Yup, you read that right. I'm stalking a dream. When I thought about writing this post I was thinking I'd title it Chasing a Dream, but it occurred to me that title didn't quite capture the reality. It wasn't honest enough. And we all know that honesty reigns supreme in this here digital world of blogs. So Stalking a Dream it is. And without further adieu (I had to look up the spelling of adieu—more honesty!), time to bare my soul. Damn the consequences!
In the beginning...
I started my career as a graphic designer back in the late 1990s. I worked for a small—er, nimble—design firm that specialized in magazine layout. I was there for five years. During that time I was a shit photographer. I didn't have a good camera, and wouldn't have known what to do with one.
But designing and laying out magazines presented me with the unique opportunity to see some really great photography come across my desk. Transparencies full of film (late 90s y'all!) on lightboxes introduced me to the world of professional photography. I found myself thinking "Wow, this stuff is amazing. I wish I could do that!"
I romanticized what it must be like for these photographers. I imagined them arriving to our office on their Vespa with their super cool shoulder bag full of film and wicked cool camera gear, having just left the boudoir of some gorgeous model after a night drinking Belgian beer in a basement bar whose clientele consisted ONLY of the hippest guys and gals.
OK, I may be embellishing a bit. But are you not entertained?
The point is, some tiny seed was planted firmly but very deeply in the right-side of my brain. The thing is, that side of my brain was already pretty crammed full of graphic designery stuff. I was committed to my job, loved what I was doing, and wasn't even thinking about a career change. Plus, as I mentioned before I was a shit photographer!
This next part of my story might sound familiar to many of you.
And baby makes three
Like many of us parents, when our children are born we suddenly decide "NOW!" Now is the time to buy a good camera so I can take good pictures that will do justice to their arrival in this big beautiful world. So is this what happened upon the birth of our daughter? Um, no. (Apologies to her)
It still had not occurred to me that I should become a photographer. We have the worst family photos from her first couple of years. Just horrible! It's one of the things I wish I could change, but c'est la vie.
It wasn't until the birth of my son (actually about five months after his birth) that I invested in a digital SLR—the Canon Rebel. Very quickly I felt a creative shift. Really, it was like my view on the world suddenly snapped into focus (apologies for the cliché).
Right around this time, I was tiring of working in an ad agency and decided to strike out on my own. I started my own freelance graphic design business. Also around this time, my wife started a toy company and a blog to support it. This is how I started shooting professionally. I was already designing and developing her brands, so shooting for her fit very well.
She started to get asked who was shooting her company's photos. One thing led to another and that's how I become a pro.
The thing is, I had A LOT to learn about photography. Mostly the technical side of things. But I studied, researched (thank you, internet), and practiced. I invested in better lenses, a better camera, then another better camera, then another better lens (thank you, B+H).
By 2006 I was shooting more and more, and it was clearly my passion. Design had become a means to an end: income. But I was starting to make money with photography as well. So I began to lay the groundwork to redefine who I am as a creative. No longer a designer, now a photographer (and a designer).
Then in April of 2006, my great friend and amazing photographer David Deal reached out to me and a few other of his photographer friends with an idea: let's make a documentary film about the French professional bike race Paris-Roubaix.
I was the first to respond, and I was just as enthusiastic as David. We were both nuts and had no idea what we were doing. But by June of 2008, we had a finished product and our film was touring with the Bicycle Film Festival.
It was a thrilling experience and more work than I've ever done in my life outside of being a father and husband.
So by 2008, I was now considered by all my clients and friends to be a designer, a photographer, and a filmmaker. Cool, right? Well, not really.
What was getting me up in the morning every morning was not graphic design. It was not filmmaking. It was photography. Always photography. In truth, filmmaking was becoming a close second for a while there, but as anyone who has made an indie film can tell you, it takes a lot out of you. I was glad most of the work on that project had ended.
I'd found my creative center. It was making pictures of people. Working to capture that something special that happens in that brief moment when the shutter opens and closes. It happens so fast. But when I nail it, it moves me.
