Note to a Young Photographer

By Scott London — May 4, 2012

I received a note from a young photographer. She said she’s considering returning to school to get a degree in photography. Did I have any advice for her? Here’s my reply:

[…]

I studied photography in college and learned some valuable things. But the best education is the one I gained in the field.

I’ve always had doubts about the value of photography school. My sense is that there are better—and cheaper—ways to learn and develop your craft. And today a photography degree no longer brings any guarantees or opens any special doors.

In fact, I’ve been saddened by the many requests I’ve received from photographers with degrees from expensive trade schools who want to intern with me. The time for an internship, it seems to me, is before you enroll in a degree program, not after.

The great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that you have to take 10,000 images before you find yourself as a photographer. And Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says the general consensus is it takes 10,000 hours—about 20 hours a week for 10 years—to develop true mastery in a given field.

Both of these observations hold true whether you’re in school earning a credential or out in the field making pictures. So why not skip the degree?

Most of what you can learn in college, you can also learn just as effectively through books, online courses, and weekend workshops. To say nothing of good mentors.

One more thing. Too many people who go to school think that graduating means they are done with their education. The degree gives them the illusion they know everything they need to know. But we can never stop learning, any more than we can reach the limit of our creative capacities. People who are self-taught seem to understand this intuitively.

My best advice to you is:

  1. Volunteer/intern with an established photographer that you like and respect (or simply ask to follow him or her around in the course of a day’s work)
  2. Start a clippings file (or folder on the computer) with work that inspires you and blows your mind and then try to recreate some of those images in your own style
  3. Share your work with other photographers and solicit constructive feedback (and always take “likes” and other forms of positive feedback on social networks like Facebook and Flickr with a grain of salt)
  4. Spend time every day shooting for no other purpose than to have fun and experiment

Partnership for Change 2012

By Scott London — March 27, 2012

I’m back from a week in Oslo, Norway, where I was invited to emcee the Partnership For Change conference for the second year. The event brings together world-class thinkers and practitioners in the field of social entrepreneurship.

In just two years, it’s established itself as the biggest of its kind in Scandinavia, a coming together of business leaders, foundation executives, government officials, grassroots activists, and social innovators of all kinds.

Among the highlights for me was getting to spend time with some of my longtime heroes, such as Ashoka founder Bill Drayton (the man widely credited with having invented the concept of social entrepreneurship), and Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire, winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize.

Video from the event was streamed live and you can view the complete footage in the Partnership for Change media archive.

Here are some photos from the event:

Oslo Opera House - Partnership for Change 2012 (Photo by Scott London)
Oslo’s remarkable Opera House, site of the 2012 Partnership for Change conference.

Partnership for Change 2012

I always love mingling with great people between the sessions.

Partnership for Change 2012

As emcee, I presented the speakers in the general sessions and tried to keep things moving along smoothly.

Partnership for Change 2012

A view from the main stage of the Opera House.

Partnership for Change 2012

I’ve always felt that the best emcee is the one you can’t remember when the event is over.

Partnership for Change 2012

Here I talk with Jonas Borgchgrevink, a young Norwegian entrepreneur, about his start-up MyGoodAct.com. (You can watch this on YouTube.)

Partnership for Change 2012

Sitting down with Mairead Maguire, winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, after one of the panels.

Partnership for Change 2012

A panel discussion with Bay Fang, Marcus Bleasdale, and Kathrine Aspaas on “The Changing Role of the Media.”

How Paradigms Shift

By Scott London — March 5, 2012

'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' by Thomas S. KuhnIt’s been exactly 50 years since the publication of Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a slim little book that introduced the word “paradigm” into common parlance and shattered our conventional way of looking at change. After half a century, it still represents perhaps the best thinking on how transformation happens, who drives it, why it’s so vehemently resisted, and what it really asks of people.

The book explores the psychology of belief that governs the acceptance of new concepts and innovations in science. Kuhn showed that the history of science is not one of linear, rational progress moving toward ever more accurate and complete knowledge of an objective reality. Rather, it’s one of radical shifts of vision in which a multitude of nonrational and nonempirical factors come into play.

