• Justin Key

The Struggle II

It was just another typical day at work. I was sequestered to the back of the building producing artwork for other artists as I did every day. Every piece that passed through my hands drew a comparison and a quick critique against my own photography. Of course, my work was typically better but there was a steep jealousy mountain beyond bias valley that was stacked against every piece. My journey was just beginning and I could only dream about the day my work would start flowing through the lab. As the afternoon dragged by and I counted down the minutes until quitting time, my boss walked up to me and told me I had to go upfront right away.


The request was strange, this was not her usual visit to discuss my daily objectives or discuss an order coming my way. Today she was in need of my presence at a part of the building I was rarely needed for some mystery reason. My route would run through our company gallery where our various products were displayed. One of my photographs had been used for an aluminum mounted product and as I approached the front counter, a woman stood staring at it. She turned when I came into view and asked if I was the artist. After admitting I was she said she loved the photo and wanted to buy it.


A wave of emotions rendered me speechless. My first sale stood in front of my face if I could just summon the ability to speak. The shock of the moment clipped the line from my brain to my mouth. Of all the conversations I'd ever rehearsed in my head, this was not one I was prepared for and the only sound I could emit was "ok." Disbelief stole my words but the adrenaline rush from the excitement allowed for a stumbled exchange that was enough to seal the deal.

I love to take pictures. I also love to travel and which one came first I can't remember but they have since teamed up to form the ultimate career goal. The odds of finding success were slim to none in my eyes and that was enough to postpone trying. It was a saturated market and where the lack of confidence in my work ended, doubt that anyone would ever buy it began and formed a mental tennis match with courage playing the role of the ball. The reality was that in order to spend my days traveling the world taking pictures I would need to make money via those pictures I took. That seemed unlikely to me so when someone finally put an order in for one of my pieces, the tennis match ceased.


With an order in the books, I finally had justification for my work. The first obstacle on my mountain of doubt was selling a piece. Having accomplished that, the mountain shrunk a bit and I saw potential that my dream could become a reality. That realization boosted my motivation and overflowed me with immense joy. For a brief moment, I believed I had everything it took to get where I wanted to go and nothing would hold me back. But as I mentioned earlier, the highs are short.


Sales would trickle in over the next couple of years but my focus had switched to the photography side. My portfolio wasn't as strong as I believed it should or could be so I worked to build it up. I had proof that my vision would sell but I knew I could do better. The focus was on developing my eye and building a brand, while the business end sat dormant. It was like building a house and putting the shingles and windows on one half while just the foundation was established on the other.

Travel and photography were easy to get consumed with but there had to be a balance with the business I would soon realize. While the money began flowing out more than in the frustrations built up. I was losing 40 hours a week to a full-time job that sucked the life out of me. Coming home mentally drained day after day made it tough to find the energy to grind on photography with my little free time remaining. Work became an excuse for the lack of productivity and hindered progress on my ideal means of escaping that monotony. Becoming a traveling photographer shined even brighter when I thought about how great it would be to finally quit my job but the long days of passionless work blurred the path.

Before I decided on a college and what degree I would pursue there was only one condition I had for my future, I wanted to wake up every day excited about what it would hold. Photography and travel were all that came to mind. Fast forward and that pursuit remained intact but too distant for my liking. I had a job that paid the bills and little else but it allowed me to travel almost at will. Once you took the workday, commute to and from, and daily chores out there were a few exhausted hours left before the routine began again. Bitterness and anger filled my mind as my priorities were taking a backseat to a dead-end job that was draining me day after day. I tried to find ways to work on photography at work, sending emails or working on social media but every night I laid down in bed irritated that my checklist was not shrinking.

I began to shift my priorities around and looked into my daily routine for ways to improve my focus. I started working fewer hours each week and not allowing the frustrating environment to come home with me. I changed my diet to include foods that increased energy and cognitive function. Meditation was added into my routine which helped my mental state both at work and at home. Exercise became a priority again and I found my nights were more productive because of it. Eventually, some traction was gained and the photography business found balance and began to move forward.

When I was accepted into the Vail Art Festival I thought I finally had my chance to reel my photography career in closer. My hope was the festival would open doors and be successful to the point I could rely on them to supplement my income. While my Sunday morning mood in Vail was grim, the second someone walked into my booth, I was all smiles. Things may not have bounced my way over the first two days but all it would take was one person to make the whole weekend worthwhile. That person would never come. The day concluded with a few sales on the books and left me feeling content with my first show.


When sales weren't rolling in it became easy to question my work. The disappointment blinded me to any reason for the lack of cash flow other than a lack of photographic abilities. With a level mindset on Sunday, I was able to approach the issue sensibly. I examined my booth, replayed conversations, and looked for patterns in customer interactions that might help me shift my approach to develop a better connection. Over the next couple of months, I redesigned my layout, made upgrades to the booth, and focused on how I engaged my audience. When my second show rolled around, the slate was clean.

The investment woes were behind me for the second show in Castle Rock, Colorado. While my investment had put me deep into the red I arrived viewing the bank account balanced. The pressure to make sales was reduced and I had an even bigger smile on my face as I engaged my potential customers. I had a new booth for the show. I purchased new walls that presented my work better and altered my layout to help catch people's eyes and draw them in. The results were much better for my second show as I had some holes on the walls by the end of the weekend.

This part of the journey is called the struggle because it's not easy. The mental battle can be brutal and you either have the strength to fight through it or you have to develop it. Over the years I've built a thicker skin which allowed me to steal my courage ball back from those jerks that were playing tennis with it. I found the strength to believe in myself and the motivation to work harder. I've taken steps to improve my habits that in turn helped my productivity. I've also lost all of that and had to start over on multiple occasions.


Here's the thing about the struggle, it sucks. It is hard and it is long if there even is an end at all. But what scares me even more than failure is not trying. If I keep working and grinding all in the pursuit of a future doing what I once dreamed to be impossible, that's worth the risk. To find the light at the end of the tunnel will be worth the anger, the frustrations, the good, the bad, the blood, sweat, and tears. It is worth the struggle. If I try and fail, at least I tried. But I don't think I'm going to fail, not anymore. I've gotten this far up the mountain and I know there is a long way to go but having made it so far, I can't go back, not because I don't want to but because I don't know how to.


The struggle is now a part of my life. I've developed the tools to overcome it and I've felt the highs and am hungry for more. When I made my first sale it not only encouraged me to continue to work, it instilled my love of photography. My travels take me all around the world and I want to bring those memories home for others to inspire them to go see it for themselves. However, my dream is no longer to be a traveling photographer. I want to be the guy that spent every day working to become what he deemed impossible. I want to be the guy that put it all on the line for a dream that came true. I don't want to be average, I don't want to be safe. I want the moon and the stars. I want the struggle.

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© Justin Key Photography