Passing a series of Dark Gates-A letter to Josh

Passing a series of Dark Gates-A letter to Josh

The Dragons of Belkw’inith (near Ratana Paa)

Canon EOS 1Ds Mk III, 16-35/2.8



Tena koe:

The following is a letter I wrote to a young photographer, beginning his journey. He had been seeking my advice for some time.

However, this letter is also addressed to all the photographers who realise that our medium is their passion and their life’s work.




Kia ora Josh,

Over the last couple of years, we have had some wonderful telephone conversations where you have been asking me for advice about your journey with photography. Most of the conversation has revolved around the best equipment for what you want to achieve. I hope we have that one sorted. Do it. Make the commitment and move on. The gear you have is perfect for where you are. In time your journey may involve new tools. Buy them when they are needed. Then add or subtract gear as it becomes necessary. If the gear no longer fits your purpose, then subtract it. Move it on to someone who needs it more than you do. Stop thinking about it because it will distract you from the real purpose and nature of your journey. For you are about to step out on an odyssey which will last a lifetime. If you stay on-board. Somehow I suspect you will.

I am writing this letter because there are things you need to know about the way ahead. You need to know about the Dark Gates through which you will pass, and which will test you along the way.

You tell me you are grateful for all my help. I would like to share why I am offering it. It is because I recognise myself in you, a young photographer who has found his life’s purpose.  I see the me who was suddenly hungry for photography and went to everyone who would help and, when there was no-one to help, taught himself. A young photographer who is passionate and driven. A young photographer who has found his mission in life. You want to travel the world and document the human condition.  You want to be the best of the best. You have tasted some early success and had work published. Don’t let it go to your head. Don’t be distracted by it and think you are there. You will never get there. And that is the joy of the road.

So you want to go further. This is a fine thing.  Looking at your work I see huge potential, however there are things you need to know. The journey you are taking is not an easy one. I know there is no point in trying to dissuade you from it, for you have already made your decision.  And indeed I wouldn’t. It is a joy to see someone who has found his calling. And an honour to be able to walk the road with you for however long it takes for you to disappear out of sight.

The road passes through a series of Dark Gates, scattered along the way. At first you will be surprised to encounter them. Then you will get used to them. Later you will come to expect them. And, later even, if you are still on the road, you will hunger for them, for, as long as they keep appearing, you will know you are moving forward, that you are still travelling.

So here is some wisdom for those times when you will falter. And falter you will. If you are blessed and truly committed, you will falter. You will fail. You will take wrong turnings. And that is a good thing, although only hindsight will reveal that to you. It is a necessary part of the journey; necessary for your growth, for growth lies not in success but in the dark discoveries contained inside failure. You will ask yourself why the hell you are doing it, why the hell you did it in the first place and if the decision was worth it. This is one of the Dark Gates you will encounter on your journey. You will be tested. You will always be tested. Tests are the left hand of growth.

You have already taken the first steps away from the comfort of the village and its warm sense of community, out onto the road. You have decided to move away from the comfort and community of the club scene, because you want to walk your own walk, and not have it dictated to you by the established mores of the commune. You want to walk beyond the village and carve your own track across the savannah. From here on you will feel alone. At times you will be lonely, and desperate for company or appreciation. You will come to understand the difference. The one is the price you pay for the other. This is another of the Dark Gates.

There is a way past this one. You are not alone. Out there, on the darkened plain of your lonely journey, walking in step in the darkness beside you, there are many others just like you. Seek them out. Strike up a friendship. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. Form your own community if necessary. But be cautious. Human beings are social animals, prone to forming tribes, and all tribes rely for their strength on having a common ethos or establishing one. Avoid anything which requires a committee or sets rules. Clubs do this. And you have said goodbye to camera clubs.

