From left: Working on a blog post at LOOK3, my third birthday tattoo (of an archaeopteryx), practicing my wedding speech.
I finally picked up my journal a few days ago and immediately wrote this question: “Why haven’t I been writing?”
Over the more than 20 years I’ve kept a journal, this question has come up a lot. I know by now that I am constantly flowing through cycles where I will discipline myself to write every day, feel naturally compelled to write once a week, or will not write at all for months. Yet I’m still trying to figure out why this happens when it does.
If you had to choose one word to describe my work, it would probably be “writer.” I edited my high school newspaper, studied magazine journalism in college, and have written for magazines, blogs, and creative clients ever since. (And aren’t we all writers now? I must write around 100 emails, text messages, and Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr updates a day.)
But I more often describe myself as an editor. Because, for me, writing has always been about filtering the world around me through my own thought process, then retelling it in a way that facilitates understanding. I know the root of this lies in my personal journaling — where I am most often trying to work out what’s going on inside myself by putting it on a page, and therefore examining it from a slight distance.
So, getting back to my original question, I know that I write less when I am not in extreme emotional turmoil (which I thankfully haven’t been) and when I’m not starting a new project (which often triggers a more intellectual turmoil). I also learned while traveling last year that I’m not good at writing while experiencing lots of new things (like when I quit my job and travel for five months). I seem to be able to either experience or write/process, but not both.
This brings me to another question: Am I not writing because I’m in the middle of a journey? If so, it’s one that I am unaware of (or was, until I started writing this post in my head).
After being on a very literal journey for months last year, it took a while for me to recognize the subtler journey I’ve been on this year. I started to see it when I made myself write down all the Things I’ve Done This Year:
1. Attended a 3-day silent meditation retreat
2. Helped start and facilitate a group of women creatives
3. Hosted an experimental collaboration event while visiting NYC
4. Broke up with my boyfriend
5. Moved out of our apartment
6. Lived out of a storage unit for five months
7. Moved into a new apartment
8. Built a wood canoe with my dad
9. Made a multimedia video of building a wood canoe
10. Live-blogged LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph
11. Spoke at Flash Forward Festival
12. Spoke at PartnerCon
13. Started a newsletter
14. Worked with 10+ new clients
15. Taught a class on social media for small business
16. Was a bridesmaid in two weddings
17. Taught cooking classes for my friends
18. Took a workshop on radio interviewing and became friends with The Kitchen Sisters
19. Did a video interview for the Musea Blog
20. Did a video interview for Heather Morton’s speaking tour
21. Was a remote guest speaker for John Kaplan’s social responsibility in journalism class
22. Modeled for a figure drawing class
23. Went to Mexico
24. Joined a Women’s Sacred Dance Circle
25. Went deer hunting with my dad
26. Got a tattoo
When I got to the end of this list, I thought: How could I have thought I wasn’t on a journey (or, equally silly and also something I imagined: that I hadn’t accomplished very much)? Sometimes I just have to write it down before I can see it.
Now that I’m finally settled in a new apartment, with all my things around me and an awesome roommate and a big kitchen for me to cook in, I’m feeling the calm space I need to write again. Possibly even the centeredness I need to commit to writing every day, whether I feel like it or not.
Whether or not writing functions for you as it does for me — to help clarify and process — I recommend taking some time before the end of this year to make a list of all the things you’ve done. Things you don’t do every year, things you did for the first time, things you’re proud of, things that left a mark. On January 1 our eyes will all shift forward, so now’s the time to look backwards, which is often the only way to really know where you are right now.
As an introduction and because people keep asking about this video: My dad and I went to Northern Ontario a few months ago to build a wooden canoe from scratch….in 8 days. Needless to say, it was a lot of work. But I learned so much, and it was such a treat to have unmitigated father-daughter time, the long hours and sore back were worth it. Below is a multimedia video I made of the experience. It’s a rough, early attempt, so cut me some slack on the production quality, please :)
I haven’t felt much like writing lately…too much work, too much distraction, too little time to sit down and process, let alone write about it coherently. But I when I got off the phone with my dad the other day, I finally felt my fingers itch for the keyboard.
Since returning to the Bay Area in July, my work as a freelance branding/social media consultant/coach has taken off. I’m pleasantly surprised by how people keep finding me, getting in touch, asking if I can help them…and then me being able to. It feels good, but it also feels like I’m one of those jugglers riding a unicycle on a tightrope: just keep moving, keep the balls in the air, don’t look down.
Another opportunity has presented itself recently, one that is really exciting, seems to collect all my disparate talents in one project, and is a chance to work with a small team of people I could not respect or like more. Like most exciting projects like this, it presents a less than clear path to me getting paid, at least for the first few months. Yet to do it like I would want to do it, I’d need to do it full time, letting go of the freelance work that would pay my bills.
Sitting here pondering this dilemma, I did what I’ve done so many times before: I called my dad. I told him what was up, that it’s a great opportunity but the money might not be there. Like a good parent, he told me I was worth the money, and if they were worth working for, they’d find it for me.
Maybe, maybe not, I said. But this just seems like the perfect thing. It uses all my skills, it’s people I really want to work with, it gives me a chance to feel less scattered, and, and….Well, then, there’s your answer, he said. You call me up, you don’t know what to do about this job, and then you tell me all about why it’s so perfect. You answered your own question.
And he was right. And part of me knew that would happen if I called him. Then he said something even better.
This is just like how we used to do your geometry homework, do you remember? I didn’t. You would bring me some problem you couldn’t figure out, and I had no idea how to do it either, but I would just go back to the chapter before and start reading it. You’d start explaining it all to me, and by the time we got to that question that was stumping you, you’d say, “Nevermind, I figured it out.”
