Will you be my collaborator?

WHAT IS the single most important skill you can develop to ensure success in today’s economy? According to this brilliant Fast Company article (and my own experience), the answer is…adaptability.

“The new reality is multiple gigs, some of them supershort, with constant pressure to learn new things and adapt to new work situations, and no guarantee that you’ll stay in a single industry.”

But what exactly does it mean to be adaptable? Is it really a skill you can learn and hone?

My gut says yes. But it also says: “Learning to be adaptable is not just one skill, it’s lots of complementary skills developed together.” One of the most important of those skills, which I believe encompasses many others, is the ability to collaborate successfully.

Collaboration & Adaptation: One coin, two sides

If you’ve followed this blog or my newsletters, you’ve undoubtedly heard me talk about the importance of collaborative skills, but let’s break it down further. I’ve identified six broad tools you need to excel at collaboration. Here is how each one can also help you adapt to a fluid new world.

1. Know your strengths (and weaknesses): As job titles disappear (or are routinely invented) and bios become more important than resumes, it’s imperative to know exactly what you offer, why your offering is the best, and why people would want you to pay you for what you’re offering.

2. Find & engage influencers: Now that you’re more likely to create your own job than interview for it, your potential clients, co-workers, and customers are everywhere. Identifying and creating an authentic connection with them is the foundation of today’s successful marketing and sales strategies.

3. Ask the right questions: As I like to say, in our present state of flux, no one is an expert—which means everyone is an expert. It’s not enough to take one workshop or hire the “it” consultant; you need to be asking everyone you meet the big questions that relate to your business and passion.

4. Define goals and meet deadlines: When your customer or client is a moving target and your own services are constantly evolving, you have to be able to quickly and clearly establish goals for all stakeholders, strategize action items, and then build trust by meeting agreed upon deadlines.

5. Communicate successfully: The writing on the wall says that soft skills (largely interpersonal ones) are king in today’s economy. In our super-connected world, you must deeply understand your own communication preferences, be aware what other people hear when you talk, and be comfortable with a variety of communication modes.

6. Learn from experience: The barriers to entry for almost every industry have crumbled in recent years—if there’s not a freemium web serviced doing what you need yet, there will be in a year. That means the new model includes lots of experimentation, and potentially lots of failures. Those who succeed will be able to take them in stride, learn everything possible from them, and then carry those lessons forward to the next experiment.

So, collaboration skills are also adaptability skills. But let’s not forget that collaboration skills are also incredibly valuable in and of themselves. I see dynamic professional collaboration as an important way for self-employed creatives (in particular but not exclusively) to create sustainable businesses where they don’t burn themselves out working alone, in front of a computer, doing five people’s jobs while also balancing a family life.

I’m looking for collaborators

I’ve wanted to help people become better collaborators for a while now. This is the year I get intentional about it (and make it into a self-sustaining business).

I’ll be dedicating my blogging to collaboration, refocusing my website around it, and working to develop a curriculum, eBook, and traveling workshop circuit within the year. I’m jumping into a handful of collaborations myself and creating case studies with successful collaborators around the world.

I’m so excited to get started on all this, but I’m missing one big thing. Collaborators!

I truly believe in the importance of collaboration, of dropping the “me against the world” attitude and asking for help when I need it, so it’s only natural—and necessary—that I find one or more people to join me on this adventure. Might it be you?

Some things I’m looking for in a collaborator: Someone with 5 hours a week they could dedicate to an exciting but unpaid opportunity; someone who likes the idea of running their own business, if they’re not already; someone who loves to help people, talk to people, be around people; someone with expertise in curriculum building and teaching, web design and eCommerce, and/or business financials.

If you’re interested, I’d love to hear from you at miki@mikijohnson.com. And if you would have expected me to email you directly and ask you to collaborate, please get in touch anyway. I could email 100 people I think might be interested, but I’ve learned that my network knows more than I do, so I’m letting it do its thing.

{UPDATE: It’s been called to my attention that I seem to be asking people to do work for free. Well, I am, but with the potential to build a business with me that will eventually pay both (all) of us. I am pretty sure this endeavor won’t make me money for the first year (other work pays my bills); I’m looking for someone who can afford to take that risk with me. The distinction between “collaborators” and “employees” is one of the big ideas my curriculum will tackle, for exactly this reason.}

A few important questions

To help us figure out if we’d make good collaborators, I’m including a short questionnaire below, with my answers. Please include your answers in your email. Looking forward to hearing from you 🙂

1. What are the most important qualities you can contribute to a project?
I’m good at taking in large amounts of information from different sources, synthesizing it, contextualizing it, streamlining it, and sharing it in a clear way with a specific audience. I’m good at getting people excited about things and helping them move forward on stated goals. I love talking with people and connecting people and do it constantly.

