Trading business casual for board shorts.
How I made the transition from a suburban office to the big, wide, world.
Why did you leave a stable career to become a freelancer?'
When I see the question written out like that, the decision to 'go solo' sounds pretty crazy. Still, many readers have asked variations of that question over the years so this page covers the details of how I made the switch from a 9 to 5 career in the DC suburbs to living abroad as a photographer.
I'm hoping my story might help you make the switch yourself--especially if you're thinking of doing something crazy / adventurous (like quitting your job).
I'm not trying to pretend that I knew exactly what I was doing when I was making the switch, but I know I always enjoyed reading about how others took a chance to follow their dream when I was working up the courage to do it myself.
Here's the short version of how I made the leap:
- In late 2003 I left a very stable (and rewarding) career at a great non-profit in the DC area to join the Peace Corps (sounds crazy, I know).
- Hit the lottery in 2004 with a Peace Corps assignment at the top Marine Biology Lab in the Philippines. The experience hooked me on world travel, learning about new cultures, spending as much time as possible in the ocean, and bringing my camera along for the ride to capture the highlights.
- Finished the Peace Corps in the middle of 2006 and was officially unable to imagine going back to work in an office again. Began trying to find out if anyone would actually pay me to travel, write, and take photos.
- Launched my freelance career in 2007 by basing myself in the Philippines and working on magazine articles and selling photos from my stock collection.
- Was invited to help out with the Photovoices International project in 2008 which was sponsored by National Geographic, the Ford Foundation, the World Wildlife Foundation, and other international NGO's.
- Visited Bali for the first time and become totally hooked on the island's beauty, local culture, interesting expats, and ocean sports (especially surfing).
- Now spend my time trying to create the best images possible and work on interesting projects with great clients in Southeast Asia and across the world.
There's a bit more to it than that, so keep reading below for the full story.
(And don't worry, this isn't written in the third person).
Fly Fishing the Dot-com Boom
Remember the Dot-com boom? We had IPO millionaires in their twenties, mandatory foosball tables in San Francisco offices, and the lowest unemployment rate in living memory.
I actually remember seeing a newspaper headline in May 1998 that read something like: 'People Thought Previously Un-hireable are Now Entering the Work Force'. It was the best job market in human history and I was graduating right in the middle of the gold IPO rush.
We were all going to be rich by selling dog food on the internet.
The only problem was that I had no technology skills and wasn't qualified for any of the jobs that I saw in the newspaper. I knew about Hydrology, Geology, Atmosphere & Weather, and Ecology, not Sql databases, PHP scripts, or e-commerce payment gateways.
It was depressing to think that my Environmental Science degree from the University of Virginia didn't qualify me for the majority of the jobs I saw in the newspaper, but those were the breaks.
To be totally honest, the idea of working in an office (even one with a foosball table) wasn't very enticing. I wanted to find a way that I could get paid to be outside, have adventures along the way, and meet interesting people.
I did have one marketable skill back then: how to fool a fish into trying to eat a hook with some fur and feathers on it.
Yes it's true that fly fishing might not get you a job at a Dot com, but it's a hobby that a lot of stressed-out Dot Com'ers were happy to spend a some of their paper profits on to lower their blood pressure.
So with the help of my good friend Bill Bullock, I landed a job as a fly fishing instructor and guide at the Orvis Fly Fishing school in Manchester, Vermont. Green Mountain trout streams, dry flies, and wild brook trout made a lot more sense to me than stock options, gigabytes, and selling dog food over the internet.
This turned out to be a pretty ideal first job out of college for me. And for that beautiful Summer and Fall in New England I spent most of my time outside and meeting a lot of interesting people while teaching them to have fun in (and appreciate) trout streams.
Teaching fly fishing was great when the weather was nice, but what was I supposed to do when it got cold? The seasonal aspect of the job was one pretty significant downside to consider, and after the first year I realized I needed to find an opportunity that would be busy year-round and also challenge me to learn skills beyond trout fishing.
You don't have to spend much time in a trout stream before you begin to realize that pollution, deforestation, and dam building had the potential to wipe out these environments really quick if they aren't protected. I had heard about an environmental non-profit called Trout Unlimited (TU) while working at Orvis. For the past 50+ years, the organization has had great success in restoring and conserving threatened trout streams across the United States.
I wanted to be a part of it.
Why Non-Profit experience might be better than a Master's Degree
At the end of 1999 I was ready to trade in my trout bum days in Vermont, Seattle, and Jackson Hole, WY for the chance to help make a difference in protecting the future of trout and salmon habitat in North America.
The more I learned about the work that Trout Unlimited (TU) was doing, the more I was excited about the chance to join their team.
