Why I went all in on photography
That's how Brené Brown, the bestselling author and highly regarded vulnerability researcher, describes what others call a "mid-life crisis."
Whether it's self-induced or caused by influences beyond your control, mid-life can rattle us awake from the hazy slumber of complacency.
Midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:
I’m not screwing around. All of this pretending and performing—these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt—has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts ... Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.
Brené's work didn't inspire me to go all-in on photography and owning a portrait business. I'd already done that by the time midlife came around and the foundations of my professional and personal lives crumbled (stories maybe for another time and place).
What she's saying above, though, reinforces why I decided in my early to mid-40s to forego the traditional career path and pursue photography as something more than just a hobby or a fleeting aspiration.
To live a Photo Life.
And today I want to bring you into what inspired me to embrace image making as my true calling and what years later it's doing for me. To bet on myself. To reach beyond self-doubt. To listen to the universe calling you to something greater than guaranteed biweekly paychecks.
I hope it allows a greater understanding for those who - for lack of a better way to say this - don't understand it. And maybe it might inspire you in your own midlife unraveling to "show up and be seen."
The Gifts We're Given
I'm fond of saying that in college I earned a degree in English. So naturally I became a photographer.
Sometimes it takes people a moment to ponder that. It's okay. For me, it took about 20 years to understand.
Writing, being an author and journalist, those were my ambitions as a kid, through high school, into college. And it became a reality for the first decade of my professional career, my identity, for a long time my source of self-worth.
It went away thanks to downsizing and the 2009 recession, and then I followed a better-paying career path into public relations.
What's true, though, is that I slowly began to realize something thanks to writing coaches and editors and so on. My writing, my approach to public relations, my way of seeing the world, my creativity and thought processes, they're more visual, cinematic.
I'm prone in my writing to describe how something looks, what color it is, its shape, its place in its environment, instead of how it feels to touch or its sound or its aroma.
When I became a Dad in late 2011, then again in 2014, and again in 2019, my instincts called me to become the family's storyteller, our self-designated historian and archivist.
The easiest way to do that, the most accessible, and (as it turned out) the most natural way for me was with a camera.
Not exclusively the written word.
The visuals of our sons' first days evoke a heart song. Tenderness. Hope. Memory. A love language in visual.
As our children grew, so did my photography skills. I sensed a shift away from snapsnapsnapsnapsnap into what I can only describe as an intentional visual poem to the ones I love.
To help them see themselves the way I see them.
That doesn't mean, however, photography is a vocation, certainly not one guaranteed to support a family or build a robust retirement portfolio.
My thanksgiving is perpetual
That's Thoreau, the above subtitle about thanksgiving.
There's another one with more relevance here:
"Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves."
I could go on relying on Thoreau here, but let's pause because there came a point in my life, not that long ago, when I came to comprehend something.
In the Summer of 2021, I worked in a high-profile public relations job making more salary than I ever had.
And I was miserable.
A miserable person in a noxious work environment, doing little more than waiting, complaining, and helplessly imagining some kind of work culture change that, I see now, would never have come.
I also came to realize that in all my years since losing my journalism job, my identity and sense of self-worth, I was not truly moving on.
Through public relations and (let's be honest) a half-hearted attempt between 2016 and 2018 to start a wedding/family/high school senior/headshot/just-please-pay-me business, I was merely trying to fix something that was broken.
And, in that dispirited Summer of 2021, I came to finally accept I had succumbed to shame, I was trying to shield myself from the heartbreak of losing what was precious to me (my journalism career).
The sudden departure from that job, my resignation at the age of 42, was (to be honest) not entirely voluntary.
It was, however, the universe whispering in my ear that it was not "screwing around" (thank you, Brené.).
I'd been given a gift, a way of seeing, a way of using tools to capture light and shadow ... and create it.
And a way of doing so in service to others, others like me, to bring them joy, to help them see their loved ones in an inspiring way, to take the breath away from others like me through images, my visual poems, the product of embracing my true self.
This isn't about trying to fix the past and replacing what was lost (daily bylines). This is about throwing away the armor and believing in who you are now, letting yourself be seen for who you truly are, and how who you are now can be in service to others.
To bring them joy.
In return, you bring yourself peace, joy, a perpetual thanksgiving.
Ringing joyful and triumphant
Every where, it seemed, every day, the repetitive sound could be heard through the unending fog.
From the soggy, puddle-filled trails along the pink granite shores to the dripping evergreens of the park campground. From the lobster pounds with their steaming pots and smoky fires to silent piers with stacks of empty blue and yellow traps, waiting to take part in tomorrow's catch.
A single bell. Ding. Then a pause. Ding. A long pause. Ding.
You couldn't see it. Where the Atlantic curled its timeless gray hammers against the rocks of Acadia, a thick cloud refused to lift and allow anyone to see beyond just a few hundred yards.
Ding. Pause. Ding. Pause. Ding. Pause.
I measured the light. Screwed the neutral density filter on the lens and placed the camera on an black aluminum tripod. Adjusted the aperture. Measured the light again. Held the shutter release cable and pressed it with my thumb.
And I listened. Waves. Rain against granite. A breeze whispering against my yellow rain jacket. The shutter opening and closing.
And that singular bell. It must've been sitting on top of a buoy, calling with its brassy rhythm through the fog to lobster boat sailors ... and to this photographer.
I can't fully see my future these days. There's a thick fog that won't allow me to see beyond a short distance. I'm a full-time portrait photographer now, and my business is growing, but it's still nothing guaranteed.
But I can hear it calling. So help me, I'm going for it. All of it. I might fail, but if I do, I do so being true to myself.
So then how can you call it a "failure?" Failure would've been forgoing this one chance that midlife gifted to me through tectonic changes.
I walk on, camera and tripod over my shoulder, down the muddy path, through the rain, into the fog.
This ain't Fitzgerald and Nick Carraway. We aren't boats borne ceaselessly back into the past. That's a choice.
According to Thoreau, "Never look back unless you're planning to go that way."
I choose to go toward the next image, the next portrait, the next adventure ahead, toward joy and toil and rain and sun and light and shadow that's before us.
Dave Pidgeon is a seasoned writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.