aerial shot of washington, d.c., copyright 2015 laura roberts
in 2008 i moved to d.c. i was young–a few days into 23. dumb–i figured morphing myself into some kind of [wannabe] political guru would get me over a recent heartbreak.
and more than anything, i was trying to figure out what the hell i was supposed to do with my life.
“i’ve heard everyone has a cause or passion they’re apart of in d.c.,” i said to someone over the phone the summer before i went. “i want to find my passion. i’ll go to d.c. and i’ll find out what it is–they’re a million different causes up there, and with the political internship i’ll be doing, i’ll find one–and then i’ll get behind it and do that.”
a short month and a half of living in the beltway and submerging myself into the senate internship i’d taken on, the wheels on my d.c. love affair began to fall off.
for one thing, my black dress pants were becoming tight around my once taunt middle. days of sitting in a rolling office chair and eating pastries out of washington coffee shops had caught up with me. freshman fifteen my ass. i’d lost weight in college. in d.c., i put on ten pounds in a matter of weeks.
for another, i was becoming sneakily suspicious about the whole way the political scene was run. white-haired senator after white-haired senator appeared in the office: slow shuffled steps, hearing aids bulging out of ear canals. another rolled by in a wheelchair, blue veins stark against translucent white skin. is this a nursing home or the united states senate i’ve checked into? the senators were swarmed with twenty-four-year-old staffers, their young hands double-fisting blackberry’s (2008—apple wasn’t cool yet), and barking out orders to whoever was on the other end of the line or text. i often went home wondering who was really running the country.
but it was the people themselves that began to eat at me.
quick to jab.
eyes narrowed, ready to pounce on any breathed word that clashed with their view.
i never felt smart or brave enough to speak up in a political discussion–well, i did once; it didn’t go so smoothly–but i did become increasing good at taking the lead in any given conversation.
“i see. how do YOU feel the republicans are handling the foreign policy bill that’s currently on the floor?”
my vocals two pitches lower than my normal talking voice, my head cocked to the side in an inquisitive manner. my (unbeknownst to him/her) interviewee’s eyes would go wide, as if he/she’d been waiting all day for someone to ask.
i’d nod calmly along as they talked with words that my three months of political cramming hadn’t covered–what the hell is a constituent??–as i scribbled furiously in my head things to google later on that evening.
the whole process made me feel like some sort of phony psychologist—“i see. and how does THAT make you feel?”–and i hated myself for it.
so because i was lonely.
and didn’t like these people or the kind of person i was becoming.
i spent a lot of time in my new town walking around by myself.
in my purse, i’d thrown a small camera that had once belonged to my brother. and because i would rather have died than have a photograph taken of me at the moment—fat (in my mind), depressed, and feeling like a fraud about to be unmasked at any given moment—i took to taking pictures of my surroundings.
i’d say under my breath when a bulging bottom of a heavy tourist would enter my shot of the lincoln memorial.
not only did i not want pictures of myself taken, i also didn’t want any people in my pictures. people were the reason i hated this city. people (a person) was the reason my heart was broken. people were not to be trusted.
“that WOULD have been a good photo,” i’d say in my head as i waited until the tottering body was out of the frame.
my pictures weren’t horrible—i’d shot video all through high school and college—but they were by no means any kind of work of art. they did, however, give me a bit of a purpose as i walked around the city by myself.
or at least made me look like less lonely.
the elections came and went along with my internship (i was, however, offered opportunities to work in various senators’ offices, making me ponder if the field of acting might be my true life’s calling). and at the end of november, i couldn’t get in my mom’s car fast enough to head back to nashville. i’d never wanted to get out of a town so fast.
a town that hadn’t cured me of heartbreak.
a town that had added ten pounds to my once thin frame.
but above all, a town i would never forgive because it had suckered me in and lied to me: i didn’t find my passion.
the waiting place
my next few years were spent working various jobs that left me wondering if my past four years at university—hours spent holded up at my campus tv studio and internships in new york city and the tennessee titans locker room—had actually occurred.
