For this week’s edition of The Creative Journey, I’m excited to be featuring Colleen Miniuk-Sperry. Colleen is a full-time freelance photographer and writer based out of Arizona. When I first came across Colleen’s work I was immediately drawn to it. As I explored her portfolios and blog in more depth I found myself incredibly inspired by her thoughtful and meaningful approach to her work. Make sure you check out Colleen’s website and Facebook page to keep up to date with her work. I want to thank Colleen for taking the time to share her story with us!
You mention on your website: “…in February 2007, I left the grey cubicle walls of Corporate America to pursue a full-time career in photography and writing.” Looking back on your journey, were there any misconceptions that you had about pursuing photography full-time compared to how you view and value it now?
For the first 40 years of my life, I believed being successful in academics, athletics, and Corporate America would pave the path to a happy life; that happiness came after working hard to reach predefined goals. This attitude led me through an incredibly rich life with many accomplishments of which I’m proud and tremendously grateful for (e.g. full athletic scholarship to Stanford and Michigan for volleyball, graduating with a Bachelors of Business Administration with honors from Michigan, getting a high-paying job at Intel Corporation). However, I always felt like these successes were never quite good enough, that there was always something more out there to do or to reach before I could grab onto that elusive happiness.
While working at Intel, I lived the over-romanticized American Dream and by most definitions, lived up to societal expectations of success. By my mid-twenties, I had “made it”…but the only things it made me were exhausted, anxious, and miserable. So I left to follow my passion. Troubling enough, however, the same thing happened when I left Intel and focused initially entirely on commercial photography! I had just walked away from a lucrative job and put a camera in my hands thinking that my early successes with photography would finally make me happy. But they didn’t…
During my struggles, I asked myself who was I pushing and working so hard for? And why? Don’t we all turn to dust no matter what we do or not do? Why was I waiting around for happiness believing it would serendipitously land on my doorstep after a series of events occurred?
As I made the transition into a more creative space with my outdoor photography, I learned how to be more mindful of my surroundings in the beautiful landscape. I shifted my mindset from “I must achieve to be happy” to “I am happy and satisfied with simply enjoying my experiences and the process of creating rather than hanging my happiness on anecdotal results,” which reduced the feelings of frustration and disappointment I felt among the grey cubicle walls and early in my photography career.
I learned the exact opposite of my original misconception: success comes from pursuing something I love day in and day out. Happiness comes before success.
I feel grateful that I have the ability to practice photography (and now also write, teach, speak, and publish along with other creative pursuits) with immense freedom, where traveling, exploring and creating new experiences form the foundations for my visual pursuits—and more importantly, an exciting and fulfilling life where I consciously and deliberately choose happiness every day. I hope others are as fortunate as I am to find what excites them in their own lives—be it photography or something else.
What was it that eventually pushed you to make a change and pursue photography as a career?
After taking a few photography classes at a local community college starting in late 2001 (as an outlet to my stressful Intel job), I started naively selling my work at local art shows in 2003 “just for fun” but with a surprising degree of success. By 2006, a number of magazines, calendar companies, and stock agencies also began publishing my work. As my prospects increased, my interest in running a successful photography business also grew (I majored in Business Administration in college), and I started noodling on the idea of pursuing photography full-time.
Coincidentally, in April 2006, while drinking Guinness in a pub in Ireland during an eight-week paid sabbatical from work (a benefit Intel employees receive every seven years of service), I noticed an announcement scrolling across the bottom of a TV screen. The ticker indicated that for the first time in its history, Intel planned to lay off people, specifically about 10,000 employees. I decided I would return after my sabbatical to try to get a severance package. Except I got promoted, which meant I was ineligible for any involuntary separation deal.
By August 2006, recurring health issues (which, in hindsight, were all stress related) were taking a major toll on me, both physically and mentally. I came home from a particularly uneventful day at work sobbing and told my husband I would pay my entire six-figure salary to make my pain go away.
