Here is the transcript to Ep. 18- How Do You Handle The Truth?
I just want to start by thanking so many of you for the amount of reviews that have come in for the Total Life Freedom podcast. It’s really humbling. It shows the generosity of the character of those of you that are listening that to take the time and go do that and how much it helps support the show. So I just really appreciate that. And I got a review from a friend, whom I hadn’t spoken to in awhile and he had texted me and told me how much he’s enjoying the show. We texted back and forth and he wound up leaving a review on iTunes and I read it and I chuckled. His name is Dan Speicher and he’s a photographer here in Pittsburgh and I won’t leave the whole review, but a little part of it was this, and this is what the podcast is going to be about today.
“One of our early conversations seven years ago was a gut punch portfolio review that was dead on accurate and helped me to really focus on what I was saying.” Now Dan’s a highly accomplished and successful photographer. But at that point he was really kind of starting out. He had been shooting for a while and he came to me for a review of his portfolio and I think he wanted something different than what I gave him. And I still remember that day. It was me, him and our friend David Burke, and we were at Panera Bread here in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. And I went through his portfolio and I, and I gave him a really harsh critique. And I don’t think I was mean, but I was tough and I truly believe I was being accurate. I was showing him things that I had learned through my career.
You know, at that point I had been shooting for 15 years or more than that, and I was trying to bring to him what had been brought to me and what he didn’t need was another fluffy critique. It wasn’t another, you know, your mom patting you on the back saying, Oh, you’re great sweetie. This is just keep doing what you’re doing. I saw so many holes in what he was doing. I saw so many things with his vision and the way he was shooting that really could be improved upon and by them being improved upon his opportunities and his chances and his skills would increase. But a lot of times people don’t want to hear it. And I can tell that day that it really hit him hard. I can tell in his confidence, I can see it in his face, but I knew that if he took this to heart and he actually made the improvements that we’re talking about, he was going to come out stronger and healthier and better because of it.
And that podcast review really encouraged me because it wasn’t about the review, it was about the fact that he listened to what I said. He was tough and he challenged himself and he got better. And you’ll be amazed by how many times that type of a critique, even though somebody asked for it, they don’t really want it. They really just want you to tell them what they want to hear. And when you give them what the truth is, they crumble. And Dan didn’t crumble. And the only reason why I was able to do that was because that had been done to me and not only done to me once, but more than once. And that’s what I want to talk about today. When I was a student at Ohio University and I was building my portfolio, I went to a photography conference with our classmates and all the big wigs of the industry, we’re going to be there.
So I brought my portfolio and way back then in photography it was slides. So you literally had a plastic sheet of 20 slides and when you’re looking for a newspaper job or magazine job, those 20 slides had to be filled in with news, sports, portraits, features, and a picture story and that they would have to be filled into those 20 spots. So five pictures of picture story, you know, a couple of sports pictures, a couple of spot news, all the things that you’d see in the newspaper. So I had mine, I meticulously put this portfolio together for this conference. I mean literally getting the copy slides printed, having it all edited, having it ready. So when I presented that I was ready, this wasn’t a mishmash, throwing some pictures together. I had put a lot of time into this portfolio and there were a handful of photographers giving critiques, but there was only one that I really wanted.
His name is Joe Elbert, and he was the director of photography at the Washington Post. At that point was the gold standard for photojournalism. It was the top place to go. This was probably around there in 1999 or 2000 and it was the place to be. All of the Pulitzer winners were there. Carol Guzy, all these people you go, you probably wouldn’t recognize their names, but they were household names in the journalism world and this was the guy that assigned them and edited their work, and he was about to look at my work. There was no holding back. It was ready to go. And I stood in line and I remember clearly the guy in front of me gave Joe Elbert his portfolio and Joe just tore him apart. It was all sports pictures shot with a long lens.
He didn’t get close to his subjects. There was no intimacy, there was no heart in the photographs. It was all just somebody from afar shooting with no interaction and no emotion and he tore them apart to where the guy just, I remember him taking his portfolio head down. I don’t know whatever happened to that guy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the last time he ever even opened up that portfolio or picked up a camera. And I was next. So now I get in the line and I’m like, I felt confident in my portfolio, but I felt a little bit less confident at there seeing that I knew I wasn’t going to get what he got because I knew the work that I put into it, but I still wasn’t sure. And he went through it and he took the loop and he looked at each slide meticulously, carefully.
He went through it and I’m just like, my heart’s racing as he’s going through this. And then he takes my slide portfolio and he pulls out two slides and he puts them in a little two slide pile and then he pushed the slides over to me. I said, okay, good. 18 out of 20 pictures, two of them didn’t work. He pulled two pictures out of my portfolio that I need to replace. 18 of them are good enough. Instead of sliding the plastic slide with 18 pictures over to me, he slid the two pictures over to me and he just looked over at me and he said, that’s your portfolio right there. Those two pictures. And I remember my heart going up in my throat, just like a big lump in my throat, like oh my goodness, to get rid of the rest of the pictures and start over.
And he could have shushed me away. But he said one more thing. He said, those two pictures have everything that a great photograph needs in it. You just need 18 more of those. And I was just crest fallen. I was like, oh my goodness. And I took it and I walked away and I remember I had a chance at that point to figure out what I was going to do and what I was going to think. Was I going to get mad at him? Was he, you know, was he a big jerk for doing that? Good. He crushed me. I remember going to sit on one of the chairs in the hotel away from everybody and I thought about it and instead of getting upset that he rejected the majority of my portfolio, the best photo editor in the country just confirmed that I made two pictures, two pictures that stood up to their standards.
So it proved to me that I had what it takes to make it. I just didn’t make it enough. So I have that. So I went back to my hotel room. I pulled all those slides out of the portfolio and I put those other two back in there and I said to myself, now you need to do this type of work with the rest of the work that you do. In that portfolio review from Joe Elbert was one of the moments that jumped me up to a higher level. I didn’t get angry at him. I was actually really grateful to him for doing that because he could have said, yeah, everything’s great. Just like I would’ve done to Dan. Everything’s great. Just do what you’re doing. He set a higher standard for me and he eliminated all the hard work. All the hard work that I put into those 18 photographs all the nights, the weekends, the money that I’d spent, the time, all that stuff that I put into that, that emotionally I felt needed to be in the portfolio.
He got past that emotionally and said, it’s not good enough. That’s not good enough. If you ever want to work somewhere like here is what he’s basically saying to me. But if you do follow your example, these two photographs use all the layers and the light and the emotion and the moments. Put that into your photographs for the other ones and you will have it. That alone helped me set a standard that I hadn’t set for myself, so that’s what I wanted to do for Dan. When we did our critique seven years ago, I wanted him to walk away from there and realize most of this stuff is not going to work if I ever want to get to where I want to get to, but these ones over here, these work and keep doing what you’re doing here to get there and to get that podcast review from Dan the see what he’s done with it and to see how he’s progressed just made me think. The toughest critiques when they come from the heart and they come from well-meaning, as difficult as they are or the most important ones that we’re ever going to get.