Things Work Out and Things Fall Apart

Evolve or die. The evolution of my photography, finding and questioning success and then, yes, I almost die.

This is the third installation of my photo-life in 5 parts.

Read Part 1: My First Ten Years In Photography, Part 2: Figuring Out How To Turn Photos Into Money and Part 4: USER.

Secaucus, New Jersey, 2006

When last I left you, in this history of my photo-taking career, I was humming along, making more money than I was used to and feeling pretty good about myself. Then, early in 2000, I took my portfolio full of classic B&W portraits down to Toronto to show off some new work. It was met with impressed nods and positive noises. Nothing like a bit of the good-old ego-boost, is there?

The last meeting of the trip was with Clare Vander Meersch, a most respected photo editor at Report on Business magazine. She met me in the lobby, flipped through the work and proceeded to rip me a new one. She wondered why the images seemed so old-fashioned looking, competent but so complacent.

I set off home straight after the meeting. As I left Toronto, I remember thinking, “What the fuck does she know?” By the time I got half-way home, I was wondering if she had a point. When I finally pulled into my driveway I knew she was right.

Sheila Copps, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada; Eddie Goldenberg, political advisor to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien; Pierre Théberge, former Director, Nat’l Gallery of Canada; Inspector Ron McKay, homicide detective; Roch Carriere, novelist, Prisoner, Kingston Penitentiary

The images relied too much on rote classicism. Sure, lots of folks liked ’em, but my groove had become a rut. I needed to find a way to move forward.

As I mentioned in the last episode of this history, I hadn’t really shot a personal project for five or six years, having put all my energies and capital into my editorial/commercial career. Funny how earning money in photography can distract you from the reasons you got into photography in the first place.

I now knew I needed to get back on the street (where I had come from), get shooting for myself again and to figure out how to insert more of myself into the images I was making.

From: ‘ROIDS, Ottawa, 2000

The first project I did was called ‘Roids. It felt really good to be working on the streets again, to photograph people I was drawn to, rather that producing images of who I was told to, for money. In ‘Roids there were still some obvious echoes of my previous photographs, but I was inserting implied narratives into images and directing people in front of the camera a bit more.

But it wasn’t until the next year, when I went to the desert’ to find myself, that I had my eureka moment.(I know, I know, the desert, what a cliché. I‘m just a walking cliché.)

Anza Borrego Desert, California, 2001

First thing, I was finally using color for personal work, secondly I was using space in a way I never had before and, finally, in the looser shots, an implied, unresolved narrative began to come to the fore.

None of this (except for the color) was a radical change from what I had previously been doing, but I saw this as a plus. I was somehow staying within the borders of my aesthetic preferences but still shaking things around enough to make the results look different, more modern. It just felt right, like evolution.

In the meantime, I was shooting lots of editorial jobs and using those opportunities to figure out and hone my new approach. Some clients still wanted the same-old-same-old while others were excited to see something a bit new.

Top to bottom, left to right: Alzheimer’s patient; China Doll; Tony Merchant, lawyer; Max Keeping, news anchor; Stephen Harper, (former) Prime Minister of Canada.

And for a few years (2000–2002) the dot com bubble was booming. Money was flowing and I was flying all over the world producing images the powers-that-be thought they needed. The work I was doing for them seemed pretty rudimentary and I have no real recollection of doing much for money that really excited me. Sure, the money was great but I felt like I had lost my way, that I was really just propping up and supporting the status quo.

I did use the opportunity, though, to get jiggy with the Holga and would spend the spare time I had while I was traveling shooting pictures of the places I went. An easy side-project to keep me interested.

Top to bottom, left to right: Hollywood; Somewhere in Illinois; St Louis; Madrid; Capital Records building; Somewhere in Pennsylvania

As we know, the bubble burst (like all bubbles will). Fortunately I hadn’t frittered away the money I made. Cindy and I had lived the first 45 years of our lives being broke. I suppose when you come up like that you can react to having money in one of two ways. You can start gallivanting, buying fancy cars and fritter your money away, or you can, like we did, recognize that nothing lasts forever, marshal your resources and try to keep it real. We continued to drive an old car, kept the restaurant dining to a minimum and bought and paid for a house, which, in retrospect, was the smartest thing we could have done.

Anyway … I was settled in, rolling along, making better than descent money. But I was a slave to the grind, often not at home and kind of felt sort of sold out.

It was also about this time that Cindy was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Everything got topsy-turvy.

There were certain resentments on both sides. I was seemingly successful and had a certain profile. Cindy felt kind of left out/left behind. Not to mention the effects of her Bipolar Disorder, which were manifested by crazy mood swings and really skewed perspective. We had to work to keep the whole thing together. You see, I couldn’t do what I was doing without not only Cindy’s support, but also just plain without her. 
Reconciling those two positions took a lot of time, perspective and compromise. In the end what Cindy did was, she began taking meds, and that helped a lot. She also started publishing what turned into a very successful zine: Burnt Toast (food, art and science) that was an outlet for her creativity and raised her profile.

Funnily enough, Burnt Toast consumed her and, in the end the tables were turned: I was the one feeling somehow left out. Funny how things work, don’t you think?

Cindy: Tae Kwon Do Gold Medal, photo for article about Burnt Toast, stepped on a rake and got hit in the eye (really)

Anyway, one of the things I did with some of the spare money was, I took a lot of trips to the States. I kind of fell in love with going there just to discover and shoot for myself. I would pick a state and go for a week or so, spend long, intense days talking to people and collaborating with them (up to a point) to make pictures. This project turned into a series called American States.

Top to bottom, left to right: Clarksdale, Mississippi; Identical twins, Ohio; Drifter, Ohio; Sunflower, Mississippi; East L.A.; Runaway, Venice Beach; Passaic, New Jersey; Christmas Day, Helena, Arkansas; Ohio; Carwash, East Rutherford, New Jersey; Russian emigrés, Hollywood Blvd; Sisters, L.A.

So, Cindy and I had worked our way back to a stable relationship, I was making money and doing (some) work that excited me. It all seemed to be coming up roses.

Then, early in 2007, I began to feel sick. Something wasn’t right with my body. I went in for a bunch of tests and wended my way through the Canadian Health Care System. On Valentine’s Day, 2007, my kidneys failed.

Kidney failure

I was rushed to hospital, almost dead. Long story short, they saved my life and I walked around for the next 4 months with tubes coming out of my body until I could go in for the operation that would put things as right as they could be. Not perfect, but alive.

For a while after this episode I thought my psyche hadn’t changed, I denied the impact that being so close to dead had had on me.

Later that year everything changed …


Tony Fouhse is a photographer based in Ottawa, Canada. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Check out is his archived years of blog posts.

Fouhse is also a publisher of photobooks at Straylight Press, which you can follow on Facebook and Twitter.


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