Chasing Light with Passion

This was a year of adversity for most Americans. For many, it meant the end of an era, whether the loss of a home to foreclosure, or a long-held job, or just the ability to go on a real vacation. Adversity is like a psychological nor’easter—a great storm that blows into our lives without being invited. It also separates people according to their depth of character; some sink into the abyss of despair while others see it as an opportunity to begin a new chapter in their life. The profile on Susan Wood chronicles one of the latter.

Path into the Fog

Path into the Fog

What separates the masses of snap-shooters from those who create great photographs is the ability to think outside the box. In this case, the small green box located on the “mode” dial of any reasonably functional camera. Most of us know it as the “auto” mode, where we just point, shoot and hope we caught whatever it was that momentarily interested us. Other than framing the subject, there is little creativity here—just the programming injected into the camera functions by the manufacturer’s technicians.

Ducks taking off from pond on Grizzly Island

Ducks taking off from pond on Grizzly Island

In many ways, this little green box can be a metaphor for the lives of many East Bay residents. We start careers, get married, and raise a family in the comfortable confines our local communities. For those who choose to be stay-at-home moms (or dads) there is the added structure of volunteering at our children’s school, coaching a sports team or just helping out with community events. For most of her life, Susan Wood was just such a person with her family being the centerpiece of her life. She has a “giving” personality, and was always volunteering for one thing or another as her children grew up.

Susan Wood

Susan Wood

As expected, her two children graduated from high school and moved away to college. Unexpectedly, marital difficulties ensued shortly afterward. She suddenly found herself alone, facing a totally unfamiliar world. Life, as she knew it, was swept away almost overnight. Susan says, “I was always taking care of someone else and hadn’t even considered what I would do after becoming an emptynester.” To make matters worse, she had to quickly find a way to support herself financially.

Susan grew up admiring creative people and had been an amateur photographer for many years, shooting school activities, sports events and family travel adventures. She had a knack for capturing fascinating subjects at just the right moment and gained a lot of satisfaction from getting a great shot. Susan decided to center her new “life” around being a professional photographer. This was a long-held interest which brought a measure of continuity to her world that had changed so dramatically.

“My camera skills gradually improved while my kids were in school but once I turned professional, I energetically threw myself into becoming a great photographer,” Susan recalls. “It required a lot of patience, persistence and hard work, but my self-confidence grew dramatically and resulted in higher quality photos.” There were endless hours of on-the-job training as Susan shot a variety of subjects and then painstakingly critiqued the results. In only a few years, she has become an accomplished local shooter with a broad range of interests, including wildlife, aviation, public events, corporate functions, weddings and family portraits.

Susan realized that great photographers spend all their time operating outside that green “auto” box. Creativity and flexibility are the keys to success in the photo kingdom in addition to planning ahead and maximizing the odds of capturing just the “right” image. Like all artists, photographers see more than just the subject in front of them. They envision how to capture the essence of that subject from the best aspect. At the time of shooting a picture, lots of technical details must be closely managed—focusing properly, getting the best lighting, framing the subject, etc. But that’s still only part of what makes a photographer like Wood special.

“I love what I do,” Susan says. “For me, photography is as much a journey of self discovery as it is of building a successful career. I learn something new every day plus I meet wonderful people while doing it. I explore interesting new places and things all the time. As if it can’t get any better, I get to share unforgettable moments in time with others through my photos. It’s like having Christmas all year.”

Along the way, Wood had a few epiphanies that greatly improved her photographic skills. In the wildlife arena, she had often taken pictures of ducks in local ponds—floating, standing, and even flying away. Fortunately, she received some timely mentoring from Rich Radigonda, an award winning waterfowl artist.

Armed with new insight, she ventured into the expansive delta marshland. Dressed in camouflage gear, and hanging around with a group of hunters, she learned techniques for getting close to wild ducks. She now captures much more dramatic shots of a variety of waterfowl, whether taking off, in flight or landing on the water.

Susan explains, “Rich made me realize that I had to change my perspective. I needed to visualize my final photo not as I would see it mounted on a wall, but as my customers would see it. Spending quality time with seasoned duck hunters allowed me to learn a lot more about what elements made a waterfowl picture special to them. As a result, I’ve captured some wonderful moments and learned a valuable lesson that has improved my entire approach to taking photos.”

When working with people, Susan’s passion is interacting with her subjects rather than handling the follow-up photo processing in a computer. She spends a lot of time getting to know the people who hire her and understanding what feelings or activities they are trying to capture. A growing number of photographers choose to shoot a reasonably good photo and then heavily post-process it with computer-based tools. Susan prefers to be more flexible. She adapts the photo shoot activity to the existing environmental conditions so only minor tweaks might be needed afterward.

