How David Friedman’s Inventor Project Became A PBS Series

- - Photographers

This is a fantastic success story of a personal project that turned into a web series for PBS and it has some hallmarks I notice all the time in successful personal projects:

  • The project starts as something intimate, a story only you can tell
  • Social media allows you to test the response to see if it has legs
  • Someone sends you in a direction you hadn’t anticipated when the project started
  • The project gives you an excuse to connect with important people
  • Someone discovers your project through social media channels

Here’s David to tell us what happened:

A few years ago I quit a staff photographer position that was a pretty good job but wasn’t quite what I really wanted to do creatively. When I left, I decided I needed a new body of work that both represented my personal interests and my work as a photographer. I’m a big fan of creative ideas and as a side project I’d written a semi-popular blog about my own invention ideas (mostly silly rather than practical). With that in mind, I decided my new body of work would explore who other inventors are, and see what separates people like me — who get creative ideas for inventions but don’t actually pursue them — from people who actually do something with those ideas.

When I started, I didn’t know any inventors. So I went to local inventor support meetups (where successful inventors help aspiring inventors), talked about my project, and asked for volunteers. After I shot a few inventors this way, and it became clear the project had legs, I realized I’d need to travel so it doesn’t just turn into “Inventors of the Tri-State Area”. So when I was shooting jobs out of town, I’d reach out in advance to inventor groups in those areas and get their help coordinating area inventors who might be interested. Then I’d tack an extra day or two onto a trip I was already taking and shoot for this project.

For the first half dozen inventors, I was only shooting stills. But around that time I met Brian Storm of MediaStorm, and he said “You really should be shooting video of these people” and it was like a lightbulb went off. I hadn’t yet incorporated video into my repertoire, and had only imagined the project being a book, but video was such an obvious way to go. So I added that component with the idea that the video would be great for promoting the project, and for including in an iPad version of the book. Plus, it would be a great way for me to learn to shoot and edit video.

As the project grew, I made connections in the inventing community, and was introduced to more prominent inventors, and began traveling just for these shoots. And once I had a few recognizable names in the project, it became easier to cold call other notable inventors and persuade them to participate. Now that it’s a serious body of work, I’ve had incredible cooperation from places I wouldn’t have dreamed about approaching earlier. Just a couple weeks ago I photographed a military inventor on a Navy battleship, which is the most complicated location I’ve arranged for a self-produced shoot, and I couldn’t have pulled that off a few years ago.

I’ve done forty-something of these shoots so far. They range from people who just tinker in their garage all the way up to Nobel Prize and National Medal of Technology winners. Their inventions include the Post-it Note, the cell phone, the first video game system, first digital camera, the computer mouse, the Segway, and more humble inventions like a better sewing needle, wheelchair brake, an ice fishing vehicle, etc.

As I’ve worked on the project, I occasionally released a few of the videos on Vimeo. I posted them on both my photography blog and the “ideas” blog, which reaches a much different audience. I got great feedback, but a few of the videos really took off. Two of them each reached six-figure views within 24 hours, and were featured on prominent websites. I’ve talked about the project on various blogs, on public radio, and Wired ran this interview with me.

Someone at PBS Digital Studios found my videos on Vimeo while researching new talent and felt it would be a good fit for their network. They approached me about turning it into a series for their YouTube channel. After a bit of surprisingly pleasant negotiation, we reached a deal to produce 20 episodes to be released every other Tuesday. Some of those episodes will be existing videos I’d previously put online, but the majority will be new, culled from inventors I’ve already shot but not released, and some I’ve not yet shot.

This is a good example of a nice aspect of this particular project: while self-producing a project of this scope has been expensive, it has also managed to generate at least a little money along the way. Since a lot of my subjects are occasionally written about editorially, I’ve licensed photos and footage from the project to The History Channel, Time Magazine, science magazines, museums, and text books.

I think the very best thing about this project, though, is that I get to meet and talk to all these incredible people (many of whom are older and won’t be around for much longer). Being able to sit down and talk with Steve Sasson, inventor of the digital camera, and geek out over the tools of my trade, was a great moment. I talked to Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway but also the portable insulin pump and so much more, about the roles of art versus science in education (his father was comic book illustrator Jack Kamen). And I asked chemical engineer Esther Takeuchi, who has more patents than any other woman, why she has no female students in her University classes, and we had a great conversation about that. Even the unknown and struggling inventors are smart people with incredible stories to tell.

See more of Davids work here:

There Are 3 Comments On This Article.

  1. I had the pleasure of assisting David a few years ago when he came to Minnesota to shoot some inventors for his project. He was very focused and excited about the project then as it was just starting to gain some real steam. I knew it was going to become popular once it became more widely recognized. It’s been very interesting to see this process happen and I’m very happy for his success. He was very candid with the inventors and did such an awesome job of really getting their personalities and life’s aspirations captured in his work. He deserves much credit for telling such beautiful stories about the ingenuity of these seemingly normal people who have done so much to help others and improve products and the quality of life for all.

    Congratulations, David!