Need to transition? Move those feet!

Recently I was asked by DESIGN, the magazine of the Society for News Design, to contribute to its summer issue focused on theme of “transition.” SND President Sara Quinn suggested I frame my ideas around a series of photos that intrigued her in recent years, taken while looking down at my feet as I have traveled the world.

Does anyone understand the need for, or art of, transition as much as the news industry, especially those of us with career foundations in print? Though not taken with any goal of reflecting transition, in hindsight I realize that the images help illustrate the concept of moving forward, and changing, as it applies to my work and life. Many of them were taken in or around my consulting travels, or include people who have been key to my career. Here are a few images and life/career snippets from an extensive gallery of images in my Flickr account.

2Argentina

Life challenge: Time to experience life abroad!
Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2003.  
For several years I had the joy and challenge of working directly with my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Mario Garcia. At one point I was managing several redesign projects in the States, including the San Francisco Examiner and a very interesting Polish newspaper published in New York City, Nowy Dziennik, but felt a need to get out of Chicago to broaden my horizons. I asked Mario about working for a few months out of his office in Buenos Aires, and he said, no problem, there is a desk with your name on it, so long as it does not disrupt client visits in the U.S. (Coincidentally, this would be in the dead of winter in Chicago, and the height of summer there. An added bonus for me.) I finessed our client schedules, rented an apartment, and spent three months learning from and collaborating with his talented team there, exploring the city and culture in ways I never would have as a tourist.

4slums
Life challenge: Slow down to give back, connect with other cultures. 
Location: Nairobi, Kenya, 2006. 
A true highlight of my life’s work was the several years I spent visiting Africa. Because of the distance and the complexity of the job (redesigning Nairobi’s Standard newspaper, and providing extensive management and staff training), it was often necessary for me to remain on site for several weeks at a time. On weekends, I soon crossed safaris off my list, and began to explore more challenging parts of the culture. This image shows me visiting the vast Kibera slum, where Reuters photographer Noor Khamis introduced me to a studio of self-trained artists (shown here) as well as dozens of people from all walks of life. During repeated visits to the slum, I ended up helping start a community lending library, shipping (or carting over in my luggage) 3,600 books that were quickly snatched up by those who lived there, who told me they had access to very few books. It was a year-long challenge that connected me with book donors in Chicago, a charity with similar interests in Connecticut, and many people I would not have ordinarily met in Kenya. More of my photo galleries from Kenya.

1 India
Life challenge: When work slows down, what to do? 
Location: Northern India, Uttar Pradesh region, 2007.  
For many years I worked 50- or 60-hour weeks, enjoying a hectic schedule as a consultant to news organizations around the world, often traveling up to a few weeks a month. Then, circa 2007, the recession hit. I was faced with a temporary identity crisis – if I’m not working all the time, what do I do with myself? What might happen if newspapers truly go bust? I realized I had traveled extensively all over the world, yet missed out on a lot because it was always work, work, work, with little time to experience the local culture or geography, and this could be a chance to take advantage of some slow time. I booked a two-week backpacking trip to India, where I had previously done some consulting but saw little of the country. Traveling through India, almost without doubt, you learn a lot about your endurance for discomfort, and your appreciation of surprise. This image was taken in a small village near the start of our trek, where late monsoons had literally washed out roads, forcing us to forego our drivers and add several miles to what already was set to be a long day on the trail. The trip started, frankly, in misery, proceeded in fits and illness and injury, and concluded with an unexpected four-night stay at a resort located on a maharaja’s palace. Ah, India! You taught me when things get rough, hang on, delight could be just around the corner. India also marked a turning point in my own photographic pursuits, as I slowed down enough to really study subjects in a way I hadn’t really bothered to before. More of my photo galleries from India.

3BurningMan
Life challenge: Breaking out of a creative (and life) rut. 
Location: Burning Man, 2008. 
Midlife can be a huge period of “settling,” into routines, habits, boundaries. At a summer barbecue in Chicago, I had a conversation with some new friends who were pondering whether to return to the Burning Man festival in Nevada, which they described as a wondrous and life changing. “Burning Man? I’ve heard of that and have been toying with going.” Why don’t you go, they asked? “Well, I’m busy, I’m remodeling my kitchen and have to pick out tile and cabinets.” Instantly they and I realized what a lame excuse that was for not pursuing adventure with gusto. I went home immediately and booked a last minute ticket and dove right in. It ended up being the first of four visits I would make to the annual festival (starting back before the hype got a bit out of control, thanks to social media) and indeed, for me, Burning Man turned out to be life-changing. I met countless people who did not define themselves by work, who viewed and created art and architecture and music and dance in ways I was not familiar with back home. It was the perfect antidote to the dark clouds that had gathered over the newspaper industry, and I returned to the real world with a newfound appreciation for creating, connecting, and seizing each day. I no longer feel the urge to return to the dusty desert outside Reno each Labor Day, but instead have vowed to head out into the world each year around that time to discover or create wonder. My photo galleries from Burning Man.

6Canada
Life challenge: Time to get arty.  
Location: Ottawa, 2009. 
Designing for publications can often mean hours at the computer, drawing and filling in boxes and typing and styling text. Over time, things can feel, well, mechanical. When my friend, colleague and mentor Pegie Stark, a news designer herself as well as an artist, suggested I come to Canada and just spend the week exploring and painting, I jumped at the chance. I knew it was a chance to delve into art with no judgment – “those are the wrong colors, that tree looks more like a moose!” – which had held back my interests in the past. Here we are out in the woods, preparing pastels to draw some landscapes for the day. I didn’t become a great artist, but after our time together, I grew to view both nature and art in new ways. Shortly after this time, I also embarked on a great adventure/risk/challenge, opening an art gallery out of my consulting studio in south Chicago. Images from the 14 exhibits I curated over the course of two years. 

5Yellowstone
Life challenge: Shaking off the big city.
Location: Yellowstone National Park, 2015 
The economy eventually bounced back from the recession, but newspapers only modestly so. I was lucky to settle back into a routine of steady work, with an adjustment toward more magazine redesign work but still the occasional newspaper job and speaking engagement. This allowed me to devote more time to my own photography, and to travel, and my interests veered greatly in the area of the U.S. National Parks. In 2015 I was asked to speak to the Montana Newspaper Association in Big Sky. When the conference ended, I drove a few hours south to Yellowstone, revisited a few favorite tourist spots in the park, and spent two nights backpacking and camping in grizzly territory. Ah, wilderness! When the pressures of work and economy get too much, nothing clears the head like it. Many photo galleries from my adventures through the National Parks.

Montana2DSCN6177feet
Life challenge: Head west! 
Location: Rattlesnake Wilderness, Montana, 2015
In early 2015 I was blessed with an invitation to teach a master class at the University of Montana. It was a lucky career stroke on many levels, but it also allowed/forced me to deal with my discontent with the Midwestern landscape and the need I felt to live in the American West. The teaching position offered four months living in Missoula, Mt., a charming college town, and I decided to linger for six additional weeks and just explore without the pressures of preparing and delivering classes. In one of our least populated states, solitude rules the day, and my “bonus weeks” after an intense semester allowed many afternoons biking, hiking and camping in the wilderness area just a short hop out my front door, where typically you can have a rushing river all to yourself. It also gave me time to plot my next adventure, a permanent move further to the west, to Portland, Ore., where I am based today.

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Common threads in these images: let the ruts and slowdowns propel you to explore and transition toward new horizons! Have your own story of transition to share? Email me at ronreason@gmail.com.

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