By Jim Colton
“Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.” -- Pope John XXIII
Our industry has experienced massive change in recent years. New technologies have created new avenues of hope as well as new obstacles to overcome. Analog publications are dwindling as digital publications rise. Engagement with an audience is now measured in page views and hits. Social media (an oxymoron) is now driving the traffic. And the road to greater viewership is now electronically paved as we look to the internet roadmap, for direction…and directions.
Being old-school, I still crave for the tactile experience of actually holding a newspaper or magazine in my hands and occasionally licking my finger to page through a great book rather than clicking that same finger on a mouse. Many publications are attempting to “co-exist” on the newsstands as well as on our monitors while others try to bundle their options by combining digital with analog.
Enter “INSIDE TRACKS,” by Rick Smolan.
Smolan’s latest book allows the viewer to simply point their smart devices at certain photographs in the book and instantly view that scene as it was brought to life in the film “TRACKS,” a feature film based on Smolan's National Geographic story about Robyn Davidson’s 1700-mile nine month solo camel trek across the Australian outback. Smolan is no stranger to introducing new ideas and with it new technologies to better appreciate those ideas. The work he has created throughout his career is also no stranger to awards and recognition.
Photographer, editor, author, entrepreneur, co-creator of the “Day in the Life” series of books and CEO of Against All Odds Productions, Smolan’s work has been published in every major newspaper and magazine in the world including National Geographic, TIME, Newsweek and GEO to name a few. He has spoken at TED, the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Ford Foundation and the Wired Health Conference as well as many other gatherings.
His recent project “The Human Face of Big Data” captures how our planet is developing a nervous system. Its iPad app won the 2013 WEBBY for best educational app and the companion TV documentary won the 2014 award for “Best Cinematography" at the Boston Film Festival.
As we can see, Smolan has been busy blazing new paths and pushing the digital envelope. This week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the multi-faceted and multi-talented Rick Smolan as we discuss his own journey that has lead him to “INSIDE TRACKS.”
Jim Colton: Tell us about your early years. How and when did you first become interested in photography? Who were your earliest or greatest influences?
Rick Smolan: Growing up in Cedar Grove, N. J., I was the classic underachiever, D-minus average, totally shy. I'd sit in class and daydream about being Superman."
I always felt when people were born, part of their toolkit included the ability to connect easily with strangers – this was something that was missing from my toolkit. I used to watch other people intensely, thinking if I observed them long enough I could somehow learn how to walk up to a complete stranger and make a connection. When my father gave me a camera at 16, it was like a personality transplant – suddenly, for the first time in my life, I could walk up to anyone using the camera as my entry point.
In high school and in college I was welcomed by everyone from jocks and cheerleaders to the nerds because I made them all look good. I was still on the outside looking in but at least I was being welcomed. In retrospect it’s funny that what I saw as my handicap became my strongest asset - and that I ended up making my living by observing people.
JC: What were some of your first assignments or stories?
RS: My first freelance assignment was to shoot two Philadelphia policemen posing next to an artist’s rendition of a flying saucer – it was an assignment for the National Enquirer. I couldn’t keep a straight face during the shoot because it was so obvious that the two of them had made this story up to get attention so I ended up being fired by the Enquirer after this first assignment. Not exactly an auspicious beginning!
My real first professional assignment was a few months later at the age of 23 for a special issue of LIFE magazine called “One Day in the Life of America” (go figure!). I was the very last of the 100 photographers hired and the youngest. My assignment was to document life at Dickinson College (I had graduated from Dickinson two years earlier but was still living in Carlisle because life was easy and it was fun living at a college campus without having to actually go to any classes).
One of the images I shot for the LIFE special issue was of two friends sharing a shower together. It became one of the most talked about images when the issue appeared and I recall a phone call from the dean of admissions who was getting irate phone calls from shocked parents (shocked!) that this kind of thing was going on.
JC: How did the idea for the "Day in the Life" series come about?
RS: A few months after the LIFE assignment I met David Burnett, Robert Pledge, Eddie Adams and Doug Kirkland who were starting a photo agency called Contact Press Images and they invited me to join them as a founding member. I was the baby of the group and I was happy to take any assignment that the other photographers passed on, no matter how uninteresting it sounded, because once I was finished with an assignment, I would shoot for myself…and find my own stories.
