How I Got to The Why.
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.