“Everyone who’s here really is authentic and kind of weird…and that’s what makes you want to work with them.” – K.M. Davis, Founder of Davis Law Office
K.M. Davis describes herself as a lawyer “who apparently doesn’t look like a lawyer.” In this clip, Davis talks about the power of authenticity and not hiding parts of yourself to fit in and please other people, especially at work.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Davis about her experiences as an unlikely entrepreneur at CoCo Minneapolis, where we’re both members and where Davis runs her firm Davis Law Office which is the only GLBT-certified law firm in Minnesota. Unlikely Entrepreneurs is an occasional live event series I started that features one-on-one interviews with people who became entrepreneurs unexpectedly and under unlikely circumstances. This is an experimental conversation project and I’m excited to see how it will evolve.
You can watch the full interview with Davis here. Many thanks to videographer Jeff Achen from CallSign51 for producing this video.
Abe Lackow has a voice of Brooklyn, or maybe the Bronx. It’s not a voice I expected to hear with such booming clarity in the heart of the Arizona desert.
I met Abe at on the outskirts of Tucson at a place called the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I immediately noticed his bolo tie and turquoise-silver bracelet. Whatever stickball-playing, outer-borough New Yorker he’d might have once been, had given way to a newer Southwestern self. Abe was clearly thriving in this desert habitat.
I noticed that Abe was wearing a name tag that said “Docent.” He appeared to be some kind of park ranger. I had to find out what he was doing in this outdoor nature center, surrounded by cactuses and rattlesnakes.
Abe is now in his sunset years. He told me he’s always had a passion for “living things, breathing things…even plants.” These weren’t the fodder of his paid career, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Now Abe gets to spend his days talking to people about hummingbirds and snakes. And what could be better than that?
Me interviewing Abe Lackow at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. Photo credit: Nicki Adler.
Editor’s note: Another version of this story aired on Arizona Public Media’s “Arizona Spotlight” June 20, 2014. Many thanks as well to Britta Greene for lending her editorial ears to this story.
Music credit: “Desert Love” by Bandana Splits.
On a Sunday morning in the middle of a Minnesota winter, you’re likely to find photographer Jenn Ackerman out on a frozen lake somewhere, peering through her camera lens with a broad smile on her face. She’s not there on assignment. No one has given her a deadline. She has simply chosen to show up.
From the earliest beginnings of her career, Ackerman has maintained a fierce dedication to doing personal work — long-term projects that are driven by her own interest and curiosity. Even now, it’s a commitment she prioritizes alongside running a thriving commercial and editorial photography business together with her husband in Minneapolis.
Ackerman’s belief in the power of personal work holds lessons for us all. It’s about showing up for ourselves and affirming that our ideas matter, no matter what anyone else might think.
“It helps when people start noticing some of this work,” says Ackerman. “But they don’t notice it before you create it. You have to create it first.”
The Power of Personal Projects: Jenn Ackerman’s Story
It all started in grad school. Ackerman, who’s now 33 was only 26 then, and pretty green as a photographer. She’d gotten accepted into a visual communications program at Ohio University and quickly concluded that she was by far, the worst shooter in her class. When I pressed her on this, she told me that she’s not just being hard on herself. She was really and truly bad.
Ackerman’s embarrassment about her weaknesses as a photographer drove her to pursue self-initiated projects, separate from what her professors were assigning. Initially, she kept this a secret. But after a few months, she revealed what she’d been up to:
“We had a portfolio review and I came with these projects that no one had ever seen images from. And everyone was like, ‘What? When did you do this?”
As a grad student, Ackerman began documenting a family of 12 living in poverty. This was one of her first self-assigned personal projects. She would later win an award for her work.
Soon, Ackerman’s images got stronger and her confidence blossomed. She started dating another photographer in her cohort named Tim Gruber. The couple began doing projects together. They married in 2009, a year after earning their Master’s degrees.
“There’s no place for us in this world”
Ackerman and Gruber’s graduation coincided with the Great Recession. They’d been groomed as newspaper photographers, but that world was unraveling. They both landed internships at The Dallas Morning News where they observed the hemorrhaging of photojournalism jobs up close. It didn’t take long for Ackerman to conclude that there was no place for them in the newspaper industry.
