Fighting for Better Government

I don’t talk about it much, but I studied political science at Northwestern University and worked for a year in Washington D.C. for a non-profit watchdog group. My belief about power, then and now, is similar to that of Peter Parker’s uncle in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” So when the Better Government Association asked for a video that could be used as a means for fundraising, my company Three Story Media was all in. The fact that many who work at the association were former Chicago Tribune employees with whom I used to work was an added plus.

The Better Government Association, for context, is a full-service watchdog organization. This means that not only do they conduct investigative journalism projects in Illinois, but they advocate and involve citizens to keep up the pressure on state and local officials once those projects are published. So they appear in the State Capitol in front of legislators, and they sue the government when needed. They’re the only non-profit in Illinois dedicated to government transparency. And they do amazing work.

But enough of the spiel. Roll the video….

La La Land, the Creative Dream and a Little Bit of Madness

Waiting, watching, wondering on the California coast.

(All lyrics in italics from the original motion picture soundtrack of  “La La Land”)

I still remember the exact moment a quarter century ago, thousands of miles from my family in Chicago, sitting on the edge of my bed in my socks in a studio apartment in Long Beach, CA. I had just woken up to the reality of my life choices. I wanted to be a photojournalist and had taken a job on the edge of the country. I had given up most everything I knew. The question presented itself:  “What the heck am I doing?”

“Without a nickel to my name
Hopped a bus, here I came
Could be brave or just insane
We’ll have to see.”

I left my family and comforts in Chicago for a part-time job at a newspaper in California, desperate to get my start. I knew no one. I hadn’t seen my newspaper in Long Beach, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, before coming out. The paper was well-regarded. That’s as much as I knew.

“Still I did what I had to do
‘Cause I just knew.”

Like many creatives who take risks and sacrifices for their art, in this case I was socially isolated. I was at the whims of circumstances beyond my control. The area had just suffered through riots. Was it all going to be worth it? How would this all end?

“City of stars, there’s so much I can’t see.
Who knows, is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I can not make true?”

Ira Glass of “This American Life” made a brilliant observation about storytelling and the creative life – about “The Gap” that exists between where you want to be, “your taste” and where your creative vision aspires, “your work.”  It’s a conceptual state, but it’s a very real one. Bridging that gap can be slow. In that time, our emotional, financial and spiritual lives have to survive the messiness. And it’s not pretty. “The Gap” has very real consequences in the daily lives of ourselves and the people we care about.

“Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make”

It’s a time of waiting, wondering, and watching. Doubts, questions and feelings manifest. So many things can sour. Will destiny favor my future?

“Somewhere there’s a place where I find who I’m gonna be
A somewhere that’s just waiting to be found”

Ambition and creative frustration can be convulsed by feelings of insecurity – of being an imposter as you pretend to a higher state of achievement.

“I’m reaching for the heights
And chasing all the lights that shine
And when they let you down
You’ll get up off the ground
‘Cause morning rolls around
And it’s another day of sun”

At some point, in the darkness of frustration, all can be for naught. Your life revolves around work, and when work is bad, everything is bad.

Should I just give up, or am I on the verge of success and don’t realize it?

“A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?”

And then sometimes imperceptibly, you catch yourself experiencing a renewal, and improbable rebirth.

One day, out of the blue, I got a call from the Director of Photography of the Los Angeles Times. He had seen my work in the paper, liked it and offered me a job. Up until that point, I was just another face in the crowd. I had never met him.

My career took another leap.

“Someone in the crowd could
Take you where you wanna go
If you’re the someone ready to be found.
Do what you need to do
‘Til they discover you”

More doors were opened, and the wanderings led to more opportunities. A job offer brought me back to my home in Chicago.  It seemed like divine providence.

I met my wife on the first day of work.

Her nickname was Lala.

“City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
You never shined so brightly”

 

Geo Magazine and the Joy of Work

I was delighted when GEO magazine reached out to ask about licensing my portrait of a window-washer for a double-truck in their “Kosmos” feature. The photograph continues to be one of my favorite, not least of all because you don’t often see portraits taken while looking down the side of a skyscraper. What I also enjoy the moment of a man who loves his work. We all want to enjoy our work, yet to see someone reveling in their employment is so un-Dilbertian. There’s honor in all work. Seeing him strapped in, pushing off the side of a building in the hot sun – it is such a great reminder that one person’s no-way-I’m-going-to-do-that drudgery is another person’s I-love-this joy. Great for him! Now if I could just find more copies of GEO in Chicago, I will be sending him a copy (hope he speaks German).

portrait of man in Chicago building