Two Days Away

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“Time off” is a strange concept.

It’s odd to me that many people spend decades in jobs they might not enjoy or respect. This has been the human story since the beginning of jobs. Think about the person who had to leave the cave to gather firewood when they KNEW that right outside that safe, stone cavern was a dazzling range of animals who loved nothing more than to dismember you, lap up your entrails and use your shinbone as a toothpick. I’ve had some horrific jobs over the years starting with my first job ever, picking up nails. Imagine an expanse of land that ran from one edge of the horizon to the other, located at 8000 feet with unpredictable weather and its own assortment of angry and dangerous animals. Bucket in hand, staring at the ground, hour after hour….picking up nails. I got a penny apiece. I was promoted to “tractor greaser” which also proved to be less than ideal, and over the next few decades I made my way though hot tub installer, fragrance model, model-model (for one day), bouncer (for about an hour) and even on to newspaper photographer at a tiny paper where I shot, printed, edited, shot halftones and did paste up. This last job was as bad as any of the others.
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My current job is the best job I’ve ever had. My title still has “photographer” in it, but I rarely do any photography for my employer. I do…different things, and those things change from time to time. This job is challenging, fast, fluid but also puts me in fun places with interesting people. I’m fortunate. I think I get two weeks vacation a year, but I’m not really sure. I don’t take a lot of vacation. In fact, in eighteen years of being with my wife I don’t really think we’ve gone on a real vacation. Like where you go sit somewhere warm and get fat. We aren’t really vacation people, but I wish we were. I think about it a lot. I know plenty of people who take two or three trips a year, just traveling, or surfing or hiking or laying buy a pool. I keep thinking I’m going to do that, but I also know I probably never will. For me there is just far too much to do. I’m trying to stop feeling this way, but it’s more difficult than I imagined. I’m 46 and I have an incurable disease. Nothing like reality to bite my vacation pondering self in the ass.
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I was recently in Santa Fe and had just been stung by a bee. Standing there hanging out with some friends and someone says “Hey, full moon June 2nd, we should go to Chaco.” Now, the easy thing to do is chew on this idea for a few days, find a reason not to go and then politely bow out. Instead we all said “Okay, let’s go.” And we did. I actually didn’t make the full moon, had to leave the day before, but it was still damn bright and I got the point. I drove my fully loaded vehicle across roads not fit for man or beast and backed it up to a campsite and pitched my tent. Now, before I go any further I need to let you know that before I left Santa Fe I turned my phone off and place it in the front pocket of one of my leather “Dan Bags.” I loaded a roll of TRI-X in my Leica M4 and twisted on the 50mm.
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Two days later I was terrified. EVERYTHING normal in my life, EVERYTHING routine in my life was dangerously close to falling off the edge of a cliff and disappearing forever. There were moments when I thought about walking into those hills and not coming back. The idea of a telephone, or talking to anyone, or emailing or posting something was ALMOST completely erased from my thought process. I never took a shower, or cleaned myself in any comprehensive manor, and was covered in a fine layer of sweaty grim. And I was positively content, so much so that I realized why I don’t take much vacation. Too dangerous. Too suggestive. Of course it’s all BS because life on the outside is BRUTAL. It’s just the mind game
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Now, to be fair, I was with several incredible artists, inspiring people who make things that I want and need to see. Fire, conversation, physical activity, history carved in stone and elements front and center combined to create a unique scenario. Icy rain on a sunburned back. Shooting stars.
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The Professional

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Just past the final gate at the end of the terminal sits the bar. The last possible place you can find alcohol before strapping in and jetting off. Here sits the bar fly. Specific to the airport. Specific to the tropics.

Let’s start at the top.
Bad hair. Unkept, but innocent.
Bad glasses. Metal mostly. Kinda round, kinda square. Large.
Black, sleeveless t-shirt, but homemade sleeveless. Converted after one of the native sleeves was caught in heavy machinery. Faded to light black. Almost gray. A few years left.
Gut.
Shorts. Jean or cargo. Too short.
White socks.
White, New Balance.
9AM, red face. Happy.
He’s on this way to Costa Rica today. To sit at their bars and drink their beer.

The Experience of Experience

In 1995 I was living in Texas attempting to get my journalism career off the ground. I’d left the newspaper world and had returned to Texas to look for more work. I had A LOT of downtime. Newspapers were beginning to lay people off and I was not the demographic being hired. I also had no computer and was still typing my inquiry letters. I was doing a truly horrific assortment of freelance work, but was plodding along in my below poverty lifestyle. One of my brother’s friends had a house party, and seeing as partying was one of my special skills, I tagged along. While pounding more beer than thought humanly possible I met two more of my brother’s friends who had just retuned from a LONG stint in Guatemala. They had been traveling, mountain biking and taking Spanish lessons, all of which sounded dreamy to yours truly, and a lot more exotic than another long summer in the Texas heat. They gave me the name of a school in Antigua and the phone number of a contact they had in the city. That’s it. That was the grand total of my knowledge.

