Episode 171- How Do You Follow Something Great?

I’m going to start by saying that expectations can be killer if you let them and quite often we allow other people’s expectations of what they want from us to shape the work that we need to do and that is a dangerous precedent and road to go down if you truly want to create something unique within your own work and not allowing your vision of what you want to create to be influenced by people that do not have skin in the game of what you’re doing is something to really be avoided. When I was a journalism major in college at Ohio, I was put into a unique spot. If you heard my episode from way back titled, do you need an audit? It was about the photo story that I did on the F Train in New York City. I spent 30 days on that train to document what life was like for the people that wrote a subway that went through all different areas of New York, all different diversity, poor and rich and everything in between and that story went up.

Winning the William Randolph Hearst National Championship, not only for best picture story but after going to San Francisco for a competition, winning the whole thing altogether. So it started out as a little story for myself that I wanted to do, that I really wanted to document all of a sudden with all this acclaim that came from these awards, I was back at Ohio University but now all the students wanted to know what I was working on. All of a sudden I’m the flavor of the month and the expectations on me on what I’m going to produce was something that I wasn’t expecting. So this went into my last semester and my final photo story project and I had full reign over what I would choose and what the project it would be and it would be a couple of months that I’d be working on this.  I decided to not pick a hard hitting project, something controversial or cultural or even deep.

I really wanted to document what life was like for a group of high school baseball players in a small town in Ohio. What day to day life was like for them. And to do a behind the scenes documentary project on something like that. So I was in the midst of that project when I was flown out to San Francisco for the shootout and the awards and then when I returned now as the quote unquote, the chosen one, which I never wanted that label to begin with, I headed back into Nelsonville, this little town with these kids that were on a quest for just a small town baseball title. And I loved the project. I loved the coach. He gave me total access. I got to be on the bus with them. The arguments, the disagreements, the jokes, just a real small town feel that somebody from the York had never quite experienced.

And I found it fascinating and I knew that this was not a hard hitting award-winning project like the F train was. That’s one just had so many layers. I mean the big city thing, the cultural thing, the diversity of the storyline, it really had so much to it. But to me this was diversity as well. This is something that I really wanted to do. It was interesting, at least to me and with me wanting to more of a professional sports photographer as I got out of school, I thought that having a longterm, deep documentary project like this would be beneficial to my portfolio and my career. And as it came to the end, they didn’t win any type of championship. I’m not even sure if they made the playoffs, but it really turned out to be a great storyline. I was really happy with the images and I was excited to show it to the class, but I really learned a lot about how people treat you or how they look at you depending on the success that they perceive you’re having.

Because when I set out to do the F train story, there were no expectations. Most of the people didn’t even know who I was, so I got to do exactly what I wanted to do. And because of that I produced something pretty solid. And to me I was doing the same thing with the baseball project, but it was different. I stepped into the classroom for the final exam. I guess that’s what you’d call it. It’s where we all put our work out and everybody looks through it and critiques it and talks about it and something happened that was different this day. Being that I was an undergrad, the grads never came into our class, but for some reason actually there was a reason. The fact that I won the William Randolph Hearst national championship and I was the grand champion that was being in articles and was being promoted.

All of a sudden everybody was interested in my work and to be quite honest, it really pissed me off because I was like, nobody cared before, nobody was interested or was curious, ors looking to help. They became interested once I was a winner, so not that I was mad at anybody, but I was not interested in their opinion because I knew they were there simply because I was that person that won the award, not because of me. So they all came in and they were all excited and interested to see what I did. They weren’t interested really in anybody else’s stuff and they went through them one by one. I see them going through it and looking at my work and looking at the story and the book that I put together and the response was one of complete underwhelmed and I’m totally honest here.

I wasn’t expecting anything different. I wasn’t disappointed by it. I wasn’t sad that nobody was raving about it. I didn’t do it for them, but as we did almost every single time we had a critique or we had class we’d want to go over Tony’s, which was the bar that most of the photojournalists went to often, and a few of the grad students laid it out for me and one of them told me to my face,” I was really disappointed in your project” over a beer. I asked why and he said, I thought after seeing the F train story, it would be some real hot button, deep story. And again, I asked him, why would you think that? He said, that’s what you do. That’s just what everybody expects. How are you going to take this to the next level? And I said to him, I’m sorry you were disappointed, but I wasn’t trying to take anything to the next level with the F train.

I wasn’t trying to take to the next level. I was just trying to tell a great story and each story I tell is going to have its own intricacies, its own struggle, its own message. And I said to him, why is it always have to be bigger? And he didn’t have an answer and I had a couple of the conversations that same night in the same realm and I know I didn’t convince them of anything, but I did convince myself of something and what I learned early on to base my career on after that was that I’m not interested in doing my work on the basis of other people’s expectations. I need to do the work that is to my heart that is truly about who I am and what I believe in as opposed to how do I follow up in a ward because other people are expecting something different.

And I walked out of OU and it wasn’t with the perception of having knocked it out of the park to the grad students on my way out. But that lesson of doing it the way that I needed to do it, and being thrilled that I did a project that was based on my vision and not other people’s expectations, gave me the confidence to go out into the real world and stick to my guns on the work that I needed to do and not allow outside influences to get me off that course. And sometimes people are going to be disappointed, but those aren’t the people that I’m concerned about letting down.

And I will talk to you tomorrow.

Leave a Comment