A Passion Driven Life: Inspiration for Would-Be Photographers

You cannot change what you are, only what you do. – Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

In a commencement address to the graduating students of Stanford University, Steve Jobs recalled a quote he first read when he was 17.

“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

He went on to say that the quote stuck with him though most of his adult life and that he would look himself in the mirror each morning and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

If the answer was “no” for too many consecutive days, he knew it was time for a change.

“Llama Land” Machu Picchu, Peru. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105 f/4 @ 28mm, 1/125 second @ f/11, ISO 100

So after waking up too many mornings with a resounding “no” reverberating through my own groggy and tired head, I drove down to the office and promptly terminated a successful corporate career. My own. It was January 14, 2003 – eleven years ago to this very day – which also happened to be my birthday.

Photography was a serious hobby with occasional financial rewards, but not nearly rewarding enough to pay for my lifestyle at the time – not even close. Photography and travel were excellent ways to spend money, not make it (That’s still almost entirely true, by the way). Still, I was determined to give it a go, even if I really had no idea how to get there. The only thing I knew for certain was that my talent and energy were being atrophied as I counted down the days to each bimonthly paycheck.

This was new to me. I was a rationally thinking organism with an economics degree who always made decisions with cold, hard logic and yet there was nothing rational about this line of thought. In return for a six-figure salary, benefits, and financial security, I was getting what exactly? No salary, no plan for getting any income in the near future, no benefits, no financial security? On its face, it was a no-brainer, yet my intuition and heart told me otherwise.

Wilderness and wild places were my passions in life. Capturing and sharing my experiences in these places were what inspired me to get up each morning, not my 9-to-5. It was the first thing I thought about each morning and the last thing each night before drifting off to sleep. If I were going to preach that you had to do what you love to truly be successful in life – as was my mantra to my employees – I would have to buy into it myself and not look back. I was only willing to accept excellence in myself and I could only achieve excellence by doing what I loved and was truly passionate about.

“Wall Street” Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 17-40mm f/4 @ 21mm, 2.5 seconds @ f/16, ISO 400

Throughout the transition, I received a tremendous amount of emotional support from family and close friends. I’ll always be grateful for that. Some were genuinely concerned and that was certainly understandable. Others thought it was only a phase I was going through – a mid-life crisis, perhaps – that I would eventually outgrow before crawling back to the real world again. At least no one told me to grow up, get a haircut, and buy a weed wacker.

“But taking pictures isn’t real work,” some would say. “You’re just running off to pretty places and having fun.”

“Right,” I would answer. “So what exactly is your point?”

You see, I never considered being nature photographer as an occupation. The word occupation is derived from the same Latin word that spawned the word occupy, essentially meaning, “to take up space.” That little phrase should paint a vivid enough word picture to illustrate precisely what I’m trying to convey here.

Vocation, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word, vocare or “a calling.” If throwing away a “successful” career and financial security – not to mention rationality – in order to chase down one’s dream and passion in life isn’t a calling, then I’m not sure what is. Being a nature photographer is my vocation. It’s not what I do; it’s what I am. There aren’t very many people who can say the same about their occupation.

So after eleven years of traveling the world, chasing down magical light, and capturing as many unrepeatable moments in the wild on film and digital media as possible, I’d like to think that I’ve achieved a modest amount of success as a professional photographer. But what is a “success” anyway? By one yardstick, I already was a success ten years ago.

But if living an inspired, passion driven life doing exactly what I feel I was meant to do – while managing to live financially comfortable as well – is another yardstick with which to measure success, well then I guess I’ve achieved something after all. It’s also the greatest birthday gift I could have ever given myself.

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50 Comments

  1. Posted January 14, 2014 at 6:12 am by Tracy Farrar | Permalink

    Wow, Richard. I’ve been following your work for almost a year now, and with the exception of the high paying, very safe and secure position you left behind, you basically just told my own story. A little over a year ago, with both of my daughters kicked safely out of the nest, this single Mom decided to sell or give away almost everything she owned and put the rest in storage. I picked up my camera, and haven’t looked back. I have been a photographer of progressing levels of expertise for over 20 years. Being in the great outdoors is my church and my time with the Man Upstairs. Thank you for your countless inspirations via your captures. I know God watches over my little expeditions and seems to put me at the right place at the right time, and my wish for you is that he does the same for you. Cheers! Tracy

  2. Posted January 14, 2014 at 6:28 am by david reeves | Permalink

    Well Said, and well done. heading into my 16th year of a passion driven life. Keep up the great work. thoroughly enjoy the pics.

  3. Posted January 14, 2014 at 6:52 am by Pete Woronowski | Permalink

    Happy Birthday Richard and I wish you the very best in your photography journey.
    Always good to see your work.
    Cheers, Pete

  4. Posted January 14, 2014 at 7:18 am by Morkel Erasmus | Permalink

    Great post Richard, and good to read more of your story.
    Inspiring stuff.

