How Do You Collaborate to Create Real-Time Photo-Painting Portraits of Iconoclasts?

Photo by Asa Mathat of BBC Wildlife Cinematographer Tom Hugh-Jones, one of the 30+ photo-painting portraits produced live during the 2016 EG Conference.

This article describes the fast-paced artistic collaboration between photographers, artists, and students to create portraits of this gifted mix of people, ranging from rising tech innovators to living national treasures, from the godfather of design thinking to wildlife photographers and winner of the international beatbox championship.

At the 2016 EG Conference in Carmel, California, I was a member of a volunteer creative team tasked with documenting the conference presenters; people described as “among the most industrious and iconoclastic talents of our time.”

See video of the artists and photographers behind-the-scenes.

To see all of the photo-painting portraits from the 2016 EG Conference, go to: http://bit.ly/EG-10-Portraits


One of my heroes, David Kelley, along with his brother Tom Kelley, is the founder and chairman of the global design and innovation company, IDEO. He also founded Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known as the d.school. They co- authored the New York Times best-selling book, “Creative Confidence” (Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All).

ser·en·dip·i·ty

Coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

Photographer Asa Mathat takes a selfie with Hugh Welchman, an Oscar-winning filmmaker & writer, founder, Breakthru Films (and Van Gogh stunt double)

Few collaborations between artists emerge by accident.

Through luck or cosmic design, the water from two or more separate creative streams suddenly end up rushing over the same rocks.

Other collaborations are carefully curated by some benevolent dictator or wise maven who declares: “You two should work together!”

Then there are those collaborations that swoop down — seemingly from nowhere — and snatch you up.

My recent collaboration with an accomplished portrait photographer (and friend) falls under this delightful final category.

The team tosses shoes as Jodie Fox leaps into the air. Jodie is Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer at ShoesOfPrey.com — the world’s first website where women can design their own shoes.

Master photographer Asa Mathat has (by his own description ) no filter and no “off” switch.

Asa eats no sugar, nor imbibes caffeine. This, in and of itself, is impressive, because both his mouth and his body are in constant motion.

When he is working, he is in constant physical motion, adjusting drapes, clamps, poles, strobe lights, camera gear, schedules, assistants, and his favorite artistic subject, people.

Asa shows his photo to Michael Gunton, BBC Executive Producer for “Planet Earth II”

His nonstop friendly verbal patter seesaws from lewd and licentious comments to stories about famous people he has photographed : Tibet’s Dali Lama, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, or our dearly departed Spirit of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs of Apple.

The day before the conference, Asa was at Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco photographing co-founder Jack Dorsey.

Side note: Twitter’s other co-founder Evan Williams is also co-founder of Medium ;)

Over the phone a few weeks before the conference, Asa sketched out his vision for our cooperation: a unique one for me, based on an idea that emerged during another photoshoot.

EG Conference volunteer artists Amara and Dusan working with chalk markers on plexiglass.

A few months prior, Asa was commissioned to photograph a young street artist, who emerged as a central figure of the 2011 Arab Spring.

He took the artist around the city of Seattle with his cameras and a sheet of plexiglass.

A one-woman symphony and the world’s first female beatboxing champion, Butterscotch sings, plays guitar and keyboards, and writes her own music as well as playing everything from Chopin to Stevie Wonder. She has performed alongside music legends including Earth, Wind & Fire, Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin, and many others.

At each location, he instructed this young artist look at the scene and to draw what they saw. Not what is physically present, but what images, imaginations, visions, came from within. Then, using the clear plexiglass as a canvas, they drew over the urban landscape.

In his pitch to me on the phone, Asa said: “Yeah. I want to do something similar, but on two huge pieces of plexiglass. And for all 30 speakers at a 3-day conference.”

That’s me working with Asa Matha (middle), Serbian cartoonist Dusan, and two of our high school volunteers.

All of my anxiety sensors were glowing red. It sounded tricky to pull off. It sounded messy. It sounded hard.

Fortunately, whether on the phone or on the set, Asa is (to say the least) a very persuasive person. Consequently, I did not say “No.”

After a long cold, lonely winter in Chicago, I was desperate to collaborate with someone gutsy, fun, energetic, unafraid.

I wanted to work with Asa.

I mean, this is a guy who has a photo on his Facebook page of an 800-pound silverback gorilla nonchalantly strolling by him as he lay on his belly upon the jungle floor with his camera!

Photo by Kristin Knight of Asa Mathat in Rwanda (2016)

Since 2006, he has been the official portrait photographer for the EG Conference.

Created by Richard Saul Wurman, who also founded the TED & TEDMED conferences, the EG Conference — known as “e.g.” — is smaller in size, more intimate in venue, and nestled in the wooded hills and twisty lanes of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

Each year, for the speaker portraits, Asa aspires to create a different experience and conceptual filter for these people to express a different side of their personality.

