AIHce: Problem Solving Using the Open Road

June 5, 2007
Former National Geographic photographer Steve Uzzell dazzled thousands of industrial hygienists and occupational safety and health professionals at the 68th annual American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition (AIHce) in Philadelphia by using several of his striking photographs as illustrations of his metaphor about possibility and creativity. Uzzell said that preparation, passion and realizing your goals will help an individual find solutions in unexpected places.

But first, Uzzell started the session by answering the question that was on everyone's mind.

“What does photography have to do with industrial hygiene, you all ask?” he said. “Everybody in this room spends the day doing the same thing ... solving problems.”

According to Uzzell – who travels 6 months out of the year taking photographs for clients such as IBM, American Airlines and the state of Maryland and spends the rest of year delivering lectures – everyone spends their workdays finding solutions to problems that arise in their industry, whether it is finding the perfect camera shot or finding ways to reduce silica dust exposure for construction workers.

“At the end of the day all of us have the same charge ... we have to solve the problems we are working on and we have to come back with the goods,” Uzzell stated.

A Clear Mind Lays Groundwork for Problem Solving

To find the answers to problems that come up on a daily basis, you have to have a clear mind, Uzzell said. To drive the point home, Uzzell revealed a variety of photographs showcasing the “open road.”

According to Uzzell, the “spirit of the open road” allows the person to take a step away from their immediate surroundings and gives a visual focal point, which is the first step of problem solving. As a result, the mind opens, which unlocks the power of imagination, he said.

He also stated that the open road mimics the route the imagination takes in getting from the problem to the solution, which could take the form of a simple path or be as complex as a road with a lot of twists and turns.

“When you are on [the open road], you not only have the belief you are going to get from A to B, but you want the journey and you're filled with optimism,” he explained.

“Chance Favors the Prepared Mind”

To get into an “open road” state of mind, Uzzell asserted that making all preparations necessary is needed to get into the mindset of problem solving.

He gave an example of when he was assigned by the state of Maryland to take photographs of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. He wanted to show how important this bridge was to the state, so he tried from hundreds of places to get the image that he wanted – without success.

One day, on a flight back into Washington, D.C., he saw the bridge from a particular angle and automatically knew where he needed to be positioned to get the perfect shot. In order to be sure that the sun would set where he wanted it to set, he called the Naval Observatory. He did the math and found out the exact location of where he needed it to be and got the shot that he was looking for.
However, what made the photograph even more special was that at that exact moment, two trucks were passing by and were silhouetted by the sun, something he had no idea was going to happen.

“Chance does indeed favor the prepared mind,” he said, quoting Louis Pasteur.

This example, he said, showed that for the individual who prepares himself as much as he can and is fully committed to the goal of solving the problem, the solutions will come in ways better than he would have ever imagined, laying the groundwork for “magic” to happen.

“Preparation for excellence leads to a commitment to excellence,” Uzzell said. “If you make the problem your passion, if a problem is worthy of your time, all the problems and that passion will make possible situations where chance can favor the prepared mind.”

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