The Portrait Maker

joeMC2Joe McGorty is a portrait photographer extraordinaire. I got to know him over cups of tea in the drafty studio I shared with his lady and was instantly in awe of his craft: of the exquisite portraits he takes of everyone from John Hurt, to Richard Dawkins to Audrey Tautou to his shots of british mountaineers that can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery. Generally he uses a Wista 5×4 Rosewood Field Camera – think Victorian film camera complete with a black hood for disappearing into…Joe’s worked his way up the hard way, starting with making the tea and then grafting for years as an assistant before setting up on his own.

Before Joe photographs a celebrity he studies them, kind of learning their language and shaping his portraiture accordingly. So when he shot Vincent Cassel, he did it in a grainy black and white moving continuously mirroring the long single shot scenes Cassel is renowned for. Similarly when photographing the director John Hillcoat, knowing his obsession with film, Joe got him involved in the grading process as he shot, co-creating the image. I didn’t display the same sophistication when taking Joe’s picture for this, it was more- “er.. sit over there and smile…”

THIS YEAR’S LESSON:  Let go. I realised that I was too controlled. Everything was too planned. I wasn’t making enough of sponteniety. So I did a personal project about bikes, a kind of orchestrated reportage that helped me to free up my photography style, which I went on to test on the Vincent Cassell shoot. I was terrified. I had no idea whether the improvisational approach would work. The night before, I dreamt that the shoot had been cancelled. But in the end it went well, and this  more reactive way or working has completely changed my photography.

THIS YEAR’S MOST INSPIRING THING: How to Read Others’ Thoughts by Their Gestures by Alan Pease. It’s a body language book that I found on my Dad’s bookshelf and have since left on a train somewhere. It’s completely changed what I notice when I’m shooting. I’m much more aware of the details now, the subletites of how people are expressing themselves.  It has helped me understand how to break down people’s public personas.

THE BURNING QUESTION: How do I develop confidence and self-belief without a camera in my hand?

MAKING THE WHAT’S NEXT DECISION: That’s a really difficult question. It’s a combination I think. Sometimes, it’s a technical challenge, sometimes it’s a strategic thing, or sometimes it’s a project that will take me out of my comfort zone either in terms of environment or people.


In Memory of Becky Tarbotton

beckellaThe first ever post on the Introductor was “the Queen of Campaigning”, Becky Tarbotton. To our shock and sadness, Becky passed away in an accident over Christmas. Her extraordinary life has been remembered in many places, from The Guardian, to Forbes, to the New York Times.

Re-reading her original post, made me so glad I’d started this blog, so glad to have this snapshot of her insights, questions and passion. It also reminded me of  the last time I saw Becky, a few months ago, when we drunk expensive cocktails in London’s Savoy hotel and cackled with laughter while the pianist played Sinatra.

We talked about work, about her Suzuki moment that she went on to describe so beautifully in her REVEL speech, about a pie-in-the-sky trip to India and about old age. Becky declared that when she retired she wanted to go into the movies, “I don’t mind starting with commercials,” she began, as if to prove her pragmatisim, “I’ll do bit parts at first. We could set up an acting company…”

I loved the thought of us as wrinkled old women, drinking expensive cocktails, exchanging wisdom and laughing until we cried. I said my final goodbye to Becky on a cold London night in Covent Garden, and walked away high on the contentment that comes from a treasured, enduring friendship that will last for life.

And then Becky’s life tragically ended, so much sooner than anyone could have imagined.

In the days following her death, I found myself slowly writing a list. I realised it was a list of Becky’s qualities that I wanted to embody, the elements of my  friend I wanted to live within me, a kind of existential bucket list. Now no-one, least of all the multifaceted Becky, can be reduced to bullet points, but well, whatever gets you through the night. Right? So here are some of the lessons I have learnt from the incredible, sorely missed, Becky Tarbotton.

1. Laugh loudly and often. Becky’s humanity and her humour, were what made her not only a brilliant friend, but also a brilliant leader. Her deeply strategic pragmatic idealism was accompanied by a winning levity, that in the words of Sungevity president Danny Kennedy, meant  “Disney execs danced for her and  timber tycoons ran from RAN because of her.”

2. Be yourselves – all of them. Becky was an incredible polymath, her breadth didn’t diminish her impact, it amplified it. The strategist, the fiddle player, the kayaker, the dancer, the protestor were all key to Becky sustaining a powerful life and not burning out.

3. Interdepend. Becky made and sustained deep connections with people wherever she went (despite being terrible at correspondence).  In the days since her death, this immense community has suddenly become visible, with her friends supporting each other across continents and tributes pouring in from tribal leaders in Indonesia, CEO’s in the US, activists in Britain and school-friends in Canada.

