I was recently interviewed for a new local radio program called ‘Depth of Field’, by the wonderful Rachael Hunter-Brown. It aired January 13th on CRFC 101.9, so if you are curious, check it out. (my friend Liz Cooper was also interviewed and you can find that here)
The experience was pretty insightful. It gave me a chance to cobble together some thoughts on the past two years of my life. I suppose it was the first time that I had a platform to outwardly discuss whatever limited expertise I’ve been able to build in photography. Listening back to it (I admit, I listened multiple times) gave me confidence.
For this reason, I am taking to this blog to jot down some feelings that have emerged as a result of the last two years of my life, now that I’ve had a chance to process them. I envision this will be the first of a series of blogs on the topic. This first one addresses the process of quitting something. In my case, it was one of the only things I’d ever known. I appreciate you taking the time to read this, and please feel free to leave a comment if you enjoyed it, or took something from it. Your support means the world to me.
Two years ago, I walked away from academia. After pursuing it relentlessly and devotedly for some seventeen years (if you count my undergraduate degree), I walked away.
It wasn’t a dramatic, flailing arms and hair-pulling act.
It wasn’t an abrupt severance of ties, but it was nonetheless turbulent.
It was a mental shift in my commitments away from what had constituted the bulk of my identity until that point, toward something new and - to me - unchartered.
In this new terrain, much of everything that might have been helpful to me before - a nicely growing CV, a string of degrees, minor accolades and hard-earned awards, an expanding network of good colleagues and friends, and the very ground on which the field unfolded - was now inadmissible. Irrelevant to everyone. Irrelevant, on its face, even to me.
I’m well aware I’m not the first, nor will I be the last human being to change the course of their career mid-way through life. I once heard that the average Canadian has something like four career shifts in their lifetime. Not sure I believe it, but...
At times, my shift has felt like failure.
It is destabilizing when you cannot draw from former experiences. The rules of life are the same, sure, but the playing field is vastly different.
No one knows, nor cares, what game you played before, or with what brilliant players. Without a common frame of reference, all those years of toil and stress and personal sacrifices and triumphs, along with your expertise, no longer means much. People have their own worries here, their own biographies.
Entering photography at the ripe old age of 35, I often felt as though my ‘youth’ (by which I mean my twenties) might as well have been misspent. Except I know now that it wasn’t.
For the last two years, I’ve been busy as usual. I’ve been laying down the foundation for what is presumably to keep me busy into my old age. Never mind that. Let’s not talk about the far future. Who knows how long any of us have left? But I’ve been busy reconstructing a new identity.
There are things I took from academia - helpful things. The deep-seated belief that any skill is open to improvement, given sufficient practice. I tell my children that around the dinner-table and each chance I get: that we aren’t born talented. We work our butts off to become so. That’s kept me pressing on the shutter thousands upon thousands of times since 2016.
The understanding that we cannot grow in a vacuum, that critical appraisal of your work by others is essential. Something as necessary as breathing in academia: sharing your work and asking for it to be torn apart to be rebuilt. That’s kept me searching for people to critique my photographs, who aren’t afraid to offend me (if you’re willing to be one of those people, then please give me a shout).
There are many things I couldn’t take with me. Mentorship. That’s one thing I sorely miss. The gentle or stern or demanding guide of people who have your back, who want you to succeed for numerous reasons, who will stand by you for years to come, and vouch for you, and point out your mistakes, flaunt your successes, raise you up, suggest how you can be doing better. People just around the corner. Not competitors, but critical well-wishers.
I’ve had amazing mentors in my life. They are many, yet not too many to name (I’d fill pages if I could, to sing their praises... perhaps it’ll be its very own blog post). But the names would mean nothing to anyone in my new life.
I was also a mentor for others. Undergraduate and graduate students, entering the field, or learning things from me.
It was only after listening to Andree Thorpe’s recent radio interview for the same program of which I was a part, that I realized this type of mentorship is in fact possible in the world of photography.
The hurdles to it appear far larger than in academia. Mentorship is woven in the fabric of the academic occupation. You take on students who take on others, you build synergy and progress and efficiency in teams, you give up some of what is yours for the benefit of your team, etc.
As a lone-wolf sport, and perhaps an art at that, photography is a different kind of devil. There are rules, but skillfully breaking the rules makes you stand apart in positive ways. One might even say, doing so in a consistent way puts you on a solid trajectory to reaching the apex of your class.
Sure, academics strive to try out cutting edge research designs so as to be first to discover something. Do that enough times, and you get a pretty high H-index (a debated metric of scientific performance).
But academics are also at the heart of it, after the truth. They are after an objective and measurable thing. They aren’t dealing with degrees of subjectivity. Artists are. They are free to explore a fluid representation of reality. To construct their own.
I don’t know of any H-index in photography. Maybe Magnum membership is the apex. Or bagging a Pulitzer. Or making millions for Vogue and Vanity Fair features. Or being the best celebrity portrait photographer.
Perhaps in some of these subdomains, particularly for highly successful individuals, there is a strong sense of team. They hire assistants, managers, and other personnel. They train them. Sometimes the assistants go on to become full-fledged photographers themselves.
It’s not an obvious process. At least it’s not obvious to me, which is a shame.
That was a long ode to mentorship and community, for sure, and yet justified because it’s the thing I pine over the most.
Now, with the good.
Photography has shown me I am more.
For one, I am more than a brain forever managing only a fleeting grasp of statistics. I never was a math head, and not for lack of trying. Things just don’t organize themselves properly in the form of functions and variables to my mind. I don’t get it. Now - I never have to.
I am goofy and eager for connection and I never have to hide it. When each new photo session means a new client, a new family, a fresh and eager and nervous set of eyes on you, it’s humanizing and humbling. It brings out the eager child in you, the child who wants to reach out and share their toys at the sandbox. It makes you see the best in humanity, one human at a time.
I am more than analytical. On most of those internet tests, I get a 50/50 split of left-brain/right-brain activity. I know this about myself. I can’t help but analyze things, and debate, and ponder. I seek evidence and rationality, and find comfort in all things grounded in reason. Yet I am and always have been drawn to art, and music. Since I was six, I’ve wanted to play piano. Two months ago, I started piano lessons. Better thirty years too late than never at all. When I was in middle school, I wanted to be an artist. I pursued the indulgent hobby until the end of Grade 12. Two months ago, I began attending life drawing classes.
Two years ago, I started taking pictures of people in exchange for money.
Two years ago, I thought I was pretty good at taking pictures.
A couple of thousand hours and many photographs later, I have a solid vision for improvement. This month it’s mastering three lights. Who knows what next will bring.
I’m not an easy quitter, never have been, never will be. This can be good and bad. When I sink my teeth into a journey, I would rather not let it go. On its best day, it’s loyalty and drive; on its worst: stubbornness, foolhardiness, and pride.
Quitting academia was loss of one identity and a blossoming of another. The core of who I am has stayed to guide me. Part left brain, part right, part introvert, part extravert, I’m still trying to figure out how it is that one of my favourite things in the world is magical realism when I don’t believe in magic and seek to deconstruct it any change I get.
So much of our identities are tied up with what we do - in or out of the home.
During a shift, all that was once stable comes tumbling down.
During a shift, new meaning emerges.
I wish everyone who is undergoing a shift a tolerably turbulent process that leaves them with some answers and many new initiatives to fill their hearts.