Wow. You know what you are, dad? What? A facilitator, I said. He laughed.
I’d never thought about where my own attraction to, and gift for, facilitating had come from, but this was clearly the root of it. I’ve learned that you cannot answer people’s questions for them, so the best kind of teacher helps you find the answer for yourself. So do good friends and family. Facilitators help us feel safe enough to try things we don’t know how to do; they help us gain confidence in our ability to make our own decisions.
Who are the facilitators in your life? Have you called them lately?
I hope Ariel doesn't mind me turning her into a bit of a metaphor ... going through my pictures from LOOK3, I was struck by this image of her, surrounded by men who tower over her, yet at the center nonetheless, in the spotlight.
I spent last week at LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contend that LOOK3 is the best photo festival in the U.S. (if not world); however, I’m not exactly impartial. I helped organize last year’s LOOKbetween, a symposium for young photographers held in LOOK3’s off year, and liveblogged, Facebooked, and Tweeted for the festival this year.
I could go on about why I think LOOK3 is so great (limited attendance, small town setting, inclusion of younger photographers, passionate heart, amazing organizers), but I particularly want to talk about something I noticed in the talks and slideshows at this year’s event…as someone (I wish I could remember who) said to me after talks by Christopher Anderson and Ashley Gilbertson, “Today could have been titled, ‘Men Being Emotional.'”
Chris kicked off Friday’s Masters Talks with his usual thoughtful eloquence, focusing on his latest work, Son, an extremely personal project centered on his family (wife, young son, and ailing father). Ashley followed with an impassioned talk about his years of conflict work and especially his most recent project, Bedrooms of the Fallen, which quietly but undeniably demonstrates the price we pay for war. Their presentations were mentioned as a festival high point by almost everyone I met.
This got me thinking about photography that is more emotionally present, something I wrote about a few weeks ago here. There seems to be a trend, with photojournalism in particular, of going beyond an objective capturing of “who, what, where” to a subjective account, seen through the photographer’s own emotional lens.
Now, there is nothing to say that this is necessarily a movement from “male” to “female,” but I do think that to be emotionally engaged with your images you have to be vulnerable (a big idea in my life right now). And I think it’s fair to say that vulnerability is associated more with women than men, that it is something we are more inclined toward, or, probably, more encouraged by society to feel and express.
Which brings me to the second high point of LOOK3: the closing-night conversation between Sally Mann and Nan Goldin. Sally opened with this: “It occurs to me that Kathy Ryan put us here on stage together for a reason. We are perceived to be so strong and unflinching. Yet, I know that I’m fragile as ash. And I have the perception you feel the same.” And things only got more raw and more real from there. (Read the full conversation here.)
They admitted they envied each other’s lives, they commiserated about their work being dubbed pornographic, they talked about their pussies (and I don’t mean their cats). A few times I wondered nervously what the men in the audience were thinking. But then I thought, who cares? I’m sick of women acting like it isn’t hard to work in a male-dominated field, of not wanting to admit we’re vulnerable because it further calls attention to our “femaleness.” There was something so empowering and exciting about seeing these talented, wise, proud women talking just like they would if they were alone. “This is really how women talk to one another,” I thought.
What triggered my final “aha” moment was a slideshow presented on Saturday night: Steve Giovinco’s On the Edge of Somewhere. The artist’s description reads, “I photograph psychologically intimate and emotional relations between couples,” and the voice over clarified that the couple in the photographs was Steve and his wife. I liked the work, but I kept thinking, “This is just like Elinor Carucci.” Elinor’s My Children was shown a few slideshows ahead, so I doubt I’m the only one who saw the resemblance.
I don’t want to get myself in trouble by saying there is a “female” way of making photos, but if we had to draw some pattern from contemporary women photographers (at least in the fine-art world), it would be of making personal, vulnerable images, often of themselves or their loved ones. And here was a man doing exactly that! Women entering any male-dominated field have long been influenced by the men already there: insisting they are “just like men” or else working in conscious contradiction to “maleness.” I wondered if that flow of influence is starting to reverse?
Even more exciting is the idea that, like most walls in our modern society, the one between “male” and “female” art and artistic subjects/approaches is coming down. We are all given room to be vulnerable if we want, to make “family” photos that are still respected by the industry, or to do the opposite, if that’s your thing. More freedom and less pigeonholing can only be a good thing for art, right?
I just finished finally reading A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. It is, simply put, the best essay I’ve ever read. Not that I previously thought Virginia was a slouch, and I’m having trouble verbalizing exactly what was so magnificent about it, but I just can’t stop saying “wow.”
Her writing is beautiful in it’s clarity (of thought and word); A Room of One’s Own, her 1929 magnum opus on the struggles of women writers, despite being dense in subject, is gripping and readable like a great mystery novel. And it’s SO timeless, even as it is also obviously dated.
I’ve included a few of my favorite quotations below. The final one, in particular, I hope admonishes women, looking back 100 years on the suffrage movement rather than 10, to accept no excuses for not making your mark on the world.
“Fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”
“And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important'; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial.’ And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. … One has only to skim those old forgotten novels [of the early 19th century] and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of consiliation. She was admitting the she was ‘only a woman,’ or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man.’ She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. It does not matter which it was; she was thinking of something other than the thing itself. Down comes her book upon our heads. There was a flaw in the centre of it. And I thought of all the women’s novels that lie scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand book shops of London. It was the flaw in the center that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others.”
“The very first sentence that I would write here, I said, crossing over to the writing-table and taking up the page headed Women and Fiction, is that it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilised. Brilliant and effective, powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow in the minds of others. Some collaboration has to take place int he mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.”
