A million miles in 1 thousand years
10 years ago, Easter 2006, 3 wise men, or not so wise perhaps, decided that looking at the mythical island of Glashedy from the shore break of Ballyliffin was no longer going to cut it. During the hours spent staring into the horizon, their gaze would often find a focus on the wee offshore island – the tall cliffs out front, was it a sandy beach, the greenery up top, the reef that guarded her.. A plan was formed, a rough, loose plan ; a plan bereft of common sense or preparation. We’d paddle out to Glashedy Island the next evening after work.
At the rocks on the lower end of Ballyliffin beach at Carackabraghy we assembled, high 5ed, fuelled on a bellyful of Lucozade and Mars Bars we set off towards our tropical paradise, just a few miles south of not-so-tropical Malin Head. The momentum was good, the paddling strong and the cammaradery was a unifed greatness – 3 friends on a journey of a lifetime – this was our Stand By Me. 20 minutes in, the temperature began to drop, swell in the once calm sea began to rise and we stopped for a break. I looked back, towards shore, it now a distant blur of yellow and green, tiny figures walking along, tiny everything. Wait a minute, we are now in the middle of the sea, we’re not out surfing, we are at sea, and the only thing we have going for us is our combined lack of sense. Panic creeping in, doubt, disbelief even. No one mentioned it, but there a feeling doom descending over the camp. A minute of arm loosening and catching our breath we lay on our surfboards once more and charged forth, 10 minutes til next break, then 5, we were further into the arms of the Atlantic than we’d ever hoped to be, our destination only slightly closer to the eye than it once was. Heads down again and onward, our eyes rarely disengaged their stare at the water just 2 metres on every side,– heads down, take every step and stroke of its journey. Whiles past, the sound of sea birds would snap us out of our paddling trance, louder and louder, the seabirds calling. I lifted my head to the sight of Glashedy, perhaps only a few hundred metres way now, looming large in an early evening light. Our new friends the seabirds perhaps welcoming us home, or more likely warning us to stay back. You could smell the seaweed on the rocks, the sounds of the waves crashing on her rocky shore, the birds, the heavy breathing of the 3 man army. We would make it, we would walk onto our rocky shore like the first men on the moon; against the odds we’d made it to Glashedy Island…
I’d like to read a passage now from a book that possibly more than any shaped my path and my current attitude to life and work. A million miles in 1 thousand years – by Donald Miller – I’d suggest if you like reading, are open to change in your own life, or are searching for a better existence or just a few answers to some of life’s questions. I’d hope it would have the same effect on you as it did on me. A wee passage on it struck me, not only as it was in a similar vein to the crossing we had made those many years back but with my own journey in photography, form a Wildman skateboarder, surfer, part time newspaper photolabourer, magazine editor, amateur portrait photographer, anxious, poor wedding photographer all the way up to where I find myself today. A place that I value, a place that I realise is not forever and this I value as the greatest gift I’ve ever been allowed to live.
Allow me to read From the book – “It’s like this with every crossing, and with nearly every story too. You paddle until you nearly believe you can go no farther. And then suddenly, long after you thought it would happen, the other shore starts to grow, and it grows fast. The trees get taller and you can make out the crags in the cliffs, and then the shore reaches out to you, to welcome you home, almost pulling your boat onto the sand “ For years I’d forgot about our journey to Glashedy, and this passage thrust it back into my mind, and suddenly I realised what a lifetime achievement and event it had been for all involved. It’s a tale we made happen, but moreso its a metaphor. For life, for our journey, for our hard graft, work we may do, projects, any product of our energy. It makes me think of my own career, how many times I’ve stumbled, slipped and downright walked face first into walls. How many time I’ve lain awake and resolved I’d never make that mistake again and just as often ‘I’m giving this dream up, I’m content with my job, this is not for me, I never went to art school, I’m a born edjit, unworthy, unable, not artistic, uncreative, lazy, unmotivated….sure wasn’t that what I was told for years at school. But like any journey, as massive as the task seems, it can be broken down, into manageable chapters, one piece at a time, like the great Johnny Cash story. Like the surf trip, forget the fact that we are in the unstable bosom of the Atlantic sea, forget that no one even knew we’re away and that no one we know has ever actually tried or succeed. Just make sure the head is kept down, look after each breath of air into the lungs, each ten metre paddle – head down, keep marching forward, keep believing. I’m a professional photographer, I take photographs for a living – believe me when I say how proud it makes a man feel to give that answer when folk ask what do you do with yourself – I never take it for granted, never once have said it without a sense of gratitude for the gift I have been given. I shoot mainly weddings, in and around 50 a year. I also shoot family sessions, children and newborn babies.
