Sam Abell is a photographer. He works for National Geographic. Your first thought might be, “What can a photographer teach me about being a good EMT?”  Well, as it turns out, quite a bit. Sam is a world class photographer for a million complex reasons and one simple one. Let’s start with the simple one.

He has passion.

In this video Sam describes the year long process of taking a single photograph of a bison skull on the American plains. Watch the video and listen to Sam’s story, then I’d like to make a few observations.

While listening to this interview, I had several ideas about what makes Sam Abell a great photojournalist. As he relates his experience, he gives us clues into what it takes to be really good at what you do. Here’s what I got from his story:

Be Patient With Yourself

You are on a journey. Let it take as long as it takes to become what you want to be. That doesn’t mean you get to slack off. Just be a little bit better tomorrow than you were today. Don’t get to frustrated with yourself. I’m sure Sam had some frustration when he returned with that first group of photographs and saw that they weren’t the quality that he expected.

You don’t have to be a great EMT tomorrow. Just be a little bit better than you are today. And enjoy the process.

Care About Your Subject

I like the way Sam talks about his subject. Oh, by the way, his subject wasn’t photography, it was the artist Charles Marion Russell. When Sam talks about the subject of his photography piece, you can see his interest in the subject. He understands the essence of Charles Russell’s work and he’s excited to deliver a photo journal that really honors the work of his subject. There’s no question that Sam respects C.M. Russell. If he didn’t, he would never put such energy into his work. That’s worth considering.

Do you care about the people you serve? When you are dispatched on a call, are you interested in your patient? Do you want to know more about their particular problem and how you might help them? You aren’t the subject of the call, neither are your skills or experience. The patient is the subject. If you care about them, you’ll spend years striving to be great at what you do.

Have a Vision

Sam knew exactly what he wanted in his photograph a year before he took the first picture. He had an intense vision of the image that he needed. When we’re trying to do something great, it helps to have a detailed vision of what it’s going to look like.

What are you trying to become? If you were the EMT or the paramedic you wanted to be, what would it look like? What would you know? What would your journey look like to get from here to there? Isn’t it time to get started?

Don’t Accept Almost Good Enough

How easy would it have been for Sam to have looked at his first photographs of the bison skulls and decide that they were good enough? He had conducted a nationwide search for the skulls. He had traveled across the country and gone to great lengths to find exactly what he was looking for. He found every element he was looking for and in the end, he came up with something that was certainly good enough. Let’s be honest, wouldn’t most of us have stopped right there? He could have submitted those photographs and nobody would have questioned his dedication. He met every expectation, except his own.

When Sam looked at his good-enough product he wasn’t satisfied. He keep pushing for something that met his expectations. And when he did, something magical happened. He gave himself the opportunity to create something great. Do you create opportunities for greatness for yourself, or do you stop at good enough? If you’re always satisfied with just good enough then you’ll probably always be just good enough.

Share Your Gifts

Sam tells a great story at the end of the interview about seeing a man on a plane looking through the magazine at his articles and making a choice to engage the man and share his experience. You can see that it’s important to him to share his gifts with the world.

Are you willing to bring your gifts to the masses? What are you waiting for? Your talent can’t live inside you. Go out and do something remarkable.


  1. This was a great post. We all need to look at our lives and ask if this what we are or are we meant to be better. Are we worthy of the trust we are given? Next time you are walking in on a call, when the people move aside to let you through, trusting your every action, ask yourself “am I good? Or just good enough?”


  1. […] Passion: How Sam Able Makes a Photograph […]