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Yes, that is me. Unknown village, Guatemala 1995. They wanted to wear my Leica and meter for some reason. I have NO IDEA what is under my shirt.

A few weeks later I bought an extremely cheap ticket and found myself on the San Antonio, Houston, Guatemala City route, a backpack full of gear and an oversized duffle bag of clothes. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, and this was what made the trip so interesting. This was adventure. Where are you staying? Don’t know. How long are you going for? Don’t know. What are you going to do? Don’t know. Do you know anyone there? No. Have you been there before? No. Oh. Oh my.

I landed in Guatemala City really not even knowing where Antigua was, or how to get there, and my Spanish was…minimal. I found the bus station and found the bus to Antigua by looking at signs and asking strangers. It came time to board and the guy driving the bus took one look at my duffle bag and pointed at the sky which meant, “This baby is going on the roof.” Up went my bag, and I boarded clutching only my backpack of Canon and Leica gear. The bus wound out of the city and I got my first glimpse of this incredible place. It was amazing to me that only three hours south of Houston I could find somewhere so exotic.

The bus arrived at the outskirts of Antigua and I still had no idea where I was going. I began asking people on the bus, “Hey, you ever hear of this place…..?” Nobody knew anything. About twenty minutes later I thought, “I think I need to get off the bus.” So I did. Only problem was the driver drove off with my bag on the roof. So there I was, backpack in hand, contact name and no luggage. I thought, “Well, I can probably wear what I’m wearing for at least a week before I begin to look like a homeless drifter.” I started walking. Slowly but surely I began to find people who thought they knew my contact, and I was finally pointed down a street where I came to a language school and made one final inquiry. There was my guy, standing there with a smile on his face. As we were exchanging hellos up drove the bus, empty except for my bag. The driver asked about the “wandering gringo” and he figured out where I was headed.

I spent the next month and half making my way around Guatemala, exploring new areas and even attempting to compile a few long stories. I had one paper map and an out-of-date guidebook that I would pull from time to time, but mostly I just went with the flow. Sometimes an eight-hour bus ride would become eighteen-hours, and lodging was a real-time roll of the dice. Nothing was ever certain until I could touch it, feel it, punch it, run from it or embrace it. It felt like real travel. I was at the mercy of fate, circumstance, luck and perseverance.

When I look back on this trip I don’t think much about the images I made. What I think about, and laugh about, was the voyage. At one point I got off a bus in a very remote, highland section of Guatemala and the locals turned on the only other foreigners on my bus and promptly began throwing stones at them until they ran back down the road we had just driven up. For some reason I was spared and found a dollar a night hotel made from plywood. As I asked around for a place to stay people began saying “You better hurry, there is only one hotel.” The only other foreign folks in town were UN workers. As I went to sleep a firefight started on the edge of town and I opened the window to watch tracer fire arc back and forth.

When I got up in the morning the only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to get dressed and leave my room. What came next was always somewhat up in the air. Traveling this way was about engaging with every aspect of the physical world around me. Where I went, what I ate, where I made pictures, etc, was all up for discussion and based on mood, feel and conversation.

The future of travel has been described as being able to open your phone on a foreign street corner and the phone will recognize where you are and then suddenly it begins to ping in with local stops based on your interests the phone has already compiled based on all your personal information. “You like hamburgers, well walk two blocks north and you will find a hamburger restaurant.” There will be a real-time connection with other travelers who would be pinging in with all their experience and where they were and what they were doing. The technology will provide you either the experience other people thought you would like or an experience that is…in a lot of ways…just like home. I know we already have some of this, but the future has been described as being like this but yet far beyond. I am so puzzled by this.

First of all, who wants to walk about the world with a phone or iPad in front of their face? I’m sure plenty do, but I still have a hard time understanding this. I recently spoke with a city manager who worked in a city I knew well. I explained I was disappointed in a section of the city that had been homogenized beyond recognition, and I felt like an idiot for taking a friend from out of town to the area to experience the “real” city only to find a gentrified tourist trap. The city worker said “People in Kansas want to come here and eat the same exact food they eat at home.” Is this really true?

As I sit here thinking about this technology I am hard pressed to find a way to take more of the EXPERIENCE out of travel. Just as I was about to find another viewpoint an Apple ad shows up on the web browser and it shows people…..interfacing the world….through their iPad. Okay, I lose. Game over.

Seriously? Do you want to travel that way? Experience the world that way? Look, when you land in London for a business meeting and have no idea where you are or where you are going and you have 47 minutes to get from Heathrow to your meeting it’s damn nice having a phone with GPS. But there is a HUGE different between business travel and real travel. I’m talking about real travel here.