At that moment, we collectively agreed it was time for me to pursue a new path in life—one filled with joy, peace, wondering, and wandering: photography. I continued working until February 2007 and then walked out of my own accord on February 28, 2007—a date I refer to as my personal Independence Day and one I celebrate like my birthday.
What were some of the early struggles you faced, do they still exist today, and how have you managed or dealt with them over the years?
Around 2006-2007, as I sought to leave my job to pursue photography, I consulted with a number of professional photographers (many of whom had been in the industry between 15 and 30 years). I hoped to incorporate their suggestions into my own transition and experiences. The overwhelming feedback I received was that I would never make it as a full-time landscape photographer for two reasons: one, the photography industry had changed so much (the digital revolution had just begun) that opportunities to make a living were rapidly diminishing; and two, as a woman, I would never cut it being alone for extended periods of time in the wild (which, ironically, was exactly what I loved—and love—to do).
Lacking the experience and confidence to disagree, I heeded their advice. After all, they had been in the industry long enough to know, right? Although I left Intel with a solid part-time landscape photography business already under my belt, I set it (and my passion for it) aside and started photographing everything but the landscape. I photographed landscape architecture, architecture, senior portraits, youth soccer, golf (I knew nothing about golf!), jewelry, food, and just about anything anyone threw in my direction, except for weddings. This commercial focus ended up being very profitable, but I did not love the work. Every time I came home from a commercial shoot, I would ask myself, is this really what I left Intel for?
In the summer of 2010, the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) invited me to speak about visualization at their annual conference. As I walked through the hotel doors, I saw hundreds of people who were successful at outdoor communications—including photography, writing, radio, and TV. I thought, if they can do it, so can I! After that conference, I dropped all my commercial clients to focus entirely on inspiring people to enjoy the outdoors through my work.
While it may seem like that early advice led me astray, the beauty of having explored photography in so many different directions is that I now know with complete certainty that I am on the right path pursuing outdoor photography. The commercial experience also helped me develop unique skills and knowledge I now incorporate into my artistic and business practices. I gained the confidence I needed, but initially lacked. I also learned to seek out feedback from others and consider their advice, but I also know not to let such input overtake what I hold in my heart.
If you love the work, keep on keeping on. However, if you do not love the work, keep trying new things until you do. Life is too short to do things you don’t like to do.
I read a number of “Making The Image” posts on your blog and was both impressed and refreshed by the intent behind every decision you make while creating an image. At what point in your career did you realize the importance that depth and personality play in an image?
In need of a creative jolt, I applied for—and was accepted—to serve as an Artist-in-Residence at Acadia National Park in Maine in 2009. During my first residency, I hoped to explore a place I had never seen before and to build a new portfolio of images while studying the relationship between rock and water. I ended up falling in love with the park and applied for a second residency in 2010 and then a third in 2013 (when I served as the park’s first ever winter Artist-in-Residence).
At the beginning of my winter residency (after spending almost 150 days in the park), I found myself on the eastern side of the Schoodic Peninsula bundled in all the clothes I owned at sunrise with my 16-35mm lens and a three-stop graduated neutral density filter in hopes of getting a nice composition replete with layers, lines, and following all the “rules.” I snapped the exposure nonchalantly, and said aloud, “Yep, there’s another good image.” I looked at the rising sun, and realized two things: first, I had finally reached technical proficiency and second, I was bored out of my mind. And I had three weeks left in my residency!
I went out to Schoodic Point to analyze my situation and to decide how to proceed with my remaining time in the park. I reminisced about the times I spent in the park and wondered if perhaps I had simply been to Acadia too many times. Then, serendipitously, my brain wandered to a moment I had experienced during my second residency in October 2010. At that time, I had the fortunate opportunity to help establish the Photojournalism class for the Schoodic Education Adventure—a residential education program for 4th-thru-8th graders where they learn about art and science in Acadia’s natural classroom.
