I’m on the advisory board of the YPA (Young Photographers Alliance) and while there are times that I feel I am on one too many boards and spreading myself too thin these days, it’s nights like last night that make it all worthwhile.
Last night was the Mentee/Mentor Exhibition and Awards Ceremony at the Calumet Gallery in New York City. I must confess that I really didn’t want to go for a couple of reasons: I needed to get up at 3:30AM to leave for the airport (this morning) and I’ve been in a bit of a funk that I can’t seem to shake myself out of and I didn’t want to be one of those negative cynical people bringing the “mood” down. But I’m also one of those people that everyone can count on – so I did my best to rise to the occasion.
Before the affair, there was a meeting with the young photographers (mentees) and the mentors to receive and give feedback. One of the students said that they wished some of their time with their mentors had been spent discussing the “business” of photography – something she didn’t feel she was learning in school. I pointed out that there was a lot of information about business practices on the ASMP website, including contract shares and encouraged the students to check it out. And then I told them that the best “business” advice I could give them was to be true to themselves and that if they did that and didn’t stray from their “purpose” that would set that apart from their competition because there is only one “you”.
And then I relayed my “Jay Maisel” story as I have dozens of times. I had gone to see Jay when I was just starting out. My heart and my passion was in photojournalism, but countless professional photographers had told me that I couldn’t make a living doing that kind of work – so I when I went to see Jay, I had my “commercial” portfolio with me, which I thought was pretty good. He looked at it, pushed it back at me and said, “ This is crap – this isn’t what you want to do is it?” I said no and told him that I wanted to be a photojournalist. He asked me how old I was to which I replied “25 years old”. He looked me straight in the face and said, “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises”.
I told the kids that it was a turning point in my life and that whenever I strayed from my purpose – and felt it – over the last 35 years – I remembered Jay’s words. Then one of the students asked me a question that I hadn’t ever been asked when telling that story over the years. She said “What was it about your work that made him think your heart wasn’t in it?” I hadn’t really ever thought about that – I had always focused on what I wanted to do instead. But when she asked that question, I had to reply, “I really don’t know”.
I’ve been thinking about it all morning on my way from Newark to San Francisco and I wonder – was it the work that felt empty or impersonal? Or was it the way I looked when I handed it to him? Or was it both? I’m waiting for my next leg to Honolulu and then on to Molokai to meet up from one of my mentors, PF Bentley who taught me everything I know about how to tell a story in motion. I’ll have another 7 hours to contemplate that question and even if I never come up with the answer, that question pulled me out of my funk. Just in time to once again put my head in an “open” place to learn and get back on purpose.