Where in the world have I been?

For the past four months I’ve been traveling around the U.S. and a bit in Europe — almost non-stop. In April I quit my job and June 1 I traded my awesome San Francisco apartment for a borrowed car and couches around the world. This post and the next one chronicle my adventures.

I returned home to San Francisco a few weeks ago and have fallen in love with the city all over again. I’m still processing what exactly this time away has meant to me on a personal/professional level, but I think if I get a few of the basics down on (digital) paper, it will free up space in my brain for bigger questions.

New Orleans, LA: April 23-27

NOLA really is a magical place. It feels like another world — and century. I never saw it pre-Katrina, but aside from the Ninth Ward, which I saw during my day tour with Taylor Davidson, scars from the storm didn’t exactly jump out at me. I saw spraypaint marks on many houses, but they usually seemed to simply add another layer of patina to a city that has long been known for its beautiful dilapidation. I was specifically lured to NOLA to experience Jazz Fest and see Paul Simon (and Garfunkel) live for the first time. (Amazing.) Ultimately the festival was a little exhausting; I preferred listening to local bands at bars that felt like back yards, riding bikes through moss canopied streets, and eating steaming crayfish under paper lanterns and stars.

Death Valley, CA: May 13-16

Photo by Peter McCollough

A friend suggested I join him and a small group for an annual outing, this year to Death Valley. For me, being in nature is about removing myself from many things that bother me about “civilization”: too many people, constant noise, electronics addictions. I was reminded by this trip that not everyone sees it that way. After driving 10 hours overnight, getting lost for three hours on an ATV trail, getting smirked at by a local gas station owner for driving into Death Valley with only one spare tire and no radio, then being misled by numerous purposefully misleading markers, we finally arrived at our mid-desert warm springs rendezvous point — where we found 40 other people, playing house music and getting intoxicated under Christmas-light strung palm trees. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is stunning, but I don’t understand the point of going someplace so remote and unwelcoming just to do the same thing you could do in the city any Saturday night. After several hours of slow caravaning and numerous blown tires the next day, the group stopped in Big Pine — and Peter and I bailed out to stay in a motel. After dinner at a diner we walked about three blocks off the main street and found ourselves in a beautiful, silent, dusky mountain pass. Finally, nature the way I wanted it.

Seattle, WA: May 25-31

I hadn’t been to Seattle since I was very young, but I remembered loving it. I was there primarily for an annual Memorial Day Weekend reunion with my friends from college. We pick a different place every year and we ended up in a beautiful cabin near Mt. Rainier for 2010. I was surprised by just how lush and green Seattle is, with lots of stunning views from almost as many hills as San Francisco. I also stayed a few extra days with a friend who lives in an inspiring co-op house that shares/reuses almost everything and is populated by artists and bakers and musicians. Trip Highlight: visited the aquarium and embarrassed my friends by sitting on the floor with the kids to watch the giant octopus feeding from up close.

Athens, OH: June 3-7

A very old photo of me and my parents on their 100-acre farm in Ohio. When I think about home, this is what I see.

I was home briefly seeing my family and picking up my grandfather’s old car, which my parents kindly donated for my travels. Not too many epiphanies here, I just have to give props to the town, which I still may move back to some day; Ohio University’s photojournalism program, which I dream about teaching for some day; and my parents, who made this trip possible through their selfless, constant support.

Charlottesville, VA: June 8-14

The beautiful meeting LOOKbetween tent and barn. Photo by Brendan Hoffman.