While leading a group of fourth graders through the forest on a photo walk for the program, a young boy in my group suddenly lost all his marbles. He kept repeating, “LOOK AT THAT MUSHROOM!” In this mind, he had found the coolest fungi on the planet. He then looked up at me and said matter-of-factly before snapping a single photograph, “I think I want to be a photographer just like you when I grow up.”
When he said this, my heart melted. However, recalling this moving moment later, I cringed. That little boy thought that as a photographer I did what he had just done all the time. He thought I ran around the forest with unbridled joy, photographing whatever it was that sparked my emotions. Until this moment, my photographic approach felt nothing like that; I was stuck in my “16mm, three-stop graduated neutral density, good technical composition at sunrise or sunset” boring habit.
So I asked myself, what if that is how I started approaching things? I had nothing to lose by trying. As it turned out, I now have a fourth-grader to thank for teaching me the foundation for creating meaningful personal visual expressions. He taught me to play, act curious and express gratitude and awe, to bring my goofy and enthusiastic personality anywhere and everywhere I went, to photograph whatever made me head-over-heals-crazy excited wherever my journey took me. He taught me to run wildly around the beach and to lose all my marbles when I saw things like bubbles! (I totally love bubbles!)
Since that revelation, I no longer need to rely on my surroundings, weather, equipment, or other external factors to make effective images.
I mentioned it before in other venues, but it is also worth repeating here: once the shackles of habit, expectations, and conformity fall off and you taste this downright delicious creative freedom, it is almost impossible to look at photography, the world, or even life in the same way again.
How has your creative vision evolved over the years, and was there anything in particular that influenced the approach that you now take with your images?
When I first started tinkering with the technical aspects of photography during my first community college class, I remember visiting locations that meant something to me, like places I visited before on vacation (without a camera), family-owned properties, and nearby recreation lands. In doing so, I could quickly assess “did what I see come out of the camera?” As I fumbled with the concepts of things like aperture and shutter speed, more often than not, the answer was no. With that, I knew where to focus my technical efforts to improve.
As I gained proficiency, and as my desire to get published in magazines increased, I turned to trying to put my own spin on iconic scenes around the southwest—usually by photographing them at different times of day, in different weather conditions, etc. Shooting classic compositions helped me benchmark my skills against others, but bored me (which was what triggered my application for the Artist-in-Residency in Acadia National Park). As mentioned in my previous answer, that opportunity allowed me to transform myself from a photographer who liked to take pretty pictures into a visual artist pursuing my own voice. And as I continue to grow and evolve as a person, I expect my creative vision will continue to grow and evolve as well.
Your portfolios cover a wide range of locations throughout North America, but the one that stands out is Acadia National Park. How important is it for you to form a connection with the land, and is there any approach in particular that helps you do so? Or, in other words: how do you tune out the noise while you’re creating?
I am not sure I valued connecting with the land until I actually experienced that connection in Acadia. Before then, I acted like a frantic water skipper—darting from one location to another trying to make the best images I could based on where the interesting weather was happening. However, after spending 6 to 12 weeks a year in Acadia (depending on the year), I have undoubtedly found my “photographic home”—the place where my heart beats a little faster, and where I feel a stirring in my soul. But like building human bonds, that relationship took time to develop.
In my first residency, I did exactly what I did in the southwest: I tried to take the best possible photographs of classic scenes. In my second residency, I tried to shoot similar scenes but in a different season—autumn, at the height of fall colors. When I looked at the resulting images, however, they felt distant, cold, and disconnected despite being technically sound (and sellable). I was taking pictures of the land; I was not making images about the land and about my connection with it.
