For your twelfth birthday your aunt got you a subscription to National Geographic magazine. It brought cultures, landscapes, and wildlife from far afield directly into your bedroom in full color and made you feel like you were right there exploring jungles, seeing exotic lizards run across water, and meeting even more exotic topless women from primitive tribes. In a time before the Internet you were amazed that these images could make their way across the world and into your hands and you were both grateful to and jealous of the people who were on the scene with nothing but a camera lens between them and the great bounty of nature.
The life of the photojournalist held a lot of appeal for you. Even at an early age the only place you wanted to be was anywhere but where you were. You loved the outdoors and nature and were convinced that you had found your calling. You began taking shots in the New Hampshire woods behind your house with your parents’ spare 35mm Nikon. It only had the one lens and you couldn’t be a “serious photographer” with it, but you practiced the art of finding scenes that were interesting or unique and framing them meticulously, often using a whole roll of film on one subject. Your parents tried to be as supportive as possible but neither of them thought you’d have much of a future if you kept down this path, so they were disinclined to buy you any professional equipment because it didn’t seem like a great investment of their money or your time. This attitude contributed to your burning desire to leave as soon as possible and get out into the world so you could prove them, and that little nagging voice of self-doubt deep in your skull, wrong.
You worked every spare moment in high school delivering pizzas for the sweet under-the-table cash that you used to buy yourself a nice Leica camera and several lenses. To your parents’ chagrin you went to a liberal arts college on the west coast to study photography and film. You had a passion for still images but knew that video was going to be increasingly popular as cheap, portable equipment became more widespread. In the end, as long as it put you in the great outdoors framing the world through a viewfinder you were going to be happy.
Completing school quickly dropped off your radar when you got anxious to get out there and make your name. The world was changing and curtains were being drawn on places and phenomena that were begging to be documented in images. Global climate change was causing previously unheard of weather patterns that were physically altering the landscape. Geopolitical changes were opening up parts of the world that had previously been inaccessible for much of the last century. Westerners could get into China and Tibet and former Soviet bloc regions with relative ease. This was all a double-edged sword of course, as these same changes were also threatening to erase wonders both natural and man-made from the face of the earth faster than they could be captured in your lens. Ancient monumental architecture in the Middle East was being actively destroyed by religious fundamentalists. Entire habitats and species were being eradicated by man and nature alike in Asia, South America, and even in the United States. Aside from all that, California turned out to not be far enough away from home. It was time to get out there.
Lacking formal training, experience, and contacts you found it surprisingly hard to land assignments for major publications. Competition was fierce and the old timers were fully entrenched. For a few years you managed to make ends meet selling photos piecemeal to state tourism boards and other marketing agencies, but just barely paying the bills doing what you figured to be the “flipping burgers” of photography wasn’t enough to satisfy you. You were still stateside and if this were to become the pinnacle of your career mom and dad would gloat in that loving way that only parents can pull off.
Taking a different tack you signed on as a laborer with an expedition that was setting out to get footage of the rare Burmese Striped Rabbit. You were there to carry the cameras, not to use them, but you figured you could earn some much-needed experience and maybe make a few friends in the business. Of course you brought your own gear and intended to do your own shooting whenever you could. You hoped the talent on the trip would notice you and take you on as a protégé. More importantly, you intended to get your own shots of the rare subject, maybe the only shots, and become the hero of the expedition. It would mark the beginning of your meteoric ascent to the top of the profession. That was your plan for Burma.
It didn’t really play out the way you hoped. You hauled a lot of gear. You cleared a lot of brush. You dug a lot of latrines. Too many latrines, some would say. What you didn’t do was get any time to yourself to venture out with your camera. The chief photographer on the expedition was a prima donna who thought you were there to make camp coffee for him and pack his film. What really dug at your very soul was that he was right. You were there to be his bitch. When the expedition concluded unsuccessfully you felt unabashed malicious glee that this douchebag didn’t get his precious prey. You made enough money on the trip to last you a while and while you were loathe to admit it, you did learn a bit of tradecraft along the way. All things considered, you called it a win.
Tradecraft seemed to be diminishing in importance as flickr and YouTube and Web 2.0 made it so that every kid with a cheap digital camera could point-and-shoot their way to Internet fame and fortune. You watched some of these “photobloggers” gain recognition and, for the ones who were able to combine art and social media savvy, a solid income. You decided that you should ride this wave rather than spurn it. If these kids could do it with their limited experience, you could too. They didn’t know an f stop from shutter speed and composition for them was done on an LCD screen. You would get out there and show what a real photographer could do.
You gathered what savings you had and headed for northern Canada. You intended to capture footage of the waning Arctic ice and the plight of the animals that called the region home. You were going to live blog the whole expedition on Twitter and at your website, and hoped the publicity and the hot topic would garner enough attention that you could attract some lucrative sponsorship. Things started well and you were generating a lot of buzz. A few of your early photographs even got purchased by some larger publications that were running similar stories.
You hadn’t really considered what all this time in solitude in the Arctic summer would be like, however. As the days blended together with not so much as a dusk between them, insomnia set in. You grew dangerously exhausted, only managing the slightest of naps here and there. After a few weeks your sanity was all but gone. You were a zombie with a camera, wandering about searching for “fraaaaames.” Hazy but still committed to your mission you set out on some bright morning—everything was morning now—to get shots of polar bears desperately foraging for food on melting ice floes as they drifted out into the ever expanding Arctic Ocean. You struggled to climb up the path to the bluff you chose as your perch, and when the weather-worn rocks gave way you were too short of energy to keep yourself from going over the edge. The cold water shocked you to a level of clarity you hadn’t experienced in nearly a month, for just enough time for you to realize your plight and curse yourself for choosing a location that was all cliff and no beach. Hypothermia had you moments later and you felt somewhat relieved to finally be getting some sleep.