Today we have two pictures to illustrate the week's story. The first, the B&W shot of a pier, is far from the best photo I've ever taken. It is however, perhaps the most important to me personally. This photo's story begins well before it was shot, with a bit of background on who I was when I took it.
My adolescence was... fucked up. When I was thirteen, the symptoms of my Tourette Syndrome became acute, it's not uncommon for tic activity to increase during puberty, although I was a particularly dramatic case.
I had to be taken out of school for several months, and at times the tics were so violent and disruptive as to be a threat to my health and physical safety. To get an idea of what I'm talking about, picture full body jerking and thrashing reminiscent of a grand mal seizure. Even when those tics had mostly gone (TS tics wax and wane in both intensity and nature), I still barked, howled, and screamed bizarre obscenities. What's more, the massive doses of largely ineffectual medication I was on had devastating cognitive impairment side effects, as well as terrific weight gain and other unpleasantness.
Thus 1995 found me at a new and very small (35 students) alternative school over an hour from my home. I was a three hundred and forty pound, flamboyantly gay boy who twitched, barked like a dog, and randomly screamed about intimate acts with poultry. It was all less fun than it sounds, I promise.
I didn't know at the time, but my doctors had warned my parents that I would likely never go to college or hold down a job.
However, the small school I'd started attending had a few big things going for it, among which was a darkroom and a full-time photography instructor. I was always a creative kid, but the cognitive effects of my medication made it impossible for me to write, and my severe fine motor and automaticity learning disabilities made drawing and painting painful exercises in futility. But I could compose a photo and working with a camera appealed to the technical side of my nature.
I lived in the darkroom at school. The photo of the pier in South Carolina earlier in this post was the very first photograph I ever shot, developed, and printed all on my own (although the image seen here is a digital negative scan). It wasn't long before I'd convinced my parents to let me convert the old coal bin in the basement of our house into a darkroom of my own.
All I wanted in the world was to be a professional photographer. Taking pictures was something I could be good at, and when I was focused on shooting my tics weren't as intrusive (something common in TS). I was creating art, which was important to me; and when people looked at my pictures they didn't see the flamboyant, obese, barking guy, but instead saw whatever it was that I wanted them to see.
I applied to only one college, in no small part because they had a strong photography program, and got in via early admission. But that's where things fell apart.
The head of the department refused to consider my portfolio for admission to said photography program, since I'd been mostly shooting people and nature/scenery. She was only interested in still-life and street photography, saying of portrait work "the skill is all in the model, you're just the monkey pressing the shutter." She felt similarly about landscapes and nature, never even bothering to look at most of my photos, ruling out my work sight unseen.
I was crushed, and without access to the school darkroom, being the days before digital, my cameras and lenses eventually went into storage in the closed-down dark darkroom back at my parents' house, along with any thoughts of doing photography professionally. Except for a few holiday visits, where I was home long enough for it to be worth buying new chemicals and using the lab at my folks' place, it would be nearly ten years before I touched a camera again.
At first it was a casual thing, I bought a cheap DSLR to have something to play around with now and again. I had to relearn everything I knew as a teenager, and my early work was, if not bad, certainly juvenile. I also took shameless advantage of my role as assistant producer at Dark Odyssey to get permission to carry a camera at events, and took pictures of what I knew best. Eventually, I started building up a new portfolio, slowly displacing my older work with more refined pieces.
A year ago this month, I got rid of all of the semi-pro gear I'd accumulated in the past couple of years. Deciding to swap it all out for a light-weight, if not quite as capable set-up that I could carry and use without putting too much strain on my body, which is pretty badly broken from twenty years of tics. I also started submitting work to online critique forums, which is a brutal but valuable process that has made me a better photographer, when it hasn't made me want to throw my camera and maybe my eyes into a trash compactor.
All that brings us to the picture below. It's not the best thing I've shot in 2013, but it's pretty high on my list of favorites. The reason I liked it for this post is that it revisits the theme of the beach photo found in the first picture, yet clearly shows an evolution of eye and technique.
I'm starting to get the occasional paying gig for my model and event photography. My adolescent vision of being a "professional" photographer may never manifest the way I could have imagined or hoped, but there's power in reclaiming something that played such a vital role in making my life bearable at a time when it could have been anything but.