2. What skills or areas are you hoping to develop and grow into this year?
I want to learn how to create curriculum, how to truly teach (not just talk at), how to take people’s understanding from point “a” to point “b” and give them the tools to change their lives based on that shift in thinking. I also want to truly feel that I “own a business,” instead of “freelancing” or “being self-employed.”

3. What are your three preferred forms of communication?
I love speaking face-to-face, which has recently included a lot of Skype calls. I get so much energy from other people, from their excitement, from seeing the gears turning in their head as we talk. While this is my favorite, it can also be exhausting, so I do it less frequently. I also like brief, direct communication that includes email, IM, and text, depending on how urgent the question/request is and how likely the person I’m communicating with is to be at their computer. Finally, I’m a big Facebook fan. I love being able to seamlessly share great things I find online, as well as pictures of food I cook, events I’m attending, and questions for my network.

4. How would you describe the role you most often take in group projects?
I used to be a leader, but today I’d say a facilitator. This can often mean taking the lead, setting a schedule, and getting people organized, but it’s more in the service of the group’s needs and goals than my own vision of how we should proceed. I’m more interested in harnessing collective intelligence than focusing on my own.

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Men Being Emotional

I hope Ariel doesn't mind me turning her into a bit of a metaphor ... going through my pictures from LOOK3, I was struck by this image of her, surrounded by men who tower over her, yet at the center nonetheless, in the spotlight.

I spent last week at LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contend that LOOK3 is the best photo festival in the U.S. (if not world); however, I’m not exactly impartial. I helped organize last year’s LOOKbetween, a symposium for young photographers held in LOOK3’s off year, and liveblogged, Facebooked, and Tweeted for the festival this year.

I could go on about why I think LOOK3 is so great (limited attendance, small town setting, inclusion of younger photographers, passionate heart, amazing organizers), but I particularly want to talk about something I noticed in the talks and slideshows at this year’s event…as someone (I wish I could remember who) said to me after talks by Christopher Anderson and Ashley Gilbertson, “Today could have been titled, ‘Men Being Emotional.'”

Chris kicked off Friday’s Masters Talks with his usual thoughtful eloquence, focusing on his latest work, Son, an extremely personal project centered on his family (wife, young son, and ailing father). Ashley followed with an impassioned talk about his years of conflict work and especially his most recent project, Bedrooms of the Fallen, which quietly but undeniably demonstrates the price we pay for war. Their presentations were mentioned as a festival high point by almost everyone I met.

This got me thinking about photography that is more emotionally present, something I wrote about a few weeks ago here. There seems to be a trend, with photojournalism in particular, of going beyond an objective capturing of “who, what, where” to a subjective account, seen through the photographer’s own emotional lens.

Now, there is nothing to say that this is necessarily a movement from “male” to “female,” but I do think that to be emotionally engaged with your images you have to be vulnerable (a big idea in my life right now). And I think it’s fair to say that vulnerability is associated more with women than men, that it is something we are more inclined toward, or, probably, more encouraged by society to feel and express.

Which brings me to the second high point of LOOK3: the closing-night conversation between Sally Mann and Nan Goldin. Sally opened with this: “It occurs to me that Kathy Ryan put us here on stage together for a reason. We are perceived to be so strong and unflinching. Yet, I know that I’m fragile as ash. And I have the perception you feel the same.” And things only got more raw and more real from there. (Read the full conversation here.)

They admitted they envied each other’s lives, they commiserated about their work being dubbed pornographic, they talked about their pussies (and I don’t mean their cats). A few times I wondered nervously what the men in the audience were thinking. But then I thought, who cares? I’m sick of women acting like it isn’t hard to work in a male-dominated field, of not wanting to admit we’re vulnerable because it further calls attention to our “femaleness.” There was something so empowering and exciting about seeing these talented, wise, proud women talking just like they would if they were alone. “This is really how women talk to one another,” I thought.

What triggered my final “aha” moment was a slideshow presented on Saturday night: Steve Giovinco’s On the Edge of Somewhere. The artist’s description reads, “I photograph psychologically intimate and emotional relations between couples,” and the voice over clarified that the couple in the photographs was Steve and his wife. I liked the work, but I kept thinking, “This is just like Elinor Carucci.” Elinor’s My Children was shown a few slideshows ahead, so I doubt I’m the only one who saw the resemblance.

