Talent is an illusion: Olivia Bee at TEDxAthens 2013


Translator: Florencia Sisi
Reviewer: Julieta Baccaro Hi guys, I’m Olivia Bee. I’m a photographer and director
out of Brooklyn, New York. Thank you so much
for having me in Athens. This place is totally amazing. I’m here to talk to you about
a lot of things. I guess I should have divided this
into 6 TED talks, so I apologize in advance. I’m going to talk to you about art,
authenticity, success, feelings, and living your life
and not just talking about it. But I want to give
a little background first. I’m a photographer and a director
but mostly a photographer right now. I photograph a lot of different things, for a lot of different brands
and publications. But my favorite thing to photograph
is my own life: the magical and honest moments
that make it all worth it, the moments that help you feel alive
and make you thankful to be human. When I photograph my life and the people,
places and events in it, I try not to interrupt. Above my photographs, my subjects
are more important to me. And this is because these
are the people that I love. When I capture these feelings, and I haven’t interrupted
my experience or their experience, I have succeeded. Part of the importance of this is that
I am really about the authentic moment. And capturing the authentic moment
helps me remember how beautiful life is and how much I love it. Because I don’t want to spend
my whole life photographing it, instead of living it. Souvenirs don’t really mean anything
if you didn’t actually take the trip. Photographs don’t replace my memories;
they represent them. As for the photographs
I make commercially, I do this to continue to drive my career and to challenge myself. For me, it’s really important to see
beauty in all places and this includes advertising. I’ve been working since I was
a pretty little kid in an industry run by adults. I still kind of am a little kid. I hate to talk about it because
everyone talks about it for me, but I know people are really intrigued. I get asked a lot about how
I have changed from kid to adult so fast, and how it makes me feel,
if I am still 19 or if I am 35, and if working as a little kid
in an adult world is a big deal for me. But I guess what I have to say is that
this is just my version of normal and my age really shouldn’t matter
as much as it does. In terms of growing up,
let me put it to you this way: the other day I bought Q-tips
for the very first time in my adult life and this was more transformational
for me than a magazine cover. I never really got the chance
to transition into being an adult. It more just happened to me.
It was very gradual. But I would love to get away from my age
as the main topic of conversation when people exchange words with me. But I guess it doesn’t really help that
my face looks like this. People put a lot of pressure on me
because I have young success. It has the potential to overshadow
the rest of my career. People sometimes look at my age
more than my photographs. People also think I am
oblivious to this, which I am not. I guess when people are
talking about success, they’re referring to my client list,
which is measurable. But what I am most proud of
is my actual photographs and how happy it makes me
to make them. Because when you think about
why people make things, or what makes them happy,
and why or how people have talent, I have a lot of trouble regarding
the measurement of happiness and success
in quantifiable terms like clients. I don’t think success is measurable, I don’t really think
happiness is quantifiable and talent isn’t concrete. One of my best friends
told me something that was one of the sweetest things
I’ve ever heard anyone say to me. I kind of feel like an asshole
repeating it because it’s about myself, but I think the idea is
so much bigger than myself. And what he said was,
“You taught me what talent is, and that it’s not something genetic. Talent does not actually matter because it’s an illusion. It’s not something you were born with because talent is actually drive. It is the need to get better
because you love something.” So many people cut themselves off
from being creative because they feel like
they don’t have talent. And this is a huge problem because
talent isn’t that real of a thing. Talent is drive. Talent is the need
to get better at something and developing skill along the way. This brings me to
another quote that I love that’s about some of the same stuff,
from Ira Glass, “Nobody tells this to people
who are beginners. I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we
have good taste. But there’s this gap. For the first couple of years
you make stuff. It’s just not that good.
It’s trying to be good. It has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing
that got you into the game, is still killer. And this is why your work
disappoints you. A lot of people never get
past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do
interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this
special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this,
and if you’re starting out or you’re still in this phase,
you have to know that it’s normal and the most important thing
you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that
every week you’ll finish one story. It will only be by going through
a volume of work that you’ll close that gap, and your work will be
as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out
than anyone I’ve ever met. It is going to take a while.
It is normal to take a while. You just have to fight
your way through.” I think this is really important stuff
to remind people. Humans, being humans,
can be very easily discouraged. People tend to give up because
they disappoint themselves. But I think this disappointment
is essential for growth, because then you push yourself. You ask yourself questions.
You criticize yourself. You ask yourself how you can
make yourself even better. Because when you love something and when you appreciate
something so much and something makes you so happy,