For example, one day Dirck Halstead (who was also part of Contact) was offered a free ticket on the first non-stop Pan Am flight from NYC to Tokyo. He didn't want to use the ticket and offered it to David Burnett who had another assignment that week. It was a press junket and the assignment basically consisted of flying 18 hours to Tokyo to shoot a photo of two guys shaking hands and then flying 18 hours back to NYC.
Burnett offered me the ticket because I’d never been to Asia and, as I said, I was happy to do any assignment. Instead of coming back at the end of the week I ended up staying in Asia for 11 months. During that year I met Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in Tokyo in 1976 while shooting a TIME magazine cover story about him. I was a long haired hippie at the time and to the surprise of the other (much more straight laced) journalists, he befriended me and invited me to visit Australia as his personal guest. That unlikely invitation led to my long term love affair with Australia.
A few months into my extended trip to Asia I ran into Muhammad Ali when I stepped into an elevator in Tokyo’s Keio Plaza Hotel in 1976 with David Burnett who was there on assignment.
In the elevator with Ali was Howard Bingham, Ali’s personal photographer. David and Howard were old friends and in the space of that 30 second elevator ride Howard told us that in a few hours he and Ali were headed to Korea to tour US Army bases for a week. Howard told us they had two extra seats on the plane and invited us to join them on the tour (that’s how things worked back then!).
So off we went on a weeklong fascinating behind the scenes tour of Korea with the champ. At every base Ali would get in the ring and spar with a few soldiers. It was surreal and I kept thinking if we had pushed the elevator button 30 seconds later none of this would have happened. I always thought about these wonderful moments of serendipity as the “fate stream”.
After several years of shooting and having quite a bit of success, I started to get frustrated because I realized that no matter how good my photographs may have been, I’d always be inside someone else’s machine unless I struck out on my own.
In the fall of 1980 I was sitting at a bar in Bangkok with a group of my heroes, photographers including Philip Jones-Griffiths, J. P. Laffont, David Burnett, all friends and mentors, and I said, “wouldn't it be nice for once to get rid of all these editors and do it ourselves, nobody but us? What if we took that LIFE issue I had worked on and did “A Day in the Life of Australia?” As usual I was the baby of the group, and they all patted me on the head and said, “Yeah, kid, you go organize it and we’ll come.”
I met with 35 publishers, who all told me what a stupid idea it was. So I turned to Prime Minister Fraser and I asked if his government would consider funding the project. Fraser loved the idea but said the government couldn't fund it. Instead he set up meetings for me with the CEO's of leading companies including Qantas, Kodak Australia, and Steve Jobs at Apple, etc. Those companies provided us with airline tickets, film, computers, and rental cars.
I had no money to pay the photographers but families put them up all over Australia. We had 20 people in sleeping bags in our office, and everyone was hysterical all the time. We did everything wrong. I hired a designer who I fired half way through because his design felt like a confusing mishmash. While we were on press, I reached out to my brilliant younger sister Leslie (Smolan) who redesigned the entire book in a week, creating the look and feel of what went on to become a series of award-winning books.
Then the book came out, and people went nuts: our self-published book became the number one book in Australia. It sold 250,000 copies and led to the whole “DITLO” series. Thanks to Malcolm's incredible generosity to a young fledgling photographer, the "Day in the Life" books were born and went on to become one of the best-selling photography books in publishing history. I will forever be in the debt of this gentle man who passed away last week at the age of 84.
What’s so ironic is that if a publisher had said yes to me for that first book I’d have gotten $1 a book and been screwed like every other photographer who does a photo book. But because they all turned me down I was forced, out of desperation, to come up with a whole new business model.
I often joke that the LIFE “One Day” issue being my first real assignment was like the story about baby ducks bonding with the first creature they see after birth. It’s probably no coincidence that I ended up turning that first assignment into a series of "Day in the Life” books (and YES I did ask LIFE for permission to use the idea).
JC: How many were done? And, I know this is like asking to choose a favorite child, but do you have a favorite from that series...and why?
RS: I loved being a photographer and after the Australia book was over I thought I’d go back to being a photographer, but then the governor’s office of Hawaii called saying their anniversary of statehood was coming up, would you do a book on us?
And after that American Express called and said they were interested in sponsoring a book about Japan because they were fighting with the JCB card there, and they wanted to show their support of Japanese culture. We met a wonderful gentleman named Ray DeMoulin from Kodak during the “Day in the Life of Japan” project and Ray became an incredibly generous supporter of our projects as well as many other photographers’ projects. (Editor’s note: Ray DeMoulin passed away since the time of this interview…our industry has lost a legend.)
