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.

 

 

How to Fail in Love, or: What a man will do

Chapter V

[Warning: This chapter deals with sexual assault. Names have been changed.]

We didn’t last.

We could hash out the reasons for months – and we did – but in the end, perhaps it was inevitable: a transient soul meeting an intransient heart.

Chicago brought its share of challenges for Selene and me, financial and personal, but whereas in San Francisco there were common foes to unite us, now it was just the two of us sharing a single bedroom apartment in the North Side neighborhood of Buena Park.

There was much to love: the city, the neighborhood, our apartment. Within walking distance of Wrigleyville and Boy’s Town and right off the vital Red Line, we were just minutes from the Loop. We also had “our” bar for cheap drinks and billiards whenever we needed a casual date night.

Selene was able to return to school to finish up her senior year (a main reason for choosing Chicago) and my job search lasted a mere two and a half months instead of five. Granted, my job was as a sales associate in the cavernous Forever 21 on Michigan Avenue, but it provided a paycheck. Bills were being paid, life was being lived.

Unfortunately, our visions of the future were not in alignment. Over the year in San Francisco, Selene transformed from a shell-shocked new explorer to the woman who traveled to Chicago ahead of me to make arrangements. She was stronger and more resilient. Just because someone can move, though, doesn’t mean they want to.

As the months passed, Selene dropped hints about backpacking Europe together. It was an appealing idea – the classic travel narrative – but to do so would require staying at least another year in Chicago to save money. It’d mean abandoning 10 Cities/10 Years.

Other factors were leading to our dissolution, as well. There were the usual abrasions that build up on the body after two years together, exacerbated by our abnormal circumstances: Suspicions of infidelity and apathy, fights and spying, the subtle but inevitable erosion of passion. We took each other for granted, only seeing one another from the corners of our eyes.

I pulled the trigger. One March night, Selene once again brought up a European divergence, now more of an urging than a suggestion. I could no longer deny the inevitable. I felt incensed because of what she was asking me to give up, but also mortified because of what I was forcing her to forgo: a life of her own.

We argued through the night, much of it in tears. When the sun arose the next morning, we were sharing a bed but no longer together.

Neither one of us could afford to move out. Overnight, our apartment had suddenly become claustrophobic. It was late March and my move wasn’t until September. We had five months ahead of us, cellmates in a rented prison.

Some days, we were utterly miserable. Others, we found equilibrium. The fact of our underlying incompatibility was always there, but with that out in the open, we were looking at each other straight on again. At times, it felt like love; that is, when it didn’t erupt as hate. After everything else fell away, we still had passion. You can’t have the warmth of fire without destruction.

August, 2010

Four months after our break up, Selene moved out. She was staying in Chicago and had found a new apartment with a roommate who’d arrive from Philadelphia in a few weeks. Though we were cycling through one of our regular bouts of acrimony, I helped her move across town. That was to be, more or less, the end of it. We were both alone now.

2:00 am

I can’t remember the last time I slept uninterrupted through the night without the aid of intoxicants. There’s always a device by the bed, a tether to consciousness, to an unsettled world. It’s nigh impossible to disconnect.

It was late and I was asleep, but only barely, when a familiar chirping stirred me. Grabbing my phone in the dark, I read the glowing words.

“I was almost raped.”

I shot up in bed. Selene’s message sent shocks through my nervous system, that word exploding like napalm from every synapse.

In a fog, I texted back.

“Where are you?”

When she didn’t respond immediately, I called. She answered through choked sobs.

“He’s in my apartment,” she said. “I left.”

I knew who “he” was. Tommy, her friend, was stationed on a base north of the city and had come down for a Saturday night movie with Selene. I confess, Tommy had previously been a cause of discord between Selene and me. They weren’t romantic (he was married), but theirs was a charged, flirtatious friendship. I had never met the man, but jealousy preemptively bred hate nonetheless.

After the movie, Tommy went out with his buddies for drinks. Ostensibly too inebriated to return to base, he called up Selene and asked to crash at her place. She offered him her couch. What happened next is a common chapter in the stories of far too many women.

Tommy came to Selene’s room and made advances, which she rebuffed. She closed her door. Soon, he came back and attempted twice to force himself upon her. She fought him off and, with no other choice, abandoned her new apartment.

These details I learned later, but at that moment in my darkened room, all I knew was that he was still in her apartment and Selene was somewhere alone.

“I’m heading over there!” I yelled, already dressing.

“Please don’t! I need somewhere to go. Stay at our apartment. Please!” Fighting every instinct, every screaming, wrathful cell in my body, I complied. Selene’s stricken voice was drenched in tears. I stayed. I waited.

When she arrived, she was pale, her eyes sallow and red. She lied in our former bed and I pulled the blankets over us as she cradled into my body. It was like our first night in San Francisco all over again, except I never fell asleep. I wanted to be of comfort to her, but my body was so tense with fury that it must have felt like hugging a statue.

I worked the next morning. I imagine I must have offered to call out and stay with Selene, but for whatever reason I still went. I hadn’t slept, my body was sore from clutching Selene to me all night, and my anger hadn’t subsided. It was a Sunday morning, so the train was, thankfully, mostly unoccupied. I found an isolated seat in the corner, curled up against the glass as tight as I could, and wept. Bitter tears burnt my face.