  5. Posted January 14, 2014 at 7:24 am by Patrick | Permalink

    Very inspiring post, Richard! I kind of feel like I am where you have been 11 years ago, or maybe 10-10 1/2. Just that the corporate career hasn’t even started yet. And if in another 11 years I can look on a photography “career” that has only been partially as successful as yours, I think I can call myself a happy man.

    In this sense, Happy Birthday!!

  6. Posted January 14, 2014 at 7:27 am by Vic Kincer | Permalink

    Happy Birthday and Happy Anniversary Richard!

  7. Posted January 14, 2014 at 7:52 am by Brent Clark | Permalink

    That was an inspiring post, Richard. I consider being in nature and photographing it my passion as well. I guess my question is “how do you know when you’re good enough to go for it all?” The thought of taking a leap of faith and failing is very scary.

  8. Posted January 14, 2014 at 8:51 am by Jerry Alt | Permalink

    Richard, after traveling with you on two workshops so far I not only recognized the energy and passion you put into your work but also the parallels to my own situation. Being very good at something versus being very happy at something are significantly different, and I appreciate you putting these words down for the rest of us.

  9. Posted January 14, 2014 at 9:10 am by Steve Dimock | Permalink

    I admire your courage and appreciate your sharing the process. Thanks!

  10. Posted January 14, 2014 at 9:20 am by David Johnston | Permalink

    You inspire me to do the same thing, Richard. I have a goal of an amount I’d like to have before I quit my job, and then maybe I’ll run into you out in the wild!
    I just did a slow clap for you.

  11. Posted January 14, 2014 at 9:34 am by Mike Langford | Permalink

    Loved this article, thanks Richard!
    I’d say the main difficulty to follow one’s dream of full time photography would be that stepping into the unknown, especially if there is no financial cushion from previous employment & a family to care for.

  12. Posted January 14, 2014 at 9:56 am by Mavourneen S. | Permalink

    Great post! I’ve been wanting to drop working for others to work myself as a photographer; but I make very little money doing what I do and for a while now haven’t even been offering my images for sale. I’ve been shooting for over 8yrs and have thoughts of shooting the rest of my life and traveling the world photographing exotic places. But as a single mother, I can’t quit my day job; maybe when my son is moved out then I can start fulfilling that dream. Till then I plan to keep improving….

  13. Posted January 14, 2014 at 9:58 am by Jeanie | Permalink

    Happy Birthday Richard, Thank You for sharing yourself with us in photo and word.
    Continued joy in your vocation. God Bless

  14. Posted January 14, 2014 at 10:06 am by Rupert Russell | Permalink

    Ace post, thanks for sharing. I’ve just made the leap myself. Selling my business, lock and stock, and plunging head long into the great unknown. I’ve never felt so alive, my kids are loving it, my wife can’t keep her hands off me! I’ve never looked at my future with these eyes before and it’s changing my photography to boot. Very exciting times. Happy birthday Richard.

  15. Posted January 14, 2014 at 10:09 am by Ralphie | Permalink

    How fortunate for the rest of us that you chose your path.

  16. Posted January 14, 2014 at 10:35 am by Anne McKinnell | Permalink

    Excellent and inspirational post Richard! I am so happy to hear you are continuing to following your passion 11 years after changing your life. I made the same change 2.5 years ago and I’m sure I’ll never look back.

  17. Posted January 14, 2014 at 10:47 am by Connie Fotakis | Permalink

    It seems you have found joy…. in wide open spaces. What a great blessing that is! Shared joy is a double joy. We experience your joy… through your powerful image captures. We will never get to the natural places that you visit… yet, we experience them, in all their dramatic majesty, through your efforts. Personally speaking… I am so grateful for you; and for your willingness to share the joy you have found. I’m on board for your journey. Thanks.

  18. Posted January 14, 2014 at 10:50 am by Cathy Hartman | Permalink

    Happy Birthday Richard! I loved reading this post – you are an inspiration! The “Llama Land” photo is amazing! I’ve just started my journey and am currently in Ecuador. I hope to meet again at another of your workshops sometime in the near future.

  19. Posted January 14, 2014 at 11:43 am by Lori Ryerson | Permalink

    Happy Birthday. I am so glad you talked about this; it reminds us all that “success” doesn’t mean “bank account” (although having one is always a good thing LOL). There are so few people in this world who are doing what they truly love, rather than occupying space, it’s good to know there’s a few hearty souls out there to continue to bring US light. Thank you for this. Thank you for continuing to provide inspiration. Again, I say, it’s gonna happen. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

  20. Posted January 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm by Luz Martinez | Permalink

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY AND ANNIVERSARY. Thanks to your decision to be happy, many of us are enjoying the beauty of this world of ours. I recognize many places because I have the same passion, travel and photography. Your photo of the llama in Machu Picchu, Peru is awesome. My husband and I climbed Wayna Picchu few years ago. Will never change that experience for anything. Please keep traveling and taking photos for us to enjoy.

