Taylor Davidson · Collaboration works best when both parties are curious about the outcome; hiring works best when you have a fixed objective.

Two key points about collaboration, through the lens of photography.
by Taylor Davidson · 23 Mar 2012

Last October I spent an evening with 30 photographers, directors, videographers, sound engineers, producers, and editors through a Collaboration Speed Dating event led by Miki Johnson. The goal? Bring together a wide group of creatives to talk about how to find collaborators, to share tips they have learned about collaborating, and to find potential collaborative partners. *

After a bit of networking / chatting to kick off the evening, we broke up into three smaller groups to discuss and share. As one of the three facilitators, I kicked off the conversation by asking people what collaboration means to them.

Stephen Mayes, head of photo agency VII Photo, responded with the perfect spark:

It seems strange to be discussing collaboration when everything we do is a collaboration.

And he’s right, in a way, depending on how you define collaboration. To a portrait photographer, a portrait is a collaboration with the subject of the portrait. To a street photographer, the images are a collaboration with the street. To any photographer with an editor, the final images are a collaboration with their editor and the broader story. But many of us don’t think of it like that, and consider all the elements outside ourselves as merely inputs into our creative process, rather than key components of the process itself.

As we continued the conversation in the group, we delved into the topic by sharing stories of collaborative projects and the lessons we’ve learned. Two key points I pulled from the evening:

1) “Collaboration works best when both parties are curious about the outcome; hiring works best when you have a fixed objective.”

My summary: When both people are open to learning, listening, and figuring out the end goal through the creative process, collaboration works. When one person has a fixed objective in mind, hiring works best because it aligns both parties on expectations and roles right from the beginning. And even though collaboration may result in a better final product, if one person has a very set final objective, then they really won’t be in the right mindset to engage in the creative process. The creative process takes work, and both parties need to be willing and excited about putting in the work to make the collaboration successful. Important point for photographers. Very important point for startups, entrepreneurs, and investors.

2) “Don’t collaborate with friends, but collaborate with friends of friends.”

My summary: This is actually one of my contributions, which I attributed to Spencer Fry, who said “Don’t hire friends, but hire friends of friends.” Applies to professional photographers and creatives in the same way it applies to startups. Friendship isn’t enough, and is often distracting and suboptimal for the tough decisions and friction involved in creating great things. Regardless, the key is about establishing trust, communication, and paying deep attention to filters like skills, vision, and commitments to make sure you’re truly good matches for collaborating.

While this conversation focused on photography and creative projects, I strongly believe that they also apply to entrepreneurs and new ventures, particularly around hiring. Do you want someone curious about the outcome? Or do you have a fixed objective and discrete need? Do you want to hire your best friend, an acquaintance, or a loose connection? And when does it makes to hire each one of those people?