4. Stand. Take a stand. Take a stand.

5. Don’t leave your success to chance. I remember when Becky first took leadership roles she spoke of that familiar feeling of being an imposter. She continually made sure she got the professional support she needed to overcome this and any other obstacles. Becky took all that potential she had, and then ran with it.

6. Embrace living in different worlds. Becky was just as at home brandishing a placard in front of the White House, drinking cocktails with film stars at galas, sea kayaking in the wilderness, and playing the fiddle in Irish pubs.

7. Make everyone matter. Everyone. Whoever you were, wherever you came from, whatever you were doing, when you were talking to Becky, you felt like you could make a difference. Be present and generous in the way you listen to people

8. Spend more than you can afford on shoes. Becky was really good at doing this.

Becky. Rest In Peace.

The Rural Ambassador

From a small farm in Wales, the phenomenally sunny Anna Felton, runs two businesses as well as the occasional marathon. The title of her recent Do lecture says it all: “How do you manage 6 brands, a knitwear company and a flock of sheep? And still have a life.” As someone who grew up on a sheep farm in Cornwall, I’m in awe of her efforts to build vibrant rural economies: with Monkstone, she uses wool from her boyfriend’s family farm to make gorgeous knitwear (who knew it was possible to salivate over a sweater?), while with Dewberry PR, she spreads the word about all the good, beautiful things happening outside of the metropolises. So milkmaids and farmboys, here she is, the one, the only, Anna Felton.

That you can never sleep. If you want to make your business work you need to be 100% focused on your brand and ideas. I want to tell the story of farmers and the wool industry even more. You need to think outside the box to be different, personal and beautiful. People remember stories and not facts and this is something I try to work out in marketing strategies all the time.  There are so many new brands, you need to stand out. It’s a challenge. But one I love.

I have taken to bread making and I am trying to bake the perfect loaf. But on a work level, my burning question would be to crack time management and to allow myself to be as creative as possible, but not to scare people away. I try to question all that I do, so that I can get better.

It would have to be  Sean Carasso Founder of Falling Whistles. At the last Do Lectures, he totally blew me away with his drive and passion. Passion to make a difference by using an incredible brand identity and vision, being supported by friends and creatives, and spreading his love for what he does and the changes he wants to make.  It was just awe inspiring.

Most of my ideas come to me when driving, something I do a lot with my PR agency. I am lucky as I work for many beautifully minded companies that inspire me to think differently. I pick my projects based on the teams I am asked to meet with and the stories they tell me. I only ever work for companies that I believe in.

In terms of Monkstone, I want to bridge a gap between farmers and creatives. I want to talk to as many UK brands to make them understand the importance of manufacturing in the UK. Later this year, I am launching For Flock Sake; an exciting co operative of farmers, manufactures and businesses. I want to give the wool board a run for their money!

The Gallerist

Here’s Umer Butt negotiating with a taxi driver to take me from his Lahore gallery to the Indian border. This is typical Umer, always the amazing host, whether of people, art or ideas. In 2007 he set up a virtual gallery and was so overwhelmed by inquiries from people who thought it was a real space, that he quickly set up its offline bricks and mortar equivalent in Lahore; Grey Noise. After four years of championing Pakistani contemporary art from inside the country, he recently moved his HQ to Dubai with collaborations planned with galleries from London, New York, India & Germany. Bad news for my Lahore visits, but very good news for the creative industries.

1: Good shoes buy art!!
2: I need to start taking care of my health.
3: I should speak at least two European languages.
4: Life can be so much healthier and positive if you stay away from Politics of Pakistan.

When will the UAE Government invest in launching a ‘real’ art school, which is more financially accessible to its non-Emirati majority? It hurts when I see teenagers going to school with their glossy Chevy Camaro’s and their American accents, when I personally know some very talented artists who are really struggling with finances.

I visited Sicily, which was super inspirational… the parallels it has with Pakistani life; the importance of Mama cooked food and never-ending conversations over dinner. And I started listening to Arcade Fire… INSPIRING! INDEED.

Firstly, look at my bank account ☺ & then ask why I should invest in a particular project. How ‘cooked’ it is to be represented though my gallery — i.e. how well resolved is the artist in terms of maturity/ intelligence/ awareness? Does it fit the gallery aesthetic (and is engaging)?  Gambling really! At times the most innovative project gets the least attention! The Mysteries/ Miseries of the Contemporary art world!


