As often is the case, the aftermath of tragedy has drawn my attention away from the cool gadgets and techniques of the photographic profession and caused my mind to drift back to the why. Allow me a moment to indulge a larger question.
Like most people around the world and especially here in Los Angeles, I was shaken yesterday when I returned home from a routine excursion, flipped on the news, and learned of the death of all-time NBA great Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash here in the City of Angels. It’s always shocking when a younger person passes away, more shocking when that person is a professional athlete and someone we’ve come to view over many years on the stage to be indestructible. He might have been made all the more indestructible by his status on the stage as one of the all-time greats.
My sadness, however, wasn’t driven by his place in the NBA pantheon. Actually, I was surprised at first at how much the news affected me. Truth be told, as undeniably great as Kobe was as a player, he never assumed the same place in my mind as someone like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, or even Dr. J did. This is not an evaluation of Kobe’s game, but a weird coincidence of timing. Kobe and I are the same age. Actually, I’m a bit older. But he came along at a point where I was celebrating my last childhood athletic heroes, like Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, or Barry Sanders. These were men that were older than me, who I looked up to as something of mythical gods. People I aspired to be like.
Instead, due to his age, Kobe always felt more like a peer. I still remember the moment I first watched him play in a McDonald’s High School All-American game on a small TV set in my college dorm. I’d heard all the buzz about how great this kid was. But upon watching him on the court for the first time, I was decidedly unconvinced. This dismissal was surely influenced by the fact that I, at the time, was still a collegiate athlete, still had the knees to participate in regular pick up basketball games, and was still young and stupid enough to think quietly to myself, “I could take him.”
My opinion of Kobe wasn’t enhanced during his rookie year in the NBA. My most notable memory of that year, in fact of his entire career, was not a moment of glory. Instead it was a game he played as an NBA rookie against the Utah Jazz. It was a while ago, so forgive me if I miss some of the details. But, as I remember it, the Lakers were trailing to the Jazz in an important game. Trailing in the waning seconds, the Lakers needed someone to step up and score in a hurry. Desperate, the coach subbed a 17-year-old and still thin as a rail Kobe Bryant into the game. I don’t know if the plan was for him to just add a dimension the offense or if the plays were actually drawn up for him, but Kobe, fueled by the blend of courage and lack of impulse control provided by youth, wasted no time in demanding the ball, then pulling up for a series of three point shots, one after another, to win the game. They didn’t win the game. In fact, he didn’t hit the shots. On some of them, he didn’t even hit the backboard, throwing up the proverbial air ball and generating deserved snickering from the gathered crowd. Not winning the game is tough. But throwing up multiple air balls? That’s humiliating.
The reason that moment has always stuck in my head is not because of the result of the game. It is because I remember thinking at the time that I may have just witnessed the defining moment of his career. And I was proven to be right. Not that anyone remembers that game. But because it is moments like this that give us our strength to face down even tougher moments as life goes on. That failure was just another opportunity to build the callus necessary to make it through life. So, as his career progressed and he became nothing but clutch in the final moments of games, I always thought back to that game. And it was a reminder that temporary setbacks are but building blocks for a life well lived.
That life came to an end yesterday, and while this essay so far may sound as though it’s a testament to a playing career, the tragedy instead drew its power over me from details far beyond a game.
Hearing Kobe had died was already a blow. Hearing his daughter perished with him in the crash was devastating. Hearing there was a second family, with their own child in the crash, who also lost their lives, left me with little else to contemplate over the last 24 hours.
I was fortunate enough not to only have to watched Kobe on TV. I was blessed with a father who worked very hard to provide me and the rest of the family with not only food and shelter but a number of advantages that not everyone gets to enjoy. One of those perks was season tickets to Lakers games among other things. Kareem, Magic, Jordan, Bird, Barkley, Shaq, Kobe. I got to see them all up close. We did not have our own personal helicopter like Kobe, but I was lucky enough to sit in box seats enough growing up to take such an experience for granted as an adult.
To be sure, my father has sacrificed to provide me with more good fortune in life than I could ever deserve. I could never repay that debt, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed. As I grew from a boy to a man, I also took note of the pride one must feel to be able to provide his family with such gifts. I might be projecting, but I can only imagine that those long hours he worked at the office must have seemed worth it when he and I would sit at the games together and he could see how happy I was and how much much I was enjoying the fruits of his labor. I came to believe that the ability to provide for those we love is not only a side effect of hard work, but can be the reason for it.
As I’ve gone from young adult to simply “adult,” the question of why has become even more important to my professional career. My father worked hard to give me opportunities that his own father could never provide for him. I, following his sentiment if not his advice, have taken this gift he has given me and rolled the dice on a more risky path.
Professional photography is hardly the most sensible career. Unsteady work. Much of it at low pay. You can work hard and make it to the top, for sure. But, you can also work hard and never stray too far from the bottom. On top of all of that, the profession itself is going through a revolution of change. Not all of that change is for the better. Supply is increasing as demand and budgets are decreasing. One doesn’t have to be an economist to see that is a worrying trend.
That’s not to say it’s impossible. Don’t surrender to life in the cubicle just yet. But it’s not easy. In fact, it’s getting harder. And even when you are fortunate enough to achieve some level of success, like a video game that adapts with each new level, the pathway to sustained success only gets harder.
So, how do you make it through all of that? How do you continue to roll that increasingly heavy ball up the hill, even without a clear view of the peak? Well, you have to know your “why.”
Why do you persist in a career where the odds are stacked against you? There are much easier ways to make a living. Are you in it for the money? Are you in it for the (perceived) fame? Are you in it because it’s the only way you can think of to get that close to beautiful models? I’d hope not, but I have met enough of those photographers in my day to have to ask the question. Are you in it for the adulation? Do you draw your self-worth from the number of likes you get on Instagram or how many people tell you that you’re a good photographer?
I’m not trying to cast any aspersions on whatever your own motivation is. We all have our reasons, and yours are all valid, except the guy who confuses photographing a model with dating a model. But yesterday’s tragedy has once again reminded me of my own motivation.
I want to work hard so that I am in a position to provide for the people I love. It’s unlikely I will ever be in a position to one day walk my daughter out to a helicopter that I own just to take her and her friends to practice. But I do hope to one day have my own child look upon me with pride in her father’s accomplishments.
My own father never played in the NBA. The one time in my life I actually saw him attempt a jump shot, it quickly became clear why. But he was very accomplished in his own field — so accomplished that, upon retirement, he was honored not only with a plaque and honorary title, but by his employer commissioning a painted portrait of him to hang on the university walls for decades or centuries to come.
In the months leading up to the public unveiling of the portrait, I swear I received no less than 10 calls a day from my father ensuring that I would be making the trip back east to attend the ceremony. I wasn’t so annoyed by the constant question, more like it caused a chuckle to see how he would try to nonchalantly slip the topic into each conversation. I knew how important it was for him.
But I knew it wasn’t important because of the thousands of people who would see the portrait as they passed through the building every day. It was important to him because I would see it. And it was me and my family that he had put in all that hard work for in the first place. This portrait was simply a token of how well he performed his task.
Kobe Bryant was not a perfect man. None of us are. But he succeeded in a way well beyond championship rings. He succeeded in making his children proud of him. Like my father long ago succeeded in making me proud as well, with or without a painted portrait. I’ve chosen a different career path. But I work as hard as I do as a photographer, so that one day, my family will be able to say the same thing about me.
So, what about you? What, or who, are you working for?