The next Dark Dis particularly hard. At the moment you have the comfort of a day job to support you, to pay the bills. You can take a day off from your path if you need/must/feel like it. However, your loyalties are divided between your duty to your employer and your path. At some point you will have to make a choice if you are to pass this Dark Gate. At the moment you can sit at work and think of what you would love to be doing, and do it when it suits you. This not the same thing as doing it for a living. If you are truly committed, the day job will have to go. You will have to commit 100% to your journey, and face the fear of wondering where your next meal is going to come from, as we all have. You are going to have to trust that it will work out, and have the self-belief to keep going. Believe me, this fear factor will really sharpen your resolve.

You will wonder if you are really doing the right thing for you. You will ask yourself this question many times. You will reach places where you start looking for a job. Don’t. Stay with it. The further you journey, the more you will come to realise that you have become completely unemployable. You are too much your own man to ever go back to being a wage slave. Learn and understand this quote from Macbeth, a mantra for coping with those times:

‘I am in blood stepped in so far

That were I to wade no more

Returning were as dour as go’oer.’

Expect rejection. Expect a lot of it. If you are any good, they will reject you in the beginning. Take this as a confirmation that you are on the right path. They may well hate you. Stay with it. This tells you that you are at the front edge of the wave, or indeed ahead of it. Eventually recognition will come. That may not be in your lifetime, I hasten to add. Or even at all.

Here are some things you can do to help your journey. I offer them as a way to develop your growth and make it smoother. Note that I didn’t say easier. Just smoother. Smoother is the best you are ever going to get.

Learn from the Greats. They don’t have to be alive. Instead of spending money on gear and workshops, learn from books. Buy books. A lot of books. Read them and make notes. Especially read the biographies if they are there. And realise that while it is all online, you will learn better from a book, sitting with pictures and words on a page. A screen is way too temporal. Then, when you have absorbed the lessons for you, forget them. Put them back in the bookshelf and walk away. Let the knowledge sink in deep until you have completely digested and flavoured it with your own vision. Keep in mind this quote from the great photographer, Robert Adams:

‘Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too – photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny but that carry with them a reminder of community.’

Seek out a mentor. We all need a mentor, someone willing to take us on and help us to mature. The mentor will appear when you are ready. Learn from your mentor. And be grateful. Show that gratitude in whatever way is appropriate. Do not take all that he/she has to offer and give nothing back in return. A debt is owed. How will you repay that debt? In time, if the mentor is a good one, he/she will cast you out to walk your own path. That is as it should be.

Keep a journal. Make notes and record your thoughts and experiences, for thoughts are like the wind. They appear briefly, linger for a moment and then are gone. Your journal is the only way to trap them. And realise this: when you are gone, the greatest treasure you will leave behind will be your journals. They will be the key for others to unlock your journey and learn from you. While you are making your journals for yourself, you are making them for others. You are paying it forward.

As you stumble and make your way up the stony mountain path, you will often feel you are close to the summit, that you have arrived. Here is the good news. There is no summit. You will never reach it, for it doesn’t exist. And anyway, the only route from the summit is down.

One day, however, if you last the distance, you will come to a high mountain meadow, where only you are present, where you can finally rest. You will no longer care what they think of your work. You will no longer have a need to prove anything, either to others or to yourself. It is here, in this place, that you will finally begin to make your greatest work, without any need for recognition or accomplishment, doing it simply for yourself.

 And all the Dark Gates will be behind you.







4 Responses

  1. A Passing Stranger says:

    Never had a mentor, but just about had an o when I read this. Must’ve been the whiskey and green ginger.

  2. richard . says:

    A wonderfully eloquent letter of advice. Which can apply to other fields as much as photography.This is a great piece Tony.

  3. Julian Clothier says:

    One the best pieces of “sage wisdom” I have had the pleasure of reading. Would have loved a mentor like that when I started in ’85 buying a busted studio driven by the naievity of passion.
    I also remember times we locked heads and started sharing some of that passion when things went digital. What really was colour management?
    Please keep these lovely letters coming, and please consider how they would publish as a collecyion to be read under that favourite tree.

  4. Geoff Schurr says:

    Love you and your story of life. Some of us are indeed very brave to step off the formed pathway!
    The experience makes for a more complete individual who is at peace with them-self.

    and the world that surrounds them.

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