It takes time and effort to get good at anything. Photography is no different. The more you do something, the more you do it well. Every now and then I get a glimpse of how hard it can be for people to find enough time to dedicate towards their craft. You may already have an aptitude for the camera, or for learning, or for expression. The missing ingredient to realise that potential is often time itself.
You can be fully retired and still not have enough time in the day. So I spare a thought for folks with a young family and jobs, and wonder how on earth they manage to cope let alone devote even a little time towards creative goals. How do people decide to spend time on themselves instead of their family? Or take time away from their kids to spend in on their career? Or take financial risks that might lead to a new career in photography, but then again might not. Juggling family, career and creativity is complicated in every possible way.
In my case I was lucky. Photography is not only my job, it's my family. Photography gave me companionship, direction, creative expression, support and encouragement. Without going into details, I didn’t get much of that from my real family. Photography did though.
That’s one reason I am choosy about who I work with as clients. Because this is exactly how you get to be part of my family. And my family is very much one of those introspective and contemplative varieties. As a family, we don’t always have the right answers to every challenge, but we have a lot experience in finding solutions that work. We embrace different ideas and try not to get on each others nerves when spending a lot of time together. A little bit of space goes a long way towards harmony.
Every so often people step into the family and make a ruckus. Like that bitter old uncle who turns up for Christmas Day and just says a bunch of mean stuff to everyone. Some folk think it's funny at first but in truth I have very little tolerance for people who can’t respect others. On the positive side, there’s nothing like one rotten apple to highlight how good the rest of the basket is.
Most of my photography clients are people I’ve worked with for over a decade. Some of them fade away as they look for new styles, or hire new management to take over their role. But they still subscribe to the newsletters and enjoy some armchair travel to far away places. Many of our workshop and tour guests, for example, have been with us for over a decade. More than a few went and got married, however, and now have other priorities in their lives. I love it when they pop up to say hello again, and share some photos from their new lives.
I got an email recently from a lovely fella name Eliot, who came to China on one of our very first tours over 15 years ago. Every tour experience is not only a chance for our travellers to make memories, but it is those travellers who find memorable in return. Eliot's health isn’t what it used to be, but his spirit remains strong. In those days a tall bottle of cold beer at a nice restaurant would set you back a little under US$2. I can still hear his broad Brooklyn accent in my mind as we’d sit down for a meal in Shanghai… “You can’t buy that for two dollars!”
We’ve lost a few of our family over the years though. Really nice people. Dave. Graeme. Shing. Jim. One one trip to China I helped Jim get up to the rice terraces outside of Guilin, which was a lifelong dream for him. Jim had survived heart surgery a decade before, so every day was a gift to him. I had a photo of Jim up in the rice-terraces, captured on a $20 film camera I bought at a second-hand market in Beijing. When I got home from that trip I had some contact sheets made, and mailed a few prints back to Jim in the USA. Through no fault of the postal service, they arrived too late. Jim had passed away a few days before I mailed the letter.
Turns out it was his son who opened the envelop to receive the very last photos anyone took of his father. Photos of Jim enjoying some of the best moments of his retirement. The son's reply and gratitude was deeply touching, and something I hope I’ll never forget. They turned out to be a gift from my family to his.
I am fully aware that photo tours are a pain in the neck for most tour companies. We’re twice the work for half the money. Some days they're a pain in the neck for me too, for sure. The reason this stuff can be difficult is because I care. I also know there are far more profitable ways to make a living. But I like spending time with my photography, and the vast majority of people I meet along the way. We seem to attract a good sort on these journeys.
You never know just how much an experience or moment can matter to someone else, which is why I have to do my best to make every moment count. The portraits of strangers, the clients who book us for shoots, the mentoring we share, the guides who help us explore and the folks who leave nice comments on the website – they’re all part of the family now. And I’m lucky to have them.