Frame of Mind: A War of Attrition

It’s been a while since I sat down and wrote one of these suckers. For what it’s worth, it’s not because of a lack in effort. If you were aware the schedule Wes Williams and I have been living over the course of the last couple of months (especially Wes), you would probably fall asleep just reading it. For better or worse, our sleep and time to decompress has been sparse and, honestly, it doesn’t appear to be coming soon. But, that’s okay. It’s part of this profession AND it is the topic of which I shall ramble about today for the one to three people who read this blog.

The war of attrition. That should be our job description. What we do isn’t cut out for everybody. Now, I am not trying to make us sound like we are a bunch of elite, badass warriors (especially me), because we are not. We aren’t saving the world or finding the cure for cancer. My point is that since I started pursuing this career path 17 years ago, I have seen my share of photographers and videographers come and go due to a lack of work ethic and/or realizing it’s not exactly what it may appear to be from the outside looking in. Especially if you are working as a freelancer. Let me give you a very brief example of a recent schedule for Wes and I on an out-of-state shoot where we were in a time zone different than our local time zones…


-Alarm: 5:30am

-Call time: 6:30am. 

-30-minute drive to location

-Camera up: 7:00am. 

-Wrap & load out: 8:15pm

-30-minute drive to hotel


-Alarm: 5:30am

-Call time: 6:30am

-30-minute drive to location

-Camera up: 7:15am

-Wrap and loud out: 9:00pm

-30-minute drive to hotel


-Alarm: 5:00am

-Call time: 5:45am

-30-minute drive to location

-Camera up: 6:00am

-Wrap & load out: 8:20pm

-30-minute drive to hotel


Alarm: 7:00am

-Call time: 8:00

-30-minute drive to location

-Camera up: 8:45am

-Wrap & loud out: 7:00pm

-30-minute drive to hotel


-Alarm: 3:15am

-Flight: 6:00am

-Drive time from hotel to airport: One hour 30-minutes

How it really looks after a long week. Wes Williams couldn’t find our hotel key, Danny Stuart is asleep on the floor, and Art Dog captured this photo before cuddling up next to D-Stu.

I am not even going to bother sharing what our schedule of days looked like prior to what I have just broken down and also our days after the aforementioned. By no means am I complaining. To be busy within this line of work is something to be extremely grateful for, especially during these uncertain times. Does it wear you down? Yes. How do you keep pushing through? For me, it’s passion and drive. The “grind,” (insert eye roll here) if you will, does not bother me. It’s something I embrace. It’s something that I don’t always enjoy, but no matter the job, there are going to be days that simply are not fun and wear you down, and you will question how you are suppose to tackle a certain gig with fresh eyes. My secret to work through this is by reminding myself of my days working at Disneyland, Starbucks, Target, and other customer service jobs to realize how even on my worst day on a shoot, it’s better then my best day at my old 9-5 job(s). Though, there has been an occasion or two where I have sincerely questioned if this job is worth the BS or not. Those specific moments (for me, anyways), are very rare and arise because of multiple things going against you at once. I’d say it’s like being struck by lighting. You’re left thinking, “What in the actual fuck? This is not real!”

I suppose part of how you “make it” within this niche industry behind the camera is networking (I am terrible at this), another part of it is having the talent and eye to create beautiful images, and the other part is the initiative and determination and stubbornness to keep pushing and pushing and proving yourself to others. Oh, and not being a total asshole. Now, I’ve met, worked with, and witnessed individuals that have one of the first two things I mentioned. Or, they have both of the first two items mentioned. But, when you are missing the initiative, passion, fire, and determination to push and push and prove yourself, that’s when things tend to fall apart. Oh, and also being an asshole.

Art Dog doing art things at Kawasaki Motor Corp for a new project you’ll be seeing on in roughly one to 12-years. Photo: Brandon Carter.

I will be the first one to admit it, I do not find myself to be the most talented individual behind the camera. I know that I have so much more to improve on. I know I do not have the best eye, the best editing ability, the best color ability, the best lighting techniques, etc. But, I keep pushing and pushing. The reality is, when you want something bad enough, there is no end.

“You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when you’re done,” is a favorite quote of mine from David Goggins. And, I am not done. Though I’ve accomplished many goals I set for myself behind the lens, for better or worse, I lack the ability to be content. I want more, I know there is more, so I will set unrealistic goals for myself. It’s a way to help me remain grounded and to keep fighting to improve my craft. It’s also how I can show potential clients or a current client or colleague that they can rely on me to put my best foot forward. Don’t get me wrong, I do make it a point to carve out time in my days to step away from the computer. I do make it a point to avoid shooting and/or editing on the weekends (when and if I can). There are boundaries you need to place for your own sanity because this can be and will be a mentally taxing job that can and will take away any sense of a real, normal life from you. The creative process, at least for me, while wildly satisfying when you accomplish what you have in your head. It is also incredibly exhausting. So, finding a balance is key. Granted, even that balance is something I have difficulty with, too. 

The job isn’t glamorous. Planes and hotels and rental cars while lugging around an asinine amount of camera gear is not what I would call fun. Nobody knows this better then Wes himself. That dude needs a got dayum hug, massage, and a one year paid vacation! Here’s an example of why it’s not always oh so pretty…

On a recent shoot, Wes, Danny Stuart, Jason Crane, and myself had McDonalds five days in a row for dinner. Why? Because the town we were staying in was so small, all we had was our hotel and a McDonalds. If we wanted any kind of non-fast food option other then the golden arches, it was a 45-minute drive (one way) in any other direction to do so. And, prior to D-Stu and Crane joining Wes and I on this particular leg of the journey, Wes and I had already had McDonalds five times prior, which meant we ended up having McDonald’s for nine or 10-days in a row. Yep. That happened. No lie. While you’re scrolling through Instagram on your iPhone to see what we are up to, it may look cool when you see that we’ve been shooting the best in the world, but let me tell you, the journey before what you see and after what you see isn’t always fun.