Doesn’t travel with a device in hand actually limit the experience you are having? How can you be looking at an iPad and the mountain at the same time? And also, what are you doing with the mountain on your iPad? Who needs to see that mountain at the same time you are seeing it? Are you reporting on the mountain or are you sending a continual stream about YOU? I’m just asking. I honestly have no idea.

Now, before we go any further, I will be honest and admit that I am a guy who daydreams about inventing a way to actually disappear. Yes, I do. How great would that be. So when I go somewhere and put my phone down for a few days, I have a built in gene that allows my brain to completely forget about said device, so much so I find myself hinging on the idea of never turning it back on. I know I’m in the minority here. I could leave it all. The images, the phone, the music, the email, the text, if I never did any of it ever again you would actually be able to HEAR me grinning.

I know people who have apps out the wazoo on their phone. Apps for apps. Apps for breathing, thinking, chewing. Apps that count how many steps they have taken in a given day. Competitive apps about walking, cycling, traveling, etc. What is this about? Again, not sure.

The secret is the power of just being. That’s it. In a nutshell, being present in the moment in the specific location is an experience so far beyond the electronic interface it isn’t even close. Look, there are plenty of people who spend less than ten minutes at the Grand Canyon and never actually leave their car. No, I’m not joking,, and these people are doing their own thing and rightly so. And hey, at least they went to the Grand Canyon.

When I think about travel, guidebooks, technology, etc, I think of books like Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia,” or “In a Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson. One person’s LONG TERM take on a place. Why? Because these books allow YOU to create your own mental photography. These books allow you to guess, to imagine and to formulate. You can read them, fly to these places and still have your own adventure without a screen of “user generated content” taking every once of chance from the equation. Plus, the authors spent ENOUGH TIME to actually being to understand a place.

I think there is something to be said about using technology to do your research, and I know not everyone is comfortable with not knowing their day to day routine. But I think there is something to gain from allowing yourself to let go of the electronic, even paper, umbilical. I’ve found that most of the people walking this Earth are pretty damn fine people, and they will bend over backwards to take care of a stranger. Ya, I got robbed at gunpoint once by some kid with an AK(Cambodia 1996), but he only asked for a dollar and I had no problem making his dreams come true. Getting robbed was a rare experience in my book, and my book has a few pages.

I just keep wondering where all this tech is leading us? Are we smarter? Better? More caring? Are we actually communication better or just more frequently?

All this technology is great, yep, for sure. But guess what? Kilimanjaro still lost its glacier. I don’t need an iPad to look up and see the bare stone. I don’t need to know that you saw it and told everyone you saw it, or even that you had a coffee on the way up. I think sometimes we miss the message because we are in love with the messenger.

Look, I’m writing this on a laptop and I just plugged in an iPhone and a Kindle. Guilty. I’m just asking questions here because I see our new path being painted as an improvement, a more profound experience, but I’m not sure it really is. This stuff is here, and here to stay, but what I’m wondering about is, as always, BALANCE.

New Year New Adventure

As many of you know, I hung up my photo spurs at the end of 2010, never to undertake another assignment, ever again. Well, I lied. Kinda. What I am embarking on isn’t your average photo assignment. In fact, I’m not looking at it that way at all because the actual work, and subsequent legacy, will have very little if anything to do with my actual photography. What it WILL have to do with is the education and opportunity we leave behind with the kids we are fortunate enough to work with.
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Let me rewind for a moment.

Fred Roberts is a friend from Los Angeles, but lumping him in the “friend” category is a dangerous business because I don’t really know anyone else quite like Fred. You know me, I like to ramble, but when it came to writing a basic “take” on Fred, so you would have an idea of who I’m talking about, I found myself suddenly mired in my online Spanish program. “Los ninos beben leche.” In other words, I didn’t know where to start. Fred is a photographer yes, and he went to Yale and he worked in the financial world, but this does little to educate you about who he really is. Start here.

Sometime last year my phone rang with a “unknown” caller and like I always do when I get that message, I immediately said “Hello, Center Intelligence Agency.” What I heard from the other end was “Danny Boy, I’ve got an idea.” What came from that call and subsequent MASSIVE amount of logistics(undertaken by Fred), leg work, phone calls, fund raising, texts, meetings and incense burning strategy sessions was a plan. A master plan.

Seven days. Twenty students. A new language that will last a lifetime.

The Fredric Roberts Photography Workshops are led by the award-winning photographer as he brings his passion for storytelling through still images to underprivileged children around the world. Each workshop will train a group of 20 high school aged students, half from rural areas and the other half from urban households. Over the course of each seven-day workshop, using a format developed by Mr. Roberts, the participants will take photographs centering on a particular theme, such as the environment, health issues or education.

When each workshop ends, Mr. Roberts will donate two cameras plus computer and photo software so that participants can continue to develop their skills. (He will also work with local partners to secure photographers from each country who will participate in the workshop and will continue to mentor the novice photographers.) He will also use a private website so that students can continue to improve their skills and continue their photographic education.