In the studio and portraiture arena, Wood uncovered an essential secret to success. The majority of subjects who came to her studio were either in a hurry because of a full day’s schedule or nervous because they felt they were not very photogenic. Establishing a positive relationship with the subject is critical in order to capture the essence of their personality. “Studio work is an interactive process,” Susan relates. “I have to gain the subject’s trust in order to get them to relax. In a family setting, it’s also important to “see” the children though the eyes of their parents. My goal is to make great memories during the photo shoot, not just have a family picture at the end.”

Joe Ovick, the Superintendent of Schools for Contra Costa County, appreciates this approach. “Susan has the unique ability to capture the energy and spirit of her subjects,” Joe recalls. “This is aptly demonstrated in her portraits of my grandson Rory, where you can see his real personality shining through. My family has had the pleasure of having Susan take both individual and group portraits.”

Wood’s approach to weddings is similar; she starts by learning all she can about the clients and their expectations. Susan is particularly fond of shooting destination weddings, where members of the wedding party and guests travel some distance to the site. Since most of the individuals are away from home, they tend to be a little more adventurous. Susan describes a recent wedding event in San Francisco. “The bride really wanted some photos that involved Irish coffee served at the Buena Vista café while the groom was very interested in getting shots involving the cable cars. Because of the great weather, both were attracted to the beach nearby. So we adapted to the situation and worked it all in. Everyone had a great time while we were shooting these photos and it shows in the end product.”

Lanzon wedding in San Francisco

Lanzon wedding in San Francisco

Amy and Jesse Lanzon, the bride and groom, definitely agree. “Susan exceeded our highest expectations. Her attention to detail, high energy and dedication to her clients make her service unique and exceptional. We have the most wonderful memories of our wedding day.”

Because of her basic personality, Wood is very interested in capturing human interactions when she spends time at events such as town festivals, corporate parties or museum celebrations. She’s always watching people, looking for that special shot. She was inspired by her daughters Jessica and Laura as they grew up so she has a special affinity for kids. Wood relates, “I get an amazing sense of satisfaction in capturing a photo that shows a genuine depth of feeling between two humans. I’m very proud of several taken at the Hornet Museum this summer when Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, took time out of his hectic day to chat with some young children.”

Acclaimed local plein air painter and teacher Sylvie Carr notes, “Susan pursues all her subjects with passion and expertise. Her work reflects an artistic eye, clear vision and contagious enthusiasm. I have confidence in the quality of her work, which is why I recommend her.Susan is a photographer without boundaries!”

Wood, a member of the Pleasant Hill Chamber of Commerce, is also devoted to improving communities in the East Bay, not just working for corporations and businesses. Some of the non-profit organizations she works with include: California Waterfowl Association, Ducks Unlimited, Wardrobe for Opportunity, and the USS Hornet Museum. She is currently working on an assignment for the CALSTAR air ambulance service.

Woman selling papayas in Mexico

Woman selling papayas in Mexico

Little Cowboy Roping

Little Cowboy Roping

Just three years into her new career, Susan already considers herself a success largely because she places a different value on the term than most people. She doesn’t measure success in terms of cash flow or profitability, but in terms of personal growth, daily satisfaction (aka “smileage”) and expanded personal relationships. Most of her clients end up being friends and advocates, the best measure of success ever invented.

It’s abundantly clear that she not only lives, but thrives, outside of the green box.

In addition to selling large photographs suitable for framing and display on a living room wall, she has also created an excellent line of photo cards. Susan Wood can be contacted at 925-939-7060 or via her online photo gallery at

The Boy Who Harnassed the Wind


At Christmastime it is traditional to wish our community well, offer season’s blessings and share joyous stories that touch the heart. This is such a story. It is of a young African boy who rose above despair and followed his dream to better himself and his village against all odds.

At the age of fourteen in a rural village of Malawi, William Kamkwamba built a windmill from discarded scrap materials. While the rural farm area had no electricity, computers, or internet access, William was not fazed. He found a way. He used library book diagrams and photos, and his imagination to build the windmill. Initially, William’s windmill was used to power two light bulbs, and two radios for his family’s small house. During a season of intense hunger-the njala, the windmill was used to irrigate the farmland.

Malawi is a landlocked country in the warm heart of Southeastern Africa bordered by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. The terrain consists of valleys and high plateau on the Great Rift Valley escarpment that runs down the land like a spine. To the east is one of Africa’s largest lakes, Lake Malawi, which lies 365 miles along the border of Mozambique.

The land of Malawi is unforgiving for subsistence farmers. At times the skies hold back seasonal rains, or worse, release burgeoning showers that flood the land and wash away seeds. While zebra, antelope and leopard regularly roam among baobab trees, during the dry years, elephants and hippos rampage the farmers’ small fields, and consume the crops. Famine is not new for Malawians. In 1949 while called Nyasaland under the British Protectorate, tens of thousands died from malnutrition and starvation.

