The 17-Year-Old Assignment

You’d think after 17 years, a question and assignment from a college professor shouldn’t feel so fresh and haunting. Yet, it does. The reason why has changed significantly over the years as has my perspective on his assignment.   

Two months into a black and white photography class, sitting around a dingy studio table with all our gear, we were tasked out of the blue to write our obituaries.

Right there on the spot. Just write it down and purge it out.  

The young 20-year-old me was pissed. How any of that had anything to do with photography was beyond me. I was disgusted and I was offended. I signed up for a photography class. This wasn’t psychology or philosophy or some other class where that might be an appropriate assignment. I wasn’t there to be introspective.

Or so I thought.  

The young 20-year-old me refused to do the assignment. I challenged him and walked out. Headed straight to the dark room to develop my films and do what I believed I was there to do. Photography, not summing up who I was.  

The young 20-year-old me had no idea what to write and was scared to death. I can admit that now. I had no idea how to define in words what my 20 years represented. I was young. I was immature and I was stubborn. Mortality and defining who I was didn’t resonate with me.  

Notwithstanding storming out of the room, I managed to get an A in the class. I learned a lot about aperture, ISO, shutter speed and how to tell a story and your point a view through a lens. What I didn’t allow myself to consider or take away that semester, aside from being offended, was what his assignment was intended to do.  

As I’ve grown, in maturity and in age, I think of this professor and his question every time I pick up my camera.  

I can close my eyes and see that dingy room. I can smell the chemicals and feel the happiness photography brought to me. I can remember the frustration when film didn’t process correctly and the joy when the image appearing in the chemical bath was better than what you had conceived.  

In the years since passed I’ve gained perspective. A lot of perspective and a lot of perspective on things I never thought would ever cross my path. My sight has become more targeted and focus clearer. My priorities have changed. Sharing what I see and ultimately how that is defined and impacts my life has become more important.  

I’ve thought a lot over the years about what I think his intent was. What it was he wanted us to consider when he gave the assignment and what I believe he was hoping it would invoke in us.  

17 years later I believe he wanted to challenge us to go to that uncomfortable place to find our perspective, point of view and how we see the world and ourselves.  

Coming from a professor who proudly told us how he took dozens of photos, each burned into his memory, hanging out of a car window while driving through the grasslands of Kansas only to discover the camera had no film, is the same professor who encouraged us to make up our own credentials and sneak into events to capture images and push our boundaries. He regularly encouraged us to see beyond the obvious, get up-close and uncomfortably personal and capture what we thought no one else saw.  

17 years ago I was too young, stupid, stubborn and afraid to fully embrace his challenge and assignment that day.   

17 years later, a more mature, older and I’d like to believe wiser me, sees more clearly.  

I belive he simply wanted us to define who we are. Define what we view as beautiful. Capture what evokes emotion in us. Discover what our perspective is and how our point of view on everything around us ultimately lays the groundwork for what defines us and tells our story.  

While the assignment was rather unorthodox to say the least, it has kept me thinking for 17 years.  

In the past four or so years, I’ve been forced to intimately come face to face with my own mortality. I’ve been forced to grow up. Really grow up and seriously consider what that obituary will once read.  

I been forced to define what exactly my perspective is, challenge myself to grow, further develop and expand my point of view and ultimately, thanks to a degree in History, sum it all up in words here in this very space.  

The 17-year-old, off-the-cuff assignment the young immature 20-year-old me viewed as offensive is no longer offensive. Today it’s a daily assignment about defining my life story, defining who I am, what I see and why it all matters. Ultimately, it will be all of you who’ll define if any of this is any good and meaningful.    

I continue to find joy of the art of photography and writing. I continue an attempt at capturing how I see all that is me and all that is who we are as a family in word and image. By uniting two loves in writing and photography, I’ve come to realize that 17 years later I’m actually fulfilling his assignment each and everyday.  

Years have drawn laugh lines on my face, provided wisdom, maturity, immense perspective and significant challenges. As I face the raw reality and intent of his assignment today, 17 years later, it is with hope that the words written and images captured through my lens will ultimately serve as a lasting collection.

A collection that evokes the emotion, point of view and perspective from where I stood and inhaled life.

7 thoughts on “The 17-Year-Old Assignment

  1. Just read the new essay. As always, it both touched my heart and also made me think. Somewhere along the way I came across the saying “Begin with the end in mine”. Basically, what do you want your life to have been once you are gone. And it’s not something that is easy to think about. Most of us try to avoid the question as much as possible. But then you get blind sided by something(s) you never even dreamed would come your way and, suddenly, the question less scary, the answer more clear. For me, when I go, I want to have left my little slice of the world better off than I found it. I want to have been worthy of all the blessings I have been given. That starts by taking care of myself, my love, and my family and friends. And, trust me, I have learned a lot from you in trying to find my way towards that envisioned. And that’s a gift, so thanks.

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