The guts speak to storytelling, photography and empowering underprivileged children around this magical world. These workshops will be in partnership with the leading development organization Save The Children.

This project, for me, came at the perfect time. Well, seeing as I had a kidney stone and I still have Lyme Disease, which is keeping me off of the team leaving for Bhutan as we speak, it might not have been the perfect time PHYSICALLY, but mentally it was. There are more trips coming and I’m a patient man. But there is something else at work here, at least for me. One of my goals for 2014 was to think about other people more than I think about myself. When I first heard of this plan, this project, my first thought was about the kids. I thought back to the time when I was of the age we will be working with on these trips, and I put an honest eye to the reality. I had everything. Really. I had great parents, all the material things like a roof over my head and food, but most importantly I had opportunity. I was told the world was open, ready and shapeable into whatever form I so desired.

But this isn’t true for a lot of folks, and my first thought addressed this idea. I want to help. I think I can help. I KNOW I can help. I am a true believer in story. We all have them. We all share them, and most of us like to listen to them. What if? What if I/we can help someone else tell their story, share their story and BELIEVE in their story.

Often times, in today’s world of the informational, immediate share, things are discussed, plans are made yet ultimately nothing happens(Discussion is still essential). And this is where I get back to Fred. When Fred says Fred does. Simple as that. There were many requirements to get this baby off the ground and one by one they were ticked off the list in impressive fashion. Now, you KNOW me. I can be a skeptic, healthy of course, but when I first heard what Fred was going after I was thought the odds were slim. But like I said, if Fred says, Fred does, and suddenly the stars were in alignment.

In some weird way I had hit the wall with my own photography, and this workshop series shined a light into the darkness of the creative unknown and illuminated the path toward these places and these kids. You can view the group’s website again here. There will be postings made during the trips, from these locations, which should give all of us a taste of the daily dance. The website was created and is being monitored by friends of Smogranch Flemming Bo Jensen and Charlene Winfred who form the power base of “Coffee and Magic.” A few of the other players on this first trip include Sarah Megan Lee and Mike Sakas. When I begin to wonder about each one of these folks and what they could accomplish on their own my head begins to spin. Add them together and……

I don’t often ask for people to share what I write, but in this case I’m asking (please). One of the reasons I’m asking is I don’t have kids. I photographed kids for seven years but every single time I gave them back at the end of the day. In addition to wanting to hear the feedback that YOU have about this project, I’d love to get some feedback from kids. What does a 14-year-old person in Newport Beach have in common with a 14-year-old in Bhutan? Santa Fe and Managua? Laramie and La Paz? I don’t know. One of the things I LOVED about photographing kids was that they didn’t know they had a “good side” or a “bad side.” Kids were honest. In a thirty-minute span they would laugh, cry and tell me a secret. The honestly and purity was so refreshing, and consequently the imagery felt powerfully real to me. For most children the future is a long, long way away, and often times doesn’t appear to have any landing lights, so to speak. As an adult, and a storyteller, I have the ability to power up those lights, to some degree, with the idea of showing these kids how to do this on their own. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.

I should also note that I am jazzed about aiming my camera at these places. Not to mention my pen and my audio recorder. There will be subsequent publications, posts and potentially films, but they will not be about photography per se. These outlets will be about story, what the imagery means and how we, and they, aim to follow it through.

Well, in the time it took me to write this post the team has made their way to their destination. Check them out at LAX, photographed by security, probably wondering who in their right mind would carry ALL that gear.
What most interests me in this project is the unknown. How can I possibly know what will come from this? But here is the rub. Something WILL come from this. About this I am absolutely sure.

Meat and Candy: A Western Australia Story

It has been weeks since I first wrote this post. I’ve been sitting on it because I’m nervous that people will take it the wrong way, and it’s also very long. It’s also a bit related to another post I have ready, a post which is over 5000 words in itself. I have to say, there is something about Australia that has really been sticking with me. Australia has a style and feel that is very unique in my experience. It’s not that the country is perfect, not by any means, but I don’t think anywhere is perfect. There SEEMS to be a cohesiveness, or maybe I’m just naive. There is a pride as well, amongst the art crowd, photo-crowd, etc. Perhaps the size of Australia or the small population has something to do with this. Regardless, it’s a place I’ve been thinking about more and more which is odd. I have a sinking suspicion I’ll be back one day. At least I hope so.

Earlier this year Blurb asked me if I wanted to venture to Australia for a series of presentations, school visits, festivals and a few other creative industry here’s and there’s. I said “Sure, why not?” To most Americans, myself included, Australia represents the wildness of the unknown, the other side of the world and the lusty promise of adventure. Australia, and its wonderful population, alien landscape and quirky demeanor did not disappoint.