I feel so lucky to have been able to help Andrew Owen and Jenna Pirog plan LOOKbetween. During the off-year for LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph, they decided to organize a weekend event that deconstructed the usual hierarchies of photo festivals and focused instead on emerging photographers. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can reconceive the usual photo fest structure to make it more helpful and dynamic, so I was excited to try out a few things during the Saturday discussion sessions. Our invited guests included 90 top emerging photographers plus dozens of top editors, curators, and thought leaders. All discussions took place outside at the beautiful farm where the event was held (and most guests camped). Most importantly, there were no “experts,” no “panelists,” no “moderators.” We divided people into 8 groups, gave them very general topics, and asked them to talk amongst themselves for 90 minutes. Then we brought everyone together again and recapped each topic for 20 minutes, asking only the emerging photographers to speak. I can think of lots of ways to make it better in the future, but as an experiment, I was really happy with the results. Everyone, even the “masters,” learned a lot and many people said it was the best discussion they’d heard at a photo event 🙂

NYC: June 15-18

It’s always great to be back in the city where I lived for three years and still have many friends. I have to say, though, that summer in NYC is a special kind of hell sometimes — like any time you have to wait on a subway platform.

Istanbul, Turkey: June 19-26

My first trip to Istanbul and the furthest east I’ve traveled. I was in Istanbul for the week-long Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, helping document the event and hanging out with an amazing group of renowned photojournalists. The historical parts of the city are really beautiful and there’s a vibrancy that makes for great street photography, but being stared at constantly and the wide cultural lines drawn between men and women eventually began to wear on me.

Berlin, Germany: June 27-July 6

One of my best friends from high school has lived outside the U.S. for years, and I’m glad I finally caught up with her in Berlin. It’s a true bohemian city, cheap enough that you can get by working 20 hours a week with plenty of time left over to develop your art/music/poetry — like NYC in the 70s, but way safer. If I had to leave SF tomorrow, I’d go to Berlin…but really the best part of being there was seeing my friend in her natural habitat, not for a few hours one night of the year when we’re both distracted by family/holiday stress.

London, England: July 7-10

Pondering the future of photojournalism over pints at the Frontline Club. From left: Paul Lowe, Edmund Clark, Simon Roberts, Patrick Smith, Adam Westbrook, Will Widmer.

I’ve been to London before so this trip included no sightseeing — instead, I finally met in person with several people I have known for years online: Adam Westbrook, Paul Lowe, Jonathan Worth, and Simon Roberts (who I’d actually met, but many years ago). Several of us got together at the Frontline Club one night, which, packed with memorabilia from former Frontline correspondents, was the best kind of sightseeing a journalism geek like me could do.

Portland, ME: July 14-21

Photo by Peter McCollough.

After meeting up in NYC, Peter and I drove to Portland and took a ferry over to Peaks Island, where my family has an old, uninsulated, telephone-free cottage, which I’ve been visiting every summer since I was born. It was a much-needed week of rest: bike riding, sea-glass gathering, rock sitting, and raiding the local library book sale for lots of great collage materials.

Read about the rest of my road trip here!

Bradbury to the media: You do it to yourself

I’m reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for the first time and loving it. Largely because his writing is beautifully constructed and terrifyingly portentous. As you’ll see from the eerily astute predictions he made more than half a century ago, excerpted below, where the captain of the fire department (i.e. book-burning department) explains its origins to the book’s main character.


“When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I’d say it really got started around the thing called the Civil War. Even though our rule book claims it was founded earlier. The fact is we didn’t get a long well until photography came into its own. Then — motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass.

“And because they had mass, they became simpler. Once books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm.

“Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line diction resume… Speed up the film, quick. Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in midair, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!

“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic book survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course.

“There you have it. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

I’m bad at doing things I’m not already good at

Ok, so that title is a bit of a Catch 22, but I bet you all know what I mean. Every year past childhood it becomes more difficult to get out of our comfort zone and try something new. At least I hope I’m not the only one who feels that way…

For me, my discomfort with trying new things goes way back. I didn’t learn to swim or ride a bike until I was in middle school in part because I was scared of doing things wrong. I refused to keep going to soccer in elementary school and I quit high school track right before our first meet because I was scared of performing badly.

As part of my work this year to honor my inner child, I’m trying to do more things I’m bad at (or at least don’t excel at). More specifically, I’m trying to get over my fear of doing something wrong or badly. I’m trying to let myself do things because I enjoy them, because they help me express myself, because they are a challenge and we learn more from our mistakes than from anything. That means not doing things with the end goal of creating something “good” that other people approve of.