  21. Posted January 14, 2014 at 12:40 pm by Charlie | Permalink

    Hey Richard! Happy Birthday! Congrats and THANKS for the encouragement. I’m finishing up the second year of my life as a nature photographer. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I’m happier and healthier than ever. I love my life and I don’t regret leaving that corporate job. I wish you much continued success.
    Charlie

  22. Posted January 14, 2014 at 1:00 pm by Luz Marina Martinez | Permalink

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY AND ANNIVERSARY .Thanks to your decision to be happy, many of us are enjoying this awesome world through your photography. The photo of the llama in Machu Picchu is gorgeous. My husband and climbed Wayna Picchu few years ago. Will not change that experience for anything. Please keep enlightening us with you photography.

  23. Posted January 14, 2014 at 1:14 pm by Farooq | Permalink

    Simply inspirational post. I have been following you for a while and will cotinue to do so. Great inspiration for a serious hobbyist like me. Thanks

  24. Posted January 14, 2014 at 1:44 pm by Lilian Britez | Permalink

    Very inspirational!
    Your work is amazing!

  25. Posted January 14, 2014 at 3:07 pm by David Culp | Permalink

    Rich, Nice work my man! I know you never encourage others to give up everything and follow in your footsteps. In this case I imagine putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard as it is, was probably very fulfilling.

    Stay Gold.

  26. Posted January 14, 2014 at 7:15 pm by Beate Dalbec | Permalink

    Inspiring post! And happy birthday! Living the life you dreamed off is certainly a great birthday present.

  27. Posted January 14, 2014 at 10:36 pm by Scott | Permalink

    Thank you very much for this post, very inspiring.

  28. Posted January 15, 2014 at 6:48 am by Diane | Permalink

    Happy Birthday Richard ~ the beautiful picture of the narrows brings back memories of my trip to Utah 20 years ago. I love your story. I have always told my children “Do what you love in life”. You need to have something to look forward to that makes you happy. Glad you are loving your vocation!

  29. Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:03 am by Adrian D. Thysse | Permalink

    Inspirational story. While my own path is still uphill, it gives me more pleasure than any other. Pursue what you love, and enjoy the journey.

  30. Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:01 pm by Richard Bernabe | Permalink

    Thanks to everyone who responded with such kind words and birthday wishes. Very very nice and it’s appreciated. Here’s to an awesome 2014!!!

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:57 pm by Kate Marie Lewis | Permalink

      Stumbling across your photography and hearing your story, ‘living your passion,’ has been a turning-point in my life. My Land, Richard; the inspiration and hope you hold -out to others who dare dream to delve into life with the passion you demonstrate is mind-boggling. After just reading “A Passion Driven Life” and your viewers responses, I took another closer look at my loosely plannd-out future. I have never cared to be alone for long and as a result, have been involved closely with, people at risk, most of my life. I worked with at risk children and followed a study of children on the autistic spectrum in Berkley and later taught in L.A area Special Ed, with focus on autism and mute children. My world was quite small; a classroom, occasionally a courthouse and ultimately communities. I am back in school studying American Sign Language and Interpretation. School for the Blind and Deaf here and a large part of our community needs interpreters. I have friends that have moved to Costa Rica. I have dreamed of going for years. Children on their own and after some time in Tennessee, I am going to go. I will have my horse and dog and simple home and perhaps a room for visitors, but, I am finally ready to live my life for myself. I will study people, as I have all my life and write, as I have all my life and live at my own pace, content with my little piece of the world. I will discard my shoes and my bras and become a connoisseur of tequila. I’ll pick my camera back-up and capture Faces and Hearts, sing my own lyrics and be Blissfully Happy. I am ready to get-out of the facade of a life I am wasting away in and going to start making plans…. I will post the out-playing of my adventures soon. Thank-you Brave Man for blazing my trail. (*.*)

  31. Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:48 pm by Russ Bishop | Permalink

    Wonderful post Richard and Happy Birthday!!

    Clearly you made the right choice. This life isn’t for everyone, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
    Wishing you continued success and happiness in 2014.

  32. Posted January 16, 2014 at 1:20 pm by Guy Tal | Permalink

    Wonderful and inspiring post, Richard! Congratulations and happy birthday!

    “Each man must look to himself to teach him the meaning of life. It is not something discovered: it is something molded.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    Guy

  33. Posted January 16, 2014 at 4:03 pm by Richard Wong | Permalink

    Kudos for taking the plunge, Richard, and happy birthday!