OUR VOLUNTEERS (from left to right): Dusan, Warren Yu, Marian, Peter Durand, Lucy, Alison Kerr, Amara. NOT PICTURED: Casi, Tennyson, Thomas & Frank

For the 2016 conference, Asa invited me to be his collaborator for this experimental photoshoot. Unfortunately, I could only be there for two out of the three days.

Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, an energetic volunteer team emerged to help out: two instructors from the local US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, a talented Serbian cartoonist, and several super-smart, self-declared “non-artistic” high school volunteers from the NPS STEM Internship Program.

Together, we had a unique challenge, and none of us had done anything quite like it before.

Each portrait session required a four step process…

STEP 1: Interview

Working with Sandeep Das, master tabla musician & composer, to create an image with Sanskit text for his song about a thunder storm.

Briefly interview the subject of the portrait and try to pull out a visual theme, key word, symbol, or scene that sums up who they are and what is important to them and their work.

STEP 2: Ideate

As a team, quickly brainstorm, plan out, design, and paint a unique, multi-layered photo booth set to illustrate the person’s story. Super tricky because we needed to work with the photographer on what was possible.

STEP 3: Photoshoot

For a video of the wet and wild photo session for Sandeep Das, check out this video.

Photograph the person, often with some other challenge such as jumping off chairs, flinging water or paint, rolling plexiglass stands, hanging black drapery, swinging lights, or some other perilous piece of gear ready to reek havoc!

STEP 4: Reset the Studio

And then? Wash. Rinse. Wipe. And repeat. This had to happen 30+ times in 3 days.

The resulting portraits had an emotional range as diverse as the people at the center of the photograph.

Our portrait of photojournalist Giles Duley. In 2011, he lost both legs and an arm after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan whilst photographing those caught up in the conflict. Duley was told he’d probably never walk again. However, characteristically stubborn, he told his doctors “I’m still a photographer”, and returned to work in Afghanistan less than 18 months later. A mere 24 hours before this photoshoot, Giles was with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) working with Syrian refugees at a camp in Northern Iraq.

Topics ranged from deadly serious (police brutality, surviving war and disability) to the magnificent (eagles in flight, blue whales) to pure joy (performers, families, survivors).

As a former beat cop and police chief for 33 years, Jim Bueermann developed a holistic approach to community policing and problem solving that consolidated housing and recreation services into the police department and was based on risk and protective factor research into adolescent problem prevention.

We all had to hustle like mad. We also had to learn when to fade into the background to allow Asa to work with, inspire, encourage, and manhandle the subjects of his photography.

Asa Mathat works with oceanographer Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, and 
Bertrand Piccard explorer and pilot of the Solar Impulse, the solar airplane he is aiming to fly round the world.

We had to encourage these busy famous people to come to the ballet practice room we’d transformed into a hybrid black box theater meets paint studio and car wash.

It was quite a dance. And the results were pretty dang good.

When we began interviewing each presenter, they had either just witnessed the process performed on previous subjects or they had just walked in the room and had no clue what we were yammering about.

Architect of Tomorrow Eric Kuhne designs not just buildings, but entire cities, wrestling with the defining problem of our age: re-imagining earth’s intensely urban future, creating great civic spaces, in ways that are culturally enriching, communally uplifting, yet human scale. (video)

However, when they experienced the process and (more important) witnessed Asa’s final portrait, they were surprised. They were delighted.

And, they all said something to the effect of: “Wow. I have never done anything like that before!”

Conductor and composer John Quinn has spent a lifetime working with the most talented musicians on the planet, the NY Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, and many more. He told us, “Wow. I have never done anything like that before!”

All of the years of photographing world leaders, refugee families, skater punks, battered women, people on the fringes of greatness or obscurity has taught Asa one skill for certain.

As he puts it:

“No matter what someone thinks of themselves, I know how to work together and give them an image they can feel proud of.”
Unbroken by blindness in 1998, Mark Pollock went on to compete in ultra endurance races across deserts, mountains, and the polar ice caps including being the first blind person to race to the South Pole. He was left paralysed after a 2010 fall from a second story window. He is now exploring the frontiers of spinal cord injury recovery combining an innovative electrical stimulator over his spinal cord and a drug super-charging his nervous system, whilst walking hundreds of thousands of steps as the world’s leading test pilot of Ekso Bionics robotic legs.

After working with him on this crazy project, I can say another thing for certain, that dude Asa knows how to collaborate!


To see all of the photo-painting portraits from the 2016 EG Conference: http://bit.ly/EG-10-Portraits

To see more behind the scenes photos by Asa’s talented assistant Skyler Stanley, click here.

SPECIAL THANKS to the organizers of the EG Conference, specifically: Gordon Garb, Jane Rosch, and conference director Michael Hawley. And, as mentioned above, we could not have pulled this off without US Naval Postgraduate School faculty Warren Yu and Alison Kerr, and the high school students of the STEM Internships.

QUESTIONS? If you have questions or would like us to bring the magic to your conference or event, contact Asa Mathat (asa@asamathat.com) or our team at Alphachimp (www.alphachimp.com/contact)