With the help of Marketing Director John Bleh (who I met while working at Orvis in Vermont), I joined the Marketing Department at Trout Unlimited and began four years of hands-on learning about everything from fundraising, web development, magazine publication, professional photography, and a lot more. Within three years, I was the Director of the Marketing Department and responsible for a budget of $6 million (approximately half of the total budget for the entire organization).
Working with Kenny Mendez, John Griffin, John Bleh, and Bill Sullivan, I learned to love the flexibility variety of projects available at a small non-profit like Trout Unlimited. Since there's always more than enough work to go around, a recent graduate like me had almost complete freedom to work on an amazingly broad range of projects within the organization well beyond my immediate responsibilities within the Marketing Department. In fact, when someone graduating with a liberal arts asks me about where to look for a good first job, I usually recommend checking out the job openings at a non-profit organization that they believe in.
What Trout taught me about professional photography
While I was at TU, my favorite extracurricular project was (by far) editing Trout's annual calendar.
Photography has been a love of mine since I was 17, but it was at Trout Unlimited that I first got to know a lot more about the life of a professional photographer.
I was very lucky to work with many talented photographers while I was at TU, but Tom Montgomery and Val Atkinson were the most fun to collaborate with. They also taught me more about the life of a professional photographer than I could have learned from any book or website, and I owe both of them a huge thank you for all their encouragement and advice when I was first trying to figure out just how you go about getting paid to travel the world and take photos.
And I have to be honest. Looking at their amazing photos from far-off destinations while sitting under the fluorescent sun of an office building in the DC suburbs can be a pretty powerful motivator to get outside. Four years into my time at TU, my love of photography and exploring the world was becoming too difficult to ignore. I knew it was only a matter of time before I needed to get out and experience it for myself.
Another inspiration for my wanderlust were the adventures of my friend Steve in Nepal. He had joined the Peace Corps and started a blog to share his experiences. Since he didn't have regular internet access, I helped him post his stories to his website. Every Monday morning he'd send another hilarious vignette from his life abroad.
Unfortunately, after reading one of his updates from the other side of the world, commuting on the DC Metro felt a whole lot less exciting.
I'd never considered joining the Peace Corps myself, but after a few weeks of Steve's stories I found myself at www.peacecorps.gov to find out what it was all about.
As it turned out, the Virginia recruiting office of the Peace Corps was directly across the street from my office at Trout Unlimited. Maybe it was fate (or random curiosity), but during a lunch break one day I stopped in to ask the recruiters a few questions.
I didn't know it at the time, but that decision totally changed my life.
Into the Unknown... Joining the Peace Corps
What exactly do Peace Corps volunteers do?
This was the biggest question on my mind as the friendly recruiter walked towards me with his outstretched hand within seconds of me walking through the front door of the recruiting office.
I had Kennedy's 'ask not what your country can do for you', quote in my head, a few grainy 1960's-era photos of recent college grads digging latrines or planting rows of crops under the blazing African sun.
Things have changed a lot in the 50 years since Kennedy created the Peace Corps, but what should a Peace Corps volunteer expect to do in the 21st century?
Today, a volunteer is much more likely to be teaching business skills to young entrepreneurs in a bustling Asian city than hoeing fields or building toilets. Of course there's still plenty of projects where the volunteer is doing the latter, but as the needs of developing countries have changed in the intervening decades, the range of Peace Corps assignments have grown much more diverse (and interesting).
But whatever ambiguities might have existed about what I might actually be doing in the Peace Corps, the recruiter knew how to close the deal on the application process.
Within a few minutes of arriving at the Arlington recruiting office they had me in a preliminary interview. I walked out an hour later with a folder stuffed full of application materials and a LOT of questions going through my head--most importantly:
- Am I giving up my 'dream' job?
- Is this a really dumb idea?
- What will people think?
- Where will I go?
- What will I do for two years?
But, like any good salesman, the Peace Corps recruiter knew how to handle these objections: he used the old 'puppy dog' trick.
You know, when the pet store guy hands you a puppy and says "just take it home for a week and see if you like it--don't worry, you can always bring it back."
The Peace Corps version of puppy goes like this: "just apply and see what kind of assignment you get." Certainly makes the 6-12 month application and 27 months of service sound a lot more manageable.
So I started the application process that day. Six months later the invitation for my assignment arrived in the mail and I didn't know what to think:
At the time I had been to Asia only once (Thailand), and knew only the basics about the country:
- 300+ years of Spanish colonization
- MacArthur, WWII, & "I shall return"
- Beautiful islands
- Plenty of natural disasters
Now I had to decide if I was going to take the 'puppy' back to the pet store.
Do some Peace Corps volunteers really go scuba diving?
Aside from being selected for the Philippines program, my assignment had another unexpected twist.
