Life At 30

August 10, 2020 Personal Project

Since my 21st birthday, I've been taking self-portraits. The first one was taken because it was a landmark birthday. There were no future plans, I just wanted to remember who I was when I turned 21 and I had been aching to take a portrait of someone on the stairs of my apartment.

Then, people liked the photo; more importantly, I liked the photo.

Portraits, in general, give us the chance to study the person presented. They give us the chance to be voyeuristic and take in all the subtleties we care to. If you turn the camera on yourself, it allows you to do the same thing to yourself. This is a project for me. I want to measure my time and see who I was at each of these points; to see where I was both physically and emotionally.

One photograph every birthday.

21, Bozeman, MT

Sitting on the steps of my apartment after a night out at the bars with about three or so friends. My birthday wasn't nearly as big as I had anticipated, and I think the only person who bought me a drink was a bartender who gave me a free shot. This was the start of my second year at this apartment, the longest I’d been in one place since leaving home, and the beginning of my senior year of college. I had just returned from a month in Africa about a week earlier. I was struggling to re-adjust to everything we take for granted. I couldn't help but feel guilty for how relatively easy life was here. I was trying to understand an intimate and confusing relationship I had formed with a girl I'd worked with in Africa. I had also had a drunken argument with what was one of my closest friends the night before. I was dealing with what would become a much larger split between us. Somehow, I think I felt good at this moment. This was a break in the storm and a time before relationships fell apart. I spoke with my dad on the phone that morning after finding my cellphone in the park a few blocks away. He said, "You're a man now." It meant a lot to me in that moment. It meant much less to my lady-friend when I told her about it that night at Music on Main.

22, Bozeman, MT

Parked in my friend’s driveway. I was upset. I was homeless, living off my friend's couch, and preparing to leave the state, having just finished my degree. I had spent the last month or so in an intensive summer course to fulfill my final credits needed to complete my degree within the four My lease had ended a month earlier than I thought it would, meaning I had to hurriedly throw my stuff into boxes and leave my apartment unceremoniously to make way for my roommate’s next roommate. I had a few friends come to the bar to say goodbye that night, but not nearly as many as had RSVP'd to my birthday/going away celebration. It hurt. I felt alone. I didn't know what was coming next, besides a move to Missouri within a month. I didn't have a job or housing lined up. I felt very disconnected from everything. This wasn’t at all how I pictured the end of college.

23, Columbia, MO

I had been living in Columbia just under a year and was working at the Columbia Daily Tribune part-time, getting about 25 hours of work a week. My dog Asbjørn had made his way back to me in December 2012 when my parents brought him back to me for Christmas. He was one of my few friends at the time. It was hard to make friends when I couldn’t afford to do much besides pay rent and buy groceries.I had another job as an editor of a sports website, but it only paid a share of ad revenue and that was maybe $75/month. I was struggling to find inspiration to make images for myself at this point and waiting for an opportunity to become a photojournalist at the Tribune, taking whatever photo assignments I was offered. Becoming a photojournalist was my life’s passion and why I was willing to suffer through odd hours and poverty. Each assignment felt like a step closer to my dream. I cut every one of my photos out of the paper and taped them to my bedroom door to remind myself of what I was doing and the progress I was making. I went out to the bars alone on this birthday, made a couple drunken friends that I’d never see again, and woke up on the cold stone floor in front of the fireplace in my house. Plans changed during this year. I found my job to be a dead end that was taking far more than it gave.

24, Columbia, MO

I was struggling to stand for this picture. I was dealing with a hangover that would prove to be one of my worst. But I was feeling optimistic. I was beginning grad school the next morning and a bunch of my new classmates had taken me out the previous night, paying for all my drinks and treating me like an old friend. I couldn't remember a birthday where I felt that good before. I felt like I belonged, like I'd found some friends finally, after a long two years in Columbia with so few friends, especially of my own age. I'm also dealing with the ache of having to say goodbye to South Korea, a place I’d planned to move to. After taking the GRE and applying to grad schools, I’d decided I wasn’t interested in grad school anymore and earned a TEFL certificate to teach English in South Korea instead. It was hard standing at the precipice of that life choice, realizing how completely different those two paths were and how much my life would diverge on either path. I had never wanted to go back to school again – ever. During my last week to accept my grad school offers, I was doing my due diligence and seeking council from a couple friends on my decision. One really pushed me to do grad school and, on the last day to accept my offer, I did.

