Hi, Social Media, nice to meet you

This is NOT a photo from my RenCenter class, but it is from a presentation I gave at the Apple Store last year. Can you tell how red my face was because of that silly mic-headset I had to wear? Thank goodness the RenCenter didn't have one of those 😉 Photo by Matt Baume.

I taught my first class on social media for small businesses July 18 at the very cool Renaissance Center in San Francisco. (You can sign up for the second class here. )

There were so many great questions, and such a wide range of online experience, that I found myself running out of time before we’d addressed all the information I’d prepared.

For that reason, I promised to put up a post here on my blog, so people could ask specific questions that I will respond to (in the comments, please). Plus, anyone who wasn’t in the class can benefit from the discussion as well 🙂

Here are the slide presentations for my first class, as well as the second, more advanced class on August 2. If you press “play” on the first one, you’ll be able to listen to an edited version of the class, synched to the slides. If you just want to read them, you can use the “forward” and “backward” arrows. I’m still happy to take questions in the comments of this post.

And here are links and important quotes from several posts that relate to what we talked about in the classes.

Stop Selling, Start Connecting

“You would never walk into a room and, without introducing yourself, assume that everyone wants to hear about your latest greatest thing would you? Most of us will spend time actually listening to people, finding out who they are, and gaining their trust before we try to sell them our AmWay products. Just because it’s technology, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to abuse people with your sales pitches.”

The resume is dead, the bio is king

“If you’re a designer, entrepreneur, or creative – you probably haven’t been asked for your resume in a long time. Instead, people Google you – and quickly assess your talents based on your website, portfolio, and social media profiles. Do they resonate with what you’re sharing? Do they identify with your story? Are you even giving them a story to wrap their head around?”

What is a brand?

“So what is a brand? A brand is a promise. It is whatever people think, feel, trust, and believe you, your business, or your product will give them if they buy from you. It exists inside people’s minds, out of your reach — yet it’s a big part of why they buy from you.

Logos, colours, fonts and words are simply how you try to convey your brand’s promise to people. Thus a “brand” is a promise and “branding” is all the tangible things you use to express that.”

“Why” not “What”

Every single organization on the planet knows what they do. You know the products you sell and the services you offer. Some organizations know how they do what they do. What we think makes us better or stand out from our competition. But not many organizations know why they do what they do. And by ‘why’ I don’t mean to make a profit. I mean what’s your purpose, your cause, your belief. Why does your organization exist; why did you get out of bed this morning; and why should anyone care?”

Press Releases for Bloggers

“I went to drinks with the Brilliant Online Publicist one night, and asked her how she did such a good job while everyone else was failing. Was she clairvoyant? No: she just actually READ MY BLOG and knew the kind of things I liked to write about. How did she have time to give so much attention to the needs of a then relatively small website? She told me her secret: she only publicizes to eight blogs. She picked the eight blogs that covered her client’s subject, TV, that she liked the most on a personal level, read them religiously, and only sent them only the content she thought each blog would be into.”

Trust Agents (Trust Economies e-Book)

“The edges between work and social life are blurring. People are shifting their social network into their work networks and vice versa—business associates and childhood friends, side by side. We prefer to buy from people that are like us. You like Batman movies? Me too! That may not always be enough to move a sale, but it shows your human dimensions.”

New Media Professionals

A Tumblr I keep as a way to remember useful social media articles that I generally agree with. This is a simple list of links that I update every couple of days. If you want to dig deeper into my “suggested reading,” check it out.

Resources (not exhaustive, just a few I mentioned)

 

Stephen Mayes – Liveblog from Flash Forward

 

Stephen Mayes, Managing Director of VII Photo and one of my favorite photo thinkers, is presenting a lecture titled, “Restructuring the Photographic Process,” during the Flash Forward Festival today, June 3, at noon EST.

If you’d like to see what he has to say but can’t join us in Boston, please check in here, where I’ll liveblog his talk and any subsequent discussion.

[liveblog]

How to fall in love a little with everyone you meet

 

Communicating through a screen can be hard, but a good story works in any medium. Image from video by Peter Earl McCollough.

I’ve been thinking about storytelling a lot lately. Partly because I recently read If You Want To Write by Barbara Ueland, which kindly nudged me into believing the title of its first chapter: “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” And partly because I’ve been reading a lot of inspiring writing, lately (the best parts of which I’ve shared below).

As I wrote in one of my first posts on this blog, “this year I’m determined to make friends with my lurking creative powers.” While I was traveling last summer, that largely meant publicly calling myself a “photographer.” Lately I’m remembering how much I love writing and realizing that I might make a damn good audio producer if I put my mind to it (to which end, I recently bought myself some professional recording gear).

A majority of the books I read are novels, yet I know that “documentary” storytelling will always be my true passion. Ira Glass sums up why in his introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction, a fantastic collection of inspiring non-fiction pieces he recommends to potential This American Life contributors.

“While this is the golden age of [great nonfiction] reporting and writing, it’s also a golden age for crap journalism. And for some of the most amazing technological advances for stuffing it down your throat. A lot of daily reporting and news ‘commentary’ just reinforces everything we already think about the world. It lacks the sense of discovery, the curiosity, the uncorny, human-size drama that’s part of all these stories. A lot of daily reporting makes the world seem smaller and stupider.