“When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends. I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves.”
“How can I further encourage you to go about the business of life? Young women, I would say, and please attend, for the peroration is beginning, you are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare are not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilisation. What is your excuse? It is all very well for you to say, pointing to the streets and squares and forests of the globe swarming with black and white an coffee-coloured inhabitants, all busily engaged in traffic and enterprise and love-making, we have had other work on our hands. Without our doing, those seas would be unsailed and those fertile lands a desert. We have borne and bred and washed and taught, perhaps to the age of six or seven years, the one thousand six hundred and twenty-three million human beings who are, according to statistics, at present in existence, and that, allowing some had help, takes time.
“There is truth in what you say — I will not deny it. But at the same time may I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 — which is a whole nine years ago — she was given a vote? May I also remind you that the most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good.“
I went to Baja, Mexico, a few weeks ago, to a tiny house and trailer near San Felipe that my parents own. There is no electricity on the property, but my mom’s friend Linda lives nearby in a bigger house with solar and generator power, so we spent most of the time there.
Lately I’ve been hearing about all this disturbing research on how our brains are physiologically changed by computer use. They say it takes about three days of non-use for your brain to slow down and return to normal, so I didn’t look at my computer or iPhone at all for four days, and then I only checked email once a day and for no more than half an hour after that. It was absolutely the right decision, something I recommend everyone do at least every six months.
I want to share a few photos I made while I was in Mexico (with my Contax point-and-shoot film camera) — but that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing it because of what happened when I came back home to San Francisco.
My first day back in the city I had my first panic attack in almost a year. Maybe being back in the midst of all my responsibilities, the noises of the city, and the over-stimulation of the internet triggered it, but I think it was mostly because I lowered my dosage of Zoloft about a month ago, and my body was going through a readjustment period.
I started taking Zoloft about, not surprisingly, 11 months ago, in part to treat panic attacks. I didn’t have them frequently, but if you’ve ever had one, you know that once in a while is way too much. Zoloft and other SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are generally known as antidepressants, but, as it was explained to me, they just as easily could have been marketed as anti-anxiety medication. I have many hallmarks of the overly anxious — perfectionist, overachiever, stomach problems, trouble relaxing/sleeping, taking everything personally — and I’ve been working for years to mitigate those tendencies through therapy, exercise, diet, and meditation. But when I quit my job, gave up my apartment, and went on the road for five months this summer, I decided I needed some extra help. Now that my life is a little more stable, I’m ready to try it again without the Zoloft.
Maybe it’s weird for me to be talking about this amid posts about my career and the future of photography, but I deeply believe in demystifying things, especially our bodies and the way we treat them. I also believe that we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to connect with and help other people.
I’m also annoyed that psycho-pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy are still relatively taboo (I HATE taboos). I understand why they are, especially since many people still believe that those who take psycho-pharmaceuticals are “weak” and “need” them to be “normal.” As far as I’m concerned, deciding to take an anti-depressant is the same as deciding to take medication to lower your blood pressure. Anyone who takes any action to help themselves feel better is brave; trying something new, especially trying to change yourself for the better, is always harder than going along with things as they are.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve been having a rough time the last week or so. The panic attacks I had were accompanied by bouts of depression. I knew they were triggered by the lower Zoloft dose — there was no logical reason for me to lie crying or immobile in my bed every morning — but depression does not listen to logic or reason.
Friends and family kindly suggested things I should do to make myself feel better: ride your bike, paint, cook a new dish. And I would calmly explain that the cruelty of depression is that it destroys your ability to make decisions or take actions that would help you stop being depressed.
Luckily the down periods were intermittent and when I felt up to it, I set up meetings with mentors and therapists. When people asked me in passing how I was, I didn’t lie and say, “Oh, pretty good,” I told them things were rough. I’m sure some people were taken aback, but the vast majority sympathized and have been there for me more than usual while I’ve struggled through.
I don’t want this post to be about depression, either. If you’ve experienced depression yourself, you might agree with me that once you feel like you’re ready to reflect on it, let alone write about it, you know that you’re near the other end of the tunnel. So when I was sitting here a while ago, and suddenly had the urge to write about what I’ve been feeling, I just knew I should honor that urge whether I knew what my point was or not.
I’m definitely not pretending I’m any kind of expert at all this, but I think there is value in sharing my own experiences. Especially because, as several of my friends have said, I don’t seem like the “kind of person” who would “need” to take anxiety medication. Well, then this is yet another instance where looks can be deceiving.
I hope that reading this reminds everyone out there that life’s painful periods pass. Time, it turns out, does heal wounds. That’s hard to remember when you’re at the bottom of the well, and I certainly don’t have any easy answers for how to crawl back into the daylight. But I have learned this: The most important thing you can do is to be really, really, really kind to yourself. This means putting yourself first (even if that seems selfish), forgiving yourself, and giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Think seriously about what that means for a moment. It’s much harder than it seems. If you’d like any guidance, I’ve repeatedly found it in The Gifts of Imperfection, If You Want To Write, The Art of Loving and Buddhism Without Beliefs.
As a final thought, I know from writing other posts like this that those of you who read my blog often respond with words of kindness and encouragement. I love this and it’s a huge part of why I have this blog. But this time I’d love for you to take most of that good energy and direct it toward someone you can be with physically — bonus points if that person is yourself. Suddenly today, I find myself feeling overwhelmed by how lucky I am, mostly to have such amazing supportive friends and colleagues who provide me with opportunities to fulfill myself in the deepest ways possible. If you have the opportunity to be that for someone, I hope this will remind you to do it — that’s really why I wrote this post.