“so what do i tell my kids who see you working the job you have now,” she asked facing me, nose flared out. “why go to college to come back to work at a place you worked in high school?”
i swallowed, not knowing what to say to the parent standing in front of me with the glasses and curly hair.
that i had tried to get a job in the field i gotten my degree in—broadcast journalism (and even though i was “good” on-camera, i felt almost as big of a fraud on screen as i did pretending to discuss politics in d.c.)?
that i’d spent six months after d.c. sending resume tapes to places like cheyenne, wy and charlottesville, va (and truth be told, i’d started mailing out resume tapes on my lunch break from the senate mailroom when i was still in d.c.)? that i’d taken a road trip down to texas when i moved back to tennessee, personally dropping off resume tapes all over the lone star state—from abilene to victoria—nearly fifty hours of driving in four and half days.
and the tearful day? the one i will never forget as long as i live. i’d given myself six months to try to find a job in my field. and when that date expired at the end of april, how i’d laid down in the bed with the blue comforter at my mom’s apartment where i was now living and cried harder than i’d ever cried in my entire life.
harder then when i’d been asked if i was a boy or girl or an “it” for three months in sixth grade after one such horrible haircut.
harder then when he said he didn’t think we could truly be ourselves around each other.
harder then when—
“i don’t know,” was all i could muster as she walked away.
but in-between lifeguarding at the neighborhood pool and slinging t-shirts at my local abercrombie and spending nights in the arms of men who were just as lost as myself, i kept my brother’s point-and-shoot canon in my red fossil purse. and sometimes i’d pull it out to take a photo.
i still wasn’t too keen on photographing people, but i’d take photos here and there of things that were safe: houses. cathedrals. trees that merely wanted to be trees.
“…it’s a special city. i can’t explain it. people of all ages come out and listen to live music any night of the week.”
i couldn’t even tell you why, but the moment i heard someone at my gym say the name of austin, tx for the first time when i was twenty-four—i know, i know; i didn’t get an “A” in geography class—i felt drawn to the city.
“i’m going to move there someday.”
i began announcing it to anyone who brought it up as the months went on.
“oh. have you been,” polite nashville voices would inquire back kindly.
“no. but i will.”
and in 2011, i took a road trip down to sxsw, austin’s annual festival that showcases everything from music to film to everything otherwise. and i brought my little canon with me. five days spent around musicians with strangling hair and eyes that were as hurt and lost as my own captivated me. i had always tried to hide mine; their’s were in full view for all to see.
something in me broke.
i took my rule of “no photographing humans” and pitched it out the third-floor window. and i began taking pictures of the musicians and the instruments that they loved.
and i fell in love.
six months later i moved to austin. i spent my days and my months with my camera–i’d upgraded to an SLR canon now– in bars, taking photos of the musicians. hanging out with the artists i waited tables with. and things started happening.
i started working as a photographer.
i shot bonnaroo music and arts festival for a publication. i had a photo published in an ad that appeared in the magazine guitar world. i shot an album cover.
there were many moments i pinched myself, wondering how a scraggly girl from tennessee–i’d lost the ten pounds–was able to experience and be apart of the things i was able to experience and be apart of.
but there where lows that came, too.
as any artist can tell you, the freelance world is not for the faint of heart. you’re always hustling. always reaching out to one publication or person–and three-fourths of the time, you hear crickets as a response. you question yourself and your worth as an artist. you spend a lot of your time wondering if you’re a waitress or a photographer. on the good days, the photographer wins out.
but there’s a lot of days that aren’t good days.
after two years of waiting tables, i decided to get a “real girl job” and accepted a position with a wonderful non-profit organization. the individuals i worked with couldn’t have been kinder, the work couldn’t have been for a better cause—for god’s sake, we were raising money for children to go to college. but the bottom line of it was signing up to do work in front of a computer and answer phones. my free-spirited self who loved nothing more than to be moving and outside and talking to people and capturing a moment with photos or words or both, was now sitting for the majority of a forty-hour work week. i knew this when i took the job on. it thought i was strong enough to do it.
i worked my ace off at the job, gave everything i took on 120% of my blood and sweat and tears. i excelled at my position with the company and i did it all with a smile on my face. but underneath my mask, i was the unhappiest i’d ever been working a job.
i was also dating a man who looked equally as great on paper—gainfully employed? check. extremely good looking? double check. worshiped the ground i walked on? shit. triple check. but like my job, i was never more miserable in my love life than when i was dating that man.
the more miserable i became, the more i stopped taking photos. stopped going to shows. stopped hanging around artists.
my shooting days came to a slow drip of a faucet.
stuck on you.
i moved back to nashville at the end of 2014.
having quit the man and the job i so wanted to fit me but didn’t.
tears were streaming down my face and my stomach hurt at the very thought of leaving austin, the town i will love until the day i die. but i knew it was time.