“In that environment, these stories are a kind of beacon. By making stories full of empathy and amusement and the sheer pleasure of discovering the world, these writers reassert the fact that we live in a world where joy and empathy and pleasure are all around us, there for the noticing. They make the world seem like an exciting place to live. I come out of them feeling like a better person — more awake and more aware and more appreciative of everything around me. That’s a hard thing for any kind of writing to accomplish. In times when the media can seem so clueless and beside the point, that’s a great comfort in itself.”

Maybe I forgot for a while how much I love telling stories because modern mass media make our world seem less interesting to me. I’m glad I’ve been reminded by Ira and others that’s not real journalism, at least not the kind I signed up for.

Maybe I’m also scared. Telling people’s stories, especially in a way that holds the attention of the iPhone generation, is one of the hardest things I can imagine myself doing. Malcolm Gladwell explains why in his introduction to What The Dog Saw, a collection of some of his best New Yorker articles.

“The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it’s a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one. We go to a bookstore and look at twenty novels before we pick the one we want. We filter and rank and judge. We have to. There’s just too much out there. But if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct every day. Shampoo doesn’t seem interesting? Well, dammit, it must be, and if it isn’t, I have to believe that it will ultimately lead me to something that is.”

I learned very early that the only kind of knowledge worth anything is the kind you get from asking other people questions. This passage from Ira Glass gave me chills because it so exactly describes my own experience.

“I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a  serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little. Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves. If you have half a heart, how can you not?”

If I ever taught a class on how to interview people (which I’d love to do), I might title it, “How to fall in love a little with everyone you meet.” Maybe I’d write this quote from Ueland’s If You Want To Write on the chalkboard the first day.

“[T]he only way to love a person is not, as the stereotyped Christian notion is, to coddle them and bring them soup when they are sick, but by listening to them and seeing and believing in the god, in the poet, in them. For by doing this, you keep the god and the poet alive and make it flourish.”

She is actually talking about how she convinces her students (all non-writers) that they can be good writers. In a way, this blog is a chance to listen to myself, to honor the poet, the storyteller inside me. Now that I’m thinking so much about storytelling, I realize that telling people’s stories is still daunting to me, but teaching people how to tell their own stories is anything but.

For the past several months I’ve been working with Heather Elder, a commercial photographer’s rep in San Francisco, to build her a dynamic blog and online presence. Instead of coming up with “social media marketing strategies,” I helped her define her voice, the personality of her company and her photographers, and what kind of knowledge she could share with the photo community that people would really appreciate. It’s been a great experience for both of us, especially since she’s been having great success.

People ask me a lot what I actually do these days. Being a freelancer, my work includes magazine writing, social media strategy, and curriculum development. But recently, I think I’ve finally found a phrase that sufficiently describes what I do, how I can help people.

I am a personal publishing strategist. In our internet age, everyone is a publisher. From your Tweet Stream to your self-published photo book, you are distributing a huge amount of content every day. It’s important to be honest, consistent coherent, and transparent in what you publish — so the right people find you and, potentially, hire you. That’s where I can help: by teaching you to listen to yourself with love and to share your story with skill.

What travel is isn’t what you expect

I met Matt Austin, a talented young documentary-art photographer, this October at the Flash Forward Festival in Toronto. Shortly after, we struck up an email conversation, largely in response to my posts about traveling this summer, which I was flattered to find had resonated with Matt’s own recent travels.

Below are excerpts from our discussion, as well as a series of Matt’s travel images. He will be debuting a book of new work from this trip during his solo show at Johalla Projects in Chicago on March 4. You can see photos from my travels here.

Matt and I would love to know if any of this resonates with you and what you have or haven’t learned from being on the road.


Matt

I decided last July that I was going to go on a long trip by myself around the country, leaving straight from an artist residency. I wasn’t content with things in Chicago and wanted to practice the concept of self-respect, acting on the idea that I deserve to do what I want to do with my life.

I was pretty interested in the idea of scaring the shit out of myself as a means of learning. So I decided to camp alone in a tent most of the way, though I’d never camped before. I also decided to act on my whims, buying a guitar from a pawn shop in St. Paul, MN, though never considering myself a musician. And, too, shaved my head with a beard trimmer in a hotel bathroom. Consciously taking action without any commentary is a powerful thing.

MIKI

I love the idea of learning by “scaring the shit” out of yourself. I wonder if your idea of “scary” changed during your trip. Did you initially think you’d do things that were literally scary (like bungee jumping) but ended up doing things that made you feel kind of vulnerable (like learning guitar)? I ask because one of the scariest things I did during my travels was to take my photography more seriously, and putting that up for the world to see was terrifying at times.

MATT

I think the concept of fear originated in the idea of being unfamiliar with most of the situations I was in and having no one but myself to rely on; but you’re absolutely right about that shifting. Before leaving, when I would consider what may scare me about camping or driving long distances in my unreliable car, I was mainly thinking about bears and storms and car accidents. But when I was actually in those situations, it tended to be unpredictable people that scared me the most.