I met Matt Austin, a talented young documentary-art photographer, this October at the Flash Forward Festival in Toronto. Shortly after, we struck up an email conversation, largely in response to my posts about traveling this summer, which I was flattered to find had resonated with Matt’s own recent travels.
Below are excerpts from our discussion, as well as a series of Matt’s travel images. He will be debuting a book of new work from this trip during his solo show at Johalla Projects in Chicago on March 4. You can see photos from my travels here.
Matt and I would love to know if any of this resonates with you and what you have or haven’t learned from being on the road.
I decided last July that I was going to go on a long trip by myself around the country, leaving straight from an artist residency. I wasn’t content with things in Chicago and wanted to practice the concept of self-respect, acting on the idea that I deserve to do what I want to do with my life.
I was pretty interested in the idea of scaring the shit out of myself as a means of learning. So I decided to camp alone in a tent most of the way, though I’d never camped before. I also decided to act on my whims, buying a guitar from a pawn shop in St. Paul, MN, though never considering myself a musician. And, too, shaved my head with a beard trimmer in a hotel bathroom. Consciously taking action without any commentary is a powerful thing.
I love the idea of learning by “scaring the shit” out of yourself. I wonder if your idea of “scary” changed during your trip. Did you initially think you’d do things that were literally scary (like bungee jumping) but ended up doing things that made you feel kind of vulnerable (like learning guitar)? I ask because one of the scariest things I did during my travels was to take my photography more seriously, and putting that up for the world to see was terrifying at times.
I think the concept of fear originated in the idea of being unfamiliar with most of the situations I was in and having no one but myself to rely on; but you’re absolutely right about that shifting. Before leaving, when I would consider what may scare me about camping or driving long distances in my unreliable car, I was mainly thinking about bears and storms and car accidents. But when I was actually in those situations, it tended to be unpredictable people that scared me the most.
Purchasing the guitar mainly came from dealing with how lonely the trip could get. I started my trip by leaving from the ACRE artist residency, an amazing intellectual community, so it didn’t take long for me to feel lonely by comparison. I’ve also never been interested in the typical tourist experience, so I thought giving myself certain tasks like buying a guitar would allow me to ask locals about where to do that and come up with an unpredictable sequence of interactions. What were some of your methods of dealing with the loneliness of solitary travels? Or did you not find yourself experiencing that kind of loneliness?
It’s interesting that you ask about loneliness, because the fact is I spent very little time alone during my travels. I admire you for pushing yourself to do so many things you weren’t already comfortable or familiar with. Some part of me thought that’s what my “sabbatical” would be like, but as usual my planning/connecting/organizing gene took over and I ended up, as my dad said recently, “the busiest unemployed person” he knows.
I’m glad you brought this up because I haven’t really examined why my trip ended up that way. The easy answer is that, once you suddenly have a large chunk of unstructured time, it seems like everyone has somewhere you absolutely have to stop by. The most obvious answer to me is that I am just one of those people; seeing friends and family face-to-face is something I crave and thrive on, so given lots of free time, that’s automatically where I put my effort.
But I have to admit that it was also the easier thing for me to do, the less scary thing. I am a chronic over-planner, so even waiting until I was in Istanbul to buy my ticket to Berlin was flying by the seat of my pants. I guess maybe this trip was only a first step toward being more comfortable on my own without a road map.
As for things that I did learn (or was reminded) … First off, I’m a pretty good traveler. I know how to pack light, I’m organized, and I’m comfortable on all kinds of public transportation — even if I have to look like a stupid American and ask someone four times in English how to get somewhere.
Second, I LIKE HAVING A HOME. I knew this going in, so this trip was kind of a test. Not only was I leaving a job, but also an apartment and city behind. I slept on couches and in spare rooms or tents for four months straight — and it got really, really old. The idea of being on the road for months has a romantic appeal, but I realized that I enjoy travel more when I have a stable headquarters to strike out from. Does that make sense to you? Did you have trouble letting go of a “plan” and just wandering?
The most important thing I learned was: There is no substitute for seeing people in their natural environment. This was driven home most poignantly by my good friend in Berlin, who went to a relatively remote college (that I never visited) and has lived abroad for the last six years. I literally hadn’t seen her for more than a day or two at a time, not over a holiday, in eight years. Seeing a friend for 10 days straight, living their own life instead of stressed out by travel, holidays, and family, and especially seeing them in the midst of the city and friends they feel best fit them: It’s like getting to know them all over again.
It’s interesting how our approaches to travel are almost completely opposite, yet result in the similar opinion of “I am a pretty good traveler.” You could say that I’m a chronic under-planner or maybe even addicted to the concept of being “unprepared.” I used to print out directions places, but I consciously decided to stop four years ago. I prefer to get directions from local waiters or gas station cashiers. I will never use a GPS, not for experiences like this; you can hold me to that.
As far as dedication to a home, I’m not sure I have much. Over time, I have learned to love Chicago’s centralized location, which provides a good driving position to anywhere in the country. But I’m not so attached to the concept of a permanent home. When I am home, I sleep on a futon mattress on my bedroom floor that was donated to me by a friend. I had a few blankets on the floor before that. I made a dresser in my closet that is actually just a suitcase I drilled to the wall. Unscrewing those screws would be the most work I’d have to do if I decided to move, and I kind of like that. To answer your question more clearly: Letting go of any kind of plan is one of my favorite things to do.
Your writing on your blog about the difficulties of producing something while on the road really stuck with me. For example: “[T]he whole point of this traveling thing was to help me see a bunch of people and get inspired and figure out what makes me really happy and write about it all. But here’s the thing I’ve realized over the last few weeks: Having no home and no routine actually makes it damn hard to do something like writing that requires concerted creative effort. Well, shit.”