Of course this quickly comes to bear on my photography. I’m constantly around photographers (some of my favorite people in the world) and inevitably they ask if I shoot, if I’m a photographer too. For years I’ve been saying, “I take photographs, but I’m not a photographer.”

I know that sounds like a dodge. In fact, I got called out for it on Facebook last week by a couple good friends, which precipitated this post.

What I meant was: I have so much respect for photographers and know so many of them who are putting everything they have into making images that have a real impact on people. I make photos every once in a while — in my mind those are two vastly different things. And especially in this marketplace, the last thing photographers need is one more dilettante cutting into their pie.

Having gotten that off my chest, I also admit that I’m scared. As I’ve said before, thinking of myself as a creative, let alone an “artist,” has always been daunting. I’m only starting to get comfortable with the idea as it applies to my writing, something I’ve always been good at, always loved, and have had years of education and experience in.

But photography? Photography is none of those things for me. I took a couple classes in high school and a photojournalism class in college that impacted me deeply, but mostly because it made me realize how insanely hard it is to get something honest out of someone when you’re holding a big black box in front of your face. Add to that the fact that I’m lucky enough to call many of the most talented photographers I know friends, and the idea of admitting that I want to be a better photographer is downright terrifying.

Most new photographers think what they’re doing is pretty good, even if they know it’s not “great.” And honestly, that’s how it should be when you’re just starting out. But I KNOW I’m not that good. And I’m not fishing for compliments here, seriously.

I’ve spent years looking at images, pulling them apart, explaining their pros and cons. I capture a few nice elements sometimes, but by and large my stuff is mediocre. And that’s ok. I’m just starting. Even great photographers say they’re lucky to make one good photo a day. But god, it’s just so hard for me to share things publicly that are mediocre.

So why am I putting myself through this? Part of it is in the name of making myself vulnerable during this sabbatical I’m taking. Part of it is that I really do like taking pictures, especially when I’m traveling and want to share what I’m seeing. Part of it is the allure of getting better at something. Part of it is the simple thrill of being able to point to something and say, “See, I made that!”

But here’s the real reason I keep working at this photography thing — it helps me understand all my friends who are photographers so much better. While working at American Photo Magazine and the RESOLVE Blog, I must have interviewed hundreds of photographers. My questions were usually about creativity and family and funding, but rarely about technique or the art itself. I felt I couldn’t relate on that plane, so I didn’t try.

Now I have so many questions. I understand in such a tangible way what it means to get access, to approach someone for a portrait, to capture a true moment. I struggle to move past making photos that are simply pretty, or well composed, or explanatory. I’m trying to kill my inner overthinker and learn to make images that are reactions, that capture an honest emotion. It’s so much harder than I ever imagined.

But in the difficulty, I find a whole new world to ask my many photographer friends for help with. And, the thing that really compelled me to write this post: Peter convinced me that I might be able to help in return.

He says this “virgin” time, when you are just learning to see, finding your vision, facing your fears, is something that many artists wish they could revisit. Since I’m coming at photography from a greater base of knowledge and understanding than most new photographers, maybe I’ll be able to lend some insights into this process.

Failing all of that, taking my photography seriously and sharing it publicly will inevitably allow me to understand and relate more to the photographers I know. By the end of this sabbatical, I hope to have figured out my next career move, which most likely will involve helping photographers in some way. I know now that I can never do that fully until I have tried to make art with a camera.

All images © Miki Johnson. Taken in Istanbul and Berlin, June 2010, with a Contax 2T.

Let me tell you something embarrassing about myself

"Nan one month after being battered." ©Nan Goldin. Courtesy Mathew Marks Gallery. I've always admired Nan's work for its brutal honesty, especially towards herself. She is never afraid to show the world her vulnerability or embarrassment.

