Shuttering: My journey in photography

I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Over the span of my illustrious adulthood, I have changed jobs more times than I’ve gone to a barbershop. Due to my decade-long itinerant ways, that was essentially inevitable, but even if I had stuck with one home, I can’t imagine stomaching one career for very long.

I’ve never had the luxury of choosing a job that matched my career ambitions. I worked at Forever 21, for god’s sake. Paying the bills has always taken precedent over holding out for a dream job, though there are definitely careers I would love to try.

I recently applied for a particularly enticing position with the New York Times as a travel writer, a “dream job” if ever there was one. I’m not going to be hired, I know that. (Yes, yes, I hear you chiding me to put positive energy into the world, but I’ve been screaming “Oprah’s going to give me a million dollars” at my mirror for years and it still hasn’t happened.) Even knowing the odds are slim-to-none, I had to apply. It would have haunted me for the rest of my life if I hadn’t.

This particular job would be especially gratifying because it involves the three things I love most in the world: Travel, writing, and photography (not necessarily in that order). For most of my life, writing has been the main focus of my creative output, but there are times where I find greater satisfaction through other outlets.

Currently, while I’m enjoying traveling (next weekend, I’ll finally be making my first visit to Paris), the activity that’s giving me the greatest thrill is photography.

This photo was published in the After Happy Hour Review.

Behind the Lens

I studied photography in high school. “Studied” is perhaps not exactly accurate. After learning the basics in Photo 1, I took three straight semesters of Advanced Photography (because, for some reason, that was allowed) and spent every available moment sniffing the fumes in the darkroom, attempting to Frankenstein cool images with light tricks and merged negatives. Of the hundreds of experiments I tried, maybe a dozen of them resulted in anything remotely compelling.

My days of shooting and developing film ended with high school as the costs grew increasingly prohibitive and I no longer had free access to a darkroom (I considered Matthew McConaughey-ing around, but I just didn’t have the moustache for it). So, while I will always relish the stark look of film (particularly in black and white), I’ve been shooting in digital ever since college and I’ve come to appreciate the versatility it provides.

How I was in the darkroom, stumbling through hours of failures to achieve one shot I loved, is essentially the same way I am as a photographer. For every shot that comes out well, I have four or five (or fifteen) lousy photos that I just delete. With digital, I can afford to fail. If I were still shooting on film, that technique would have bankrupted me years ago.

I miss film, though, no question. I miss spending hours in the darkroom. It’s not quite the same rush staring at Photoshop for three hours (but I do it).

Whatever the tools, I am enamored with photography, both as an art form to appreciate, and a medium with which to express myself. I wouldn’t call myself a particularly skilled photographer, but I am eager to learn and constantly trying to improve. My aim is to understand more about my tools, both my camera and the photo editing software. And, then of course, my own eye.

Capricho Cascada

The Eye

During 10 Cities/10 Years, I was usually alone when I explored. People don’t tend to get too enthusiastic about wandering their own city, so I spent many afternoons walking aimlessly, just me and my camera. My photography from those years, as a result, generally reflects a solitary eye looking for the sublime or unusual in the ignored or seemingly mundane.

I will always enjoy that sort of photography, but as with everything else in life, I’m compelled to keep trying new things, pushing against the boundaries of my style.

For the last year, I’ve been attempting to photograph more human subjects, mostly candid. Major cities are a fruitful place for this, because the citizens there have all essentially grown to accept that they’re being photographed or filmed all the time. Don’t get me wrong, some people definitely aren’t happy about being on camera.

Most of the time, though, people just look through me when I point a camera in their direction. Those are the results I enjoy most.

Now that I’m in Europe, I find an essentially never-ending supply of remarkable vistas to inspire me to reach for my camera. There’s so much unexplored territory (by me) that I never grow bored of shooting. Even better, I’m surrounded by fellow displaced travelers.

My co-travelers here in Madrid afford me a bevy of opportunities for collective candid shots and unplanned moments (like when they’re trying to pose).

Additionally, I’ve even gotten in a few “model” shots, which is a whole other world of photography that I’ve never even considered trying my hand at.