Purchasing the guitar mainly came from dealing with how lonely the trip could get. I started my trip by leaving from the ACRE artist residency, an amazing intellectual community, so it didn’t take long for me to feel lonely by comparison. I’ve also never been interested in the typical tourist experience, so I thought giving myself certain tasks like buying a guitar would allow me to ask locals about where to do that and come up with an unpredictable sequence of interactions. What were some of your methods of dealing with the loneliness of solitary travels? Or did you not find yourself experiencing that kind of loneliness?

MIKI

It’s interesting that you ask about loneliness, because the fact is I spent very little time alone during my travels. I admire you for pushing yourself to do so many things you weren’t already comfortable or familiar with. Some part of me thought that’s what my “sabbatical” would be like, but as usual my planning/connecting/organizing gene took over and I ended up, as my dad said recently, “the busiest unemployed person” he knows.

I’m glad you brought this up because I haven’t really examined why my trip ended up that way. The easy answer is that, once you suddenly have a large chunk of unstructured time, it seems like everyone has somewhere you absolutely have to stop by. The most obvious answer to me is that I am just one of those people; seeing friends and family face-to-face is something I crave and thrive on, so given lots of free time, that’s automatically where I put my effort.

But I have to admit that it was also the easier thing for me to do, the less scary thing. I am a chronic over-planner, so even waiting until I was in Istanbul to buy my ticket to Berlin was flying by the seat of my pants. I guess maybe this trip was only a first step toward being more comfortable on my own without a road map.

As for things that I did learn (or was reminded) … First off, I’m a pretty good traveler. I know how to pack light, I’m organized, and I’m comfortable on all kinds of public transportation — even if I have to look like a stupid American and ask someone four times in English how to get somewhere.

Second, I LIKE HAVING A HOME. I knew this going in, so this trip was kind of a test. Not only was I leaving a job, but also an apartment and city behind. I slept on couches and in spare rooms or tents for four months straight — and it got really, really old. The idea of being on the road for months has a romantic appeal, but I realized that I enjoy travel more when I have a stable headquarters to strike out from. Does that make sense to you? Did you have trouble letting go of a “plan” and just wandering?

The most important thing I learned was: There is no substitute for seeing people in their natural environment. This was driven home most poignantly by my good friend in Berlin, who went to a relatively remote college (that I never visited) and has lived abroad for the last six years. I literally hadn’t seen her for more than a day or two at a time, not over a holiday, in eight years. Seeing a friend for 10 days straight, living their own life instead of stressed out by travel, holidays, and family, and especially seeing them in the midst of the city and friends they feel best fit them: It’s like getting to know them all over again.

MATT

It’s interesting how our approaches to travel are almost completely opposite, yet result in the similar opinion of “I am a pretty good traveler.” You could say that I’m a chronic under-planner or maybe even addicted to the concept of being “unprepared.” I used to print out directions places, but I consciously decided to stop four years ago. I prefer to get directions from local waiters or gas station cashiers. I will never use a GPS, not for experiences like this; you can hold me to that.

As far as dedication to a home, I’m not sure I have much. Over time, I have learned to love Chicago’s centralized location, which provides a good driving position to anywhere in the country. But I’m not so attached to the concept of a permanent home. When I am home, I sleep on a futon mattress on my bedroom floor that was donated to me by a friend. I had a few blankets on the floor before that. I made a dresser in my closet that is actually just a suitcase I drilled to the wall. Unscrewing those screws would be the most work I’d have to do if I decided to move, and I kind of like that. To answer your question more clearly: Letting go of any kind of plan is one of my favorite things to do.

Your writing on your blog about the difficulties of producing something while on the road really stuck with me. For example: “[T]he whole point of this traveling thing was to help me see a bunch of people and get inspired and figure out what makes me really happy and write about it all. But here’s the thing I’ve realized over the last few weeks: Having no home and no routine actually makes it damn hard to do something like writing that requires concerted creative effort. Well, shit.”

I couldn’t agree with this more! I tried writing every day of my trip and I think I lost my consistency around day 12 or 13 in Seattle. First, there was the guilt that came with not completing my goal. But then when I would find time to write again, it felt weird. I felt like I was sacrificing having new and natural experiences to pause and write about ones that had already happened.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like I have a similar outlook to yours in terms of how I would like to affect people: by using myself as an example to pursue what you enjoy doing, even if it’s scary and not going to be easy. I think the candor of your blog really illuminates the growth that comes from creative vulnerability. “This doesn’t have to be one of those blogs where I have all the answers. In fact, it can’t be. I’m not an expert here. I’ve never done this before. But hopefully through my experience people can learn a little about their own,” you wrote.

I find myself expressing similar values in my artwork and in my teaching. I often remind my students of two things in our lives that will never end, ever: 1) I don’t know, and 2) I’m still learning.

Working through the freelancing lulls

Freelance work is full of peaks and valleys. Learn to ride them calmly and you'll stay above water. Photo: Leroy Grannis.

I had this moment a few weeks ago, right before Christmas, where I suddenly felt like things were finally happening. Maybe you know that feeling, when you realize you’d been waiting for something and you didn’t even know it?