Kuhn showed that the theories of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein were all self-contained and “incommensurable” with one another. There was no steady accumulation of truth in the form of objective knowledge about the physical universe. Instead each theory was a revolutionary break from the previous theory, resulting in the arbitrary replacement of one conceptual matrix, or worldview, by another. Once the matrix changed, the way science was done and applied was fundamentally different.

Kuhn used the word “paradigm” to describe this conceptual matrix. A paradigm, in his formulation, is a constellation of facts, theories, methods, and assumptions about reality that allows researchers to isolate data, elaborate theories, and solve problems. Aristotle’s “Physica,” Ptolemy’s “Almagest,” Newton’s “Principia” and Lavoisier’s “Chemistry” are examples of scientific classics that gave rise to new paradigms. Each of these works triggered a revolution, rendering irrelevant much of what came before them. The chief characteristic of a paradigm, Kuhn argued, is that it has its own set of rules and illuminates its own set of facts. Because it is self-validating, it tends to be resistant to change.

Kuhn pointed out that as long as a paradigm is successful at explaining observed phenomena and solving problems, it remains dominant. But as new phenomena begin to contradict it, the paradigm succumbs to increasing doubt. And as anomalies multiply, it is thrown into crisis. At this stage, what is needed is the articulation of a radically new theory or insight, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, that can explain the apparent contradictions. In this way, long periods of “normal” science are followed by brief intellectual upheavals that reorder the basic theoretical assumptions of the field.

New paradigms rarely appear on the scene full-blown. Their early formulations are typically crude and incomplete. They are often the products not of deliberation or interpretation, but of “a relatively sudden and unstructured event like the gestalt switch,” Kuhn wrote. “Scientists then often speak of the ’scales falling from the eyes’ or of the ‘lightening flash’ that inundates a previously obscure puzzle, enabling its components to be seen in a new way that for the first time permits its solution.”

New paradigms are never immediately accepted by the scientific community. They may gain ground because of some dramatic and unforseen verification, or for personal or aesthetic reasons — they may appear “neater,” “simpler,” or “more elegant” than their older counterparts. But the choice between competing paradigms ultimately comes down to personal conviction since, as he put it, “the competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.” While the new paradigm tends to be more successful in accounting for and predicting phenomena, there is ultimately no absolute standard for determining whether one paradigm is better than another.

Kuhn stressed that a new paradigm is almost always the work of a young person or someone new to the field. After a number of years in a certain discipline, a scientist tends to be too emotionally and habitually invested in the prevailing paradigm. Indeed, the established leaders of the older tradition may never accept the new view of reality. As Kuhn wrote, “Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus death. Newton’s work was not generally accepted, particularly on the Continent, for more than half a century after the ‘Principia’ appeared. Priestley never accepted the oxygen theory, nor Lord Kelvin the electromagnetic theory, and so on.” Adherents to the old paradigm usually go to their graves with their faith unshaken, Kuhn wryly noted. Even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, they stubbornly stick with the wrong but familiar.

The fact that Kuhn’s treatise — an academic essay on a fairly specialized subject, the psychological factors at work in the advancement of science — went on to win a wide audience is one of the great surprise stories in the history of ideas. But Kuhn had put his finger on something that was widely intuited, if not openly acknowledged or articulated, namely that change proceeds by upheaval. It’s not a smooth and gradual process. Transformations are violent because they necessitate the destruction and reordering of our most basic conceptual frameworks. That was an insight even a general readership was happy to embrace.

Not all of Kuhn’s conclusions have stood the test of time. For example, recent work has called into question the idea that scientific paradigms are “incommensurable” and that paradigm shifts are therefore essentially irrational events. For example, Canadian philosopher Paul Thagard says there is enough continuity in scientific revolutions to suggest that the process is not really arbitrary or non-linear. He likens a paradigm-shift to the process of learning a second language. (Read my review of Thagard’s book here)

But never mind. Kuhn’s basic insights stand and his service to our understanding of the psychology of change has been incalculable. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was described by Scientific American’s John Horgan as “the most influential treatise ever written on how science … proceeds.” Philosopher Richard Rorty called it “the most influential English-language philosophy book of the last half-century. It sold the most copies, made the greatest difference to our ways of thinking, and was the subject of the most intense and complex debates.” “For a quarter of a century,” Huston Smith wrote in 1982, it was “the most cited book on college campuses and … turned ‘paradigm’ into a household word.” The book, in other words, is an evergreen.

