You would be forgiven for being slightly sceptical about the prospect of listening to a series of podcasts, featuring an array of photographers, discussing all things visual. Oh how wrong could you be...
We recently interviewed Ben Smith, the creator of the increasingly popular podcast series 'A Small Voice'. If you have an interest in photography and some of the industries finest photographers, then this is the podcast for you.
1. I’ve read that you started 'A Small Voice' as a way of reigniting your passion for photography and also as a way to re-engage with the photographic world again. Do you feel that the podcast has helped you do this?
Yes it really has, because having an opportunity to meet and chat with such an amazing selection of talented photographers has been both inspiring and galvanising. It’s had an impact in a mysterious sub-conscious way, by osmosis almost. The long-term project I’d been procrastinating over, and beating myself up about and ruminating on for several years is now almost finished, because quite soon after starting the podcast I decided to stop ruminating and get back to shooting! That’s really all one can do, isn’t it? Of course, I may have come to that decision regardless, we’ll never know, but I’m pretty sure the podcast was instrumental in that process.
2. I started Left A Bit because I wanted a platform to share photography that inspired me, the best way I felt I could do that was through a blog. What were your reasons for selecting podcasts as the platform for 'A Small Voice'? And what do you think a podcast contributes to the photographic world?
It’s funny because, as someone who was a writer before I became a photographer, I had it in mind for many years that I should have a blog. It never happened, it seemed like the world and her mum had a blog. I couldn’t find the motivation to do it and anyway didn’t think I had anything to say. As soon as I became a regular podcast listener for the first time in 2015, I kind of fell in love with the medium. So I inevitably started searching for the photography podcasts that I wanted to listen to myself. There were one or two out there, but nothing that quite did it for me. So the next thought was, ‘fuck it, maybe I should do it myself then?’
As a fan of podcasts, I had the evangelical zeal of the newly converted and that provided the necessary enthusiasm to get over the initial hurdle - all the questioning and self-doubt and ‘what ifs...’ that tend to come with a new idea - and just go for it.
I am a journalist by instinct, though not by training. I have a love of stories and a curiosity about people. I also have a degree in video and radio production, which for 25 years had proved to be about as much practical use as a chocolate teapot. Suddenly I realised I could combine my natural instincts, aptitudes and inclinations with some rusty, neglected skills and do something constructive with them.
In terms of what a podcast can contribute, I suppose there are two defining characteristics: firstly, it is an incredibly intimate medium, the best expression of which, to me at least, is found in two people talking to each other. Secondly, podcasting seems to have naturally evolved into a long-form medium, which offers a unique opportunity to really get into detail and go deep. In a world of Snapchat and soundbites and waning attention spans that is a special thing. As all photographers know, some things need time. So when you combine those two characteristics, you end up with the potential for magic to happen. Finally, there’s kind of a joke at the heart of it, because you’re using an audio medium to discuss a visual practice. It’s like featuring a juggler on a radio show, it shouldn’t work, but it does.
3. Aside from people who are passionate about photography, who do you feel your audience is for the podcasts?
I hope it’s of relevance to anyone who is interested in the creative process or has creative impulses that they want to pursue. I firmly believe all human beings are born creative. The idea that there are creative people and non-creative people is baloney. It’s just that creativity can be expressed in different ways - running a business, for instance, strikes me as a very creative endeavour, unfortunately nobody bothers to point this fact out!
So many people’s creativity is slowly but surely eroded by the education system, and the messages they get from well meaning, but misguided parents and teachers, and ultimately the story they tell themselves about who and what they are. Those of us who manage to dodge or ignore those messages are the ones who make it to the other side, and for our sins, get to try and express our creativity.
I try to focus on the universal themes when possible. How do different people negotiate not only the challenges of pursuing their creativity, but the challenges we all face as human beings: dealing with setbacks and self doubt, juggling all the different commitments, etc.?
At the heart of it is usually the question ‘who is this person’, ‘what makes them tick’, ‘how did they achieve what they’ve achieved’ and ‘what lessons can me and the listener learn from their experience that can be applied to our own lives or creative practices’? For me, more or less everything including the podcast, is basically an attempt at self-help!
4. When I listen to the podcasts I feel that I am constantly learning new things, and am getting a privileged insight into the working life of a photographer. For me these podcasts are a brilliant educational resource. Do you see the podcasts as being an educational resource? Is that something you envisaged for them when you started out?
I do now! Because the feedback that I started getting from various guests and listeners was often that message: “Thank you. This is an amazing educational resource you’re creating here.” Now I realise that it has that element to it, which is very gratifying. But no, I’m not sure it was something I realised at the beginning.
