For this week’s edition of The Creative Journey, I’m excited to feature fellow Ontarian Ethan Meleg. Ethan is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes, wildlife, and outdoor recreation. His sense of humour and passion for his craft are wildly evident when following his journey. I’ve been a big fan of Ethan’s work for a number of years and can say that it has definitely helped fuel my passion for exploring my home province. Make sure you check out Ethan’s website and Facebook page to keep up to date with his travels and images! I want to say a huge thanks to Ethan for taking the time to share his story.
You’ve been involved in the photography world for over two decades and have without a doubt witnessed a lot of growth in both your own approach and the direction of the industry. Looking back on your journey, what were the biggest misconceptions you had about being a professional outdoor photographer compared to how you view and value it now?
I started my photography business at a time when there were few other nature photographers, let alone pros, so it was much easier to break into the market and have success. I enjoyed significant growth each year in my business and thought it would last forever. But then digital technology emerged and caused an explosion in the popularity of photography that was so dramatic, it shattered the traditional business model and caught many working pros by surprise. Today, there’s an abundance of great photographers and the market is wildly oversaturated with incredible images for cheap. Hard work no longer guarantees success – you have to be tactically strategic and innovative to succeed today.
What were some of the early struggles you faced in your career, do they still exist today and how have you managed them over the years?
It’s a long, uphill journey to develop professional photography skills and build a business. When getting started, the expenses for gear and travel are high but there’s little money coming in. There were times I’d spent so much on film and processing that I didn’t think I was going to be able to make my next mortgage payment. Having a job to that provided stable income was critical to getting started (although marrying someone wealthy would have been a good alternative!). I found a career that complimented my photography business perfectly, but it was tough in the early days working a combined 80 hours plus each week.
There was no shortage of disappointments along the way including failures and rejections. I had to learn to take those with stride and always keep moving forward, even if it was just a little step. Success in this business comes by being extremely driven, focused and perseverant.
Most of us have big dreams and goals when it comes to photography. Unfortunately, inconsistency and self-doubt are two of the biggest road blocks stopping people from reaching their true potential. How do you push through the periods of time where you’re lacking both creative and emotional drive?
I go through ups and downs just like anyone else and used to feel guilty when I fell into a creative rut, especially when the light was good! But then I realized that ruts were a normal part of life and you actually need down time to be fresh at other times. You can’t function at 100% continuously. So now when I need to recharge, I hit my couch with popcorn and binge watch shows on Netflix… guilt free! Sometimes I don’t take a photo for weeks, but when the mojo kicks back in I’m usually highly creative and energized.
Anyone who follows your work knows that you have a great sense of humour and constantly keep things fun. Have you always managed to maintain a constant enthusiasm for your craft and if so, what keeps you moving forward?
My outlook on life has been shaped by many people and experiences, but the biggest influence was losing my sister tragically when she was 23 and I was just 20. That sounds like a shitty thing to go through, and it was…. but it sure gave me a ‘big picture’ outlook on what’s important in life. Time is precious, so if you’re not following your dreams and having fun, you’re wasting time. People spend too much time worrying about trivial things. I’m having too much fun to do that!
It’s easy to look at other photographers who are successful or popular and think that everything came easy for them, when really, that couldn’t be further from the truth. What is one risk or chance you took that didn’t work out in your professional career, and how important do you think failure is when it comes to growth?
I’m a firm believer that you learn so much more from your mistakes than your successes! My biggest errors were all related to learning the craft of photography. I had no formal training in photography and it was in the age before the internet, so I couldn’t just Google ‘how to….’. Most of the techniques I learned were through trial and error, which cost me a small fortune in film. Every single click cost me about 30cents, so I had to learn quickly – not only to capture good photos but to keep me financially solvent!
Your work covers a wide variety of locations and subjects. One day you’ll be posting work from your backyard in Ontario, other days you’ll be somewhere warmer and a little more “exotic” like Costa Rica. What motivates you to experience new places?
I’m most inspired when immersed in beautiful landscapes and places with interesting biodiversity. So I love to travel and explore. Shooting photos is my way of recording those experiences and I share them with others, in the hope that it will make them want to visit those places or advocate to protect them.
