I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be a photographer. Before I knew that being a photographer was even a thing, I wanted to be a writer. Ever since I can remember, I have memories of writing. I wrote everything. A beauty manual (because at the age of 11, I felt that I knew all about skincare from my Seventeen magazines, clearly I was an expert). Short stories (one based on a Pearl Jam song that clearly had affected me deeply so I wrote a story based on what I thought their story was about… and I was never even ever a Pearl Jam fan. More than a decade later I dated an (awful) Pearl Jam superfan and that short story was all that I could think about when he mentioned the band.) I created newsletters and news articles both for fake publications and real ones (when that “evil” Conrad Black was buying up all of the small town newspapers in Canada, my hometown protested by creating our own, The Town Crier. I was the student contributor and wrote alongside local talent, including our own Canadian gem Farley Mowat.) I was the creator/editor of not one but two zines (working in a print shop really had it’s perks!). When I was a kid I thought that I would grow up to be a Mom of a daughter and I would name her Maud. As in, Lucy Maud Montgomery. The woman who wrote the beloved Anne of Green Gables stories that I cherished when I was young. But no, I didn’t want to name my future (never to come to fruition) daughter, Anne. That wild red-headed girl that we had all grown to love. I wanted to name her after the writer because I was aware that all of this magic had come from her brain. Maud.
I picked up a camera when I was sixteen. I went to a big flea market with a friend. We had both decided that we were going to get cameras and become photographers. I picked up a Canon AT-1 35mm film camera and life changed. I took a photography class in high school. I printed my negatives in the darkroom. Under that red light, I experienced magic. (And a whole lot of shenanigans that are better saved for another time.) Photography became my thing and I was hardly without my trusty camera in hand. Learning the technical aspects of photography came naturally to me. I wasn’t particularly apt to math but had done alright. I had taken piano lessons for six years so I understood fractions. The settings were instantly intuitive to me and I loved capturing simple moments on film to be cherished forever. I dropped out of French so that I could take an additional photography course and I got pulled into the Principal’s office for it (while I wasn’t a particularly star student, everyone did know me and my sisters as we were the Mayor’s daughters. Again, a story for another time.) She told me she was concerned about me dropping French and felt that in the long run, it would be better and more useful to me than taking that measly photography course. Little 16 year old Jess was sure of herself, even if she didn’t know what she was sure of or what the outcome could be, and she told that Principal that she was confident in her decision. More than twenty years later, she was right. If I could remember that Principal’s name, I would gladly let her know how wrong she was and that sometimes the practical way isn’t the best way for all of us.
When it was time to apply to colleges and universities, I had photography on my mind. Just what I would do with that photography diploma/degree or just what I would photograph, I didn’t know but it was my only focus. John Miller, one of the contributors of The Town Crier was also a journalism professor at Ryerson University at the time. He encouraged me to not stop writing. He encouraged me to apply for that coveted Photojournalism program at Loyalist College. A program that would unite my photography and my writing. But that was in Belleville and I had my eyes set on the big city. I got accepted to Humber College and I excitedly said yes. Then a couple of weeks later, the jackpot came in: I had been accepted into the Photography Studies program at Ryerson University. I didn’t know what it would entail but I knew that I would be dumb to say no. At my high school graduation that same Principal announced my name and the school that I would be attending. Except that she said “college” instead of “university” and I cringed. I would be the first person in both sides of my family to attend University. It was a big deal. A huge deal and that little slip knocked me down a bit.
On one of the first days of Uni I remember one of our professors telling us something like “You here in this room are special people. Out of the thousands of applicants who applied for this program, the 50 of you were accepted. Be proud. But humble yourself, we have a lot of work to do.” I remember being blown away by this. I was special? I was one of only 50 students accepted? Maybe this photography thing was real?
For four years I did my thing. Went to class, Spent hours in darkrooms. Fell asleep in lecture halls. Made friends – some that would last to this day and others that wouldn’t. Worked summer jobs (ask me about the CN Tower next time you see me). I graduated. I tried working for a photography studio. I listened to my gut when she asked me to not tell the truth about something and I walked away. With that fire built inside, I decided to start my own business initially with a fellow graduate and then branching out on my own.