I began spending money on promoting myself as a photographer. I bought email lists to send promos out. I totally loved Cookie Magazine and wanted to work for them so bad. I'd sift through the pages of the magazine looking at the amazing work of the photographers they were hiring. These guys and gals were the real deal. They gave me something to aspire to.
I now knew with 100% certainty. My dream was to work exclusively as a photographer and filmmaker.
So that's it, right? From this point forward I knew it was photography I should be focusing on, right? No more design for this guy, no siree. Well... not exactly. (Sorry, this story has a ways to go. You might want to go watch a video of a cat playing keyboard or something. It's cool, this post isn't going anywhere.)
You might remember something about 2008/2009. The whole world went bankrupt.
By the end of 2009, I'd lost two big clients and it was clear that I needed to go back to the 9 to 5 grind. Not an easy thing to do when you've had four years of creative freedom to do what you want to do, not what you must do.
So in March of 2010, I took a great job working for EMBARQ. I'd seen an ad for a job as the "Video Production and Design Manager." They wanted someone with graphic design, photography, and filmmaking skills. I shit you not. The pessimistic part of my brain was convinced this was too perfect to work out.
But it did. EMBARQ wanted to send me around the world to shoot short documentary-style films about the work they were doing in the area of sustainable transportation. In lay terms, they work to make sure that all these billions of people living in cities around the world have safe, clean, reliable public transport systems so they don't clog the world with cars and the exhaust from them.
I traveled to Mexico City, India and New York. I interviewed Mayor Michael Bloomberg! It was a great gig. But it was not fulfilling me. Photography really was an afterthought when it came to the job at EMBARQ. Not to mention that my trips were very laborious.
On one trip I spent 15 days in India, had one day off, and shot footage for eight short films. That was crazy. Plus, the design side of the job was demanding as well. But I was pretty good at it by this point and that meant my design work was great, but I was on autopilot. Totally uninspired.
In 18 months at EMBARQ I'd only visited three places for filming. That meant that the rest of my time was spent in the office. Not exactly a stimulating environment for someone like me. When I was in the field shooting for a client or for EMBARQ I felt alive. I met great people and learned things about the people I was interviewing. (Interestingly, the most unexpected benefit of being a photographer or filmmaker is getting the chance to meet great people all the time.)
At the end of 2011, my time (also known as funding) at EMBARQ was coming to an end. Luckily, the parent organization of EMBARQ—the World Resources Institute, or WRI—wanted to snatch me up. In 2012, I was made Creative Director of WRI. Widely considered one of the most prestigious environmental organizations in the world. It felt good. It sounded good.
But every week I was in an office. I was having meetings. I was planning for future projects for the organization. I even made a film that had me literally flying around the world. But I was not taking photographs.
The New "Normal"
Now might be a good time to mention that I do not feel normal unless I've recently had a camera in my hands, and captured something beautiful. I can't explain it (and who would really care) but that's just the way it is. And at the WRI job, I wasn't behind the camera for video or stills nearly enough.
All the while during my time at WRI and EMBARQ I had continued to freelance. I was doing design work, but shooting as well. The work I was doing as a freelance photographer was far more rewarding creatively than what I was doing at my 9 to 5 gig.
But a 9 to 5 job takes up a lot of your time and energy. I'd get home and simply get bummed out that I'd not taken any photos. I'd not promoted myself as a commercial photographer either.
There was an entire world out there who hired photographers and they didn't even know I existed! And so panic and sadness set in.
Then something magical happened
Remember my wife and her blog? In 2011, she was really making inroads with her site. Her traffic was growing very steadily. She'd attended the Alt Design Summit in Salt Lake City early in the year and it really inspired her. She realized that she wasn't just goofing off, she was a professional writer and publisher. She didn't need a job, she already had a job.
In August, Alt came to New York City for a one day conference at Martha Stewart Omnimedia headquarters and Jen went for it. There she met some amazing people. One in particular really changed things for us. If nothing else, it was our perspective.
Susan Brinson and Jen went out to dinner through a random circumstance and they got to talkin'. Jen mentioned me. Susan mentioned that her husband Will was also a photographer. Jen shared my work with Susan. Jen mentioned that I have a total man crush on this one photographer (who used to shoot for Cookie). Well it just so happened that Susan's husband Will and this guy have the same rep! Hmmm, scary.
