Welcome to another in our One on One series of conversations with some of the most thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. Andrew Zuckerman, a photographer, documentary film director and author, spoke with Brent Leary in this interview, which has been edited for publication. Andrew has also directed iPhone commercials for Apple. His last two projects (Wisdom and Music) feature conversations with some of the world’s best-known people. To hear audio of the full interview, page down to the loudspeaker icon at the end of the post.
* * * * *
Small Business Trends: You do a lot of different things in a lot of different mediums. Could you give us a little bit of background?
Andrew Zuckerman: I grew up in a family that was really supportive of creative initiative. We had a darkroom and a Super 8 camera and were encouraged by our parents. I took to image making at an early age, which resulted in a stint at art school and eventually opening my own studio in New York City.
Small Business Trends: So photography was it for you?
Andrew Zuckerman: I have never really felt it was “about” photography or filmmaking or writing. It’s about storytelling–following an initial curiosity and arriving at a deeper understanding by exploring it through some medium. However, photography was the first medium that supported me financially. When it came time to do my own publishing, starting with the book Creature, it made sense to make photographs for the book.
The process of my work is governed by three steps. First, a concept. When you work in mediums that are collaborative, you really need a clear and concise concept, because you need to explain in very simple terms to anyone you are collaborating with, including your subjects, what you are after.
Next, we systematically collect and organize data to support that concept, whether [it’s] moving image, text or photographs.
The third step is to organize that data and create multiple entry points. Some people want to see an exhibition. Some people want to buy a book. Some people want to buy an app. Some people want to watch a film.
Publishing is transference of data. Create as many ways in [as you can] for as many different kinds of tastes or different kinds of people. You need lots of doorways into your project.
Small Business Trends: Your book Wisdom includes interviews with Nelson Mandela, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Billie Jean King and many others. How did you not only get in front of these folks, but really connect with them?
Andrew Zuckerman: Getting in front of them is a very pragmatic series of steps. One major influence on my project is the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has extended letters to subjects that I am interested in. I travel all over the world to find my subjects and slide surreptitiously into their schedule. That’s the “getting.”
Connecting with them– that’s an abstract thing. People can smell and feel dishonesty right off the bat. If you are looking for something, an angle or any desire, they are going to pick up on it and most subjects are not going to give that to you.
It’s very important to have no expectations. Go into these engagements with an absolute purity and sense of honesty about what you are looking for. It is [in] that meeting place where everything happens. Like anything, you continue learning every single time and rejecting the things that do not work.
Small Business Trends: How has social media impacted the way you approach stories?
Andrew Zuckerman: I love technology and embrace it whole-heartedly. I have noticed the most important moments of connectivity between my projects and the world happen online. It’s an incredibly elastic space with tons of opportunity. The iPad came out while I was producing Music, and I said, “Amazing! I have to make an app.” [The iPad] was the perfect tool for this kind of trans-media illustrated project.
Small Business Trends: What else has happened since the first time you put together a book that has changed the way you do things?
Andrew Zuckerman: I don’t know if the distribution platforms have changed the way I create the work. From day one, I have been collecting the same data in the same kind of ways. But as new platforms have arisen, I have been able to embrace them and create new outlets for the projects.
Small Business Trends: Talk a little bit about Music.
Andrew Zuckerman: Music is one of these mysterious art forms. Not many people understand. I was attempting to excavate what the core of music is from the perspective of 50 practitioners. It’s [broken into broad] subjects — inspiration, collaboration, performance, success — that the public can relate to. It spanned a huge range of ages, practices and genres – [from] John Williams to Iggy Pop to Itzhak Perlman to Ornette Coleman. [When] you seek these connectivity threads you realize that musicians are not divided by genre; they are connected by music itself.
Small Business Trends: Small business people struggle with being able to leverage the communication tools we have today to connect and captivate people. What can help them do a better job?
Andrew Zuckerman: My practice is rooted in minimalism. If someone’s really trying to get something across to someone else, it’s about simplification. Even more than simplification, it’s about rejecting anything nonessential. Edit ruthlessly.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.