I photographed a lot of people and a lot of events. Some not so great and others incredible. Things that made me want to pinch myself to check if it was all really happening. If this really was/is my life. I continue to do that, I am still a working photographer. I took over an 1800 square foot studio at the age of 24 all on my own. Everyone told me I was crazy (I hate using that term, it’s wrong but it is the accurate word to use in this context), including people I respected like my university professor and friends who I looked up to. But I ignored all of them and I did it. For twelve years I was the gatekeeper of that space. It was mine and I loved it. I loved having that professional workspace. I loved being able to host people. To create beautiful images in that space. I was a real photographer. A real professional.
But life shifts, doesn’t it? It’s a constant shift really. Sometimes like ocean waves, back and forth, back and forth. And over sometime, I stopped loving that space. I started feeling that it was a huge weight. Something that was holding me back from whatever it was that I thought I was missing. After months of feeling this way, I made the decision to let it go. It took another few months to finally be rid of that beautiful space that had brought me so much joy. (It took many trips to the dump and to Salvation Army and all of those fun things that are necessary when clearing out an 1800 square foot space that has been occupied by a rotating group of people for over a decade.)
I had decided to work from home. And I would work from cafes. And I would be that cool freelancer. One without the burden of commercial rent and other people to worry about. I would be independent, with no one relying on me and I would be free. Our spare room became the office (and conveniently meant that all of those accidental long term guests would be no more. Oh, we had a lot of them!) and it became a new sort of sanctuary for me. I loved it. And I still do. I can shut the door from my husband when I really need to get down to business. Or I can leave it open and he can sit on the couch so we can chat while we work away together.
I always envisioned with this freeing of responsibility that it would open my life up to all of the things I used to tell myself I would do “if only I had the time”. As though the studio held me back from making time to do the other things that I supposedly loved. And I say this with love to myself and to all of you because let’s be honest: you always make time for what is really important to you. If you aren’t making the time for it or for them or for whatever you are making excuses for, it really isn’t that important to you. Hard, gentle truths.
One of those things that I had thought I would do at this time was to write more. But I didn’t. I made every excuse in the book for why I didn’t write and none of them were valid except for one: my laptop situation.
I find inspiration when I can sit outside (in warm weather) or in a bustling cafe when I can observe you doing your thing (yes, I am a creep. And I feel no shame for it). Where I can get distracted and then find inspiration in that distraction and then can go back to typing on these keys.
But my MacBook was old. Like, super old. Like, it was barely considered a laptop because it would last like 12 minutes without being plugged in, you could literally watch the battery percentage diminish. (I am only slightly exaggerating.) I am not a wealthy person and I am definitely a practical one so I knew that I couldn’t justify spending money on it when really, I have a (mostly) perfectly great iMac in my office where I do all of my photo editing. The MacBook is more of a luxury item for what I do. But quickly became something that I craved. Something that would open up my world, should it function as it is meant to function (not tethered to a cord) and should I actually act on what I believed to be true. (Will I make the time to write?) Last summer when I had some extra money, instead of buying myself a new MacBook I bought one for my niece. Because that curly-haired girl is my everything and I would do anything for her. (And maybe one day she will make us all a lot of money… just kidding! Or am I?)
Then last month I got the most miraculous email from my tax guy: I was getting a TAX REFUND! What?! In all of my years of being a freelancer, I had never received one and was typically owing more money to the gov. But in 2018 I apparently overpaid my income tax and that sweet gov was giving me some of it back. As soon as that sweet lump of funds was sitting in my bank account, I ordered myself this sweet hunk of technology that I am currently typing on. She weighs a small fraction of what my other one weighed and she is gold. She has yet to be named.
It’s the small things in life that can shift who we are and where we are going. But I am feeling a shift with this change. The morning after I picked up my new MacBook, I began typing this little ditty. I wrote 1500 words standing in my kitchen in front of the window with a cup of coffee as the sun streamed in.
Before I became a photographer I wanted to be a writer. I don’t know what this means or what this looks like but I am vowing to myself that I am going to continue tapping on these keys and I am going to continue pushing these words out to you. Because I want to do the things that I have always told myself I would do. Because life is short and time is precious. And because we always make the space for what is truly important.