I recently wrote a guest blog post for an organisation I’m a proud member of, the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers (IGVP). Its title was ‘Reflections on following one’s passion: My first 15 months in humanitarian photography’. You can either read it in full on their site here, and then explore further to understand what this organisation is all about, or carry on reading below.
Robin Wyatt is a humanitarian, environment and travel photographer with a background in social research for international development and a PhD in Indian Law and Sociology to boot. Now that he’s left the academic world behind to follow his passion, he seeks to communicate the beauty he sees in the Earth and humanity to inspire hope and empower agents of change.
After eight months in Africa, touching on this vast continent’s North (Egypt), East (Kenya) and West (Senegal), I’ve headed back to where it all began: India. When I tell people “I lived in India for six years”, the phrase almost always meets with wonderment. In that sense, it’s a bit like the phrase, “I’m a humanitarian and travel photographer”. Few people respond to either of these ideas with blank looks, and that’s not just a product of moving in circles of like-minded people. I often don’t. Their reaction to living in – not just visiting – India seems to be like, “is that even possible?” and “wow, what all you must have seen!” As for my occupation, they quickly conclude that I’m living the dream.
Actually, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Back in March 2011, I wrote a journal entry entitled “So I decided to become a photographer”. I was still just setting about it, and it was a useful exercise in taking time to appreciate the magnitude but also the richly rewarding nature of this decision for myself. At the beginning, I could not be sure how this apparently huge gamble would pay off. All I knew was that I was thoroughly dissatisfied with what I’d been doing before and that the time had come to do something radical. I was not willing to go further down the wrong road, no matter how many years and how much energy I had invested in getting to where I was. Life is too short for feeling unfulfilled, and I was determined not to let my qualifications and experience hem me in any longer.
As a new year begins, I’m taking the opportunity for some more navel gazing. I admit that I have not made a fortune this year. While my income level is something I intend to improve as I move forward, one thing I know for certain is that the decision to follow my passion has been the best one I’ve ever taken. The night before I flew out of Africa, I was at a gathering of social change-makers in Dakar. I could only stay for one drink as I had to get up very early the next morning. As I prepared to leave, I was told in cheerful tones by the woman to my left that I should not go without telling everybody what my passion was. I was struck by how easily the answer rolled off my tongue. It felt so empowering, not only to know that I recognized my passion, but that I was also following it with every ounce of energy I could muster.
Photography! Humanitarian and environmental causes! Travel! People! Ok, that sounds like a lot of passions, not just one. But in my career, I’m clearly combining all of the above. Yes, I really am living the dream. And I’m increasingly taking moments out to recognize this, and be thankful for how lucky I am that I’m able to do this. Making a living from it is another matter, but I retain the intention that following my passion(s) in areas in which I have natural talent is bound to pay me rewards beyond mere fulfillment. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
I’m struck by how many people I meet these days that are so clearly amazed by what I’m doing with my life now. I used to be more than a little upset at the age of 30 that although my CV suggested I had great clarity, I was actually wandering around in the wilderness with no clear sense of what I was doing in the world. I seemed to be meandering from post to post, with no idea of where this was taking me. It was ok when I was in my early 20s, but in my early 30s I looked around myself and saw most of my peers on career ladders, living in homes they’d arranged mortgages for, in (or on their way to) marriages and starting to have children. I have never wanted to get stuck in the nine-to-five rut, with 2.4 children (probably a dated statistic now), constantly battling to pay off loans and taking just two weeks holiday abroad each year, mostly spent recharging utterly spent batteries. Yet, while I was in the wilderness, it seemed that all these people at least knew what they wanted and were living their chosen lives. It’s only now that I’ve finally stepped onto my own ideal path that I see so clearly how utterly unfulfilled so many (most?) of these people actually are. It took a major personal crisis to set me straight. I’d like to think that it need not come so painfully.
So what’s new, a year (and a quarter, really) into this new career of mine? Is everything rosy now? Well, it’s very clearly a work in progress. When I started out, I wrote to many of the photographers I admired in my line of work for advice on treading this path. Perhaps I hoped there was a ready-made formula out there for me to follow. I was struck by how many took the time to write back, and by their encouraging words. I was warned that these people would see me as their competitor, and that they wouldn’t want to help me. Wrong. I felt welcomed into their community with open arms. To those of you who are reading this, a very warm thank you!