The wise man once said ‘if you do what you love for a living you’ll never work a day in your life’ – there’s truth to that – I rise each morning, with a sense of joy at the day ahead, even if it is only as far as the office to edit a session, or to design a wedding album or send a slideshow to an expectant bride and groom. I find myself thinking ‘who am I to be given this fine task – who am I to not have to trudge to work with a sense of impending doom and begrudgement. Who am I to be living this dream? I’ll tell you. I once naively thought that those that work in the creative industries we’re a league apart from me, perhaps they’d studied art or photography at college, had an artistic background, had friends, family or contacts in the various fields of work that I could only dream of being a part of. I worked for my da’s business the most of my life – in a small shop in Derry, selling tiles to builders and the public. Happy enough wee position and in a part of the world where solid employment is scarce I will admit that I was happy enough. Sure didn’t I get to take the odd half day off to go surf, could come in late most days as long as I’d work late – my boss was my da, the good and the bad that comes with that. Zero experience in any kind of artistic profession, no qualifications – I’d studied business studies at university, and learned little more than how to skin up a perfect joint and where to get a bag of cans at 3am on a Tuesday night.
I travelled a fair bit, ended up in LA after university, living on a friend’s floor for a few months while I slowly learned that the streets were not paved with gold in America, more paved with hopelessness and a real dog eat dog sense of hustle. I lived in a sleeping bag for 3 months, eat where and how I could, tramped the streets daily looking for work without a visa or much of a clue about who the system worked. I ate a quarter a pizza from a bin one fine afternoon, as holiday makers lounged on Santa Monica Beach and revellers snorted coke in Malibu condos not a few miles mile away. The cash had dried up, the credit limit from friends long maxed out. Sink or swim, what was I going to do? Through a series of events, some within and some without my control I ended up working at skateboard factory, living the dream that a young skater from Northern Ireland could never have fully imagined. But as all good things do take life, some too must die – after running from the law for too long I was shipped home via Aer Lingus with nothing more than a few dozen dollars in my pocket and a 10 year ban stamped on my passport. From LA to Muff – now there’s a wake up. January is not the most pleasant of months at the best of times – but when a man looks in the mirror in his ma’s house, Californian suntan slowly fading form his face it does strike a blow like never before.
Was there a plan then – what would become of the man that once tried to rise above his station – a man that refused to wind his neck in or wise a bap, like so many had advised all his life. I wouldn’t call it luck, I’d even hesitate to call it good fortune – what happened next just is what it is. My sister in law’s uncle, photographer for a local newspaper needed an assistant to help cover events for the local rag, and she gave him my name. My only experience to date back then was shooting surf and skateboard photos, I could rig up a pair of remote flashes, shoot high speed action on a fisheye, paddle into the ocean and shoot a surfer dropping down a wave – all big action requiring big enough balls, but I’d no experience working with the public, and no real wish to begin a career working for a newspaper. But open minds lead to open doors and I called to his house, showed him my work, told him I’d give it my best shot. The next day he called and gave me a list of jobs to do – no shadowing him, no work experience, nothing – straight in at the deep-end with a camera strapped around my neck. My primary job was shooting ‘it’s my parties’ each Friday and Saturday night – 10 parties a night, working out roughly at 400 parties I attended in the year 2004. Each Friday straight after work I’d start my photography job, same too with Saturdays. £25 a day hardly pays the mortgage but I knew there was a goal, as foggy as it was I knew I was on some kid of ladder to a better place.
