The Talent Has Left the Building

Posted on Dec 18, 2013 in copyright, Media, Photography, Print, Publishing | 5 Comments


Anyone who has done the basics of psycholinguistics – or even your linguistics 101 – is familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  I graduated with linguistics as my major – so I  spent my fair share of years with all things related to linguistics, languages and psychology – but I don’t think I have ever tried to make the connection to what I do today as my profession. The language I use/study/teach nowadays is that of images – sometimes moving images, more often stills – and I don’t think I have ever made a connection to linguistic theories before in writing.

But some weeks ago I heard John La Macchia talking in a conference arranged by FIMAGE and I suddenly found myself  amidst  the basics of psycholinguistics as he was continuously making reference to “the creatives” and “the talent”.

It suddenly hit me: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in full action.

The hypothesis basically states that the language we use determines our way of thinking. Or the milder version: the language we use influences strongly our thinking and subsequent actions. Typical example (always mentioned) is the sociolinguistic one: the Eskimo has over 200 words for snow. Thus not only can they express the nuances of snow, but their whole relationship with snow is determined/shaped by the language they have at their disposal.

Some languages have different ways of dividing time i.e. the past/present/future axis is not the only one around. If I remember correctly , the original example in S&W’s paper came from  the Indian language Hopi.

And this hypothesis is sometimes referred to as “linguistic relativism” as well.

Wait,  what on earth am I babbling about?

What has this got to do with photography, journalism and our dying publishing industry?

Well, actually… it might be quite a lot. Let me try to explain.

To my knowledge there are no words in Finnish language for “creative” and “talent” – used as a noun referring to a person. Yes, we do have adjectives “he is truly creative and talented“, but you cannot say in Finnish that “somebody is a creative”. You have to paraphrase it into “a creative person”.

Similarly, you don’t talk of your “staff of talents” or “your creatives” – as John was doing all the time in his presentation.

You might say someone is talented –  but the semantics is different: it refers to someone  who is “really talented” or “naturally talented” – more like a qualitative superlative of a person. You cannot use it  just simply as “a job description”  – as it can be used in English. Yes, you can have in  Finnish the expression ” a creative director” (translates as” luova johtaja”) but that is semantically totally different.

Which sort of led me to thinking: I’ve been looking now for several years intensively on the decisions our publishing industry is making and their horrible way of treating their people… which is totally absurd behavior in many cases. And what they have been doing and what they ARE doing reflects totally this void in our vocabulary and it totally falls in the realm of Sapir&Whorf.

And I find that very interesting.

Could one of the reasons to this disastrous performance in leadership and management we presently see in our media be a consequence of the fact that people running these institutions (our legacy media) lack the word and thus the concept of  “a creative” and “a talent” – as a person? That the appointed leaders – nowadays mainly economists and lawyers, not journalists – see the people working merely as “workers” or “staff” in their “factory” or “production line”  –  totally missing the inherent differences  between the “creatives/talent” and “staff”. In their interpersonal dynamics, for instance?

Even more bluntly we see this behavior in the “contracts” – and the quotes around “contract” should be in CAPITAL LETTERS and underlined  – all the legacy players are pushing so actively now.

Everybody is supposed to work “factory style” i.e. follow the route:  “we assign, you produce and what you produce belongs to us 100%”.

And please note that I am not making any value judgements here – as I would somehow be lifting the creative talent to a pedestal over others. No, I am not doing that.

But newsflash to the HR-department: creatives do not work that way. They do not conform to a factory production line.

Creative talent

Creatives think differently. They – by definition – create and innovate, come up with new stuff and ideas… They typically react very badly to pressure, especially to this “if you don’t do as  we ask/demand, somebody else will do it and you’ll be on the street” -style of management the majority of our legacy is using now.

Creativity suffers tremendously – or should I say it suffocates to death – under e.g. fear. How do you expect somebody to make mind-blowing  creative content when they do not know if their work is appreciated enough so they can count on having a job tomorrow (and that it is not given away to an intern from a college who can be used for free) – just if they dare to try something a bit more than ordinary?

Maybe there is something in this thinking which might explain the current death spiral of our publishing industry? And pay attention: I am not stating but asking.

It is an industry presently run by economists and lawyers and other “staff”. With an ever deepening shortage of true creatives – who in my humble opinion should be the epicenter of any media really worth spending time with.

