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Rick Smolan is responsible for some of the largest photographic projects ever undertaken. A former Time, Life, and National Geographic photographer, Rick created the best-selling Day in the Life book series and many other large-scale photographic projects, such as America 24/7, 24 Hours in Cyberspace, and Blue Planet Run. He pushes the boundaries of technology with each new project while delivering inspiring books that tell masterful photographic stories. His projects have been featured on the covers of magazines such as Fortune, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. This installment of Creative Inspirations takes viewers inside Rick's latest production, where he reveals his unique processes and shows how he reinvents himself for each new project.
(Music plays.) Being in Asia for so many years and being with so many photographers, one of things that surprise me so much was that the same men and women tended to show up at all the big events. I would sit around the bars with these men and women and a lot of it was in Bangkok. There would always be a new place we would all go to in between that was inexpensive, it was fun, it was warm, and these other photographers many of whom were my heroes would sit around and do nothing but bitch and moan and complain.
What was happening is we would all, all of the photographers, get very emotionally involved with the things they were shooting. And you really wanted your pictures to change the world. You really hoped that you would just blow the lid off some situation, or shock people, or that your pictures would actually have some effect other than serve the purpose of selling ads in a magazine. And so I am sitting around in a bar with Philip Jones Griffith and JP Laffont, a bunch of people, and I said, wouldn't be cool if we could all get together, all of us, and descend on a country for 24 hours. Like just cover, blanket, the country, and all go. On your mark, set, go. It's midnight. We all start shooting, and we do a book in one day.
So all my friends in Bangkok that night said, "great, you go organize it and we'll all come take pictures," thinking that would be the last of it. So I went back to Australia. I went to publishers. I went to 35 publishers around the world thinking they would fall over at the brilliance of this idea. The best photographers in the world let loose for 24 hours, A Day in the Life of Australia, and got laughed out of their offices. Every single publisher, 35 publishers I met with, said "who on earth would pay $40 for a book of pictures taken on a day that nothing happens in some God forsaken country, on the other side of the world like Australia. Who would care about that?" So I went back to my friend the Prime Minister and I said "Mr. Prime Minister, I want to do this book about your country. I went to all these publishers. No one is interested. Could you like pay to bring all my friends to Australia for this project?" And he said, "Nice try." But he said "I will help you," and I thought you know, it will be one of these shining me on, polite kind of things.
He said, "okay. First I am going to give you a letter saying I know you, respect you, admire your work." I said, "yes, so what I do with the letter?" He said, "okay, just stick with me here okay. I have a good idea for you." And then he outlined what I have been doing for the last 25 years, in the next like 10 seconds. He said "okay, I am going to set up meetings for you with the CEOs of companies all over Australia." I said, "and how is that going to help me?" He said, "okay, you are going to tell them that you are producing the Olympics of photography." I said, "okay, I am sorry. I am really stupid. I still don't get it." "You are doing an Olympics of photography. You are the bringing the best photographs in the world to Australia and it's a huge competition to see who can get the best pictures in your book." I said, "well, it's not a competition, it's a collaboration." He says, "Rick, I have been around you guys. You're all trying to outdo each other. It's definitely a competition." I said, "so what I am asking these companies for?" He said, "okay, you are going to Kodak you are asking them for film, you are going to Qantas you are asking them for airline tickets, you are Hertz asking them for cars, you are going The Hyatt and ask them for rooms. This guy Steve Jobs has started this computer company. You can ask him for computers." And I said, "and why would they give me this stuff?" He is like, I remember him being completely exasperated with me. He said, "okay you are going to put their logo in the front of page of your book. You are going to give them a special edition of the book with a letter that the Chairman can write.
You are going to talk about them when you go on the Today show." I said, "I am going on the Today Show?" I am like totally shy still at this point. He said, this is a really exciting idea and all of companies are going to--" He said, "it may be hard to do it, but I think with my letter and my introductions and you show them the cover of National Geographic that you just did and you show them your covers of Time." So I went out there and I met with almost 600 companies. It took two years. I was sleeping on a sleeping bag in my friend's apartment in Melbourne. I stopped shooting photographs and I just-- it was a great lesson in rejection.
And six companies out of 400 said okay. But we got 100 first class round-trip tickets to Australia from Qantas. We got hotel rooms and people all over Australia offered to put the photographers up. I had no money to pay the photographers at all. I told the photographers that. Everybody wanted to come. It was like billed as the greatest photo party in the history. I didn't want photographers wandering around willy-nilly doing street shooting. Because I knew they all would end up doing the dark underbelly life of Australia. So we made sure we had assignments that were geographically and thematically spread out all over the country. So we tried not to have our photographers overlapping. We self published the book. We had no publisher.
I found a newspaper group that bought 60,000 copies of this book that didn't exist. I mean, talk about luck. Remarkably, a year and a half after the book came out I was able to send a check for $1000 to every one of the 100 photographers. And you wouldn't think spending $100,000 would feel good. Writing a check and giving away $100,000 but I promised the photographers if we ever actually made money on the book, which no one thought we would, that we would pay them a great day rate for that one day. I thought I'd go back finally to being a photographer, even though I was kind of disillusioned. I had no intension of becoming a book publisher or photo entrepreneur or whatever it is that I do. But about two months after this book came out, the Governor of Hawaii came to Australia on some kind of trip and on his bed was the copy of A Day in the Life of Australia. I think he stayed at the Hyatt hotel which is one of our sponsors. So two weeks later we got a call from Governor's office in Hawaii saying, we just saw this book you did in Australia and our anniversary of statehood is coming up. Would you come and do us? It just went on like that. Countries, politicians, corporations, almost every one of our books become the cover of Time and Newsweek, which was again kind of bizarre for an idea everyone had turned down. I never went back to being a photographer again. I got to showcase a lot of the work of my friends who were photographers. I take pictures on my own on these books. I sometimes get pictures in the book and I get so high when I shoot. I mean, I just miss it terribly. I don't miss the editors and I don't miss not seeing the pictures used that I think should have been used. But I miss that sort of the feeling of fate and just life happening in front of you.
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