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I know what you are thinking. “Wow, that Milnor is one lucky guy, getting paid to go to Australia.” Yes, you are in fact correct but there is a “but” you need to know about. Blurb moves at lightning speed. Being a technology company means the playing field changes on a daily basis, so this trip was NOT akin to a congressional junket to “Coruptastan”, or a boozy romp complete with escorts and backdoor, pork-belly deals. In short, the first three weeks of my trip were work. I saw nothing, did nothing and experienced little more than planes, cabs, hotels and conference rooms. This sounds like total bullshit, I get it, but it’s entirely true. I’ll give you an example because I smell a whiff of doubt. We did sixteen events in fifteen days in three different cities on the East Coast alone. Sydney, our third stop, is famous for many things, such as the harbor, skyline and beaches. My last night in Sydney I had dinner with friends of my wife, folks I’d never met before. We had a wonderful dinner and discussed a variety of topics, many of which revolved around Australia. “What did you think of the skyline?” they asked. “I don’t know, I didn’t see it,” I replied. “What about the harbor, or the Opera House? they asked. “I don’t know, I didn’t see either of those things either,” I replied. “Haven’t you been here for five days?” they asked. “Yes but I haven’t really been outside yet,” I answered. “GET IN THE CAR,” I was told and during an absolute torrential downpour they drove me down to see harbor. Thinking about it now I remembering being outside, but I also remember I was teaching a photo workshop, so my head was involved in the teaching and not in the looking around. There were days where we did an event in the morning, raced to the airport, flew to another city then did six to eight hours of presentations. I’m the guy that does all the talking, so all verbal communication was on me. You will see by the length of this post I like to talk/write. I love doing it, so I’m not complaining but I can still see this little explanation causing me to look like an asshole. If the shoe fits….
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By the time the first three weeks were over I was exhausted. I really didn’t realize how exhausted I was until I got off a five-hour flight to Perth. The “vacation” part of my trip had begun and I’d flown to Perth to meet up with two fellow photographers. These particular fellows happen to be brothers, twin brothers, and were old friends from my days of annual travel to the North Shore of Oahu for the winter surfing season. I was an interloper in Hawaii but my friends, Erick and Ian Regnard, also known was Tungsten, were very much a part of the global, full-time surf photography community. I hadn’t seen them in a long while but we had discussed connecting in Perth and “going into The Outback.” That was the extent of the plan. Getting off the plane I was a bit dazed but a homemade curry was placed before me and I think I remember eating like a saltwater croc. I also remember them having the smallest dish in the world and on that dish was the smallest dab of “hot sauce” I had ever seen. I was provided with the explanation that it truly was the hottest shit anyone has ever seen and if I accidentally used more than a pinhead amount I would have nothing left in my body approximately eight minutes later. Seeing as we had eight days of car travel ahead of us I skipped it.

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Ten minutes after eating one of the brothers said “Okay, you about ready?” “Ready for what?” I asked. “We are leaving now,” he said. I abandoned most of my clothes and all my electronics, grabbed my Hasselblad, a bag of film and got in the passenger seat. And this is where things began to become a little surreal. We stopped for supplies and I got my first true glimpse of my traveling companions. We seemingly bought only two things. Meat and candy. Okay, four things. Meat, candy, beer and fuel to roast the meat. In a cloud of diesel our ute(suv) was headed north and into the unknown. We had a map and vague idea what we would encounter, but nothing specific. We didn’t know where we would stop, stay, camp or converge, but this was what made it so great.

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I began to realize my head was in a fog and I didn’t want to stress about the photography. I just wanted to be an explorer and let the images come naturally, so basically the polar opposite of how I was used to working where the imagery was the driving force behind every move, every human gesture. There were HOURS and hundreds of kilometers of the kind of nothingness that is so nothing it actually becomes something vibrantly real. Snow white beaches with no tracks from man or machine. Sky blue water and endless dunes. The conversation was varied but we did solve every single problem facing modern photography and came to the conclusion there were only three REALLY important people in photography; Ian, Erick and myself. We asked if there were any objections to this thought. We heard none.
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Eventually we turned east and headed into the great void of red, green and blue. The boys wanted to learn more about the Aboriginal settlements, and I knew so little about the culture and history I was also game to explore. We would simply find out where the communities were, drive in then ask permission to work. I think we were a bit of an anomaly. “This guy is from Los Angeles,” was like saying “Ah, this guy landed from a planet just beyond Saturn.” I don’t know enough about the Aboriginal situation to comment with any authority so all I’m going to say is that work remains. I see some similarities with the Native American situation here in New Mexico. It remains a live wire topic and not one I’m going to discuss here.

