For much of my life I aspired to a career where I could be creative every day while someone else handled the distribution and business side of things. I went to college to become a writer with the idea that I would spend much of my day immersed in the inner workings of my characters and wrestling with language. I grew up loving to read and happiest alone and quiet. I liked to draw; I liked to be outside. I did not like meeting strangers or trying to figure out how to talk to them. I was most comfortable in the place was where pen meets page.
In college I began to realize how difficult it is to make a living as a writer. I had the love of the craft, but not yet the skills to engage with all of the other work that making a living at a creative endeavor takes or the confidence to take the risks that making a living as a creative person demands. You've got to have hustle and you got to have the belief that you can fly, and as a young adult, I was pretty sure I had been born lacking both.
My college had a short, one-month term in January every year where students either took a single, intensive class, worked at an internship or completed a large project. My junior year I hoped to spend that short term mostly at home, working on a novel. My college adviser, however, told me flat out that I needed to get out into the world, and pushed me towards an internship instead. Since I also had an interest in photography, I spent the month trailing photojournalists at The Roanoke Times and fell in love with photojournalism.
I began my career as a photojournalist -- a craft where you get to make a thousand creative decisions a day and where your creative work is shared every day with the world. I learned that I could talk to people. All kinds of people. This was a huge revelation -- that it was possible to LEARN to talk to complete strangers and connect with them. I'd always had the assumption that you either had that ability or not.
I also got to meet a lot of people and learn about things far outside my own daily experiences -- one of my favorite parts of that job. I'd go to work in the morning and drive out to photograph on a dairy farm, learning during the shoot about what makes dairy cows happy and more productive. Then, I'd be off to photograph a court case in the afternoon, watch a lawyer carefully build a case, and maybe that evening find myself at a local high school basketball game. I loved meeting all kinds of people and getting to experience so many things. That part of the job was always amazing.
photo by TJ Mullinax
I expected that I'd make a career as a photojournalist and be hugely satisfied telling the stories of my community, meeting amazing people, challenging myself to be visually creative and innovative. And I could do it while getting a steady paycheck.
But the newspaper business started to change.
Many of the photojournalists I knew were laid off. Many photojournalists who I didn't know, but whose work had inspired me were laid off. My newsroom shrank. Our resources shrank, and with them, the ability of our small photo staff to do the projects we were passionate about, the work that meant the most. I'd always felt that I went to work, not to a job. Work -- something that engages my passion and makes a difference in the world -- is something to do wholeheartedly, without counting the hours in the day.
A job is something you do to earn a paycheck.
Going to the office everyday started to feel like a job. A job where the creativity and passion of a group of very talented and dedicated people was largely determined by decisions about money made on the other side of "the wall" that separated what we did (journalism) from the decisions about the direction of our paper as a whole. I looked at where those decisions were being made -- decisions that affected my ability to grow and be creative -- and knew that as a photographer, in that system, I would never be able to rise to the level where I would have a hand in steering the ship.
Meanwhile, I was starting to pour the creativity I had once spent on long photographic projects into art. I created a studio for myself at home and started devoting a couple of hours each day to making art. Art became my work; photojournalism became my job. And I gained two very valuable pieces of knowledge: first, that while I did not want to spend twenty or thirty years of my life in a job, I would happily spend the rest of my life doing work I loved. Second, that the people making the business decisions that impacted my ability to do work at my job were not inherently smarter than I was. They had more knowledge and experience about certain things, but they were not gifted in some way that I lacked.
They were not born that way. They made themselves.
And I’m a maker.
(Watch for part 2!)