This weekend I attended a photography conference in Seattle, called Collaborators for Cause. One of the keynote speakers was Aaron Huey. He’s a cultural photographer and activist and he blew me away for several reasons. Most of it was specific to the way he connected directly with me. (I still always see this sort of coincidence as gloriously serendipitous and it makes me giggly with joy when it happens.) The rest were the way his words supported his images perfectly. That was the biggie, actually. He has done extensive work with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota (which contains the Lakota people – the tribe of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse). And this tribe, being one of the dominant peoples of the upper Midwest, where I grew up, is one I have known about (learned their history, art and cultural artifacts) since childhood. His TED talk stands out in my mind as one of the most evocative calls to action of any TED talk I’ve watched. His imagery and words had me in tears. And of course I related to it because of what I had learned in my childhood about people who used to live where I did.
I could go on and on about that connection, but that’s just the first. When I talked to him afterwards, I asked if he’s a climber. Of course (sorry, I can peg those guys a mile away by now). Rock and free, not alpine, he said. That was my guess. During his talk he also spoke about Sherpas and some work he did in Nepal with the recent avalanche victims. And yes, of course he has a National Geographic story about it coming soon.
And after reflecting on his work and our chat, he struck me very much the way Jimmy Chin did when I spoke to him. Really personable, and, for lack of a better descriptor, “climber-like” in disposition: relaxed and tenacious; driven and centered; skilled but not complacent in it. The way you need to be if you climb rocks and mountains as a hobby.
I complimented his verbal presentation and asked if he polished his words for a talk like this, or if it came naturally. “I just fly by the seat of my pants on most of this stuff,” he said. Yep. Like a climber. And then I got to thinking about how that mentality has pushed so many climbers (and artists) into a successful zone for their life purposes. You have to be those things to succeed, and being a climber, you tend to have those characteristics (yeah, I am going to stereotype just a bit, forgive me). The ones that keep you from becoming too arrogant, confident in your direction, and too sure that you are the king of the rock. Because that’s when you often fall to an early death. But the drive, the tenacity to reach for the next hand hold even through the exhaustion of a seemingly endless puzzle is needed as well. It’s a balance of both. Like climbing. Oh, you thought I was talking about climbing? It’s art. Creating something with a larger purpose, using your talent, inginuity and creative thinking uses needs these same skills.
Then I mulled over my fears and all the places that I’ve turned back, not taken the chance, or decided not to push myself to the limit. And then I listened to the few minutes I recorded from his talk on Friday night. (I found it serendipitous that he decided to say the things that were most crucial for me to hear while I was running my recorder. Because then I could listen to them again and share them with you.) And I really want to because I think they apply to everyone who is attempting to do something big, something outside the norm, where you have to stick your neck out so far, love something so much and fear it never getting found, and trip across a minefield of misses and failures, as is so often a creative person’s workflow. And then take a deep breath, pick yourself up and figure out how to go on against all that adversity…. But according to Aaron Huey, that’s looking at it wrong. Because failure equals salvation. “That’s very Stanford, really,” he said when he showed the slide with Failure=Salvation on it. And then what he said was this:
This is about the long game. All you have is the integrity of your work. You’re surrounded by the sea of endless seismic shifts in the media landscape. There’s an earthquake all around us, lightning is striking all around us. If you can make friends with that, if you can cheer for the earthquakes and swallow the lightning… if you can see disruption as your friend and welcome it, then you are free. You can find opportunity everywhere you look.
I don’t need to follow that with anything. Just read it again. Then go find your own lightning to swallow.