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These trips, these opportunities are such a privilege, and luckily for me, by the time we turned east I was experiencing a major disruption in the foundation of being a photographer. Perhaps it was fatigue, the frustration or just a glimmer of outside hope breeching the void of my entrenched thinking. I made a realization out there in that wonderful bush. I realized I’d been missing the point of it all. I realized that I needed to continue to explore but not as a photographer, just simply as a human being and if I made images along the way then so be it. I realized that the only people who really care about my little snapshots, for the most part, are friends and fellow photographers. Sure, from time to time you make something memorable that might impact a larger audience, but that the truly important thing was my translation of the experience as a human. I realized the snapshots that mattered weren’t necessarily made of emulsion but rather speech, song, texture and interaction. I realized in some strange way the camera was keeping me from these things. I still haven’t figured all of this out, but I can tell you my life has been entirely different since returning with the dust of The Outback on my boots.

Before we turned east the brothers had managed to procure, of all things, a lobster, which was thrashing around the back of the truck like a wild dog. In the middle of absolute nowhere, in the pitch black and under the most sensational night sky I’ve seen, the brothers pulled off the dirt track and said “time for surf and turf.” The absurdity of it was like a warm blanket. I had already learned that two brothers from Mauritius know their way around the grill, so I had flashlight duty, flashing back and forth between the grill, the bush, the beer cooler. It was treacherous work but somebody had to do it. Before long we were exhaling through our noses as hot lobster became a roadside reality. A moment I will never forget.

Returning home, something I normally loathe, felt right. Most of my friends and family are moving so fast, and are so busy I was only faced with a few “how was it?” type questions where the person asking is already on to something else before you can formulate a response, so I kept the trip mostly as my little secret. I kept it inside and allowed my new realizations to burn and keep my creative fire alive. But there had to be a book. There always has to be a book with me, even if not a single other person ever sees what I’ve made. For me these books are therapy. Perhaps they serve as a sense of closure. I didn’t need or want anything large. There was never one second spent thinking this would be a portfolio or representation of anything other than a small voyage with friends.
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I quickly decided on two concurrent themes, one with color, mobile phone imagery and the second with the black and white square. The title, well, that was obvious to me. I wrote a short copy block as an intro, chose a font that felt right and began to drag and drop my images. I probably spent a half hour making this book. 7×7, softcover, Proline uncoated. Done.
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Books are like puzzles with the images being the jagged little pieces that on their own might seem fragmented and lost but when combine form a smooth and accurate depiction. I always think I know what I’m doing but books are journeys, just like The Outback. I pretend like I’m in control, but most of the time I’m one half step away from glory or one half step from doom. I don’t think I would want it any other way. This particular book is a reminder to me. It’s a reminder of many things, things like friendship, travel, understanding and a general reformulation of an agenda unchanged for over twenty years. In short this book reminds me I can’t go back. Ever.
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Now, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, this book didn’t change my life. It’s not like that. Frankly, it’s not that good. This book is buried under about ten other books somewhere in my office. However, I will equate this particular book to Steve Martin’s character in the movie “The Jerk” when he is working the “Guess Your Weight” booth at the local carnival and he realizes the idea behind the booth is making money. “Oh, I get it,” he says. “It’s a PROFIT thing.”
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Whatever it was that happened to me while in The Outback, revelation, mini-stroke, whatever, was like an internal sonic boom. The response to my “departure” from all things photography and all things industry was seemingly more traumatic to OTHER people than it was to me. Someone actually said “Oh man, I’m sorry to hear what happened to you in Australia.” This was a kind gesture, a friend looking out of me, but I had to say “No, no, no, this is a very, very good thing.” I explained that I’d seen a small splinter of light into my creative future, or someone had dosed me with acid, either way I felt like a secret had been whispered in my ear. Now, the brothers and I were all sleeping in the same tent, so it quite possible was Ian or Erick talking in their sleep.
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Over the past few years I’ve seen the professional photography industry change. Certain genres have exploded and retracted, weddings and portraits, while others have almost entirely died off. This is not a popular topic, at least not in public, but I can tell you with certainty it really is a topic when photographers are together and speaking freely. The reasons for this are many. Mention this in public and you will quickly be labeled as “disgruntled” or “sour grapes.” I know because I’ve been called those things many, many times, mostly by younger photographers who never actually knew how good things used to be. I’m okay with this. Everyone WANTS it to be so good, so if you pretend things are then perhaps they will be. I don’t want to be a downer by saying this. I’m simply relaying what I see and hear on a daily basis, but here is where things get truly strange.

