I’ve written and re-written this post in my head for over a year, but I know it won’t ever be perfect. So I’m just going to let it out now.
In March, 2010, I asked some of my friends if they were living their dreams. “If you aren’t, are you working towards it in some way? What is your dream?” I had several responses. Yes, no, somewhat…
But I asked because of myself. I didn’t think I was working towards my dream at all.
Let’s back up for a moment. High school. I went to an arts high school (HSPVA) where half of my day was taken up by creating things. The idea behind PVA is to be pushed and to know how to push yourself. To find out if this is what you want to do… to make a career out of art. My “major” while there was fine arts photography (there were no other types of photography to study, such as commercial, wedding, product — just fine arts). I loved it, but didn’t think I could make money from it. I resigned myself to study academics in college.
I graduated from university when the economic recession was beginning its downward slope. My liberal arts degree helped me land a position at a state agency, where I was given a cubicle, an ID badge, and good insurance benefits — the things that I thought meant that I’d “made it.” I felt like a grown-up. I proudly told my father to take me off of his insurance since I now had my own. He told me: “I’m glad that you found a job. But make sure that you do something for yourself in your off time. Something just for you. Remember that.”
I didn’t know what he meant. I had gone through school with relatively few problems — everyone around me groused about how much they hated classes, schedules, homework, etc. but I rarely minded — that I thought I’d be fine with a new routine. The difference was that I’d be doing something and that I’d be able to bring home a paycheck, too!
I was naive.
Within two weeks, I understood my father’s message. I wasn’t learning anything. I was trained, sure, and trained quickly. But I wasn’t growing. I’d show up, type in data, eat lunch, type in more data, and go home. Day after day. My cube was located in a basement with no windows, just fluorescent light. Six months in, I was rewriting the procedure manual during my downtime. I brought my iPod and listened to music. Walt, who worked at another state agency, advised me to listen to audiobooks, so by year two, I had a library of audiobooks on my iPod to occupy my mind. My boss told me during my evaluations that I was an intelligent person and even admitted once that I was smarter than she was; even while distracted by audiobooks, my production was the highest in the department and my error rate was the lowest.
Sure, I tried to look for something else. I had a few interviews with other places, and sometimes it was close. But I never got the new job. Walt and I were engaged about six months into my employment, so we both worked at our respective agencies to save money for our wedding, which we paid for ourselves. He quit his job a month before our wedding to go back to school, and I continued to bring home the bread. And I knew, This is not what I want to be doing.
So, March of 2010, I asked my friends if they were living their dreams. Why am I not working towards my dream? What is my dream?
And I knew. I wanted to photograph things. I wanted to be creative again. I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t want to sit in a basement 10-keying SSNs all day for the rest of my life. I didn’t ever want to be in a structure where I would be required to work strict 40-hour weeks with a time sheet and a fluorescent bulb buzzing over my head, creating ocular migraines. I didn’t want to be in a place where no one trusted anyone else when they called in sick, and when people who were sick showed up to infect the entire department because they didn’t have leave time left. I didn’t want to be in a place where you were forced to stay for the full 8 hours, even if you filled your quota before noon, or there was nothing else to do, because you were required to occupy a space behind a desk for a set number of hours. Efficiency was not rewarded, so it made more sense to mess around and dawdle. But during my 8-hour days I filed a lot of death certificates and that begged the question — why waste MORE time doing NOTHING when life was so short?!
Don’t get me wrong; I appreciated what I had. This job paid for our the roof over our heads. It was actual, solid employment in a time where many people my age, my husband included, could not find anything that paid. But it was a means to an end. It did not make me happy.
I wanted to make beautiful images. I wanted appreciative clients who chose to work with me and to spend time with me. I wanted the experience to be personal. I wanted to be my own boss, control my own hours, and be able to take a two-hour lunch if I felt like it. I’m a motivated person; I’m sure that all the ridiculous rules set up in a government office are there because people abuse any freedoms, but if I’m relying on myself to get a job done, I can trust myself.
In a leap of faith, I registered my business with the county and got set up. A gifted D90 — a wedding present — and a 50mm lens was my kit. I did sessions off Craigslist to build my portfolio. Spent money we barely had in order to pay for a few pieces of gear. Paid for gear insurance before I had my first session. Booked my first wedding for a pittance. Shot it. Knew I had the bug. Scrimped for advertising, scrimped for used gear, scrabbled to find friends who wanted engagement sessions, had people take chances on me. All the while, pulling 40-hour weeks while watching my inbox for any activity at all. Cried. Cried a lot. Walt was amazing. He told me it wouldn’t last forever, that things would get better. He finished his schooling and got his certification, but his job search trail ran cold. He went back to slinging ice cream for grocery money, then accepting a part-time job to gain experience in his new field, only to be let go a few months later. I was getting better, honing my eye, gaining faster reflexes, and the Austin photo community supported me, gave me chances to second-shoot weddings for cash. Booked weddings of my own. Team Practical cheered me on. Went to work in the morning, came home in the evening, and edited weddings at night. Shot on Saturdays and slept all day Sunday. Cried. Cried some more. Wept to Walt, “I can’t do this anymore.” Stretched so thin. We were living paycheck-to-paycheck. Money goes in, rent goes out. Groceries and we’re back to square one. Stopped looking for other jobs so I could use my leave time to recuperate after wedding weekends instead of scheduling interviews. Squeezing my eyes shut at work for a few moments every day, dreaming.
The entire time, knowing that one day… one day…
One day I’ll make enough that we can survive off of this. That we can pay our rent, buy our food, and have insurance. The world will be our oyster. One day Walt will get a full-time job and I can stop this exhaustion. I can focus full-time on being a wedding photographer, and I will be able to… breathe.
I didn’t tell my clients that I had another job. I avoided talking about it here on the blog. I was afraid that people wouldn’t take me seriously as a photographer if they knew that I was paying our rent working behind a desk; that I wasn’t a “real” photographer who could command real prices for the work I put into their wedding photos. If they asked outright, I didn’t lie, but I wouldn’t offer the information. “I am not my job. I am not this state agency bottom-of-the-rung worker.” I didn’t tell my colleagues at my day job about my photography business, either. When I once mentioned how much we spent on our wedding photography, they guffawed: “Give me a bunch of disposable cameras and a thousand dollars and hell, I’ll shoot your wedding.” I knew they wouldn’t understand.
I wore my symbol around my neck; I’d catch sight of it in the bathroom mirror at the agency — a reassurance that I was still me, even though I felt like a mushy-brained drone. I put a small pile of my wedding packaging ribbon on my desk at work to remind myself that it is all temporary. (It looks like a little ball of trash sitting there, but it’s so important to me.) I told myself, It’s not forever. It’s NOT forever.
Walt had a series of interviews with a few different companies. For the longest time it was a bleak stretch of nothing, and in a month he had phone interviews and even some in-person ones. And we held each other, clinging, hoping, but trying not to hope too much in case the news we received back was not what we wanted to hear.
When Walt got hired — full-time, with benefits, salary, at an amazing office in town — I cried. We went out to eat for the first time in what seemed like forever — just to the café down the street, but that was one amazing burger. And he said: “You can quit now.” He’s got this. My knight in khakis.
Dear readers: I know some of you have known about all this, and to some it may be new news. But I just want to say… after a little more than 3.5 years of being trapped in a cubicle every day…
I gave notice, and my last day at my day job is June 29th. After that, I’m a full-time wedding photographer.
And I’m so fucking happy.
Photo of Walt and me from our two-year anniversary session by Nessa K.