If I accepted, I would join the Coastal Resource Management program with a focus on Sustainable Island Development. The enclosed brochure mentioned coral reefs, scuba diving, and hands-on marine biology in some of the world's most amazing tropical environments.
At that point I saw myself more as a business guy with an environmental background, but it seems my Environmental Science degree and working on salmonid conservation for four years made me a marine biologist in the eyes of the U.S. Government (lucky me).
It all sounded great, but I still had a lot of responsibilities at Trout Unlimited. I had also just received a very generous raise and promotion. To make such a huge switch seemed crazy, and plenty of people told me exactly that.
In the end, it was some great advice from John Griffin that helped me make the final decision to join the Peace Corps. He pointed out that as good as I thought I was at my job, I was not the only person who could handle it. In the end, TU would be just fine without me.
He pointed out that taking a risk and getting outside your comfort zone can be one of the best things someone can do both personally and professionally. In fact, I really saw the Peace Corps as more of a personal development opportunity and a way to get out and help make the world a better place.
So one afternoon in November 2003, I called up my recruiter and told him 'I'm in.'
Still, it was very difficult to leave Trout. Even nearly ten years later I can still say that I owe a lot of the success I've had today to what I learned from everyone from TU. But looking back on everything that's happened since then I can say that joining the Peace Corps was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
It didn't take too long for the magnitude of the decision to fully set in. Only a few days later I found out that I would be leaving at the end of January. I had just a few weeks to pack up my life and catch a plane from San Francisco with 41 others who would come to be known as Peace Corps Philippines Batch 263.
Next stop: Manila.
The Philippines Changes Everything
Remember the famous Peace Corps tagline?
'The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love'.
No doubt this is still true, but my experience was a bit different. If I were to write a tagline, mine would be more along the lines of:
'The Peace Corps Changes Everything'.
It's hard to exaggerate the effect that living overseas in a place that's completely unfamiliar to you can have on your outlook.
When I finally touched down in Manila in late January 2004 aboard a Northwest airlines plane full of bleary-eyed fellow Peace Corps Philippines batch 263 members after a 17-hour flight, I still didn't really know what to expect for the next 27 months.
Within the first week I learned that I'd be working at the Silliman University Marine Lab in Dumaguete on an interpretive environmental education center, as well as other projects with the marine biologists from Silliman. I would be working with Dr. Hilconida Calumpong, one of the most respected marine biologists in the Philippines, and a prominent expert on coastal mangrove forests and seagrass beds.
In the world of Peace Corps assignments, I had officially hit the lottery.
Highlights of the Peace Corps
It would be hard to do justice to everything that happened during my nearly three years of Peace Corps service in this summary, so I won't even try (please check out my blog if you're interested in reading more about those stories). Suffice it to say that the those two and a half years passed more quickly than I could have ever imagined.
Here's the highlights:
- Working in the field with the marine biologists from the Silliman University Marine Lab. We participated in coral reef surveys around the Visayas and even as far away as Eastern Samar. This was an eye-opening introduction to the challenges of Marine Conservation and the issues facing our oceans today.
- Becoming a part of the Dumaguete community and playing music with Frying Nemo. Dumaguete is like a second home to me today thanks to friends like Sande Fuentes and his family, as well as the amazing community of musicians and artists that hang out at Hayahay. I'm also not nearly as scared of getting up in front of a big group of people as I used to be thanks to spending so much time on stage.
- Learning to scuba dive, and becoming a published underwater photographer. This was the beginning of my freelance switch, and I'm still very grateful for the opportunities I had in the Philippines to develop my writing and photography portfolio.
- Publishing magazine articles and having my work used in the Patagonia catalog. I have to thank the wonderfully friendly and talented editors Jane Sievert, Karen Bednorz, and Sus Corez for giving me the opportunity to contribute to their photo projects--getting published by Patagonia has been a dream of mine ever since I got my first camera and they made it a reality.
- Learning a new language, living in a foreign country, and learning how to travel like a local. Without this experience, I don't think there's any way that I would have had the skills to move to a new place like Bali and be able to enjoy it as much as I do. Living in a foreign country is not the same as going on vacation there. Everything from finding a house to going to the grocery store can be an adventure (for good or bad). If you don't have some idea of how to adapt you're going to have a really hard time. The Peace Corps gave me this foundation and at this point I sometimes forget that just a few years ago, the idea of long-term travel (much less living abroad) was an impossibility as far as I was concerned.
- Working with the Apo Island community and learning about their amazing marine sanctuary. I still make it back to Apo regularly to visit, dive, and take photos and I'm always amazed at how the health of the reef seems to continually improve. If you're looking for the best Apo Island experience possible, definitely stay at Liberty's Apo Island Resort--it's been my favorite ever since the first visit there in 2004.