The Flower Man

Himanshu Verma curates art, design, cities and rituals. For years he has been my antidote to work induced Delhi stress – he does a good line in temple dinners, decadent Holi parties and looks a lot better than I do in a sari. Via his organisation Red Earth, Himanshu juggles A LOT– from the annual Monsoon festival, to design fairs, to the 1100 walks projects (yes people, that means night walks, dawn flower market walks, sherbet walks, food walks, lake walks, buddhist walks… ). He’s all about building bridges between traditional practices and contemporary creative expression, tiddley-pom. Himanshu also goes by the name Genda Phool (marigold flower), he’s a man obsessed! Hang out with him and you’ll never look at those little orange flowers in the same way again…

THIS YEAR’S LESSON. Be wary of trying to do too many things. As a creative person, I can often be over-ambitious, but perhaps I am becoming a little wiser in managing affairs, and am learning to do less — as much as I can handle; learning to dream less (actually not sure if I will ever stop) about things I want to do but perhaps cannot; learning to be clever in knowing that perhaps I can’t do the million things I always want to; and learning to be super happy with the things I can do –always trying my best to do them with the utmost sincerity, passion and efficacy.

THE BURNING QUESTION. This is always the same – sustainability. I’m always trying to figure out how to keep afloat and make the numbers add up – not something I am intrinsically great at, but working on it…

THIS YEAR’S INSPIRATION: This year, I celebrated the festival of Holi in the lovely land of Vrindavan / Braj in the sacred geography associated with Lord Krishna. I am still mesmerised by the whole experience. I visit Vrindavan often, but this time I gave up all work (and play) to revel in the magic of the festival of colours where you can colour your mind, body and soul like nowhere else. Holi here carries on for more than 10 days and the site of festivities keeps changing everyday. Every day there was a new angle to this love, and I was dazzled every moment by the sheer beauty. This trip was a fantastic muse – I wrote some lyrics, poems, and the minute I think of being there, I can see creativity growing on me like a fungus….

THE DECISIONS: Deciding what project to do next is sometimes hard, sometimes easy. Hard because time and funding can be a bitch to manage, and easy because we have certain annual projects, which somehow automatically fall into place. Romantically speaking, it’s intuition, impulse, and the power of ideas that controls me, but then practically some other factors come into play as well. But still, the heart reigns over the mind in this matter, and this curator is open to the magic of the moment, mostly!

The dramactivists

I met Jo Dorras & Peter Walker in a bunk house on the side of a mountain in New Zealand. In between playing A LOT of cards and nursing our aching limbs, we traded stories and I found out about their amazing work in Vanatu in the South Pacific.

Over 20 years ago they set up a theatre company, wansmolbag. What began with 15 amateur actors has grown into an organisation specialising in development theatre with 100 staff and over 400 volunteers. They use drama to engage audiences on a range of issues from contraception to corruption. One of their biggest hits has been Love Patrol, a TV series centred on a police detective that focuses on HIV/ AIDS. Vanuatu’s first TV serial has been roaring success; it has been broadcast across the region, from Fiji to New Zealand and is now in its fifth series. Jo writes it, Peter directs it. I thought it was only fitting to feature them as a couple!

THIS YEAR’S LESSON: Jo: Never think you know yourself. Circumstances make or unmake the woman. It can be very hard to explain why you did what you did.

Peter: What everybody in their fifties starts to learn: that time speeds up. I remember sitting around with both sets of parents about 15 years ago, before my parents embarked on a dreadful last decade of illness. One night they started discussing their attitude to death and how it wasn’t worth worrying about. My father in-law, Harry, mentioned how time went so fast, chortling as he remembered some old celebrity in the paper saying how it seemed like breakfast came round every fifteen minutes. The good side  — especially if you are privileged enough to enjoy your work, and your partner is doing the same work — is that you savour each opening night, each great rehearsal and  also each weekend bush walk, with the knowledge that the years you will be able to do them are starting to dwindle — although I don’t feel that breakfast is coming round every fifteen minutes (perhaps only every half hour!)

THE BURNING QUESTION: Jo: As poverty is the cause of most of the world’s pain and suffering, can aid — which pays our own personal bills — do anything about it? And what will happen to all the young people at our centre when they are no longer appealing youth we are all meant to worry about, but men and women with nothing?

Peter:  Just how is Vanuatu going to escape the ravages of an ever more venal group of politicians? One would like to believe that in this, an election year, it would be via the ballot box. But, as the theatre group discovered last month when touring with plays pertinent for an election year, the amount of money, saucepans, fencing materials and solar panels being delivered to villages by politicians wanting to hold on to power suggests that we’re stuck with the lot we have and the weekly stories of corruption they bring with them. But here’s hoping… the after-play-discussions bring to the surface a great deal of discontent.

