Changing Course

March 16, 2014

When I first moved to Santa Fe, there was one part of my new job that I was not looking forward to – trips into Albuquerque.  The first part of the drive south from Santa Fe goes over La Bajada pass, a steep incline that is noted as an engineering feat.  The incline isn’t so bad, but once you top the hill, there’s a blind curve for a bit before the downward descent into the Rio Grande Valley.  It’s a section of road that makes you feel like everyone is driving too close and that the semis are just on the verge of losing their brakes.  Another part of my anxiety in going to Albuquerque is that, in my opinion, Albuquerque drivers have their own set of rules that work for them, but to an outsider, these rules are pretty intimidating.  I have also not driven in Albuquerque a lot, so finding my way around the streets is a constant concern.  I simply do not want to get lost.

As I topped La Bajada on one of my many trips, a car started to pass me on the left.  For some reason I noticed the courtesy and relaxed focus of the man behind the wheel – he really was an excellent driver.  He passed with care, maintained a good distance, had both hands on the wheel – everything he did made me feel more at ease with being at the edge of controlled chaos that can be La Bajada and Albuquerque.  I pride myself in being a courteous driver and in obeying traffic laws, so I decided to learn what I could from this man and I mimicked everything he did.  Then something caught my eye – every time he passed a car, the driver waved and gave him a thumbs up!  I couldn’t believe it!  He passed mothers with children in mini vans – thumbs up!  Business men juggling their smart phones, steering wheels and bagels – thumbs up!  Semi drivers – thumbs up!  Highway patrol – thumbs up!  It was simply incredible.  What is it with this guy?  I gave it a try myself – I did exactly what he did, but as I passed these very same people, nothing.  Nada.  Zippo.  Not even a slight glance.

I watched the man more and thought that maybe it was the car he was driving – make, model, color, interior, bug splatters – all duly noted.  Although the vehicle was way outside my budget, I was determined to get the same visible “courteous driving” recognition and was willing to make any necessary financial investment.  I also noticed that he had on a nice red and blue plaid driving hat, some wrap-around sunglasses and one of those scented pine tree thingies on his rear view -- I added those to the list as well.  Hopefully my memory wouldn’t fail me and I would be able to get the same exact everything – is the car silver or bluish silver?  Hard to tell and I don’t want to screw this up.

Then I thought maybe it was where he was going.  Besides, he obviously knows Albuquerque better than me because he was driving to his destination with such confidence.  So I decided to follow him, no matter where he went and no matter where I needed to be, because I want to be a good driver and he is a good driver that everyone seems to really like.  As he and I approached Albuquerque, he took an exit just outside of town.  I followed.  We drove down a long stretch of two-lane highway and then, in the middle of nowhere, he put on his blinker to turn right.  I followed suit.  We drive down a bumpy, dusty, isolated, remote dirt road for about an hour.  Not another soul in sight – just me and my newly found “courteous driver” mentor.  I was super excited -- I just knew that one day very soon those “thumbs ups” would be for me!  I had no idea where we were, had no idea how to get out, had no idea where we were going…all I knew was that I had to do exactly what this guy did.  Period.

Now at this point, some of you might be thinking “This girl is Cuckoo for Coco Puffs! ”  Perhaps there are even some concerns about the vulnerability of a girl and a strange man alone in the desert.  “Body dump” may even come out of your mouth.  But rest assured, this story is completely fictitious.  For those of you who saw through the fiction, I appreciate your confidence in me.

My point in telling this fable is to point out the dangers of following other people's dreams, or destinies if you will, “too closely.”  I will explain what I mean.

As new photographers, we are eager to learn and grow…and succeed.  Yes, there are many times when we want to make beautiful images like professional photographers, and yes, we may want some of the same public recognition.  When those things do happen, it feels good, after all, and motivates us to keep going.  There is, though, a very fine line between learning from others so that we can make our own space and squishing ourselves into the space of another.  I have my own ever-changing list of professional photographers that I learn from at any given moment – Jay Goodrich, David duChemin, Guy Tal, and most recently, Ian Plant, to name only a few.  Each of them offers me something that I need to learn in my photography.  I study their words and images with an almost obsessive approach, but at some point, like a child on the first day of school, I take the knowledge that I have learned and travel down my own path.

It is that moment of separation that is the most frightening of this journey.  I am left to my own choices, my own vision, my own moments of revealing my work to the world and awaiting the response – I do so, most of the time, with my eyes closed and fingers tightly crossed.

Sometimes even just the seemingly simple act of putting my gear in the Jeep can be enough to make me want to retreat back inside, into my comfort zone where I feel far more confident.  I still feel awkward when I am hiking to my chosen location, stumbling a bit here and there and contorting myself to get the right framing.  “How I must look to others,” I think almost constantly, followed by, “Silly girl.”  It’s hard.  It’s damn hard – emotionally, mentally and physically.  So many opportunities and probably good reasons to quit, but I keep doing it…over and over.  I drive home muddy, bruised, soaked with cold mountain water, hungry, exhausted…hopeful.  Once I’m home, I literally cross my fingers, put the SD card in my computer and review the files.  Almost desperate for something relevant.  Sometimes it’s there, most times it’s not.  Yet I keep doing this because somewhere inside me is a vision…a place, a moment, an experience that is just screaming to get out and I cannot stop until I get it right.  Then another vision pops into my mind and the whole process starts again.  I absolutely love it.  I love the challenge of doing it my own way.

In the story that began this article, I’m sure that some of you thought that I was completely nuts for following a random stranger to who knows where, but I will respond by pointing out that so many new photographers abandon their own creative journey in much the same manner.  And, sadly, I have seen many people, many friends, do the same with their dreams.  Why is that?  I believe the answer lies in my fable – fear, anxiety, the unknown.  Are we good enough to not only fulfill our dreams, our individual destinies, but will the world value our contribution?  In those times, I believe it is much easier to follow in the footsteps of others because we at least feel that we are not alone and we may also feel a greater confidence in our success if we follow a more beaten path.  Unfortunately, there is little satisfaction in this approach, as it is almost certain that one day we will wake up and regret not staying true to ourselves and our personal journey.  Not discovering for ourselves what lay just over the crest to the right because everyone else is going left.  Not exiting stage left to take our own random roads to simply see what incredible moment lies in hiding -- a moment that would be ours and ours alone.

Spectacular moments happen whether we bear witness or not and we absolutely have the potential to find and share our own moments.  Yet our own fears leave those moments void of not only human presence, but also of human experience.  Our own fears leave those destinies untouched.

This is tragedy because somewhere along the way, not only has our destiny died, but so too our self.

This is dedicated to those handful of friends who are in my thoughts today, but who never became the people that I knew they could and wanted to be.  I wish that I could have met you.

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