This blog post is slowly destroying me. This is the
eighth ninth revision. I started it 4 months ago with the aim of describing how I learned photography the “fun way”. I wanted it to have a “you can too!” feel. I’m realizing that my method was accidents and chaos, and–like so much good in my life–dumb luck.
All photos in this blog are mine.
The dumb-luck tale goes like this:
Jeju is a tiny volcanic island south of the Korean mainland. Tucked in a cramped alley of the island’s main city, there’s a restaurant (of sorts) with a neon sign featuring an angry cartoon chicken, its butt band-aided over. In a graffiti font, the sign reads “assholes” in Korean. Spicy sautéed chicken anus is the only food on the menu. Google it if you don’t believe me. You can buy makeoli too, a cheap milky rice alcohol served in a tin bowl with a rusty ladle. This place could be cleaned up and down and decorated with 10 foot orchids without looking fancy. I can’t remember why I was there. A couple stools down was another non-Korean human. I looked at her and said, “hey, guess what”. She turned, brow raised. “Chicken butt” I said with a big dumb grin. Turns out she was the editor of The Jeju Weekly and could tell I had a way with words. I was half drunk, full of chicken ass, and had landed my first job as a photojournalist, something I’d always wanted. Go figure.
I got business cards and started introducing myself as a writer, even though writing made up 3% of my income. I also took photos and considered myself a photographer (0% of my income).
I sucked at photography. I was too proud to ask for help. Hell, I was too proud to notice how much I sucked. Had Brian Miller not shown up as weirdly and completely as he did, I never would have improved.
One day I walked into a coffee shop and he was sitting there drinking coffee, just like a jerk. We were co-workers, so I politely said “oh, hello there”. He was like, “Hey, do you like Norweign viking-pagan death metal?” His tone was neutral and curious, as if asking for the time. I managed to admit that I had no opinion about Norweign viking-pagan death metal. He opened YouTube on his laptop, hit play, leaned back. Over devastating and aggressive sound, he explained to me why this music was the very best. He was clean-cut, dressed in a Cubs jersey and, when not headbanging, he sipped his cappuccino. Not easy to categorize but I decided he wasn’t a jerk.
I never would have predicted that on his next birthday I would be buying him a pair of jeans because I liked him and I worried that he didn’t have enough pants.
Weeks after our first meeting, I noticed that being a photojournalist wasn’t as delicious as I expected. I covered small events like people celebrating a fish that the local economy happened to rely upon, or some guy somewhere who converted to Islam. Who was reading this stuff?
Meanwhile, Brian constantly had his ear to the ground for the next amazing thing. A middle aged grumpy Korean woman who knew about 10 words of English drove him where he needed to get. They were an unlikely team. He would say something offensive and she understood just enough to slap him. Amused, astonished, intrigued, I started hanging out with Brian more and more. It was a lot of photography in a lot of fascinating locations, always brutally hungover. A lot of convenience-store sandwiches.right here to see it. Some of his photography is featured on National Geographic.
As the year wore on, his main project was coming to a close. He was creating a photobook of Jeju called Village Across the Sea. He wanted more content. We renewed our efforts.
At times we’d see the shamans perform their strange rituals; just as often we arrived too late, seeing only the tell-tale signs of their ceremonies, like decapitated pigs and coloured rags tied to trees.
We tore through some thicket one day and came upon a small building that turned out to be a coffee shop/house surrounded by farmland and brush. We weren’t sure people still lived there and approached hesitantly. Two cheerful rag-tag kids greeted us. Kuku and Noma. Their mom made us coffee and fed us tangerines and we grew weirdly attached to the kids.
Eat chicken-butts and dance with your camera.
Lesson 2, hopefully to be published this summer, is going to be about my worst failure as a photographer.