"On Long-Term Travel, Career Changing, and Other Existential Crisis inspiring Activities"
It's been one full year since I did my last day as a "DIT", a.k.a. on-set digital image management for film and television production. I worked extremely hard over the better part of a decade to build this career, spending much of 2007-2014 sitting behind a DIT cart. I loved my job in many ways and was lucky to spend those years with great people but I could never shake the incessant need for inspiration and to reconnect creatively. It became clear it was never going to happen spending 50-70 hours a week on a TV set.
Last September after wrapping season four of HBO's Girls, I obeyed the long gestating feeling in my gut and took a sledgehammer to everything I worked so hard to build. Surely this was lunacy but I needed to get out of my comfort zone and to immerse in the unknown. If I just stayed in New York, it would have no doubt been more of the same. It was time for a radical change of scenery.
A few weeks later I was in Hong Kong. On my first night there, I watched the sun set from Victoria Peak. I vividly remember the warm drizzle, the smell of ozone, and the city lying vast below. I took out my camera and framed up the first shot of the trip thinking, here we go. This is what I’m doing now.
It felt good to be so far from New York and more importantly, to be shooting again. I gave myself the next six months to explore a list of places scattered across Asia with only a vague trajectory traced between them. I had no real plan, only the thrill of being a stranger in a strange land and no purpose other than to simply explore and learn. Such open-ended travel came with its own set of unforeseen challenges but it was exactly what I needed to reignite my creativity.
Those six months whizzed by in a blur. Fast forward to late February 2015 - Colombo to Chennai to Bangkok to Taipei to JFK and before I knew it I was back in Queens, looking out the window of my sixth floor apartment at the snow covered roofs below, thinking I could still be on the beach in Sri Lanka instead of this cold, miserable city, finally confronted with the inevitable question of, now what?
Six months later, I’m still asking it.
I built up a lot of forward momentum while traveling and needed to keep it going. Though it was a difficult decision, returning to my old profession would have been a step backwards. So what to do then? I need to work and make money after all.
I've had a lifelong fascination with journalism as it combines the things I enjoy most—documentary photography, news, and non-fiction writing. On paper, it seemed like a logical career transition. The problem was, I had no relevant background in this field, knew nothing of the business, the expectations, or even how to get work.
The more I learned about it, I discovered some holes in my skill set—reportage in particular. It became clear I needed additional training so I spent these next six months cobbling together an education from continuing ed courses, workshops, panels, and conferences at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, New York University, Gotham Writers, MatadorU, CourseHorse, and so many more. Being a student again has been refreshing and I've also been lucky to meet excellent professors along the way who've offered invaluable guidance in this process.
Personally, I've found re-inventing myself to be harder than getting established in the first place. When you’re in your 20’s, you’ve got all the time in the world to build your career and the realization that it will take however long it takes is far more bearable. I'm in my late 30’s and not particularly keen on reliving that poverty so there’s now a certain impatience to contend with.
I'm committed to my decision but the infinite possibilities of the open road can be as daunting as they are exhilarating. The excitement of pursuing elusive dreams has an occasional companion—the gnawing darkness of doubt. No one said this would be easy.
In the past few months I've learned what I was hoping to do professionally has become a near poverty level occupation. In today's media business, compensation commonly offered to freelance writers is "the prestige of being published," as insulting as that sounds. The realization that respected companies like Salon, The Nation, and The Atlantic offer between $0 and $250 for a piece that might take a week to produce is extremely disheartening.
It's unfortunate the two things I enjoy most, writing and photography, were the first casualties in the media's suicidal race to the bottom but I’ve never been easily dissuaded. I'll keep working to create work worthy of publication knowing it's unlikely I'll ever make a living solely as a writer or photographer. Instead, I'm joining the scores of other people doing this kind of work whose survival has become a matter of getting creative with the revenue streams.
For awhile I was assuming something palpable would come along like a concrete opportunity; something that would open up a new, perhaps unforeseen professional path. That didn't happen. Instead my new life is really just my old life before I joined a labor union and had some job security—the freelance game of going paycheck to paycheck, chasing work, chasing invoices.
Without making the conscious decision, a decade later I've come full circle to cobbling together an income from various sources. Whereas before I was only doing one thing, now it's a little writing here, a little photo there, some video, some consulting. Really whatever comes along that seems interesting or rewarding. The days of identifying as a singular profession are clearly over. It's not exactly what I was expecting but it never is and that's just fine.
Not everyone is able to do something like this. Not everyone who's able to would even choose to. What I've found though is that long-term travel and living abroad provide a unique lens through which to observe the staggering diversity of the human race. We're all people after all—but do we have more in common or in opposition? Only through immersion in cultures outside our own can we arrive at an informed conclusion.
The rewards of these exchanges, though immaterial, are vast in their own way but can also present a new dilemma and that is what is one to do with this drastically altered worldview? This new perspective can disrupt everything, including our most closely held values.
It's not always pleasant but disruption is the antidote for stagnation.
The biggest takeaway from my year of literal and figurative wandering is that what's most important is to just feel good about what you're doing, whatever it may be. It should be accompanied with the feeling of growth and progress and if not, perhaps it's time to try something different.
At this stage in my life, I'd rather have a head full of incredible memories and experiences, like the photos at the top of this blog, than a house filled with stuff I don't need. I drive a Honda Fit instead of a European car and live in a rent stabilized apartment in Queens instead of a condo in Brooklyn. It's a choice and I choose to live cheap so I can keep exploring all this planet has to offer. It's what brings me joy but it certainly isn't for everyone.
As of September 2015, I've visited 34 countries, 271 cities, and there's still so much more. Though it would be virtually impossible, the thought of there being no place left to see with fresh eyes is a sad one. Fortunately I've barely scratched the surface and cannot wait to get back out into the unknown.