Top 3 Tips for Photographers, Filmmakers, Writers – Everybody

I’ve had a long career with a lot of successes and failures. Here are 3 tips with examples of lessons I learned along the way.

Get rid of the resistance in your life – Long before I became a photographer, I was on a different path. I was studying architecture at Syracuse University. During the summer of my sophomore year my friend and I went on a hitchhiking journey to Canada. Along the way we stayed with people we met while on the road. I remember one such stay very well. It was pouring outside and we decided to just hang out rather than face the elements. There were quite a few other travelers sitting around the room smoking dope and talking about what everyone talked about those days – their disenchantment with the war (Vietnam) and everything else that was status quo.

Sunset, Arthur County, Nebraska
Sunset – Arthur County, Nebraska

One fellow erupted and said – “I’m sick and tired of hearing the same old complaints – why don’t you all do something about it.” Those words have stayed with me my entire life. To this day I try to get rid of the whiners in my life and be the one who does something.  My proudest achievement to date has been making the documentary Opening Our Eyes, a film about individuals who are creating positive change.

Don’t hide your vulnerabilities – It took me a long time before I could tell anyone one of my biggest embarrassments, but when I did it was liberating. I was working on an assignment about Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. I had made an appointment to photograph Walter Cronkite, who was a well-known figure on Martha’s Vineyard. The day before our scheduled appointment, I called Mr. Cronkite to confirm. This was way before cell phones and email and even before everyone had answering machines and his phone just rang and rang and rang. I kept calling throughout the day and the same thing happened. By evening, I was upset because I thought that Mr. Cronkite had stood me up. That night, I had a terrible feeling. I thought perhaps that when I had re-written my production notes and contact info for the job, I might have written down the wrong number for Cronkite. I had kept my old notes and discovered that I had been calling the wrong number all day. Imagine how horrified I was when I discovered that it was I who had stood up Walter Cronkite – not the other way around. I called the correct number, Walter answered and I was profusely apologetic as I explained the situation. He was kind and understanding and rescheduled and then he said, “Why didn’t you look me up in the phone book?” I replied that I assumed someone of his stature would not be listed.   I learned never to make assumptions. It took me years before I could tell anyone this story. It’s really hard to admit mistakes but when you do, you gain trust.

Be who you are – not who you aren’t – I had just graduated from Brooks Institute and I wanted to pursue my passions. I wanted to be a photojournalist and use my craft to gain access to a world full of stories. Before I enrolled at Brooks, I had spent a year backpacking around the world. I had one camera and one lens and came back with my snapshots and a whole lot of desire. But it was a bad time for magazine photojournalism – Life Magazine had just folded (the second time) and everyone was telling me that if I wanted to make a living as a photographer, I needed to do commercial work. I bought into that and built a pretty good commercial photography portfolio. Then I went to see legendary NY photographer Jay Maisel, a man known for being blunt. He looked at my work, threw a print at me and told me it was “garbage”. Then he asked me if this was what I wanted to do.  I told him no, that I wanted to be a photojournalist but that everyone had been telling me to pursue commercial work. He asked me how old I was and I replied “25” and then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises”. It changed my life and I remind myself every day to be who I am and dream big, even though I may have to settle for less.

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What I Would Say to my 30-Year-Old Self

Most folks would write about what they would say to their 20-year-old self, but I chose to address myself a decade later when I’ve had some time to experience more of life.

You’ll be OK – How many of us have thought at times that things will never work out? I have survived a lot of experiences that I thought I would never get through. I’ve done some stupid things and made some dumb decisions. Some have taken their toll but I’m OK.

Don’t confuse “young” with “emerging” – It’s common in our culture to equate youth with fresh or emerging. Don’t tell yourself that this will be the only time in your life that you will “emerge”. I was young when I first started out but I am only now “emerging” in terms of my craft. I am creating from a lifetime of experience and my authentic self.

 Business is personal – Relationships are what it’s all about. People will come and go in your life in both business and personal. Be mindful of the relationships that have value and keep those connections secure. As singer/songwriter Don Henley wrote, “you get the best light from a burning bridge”.

Don’t preach to the choir – Don’t just hang out with likeminded people. It’s boring and provincial. Broaden your perspective by connecting with people who are different ages, genders, races or religions. It will bring more understanding and tolerance in your life and others.

Don’t be a quitter – but know when to walk away – I tell folks, “I’m not a quitter. I don’t even walk out of a bad movie”. I’m tenacious and it has gotten me far in my life. At a film festival where I won best documentary, I told a filmmaker that I might have never started to make my movie if I knew that I would still be involved with it, 3 years later. He told me “that’s normal” and then said “you’ll know when it’s time to walk away”. I have found that to be true with all kinds of things – not just making movies.

Make each day count – I’m paraphrasing a bit,

LeonardoTitanic
Leonardo di Caprio, Titanic

but in the movie Titanic, Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Jack makes a remark about making each day count. I love that scene. Life goes by in a blink.

Commitment

Commitment is everything.  It’s what makes us get things done.  It’s what makes relationships work.

