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March 26, 2013 » 12:34 pm

Eight Lessons on Facilitation from Photography

I’ve always loved taking pictures, but I’ve been taking it more seriously the past few months. I got an Olympus OM-D E-M5, which I’m loving, and I’ve been talking shop with friends, reading lots of photography blogs, and taking lots of pictures.

I’ve been struck by how many lessons I’ve learned also apply to facilitation, and I wanted to share some of them here.

1. You are not invisible

This is my sister running a 12K. She’s just passed the five mile marker, so she has about three miles left to go.

What’s wrong with this picture?

(No, it’s not that I cut off her left foot. That was unfortunate too, but ignore that detail for now.)

It’s that she’s smiling.

Why is she smiling? It’s not physical euphoria from having run five miles, nor even the glorious view. It’s because I’m standing there, pointing a camera at her.

As a photographer, I want to blend in and take candid pictures. That has proven to be challenging, because people get hyperconscious when they see a camera pointed at them, and they often change their behavior as a result. Some people are so sensitive to this, they’ll notice you even when you’re using a telephoto lens from across the room.

I’ve realized that I need to give up this notion that I can be invisible (even with a small camera and a telephoto lens) and thoughtfully consider my presence and role beyond snapping the picture. I can make a huge impact on the subject and the shot by how I interact with it — how quickly I move my body, how I hold my camera, what I say to the subject (if anything). I learned a lot about photographer presence by watching my friend, Eugene Chan, on a photo walk. and I’ve been trying to glean lessons from street photographers as well.

A lot of facilitators mistakenly believe that they need to be “objective” or “invisible” to be effective. You’re kidding yourself if you think this is even possible. The goal of facilitation is to help a group achieve its goals. You don’t do that by being invisible. You do that by participating authentically. Sometimes, that entails stepping back and simply listening. Other times, it requires expressing an actual opinion. What matters is how you do it, not whether you do it.

2. It’s not about the tool…

About a year ago, I posted some thoughts about tools versus craft as applied to photography. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot more practice with a wide variety of cameras and lenses, and I finally upgraded my own equipment last month. Still, I can say with even more conviction that having a better camera does not make you a better photographer.

I see this viscerally whenever I check my Instagram feed, where my friends post wonderful pictures from their cell phone cameras. The above shot of the Transamerica Pyramid was taken on her iPhone by my friend, Christina Samala, who always wows me with her composition. The iPhone has a damn good camera, but it is not the tool of choice for low-light photography. It doesn’t matter here, because this picture is all about the interesting angle, with the two buildings framing the pyramid, and the filter, which highlights the contrast between the yellow and red and night blue. She’s even made the graininess part of the allure rather than an obstacle. This picture is all about the photographer, not the tool.

The importance of craft is even more apparent in DigitalRev’s wonderful YouTube series, “Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera,” where they give professional photographers toy cameras and follow them around while they take pictures.

There are lots of tools and methodologies for facilitation. Many of them are even useful. But the surest sign of an inexperienced or bad facilitator is one who thinks that being certified in these different tools makes them good facilitators. It doesn’t.

3. … except when it is

It’s not that tools don’t matter. They do. But what really matters is the tight interrelationship between tool and craft and how those two co-evolve.

Ultimately, the goal of any art form is to express what’s in your head onto the medium of your choice. Sometimes, your current tools aren’t capable of this. Other times, the tools help you realize new forms of expression.

This past weekend, I was at the zoo with my friend, Justin, and his daughter. I wanted a shot of her running, where she was relatively clear, but the background was a blur. That meant slowing down the shutter speed to capture the blur, but also closing the aperture so that the photo wouldn’t be overexposed. I also used my camera’s vertical image stabilizers (one of the cool features of the OM-D E-M5) to prevent vertical blur as I panned and tracked. I couldn’t have taken the above picture with my point-and-shoot, at least not intentionally.

I can handle most facilitation needs with just about any tool, but there are certain “last mile” challenges where the tool is particularly important. For example, while visual facilitation is valuable in almost any circumstance, it’s also a specialized and expensive skill, so I wouldn’t insist on it unless the circumstances required it. Those circumstances include trying to develop shared understanding about a wicked problem across a diverse set of stakeholders, such as the work we did on the Delta Dialogues.

4. Constraints are liberating

With interchangeable lens cameras, you have the choice between prime and zoom lenses. Prime lenses are fixed length, meaning you can’t zoom in or out. There are some practical reasons for getting a prime over a zoom (e.g. size and weight, quality, cost), but I think the most interesting reason to do so is the power of constraint.

In other words, the lack of flexibility is actually a boon, not a burden. Prime lenses are, by definition, constrained. They force you to make choices as to what to shoot and how.

When I got my new camera, I decided I wanted to try shooting only with prime lenses. I was originally going to get a wide angle prime, which lets you capture more of the scene. Last year, I played with a tighter prime (35mm on a Canon T2i, roughly 50mm full-frame equivalent), and I didn’t like it. Too constraining.

But to my surprise, when I started playing around with lenses on my new camera, I found myself drawn to the 25mm lens (50mm full-frame equivalent on my OM-D E-M5). I had started to see this tighter focal length as liberating, because it eliminated options. More importantly, the tighter focal length forced me to focus on what I wanted to capture by removing things from the field of view, rather than simply allowing me to capture everything. It’s forcing me to be more thoughtful about what I want to shoot, which is resulting in better pictures.

I love the pictures of my friends above, because it literally maps to what I experienced that evening. (It helps that a 50mm full-frame equivalent focal length is roughly the same focal length as the human eye. In other words, what you see in your viewfinder is roughly the same size as what your eye sees.)

