Photo credit: Amy Meeker (thank goodness for the iPhone!)
As much as people may laugh about this, I consider our current pursuits our jobs. Sure we are living in Paris, and certainly we enjoy the rewards of full time travel, but writing is my career now – and Pat’s is photography. I never spend a second thinking about or missing my corporate career, because I have so completely shifted my focus. Money doesn’t define a job in my mind (thank goodness) but rather effort, skill development and results. We both work hard at what we are doing, carve out time every day to hone our skills and create collateral that appears on our blogs and elsewhere. It is work, and it’s what we do.
Yesterday, we began a week long Peter Turnley photography seminar. Peter spent his formative years on contract to Newsweek. His job was to follow breaking news, assess the most important story, and then fly off to capture the compelling photos of the day. For decades, illuminating these stories for global readers consumed his life and career, and 43 times his photos splashed across the cover of Newsweek. What good fortune that he offered a seminar during our time in Paris.
Pat met Peter last fall in Budapest. A friend of mine was visiting, and we attended the World Press Photography exhibit at the Ethnography museum. Just as we finished looking at all the photos, Pat whispered in my ear, “Julie. Look. That’s Peter Turnley.” Pat never forgets a face, and he is almost never wrong; so we followed Peter upstairs. We spent the next hour exploring his exhibit, French Kiss – A Love Letter to Paris, as he described the back stories of his favorite photos. He recounted summers spent on Good Bay Harbor in northern Michigan and mentioned a small Polish church in Cedar – which happens to be where Pat’s father is buried. Pat and Peter talked afterwards, and Pat garnered the courage to sign up for the seminar. It takes strength to enlist in a week long course involving critique from one of the greatest photographers of the last four decades, but Peter’s warmth felt like good karma.
As time passed, Pat’s courage languished. He was just too nervous to sign up. Up to the day we moved to Paris, I encouraged him to consider the seminar. Each day he replied, “I’ll make a decision tomorrow.” A few weeks ago, he mentioned there was one slot left in the Paris class. As we roamed the streets near our apartment and noticed the abundance of street shooting opportunities, Pat’s confidence rekindled. One day, with little discussion, he enrolled. That night, we watched a movie about John G. Morris’ life which featured commentary by Peter Turnley. When the movie ended, Pat and I could barely contain our excitement. The reason I use “we” is that I enrolled for a small stipend. My role is simple, I tag along to the fun stuff and produce nothing. Don’t worry, I’ve got this.
Pat’s first assignment was to create a portfolio of his 20 best photos – ever. This provided a chance for us to fully appreciate the great shots he has taken over the last four years and the degree to which his skill has grown. Only one photo from his exhibit in Bratislava at the Central European House of Photography made the top 20. They are still great shots, but he has improved. And really, isn’t that what this is all about? His goal isn’t to win the Pulitzer or place in the World Press Photo competition. He wants to be the best photographer he can possibly be. And a piece of the journey towards that goal is taking classes and receiving feedback. The term “career” contains an implication of progression, just as “job” implies work.
We received the syllabus yesterday. I will attend the team dinners, the kick off at Peter’s Le Marais apartment, talks by contemporary photo greats, and a visit to the European House of Photography. Imagine our shock to discover 98 year old John Morris as a guest speaker. I would have paid the entire fee for that one evening; everything else this week will be a bonus. Thirteen photographers, some of whom are professionals, are making the trek to Paris from around the world. This will be a stressful week for Pat – and for all the photographers. But if he improves even a bit, it will be worthwhile. If he leaves with enduring friendships, as he did after our Wales Photo Seminar, this week will be one we talk about for years.
As for my class, I received the schedule yesterday. I thought I was enrolled in creative non-fiction (and I am), but I learned the expectation is that all students will participate in all disciplines – including fiction and poetry. My poetry experience is limited to limericks that invariably force a rhyme with Nantucket and Dilbert like haikus mocking the foibles of corporate life; the only requirement is that each haiku must end with one very specific swear word (no, not “duck”, but you are getting warm). Most terrifying is the expectation that we will read our works in Paris cafes on the left bank near the school.
All week, as I remind Pat that the goal is skill growth, I am internalizing the pep talk. I told my kids growing up, “The only career I can guarantee you won’t succeed at is the one you don’t try.” Now, I keep repeating this to myself. Win or lose, we both plan to bring all the effort we can muster. After all, when you have a job, isn’t that the expectation?
Categories: A year in Paris