The Odds of Being Aimless

Off the grid in 18-degree Central New Mexico.

I asked people what I should write about. Many people responded. This post points to a few of the things people brought out. Not one thing specifically, but since this just happened to me I thought I would give it a go.

As you all know, I love working on projects. Now “project” can mean different things to different people, and one question I get a lot is, “Oh, projects…like what kinds of things do you work on.” When someone asks me this I often draw a blank. The range of projects I’ve done is wide. I’m not sure why answering this is such a struggle but it is. I typically try to size up the person asking and then fit a few topics that I think might strike a cord with them. I’ve done projects on the border, pornography, religion, culture, travel, objects, etc, etc. so narrowing it down can be a real issue.

My general, drop-down answer is, “Well, I do long-term, black and white projects, that revolve around a people or a place or a idea or theme.” “I find something, or somewhere like and I go back over and over and over again until I have a body of photographs.” This generally gets the point across. At least I think it does. I find that the idea of working on one thing for a long-period of time tends to confuse more and more people. Think about it this way. How many people do you know who travel? A lot right? How many people do you know who seem to use travel as a contest? “I’ve been to 50 countries.” Or, “I’ve been to one hundred countries.” Another twist on this is the “Can’t go back to the same country” idea of travel I often run into, as if countries are just there to be seen once, added to the tally and then discarded. I’ve been to Sicily five times and still don’t know a heck of a lot about it. So again, the idea of going back to the same country, or same place, over and over and over, I think is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. We are here to see as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Not me. I like to simmer on a low heat, for long periods of time so my flesh just falls from my bones.

So recently I was out working on a project. It was mid-winter and below freezing. I had limited time, a map and a general idea of where I wanted to go. There was nothing specific on my list. Even though I had a map and a general plan to see certain territory, I was what I consider to be aimless.

Now aimless photography can be fantastic and can be rewarding simply in it’s unpredictable nature. You can stumble across something, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime image. Or maybe you won’t. Actually, odds are you won’t even come close to striking it rich. But, sometimes we do it anyway, and this is what leads me to my point. We still do it. We can’t help it.

When I look back on the best work I’ve done, it didn’t come from aimless pursuits. It came from planning. It came from being in the right place, at the right time and knowing that the picture potential was high. So on this winter day, I was more experiencing being out than experiencing great imagery. This isn’t easy, this kind of work. It takes the ONE thing we all seem to have in limited supply. Time. So as my tires crunched through sheets of ice and the sun fought to win out against the cold and wind, I just sat back and tried to see. I just tried to relax.

When we look at the news or at photojournalism, what do we see? We see people where the action is. Many photojournalists go from place to place, dropping in, shooting the action, then taking off when the action subsides. This work, in a very short period of time, can produce world-changing imagery. What I was doing on this winter day, not so much. So, when I chose to do this kind of work, I TYPICALLY try to plan, I try to work with someone or something specific in mind. I don’t say, “I’m going to go shoot on the border,” and then just drive to Tijuana. Nope. I say, “I’m going to go shoot on the border,” and I find a family that lives on the border who I can go and live with for three days or five days or a month. In short, I’m NOT aimless. I’m got a photo-target and I aim primarily at that one thing so as to maximize the potential for my images.

Now, just because I have a target doesn’t mean I stay on that target regardless of what happens. You have to be ready to flow, to forget your plans and go with your gut. Say for example my border family happens to know Osama bin Laden, and he stops by for some menudo while I’m there. Bin Laden turns to me after eating the last tortilla and asks, “Hey, you seem pretty cool, you wanna party with me in Kandahar?” “Hmm, let me see, that doesn’t really fit my photo-plan.” People, you just go. Now this particular situation, not Osama, but the general idea of shelving a plan and going with your gut has happened many, many times.

On this winter day I found a small village. A real village. Like a place that has changed very little from the late 1800’s. Sure, there are automobiles, a school, television, etc, but when I drove into this small place I could just feel how lost in time it was. But remember, it was winter, below freezing which means NOBODY was outside. My car has California license plates. I didn’t know anyone. There was no event going on. This is a very difficult way of working. You can get out and start walking around, could get lucky and get someone to invite you in and the relationship begins, but the odds are low. So now, my future begins to take shape. I look for a way in, a time, a person, an angle that will give me a reason to be there. It could be a year from now. It could be next week. Because what I’m looking for with the images isn’t about the surface, it’s about the “Why” in life. Or the “How?” How did this place remain so intact. Why is it so lost in time? And how can I translate that into a still photograph?

This idea of trying not to work aimlessly permeates all my work. If I shoot a portrait do I say to the client, “Well, let’s just drive around.” No. I’ve done that in the past, even had a few successes, but most of the time I want a plan A, B, C and D. I want to stack the odds in my favor.

The real schtick of that is that when you DO get in the right place at the right time the feeling is so incredible it’s like a drug that clouds your mind into thinking you NEED to have that feeling again. The more you have it, the better you get at finding ways to change those odds.

As I sit here the clock ticks and it ticks loud. On one hand I LOVE the unknown of working aimlessly, but my archive tells me the more I think, the more I formulate, chances are, the better off I’ll be.