Vegas to Utah to Happiness
Introduction to Vegas to Utah
Mark Rosal is a creative director, photographer and author of Vegas to Utah. In the book, Mark reveals how he has found a place of calm in long exposure photography as he battles depression.
I was blazing across the Arizona desert like Luke Skywalker in his landspeeder. The sun was doing that weird thing with the asphalt in the distance where it looks like there’s water on the road. No matter. I was excited: Siri told me I was finally about to cross into Utah. I decided to pull over and snap some photographs to mark the occasion. I took a picture of the “Welcome to Utah” sign. Then I snapped a shot of a crooked elevation sign. Then I did something every child is taught not to do: I stepped onto the asphalt and stood in the center of the highway.
Growing up, my hometown averaged 2,600 people per square mile. For the past 13 years I’ve worked in Manhattan where that number swells to nearly 75,000 people per square mile. Now standing on the border between two states I was the only human being for five miles in any direction. I was the King of Nowhere.
This was the most alone I had been my entire life.
Thousands & Thousandths
Nearly all of my photography over the past 10 years has been split-second exposures whether it’s Derek Jeter firing a relay throw or Jason Day blasting a championship drive onto the 18th fairway. The length of the exposures typically range from 1/250 of a second (0.004 sec.) to 1/8000 of a second (0.000125 sec.) That’s thousands of photos at thousandths of seconds.
Competitive sport is the pinnacle of human performance: It’s mental, physical, and emotionally raw to a fault. As a photographer, I want to honor that. I hunt for humanity on the field and off. It’s an intense tango of anticipation and reaction.
In recent years, I’ve donated a lot of time photographing all-star cheerleading. My daughter competes for one of the country’s elite gyms: Central Jersey Allstars (CJA). This is not your mother’s cheerleading. All-star cheer is an Olympic sport and a multi-billion dollar industry. Their competitors are teenage ninjas whose acrobatics demand world-class athleticism. The routines are essentially non-stop, full-out sprints mixed with tumbling and stunts for two minutes and thirty seconds. In a span of five seconds I can track a single athlete executing a round off, full into an arabian, double back handspring, layout into a double (with a smile to the judges to cap it off.) It’s as rewarding to photograph as it is anxiety-inducing.
My parents are Filipino immigrants. They would speak to me in English but slip into Ilocano when they talked about something I shouldn’t hear. It was like I was there but not really. Extended family would visit and they’d say to me in our native language, “How are you doing? You got big!” I’d stare cluelessly as their smiles melted into disapproval. They’d switch to English and tell me, “You should really learn the language,” and walk away.
When I was 8 years old, I remember minding my own business making spin art at a booth at the annual fair downtown. Three older Caucasian boys walked up and crowded around me. I ignored them and splattered more color onto the spinning white cardboard. They began calling me Chinese and told me to speak so they could make fun of the way I talked. I got fed up and barked back, “I’m not Chinese. I’m Filipino!” The biggest boy just sneered. “You speak pretty good English for a China man.” I looked at his self-satisfied grin, picked up my art and walked away.
It was cultural & social isolation. At a very young age I chose to twist my personality just so I could be accepted at home and with friends. I became a cocktail of conveniently shallow personalities. I felt like nobody knew me with any depth, not even me. After a while I became self-detached. But I craved the acceptance. So the loneliness fed itself.
Anxiety + Depression
In July 2016 I was diagnosed with mild to severe depression. It seemed my years of isolation and subsequent loneliness had taken its toll on me like Chinese water torture. My desire to please other people eviscerated my ability to stand up for myself. Self sacrifice was a defense mechanism.
In July 2016 I was diagnosed with mild to severe depression. It seemed my years of isolation and subsequent loneliness had taken its toll on me like Chinese water torture.
Even in moments of personal and professional triumph, I still didn’t feel quite comfortable celebrating my own success because I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I was afraid the accomplishments, praise and acceptance would be taken away.
Many of you can probably relate. Acceptance is seductive and depression is easy to hide. In this digital age, you can get a quick hit of happiness from Reddit or Candy Crush. Yeah, you’re coming up for air, but you will never make it to shore that way.
Therapy has helped tremendously. I’m much better now because of it. I still struggle with depression. But I’m learning to identify early signs of a depressive episodes. I’ve learned to breathe better. I’ve learned to let go.
Decades of isolation don’t just wash away. But as I’ve learned through photography, isolation can be reframed into something wonderful.
Deference to Indifference
Unlike athletes, landscapes remain still for the most part. Even then, I need time to discover the image I want to capture. Being alone with a scene provides me that time. I don’t have to respond to someone else’s needs or expectations. I can afford to be aware of the details of the landscape, to choose which parts I want to bring to life. If there are distracting thoughts or emotions, I let them pass like the clouds. By becoming indifferent to my internal dialogue, I become present in the moment. This allows me to connect the scene in front of me with what I want to preserve in the image.
My eyes become more aware of the details that may reveal a more compelling story — a man waiting patiently in a bucket truck (p. 16) or a lonely tree in the desert (above). I’m able to do a better job of eliciting and isolating the subject of the composition better — the vanishing point of a road retreating into nature (p. 88–92) or a white-faced mountain in the distance (p. 34).
As you flip through the pages of Vegas to Utah you can see how the images either have a strong single subject or is otherwise littered with texture and detail across the entire composition. These are the byproducts of my fight against depression.
Welcome to Utah
Standing in the middle of the highway with nobody around was a moment of clarity on this trip. I was all by myself and I was better than ok. I was empowered to be myself and happily pursue the photograph that I saw in my mind. And it was thanks to the very isolation that caused me so much pain growing up. I was hunting for my own humanity and I found myself again.
The longest exposure in this book is 181 seconds (above). That’s over 45,000 times longer than an average portrait exposure and almost 100,000 longer than an average exposure for my sports photography. I feel like my battle with depression has come along just as far as that 181-second exposure is comparatively long.
Photography as a process has been therapeutic. It helps me let go of childhood bullies. I can let go of not being the person that someone else expects me to be. I find power in just being me alone in that moment, that exposure to solitude.
I hope this book makes it easier for people to address their depression. There is no shame in trying to pursue mental health. Seek professional help. Confide in friends and family. And find something that allows you to see your world in a more positive light.