I couldn’t help but think of what my younger self had expected this age to be like. I thought 24 would be my prime. I thought I'd be married and making good money and figured this would probably be the year I'd buy a house and be preparing to have kids. Instead, I was headed back to school, single, with over $20k in debt renting a house with three strangers. But in a lot of ways, it was one of the best years of my life. I had built a new sense of self and confidence and it reflected in how people reacted to me. It was a tough year of schooling, but the actual living was great.

25, Columbia, MO

Here I am. 25. There's a lot going on in my mind, and I've spent the day somewhat in awe that I'm still alive. Another part has been somewhat disturbed by the ever encroaching 30. I'm headed to the back nine of my 20's and it's scary. Life isn't what I'd thought it'd be. I realize that every year I have to swallow a big hard pill of what life is really like, and how hard and complicated decisions become as you get older. I'm trying to figure out the next step, while not tripping over the current one. I'm in a new house once again. It was a chaotic move, having to clean out my previous house by myself and find a way to transport both my stuff and a roommates belongings to this new house, all while doing my full-time reporting summer class. Once again, I find myself lost in romantic relationships that are confusing, and frustrating. Things don’t ever seem to be as black and white as I want or think them to be and the gray areas cause a lot of heartache. I’m still as focused as ever on being a photojournalist and feel so confident and empowered in that area. My teachers really seem to like me and my work and I’m trying so hard to do work good enough to land me an internship, one of the main reasons I came back to school. While my personal life feels like a war zone, my professional life feels like it’s just starting to bloom.

26, Los Angeles, CA

A new apartment. A new city. A new life. The past year brought with it an exhausting cycle of schooling and work. I gave my all to my work and applied to approximately 20 internships across the country, but was unable to earn an interview with any of them. At the same time, I was fortunate enough to be able to contribute some of my work to a Spike Lee documentary film, the earnings of which helped bankroll a move to LA, a city I never expected to find myself in. Over the course of the year I reconnected with a good friend and former roommate, Chelsea. During a short trip to see her in Denver on my way home for Christmas, we move beyond friendship; we find love.

We were both in a state of flux and, seeing her move to LA, I decided to roll the dice and follow her. Having failed to find an internship or job, I had been looking at moving to a major city to begin my career as a freelance photojournalist and LA seemed as good of an option as any. It’s been a tough start – I haven’t seen any work and won’t until October, six months after moving to this expensive city, but I’m putting a lot of effort into staying positive and creating my master’s project so that I can finally finish school and focus on my life. My grandmother passed a month after I moved to LA and I made the flight to Seattle to attend her funeral. It’s odd to visit her and grandpa’s home and not see her there.

My roommate’s dog gave Asbjørn fleas, something he tells me “all the dogs in LA have.” I spent a couple months bug bombing the apartment and buying medication to rid both the dogs of fleas, which had gotten so bad you couldn’t have a foot on the ground without having a flea jump on it. I’m the only one who puts time or money into the process, which is incredibly frustrating considering my lack of employment and my surfer roommate’s trust fund. Asbjørn seems to have developed some sort of mental issue thanks to the fleas and I’m trying to find ways to make him stop tearing himself apart, this inflatable collar being one idea. At least he enjoys the collar for its' pillow value.

Despite some of these frustrations, I’m optimistic and happy. I know this path isn’t going to be easy or quick, but I’m excited by the possibilities. I make a road trip through the country with Asbjørn on my way to defend my master’s project, stopping to see my grandparents in New Mexico and other friends on my way to and from Missouri. I successfully defend my project and earn my degree. I can feel the change of life as I visit Missouri and no longer feel at home. That chapter is closed.

