How I Got to The Why.

In Pep Talks, Vision Is Better by David50 Comments


With apologies to the goat for the rather undignified photo, but the little bugger kept jumping out of my hands. This was shot by my buddy Gary while shooting on location with a Maasai family in Kenya.

For a while I’ve been meaning to tell my story, so perhaps this Friday is as good a note to end on as any. I’m telling this in the hopes that it encourages others, not to showboat or grandstand. Fact is, there’s enough failure in my story to balance out the good stuff. Probably most of the good stuff came out of the failure, in fact. But as the posts that seem to resonate most deeply with the community here are the more introspective ones that acknowledge the difficulties of this craft and vocation, rather than gloss them over, I’m going to take that as my liberty to be honest. Don’t count on me taking the liberty to be short, though I’ll try.

I fell truly in love with photography when I was 14. I bought a friend’s beat-up Voigtlander range-finder at a garage sale and started spending all my money on film. Thank God it had a fixed lens or I’d have spent every penny on optics instead. A year later my mother gave me leather satchel with a Pentax Spotmatic, a couple lenses, and a Linhoff tripod – the massive size of which was inversely proportionate to it’s stability. A year after that a neighbor gave me his development gear in exchange for a couple nights of babysitting. Took a photography class at school to gain free access to the enlargers and paper. And somewhere in there fell head over heels down the rabbit hole of photography. Wanted nothing more than to take photography in college, spin on my heels with a diploma in my hands and march straight to the offices of National Geographic and get to work.

Instead I went to theology college. Somewhere along the way some sense had crept into my brain and convinced me that if I did photography as a career I’d lose the passion. This isn’t the case for some, but I know it would have been for me. Fact is, back then I was in love with photography but not yet with any sense of what I wanted to photograph or why. The stories and moments I could capture with passion – I had no idea what those were. I shot everthing. Ducks. Flowers. More ducks. Artsy macros of driftwood. Friends in an ill-fated band. In between the stuff I shot “just because” I got glimpses of my vision coming to the surface. I was on the Amazon for a summer and with a borrowed Nikon shot some images that stuck with me. I went to Russia for a winter, came home with a few images that kept poking at me with hints of what I really wanted to be shooting.

I left theology school, degree in hand, eager to change the world. Became a comedian. Go figure. Spent twelve years on stages internationally, making audiences laugh, learning about communication. Studied sleight of hand and illusion, learned about perception. And all the while, in the background, my love for photography grew. Some years were better than others, but it was like an incubation, a sabbatical. And then one day I picked it up again. The time was right. And my gear was all immediately stolen. I replaced it, got bored, traded it all in and on a lark bought a Canon Powershot A65, that with a Ti PowerBook and a copy of Photoshop dragged me, wide eyed and giggling, into the digital revolution. Suddenly the whole creative process was in my hands again. We went to the Canadian maritime provinces, my little camera mounted ridiculously on the top of a large Manfrotto tripod. Half way through the trip I knew I was hooked. I knew I could write the trip off if I opened a photography business. Knew if we scrimped a little on the trip I’d have enough to buy a DSLR when we got home.

So fast forward through the purchase a Canon Digital Rebel, then a 20D, and to the day I got off a plane in Port Au Prince, Haiti. I’d gone to see the work of an organization through whom my wife and I sponsor a child; they asked me to consider advocating their work from the stage in my comedy work. At the last minute they saw my photography and asked if I’d stay a little longer and shoot for them. It was among the most incredible weeks of my life.

I went down as a comedian who loved photography. I flew home a photographer. I had discovered the stream of my work. The constant that was present in all the work I’d ever done and loved – travel, culture, children. I returned home with a plan. It wasn’t elaborate. Heck, wasn’t so much a plan as the seed of an idea. A what-if.

What if I could shoot for a group like World Vision? What if I could create images the NGOs working with children and families could use in advocacy and fundraising, to tell more compelling stories? What if…

That was my plan. A crazy what-if based on nothing more than a sense of calling fueled by my natural idealism. After nearly 12 years of comedy I was getting tired. I was also feeling like I was at the end. That the season for that was over and something else lay ahead. I started a blog to document my transition. My business plan was ludicrously hollow. My market research was nil. Everything I’ve ever preached about making it in this business, I learned after the fact. At the time I had one thing – a passionate sense of calling combined with a renewed love for my craft. That was it. In January of 2005, I went to Ethiopia to work on a cookbook with some friends. That trip solidified it all for me. And then I went home and was forced into bankruptcy. That’s a different story for a different time but should give you a clue to why I am so preachy about not going into debt.

