I was wrong.
First, I was very surprised by the former ISAP members who I had never met that contacted me to relate some of their experiences and issues with ISAP. Many related a feeling of being isolated, shut out and not welcomed into the organization by a clique of people “at the top”.
Second, I was disappointed and quite frankly saddened by the series of responses I received from former ISAP members who said that they saw no value in the organization in its past or current form.
So back to the first group of responses. The “shut-outs”.
Sure, I could give in and simply relate the stories of how these people felt that a clique of photographers who were established names in the business refused to acknowledge their proposals, treated them like underlings, and generally ignored them at ISAP gatherings. I could rail against the “establishment” of the aviation photography “industry”, and the “elite” of ISAP who should have welcomed these fellow photographers as friends.
But that is the easy way out.
Here are the realities:
Each of us has different skill levels. Even among individuals who shoot with the primary goal of selling their images either editorially or as fine art.
Each of us has different personalities. Not all of them mesh well.
Each of us has different photographic interests inside the already narrow field of aviation photography.
We are not going to naturally fit together as a social group and become fast friends.
In my case, I have the unfair advantage of being a Retired Marine, which means that every 2 to 3 years I was ripped out of the comfort zone I was in, placed in another unit, sometimes with very little in common with my peers, and expected to thrive. I learned early on that there would always be a few uncomfortable weeks or months at a new duty station, as I tried to build my new network of friends while balancing the requirements of work and family. The toughest of these experiences were when I would report to a new unit and then be physically separated from that unit to attend schools or qualifications courses required for my new job. When I would call back to my unit, I would feel like I was relating to absolute strangers, as I had yet to really form any bonds with them and was still the outsider and the “new guy”.
I think a similar problem has developed inside ISAP. Most people don’t build deep and lasting friendships from once-a-year meetings where a few minutes of pleasantries are exchanged over lunch or at the bar. To build these professional friendships requires interaction during the time in between. And not just “Hey, can I fly with you at Oshkosh?”
Personal experiences in ISAP
I’ll pick on Jim Koepnick a bit here. Even 4 years after first meeting him, there are times I feel like he’s staring at me as if to say: “who are you, again?” (He actually isn’t but it feels that way!) In his defense, since the first time we met, I’ve left the Marine Corps, grown my hair longer, grown a goatee, and put on a few pounds. But over those 4 years, we’ve talked several times on Facebook or via email, and a few times by phone. Because of our infrequent contact, I shouldn’t expect him to welcome me as a long-lost friend when I see him next. So I still walk up, smile, extend my hand, and re-introducing myself, at least until such a time as he sees me and says “Hey, Doug! What have you been up to?”
That is what professionals do as the “new guy”.
Professionals also give people their space. More than once I’ve walked up to re-connect with another photographer who I haven’t seen in years. We’ll exchange greetings and if the usual questions of new projects or subjects is followed by an uncomfortable moment of silence, I’ll move along. Often times the events that we meet up at (airshows, fly-ins and other aviation gatherings) are a “working event”, and as a result the time for socializing may be at a premium. Or maybe they just don’t like the 3G workshop series, my opinions on ISAP, or my personality. None of those things make me any less of a photographer, or any less of a member of ISAP. Not all of us are going to enjoy each other’s company all of the time!
So what is the point of my discussing this? I truly think that ISAP has lost a significant number of members because it failed to find a way to make their membership in the organization relevant. If a new member felt it difficult to interact with established photographers at the symposium, and there was no interaction from the organizational hierarchy either, then it is no wonder they went elsewhere, and took their membership dues with them.
How do professional organizations with charters similar to ISAP’s retain these new members? They have sponsors. In many of these organizations, you have to be sponsored to join, regardless of your background, portfolio, or qualifications. The cynics among us would say that is done in order to keep out those that “do not fit in”, but I’ll take a more optimistic view. These organizations benefit from that sponsor (who is already known to the organization) being that direct link between the “establishment” and the “newbies”. They are there to readily answer the barrage of questions that each new member has, and they provide the organization’s leadership a much smaller audience to canvas for new ideas, recommendations and to help with the organization’s messaging.
Here is my challenge to ISAP:
Find a membership coordinator (and retain them for more than a few months). Empower this person to build the internal network of the organization starting from the Board of directors to the newest members. As an organization, come to grips with who is connected to who in the “business” of aviation photography. If there are “disconnected” members, find more experienced ones to sponsor them. Don’t stop asking, be persistent until each member is linked to another, whether geographically, experientially, or by photographic interest.
And if you have the courage to do so, require sponsorship for new members entering ISAP.
But I don’t imagine you will, as the Board of directors has shied away from many tough decisions over the past several years, leaving the President, Larry Grace, to make unilateral decisions that have often had the opposite effect to what was desired. But that too, is the subject of another post.
(It seems I have my blogging work cut out for me, doesn’t it?)