Hello Camera my old friend

When people ask me what I do for a living I rarely answer without a pause. I am jealous of those who automatically come back with “lawyer” or “carpenter”. My career path is slightly more complicated.

The complication likely began when I was 8 or 9 years old. Up to that point, I recall that I wanted to be a vet or a professional show jumper. Both seemed like realistic options. Once I hit 10, however, I recognized I had a slight knack for the written word. Writer or journalist would also do.

At the age of 15 I started my first year of university. By this point I was sold on wildlife biology. I worked towards a BSc for 2 years and then hit the stumbling blocks of Organic Chemistry and Statistics. Math has always been problematic for me, and abstract concepts such as complex molecules and chemical synthesis came a close second. When I passed my Cell Biology course (which I took without having the prerequisites) with a mark of 51%, I saw the writing on the wall… literally. Dr. Burton scrawled a generous comment at the bottom of my final exam. “Although it’s clearly obvious that you have no understanding of the principles of cell biology, your essay answer is so well written that I’m issuing you a passing grade.” Time to switch majors.

And so I turned to English Literature, a fine field if you hope to never extend your greedy hands above the poverty line. After courses in Linguistics, German, Old English, Canadian Fiction and Creative Writing, I came to my senses. I applied to art school.

I didn’t expect to get into the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, so my application was somewhat of a lark. I built a backscratcher out of Fimo and chestnuts. I shot photos of a burning Pepsi bottle with my father’s SLR (which I had absolutely no clue how to use). I pecked out a self-portrait on my mother’s typewriter with sticking keys and blotchy ribbon. And I threw in a couple of water colours and acrylics – I knew that thanks to my grandmother’s tutelage I had a little bit of talent as a painter, if nothing else.

I had friends who had gone to NSCAD, friends who were much more talented than I, and by all accounts NOBODY got in on the first try.

When I opened the acceptance letter I was floored. I was going to art school. What the hell was I thinking?

I arrived in Halifax with my heart set on Graphic Design. Although I had a year of Foundation ahead of me, I knew that ultimately I would get a Design degree, move to California, and get headhunted by Santa Cruz to illustrate skateboard decks. Or maybe I’d work for Thrasher Magazine. Those were my only two options, but I was certain they were realistic outcomes.

My first Design class was Typography – draw the word “Game” in 12 point Helvetica. I lasted 2 weeks and ran screaming. That degree of anal was unimaginable in my world. Fortunately, my Foundation Photo instructor had made a lasting impression in the meantime. I slinked back to the Photo Department and firmly planted myself amongst the chemicals and math equations that lead to beautiful prints.  Ironically, the three things that drove me from my first post-secondary choices – chem, math and impending unemployment – became pivotal players in my art school success. I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio.

I landed a job at NSCAD not long after graduating, first as a Technical and Educational Resource Personnel, then as an instructor in credit and non-credit programs. On the side I pimped myself out as a freelance photographer and writer, shooting weddings, real estate and product, and writing about everything from digital radio signals and bariatric scooters to professional cyclists and doorknob collecting. I also, occasionally, made art. Unfortunately, when you spend each day answering questions about cameras, fixing cameras, critiquing photography, and posturing about digital vs. analog, picking up a camera to take a photo for yourself becomes a daunting task. It becomes just a task, and loses the inspiration that made you love it in the first place. I’d like to just tell people I’m a photographer or a teacher or an artist. None is really true, though. I’m a hodge-podge of those and then some. It keeps it interesting, I suppose.

The past year has seen a job shift once again. I’ve added hobby farming to the mix. Although some would argue this is not a job, I would disagree. We are providing some small degree of sustenance for ourselves through our land and our animals -that’s just pay of a different sort. I could envision a life of farming if I thought I could actually make a living at it, but I’ve yet to figure out how that might work.

Oddly, since the farming’s begun, I’ve found myself redeveloping an interest in the camera. I recently watched Sally Mann’s documentary “What Remains”, and her message about shooting what you know has inspired me. I know my animals, I know my land, and I know that they bring me a peace and happiness that quells the stress of workplace politics. I’ve been turning my digital cameras to my farm more and more, and I’m suddenly realizing that the desire to shoot and create is back. I am making plans to dig out a view camera for the first time in almost 20 years and shoot big negatives on real film that can capture every goat hair, llama dropping and sprouting bean.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be sure whether I’m a photographer, a writer, an artist, a camera repair person or a farmer, but I have come to realize that it doesn’t really matter – I don’t need to be defined. Tonight I’ll write about it, tomorrow I’ll play with Photoshop, the next day I’ll sell a carton of eggs. It’s too easy to get trapped by labels and feel guilty when you’re not doing something that will pad your CV or contribute to your career. I’m going to do it all, I haven’t starved yet, and I don’t anticipate it anytime soon.

In my 20s I was convinced that I had to know what and where and who I’d be by the time I was 30. In my 30s I felt like I had it all figured out. Now, almost 3 years into my 40s, I realize that I have nothing figured out and it really doesn’t matter. With age comes knowledge, experience, and increasingly, wisdom. I have the knowledge to make decent exposures and grammatically-correct sentences, the experience to feel comfortable with whatever it is I do, and the wisdom to know that ultimately, I’m going to be a-ok no matter what I do.

A picture’s worth a thousand words, a thousand words are worth about $250-$500 bucks, and one buck is enough to impregnate two female goats so they can give me milk and cheese and ice cream and kids. See? I’ve got it all figured out. Hello, camera… it’s nice to make your acquaintance once again – I think you’ll do just fine in this equation – at last.


4 thoughts on “Hello Camera my old friend

  1. Quite an interesting article and well written as usual. Your fortunate as you are Jack of All Trades.

    Well done Sue!

  2. A wonderful post, Sue, that will resonate with all us eclectic souls who’ve cobbled together an identity from a number of passions and practicalities. What you have created may not be a profession, it’s true. But in my view it’s much better than that. What you have is a life!

  3. Thank you Sue I needed this!!! I stumbled upon your blog while job searching, blah. You gave me a little inspiration.

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