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.

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Panel discussions that don’t suck. Any ideas?

I’m leaving San Francisco soon for a month and a half of travel, which will happily include a stop in Boston, where I’m joining the Future of Photobooks panel discussion during Magenta’s Flash Forward Festival, and in Charlottesville, VA, where I may be organizing a panel for LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph.

As I wrote in my “manifesto” last year: I love photo events, but they kind of suck. And since I’m on my way to these panel discussions, I’m especially interested in how to make sure they don’t suck, either. (FYI, Matchstick has been tabled for the near future, but I’m still dedicated to those principles.)

Can we all agree to stop being this guy?

Ok, so I’m being a little hyperbolic, but I’ve sat through A LOT of panel discussions. When they’re good, they inundate the audience with so much information you leave feeling excited but overwhelmed; when they’re bad, they drag on while inept public speakers give overly vague or insultingly obvious “advice.”

In an attempt to improve on this scenario for the Future of Photobooks discussion, I’ve been brainstorming with FlakPhoto‘s Andy Adams and moderator Stephen Mayes. One of my ideas: Instead of each panelist talking about their own projects and providing disconnected overviews of a topic, we will each present a specific case study that we think exemplifies an important theme in the larger topic. For instance, I’ll talk about Simon Robert’s We English, a great example of how photographers can create a dedicated pool of supporters (and buyers) for a book through early online engagement.

I also love how Andy has been linking a larger online discussion to a real-world talk. For his recent Photo 2.0 discussion at the New York Photo Festival, he created a Facebook event where he asked people to send him discussion topics, which he folded into the talk. Now he’s asking his FlakPhoto Network to chime in about how best to integrate social streams with our Future of Photobooks discussion.

Do you have other ideas about how to improve the panel discussion template? Have you experienced panel discussions that worked really well, and what did they do right? Also, I’m particularly eager to get feedback on the questions below:

1. Discussion with the audience, helpful or annoying?
I’ve had varying degrees of success creating real dialogue between the audience and panelists, but I know that it’s key. Yet I often dread Q&A sessions when I’m in the audience, since “questions” are too often posed by people who just like to hear themselves talk.

2. Background Tweet streams, distracting or useful?
We are considering streaming tweets about our discussion in real-time, so the audience can comment instantaneously and content can easily be shared with those not in attendance. I often find these side conversations distracting, but I have faith we can find a way to make them work.

3. Setting intentions, too touchy feely?
I think it would be helpful to ask the audience, before we start, to take a silent minute and decide what they most want to get out of the talk. Why are they there? What questions do they want answered? That way they can zero in on the information most important to them and have a focused question to ask during Q&A. But, then, I live in San Francisco, where this kind of touchy feely stuff is totally normal 😉

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.