I don’t want to get myself in trouble by saying there is a “female” way of making photos, but if we had to draw some pattern from contemporary women photographers (at least in the fine-art world), it would be of making personal, vulnerable images, often of themselves or their loved ones. And here was a man doing exactly that! Women entering any male-dominated field have long been influenced by the men already there: insisting they are “just like men” or else working in conscious contradiction to “maleness.” I wondered if that flow of influence is starting to reverse?

Even more exciting is the idea that, like most walls in our modern society, the one between “male” and “female” art and artistic subjects/approaches is coming down. We are all given room to be vulnerable if we want, to make “family” photos that are still respected by the industry, or to do the opposite, if that’s your thing. More freedom and less pigeonholing can only be a good thing for art, right?

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.

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.

Let me tell you something embarrassing about myself

"Nan one month after being battered." ©Nan Goldin. Courtesy Mathew Marks Gallery. I've always admired Nan's work for its brutal honesty, especially towards herself. She is never afraid to show the world her vulnerability or embarrassment.

I’m sitting on a plane to Warsaw, then Istanbul, and I’m crying. I’m crying over a book written by a journalist I’ve never heard of about a war that happened decades before I was born. But really I’m crying about fear and indecision and the feeling of being trapped.

How can I feel trapped, sitting in a giant metal bird, flying over a huge blue ocean, the modern symbol of freedom itself? Maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m crying for the people around me who do feel trapped. Trapped by their past, their responsibilities, their anger and self-judgment. Maybe I felt trapped by those things for so long, and now that I’ve started down the road toward freedom, it hurts me that I can’t bring all my loved ones along.

I feel guilty that being free is easier for me, because I have money, and supportive parents, and friends who love me unconditionally. This story I’m reading and crying over is also about guilt. The guilt of taking the easy way out. Of not knowing what to do. There are things I don’t know either. One thing I don’t know is if what I’m doing is the easy way out or the only thing worth working really really hard at.

One whole chapter in this book is dedicated to an episode in the author’s life he is truly embarrassed by. It is told in such a beautiful, honest way that it makes me want to share a story about being embarrassed. A story that lays me bare, like a young Indian brave opening the chest of his first deer. I’m not sure why, but I think being able to admit embarrassment is one of the steps towards freedom. Crying on a plane to Warsaw is kind of embarrassing. It reminds me of another embarrassing moment, crying in a taxi in San Francisco. It’s not a huge embarrassment, but I have to start somewhere.

I came out from my yoga class (a treat to myself after having my heart broken over IM that morning) and my bike looked all wrong. I knew it was a bad place to leave it, but the seat and wheels were locked on. What could they take? Well, the handlebars, apparently, including the goddamn brakes and shifters and the lines for both.

Writing about this now, I suddenly realize the most embarrassing part wasn’t the crying, which came later when I finally found a taxi driver who would let me put the bike in the back seat. The most embarrassing moment was when I saw my dismembered bike and had to walk over and admit that it was mine. Admit that I was the careless white girl, undoubtedly rich and thus somehow deserving of being robbed, with my expensive yoga mat slung across my shoulders, who was being forced to confront the fact that everything isn’t just ok all the time, like it has almost always been for me. I saw them look sideways at me as they passed and think, “Estupida, what did you expect?”

When a kind cabbie finally let my bike ride in the back seat, it meant I had to ride up front with him. As soon as I slid into the seat and the door closed, the tears started streaming down my face. I wasn’t sobbing, wasn’t really making any noise, but he knew what was going on. I turned toward my window and he turned towards his, and we didn’t speak until I asked how much the fare was.

The guy next to me on the plane also looks away as I turn toward the round-cornered window, smear the tears with my fingertips, and try not to sniffle too loudly. I’m relieved he doesn’t really speak English, although he says, “Sorry,” when he bumps my elbow and, “Here, I take,” when I want to get my dinner out of the way so I can finish writing this.

This story about Vietnam is the first I can remember that has made me feel the need to write so strongly and so immediately. To tell a story that makes it impossible for other people not to tell their own stories — that is a daunting standard, but one I want to try to hold myself to.

My single most persistent goal with this blog is to inspire people: to quit their crappy jobs, to give fair due to their creative impulses, to admit their vulnerabilities. Not because I know a ton about it or am a perfect example, but simply because I am trying to do those things and we all need support wherever and whenever we can get it. I feel lucky to have already seen instances where telling my own story prompts others to share theirs. The overwhelming response to my last post, begging for help writing when I was traveling and tired and uninspired, is a perfect example.