A year later I got my first assignment with World Vision and I finally, after over 15 years of stalling on the dream, ended up where I had wanted to be in the first place. Some dreams are hard-fought,  mine was just long-fought.

I’m going to lay my cards on the table here and tell you what went through my mind. Some of it will make no sense to you, some will contradict advice I’ve given. All I can say in my defense is that we all learn in different ways and my career has taken a decidedly different arc than the one your might take. So – two things:

First. I look at my career as a passion-driven, vision-driven process. I believe strongly in the notion of calling, that this is a vocation (from the Latin, vocatus, meaning to call or invite) for which I was created. That drives me, gives me purpose. But I also believe the line between so-called professional and so-called amateur are increasingly blurry. I didn’t make the career transition because I could, but because my soul was bored and suddenly found something that lit it on fire again and I couldn’t not follow the flame. I hope that makes sense. Passion will take you a long, long way. It will fuel your persistence and tenacity. It will give you the strength to do unlikely things and ask audacious questions of strangers and heroes. It will keep you up dreaming and scheming at night. I think I knew that when I was 18. I think that my hiatus and my career in comedy was what I needed to find my passion and calling. I worked on my craft through those years, sometimes more than others, but it was often without heart.

Second, when I made the decision to do this I followed the only model I knew – the one I’d learned in show business. I worked my ass of on my craft, connected with every photographer I could, read books, shot like a man on fire. I wanted to have credibility but had none, so attached myself to sponsors who did. I found a few that liked my work and were willing to take a chance on me. Why? Free gear? Hardly. It was because I’d learned that perception is reality and if people saw that I was sponsored by LowePro, for example (which I was at the time) then the reputation of LowePro rubbed off on me a little bit. I found clients – any clients, even freebies, to shoot for – to sharpen my edge and develop a client list. I put up a website that looked like I knew what I was doing. I did everything I could to be perceived as  the photographer I believed myself to be. I said nothing misleading, nothing that didn’t reflect the reality of who I was. I just chose the most powerful tools I could.

Etc. One gig leads to another. One contact to another. You experience joys and defeats. You find people who believe in you, true fans who will champion your work, introduce you to colleagues, editors, clients. But this all comes back, not to how I got here, because I haven’t arrived, there is no magical place at which you find yourself to have arrived, but to why. Why drives how. I got here, wherever “here” is, because of my passion. Where is here? Here is a place in which I have work I love, can daily do something that my soul feels good about, that I can hit the pillow having done something I love and already scheming about the next something. Whether I am seen to have succeeded or failed at any one endeavor is not the point. The point is that I had a chance to do it, to create, and in so-doing to fan my creativity to flame, to feed my soul, to stretch my mind, to make a difference and leave – I hope – the world a little better for my being here.

Life is too short. A vapour. The end, regardless of your beliefs about what happens afterward, comes barreling down the road directly at us. You have to eat, you have to make good decisions, but unless you do what you do with all the passion in your heart, it’s not worth it. This might sound desperately – foolishly! – naive and irresponsible, but if you’re a wedding shooter and you long to be in Africa shooting, then get to Africa and shoot. if you’re so tired of headshots that the idea of one more forced smile or brooding, tortured artist look makes you curl into a ball, then stop. Stop it now. Find and follow your passion. Find a way to make it work. I have the luxury of believing, hard as it is at times, that God is in charge of this whole looney thing and if He calls me to something, gives me the gifts to do it, and I do absolutely everything I can to make it happen, then He darn well better do the rest. And if I fail, or if God fails to do His bit, and I go down in flames, then I’ll have had a good run and done the one thing I’ve endeavored to do since I was an idealistic teenager reading Henry David Thoreau – avoided leading a life of quiet desperation. Though knowing me it would have been a life of noisy desperation with lots of talking.

Whether laying my cards out like this is a good idea or not remains to be seen. Might scare some of you off. For others it might disabuse you of the notion that I’m so much further along than you are. What I hope it does is fire you up, give you the courage to find and follow your passion.

Jeepers that was long. Sorry. At least you have all weekend to read it, right? Have a great weekend, y’all.


  1. Paul Dymond

    Let me be the first David. Great post. I sometimes frighten myself with the passion I hold for my work. Like you I love it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It drives me, keeps me alive, makes me (I hope!) a better person. Whenever up and coming photographers ask me what they should photograph to make the most money I always tell them they’re barking up the wrong tree. They’ll know what to photograph when they can’t think of anything else. When they wake up in the morning and that’s all they want to do.
    I think your point about trying to leave the world a better place is really important. Our images will last (hopefully) longer than us and resonate with people after we’re gone – at least that’s the dream. And if we can just open one person’s eyes to what an amazing planet we live on then surely we’ve done a great job. Thankyou as always for sharing.