A Still Afternoon at the Salton Sea

By Scott London — February 22, 2012

Salton Sea Dock - Photo by Scott London

Beauty is unbearable and drives us to despair, Albert Camus once said, because it offers us for a moment the glimpse of an eternity we would like to stretch out over the whole of time. I was remembering the quote last week on a visit to the Salton Sea, a place where beauty and despair always seem to go hand-in-hand.

Once a glittering oasis set against the Chocolate Mountains in southeastern California, the sea has become a stagnant and toxic wasteland in recent years. Restoration proposals abound, but lawmakers have mostly turned their backs on the sea. As it continues to dry up at an alarming rate—a result of geography, climate change, tough economic times, and ongoing water conflicts—time seems to be running out.

The four-minute exposure shown here was taken near Red Hill Marina on the south shore. It’s part of a personal project I’ve been working on documenting the effects of environmental devastation and decline. For more of my photos, see The Salton Sea: A Photoessay.

The Spirit of Service

By Scott London — February 2, 2012

Robert Coles“There is a call to us, a call of service,” Dorothy Day once said, “that we join with others to try to make things better in this world.”

This phrase gave rise to the title of Robert Coles’s 1993 book, The Call of Service, a meditation on the meaning of voluntary service — the kind we offer to others and the impact it has on us in the process.

I was quite inspired by the book when it came out. Coles himself seemed to exemplify the spirit of service in his writing, in his teaching and in his own personal life.

After reading The Call of Service, I went on to read several other books by Coles and eventually to write an article about his work. I then posted the piece on my website. This was in the early days of the Internet, before most people had discovered e-mail or started searching the Web.

One day, about a year later, the phone rang. When I answered, the voice at the other end said, “Hello, Scott? This is Robert Coles. I just read an essay you wrote about me. It was a very fine piece of work, and I just wanted to say thank you.” He didn’t use a computer, he told me, but a friend of his had run across my article on the Internet, printed it out and mailed it to him.

We went on to talk for almost an hour. He called me one of the “finest interpreters” of his work, which was quite a compliment given that he has been the subject of countless newspaper and magazine profiles, at least a half-dozen TV documentaries, and several major biographies.

He wasn’t very interested in talking about himself, it turned out. He kept on asking me about my work, my family, how I liked living on the West Coast, and so on. It was a warm and inspiring conversation, one that subsequently blossomed into a friendship.

Parents League Review 2012After our talk I asked myself what it was that prompted Coles to call me that day. I can’t be sure, but I believe it was something deeper than just the impusle to say thanks. It was more likely a desire to give something back. It was a gesture born of gratitude, not obligation or duty. A kind of reaching out. And that, I think, is the essence of true service — a desire to acknowledge another and give thanks in whatever small way we can.

To write a book about service is one thing, I realized, but to exemplify it in our everyday lives is quite another. Coles taught me that in a vivid and direct way.

I was reminded of this episode because my essay on Robert Coles — the one that prompted him to call me that day — has just been reprinted as part of a special tribute to Robert Coles in the new issue of Parents League Review. The man and his work are still timely, perhaps more so than when I first discovered him almost twenty years ago. My piece is called A Way of Seeing: The Work of Robert Coles.

Immigration: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis?

By Scott London — January 28, 2012

National Issues Forums (NIF)Immigration has always been a subject of heated debate in America. But the issue reached a flash point after a controversial Arizona statute was passed in April 2010 taking a tough — some say too tough — stand on illegal immigration. The measure required that immigrants carry documentation at all times. It also gave law enforcement officers wide latitude to stop anyone they had “reasonable cause” to suspect was in the country illegally.