At the end of the evening, Jen had so many ideas—and not just ideas, but an actual to-do list—straight from Susan. These were the same to-do's that had worked for Will. Susan had selflessly shared* this valuable information with us, and we were not about to let it go to waste.
*This is something that we've come to learn is extremely common for her. She and Will are two of the most amazing people we have ever met.
The beginning of something
And so in October of 2012 I hired Melissa McGill to review my body of work, and help me group my images in a way that most honestly and accurately represented my vision as an artist. (Yeah that's right, I called myself an artist. I've come to realize that it's not pretentious to think of yourself that way. In fact it's totally liberating and if you're reading this, chances are you're an artist too. You might want to embrace it.)
I needed someone completely disconnected from my work to go through my photographs and help me find the good. I'd spent so damn long looking at some of these images that I was liking my mediocre/safe photographs, and hating great ones. My head was a mess. I'd lost perspective on my own work.
But wow. Going back through all of those images and sharing them with Melissa was a very painful process. It's like bearing your soul to someone you really respect and admire. As a matter of fact, I found out that Melissa has also worked with this photographer who I'd had this man crush on. (Universe to Dave, come in Dave)
Now at this point, I have to say that a shift started to happen. There were too many coincidences here and there for me to dismiss. It may sound nuts, but it felt like the divine hand of the universe was removing obstacles from our path (our's because Jen was with me every step of the way), and keeping us on it. When a new challenge presented itself and hope seemed lost, a solution would present itself that same day, or the next. Jen and I would look at each other and share a that strange butterfly feeling you get either when 1) you fall in love, 2) you're very, very excited and don't know why, or 3) you are scared shitless.
Maybe it was simply a new shared perspective, but we could both tell that things were changing.
I was working with a highly-respected photo editor. Jen's site was doing really well and she'd met some fantastic people. After Melissa's edit of my work I had a renewed appreciation of it.
We were in the shift. But now what?
Ugh. Responsibilities. The word brings to mind someone working their entire life in a job not because they like it, but because it puts a roof over their head, food on the table, and provides health insurance should "the worse" happen.
After Melissa finished working on my edit, I needed to decide what was next. I was still working for WRI all week and had yet to really start to promote myself as a photographer. With my new portfolio I was "all dressed up with nowhere to go," and no time to pound the pavement. And to be honest, my role as Creative Director at WRI was great for our family. Decent salary, benefits, great coworkers, etc.
But day after day Jen and the kids would pick me up from the train station and the depression would set in. I had not felt fulfilled that day, and I had to do it all over again the next. The shift had taken place, but somehow I'd lost my way and didn't know where to pick up the path again.
Finding the Courage to Leave
Around springtime I realized that it was time to force a change. It was terrifying. Leaving WRI meant leaving a steady job working with great people. It meant going back to work for... myself.
Wait. Did you catch that?
To work. For myself.
All this time I'd been working a job that didn't fit the dream I'd been stalking. I'd not felt fulfilled and often felt miserable. I'd been doing no one any favors. And in fact, I'd likely done harm to my family. To my kids! I'd modeled a behavior that is far too common in America.
I got up in the morning to go to a job I tolerated (I do love you guys at WRI!), came home unhappy and uninspired, complained that things weren't happening. Then rinsed. Then repeated. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.
How could I do this to my kids? Shouldn't they grow up seeing their parents follow their dreams? Shouldn't they grow up seeing their father happy every day? Don't I want that for them? Don't I owe it to myself? To my wife?
And that's was it. That was the trigger. My kids. I decided—with the unbelievable support of my wife—to quit my job and stalk the shit out of my dream. "I will have you dream. You will be mine. You may not even know I exist (but I like to think that you do), but I promise you this: I will love you so hard that you will love me back."
In late June 2013, I told my boss that I needed to leave WRI to follow this dream. I told him my last day would be September 30 so that I could wrap up a few key projects I didn't want to drop.
On October 1, 2013, I will wake up in the morning, and I will take photos. I will shoot video. I will lock arms with my dream, and I will be a better, happier man. And my kids will learn that this is the way to live a life.