Run Toward the Snarling Dog.

Two philosophical ideas for today. The first is about dealing with fear.  The fear of getting started. The fear of failure. The fear of not knowing enough of whatever it is you want to do. I read a story a long time ago about the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. As a small boy he lived outside his own country.  He would often have to walk with his retainers and entourage past an enormous house guarded by huge, fierce dogs. Most days the dogs were contained behind high walls or fences and the Dalai Lama and his people were safe from attack.

One morning the dogs were loose. They saw the Dalai Lama's group and starting snarling and making belligerent moves. Everyone around the young boy was very frightened, turned and started to run away from the dogs (and running from dogs is probably the very best way to get them to chase you...) but the Dalai Lama turned and ran toward the snarling dogs. He charged at them. And they stopped.
And the entourage regrouped and walked on.

Is it a true story? Does it matter? The takeaway thought is to confront your fears directly. To run toward the snarling dogs. Being in control, or even just having the conceit of being in control gives you power. Every photographer I know wrestles with doubt, anxiety and fear. Do I really know how to create a certain look? Do I have a style? Can I sell my style? Why am I afraid to show my work to potential clients? What if everyone rejects me? Where is the market going? How can I change gears? How can I get part of a new market? What if I am revealed to be a fake?

Most of us try to fortify ourselves (our self confidence) by delving as deeply as we can into the technical underpinnings of our crafts. We learn all 5,000 secret actions in Photoshop or we watch 10,000 hours of workshops on the web to see how everyone else in the world might light a simple image. If we are into video we study every web site and pull apart every movie to try and understand the entirety of the undertaking before we even lift a camera and engage the start button.

We do this because we are afraid to fail. We are convinced that we will get only one chance to enter the field and engage. And because we feel that we have only one chance we want to tip the odds overwhelmingly in our own favor. It's like a man who's been told he will be on Jeopardy (a TV show that tests your ability to memorize facts, names, events, etc.) in five years. For the next five years the man does nothing but study everything he can lay his hands only to find out that he was so over prepared that he had become paralyzed. Unable to answer.  Or that the show had been cancelled...
Or that five years of his life had passed him by and that cost was greater than any reward that winning the show might have gained him...

I watched myself do this with photography. Especially in the transition years between film and digital and I remember how much time I lost and how much useless information I squirreled away. And then the information (not necessarily immutable facts) hit the sell by date and we felt like we needed to start over again with new information. In crafts with a large technical component it's so easy to get stuck in an information acquisition loop and never get out, never actually start producing. It's part of the reason we're always buying something new...

I vowed not to do this with video. I jumped straight in. I'd done my learning curve on the aesthetics and mechanics of telling stories with motion back in the 1980's and 1990's as a creative director and copywriter, and also as a DP on projects for several directors. I was stern with myself this time around. I don't need to know any more than how to tell the story, how to turn on the lights and how to push the "start" button on the camera. All the other stuff is just more stuff. It's not the core of the story telling craft. And none of it is as hard as we believe it is.

My fear was some mythical learning curve. What better way to neutralize this fear than to pick up your camera and your tripod and your microphone and get busy telling your story. You work, you learn. You work, you grow. I started warming up with my own projects. Stuff I do just for me. And I learn good techniques by not being afraid to fail on my own stuff. And everything I learn goes into making client projects as good as they can be. I can sit and "learn" or I can walk out the door with fresh batteries and a fresh mind and look for a fun story to tell. A quick script on a napkin. A montage of visual notes. Something fun to edit together. I get up in the morning and remind myself to run Toward the Snarling Dog!

Part Two: Changing the world.

I always grumble that the world is changing too fast and not for the better. I wish people would put down their cellphones, I wish people would pay attention. There's so much about the world I want to change and all I accomplish by focusing on this angry need to change the world is to become frustrated and upset and push way the good things in the world as well. I think to an extent we all wish some things could be changed. The issue is that everyone feels that different things need to be changed.

I was reading the notes for Stephen Mitchell's wonderfully readable translation of, "Tao the ching" and I came across this passage; this thought:

"Do you want to improve the world?

Wanting to reform the world without discovering one's true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes."

It certainly made me pause and reflect. And if I print out the passage and put it up on my wall perhaps I'll spend more time working on my own stuff and a lot less time grousing about the state of the world. Now I need to walk the (small) snarling dog...


  1. It is difficult at times to read your blog when it points directly at me.

  2. I always liked Pete Seeger's line (or maybe Guthrie's) about social change, "take it easy... but take it." So many of us stop at the good shoes, if you know what I mean.

  3. Thanks, Kirk. Thought for the day...and, really, for life. The Church of Visual Science...I like it!

  4. I'm glad you discussed story telling. That is what photography means to me. A good photo tells a story, it speaks. So many people on so many sites get caught up in all the unimportant stuff...bokeh, lens sharpness, high iso, noise, pixels, dxo scores, tonality, dynamic range...it's an endless stream of terminology and tech speak that gets thrown around and used to put others down. If your image doesn't tell a story, if it doesn't speak, then for me is simply artistic masturbation; aesthetic pandering and nothing more. Unfortunately these types of photos often get mistaken for good ones, even great ones, by so many. This for me is the single greatest problem for photography today, the confusion between telling a story and presenting a particular aesthetic, as if that particular aesthetic is reason enough for a photograph to exist, to be called good or even great. That's not what it is for me. The greatest challenge facing me has always been the story telling part-it is the source of my greatest struggle as a photographer. The other stuff I literally do not care about. Perhaps others have a different definition and that's fine, but this is mine and this is what defines my work as a photographer and a writer.


Comments. If you disagree do so civilly. Be nice or see your comments fly into the void. Anonymous posters are not given special privileges or dispensation. If technology alone requires you to be anonymous your comments will likely pass through moderation if you "sign" them. A new note: Don't tell me how to write or how to blog!