How Many Miles to Babylon?
Sometimes the long way is best.
Joan Didion once wrote, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”
The beginnings for me were clear. Even in grade school, I was passionate about writing. My interest in journalism came later, culminating in an editorial internship at my favorite city lifestyle magazine in Metro Detroit. By all counts, the plan was to pursue journalism and editorial photography after graduation.
Sometime during the summer before my junior year of college, news broke that the Chicago Sun-Times had, in a single morning, laid off all of its staff photographers including a Pulitzer Prize winner. The event was the harbinger of dark times for the media, and by my senior year the editorial world was in shambles. Newspapers had already experienced a rough go, and magazines followed. Some iconic publications unexpectedly folded, while others went entirely digital and eliminated print staff.
One of the small local newspapers I freelanced for was eventually absorbed by a large digital corporation that slashed our already-meager freelance rates by more than half. I was devastated. I could no longer afford the time investment of taking on assignments with them — the new rates were a death sentence for any type of career I had hoped to build with them. Another small newspaper I had been working for also sent out new contracts with questionable terms, requiring unrestricted ownership of my work while simultaneously requiring me to foot the legal bills if they ever got sued for their use of said work even if it had been edited or changed in ways I was given no control over. Being new to the industry, I had a limited perspective about what was happening — but I knew it wasn’t good.
After moving to Los Angeles in hopes of finding more opportunities in a bigger city, I began working as a photographer for food magazines. I went on to photograph fancy events for society pages and eventually created custom social media campaigns for influencers and brands. The instability of the editorial world, combined with a tricky economy and the increasing cost of living, had forced my attention away from journalism towards glossy commercial and PR photography. Everyone seemed to need pretty photos for their expanding social media campaigns — and I was there with my camera.
I did not realize it at the time, but my desperation had started me down a path that led far away from my intended career to an eerie, quiet place where using one’s voice was rare — and frowned upon. I still wrote for publications occasionally, but I filled the majority of my days by creating images for commercial clients.
It is harder to see the ends.
Four years later — a little over a month ago — I was hired as a PR photographer for a multi-day conference in Southern California. The summit boasted well-known leaders, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists in the fields of technology and science. For two days, I found myself seated on a small couch in a room alongside reporters, journalists, and publishers from some of the renowned publications I had once dreamed of working for. They asked important questions, scribbled notes, and talked business with the people around them. I remained silent in my place in front of the stage, camera in hand. I knew that most of the middle-aged male journalists in the crowd would not be likely to write about the aspects of the conference I would have as a female from a different generation and economic background.
The conference went on and I continued to work in silence, offering my own thoughts and questions to the ether.
After the final evening of the conference, I went home quietly and opened an email from a good friend asking me to edit the resume and cover letter she planned to submit for a promotion at her job. Many friends had asked me to edit or revise their resumes or other written work over the years — but this time was different. As I read over her work and made edits and notes, I realized writing was the missing piece that had left me feeling incomplete and voiceless for so long.
Not long after, I made the decision to walk away from commercial photography and return to pursuing my passion for writing and journalism. I’m currently working on a small handful of articles for magazines and already have a notebook half-filled with ideas for pitches. After the daunting years I spent pursuing what was ultimately the wrong profession, my sense of purpose has returned.
It is easy to see the beginnings of things.