The movie savvy amongst us might recognize the title as having been borrowed from a very cool movie by Tom Hanks called, “That Thing You Do.” It does cause one to stop and look at the man, or woman, in the mirror and ask, “Why do you do that thing you do?” It is a healthy question and one you should ask from time to time.
Let me explain why I do this thing I do and how I arrived here. It may help you both ask and answer the question yourself. I graduated high school with plans to become a professional firefighter. That’s a long way from professional photographer. Back up a bit. I actually left high school with the plans to become a professional baseball player. Please hold the laughter! I kept that dream alive until I tried out for the Cincinnati Reds in the summer after graduation. Now you may laugh. It was either laugh or cry so might as well laugh. Although, Roger Clemons is making a comeback at 50. That leaves me at least one more year to give it a shot. Hmmmm.
Okay, so I bought a Canon AE-1 with my graduation money. It had the ubiquitous 50mm lens that pretty nearly every camera came with back in the day. I learned to hate that lens. I still don’t use one. My Mom was encouraging me to study accounting in college. Love ya Mom but I can’t count. I looked around for a major and UNA offered a photo major. I had a camera. They offered a major. Why not? I was going to be a firefighter. What did it matter what my major was? Then a problem arose.
I really liked photography. There was an awakening in my soul of something I didn’t know was there. Photography sparked a creative fire in me that had heretofore lain dormant and unnoticed. I liked it but I wasn’t very good at it. I have since learned my Mom and Dad thought I had a screw loose. Not really. It was just the shutter in my head clicking away. Then there was the wonder of black and white printing. Then there was the utter frustration of color printing. But there was the student newspaper and yearbook. I loved shooting for them. I truly loved shooting sports. My very first published pictures were from Cherokee Vocational High School football games published in our community weekly. The first signs of ink began showing up in my blood.
Through some amazing friends, Dr. Harry and Dr. Jan Gebert, I was afforded the opportunity to attend graduate school. I went to CBN University in Virginia Beach to study photojournalism. My professor, Bob Combs, had done some time in an internship with the legendary W. Eugene Smith. What a wonderful guy. It was he who put the idea of news photography in my head. He died in my final year at CBN and how many times I have wished I could have talked to him over the years.
When I began looking for my first job, I had no idea what I was doing. I sent out 30 letters to various newspapers across North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania. There was only one I hoped would not respond to my query. Of course, it was the only one to reply and they offered me a job. I was now a full-fledged newspaper photographer. I spent four years in Elizabeth City, NC shooting for the Daily Advance and loving it. When an opportunity came to come back to Alabama, my wife and I talked it over and decided this was the time to move. I have been in Decatur now for nearly 19 years. I love photojournalism now more than I have ever loved it. Photojournalism is much more than a creative outlet. It is my ministry. It is my worship. It is my expression of what God put in my soul.
I took me literally years, a decade or more of shooting every day, to actually come to the place that I knew beyond doubt I was doing what I was made to do. There are so many frustrations in this line of work, so many hours, so many late nights and weekends worked, so many times away from family. What makes it worth it? Why keep doing something when the pay can never equal the work? Why keep doing something that can be the most intensely frustrating job on earth?
When I look at the man in the mirror and I look into his eyes I see a man who is doing what he was made to do. In 2002 I was so deeply frustrated I was seriously contemplating trying to find another line of work. I called my friend and mentor Dave Martin who is the AP photographer in Alabama. I was moaning and whining about work conditions and management and photo assignments and Dave gave me some great advice that was to the point and spot on. The edited version was, “Shut up and shoot. There are a whole bunch of guys way better than you out there who are out of work.” Slap in the face? Heck no! It was the best advice I have ever received. Sometimes you have to look at that man in the mirror and see a black eye and that black eye has to motivate you. I did and it did.
Since the fall of 2003, yeah, it took a while for me to strongly apply Dave’s advice and it took another year or wrestling with God, but my career has taken off and my satisfaction has blossomed and I could not be happier to be a photojournalist. What does this all mean? I hope it means what wise people have said for thousands of years; follow your heart. Jobs change. Times change. Even the expression of your passion changes. But, your passion is yours. Let your passion burn in you, drive you, move you, inspire you. There is nothing I would rather do. Of course, the major league baseball thing is still hanging out there so there is that!