In the fall of 1998- nine years after graduating from high school- I moved out of state to attend college at Ohio University. I had spent many of those previous years attending Nassau Community College in New York, bouncing around from major to major moving through a revolving door of dead end jobs while trying to find my way. Three years earlier, I believed that I had finally found a career to stick with-one that I had passion for and, even though it seemed like a long shot, has potential.
That career was in the world of photojournalism. After a few years of freelancing for local newspapers and taking classes at the school, my sports editor at Newsday, where I freelanced, told me that Ohio University was the place I needed to be if I wanted to really solidify my craft. So I packed my tattered bags for the unknown plains of Athens, a rural town in southeast Ohio that felt like it was a million miles away.
Even though I was twenty six, I was an undergrad. And even though I had a few years of freelance work under my belt, I was given no special treatment. This was frustrating. Not because I wanted preferential treatment but because I only had two years to go and I needed to learn from the best, and learn fast. I didn’t want to waste that precious time. It was then that I learned about the graduate program- students that were a little older, had more experience and were working on the more intense classes and projects. That is what I needed.
I approached Terry Eiler, who ran the grad program as well as the cornerstone class called Magazine. In that class, each student would create a concept, plan, shoot, write, layout and design a 24 page magazine. It couldn’t have sounded more exciting. I approached Elier before the class began about the possibility of me auditing the class. He turned me down cold.
I dejectedly walked out of the room as they began the first day of the semester. I sat down outside of the room, disappointed by the missed opportunity. I needed to learn this.
The class began but nobody closed the door. As I sat there, I heard the students introducing themselves and explaining their concepts for their magazine. I took out my notebook and pen and began jotting down the information I was hearing. Two hours later, when the class ended, I stood up and walked down the hall with the rest of the class.
Two days later, I came by again and noticed the door was open. So I sat outside again. For two hours, I listened, took notes and answered the questions Eiler was asking, I just answered for myself.
For three months- every Tuesday and Thursday- I sat outside of that room auditing a class even though I was never given permission nor did anyone else know about it but me. During that time, I dreamed up the idea of doing a magazine about life on the F train in New York City. I rode that train daily when I shot for the Associated Press. It was the perfect New York journey. It went through the middle class of Queens, the high finance section of Wall Street in Manhattan, the grit and street madness of Brooklyn, and everything in between.
When the semester ended, I returned to New York to spend every day of winter break- from the day after Thanksgiving until New Years Day- riding that train for eight hours a day. The one day I took off was Christmas. I shot dozens of rolls of film, interviewed countless characters and visually laid out this magazine in my mind.
I returned to Athens at the beginning of the year and met once again with Eiler. I brought him my photo negatives, showed him some of the
stories as well as my initial drawings of the design layout. I once again asked to audit the magazine class.
Once again, he said no.
“Instead, I am going to do a personal independent study with you,” Elier said. “You earned this.”
For the next few months, he and I worked together to edit, write and meticulously create the magazine that I had dreamed of creating. Up until that point, I had never put so much effort and energy into a single project before. The excitement and challenge was addicting. I suppose it’s why writing a book seemed doable later on.
We were so proud of the project that Eiler suggested that it be submitted for Best Picture Story in the William Randolph Hearst College Championship, which was the top award in the country. The F Train story won in regionals. The story- along with my portfolio- was selected to go to nationals, where they invited me and five of the top college photographers to San Francisco for a two day shoot-out to declare a winner in the national championship.
After two intense, competitive days of shooting, we all boarded a private yacht in the San Francisco Bay for the awards ceremony. I was stunned when they read my name as the first place winner for the entire competition as well as for best picture story for the F train story. I flew back to Athens higher than the clouds that I saw out of my window.
Life was different once I got back to campus. Grad students who never paid attention to anything I did were now intensely interested in what I was doing. Months away from graduation, job offers now were being thrown towards me. As much as I loved the timing of it all, I resented the attention that I got for winning an award when most of them had no interest in me without it.
Shortly after, Elizabeth and I landed jobs together at the Evansville Courier & Press, which was a dream for us to work together at an amazing photography-led newspaper. To both get staff jobs at the same paper was considered impossible a few months earlier. And, the $6,000 that I won in prize money from the Hearst awards went towards the downpayment on our first home together.
I don’t know where you are on your journey. You might be struggling. You might feel behind. You might feel like it’s too late to do what you actually want to do. But if you are breathing, it’s not too late. They told me it was too late for me to go back to school. I was too late in registering for magazine class. Every step of the way, I was behind.
But that experience that I received while being behind is what propelled me forward. It’s what made me think to sit outside of that class when nobody else did. It’s what got me to ride that cramped, smelly subway train daily for more than a month. Your disadvantages can be turned into your greatest advantages.
It’s not too late.
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