I couldn’t agree with this more! I tried writing every day of my trip and I think I lost my consistency around day 12 or 13 in Seattle. First, there was the guilt that came with not completing my goal. But then when I would find time to write again, it felt weird. I felt like I was sacrificing having new and natural experiences to pause and write about ones that had already happened.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like I have a similar outlook to yours in terms of how I would like to affect people: by using myself as an example to pursue what you enjoy doing, even if it’s scary and not going to be easy. I think the candor of your blog really illuminates the growth that comes from creative vulnerability. “This doesn’t have to be one of those blogs where I have all the answers. In fact, it can’t be. I’m not an expert here. I’ve never done this before. But hopefully through my experience people can learn a little about their own,” you wrote.
I find myself expressing similar values in my artwork and in my teaching. I often remind my students of two things in our lives that will never end, ever: 1) I don’t know, and 2) I’m still learning.
A friend-of-a-friend kindly put Peter and I up for two nights and we spent a day walking around the old city, which is particularly interesting in contrast to the huge abandoned industrial silos along the waterfront. Hands down our favorite discovery was the Habitat 67 building (above) built for the 1967 World’s Fair, which was originally a model of affordable urban housing, but of course is an elite gated community now.
Niagara Falls: July 25
I’d been to the falls when I was young, so I knew what a sprawling tourist trap it is. Peter, however, expecting simply the falls and some walkways, was aghast to discover a “Las Vegas on a cliff” instead. We left after an hour or so, but got some good photos in the meantime.
Detroit, MI: July 26-29
After a quick tour through Flint to see the Dort Mall and hit an amazing Salvation Army store, we landed in Detroit, which I’ve been interested in visiting for a while. Most people look at me funny when I say that. They usually have only heard about the violence and depopulation, but Detroit is a beautiful city with a strong personality, a vibrant art scene (much like Berlin), and cutting-edge innovation (such as its urban farms, pictured above). We stayed with my friend Kim Storeygard, who designed the entertainment mag I edited in college and is now a designer for the Detroit News, and hung out one day with photographer/videographer/organizer extraordinaire Stephen McGee.
Chicago, IL: July 30-August 1
Photo by Peter McCollough.
Peter got some great shots of the water sculpture in Millennium Park and the film set of Transformers 3 (above), while I mostly caught up friends from college (I went to Northwestern in Evanston, just north of Chicago) and indulged in some seriously deep-dish pizza.
Madison, WI: August 2-4
Still from our video at Devil's Lake. Courtesy Peter McCollough.
Stopped by Devil’s Lake and tried out my new (waterproof) Kodak PlaySport, had dinner with Andy Adams and his wife, and watched my friend Molly (who I’ve known since kindergarten) pack up her apartment for a move to Bloomington, IN.
Before I wanted to be a magazine editor, I dreamed of being a paleontologist. And not just like every little kid wants to be a paleontologist — like, had a complete set of archeology artifacts trading cards and several encyclopedias of dinosaurs and went on a dig in Arizona with my dad when I was 14. Anyway, seeing the Badlands has been a lifelong dream, and I spent much of the time telling Peter more than he ever wanted to know about paleosol, erosion, and prehistoric fossils. The area is also visually stunning, including the West’s characteristically low clouds, one of which I had a silent conversation with for 30 minutes. Then I took its picture (above).
Medicine Bow National Park, WY: August 13-14
On the way from the Badlands we stopped by an old nuclear missile launch facility and silo, where we were predictably looked up and down suspiciously when we said we were from San Francisco, and then talked down to throughout the tour because we weren’t even old enough to know what the Cold War was, were we? We also drove through the heart of the Sturgis Rally, the largest annual gathering of Harley Davidson enthusiasts, and drove past Mount Rushmore, which you can see from the road and is pretty underwhelming. After stopping in the smaller Medicine Bow park to the east (there are three), where beautiful red rock formations push out of the pines, we camped off-site high in the alpine mountains for two days. We found frost on the ground both mornings, but didn’t see another human being the whole time.
Salt Lake City, UT: August 15-16
The Mormon temple (above) is a beautiful building, although somewhat eclipsed by the modern skyscrapers around it that house the church headquarters. We wandered through the visitor’s center also, where tales from the Book of Mormon are represented by wax figures, well-produced video re-enactments, motion-triggered speakers, and devout teens around every corner to be sure you have all the information you need. I don’t subscribe to any religion, but I find them all fascinating cultural phenomena — the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints maybe most of all, since it is a distinctly American religion and (thus not surprisingly) also the best marketed one. We had dinner that night at a vegan restaurant that represented the distant other end of the Salt Lake cultural spectrum, then drove out through the Salt Flats, with a stop by the Bonneville Speedway for a glimpse of the Speed Week festivities.
San Francisco, CA: August 17-18
We drove all day across Nevada, stopping only in Imlay to see an eccentric old man’s tribute to American Indians constructed out of “white man’s” trash. After a couple nights at Peter’s mom’s house in Sacramento, we finally headed home. I almost started crying as I felt the cool breeze coming up the mountains to greet me.
I returned home to San Francisco a few weeks ago and have fallen in love with the city all over again. I’m still processing what exactly this time away has meant to me on a personal/professional level, but I think if I get a few of the basics down on (digital) paper, it will free up space in my brain for bigger questions.