I read that in your early thirties you sold your house and travelled across North America in a VW camper van. How long had you been planning that trip, what did you learn from it and how important is it to you to pursue goals or dreams?
Here’s the back-story to my ‘Freedom 35’ trip. I was living in beautiful house with a view of Georgian Bay and was working crazy long hours. I had been planning on buying myself an expensive leather couch worth a couple of grand. A day before buying it, I said to myself “What the fuck am I doing? I already have a couch that is perfectly fine. Am I really working this hard so I can buy a fancy couch?”.
That was a watershed moment for me. I realized that I’d fallen into the materialism trap – a vicious circle of working hard, then rewarding myself for the hard work by buying stuff I didn’t need.
When I thought about it, what I really wanted in life was more time to do what I enjoy, not more stuff. So I reacted in my typical bold fashion – I sold my house and most of my possessions, bought a VW camper van and spent an entire year living in the van traveling around the continent shooting photos. It was the best year of my life and resulted in some of the best images of my career.
The ironic thing…… after living in a van for a year, you know what I missed the most? A comfortable couch to sit on. Go figure!
You obviously have a huge passion for nature and the outdoors. Has being involved in outdoor photography impacted or influenced your love for the wilderness and if so in which ways?
It’s exactly the other way around for me. I’ve been a serious nature nerd since I was a little kid. Now I’m just a nature nerd with a camera. I’m not into photography as an activity unto itself and I only shoot subjects that I’m interested in. I have a deep curiosity about nature and love exploring it with my camera, then using those photos to inspire others. So basically, it’s my love of wilderness that influences my photography.
Nowadays, social media is without a doubt the platform that most photographers share their work on. Unfortunately, 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?
Social media is awesome and it sucks at the same time. Success in photography these days is closely tied to having a strong social media presence, so you can’t ignore it. But social media is a hungry beast that needs to be fed continually and I hate being a slave to it.
Having said that, social media has made it so much easier to learn photography, to share and inspire others, and to connect with people who share your passions. The bar has been raised immensely because of social media – new techniques spread quickly and competition fuels better photography. It’s exciting and fun, but it’s not a substitute for actually getting outside and taking photos.
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 gifts 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?
An important life lesson that I’ve learned from photography is the value of getting out of my comfort zone. Whenever I’ve reached a plateau in photography, I’ve challenged myself by trying a new technique or focusing on new subjects. It’s fun to try new things and keeps it interesting! Outside of photography, I’ll try all sorts of things from learning to do my own home renovations, to sky diving, or eating strange foods while travelling (deep fried tarantulas, most recently!). Life would be dull without the excitement of new challenges and experiences!
Pursuing a passion can easily consume a person, leaving them feeling like there are not enough hours in a day to accomplish their next goal. How do you balance your photography career with the other areas of your life and how important is that balance?
Good question! I sacrificed healthy relationships and a balanced life to build my photography career. For at least a decade, I put photography before all else because I thought it was necessary to succeed. Gradually, I started working more strategically (smarter, not harder). I stopped servicing all clients that were low-paying or high-maintenance and shifted my focus solely to higher-return markets. The result was incredible – I doubled my income in a year and worked way less. This allowed me more time and energy to be innovative in my business and it restored some balance back to my life. Now, at this point in my career, I’m fortunate to enjoy some of the benefits of success (opportunities present themselves more often), so I cherry-pick the best which leaves me more time to travel or hang out with my girlfriend and friends.
What is the best advice you can give anyone looking to make changes in their life, follow their dreams or pursue their passion more seriously?
First off, remember that you’re going to die some day. Hopefully it’s when you’re old, but you never know. So don’t squander your time or carry regrets. Follow your dreams and live passionately. Set a plan with realistic goals and be prepared to work hard. Reaching your dreams is the most satisfying reward you’ll ever experience, so go for it!
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?
My photographic mentor and inspiration is legendary nature photographer Robert McCaw from southern Ontario. He’s one of the most successful and widely published nature photographers in North America, but a lot of people haven’t heard of him because he’s just a hard-working, humble guy who doesn’t care about ego exposure. Check him out at www.robertmccaw.com.