One of the reasons I cut out a foot in the shot of my sister running above was that I was trying to do too much. I had actually framed the shot in advance, and had practiced it a few times with previous runners. I knew what I wanted, and I felt confident I could get it. Then I saw her coming, and I got greedy. I saw another shot that I wanted, so I tried to take it, then I tried to reframe the shot I had been setting up. I got a decent shot, but I missed her foot, and my other shots were no good. If I had simply focused on the shot that I wanted, I would have had a wonderful picture. Less is more.

Similarly, constraints can be hugely frustrating for facilitators. The worst feeling you get as a facilitator is breaking up an interesting conversation. You want to go deep, you want to continue that inquiry process, you want to see movement and insight and astonishment and delight, and it sometimes seems like constraints just get in the way of that.

But treated the right way, constraints are actually quite liberating. They enable you to focus on what’s really important, which also makes a facilitator’s job easier. Simply timeboxing a conversation can be far more productive than having a facilitator try to intermediate.

5. Practice, practice, practice

I took this picture of Eugene on our photo walk. It’s a simple picture that I could have easily taken with my point-and-shoot or even my cell phone. But I wouldn’t have even thought to have taken a picture like this a year ago. I might have been drawn to the color of the wall, but I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to compose a shot around it. It’s a very basic concept, but it doesn’t occur naturally without a lot of practice.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been reading more than I ever have before about photography, and I’ve been looking at lots of pictures. However, reading, while useful, is no substitute for doing. Practice is the only way to master any craft. I’m experiencing firsthand how difficult it is to integrate the many concepts that I’ve read about. I’m also learning things through my practice that aren’t written anywhere, things that I’m not sure can even be expressed in written form.

I am particularly a fan of practicing with others. It’s amazing what you pick up from watching other people, even those who are not much more experienced than you are. Everyone sees the world differently, and those different perspectives are tremendously educational.

I worry that facilitation is too professionalized, that there’s too much emphasis on training and too little on doing. Facilitation is a skill that you can practice anywhere with anyone. You can practice it with your colleagues, your friends, and your family. And you should. That’s ultimately how you get good. Besides, the world could use a little more facilitation.

6. Facilitation is a role, not a title

I took three pictures of Eugene against that orange wall. The first time, I asked him to stand there, I took my shot, then I got ready to move on. Eugene stopped me, took off his backpack, zipped up his hoodie, and waited for me to take another shot. Then he put on his glasses and waited again. Technically, Eugene was the model, not the photographer, but he played as much of a role as I did in setting up that shot.

Being facilitative is about helping a group achieve its goals. It’s a role that can — and ideally should — be shared. I have facilitated great meetings where I opened with a question, then stayed silent for the rest of the meeting, because the group didn’t need additional guidance.

7. Focus on one goal at a time

Photography is complicated, and when you’re a beginner like me, there are a thousand things to learn. The problem is, you can’t learn all those things at once. You have to take things step-by-step. When you’re too ambitious in your learning agenda, you compromise the quality of your learning.

There are a lot of areas in which I’d like to improve, but I’m focusing on… well, focusing. In particular, I want to make sure that the pictures I take are in-focus where I want them to be in focus. It’s not as easy as it sounds, even with today’s cameras. Witness the picture above of my friends’ kids, where the sister is slightly out-of-focus. (I needed to increase my aperture in order to get both brother and sister in focus. See, it’s complicated!) It was a nice moment, and I’m glad I captured it, but it would have been even nicer if the sister were in focus.

Facilitation is complicated too. It requires deep listening, self-awareness, an intuitive grasp of group dynamics, attention to the space, and clarity around objectives. Instead of trying to learn all of those things at once, it’s best to focus on one step at a time.

8. Enjoy the journey!

This is me over dinner after my photo walk with Eugene, looking at his pictures. If I look annoyed, it’s because I was. I was annoyed, because we were on the same walk, and he could somehow see things that I couldn’t.

I was annoyed, but I was mostly in awe, because I loved what he captured, and more importantly, I loved spending the day walking around and taking pictures with my friends. This is a more accurate reflection of how I felt about the day:

eekim-chinatown_photo_walk

I am very self-critical, because I want to get better. But I also love the journey. I love the picture of my sister running, even though I cut off her foot (and notice it every time I look at it), because it makes me think about how glorious that day was and about how proud I am of her. And I love going around taking pictures, because it makes me pay more attention to the world around me, and because it allows me to share what I see with others.

It’s really fun being a beginner, because the pace of learning is faster and because I love that feeling of being in constant awe. I love marveling at other people’s pictures in my Flickr and Instagram feeds. I love watching Eugene handle a camera and interact with his subjects. I loved discussing with Justin the shot of his daughter running, listening to his suggestions for making it work, laughing at his daughter’s euphoria, and enjoying the fruits of our labor afterward.

Similarly, I get a rush from watching an interaction that I helped design unfold. I love being surprised — even when it’s not a good surprise! And I love watching true masters at work, marveling at and learning from their skill. One of my favorite things in the world is to watch my Groupaya co-founder, Kristin Cobble, working her magic in front of the room, marveling at the energy she brings, the questions she asks at just the right time. I’ve been practicing facilitation for quite some time, but I learn something new from her every single time.

Try as you might, you will never be perfect at either facilitation or photography. But the true fun isn’t in being perfect. It’s in the learning, the sensation and joy you get from refining your craft.

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One Response to “Eight Lessons on Facilitation from Photography”

  1. […] let go of what it can’t do, or you’ll just get frustrated. When I manage to do this, I find it liberating. I’m forced to eliminate options, to choose and focus. It opens up all sorts of creative […]

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