5. Do you have a list of photographers that you want to interview, or do you take on recommendations from other people?
Both, listeners and sometimes photographer friends do suggest people, which has led to me interviewing some of them. But I need to get better at this too because there are so many good photographers that I’m not aware of, but should be and my lists are never quite long enough. There are certain obvious people I have on them, and some people remain elusive for whatever reason. I have a list entitled ‘Big Game’, with some very famous names on it, and I hope to get some of them on sooner or later. But equally, it’s really not about famous names, it’s more about finding people with an interesting story or approach or whatever.
6. After 46 podcasts to date, from all the knowledge you have acquired from them, in your mind what is the best way of becoming successful in photography?
That’s a big question, and one which I am personally not well qualified to answer, but I’ll try. The problem is that, firstly, photography is a very broad church. Secondly, success can be defined in many different ways. For example, there are people who earn an extremely good living and have a very nice quality of life, shooting nothing but weddings. By any standards, they have the right to consider themselves successful, but many photographers would view that outcome as reason enough to take a swan dive off the nearest tall building! So it’s horses for courses. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time pondering this question in recent years and the answer is the same, whether for photography, playing the violin, flower arranging or cage fighting. Do the work, as well as you possibly can, consistently with commitment, integrity and patience and with a sense of optimistic determination. Persist, persevere, and finish what you’ve started, even if it isn’t a good as you hoped it would be.
Getting good at anything worthwhile takes forever, don’t be derailed by fear, especially fear of failure. Failure is inevitable, and indeed a necessary step on the road to success because failure is the foundation of growth - embrace it and learn from it. If like many of us you have a voice in your head intent on reminding you how much you suck, tell it to shut the fuck up, and go back to doing the work. Anyone who takes all that to heart is going to get results eventually. Bloody hell! Maybe I should write a self-help book next?...
7. You often ask the photographers to recommend a photo book during your interviews. Which photo book would you like to recommend?
There are several books by friends and previous podcast guests that I could heartily recommend, but I don’t want to single anyone out so I’ll ignore them all! I got Todd Hido’s ‘Intimate Distance’ for Christmas, which is basically a career retrospective to date, and that is a lovely thing.
8. When coming up with questions for the people you are interviewing do you approach it by thinking of more generalised questions that will possibly catch the interest of a wider audience, or is it a bit of a self indulgent process when coming up with questions?
This is something I agonise over because I have become obsessed with the interview process, and the nuances of asking questions and how to do that well. It’s a fascinating thing. As I said above, I try to spend at least some of the time thinking about universal stuff that can be of interest to everyone. It depends on the guest and what seems interesting about them in particular, how nervous I am and whether there’s an ‘r’ in the month and all kinds of factors. The one thing I always have in the back of my mind is ‘don’t be too ‘industry’, a bit of that is fine, because inevitably a lot of my listeners are professionals. I try and steer away from that, and I certainly try not to be self-indulgent, unless by that you mean asking questions that may help me personally, in which case the answer is damned right I am!
9. Would you consider expanding on the podcasts, possibly putting on a live panel talk with other photographers and a live audience?
Yes absolutely, I’d be very much up for doing something like that and there are plans afoot already in that direction, so watch this space, as they say.
10. Who or what in photography is really exciting you at the moment?
I think it’s the fact that photography has been forced to change with and adapt to the times we are living in - and they are fascinating, albeit scary times. The digital/Instagram/iPhone revolution has meant that we all have to ask ourselves, not only how the hell am I going to earn a living, but what is photography even for now? If a bazillion images are being taken and uploaded to the internet every week, what’s the value of my contribution? Assuming that 90 percent of those pictures are of cute cats and plates of food, some of them are really good. How can us ‘professionals’ or ‘serious artists’ differentiate ourselves and our work from all that? What do we have to say about the world and our place in it? It’s not enough to just be a good photographer, that’s for sure.
There’s no mystery to the process any more. Those hard won professional skills that could only be acquired with an apprenticeship of assisting, a lot of trial and error, and a significant financial investment in film and processing can now be learnt from YouTube in a fraction of the time and for zero cost (aside from the camera itself).
For those of us who started in a pre-internet world, the digital revolution has been like a slow moving tornado ripping through the photographic landscape. Everything we thought we knew got thrown up in the air, and the pieces are still coming back down. But those in their 30’s or younger couldn’t care less about all that ancient history crap, because they’ve never known anything else. They are learning how to work with the situation as it is, and the up side is that you get to try and leverage an unprecedented opportunity to build a relatively huge audience for your work. Us old fogeys need to learn from them and try to get with the programme, and that’s what’s exciting.