New Orleans, LA: April 23-27
NOLA really is a magical place. It feels like another world — and century. I never saw it pre-Katrina, but aside from the Ninth Ward, which I saw during my day tour with Taylor Davidson, scars from the storm didn’t exactly jump out at me. I saw spraypaint marks on many houses, but they usually seemed to simply add another layer of patina to a city that has long been known for its beautiful dilapidation. I was specifically lured to NOLA to experience Jazz Fest and see Paul Simon (and Garfunkel) live for the first time. (Amazing.) Ultimately the festival was a little exhausting; I preferred listening to local bands at bars that felt like back yards, riding bikes through moss canopied streets, and eating steaming crayfish under paper lanterns and stars.
Death Valley, CA: May 13-16
Photo by Peter McCollough
A friend suggested I join him and a small group for an annual outing, this year to Death Valley. For me, being in nature is about removing myself from many things that bother me about “civilization”: too many people, constant noise, electronics addictions. I was reminded by this trip that not everyone sees it that way. After driving 10 hours overnight, getting lost for three hours on an ATV trail, getting smirked at by a local gas station owner for driving into Death Valley with only one spare tire and no radio, then being misled by numerous purposefully misleading markers, we finally arrived at our mid-desert warm springs rendezvous point — where we found 40 other people, playing house music and getting intoxicated under Christmas-light strung palm trees. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is stunning, but I don’t understand the point of going someplace so remote and unwelcoming just to do the same thing you could do in the city any Saturday night. After several hours of slow caravaning and numerous blown tires the next day, the group stopped in Big Pine — and Peter and I bailed out to stay in a motel. After dinner at a diner we walked about three blocks off the main street and found ourselves in a beautiful, silent, dusky mountain pass. Finally, nature the way I wanted it.
Seattle, WA: May 25-31
I hadn’t been to Seattle since I was very young, but I remembered loving it. I was there primarily for an annual Memorial Day Weekend reunion with my friends from college. We pick a different place every year and we ended up in a beautiful cabin near Mt. Rainier for 2010. I was surprised by just how lush and green Seattle is, with lots of stunning views from almost as many hills as San Francisco. I also stayed a few extra days with a friend who lives in an inspiring co-op house that shares/reuses almost everything and is populated by artists and bakers and musicians. Trip Highlight: visited the aquarium and embarrassed my friends by sitting on the floor with the kids to watch the giant octopus feeding from up close.
Athens, OH: June 3-7
A very old photo of me and my parents on their 100-acre farm in Ohio. When I think about home, this is what I see.
I was home briefly seeing my family and picking up my grandfather’s old car, which my parents kindly donated for my travels. Not too many epiphanies here, I just have to give props to the town, which I still may move back to some day; Ohio University’s photojournalism program, which I dream about teaching for some day; and my parents, who made this trip possible through their selfless, constant support.
Charlottesville, VA: June 8-14
The beautiful meeting LOOKbetween tent and barn. Photo by Brendan Hoffman.
I feel so lucky to have been able to help Andrew Owen and Jenna Pirog plan LOOKbetween. During the off-year for LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph, they decided to organize a weekend event that deconstructed the usual hierarchies of photo festivals and focused instead on emerging photographers. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can reconceive the usual photo fest structure to make it more helpful and dynamic, so I was excited to try out a few things during the Saturday discussion sessions. Our invited guests included 90 top emerging photographers plus dozens of top editors, curators, and thought leaders. All discussions took place outside at the beautiful farm where the event was held (and most guests camped). Most importantly, there were no “experts,” no “panelists,” no “moderators.” We divided people into 8 groups, gave them very general topics, and asked them to talk amongst themselves for 90 minutes. Then we brought everyone together again and recapped each topic for 20 minutes, asking only the emerging photographers to speak. I can think of lots of ways to make it better in the future, but as an experiment, I was really happy with the results. Everyone, even the “masters,” learned a lot and many people said it was the best discussion they’d heard at a photo event :)
NYC: June 15-18
It’s always great to be back in the city where I lived for three years and still have many friends. I have to say, though, that summer in NYC is a special kind of hell sometimes — like any time you have to wait on a subway platform.
Istanbul, Turkey: June 19-26
My first trip to Istanbul and the furthest east I’ve traveled. I was in Istanbul for the week-long Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, helping document the event and hanging out with an amazing group of renowned photojournalists. The historical parts of the city are really beautiful and there’s a vibrancy that makes for great street photography, but being stared at constantly and the wide cultural lines drawn between men and women eventually began to wear on me.
Berlin, Germany: June 27-July 6
One of my best friends from high school has lived outside the U.S. for years, and I’m glad I finally caught up with her in Berlin. It’s a true bohemian city, cheap enough that you can get by working 20 hours a week with plenty of time left over to develop your art/music/poetry — like NYC in the 70s, but way safer. If I had to leave SF tomorrow, I’d go to Berlin…but really the best part of being there was seeing my friend in her natural habitat, not for a few hours one night of the year when we’re both distracted by family/holiday stress.
London, England: July 7-10
Pondering the future of photojournalism over pints at the Frontline Club. From left: Paul Lowe, Edmund Clark, Simon Roberts, Patrick Smith, Adam Westbrook, Will Widmer.
I’ve been to London before so this trip included no sightseeing — instead, I finally met in person with several people I have known for years online: Adam Westbrook, Paul Lowe, Jonathan Worth, and Simon Roberts (who I’d actually met, but many years ago). Several of us got together at the Frontline Club one night, which, packed with memorabilia from former Frontline correspondents, was the best kind of sightseeing a journalism geek like me could do.
Portland, ME: July 14-21
Photo by Peter McCollough.