you can burst through this wall. Because this wall is not
made out of stone. After my friend said what he said to me,
we came to the conclusion that our work used to really suck, especially mine, Circa 2007. But how we loved it so much that it was inevitable
that we needed to fight. We also know that every day
is still a struggle; neither of us are ever
completely happy with our work. But this is what drives it. Sometimes I get my film back
and I look at all of the photographs I made in the last 2 weeks and think, “Wow, that says almost
everything I wanted to say.” The key word being ”almost”. The power of the mindset of “almost”
is just like how disappointment is essential for growth. Because wouldn’t it be boring to
always be happy about where you are at in terms of success
and how far you can push yourself? To not strive for something? What is even the point of that? Isn’t that the point of being alive? And to further ask
open ended life questions that vaguely relate
to art and TED talks, aren’t feelings the reasons
we keep ourselves alive, while we strive for things? Feelings drive everything I do,
especially my work. My photography is never
about anything but a feeling. One of my biggest problems
with doing commercial work, or work where there is
a certain shoe, or color, or person, that I am
supposed to show, is that my photography really
isn’t about anything like that specifically. Because my photography really
isn’t about anything specifically. It’s about the feeling of
all of these combined elements. I guess it is about auras.
And it is not even how it looks, which is a confusing thing to say, but photography isn’t
entirely visual for me. I mean, I care about
how things look. Obviously. I do one of the most visual
art forms there is, where you literally take reality,
and interpret, distort, or simply show it, and make it
into something two-dimensional. I use the shapes of my objects
in my photographs to make a mood or I combine that with the colors,
or I make it so that you can feel people’s personalities
dripping off of each other, or I show that you can feel warmth
even when it’s black and white. The creation of auras
and the capturing of a feeling is the reason I photograph. Speaking of feelings,
I don’t understand this thing we have in our society that tells us
that feelings equal weakness. Maybe it has to do with sexism, maybe it hits close to home
because I am a girl, maybe because I am a younger girl
– stop talking about my age, guys. Or maybe it has to do with
how disconnect is linked with power. When you look at many of the people
who have high positions in power, or in society, like rulers,
and maybe even police officers, a lot of them crave power. And there’s a disconnect there. People who are power seekers
for one’s own benefit are not the best at creating trust
or being on the same level with people. Luckily not all people who are in
positions of power are like this. There are also a lot of people
in positions of power who want to help develop
human relationships and embrace human connection. But I think it is all about
your intentions. I guess what it all really boils down to
is that emotion is power. And when emotions are 100% true
and real, this power is amazing, because feelings are so powerful.
Especially in art. This is how you see eye to eye with people
and this is how you develop trust. Feelings are why we have love ballads,
and the Taj Mahal, and the Mona Lisa, and every important and touching
piece of art and every beautiful song ever written. Feelings drive everything. You have to pour your soul
into what you do. People have to be honest. And people have to be in love
with something, whether that is the girl next door and you show her through your songs, or if you love America and
you show people through your paintings, or if you are in love with life
and you show people through your camera. This combination of love and honesty,
I tend to call it authenticity. And authenticity is the thing
that resonates with people. Humans know when
other humans are authentic. It’s the same muscle that
tells us when somebody is lying. You can feel soul. You can taste it. And this pertains to everything. What you do and how you do it.
It literally applies to every action. It applies to how you make your art, the people you surround
yourselves with, the way you talk to people. It even applies to what you post on
Facebook and what you post on Twitter. You have to be authentic. You have to put love into what you do
because it all trickles down to love. Love is the reason. Period. I love this quote from Keaton Henson
which is, “I think a lot of art is trying
to make somebody love you.” And maybe that someone that
Keaton is talking about is the girl next door. Or the boy who sits
next to you in History. But maybe that someone that Keaton
is talking about is your camera, or your paint brush, or your guitar. Or maybe that someone is you. Maybe you’re trying to
fall in love with yourself by showing yourself that
you can feel things and you can channel your feelings
into something that feels beautiful. But you have to be in love with something
because it will drive your world. I always fall in like or fall in love with boys
and they kind of become my world for like a hot second and I want to
show them that I see pretty things and then maybe they will think
I am pretty. But even when I am in this cloud,
I am still really married to my work. And this is because
I make my work for me and I make it to show myself and other people who I care about
that life is beautiful. But this marriage also helps me
show these people that I like them
or that I love them and it helps us exchange a level of trust
that you cannot quantify. Photography is a very heavy art form. Like I said earlier it is literally
the interpretation, or distortion, or simply the display of the things
we see in front of us, what we see as reality. It has the potential to be brutally honest
or terribly misleading. I try to keep a balance in all of this. I photograph when feelings