As I returned to Acadia over and over again, I continued to learn as much as I could about its history, geology, oceanography, flora, fauna, people, culture—anything Acadia-related—so that I could deepen my visual stories about the place I love. For example, I learned about fluid dynamics so I could identify water patterns on the shoreline. I learned about shatter zones so I could tell the story of why the rocks in places like Great Head, Sand Beach, and Little Hunters Beach look like chocolate chip cookie dough balls. I learned about the Great Fire of 1947 and why the vegetation on the west side of Jesup Trail is the old-growth hemlocks while the east side features the birches and grasses of regeneration. Curiosity drove knowledge, which drove understanding and appreciation, which drove a deeper connection within the park, which drove more interesting stories, which drove me to express new ideas about the places I loved, which drove me to fall more deeply in love with these places, which led to more curiosity.
All this knowledge colors the lens I look through when I wander not just around Acadia, but everywhere I go. While it draws me to notice certain things, I am also cognizant of looking out for “invisible gorillas” (www.theinvisiblegorilla.com). Our brains can only take in so much stimuli at one time, and it filters our attention based on a number of factors, one being what we expect.
Although I may be subconsciously biased, when I arrive at a location, I try to throw out expectations I might have and approach with a quiet, zen-like “No mind” mentality. (Research shows that one of the fastest ways to inhibit an idea from coming to life is to force it. So if you are running around with a camera in your hand saying, “I know there is a good picture here somewhere,” chances are good you will not find it.) I keep walking around until something catches my eye, or as Marion Patterson once said, “Something whispers, ‘PSST! Come take my picture.’”
As a self-proclaimed over-analyzer, I used to have a difficult time tuning things out. I used to hum “Flora’s Secret” by Enya until my brain turned off. I have since learned formal mindfulness techniques, which allowed me to become more aware of not just things I expected but also the experience of engaging all senses in a given outing.
Do you ever feel a pressure to create while you’re out in the wilderness, or to come away with an image you consider successful? How do you balance the process with the experience?
When I started out, I put tremendous pressure on myself to produce successful images as frequently as possible. How else would I compete with those who had been in the industry for 30 years?!
Like many who practice photography, while I worked at Intel, I had limited vacation time and spent good money to travel to sexy locations so I felt I had to make the most of my opportunities. I remember getting so frustrated and disappointed when I would show up, find a decent composition, wait for hours for sunset, and then not get “good light.” It was maddening! It was also a completely unrealistic, unsatisfying, and unsustainable way to make images. Sure, I could usually pop out a technically-sound, sellable image, but I could hardly call it successful in expressing something that carried deep personal meaning.
Although difficult for some to comprehend, I now start with zero expectations of making any images when I travel. None. Zip. Nada.
My sole purpose for exploring a location is to mindfully engage and fully experience my surroundings. Period. Now every outing, regardless of weather or other external factors, leads to fulfillment.
If I happen to connect with the land in a profound enough manner (like “LOOK AT THAT MUSHROOM!,” which one of my friends dubbed a “photogasm”), only then does the camera have even a chance of coming out of my bag. Sometimes I make an image. Sometimes I feel inspired to write a poem or travelogue instead. Sometimes my connection makes me dance (I take ballet classes when I at am home in Arizona). Sometimes I will try to mimic the sounds I hear with my flute. In one case, an initial lack of connection with lily pads in Acadia inspired me to paint for the first time in order for me to see this subject from a fresh perspective.
While inspiration can come from anywhere and at any time, a meaningful creative expression starts from within, and I believe it can manifest itself outwardly and effectively in a variety of forms. In pursuing a creative life, I see no reason why I should confine my personal expressions to the rectangular box the camera manufacturers have provided to me.
I’ve noticed you mention the phrase “you can sleep when you’re dead” numerous times throughout articles/interviews, and you’ve also chosen it as the name of your blog. Tell me a little bit about your connection to that mindset, and is it a way of thinking that you’ve always adopted?
I adopted the mantra “You can sleep when you’re dead” for my photography and blog a number of years ago, but this philosophy has also served as my guide for living life, approaching my photography and writing, and conducting my businesses since leaving my job at Intel.
