I’ve Been Thinking: Emotionally involved journalism

“I’ve Been Thinking” is a new column on Hey Miki, spurred in part by my new bi-weekly newsletter. I’ve always got a few “big ideas” buzzing around my brain, maybe not so fully formed as my usual blog posts, but nagging a way that tells me there’s something important there. I’m hoping if I share them with you, I’ll be able to get to the bottom of them quicker 🙂

An image from Justin Maxon's project on Chester, PA, where he is getting directly involved in improving the lives of people he photographs.

Although I love all kinds of photography, photojournalism is what keeps me up at night (probably because I studied journalism myself). Dedicated photographers like James Nachtwey and EugeneRichards  have proven that photographs can change the tide of history. But I strongly feel that we need to refine and sharpen the way they do that for the current media landscape, which is fragmenting and/or going bankrupt at an alarming rate.

The photojournalism community (including myself) seems stuck on an old story: photographer makes image of something terrible, magazine or newspaper publishes it, people realize how bad things are and send help. Maybe part of you thinks, “How naive,” but I bet there’s another part that remembers that Nachtwey’s Somalia images led to international aid that saved 1.5 million people.

I’ve had many conversations with photographers who simply don’t believe in that model anymore. Although they still strive for fair and balanced coverage, they no longer connect to the concept of “objectivity,” and instead are actively working to change the situations their images highlight. Continue reading

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.

Sorry I missed you – I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain

I went to Baja, Mexico, a few weeks ago, to a tiny house and trailer near San Felipe that my parents own. There is no electricity on the property, but my mom’s friend Linda lives nearby in a bigger house with solar and generator power, so we spent most of the time there.

Lately I’ve been hearing about all this disturbing research on how our brains are physiologically changed by computer use. They say it takes about three days of non-use for your brain to slow down and return to normal, so I didn’t look at my computer or iPhone at all for four days, and then I only checked email once a day and for no more than half an hour after that. It was absolutely the right decision, something I recommend everyone do at least every six months.

I want to share a few photos I made while I was in Mexico (with my Contax point-and-shoot film camera) — but that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing it because of what happened when I came back home to San Francisco.

[portfolio_slideshow]

My first day back in the city I had my first panic attack in almost a year. Maybe being back in the midst of all my responsibilities, the noises of the city, and the over-stimulation of the internet triggered it, but I think it was mostly because I lowered my dosage of Zoloft about a month ago, and my body was going through a readjustment period.

I started taking Zoloft about, not surprisingly, 11 months ago, in part to treat panic attacks. I didn’t have them frequently, but if you’ve ever had one, you know that once in a while is way too much. Zoloft and other SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are generally known as antidepressants, but, as it was explained to me, they just as easily could have been marketed as anti-anxiety medication. I have many hallmarks of the overly anxious — perfectionist, overachiever, stomach problems, trouble relaxing/sleeping, taking everything personally — and I’ve been working for years to mitigate those tendencies through therapy, exercise, diet, and meditation. But when I quit my job, gave up my apartment, and went on the road for five months this summer, I decided I needed some extra help. Now that my life is a little more stable, I’m ready to try it again without the Zoloft.

Maybe it’s weird for me to be talking about this amid posts about my career and the future of photography, but I deeply believe in demystifying things, especially our bodies and the way we treat them. I also believe that we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to connect with and help other people.

I’m also annoyed that psycho-pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy are still relatively taboo (I HATE taboos). I understand why they are, especially since many people still believe that those who take psycho-pharmaceuticals are “weak” and “need” them to be “normal.” As far as I’m concerned, deciding to take an anti-depressant is the same as deciding to take medication to lower your blood pressure. Anyone who takes any action to help themselves feel better is brave; trying something new, especially trying to change yourself for the better, is always harder than going along with things as they are.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve been having a rough time the last week or so. The panic attacks I had were accompanied by bouts of depression. I knew they were triggered by the lower Zoloft dose — there was no logical reason for me to lie crying or immobile in my bed every morning — but depression does not listen to logic or reason.