Beginning with the second book in the series, “A Day in the Life of Hawaii,” -my friend David Cohen came on board as my partner. Although we were supported by major corporations, David and I always insisted on a complete separation of church and state. We told sponsors up front that they would have no editorial control, no product placement and no right of review. To our amazement, they agreed.
It was also very gratifying when TIME and Newsweek started fighting over who was going to put our latest project on their cover. The whole thing was so weird! We went from all the publishers telling us, “What a stupid idea,” to having our projects on the covers of dozens of the world’s biggest newsweeklies. And, we had some of the world’s best photographers working on the projects, like Sebastiao Salgado and James Nachtwey.
David Cohen and I did another eight books together and then we sold the company and I moved on. My wife Jennifer Erwitt, who had played an instrumental role in the company beginning with "A Day in the Life of Hawaii," stayed on to direct several more books including “A Day in the Life of Ireland” and “A Day in the Life of Italy” among others.
"A Day in the Life of Australia" has a special place in my heart because it was such a terrifying and ultimately satisfying experience and led to all the other projects. “A Day in the Life of Japan” was one of the most visually arresting. “A Day in the Life of America” was the first coffee table book to ever become a #1 New York Times best seller with 1.4 million copies in print. "America 24/7" was the first mass customized NY Times best seller and Oprah picked it as her favorite book of the year, which was a kick.
“The Human Face of Big Data" is also one of my favorites because it turned out to be the perfect book at the perfect time to help explain how our species is about to change. And now my favorite book is "INSIDE TRACKS” because it’s the only book I've ever done of my own work and I love how the book and obviously Robyn Davidson’s extraordinary courage, seems to inspire people.
JC: What is "Against All Odds Productions" (See link below) and how did that come to be?
RS: After the success of the Day in the Life projects it occurred to me that I could create an organization to apply the same concept of dispatching a team of skilled journalists around the world to focus on emerging topics like the microprocessor (“One Digital Day”), the Internet (“24 Hours in Cyberspace”), how the human race is learning to heal itself (“The Power to Heal”), the global water crisis (“Blue Planet Run”) and most recently big data (“The Human Face of Big Data”).
And rather than limiting the results to just a book, we conceived Against All Odds as a cross media company, telling the story of each of these topics through a wide range of media including TV specials, Interactive CDs, websites, apps, exhibits and a tremendous amount of PR.
JC: Besides the DITLO books, what other books or projects did you create?
RS: Our last project “The Human Face of Big Data” (See link below) explores how the real time visualization of data streaming in from satellites, billions of sensors, GPS enabled cameras and smart phones is beginning to enable us, as individuals and collectively as a society, to sense, measure and understand aspects of our existence in ways never before possible.
The premise is that all of these devices are creating a planetary nervous system and that the massive real time gathering and analyzing of data is suddenly allowing us to address some of humanity's biggest challenges, including pollution, world hunger and illness.
After nearly two years of research and filming and interviews conducted with dozens of the scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs pioneering this space, “The Human Face of Big Data” illustrates both the promise and peril in the growing big data revolution; a sea change which many experts believe will have a thousand times greater impact on our lives than the Internet.
To spark a global conversation, the book was delivered simultaneously to 10,000 key influencers in 50 countries. The companion iPad app won the WEBBY for best educational app and the TV documentary, directed by my award-winning film director brother Sandy Smolan, won the Boston Film Festival award for best cinematography.
Last week the U.S. State Department selected the film to be screened at US consulates and embassies beginning this fall as part of a major film diplomacy program called the “American Film Showcase.”
JC: Having transitioned from analog (film) to digital...do you miss anything from those "tactile" days? And in the interest of fairness, how has digital technology affected your life?
RS: The fact that we only had 36 frames on a roll and then had to stop shooting and change film made us think harder and be more decisive. On the other hand I can’t tell you how many times THE frame was 36 or if I was really lucky 37. So not having to interrupt the flow is definitely a huge advantage of digital.
I also love the idea that I can change the effective ISO at any time without having to use a different kind of film. Likewise I remember having to use tungsten film to shoot indoors or use FLD filters to shoot under florescent lights which also meant losing a stop.