I did not always get the same advice from my brethren, especially on the matter of how to actually make a living from this ostensibly wonderful career. I was initially disheartened at the idea touted by several that owing to the changing nature of photography and its galloping competitiveness, I would surely have no choice but to earn most of my pennies shooting weddings, fashion, products, etc. Ugh. I’m not one of those photographers who derives great pleasure shooting just anything, as long as I have my hands on my gear. I need to feel the subject matter. Given that I don’t relate to the institution of marriage, I can’t say I really feel weddings. Given that I mostly live on the same constantly recycled set of five T-shirts that I squeeze into the rucksack I call ‘home’, I can’t really say I feel fashion. And given that I earnestly hope every Christmas and birthday that I’ll receive absolutely no presents (mostly because I’ll have to carry them in said home on my back!), I can’t claim to feel products.
Each of these areas commands daily rates of, I don’t know, three or four times what I quote as a humanitarian photographer. Yet I’ve avoided each of them like the plague. People continue to tell me that I should box my passion into a limited number of hours each week and concentrate more on actually earning a meaningful salary. Yet I continue to resist, putting more and more hours into developing my vision and my craft and reaching out to potential (albeit less well-endowed) clients in my field to request a few minutes of my time to show them how what I’m lovingly cultivating can genuinely help them in their efforts to make a difference.
The other thing that many photographers suggested I do to ensure the coffers do not remain empty is teach. “I cannot teach” was something I would tell people time and again when they suggested that career path for me when I was stuck in my wilderness years. That’s what most people with PhDs do, right? I couldn’t think of anything worse. As a photographer now, I tend to ‘feel’ my way to good photographs; it’s not something I apply lots of rules and theories to. Seeing some of the preeminent travel, culture and ‘world’ photographers, as well as humanitarian photographers, leading photography workshops in some of the most beautiful and far-flung corners of the world, I felt somewhat envious of their (assumed) ability to teach and command the multi-thousand dollar fees that these courses entail. I continued to assume it was not for me.
Yet during the last few months, I have come to realize that I do in fact have something to offer to image-makers, and because it’s something I feel passionate about I’m sure I can impart it to others very effectively. I will therefore soon be starting to mentor on developing one’s vision in photography and using this to become a more effective visual communicator.
The first humanitarian photographer I met right after the Vipassana course in which I had the revelation that this was the career for me kept telling me, over and over, that “no matter what, never lose sight of your vision”. He didn’t really expand on what this meant, he just kept repeating it, earnestly. I knew I wanted to be a photographer, yet at that stage I didn’t even know what ‘vision’ meant!
It’s something I see time and again as youngsters write to me, full of admiration for what I do, accompanied by requests for tips on how to get started in this career. One such guy recently sent me a batch of his images, and I told him how much I admired certain specific ones. “Why do you think I like this one so much, but find that one rather less inspiring?”, I asked him. He was at a loss for how to reply, and offered me something on how he’d applied the Rule of Thirds in one but not the other. He was an engineer by training, a profession that is defined by rules, or rather ‘laws’, so I was not surprised. I quickly realised I had something to offer this young man. I could help him develop, nurture and own a vision that’s uniquely his. He is in Assam in India and I’ve been in Africa since we started exchanging e-mails, but thanks to the wonders of modern means of communication, I’ve been able to set him small projects, critique his work and help him progress in his passion from afar.
He and one other (in Nepal) are currently my guinea pigs. Soon, I will open this service up to other individuals and organisations for a reasonable fee. I never thought it possible that I might one day teach. Yet in this, I have found a niche. Moreover, it’s a niche that I believe is important to exploit because the Global South needs more home-grown visual communicators. This is a part of capacity building, which has become an integral part of the international development agenda.
So that’s where I’m at, 15 months in. My desire for some time out to consider where I’m at once again and to chart an approximate way forward has brought me to Southern Kerala, where I am now ‘on retreat’. I’m taking time away from everything to just ‘be’. Space is so essential for me in mentally decongesting; the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the breeze that rustles through the palm trees put me in a wonderful zone of peace that allows clarity and ideas to flow so freely. Very quickly, I’ve found myself filling my purple book (the successor to the blue book of Goa) with resolutions, action plans, further unique ideas for income-generation, revised vision and mission statements, etc. It’s just wonderful! I’ve even got a plan now for transitioning from living out of my rucksack to having (affording!) a proper ‘home’. I’m very sure that 2012 will not be the year of disaster predicted by so many doomsayers. It’s going to be my best year yet. Cheers to following one’s passion!