- Meeting and becoming friends with so many great people from the Philippines and the Peace Corps.
I completed my Peace Corps service in July 2006 after extending my service by three months to give me time to work on some additional projects. I also wasn't totally ready for the experience to be over.
This brought my total time in the Peace Corps to thirty months (24 months of service, three months of training, and a three month extension).
Now it was time to figure out how to take everything I'd learned while I was in the Philippines and TU and turn it into my dream job. I didn't know exactly how to do it but I did know one thing:
I wasn't ready to go back to a 'regular' job again.
It's not the years, it's the mileage: From India's Thar Desert sands to the Himalayas of Nepal
In July 2006, Uncle Sam turned me loose on the other side of the world with a $7,000 check and a one-way ticket to Dulles airport.
It was time to go home, but not before I got in a few more adventures on the way back.
I decided to round out my Peace Corps experience with a three month adventure that would begin in Kathmandu and in Bangkok. I met up with my friend Steve and some friends from the Peace Corps to explore Nepal and India.
Here's a few of the highlights:
- Trekking the Annapurna Base camp. Easily one of the most physically challenging things I've ever done.
- Living with Steve's Nepali host family in their village near Bhaktapur. Their hospitality and kindness are what I think of whenever I remember Nepal.
- Finishing a 24 hour hellish bus ride from New Delhi to Manado. I've never been so happy to not be sitting down.
- Surviving the 4x4 drive from Manali to Leh. I still argue that the driver was falling asleep and my grabbing the wheel probably kept us from going off a 1,000 foot cliff to our fiery deaths.
- Attending the Dalai Lama's teaching in Dharamsala, India.
- Camel trekking in the Great Thar desert near the border of Pakistan.
- Seeing the Taj Mahal (it's smaller in real life than you probably think).
- Experiencing the overwhelming humanity in Varanasi. I've never looked at India quite the same since then.
- Learning to cook Thai food in Chiang Mai and Mai Kai Dee's excellent cooking school in Bangkok.
- Being invited for lunch with some of the soldiers who overthrew Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok in September 2006.
- Plus plenty more, lots of highlights covered in the photo galleries here and in my blog.
I finished the trip in Bangkok with the coup of September 2006. Although there were tanks in the streets, everything seemed pretty peaceful and I didn't see any actual fighting. I returned to Dumaguete in the Philippines with a hard drive loaded up with more than 10,000 new photos.
At this point I was finally starting to feel like a professional photographer.
What did I learn from all this?
I've been lucky to have some great teachers and amazing mentors over the years. I owe much of what I've accomplished to what I've learned from them, but there's one teacher that has pushed me in ways that I never could have imagined and taught me things I didn't even realize I needed to know.
What's that teacher's name? World Travel.
Learning how to adapt to new places and understand people from vastly different backgrounds has been a source of inspiration and growth for me both personally and professionally.
It really is a big, wide world out there and the sooner you get out and start experiencing it firsthand, the quicker you'll start realizing the benefits.
Ok, I'll end the little soapbox talk here. But if you haven't gotten out and explored the world in a while (or let your passport expire / never gotten around to getting one), it's time to get out for a look around.
And if you happen to bring your camera along, all the better. I've found that photography forces me to slow down and observe the little details that tell the story of a place. I've actually created an online photography course to teach you some of my top tips for taking better photos. Click here now if you want to check it out.
You can also get free updates when I add new photo galleries or travel stories by dropping your e-mail address in the box below:
The Benefits of Living Abroad
Finally returning home to Virginia at the end of 2006, it was great to catch up with family and friends. But it was also time to decide what was next.
At this point I was completely hooked on photography and exploring new countries / cultures, so I was looking for ways to continue my career abroad. I also realized that the simple experience of living outside of your home country as an artist can be a pretty powerful muse.
Since I already had some success with getting my work published in magazines, newspapers, and catalogs, I decided to launch myself as a full-time freelance photographer and writer. I began to prepare myself for my new career freelancing in Southeast Asia with Dumaguete as my base.
I made the real leap in 2007 by moving back to Dumaguete with a bit of savings in the bank and a powerful motivation to continue the great experiences I'd begun having while I was still in the Peace Corps.
It's been a bit over five years since I truly went solo and I'm still loving it. I absolutely believe the aphorism 'dream jobs aren't hired, they're made'.
After all, if someone's going to hire you to work for them, they're really asking you to help them create their dream job.
I've been very lucky to work on a huge variety of interesting projects with great people and I still feel like things are only getting started.
I'll be updating this page from time to time as anything interesting happens, but for more updates, please check out my blog or the photo galleries.
Thanks so much for reading this far and will look forward to connecting with you soon.