Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: Building a Creative Community

In the creative modern world, one of the hottest topics is community. Building community ranks at the very top of many creative to-do lists, and rightly so. With community comes power and control, not to mention a sense of belonging and partnership with those who find meaning in our work. But a creative community can come in many shapes and sizes, both real and imagined, and community also comes with responsibility.

The internet changed our planet in almost every conceivable way. The far reaches of the world are no longer quite as mysterious, and our ability to communicate has expanded exponentially. Technology brought us in contact with each other in ways only thought possible in science fiction movies. With these advances in communication comes the exciting ability to build a real connection with like-minded people—regardless of where they call home.

Websites, blogs, social networks, online forums, chat groups, and messenger apps create a spiderweb of accessible creative community-building tools. I’ve had a website and a blog since the early 2000s, and I also use things like Discord and YouTube to communicate with others interested in the same odd set of activities I enjoy. When I check my statistics or analytics, I see faces beaming in from all corners of the globe. I can say with authority that this is one of the most exciting aspects of modern life. You and I, together. 

Black and white photography of two photographers taking pictures on opposite sides

I enjoy reading and conversation, so I choose community-building tools that help me tell longer, more in-depth stories. Others choose a faster-paced or more frenetic tool for their approach to engagement. Everyone has a range of tools at their disposal to construct a creative community of their liking.

Although modern communication tools are impressive and allow unrivaled access to engaging with one another through fiber optics and fingers typing on small sheets of polished glass, there isn’t anything quite like in-person, face-to-face connection. Sitting with or engaging with our creative community via meetups or photowalks requires far more undivided attention, forces us to read things like body language and facial expression, and has become almost confrontational compared to the ease of online interaction. Nevertheless, there is an undeniable level of excitement when we get together. We quickly see who among us are the introverts and who are the more gregarious extroverts. We learn who makes eye contact and who doesn’t. We learn who shakes hands or hugs. We relearn that being together is a language.

The first thing I do when I see an in-person opportunity emerging is to let my community know. I hit my Discord server and YouTube channel, mentioning where I’ll be and when. I also craft blog posts to explain why I’ll be at a certain location, for how long, and what my intended goal is. My community members are equal participants in the experience, and I want them to feel informed and ready to participate. Sometimes we will even discuss pre-meetup assignments or ideas, so we all come as prepared as possible. And, of course, we talk about bringing our books and zines for a bit of show and tell.

Multiple people holding DSLR cameras with large lenses

I teach several international workshops each year, covering locations like Albania and Peru. A significant portion of attending students come from my online creative community. We get to know each other via the ether of the digital world but then come together in person to build a stronger, more personal relationship. Being together in person allows me to better understand who someone is and how their personality and life experience connect to their photography and bookmaking. And when we finally part ways, those we’ve met in person tend to linger in our thoughts and memories.

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