THIS YEAR’S INSPIRATION: Jo: The amazing Gigi, who plays Andy in ‘Love Patrol’. He’s a young gay man and was absolutely thrilled on his return from launching series 4 of LP in Cook Islands, where he was treated like a star and ran workshops with school children, communities and queens (the third sex group there). It’s not always like that for Gigi.

And always writing for the actors and seeing them take what I write and fly with it! Wow!

Peter: Read: Peter Godwin’s The Fear about the 2007 elections in Zimbabwe. We lived in the south east of Zimbabwe for 5 years in the 80s and went back in the mid 90s for a visit. So the wreckage described was perhaps even more poignant for us. The stories both of man’s unbelievable inhumanity to man and also the staggering bravery shown by many in standing up to the torture and general mayhem, just have you gasping on every page. Unavoidably we ran into diehard white farmers when we lived there. I remember 300 km hitchhiking car journeys, when they picked you up (aghast that you should be hitching), and put you straight about how their country really was.  Some of these same people, by their own admission in the book, have made incredible journeys to end up side by side with their black Zimbabwean colleagues.

Seen: The youth group we are currently working with! 26 of them, most of school age, none of them in school…..their absolute delight in the rehearsals. The other night they did a run through of something they’d been working on since the last time I’d seen them. They finished. I said I thought it was good and they clapped and cheered, so pleased were they that I had liked it.

Heard: Stories on the BBC World Service series ‘Witness

The Improvician

For Rob Poynton, improvisation is not just the preserve of actors and musicians, but rather something we all do everyday. According to Rob, “only the dead don’t improvise”. Learning to improvise better, can help us learn to live better. If I sound slightly evangelical, that’s because I am (who’d have thought playing Slow-mo Samurai could be so, erm, edifying). Rob shares  his insight all over the place, from Oxford University’s Said Business School, to London-based brand gurus Eatbigfish, to the remote Spanish hilltop he calls home. He’s written a book too… Don’t cue the lights, or camera, or action. In fact don’t cue anything… Ladeez & gents, it’s Rob Poynton.

THE LESSON: This came thanks to a complete stranger I met by chance at the Jazz festival in Copenhagen. He was in software and when I mentioned I worked with improvisation he started talking to me about Agile Project Management and SCRUM – two forms of highly flexible working that are used in the software industry (which I had never heard of). This got me very excited and sparked off a whole chain of associations and inquiry.  What I learned was that there many stories of improvisational ways of working (the ones that I am interesting in spreading) already out there, we just tend not to see them. I have since found plenty of other examples. My idea is to collect and compile improvisational ‘case stories’, in order to re-frame how we think about what it takes to be successful in the messy world of everyday reality, not the idealised world of business school post rationalisation.

THE QUESTION: For me, this is the year of hosting. The question I am fascinated by is what it takes to design a rich, learning experience.  This means asking other questions, like –  How much do you need to structure and organise? How much do you leave open?  What kind of stimulus do you need? Of what kind?  And so on.

I am engaged with several experiments in this area.

  •  The Creative Tapas Experiment here in Spain, which is an exploration of the conditions needed for co-creativity with a group of about fifty people.
  • My work with Marshall Young on the design of the Oxford Praxis Forum, another ‘container’ designed to explore how senior leadership practioners can interact with a research University for mutual benefit.
  •  Using the space I have in Arenas to host personalised retreats for individuals, called ‘Parenthesis’.  The idea is to give people time-out to think and reflect deeply on intractable dilemmas, in surroundings that allow them to reconnect with themselves and with nature.

THE INSPIRATION: The Leonardo at the Court of Milan exhibition at the National Gallery.  It had everything stacked against it because it was so difficult to get in and so crowded once you did (rather like looking at art on a rush hour tube). Once I got over that, I found it truly inspirational.

For me it was the sketches and drawings combined with the explanations on the audio guide of how Leonardo worked that I found inspirational.  He was incredibly collaborative, would allow ideas to emerge and evolve enormously during the process, and was happy to leave things ‘unfinished’. Here was somebody at the very highest level of creative endeavour, yet he worked in a way that was very adaptive and improvisational.

The zen advocate

When I first met Marianne Elliott, she was standing on her head as part of my upside-down New Zealand welcoming committee.  I’m not the only person to get to know an inverted Marianne. This accomplished human rights advocate is also a yoga teacher, with a focus on helping those who do good.  And me oh my, has she done a lot of good: from creating the Action Plan for Human Rights in New Zealand, to helping the government of Timor-Leste craft their human rights strategy, to heading a UN office in Herat, Afghanistan. You can hear more from her in her book Zen Under Fire , on her blog or on the Huffington Post.

