A Permanent State of Transition
A good friend of mine, David Hieatt (DO Lectures and Hiut Denim) often talks about the concept of two films you will see as you eventually look back on your life. One is about the highlights of what you achieved and another tells the story of what you might have achieved with your abilities, passion and the opportunities that come your way. How can our choices narrow the distance between the two films ?
I started my career in advertising. It was either that or photography. I worked in the UK, Europe and then for ten years living in the USA, most recently as Worldwide CEO of Initiative, a media agency. It was a real privilege. I have met people, seen places and attended events that most people would feature on their bucket list. It was far from the idea of a mundane corporate existence. I enjoyed the spirit of the people I worked with but after twenty five years I needed a new film not just a sabbatical. It was never a question of running from that world. I simply had a stronger urge to run to new opportunities, specifically to build my documentary and editorial photography work and to restore a small, old neglected farm in the Hudson Valley with my family.
Now, after two and a half years of hard work the family farm and food business, Made In Ghent, is up and running. I have been able to slowly and surely build a client list for my photography which in 2014 has included assignments for The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, The New York Times, Ad Council/US Forest Service and The Guardian UK as well as self directed work on subjects such as an underground theater company in Belarus and a long term story on family ranches in America. Working for these brands was always an aspiration, perhaps a dream. Now my goal is to work for them consistently.
At the same time as I left the advertising world we moved two hours north of the New York City to Ghent, near Hudson, NY. The area is filled with farmers, foodies, entrepreneurs, artisans, happy vagabonds and dreamers. I soon became used to the idea of introducing myself as who I am rather than what I do. We are all products of our experiences in total not just what we do for a living. It reminded me that the corporate world needs to go far further in developing individuals’ skills and possibilities. The vast majority of employee development is still focused on specific working or technical skills and the attainment of status. Mavericks need not apply.
Life has a different rhythm now. I am energized by integrating work and life rather than trying to balance them as two opposing forces. Monday to Friday (with weekends often thrown in) has become seven days but somehow it’s totally liberating. I’ve never had more space to think and felt more free to create. At home on the farm the work has a routine but each day feels very different by virtue of the welcome and not so welcome surprises. We feel passionately about preserving the rapidly eroding link between farming and the food on our tables. It’s a purpose that drives us. Much of my personal photography work relates to that. There’s no real commute for me now unless I am driving to an assignment. Otherwise I am walking through the fields in all weathers with gratitude for the opportunity to be out there and not in a meeting. You have to love what you do when it’s below zero, as it was occasionally this past winter, and there’s work to do in the north wind and dying light. Our regular farm chores are generally early and late in the day leaving time to build our other projects in between. Much of the focus on the farm is in the new kitchen where we plan to prepare and share food, hold workshops and try new things.
￼A call from an editor is always welcome. I answer with great anticipation and a thrill of adventure every time. My best photograph is the one I might make next. I love that idea of possibility. With the support of my family, I have found that I can manage the two worlds of photography and farming. It’s really no exaggeration to say that every day brings new experiences. This past year I’ve photographed rock bands, prisoners, monks, night shift workers, gypsy brewers and fashion executives amongst others and every one of them has taught me something. I have reconnected with many aspects of life I had sacrificed, consciously and unconsciously, on my way through the corporate mill.
I can’t say making the transition wasn’t challenging both professionally and personally. Initially there is an amoeba-like sensation without the prop of a structured schedule. Then there are the moments of self doubt. I found strength in many old friendships and the people around me which was affirming and positive. After all, I had unshackled myself from a predictable future and avoided the seemingly inevitable scenario in which so many others find themselves. When I left I received many touching emails from colleagues. I appreciated these of course, however, there were three sentiments that jumped out consistently: envy (‘ I wish I could do that’) , disbelief (‘he’ll be back in six months’) and resignation (‘here I am, here I stay’). None of this made sense to me. It still doesn’t. While I had some resources to build from I have learnt that long term success is more about ideas, conviction and hard work. On that basis the opportunity to reinvent is more accessible than people realize.
I am finding I can do more with less and make smarter choices about what I need and where I get it. I can only advocate a transition like this for those who have a passion to explore the unfulfilled. Many do not. I guess I am one of the lucky ones working at doing what I love and making my ‘second film’.
Five Thoughts on Making a Transition:
-Be ready to be fast forgotten by your employer. Things move on. So should you.
-As a rough estimate, transitioning to a new reality may take one month for each year that you’ve worked or been locked into a relatively set routine. In my case two years. Some things change overnight but most of it takes time.
-Reframe your thoughts. Turn ideas on their head. Be honest about your desires and abilities. In whatever way makes sense to you define some goals or a single minded purpose that drives you. Be unreasonable with yourself about delivering.
-Don’t go it alone. Find your collaborators; people who believe in what you’re doing even more than you do. This starts with family and close friends. Create opportunities to learn new things from others all the time either structured (e.g. workshops) or unstructured (e.g. visit a new city, museum, read a book). Get used to asking more questions than providing answers. Understand that rejection is often valuable learning.
-Why were you able to create success previously? I started on the bottom rung in advertising and used a combination of will power, resourcefulness, diversity of experience and empathy throughout my time. It’s fun rediscovering this. Now I channel it in my photography.