Ecosystems 101: Photography as a Catalyst

Let's revisit that hammer analogy. Say you spent some time time learning how to hammer nails. After a couple of smashed thumbs you got pretty good at it. You bought a decent hammer, then decided that was not good enough for your nail-hammering prowess and bought a better one.

You even built a collection of all kinds of nails, to be ready to hammer nails into damn-near anything. Now you can proudly call yourself a nail hammerer. So you sit back and wait for the opportunities and experiences to roll in. Which they might, or might not. But worrying about all of that other stuff is not your problem. You're a nail hammerer, dammit.

It sounds a little silly. But that is how many people (including me for a long time) think about photography.

About five years ago, I made a conscious effort to change that. I now believe thinking of yourself merely as a photographer is one of the most limiting (and creativity draining) perspectives you can possibly have. Rather than thinking of myself as a photographer, I just consider photography to be a skill like any other. And that changes everything.

Photography is not my life. It's my special sauce. It's the thing that makes me much more effective—and valuable—at lots of other things. It's an ability, not a raison d'etre.

"The effect of any multiplier on zero is still zero."

Knowing photography is like being multilingual. It's not an end-all. It's an ability, like any other. You can hang out a shingle announcing your multi-lingualness and offer to multi-ling stuff for people and that's fine. But being multilingual is much, much more powerful as a secondary skill that leverages other abilities.

Think of it in terms of business:

"Yeah, she is our supply chain manager. Her job is manage our pipeline and keep our just-in-time inventory as tight as possible. Oh, and she also speaks six languages."

In that context, it is easy to see how someone being multilingual is a catalyst that will allow things to happen that otherwise would not have. Sure, it's just a skill. But more important, it's a multiplier. That's not in question. Rather, the question is, what does the skill serve as a multiplier to?

It's got to be something. The bigger, the better. The more multi-faceted, the better. But it has to be something. Because the effect of any multiplier on zero is still zero.

It's not enough to just be a photographer. Maybe it was once, when cameras were scarce and expensive and conjuring prints in a darkroom was literally a dark art.

Now, technically speaking, everybody is a photographer. Their camera, video camera, darkroom and world-wide transmission/syndication department is right there in their front pocket. It is as if anyone could go down to the Apple store and buy another language for $99 with a two-year contract. Are you still going to go around calling yourself a linguist?

No. It's more about internalizing the idea that you are a linguist and applying your real energy towards figuring out how you can create extra value (or affect change) with your skill.

Photography is not your life. Photography is your special sauce. Your secret weapon. Your superpower.

And taking photography off of your skills inventory "top shelf" does two things: it makes space on the top shelf for something more important, and it allows your photography to take that important something and maybe make it spectacular.

I think that is what great photographers understand better—and earlier—than the rest of us.

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