What I still have trouble believing is, that on Monday morning TIME and Newsweek and all the weekly publications would send bike messengers (this was pre-fax) with a list of the pictures they thought they would need for that week’s issue. Every agency in NYC had staff going through plastic slide sheets and pulling dozens of possible images (many were dupes and looked like shit) which would then be messengered back to the magazine and by the time they got there half the stories had been dropped because of more current news stories.
So hundreds of original slides were whizzing around NYC on bikes and only a handful were selected for publication. And then assuming the slides hadn't been scratched, torn, mangled, smudged with finger prints or lost, the slides were put back into the mounts with scotch tape and then bike messengered back to the agencies where staff would pull them out and refile them. If an intern accidentally misfiled an image from the Australia into the Austria folder, that image might never be found again.
What I love about digital is that every image is always first generation - a digital original - so you don’t have a second or third generation low quality dupe. And with Photoshop giving photographers the ability to do in color what we used to do in B&W (burning, dodging, opening up shadows, removing color casts, etc.) I really don’t miss film at all!
JC: Let's talk a little about Robyn Davidson's incredible journey across Australia. What was the genesis for that project? How did you first meet Robyn?
RS: When I was twenty-eight, National Geographic magazine sent me on the assignment of a lifetime; to document the 1,700 mile journey of a stunningly beautiful mysterious twenty-seven-year-old woman named Robyn Davidson, who was trekking across the Australian outback alone with four camels and her dog, Digitty.
JC: How long did it take…how many trips...and do you remember (roughly) how many rolls of film were shot in total? What were some of the most difficult obstacles to overcome?
RS: During Robyn’s nine-month journey I tracked her down five times, spending about three months traveling with her and shooting tens of thousands of photographs. I was fascinated by Robyn's courage and her intense desire to learn from Aboriginals about their culture. I had never witnessed a love affair like the one she had with her Kelpie pup, Digitty (who she had rescued as a puppy from an animal testing lab two years before her trip began). And I was constantly amazed by her perspective on life, on friendship and her brutal honesty with her own short comings. Most of all I was fascinated to spend time with someone who, instead of running away from her fears…faced them head on…constantly challenging herself.
Even though Robyn had spent two years preparing, the outback had many ways of testing even the most capable traveler. She was attacked by wild camels, took paths that led to dead ends, got lost, arrived at wells that were dry and almost died of dehydration. Every time I left her out there, I worried that I might never see her again.
When Robyn’s story appeared in a 32-page cover story in National Geographic it caught the world’s imagination, reaching over 50 million readers. Robyn went on to write a book called “TRACKS” (See link below) which her publisher expected to sell modestly, with an initial print run of only a few thousand copies. TRACKS went on to become a global phenomenon, selling more than a million copies in 18 languages. It won the "Thomas Cook Travel Writing Award" and the ignominious honor of being the year's “Most Stolen Book”!
That National Geographic assignment has now turned into a book “INSIDE TRACKS,” (See link below) as well as a new feature film "TRACKS" (See link below) the Oscar winning producers of “The Kings Speech”, starring Mia Wasikowska, a wonderful twenty-four-year-old chameleon-like actress (Alice in Wonderland) as Robyn, and Adam Driver (Lena Dunham's heartthrob boyfriend in HBO’s GIRLS) as yours truly, the photojournalist. The film hit theaters around the globe last fall and is now available on Amazon and other Video on Demand services
JC: What was it like to see yourself portrayed in the film? Was it an out-of-body experience? Did you have much input in the film's making and your portrayal?
RS: It was very surreal to see something that was such a major part of our lives turned into a movie with actors that looked like us wearing the exact same clothes we wore back then. What’s really amazing is that not only did they cast Mia and Adam to look like Robyn and me, but they re-created the clothes we were wearing, even down to Adam’s granny glasses. One day I was talking to Mia while she was waiting on set at Ayers Rock in the Outback, and she told me the costume designer had looked at my images and manufactured a replica blouse. Given that these are the guys who made “The King’s Speech”, I shouldn't have been surprised. It was really a kick watching my still photographs literally come to life.
JC: Did you ever feel that your personal relationship with Robyn ever compromised your coverage of her journey? Or did it give it more focus?