After meeting up in NYC, Peter and I drove to Portland and took a ferry over to Peaks Island, where my family has an old, uninsulated, telephone-free cottage, which I’ve been visiting every summer since I was born. It was a much-needed week of rest: bike riding, sea-glass gathering, rock sitting, and raiding the local library book sale for lots of great collage materials.
I’m reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for the first time and loving it. Largely because his writing is beautifully constructed and terrifyingly portentous. As you’ll see from the eerily astute predictions he made more than half a century ago, excerpted below, where the captain of the fire department (i.e. book-burning department) explains its origins to the book’s main character.
“When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I’d say it really got started around the thing called the Civil War. Even though our rule book claims it was founded earlier. The fact is we didn’t get a long well until photography came into its own. Then — motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass.
“And because they had mass, they became simpler. Once books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm.
“Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.
“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line diction resume… Speed up the film, quick. Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in midair, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!
“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic book survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course.
“There you have it. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”
Ok, so that title is a bit of a Catch 22, but I bet you all know what I mean. Every year past childhood it becomes more difficult to get out of our comfort zone and try something new. At least I hope I’m not the only one who feels that way…
For me, my discomfort with trying new things goes way back. I didn’t learn to swim or ride a bike until I was in middle school in part because I was scared of doing things wrong. I refused to keep going to soccer in elementary school and I quit high school track right before our first meet because I was scared of performing badly.
As part of my work this year to honor my inner child, I’m trying to do more things I’m bad at (or at least don’t excel at). More specifically, I’m trying to get over my fear of doing something wrong or badly. I’m trying to let myself do things because I enjoy them, because they help me express myself, because they are a challenge and we learn more from our mistakes than from anything. That means not doing things with the end goal of creating something “good” that other people approve of.
Of course this quickly comes to bear on my photography. I’m constantly around photographers (some of my favorite people in the world) and inevitably they ask if I shoot, if I’m a photographer too. For years I’ve been saying, “I take photographs, but I’m not a photographer.”
I know that sounds like a dodge. In fact, I got called out for it on Facebook last week by a couple good friends, which precipitated this post.
What I meant was: I have so much respect for photographers and know so many of them who are putting everything they have into making images that have a real impact on people. I make photos every once in a while — in my mind those are two vastly different things. And especially in this marketplace, the last thing photographers need is one more dilettante cutting into their pie.
Having gotten that off my chest, I also admit that I’m scared. As I’ve said before, thinking of myself as a creative, let alone an “artist,” has always been daunting. I’m only starting to get comfortable with the idea as it applies to my writing, something I’ve always been good at, always loved, and have had years of education and experience in.
But photography? Photography is none of those things for me. I took a couple classes in high school and a photojournalism class in college that impacted me deeply, but mostly because it made me realize how insanely hard it is to get something honest out of someone when you’re holding a big black box in front of your face. Add to that the fact that I’m lucky enough to call many of the most talented photographers I know friends, and the idea of admitting that I want to be a better photographer is downright terrifying.
Most new photographers think what they’re doing is pretty good, even if they know it’s not “great.” And honestly, that’s how it should be when you’re just starting out. But I KNOW I’m not that good. And I’m not fishing for compliments here, seriously.
I’ve spent years looking at images, pulling them apart, explaining their pros and cons. I capture a few nice elements sometimes, but by and large my stuff is mediocre. And that’s ok. I’m just starting. Even great photographers say they’re lucky to make one good photo a day. But god, it’s just so hard for me to share things publicly that are mediocre.
So why am I putting myself through this? Part of it is in the name of making myself vulnerable during this sabbatical I’m taking. Part of it is that I really do like taking pictures, especially when I’m traveling and want to share what I’m seeing. Part of it is the allure of getting better at something. Part of it is the simple thrill of being able to point to something and say, “See, I made that!”
But here’s the real reason I keep working at this photography thing — it helps me understand all my friends who are photographers so much better. While working at American Photo Magazine and the RESOLVE Blog, I must have interviewed hundreds of photographers. My questions were usually about creativity and family and funding, but rarely about technique or the art itself. I felt I couldn’t relate on that plane, so I didn’t try.
Now I have so many questions. I understand in such a tangible way what it means to get access, to approach someone for a portrait, to capture a true moment. I struggle to move past making photos that are simply pretty, or well composed, or explanatory. I’m trying to kill my inner overthinker and learn to make images that are reactions, that capture an honest emotion. It’s so much harder than I ever imagined.
But in the difficulty, I find a whole new world to ask my many photographer friends for help with. And, the thing that really compelled me to write this post: Peter convinced me that I might be able to help in return.
He says this “virgin” time, when you are just learning to see, finding your vision, facing your fears, is something that many artists wish they could revisit. Since I’m coming at photography from a greater base of knowledge and understanding than most new photographers, maybe I’ll be able to lend some insights into this process.
Failing all of that, taking my photography seriously and sharing it publicly will inevitably allow me to understand and relate more to the photographers I know. By the end of this sabbatical, I hope to have figured out my next career move, which most likely will involve helping photographers in some way. I know now that I can never do that fully until I have tried to make art with a camera.
I’m sitting on a plane to Warsaw, then Istanbul, and I’m crying. I’m crying over a book written by a journalist I’ve never heard of about a war that happened decades before I was born. But really I’m crying about fear and indecision and the feeling of being trapped.
How can I feel trapped, sitting in a giant metal bird, flying over a huge blue ocean, the modern symbol of freedom itself? Maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m crying for the people around me who do feel trapped. Trapped by their past, their responsibilities, their anger and self-judgment. Maybe I felt trapped by those things for so long, and now that I’ve started down the road toward freedom, it hurts me that I can’t bring all my loved ones along.