An injunction not to enforce the Arizona measure was filed by a federal judge just days before it took effect. But the new law had widespread public support and similar legislation is now being considered in other states. In Alabama, for example, lawmakers recently approved an anti-immigration bill that’s widely regarded as the toughest of its kind in the country.

The current debate has zeroed in on the millions of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S. But the problems with our current system aren’t limited to people overstaying their visas or crossing into the country illegally. Consider that

  • More than half the crop pickers in America are undocumented, and across the country otherwise law-abiding citizens routinely hire maids, nannies, gardeners and construction workers without legal papers. Our economy now depends — to an extent it never has in the past — on the energy and hard work of people living here illegally.
  • Arbitrary visa caps have created enormous backlogs where family members have to wait up to 20 years to be reunited with relatives living in the U.S. Bureaucratic hurdles also make it hard for skilled workers from other countries to come and be part of America’s unique culture of entrepreneurship.
  • While we offer visas to students from around the world so they can earn degrees from our top universities, our laws effectively discourage them from putting their talents and energy to work right here in the U.S. Instead of training entrepreneurs to create jobs on our shores, we train our competition.

A New York Times/CBS poll conducted in April 2010 found that a vast majority of Americans think that the U.S. immigration system is in need of overhaul. While many of those surveyed said it needed “fundamental changes,” a full 44 percent insisted that it needed to be “completely rebuilt.” But the public remains divided about what kind of reform the country needs.

For a growing number of Americans, the immigration issue is a tangible and pressing one. Those who support immigration are often bent on helping or employing newcomers. Those in favor of restricting immigrants worry about the growing costs — both social and economic — of assimilating and aiding new arrivals. For their part, immigrants themselves typically want little more than a better life. Whose interests should be served? Can these often-conflicting interests be balanced?

These are some of the questions at the heart of a new issue book that I prepared for the National Issues Forums. It presents an in-depth look at the immigration issue. The idea is to promote dialogue and deliberation — the kind that spans ideological divides — about the need to overhaul our immigration system. For more information, you can get a copy (or download a Kindle version) at Amazon.com.

A Clear Day Over Los Angeles

By Scott London — January 12, 2012

Aerial view of Los Angeles - photo by Scott London

Someone once quipped that there’s nothing like autumn in Los Angeles when throngs of tourists come to watch the smog change colors. If the line is funny it’s because there’s more than a little truth to it. Smog is what I expected to see some weeks ago when I took to the skies with my pilot friend, Sam, for a daytrip to the Palm Desert. But it was one of those rare mornings when the haze seemed to lift for a few fleeting hours. As you can see in this photo, we flew just north of the city above the San Fernando Valley. Looking south we could see across the entire Los Angeles Basin. Palos Verde and even Catalina Island were clearly visible in the distance. Aerial photos of L.A. are hard to come by — you need a clear day and a good vantage point. On this particular morning, I was lucky to have both.

Hangovers and Hope

By Scott London — January 1, 2012

I love reading people’s tweets and status updates on New Year’s Day. A mixture of hangovers and hope — and wacky resolutions.

For me, the start of a new year is as good a time as any to reflect on the importance of staying grounded in the present, in the now.

Here’s a line by Emerson, taken from his Essays and Lectures, that captures this point in a vivid and poetic way:

These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time for them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to forsee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

A Favorite Holiday Tradition

By Scott London — December 23, 2011

My secret glögg recipe by Scott London

I’m getting into the holiday spirit by making glögg, one of my favorite holiday traditions. Here I’ve brought together cinnamon, cloves, cardemon, ginger, orange peel, and other spices and let them soak in vodka for a couple of days. Next the booze will be sifted, mixed with red wine and a little sugar, heated and served with raisins and slivered almonds. Wonderful stuff, especially on a cold winter night.

