Why giving up my dream was the best thing I did.

 

No one likes a quitter, unless it’s smoking or alcoholism or racism… But everyone quits something in their lives, most of us quit many things.

Quitting is just change, changing a behaviour in yourself. Change is both the best thing someone can do but also the most terrifying for many. The idea of going into unknown territory really does scare many people, whereas others see it as a challenge or an adventure to be embraced.

I fall somewhere between the fear and the excitement. I think as we change with age and time we can swing in either direction. As a child I was shy and as an adult much more outgoing, and throughout my life have been settled and comfortable and gone to wanting something different several times. These desires to change are sometimes related to uncontrollable factors or sometimes you make a clear decision to change for whatever reason you see as necessary.

The particular type of change that I’m addressing here though is about your dreams and ambitions. This interests me because I do believe that our failures help to shape us as much if not more than our successes. Having a dream and never doing anything about it may not be classed as a “failure” per se, but it is really, you failed to follow your dream, maybe for good reason though, which is what I want to explore. Looking back on my own life I actually view the times I’ve given up on something as the most defining moments of my life. It’s easy to feel regret for the things we never did, never achieved or never tried and failed but we should see them more as just more parts of our life experience, neither good or bad even if there are some bad experiences related to them.

The first thing I wanted to be as a child was Superman, the Christopher Reeve Superman films were big at the time and it seemed a perfectly legitimate ambition. I guess I was around 7 or 8 at the time I had that idea, but just a few years later I wanted to be a brain surgeon. Not at all sure where I got that idea from but my career strangely has gone down the road of understanding people and their behaviour so in a roundabout way I followed that concept. At some point I put that idea aside and became a huge fan of Heavy Metal, first with Iron Maiden and Metallica and eventually onto the heavier more extreme side of things, and naturally, I wanted to be in in a heavy metal band most likely as front man or lead guitarist. Oddly or not, I’m not sure, I eventually followed that dream too, I now play guitar in what is loosely a heavy metal band although it’s far from the mega-stadium rock shows of Iron Maiden.

Besides those childhood dreams the first real idea I had of a career, and one I was very serious about was making horror films. Along with Heavy Metal I was a huge fan of horror movies (films in general, but horror was my favourite) I started wanting to do the special effects, voraciously reading Fangoria magazine I learned about all the talented artists who did the makeup, gore, body parts and monsters. I wanted to do that.

Somewhere along the line my ambition evolved, as a keen writer I liked the idea of creating the whole thing, I wanted to write, direct, produce… make the whole film. In my early to late teenage years this was pretty much my focus, to make horror movies. It wasn’t long till my ideas began to stray from horror as a developed a taste for many different kinds of cinema.

I took up photography around the age of 16 to start learning about film on a technical level, I was getting started. This was the 1990’s and digital video wasn’t pervasive so learning the technical aspects of using film as a medium was important. I found a great love for photography in itself as a medium and began to study some of the greats of the form. Around the time I was getting to the end of my high school years and we were all deciding what we would do after, university, jobs, nothingness…

It is one of those great existential phases in anyone’s life. Who am I? Am I an adult now? What am I doing here? I looked at available University courses looking for the one that would teach me all I needed to know about filmmaking. It didn’t exist. All the courses available were theory based, I wanted technical skills. I knew I couldn’t go and make a feature film on my own but I wanted to know how to. Maybe naively and with a little arrogance I felt I didn’t need any theoretical practice, so I chose not to follow that path and in fact, to not go to University at all. I was very keen on art in general and considered Art History as a possible start but it never crossed my mind to do Photography. I was scared of University. I was a good and bright student, but also rebelled against the system at school, I was tired of it. Besides that, having grown up with little money the costs seemed exorbitant, but worst of all was my high school totally failed to help me understand that University was not at all like school[1].

I had been playing music quite seriously at this point as I still do today, although we had ambitions it never crossed my mind in any seriousness to follow it as a career path, more as a serious passion. I still feel the same and the fact that commerce and jobs have never become part of music I couldn’t be happier.

Where did this leave me? A bit lost.