I’m sitting on a plane to Warsaw, then Istanbul, and I’m crying. I’m crying over a book written by a journalist I’ve never heard of about a war that happened decades before I was born. But really I’m crying about fear and indecision and the feeling of being trapped.

How can I feel trapped, sitting in a giant metal bird, flying over a huge blue ocean, the modern symbol of freedom itself? Maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m crying for the people around me who do feel trapped. Trapped by their past, their responsibilities, their anger and self-judgment. Maybe I felt trapped by those things for so long, and now that I’ve started down the road toward freedom, it hurts me that I can’t bring all my loved ones along.

I feel guilty that being free is easier for me, because I have money, and supportive parents, and friends who love me unconditionally. This story I’m reading and crying over is also about guilt. The guilt of taking the easy way out. Of not knowing what to do. There are things I don’t know either. One thing I don’t know is if what I’m doing is the easy way out or the only thing worth working really really hard at.

One whole chapter in this book is dedicated to an episode in the author’s life he is truly embarrassed by. It is told in such a beautiful, honest way that it makes me want to share a story about being embarrassed. A story that lays me bare, like a young Indian brave opening the chest of his first deer. I’m not sure why, but I think being able to admit embarrassment is one of the steps towards freedom. Crying on a plane to Warsaw is kind of embarrassing. It reminds me of another embarrassing moment, crying in a taxi in San Francisco. It’s not a huge embarrassment, but I have to start somewhere.

I came out from my yoga class (a treat to myself after having my heart broken over IM that morning) and my bike looked all wrong. I knew it was a bad place to leave it, but the seat and wheels were locked on. What could they take? Well, the handlebars, apparently, including the goddamn brakes and shifters and the lines for both.

Writing about this now, I suddenly realize the most embarrassing part wasn’t the crying, which came later when I finally found a taxi driver who would let me put the bike in the back seat. The most embarrassing moment was when I saw my dismembered bike and had to walk over and admit that it was mine. Admit that I was the careless white girl, undoubtedly rich and thus somehow deserving of being robbed, with my expensive yoga mat slung across my shoulders, who was being forced to confront the fact that everything isn’t just ok all the time, like it has almost always been for me. I saw them look sideways at me as they passed and think, “Estupida, what did you expect?”

When a kind cabbie finally let my bike ride in the back seat, it meant I had to ride up front with him. As soon as I slid into the seat and the door closed, the tears started streaming down my face. I wasn’t sobbing, wasn’t really making any noise, but he knew what was going on. I turned toward my window and he turned towards his, and we didn’t speak until I asked how much the fare was.

The guy next to me on the plane also looks away as I turn toward the round-cornered window, smear the tears with my fingertips, and try not to sniffle too loudly. I’m relieved he doesn’t really speak English, although he says, “Sorry,” when he bumps my elbow and, “Here, I take,” when I want to get my dinner out of the way so I can finish writing this.

This story about Vietnam is the first I can remember that has made me feel the need to write so strongly and so immediately. To tell a story that makes it impossible for other people not to tell their own stories — that is a daunting standard, but one I want to try to hold myself to.

My single most persistent goal with this blog is to inspire people: to quit their crappy jobs, to give fair due to their creative impulses, to admit their vulnerabilities. Not because I know a ton about it or am a perfect example, but simply because I am trying to do those things and we all need support wherever and whenever we can get it. I feel lucky to have already seen instances where telling my own story prompts others to share theirs. The overwhelming response to my last post, begging for help writing when I was traveling and tired and uninspired, is a perfect example.

I’ll continue to work toward that goal — of inspiring people to tell stories by telling my own — but since I’m just starting out, I’ll leave you with this, from someone who has already arrived.

“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” –Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

I need your help. Yes you. Seriously.

See? This is a photo I took almost A MONTH AGO in Death Valley and have been meaning to put up as part of a series of photos I've made -- and still haven't.