Malawi is predominantly a rural nation populated with about 15 million in a 46,000 square mile area-about the size of Pennsylvania. The economy is based on agriculture; tobacco, sugar cane, maize, tea, coffee and potatoes. It is one of the least developed African nations and the most densely populated, with ninety percent of the people living in rural regions.

Famine struck again in Malawi in 2002, when the country’s poorest poor suffered silently from starvation. It was one of the worst famines in living memory. Nothing grew and thousands of people died of sickness, malnutrition or starvation. Farmers lost crops. There were no security food reserves. Silos were empty, hospitals filled and people could not afford the $80.00 fees to send their children to school. Thousands stood in lines for food and whispered hoarsely the single word; njala—starving.

School fees for the children’s education were the least of the worries for the Kamkwamba family, with seven children to feed from the thin yield of their subsistence farm in the village of Masitala. They ate one small bowl of nsima-maize porridge—each day, and went to bed hungry every night. Some people survived on patties of protein made from the juicy lake flies which are a rare delicacy when these seasonal insects come.

The countrywide famine and incredible adversity did not stop the young teenage boy William Kamkwamba, the only son in the family, from learning. He walked miles to the library when he wasforced to leave school and was determined to continue learning. And learn he did. He was fascinated by a basic physics science book filled with photographs and diagrams. He had a smattering of English but the diagrams in the book told him all he needed to know. He decided to build a windmill. But a windmill built with what and how?

William scrounged around a pile of discarded debris and hunted and gathered. He found a tractor fan, PVC pipe, nails, shock absorbers, wire, an old bicycle and wooden boards. He had found everything he needed to build himself a windmill. He assembled the parts even making a simple circuit breaker box with two nails, copper wire and a magnet. The first windmill took two months to build.

William was only fourteen years old at the time, filled with the curiosity of youth, as he waited for the wind. “If you struggle with your dreams, God bless you, don’t give up, whatever happens,” William wisely advises today.

The wind did come for William. It blew across the dry African plains of the Great Rift Valley, and the makeshift vanes turned on the bicycle frame. The windmill machine generated four volts of power that turned on two light bulbs in the family’s small house. It was the first time the family had light after dark and they could read after sunset. And the wind turbine pumped water for irrigation. The young boy had found a way to draw water from the ground and he eventually irrigated not only his father’s farm, but other crops in his village, with three more windmills.

Eureka! William was a modern-day Archimedes-an alchemist by chance, who knew nothing of alchemy but with his ingenuity, resilience, innovation and determination he had found a solution to a most difficult problem. He had harnessed precious power with the mere energy of the willy-nilly winds that were drawn to a modern marvel turbine machine, made from crude found objects, hunted and gathered from a scrap pile of discarded rubbish. William had made his own marvelous machine to catch the wind that blew in front of his little house on the rural plains of Malawi in the middle of a widespread, deadly famine.

“Build a better mousetrap and they will beat a path to your door,” someone once said. The villagers came to see the machine move with the wind and the story of William’s windmill raged across the plains like a wildfire. Then, a man from a news service came, and within four years of irrigating the land with windmills, the young man was finally accepted as an inventor and an entrepreneur.

“Then I could not get rid of them!” he joked. “The townspeople thought I was crazy. That’s OK you can think I’m crazy!” he smiled. William enrolled in the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, and, like they say, “the rest is history” for the inspiring, resourceful and determined young Malawian.

Today William is preparing to take his SAT Test and hopes to be offered a scholarship. He credits “book knowledge” for what he has learned, as he had never ever heard of computers let alone seen one. “I knew nothing of computers or the internet when I was learning and making things. Where was Google all this time?” he laughs, knowing that his home never even had electrical power.

William Kamkwamba is twenty two now and has appeared as an inspirational speaker at the TED Global 2007 Fellow Conference in Oxford (Ideas Worth Spreading) and the World Economic Forum in 2008. His inventions are displayed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and since the publication of his book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” he has been reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and has appeared on GMA and The Daily Show. The Parents’ Association at Dorris Eaton School in Walnut Creek sponsored William’s book in their ‘Young Author’s Program’, and donated fifty percent of their one hundred book sales to the nonprofit, “The Moving Windmills Project.” The book was written by William KamKwamba with Brian Mealer, an Associated Press Correspondent.

One person with a simple idea and perseverance can work wondrous things, as evidenced by the young William, who has proven that resilience, determination and ingenuity can reach beyond what we can only imagine. Sales of his book generate a portion of the money for a non-profit NGO, helping to power villages in Malawi where a small percent of the rural population enjoy electricity.