I was reading Timothy Allen’s recent blog post just now on his responses to questions he received after the BBC ran an audio slideshow of some of his photographs from Human Planet. I was so struck by the shots in that slideshow. If I’d not already made the decision to jack in my previous career to become a photographer, seeing those images would surely have pushed me over the edge. In fact, perhaps it would have been good to have seen them a few years ago! As I watched the photographs rolling and listened to Timothy talking, I could really feel myself in his shoes. His world was beckoning to me: “come!”. I won’t dwell on the contents of the presentation here – just click the link above and see for yourself.
I was clearly not the only person to whom the slideshow spoke in this way. Timothy had evidently received a barrage of fanmail, and this blog post was his way of answering several of the most common questions in one go. He gave one of these questions more attention than any of the others: “I want to quit my job and do what you do, any words of advice?”. I chuckled when I saw this, and I suppose my heart sank ever so slightly when he said what I do believe he should have said to anyone for whom that was the natural reaction: “Speaking from experience… Do it!” (for a brief moment I thought of all the extra competition I’ll be pitting myself against!).
My own decision to take the plunge and become a photographer came last August. I was in India, where I’d been for almost five years by that point. I had a PhD under my belt and my book Broken Mirrors was nearing its long-awaited publication date. As far as most of my friends knew, I was in a relationship made in heaven. One might have thought the world was my oyster. Alas, not so.
I was actually nearing crisis point. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I was in the midst of a rather prolonged crisis. I had decided to remain in India after completing my PhD for one simple reason: I had found love. The love, I thought, of my life. The trouble was, my controversy-courting relationship with an Indian woman, the career in social research that I had chosen to follow, rapidly changing global circumstances following the financial crisis and my continuing presence in the subcontinent had not proven very compatible with one another. I won’t go into the ins and outs of why I say that, it would require a book in itself. What’s important is that I was trying to push water uphill to make it all work, and yet it wasn’t working. Fundamental changes were necessary.
I think I knew this for quite a long time, but didn’t know what to do about it. One thing I was very sure I didn’t want to give up was my relationship. My career was a far more appealing aspect of my life to try to change. For two years, I had been chiselling away at making myself a social research consultant for the international development sector in India and for the public sector in the UK. My partner and I hoped we could find a way to spread our lives between the UK and India, and this seemed the ideal solution for me. However, I had a nagging feeling in my gut that this career was wrong for me, and this was compounded by changing political and economic circumstances that were wreaking havoc with my prospects for work.
During a get-away-from-it-all break in Goa with one of my closest friends Abhishek Kumar, a learning and development professional (one of the best people I can think of with whom to have a “what should I do with my life?” conversation), I came up with a list of what I wanted as we strolled the quiet beaches and bobbed endlessly up and down in shallow waters. The thing was, I could not for the life of me figure out what the job I was describing the attributes of could be.
It was another ten months before I found the answer. After our holiday in Goa, I went back to Bangalore (where my partner and I were living at the time) and got on with pretty much exactly what I’d been getting on with before. I hadn’t found the answer, right? So may as well plod on, I thought. It took a seemingly cataclysmic event in my personal life, followed by several months in the wilderness in both my professional and private lives before I decided that enough was enough.
At first, I thought some answers might come through travel, as they often have for me in the past. So my partner and I gave away our Bangalore flat and donned our rucksacks. The theory was that this would free up mind space and open channels for discovery. However, life continued to get more complicated, not clearer. While my partner got stuck in Mumbai pursuing the never-ending red tape that is the Indian passport bureaucracy (it took 113 days and multiple visits to the Passport Office before she reached the other end), I decided it was time to do just one thing that had the potential to be truly life-changing. Giving myself hardly anything by way of a window for reconsidering, I enrolled in a ten-day Vipassana meditation camp.
When I entered the retreat centre, I had no idea how I was going to deal with ten days of being cut off from the outside world and all stimulants in total silence; with ten days of time that I could fill only with sitting with my eyes closed (aside from sleeping, eating, washing and the nightly discourses that I began to eagerly look forward to). Nevertheless, I went into it with the resolve that I was going to give it my all, and let the process work wonders on me. And guess what? It did.
A lot of things happened during those ten days, and this is not the place for me to go into all of them. One thing I will share is how my mind slowed down during the first few days, and gradually ceased buzzing in five hundred directions at once. Slowly but surely, it went through a thorough decongestion. For the first time in a very long while, I experienced clarity. I wanted to be a photographer. Yes, this was what I should do. This was what I must do.
In fairness, I should also give some credit to another close friend, Sanika Prabhu, with whom I had spent some of the days leading up to the retreat going through my back catalogue of thousands of photos from my travels around the world, especially India. She is a talented social issues documentary filmmaker who has (in my view) sold her soul to CNBC India. She kept repeating that I really have an eye, and I trusted her judgement. Around this time, I’d also been getting a lot of comments under pictures I was uploading on Facebook from friends who kept repeating things like “wow, you should shoot for National Geographic! It all seemed very flattering, but I did’t take it very seriously. How could I be a professional photographer? I had studied social sciences to doctoral level, and had made international development my field. Surely my future could only lie in that arena?
During my meditation, the penny dropped. I would surely be the perfect candidate for a career in photography if I would take humanitarian issues and travel as my specialisms. As Sir Ken Robinson puts it, I would be marrying my passions with my natural talents, placing me squarely ‘in my element‘. With a PhD in Indian Law and Sociology and six years living and working in India behind me, I could certainly demonstrate that I had the substantive background knowledge. I could tell people’s stories, my experience of interviewing them for my research and my subsequent book (based around eight individuals’ stories) were evidence of that. All I needed to do now was merge this with the art of capturing images that speak to people, which I was well on the way to mastering through years of passionate visual documentation of my travels to almost 70 countries. It was to completion of this mastery that I resolved to dedicate myself with immediate effect. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward now to a little over two weeks ago, and I found myself in a part of my Facebook page that I seldom look at: the Notes section. Amazingly, I found I’d posted a note on 12th September 2008 through which I reached out to my friends, asking them for fresh ideas on what career I could consider. The listed pre-requisites (in no particular order) make for astonishing reading:
1). It must involve TRAVEL. Lots of it.
2). It should involve finding things out.
3). It should draw on my innate abilities. (Note: not the things I strive to do well, but the things that come naturally.)
4). It should give me a base, but not tie me down to that place.
5). It should give me a feeling that I am always doing something new and different.
6). It should not involve constant computer usage.
7). It should mean contact with nature.
8). It should enable me to put something back into the world.
9). It should make me feel I’m always learning.
10). It should pay me well enough that I don’t have to worry about money.
11). It should enable me to work closely with inspiring people.
Yes, it’s almost precisely what I came up with once again the following year in Goa. Happily, although I was unable to join the dots on either of those past occasions, all these things add up so beautifully clearly to what I’m doing right now… through photography!