Some of you have probably noticed that my blog has gone a little quiet lately. I could blame it on being busy: I spent the last few weeks putting my life in storage, leaving my first and only San Francisco apartment, hanging in Seattle for a week with 13 of my best friends from college, and then flying home to Ohio to pick up a car and start my life on the road. But that’s kind of a cop out.

It’s a cop out because the whole point of this traveling thing was to help me see a bunch of people and get inspired and figure out what makes me really happy and write about it all. But here’s the thing I’ve realized over the last few weeks: Having no home and no routine actually makes it damn hard to do something like writing that requires concerted creative effort. Well, shit.

Then, lying in bed this morning I remembered a little epiphany about this blog that I had months ago when I was just laying it out in my head. This doesn’t have to be one of those blogs where I have all the answers. In fact, it can’t be. I’m not an expert here. I’ve never done this before. But hopefully through my experience people can learn a little about their own.

But if I don’t have the answers, where does the insight come from? (OK, so hopefully I have a few insights of my own, but you know what I mean.) Yep. From you.

I’ve seen the stats on this blog, it’s not like there’s a million people out there 😉 This is mostly friends, family, colleagues, people I’ve met in my travels, and a few awesome people who apparently pay attention to what I do although I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting them yet. But that small group of people (again, this means you) is packed with brilliant, talented, insightful people — many of whom have tons of experience in this whole traveling-while-working-and-being-creative-thing.

So here’s my central dilemma. If you have any advice PLEASE LEAVE IT IN THE COMMENTS. (And then you’ll be helping other people, too, not just me 🙂

I’m a fairly adept traveler, but this is the longest I’ve ever done it, and it takes up most of my energy just to find where I’m going, get settled, figure out what I should be doing, contact people, find an outlet for my charger, find food that doesn’t put me in a coma, figure out a new shower, find a towel…you get the idea.

After all that, there’s not a ton of energy left for writing. I’m actually a pretty slow writer (great trait for a blogger to have, I know), plus I have this new deal with myself that I’ll only write things that I feel like I simply HAVE to write. Things that give me butterflies. Things that keep me awake at night. Sometimes getting to those things actually feels harder when I’m on the move. Like there is so much stimulus coming in that I can’t process it enough to record it.

So, if you have any tips or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Do I need to force myself to write every day, even if I don’t publish it? Do I need to write shorter things more often? Do I need to just lower my damn expectations? Or should I just expect this will all get easier as I get used to it and try not to stress so much? Help me out. I know you’re out there.

Quit your crappy job already, ok?

Gypsy Rose Lee, another powerful woman with theatrical talents.

This is an email I received yesterday from a very close friend. I was inspired by it and wanted to share it with you for the reasons I express at the bottom of my response to her (below).

What you should know is that this friend is brilliant and one of the hardest workers I know. She majored in theater and history at Northwestern, attended Harvard for law school, and is now working in the DC Public Defenders office, where she has pretty much always dreamed of working. Sadly, like many dreams, it’s not going quite as she planned. I’ve offered her my words of support, but if you have your own, please share them in the comments. I think we all need to encourage each other to make these kinds of life changes 🙂

The Email

Our conversation last night caused me to spend the first hour of my waking life this morning lying around thinking. Which is something I have not done in a long time, really. And I feel that, being in the pensive state you are in, you’ll be thrilled to hear all about my musings.

I am trying to pick a new career, and place to live. I don’t think my career is good for me for several reasons. One is that I have no life and I don’t like getting out of bed in the morning. The other is that it doesn’t help people the way that I had hoped it would. Our criminal justice system is despicable and disgusting and when my clients are like, “How can the system be this way? Isn’t there anything we can do about it? Can’t you tell the judge that it just isn’t fair?” And I’m like, “Well, no, it doesn’t work like that. The Supreme Court already decided that it’s OK, so now, you’re just stuck in it.”

So now I’m looking for two things in a new job. (1) I would like a job that doesn’t make me want to stay in bed in the morning. High bar. (2) I am looking for a job that will actually help people, and make some small difference in one of the many arenas in which the U.S. provides completely different treatment to rich people and poor people, to black people and white people. It’s crazy and totally unacceptable.