Gail in bamboo hut in hill tribe village, northern Thailand
Gail in bamboo hut in hill tribe village, northern Thailand

It’s what makes us not give up, no matter how bleak it may look at times. It’s what gets us to stay focused on “the story” and be true to ourselves.

To some people, commitment can be frightening.  Their heads are filled with negative “what if” thoughts of failure that hold them back.  So, they plod along through life letting things happen to them instead of going after what they want. Those are the people who let resistance win.

I’ve always been a determined and committed person – if I say I’m going to do something, you can count on me to do it.  It’s tough sometimes though, to stay committed to myself and to what my true purpose is – it’s far too easy to get caught up with the regular flow of work and life.  But every now and then I get an idea for a creative project that just won’t go away.   When I finally decide to stop ignoring the idea and do something, I have a mechanism I use to help me make the commitment – I tell someone about it.  I’m the type of person that feels, once I’ve told someone I’m going to do something, then I have to do it – just to save face.  I call it “forced accountability.”

Seth Godin writes today about commitment: “One way to play in the digital age is to appeal to those that browse, the window shoppers, the mass audience that can’t and won’t commit.  The alternative is to focus on impact, not numbers and impact comes from commitment. “ He says: “ price is more than an exchange of coins. Price is a story.” Essentially, Godin is saying that in our noisy digital world, where ideas and content are free – we’ve got to be better, to make an impact.  In order to connect with the buyers on an emotional level, we’ve got to be “better than free”.

Every commitment that I’ve ever made has come with tremendous personal growth.  When I traveled around the world a couple of years ago making a feature length documentary, Opening Our Eyes, I not only challenged myself physically and creatively, but spiritually as well and I feel that I became a better person because of it.  I would not have been able to endure the hardships of that journey, nor the intense workload of post production had I not been committed to the idea.

What are you willing to commit to?  Commitment may be frightening, but without it, you may be spending your later years wondering, “what if I had”

Letting Go

This past weekend our film, Opening Our Eyes, Kathmandu, Nepalhad its premiere in New York City. We have been in dozens of film festivals and events all over the world but for whatever insignificant reasons, we had never screened in New York.  I think of NYC as my “hometown”, even though I have never lived inside “the city”. It’s where many of our friends, clients and colleagues are and it has been our “home base” for over 35 years.

Despite the fact that the temperatures were in the single digits and there had been a major snowstorm the night before, so many of our oldest and dearest friends, along with some new ones, showed up. Even Nisha, a young Nepalese girl who is in the movie – came out on that cold night. I have been in front of many audiences over the years and have enjoyed it immensely, but I can honestly say that this was the most meaningful experience I’ve ever had. To be able to share my film – a body of work that I put a lot of hard work, heart and soul into – with my peers and people I’ve known since my beginnings, was pure joy.

In a way, the night brought things full circle in regards to the film.  A lot of filmmakers “open” or premiere in their hometowns.  Once again, I did things a little backwards, by “closing” in my home turf, as this may be the film’s last festival screening. I don’t have plans to pursue more festivals – but I never know what’s lies ahead, in the way of opportunities, and am open to possibilities.  This project and this journey have rewarded me in hundreds of ways and no doubt will continue to enrich my life. The film will still be available for screenings at educational venues and community events.  It’s also available on DVD and streaming.  My daughter, Erin and I made this film to inspire and motivate others to create positive change in our world, and we hope that message continues to spread globally.

A young filmmaker I met at one of the festivals I attended told me, “a filmmaker never finishes a film – he(she) just knows when to let go.”  I am able to “let go”,  because I know that this experience has set the stage for the next events in my life.

“Everyone has Oceans to fly, if they have the Heart to do it. Is it reckless? Maybe. But what do dreams know of boundaries?”
 
– Amelia Earhart

6 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Take a DSLR Video Workshop

So many photographers think that buying a DSLR capable of shooting video and taking a workshop on how to use it, is all they’ll need to do in order to get into the business of video production.   They couldn’t be more wrong.  It’s kind of like someone buying a really “good” camera, and thinking that’s all they need to be able to shoot a professional photography assignment.  And yet, so many of my professional photographer colleagues continue to think that it’s about the camera, instead of the skill set.

For starters, most of the professional video productions I do,I wouldn’t be able to shoot with a DSLR camera.  Don’t get me wrong, a DSLR can produce stunning video, but those cameras  fall short on certain tasks.  More importantly, they won’t necessarily meet the expectations that many high-end advertising art directors require. red cameraYou’ll look like a fool if you show up with your DSLR kit when they expected a lot more in the way of gear.

I get quite annoyed when I see the proliferation of DSLR video and filmmaking workshops that mislead photographers that this “tool” or camera will be sufficient for any and all video assignments – because it won’t.  It may be fine for a wedding shoot and I even made a feature length film with a DSLR, but for a lot of corporate jobs I shoot – it just doesn’t cut it.