In the past, I was always hesitant to shoot people (er, photograph people); there’s something so intimate about photography, it can feel strangely intrusive. But, of course, that’s also why it’s so compelling as a medium. I envy the boldness of photographers who manage to capture truly evocative candid images, the kind that feel like you’ve been granted a private window into someone else’s life. That’s what I aspire to.

I’m growing and I’m learning. I’ll keep pushing myself, because I enjoy it.

It’s not that I believe I’ll ever cultivate a career in photography. That’s extremely unlikely, and honestly, probably not even something I’d want (trying to monetize art always makes me queasy). I simply find immense satisfaction in nurturing the hobbies and pastimes that give me a reprieve from whatever job I find myself stuck in at any given moment.

I’ll always have to find some gig, more or less temporary, to pay the bills. As long as I have my creative outlets, though, I’m able to bear any job for at least a little while. Even Forever 21.

 

 

Factotum

…jack of all trades, master of none…

On most days of the week, I stare at a computer, a screen projecting a swath of information I don’t and couldn’t care about. For hours at a time, I figure out how to best formulate that information so someone else can make money. It is my job. For now.

If you are familiar with the term “factotum,” there is a good chance it is because of the author Charles Bukowski. It was the title of his second novel (and a 2005, Matt Dillon-starring film based on it), which tells of Henry Chinaski, an alcoholic ruffian who can’t hold onto a job, or won’t.

If you’re unfamiliar, a factotum is someone who holds many jobs, someone who doesn’t specialize in any one particular occupation but bounces from one gig to the next. Sometimes, factotums are easily bored, always looking for something new to hold their attention. On the hand, maybe they’re just bad at everything and stumble from one failure to the next. And then there are the wanderers.

I’m not sure which category I best fit into, but I am a factotum.

The jobs I have carried:
Barista
Stockroom supervisor
Sales associate (books, clothing, music and movies, porn)
Bookstore manager
Waiter
Bartender
Caterer
Fry cook
Data entry clerk
Phone bank operator
Small scale construction (a bathroom; a basement)
Mover
Editor
Marketing associate

I’m likely forgetting some.

I’m currently in the process of embarking on a new, well, career might be too strong a word, but employment direction. For the last month, I’ve been volunteering as an ESL teacher for a program in Hell’s Kitchen. This is fulfilling my practicum hours so I can complete my certification with the International TEFL Academy, which will hopefully open up teaching opportunities globally.

It’s just the next step in an oeuvre that will likely never settle into one groove.

God Bless You

My First Job

Not counting cleaning my dad’s office, the first job I ever held was at a KOA campground on the outskirts of my hometown. The campground was owned by a family who attended the same church as mine. I was happy to avoid working at a fast food restaurant as my older brothers had for their first jobs (alas, fast food employment was still in my future). I was 16.

My responsibilities at the job were a little ill-defined, but mostly I was there to maintain the fields and long-term campsites. The campgrounds were split into three sections: The first consisted of open fields where overnight visitors could set up tents and cook around fire pits. Moving north across the property, there were three lanes of extended-stay parking where RVs and campers could be hooked up and stay for a few weeks.

Finally, there was the long-stay section, where families would often sit for months at a time. Essentially a trailer park, with all the negative associations that brings to mind, I dreaded going anywhere near that section. Of course, these were all just poorer families making do in a tough situation and providing a home for their children; no shame in that. But as a sullen teen responsible for cleaning around their “lawns,” I was unsympathetic to their plight.

On my first day, my boss, Bob, handed me a pair of gloves and directed me to the long-term sites to pick up trash. Thus, the first task of my illustrious and diverse working career involved picking discarded cigarette butts out of gravel like the bleakest claw machine ever (flashing neon: “Win cancer for a quarter!”). Every day of work since then has just been a variation of that.

There were aspects of working at KOA I liked (cruising around on a riding lawn mower) and aspects I loathed (cleaning out the dog walk trash bin with my hands), a dichotomy of activities that fell under the blanket theme of Just Obeying the Boss; you know, a job.

About halfway through the summer, a friend from church was hired, a guy named David, so I had someone to work alongside. We had a good time working together, but much of the gig was fairly solitary, which I didn’t mind. Mowing lawns, weed whacking, cleaning the public bathrooms, they invoked a kind of zen-like trance through the sheer repetition and simplicity of action. Sometimes, that trance was a little too deep.

