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The Necessity of Sacrifice: 5 Steps to Creative Success (Part 3)

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part three of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast, and here for Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money.

Manila, Philippines. Angelica, 8, plays with her siblings in a stairwell next to her family shack near the Osmena highway. When her father lost his job, the family of six was forced to move into a squatter's shack measuring just 2 meters squared. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Manila, Philippines. Angelica, 8, plays with her siblings in a stairwell next to her family shack near the Osmena highway. When her father lost his job, the family of six was forced to move into a squatter’s shack measuring just 2 meters squared.      ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Since 2007, when I began living more or less permanently outside of Canada, I have attended exactly one major family event – Thanksgiving, 2013. Though I have been able to get home for sporadic visits, I have been a largely absentee family member, missing birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and child births. At 17 I made most major decisions in my life based on a desire to get as far away form my hometown as possible, but as time passes the distance from my family has become more difficult to stomach. My extreme wanderlust has slowly given way to a gentle, yet nagging guilt that I should be home more often. The problem is that the photojournalism career that I have slowly built for myself is, at the moment, entirely dependent on my living overseas.

Koh Kong, Cambodia. A Buddhist monk begins his 25km trek out of the remote Areng Valley after a multi-day environmental protest. Buddhist monks are entering the political sphere in Cambodia, mostly in opposition of government corruption. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Koh Kong, Cambodia. A Buddhist monk begins his 25km trek out of the remote Areng Valley after a multi-day environmental protest. Buddhist monks are entering the political sphere in Cambodia, mostly in opposition of government corruption. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

When I first decided to pursue independent photojournalism, I didn’t appreciate that I was making a lifestyle decision as much as, if not more than, a job choice. With the proliferation of cheap, high quality cameras, and the ability to self-educate on the Internet, there have never been as many people aspiring to do my job. Very early on, I was warned by a veteran war photographer that if I wanted to stand out, I would have to be willing to give up certain things that constitute a normal life for most people: stability, consistency, and familial relationships, to name a few. Enamoured with the seemingly glamorous lifestyle of a traveling documentary photographer, I was quick to assert my willingness to go without these common staples of life. And while it has turned out to be the best decision I have ever made, the sacrifices take more of a mental toll on me with each passing year.

That is not to say I regret the path I have chosen – on the contrary, I am in the somewhat surprising position of being able to do what I love. But virtually all of my successes along the way have been almost as much a result of the sacrifices I have been willing to make as my skill as a photographer. It goes without saying that your images need to be of a certain calibre if you expect to get paid for your work, but being good is expected these days – how much a person is willing to sacrifice is, in my opinion, as important as photographic prowess. I’ve met many aspiring photojournalist with incredible portfolios to prove they have the requisite artistic and technical skills, yet they are unable to land enough paid assignments to support themselves. Some are (perhaps understandably) unwilling to leave their lives in New York, London, or Paris, which pits them against some of the most well known and established names in the industry. Others don’t want to give up the guaranteed income of their existing jobs to take the plunge into full time freelancing. Whatever the reasons, and however logical they may be, this refusal to sacrifice often prevents these gifted people from achieving their full potential.

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

It is not necessary to move to the opposite side of the world in order to find engaging stories, and there are many ways to make a living as a photographer other than freelancing. These steps fit with my goals and financial situation, but are by no means a formula for success. The lack of face-to-face contact with my family and my surrendering of a steady pay cheque are just two examples of sacrifices I’ve made in order to make things work, and each individual has to decide for themselves what they can realistically give up.

Someone with a young baby cannot, in good conscience, pack up and move to India, but maybe a sacrifice for them could be as simple at packing a lunch to take to work everyday instead of eating out. The extra $10 per day saved could finance a month-long trip, or go into a savings account that will help them weather the transition from their old jobs to their new paths. Conversely, a wealthy banker who decides they want to quit the financial world for a life of documenting human rights issues will not have the same monetary concerns as most people, but will have to give up their comfortable condo or luxury car for the challenges of life on the road. In fact, Marcus Bleasdale from the renowned VII Photo Agency did exactly this, and is now one of the most respected photojournalists in the world. Bleasdale told The Telegraph that at one point he was earning £500,000 per year as an investment banker, owning two houses and a Porsche 911. For his most recent projects he spent months at a time traveling through open pit mineral mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and witnessing the horrors of the genocide taking place in the Central African Republic. Trading a life  of weekend skiing in the Alps for the life-threatening conflict zones of central Africa is admittedly an extreme example of sacrifice, but he clearly finds the satisfaction of reporting the underreported to be worth the tradeoff.