After Ackerman finished one last internship at the mothership of newspapers — The New York Times — the couple decided to put the breaks on their job searches. They were unsure about how to launch themselves as freelancers and had grown tired of waiting around for jobs that never turned into anything real.
So in the fall of 2009 they packed up their things and headed to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where they could live rent-free in a beach house owned by Ackerman’s grandparents.
Retreating to the Outer Banks
They anticipated that their time in North Carolina would be short-lived; maybe a few weeks or a month. They stayed for seven. It was a pivotal period where they wrestled with the biggest questions of what they really and truly wanted for their lives as photographers and as a couple –- not just what they thought they were supposed to want:
“We never really sat down to say what do we really want with our photography? It was just, ‘I want to be a photographer because I enjoy it.’ But you don’t really think about what it brings you in your life.”
During those winter months in North Carolina, they gave themselves intense writing assignments. For two entire days, they wrote out long lists of all the things that made them happy — memories, places, people — anything they could think of that made them excited about life. Ackerman remembers that there were “lots of tears and lots of fights.” Patterns started to emerge that forced her to reckon with some uncomfortable truths:
“I always assumed that I just wanted to travel. I thought I could be a nomad. It would be so glamorous to travel from country to country and meet new people and learn new languages. How beautiful would that be? And then when you start realizing — that means you’ll have no friends and you won’t have a home base. I started realizing those are things I wanted as well.”
Accepting her feelings also meant giving up some fantasies:
“I think sometimes you think your life is going to be glamorous. But when it really comes down to it, you just want to be peaceful. And you want to be happy. And you want to have an amazing marriage. That’s ultimately what I wanted.”
Happiness = Minneapolis?
Ackerman and Gruber wanted to create their home base in a place where they’d have creative and financial freedom. Slowly and painfully, it became clear that affordable Minneapolis was the best fit. Minneapolis offered a mix of nature, potential Fortune 500 company clients, and family (Gruber grew up in Minnesota). On paper, the biggest downside was the long winter. Also, as a Virginia Beach ocean-dwelling native, Ackerman was apprehensive about moving away from friends and family on the East Coast.
Ackerman says that she never would have chosen the Twin Cities out of the gate: “Going to Minneapolis was not an idea that I was going to have or allow in my mind.” It took her about three months to fully accept the choice they’d made.
“It’s something that appeals to us”
During those winter months in North Carolina, Ackerman and Gruber reaffirmed their commitment to personal projects. It was a fertile period where they thickened their portfolios with fresh work.
We recognized that we loved the projects that we were doing. They’re projects that maybe don’t have a commercial appeal, maybe don’t even have an editorial appeal but it’s something that appeals to us. And so if we didn’t do them, we would not be creatively fulfilled and we probably wouldn’t get the work that we wanted.
And because she and Gruber had continued to steady themselves creatively with this personal work, by the time they arrived in Minneapolis in the summer of 2010, they felt confident about making it as professional freelance photographers, even though they were starting from scratch in a brand new city with no contacts:
In the midst of you working on a personal project, you become very confident that you can do this — this whole thing. That you can be a freelancer that you can be a photographer, you can be satisfied with it. Because you are being satisfied with your work.
A still from Ackerman’s project “Frozen” about wintertime life in the Midwest.
“What’s your dream assignment?”
Early on, Ackerman encountered an editor who asked, “What’s your dream assignment?” Neither she nor Gruber could quickly answer the question. But then they realized that the personal work they’d been assigning themselves all along constituted a portfolio of dream assignments. The editor’s question motivated them to keep going:
“We realized that whatever we wanted to be doing, we should just be doing on our own. We can’t wait for someone to assign it to us. And we realize that now. We love our clients and we love the work that we get from them, but if we wait around for them to give us our dream assignment, it’s probably never going to happen.”
Ackerman says that personal work and paid work don’t have to live in isolated galaxies; that in a best case scenario, personal work can attract unexpected opportunities. That’s what happened when the organizers of the Miss Universe pageant hired Ackerman and Gruber to tell the story of their pageant after seeing Ackerman’s Emmy-award winning project about mental illness inside a Kentucky prison:
“You can’t just wait for a perfect opportunity“
Since launching their business in Minneapolis in 2010, Ackerman and Gruber’s careers have soared. Their client list now includes the likes of of GQ, Bon Appetit, and Fortune. They recently photographed Rahm Emanuel for Esquire and traveled to Turkey on a commercial shoot for Target. In 2012, Ackerman was awarded a $25,000 McKnight Artist Fellowship to support her independent documentary work. She used the funds to pursue a long-term personal project called “Frozen” about the experience of winter in the Midwest.