Here’s a little time line to help illustrate.

Dec. 8
I had a great introductory consultation with a local photo rep who I’m helping to bolster her online presence.

Dec. 12
Subscribers received the Jan/Feb issue of American Photo Magazine, featuring two of my stories (about Maisie Crow and selling self-published books) — the first I’ve written for the magazine since I stepped down as its Senior Editor two years ago.

Dec. 13
I posted my manifesto about photo events and what we can do to make them not suck so much on the Matchstick Workshops blog.

Dec. 20
The music video Peter shot and edited in our apartment and starring yours truly went went live on Genero.tv, a site running a contest to become the official video for two David Lynch songs.

Dec. 22
I started a little conversation with Larry Towell on his Kickstarter page about the need for photographers to take social change into their own hands, not just provide the images for it. Happily this gave me a chance to highlight the new online photojournalism funding platform Emphas.is, which I’m not officially affiliated with but have been supporting however I can since I found out about it.

Dec. 23
My discussion with Travis Schreer at Pictage launched as part of their The Photo Life Podcast series.

Dec. 23
I also confirmed that I’ll be participating in the Boston-based Flash Forward Festival, helping create an updated version of the Future of Photobooks panel I was part of in October for Flash Forward Festival in Toronto.

See, the thing about being a project-based worker (instead of a salaried employee, which I quit being in April) is that my work is now incredibly cyclical.

The freelance life feels ruled by ups and downs: uncomfortably long stretches where you’re not getting jobs, just plugging away at unglamorous foundation-laying tasks, then sudden bursts of activity that provide an excitement that’s sometimes hard to hold onto for very long. Then another lull while you wait to receive payment for all that work.

I’m a very results-oriented person, so it’s hard to work day after day without much outside feedback and without feeling like I’ve accomplished something really specific. When I’m working in an office, I feel like just finishing the day is an accomplishment; there’s a sense of relief and usefulness I get that is lacking when I work from home.

The events I listed above gave me a lot of positive reinforcement all at once, but they also left me wishing I could put some of those good vibes in a savings account, to withdraw a little at a time through the next months while I’m feeling under-productive and worried about next month’s rent.

In talking to other project-based workers, I find this is a common challenge: How do you keep positive and productive during the lulls? I have thought of a few things that always help me (although motivating to take my own good advice is sometimes the hardest thing). I’d love to hear about any practices you’ve found helpful, too 🙂

1. Set up a meeting with a trusted adviser

For me this is very often my career coach, but it also might be my therapist, a former boss, a favorite professor, or just an astute friend. Setting up a meeting (or phone call) is a small enough task I can make myself do it even when I’m at my least motivated. And often, I find that just taking that first step makes me feel better, so that I often find I don’t need as much encouragement by the time the meeting happens.

2. Accept that the lulls are natural

The majority of project-based work comes to you when it wants to, not when you need it. And that can suck. You know you’ve been keeping up with your contacts and updating your work regularly and that someone is bound to have a great project any day and think, hey, you’re perfect for it! But when you’re sitting there for a week or two and the phone’s not ringing, it’s so easy to think you’ll never get another job. But if you can listen to your better judgment — you know you’ve been in lulls before and that the kind of work you’ve chosen can take months or years to pay off — you’ll stay calmer and ultimately more productive.

3. Use the time to do those things you “never have time for”

Accepting that there are lulls doesn’t mean you can’t utilize that down time. What I find, though, is that when I’m stressed out about not having enough work, I tend to feel guilty doing anything but sitting in front of my computer making lists of things I should be doing. Instead, lulls are the time to do the things that make you feel good even if your brain doesn’t categorize them as distinctly productive. Go make a photo or paint a painting or write an email to a rarely-seen friend or try a new recipe or organize your craft drawer or go to the library or go for a hike. Taking care of your own mental health will ultimately do so much more for your career than sending one more email to some potential client.

4. Remind yourself of past achievements

You know, like writing a list of them on your blog 😉 I hope you’ll forgive me for writing a post that is at least 50 percent self-serving. I needed to remind myself of how good I felt about work a few weeks ago, and getting additional validation by sharing it with everyone who reads my blog is icing on the cake. Being able to help others (I hope) by sharing my own experiences is also a great way to make myself feel better. Perhaps that should be Tip Number 5….

3 Tips For Publishing a Photobook

I recently contributed a post to Seshu Badrinath‘s Tiffinbox blog, with a quick wrap-up of the panel I participated in at the Flash Forward Festival in Toronto. Hope you don’t mind if I share it here, too.

From left: Darius Himes, Jason Fulford, Alec Soth, me, Andy Adams, and Stephen Mayes, talking photobooks in Toronto. Thanks to Larissa Leclair of the Indie Photobook Library for the photo.

With so many photographers taking publishing into their own hands these days, there seem to be a lot of questions and more than a few misperceptions about photobook publishing floating around.

I never would have considered myself an expert in photobooks until this February when I collaborated with Andy Adams of FlakPhoto to create the Future of Photobooks project, a month-long, cross-blog discussion about how photobooks would be made, read, and sold in the future.

