by us and have his picture taken. You can tell that he doesn’t feel as comfortable in this situation as I have grown accustomed to seeing him. I watch him move between being a little shy and liking the attention. He grabs a fly rod and attempts to catch a trout from our pond. I am impressed at how athletic and comfortable he is as he feeds line. His fly lands right where he’s aiming, hitting the water first, before any of his line, just like it should.

As we start to wrap up, he grabs his camera. He becomes focused again. The sun has set and the light is perfect. He asks my son-in-law to sit on the front porch of our fishing cabin with his dog. I watch Ford casually make his way around the pond to our dock on the other side. He starts taking pictures. The only time he speaks is when he asks us not to stand in the picture. He goes back and forth between looking at what he has just captured to adjust his settings and taking more photos. Unbeknownst to any of us, he captures his most popular photo to date. He posts it on his Instagram account for his 87,000 (and growing) followers to see, and the comments start pouring in: first from friends and family, then from complete strangers. “Wow, I didn’t realize that was going to be so liked.” We are all excited to watch as the photo takes off and is shared on multiple accounts.

The next day we rise early and do another photo shoot. I think we all realize that we aren’t going to be able to top the previous day’s photos. His overhead canoe shot of us from the bridge quickly becomes his second most popular photo to date. Still, he captures some great shots that day.

We all eat lunch together that afternoon. My two young boys ask him questions and interact with him like he’s part of the family. They want to know if he will play Mario Kart with them when we get back home. Later that afternoon, we pack his bags into the car and head for the airport. We talk some more about life, his heart for homeless people, and his spiritual walk as a young Christian man and how that relates to doing life with others. Throughout the conversation, I am convicted that my own life doesn’t reflect the same patience, tolerance, and grace his has.

As I give him a hug and say goodbye, my mind is filled with lots of thoughts and emotions. I am sad to see him leave but glad to have made a new friend. I contemplate the weekend and have a better understanding of why his photos are so good. It’s his passion for capturing a real moment in time and his willingness to be uncomfortable in order to get a great shot.

Through everything, it becomes clear to me why I call him a kid. It’s not because he’s younger than two of my own children or because I do not respect him. He is more professional and successful at his age than almost anyone I have ever met. I realize that, despite his success, he still lets himself be a kid. That is his charm, and that is why his photos are simply amazing.