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on Aug 20, 2010 in Friday Thoughts

There’s Data in No Data

You’ve probably noticed I really like working with biologists. In fact, I’m pretty dependent on them and their expertise which is why I’ve always credited them for my success in the field. One aspect why I truly enjoy working with biologists is that they are very practical, worldly folks who openly share their wisdom. Much of this comes out as we’re working on a project in the process of collecting information. That’s what the projects we are involved with are all about, the collecting of data that can be used to understand and conserve a species. Data is everything, you could actually substitute the word data with knowledge (except we never really know mother nature). Many, many years ago finishing up a trap line (live traps) at the end of a project, we came to the last trap and it, like all the rest that weekend, was empty. As we closed up the last trap and put it away, I made a comment on the situation and how we hadn’t trapped any critters and gained no new information. The biologists simply looked up at me and said, “There’s data in no data.”

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I stood there for a moment and must have had a very puzzled look on my face because the biologist went on to say, “the absence of any squirrels simply means they are not here at this moment or aren’t using this habitat. ” “We need to know that as much as where they are or the habitat they do use.” And while this is true and useful information for the biologist, for me the photographer who traveled five hours and spent a few days to work the lines and photograph the squirrel, this reality didn’t help me. I’ve been very fortunate in my career though to be told these little phrases of wisdom that tend to stick in some gooey part of my mind and bounce back at those times when I need them most. Our last week in the Arctic brought this oldie but goodie to mind.

In photography, I’ve come across many a practitioner of the art who, after a short period of time (a year or two) gives up on photography all together. The vast majority of the time it’s because of the failure they experienced in the pursuit of their art. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never found a notice with my Nikon body or lens, Lexar flash card or Wacom Cintiq or any other piece of photographic gear I’ve purchased of that guarantees any sort of photographic success just because I bought them. And in reading their instruction books, you almost get a guarantee of frustration if anything. They don’t guarantee failure either but there sure is a big troubleshooting section which hints that failure is possible. Yet despite this, while we all start out the same, some make the cut and others don’t. Ever ask yourself why that is? I do quite often.

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Some take failure really hard, really hard. They take it personally, an emotionally reaction to what is really just a reality that you’ve stepped in. Folks either get sucked in or they step out, wipe off their foot and place it in front of the other foot and move forward. I always feel I’m being picked on because of all failures I experience on what seems to be like a daily basis. Fortunately long ago though I was told the simple fact, there is data in no date.

After busting butt up the side of a mountain in the rain and then sitting in the rain for six hours waiting for a critter to appear that I’d planned to photograph for a year, failure is the least of the descriptors that went through my mind for the moment. And after the appropriate period of feeling sorry for myself (I have a table laminated to a card in my pocket telling me that period) my mind starts to take the “no data” and turn that into “data.” In other words, how do you turn around failure or, take no photos into some photos (not even shooting for great photos here) from what I’ve learned?

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Failure is measured by everyone differently depending on where they are in their photographic pursuits. With that being a given, then the measure of success for each one of us will be different as well. For most just starting out, just getting a decent exposure and reasonable sharpness is considered success and that’s just fine. At least that’s how it was for me and from that small success (which can only be determined by having the failure to use as a measure) I moved forward. In this case in the Arctic, I hadn’t even had the opportunity yet to fail since I hadn’t gone click. The no data I had was no subject to focus on. Why was that? The one thing these marmots crave is sunshine and all we had was rain. Well damn, what are the odds I can do something about that problem? But that’s the first problem that had to be solved to move forward.

What’s the problem you have to solve to turn that failure into a success? I sure hope it’s not as monumental as mine of turning rain into sunshine. But it sure might feel that monumental and that in itself is a problem for most photographers. A problem a photographer addressed to me this week in their frustration is a very valid one. In a nutshell it was, “How will I ever have a style so someone looking at my photo will know I took it?” Of course, the answer could be as simple as, how cares or why is that important? Our road blocks to moving forward no matter what they are at that moment they are stopping us, are monumental. But a week or two later and they’re yesterday news.

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What is it that anyone of us expect from our photography? What demands do we put on each click that we use to determine failure? Are those expectations realistic? My planning a year in advance to travel to the Arctic in the hopes in the short window of a week to find the subject in the perfect light to make the perfect photo, realistic? Do we set ourselves up for failure? You might be saying yes but I don’t think those who succeed in photography do. Rather, I think we set themselves up to succeed using failure as a stepping stone to that success! How can that work?

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How did I know looking up Slope Mtn it was going to kick my butt? Because I’ve climbed such mountains before and they’ve kicked my butt and yet, I still keep climbing them (can apply that to my life). I’ve traveled to Alaska and the Arctic how many times now? And I still go thinking I’m going to have the light for my project I need as I pack my rain shell and paints, take the tent with extra space to dry clothes expecting rain. I don’t think creatives, photographers, communicators can move forward without the occasional step or two backwards. We don’t know the peaks without experiencing the valleys. My first day on that mountain not seeing anything but gray, literally gray and not even a marmot shit to know they were present is about as close as I like to get to no data. Yet, you saw yesterday that I did get the photo and not just the photo but one of the first photos of this unique critter of our wild heritage. Success is all too often measured in some tangible thing in the hand like a photo. I think life has taught me, when I’m smart enough to learn from it, that success is most of the time measured in every other way then some tangible object or photograph. It took me all these words to sum up words of advice that I use all the time and want to pass along in these matters. There’s data in no data!

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