I use it to help me make decisions for things like, should I sit on the couch or go explore? Should I try this new approach or not? Should I write that blog or not? Should I drive four hours in the middle of the night to watch the sunrise or not? Should I contact that editor or not? To every question, I will answer, “You can sleep when you’re dead. Go for it! What do you have to lose?” We only get one chance to enjoy the precious gift of life, so why not make the most of it?
To clarify, I do not mean it literally. Funny enough, I need a solid eight hours of sleep to function properly, and I sure love a good nap. I also do not mean to encourage people to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Sleep allows us to recover and regenerate for the next round of fun.
On your website, you offer a wide range of workshops and e-books and it’s apparent that teaching and helping others is an important part of your career. Is there one lesson, or piece of advice that you give to others most often? Is there a specific problem that a lot of photographers seem to deal with?
I see a variety of challenges from photographers at all levels in my photography workshops. The one I see the most (and that I like to nip in the bud) is the notion that a person might feel like he/she does not possess the capacity to be a creative photographer. I frequently hear, “I’m a [insert profession here: lawyer, doctor, nuclear physicist, software engineer, stay at home mom, etc.], I’m not creative. I just can’t be creative.”
According to creativity experts, if you have two thoughts cross your brain, then you have the capacity to be creative (under a premise called “conceptual blending” where you combine two previously separate ideas to develop something new).
If you grant yourself permission to be curious, explore, screw up, and learn from the experience, then you have the capacity to create something new. If you are solving problems in any capacity, then you are already being creative.
Coming out of Intel as a stressed out, overanalyzing software engineer, I never thought I possessed the capacity to be creative! But through experimentation with photography and much research, I have learned that each of us possesses exactly what we need to convey unique personal expressions through our photography. Creativity already lives within each of us.
In my workshops, I therefore spend a lot of time trying to coax out the individuality and idiosyncrasies of each of my participants as they explore the land through various exercises focused on things like conceptual blending, mindfulness, visualization, and connecting verbal language with visual language in ways like poetry. It’s not just about learning photography; in my workshops, it’s about building a more creative life through diverse experiences, tapping into a person’s existing wealth of material (background, experiences, memories, knowledge, and personal emotions), and bringing to life a personal connection with what one observes and feels in the field.
A simple shift in attitude and a positive experience (e.g. in a safe learning environment) where you can experiment with making this connection can make all the difference. And when I get to witness that moment when someone finally comprehends that they can be—and in fact, are—creative, when those fireworks go off and they taste that delicious creative freedom I spoke of earlier, it’s one of the best feelings in the world for me as an instructor.
Nowadays, social media is without a doubt the platform that most photographers share their work on. Unfortunately, it seems like the desire for acceptance and recognition can have such a huge impact on photographers and the direction they take while creating their images. What are your thoughts on authenticity and do you think it is important for people to embrace their own creative vision?
We each pursue photography for our own reasons. As the idiom goes, to each his own. Thus, I am not in a position to criticize those who derive joy out of seeking acceptance and recognition from others. After all, we all know how good it feels to get a bunch of Facebook “Likes” and comments on our photography. Humans are a social bunch, so it is somewhat natural to feel good when we receive this kind of feedback.
Besides, social media has opened unmatched opportunities for photographers to market themselves to a large audience at little or no financial cost. It also provides incredible visibility into the photography world unlike any other time in history. Used appropriately, it can offer an enormous palette of inspiration too.
Where social media takes a nosedive for me, though, is when photographers link the value of their photographic work with the feedback they receive. That Facebook “Like” lasts all of about one second. Maybe the personal gratification lasts a few seconds longer when someone buys a print or shares a meaningful story or memory your photograph inspired. This recognition, however, often lasts less than a 30-second exposure, and then poof, it’s over. Those generous people who liked your photograph have moved on with their lives. And guess who has to live with the image you created? YOU.
The memory of the experience you had while creating the image, the emotion you experienced while in the creative process, your inspiration for creating your own work of art, who you were with, your circumstances at the time, etc. all last as long as your memory does. For me, then, the photograph is simply a by-product of an already authentic and meaningful process—something I do not offer up to the outside world to decide if it is worth a Facebook “Like” or not.
