“I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” That was the number one cited regret from folks who were at the end of their life looking back reflectively at what had and hadn’t been according to a blog post I stumbled upon last night. As the Thanksgiving Holiday approaches here in the United States, I’m really excited and appreciative for the past twelve months of my own life, a year in which I lived true to myself perhaps more so than ever before. Up before the sun, out on the trail, chasing natural beauty, staying close to the places and the people that matter to me…this was my first year as a full-time outdoor freelance photographer and I can’t say enough how thankful I am to have had the opportunity to live my dream. For many years I admired—and was a healthy bit jealous—of the big dogs in the industry who managed to make traveling to the most remote, beautiful locations in this country (and this world) a career vocation. A perpetual vacation it seemed to me from my desk within a dumpy construction trailer on a never-ending rotation of jobsites. Obviously, the reality has not been a vacation in the least, but the truth no less exciting and invigorating than my expectations. I’ll always have the adventures, the sunrises, the sunsets, the snow, the sun, the sweat, the efforts, the hopes, the time.
I want to thank every single individual, organization, publisher, friend, family member, and business along the way that has interacted with me and my photography. In many ways, I’m following the embarrassment-laced ‘fake it until I make it’ sort of process, but I’m also actively working my tail off every day to better understand what my role and responsibilities are as a freelance photographer, and how I can better deliver value to potential clients and customers through my photography and through myself. This past year that process–the hustle–has often meant less time to shoot leisurely or to schedule informal meet ups. The windows of opportunity have become tighter and more cherished, the finances slimmer and more watched, the pressure to produce more acute as my ability or inability to consistently come home with images that speak to viewers matter-of-factly dictates the quality of my life both professionally and personally as I get established in this business. Thank you to those who are working with me as I figure this thing out and attempt to find the balance.
It would be easy to say that I’m self-taught. I hear that sentiment proudly stated in many bios and conversations. And I don’t begrudge those that use the moniker. Stripped down, the term simply implies learning on one’s own initiative rather than that of another. But does that imply that those who seek formal education are not self-motivated; that they do not bring hunger and willingness to the table each day? I never liked the saying ‘self-taught’ and I still don’t. I choose purposefully not to use it. John Harrington, author and photographer, writes in his book, Best Business Practices for Photographers that “No professional athlete would dream of going a day without coaching. Because their success is too important to leave to chance. They wouldn’t dream of going it alone. Yet most small business owners are actually proud of going it alone! As if that said something about them. It does not. It says that they are not fully committed to success” (p.477). I want to be fully committed to the success of my business and I know that in many ways that means humbling myself to the knowledge and experience of others. I appreciate every piece of advice, every social media contact that has continued to follow and invest in my work, every blog, every article, every publication, every book, every bit of information that has taught me something useful and contributed to whatever I am today.
My background was heavy into sports growing up. I was always coached. My schedule was heavily regimented. If I wasn’t at a formal practice, it was an offsite speed and agility course, or it was an informal routine that was typed up on a note card and laminated to fit into a gym bag with the expectation of frequent use. The results were monitored by the coaches. I was accountable to them. I was accountable to myself and my own desires. My performance, physical and mental both, was always measured and reported…and opportunities to improve were offered. I failed often, but to fail also meant that I tried. Later, when sports fizzled out, I got heavily involved in academia, where I had the strong support and guidance of many advisers and mentors. It became apparent to me that I was blessed to have opportunities: the limiting factor was only my own motivation and willingness to participate. Once I formally made the commitment to be an outdoor freelance photographer this year, it has been a whirlwind of activity and opportunity. I approach my success in this industry much as I did with sports and academia: I purposefully attempt to soak up whatever is offered from whatever source whenever I can. I listen. I question. I practice. Someone who has been very generous with their time, advice and even financial resources is good friend and photographer, Dave Allen, who allowed me to tag along on numerous photography trips while he began his own career in this industry. Many of my first exposures to new locations were on the dime and planning of Dave Allen. Don’t underestimate planning and instinct either—I quickly realized shooting with Dave that anyone can push buttons and operate gear, the real mark of experience and value is knowing where to go and at what times to be there in order to put yourself into a position where all that button pushing means something more than technical posturing. I would like to think that I contributed in some small way along our journeys together in the Carolina’s and beyond, even if that was just holding an umbrella while he executed an image, but the truth is simply that the equation was heavily weighted towards my own benefit and for that I owe ongoing gratitude and thanks.
No one has been more supportive in my move to landscape photography than my family. I’m not sure that my father believes in the vocation still as a long-term source of financial opportunity and security, but he believes in me. And my mother, who is also an avid photographer aside from her day job, has bent over backwards to make things work for me, from providing her own financial resources to fund trips and gear, to finding opportunities for my work to be recognized. My sister, who is admirably busy chasing her own dreams and goals, has even taken time from her own work to get me up and running with early versions of my website. My family has been, and continues to be, the foundation of my ability to chase this dream.
And friends…I’m not the best at keeping in touch. Okay, I’m consistently terrible. Call it a character flaw. Call it introversion. Call it what you want. But my friends seem to consistently be supportive regardless. Recently, two long-time friends purchased canvases from me despite my inability to keep up with my social circles. I’m greatly appreciative and in debt to you guys. And to those who I’ve reconnected with recently following my move back up to the mid-Atlantic, your kind words mean a good bit to me. Many of the folks I went to school with as a kid have gone on to do (or are doing) really meaningful and impressive things with their lives and to say anything positive about a dude like me who goes hiking for a living is more than I could ever expect! Whether it’s a little white lie or the honest truth, it’s neat to hear and I thank you for the good words guys!
To the folks who have done business with me this past year, I thank you for your support and hope that you found the product and my service to over deliver on your expectations. And if you didn’t, I want to hear from you. There’s always room to improve. To those who treated me and my photography with respect, it’s a reflection of the professionalism of you and your organization. I could complain about the hardships of being a photographer, the devaluing of the medium in the marketplace, the blah, blah, blah chorus that seems all too present these days. But with some organizations it just isn’t necessary for they get it. They treat you better than you treat yourself. A couple of call-outs who have done repeat business with me this year who fit the bill of top-notch: Our State Magazine and Southern Environmental Law Center. Thank you. You were an important part of my first year in business.
And perhaps that brings me to the most interesting revelation about this past year, although I guess it’s not really a revelation so much as just plain clarity about a fact that I already knew. In the course of finding my own courage to live the life that I want to live, I’ve realized that others are the key to making it actually happen. While I may provide the intention and the motivation—steering the ship so to speak—how fast and how rough the ride may be, or if there is to be a ride at all, are factors largely dependent upon others. With that in mind, it’s been exciting for me to actively contribute to the success of others when the opportunity has availed itself, whether that be simply answering questions about my experiences with craft and commerce or more actively investing time with folks behind the camera—each is an opportunity to put someone up on my shoulders—to give them a metaphorical lift…to pay it forward—and in the process, perhaps, to strengthen a network that will at some point determine my own ceiling for success in this industry and as a freelance outdoor photographer.
My bests to everyone and their families over the holidays. Thanks.
And now, pardon the attempt at some shameless marketing (part of living the dream is finding the means to finance the dream, and these links are a step in the right direction for me!)…if you enjoy thumbing through landscape photography from the southeast and mid-Atlantic, I operate frequently within the following states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Washington DC, and West Virginia, and each link will find the work of numerous photographers on Fine Art America. Thanks guys!