Smolan, a former photojournalist for Time, Life and National Geographic, has built a thriving production company in Sausalito, Calif., called Against All Odds Productions. He released Passage to Vietnam, a photographic book and CD-ROM hailed by the Chicago Sun- Times as “the best CD-ROM ever produced.” Another photo book, “From Alice to Ocean,” covers Robyn Davidson’s 1,700 mile solo trek across the Australian desert. In 1999 Julia Roberts will star in a Disney movie based on the book.
WS: You’ve tackled some remarkably complex projects. How have you been able to manage so many creative people contributing to the final product?
Smolan: My job is to challenge people while giving them a sense of camaraderie. For example, in getting the best photographers to submit their best work for a book, my hope is that they’ll turn in something more interesting than what we assigned. Most photographers do what they’re assigned and that’s it. But we admit that we’re not experts, and we want them to use their judgment to come up with something better.
WS: But doesn’t that create a lot of risk if they reject your assignment and then turn in inferior work?
Smolan: We have 100 photographers shooting 50 rolls a day. With 36 frames per roll, that’s over 150,000 pictures a day that we can choose from. We only have room for 200 photos in each book, so we put ourselves in a position to sift through everything we get for the very best. You want to give the people who are working with you a sense of discovery, rather than having them just connect the dots.
WS: You must possess tremendous persuasive skills to motivate so many people. How do you win over others?
Smolan: I’ve found that people like to talk about themselves. I learned that lesson as a 24-year-old photographer just starting out. I’d ask how my subjects got into their business. They would open up to me, and that made a huge difference. They told me that few photographers would show curiosity in them as people.
WS: Do you find it hard to let talkative or egotistical people go on and on?
Smolan: Not if I ask questions that I’m genuinely interested in. I have to raise millions of dollars a year for my projects, and I’m now at a point where I meet directly with CEOs. I recently had lunch with George Fisher, CEO of Kodak, and I asked him questions to get to know him better rather than just blurting out what I wanted from him. For example, I asked him, “How have you handled layoffs in Rochester, where Kodak is such a major part of the city?” He said, “If the company didn’t survive, no one would be happy. I have to make tough decisions and explain why.”
WS: When you deal with CEOs, do you ever get nervous?
Smolan: I’ll tell you that Andy Grove [Intel’s chairman] is very impatient. He doesn’t waste time with banter, so you need to get right to the point. He and I met at a bus stop in Davos, Switzerland, in 1997 while waiting for a taxi after a conference broke up. I was a dinner speaker one night, he was a speaker the next night. But we had never met. I saw him standing there with his wife and I said, “Enjoyed your talk.” He said that I should do a book about microprocessors to show the world how dependent we are on them. “I don’t care if you mention Intel or not, but in the 27 years since we introduced the first microchip it’s changed the world,” he said. So I did, thanks to our chat.
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