I’ll continue to work toward that goal — of inspiring people to tell stories by telling my own — but since I’m just starting out, I’ll leave you with this, from someone who has already arrived.

“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” –Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

“Highway #2 Los Angeles, California, USA, 2003” ©Edward Burtynsky

I’ve been wondering lately if I’m ready to write this post. The post where I tell you what I’m doing here, on this blog and with my life. You can tell from my first post that I haven’t been ready to explain myself yet. That my motivations and goals are unclear, even to myself.

Getting clear on my own motivations and goals is very important to me. I basically have three therapists right now for exactly this reason. (One is a traditional talk therapist who’ve I’ve been seeing since I lived in NYC, one is a somatic therapist in Berkeley, and one is a good friend who has started coaching people through career transitions.)

So what have all these insightful people helped me come to understand about motivations and goals? They are a moving target. Like anything else, especially things like being happy or satisfied, they are not something to attain, but something to work on every day for the rest of your life.

That’s why this explanation post is hard to write, because my ideas for what this blog should be change quite literally every few hours. Or rather, they expand. I do not abandon my original ideas for what I want this to be when I have a new one, I just pile it on top. So now I have so many goals, the idea of encapsulating them in one post is overwhelming, daunting to the point that I’ve been unable to start until just now.

Let’s try this. I’ll write down all my ideas that I can think of. Knowing myself, I’ll probably think I’ve just made things worse by the time I get to the end, but I’m promising you right now that I won’t erase any of it. Ready? Ok, here goes….

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I love working with people. I love talking to people and hearing their stories. And photo people are some of my favorite people to talk and work with. I got to do that regularly when I was editing RESOLVE; when I quit, I started thinking of ways to incorporate that into my current sabbatical.

For the next six months I’ll be traveling around the country and a bit in Europe, mostly seeing friends and searching for the root of my own passions. Many of those friends are photo people, and since I’m very interested in the idea of creative collaboration, I decided I’d like to put together some projects with them while I’m in town.

I’ve observed the power and importance of collaboration many times in my work on RESOLVE. In The Future of Photobooks, we saw many artists joining forces, almost always from far ends of the earth, aided by new social technologies. And one of the main reasons I created the AFTER STAFF project was to help photographers who had lost the close, caring atmosphere of the newsroom feel connected to others who were going through the same thing. That project uncovered several groups that have already formed to take the place of that kind of collaborative community. I also organized a webinar for OPEN-i about collectives and the ways that teams can weather the fluctuating media landscape better than lone individuals.

Personally I’m drawn to artistic collaboration, too. I’m giving more attention to my own creative impulses these days, but because I’ve suppressed those urges for so long, because I was afraid of people’s rejection, creative endeavors are overwhelming for me. I realized that working with professional creatives in the cities I visit would help me gain confidence in my own creativity.

Listening to feedback from friends, I also realized that these questions and doubts about the creative process are common to all artists, maybe all people. So, loving to educate and help people as I do, it only makes sense that I should write about my experiences here, in the hope that people might gain some insight from them.

On top of all that, I’ve always thought in the back of my mind about writing a memoir, mostly to satisfy a deep need to have other people know me and understand me. Now that I’m no longer “editor of the liveBooks photo blog” or “senior editor of American Photo Magazine,” I feel a particular need for people to get to know me better professionally. I’ve also decided recently that I need to get better at being myself. At making decisions based on my own needs and desires instead of the expectations of other people. At being the same person in the office that I am with my friends or my family or myself.

That’s why I want this blog to be about both my professional and personal lives. Because I don’t want those things to be separate anymore. When I discover the passion that runs deep enough  to sustain me for the rest of my life, I know it will be something that flows through every aspect of my life.

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I have trouble admitting vulnerability. I’ve heard I’m not the only one. My facade used to be very thick. I was always together, always on top of it, always OK. That works better in a professional situation than a personal one, but either way it’s unsustainable. And then I learned that it makes other people feel bad, to think I never have any problems, and that I’ll judge them for theirs. And then I learned that it actually makes me feel bad, too. Because I’ve never given people the chance to see me mess up and then decide to give me a second chance. So I’m terrified of messing up. I’m convinced that people will fire me, hate me, stop loving me if I do.

So I started admitting to people when I wasn’t OK. When I didn’t know what to do. When I knew I’d messed up. In little ways at first and then for big things. And when people didn’t condemn me for it, I was able to stop condemning myself so much. And, best of all, people felt like they could be themselves around me, that they could open up and share their own fears. And, like I said at the beginning, I love talking with people. Communicating with their honest, human center, which you can only do when you make yourself vulnerable first.

So I know that being vulnerable is also really important for this blog. I think that honesty is almost always rewarded, especially in this online world that values authenticity above almost all else (one of my favorite things about it). And I also know that another thing about making myself vulnerable is that people see I need help, instead of thinking that I never need help. And then they help me. And that feels great.

That’s why I really don’t want this blog to be about me giving anyone answers or even just sharing my own experiences. I want to share my experiences, but also ask questions, and have you respond (yes you, reading, right now). Then everyone will start responding to each other, and I can draw some major ideas out of those discussions (I like doing that 🙂 and THEN maybe some answers will arise — or at least some good ideas.

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OK, honestly, that feels like it only scratches the surface of all the things I’ve been thinking about, but I know that’s already an overwhelming number of words, so I’m leaving off. Oh, one last thing about this blog: I know I’m going to be continuing to figure out what exactly it is as long as I’m writing it. This is just one post of many.

Back home in Ohio for a week, I decide to take a walk in the woods

On the way down the hill through the dewy grass and brand-new violets I suddenly start crying. By the time I round the stand of evergreens that used to be Christmas trees, the tears are streaming down my face. Dusk is all around me, mingling with the clouds of my breath in the quickly chilling air. My parents’ love is there too, although they have stayed up in the house. I’m unemployed, suffocated by huge ambitions, terrified, and crying in the woods. I’m also overwhelmed by the beauty around me and the fact that I know deep down that this exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now.

Photo by Miki Johnson

I listen to the fear inside but hold the line where it threatens to overtake me. I keep repeating, “There is the most fear around the things that are true,” and I try to keep breathing. When my sobs quiet, I can hear the creek below me gurgling. It is very soft but there is almost no competition of noise here. The dog is lying quietly at my feet now, and her panting and the wind shushing the branches and the leaves settling in a pile are the only other things I hear. I’m convinced this is one of the last places in the country where you literally cannot hear anything manmade, and that knowledge and the closeness of the silence slows my heart.

When I come back to myself, the ideas are rushing too fast for me to follow them. I write a few lines of a poem, make some photos with my iPhone, Tumbl a photo of the dog, when suddenly I see a bigger picture. It is precisely the ease of these creative tools at our fingertips that allows us all to think of ourselves as creatives. Yes, it does make “everyone a photographer,” but it also makes every photographer a videographer, multimedia producer, bookmaker, retoucher, and whatever else they want to try their hand at. Here is what I jot down in a note to myself on my phone:

The ability to utilize such a wide range of storytelling tools allows us to be more creative more consistently because creativity is always there, it just expresses itself in hundreds of undefined, usually unnamed forms. When you are able to let your creativity flow through the least resistant path, instead of simply the most practiced one, it quickly becomes a steady stream.

I have been reading about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe living in the Chelsea Hotel in NYC at the end of the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s and how they are friends and collaborators with playwrights (she dated Sam Sheppard and helped write Cowboy Mouth did you know that?!?!), rock legends (she alludes to giving Janis the nickname “Pearl”), visual artists, poets, actors…everyone. For that reason, she and Robert develop in several mediums simultaneously; he making drawings, collages, clothing, photos and she, paintings, jewelry, poetry, songs.

Aside from getting me thinking about the quality of work coming out of NYC at that time and the role the tight-knit community undoubtedly played in fostering it, Just Kids has made me think about what it means to be an artist, something I’ve struggled with recently.

I used to love art but never felt I was good enough to do it professionally, and the lifestyle didn’t seem to suit me so I rejected being an “artist” as an option and focused on journalism, which still felt creative to me. At college the people around me seemed too brilliant to think about competing with, and I have natural aptitude for shaping and polishing, so I focused on editing and quickly became confident with the skill as well as respected for it by my peers.

I don’t know if it’s the years of therapy and “self-affirmations” or moving to San Francisco or being close friends with artists or simply growing into myself — but this year I’m determined to make friends with my lurking creative powers. I think the incredible array of media available to me will help, and I hope to explore it with other artists as I travel in the U.S. and Europe. But I also think it’s just about paying attention and being brave. This was the second note I made in the woods.

When you give yourself permission to do things that don’t seem to require creativity, but in the purest sense of the word are CREATIVE, you start to truly see that every human being is inherently creative — the thing that sets artists apart is simply that have nurtured that creativity and learned to listen to it with the ear of an attentive parent.