Is it really so that simply because  our language does not have  the nouns “a creative” nor “a talent” these people are not appreciated?

By the way: do you know how “Talent Finland” is called in Finnish? Well, surprising maybe: it is “Talent Finland”. In Finnish that is.

Leaving the building

Have you noticed that there has been lots of people leaving the legacy media – voluntarily – as the legacy no longer sees the creatives as a necessary asset? Not to mention that when hiring e.g. a photographer for a gig they  do not look for “a talent” but for “the best deal?” And let me underline – as I got my linguistic gear on: I am NOT talking about somebody being “talented”  but of people who are “a talent” – there is a world of difference between these two concepts in English.

Which sort of brings me to my  closing words.

I attended a conference last spring (organized again by FIMAGE) and one of the panelist – working for a major publisher who is pushing aggressively these “we want all except responsibility” -deals for their company – made her plea to the audience – in English –  an audience consisting  mainly of visual creatives, photographers, graphic artists, etc.

Her exact words were: ” We want to work with you, we need your talent.”

After a moment of silence – almost embarrassing – another panelist, a well known top AD who until recently worked for a major publisher himself  simply stated the fact: “The talent has left the building”.

Kind of summarizes where we are at the moment?



PS.  I might be wrong and I state for the N-th time in this blog that I write to challenge my own assumptions. But I thought that this was an interesting trail of thought… and maybe worth sharing?

PSS. I gotta start writing more often again. My spelling and punctuation simply sucks…







  1. Jukka vatanen
    December 18, 2013

    Kari: You have hit the nail at the very top… To ask for talent with those terms offered is like asking for a rubber plug to stop the leakagein a boat almost full of water and sinking…
    The creative process is not something that happens by pushing people to the limit and at the same time threatening them with sanctions. They say “creativity is 80% sweat and 20% inspiration” if you just leave the sweat and that with lousy pay, creative minds surely find other ways to sweat…

    • kkuukka
      December 18, 2013

      Thank you Jukka –

      I don’t know… I just thought it was interesting idea trying to introduce Sapir&Whorf into this. It was so amazing listening to John talk about his clients: American Express, Perrier… and talking all the time about “his creatives” and the “talents he uses”. Never, ever happen here in the North Pole with us speaking this weird language… :-)

      Nice to see you read my stuff.

  2. Johanna
    December 18, 2013

    Your hypothesis is interesting and I’m inclined to agree, even though Finland isn’t an anomaly in the media scene, since the down-sizing, and cutting corners mentality is hitting the industry everywhere. Even where the respective language includes words like “the creatives” and “talent”(n).

    It’s also a question of what is the fundamental task of the media. To report events/happenings as soon as possible (scoop?) or to tell what has happened and put it into context (journalism?). If legacy publishing houses go for the quick (and dwindling) buck that is scoops and sensationalism, then money is the driver and using talent does not make sense, as it’s easier and cheaper to crowdsource on-site pictures and almost anyone can write the bare minimum. In “‘Page One: Inside The New York Times'” David Carr says something like “I’ve got the facts, it’ll take a couple of weeks to write the piece.” Two weeks to write a story. I don’t think Finnish legacy publishing is in that game anymore. Because having the creatives is a prerequisite.

    • kkuukka
      December 18, 2013

      Absolutely agree –

      this is no “miracle” remedy or one that explains everything. But I thought it was an interesting observation. We really do lack these words.

      I love your two last lines. Oh boy, will be quoting those many times… :-)

      But, check out this blog post of a friend of mine, also working in the field here in the North Pole.

      He quotes the Guardian deal, where the creatives DO retain the copyright (and are respected in this sense), it is explicitly stated. And the Guardian has been able to cut its losses by 30% due to digital revenue… mostly by maintaining the standards of their talent.

      You only have to take a quick look at their offering to see that it is not done according to the Finnish “factory line” -model.

      Scooping vs. journalism? I never thought of those terms in parallel before, but you are right. Trouble with scooping is that its half life ( ok, I was not a physics major… :-) ) is barely minutes nowadays. So, if you want to publish something moneytizable, esp. in the legacy, it has to be journalism.

      But as you said, our legacy is not in that game anymore. “Because having the creatives is a prerequisite.”

      Love that.

  3. Jukka vatanen
    December 29, 2013

    kari: Check into this.. Quite a move, would like to see it happen here. maybe would start some serious discussion about photojournalism and photography in general…


Leave a Reply