I like to consider myself a reformed pessimist. I’ve fought depression and reached the point where I can take a breath to reset myself. It’s a constant battle that everybody faces, to play down the inner voices of fear and shame and strive towards positivity. And there are things I’ve learned on the journey.
I like to describe what I do as an art. A lot of people would disagree with me on that point, saying instead that photography is to art as a copying machine is to eyeballs. I can argue that art is in the intent, and that many visual arts are a representation of perception, and I can have it thrown back at me that photography is too vague, too reproducible, and too derivative to truly be art. It’s a debate I’ve had before, and one I’m sure to have again eventually. And it’s a debate I’ve watched one of my favorite writers, Chuck Wendig, spell out on his blog where he disagreed with Neil deGrasse Tyson.
One of the most critical things any person can do is to have a sense of authenticity and self-ownership: to not only recognize the traits that define yourself, but also be willing to display those traits openly to a society which seems keen on wounding us. How far must we go in order to fit into a society that has such narrow expectations of us? How much of our individuality must we compromise?
It’s becoming stylish to be a geek. When I attended the psychological trauma engine we refer to as middle school, the word “geek” accompanied wedgies, spitballs, and derisive laughs. But now, in the age where comic book movies are the big blockbusters, geek culture has become its own status symbol ― even though the internal strata of role-players, comic book fans, trekkies, and similar remain largely unchanged.
Last year, I tried to help my daughter conquer the rite of passage which is riding a bicycle. While she was being scared and uncomfortable, I was becoming more and more frustrated. I was completely powerless, at the mercy of her fears, unable to inspire her to complete a task I knew she was capable of doing. Fear builds a consequence of failure which is greater than the consequences we actually face, making us think we’re stumbling off-balance along the volcano’s edge. It’s frustrating for everybody willing to help us because they can’t pluck the fearful thoughts from our minds. Unchecked, it can keep us from truly being ourselves.
It’s a simple question, but it carries important ramifications. On a basic, reasonable level it is easy to answer “no.” We don’t need a photograph to live. But that answer barely scratches the surface of human experience.
Full admission: I didn’t always love Spartanburg. As a kid, all I saw here was a place stuck in the past and showing its age. Being the kid I was, I didn’t understand the town my grandfather — Papa— obviously loved. It took far too long to discover that on my own.
There’s a rumor I want to dispel. It’s not a rumor about me or my photography, or about you, or about any political figure. Instead it’s a very old rumor which has been repeated so often that it now passes by unchallenged, becoming accepted as general knowledge even though it’s completely wrong. The rumor is that Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Sometimes the rumor says it’s Franklin, or sometimes Twain, but not only did none of these people ever say such a thing, but it’s also horribly incorrect.
There are two very quick holes I can put through this particular sail. The first is that doing something repeatedly while expecting different results is actually fairly common. Einstein and Franklin, both advocates of science, would recognize this action as scientific rigor. In order to demonstrate that an experiment is repeatable and not being impacted by uncontrolled random factors, it would get done over and over again while expecting their results to vary within a certain margin. And then there’s Twain, a writer whom I’m sure didn’t publish his first draft. No, writers can hammer away at a manuscript for months, if not years, often times re-writing a story completely in the process in order to come up with their final result. The second issue is with the idea of sanity itself. Sanity and insanity are very loose concepts which are very rarely invoked in psychology. If you try to define insanity as having a psychological problem, then we’re all insane — doubly so for the ones who claim they’re not. There is no imaginary line which divides the sane from the insane. To quote the hatter: “we’re all mad here.”
There’s another quality to which we can assign this behavior of repeating things and expecting a different result. What do we call a person who doesn’t give up in the face of adversity? Who marks failure as the evidence of striving for perfection? Who gets knocked down but crawls bloodied and bruised back into the ring to face another round? Find one of these people, one of these pillars built out of pure dogged determination, and that confidence you see in their eyes, that courage, is the face of tenacity.
Such as this face. This is Woody, taken on the day I met him. Do yourself a favor if you see him out and about, and shake this man’s hand. He’ll talk to you about the things he’s seen. About having been a computer programmer. About his boxing career. About tutoring math to young athletes to help them continue their education. About working ringside with some of history’s boxing greats. Talk with him long enough, and he might tell you how the biggest number we ever have to deal with is nine, how you can multiply two two-digit numbers together in your head, or how doing sit-ups is a good way to lose weight. Ask him about his faith, how he’s sinned before and he knows he’ll sin again. Or, if you’re in a lighter mood, ask him about his love for a Krispy Kreme donut. He’ll tell you about any of these things, for as long as you care to hear about them.
And then ask him about his cancer.
Life is rarely simple or easy. Just pick any random stranger you see, and you’ve probably found somebody who’s having problems of some kind. Having problems is a universal constant of human existence, and there are only so many ways we can react to them. We can turn away, either to run from or to ignore them. We can fall down in resignation, our progress halted completely by this unchallenged obstacle. Or we can stare them in the face and come out of the corner swinging. Sometimes the cost of victory will be high, and sometimes we have little hope of making it to the next round. But a fighter is a person who fights, so the only options are to go down fighting or stop being a fighter.
Woody is a fighter. It’s just who he is: a person who knows the value of bruises. A man with the tenacity to stand atop a mountain of doubt and dare the world to try to push him off. These are qualities that we could all stand to learn by looking for the fighters in our lives and watching how they react when they’re faced with problems. I think Woody would tell you that he’s had his rough fights during his career, and now he’s stuck in the ring with a fight he might not be able to finish. But he’s not turning away from it. He’s facing it head-on, not without fear, but with courage. This is why we need tenacity, because falling down is the first thing many of us want to do in the face of difficulty. But we aren’t often afforded an easy path to pursue meaningful things. We fight to carve a path when we have none, so when we have one to follow, we don’t take its ease for granted.
