You know when you’re walking down the street or sidewalk minding your own business and someone tells you “Smile” and you make half of an eye-contact at them, you’re thinking: 1) who the hell walks around smiling like they’re a Disneyland princess, 2) mind your own business and 3) no really, who walks around by themselves with permanent smiley face on at all times?
Well, I met Cindy traveling in Belize and she is one of those people. She walks around with her bright welcoming smile, openly tells her story and absolutely wants to know yours. She is so curious about everything and everyone and it is immediately contagious.
The more I got to know her, the more I wanted to share her story here for anyone who wants a little inspiration or just to get to know a cool person who travels and takes pictures. :)
How did you get to where you are now? A travel photographer who travels the world. Did you just wake up and make it happen or was it a process?
It was most definitely a process! I am a firm believer in a person’s ability to re-invent herself. Sometime over and over and over again! I worked for many years after college as an outdoor guide and met myself in the wide open spaces and on the whitewater rivers. I truly loved my work and my life, but the combination of an ongoing fight with cancer, increasing pressure to get a “real job,” and a piece of me that yearned to be challenged intellectually while contributing to society in a meaningful way led me to law school. While the education was rigorous and stimulating and some of the work truly excited the part of me that thrives when called to take action, the prospect of practicing law felt constricting and there was an intuitive voice telling me it simply wasn’t the right fit for me.
In my third year of law school, I discovered photography. By the time I graduated from law school that spring, I’d decided to take the money I’d set aside for the bar exam and instead buy camera equipment! I spent the next several years building a successful wedding and portrait business. Around the same time, I was commissioned by an organization to photograph the work that they were doing in El Salvador and it rocked my world. While I’d traveled extensively around the United States and seen many of its wonders, my international experience was quite limited. That trip to El Salvador opened my eyes and I began to wonder what it might look like to seek more travel in my work. That process is still evolving, but since that first trip to El Salvador, I’ve returned there twice more, worked in Haiti, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, India, and Belize. With each trip, I am more inspired, more alive, and I feel ever more connected to the world around me, to people everywhere.
What advice do you have for people who are afraid to quit their job and go after what they truly want?
Trust yourself. Trust your gut… look hard at what you want. Is it really what you want? What are you willing to do to get there? To give up in the process? One of the most revolutionary discoveries of my life was the realization that creativity is something that a person practices. It waxes and wanes in proportion to the energy and work a person puts into it. For years I believed that creative people were simply born with a mysterious kind of talent, that it was inherent and genetic, like blue eyes or curly hair. When I started to ask questions and read more and look harder, I realized that I couldn’t find a single example of a person I considered creative who wasn’t working crazy hard to grow in their craft.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about his early years writing in the back of his laundry room in the middle of the night after his day job and an evening of parenting. JK Rowling scribbled away and created Harry Potter despite tremendous financial struggle and being a single parent. These are people that, yes, are talented, but more than that, they were willing to give up convenience and certain comforts (often a full night’s rest!) to create, to pursue their calling. Robert M. Pirsig holds the Guinness Book of Record’s title for the most rejections (121) of what would become a best-seller for his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
It takes a lot of belief in your creation to keep going when others tell you it’s not worth it. My point here is this: you have to trust yourself to take a leap. You have to trust that you can figure out a way not to starve or become homeless in your pursuits (sometimes a creative endeavor in itself!), that your path in life isn’t defined by a single fork in the road but rather an endless series of insane intersections that will allow you to change directions at any time, that you can handle the insecurity and bumps and sometimes gigantic learning curves.
You are a cancer survivor. How did that change your life?
I was initially diagnosed when I was in my early twenties and it changed everything. Everything. There is simply no way to continue going about day-to-day life with the same lazy assumption that I will eventually “figure it out,” that someday I will __ (fill in the blank). It’s cliché, I know, but I was confronted suddenly with the harsh reality that this– right now- is my life, and it could end at any moment without warning. It came to a head when a second round with cancer began, this time a little more serious and with more impact on my physical abilities. Suddenly unable to carry a backpack for miles (or, you know, walk to the mailbox), I simply couldn’t pursue the work I’d been doing (outdoor adventure guide) and I was deeply angry at my body for its betrayal. So I settled on law school and began making the arrangements.
During my first year of law school, cancer reared its ugly head again and it plagued me throughout the rest of school. So at exam time, I was spending much of my study time in radiology waiting rooms and talking with fellow patients facing grim prognoses. The effect of this was that, while I wanted to pass my exams and know the material, I just couldn’t quite manage to muster my classmates’ utter panic at the thought of potential failure. “But if you don’t do well enough, you won’t be able to finish!” they’d say, eyes wild with alarm, “You’re life will be over!” Except, as it turned out, it wouldn’t. I knew what over looked like. It looked like a chair in the chemo room that had been occupied a week before but was now empty. It looked like a 36 year old single mom whose double mastectomy didn’t get it all. A failed law school exam? That was pretty handle-able in the scheme of things and that attitude left a gaping divide between my classmates and myself. I wondered what that meant, and what to do with it. Law school isn’t just an educational investment, it’s a financial one. I was more than $150,000 in debt pursuing this degree, so it seemed like utter insanity to just walk away.
So I didn’t. At first.
I looked around at practice areas and found a few that could fit, that I could make work. It was in the midst of this that I bought my first-ever camera. I started to have this secret daydream about being a photographer, but it seemed so ludicrous, so completely outlandish. I wasn’t a creative person, I thought, I have no business even thinking about this. But the idea had taken hold. I started bargaining with myself, I’ll practice law for a few years and then I’ll pursue this…maybe I can practice law part time and do photography part time…maybe, maybe, maybe. I wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all the voice in my head that insisted on reminding me that later isn’t a guarantee, that someday doesn’t always happen. I’ve never wanted cancer survivor to become my identity, to become all that I saw when I looked in the mirror, to take over who I am and who I could be, but it is impossible to underestimate the tragic gift that being faced with the real possibility of imminent death can be. It doesn’t brook excuses or allow me to lie to myself for very long, it pushes truth into the light and forces me to act accordingly, whether that’s convenient or not.
You seem so open and curious to everyone and thing around you. Were you always this way or did you make a conscious decision to change?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t curious. Being curious, opening conversations, asking questions…not only have they helped me gain insight into things I never would have known or understood otherwise, but they have led to some amazing interactions and I have met some truly incredible and inspiring people. Thoreau thought that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and maybe that’s true, but between moments of struggle, I’ve found that most people are leading complex, rich, emotional, amazing lives and have an uncanny ability to offer truth or connection or maybe just a shared laugh over a bite to eat at just the right moment. Many of my most precious memories have come directly as a result of being truly interested in knowing more about the people around me, what their story is, how they came to be in the place that I found them.
I’ve come a long way from that girl in middle school trying desperately hard to pretend she hadn’t stayed up all night reading the book assignment for class, in love with the characters and dying to talk to someone, anyone who felt as bowled over as she did! I can no longer imagine anyone I wouldn’t enjoy talking to or an opportunity to learn that I would pass up willingly!
Cindy is a photographer, writer and soaker-inner of life who lives in Maine. Check out her writings and photography on her website.