How To Be a Great Photographer (and Maybe Everything Else)

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I suck at photography.

I take a photo and, to me, it looks like puke. It looks dead. I wish I were better. 

Chase Jarvis is a great photographer. He’s won all sorts of awards. I wanted to talk to him.

So I lied. He asked me if he could interview me for Chase Jarvis Live, his website where he’s interviewed 100s of people. I said ‘yes’ but I had only one motive.

I don’t like being interviewed. It feels embarrassing. I don’t think I have anything to teach anyone. I’ve fallen so many times that I’m now broken.

I’m ok with that. That’s not what this is about.

I went to the interview. There were lights, camera, action. Chase asked, “Who are you?” to get me talking.

So I changed direction, “But first, I have to ask you…what can you tell me so that within one hour I can leave here and take the best photo I’ve ever taken?”

He laughed. I didn’t want to answer any questions. I wanted to ask.

If I can’t listen, I can’t learn. If I am speaking, I can’t listen. If I am answering, I’m not asking.

“First find out what your filter is. Do you like taking pictures of people, buildings, nature, whatever.”

Easy.

“Sad people,” I said.

“Ok. Go out on the street. Find someone you feel some sort of connection with before you take their picture. But try to be as close to them as possible.”

“How do I get close up though. Won’t that be weird?”

“Here’s what you do. Just go and talk to them. Say, ‘I’ve been having a hard time lately with grief. When I saw you I felt an instant connection and felt like you could understand and I would really like to take your picture.’ ”

I never thought about talking to them. I always thought of photographs as somehow being taken secretly.

“Won’t that make them pose?”

“No, you’re building a connection. It’s almost like you’re sharing a story. They will relate to you. You have to get good at connecting with people in ten seconds.”

More important than technique. More important than equipment. More important than the angle or the sunlight or the details of the photo was simply the art of connection.

Two people connecting can create a work of art. Nothing else. I liked that.

People sometimes ask me, “What software do you use to write?” I use  Facebook status update. And I make sure I have something to say.

After we were finished I went outside and saw a woman that looked interesting.

I asked her where she was from. She said Mexico. I asked her since she was from Mexico, what were her feelings about Donald Trump?

She said, I’m for Donald Trump.

I said, You might be the only Mexican ever who is for Donald Trump.

She said, Everyone is the same. I’m sick of the same. Maybe he will do something different. Change is important.

Not all change is the same, but I left it at that.

I said, show me your tattoo.

She had a tattoo of an elephant on her arm. She picked up her sleeve so I can see all of it. She told me sometimes she and her husband have had hard times.

I said, Can I take your photo.

Yes, she said.

So I took her photo.

It wasn’t a good photo. But it was my first attempt at taking a photo based on connection.

Today I will try again. And tomorrow. And then the next day. If I don’t get better, I will at least have fun trying. And what else is there in life but to play as much as possible?

Every attempt at art depends first on connection. Every business depends on connection.

When I tried the original iPod I listened to all of the music I loved as a kid. I was walking around with a smile all day.

Steve Jobs somehow connected with me through that iPod.

I’ve read my favorite book of stories over 300 times. I fall in love with it each time. It’s about characters that seem so lost but bit by bit they hang onto their lives through their connection with each other. I can relate to that.

If I want to sell an idea, if I want to convince, if I want someone to like to me, I have to figure out how to connect.

The only skill for survival and success is having that ability to connect.

I’m glad I learned something from Chase. My ego hopes he learned something from me but I don’t know.

I’m not going to post the photograph I took. I’m shy about it. But I’ll post one of my favorite photographs instead. My favorite changes maybe every day. But this is today’s favorite. It’s about fear.

This post. This photograph. You. Me. I hope we can tape this together. I hope we can connect.

“Everyone always asks me what camera I use,” Chase said, “But greatness is about storytelling.”

  • Incredible. I needed the timing of this. Thank you so much. It’s a good lesson in everything…not just photography but business, life…connection.