At work, I managed some semblance of composure, but it must have been obvious that something was seriously wrong. Don, a jovial, good-hearted friend approached and asked what was wrong. He hadn’t been the first to ask how I was doing that morning, but I had brushed most inquiries off with the usual prevarications. When Don asked, though, I could no longer contain the anger.

“Jesus. What are you going to do?” He asked.

“I’m going to kill him,” I promised. Don coughed a slight, nervous laugh, realizing there was no humor in my tone.

I pride myself on eschewing macho male stereotypes, but in this situation all I could think of was fighting. I craved a violent solution.

The problem was, I had little recourse to enact revenge. This wasn’t a movie, I wasn’t going to sneak onto a military base and display some heretofore unseen fighting acumen. Any hope of punishing Tommy required he return to Chicago. I also needed help.

The following day, I found Tommy’s private email address and, creating a fake account, sent him a message with a simple subject line: “Careful”

I opened the missive by laying out what I knew had happened between him and Selene. I put it in exacting detail so that there could be no question of “interpreting” events differently after the fact. I warned that I knew he was married and I could contact his wife easily.

Then I made my demands:

You will come back into the city, Chicago, at a time that is convenient for me. We are going to meet face to face, man to man.

I ended with:

You will not tell Selene you are coming here. In fact, you will not talk to her at all, ever again. Forget you ever knew her.

Meanwhile, Selene didn’t want to return to her apartment, so she stayed with me. Around her, I hoped to be a calming presence, but I was nothing but boiling agitation and rage. She knew I wasn’t letting the matter go, but I kept her in the dark about my intentions. Tommy couldn’t go unpunished. I had to prove – to her, to myself? – that this crime would be met with sufficient vengeance.

Our SoCal friend, Kate, vowed to fly out and “beat the shit out of” Tommy, but I assured her I was taking matters into my own hand.

At work, I enlisted Don and another friend, Aidan, to my cause. Knowing most of the details, they offered their tentative support, not entirely sure how seriously I intended to pursue my plan. Trained as boxers, both men were muscular and intimidating in all the ways I was not. I can’t discount the racial component either: they were black men and I was planning to rendezvous with Tommy on the South Side.

I had no devious master plan, no Machiavellian revenge plot: I wanted Tommy in my presence and I wanted to hurt him. Only his blood would pay for his sins.

But Tommy didn’t respond to my email. Two days passed before I sent another taunting email. I tried to sound threatening, in charge, but the truth was, if he didn’t respond, there was essentially nothing I could do. 

He responded. No denials.

I know i was so very wrong for this, i wish in so many ways i could reverse my actions, not because Selene turned me away, but because it was a darkness within me that i have been fighting for so very long.

It wouldn’t hold up as a confession in court, but it was enough for me.

Over the next few days, we exchanged a half dozen emails. I gave him a date to meet me. He provided excuses why he couldn’t get away from the base. I told him if he didn’t show, I’d forward our email chain to his wife and his CO. Meanwhile, Don and Aidan were, judiciously, backing out of my plan. They understood better than I that no one was making it out of this unscathed.

Finally, Tommy sent one last, clearly rattled email:

I have told my command and my wife what truely happened, they have all read your e-mail. I was given a direct order to tell you such and that i will no be meeting with you under any circumstances.

I attempted to goad him out of hiding, but he didn’t respond. So, through a fake Facebook account, I sent his wife our emails. And there it ended.

I have no idea what became of Tommy. I don’t know what he meant by “what truely happened.” Maybe his wife never read the messages or didn’t believe them if she did. If nothing else, I wanted the people in Tommy’s life to learn the kind of vile man he truly was. I suspect some already knew. I can only hope his “darkness” was never unleashed on another woman.

Without resolution, my anger wouldn’t abate.

A week after escaping assault, shaken but not broken, Selene returned to her apartment and a life that would continue in Chicago without me.

For the remainder of the month before I moved to Tennessee, Selene and I feinted at an amicable friendship. I wish I could say our final parting ended with hugs and fond reminiscing set to an acoustic song like some treacly TV series finale. Alas, our last meeting ended in rage-fueled tears – mine.

Still holding onto resentments from our relationship, I laid blame at her feet. I accused her of leading Tommy on by flirting with him. I did what so many before have done, what too many continue to do: I implied that a woman who dares display her sexuality gives up her right to bodily autonomy.

This was Selene’s struggle, and I had made it about me. I thought it was my war to fight, that I was Selene’s soldier. What she really deserved was an ally.

The Chapter Ends

We’d been good and bad together in equal measures. We had the singular ability to lift one another up, and tear each other down.

I left Chicago in a daze, 100% certain I would never see Selene again; 100% sure I would. I was halfway through.

Selene was no longer the girl I’d met in Costa Mesa two years earlier. So much had happened to her since moving to San Francisco – to both of us – and she’d been transformed. She couldn’t be the person she had been even if she wanted to. Change – positive, negative – is the inevitable result of stepping out one’s front door.

Skydeck View Cropped

It was September. After two hard years together, our roads now diverged.

Keep reading: Chapter VI – Nashville