are intense and alive, whether they are positive
or negative. I guess, in a nutshell,
you could say that I photograph magic moments,
honestly. Or, I photograph honest moments,
magically. This is the reality I show.
But it’s a very, very specific reality. My version of reality is just very
full of warmth and of film grain and light leaks and trust and optimism,
even when shit hits the wall. But I’m not the only one who has
a very specific version of reality because everyone does. This can change a lot more even when you’re looking into
a lens most of the time, which we all have really started to do,
because of this thing. I’m going to sound like a hypocrite, but I’m going to talk to you about
how this device has been a game changer and how it makes everyone
document everything and how this has the potential
to be a bad thing. The iPhone, or its godfather,
the internet, has changed everyone into
a journalist of their own lives. Through social media, we have become
obsessed with documenting everything. We are all about pictures,
pictures, pictures and recording things and reporting back
and curating a certain online persona. And yes, I am totally a hypocrite here
because I document my own life, and I also have an Instagram,
a Twitter, and a Facebook. I do not have a Google+ though
and I do not have a Pinterest because I don’t know if people actually
use that stuff. No offense, if you do. I know we can all solve this
as a community, but I am not sure how. But I feel like we’re over connecting
and we’re oversharing. With the ability to connect all people,
all the time, in all ways, this sort of leads to replacing
real connection with virtual connection. And this put in context can mean
when you go to “hang out” with people, sometimes you’re not even
really “hanging out”. But you bet you will be
tweeting and instagramming and facebooking and tumblring
about you hanging out. When all you do is talk about your life,
are you actually living your life? So, where do you stop and
make sure you’re interacting with the people in front of your face
and not just the people in your pocket? With this much technology
being so integrated into our lives, I think comes really
big responsibilities for everyone because we can all get better at this. Which brings us back
to authenticity. One of the problems with overconnecting
is that it changes our values. When you put something on Instagram,
most of the times it’s to show how cool that one thing that we did was. But the problem is that,
when everyone is instagramming the one cool thing that we did, how many people are actually experiencing
the one cool thing that we did? And how cool does that make
the one cool thing that we did? We have all started this trend
“living to document.” In this sense, we’re living
for other people. Also, all this technology
makes dating so hard. Because we have the ability to talk
to people literally at any time of the day at the touch of a finger,
through 20,000 different platforms, how do you know if he still likes you
when you put your instagram of you in the bikini with your dog in there
and he doesn’t like it? How do you know
if he still likes your dog? How do you know if he still likes you
if he doesn’t text you every five minutes or retweets your tweets about him
tweeting about you tweeting about? Can you even imagine being
a young bachelorette in this world? How do I know if he likes me
if he doesn’t take a drunk Snapchat of me
and send it to all his friends? There are just so many possibilities
for communication that it’s so confusing about why and when people
choose to communicate. There’s also this thing that everyone
can be a photographer because of the iPhone. Everyone can be a musician
because of garage band. Everyone can be a curator
because of Tumblr. Everything has become
extremely accessible, which has the potential
to be amazing because everyone should be able
to access all of these things. It’s so amazing because of
the general globalization of ideas. It can make for some really
weird and amazing art. This also means that people
are just making so much content. But, how much of that content
is actually good and who’s making it
for the right reasons? Basically, the right reason
is authenticity. Like I said before, everything
trickles down to authenticity and love. But I think this a very loaded idea
because it’s kind of complicated and, again, hypocritical, because nobody should ever
need a reason to make anything. This idea that art needs
to mean something and that there always has to be drive
behind something, that’s not true. Because sometimes it just feels good
to draw a stick figure, or instagram your cat, or write a dumb tweet about
Miley Cyrus, like I do everyday. Sometimes it just feels good
to create content and that is OK. But all this content and people’s reasons
behind all this content can get confusing because it is harder to recognize
talent and skill in this age because so much can be autotuned, or you can put the “rise” filter
on the photo of your cat, or there’s grammar check
on every program. But I do not think it’s ever hard
to recognize soul. Because whether it is
autotuned or not, it doesn’t really matter if you believe
in the song you’re singing. The same goes for photos. A beautiful photo
of the Empire State Building with the “hudson” filter on it
doesn’t really stand a chance against the photo you took of your friend
laughing at something you said, or the photo of your mom you took
on her 50th birthday. Hi, mom. Because authenticity, the combination
of love and honesty, is key. And humans sense it. And the great thing is
we can all be authentic because we’re all real humans
with real emotions. We just have to appreciate
what’s going on around us and what’s going on
in our hearts. We have to put ourselves
into what we do so that people will be able
to taste our souls and we don’t have to be afraid of that. Authenticity never goes out of style, and real life that’s comprised
of love and honesty is timeless. Thank you. (Applause)