Friends and family kindly suggested things I should do to make myself feel better: ride your bike, paint, cook a new dish. And I would calmly explain that the cruelty of depression is that it destroys your ability to make decisions or take actions that would help you stop being depressed.

Luckily the down periods were intermittent and when I felt up to it, I set up meetings with mentors and therapists. When people asked me in passing how I was, I didn’t lie and say, “Oh, pretty good,” I told them things were rough. I’m sure some people were taken aback, but the vast majority sympathized and have been there for me more than usual while I’ve struggled through.

I don’t want this post to be about depression, either. If you’ve experienced depression yourself, you might agree with me that once you feel like you’re ready to reflect on it, let alone write about it, you know that you’re near the other end of the tunnel. So when I was sitting here a while ago, and suddenly had the urge to write about what I’ve been feeling, I just knew I should honor that urge whether I knew what my point was or not.

I’m definitely not pretending I’m any kind of expert at all this, but I think there is value in sharing my own experiences. Especially because, as several of my friends have said, I don’t seem like the “kind of person” who would “need” to take anxiety medication. Well, then this is yet another instance where looks can be deceiving.

I hope that reading this reminds everyone out there that life’s painful periods pass. Time, it turns out, does heal wounds. That’s hard to remember when you’re at the bottom of the well, and I certainly don’t have any easy answers for how to crawl back into the daylight. But I have learned this: The most important thing you can do is to be really, really, really kind to yourself. This means putting yourself first (even if that seems selfish), forgiving yourself, and giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Think seriously about what that means for a moment. It’s much harder than it seems. If you’d like any guidance, I’ve repeatedly found it in The Gifts of Imperfection, If You Want To Write, The Art of Loving and Buddhism Without Beliefs.

As a final thought, I know from writing other posts like this that those of you who read my blog often respond with words of kindness and encouragement. I love this and it’s a huge part of why I have this blog. But this time I’d love for you to take most of that good energy and direct it toward someone you can be with physically — bonus points if that person is yourself. Suddenly today, I find myself feeling overwhelmed by how lucky I am, mostly to have such amazing supportive friends and colleagues who provide me with opportunities to fulfill myself in the deepest ways possible. If you have the opportunity to be that for someone, I hope this will remind you to do it — that’s really why I wrote this post.

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….

San Francisco Photo Scene – WPO Festival

These are my notes from my favorite presentation at the three-day WPO Festival in San Francisco, titled “The San Francisco Photo Scene,” 11/19/2010. I learned a lot about opportunities to get involved with galleries and organizations in San Francisco from this panel. I hope you will too 🙂

I’ve listened to so many panels at so many photo events, and I often take notes (like those below) — which I never seem to have time to clean up and share with other people. So this time I decided to just publish them as I took them, so I had no excuse not to share them (and thus I hope you’ll forgive their lack of polish).

Meg Shiffler – Gallery Director, San Francisco Arts Commission

Gallery at City Hall: Especially features work by local photojournalists

Once a year SFAC collaborates with Arts Alliance at City Hall: Generally becomes an open call for exhibitions

Examples of past exhibitions: China Today – Mark Leong; Victor J. BlueOur World; Sean McFarland – Polaroids

Right now: Christina Seely – Lux

The List: How the Arts Commission publicizes new opportunities for artists (photographers and other, not just from San Francisco)

Hamburger Eyes: Photography that’s very immediate, very raw, used to be mostly analogue, publish a journal, curate exhibitions, Photo Epicenter (community printing lab)

RayKo Photo Center: Gallery for exhibitions, sometimes have open calls, very approachable, digital labs, studio space, store

Chuck Mobley – Curator, San Francisco Camerawork

First Exposures: Work with underserved local communities. If you’re interested in teaching and getting involved with community.

