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always be working

Road Trip


Six years ago in a Magnum workshop, Larry Towell gave me some advice I’ve tried to put into practice. Because I’m not a professional photographer and the amount of time I have to make photographs is limited, he suggested I take a chunk of vacation time and devote it entirely to photography either working on a project or traveling to a place to make pictures.  Later that year I took a road trip and saw some incredible landscapes for the first time when I visited the Salt Flats in Utah, drove miles and miles through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, sat wide-eyed looking up at the majestic sandstone cliffs in Zion, perched on the edge of Bryce Canyon, and was dazzled by the star-filled skies in Moab.

The following year I travelled to Thailand for a month, met some online friends in real life, and made new friends while photographing the Doi Tong Development project. The next year I managed to take a couple of short trips to Montana and to see Yellowstone National Park. No pictures of note but still I had the chance to follow Larry’s suggestion to carve out dedicated time to make photographs. One year was pretty bleak as I would soon be unemployed but still I traveled to New Orleans and create a series called Colour Wheels where I had a chance to work with a young writer, Emily Kawahara, and made one of my favourite single images while spending time with Bill Allard. In 2015 I didn’t have a block of time to travel and photograph as I started a new job but I used some unpaid time to be a part of an artist residency in New York. It didn’t seem so pressing either because I was into Year 2 of a long-term project close to home called The Village Life.

The road trip to Utah a few years earlier had sold me on exploring more places in the United States. In 2016 I tagged along with Raymond Ketcham as he photographed his project on Route 95. We saw few signs of the undercurrents that later would dramatically shift the country politically. In retrospect, in much of what I saw and felt, it was there. The pictures were few and the time was spent experimenting with instant film. Later in the year I travelled to visit my good friends Stuart and JoEllen who live in Indiana and created a small Instax series, A Walk in the Woods. Sometimes the work isn’t there in volume but I’ve always had things to keep me photographing especially my Village Life project which includes another Instax series, Tokyo Swing. It is one I plan to add to each year when the Obon Festival is held in Steveston.

As I write this post I realize how much work I have been doing although somehow it hasn’t felt that way. I think that is because I have spent less time talking about my work and more time making photographs. These days I don’t share my work as frequently or write blog posts about my photographs and while I feel the pressure to not go unnoticed, there is a certain freedom to simply work. Perhaps this is the same feeling Leonard Cohen wrote of in a personal letter to a friend: “My publisher refused my novel. Since hearing the news I have been strangely exultant. I feel free again, the way I felt before a line of mine was ever published.”  I wonder too if there is something about the work we create if we are more concerned with people liking our pictures than the content of the photographs themselves. The truth is once you let go of the need for validation, your photographs will get worse before they get better. Keep photographing though and you will likely discover the missing ingredient is a sense of purpose in your work. It won’t be easy to uncover what that is but if you persist in making pictures without the hinderance of constantly amplifying your work, I promise the revelations will come.



  1. Gavin Gough
    January 15, 2018

    I approve this message!

  2. Earl Moore
    January 27, 2018

    Overcoming “the need for validation” by others is a daily struggle for most of us, only subdued when we fill that void with self validation. I’m at the point where I photograph for myself but I’m still awaiting those “revelations.”

    P.S. Are you aware that at the bottom of this comment form there’s two option check boxes for “Notify me of the followup comments via e-mail”…one with the “-” in “follow-up” and the other with the “-” in “e-mail.” Sorry for nitpicking…it’s the I.T. part of me. 🙂

    • Sabrina
      January 27, 2018

      Hi Earl, thanks for bringing the comment form to my attention. It is a JetPack feature and I was missing an update on that but it’s fixed now.

      I struggle with self-validation because I am very critical of my own work. What I’ve found better for me is to have the consideration of people whose opinions I value. I’ve selected a small group of people who know something about the medium and life in general because I can trust their opinions actual mean something beyond what they like or don’t like. Do you have a few of those folks in your circle of friends and acquaintances?

  3. Earl Moore
    January 27, 2018

    Yes, I totally agree trusted and knowledgable peers can be invaluable as yardsticks in judging ones own work. However, don’t you think it’s sometimes walking a fine line between doing work that pleases yourself but is perhaps less developed (less understood/acceptable by peers) or doing work that is technically superior (more peer acceptable) but isn’t as true to where you might be at as an artist? I’d probably say trusted/knowledgable outside opinions need to be “taken with a grain of salt” and all others with the whole salt shaker! 😉

    • Sabrina
      January 27, 2018

      For sure! I stopped listening to the opinions that need the whole salt shaker quite a while ago. Most folks I speak with now have an understanding of my vision and voice and the conversations we have is around whether or not the work is successful i.e. does the picture do what I intended it to do. Sometimes there is a technical aspect to that assessment but there is always an “artistic” discussion.

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