It might surprise some of you, and to others be a shocking reminder of how fast time flies, for me to tell you it was only 10 years ago I stepped off the stage as a comedian for the last time and returned to my dream of being a photographer. Comedy, which I did for twelve years and loved with all my being for most of that time, had grown wearying. The laughter of others never got tiring to me, but conjuring it up while playing a character, instead of being just me, without the stage name, without the funny faces, began to take its toll. And so I changed. On a dime, or so it seemed to those looking from the outside. In reality, none of us change so quickly, and I think the myth of re-inventing ourselves is just that. I think we change, and evolve, and the hard work is not in re-invention, it’s in accepting that we’re no longer the person we once were, and changing our lives – sometimes in truly difficult, dramatic ways – to remain aligned with that new person, a person we might not have noticed ourselves becoming.
I wore a khaki photo vest. I carried two large DSLRs and as many lenses as I could afford. I travel lighter now, both as a traveler and a human being.
I left comedy to become a humanitarian photographer. I wanted to change the world; a one-week gig in Haiti enough to change my life forever. I remember being on a plane to a comedy gig in Texas – fly there, do the gig, sleep in crappy hotel, fly home – and this voice in my head asked me, What would you do if this were your last gig? I surprised myself, because my reaction wasn’t panic, but relief. I knew right then that the gig, as they say, was up. It wasn’t long after that that I went to Haiti and shot for a small NGO. And then Ethiopia with two friends on a self-funded trip to create a cookbook that never happened. I was younger then. I wore a khaki photo vest. I carried two large DSLRs and as many lenses as I could afford. I travel lighter now, both as a traveler and a human being.
The hunger kept me moving. It fueled my best work. I hope it still does.
That gig led to others. I concentrated, because it’s all I knew how to do, on creating good work and telling the stories I was living. And work came in. Assignments led to other assignments. I began to travel for up to a month at a time. I did whatever it took to fund the whole thing – sponsorships, teaching, small commercial gigs for local clients when I was home. But never once did anything seem certain. It always seemed so precarious. The hunger kept me moving. It fueled my best work. I hope it still does.
A lot of threads had to come together, many of them a lifetime in the making, for me to be where I was. I’d been serious about photography since I was 14. I dabbled in art, learned to teach at a young age, traveled a lot, cut my marketing teeth trying to sell the world my comedy, did a lot of writing. I was into my thirties before the pieces came together, and even then it felt messy. Just a bunch of seemingly random threads tied together in a knot, forming a whole. But still just a bunch of threads. And somewhere along the way, life happened.
And now almost 10 years later I’m turning 43, there are books, and somehow I became a publisher, when I’m not traveling and shooting. I’ve become my own client for the most part. I’m not even sure what to call myself anymore, and even less sure it matters. I still do humanitarian work, but also feel strongly pulled to conservation and environmental issues – after all, if we destroy the planet, the people go down on the same ship. Everywhere I’ve photographed within the harshest humanitarian contexts, the environment has been brutalized. They are connected. I don’t know where I’m going, but my God, the ride is exciting.
Whatever you do, don’t stop moving forward. In art, in love, and in life. Don’t lose the hunger. Long for the next chance to feed that hunger, not to silence it.
I’m not sure why, today, I’m feeling so introspective / retrospective. My looming birthday, perhaps. But I think it’s important to know – to remember, because we all know this, I think – that no one’s life is a simple line from A to B. It’s a wandering path, full of uncertainty, and it looks self-evident and easy only in hindsight. At the time none of us really know what the hell we’re doing. But looking at it in hindsight, as though we’ve arrived, can’t be more than a momentary distraction, a place to rest and stretch our legs and our gratitude.
Remember that Springsteen song, Glory Days? Full of middle-aged people living their best lives in the past, it’s as good a cautionary tale as you’re going to get. We keep moving forward. Things remain uncertain, exciting. I keep changing, and so will you, which is – I think – the great hope. Everything changes. The plot will ever twist. Whatever you do, don’t stop moving forward. In art, in love, and in life. Don’t lose the hunger. Long for the next chance to feed that hunger, not to silence it. Do your best work, for the sake of doing your best work. Just don’t start thinking you know remotely what that will look like. You won’t. And hold the things you wish for with an open hand. The person you are in 10 years may not want any of them.