i had learned what i needed to learn from my favorite place in the entire world.
i spent 2015 in nashville, working jobs at a rock gym and a nursing home and a psychiatric hospital (and three other jobs), trying to figure out what the fuck it was i supposed to be doing with my life.
i started shooting a little with my camera again, although i wasn’t sure what my relationship was going to be with it now. i looked at it the same way i looked at people when i had moved to dc: i couldn’t trust it. it had brought me some of my greatest happinesses—radiohead at bonnaroo, the cody jasper band in austin’s bat bar (if you’re ever in austin, don’t leave without checking out cody jasper, who is a guitar god–and i mean that), sxsw—but also my greatest heartbreak: i’d failed; i hadn’t “made it” as a photographer in austin.
my camera went up on craigslist in april. that same time day, i got an email saying the price i had it listed as was a grand more than a new version of the model.
what the fuc—
i googled. sure enough. my camera, while still an amazing camera, was no longer the coolest kid on the block. hello EOS 5DS.
i stared at my canon body with the 50 mm attached. my very first lens. there was no way i would sell my camera for the dollar amount that i would have to sell it at now—close to half of what i’d paid just a couple years before.
well, little guy.
i stared at my camera long and hard.
i think we’re stuck with each other.
i started shooting more live music again. some of those old feelings of when i used to shoot began to surface. i hung out in east nashville, shooting some of the musicians there–they reminded me of austin. i shot bonnaroo for a publication a few months later. and in august, i stumbled into nashville’s new ascend amphitheater. the new outdoor theatre brought something out in me. maybe it was the newness of it. maybe it was the hope of it. but whatever reason it was, the feelings i had shooting all those years in austin were back.
it was then that i decided i didn’t care if i ever made another fucking cent off my photo work.
didn’t care who thought i was crazy for wanting to walk around as a twenty-nine-year-old woman and shoot dirty musicians.
i was going to take photographs until they pried my canon body from my cold dead fingers.
“can i help you ma’am?”
i’m trying to buy a metro card.
“um yeah. i don’t know what to buy.”
“how long you gonna be here?”
“just buy twelve bucks worth. you won’t need anymore than that—add more cash if you need to.”
i take the subway from reagan airport down to chinatown. get on the red line and get off at farrgot north. i’m in d.c. and killing time before my friend gets off work. seven years have passed since i’ve been in the city i swore i would never forgive.
i wander into a deli, talk spanish (thank you, texas) with the man i’m ordering my turkey wrap from. swap hello’s and grins with the owner. he’s from new york.
“been here thirty years.”
the pride in his voice reminds me of a man talking about a son who served.
i walk up the washington mall, smiling easily at people as they walk by. and people—in suits and t-shirts alike—they smile back. i say hello to some. each says hello back.
the dark and dreary city i’ve painted in my head isn’t dark and dreary at all.
“where you from?”
he’s visiting from europe. we’re near the white house.
“nashville. but i used to live here seven years ago. this is the first time i’ve been back.”
“oh, yeah? has it changed much?”
i swallow. think.
“no. but i have.”
and for the first time in seven years, i realize.
d.c. couldn’t cure me of my heartbreak all those years ago.
no city could.
only time could do that.
d.c. also wasn’t the awful place i’d made it out to be in my head. that was merely the spot i was in at the time—whether i was in d.c. or a refrigerator box from lowe’s. and the political folk. well, that was their cup of tea. it wasn’t mine. but me trying to be them, that was the biggest problem of the people of d.c.
in spite of everything, in spite of me hating the town for so long, blaming the town for not fulfilling my dreams of finding my passion so many years ago, i realized something i hadn’t realized: d.c. hadn’t lied to me at all.
not in the slightest.
“are you a photographer?”
my camera is around my neck.
“would you–” he’s got his phone in his hand.
“i’d love to. umm, let’s see. let’s get closer to the white house; it’ll block some of the light that’s coming in.”
we walk forward, take a few shots.
“yeah. let me see with my camera.”
i take a few shots for lighting purposes.
“yea. that’s better. but let’s get closer.”
and we get closer.
because sometimes you have to do that when you’re taking a photo. you have to block the harsh light that’s coming in. it’ll blow out your frame and create highlights if you don’t. highlights that are so blown even photoshop can’t fix them.
but other times, you’ve got to step back. give the subject and yourself some space. some time.
to see the picture you want to see.
but don’t worry.
take a step back.