RS: I was completely smitten and my loyalty was always to Robyn and not to my own career or to National Geographic. In fact, I edited the photos myself, which I wasn’t supposed to do, because there were personal photos of her that I knew she wouldn’t want in the magazine. I was sabotaging my career by not shipping all my undeveloped film but when the story appeared it was so popular no one cared that I’d broken the cardinal rules.
JC: Your latest book, "INSIDE TRACKS" is the culmination of all your efforts from that original story. Tell us a little about the book including the "smart phone enabled" aspect. What can the reader expect with this digital experience?
RS: When I found out that Robyn’s story was being transformed into a feature film, I called her and we brainstormed the idea of a large 224-page landscape coffee-table book which would enable readers to feel as if they are joining Robyn on her journey. This is by far the most beautiful book I have ever worked on (heavy matte paper, 30-inches wide when open, 6-color printing, spot varnish on every image) and I think it will resonate with anyone who loves Australia and who would be inspired by Robyn’s journey.
She loved the idea and we came up with a book that would weave together three experiences of her journey; memorable quotes from her book TRACKS, the best of my photos plus striking images and the screenplay from the TRACKS movie.
“INSIDE TRACKS” is three books in one:
1: The first half of the book is a visual story using my images, many of which have never been seen before, and inspiring quotes from Robyn’s best-selling memoir, TRACKS.
2: The second half of the book features fascinating images from the movie TRACKS, screenplay excerpts, behind the scenes/making-of images, as well as short essays reflecting on the journey written by Robyn, John Curran the director of the movie, and myself.)
The images in this section were shot by Matt Nettheim, a fantastically talented set photographer, and Mandy Walker the film’s Director of Photography. Because many of the film's scenes were based on my original photos, it’s almost impossible to tell which images are from the movie and which are from the original trek.
3: The most delightful component of INSIDE TRACKS is the integration of HP’s Aurasma technology. Readers can download a free smartphone app (available on iTunes & Google Play) and simply point your phone or tablet at specially marked photos and immediately (and I mean immediately!) you see a clip from the movie showing how that photograph was brought to life in the TRACKS movie.
I pitched the concept of INSIDE TRACKS to many publishers but, while many shared my enthusiasm, none of them were willing to commit to the quality of printing and production that I felt this book deserved. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and self-publish the book via Kickstarter. Since the book was released last fall it’s been Amazon’s #1 Solo Travel book and the most successful Kickstarter book ever released having already sold over 11,000 copies.
JC: Do you think "smart phone enabled" books will become more prevalent? Do you see any other "technical" developments in the field of publishing that will enhance the final product?
RS: I think the merging of the 600 year old medium of book publishing with live links to videos and other Internet context is the wave of the future because it allows you to add infinite amounts of content and enables each reader to follow their own paths through a story or topic.
JC: So, what's on the horizon for Rick Smolan? Are there any new projects that you are at liberty to talk about?
RS: I’m working on “Natasha’s Story” (See link below) the story of an extraordinary 11-year-old Amerasian girl left to me in a Korean woman’s will when I was 28. (See link below) I’m also fascinated by the “Internet of Things,” the emerging world of 3D printing, and I've acquired the film and TV rights to a wonderful book called “Tunnel in the Sky” written by Robert Heinlein, one of the great science fiction writers. The elevator pitch is: "Lost in Space" meets "Lord of the Flies.”
JC: Lastly, what words of encouragement or advice can you offer to the aspiring photographer today? Do you have any last thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?
RS: It’s tough out there right now for photojournalists. I think the key is finding something you are passionate about and using your skills to try to affect change. Hopefully you’ll also be able to support yourself in the process. You also need to be able to shoot video, record sound and edit all these media elements into a finished piece yourself and be a one man or one woman band. My biggest advice is: Try to keep control! And don’t let your work get diluted or watered down.
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INSIDE TRACKS the book: http://bit.ly/InsideTracksBook
MEDIASTORM Interview with Rick and Robyn exploring their (often conflicting) memories of the journey: http://mediastorm.com/clients/inside-tracks-for-against-all-odds
Rick's daughter Phoebe interviewing Robyn Davidson on TIME FOR KIDS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HE05hfEwpI
Rick's National Geographic Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bk5D0bd0Ksk
TRACKS the movie: http://bit.ly/Tracks-MOVIE
The Human Face of Big Data: http://amzn.to/UhubvR
Natasha's Story: www.NatashaStory.com
Against All Odds Productions: AgainstAllOdds.com
Twitter & Instagram: @ricksmolan
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