  2. Henri

    There is only power in honesty. Your story is inspiring, and will hopefully be a motivator for the many reading it, who have lost the passion or drifted away from the “calling” in their lives.

    I followed a path down the corporate road when I *knew* I should be an entrepreneur… and when I finally bit the bullet and quit my steady, well paid, but mind-blowingly self-defeating passion-killing corporate job… it was the best decision I ever made.

    Following your passion doesn’t mean jumping willy-nilly off a bridge (if that’s what you like).. but should be a controlled and purposeful “moving” from wherever you’re at now to where you want and know you should be.

    It took me 5 years to position myself at a point where I could quite my “real” job and become a full-time entrepreneur.

    But it can, and SHOULD, be done. If you’re reading David’s post and have this huge “YES YES YES!” comment bubble above your head… then start setting the stage right now for how you can get from where you are to where you must be. When you’re old and on your deathbed, you will never regret it.

  3. Ron Carroll

    Enjoyed the post, David. It reminded me of a quote by Joseph Campbell, cautioning people about climbing the ladder of success only to find they had it leaning against the wrong wall. So how to know you’ve got your ladder on the right wall? If there’s no passion, then it’s the wrong wall.

  4. Jan

    Thank you for the post. Only honesty can give us a real insight into what it takes to get where we want to. As much as we sometimes need to hear the glorification of a “dream job” I am relieved to hear the true stories behind the people who dare to follow their dreams. There is a saying that sums it up for me:
    “Better to risk breaking your neck than never dare to look up at the sky”

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  6. JVL

    David, thanks for sharing – the ideals you espouse transcend your theological beliefs – as if that were ever an issue.

  7. Jeffrey Chapman

    Long, yes, but worth every word. Thanks. Off now to tackle my vision…

  8. Chris Ward

    Wow, that was quite the post David. Your honesty is what keeps bringing us back to hear your insights. And you do have a lot of insights.

    I hope some people do get scared off actually. It might save someone from going down a path they were not prepared for. I wish more people could hear the “whole real” success story of those they look up to. I think they might be surprised at how hard most of them have worked to get where they are.

    When I read some some of your posts I find myself saying something I got from bastardizing a microsoft marketing line: “Who do I want to be today?” Not in the sense of changing from one day to the next, but as you would say, What is my calling? Am I following that?

    Again, thanks for the story.

  9. Joe

    Thanks David for a post that does many things.

    In the short time since I started following your blog, and before this post, your words have already convinced me that you are a man passionately following a purpose. We now know what that is and where it came from.

    And yes, we all have a calling we should seek out and listen to…

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  12. Irene

    Wow, very inspiring David. This is what I love about your blog, you are never afraid to write about your true feelings.

    Thanks a lot for sharing.

  13. Beate

    Thank you for this inspiring post. As someone who just in the past couple of years has rediscovered the passion for photography it is absolutely wonderful to read your story. Even so I have no ambition to become a pro, I do want to take my photography as far as possible and I try to take advantage of learning opportunities whenever they are available. Sometimes I almost scare myself when I realize how much I enjoy this. Thank you so much for sharing.

  14. Bay

    Makes me incredibly glad I’m finishing up work soon and doing something I’m passionate about – I’ll have to sit down and think about how I can make this lifestyle more sustainable and constant in the future… I wrote a ranting blog post yesterday about the seeming futility of work (especially when it’s something you’re not passionate about) and subsequently deleted it… But, the idea still resonates with me.

  15. Robert

    “then I’ll have had a good run and done the one thing I’ve endeavored to do since I was an idealistic teenager reading Henry David Thoreau – avoided leading a life of quiet desperation.”

    Absolutely! Have a good weekend.

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  17. Joel

    As an idealistic teenager wanting to shoot for World Vision and NGOs, thank you for letting me know someone has walked this path before.

  18. Craig Beyers

    If I counted right, this is post 22, so you may not see it, David…but a couple of comments. 1) If you don’t believe in your own credibility, you can’t convince anyone else. 2) Fake it ’til you make it! As all the pro photogs keep telling us, you’re never done learning, so you’re always “faking it”. That’s no problem if you, your customers, or audience like what you do. Theology, comedy, photography aren’t as dissimilar as some might think as they all depend on creating a view or vision with their respective genres. Theology is mostly words, photography is all visual, and comedy is a combination (ref. George Carlin’s facial antics!). TTFN

  19. Rosane Walker

    Thanks for always being so transparent David. Your passion and integrity are so inspiring and contagious. I’m so happy that you are “there”.