Internship Program: Always have from 10-15 interns every semester

Members’ critiques, portfolio reviews, group members’ exhibitions, annual publication, artists’ lectures, book release parties

Often get called by curators around the country when they need a specific kind of artists, especially from SF, so they created a resource page

Tues. Nov. 30: Richard Misrach: Destroy This Memory Lecture and book signing- PLEASE RSVP

SFMoMA Blog

FotoFest in Huston, PhotoLucida in Portland: SF photo people often attend; great opportunity to meet people from all over the world

Camerawork main space: Often open for guest curation, especially in the summer. For example: Kickstarter campaign to create catalog for Suggestions of a Life Being Lived

Thom Sempere – Director, PhotoAlliance

PhotoAlliance: Support organization for photo community. Don’t have any members and don’t have any permanent space. Philosophy came out of Bay Area photographic history…Friends of Photography, when folded few years ago, there was a gap in the SF community and within a year PhotoAlliance was formed.

Monthly lecture series: Nine years, over 150 photographers. Start each lecture with an emerging artist (about 15 minutes)

Also host field workshops, exhibitions, portfolio reviews (always second weekend of March)

FotoVision: Bay Area nonprofit, run by Melanie and Ken Light, emphasis on documentary photography and storytelling. Workshops, lectures, blog, book reviews, store.

RJ Muna – Photographer & owner, LeftSpace

“[Photographers in SF] seem to share our knowledge, interests. We have a better sense of community than most places in the country and the world. We have something special, and you should revel in it.”

“We are so used to technology, and a sense of the future (being at the tip of Silicon Valley), we sometimes can’t see it. When you look at the history of photography, so much of the recent evolution has been based in technology that has come out of the Bay Area: Adobe, Apple. They started from a sense of curiosity that is unique here.”

Discussion

Meg: Keep your eyes out for calls to artists. Even if you don’t get in the show and you’re rejected, do it over and over again. Don’t assume if you don’t make it one year, you won’t make it another year. Find out how a specific curator wants to be contacted. If it’s not on their website, the best person to call is their assistant. Know about the curator, past shows, the space. Think of it as applying for a job; you have to DO YOUR RESEARCH. We’re curated out for two years [at SFAC] and then moving the next year, so I think really long term. I might decide to work with an artist and not put their work up for five years.

Thom: Curators frequently pass work along to other curators. If you send work to curators once a year, you probably won’t hear anything the first year, second time they might vaguely remember you, third time they take a look at your work, and the fourth time they might want to work with you.

Meg: If you send an email, it should be no more than five sentences: 1) I’m interested in introducing you to my work. 2, 3, 4) Show that you know who the curator/gallery are. 5) Here’s my website, please take a look. I won’t necessarily respond but I will usually click the link. Six months later, if you have a new body of work, send another email (with only three lines!)

Chuck: Think from the point of view of a curator; the worst thing for them is to NOT KNOW about a local artist, so you’re actually doing them a favor. Curators also get called a lot to make nominations or to be on juries, so it’s good for them to know something about you. The roll of the curator at a nonprofit is a public service. These places exist for you and because of you, so don’t be intimidated meeting with them. At Camerawork we have an open-door policy; if you make an appointment, I’ll try to line up 10-15 minutes at least to meet with you. We also take submissions from anyone, not just people from the Bay Area.

Meg: WHAT NOT TO DO: 1) Don’t show up with your portfolio without an appointment. 2) Don’t send a million JPGs. 3) Don’t ask for a free critique of your work. If you want a critique, go to a review; that’s not my job.

Thom: Be sure to build your own community of people who you respect and who you can get genuine feedback from, not just portfolio reviews, etc. I don’t know of a single job I’ve ever gotten not from word of mouth.

Questions

Q: Do you have suggestions for students, how to get involved in the community if you don’t have a portfolio yet? A: Go be an intern, or volunteer at Camerawork, or talk to people at Rayko or Hamburger Eyes about how you can help out. Also learn some admin skills like contracts, registration, cataloging. Ever Gold Gallery was started by local students a few years ago.

Q: Also check out PhotoCentral in Hayward.