A friend had an uncle that was getting married, needed a shooter, needed one at short notice and cheap. I opened my mouth to say NO but found the word YES coming out. I asked around, how much should I charge, how do you do it, I read bridal mags, made lists of what and where and how. A friend in Dublin advised to charge £1000 straight out of the gate – I nearly choked in my tay – absurd money thought I. I shot the wedding, in my own meek, inexperienced way, when things didn’t work out I feared asking for a retake, I shot from a distance, worked out things as I went along, ballsed up but got a few nice victories from that first 10 hour day. The groom approached me at the end of a day and asked how much I needed – again I opened my mouth and found that I was again not in control of the words that exited - £100 said I; he counted 5 20s from a roll much fatter – damn it, I should have asked for £150. But as meagre as it was it was the best earner I’d had to date, and bar the odd bit of stress it was a pleasant enough day. From there came the brothers, friends, surfers, skaters weddings – a 3 year riot of weddings, learning, mistakes, refining the rough edges ensued – confidence grew organically. I met a few other photographers with good approachable attitudes, when the only ones I’d previously known were the big ego, low skilled edjits in the newpaper game – side note – the most unfriendly, arse of a photographer I’d met in the journalism, pushed us all around, girned and grumped, belittling photographer that worked that circuit when I was just beginning 10 or 11 years ago now turns up at the odd wedding I am shooting, to fill a page for the same paper he is still working for – asks me can he shoot, takes 5 minutes of lineups then mooches on to his next job – I often think I should ask does he remember me and how he treated me but I’d say the same boy mistreated so many naïve upstarts in his day that my face would just another annoyance. I don’t mean to meander off on a tangent but there;’s a good lesson in it – treat your fellow man with respect, allow him dignity, help where you can – you’ll get out of the universe what you put into it. I’ve been shooting weddings for around 8 years, have made advances, have fallen into the ditch many many times, have near refused to get up again but up I have got. I left my full time job 3 years ago – with a second child on his way, a gigantic mortgage on my back and no real clue as to what and how to run a business.
Desparation is a great motivator – like any man instutionalised in the 9-5 I still woke at 730 each morning, I made myself an office in the Shantallow library, where I’d comendeared a desk down the back where I’d be well out of sight. I’d cycle down each day, set up shop, edit and design, make emails, take phone calls – Jay Doherty photography now had an office., Shantallow Public Libray, desk 9, down round the back, out of sight. I love what I do – it is a high pressure gig and mistakes are not an option but with experience comes a confidence, comes the ability to avoid major mistakes, to create something where often you are given very little. Anyone can create a gorgeous image, it doesn’t take a genius to shoot a bride with an 85mm lens and get a result. This is not the challenge of my job – I often work within so many constraints you’d nearly have to be mad to sign up for this career. A random list like stressed bride, carefree groom, arse of a car driver, pain of a videoman that refuses to work as a team, vicar doesn’t allow photos in the church, other photographer mates getting in your way, demanding hotel staff, makeup and hair running very late, the I phone army, bad weather, a severe shortage of time, low lit hotels, yellow / green / blue light inside chapels, bad weather (did I say that already?), and those are just a few. Having to take beautiful supersonic portraits on a wet windy Donegal day on the side of a Donegal mountain with a wile looking bride and a drunk groom, with only 2 minutes on the clock, and the field is claried in sheep dung, there’s an electric fence, oh and she’s wearing a white silk dress that cannot get any marks on it –surely, some kid of sick joke right !!!! But that is often the case, as often as it is not. I am well versed in poor weather conditions, maybe no one around more than me, not a boast, just a reality – but there are time I exit a church on a February afternoon with an eager bride to be met with a weather front that is nothing short of horrific – I find myself momentarlity staring skyward and asking ‘why God, why me?’