I am also, however, exhausted of thinking about this stuff. I could just go live in a nice small town in Colorado not too far from my family and join a small law firm that does land issues and spend the rest of my career being paid more than decently and writing legal memos about whether someone is allowed to use the water from a particular river or not. I could volunteer to tutor kids in my spare time, and buy a house, and have babies, and see my family members, and die happy. And my selfish little self is like, yep, that sounds good to me.

But I’m not going to do that because of my white guilt.

I also have been struggling a lot lately with whether or not pursuing something artistic is selfish. One idea I had is that I could do some kind of non-profit bringing theater and/or dance and/or music to public school kids. Denver is cutting most of their arts programs pretty severely right now.

P__ says that he thinks that is not that useful a contribution to society. I find this very upsetting because I would love to spend six months teaching theater and putting together a cabaret. I love cabaret. I love performing and I love artistic things. I love reading novels, which P__ would probably argue is a huge waste of time. I love the arts, but I can see his point that a lot of artists are just drifting through life trying to “experience” it and make art about it and are not really thinking much about having any effect on others, or indeed, even thinking about whether their career choice SHOULD be one that is helping others in some way.

On the other hand — art can make a social movement happen. Art is where a lot of the good ideas come forward. Art is often political. Hello — all I have to say is “Brecht.” And P__ and I watched this fairly bad movie about the federal art project, which I didn’t even know about, but which was started by FDR during the depression and put all these actors and producers to work making theater (so cool), and apparently they made these really political plays about labor unions that were of course deemed Communist, and then our American government shut it down because we don’t really believe in free speech in this country.

The point is that it was very political. And then I was thinking, right — Hollywood was a huge target of the McCarthy Communism hearings, because artists are liberal, political people. The problem being, of course, that a bunch of liberal people living in huge houses and making movies like Father of the Bride are not exactly doing anything with their liberalism to help society. Steve Martin is no Brecht.

So, artists have huge potential to effect society in positive ways, it seems to me. But do we (or they, I guess I don’t know if I count as one) actually do it?

After all these musings, I had an idea. We know a lot of very artistic people. Fuck, our reunion alone could write a paper, put out a book of short stories or a novel, put on a play, make a movie, make a CD, create a photo exhibition, and probably teach a bunch of kids to do the same. And then we could write reviews about all of it. 🙂

This kind of talent should not go to waste.

I was thinking of some kind of organization or co-op or something for artists who are dedicated to producing art that encourages or effects social change. Maybe not all of their art — everyone likes to do a good show of Gypsy that has nothing to do with social change — but some of their art.

Maybe it starts out as just a group of people with a website who sign on to a pledge — they will do one creative thing a year that they put forward for the purpose of creating social change. And they pledge to assist the other members of the group in doing the same. Maybe some of the members are artists who are just promising that at least one of their works will have that purpose.

And maybe some of them are artistic doctors and lawyers who promise to use whatever lost artistic talents they abandoned for their new career to do something artistic and socially changey each year. For those people it serves the dual purpose of keeping their creative sides alive and doing something useful. Maybe it starts out as just a support system but it becomes a place where people can help each other to find grants and funding, where people collaborate for bigger projects, where we put together a showing or yearly event that actually draws some attention…

Or maybe I’m a crazy person driven by guilt. The collaboration idea was born of my plan (made this morning) to become a teacher and teach a class to urban kids living in poverty about theater that did, or tried to, effect social change. It’s kind of like teaching kids how the topic can be useful. And then letting them put on a play, which is also fun and keeps them off the streets. If only someone would let me do this.

Organizations like this, of course, already exist.

This one seems to be based in New Jersey: http://www.artistscollective4socialchange.org.