Update: There was a story on NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday with a recipe based on port instead of vodka. I’ve never tried that, but it sounds good to me. Here’s the story: Get Into The Holiday Spirit With Scandinavian Glögg

Icon Magazine

By Scott London — December 14, 2011

Eight of my photos from Burning Man appear in this month’s issue of Icon, the British architecture and design magazine, together with a nicely written piece by Charlie Hailey titled “Burn After Building.” Read more about the issue here. Here’s a preview of the spread:

Aerial View of Black Rock City

Photos from Burning Man 2011 by Scott London

Photos from Burning Man 2011 by Scott London

The Still and Secret Revolution

By Scott London — November 5, 2011

There’s been a lot of talk of revolution in 2011, especially in connection with the Arab Spring and the continuing Occupy Wall Street protests. The word revolution conjures up images of political violence and social turmoil, of insurgent militias and defiant chants, of street barricades made from overturned vehicles and ragged crowds armed with makeshift weapons. In recent months, the word has often been paired with images of stormed palaces, angry mobs, even bullet-riddled dictators being dragged through the streets.

For those of us who came of age at the end of the Cold War, the word may have kinder and more benign connotations — the “velvet” transition toward free-market economics, perhaps, or the end of institutionalized racism. It’s also synonymous in many people’s minds with the notion of progress and technological advancement, as in the “digital revolution,” the “communications revolution,” or the “biotechnology” revolution.

But there is another kind of revolution, one that is less apparent but more profound. It’s the sort that begins at the level of perceptions, ideas, and values. We don’t know much about these types of revolutions, because they tend to proceed quietly within the minds of individuals for a long time before manifesting outwardly in the culture at large. They are silent, invisible, and relatively rare in human history.

Writing a century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville described them in a vivid way. “Time, events, or the unaided action of the mind will sometimes undermine or destroy an opinion without any outward signs of change,” he noted. “No conspiracy has been formed to make war on it, but its followers one by one noiselessly secede. As its opponents remain mute or only interchange their thoughts by stealth, they are themselves unaware for a long period that a great revolution has actually been effected.”

Instigating a good old-fashioned revolution is comparatively easy compared to bringing about this kind of “noiseless secession” from the dominant way of seeing the world. It’s easy because the key ingredient of a traditional revolution is anger, bitterness, and opposition to a perceived enemy or system. A bit of public outrage coupled with a revolutionary group and a charismatic leader is not a promising formula for long-term change.

The trouble with mere regime-change is that if and when such an effort succeeds the new leaders typically lack the experience and the constructive attitudes needed to create and maintain a new social order. The negativity then turns inward and breeds divisiveness, in-fighting, and ultimately counter-revolutions. As history clearly shows, most revolutions become self-defeating and even dangerous since the struggle against “the enemy” becomes an end in itself.

The question we need to ask today is whether it’s possible to start a revolution the other way around — whether it’s possible to have a general shift in mood and action first. Such a revolution would build on values and perceptions, not bullets and bombs. It would be constructive, not contentious. It would emphasize design, not criticism. It would be self-organized, not centrally planned. It would take its cues from imagination and vision, not opposition to the status quo.

I believe this kind of movement is possible. In fact, we’re already seeing signs of it all around us — and I’m not talking about the Occupy Wall Street protests, though some of the people spearheading the effort clearly embody a new vision. This silent revolution I’m talking about gathers into its framework a wide range of innovative ideas drawn from across a host of disciplines, from science and technology to psychology and education. Its leaders can be found all over the world. They make up what might be called an invisible network — a global underground of individuals from different cultures and backgrounds who are committed to a more humane and sustainable world, who embody a value-system based on compassion, kindness and respect for diversity, and who see the fulfilment of our highest capacities as human beings as the single most important goal as we look to the future.