Q: Do you need to move to NYC or LA to have a successful career? A: (Meg) A gallerist is never going to ship something they can get in their own backyard. When I work with international artists, I’ll print the work myself and they can pay to have it shipped to them. (RJ) The number one thing that will get you on a gallery wall is having GREAT WORK. (Chuck) There are great communities all over, not just the major cities. (Meg) Watch for definitions on the calls for artists’. We do one every year that’s only local artists. (Thom) Doesn’t matter where you’re from, but you should be from SOMEWHERE. (Meg) If you’re submitting to a show and only have five images, don’t try to show the breadth of your work, show one cohesive BODY OF WORK.

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 🙂

How to get the most out of a portfolio review

I’ve been helping out with NYCFotoWorks for the past few months, and one thing I agreed with Marc and Josh about immediately was the need to help photographers get the most out of the portfolio review, Oct. 28-30 in NYC. I’ve encountered a lot of doubt from photographers about how to approach reviews and a lot of misconceptions about what to expect. So here are a few tips; and for the veterans in the audience, I hope you won’t mind a little refresher.

There are two things that I suggest photographers consider before any sit-down with a respected member of the industry: What do you want to get from this meeting, and what do they want to get from it?

Below are some responses from the other side: editors, reps, and gallerists attending the NYCFotoWorks portfolio review. The variety of their preferences demonstrates the importance of doing your research before a meeting. And, conveniently illustrating my above point, almost all of them want the photographer to be able to explain what they want from the review, not just their work.

For additional insights from reviewers, check out this video, too.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=14854331&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=ffffff&fullscreen=1&autoplay=0&loop=0

1. What kind of questions should photographers be ready to answer? Or is it more important they have their own questions?

Marianne Butler – Freelance photo editor: Where do you live? How long have you been shooting? Who have you been working for? Any personal projects you are working on? What do you like to shoot most? It’s also important to have background info on specific photos in their book: assignment or personal work? How much time with the subject? What else did you shoot that day? If digital work was done on the photo, and did you do it yourself? They should ask some questions of the person reviewing their portfolio to find out what they are looking for and to see where they might fit in. If they are meeting a photo editor for a specific publication, it’s helpful to have some knowledge of the magazine and the sort of photography they run.

Leslie DelaVega – Essence Magazine: It’s more important for me that they have their own questions. Usually the questions I do ask are pretty basic: where they’ve worked, gone to school, etc.

Michele Hadlow – Forbes Magazine: I like hearing a little bit about some of the images I will see; jobs or personal shots that were particularly challenging or enjoyable. I don’t mind getting questions but nobody should feel like they have to ask anything.

Jocelyn Miller – Conde Nast Traveler: They should be prepared to tell the reviewer about the specific assignments in their portfolios. I want to hear the stories behind the pictures. I want to know who they’ve worked for in the past, who they’re working for now, and their goals for the future. They should also take the opportunity to ask questions they have of the editors.

Karen O’Donnell – People Magazine: I would ask what kind of assignments they are looking to shoot, what are their main interests photo-wise, and what kind of editorial work they would like to be working on. They should have their own questions, too.

Travis Ruse – Inc. Magazine: It’s more important that they have their own questions.

Marcel Saba – Redux Pictures: They really should have their own questions to ask, and hopefully a lot of them.

Kristina Snyder – Photo agent: Yes on both. I usually open a review with a question: What are you trying to get out of this visit? Why are you here paying money to see me? Do you want to know how to improve your book? Judgement of overall quality of the work? Feedback on look of your book? They should also be able to answer questions about the kind of work they’re looking for: editorial or advertising? People often don’t know how to answer that. Also, too many photographers come expecting to be discovered and aren’t prepared to take criticism.

Wendy Tiefenbacher – Kiplinger’s Magazine: I like to look at their work. I’m most interested in any recently finished personal or professional projects and any work they’ve done for other magazines or clients. Any questions I would ask them would be based on looking at their photography, though I do like to know where someone lives.

Catherine Wyatt – ClampArt: Any photographer should be able to give the basics of how they create their work: film vs. digital, type of print and paper, ideal display size, edition, etc. They should also expect to answer questions about the subject matter displayed in the works. On the other hand, if the photographer has specific questions to ask, the review session is the perfect time for those. It really depends on what the artist is trying to get out of the session. Does he/she want an opinion about the work and the direction it should take or does he/she feel very strongly about the work and is now interested in finding representation?