My advice to photographers who want to learn video:

  • Learn how to think and shoot video.  It’s not just about the camera. When I shoot motion, I’m thinking and shooting much differently than I do for stills.
  • Pick the right camera for the job.  That means you’ll have to know how to use a traditional video camera or a more sophisticated camera like a RED or hire someone who does.
  • If you contain your video experience and knowledge to the DSLR, realize that your competition will be fierce.  The buy in price is low – so you won’t be the only one who thinks they can buy a relatively inexpensive camera and go after video jobs.
  • Stay away from DSLR workshops.  They are way too limited and limiting.  Plus, they are based on technology that changes way too fast.  It may be tempting – but you’ll place yourself in the lower end crowd and will most likely be competing on price.  How low are you prepared to go – or can you go and stay in business.
  • Learn video and/or filmmaking the right way.  Don’t make it dependent on a particular camera.  Learn the cinematic language and how to translate the message in a motion medium.
  • The business of video is much different than that of still photography.  If the workshop you are thinking about taking doesn’t address sound business practices – move on. You can lose your shirt on a video production if you don’t know how to price and/or structure your shoots.

Think about it.  If you were just starting out and learning photography – would you take a workshop that was about a particular camera?  Obviously not, so why would you approach learning video that way?

For more information about video production check out Gail’s guide  The Craft and Commerce of Video and Motion

One Million Miles

Yesterday, I took a look at my United Airlines frequent flyer statement, and realized that I had flown 822,571 miles with that airline!

United Airlines Boeing 777–200 landing in the ...
United Airlines Boeing 777–200 landing in the Blue Tulip livery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was 177,429 miles away from a million lifetime flight miles. And that’s just the miles that I’ve flown with United!  It doesn’t include all the miles I’ve flown on other airlines, nor any of the miles I’ve flown using reward tickets. And it doesn’t include the miles I flew traveling around the world during the making of my film, Opening Our Eyes.

As I looked at that number, and thought about all those miles, Gail Mooney and daughter Erin Kelly, Giza, EgyptI couldn’t help but think about the destinations, the purpose and the motivation behind them. When I set out to live the life of a “traveler” at the young age of 19, I had absolutely no idea of how that would mold my life.  As a professional photographer, I’ve gone to the corners of the globe on dream assignments for magazines and corporations and loved every bit of it – my work has always been my pleasure.  When I wasn’t working, I’d still find a reason to travel, whether on a press junket or simply exploring the world with my husband and daughter.  Some of my favorite family memories are from our travels to Peru and Egypt.

I will always be a traveler.  I am a nomadic creature and I have a huge curiosity about our world and its people. For me, travel is more than going from point A to point B. Sure, there are plenty of times, on corporate jobs when I travel somewhere to photograph a particular person or a place and I’m never there long enough to get a sense of the place I am in.  But, for the most part, I travel to a destination to find out more about that place and tell the visual story of that particular place and its people.

As I thought about all those miles traveled, I started to think about reaching the “Million Miler” status with United.  I was only 177,429 miles away!  That may seem like a lot to many of you, and it might seem like no big deal to others, but to me it seems like a very attainable goal.  In fact, when I started to think about reaching that goal, I thought that I could easily attain that in 3 year’s time – just in time for a milestone birthday.  That’s something to consider and I shall.  I certainly have the motivation; I just need to define the destinations and more importantly the purpose.

Any suggestions?  I’m open to your thoughts.

Rejection Therapy

©Mike Rode
©Mike Rohde

A few weeks ago, I attended the World Domination Summit in Portland, OR.  Any time I‘ve mentioned this conference to my friends, their eyes get wide and they all want to know more about it.  Essentially, WDS is a worldwide gathering of creative, unconventional people who want to live a remarkable life in a conventional world.

This was my second time attending WDS and I was inspired, enlightened, invigorated and awed by the speakers like Jonathan Fields, Nancy Duarte, Tess Vigeland, Chase Jarvis and many others.  There was one speaker Jia Jiang that really resonated with me.  He talked about his 100-day “rejection therapy” project. You can watch Jia’s talk online. He must have struck a chord with a lot of other people as well, because he brought the house down.

I’m certainly not a stranger to knowing what rejection feels like.  The last two years of my life I have been rejected more times than I have probably in my entire life.  It’s not that I’ve been seeking ways to get rejected.  It’s because I’ve pushed myself into new and foreign territories – I mean that both literally and figuratively.  For example, I challenged myself in my career by producing a big film project that literally took me around the world.  But when I think about the “journey” part and the production of that film, it pales compared to the hard work, time, blood, sweat and plenty of tears on getting the film seen. I got scads of rejection letters and emails from film festivals, distributors and agents but most outsiders see only my successes.

When I heard Jia talk about his rejections that led to his “rejection therapy”, I understood exactly how he felt.  In a way, I’ve lived my life like Jia’s rejection therapy. But, it wasn’t because I set out to heal myself from some missteps and misses that didn’t work out for me.  As I look back at some of the things that I’ve done in my life, I realize now that I was simply naively bold enough to do them.

I can’t really say that I have ever gotten used to rejection.  It continues to hit me hard at times.  But when that happens, I stop and I think about all the wonderful and crazy things that I’ve done in my life that never would have happened if I had let my past rejections stop me. I suppose I’m like one of those blow up punching bags that keeps popping back up.