Over the course of the project, more than 50 photo professionals and publishers wrote posts on their own blogs about where they saw photobooks heading. I read them all, organizing them and pulling out highlights for three final discussions hosted by guest bloggers. I felt at times like the blogosphere was giving me my own private class in photobook publishing 🙂

With a project like that, my greatest reward was getting to redistribute that knowledge back to the community, connecting with so many new people, and seeing people get excited about the discussions. Personally I have also been asked to speak publicly about phtoobooks, most recently on a panel at the inaugural Flash Forward Festival in Toronto — along with highly respected colleagues Alec Soth, Stephen Mayes, Darius Himes, Jason Fulford, and Andy Adams.

A number of important questions were raised during that discussion, ones I thought it would be helpful to share with anyone thinking about publishing a book or seeking a publisher for one. I’ve listed three big ideas below, but these are only starting points. It would be great to hear what you think about these, since the future of photobooks, now more than ever, truly is ours to shape.

1. Don’t expect your photobook to make money.

Aside from the very rare exception (things with large general appeal like Full Moon and A Child is Born) photobooks rarely turn a profit — in fact, many fail to break even. Darius Himes, founder of the non-profit Radius Books, pointed this out in his post for Future of Photobooks and again in Toronto. Photographers looking to have a book published often expect the same experience of lucky novelists, who receive an advance check before the book is even written. Photobooks are a completely different model. Novels cost a tiny fraction of a photobook to produce, and they have a much wider audience. Photographers (aside from Annie Leibovitz maybe) DO NOT get advances, and even top photographers with several books in publication admit they haven’t made any money from them.

2. Decide what you want to accomplish with your book.

Once you get over the idea that your book is going to make you any money, do you still want to make it? If so, why? Do you want it to be a culmination of a specific project, essentially a hand-held exhibition? Then you might need to work with a publisher that can help you find professional designers and editors. Or you could consider working with a printer directly, and producing a small editioned run of artist books. If you want your images to achieve a specific outcome, to be seen by lots of people or a few of the right people, partnering with a non-profit organization is a good option. Or you might even set aside the idea of a physical book for a viral video that can travel much further. If you simply want to be able to share your images in a tangible way, perhaps with friends and family or editors and clients, then a self-published book is great. All of these decisions and more will depend on your ultimate goal for your book — so figure that out first.

3. Be prepared to provide your own capital and, ideally, audience.

During our discussion, several photographers expressed chagrin that they had been asked to make an initial investment in order to publish their book with a publishing house. Although that may seem unfair, Darius and Jason both said that finding funding for a book was an important first step for them as publishers — as non-profits they worked together with the photographer to do that, but it’s not uncommon for publishers to ask the photographers to do it themselves. Funding may be the area that new technology can have the most effect on, through online pledge drive software like Kickstarter, or pre-sales through social media as with Lay Flat and Publication. And even when the actual funding isn’t provided online, that can still be an important place to build support and audience for a book project. For instance, look at Phil Toledano’s Days With My Father, which drew over 1 million hits as a website and allowed Phil to approach publishers with 15,000 emails from people who said they would buy the book in hard copy. Or Simon Roberts, who enlisted his fellow Brits through his blog, asking for ideas for photos to include in his We English book, thus creating an automatic base of support: Fans who were involved in the project were more likely to buy the book and share it with friends.

What steps are you taking to publish your photography book? If you are working on a book project and want to share it, please comment below 🙂

Where have I been – Part 2: Road trip!

For the past four months I’ve been traveling around the U.S. and a bit in Europe — almost non-stop. In April I quit my job and June 1 I traded my awesome San Francisco apartment for a borrowed car and couches around the world. This post and the previous one chronicle my adventures.

Montreal, Quebec: July 22-24

A friend-of-a-friend kindly put Peter and I up for two nights and we spent a day walking around the old city, which is particularly interesting in contrast to the huge abandoned industrial silos along the waterfront. Hands down our favorite discovery was the Habitat 67 building (above) built for the 1967 World’s Fair, which was originally a model of affordable urban housing, but of course is an elite gated community now.

Niagara Falls: July 25

I’d been to the falls when I was young, so I knew what a sprawling tourist trap it is. Peter, however, expecting simply the falls and some walkways, was aghast to discover a “Las Vegas on a cliff” instead. We left after an hour or so, but got some good photos in the meantime.

Detroit, MI: July 26-29

After a quick tour through Flint to see the Dort Mall and hit an amazing Salvation Army store, we landed in Detroit, which I’ve been interested in visiting for a while. Most people look at me funny when I say that. They usually have only heard about the violence and depopulation, but Detroit is a beautiful city with a strong personality, a vibrant art scene (much like Berlin), and cutting-edge innovation (such as its urban farms, pictured above). We stayed with my friend Kim Storeygard, who designed the entertainment mag I edited in college and is now a designer for the Detroit News, and hung out one day with photographer/videographer/organizer extraordinaire Stephen McGee.

Chicago, IL: July 30-August 1

Photo by Peter McCollough.

Peter got some great shots of the water sculpture in Millennium Park and the film set of Transformers 3 (above), while I mostly caught up friends from college (I went to Northwestern in Evanston, just north of Chicago) and indulged in some seriously deep-dish pizza.

