My son and I were talking the other day, and the subject of the conversation was about asking for things.
I’ve learned, over the years, that often you don’t get what you want because you don’t ask for it. This concept has been around for thousands of years. I learned it pretty clearly on a number of occasions, We talked about how, if you don’t ask for something, the answer, if you will, is a guaranteed ‘no’, whereas if you do ask, the answer is at least a ‘maybe’.
So I got to thinking about this whole thing – realized that a number of the stories I’ve written are because I simply didn’t understand that someone could possibly say ‘no’ to a well reasoned, logical request. The story about Fifi is a prime example. So’s the story about Misty 42. There’s a bunch of unwritten stories still in my head that are the same way – and this whole thing could apply to any life situation. I mean seriously, what right did I have to badger a newspaper photo editor that I didn’t know into holding space for me on the front page of his paper so I could talk my way onto the only flying B-29 in the world… Then again – who was I to just casually talk my way onto a KC-135 tanker (twice, actually) and get a picture of an F-4 Phantom seconds before it refueled? (Those are the above stories) Who was I to get strapped into a C-130 for the greenest ride of my life?
What did I do to deserve something as cool as some of the things I was privileged to do?
Well – the answer’s pretty simple. I asked.
See – that whole thing about a guaranteed “no” is something I learned early on, whether it involved asking a young lady out on a date when I was younger, or asking for a seemingly nonexistent transmission for my car, or if I somehow could get go onto a plane, train, or automobile (yes, I have stories of all three) – it was still the same. If I didn’t ask, the answer was no. So… I asked. So with that as a little bit of a background, let me take you to a small town in west central Ohio for one of these stories – just because it was an example of what a difference asking a question like that can make.
I’d just started my internship as a photojournalist at the Sidney Daily News, and was between assignments, looking for some of what they called “Feature” shots. That means anything that makes you think thoughts like “oh, cool!” or “gosh, I wonder how they got that shot”, or just something that’s a fun picture to take, something to share with the folks who live in the area, and, hopefully, is of general interest. Part of this was just having a fresh set of eyes that hadn’t seen anything like this town before, part of it was just curiosity. So being between assignments, I found myself in the center of town, driving circles counter clockwise around the courthouse. There was construction going on, and I thought I could make an interesting image out of it. I saw a fellow up on the scaffolding, and figured I’d found something to work with – so I parked the car, grabbed my gear, and moved so there weren’t trees in the way. I realized I’d need my 300 mm Nikkor 4.5 because of how far I was – then realized that wasn’t enough. Hmm. I put the doubler on it, making it act like a 600 mm lens. Then I got down on one knee, steadied myself with one elbow on the trunk lid of the car, and then realized that I was taking a shot anyone on the street could take with what was then the camera that produced some of the crappiest pictures on the market, a Disc Camera. Oh, sure, my shot would look like it was shot through a telescope compared to the Disc Camera, but that wasn’t the point… The point was that I’d been hired to take photographs that other people couldn’t see, that other people couldn’t get to, or that other people would never in their wildest dreams think of taking. I mean, it was possible to take a photograph of the courthouse from the ground and have it look great. I found a shot online and asked the fellow if I could use it (Thank you David Grant)– and here it is:
Problem though, was the light for what I wanted to shoot, while gorgeous like the shot above, wasn’t that gorgeous on the side of the court house where my picture was waiting for me. I knew that – I’d driven around the thing, and sure enough, all the action was on the shady side. Sigh. I put the camera down before I took a poorly lit shot anyone else could take from across the street, and stood up.
And then I did something dangerous.
I started wondering…
I wondered what the view from up there was like…
And then I wondered how I could get up there…
And then I did some thinking about how I could get up there.
See, if you want to get into a building, and if you want to go straight to the top, it’s best to start right at the bottom – and often, as in this case, the fellow at the bottom is the janitor.
Janitors are amazing people. They have keys for EVERYTHING. So I made sure the car was locked, threw everything over my shoulder and headed into the courthouse, to have a chat with whoever was playing receptionist and see if together we could find the janitor. One receptionist’s phone call later, I was introduced to the older gentleman with the iconic huge ring of keys, and I heard myself give what would be my standard greeting for the next few months, “Hi, my name’s Tom Roush and I’m a photographer for the Sidney Daily News…” followed by the question of the day. In this case, it was: “I see you’ve got some work being done on the roof, and was wondering if I could get some shots of it for the paper. Is there any way I could get up there?”
I don’t think five minutes had gone by from the time I didn’t take that picture over the trunk of the car until I was walking out of the elevator, through a dusty attic filled with huge beams, and through a small open window onto the roof. The janitor looked out, called up to the fellow I’d seen, then stepped aside and let me crawl out. I introduced myself to the fellow many feet over my head up on the scaffolding and asked if I could come up. He stopped his caulking for a moment and looked down, seeing I was carrying a camera bag, a couple of cameras, including that one with the 300 mm lens and the doubler on it.
Somehow bringing the bag up there onto the scaffolding was deemed, without any words needing to be spoken, a bad idea. So I set it down, put the 24mm wide angle lens on the F-3, slung it over my shoulder, and carefully climbed up the scaffolding. I climbed on top of the topmost section so I could look down and see him, my goal being to see – and thus tell a story – that no one else could see. I sat on the very top of the scaffolding, wrapped my right leg around the vertical part of the support, leaned back, (yes, the scaffolding leaned with me, but not by much) composed the frame so the horizon was at the top, then told the fellow to just keep working as he could (as I write this I still can’t believe I did that – there was nothing but air between me and the roof about 30 feet below, and had I slipped, I would have rolled down, then off the roof and fallen another 40 feet or so before becoming one with the pavement.
And the thing is – I could have taken that first shot from across the street, it would have been safe – but it would have been a totally forgettable image, lost in the back of the paper somewhere.
But I didn’t take that first shot.
I wondered, “What if?”
I wondered, “What can I do that will make this better?”
And then I realized the only thing keeping me from making it better was me.
I had to go in, ask a question that they could have easily said,”No.” to, and that would have been that.
But I didn’t.
And when you’re faced with weird situations in life when you’re just thinking there’s no way you can succeed – trust me, there are ways you can succeed.
And stand out – literally above the crowd.
There have been times in my life – and there will be times in yours, when you find you can barely think of the question to ask, much less step out of your comfort zone and ask it, but that little thought, that maybe, just maybe, asking will make a difference, that *is* the difference. In fact, often, the hardest/simplest/most important thing of all is for you to step out of your comfort zone and just ask.
Now, understand, whoever you’re asking might say no, and you’ll be right where you were before you asked the question, but so what?
You can try something else then.
On the other hand, if you don’t ask, the “no” is guaranteed.
Take care – really – be careful out (and up) there.
And don’t forget, it’s okay to ask.
Think about it: what’s the worst that can happen? (they say “No”, and life hasn’t changed. But if you do – the results can be magic. I’m working on a few more stories that will show you what happens if you dare to ask – they’ll come out over the next year or so, and often, they will be the story behind a photograph (which is proof in and of itself) All that said, here (below) is the shot I’ve been describing. (in another frame you’d see the camera bag teetering at the bottom of the frame, but that one didn’t make the final cut)…
…and how it appeared in the paper the next day.