This one seems to have no clear mission, like most artistic groups: http://projects.tigweb.org

Apparently there is something called ArtCorps, which looks awesome, but is not what I’m talking about: http://www.volunteerabroad.com/listingsp3.cfm/listing/64538

And that concludes my musings, because I am late to go to a crime scene, go visit a child at the kiddie jail, and go to the jail to see my incarcerated clients. Which is how I spend my Sundays. I would definitely rather be writing a lesson plan or a script for a documentary about the horrible situation in DC public schools. Or, you know, going to brunch.

My Response

First off, let me say that I’m in tears. I’ll also say this happens to me a lot more often now than it used to, but the point remains — this brings tears to my eyes because a) you are doing something so hard that is making you unhappy, b) you have the absolutely best intentions, and c) it seems that you’re really ready to move on to something that both fulfills you creatively and makes the world a little bit better, which is pretty much what I am trying to do right now and what I hope my blog does for people.

Second, I don’t know who this P__ character is, but if I did I would give him a solid piece of my mind. This idea that our society has that artists are somehow selfish, that art doesn’t make any difference, drives me nuts. Anyone who thinks you get into the arts to be famous and make money has obviously never tried to do anything truly creative in their life. It’s incredibly hard and generally pays shit. You’re 100% correct about the incredible, political power that art has had and continues to have in our society and I’m so excited to think that someone as smart and dedicated and talented as you wants to put your efforts into developing that further.

There are a lot of ideas in this email (thank you for sharing, really, I’m honored), and I don’t have time to address them all. But, in a general sense, I think that you finding a way to use your passion for theater to create a career that is sustainable for you and also helps kids in the way you want is totally doable and a noble ambition.

I like the idea of an online support network, etc. but right now I think you should focus on you. BE SELFISH. There is nothing wrong with it. You have to learn to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people. Period.

If I were you, I would pick the place you want to live, find a school or district that is cutting their arts, put together a program, look for some funding, and run the shit out of it yourself. I have seen you create big things out of nothing but your own perseverance and I think this would be no exception.

Then, when it’s a big success and everyone loves you, you can write up some documents about how to do this in other communities with other arts, and export that, probably on the web, and get bigger grants, etc. The details are not important here; I just think you should not try to go too big, too fast — a tendency I think we both share 😉

I love you and totally support all of this. Call me any time if you want to talk more.
~M

P.S. Just something to think about…I would love to publish your email (with a few edits for anonymity sake) and my response on my blog. I’ve talked to several people recently who are making life changes like this and I think it really helps to share them with the community, so other people stuck in jobs that make them not want to get out of bed in the morning have the courage to take the leap and find something else. Feel free to tell me, hell no. Thought I’d put it out there 🙂

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

“Highway #2 Los Angeles, California, USA, 2003” ©Edward Burtynsky

I’ve been wondering lately if I’m ready to write this post. The post where I tell you what I’m doing here, on this blog and with my life. You can tell from my first post that I haven’t been ready to explain myself yet. That my motivations and goals are unclear, even to myself.

Getting clear on my own motivations and goals is very important to me. I basically have three therapists right now for exactly this reason. (One is a traditional talk therapist who’ve I’ve been seeing since I lived in NYC, one is a somatic therapist in Berkeley, and one is a good friend who has started coaching people through career transitions.)

So what have all these insightful people helped me come to understand about motivations and goals? They are a moving target. Like anything else, especially things like being happy or satisfied, they are not something to attain, but something to work on every day for the rest of your life.

That’s why this explanation post is hard to write, because my ideas for what this blog should be change quite literally every few hours. Or rather, they expand. I do not abandon my original ideas for what I want this to be when I have a new one, I just pile it on top. So now I have so many goals, the idea of encapsulating them in one post is overwhelming, daunting to the point that I’ve been unable to start until just now.

Let’s try this. I’ll write down all my ideas that I can think of. Knowing myself, I’ll probably think I’ve just made things worse by the time I get to the end, but I’m promising you right now that I won’t erase any of it. Ready? Ok, here goes….