Kolkata, India. A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Kolkata, India. A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon cricket practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

From the professional athlete who chose to forgo the temptations of a debaucherous college life in order to master their sport, to the Hollywood superstar who worked overtime at Starbucks so they could afford to keep going to auditions, the path to success is often littered with sacrifices. Society loves to dwell on the meteoric risers, such as Justin Bieber, who shot from high school obscurity to entertainment icon seemingly overnight, yet more often than not the struggle towards greatness is defined by a series of uphill battles in a long war of attrition. This, to me, seems like the way the world should work. Those who are willing to give up the most and work the hardest deserve to be considered the best, and the only honest way to speed up the process is to identify the elements in your life that are not advancing your goals.

So quit smoking, ride a bike to work, or stop buying name brand clothes. Get a part time job, or quit a soul-sucking one. Drink water instead of Perrier. There is endless fat that can be trimmed from most people’s lives, including my own, and while everyone needs to decide for themselves what they can and can’t live without, the ones who sacrifice, whether they be photographers, lawyers, or NASCAR drivers, are probably the ones who we will remember.

Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast

Click here to read Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money

 

 

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Up Close and Extremely Personal

A disabled woman sits in a squatter’s community in San Andres, Manila. Shot at 17mm, this image required getting very close.

Photography is only interesting if it is showing you something you can’t see on your own. What I have learned since starting photojournalism full time is that taking pictures, mechanically speaking, is not the difficult part. Entering someone’s private space and staying there is what takes it out of you. The Himalayas; an endangered tribe in Papua New Guinea; a disabled person living in poverty, sitting in an alley watching a Bingo game. We want to glimpse something rare, and it we want it to be intimate. Everyone is a voyeur. That’s why so many of your friend’s travel pictures are boring, they don’t really communicate the feeling of being there. They don’t tell a story. To get those sorts of images you have to get close. Very close.

By close I don’t only mean physical distance, though this is often important. I mean you need to be completely involved and interactive with your subject. For a landscape photographer that would mean getting up at 3am and hiking to the peak of the mountain to capture a sunrise that few have ever seen. For me, working with people, it means trying to gain acceptance from a person I have never met in a strange, and typically uncomfortable, environment.

I’m learning this as I go, and I definitely can’t claim to have mastered this craft by any stretch. But what I now realize is that most of the great pictures I have come to respect and love were the product of a lot of work. Where I once imagined that my photographic (or any other creative) idols just turned up in exotic locations with high-end equipment and waited for interesting situations to unfold around them, I now know this was utterly wrong. Opportunities have to be created, not expected.

I’ve been traveling obsessively with a camera for a large part of the last decade, but in the majority of my early stuff the images lack soul. It is only by actively creating opportunities that this becomes possible. I don’t want to say that I am now constantly producing emotional masterpieces, but my pictures are starting to come closer to replicating my experiences. And it is by far the most mentally exhausting thing I have ever done.

It is lonely. In the Philippines friendly people surround me all day, yet I am a definite outsider. I don’t speak the language, and though Filipinos are to be commended for their English abilities, there is a communication breakdown during most conversations. I have to limit myself to speaking in clear and concise sentences, and usually keep the topics to observable facts, like “it is hot today.” I also don’t really know what people think of me. Though I feel welcome, I am unsure if there is hidden resentment at my relative wealth. Or the incredible fact that the local cantinas will not allow me to pay for any of my meals, which both melts my heart and further solidifies my status as separate from the locals, who pay full price.

It is stressful. The communities that I have chosen to focus on – San Andres, Quiapo and Tondo – are not heavily touristed because of the high crime rates. Around the corner from where I am camping, a 13-year-old girl was raped a few weeks ago on the main street. At noon. The rapists sewed her lips together with chicken wire. On several occasions I have been stalked by solvent addicts or drunks, who tail me at a distance as I walk. The families who have taken to looking out for me are constantly cautioning me against walking down certain streets. Though I have had no problems to date, these warnings take a heavy psychological toll on me. Going out to shoot everyday has become a mental battle with myself as I weigh the dangers against the opportunities. Looking for interesting subjects while also watching my back is a skill that I’m learning on the fly, and it is draining.

These are the realities of this job that I was never able to fully appreciate before. As my mentor Zoriah Miller told me, “success in photojournalism is all about what you’re prepared to sacrifice” – and the price is high.

For my current project, True Manila, I am trying to give an honest account of what life is like for the average working class Filipino. Not focusing unfairly on squalor, but a balanced view of life in this city – the good and the bad, the unfortunate and the dignified. While I don’t expect the final edit to be ready until mid October, I will be posting updates as I go. Subscribe to my feed if you’d to get these sent to your email address.

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