I ended up on the dole pretty quickly, had some part time and temporary jobs. I Worked in a school editing videos for the students which felt right for me, but didn’t go anywhere and my mum got me a job washing dishes in the restaurant she worked in which little known to me would be quite an important job.

I soon moved away from my home town to Wellington, one of my best friends had moved there and I and another great friend decided to escape Hamilton and do the same, as we were all in a band together and Wellington was the cultural hub of New Zealand it was the place to go.

I worked briefly in some shitty jobs and ended up working in a café washing dishes as it was my only applicable work skill. Eventually I started to do other tasks, food prep, then baking then became chef. It seemed like a good job and potentially a career, I always loved food and was formally fat, but my job washing dishes helped me to shed all my weight.

During this time we were still pursuing music and I had continued to take photography more seriously and started to exhibit my work. Slowly, photography was becoming my greatest passion.

I spent some time travelling, then settling back in New Zealand started to look for my next job in cooking, thinking I may take it more seriously. I had little luck getting jobs where I could advance my skills or jobs where I could just pay the bills. A friend got me work with children with disabilities, this eventually led me to where I am now in my career.

During the early days being a support worker I still held my view that photography was the most important and rewarding pursuit, so I continued to do this with greater seriousness.

Both my career in social care and my artistic work progressed in unison, this felt good to have a day job going well followed by my art work doing better. I was getting better at it as well as getting better exhibition opportunities and selling more work. I started to think that photography might in fact be my day job. Could I be a professional artist? To create freely and earn a living out of it really would be living the dream for me.

Eventually the time came to move to the UK, my ex-partner was unhappy in NZ but I was looking forward to the new adventure while still having some of that pesky fear of change, it was a big move. It takes time to get settled anywhere new so I wasn’t expecting too much job wise or art wise to start with.

I spent what time I could between finding jobs and music opportunities looking for galleries and exhibition opportunities. I quickly found a good job which helped me immensely get to where I am now.

Music took off OK, I play niche music so making money is pretty unlikely but I quickly met like-minded people and some opportunities to perform.

My day job didn’t take long to lead to better things and I began to see it as a career[2], something I was passionate about and happy to do for a long time, maybe the rest of my life. Not something I had planned on at all.

The dream was still to become a professional photographer though, as an artist. I had no interest in doing pictures for others, weddings or portraits or anything like that weren’t artistically valuable to me. I scoured the galleries of London, regularly visited fine art and specialist photography galleries. The first question most of them asked when I enquired about exhibitions was

“Where did you study?”

My answer was of course

“Nowhere, I’m self-taught”

This got me nowhere, I quickly began to realise that without a reputation or a qualification from Goldsmiths or one of the top art universities I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the big galleries. As was my style back in New Zealand I took it into my own hands to put on my own exhibitions. This way I thought I could build up a reputation like I had in NZ and maybe get noticed. I did a few shows in some local café/gallery spaces, I sold nothing, and I got no attention. This was before social media was used widely, Myspace was around and I did some online exhibitions and connected with those galleries and curators on there but that lead to nowhere as well. Promoting yourself was very difficult then.

I found one photography gallery via Myspace, it had quite a good reputation. I eventually messaged the owner and began to talk. He showed some interest but made it clear he dealt with quite high profile artists, selling work for more money than I had made in my whole artistic career. I also told him I was a musician, he invited me to perform at a night that an organisation he was involved with ran. He sent me a YouTube video of their previous event, it looked awful. The fact it was awful wasn’t enough to put me off, I was still trying to find my feet as a musician and looked into the venue, turns out it was the Scientology Centre on Tottenham Court Road… I didn’t want to be associated with that so I declined, I also chalked that relationship up as a no go on the exhibition front. I relate that story to people and they say I should’ve gone out of curiosity, but I always say I would end up being associated with them for ever more, not good for my reputation.

There were other experiences talking to galleries and getting absolutely nowhere, at one I asked about an exhibition I ended up discussing my job and the curator asked for my details as his sister has a child with disabilities and needed advice, I thought this may be a way to get in so I obliged but never heard from them again.

