Taos. I’ll begin by stating the obvious. For over a year The Journeyman Project has been dark, its production relegated to the back burner.
When I started this photo essay late in 2010, I had every intention of spending a healthy portion of my time traveling and meeting the American workers who remain committed to the ethic that made this country great, those tradesmen, craftsmen, and artisans who exhibit the character to persevere in this challenging time of ours. A year-and-a-half later I remain committed to that mission, even if the time available to me has lessened.
In the first year of the Project, I was enlightened by the ethos of the professionals I had the privilege of spending time with. From the Midwest and the Great Recession’s ground zero zone of Detroit, through Old World Columbus, to the frontier of Utah, I found myself educated and inspired–as an artist, yes–but also as another kind of guy: A guy who likes to build things, who appreciates history, detail, quality, and the grace at the core of these values.
While working as a cameraman on Dirty Jobs has familiarized me with the cause of the tradesman, the hustle of a traveling TV production could hardly prepare me for a delicate aspect which resonates from each of my portraiture subjects: an unspoken ethic which, if you pay attention and watch and listen closely, you will feel. This characteristic is difficult to label, but I here venture to describe it as a selfless expression of love. This love is for one’s work, where there exists a selfless state of activity resulting in excellence, the nature of which inspires further the love for one’s work. Thus, as the worker works, that work propagates the work. It is a perfect machine, of sorts.
As a photographer, cameraman, filmmaker, documentarian, storyteller–whatever it is I do around here–I can report a similar state of satisfaction in the work that I do. I would do better to describe it as a state of being. Really, it is the act of doing that I find particularly rewarding, as opposed to the product of my efforts. In this way I relate to my subjects wholeheartedly, regardless of their vocation. I am simpatico with Allen Feaster the shoe shine expert because he exemplifies this sublime way of being. In fact, Allen brings such inspiration to his craft that I am captivated, as if in the aura of divine knowledge. Are shoes really so important? When Allen’s at work, they are. Absolutely. (Allen’s story has yet to be posted on this blog.)
In Tibetan Buddhism, the unification of subject, object, and action is said to be the experience of Vipassana, or ‘the state of intense inspiration and clear insight.’ I cannot better suggest this state of being. When Allan the Shoe Doctor (the subject) works on a boot (the object) by plying his expertise and interest through his technique (the action), the effect is one of quiet transcendence (not to mention a killer pair of boots).
As the subjects I’ve managed to meet exude this character, I remain motivated in the direction of this photo essay. I am truly inspired to meet individuals who are energized by the work they do as much as the work they do is energized by their innate excellence.
Those fortunate enough to manifest such a relationship with ‘work’ seem to have found their calling. The choice to pursue that calling often takes precedence over alternative choices with greater economic reward, which makes a compelling case for the values of integrity and character. Yes, if my experience means anything, it seems as if my subjects have solved a fundamental mystery of life: while money might be nice, it isn’t necessarily the goal.
The seminal tome of Studs Terkel, Working, cast a wider net in interviewing the American worker at large. Published in 1972, Terkel’s survey captured the gamut of the skilled and unskilled, the educated and the uneducated, the delights and frustrations of every social class that strove to earn a living. While the consensus of attitudes towards ‘the job’ was obviously vast, only a minority of individuals reported “a meaning to their work well over and beyond the reward of the paycheck.”
To date, I can report that the tradesmen represented in this blog are of this distinction.
Alas, I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to TJP. It would be easy but narrow minded to consider the past year-and-half a waste of time (for the project, that is), as the time away has proven valuable in my recognizing some things. First, the course of one’s life is often beyond the control of one’s plans. At the outset of the project I figured there’d be some fifty-plus subjects in the can by year two, enough work to warrant a book of some sort. Being that I’ve yet to photograph twenty workers, the notion of any kind of formal compilation remains elusive.
Instead of succumbing to frustration, I am reminded of the importance of quality and the need for integrity that TJP represents, and that the responsibility of producing this project allows me the right, if not luxury, to take as long as I need to get it right.
Second, becoming a father has a profound effect on one’s priorities. A difficult pregnancy required a particular attention on the home front, followed by those delicate first months of a child’s life and the orientation of parenthood. Being able to realign my work and travel aspirations was a luxury I could afford only because I work on a project-by-project basis as contract labor in the TV biz, or am otherwise self-employed. Now that we’ve got a beautiful, healthy 8-month old and are in a groove of domesticity, looking outward is again feasible.
In that my worldview has expanded by two facets to allow foster the perspective of father and head of a household, I am ever sensitive to our troubled economy and how the ongoing unemployment trends in this country motivates the purpose of TJP. Where principles of American quality and pride continue to be compromised by cheap manufacturing and labor, it remains vital to uphold the ethic of tradesmen, craftsmen, and artisans who are finding it ever more difficult to ply their specialties. While it might seem this is a dying breed of professional, I hope we are perhaps near a turning point where the values embodied by their standard of work will again take precedence, if not preserve the American way.
I would value the input of the readers of TJP to weigh in on this aspect of the project. With today’s globalization an undisputed reality, are the values of the ‘journeyman’ relevant? Should we uphold the role of these individuals in our society, or allow economic entropy to run it’s course?
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As I am recently returned from a two month production job in the Florida Keys, in the coming weeks I intend to re-rail the Journeyman Project. I will do so while reconciling my ongoing commitment to Mike Rowe and Dirty Jobs (for whatever adventures await our intrepid crew), the pursuit of other nonfiction television production work, and my new responsibilities as a dad.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely a supporter of this blog and the mission that this project seeks to uphold. For that, I thank you. Big thanks also for your patience, and for the posts and emails of support. I hope they’ll continue.
Coming up, I have several Journeyman shoots from 2011 that I’m looking forward to sharing: A two part series on the coffee trade featuring a bean roaster and espresso machine purveyor, both from San Francisco; shoe shine expert and DJ alum Allen Feaster, known appropriately as the Shoe Doctor; and, finally, another DJ alum and perennial favorite, pig farmer Bob Combs.