    The older I get, the more I realize that success is not necessarily what we imagine it to be. It’s not getting to the same place others have arrived. It’s doing what you love and what you feel you should be doing at that moment.

    In my own life I feel like I’m going through a hiatus but it’s exactly where I need to be right now and I’ve never been happier.

  20. claude etienne

    Inspiring post David. On a side note, it’s amazing how people who come to Haiti always seem to fall in love with it. For those of us who live here it’s more of a love-hate relationship. Some days we just want to pack our bags and leave, but most days we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

  21. Alex Saunders

    Cheers to an excellent post David.

    Thoreau’s quote of “quiet desperation” has in turns haunted and inspired me. Powerful words that affect too many.

  22. sabrina

    Thank you for sharing, David. It was something I really needed to hear and feel today.

  23. My Wish

    “It may take courage to embrace the possibilities of your own potential, but once you’ve flown past the summit of your fears, nothing will seem impossible. ”

    Remember to always…”DREAM BIG!!!”

  24. DT

    Another insightful post. In todays world where self promotion and spin is so prevalent and any weakness is often considered a failing, it’s so refreshing to hear it how it is.

    And its expressed with such scincerity and passion.

    Thanks again for a wonderful post.

  25. Alistair McNaughton

    An encouraging post brother. Only that passon will enable you to see that image that you want to convey to the world in order to move them to action.

  26. Arun

    the way you write inspires me a lot, with all that hurdles you face, experience you gained… very encouraging. am addicted to your blog, most of the time can’t hardly wait till you publish your next post :).


  27. Chris Plante

    David, your career has made remarkable progress in a short 5 years. Thank you for the story as I was going to ask you how you made the transition anyways.

  28. steve

    David, your words are inspirational and your work is amazing! As an aspiring photographer that is starting later in life, reading your story gives me hope and helps me have faith in my own passion for this craft. Thanks so much for sharing.


  29. Miserere

    David, it’s posts like these that keep us coming back. If passion is contagious, then you’re doing a great job at making in viral.

    Thank you.

  30. ian aitken

    Hi david, you site came to my attention through google a while ago. I must say i was a little intrigued as to where you had come from, you suddenly seemed to appear from nowhere, with sponsorship, workshops, busy schedule, books etc. Then I read you had only been at it for a short while. Too put it blankly I was shocked, hacked off, jealous. I am an established photographer, I have been through assisting top honchos won awards etc and yet work is still pretty hard to comeby.
    Through this post, I now realise that actually, it has taken you a longtime, you have put a huge amount of effort into your craft and your networking has really paid off, your persistance in getting that first gig for world vision was the start of good things.
    I just want to say well done and also thanks for explaining that it is hard graft, not just photographically but also business wise.



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  32. Jacob

    That is pretty amazing!

    This is possibly one of the most inspiring things I’ve read!

    And I totally agree with that third last paragraph (Life is too short…).

  33. Elaine

    Well…I’m about to go on a one-day mini-vacation where I will be off-line…but now I think I will have to find a coffee shop with internet access at some point today so I can continue reading your posts. So inspiring. Plus, I need to think of a really smart question for tomorrow’s @peachpit interview 😉

    Lots of reasons to read your blog beside the excellent writing about photography.

  34. Lyric

    Inspiring, as always.

    I’ll never forget the day I sent that first email. And I’ll never regret it.

    Blessings and congrats my friend.

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  36. Karlo dL

    Its been almost 2 months since this post, and its the first time I’ve read it.. and im glad I got a chance to. Now im stoked!…

  37. olli

    I too spent six years at theological college. Now I drift round the world with my diplomat beloved wondering what it was all about, but I always have my camera with me.

    Great story. Cheers.

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  39. Deborah Flowers

    Thanks so much for these very powerful and inspiring words. And Fabulous pictures! I have just discovered your site and am definitely hooked.
    I’m so amazed at the “wonderful artist/photographer” comments on some websites I visit, hoping to view quality inspiring work, only to be acutely disappointed by snapshots, snapped with no thought to exposure or composition or any other photographic element other than that it was made with a camera…
    So I applaud your sense of style and ability to provoke true passion in (myself) and others.
    Thank you so much!
    Deborah Flowers

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  42. Pinky

    Ever thought that this is the path that God really intended you to take? Ministry comes in various forms and photography is yours. Your work has touched many lives one day at a time. What can’t be said in words, you say it in your photographs.

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