The revolution comes as a response to breakdowns on many fronts — the environmental crisis, the deepening divide between the world’s richest and poorest, the crisis of confidence in institutions, and the bankruptcy of once-dominant ideologies and systems of belief, such as communism and free-market economics. But the revolution is not a reaction to crisis so much as a reflection of an emergent culture rising to take the place of the one we have now. It is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

I must confess that for almost two decades now, I’ve devoted much of my professional life to seeking out these quiet revolutionaries — to learning from them and to trying to articulate and disseminate their ideas in as clear and compelling a way as I can. In the early days, I had some trouble identifying these instigators. I used to think all good ideas were equal. It was only later that I understood that ideas and intentions go hand in hand. The mark of a good idea, I learned, is that it’s backed by a noble intention. I don’t mean the kind of noble intention we pay lip-service to; I mean the kind that is born from a faith in human virtue and possibility, from an animating vision of a more humane and sustainable world.

The German philosopher Hegel once remarked that great revolutions are always preceded by “a still and secret revolution in the spirit of the age.” This revolution is “as hard to discern as to describe in words.” Those who fail to recognize it as it gathers strength, he said, are always astonished by the sweeping changes left in its wake.

That’s what we are in the throes of today — a still and secret revolution, one that will ultimately change how we see ourselves, how we define our collective purpose, and how we take care of ourselves, each other, and the planet.

Update: If you haven’t already seen it, check out this YouTube clip in which Charles Eisenstein brilliantly describes the vision I’m talking about as a revolution of love.

It’s Nice That

By Scott London — October 11, 2011

Earlier this week I was interviewed by It’s Nice That about my Burning Man photography. It’s Nice That is a beautiful and well-curated art magazine and website based in London. The interview appeared along with about a dozen of my photographs. Since it was edited for length, I’m including the complete exchange below.

Neverwas Haul - A Photo from Burning Man by Scott London

You’ve been documenting Burning Man for the last eight years. Why do you find it so compelling to document?

Burning Man is one of the most interesting events in the world, in my experience, but also one of the most difficult to describe. It’s not quite an art festival, not quite a desert rave, and not quite a social experiment, but something of all three. What’s remarkable about it is that it’s organized around creativity and self-expression. The idea is to fully immerse and express yourself in some creative capacity — through building installations, making art, playing music, dressing up, walking on stilts, spinning fire, or simply being beautiful. It means that it’s an endlessly fascinating place where you never know what to expect and surprise awaits you at every turn.

The scale and the ephemeral nature of the event must be hard to communicate to people who haven’t been there.

Yes, there is no way to convey the sheer immensity of Burning Man to someone who has never been there. There is also something rather dreamlike and enchanting about the way it rises out of the open desert for a few brief days only to vanish again after the event is over. Toward the end of the week, much of the infrastructure — including the 40-foot effigy from which Burning Man takes its name — goes up in flames.

Have you noticed it changing and evolving over the years?

When the event got its start 25 years ago, it was little more than a bonfire on a beach in San Francisco. It moved to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada some years later but was still relatively small and unstructured. For many participants, the appeal of the desert was that there were no rules. If you wanted to shoot guns, play with fire, or blow up cars, there was no one to stop you. But as the event grew, so did the need for order and safety. Today the event attracts over 50,000 people from all over the world. It’s highly organized and tightly run, and perhaps a little less fun. Old-timers complain that the anarchy and lawlessness of the early days has been lost.

Do you recognise people when you go back each year?

Yes, a lot of people return to Burning Man year after year. I’ve developed some quite special and enduring friendships there. It’s also allowed me to explore the anthropology of the event — the way people’s perspectives change over time. This is reflected in some of my photographs of artists and their installations, for example, which show how their creative vision has evolved and transformed.

Would you describe yourself foremost as a photographer or a journalist/writer?

I would say that my journalism takes different forms depending on the nature of the project. I started my career in radio and still think that’s the best medium for conversation and storytelling. Over time I shifted to print and devoted myself more to writing articles and books. Print excels as a medium for presenting facts, analysis, and ideas. In recent years I’ve been exploring the possibilities of photojournalism. Though I learned photography as a kid and studied it in college, it’s only recently that I’ve discovered how powerful it can be.

Burning Man has helped me in that process. When I first attended the event, I was struck by the sheer inadequacy of words. Photography seemed like a more powerful medium for documenting the experience. Photographs convey but don’t interpret. At their best, they are very intimate. They capture the imagination and speak to the heart, but without saying a word.