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17 thoughts on “Talent is an illusion: Olivia Bee at TEDxAthens 2013

  1. Talent may seem like an illusion to someone who points and clicks for a living but not someone who can learn an instrument, draw, paint or write songs without effort, anymore than pick up math effortlessly. It is in the DNA. It's like saying mathematical ability is an illusion. Nonsense. If I hear a style of music, I can write something like it, playing all the instruments, despite only taking guitar lessons. It's in the genes. Conversely, algebra is gobblygook to me.

  2. She makes a great point about authenticity at the end, but I have to admit that her looking at her notes throughout the whole talk was a little bit distracting.

  3. Young, pretty white girl who comes from privilege becomes successful in her hobby?! You don't say!

    Think of the thousands of under-privileged youngsters out there who are far more talented than she is. Those kids are going to have a hell of a tougher time.

  4. Talent has many definitions and you just gave it your own, which is not a common one, btw.

    Generally speaking, a talent is an inborn ability to perform an activity. In that sense, talent is very real. It is not crucial for success but it can help; a little or a lot, depending on how talented you are. But persistence and determination (which is what you mean by "drive" I suppose) is far more important. But that is not talent.

    PS: The presentation is kind of all over the place… very confusing. The title has nothing to do with most of the subjects that she presented.

  5. I do really agree with what she said, just as a feedback, she should try no to read almost the whole time. But she is great!

  6. I'm not sure if this "there is no talent" is true, though it is said frequently. E.g. there are people who are not able to make sound of a saxophon, they just can't, but others can do it right away. It is talent in a certain way, no?

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