I feel guilty that being free is easier for me, because I have money, and supportive parents, and friends who love me unconditionally. This story I’m reading and crying over is also about guilt. The guilt of taking the easy way out. Of not knowing what to do. There are things I don’t know either. One thing I don’t know is if what I’m doing is the easy way out or the only thing worth working really really hard at.
One whole chapter in this book is dedicated to an episode in the author’s life he is truly embarrassed by. It is told in such a beautiful, honest way that it makes me want to share a story about being embarrassed. A story that lays me bare, like a young Indian brave opening the chest of his first deer. I’m not sure why, but I think being able to admit embarrassment is one of the steps towards freedom. Crying on a plane to Warsaw is kind of embarrassing. It reminds me of another embarrassing moment, crying in a taxi in San Francisco. It’s not a huge embarrassment, but I have to start somewhere.
I came out from my yoga class (a treat to myself after having my heart broken over IM that morning) and my bike looked all wrong. I knew it was a bad place to leave it, but the seat and wheels were locked on. What could they take? Well, the handlebars, apparently, including the goddamn brakes and shifters and the lines for both.
Writing about this now, I suddenly realize the most embarrassing part wasn’t the crying, which came later when I finally found a taxi driver who would let me put the bike in the back seat. The most embarrassing moment was when I saw my dismembered bike and had to walk over and admit that it was mine. Admit that I was the careless white girl, undoubtedly rich and thus somehow deserving of being robbed, with my expensive yoga mat slung across my shoulders, who was being forced to confront the fact that everything isn’t just ok all the time, like it has almost always been for me. I saw them look sideways at me as they passed and think, “Estupida, what did you expect?”
When a kind cabbie finally let my bike ride in the back seat, it meant I had to ride up front with him. As soon as I slid into the seat and the door closed, the tears started streaming down my face. I wasn’t sobbing, wasn’t really making any noise, but he knew what was going on. I turned toward my window and he turned towards his, and we didn’t speak until I asked how much the fare was.
The guy next to me on the plane also looks away as I turn toward the round-cornered window, smear the tears with my fingertips, and try not to sniffle too loudly. I’m relieved he doesn’t really speak English, although he says, “Sorry,” when he bumps my elbow and, “Here, I take,” when I want to get my dinner out of the way so I can finish writing this.
This story about Vietnam is the first I can remember that has made me feel the need to write so strongly and so immediately. To tell a story that makes it impossible for other people not to tell their own stories — that is a daunting standard, but one I want to try to hold myself to.
My single most persistent goal with this blog is to inspire people: to quit their crappy jobs, to give fair due to their creative impulses, to admit their vulnerabilities. Not because I know a ton about it or am a perfect example, but simply because I am trying to do those things and we all need support wherever and whenever we can get it. I feel lucky to have already seen instances where telling my own story prompts others to share theirs. The overwhelming response to my last post, begging for help writing when I was traveling and tired and uninspired, is a perfect example.
I’ll continue to work toward that goal — of inspiring people to tell stories by telling my own — but since I’m just starting out, I’ll leave you with this, from someone who has already arrived.
“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” –Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.
See? This is a photo I took almost A MONTH AGO in Death Valley and have been meaning to put up as part of a series of photos I've made -- and still haven't.
Some of you have probably noticed that my blog has gone a little quiet lately. I could blame it on being busy: I spent the last few weeks putting my life in storage, leaving my first and only San Francisco apartment, hanging in Seattle for a week with 13 of my best friends from college, and then flying home to Ohio to pick up a car and start my life on the road. But that’s kind of a cop out.
It’s a cop out because the whole point of this traveling thing was to help me see a bunch of people and get inspired and figure out what makes me really happy and write about it all. But here’s the thing I’ve realized over the last few weeks: Having no home and no routine actually makes it damn hard to do something like writing that requires concerted creative effort. Well, shit.
Then, lying in bed this morning I remembered a little epiphany about this blog that I had months ago when I was just laying it out in my head. This doesn’t have to be one of those blogs where I have all the answers. In fact, it can’t be. I’m not an expert here. I’ve never done this before. But hopefully through my experience people can learn a little about their own.
But if I don’t have the answers, where does the insight come from? (OK, so hopefully I have a few insights of my own, but you know what I mean.) Yep. From you.
I’ve seen the stats on this blog, it’s not like there’s a million people out there ;) This is mostly friends, family, colleagues, people I’ve met in my travels, and a few awesome people who apparently pay attention to what I do although I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting them yet. But that small group of people (again, this means you) is packed with brilliant, talented, insightful people — many of whom have tons of experience in this whole traveling-while-working-and-being-creative-thing.
So here’s my central dilemma. If you have any advice PLEASE LEAVE IT IN THE COMMENTS. (And then you’ll be helping other people, too, not just me :)
I’m a fairly adept traveler, but this is the longest I’ve ever done it, and it takes up most of my energy just to find where I’m going, get settled, figure out what I should be doing, contact people, find an outlet for my charger, find food that doesn’t put me in a coma, figure out a new shower, find a towel…you get the idea.
After all that, there’s not a ton of energy left for writing. I’m actually a pretty slow writer (great trait for a blogger to have, I know), plus I have this new deal with myself that I’ll only write things that I feel like I simply HAVE to write. Things that give me butterflies. Things that keep me awake at night. Sometimes getting to those things actually feels harder when I’m on the move. Like there is so much stimulus coming in that I can’t process it enough to record it.
So, if you have any tips or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Do I need to force myself to write every day, even if I don’t publish it? Do I need to write shorter things more often? Do I need to just lower my damn expectations? Or should I just expect this will all get easier as I get used to it and try not to stress so much? Help me out. I know you’re out there.