2. What are you most interested in: hearing specific story pitches, seeing a wide range of work, or getting to know the photographer personally?

Marianne Butler: I really just want to learn about their work, find out what they like to shoot, and get a feel for what working with them might be like. I like to hear what they’ve been working on lately because they may have a project or some unpublished work that could be right for something I’m editing/assigning. I don’t really like hard sales pitches.

Leslie DelaVega: I’m more interested in the body of work, however specific or wide. I am a proponent of seeing that photographers have a wide range of interests.

Michele Hadlow: I would say getting to know a photographer is what I am most interested in. A wide range of work is nice, as well, so I can get an idea of what type of projects he/she would be a good fit for.  Pitches are not helpful at all right now, I am afraid.

Jocelyn Miller: Seeing a wide range of travel-related work. I want to know about their upcoming trips and also get to know the photographer personally.

Karen O’Donnell: Seeing a wide range of work.

Travis Ruse: Seeing work that is: a. relevant to Inc. b. inspiring to me but not necessarily perfect for Inc. c. that the photographer has a personality that could work with our subjects.

Marcel Saba: It is all the above for me. Since we are an agency and act as agents at the same time, we like to see a variety of work to determine the photographer’s strength, style, and composition.

Kristina Snyder: I try to figure out where this person is in their career: a working photographer or just coming out of the gate? And what kind of photographer are they? Do they only shoot paid projects or do they shoot personal work a lot, too. I work with all kinds, so I want to know what their psychology is, their expectations, what they aspire to be.

Wendy Tiefenbacher: I don’t like seeing a wide range of work. Though I don’t mind looking at someone’s portraits AND a personal project. Or still lifes and portraits. Or a book of still lifes, portraits, and a photo essay. I’m not usually interested in someone’s personal history or getting to “know them” unless they were a circus performer or astronaut in a previous life. I would be very interested in someone pitching a story BUT ONLY if they were familiar with my magazine and were pitching a story related to what we do. Not just some random story that has nothing to do with my magazine (which happens to be personal finance).

Catherine Wyatt: I am most interested in being of some help. Every reviewer goes to a portfolio viewing hoping to see something new, striking, dazzling, and sell-able. Of course, it is very rare for a one-time meeting to turn into a greatly successful gallery/artist relationship. Since this is the case, it is important that the reviewer sees a photographer’s best work and gets to know the photographer on a personal level. I want to know the meaning and story behind your pieces, but I don’t want it to take up the whole time we have together. I want to see a series of photographs but not so many that I don’t have time to talk to you about the pieces. A good balance of hearing about the work, looking at the work, and talking about the work is best.

3. What is the best way for a photographer to follow-up with you after a  review and how often should they be in touch?

Marianne Butler: After a meeting, an email or a promo card/note is nice. Photo editors all feel differently about how often to be in touch, so this is just me, of course: I get turned off by “checking in” emails. If there’s a new website, or they’ve completed a new project that they think I should see, then sending another email is cool. Other than that, if I don’t already have a working relationship with a photographer, a few times a year is enough.

Leslie DelaVega: Email is best.

Michele Hadlow: Email. It will be hit or miss depending on when the email lands in my box, but an email a week or so after our meeting and a reminder down the road if you have a new project or website update that I should see.

Jocelyn Miller: I want to know when they are traveling; they should email me a month before their trips.

Karen O’Donnell: I think email is the best.

Travis Ruse: Mailed promos are good. Email is also ok. They should stay in touch if I encourage it. Send new work that is appropriate for Inc.

Marcel Saba: Stay in touch by email and send updates of their new work.

Kristina Snyder: I get so many emails from all over world. If I want to see what you’re doing, email is OK, but just a couple photos, lo-res, of recent work that is hopefully relevant to what I do. That means doing research on the kind of artists I work with. And don’t expect me to answer every email.