27, Los Angeles, CA

This year was defined by professional highs and personal lows. I was accepted into the prestigious Eddie Adams Workshop, a big deal for photographers.The day after returning from the whirlwind workshop, I received a call from my mother that my grandfather had suffered a stroke and was likely to pass. I drove to El Paso immediately to meet with family there as we gathered to be there for my grandmother and grandfather as he left this world. He was a big part of our family and hearts. We spent a week there in a hotel a few blocks from the hospital until he passed early one morning. I drove home the next day.

A few days later, I’d be invited to assist a friend photographing the World Series in Los Angeles for ESPN, earning the opportunity to photograph it myself as well. It was something I could never have imagined having the opportunity to do. A few months later, I’d receive another call from my mother that my father appeared to have suffered multiple strokes and was being moved between facilities as they best tried to best care for him and help him maintain his abilities. It was the beginning of months of medical questions and revelations which felt like they were spearheaded by incompetent medical professionals who seemed to go back and forth between whether or not my father had suffered two strokes or no strokes at all. In the midst of all of that, they diagnose him with type 2 diabetes. 

Simultaneously, I’m moving into an apartment with my girlfriend Chelsea. I get a call from mom while trying to find a hardware store to buy some basic things to put our apartment together. The call hits as I pull up to a closed hardware store. It’s some sort of holiday. Our call ends and I sob alone in my car outside this closed hardware store. I feel powerless and frustrated. On top of everything, why is it so hard to find a normal fucking hardware store in LA. On Valentine’s Day, I get another call from mom and sob harder. When I get myself together, I walk into the dining room and find a nice Valentine’s breakfast, heart shaped bacon and all; it’s cold, having been ready the same time I got the phone call.

28, Los Angeles, CA

I travel a lot this year. Shortly after my birthday, I get an amazing assignment with The American Legion, following the American Legion Riders on their annual fundraising motorcycle ride to the centennial celebration of their existence. A few months later, I’m on a trip with Chelsea through Spain and France, culminating in the moment where I act as a photographer, videographer (second to Chelsea), and minister, wedding two of my dear friends in Nice, France. It’s another whirlwind that doesn’t seem real. I certainly couldn’t foresee this moment before it happened. I feel loved. I feel thankful. I feel as if I’m finding my groove in LA. Work is the most consistent it’s been since moving here.

In January, the family all travels to Abu Dhabi to meet my sister’s fiancé for the first time and to attend their wedding. There’s a brief legal wedding there at the government office, and then another western wedding out in the desert, which I once again am the minister of. It’s an amazing trip with Faisal, my now brother-in-law, and his family welcoming us with open arms. The world there is so surreal and different. It’s the first time we’ve been there since my sister moved there in 2014.

In May, my other grandfather passes and I once again make a trip to Seattle to be there with my father and family as we lay my last grandfather to rest.

During a 4th of July camping trip to the Kern Valley, where we watched the ground roll during a 6.4 magnitude earthquake, Asbjørn seemed off so we take him to the vet and discover he has terminal kidney failure. He’s given a few months to live and an awful regimen where we have to given him fluids through an IV every day. He sleeps every night in bed with us and continues to get the royal treatment he’s always gotten.

29, Los Angeles, CA

Asbjørn was put down the day before my birthday. We could see his body shutting down the week of and my parents bought tickets to come say goodbye to him. A few hours before they arrived, his body started to rapidly fail him and we called the vet to bump up his euthanizing to that day. My parents come from the airport and he’s resting in my arms. We all gently pet him and give him all the love we can. His final hour is difficult. His body goes through some awful things and we call to make sure the vet is coming ASAP. He eventually arrives and we ask him to hurry. Asbjørn passes in my arms and I just hold him for a while and feel the little fluffs between his toes for a final time. We pet and hug him and eventually say goodbye and let the vet carry him off. The emotions drain me and I fall asleep for a little while. The next day, my 29th birthday, is hard to enjoy. My best friend of almost 14 years is gone and I keep looking for him throughout the house, expecting to hear the little clack of his toenails against the wooden floors. This is the first time my parents have visited since I moved to LA, so Chelsea and I take them around town and make the best of the visit. It’s a simultaneously morose and comforting trip. He was deeply loved by all of us.