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I love working with people. I love talking to people and hearing their stories. And photo people are some of my favorite people to talk and work with. I got to do that regularly when I was editing RESOLVE; when I quit, I started thinking of ways to incorporate that into my current sabbatical.

For the next six months I’ll be traveling around the country and a bit in Europe, mostly seeing friends and searching for the root of my own passions. Many of those friends are photo people, and since I’m very interested in the idea of creative collaboration, I decided I’d like to put together some projects with them while I’m in town.

I’ve observed the power and importance of collaboration many times in my work on RESOLVE. In The Future of Photobooks, we saw many artists joining forces, almost always from far ends of the earth, aided by new social technologies. And one of the main reasons I created the AFTER STAFF project was to help photographers who had lost the close, caring atmosphere of the newsroom feel connected to others who were going through the same thing. That project uncovered several groups that have already formed to take the place of that kind of collaborative community. I also organized a webinar for OPEN-i about collectives and the ways that teams can weather the fluctuating media landscape better than lone individuals.

Personally I’m drawn to artistic collaboration, too. I’m giving more attention to my own creative impulses these days, but because I’ve suppressed those urges for so long, because I was afraid of people’s rejection, creative endeavors are overwhelming for me. I realized that working with professional creatives in the cities I visit would help me gain confidence in my own creativity.

Listening to feedback from friends, I also realized that these questions and doubts about the creative process are common to all artists, maybe all people. So, loving to educate and help people as I do, it only makes sense that I should write about my experiences here, in the hope that people might gain some insight from them.

On top of all that, I’ve always thought in the back of my mind about writing a memoir, mostly to satisfy a deep need to have other people know me and understand me. Now that I’m no longer “editor of the liveBooks photo blog” or “senior editor of American Photo Magazine,” I feel a particular need for people to get to know me better professionally. I’ve also decided recently that I need to get better at being myself. At making decisions based on my own needs and desires instead of the expectations of other people. At being the same person in the office that I am with my friends or my family or myself.

That’s why I want this blog to be about both my professional and personal lives. Because I don’t want those things to be separate anymore. When I discover the passion that runs deep enough  to sustain me for the rest of my life, I know it will be something that flows through every aspect of my life.

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I have trouble admitting vulnerability. I’ve heard I’m not the only one. My facade used to be very thick. I was always together, always on top of it, always OK. That works better in a professional situation than a personal one, but either way it’s unsustainable. And then I learned that it makes other people feel bad, to think I never have any problems, and that I’ll judge them for theirs. And then I learned that it actually makes me feel bad, too. Because I’ve never given people the chance to see me mess up and then decide to give me a second chance. So I’m terrified of messing up. I’m convinced that people will fire me, hate me, stop loving me if I do.

So I started admitting to people when I wasn’t OK. When I didn’t know what to do. When I knew I’d messed up. In little ways at first and then for big things. And when people didn’t condemn me for it, I was able to stop condemning myself so much. And, best of all, people felt like they could be themselves around me, that they could open up and share their own fears. And, like I said at the beginning, I love talking with people. Communicating with their honest, human center, which you can only do when you make yourself vulnerable first.

So I know that being vulnerable is also really important for this blog. I think that honesty is almost always rewarded, especially in this online world that values authenticity above almost all else (one of my favorite things about it). And I also know that another thing about making myself vulnerable is that people see I need help, instead of thinking that I never need help. And then they help me. And that feels great.

That’s why I really don’t want this blog to be about me giving anyone answers or even just sharing my own experiences. I want to share my experiences, but also ask questions, and have you respond (yes you, reading, right now). Then everyone will start responding to each other, and I can draw some major ideas out of those discussions (I like doing that 🙂 and THEN maybe some answers will arise — or at least some good ideas.

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OK, honestly, that feels like it only scratches the surface of all the things I’ve been thinking about, but I know that’s already an overwhelming number of words, so I’m leaving off. Oh, one last thing about this blog: I know I’m going to be continuing to figure out what exactly it is as long as I’m writing it. This is just one post of many.