Madison, WI: August 2-4

Still from our video at Devil's Lake. Courtesy Peter McCollough.

Stopped by Devil’s Lake and tried out my new (waterproof) Kodak PlaySport, had dinner with Andy Adams and his wife, and watched my friend Molly (who I’ve known since kindergarten) pack up her apartment for a move to Bloomington, IN.

Minneapolis, MN: August 5-10

Photo by Peter McCollough.

We stayed at Tim Gruber and Jenn Ackerman’s lovely house in Minneapolis, while they were in Las Vegas documenting the Miss Universe pageant. We were sad to miss them, but having a place to ourselves after couch surfing for weeks was a welcome respite. Peter made several photo pilgrimages to The Mall of America and I met up with Clark Patrick for stops by Shelter Studios, Flashlight Photo Rental, and the beautiful botanical gardens. I have to admit, though, that the true highlight of our week in Minneapolis was seeing Top Gun in the theater at 10:30 am on a Sunday. “Danger Zone” has been stuck in my head ever since.

Badlands National Park, SD: August 11-12

Before I wanted to be a magazine editor, I dreamed of being a paleontologist. And not just like every little kid wants to be a paleontologist — like, had a complete set of archeology artifacts trading cards and several encyclopedias of dinosaurs and went on a dig in Arizona with my dad when I was 14. Anyway, seeing the Badlands has been a lifelong dream, and I spent much of the time telling Peter more than he ever wanted to know about paleosol, erosion, and prehistoric fossils. The area is also visually stunning, including the West’s characteristically low clouds, one of which I had a silent conversation with for 30 minutes. Then I took its picture (above).

Medicine Bow National Park, WY: August 13-14

On the way from the Badlands we stopped by an old nuclear missile launch facility and silo, where we were predictably looked up and down suspiciously when we said we were from San Francisco, and then talked down to throughout the tour because we weren’t even old enough to know what the Cold War was, were we? We also drove through the heart of the Sturgis Rally, the largest annual gathering of Harley Davidson enthusiasts, and drove past Mount Rushmore, which you can see from the road and is pretty underwhelming. After stopping in the smaller Medicine Bow park to the east (there are three), where beautiful red rock formations push out of the pines, we camped off-site high in the alpine mountains for two days. We found frost on the ground both mornings, but didn’t see another human being the whole time.

Salt Lake City, UT: August 15-16

The Mormon temple (above) is a beautiful building, although somewhat eclipsed by the modern skyscrapers around it that house the church headquarters. We wandered through the visitor’s center also, where tales from the Book of Mormon are represented by wax figures, well-produced video re-enactments, motion-triggered speakers, and devout teens around every corner to be sure you have all the information you need. I don’t subscribe to any religion, but I find them all fascinating cultural phenomena — the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints maybe most of all, since it is a distinctly American religion and (thus not surprisingly) also the best marketed one. We had dinner that night at a vegan restaurant that represented the distant other end of the Salt Lake cultural spectrum, then drove out through the Salt Flats, with a stop by the Bonneville Speedway for a glimpse of  the Speed Week festivities.

San Francisco, CA: August 17-18

We drove all day across Nevada, stopping only in Imlay to see an eccentric old man’s tribute to American Indians constructed out of “white man’s” trash. After a couple nights at Peter’s mom’s house in Sacramento, we finally headed home. I almost started crying as I felt the cool breeze coming up the mountains to greet me.

Read about the beginning of my travels here!

Where in the world have I been?

For the past four months I’ve been traveling around the U.S. and a bit in Europe — almost non-stop. In April I quit my job and June 1 I traded my awesome San Francisco apartment for a borrowed car and couches around the world. This post and the next one chronicle my adventures.

I returned home to San Francisco a few weeks ago and have fallen in love with the city all over again. I’m still processing what exactly this time away has meant to me on a personal/professional level, but I think if I get a few of the basics down on (digital) paper, it will free up space in my brain for bigger questions.

New Orleans, LA: April 23-27

NOLA really is a magical place. It feels like another world — and century. I never saw it pre-Katrina, but aside from the Ninth Ward, which I saw during my day tour with Taylor Davidson, scars from the storm didn’t exactly jump out at me. I saw spraypaint marks on many houses, but they usually seemed to simply add another layer of patina to a city that has long been known for its beautiful dilapidation. I was specifically lured to NOLA to experience Jazz Fest and see Paul Simon (and Garfunkel) live for the first time. (Amazing.) Ultimately the festival was a little exhausting; I preferred listening to local bands at bars that felt like back yards, riding bikes through moss canopied streets, and eating steaming crayfish under paper lanterns and stars.

