|Sentinel Dome, Yosemite National Park, California. Dewitt Jones’ first spread in National Geographic, April, 1973.|
My first published photograph was in National Geographic Magazine. Crazy, huh? Yes, it was. True, I had a master’s degree in filmmaking, but I had never spent much time with my still camera. I was living in Yosemite, working on a film on John Muir, when one day I happened to meet an NGS writer who was doing an article on the same man. “Do they have a photographer for the article?” I asked. He said he didn’t think so.
I rushed to the nearest pay phone (it’s still there, just inside the door at the visitor’s center) and called Bob Gilka, head of photography at the NGS. I didn’t know him well, but had met him when I showed a film I had made on a kayak trip in Japan at the Geographic Lecture Series.
“Bob,” I blurted, “I’m already working on a film on John Muir…have been for six months…know everything about him…you should let me shoot the story for the magazine!” There was silence on the other end of the phone. Finally, Gilka grumbled, “Send me some samples of your work.”
I had about 20 rolls of film in my van that I had shot over the last six months. I pulled the best images and sent them off, never really thinking I would hear back from him, much less get the assignment. But, hey, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?
Well, much to my shock, Gilka did get back in touch with me and simply said, “You’re hired. Come to Washington. We’ll get you orientated and tell you what we want you to do.”
Muir once said that Yosemite was the “sanctum sanctorum” of the Sierra. For me, National Geographic was the sanctum sanctorum of photojournalism. Soon, I stood, excited and terrified, in the cavernous lobby of the Geographic surrounded by fabulous photography and magical artifacts from expeditions to the far corners of the globe.
Upstairs, Gilka ushered me into his office, sat me down and said in his gruff way (which I would later learn was simply cover for an incredibly kind and caring heart), “Look, if you work here, you’re part of a team of photographers that are the best in the world. I believe that, and you’d better believe it, too. You don’t have to prove yourself, not to me, or to the other photographers. What I do demand that you do is improve yourself. Every day, strive to be a better photographer, a better visual storyteller. And everything you learn, share it openly with the other photographers here at the NGS. Improve and share; if you do that, you’ll do fine. If not, you won’t work here long.”
I was still reeling from his words when he walked me down to Bruce Dale’s office (then and now, in my opinion, a god of photojournalism) and said, “Bruce, this is Dewitt. He’s new here. Show him the ropes and teach him everything you can.”
Bruce did teach me, as did many other photographers at the Geographic. Technical help, honest criticism and enthusiastic encouragement came from many, and my learning curve went up with the trajectory of a space shuttle launch.
I’ve heard Gilka’s words in my head so many times since that day at the Geographic: “Don’t worry about proving yourself; just improve yourself!” What a gift.
Over the years, I’ve watched countless photographers waste countless hours trying to prove themselves to others rather than spending those same hours improving their technique and sharpening their eye. I’ve seen both amateurs and pros refuse to share some technique with their peers as if it was a technique that made their photography special, rather than their vision. Both are a waste of time, folks; don’t go there. You get better a lot faster by focusing on improving rather than proving. You learn far more by sharing than by hoarding.
Recently, I joined a group of iPhone fanatics on Facebook who reminds me so much of the team at the Geographic. Some members of this group are very well known, some are amateurs who have never published a photograph and shoot only for the love of it. Doesn’t matter. No one is trying to prove themselves, just improve themselves. We share techniques as fast as we learn them, give honest feedback and go nuts when someone hits it out of the park. This has led to a kind of creative leapfrogging that’s truly astounding. The pros in the group don’t have to hold up some kind of an “image”; they’re just one of the bunch. Those newer to the game don’t feel judged and thus are free to blow our socks off with some great creative leap of faith. For all of us, another space shuttle trajectory of improvement.
Gilka knew. He understood that when we shoot from our own unique vision, there’s no reason to “prove” ourselves. To whom? We’re the only person on the planet who can do what we do, see as we see.
Improve ourselves? That’s a different story. There’s so much for all of us to learn to make our vision clearer, stronger, sharper. And Gilka knew that the fastest way to learn is to trust and share rather than compete.
So take a tip from the best boss I ever had. Don’t prove yourself; improve yourself—and then share it.
Dewitt Jones has begun a new project called “Celebrate What’s Right With The World!” Each week, he sends out a single image with a celebratory message, just to brighten the day, just to remind us of all that we have to be grateful for. If you’d like to receive these images, join his mailing list at www.celebratewhatsright.com.