Ecosystems 101: On Manufactured Opportunities

Every day I try to spend as much time walking as my schedule will allow. Ideally, I just head off into the woods and shoot for at least ten miles a day. I don't always hit that goal, but even on a bad day I'll get most of it.

That's because long walks invariably pay for the time they cost in many ways: health, mental well-being, increased fitness and maybe best of all, a steady stream of ideas.

Of those ideas, there is one type that constantly proves itself to be the most valuable to me as a photographer. And that is the concept of the manufactured opportunity.

Shooting for a goal of walking ten miles every day takes time. But it also does something to my brain that has become critically important to my creative and business workflow: it creates the space in my mind for ideas to form.

And that is especially relevant to me because the best ideas, in turn, create their own spaces. I hadn't really been able to put a name on this concept until I read a recent post on Medium by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.

In it, he tagged the idea of creating something out of whole cloth as a manufactured opportunity. I instantly realized that label applied to many of my best ideas and situations, and was exactly the thing I had been subconsciously driving at for the past five years or so.

At The Baltimore Sun my opportunities were mostly spoon-fed from the assignment desk. We were encouraged to create our own story projects, but that was something I was never very good at. Or at least took very seriously. As a result I plodded along, serially underperforming in that area (and I have the employee evals to prove it) for several years.

I didn't understand it at the time, but starting Strobist in 2006 was most definitely a manufactured opportunity. And by that I mean that if I had not wedged my hands into a little crack and expanded it into a larger space, the opportunity never would have come to me.

Over the past eight years, the concept has stuck. I have moved more and more away from idea of waiting for (and working for) something good to come my way, and more towards working to create opportunities from scratch.

My project for the Howard County Arts Council, begun in 2010, absolutely was (and continues to be) a manufactured opportunity. They were not looking for a photographer. I just showed up on their doorstep with an idea and got myself adopted.

There was no audition or competition or bidding for the job (there was no money involved) so it was mine to create and execute. I created the space, so I owned it.

The ongoing project (here's an early example) is one I enjoy doing every year. And it has brought me all kinds of cool photos—and wonderful follow-on opportunities.

The local exposure, and shift in the content of my local portfolio has helped to brand me as a photographer to go to for exactly the kind of work I like to do. It's like I skipped many years of merely hoping I get the right kinds of jobs.

I wish I would have been doing this twenty years ago.

The Flash Bus was a manufactured opportunity. Not by me, but rather by former McNally assistant (and now freelance shooter) Drew Gurian. No one was doing anything like it. And I don't think anyone would have put together a proposal for Joe and I do it, either. And if they had it would have likely been skewed far more towards the originator's interests. As it was, we kept control of the whole project.

And that is kinda the whole point. When you conceive and originate an idea, you own the space. You can shape it the way you want. You're in charge.

Flash Bus was not an opportunity available to the random photographer on the street, but things like the HCAC project certainly are. And really, the scale is not the point. More so, it is about the project's suitability to the photographer who originates it.

Working on projects for which you are well-suited (or even better, uniquely suited) is a powerful multiplier. It creates a positive vicious cycle that can be very powerful. I have experienced this enough to where I am now all but addicted to it.

In other words, I find it hard now to imagine just sitting and waiting for what might come along. It seems almost alien. Or at least, grossly inefficient.

I was talking with a photographer in Dubai last month about her opportunities in a post-newspaper world. She was framing it in terms of, "I don't know what's available" and I kept keep thinking more about her considerable skills and varied interests and that there must literally be hundreds of opportunities waiting to be manufactured by her.

But going from the practice of competing for pre-existing opportunities to one of manufacturing your own is definitely a hurdle. It's not a default mindset for many people, which means it is something you have to get past. It's more entrepreneurial than what we are used to as photographers.

But once you swap mindsets, it is really hard to ever go back. In fact, I have gotten to a point where I put as much weight as possible into manufacturing opportunities. And I am by default skeptical of external opportunities. Nothing against the latter. It's just that I trust that the ideas I develop internally are probably more aligned with my long-term interests and abilities.

Earlier this year I dialed back the frequency of Strobist from that of a typical blog to one more like an archive with occasional projects. This was solely to leave myself (and my schedule, which was often the bottleneck) more open for manufactured opportunities.

As I was walking earlier today, I realized that of the two major projects I am currently working on, one is a manufactured opportunity. And the other manufactures manufactured opportunities for other photographers.

Neither are fully baked, or yet launched. But the latter is totally new territory for for me, equal parts exciting and terrifying. Which is about the right mix, I suppose.

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