Since “departing” from the race I’ve made better work, had more opportunities(a lot more), better opportunities and far more control over my own work. I’m not entirely sure of all the reasons for this, but you simply can’t believe the difference. I have my theories. First, people are SICK of the relentless promotion happening within photography, sick of things like a photographer spending two weeks on a project then spending two years promoting it. Two, they are very respectful of someone who says “No, I won’t do that shoot/project because it doesn’t work for me.” The power of a polite “no” cannot be stressed enough. In short, not only has there been ZERO downside to NOT being a photographer there has been a completely unexpected upside. I say “no” to almost all of these things because I truly don’t want to do them, but there is a sense of relief from these people when I say “I’m not a photographer any longer.” It’s almost like they are saying “Okay good, now we can have a real conversation.” I’m going to give you two examples to support my point because I can hear the groans. First will be the gallery owner. I was at a party in Hollywood, and yes it was as Hollywood as you imagine. I don’t belong at these things-I’m the opposite of cool- but I went anyway. Gallery owner comes up to me and says “What are you working on?” I explain. There are now three or four other people listening to the conversation. Gallery person says “You should bring that by so we can look at it.” “No, it’s not ready,” I say. “You should really bring it by,” they said. “Nope, it’s not even close,” I replied. “You should still bring it by,” they said.” “I will see you in two years,” I said. The gallery person leaves and the other people listening in say “Do you KNOW who what was?” I said “Yes, but that doesn’t change the fact the work isn’t ready.” The second little event involves a museum director who I was introduced to. During the intro I noticed the director looking at the ground, and I realized he viewed me as another photographer probably looking to get a show or get something else from him. I extended my hand and said “I’m your new best friend.” He looked up at me and asked “Really, why?” “Because I have no interest in having a show and I will never ask you for anything,” I said. His reply was awesome. “Oh, so you mean I can make eye contact with you.” What subsequently unfolded was what I would describe as a relaxed, adult conversation. The same thing happened. This person, probably feeling surprised and relieved began to ask me about who I was and what I was doing. Suddenly this person is giving me names, numbers, other outlets and saying, “Tell so-and-so I sent you.” Perhaps these cases were anomalies, but it doesn’t matter because I’m going to explain later why I think these are a good thing and what my ultimate dream would be.

Now, I’m sure voicing this reality will get me slaughtered by a variety of people. I can see their names and faces as I write this, but it is very important for me to say this. Someone wrote me a week ago and asked about how to make the jump to being a photographer. This person gave me the gist of their life and my response was, “You are crazy to do this.” “Why would you want to take something you love and make a business of it?” He had specific ingredients in his life that prompted me to say this. Note, I did not tell him not to do photography. In fact, I stated flatly I think photography is a GREAT thing, but making a jump into this industry with his specific ingredient set, at this time in history, is a risky business.

Personally, I think photography needed to change. There were simply too many untrained people jumping in, buying a Dslr, building a website and taking anything that came along. Plus, we all got really, really, stinking drunk on the technology and began to think the next generation would be the one that really made things right. The mistakes made early on, like 1997(giving it away for less than analog shoots because of perception digital shoots were less expensive due to no out of pocket cost with film and processing. Yes, this actually happened, and yes it was happening as far back as 1997.), with the technology are STILL being felt today and sadly they are impossible to reverse.
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There was a second bullet point to my revelation in Australia. The second bullet point was about YOU not me. I realized that the vast majority of my friends who are photographers are compromised in their professional work.(It’s always been this way, to some degree, for most photogs with the exception of those who are so good the are left alone to make what they make.) Budgets, contracts, production, duration of shoots, usage, stock sales, have all been compromised to such a degree that the idea of making GREAT work, often times, isn’t even on the table.(This is where the deadly term “content” starts creeping in). I’m referring to the real photographers on Earth when I say this not Cyberspace photographers who are always doing well because that is how you gain followers. I’m talking about the people doing the real editorial, commercial, advertising, fashion, photojournalism, etc. And hey, there are people killing it out there, there really are, but there are not NEARLY as many as I would like to see. There are a lot of talented people sitting in neutral.

I think the problem is to make great work you have to battle SO HARD and SO OFTEN that it takes one of two things. One, you are already an established person.(Most of these folks are in their 50’s.) I know many of these folks who have been working full time for decades and know the agents, agencies, etc. They know the legit rules of the road and are respected. They are doing major campaigns for major agencies for rates that would stun and paralyze many up and comers. The Cyberspace photographers typically don’t know any of these people. Different worlds. The second group that lives on is the possessed. The people who say “f*uck everything else” I’m going to invest every moment of every day into my work and abandon everything single other aspect of my life. If you want to know the prototype, “Photo Alpha Male” research W. Eugene Smith. Rumor had it he passed away with $13 in the bank and a list of people who were unhappy with him. He drove everyone crazy while he worked and nearly drove himself to death making his images. In my opinion, what he received in return is the title of “most significant documentary photographer of all time.” And believe me there are plenty of “Photo Alpha Females” as well. Now, I’m going to add a third category here, but it’s a facade category. The third category of photographer who appears to be making it is the up and coming star, and this is what has been bugging me for quite some time. This category is touted in the industry pubs and social outlets as doing amazing work, and in some cases they REALLY are, but behind closed doors they are hanging on by a thread, but this little detail can’t be discussed because it would blow the facade. Case in point…last year I had dinner with one of these folks. I had never met this person, but found them very capable and very engaging. They had just had a COVER story done about them and their rise within the photo ranks. The moment this person sat down I knew something wasn’t right. They immediately began to divulge the realities of their professional life. Remember, I didn’t know them and was certainly not prying. “I hate what I’m doing.” “There isn’t anything in my portfolio that is actually mine,” they stated. Over the next hour they basically blew apart what had been written about them and their work. “I need to either start over or get out,” they added. I don’t knock or fault this person AT ALL. In reality they were in a position of power but just didn’t realize it yet. This type person is HUGELY important at this time in photo history. This is the person that needs to be empowered, not confined, but this little maneuver is a 9.9 on the degree of difficulty scale.
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Before Australia I’d spoken with agency people, photographers, designers, illustrators and a bevy of other creative industry folks because that is my job at Blurb. I’m a link between these folks and the company. I work with people one-on-one, or in groups, to help them find uses for the platform. It is an incredible job that has given me a view of the industry I would have never had as a photographer. Many of these folks feel compromised, frustrated AND all on the same path. “I want to do less commercial work and more personal work,” or the “I want to make my personal work my professional work.” Right now, the ratio for most people is about 80% commercial to 20% personal. However, ask them which of the two is the better work and they will quickly reply “my personal work.” And here is the kicker….the clients say the same thing, yet the trend remains unbroken. Agency people complain about clients “trending” with silly mobile phone campaigns, photographers complain about getting work or how their work is treated, designers and illustrators want to be turned loose not held back, etc. AGAIN, I’m going to say this ONE MORE TIME because the haters will be fueling up reading this. There are people doing GREAT work, on their terms and finding financial success, which is all that matters because they are living proof of what is possible.

