I Never Wanted to Be a Photographer
July 29, 2017
I’ve always had the temperament of a misanthropic writer (read: pretentious). This manifests for me in strong opinions coupled with a disaffected attitude. Writing is at it’s core a desire to celebrate your best thoughts in a permanent format, while demanding that these thoughts be heard by others who you’re happy to educate with your superior viewpoint.
If you’ve taken the time to read this, this is where I say “Despite that opening paragraph, stay with me! Now that you’re dubious, the challenge is to make you like me!”
In 2002, way back in rural Pennsylvania where I grew up, I was an editor on the high school paper. I’ve always been analytical and logical, so language and its rules made it easy for me to tear ideas apart and reassemble them the way I wanted. My natural abilities were all that kept me afloat while I was skipping the maximum number of school days I could while still being allowed to graduate (30). While I nearly failed every other class, I still performed exceptionally well in english, journalism, and history classes.
Most of my friends didn’t figure out who they were, or wanted to be until much later in their lives, but I had figured out who I was very young. I had no lack of confidence about that. I wanted to be a writer… and all the discipline I was clearly lacking couldn’t possibly affect my life/career.
In addition to being poor and not having the money for college, my lax stance on school attendance meant I also didn’t have the grades or achievements to get into any educational environment that would lead me where I wanted to go. So, what does a driven (but not too driven) writer with no money, plan, or discipline do? They join the Marine Corps as a journalist of course!
Boot camp in summer was miserable and South Carolina (home of boot camp) became a lifelong enemy. In the end, it was all worth it because after 13 sweat-soaked weeks in southern swamps I showed up at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland to begin my life as a writer. On the day I arrived I was told, “We don’t have any journalism spots open, so you’re going to become a photographer.” I was somewhat displeased… “I DIDN’T SIGN A CONTRACT AND GO THROUGH THREE MONTHS OF HUMID SUFFERING TO BECOME A PHOTOGRAPHER!”
My history with photography was short. In 2001, my class took a trip to New York City. We saw all the things everyone sees; the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Broadway, Times Square, Wall Street, etc… and while I’d taken a handful of photos during the trip I’d largely forgotten about them. (Looking back now, I have a special place in my heart for them for obvious reasons.)
Military photography school is only three months and it was apparent for the first six weeks that I was seething about my perceived downgrade from writer to lowly artist. I’d never considered myself an artist, I can’t draw or paint or sculpt. Crafting free-form ideas into unique visions without language was always beyond me. I can translate thoughts into words and words into a narrative, but the complexity of creating visual art is something I'll never understand. Photography however isn’t about creating from nothing, it’s about interpreting things that are put in front of you. Shapes, lines, colors, movement… it’s a visual language.
During those first weeks of Basic Still Photography school I was learning the language of photography, even as I was actively rebelling against it. When I was notified I was at the bottom of the class I looked around at the mediocre work the other students were producing and got competitive. I realize now that the photos below, taken during this course, were nothing to be thrilled with but by the time the curriculum ended I had rebounded and reached the head of the class.
Through much effort and annoyance I would also later become a journalist in the Marines. I covered the War in Iraq and Hurricane’s Katrina and Rita (I’ll also post about those sometime). But my photography career was initially launched by the military, doing what they do best, lying to a kid with hopes and dreams.
The military taught me difficulty, it curbed my selfishness and blind idealism. It made me a well-rounded artist and showed me that we can be more than we think we are. My greatest projects like documenting the National Parks, and Undiscovered America are combinations of writing and photography. Most of all the military showed me humility and how to overcome setbacks. Now I have the proper perspective to learn from obstacles, and I don’t think college would have given me that.
South Carolina and I still don’t get along though...