The (subtle) power of relationships: the story of a photographer

Fabian Pfortmüller
Together Institute
Published in
3 min readApr 20


Photo by Harold Wijnholds

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to spend three days with an amazing group of network weavers from the BMW Foundation. I walked away with many beautiful moments from our time together. And yet there is one conversation that I’m still thinking about: a chat with Marc, the photographer. Many gatherings these days have someone present to document the experience and capture photos and videos. And Marc was there to do that. But his involvement felt very different. He wasn’t there just as another contractor. He’d been with this group for many years and documented countless gatherings across the globe. Many people in the group knew him and Marc knew them. Marc was part of our lunches, dinners and circles. The interaction between him and the participants felt different. It felt relational instead of transactional.

I constantly think about the question: What becomes possible when we are more in relationship with each other? And I have experienced the immense power of relationships as groups collaborate and people support each other. And yet Marc made me realize that there must be innumerable examples of the power of relationships that are way more subtle.

Even somewhat simple (and often rather transactional) interactions such as a photographer at events are transformed into something more profound when done in a relational way. I felt the comfort that participants had with Marc being around. They allowed him to be present in vulnerable and sometimes tense moments. At times they actively invited Marc into their circle when having off-the-records conversations. They were having fun with him. They played with the camera. They took photos of him.

I realized the subtle but impactful difference this makes at a different gathering with a different group. Thirty of us were in conversation when I noticed that we had two photographers swarming around, one whom I had briefly met, the other I didn’t know. It felt invasive. The space felt a tiny bit less safe.

What difference does it make?

Will we be able to tell the difference in the quality of photos? Maybe, maybe not. And yet I sense it matters. While it might not make the photos better, I’m convinced that a relational approach changes the spirit of the group. In a small way it contributes to creating an inviting and caring space. And it helps nurture the soil for bigger possibilities to emerge.

This, of course, isn’t about photos. It’s about how we treat the people we work with. And maybe behind this is a simple mantra for relational design: If we want to design for the relational wellbeing of a group, we have to relationally include all elements of the system. Also the photographer. And the logistics person who has been organizing day and night for weeks. And the admins who helps the group behind the scenes throughout the year. And the board member who holds power. And the kids our members care for. Because otherwise we create an us and a them.

I’m celebrating this example and the people at BMW Foundation who chose to invest into this relationship. Because having Marc there didn’t happen by accident, it was a strategic decision. A decision to stick with the same photographer. An investment into that relationship.

What future would become possible if we included all our contractors in such a relational way?

Thank you

A big thank you to Marc for his inspiration and reading a draft of this story.

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Fabian Pfortmüller
Together Institute

Grüezi, Swiss community weaver in Amsterdam, co-founder Together Institute, co-author Community Canvas, |