#sxsw2016: i heart ira

sxsw 2016 has been officially over for a little while now and in that time i managed to drop my iphone in water. not sure yet whether the data that was on that phone will be recoverable, and one of the biggest losses i’m feeling is my notepad where i was jotting down all the wise words and hot tips and fun anecdotes my favorite panelists were sharing during the film and interactive festivals. thank god the good folks at sxsw taped a lot of the sessions, including the ira glass conversation that mark olsen led.

so much great stuff happened at that talk.

first things first: ira glass is a dreamboat. as with lots of the folks on NPR whose voices i recognize, i didn’t know what he looked like. and then he walked out in all his tall, lanky glory, with wavy, dark hair, silver at the temples, bold, dark-rimmed glasses that didn’t hide the twinkle in his eye, and a sharp-looking blazer with a button-down and slim jeans. i attended the talk with a girlfriend of mine who was completely atwitter before the talk even began. as the hour went on, her crush became our crush.

his easy-going demeanor, constant grin, and earnest desire to answer his interviewer’s questions well were totally charming.

he discussed topics like his start in radio, his evolution as a journalist, this american life, of course, and he mused on the success of serial, praising julie snyder and the folks who produce the show and believed in the concept when he was skeptical. he had some interesting insights into the boon to shows like his that came with the emergence of podcasting technology and itunes as a distribution platform. and he shared about getting into filmmaking, producing 2 films with mike birbiglia.

toward the end of the hour the questions from the audience started, and 2 awesome things happened.

  1. he got a request to make a balloon animal. the woman asking had seen him speak in austin on a prior occasion and he had made one then. drawing a balloon from his bag, he began to make a blue poodle for her, explaining that he had done magic tricks at parties as a kid and that he always carries balloons with him for occasions such as these…and when he was a guest on ask a grown man. this segment alone is worth watching in the video of the talk–it starts around 52:20.
  2. and then the director of “thank you, del,” who was a fan of ira’s famous thoughts on taste and talent, asked if there was any follow-up ira wanted to offer. his response: do it now; don’t wait.

if you ever get a chance to hear ira glass speak, do it now; don’t wait.

and don’t ask him for a selfie; ask him for a balloon animal.

#sxsw2016: broad city, branding and brené brown

depending on whom you ask, south by southwest is either one of the best things about living in austin or one of the worst.  on the bright side, the town is flooded with (even more)  inspiring and creative people, amazing bands, and the streets downtown burst with interesting things to do and see.  on the other hand, the traffic goes from terrible to nightmarish all around the heart of the city and normal life for permanent residents is totally disrupted.

in the past i have always approached it like this: avoid downtown for the interactive and film portion and then pick a day or two during the music festival to wander around the east side during the day, checking out various free showcases and just seeing what i can see.

this year, for the first time since i moved to austin 7 years ago, i’m attending SXSW all proper like.  got a gold badge which gives me access to interactive and film events, so i’m taking advantage of it…and getting up early in order to do so.


saturday was the first day i got into it full swing.  my alarm went off at 7:10AM–unheard of for me on a saturday.  all so that i could have time to get coffee, get downtown, and get in line for the broad city talk, moderated by anne fulenwider, editor-in-chief of marie claire magazine, set to start at 9:30.


broad city: abbi jacobson and ilana glazer

i got to the large hall at the austin convention center about an hour early, posted up in the 3rd row, and settled in to re-read the new yorker article from 2014 that had introduced me to abbi and ilana in the first place.  during that time the room got packed until, right on time, they strolled on stage, looking amazing–ilana in a flowy cream-colored shirt dress and abbi in chic black stilettos and her hair all sleek and enviably glossy.

it was completely worth the painful wake up.  IRL they were fun, charming, unpretentious, and endearing.  like total pros, they were very unassuming and open in talking about their inspiration to move from UCB into making the web series that opened the door to their huge success in the comedy central line-up and about their unflagging drive to be connected to the material and the direction of the show.

highlights of the talk included hearing about upcoming cameos (the HRC episode is happening this coming wednesday, apparently!), musings by both ilana and abbi about modern feminism and the comedic tools that help them take fractions of themselves to the nth degree to make comedy gold, and an awesome moment when a woman from Bed, Bath & Beyond got up to tell abbi she loved her.

after lots of adoring questions (and one super awkward one) and big applause, the standing-room-only crowd began filing out and it was time to move on.


for the 12:30 slot i trotted across the street to attend a panel called, “launching a brand.”  this was an appealing topic to me as i teach my students about the importance of having a brand as photographers, but i haven’t really studied brand marketing and wanted to learn more.  and i totally lucked out.

not only were the panelists in this talk super articulate, knowledgeable, and extraordinarily qualified, but the moderator, natalie cofield, was also outstandingly poised and prepared.  she asked terrific questions and they gave terrific answers.  while sat between 2 women on macbook airs, gently clicking away as they took down kernel after kernel of branding wisdom, i took copious notes in my moleskine, quickly running out of room on the page.

perhaps the best nuggets i came away with are these:

  • your brand is the idea of your company or services that exists in the mind of your customer
  • a brand represents a relationship in which customers’ expectations and needs are (hopefully) met consistently in a way that resonates with them and their values
  • 3 basic questions that can help start-ups and entrepreneurs hone their business models:
    1. what do customers want or need?
    2. what are my (company’s) core competencies?
    3. what’s already happening in the space where i want to be?

while, as a freelance photographer, there are much smaller scales on which this is directly applicable for yours truly, i think these bits of advice can help anyone seeking to establish a clearer sense of oneself or one’s business and to define how one can fit into a given market.  big thanks to therese hayes, rob malcolm, and rick sharga for all the information so generously offered!


after that inspiring experience, i tagged along with a friend to hear dr. brené brown, a keynote speaker on the sxsw schedule who drew an enormous crowd.  yet again, i was not disappointed.

having run out of space in my notebook, i turned to taking notes on my phone, filling the screen over and over again with phrases and impressions from the talk.  for an hour straight dr. brown shared fascinating insights from her research into vulnerability, courage, and the coping mechanisms of highly resilient people.

among the stream of notes i took a few things stand out.

  • firstly, she encouraged identifying specific people in one’s life whose opinions matter.  because in this day and age one is likely to get unsolicited opinions from a wide range of sources, many of whom have never met you and you’ve never met them.
  • secondly, she acknowledged that with creativity and innovation come failure.*  trying new things pretty much demands it.  the important thing is getting back up once you’ve fallen down.
  • finally, with much humor, she gave the crowd a lesson in “tactical breathing,” known as “box breathing” among yogis.**  it’s a technique to be paired with mindfulness (aka paying attention to one’s thoughts and feelings) when a stressful, painful, or scary moment pushes us into heightened emotional states.

by the time she had ended her talk i think everyone in that room was feeling empowered and inspired.  if there’s a podcast or a video of the talk out there, i would track it down.  in the meantime, toby shapshak covered the talk for forbes very well.


*interestingly enough, failure seems to be a theme at sxsw which leads me to believe that, among these lauded and influential people being celebrated for their creative and innovative work, failures have been plenty and these are the folks who have worked through them and come out on top.

** basically, breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, hold for 4.  and be sure to draw a box in the air with your hand whilst doing this.  jk.  instead, i think i’ll just sing to myself 4 and 3 and 2 and 1 ;)