Death Valley, CA: May 13-16

Photo by Peter McCollough

A friend suggested I join him and a small group for an annual outing, this year to Death Valley. For me, being in nature is about removing myself from many things that bother me about “civilization”: too many people, constant noise, electronics addictions. I was reminded by this trip that not everyone sees it that way. After driving 10 hours overnight, getting lost for three hours on an ATV trail, getting smirked at by a local gas station owner for driving into Death Valley with only one spare tire and no radio, then being misled by numerous purposefully misleading markers, we finally arrived at our mid-desert warm springs rendezvous point — where we found 40 other people, playing house music and getting intoxicated under Christmas-light strung palm trees. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is stunning, but I don’t understand the point of going someplace so remote and unwelcoming just to do the same thing you could do in the city any Saturday night. After several hours of slow caravaning and numerous blown tires the next day, the group stopped in Big Pine — and Peter and I bailed out to stay in a motel. After dinner at a diner we walked about three blocks off the main street and found ourselves in a beautiful, silent, dusky mountain pass. Finally, nature the way I wanted it.

Seattle, WA: May 25-31

I hadn’t been to Seattle since I was very young, but I remembered loving it. I was there primarily for an annual Memorial Day Weekend reunion with my friends from college. We pick a different place every year and we ended up in a beautiful cabin near Mt. Rainier for 2010. I was surprised by just how lush and green Seattle is, with lots of stunning views from almost as many hills as San Francisco. I also stayed a few extra days with a friend who lives in an inspiring co-op house that shares/reuses almost everything and is populated by artists and bakers and musicians. Trip Highlight: visited the aquarium and embarrassed my friends by sitting on the floor with the kids to watch the giant octopus feeding from up close.

Athens, OH: June 3-7

A very old photo of me and my parents on their 100-acre farm in Ohio. When I think about home, this is what I see.

I was home briefly seeing my family and picking up my grandfather’s old car, which my parents kindly donated for my travels. Not too many epiphanies here, I just have to give props to the town, which I still may move back to some day; Ohio University’s photojournalism program, which I dream about teaching for some day; and my parents, who made this trip possible through their selfless, constant support.

Charlottesville, VA: June 8-14

The beautiful meeting LOOKbetween tent and barn. Photo by Brendan Hoffman.

I feel so lucky to have been able to help Andrew Owen and Jenna Pirog plan LOOKbetween. During the off-year for LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph, they decided to organize a weekend event that deconstructed the usual hierarchies of photo festivals and focused instead on emerging photographers. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can reconceive the usual photo fest structure to make it more helpful and dynamic, so I was excited to try out a few things during the Saturday discussion sessions. Our invited guests included 90 top emerging photographers plus dozens of top editors, curators, and thought leaders. All discussions took place outside at the beautiful farm where the event was held (and most guests camped). Most importantly, there were no “experts,” no “panelists,” no “moderators.” We divided people into 8 groups, gave them very general topics, and asked them to talk amongst themselves for 90 minutes. Then we brought everyone together again and recapped each topic for 20 minutes, asking only the emerging photographers to speak. I can think of lots of ways to make it better in the future, but as an experiment, I was really happy with the results. Everyone, even the “masters,” learned a lot and many people said it was the best discussion they’d heard at a photo event 🙂

NYC: June 15-18

It’s always great to be back in the city where I lived for three years and still have many friends. I have to say, though, that summer in NYC is a special kind of hell sometimes — like any time you have to wait on a subway platform.

Istanbul, Turkey: June 19-26

My first trip to Istanbul and the furthest east I’ve traveled. I was in Istanbul for the week-long Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, helping document the event and hanging out with an amazing group of renowned photojournalists. The historical parts of the city are really beautiful and there’s a vibrancy that makes for great street photography, but being stared at constantly and the wide cultural lines drawn between men and women eventually began to wear on me.

Berlin, Germany: June 27-July 6

One of my best friends from high school has lived outside the U.S. for years, and I’m glad I finally caught up with her in Berlin. It’s a true bohemian city, cheap enough that you can get by working 20 hours a week with plenty of time left over to develop your art/music/poetry — like NYC in the 70s, but way safer. If I had to leave SF tomorrow, I’d go to Berlin…but really the best part of being there was seeing my friend in her natural habitat, not for a few hours one night of the year when we’re both distracted by family/holiday stress.

London, England: July 7-10

Pondering the future of photojournalism over pints at the Frontline Club. From left: Paul Lowe, Edmund Clark, Simon Roberts, Patrick Smith, Adam Westbrook, Will Widmer.

I’ve been to London before so this trip included no sightseeing — instead, I finally met in person with several people I have known for years online: Adam Westbrook, Paul Lowe, Jonathan Worth, and Simon Roberts (who I’d actually met, but many years ago). Several of us got together at the Frontline Club one night, which, packed with memorabilia from former Frontline correspondents, was the best kind of sightseeing a journalism geek like me could do.

Portland, ME: July 14-21

Photo by Peter McCollough.

After meeting up in NYC, Peter and I drove to Portland and took a ferry over to Peaks Island, where my family has an old, uninsulated, telephone-free cottage, which I’ve been visiting every summer since I was born. It was a much-needed week of rest: bike riding, sea-glass gathering, rock sitting, and raiding the local library book sale for lots of great collage materials.

Read about the rest of my road trip here!

Learning to listen to the stories my photos tell

I realized recently that, although I’ve been an editor in the photography industry for years, I know very little about editing photos.

Now that I’m taking my photography more seriously, and learning to tell stories with my own images, I’ve discovered (not surprisingly) that editing requires a whole new skill set — one that is very visual and emotional, which can be hard for someone who is as verbal and cerebral as I am.