Lugging the Leaning Tower of Pelican Cases in some airport in some part of the United States of America on minimal sleep.

I realize I’ve discussed this before, but I do feel like it bares repeating. When I was first starting out in early 2004, I was nearing the end of my high school career, holding onto the dream of racing Supercross by 2006 or 2007 (idiot), and nagging Donn Maeda at TransWorld Motocross Magazine to help me get credentials so I could get my camera into SX races to shoot from the stands. I would rent a camera from my high school photography class, then call Pro Photo Connection in Irvine, CA to rent a 70-200mm lens for the weekend. I would spend the $25 or $30 to rent the lens, pick it up on Friday after class, and then shoot all day and night on Saturday from the stands, work on photos on Sunday after racing or riding at the local track, submit photos to Swap in hopes he’d post something on the site, and also return the lens I rented before school on Monday morning. Even after I graduated high school and was working full time jobs, I would bother Donn to help with credentials.

By 2007, he got me full access to photograph the Hangtown, Washougal, and Glen Helen outdoor motocross races. However, I had to pay for my own flights, hotels, food, etc. Making seven to eight dollars an hour at my 9-5 jobs, I would save up my money to purchase the aforementioned, request time off work as needed, and go photograph these races with my Canon 20d a couple of used lenses that I bought for dirt cheap, and submit my images to TWMX in hopes something got used. I would end up making just enough money off of the photos bought by TWMX to recoup my expenses. At one point, I literally asked Donn if I could work at TWMX as a janitor and take out the trash and clean the floors purely so I could get some sort of experience with the magazine. After roughly four years of pushing and fighting and doing whatever I could to get a job, I was offered a full-time gig at TWMX as associate editor/photo editor. Even then, I didn’t have a car, so at times, I would have to take public transportation to get myself to and from the office. It didn’t matter what was in my way, I did exactly what I needed to do to bring my dreams and goals to fruition. 

Shortly after being hired full-time at TWMX, one of Art Dog’s first gigs was a photo shoot with now retired FMX/former Red Bull athlete, Lance Coury in January of 2008. This photograph, now 13-years-old, from ol’ Art Dog, lived as a two page spread in the SCAN section of the TWMX magazine.

Now, 17-years later, that work ethic, drive, and fight is still there. I still do whatever I can to make this job work, to meet the clients expectations, and to push myself to be the best I can be behind the lens. This job is truly a war of attrition and it beats you the fuck down. Take away the hustle it takes to bring the type of work we create to life, there is an entire mental aspect I deal with as well because I never feel satisfied with my work, or I won’t let myself be satisfied. I often feel more insecure and underwhelmed than anything.

In an interview with David Letterman, Dave Chappell, said something to the effect that he works in an industry where the people determine whether or not he gets hired again. If they don’t enjoy his work, he is out of a job. To some level, that’s how I feel within my line of work. I have to hope people think my work is good enough to earn a living, otherwise the phone will not ring. This is always why I refuse to read the comment sections on any of my work. People shit all over you because they can. And, if you allow yourself the time to get caught up in the hateful and mean-spirited comments of YouTube and message boards, it can truly tear you apart. Especially in this line of work where some of us are very hard on ourselves to begin with, that added negativity is enough to push some over the edge.

As much as I fully support the 1st amendment, I also wouldn’t be upset if the comment sections of all platforms were banned. People hiding behind their keyboards to shit all over your work that you’ve provided to them free of charge is endlessly irritating, so that is why I stopped reading comments and put my time and energy into positive areas of my existence. Perhaps this is just my brain working in its standard odd way, but when you mesh all of that together, it’s no wonder I am seeing a psychologist once a week. (That’s a joke. Kind of).

Art Dog isn’t kidding about seeing a psychologist. If you read previous installments of Frame of Mind, he’s shared his desires to see somebody, and at the start of 2021 he started doing just that and is documenting the experience via these “selfies” after each session with his therapist. He’s sharing his journey on his Instagram account (@kylecowling), so if you are curious about his journey with mental health, give him a follow. He’s been very open and candid about the process.

The harsh reality is, not everybody is cut out for this type of work. It is a true grind that, for me, has not end in sight. It has many peaks and valleys and the valleys, at times, feel very long and very flat. How will I know when I am done? When I die. Until then, I will continue to push and feel as though what I’ve accomplished isn’t enough and isn’t good enough.

The Dos Equis commercials sum it well, “Stay thirsty, my friend.” Or hungry. Or whatever you want to call it. Just don’t give up. Understand it is a war of attrition, a marathon not a sprint. It’s a long, hard road and, at times, you will fail. I have failed and I will fail again. It’s part of this journey of never feeling like you’ve “made it.” And, while some aspects do get easier, some will always remain a challenge. For better or worse, my psychologist recently pointed out that I have lived in a perpetual state of survival most of my life and, at some level, that has helped me stay in the fight and maintain my stamina in this chosen career path. Granted, it would be nice to lay on the sofa and play Grand Theft Auto 5 for days on end. We all have dreams, right? 

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