Here is the full transcript of American photographer Dewitt Jones’ TEDx Talk: Celebrate What’s Right With The World! at TEDxSouthLakeTahoe conference. This event took place on September 29, 2017 at South Lake Tahoe, California.
Dewitt Jones – American photographer
I spent a large part of my life as a photographer for National Geographic. World’s greatest job.
Well, that job — it changed my life in a very surprising way. And that’s the story I want to share with you tonight. It began long before I ever picked up a camera. My family had taken the magazine for years. By the time I was able to read, I’d grab when it came into the house, I’d take it upstairs.
I’d read it at night. My Dad would say, “Turn off the light, Dewitt, go to bed!” I’d turn the light back on. I’d get a flashlight. I’d stay up and stare at the pictures in this little yellow book, pictures that showed me the possibilities the world had to offer.
I never thought I’d work for them; I never thought I’d shoot for them, but they were already changing the way. I looked at the world. Because the Geographic has an extraordinary vision — so simple yet so profound. What they charged me with, every time they sent me out, was to celebrate what was right with the world, rather than wallowing in what was wrong with it. That’s why we keep these little yellow magazines. It’s a national sacrilege to throw one away, you know that.
If all the Geographic’s in the world disappeared at one time half the houses would fall in on themselves. Because they’re supported by big yellow columns in the basement. Why? Because they celebrate what’s right with the world.
When I first began at the Geographic, I had no idea how powerful that vision would be, how much it would change my life. But our vision controls our perception, and our perception becomes our reality.
From the highest mountains, to rivers drenched in sunlight, to waterfalls and rainbows. Everywhere I looked there would be amazing beauty for me to photograph. And, you know, in the Geographic’s view, man was not something separate from this just as magical as anything else on the planet.
And the more I just went out and celebrated the best in humanity, the more I could see it. I could see it, and I could see it in the faces of those at work, or the body language of those at play, those in their youth, or in their age. I thought this would be a good picture before he smiled, right? I could see it; I could see that light, that light that shines not on us, but from within us.
From within us when we have the courage to let it out. It was the same light that I’d seen in nature that didn’t seem to have to trust to expose itself but just graced us every day with the delicacy of a flower, or the light of a breaking storm. And yet the more I shot for the Geographic, the more I found this strange conflict growing up between the worldview of the Geographic, and the worldview that I’d been raised in since I was a kid.
You all know it– the law of the jungle– Eat or be eaten. My win is your loss. Second place is the first loser! I once saw that on a T-shirt. That is a very depressing way to look at life. Far too many of us do see the world in that light– a world based on fear and scarcity and competition.
But that’s not what nature was showing me. Nature was showing me incredible beauty and possibility standing just beyond the rat race saying “Hello, Hello…” I mean, come on Mother Nature never stood in front of a forest and said, “There is one great photograph hidden here. One photographer will find it and the rest of you will be hopeless losers.” Nature said, “How many cards do you got, Dewitt? Bring it on. I’ll fill it up. I’ll fill it up with beauty and possibility beyond your wildest imaginings. Right down to my tiniest seed.
And that was just a much more elegant philosophy, a much more compassionate way of looking at the universe. And at some point, I just decided to embrace it.
I just decided that if I had a choice between a world based on scarcity and fear and one based on possibility, then, man, I was choosing possibility. And no matter how dry and desolate, how bleak and devoid of possibilities the situation might seem, if I could just celebrate the best in it– in this case just by dropping down into that slot canyon and looking back the other way– I could find a perspective that would transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Through that lens of celebration, I could see one of nature’s most important lessons– There’s more than one right answer. There’s more than one right answer. There are a thousand ways to come at any challenge to find that extraordinary view. And I know it so easily from my time at the Geographic. They sent me to the town of Smith River in Northern California.
They raise about 80% of the Easter lilies in the country around that village, and that’s the story I had to tell. And I’ve got a perspective where I’ve got picked lilies and unpicked lilies and the boy picking them. One right answer. Pretty good one. But as a photographer, I never think of stopping there.
I took this picture; immediately I grabbed another lens, walked over a couple rows, knelt down and found another right answer. The same parameters of the problem now seen from a totally different point of view, and my favorite right answer that day was this one. This is an advanced levitation technique that I picked up along the way. Three right answers.
So many things begin to change when you come at the world from that perspective of more than one right answer.
First of all, you never look for just one right answer. There’s always more. But then as you begin to find more and more of them, you just get more and more comfortable with reframing obstacles into opportunities. Geographic sent me to the Selkirk Mountains Of British Colombia. Gorgeous area.
I’m wandering around, I find a field of dandelions; I should have been ecstatic but I wasn’t. I don’t know why. Instead of grabbing my cameras and running into it, I took a snap shot; I said, “I don’t know. The light’s not quite right, I’ll come back tomorrow.”