Driving through The Outback I began to wonder what would happen if I took one photographer, one designer, one illustrator, one writer and one agency person and said “Here is he concept, everyone needs to remain on concept, but what you do to convey this concept is ENTIRELY up to you.” “Work together but make PURE work based not on ridiculous parameters.” “Take your time.” What would happen? Everyone I asked about this said “Chances are you are going to get something spectacular.” (I just explained this post and this idea to a photog in his 50’s and he said “That is what advertising USED to be.”)

I left Australia dreaming of making this a reality. Now, I don’t think I can do this because the reality is I’m a nobody and I don’t operate in those circles, but my dream was to plant the seed in someone who can. One project at a time, a hand picked lineup of talent and a client who signs a contract saying “I will not interfere.” Probably a pipe dream here, but I have to say the thing that gives me hope is the response I get when I bring this topic up with photographers. The response I get is anger. I’m turned on like a pack of wolves converging on Bambi. This is natural, and a good thing because it tells me they are fed up. At SOME POINT something will pop, ping, snap or turn, perhaps like it did for me.

There is absolutely NOTHING better for me than to meet with someone who has been turned loose and set free. Whether it be an illustrator, designer, photographer or anyone else who has been empowered to be who they know they can be, not who their industry or clients are telling them to be. They exude an unrivaled energy. They are dangerous people. They really are. I want my phone calls and text messages and emails to come from happy friends who are still growing as creatives. I want those who are coasting because they found a niche to stand up and throw off the blanket of routine because photography doesn’t have time for this. I’m greedy. I want to be stunned by invention, risk-taking and friends with crazy in their eyes.

By the time we rolled back into to Perth my internal flame was glowing. I was SO jazzed to try and figure this out. I had dreams of how I could accomplish this, dreams that will remain private because I MIGHT be able to eventually accomplish one. The festivals I attended were SO good and SO inspiring I couldn’t sleep at night. I sat on this post for months because I was very, very nervous about posting it. I still am. But I realized that I can’t do what I want to do on my own. I thought if I write about these things, and at least put them out there, then maybe someone else will read it and say “I’ve been thinking the same thing.” Hopefully this person is in a position of power. I don’t expect anything to change overnight. I’m looking only for an experiment. I will not be involved because I’m not good enough. I have a short list of people I would like to unite, but I don’t know them well enough to pull it off, nor do I have the track record to interest them, but I’m snooping for a go-between.

I just realized what a rambling mess this post is, perhaps the result of me having both Lyme Disease AND a kidney stone. However, mess as it may be there are at least three ideas here I’m going to break out into individual posts only because I know there are huge, waiting masses eager for my opinion. Wink, wink. I also want to remind you that although some of this stuff might seem negative I don’t see it that way at all. Through the murkiness of life there are flickering splinters of light. I know because I saw one while in the Australian bush. Now I need to turn myself and see just what the light was illuminating. I heard an interview with author Doris Lessing who admitted she felt that she had only had a light impact on a small number of people, but she continued to write anyway, which I think is the most important point here.

PS: I want to thank all the Australians I met during my travels. I wasn’t able to even scratch the surface of your wonderful country, but I’m coming back as soon as humanly possible. If you are in the photography industry in Australia and you don’t know Ian and Erick you really should reach out and introduce yourself. They are good people and also share a desire to make YOU the best possible photographer you can be because ultimately it helps everyone involved. Just beware, they only consume two things. Meat and candy.