Five life lessons I learned from photographer Sam Abell

Recently I flew down to Los Angeles for a workshop with Sam Abell – a wise kind man who worked for National Geographic for many years. Even though the workshop was about developing your vision as a documentary photographer, some of the wisdoms he imparted can be applied to life:

#1 Why does it work, and how could it be better?

As Sam Abell talked about the two things he thinks about when he looks at his photographs – 1. Why does it work and 2. How could it be better? – I realized something.

We rarely consciously stop to think about how we do things in our daily lives, why doing them works, and if there is a way we could do them even better.

We often don’t have trouble stopping to figure out solutions if something isn’t going well, but if something is going OK we might not stop to think how we could improve on it – but we should!

#2 Is every part contributing?

It’s no secret that I’ve been on a journey towards minimalism since last summer, when I said goodbye to a bunch of unnecessary things in my closet, home, and social media feeds.

Sam’s thoughts on whether or not every element in a photograph contributes to the photograph made me think back again to these areas where I decluttered – are there still things in there that don’t contribute to my home/closet/life? I bet I can find some.

# 3 The path to greatness goes through goodness

Sam talked about how we have to take a lot of photos – good enough photos – to eventually get to greatness. If we always look to only make great photographs, we may lose motivation and interest on the way to greatness. Besides – good photos show us what can be improved to achieve greatness!

I think this applies to anything we want to do in our lives. If we want to be healthier/learn a language/pick up a new skill/be a more present parent, if we make good enough steps each day we will be on our way to that “greatness” we desire. If we try to do great/be perfect every single day, we get disappointed with ourselves when we fall short – and may quit completely.

#4 The world should give to you, when you give to it

Sam believes that there is a give-and-take between the photographer and the world. When the photographer stops at a scene they feel has potential, gives the scene respect, attention and time, the world will eventually gift the photographer with a photograph.

The same can be said for life. When we give our surroundings and loved ones our respect, time and attention, we will be rewarded. When we show up, are present, when we try new things – the world will gift us with experiences that we would not otherwise get.

(If you give and give until you start hitting your head against the wall, it is fair to say that the world didn’t meet you halfway on that particular thing – and you really should move on.)

#5 Allow yourself to be stopped

Before Sam sent us off on our assignment, he told us that we should allow ourselves to be stopped. However small of a thing catches our interest, we should give ourselves permission to stay with the scene for a while.

In life – in the busy life it has become for many of us – we should allow ourselves to be stopped, too. By a thought, by a feeling, by a question. Sit with it a little bit, breathe through it a little bit – see what life gifts us if we give it a bit of attention.

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Documentary newborn and family photographer serving San francisco Bay Area, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and surrounding areas