Ackerman acknowledges that her devotion to personal projects would be more challenging if she couldn’t share these experiences with her husband:
“It helps that we’re a couple. We do this on our free time. We’re out there on a Sunday going to ice racing and photographing it. Whereas I think for other couples — your spouse is not going to go to ice racing with you, probably.”
Ackerman’s advice is simple. Just begin.
“Ultimately people always ask us, ‘how did you start this project?’ Well we just started it. I mean you can’t just wait for a perfect opportunity to start a project. You just have to go out there and start photographing or start writing.”
And she says not all projects necessarily endure. The litmus test is whether or not she’s having fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?
“You know when you’re enjoying something if you’re just pushing yourself really hard and you don’t have to be. Like you’re out in a negative 30 degree day and you have a smile on your face and you’ve been out there for eight hours, you know that you’re doing something you want to be doing.”
Jenn Ackerman is a photographer based in Minneapolis. She is one half of Ackerman + Gruber – which she runs together with her husband Tim Gruber. She says she uses her camera “to show people and social issues in the US that are often overlooked or ignored.” Her photographs have been recognized by the Inge Morath Award, Review Santa Fe/CENTER, Magnum Expression Award, the Honickman First Book Prize, Communication Arts Photography Annual and others for her ability to gain access to people and situations that the public rarely sees.
(All photos courtesy of Ackerman + Gruber)
Editor’s note: Lately I’ve struggled with fitting personal projects like this blog into my life. But Jenn Ackerman’s example inspires me to persevere. If Jenn’s story, or any of the stories in this career transitions series resonate with you, I’d love to hear from you. So please don’t be shy about contacting me. And special thanks to my friend Ellen Guettler for her help with editing this post.
Minneapolis style chronicles: Jimmy, 17, a student at Minnesota Transitions Charter School, likes changing up his hair style every few weeks. His girlfriend dyed his hair for the mohawk-ish style he’s sporting now.
Whenever he’s considering a new hairstyle, Jimmy will ask his girlfriend for advice.
Next, Jimmy wants to try dying his hair partly red–or maybe white. He hasn’t decided yet.
He says he does these things “for the fun of it.” He thinks it’s good to experience new things.
Jimmy told me that people compliment him for his hair experiments, but he also gets “are you crazy?” reactions. He doesn’t pay any of this much mind.
“It doesn’t matter how you look like,” says Jimmy. “You’re still a human person. Just be yourself.”
Billie Jean King at Wimbledon, 1975. (Photo credit: Michael Cole)
I retired at 40 from tennis and went to the World Team Tennis office the very next day. I had already planned what I was going to do in transition. I call it transition, not retiring. Tennis was not my primary. It was my secondary. It was my platform to try to help equality. – Billie Jean King in an interview with Fresh Air Host Terry Gross
I love this quote from Billie Jean King. Her words have stuck with me ever since I heard King interviewed by public radio host Terry Gross a few months ago.
When Gross asks King if it was difficult to retire from professional tennis, King is resolute in her response. No it was not hard, because tennis itself was never the main point. Her true work in the world didn’t begin until she stopped playing tennis, even though playing tennis is what she’s best known for.
So many people are looking for a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. King’s purpose didn’t come from the court and volley game of tennis. Instead, tennis was a means to an end. It gave her a platform and a public profile to shine a light on the things that really mattered to her: equality between men and women.
Equality was not an abstract philosophy for King. She devoted the second half of her career to creating a mixed doubles model where men and women play tennis together as teammates.
This reinvention of what tennis could be was always grounded in King’s deepest beliefs. As she explains to Gross at the end of their interview: “We’re in this world together, men and women, and we need to champion each other as humans…it’s very, very important to do this.”
So for anyone out there questioning ‘Why the hell am I doing what I’m doing?’ perhaps there’s something to be learned from King’s example. Can your work in the world be a means to an end that matters to you?
Or maybe you’re wired differently than King. Perhaps you need the daily practice of your work — your version of tennis — to be a purposeful and satisfying end in and of itself. I’m still figuring out where I fall on this continuum.