Open Show recently sat down with former senior editor for American Photo Magazine and photo consultant Miki Johnson to talk about the movement towards collaborative projects, how to get there and Open Show’s joint project with RingReef to hold a first ever collaborative photo contest at SXSW this year (Mar.9-15).
Q: Why is collaboration important for today’s creative professionals?
I’ll give you an example from the photo world, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. Ten years ago, if you were a photojournalist, you worked for a newspaper or magazine, you got assigned photos, you took them, developed them, captioned then, and then took more photos. Now, if you’re a photojournalist (and there are fewer every day), you are working for yourself, so you’re managing your website, marketing yourself, doing the accounting, and you’re also expected to do video, multimedia slideshows, sound, and probably some web design.
No one can do that many things wonderfully, so I see this is an unsustainable situation, especially for creative types, who need more unstructured time to actually be creative. The way to make this work, I think, is to work with people who specialize in marketing, sound, design, web, etc. But self-employed creatives can’t afford to employ all those people full-time, so they need to be able to build flexible, mutually beneficial partnerships with them—what I would call “collaborative teams.”
Q: What skills should creatives focus on to make their collaborations more successful?
I generally break collaborative skills into five sections: knowing what you know, knowing what you need, setting goals, communicating effectively, and learning from experience. The first one might be the most important, yet people are most likely to skip it. Creatives should start by thinking about what collaboration is really going to mean: In most instances, you are giving up an amount of control in exchange for someone else taking on responsibilities, sharing their skills, and decreasing the time required from you. One way to get comfortable with giving up some control is to think about what you bring to the table and then what you know will be better for someone else to take over, which will hopefully decrease your urge to micromanage them.
The second most important thing is to verbally, or in writing even, establish goals, deadlines, and measures of success with your collaborators. Finally, agree on times and ways to communicate regularly about your shared project, including a debrief when it’s completed to celebrate what went well and discuss how you can improve next time.
Q: And you’re doing something at SXSW this year about collaboration?
Yes, SXSW decided to do a PhotoCamp for the first time this year, since they recognize that there is a big overlap between the photography and interactive worlds (not to mention film and music). The idea is to create a space where anyone who is enthusiastic about photography can connect with other enthusiasts, from pros to Instagram celebrities (at Palm Door on March 12th).
With such a wide range of skills and interests, I’m staying away from traditional “how-to” stype stuff, and focusing on collaboration. Anyone is encouraged to stop in and fill out a quick questionnaire to determine “what kind of collaborator you are,” then we’ll help them find others who they might work well with. We’ll also provide quick collaborative projects people can do at SXSW with their smartphones, and tips on making the project successful. If they want to take their collaboration to the next level, they can even enter the RingReef “SXSW Through Your Eyes” contest, which I’m judging.
Q: How is this different than a normal photo contest?
Most photo contests focus on a single vision from one photographer. RingReef is a smartphone app that lets you easily share text and photos with a group, a “reef,” that you set up. So it’s a perfect space for smartphone photographers to collaborate, on the go, and create a group vision entirely on their mobile devices. This is the first time RingReef has done this contest, and I always like things that are a little experimental, plus it lines up perfectly with my collaboration ideas. Basically, the winning teams will receive prizes for doing something they would be doing anyway—snapping and sharing photos of SXSW.
Q: What do you hope smartphone photographers will gain from this experience?
As I see it, we are on the cusp of a shift in digital technology. First we were all so excited to be able to share anything any time that we quickly overloaded ourselves and the digital universe. Now curation is really important; the most valuable services help filter stuff to you that will like so you don’t have to wade through overwhelming amounts of information.
But I notice that both of these things, sharing and curation, are still largely aimed at the single user with a single stream of information. I see things heading more and more toward converging information streams, especially around specific topics. Apps like RingReef are an indicator of that. And as we move into that next step, what I call the era of collaboration, it’s going to be increasingly important to be able to adapt your vision to different teams and audiences. I’m hoping PhotoCamp and the RingReef contest will give smartphone photographers an opportunity to learn to adapt in that way and to lead the evolution toward a more collaborative, and therefore contextualized, digital experience.