  34. Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:11 pm by David | Permalink

    Such a wonderful story, congrats on taking charge of your life!

  35. Posted January 22, 2014 at 9:12 am by Linda House | Permalink

    You are making great choices. You affect many more people than you know. Keep up the great work!
    And, by the way, your “Llama Land” photo at Machu Picchu made my jaw drop. One of my many favorites you have taken!!

  36. Posted January 25, 2014 at 4:12 am by grant stringer | Permalink

    Really enoyed the post – Came at the right time for me – I want a change for my photography . Thanks for the inspiration

  37. Posted January 27, 2014 at 11:08 pm by Matt Manning | Permalink

    This created Flashbulb moments for me and Hope. THANK YOU!

  38. Posted February 8, 2014 at 7:34 am by Oliver | Permalink

    Absolutely wonderful post, brimming with inspiration and passion. I think change is crucial and everyone should dare to be happy indeed! Always really interesting and inspiring to see how people decide to listen and follow their inner voice one day… :)
    Happy belated birthday Richard and keep up what you are doing and preserve this outlook on life!!
    Best wishes, Oliver

  39. Posted March 5, 2014 at 1:44 pm by Susan Mueller | Permalink

    Richard, thanks again for your awe inspiring history of a choice in life to live & fulfill your true calling in life. Your images are beautiful & stunning! I love the way you capture your nature images, no words are needed to convey your thoughts of an image. Wishing you a very successful 2014 as I always look forward to seeing you images on your blog. Susan

  40. Posted March 5, 2014 at 7:25 pm by Nancy de Flon | Permalink

    Richard, thank you so much. I need to print out your article because I need the challenge to do something similar. My journal entries for years have had that same mantra running through them: dissatisfaction with my job, knowing I have to make a move, knowing that my photography gives far more pleasure and spiritual nourishment to people than what I do at my day job. I’ve been following your photography for a few years now, I admire your work and now I admire you even more for the Leap of Faith you’ve taken and for sharing your story with us. God bless your continued work.

  41. Posted March 10, 2014 at 3:22 pm by Karen | Permalink

    I’m so glad you reposed this. You are living a true dream congratulation. That has be my dream as well but until these last few months i don’t think i was able to pursue it. I was a full time Mom to 5 children then in recovery from an accident from work. Now all children are grown. I learned on film and am trying to grasp all the computer aspects of photography. Am from a very small town but thank God for people like you and the Kelby Group I am learning alot and hope to be up and running soon.

  42. Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:23 am by Marta | Permalink

    I promise I will print this right NOW and read it every morning. Thank YOU so much for sharing this with the world.

  43. Posted April 21, 2014 at 10:37 am by Tunji | Permalink

    Thanks Richard.

    Now i know, praying for the resolve to do.

  44. Posted April 21, 2014 at 1:02 pm by junnu ravi kumar | Permalink

    Thank u so much for letting us know ur story ,an inspiration to many …

  45. Posted April 29, 2014 at 1:57 am by Lori Cannon | Permalink

    Well I always dabbled in photography but got too busy…
    Now I have the time and when I capture that photo that makes me go Yeah!
    I took that! I saw the world thru that lens and for some reason makes me complete.
    Now I have the passion to take photographs like you I think:)
    I have the eye for it I have already proven to myself
    Now I just have to get right equipment
    Don’t know why in hell I’m telling you all this
    I just go with my instinct
    And I determined you are the best!;)

  46. Posted May 3, 2014 at 12:31 am by steven Marshall | Permalink

    It is my Belief that you choose the Correct Road in life. The World has enough Number crunchers,And Not enough Photographers Whom Inspire. Good to meet you Richard.
    steve

  47. Posted May 15, 2014 at 9:48 am by Bob Koepper | Permalink

    Still enjoy hearing from you as much as I did on that first, years ago, waterfall workshop in the Smokys! Bob

  48. Posted September 5, 2014 at 10:07 am by Rachelle R Volpe | Permalink

    Thank you, Richard for your inspiring words. I am in transition, having retired at the age of 47 from teaching kindergarten for 26 years. I have no real plan, but I need one. So, here I am, wondering what’s next. There has to be a next and I had hoped that I might figure out photography, as it is my passion. My only thing I have to go on right now is my “eye” that everyone tells me I have. In some sense I know this to be true, because of how I feel when capturing that once in a lifetime moment, seeing something that people walk by every day and are too busy to notice. Often times, things appear in my photographs that I didn’t see or were completely different from the original intent of the photograph in the first place. For me, that’s been my message from God to pursue His purpose in this next phase of my life. Now I have to get over my fear of technology in order to turn this passion into something that might give me some income, as this pension from teaching in a NJ public school is not quite as lucrative as society believes. I will continue to read your articles and gain inspiration from your work…thank you so much for sharing!

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