  • Rhona

    What is the favorite book of stories you refer to?

  • Paul King

    (long comment, sorry) Really proud of my profile pic — taken by my good friend and the most talented portrait photographer I’ve ever met or known (he’s taken portraits of the current President, the former President Clinton, Leonardo Decaprio, George Clooney, Martin Scorsese, Kelsey Grammer, Spike Lee, among many, many others) – it is an honor to have been asked by him personally to take this portrait and I will always swear it is the best photo ever taken of me. Very thankful and extremely grateful. (c2013 Wesley Mann – http://wesleymann.com/Featured-Portraits/thumbs/ ) …. but here’s what happened … HE WENT OUT OF HIS WAY TO CONNECT WITH ME.

    Even though he’s based in NY and I’m in Southwest Florida, he heard about the entertainment facility I was the Director of Marketing for. I helped build this place into probably the largest online marketing company in the area. Wesley flew down to do an expose for GQ Magazine … took a lot of photos over the weekend we were open … but he didn’t take my photo. As he was leaving he said, “I’ve got to come back. I have to take the photo of the person who made this trip possible” (something like that) … well, he kept his word and a few months later came back to take my portrait. I’ve never been more proud of a photo in my entire life.

    The story this portrait captures. The moment in time. The intensity and just, everything going on around us in that moment…. that one snap, he told it all perfectly.

    GQ didn’t pick up the article. Inc. Magazine, I think they passed too. The other photos were turned into a book and at some point a gallery showing … My life didn’t change like I’d hoped when I heard the word “GQ Magazine”. No other connections were made and I didn’t set the world on fire for being the best damn marketing guy in 1,000 miles. But I will always and forever love this photo, and the person who took it. That’s my friend Wes. The dude is a rock star and just an all around good guy.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152398946487943&set=a.436781162942.227120.692237942&type=3&permPage=1

  • I’m not a photographer, but I loved this. That first connection is so important and that can be translated to everything you do beyond photography. I just normally love connecting with people. However I’m so trying this tomorrow with my camera phone.

  • Sam Spendlove

    That James… is a powerful picture

  • David Smith

    Amazing photo! I love this.. And yes I agree connecting with your subject is key to everything when you take that shot.. If you take a dogs photo go to a place in your mind where you see that dog being happy and running around it’ll make you smile and connect.. Or if u take a photo of a flower just admire it’s beauty and you’ll realize you can be much more enthusiastic about photography and it becomes less of a job and more of a passion..

  • Great photography as human connection. Probably applies to everything else.

    – Carl Kruse

  • I really enjoyed reading this post James. I also like to take photographs and am slowly learning that it is the human connections that makes a photo special.

  • Mar162016.Hq

    Hi, James, when the time takes always your different beautiful time, in meanwhile it leaves the different beautiful things to you too. Happy every day. :-)

  • Thanks for writing on this topic James. I love the way you’ve interwoven the story of making connection and reminded me of my love for photography at the same time. Yes, when we find connection good things happen – people open their hearts, trust, and welcome each other in.

  • Katherine Welsh

    I love how you said you had never thought of talking to them, that you always thought of photographs as “somehow being taken secretly.” I like that there can be a fundamental uncertainty about something we’re interested in and even with something as simple as taking a picture there can be a “somehow” for many people.

    When I was about twelve I was fascinated by the fact that you could check your bag at the airport and it would magically appear in the city where you landed. I had no idea how this happened. The bag went away on a conveyor belt, and then appeared again on a conveyor belt. Where did it go in the meantime? I spent a lot of time thinking about this. I remarked on it one day to my mother, who couldn’t conceal how dumb she thought I was as she explained that the airline staff puts it on the plane. And so that mystery evaporated, but there were a million more still waiting in the world.

    Everything we do is fascinating and complicated, and there are endless things to fumble through. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

  • im socially awkward i find it hard to go up to talk to strangers :/