I’m glad to have met Woody, and honored to call him a friend. He reminds me that all of my difficulties — with anxiety, with ADHD, or with running a part-time business alongside a full-time job and a family to boot — are worth fighting. They’re more than just the obstacles, they’re the path. The true mettle of a person isn’t in the way they win or lose, but how consistently they will battle for what they value the most. That’s tenacity, to look at the obstacles in front of us, those invitations to failure, and decide to be a fighter today.
Woody, you keep up your fight. I’ll be ringside.
When I decided to start a photography business, I had a lot of questions. Most of them involved how to handle the legal and financial requirements every business faces. A few of them were about how I should market myself to my clients. But there was one question I knew I was going to be asked, and I already had an answer ready: I don’t shoot weddings. Not yet, at least.
Let’s be honest here for a moment. Wedding photographers are expensive. For most weddings, the photographer needs to arrive early so they can start capturing the setup, preparations, and anything else they can manage to point a camera at before the guests start arriving. Then they’re taking pictures of the guests as they come in, looking for special moments and reunions. Then the ceremony starts, and they’re clicking off frames as quickly and unobtrusively — well, sometimes unobtrusively — just as fast as they can manage. After that, it’s the formals. Then the reception dinner and receiving line. Then the dancing and the celebrations. It’s eight to ten hours of constant work before the pictures even make it to the processing stage, and then it’s days or even weeks of work to be done once they get to that point. And this entire time, they have the knowledge and pressure that there’s no second chance at this. They won’t be able to go back and do it again next Friday because they missed a shot. It’s go bold, no take-backsies, make it work time.
I wasn’t completely against the idea of being a wedding photographer. It’s decent work, and once you’re established, it’s decent money. It’s a little slow to get started, but this is still a second job for me right now. But I had no experience. Right now in my browser, I have the addresses for four wedding photographers in the area, and I had every intent to contact them and make myself available as a second shooter or assistant if they needed so I could get used to the rhythm and process of the job. I may still do that. I didn’t want to be responsible for mishandling somebody’s cherished memories. So, when my coworker Trey asked me about shooting his wedding, I said “no.” I comisserated with him over the cost and and pressure of a wedding. He told me about the photographer’s he’d talked to and what they had quoted him. Yeah, wedding photographers are expensive. Yeah, that sounds like a pretty low price for somebody who’s experienced. I told him what a normal price would be, and he balked. And then I could see how much stress he was feeling. I felt bad for him. And me, being the softy I am, I made him an offer.
“Understand,” I told him, “this isn’t something I have experience with. I want to be honest with you about that. If you still think I’m the right choice, then let’s talk.” I told him what I would charge him for doing it. That seemed to strike a chord with Trey and Kellie, and soon I was sitting down with them discussing their wedding with them, going over what kind of pictures they wanted and what would be best for them. They paid their deposit, and that was it. I was feeling nervous, but it was too late to back out. That thing I said I wasn’t going to do? I was totally going to do that.
On their wedding day, I brought all of my camera gear along with my lovely wife Theresa for reinforcements. Together, we came up with a plan for what we were each going to be doing both before and during the ceremony. We took pictures of the setup, the preparations, and the arriving guests. We became mutual shutter-clicking blurs during the ceremony. We shot formals. We caught a short break while guests were eating, and then we were back to the reception and the receiving line. We got pictures of the dancing, the celebration, and before we even knew it, the getaway. It was exhausting work with yet more to be done ahead of me. But at the same time, I had this sense of fulfillment from having captured this day and knew I would remember it for a long time.
I have to say that Trey and Kellie are two of the most loving and genuine people I have ever met. Their wedding was an emotional sea of happiness, pulled to and fro in the tides of the immense and palpable love that they share for each other. Taking pictures for them was a joy, and I’m looking forward to taking their family portraits in the future. Many times during the wedding, I was moved to tears by what I was seeing through my lens. And the entire time, I had my wife to share those moments with. There’s no replacement for these kinds of moments. I was watching Trey and Kellie dance, but I was also thinking about the first time I had danced with Theresa, and the that we were locked into a sort of dance of our own. The kind of love that Trey and Kellie show for each other, it makes people think about the things they love the most.
Theresa and I were married ten years ago last October. I had felt more in love than I had ever been during that time, but it was just the beginning of learning the incredible depths of love we would grow to share. Today, we have a daughter together, making that love even more ever-present. And on the day of Trey and Kellie’s wedding, the two of us working together and trying to stay out of each other’s shot, I felt very close to her, like our love was being enriched and strengthened by the incredible demonstration of love that Trey and Kellie were giving to each other. It felt right. Correct. It felt like something I should be doing with my life, that this was the kind of emotional connection that I pursue in my work.
When I delivered the photos to Kellie, I was still nervous, and I told her that up front. I reminded her of what I had said months ago, that I wasn’t experienced. I told her how honored my wife and I were, how close we felt to each other, and that I think she and Trey were going to have a long and happy life together. I’m very happy to say now that Kellie was more than pleased with the way my wife and I had captured their memorable wedding. My stance on shooting weddings had been broken. Do I shoot weddings? Well, let’s talk about that. Sometimes you find yourself in moments you didn’t plan on having. But some of those moments are the best parts of life.