I’ve been working nights all summer in a seasonal job for DELTA so I can fly for free to see my family. I’m tired of missing out on important moments in friends' and family's lives due to limited finances. This is an opportunity that gives me that freedom. It’s exhausting, though. I miss those final months with Asbjørn, only seeing him in the mornings before running off to a photo shoot and then the to airport for work. I feel guilty, sad, and torn by it. The job is basic labor and makes me feel a little bit like a failure in my career. But the benefits are great. Once my season ends, I make a trip to Montana to see a good friend and take a brief vacation from my life. For Thanksgiving, we head to Indiana and spend a big Thanksgiving with all of Chelsea’s family. We get in a family football game and enjoy ourselves and our time there. It validates the seasonal job and the drain of it. I make loose plans to visit my sister in Abu Dhabi and my childhood best friend in Germany. I begin to find my own rhythm in work and a new drive to do the work I want to do. 

I start training to run the LA Marathon shortly after Asbjørn’s death. I want to prove to myself that despite the lingering feeling of death following me every year, I’m still here. I can still live. I want to run for Asbjørn. I want to run for the family I’ve lost since moving to LA. I want to feel like I’m trying. A brief and weird sickness at Christmas lingers through January, halting my marathon training. It congests my lungs, making it impossible to get full breaths and tiring to do much but sit. After month and a half of off and on issues and an urgent care and ER visit, I think the issue has to do with a bedroom humidifier and I stop our use of it. My issues go away, but too late to rebound for the LA Marathon. 

I do the last of my election coverage of the 2020 campaign, a questionable Joe Biden event held as the US begins to deal with growing COVID-19 cases and starts limiting gatherings. A week or so later, we go into lockdown, an experience which will define the rest of this year.

30, Alpine, WY

 I’ve been quarantining for 6 months. My business has been devastated by the measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. I had planned to My seasonal DELTA job thankfully made applying for unemployment simple, something many self-employed people, including my girlfriend, have struggled to gain access to as the unemployment department is overwhelmed by record applications.

We began fostering a dog in January and eventually folded and adopted her. She’s loving and smart and just wants to please. There’s still a hole in my heart for Asbjørn, but she’s a good distraction and a reminder of the continuation of life. 

I find myself thinking of a lot of memories that are 20 years old and feel weird each time I catch myself saying that something happened 20 years ago. That feels like a number reserved for old people's wedding anniversaries. The number 3 has always been one of my least favorites and I'm a little depressed to think that I have a decade of counting my age with it. I guess I'm old enough to run for congress now, and in five years, president, but the fact that 40 is growing closer is a little unsettling. My frame of reference for how I relate to people in the news and books and life and general is changing. The idea of having youth and time on my side feels like it's also fading. The high school version of me would say I'm a full adult and maybe even refer to myself as "old."

I try not to spend too much time thinking about how disturbing it is that the country is living such divided realities. It’s hard not to be consumed by worry with a country that feels more divided every day. I worry about its future, the only future that I can seem to see anything definitive in. Memes are seen as factual information to an alarming portion of this country. Experts are less trusted than someone spouting opinions to their cell phone from the front seat of their car. Information seems to only suit people if it aligns with their politics. Both political parties look at each other with contempt and call the other varying shades of idiots. Having constructive political discourse feels impossible. It’s a sad and frustrating time that worries me constantly. These things combined with the climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction make it hard to feel hopeful for the future.

It’s a much different 30th birthday than I had ever expected to have, but it’s still nice. I’m here with mom and dad and Chelsea and Rosie and back home in Alpine away from the noise of the world for a second, though in this digital age it's always a click away. We’ve camped our way out here and are hiking to a remote lake I haven’t been to in almost 20 years and subsequently camping our way back to LA. It’s not what I had planned on, but it’s a nice and quiet birthday with my family, and family time has grown in importance to me.

This project is shot on a Graflex 4x5 press camera with expired Fuji 100C45 instant film. The images are a mixture of the polaroids themselves and the negatives I've stripped from them. It's been a process discovering what does and doesn't work; some negatives have been heavily damaged by experimentations with how to properly strip and prepare them. Ten years in I've found the flaws in my process and corrected them.

I re-release this project every five years. This is the second release of this project, with the third release set for 2025.