I found these words in my archive recently. They were originally written a few years ago but never published. At the time I wondered if it would be premature for me to espouse such provocative thoughts. In the years since, my confidence in them has only grown stronger.
To create is likewise to give a shape to one’s fate. For all these characters, their work defines them at least as much as it is defined by them. ~Albert Camus
On occasion, I receive random letters asking about photography as a profession. These come from both younger people (students, mostly) as well as those who are already employed in other industries but feel the hunger for something else—more beautiful, more adventurous, more rewarding—yet are deterred by the inherent risks. While I can offer all the sympathy and encouragement and whatever experience I have, ultimately I have to turn the question around. This is not a decision one should delegate to other people.
Having resigned a well paying career for the unpredictable reality of being a self-employed artist, I can describe the transition as akin to a trapeze artist who lets go of one swing and hopes not to miss the other. With all the thrill, optimism and excitement, there is still no ignoring the dreaded fall that may result from a miscalculation. Even Ansel Adams, when asked for advice on becoming a professional photographer by a passionate park ranger, described the profession of photography as, “a grim business with terrific competition,” and advised pursuing it as an avocation.
But that is not the whole story, of course. If you are of a certain sort, you know that the soul can become every bit as hungry as the body and, like the body, when nearing starvation it will drive one out of even the most comfortable of shelters into the open in search of nourishment. Your true reward for taking the leap likely will not be measured in dollars and cents but in balance and meaning. There will be moments of ecstasy and moments of terror; there will be times of plenty and times of want. And if you manage that balance, there will also be those moments, more precious than anything you may experience, when you look back and examine your life and know without a doubt that you are doing what you were meant to do and that you will never have to look back in regret, regardless of material accomplishment.
I remember seeking similar encouragement as the days neared and I knew the decision was looming. Much as I wanted someone who had been there before to provide me with assurances or a clear direction, I also knew I would be fooling myself to rely on such anecdotes. We each define and find success in our own way and what worked for one is not often likely to repeat itself for another. As existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”
In moments of doubt, I knew that my happiness depended on wildness and art; and that wildness, in order to be experienced and expressed, requires freedom. To some, freedom is given; to others, it is something to accomplish, often at risk. Being free, however, is not just about attaining freedom; it is also about how you use it or, as Sartre put it, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” And the decision to free yourself, whether successful or not, may well be the most profound and proud one you ever make.
I now consider it my greatest accomplishment to have escaped the rat race: to live without obsessing about careers and management strategies and leadership and allegiances to abstract credos and “missions” originating in employment, rather than in personal convictions, and other contrivances that today seem so distant to me from the experience of living; to live away from traffic and industrial noise, away from the incessant buzz of human hives, away from whatever contexts in which fashions and appearances are important.
I found freedom through philosophy, wildness and art. But finding it would have been little more than wishful thinking if I did not also find the courage to act on what I knew to be true.