THE LESSON: There is always a new frontier. Whether in the causes I care most about, my writing, my various enterprises or my spiritual path, there will always be another mountain to climb. There is no finish line in this race. In fact, I’m slowly coming to realise there is no race. So I might as well enjoy the journey. And, you know, stop to smell the roses from time to time.

THE QUESTION: Only one? I have so many. I’m a little burning-question-generating machine. Here are a few from this morning: Is reducing a narrative to a level comprehensible to a four year old the only way to get 70 million people to watch your video about child soldiers in Northern Uganda? Did I go too far in simplifying the narrative in my own book to make it accessible to a non-expert readership? What will I write about next? (That last question prompted by the fact I’m off to have lunch with my editor in 30 minutes)

THE INSPIRATION: I’m inspired by people and projects that explore new stories, and new ways of telling old stories, about places and people affected by conflict. In the past year I was inspired by the Face2Face project in Israel/Palestine (not new, but new to me) which uses humour and juxtaposition to retell an ancient story, the exquisitely beautiful Touch Down in Flight video of Afghanistan by Augustin Pictures and Gayle Lemmon’s book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, which tells the true story of an Afghan woman entrepreneur. I’m also reluctantly, begrudgingly inspired by the Kony 2012 video. I have no end of questions about the ethics of that style of story-telling, but I cannot deny being deeply impressed and, yes, inspired by just how catchy and compelling the video has proven to be. There are some lessons in there.

The VFXpert

Dan Lemmon is a visual effects guru, responsible for making the imaginary seem oh so real. Nominated for the Visual Effects Oscar this year for The Planet of the Apes, Dan was also pivotal in bringing Pandora to life in Avatar and has worked on A LOT of movies from King Kong to Lord of The Rings to yes, Titanic. When I first met Dan a few months ago, he was standing on his head – as part of my New Zealand welcoming committee!  Thanks to his role as my NYE host, I can vouch that in addition to making movie magic, he makes a damn fine bellini!

THE LESSON: I’ve learned that regardless of how busy I get professionally, I have to take care of my relationships with my friends and family. That may seem fairly obvious, but it’s been a hard lesson for me to learn as I’ve been sucked from one demanding project to another, year after year. This year, in particular, has been crazy – full of ups and downs that have included months of work overseas away from my family and being nominated for an Academy Award. The high point by far, though, was taking my kids surfing for the first time and watching their ecstatic faces as they stood up and rode their first waves.

THE QUESTION: Will I win an Oscar tonight?! Just being nominated has been a pretty amazing experience. Regardless of the result, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on a great movie with a great team and to see our work get recognized by our peers.

THE INSPIRATION: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I think he writes incredibly rich, believable characters who are wonderfully and tragically flawed. I love his portrait of a family full of love and ambition and disfunction, and I loved the idea that we are what we make of our freedom.

The Digitalista

The last time I actually saw Melissa Bell in person, was on a rooftop in Delhi in 2008, where we were both living at the time. But, thanks to the Lords of Social Media, I feel like I see her almost every day, as she anchors The Washington Post’s BlogPost. Hallelujah. A digital forensics wizard, last year she and her colleague Elizabeth Flock famously outed the gay girl in Damascus blogger as a 40-year-old American man from Georgia. She also does a good line in Star Wars nerdiness and snowboarding videos…

THE LESSON:That I am the adult in the room sometimes. That’s terrifying. And thrilling. 

THE QUESTION: How do we use all of this constant flow of information on the Internet to our advantage? How do we use it to better understand people, better entertain them, enlighten them, and inform them? I’ve become fascinated by crowdsourced projects: be it in getting aid to people like with Ushahidi; creating art like the Johnny Cash project; raising money for total strangers on social networks like Reddit, or – most close to home – watching news break on social media. So, how do we take of advantage of this amazing beast that is the Internet?

THE INSPIRATION: It goes back to my burning question. In general, the culture of the Internet and its focus on creativity has been the most inspiring thing I’ve seen. I really feel as if we’re in an age where creativity is rewarded and admired more than anything else. Offline, I am obsessed with Pieter Hugo’s photographs and films. All of Adam Ferguson‘s work (though I admit to a personal bias, as I adore him just as much as his work). All the war photography in general — making us look at the stories we want to ignore — as well as the work of war correspondents. I’ve been proud of strong female role models in journalism, women such as Lynsey Addario and Mona Eltahawy

%d bloggers like this: