Sunday, May 11, 2014

Ecosystems 101: Mind the Gaps



The large rock in the photo above is a very special rock. It is known as the Rosetta Stone, and it is the showcase exhibit in the British Museum in London. It's technically just a rock with some scratching on it, but it was responsible for our learning how to decode Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

How? Because it was a decree issued in Egypt in 196 BC. Specifically, it was issued in three different languages (Ancient Greek, Demotic script and Egyptian hieroglyphs) and thus was the key to our being able to figure out the previously indecipherable language of Ancient Egypt. It was like capturing the other side's code book in WWII.

Which means this rock was literally a key to unlocking a heretofore opaque ancient language.

It's also a touchstone (not literally, although I wish) for me as a photographer, and very much in line with my approach to photography. Because I'm always looking for gaps that I can fill with photos.

Even better, I am looking for gaps that, when filled, create an overlap that leverages value. And best of all, when that happens in areas in which I have a strong interest.

This goes back to the process of self-discovery that we talked about earlier. A part of that process is taking an honest appraisal of yourself to figure out what you are interested in. Then, when you know who you are and why you want to make photos and why making photos is important to you, it starts to narrow down a seemingly infinite world of choices to a targeted few.

For me, this is a point at which a lot of things began to get really clear. And something I dearly wish I would have done in my 20s.

For instance, I like the the arts. I like tech. I like business. I like food. I like supporting organizations that work to make the community better. So my approach now is to find gaps in those areas that can be patched up (or amped up) with the right kinds of photos.

Working within artificial constraints is one of the best ways to foster creativity. This is true whether you are limiting yourself to shooting portraits with just a 50mm, or limiting your potential universe of subject/project ideas as a photographer.

Now that I have a good handle on my areas of interest, that conscious restriction tends to lead to a stream of interesting ideas. And again, I am specifically looking for gaps that I can fill—or even better, cross-pollinate.

The ongoing Howard County Arts Council project is a good example, and one we'll reference from several directions later in this series. There's no money there. But there is talent and dedication and so much potential. For many of these young artists good imagery is really important, and also too expensive. But good visuals make a great first impression, which is important when you are trying to look successful.

We all get this as photographers, but a cellist might not. Or she might not be able to afford it, even if it might have been money well-spent in the long term. So by filling that gap, I'm both leveraging the value of the photos and absorbing the cost.

For me it's just time and effort, as there is no money involved on my end either. But it multiplies downstream for them, and ultimately for me.

It keeps a steady stream of interesting portraiture flowing into my portfolio, but it is not exactly in a demo with money to spend on photography. That's another gap, albeit an internal one. And gaps are opportunities.

So a couple years back I approached the local economic authority about improving the photos on their website. It was largely on the same model as the HCAC stuff, as there was very nominal money involved. Not really even a factor.

But what it gave me was a blended portfolio that mixed more creative work with more of an editorial business component that made me more marketable to a better funded demo.

The irony is, I feel as if I have finally figured out the key to solving this "how do I get better quality local work" thing just as I was moving away from a need for it.

But the upshot is that I can be selective about the incoming work I do take, which in itself is a positive vicious cycle. All the stuff that frustrated me as a young freelancer totally makes sense now. It's if I have finally decoded the whole singles bar scene—but seeing as I'm happily married it's sort of academic.
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Back to gaps. If you are looking within your areas of interest, you look with a different set of eyes. You are not just blindly looking—you are specifically looking for something within a limited area. It's much more efficient.

Recently I took an evening walk down a road dotted with light industry. It was like my mind was in overdrive. Walking does that to a brain. As I walked, I was constantly seeing ideas and possibilities that were in my wheelhouse.

One of the places I passed was the local food bank.

What does the operation look like in there?
Who are their clients?
How do they publicize?
Do they run at a surplus or at a deficit?
Is it seasonal? Is it driven by the current economy?
Could photos help raise awareness? What kinds of photos?
How would a national ad agency approach this situation?
Is there a community component that could happen?
Is there an intersection with food (i.e., restaurants) locally?
Possible mash-up between restaurant food and the people who produce it and the food bank?
Portraits/food photography/recipes from the restaurants/pan-ethnic approach/food security/event/exhibition: a possibility?
What would be the expenses involved (my time, exhibit space, printing/framing)?


That's what runs through your mind in just a 100-yard segment of walking past a food bank when you are thinking in a mindset of self-understanding, manufacturing opportunities and your brain is hopped up on extra oxygen and repetitive motion. Seriously, it's almost as if all of those questions happen in a single syllable.

The important thing right now, in this specific situation, is that nobody is doing this for the food bank. That's a gap, AKA an opportunity. The trick is, how do you figure out a way to fill that gap in a manner that creates significant value for all involved—including the photographer?

That comes with practice and idea development. But since it is a self-generated idea—a manufactured opportunity—there is no deadline, and no competition.

So you let the idea percolate until you get an overall approach. And from that, a plan. And from that, photo ideas. And from that, potential partners. And from that, the momentum to make it happen.
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