I currently live in Nairobi, Kenya, but for the last fifteen years I was a photography teacher in Washington DC. For many years before that, I was a freelance photographer doing my personal body of work as well as photojournalism for clients including The Washington Post, New York Times, and international magazines. I now consider myself a 'reformed photojournalist' and focus exclusively on my own projects and arts education (aka paying it forward).
I grew up in Washington, a city that has changed a lot in my lifetime. I like to say that most of the areas where we used to be afraid to walk, now you can't afford to live. My wife is from Senegal, we have one daughter. My parents met in DC and were married in the late 1950s by a young Unitarian minister named James Reeb, who would become well-known for answering MLK's call for clergy to join him in Selma, and getting murdered by white thugs for his trouble. The national outcry following his death is credited with giving LBJ the leverage to pass the Voting Rights Act. Which he signed on August 6, 1965, the day I was born. So I consider Reeb a kind of spirit-guide. He is represented in the movie Selma, and I choked up a bit seeing 'him'.
I grew up playing music, mostly in DC bands from age 12 onward. I gave it up for photography in my 20s, for about 15 years. I had run out of musical ideas and energy, and at least I was able to both make a living and satisfy my creative impulses with photography. First by working for small community newspapers, then better papers, then the best ones. But I didn't really find my creative voice until I (re-)committed to it. I invested myself in my long-term personal projects, at first following my curiosity around Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a child of the Cold War, when we thought the world could end at any moment, it was fascinating to see a whole other world that had been hidden. I was particularly drawn to Prague in the early 90s, a magical atmosphere that I doubt I will experience again.
I eventually published an award-winning photo book on Belarus called The Waiting Room, exploring the culture and identity crisis of the not-quite-post-Soviet country. To my knowledge no one had done that before, a rare first in the photo business. The trick, as always, was gaining understanding over time, which could then be reflected in the pictures.
People, even Belarusians, asked me why I kept going there. I said I started because I was curious, I continued because I grew to care, and I made the book because I wanted others to care. And for Belarusians to see themselves represented.
I also did a long-term project on my hometown, Fairy Tales from the Fault Lines, mostly within walking distance of the house where our daughter was born and raised. Both the Washington Post Magazine and the Nat Geo photo blog published that series. As I would tell my students, you shouldn't have to go anywhere exotic.
In 2015 I was voted Best Visual Artist in the annual Washington City Paper reader poll. Obviously it's embarrassing and stupid because of course I'm not that, who could even claim to be such a thing? But I'll take it, if someone has to.
I found my way back to music after the long hiatus. The ideas came back! I produced a solo album in 2016, a 'concept album' about the first humans to leave Earth forever for Mars.
As a documentary photographer, I have the stubborn derangement that I can get an idea and go somewhere (either down the block or to another country) and tell the story of that place and people, and that others will care to look at it.
Sometimes they actually do! I've exhibited a lot and given talks at places like the World Bank, National Press Club, and International Center for Journalists, American University, and the now-defunct DC Fotoweek festival. I tend to have a lot to say about not just photography, but how the arts shape us.
Growing up during Cold War, the Reagan years, rising materialism, and A-ha (kidding, love them!), artists - giants of film, books, music, photography - made me feel like cool/smart/interesting people were fighting the good fight for a better way of being.
It made me believe in the future. It made me realize the arts can do that.
As a photography teacher, I would sometimes start the year by telling my students that I think most photography sucks. Ok, yes, to be provocative and get their attention, but I believe it's true in the sense that you'd be forgiven for thinking that much of what you see out there was taken by the same person. Formulaic.
My mantra to them was: the way forward, the way to stand out, is not f-stops or fancy cameras, it's digging deeper, figuring out how to make it more personal. More you. Figuring out what that means and what it can look like.
We don't need more photographers, but we do need photo-authors. Ideas and stories, uniquely expressed in unexpected ways.
Which the students would then do (to varying degrees) over the course of the year and all would be well. They got it. Their stuff was sometimes raw but great, and inspired me year after year. I never got tired of seeing it.
Now I'm back to being a photographer and trying to heed my own lessons. I'm looking forward to Medium as a place to explore combining my photos and words in new ways. I also publish a climate-arts newsletter called Viaduct Arts.
With the climate crisis demanding both a global imagination-shift and a new relationship with our habitat, I'm hopeful art and artists can rise up and do it again. That's probably why I get a little grouchy about undercooked art, no time for that.
Like it or not, we're all climate artists now. Art and stories can elevate us and help carry us up and over.