Wendy Tiefenbacher: If I like someone’s work I always give them my business card and, as long as they don’t pester me, I like them to stay in touch. To be perfectly honest – New Yorkers may have less of a chance of being hired by me than someone from Cleveland or Texas or Kansas. Some more out of the way place where it’s much harder to find a good local photographer. But you never know…

Catherine Wyatt: The best way to follow up is either by a quick email or by mailing a thank you note. Some reviewers will prefer physical cards; others prefer digital, so it’s up to the photographer. I also like knowing where a photographer’s career is going. If you are included in a group show or have a solo show coming up, please let me know. The same goes for any new works you have in progress or book deals in the works. Of course, I do not want a weekly update on what you are shooting now, but rather just the headlines.

Still have questions?

Leave them in the comments below and I’ll be sure to address them in the video interviews with reviewers and photographers that I’ll be conducting during the review.

Portfolio reviews :: Are they worth it?

I’ve been helping out recently with the NYCFotoWorks portfolio review, Oct. 28-30 at Sandbox in NYC. There are a lot of portfolio reviews out there, so when Marc Asnin and Joshua Herman approached me about helping get the word out for NYCFW, I had one big question: How is this any different from all the other portfolio reviews?

As editor/publisher/blogger, I receive dozens of press releases every day, each one claiming that its event is brand new, one-of-a-kind, and oh so innovative. Guess what — they’re not.

My suggestion for how to distinguish NYCFotoWorks was to help photographers get the most out of the event by emphasizing education — Marc and Josh were definitely on the same page.

Not surprisingly, when I started emailing colleagues to ask for their help spreading the word, some of those same concerns came back to me. Jonathan Worth, as always a vanguard of efficiency and online sharing, suggested I post our email exchange for the general benefit.

Jonathan’s thoughts

“How do you feel about the pricing on this? I’ve been pretty outspoken about these events in the past, especially where they’re clearly a cynical business ruse. This one looks massive.

“I think the list of contributors includes some awesome people (some of my faves), but also a few that I’d have to be paid  to sit through a meeting with — a couple who I think, frankly, should be shot, not sought out for advice.”

My response

“I have the same feeling about portfolio reviews, and when Marc and Josh came to me about helping with it, I specifically wanted to know what made this one different…other than a very impressive list of reviewers. The thing we were on the same page about was this idea of educating photographers who attend about how to get the most out of the experience.

“It really is amazing how many artists can’t talk about their work well or have done no research on the person they’re meeting with. So I’m sending out feedback from the reviewers about what they’re looking for before the photographers get there. Then I’m filming interviews with reviewers and participating photographers that can be shared with the whole photographic community.

“Any list of reviewers is going to be a little hit or miss. The nice thing about NYCFotoWorks is that photographers get to choose between five and twenty-four reviewers they want to see. Of course, it’s first come first served, but the chances a photographer would get stuck with a bunch of people they don’t like are slim.

“As for the price: It’s no more than it would cost to FedEx your book to that many people, or the cost of your time to set up that many high-profile meetings in two days. I’ve talked with Marc, the founder, a lot. Yes this is in part a new business venture for him and Josh, but he’s also genuinely dedicated to education and using his wide experience and network to help other photographers. He’s doing what more photographers should be doing: seeking out new revenue streams so he can do more of what he really loves, teaching photography to young kids.”

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=15505774&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=ffffff&fullscreen=1&autoplay=0&loop=0

What I’ve been working on

Above is a short video of Marc, talking about his ideas for the NYCFW Portfolio Review. I produced this, with help from the talented Simon Biswas, because I wanted people to get to know the person behind this project. Marc doesn’t pretend to be anything but what he is — a Brooklyn boy, born and raised, and damn proud of it — which is why his message of being yourself with editors rings true.

I have also collected reviewers responses, which I think will be really helpful to anyone attending any portfolio review. You can see all the responses here.

Your thoughts?

I’d be happy to hear what people think about the value of portfolio reviews. What should and shouldn’t you expect to get out of them? And what about reviewers: Do you honestly find new people to work with from these events? What are the biggest problems with them?

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!