My boyfriend, Peter, and I talk frequently about creativity (he’s a talented photographer and editor), and now that I have some decent images to work with, we’ve been discussing photo editing.

Because I’ve worked at publications about images themselves, I’ve never needed to use images to help tell a story. Now, since most of my photos are captured moments from my travels, I get to construct my own little narratives with them — or see what stories emerge organically from them.

I’ve gone back and forth between different edits for a month now. This one I’m posting is mostly Peter’s, but we’ve gone through and discussed it image-by-image together.

I’m curious what you think of it. Not whether it’s good, necessarily, but how it makes you feel. What it says to you. What story it tells. Now that I’m learning to see unconscious or unintended connections in my own images, I’m curious what other see there, too.

I’m bad at doing things I’m not already good at

Ok, so that title is a bit of a Catch 22, but I bet you all know what I mean. Every year past childhood it becomes more difficult to get out of our comfort zone and try something new. At least I hope I’m not the only one who feels that way…

For me, my discomfort with trying new things goes way back. I didn’t learn to swim or ride a bike until I was in middle school in part because I was scared of doing things wrong. I refused to keep going to soccer in elementary school and I quit high school track right before our first meet because I was scared of performing badly.

As part of my work this year to honor my inner child, I’m trying to do more things I’m bad at (or at least don’t excel at). More specifically, I’m trying to get over my fear of doing something wrong or badly. I’m trying to let myself do things because I enjoy them, because they help me express myself, because they are a challenge and we learn more from our mistakes than from anything. That means not doing things with the end goal of creating something “good” that other people approve of.

Of course this quickly comes to bear on my photography. I’m constantly around photographers (some of my favorite people in the world) and inevitably they ask if I shoot, if I’m a photographer too. For years I’ve been saying, “I take photographs, but I’m not a photographer.”

I know that sounds like a dodge. In fact, I got called out for it on Facebook last week by a couple good friends, which precipitated this post.

What I meant was: I have so much respect for photographers and know so many of them who are putting everything they have into making images that have a real impact on people. I make photos every once in a while — in my mind those are two vastly different things. And especially in this marketplace, the last thing photographers need is one more dilettante cutting into their pie.

Having gotten that off my chest, I also admit that I’m scared. As I’ve said before, thinking of myself as a creative, let alone an “artist,” has always been daunting. I’m only starting to get comfortable with the idea as it applies to my writing, something I’ve always been good at, always loved, and have had years of education and experience in.

But photography? Photography is none of those things for me. I took a couple classes in high school and a photojournalism class in college that impacted me deeply, but mostly because it made me realize how insanely hard it is to get something honest out of someone when you’re holding a big black box in front of your face. Add to that the fact that I’m lucky enough to call many of the most talented photographers I know friends, and the idea of admitting that I want to be a better photographer is downright terrifying.

Most new photographers think what they’re doing is pretty good, even if they know it’s not “great.” And honestly, that’s how it should be when you’re just starting out. But I KNOW I’m not that good. And I’m not fishing for compliments here, seriously.

I’ve spent years looking at images, pulling them apart, explaining their pros and cons. I capture a few nice elements sometimes, but by and large my stuff is mediocre. And that’s ok. I’m just starting. Even great photographers say they’re lucky to make one good photo a day. But god, it’s just so hard for me to share things publicly that are mediocre.

So why am I putting myself through this? Part of it is in the name of making myself vulnerable during this sabbatical I’m taking. Part of it is that I really do like taking pictures, especially when I’m traveling and want to share what I’m seeing. Part of it is the allure of getting better at something. Part of it is the simple thrill of being able to point to something and say, “See, I made that!”

But here’s the real reason I keep working at this photography thing — it helps me understand all my friends who are photographers so much better. While working at American Photo Magazine and the RESOLVE Blog, I must have interviewed hundreds of photographers. My questions were usually about creativity and family and funding, but rarely about technique or the art itself. I felt I couldn’t relate on that plane, so I didn’t try.

Now I have so many questions. I understand in such a tangible way what it means to get access, to approach someone for a portrait, to capture a true moment. I struggle to move past making photos that are simply pretty, or well composed, or explanatory. I’m trying to kill my inner overthinker and learn to make images that are reactions, that capture an honest emotion. It’s so much harder than I ever imagined.

But in the difficulty, I find a whole new world to ask my many photographer friends for help with. And, the thing that really compelled me to write this post: Peter convinced me that I might be able to help in return.

He says this “virgin” time, when you are just learning to see, finding your vision, facing your fears, is something that many artists wish they could revisit. Since I’m coming at photography from a greater base of knowledge and understanding than most new photographers, maybe I’ll be able to lend some insights into this process.

Failing all of that, taking my photography seriously and sharing it publicly will inevitably allow me to understand and relate more to the photographers I know. By the end of this sabbatical, I hope to have figured out my next career move, which most likely will involve helping photographers in some way. I know now that I can never do that fully until I have tried to make art with a camera.

All images © Miki Johnson. Taken in Istanbul and Berlin, June 2010, with a Contax 2T.