I hope people enjoy my creations, I really do, but given the choice between creating a photograph for a bunch of one-second Facebook “Likes” or as the result of a profound experience, I will take the latter every time.
After recently watching the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” (which I highly recommend), my friend, Guy Tal and I began discussing the question “If no one ever saw your images, would you still photograph?” I laughed while answering “yes,” because quite honestly, the outside world sees so few of the images I make. At the risk of sounding feisty, it’s my life and my photography, I’ll do and make what I wish!
In all seriousness, I create my photography for myself first and to help others a close second (simply because helping others enjoy the outdoors is innately in my blood. It’s what I love to do.). Therefore, it is difficult for me to pursue photography or life in general looking for acceptance and recognition from outside sources—and I encourage others to embrace their “YOUniqueness” as well.
It’s often easy for people to get tunnel vision when it comes to photography and the pursuit of becoming “successful”. Unfortunately, this can often lead to them ignoring all of the other amazing benefits that come from being a photographer. If you had to pick one thing that photography has provided you with that you consider the most rewarding, what would it be and why?
Being a full-time photographer has helped me truly embrace the notion that we each only get one chance at this gift called life. And no amount of time is guaranteed. This idea was emphasized even more profoundly for me after a life-changing paddling experience on Lake Powell in November 2015—an experience about which I’m now writing a book currently titled “Going With the Flow” (targeting a 2017 release). Rather than try to live up to societal expectations, how will you use the gift and your time here on this Earth? How will you fill your life with things that get you up in the morning and make you proud to go to bed at night? And why not choose to be grateful and happy with what you have right now?
Despite the hardships and obstacles along the way, thanks to my time in photography, I now try to make every day the most glorious day of my life, getting drunk off all my favored delights and on every moment.
If you had to pick one piece of advice for anyone who is looking to pursue photography as a full-time career, what would it be and why?
First, know yourself. What types of photography get you most excited? Your enthusiasm will materialize in your photography and in your client interactions. Also, what are your unique talents and knowledge? Using your passion and experiences, how can you serve your customers differently from anyone else?
If I may offer more than just one piece of advice, my second would be this: instead of approaching potential clients with “hey, look at my photograph! Isn’t it pretty!” I recommend starting with the question, “What can I do for you?” What can you do to make your customers’ lives easier and better? This may sound harsh, but when it comes to business, it is not about you or your pretty pictures. There are millions of people making beautiful photographs in (and out of) the industry today. It is all about the customer and their needs and interests. How can you help them solve their problems or reduce their pain? Each customer will have a different answer, so listen closely to their challenges and ideas so you can develop a unique solution for them.
And if I may sneak in one more: ask yourself “What if…” (and then “Why not?”). Learn from your answers and experiments; there is no “fail.”
Plow through all the irrational fears and see what happens. If you are blazing your own path and testing new ideas, inevitably things may not work out. Then, pick yourself up and keep trying until things do.
As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And I’ve learned in the last few years that most people are too busy worrying about whether they are succeeding or failing to notice whether you are succeeding or failing. So, what if? And why not?
Here at Image & Rhythm we’re all about showcasing like-minded people with the goal of inspiring others to chase their dreams and become more successful photographers. Who would you like to see us interview next and why?
I would second the vote for Michael Gordon (www.michael-gordon.com, Guy Tal recommended him in his interview), as he not only creates inspiring work, but he is also one of the nicest people you will ever meet.
I would also suggest my dear friend Floris van Breugel (www.artinnaturephotography.com) because of his incredibly creative approach and eye.
Finally, I would recommend another good buddy, Chuck Kimmerle (www.chuckkimmerle.com) for his moving monochromatic images and incredible sense of humor.
In addition to Guy’s influence, I have learned much about photography and life from these amazingly talented gents.