Around the time I had 3 solo exhibitions in London with little success, a few things online and a few things in group shows and I had not progressed. I may have needed more persistence but I was becoming dispirited.

Around this time social media began to explode, Myspace had suddenly become obsolete as Facebook had come along. In conjunction with this digital cameras had advanced so far that film was becoming redundant and too expensive for daily use.

This mix of everyone being able to have their lives online with ease and being able to take as many photos as they liked without expense meant that the world got flooded with vast amounts of truly ordinary and downright awful photographs. It didn’t make me feel like it devalued my art personally but it certainly devalued photography, took away its specialness. Photography became very normal, a daily thing that was throw away and entirely unimportant as to whether or not the photo was good but only content mattered.

This has changed since, people have learned over the years to use the tools they have and of course the tools have become better. The art of photography didn’t die, but it changed. I’m not complaining, this is just modern life, its change and it would be naïve of me to battle the steamroller that is progress. But I thought long and hard about what I had been dedicating my life to at that point. Since I was around 16 I had been taking photography seriously, since the age of 19 having a go at making it my career at the age of around 29 I gave it up. It actually wasn’t hard, I just stopped. Music was going well, work was going well. I still took photos, I just used them for gig posters, and album covers and so on.

I’m now 38, nearly 39 and ten years since I made that choice and I don’t regret it at all. Photography changed in a way I didn’t like but had to accept. Something that didn’t change and in fact had always been there was the art world itself. My misguided attempts at getting into London galleries may have been the wrong way to do it but the art world is very much a part of the capitalist system and very little to do with good art. Everyone has to make money, pay the bills and eat but art should be beyond those issues and people should be able to experience art without re-mortgaging their home. In London we are lucky to have some of the best art galleries and museums in the world and most of them are free to walk into and look at the work but most people will never own that work. Recently a minor Da Vinci painting sold for £342 million, enough to solve world hunger, and eradicate the debt of many countries and this is frankly, disgusting. That much money shouldn’t be spent on some paint on a canvas regardless of who painted it.

This level of money being wasted has been part of art for a long time, I guess I always wanted the success of being an artist and not having to do another job, I didn’t need to be rich but I have met people who think differently. When I was in my early 20’s I met a guy who said he’d become a painter for the money. I thought he was ridiculous because to me art was about engaging with work, not making loads of money, become a banker. I’ve no idea what that guy achieved but now I wonder if his decision was right, maybe he made it and became rich.

The way photography changed in the 2000’s bothered me at the time but in hindsight I love it, I love that I can take 1000’s of photos till I get the right one. I love that we can capture so much more of life so much more easily. I love that you don’t have to pay for every photo, it’s become accessible as an art form in a different way to how I envisaged but still wanted. Mostly, the commerce is gone, which may have killed my own approach but has actually improved photography itself. If you spend any time on the internet you will see photos of many amazing things every day which is wonderful, is this not what the form is for? There was a phase of change that produced some truly horrible pictures, this still happens, but that period of evolution has gone full circle to artists using digital forms to great effect. Great things rarely just happen, there’s almost always an uncomfortable in between, an awkwardness while people figure things out.

In art, freedom is important, freedom to create. When you get paid to do it, you actually can lose some of that freedom. There is something to be said about suffering to make art. I wonder if the Damien Hirst’s of the world really feel the need to express anything or are they just making a product? The latter I suspect.

My career in social care has gone from strength to strength, I’ve worked hard and consider myself very successful even if I don’t make huge amounts of money and I have a career that I’m hugely satisfied with, if I had pursued photography I may have approached it differently, I may not be where I am now because I would have been thinking about a different career. Statistically speaking very few people actually have any success in the art world, so I feel like I made a wise choice not to follow it seriously.

I do believe if you want to achieve something you should give it all your effort, you should commit and focus but I just wasn’t in that place with photography. Quitting has worked out for me.

I am an artist.

 

[1] There’s another conversation to be had about this at some point, how people follow a path, synchronicity.

[2] If you’ve read my other articles and blurb, you will know I’m committed to working with people with learning disabilities, no need to say again I’ve carried that on for 16 years now, not planning to stop.

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