Look at the photograph below…

Just look…

Stay with it a bit longer…

Let the thoughts and connections play…

Staircase, Hotel le Charron, Paris, France
Atget, Jean-Eugène-Auguste, born 1857 – died 1927 . Photograph copyright V&A Museum

… now what if I were to tell you that this was the scene of a crime?

What are the thoughts that are now emerging in your mind?

The question above, is what Martin Barnes, the V&A’s senior curator of photographs, asked me as we were taking a walk around the museum. Barnes is a renowned expert in his field, a highly intelligent man, diplomatic and polite, but, as I often find with experts, someone whose expertise brings an authority in relation to which I feel quite inferior. This sets up a barrier to connection.

Having had a number of “walk and talks” with him and feeling that we had not properly connected, I was struggling. So, I asked him to “show me some photographs”. He seemed to open up immediately, in the comfort of employing his own focus and intelligence, and we began to talk more freely, openly and constructively.

The photograph on the left is not, in fact, of a crime scene. It is one of a series taken by the French photographer Eugène Atget between 1897 and the 1920s as part of a project to record “old Paris” driven by the disappearance of buildings as schemes of modernization swept the city. And, as Barnes told me, it was the philosopher Walter Benjamin who noticed “how these images operated beyond their ostensible purpose, appearing unintentionally, but uncannily, like the ‘scene of a crime’”.

What I noticed, however, was how the simple invitation “show me some photographs” and the act of looking at something together, had completely changed our conversation, and with that, the thinking we could do together.

What is it about walking, talking and looking at things that changes the conversation?

How is it different from our usual ways of working?

And what’s the point?

Now I asked this question of another colleague, an archivist, and his view was radically different.

He said, “I don’t see it at all, I normally see photographs as pieces of paper, ones that I am cataloguing or conserving, and many hundreds of them perhaps in a day. Often a little bit crumpled, maybe a bit torn, they haven’t been mounted, they haven’t been framed, they haven’t been put on a wall in the context of a gallery or with other things.”

Two very different views, both deeply influenced by preconceptions of what might be there. And these preconceptions are what we brought ourselves to that moment of looking.

The question to ask yourself as a leader before you go into your next meeting is  “What is the picture of this meeting that I have in my mind?”

Look at that picture…

Just look…

Stay with it a bit longer…

Let the thoughts and connections play…

… and now ask yourself

  • “What are the preconceptions I am holding about that picture?”
  • “What piece of information or event could suddenly alter those preconceptions?”

And then think about the other people who are going to be at the meeting, and remember that whatever your picture is, there’s will certainly be different.

If you are still wondering, like Walter Benjamin, “And what’s the point?”, then read some articles on this website to find out.

Parts of this piece were originally published in Dialogue Magazine, March 2015