One of the best things about a career as a location photographer is that we’re fortunate to shoot in some really cool places. Granted, some environments are much more exciting than others. The diversity of settings is a constant rush. While I have a great studio to work from, I truly cherish the variety of “offices” I visit on my shoots.
On assignment, I have a regular practice of acknowledging that “this is my office today”. It began with an “aha moment” just 2 years after graduating Northwestern U. while at the Great Wall of China. DISCLAIMER: Before I risk alienating my beloved account/brand clients who may be reading this, I so valued my really hard to get first real job as an assistant account executive at DDB Needham Worldwide. I learned a ton, worked with incredibly smart people, and to this day apply the many lessons learned working on the account side of the advertising business. Yet, there came a point that “for me” the suit, tie, wingtips, 12+ hour days, often 6 days a week began to wear on me. I longed for the creative side of the biz. So, from a windowless office, at 303 Wacker Drive in Chicago Illinois, my photo career was hatched and I plotted my escape.
Kinda like Constanza on Seinfeld, and in light of the long hours, I occasionally took a nap under my office desk which faced the door so no one could see. ; ) I dreamt of traveling and photographing in far off lands, and in particular the Great Wall of China. As a kid I was mesmerized by China’s gift to the United Nations; an enormous, elaborate Ivory sculpture of limestone mountains, lakes, bridges, fisherman, cormorants and the like. After 2 great years in the ad biz, it was time to pursue my dreams as a location photographer. I set off for China and the Great Wall and also that mystical magical place in my mind’s eye of that ivory sculpture. Thus, my circuitous escape route plan was sealed.
As I was on a shoestring self-financed backpacker budget, I travelled 44 hours on 5 connecting flights, with 411 rolls of film in lead lined bags from NY to Chicago to LA to Hong Kong to Sydney to Cairns Australia near the Great Barrier Reef. My body clock was so confused I felt zero jet lag, just a thirst for adventure. Trading the suit, tie and wingtips for Teva Sandals and shorts, down under was to be 5 weeks of location lifestyle shooting before heading up to China for more.
The Great Barrier Reef was unbelievably beautiful, and afterward I went into the jungle to shoot bungee jumping. I photographed the backpacker set until I couldn’t take it any longer. Screw the fact I had 3 months of shooting in 2 vast countries, and didn’t want to imperil all that lay ahead, I HAD to try it. So with a camera strapped to my wrist (pre GoPro), and the biggest rubber band I’d ever seen strapped to my ankles, I “threw” caution to the wind, and a rowdy bunch of Australians “threw” me off the edge. I did it a second time, with a 9.8 back dive.
Time flew. Traversing Australia’s Outback, exploring the Great Barrier Reef, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the Great Ocean Road around rotaries and winding cliffs, and taking in sunset and sunrise over the 12 Apostles rock formation were all awe-inspiring. Yet, the trip to China was truly transformative. As a kid, menacing places like Russia (future blog post) and China were national enemies. Now, I had the good fortune to visit these places. I was able to meet and greet the people and experience and honor the cultural differences while appreciating the common bonds of family, friendship, food, fun, and the daily doings that we all share.
This opened my eyes and made the enormous world a whole lot smaller and accessible. I will note that Grandmas spitting and hurling lugies on the ground in China as status quo has kinda stuck with me as a wee bit “different” than what I’m accustomed to. Yet, I LOVE the diverse ways people live their lives around the globe – respecting local habits and traditions while adopting some cool new ways of human “being” along the way.
Living my travel dreams, and 2 months into my adventure, I finally found my way to the Great Wall in Badaling near Beijing. After street casting some wayward travelers to be part of my shoots and nailing the shots, I paused. The reality began to sink in. I felt a great sense of satisfaction and achievement. I was now thousands of miles away – geographically, emotionally and spiritually – from that windowless office I’d fled. There I was, all alone and far from home. AND … I couldn’t have been more ecstatic and at peace.
The air was cold that day, but the warmth of the late afternoon sun and wind sharpened my senses. The crowds of tourists thinned, and a single figure appeared in the distance, the only person for as far as I could see to the West. This solitary man with a basic broom faced 13,171 miles of wall. His job, likely thankless and never finished, was to sweep the Great Wall of China as had countless men and women for generations. I have every confidence that he took pride in what he did, preserving and caring for a cherished landmark. To my mind, his was a pretty cool office!
I’m grateful I don’t have THAT job, and have the freedom to choose my path. I felt a profound sense of gratitude in that moment. I gazed out to the East, to the South, the West and the North. I turned fully around in a circle, taking in the vastness of the Great Wall. Out to the horizon, the sun was setting and I launched an expletive laden holler from my perch on the Great Wall. It was a brand new affirmation, borne of a single awareness: THIS IS MY … OFFICE TODAY! A defining moment in my life.
I like to mark milestones by making a commitment toward future action. In this case, I reaffirmed my life’s calling to capture how I experience the world around me through visual storytelling. I think that’s a pretty damn COOL way to discover the great world around me, learn more about myself and others, and support myself and my family. It has been and always will be my life’s journey.
Fast forward. Into each and every assignment today, I carry this feeling of gratitude to be working in a unique place. I hold in my heart and mind a true sense of privilege to be invited into others’ worlds, and to be asked to interpret and share my vision through my photography. I smile even now, as I cherish today’s “office” and consider that tomorrow and the next day, yet another new office awaits.
I just hope the coffee in each new office is decent ; )