One sunny day, I was out mowing the far south camping field, a long and thin rectangle of open grass bordered on each side by gravel roads. Other than a couple trees and a fire pit or two, the field was just open grass, which made it a perfect patch of land for accelerating the riding mower to its limits. Starting from the center, I rode that hog in outward concentric circles, gaining speed all the way.

The important thing to know about this field is that it was formed like a flat bowl, with its immediate edges curving up to meet the road.

I was able to pick up the most speed on the long stretches of the field which I would then use to whip across the short sides and back up the other long side. I had managed to pick up considerable momentum by the time I reached the outer edges. That’s where I met the 45-degree incline. I was fine along the long southern side, but as I took a left-hand turn onto the short eastern edge, I experienced a terrifying sensation: the mower tipping onto two wheels.

In that horrified moment, it wasn’t my life that flashed before my eyes, but a vision of the next ten seconds. I’d heard stories: The mower would flip, taking me with it, either crushing me underneath or, having flung me a few feet, rolling and landing wheels-down – blades-down – on my arms, legs, or neck. I wouldn’t be driving home that day.

As I hung at maybe 80 degrees, instinct took over and I kicked with all my strength to leap as far out of the path of the mower as I could. I hit the ground and rolled, looking up just in time to see my mighty steed right itself onto four wheels and drive off without me. For a moment, I stared in astonishment and relief. Then I pushed myself back onto my feet and ran after the riderless mower as it crested the edge of the field, crossed the gravel road, and descend into the next field.

I leapt back into the seat and took command of the mower. Looking around, I checked to see if anyone had seen my near-decapitation, but I was out in the field alone, no witnesses for my embarrassment. I spun the hefty piece of machinery around and sheepishly finished the rest of the field at half speed.

Most days lacked that sort of adrenaline rush. At worst, I’d weed whack some unidentifiable wire hanging from a camper in the extended parking lot and panic for a second, before shrugging it off and continuing with my day.

My worst days came with the arrival of Phish-heads who swarmed to the campground on a weekend in which their beloved jam band was playing a show nearby. The patchouli stench would have been enough, but when they decamped, they left behind piles of garbage, untended fire pits, and, no exaggeration, a centimeter of caked mud on the floor of the bathroom. These were no hippies.

My two young passions, NYC and puzzles. Ladies.

Despite those unpleasantries, I mostly enjoyed the job, albeit only as much as a 16-year-old can enjoy any job. For one, I liked the physical activity. I was a hefty – nay, fat – teen, so that summer spent working outside in the hot sun was the beginning of a period of dramatic weight loss.

Plus, in general, I like working. I’m happy to have an occupation by which I can pay my own way and occupy my body, if not always my mind. It’s why, during my ten years of relocating, periods of joblessness were so depressing. It wasn’t just that I was anxious about money, I hated feeling so listless and inactive.

I’ve never found a job that I wanted to keep forever, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I’ve had some great jobs, working with good people and completing rewarding tasks. I’ve also had my share of soul-crushing gigs. Every one’s had an expiration date. That’s the life of a factotum.

In my younger years when people asked me what I wanted to do for a career, I told them I wanted to be a novelist. As I got older and came to understand how unlikely it is to become successful enough writing fiction to pay the bills, I expanded my career ambitions to include other writing gigs, maybe working for a magazine, or writing travel pieces. Now, though, I’m no longer holding out for that writing dream. I’ll always be a writer; I may never make a dime from it. That’s okay.

I have two passions in life, writing and traveling, and as I age, it’s the latter one that brings me the most satisfaction. Seeing some place new for the first time is life sustaining for me. Money is the necessary evil that allows me to pursue that passion, so I will continue my factotum ways.

Monumento a Jacinto Benavente (Green)

 

Teaching English is just another means to an end. I enjoy it; like, a lot. I could see myself doing it for years, as long as it opens up avenues for new homes in new countries. But will it be the occupation that gets me to settle down somewhere permanently? Unlikely.

I hope you enjoy your job. I hope it fills you with a sense of purpose and satisfies you creatively, intellectually, or physically (ideally, some combination of all three). But if not? Well, nothing has to be forever.