Shortly after the nuclear disaster in Japan, Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda of the Toyota Motor company came to the United States to raise money for the victims. As it happens, Vanelli was hired to photograph a meeting between Toyoda and a prominent local dealership. However, in order to maintain privacy and security, Vanelli was not told who he would be photographing. Can you imagine preparing to go photograph someone you know is a V.I.P., but having no idea who it is so you can prepare by researching and checking out their work? You’ll see that Vanelli’s saving grace was his own experience with Eastern culture.

Vanelli arrived, and the meeting with the dealership was going well. The dealer had been in the business a very long time, and he owned a highly detailed model of Toyota’s first production sedan, the 1936 Model AA, which was given to him by another Toyota executive. He kept going on about how much he treasured this gift, continually establishing its value as a prized possession. Finally, he made a big show of offering this model as a gift to Dr. Toyoda. Unfortunately, this put Dr. Toyoda in a tight position. Culturally, accepting such a valuable gift would put him in a position of owing the dealer big time, like a debt, which he knew would be uncomfortable for them both. The dealer was oblivious to this cultural phenomenon, but Vanelli could see the tension building.

Finally, the dealer put his hand on Dr. Toyoda’s arm and said, “I insist.” Still unwilling to accept this burden, Dr. Toyoda spoke to the translator, who paled as she responded to the dealer, “Dr. Toyoda says that he has the original vehicle in his garage at home.” This was the tensest moment, as Dr. Toyoda was downplaying the value of the model car and the dealer could take offense. But as a photographer hired to make joyful pictures, Vanelli knew he needed to intervene to avoid disaster.

“What a sense of humor!” Vanelli called out, and immediately everyone in the room broke out laughing. Vanelli made the picture, and the tension was gone. The dealer got to keep his prized model, and Dr. Toyoda didn’t have to shoulder a heavy burden of debt. Vanelli’s timely comment saved face for both men and ended the meeting happily. Vanelli’s client was thrilled.

As everyone was leaving, Dr. Toyoda, who had only spoken Japanese the entire meeting, came to Vanelli, bowed and, in crisp English, thanked Vanelli for photographing him. Vanelli bowed lower and thanked him in return.

As a long-time student of martial arts, Vanelli had some understanding of saving face and used his experience to save the day and make the shot for his client. When has your experience and understanding diffused a situation and made it possible to get your work done?

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