Saturday, December 10, 2011

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

Season's Greetings - A Summary of the Year That Was 2011

I know I've been slack in publishing this column of late.  I've also been very slack in riding my bicycle.  But in other areas I'm pleased to report, I've been very very busy.  2011 has been an excellent year for me.  If 2010 was a Baptism of Fire in The Freelance Life (I'm considering starting a non fiction book chronicling my adventures, mostly the misadventures), 2011 was something of a Rite (or perhaps 'Right') of Passage.  At the start of 2011 I left Port Elizabeth for a 6 month stint in Cape Town.  Upon arriving in Cape Town I immediately faced the challenge of replacing 2 of 3 staple publications I was earning an income from (Getaway and Bicycling). It was a scary time, and for a while it was looking like I wasn't going to make it.

But an early success was the publication of 4 stories and plenty of photography in a single magazine. Another highlight was covering the CELL C Tour of South Africa as part of the official press contingent, meeting 'the voice of cycling' Phil Liggett, and joining him over several days in the official media vehicle.  Going along with Rapha Condor, and following the leader, Kristian House, with Rapha's coach driving, seated right next to me, was an unbelievable experience.  And interviewing the eventual winner (House) in his hotel room - these are some of the advantages of being in my profession.  You can get very close to the action, and the heart of the story.  The inside story as it were.

In terms of the photography side of the Tour, I made a bit of a pig of myself squatting on the services vehicle (the back of a bakkie) and once again got excellent photos of the leading riders falling back to pick up water bottles.  A few weeks later I covered the Tour de Boland, and soon after that the Cape Epic.  A few weeks ago I covered the OFM Classic, which included catching the pros on Albrecht and on the N1 before racing back to ride it myself with camera on board.  What a fun day!

My dream gig, in terms of cycling coverage, is the Tour de France.  I've already been present at two stages in and around Paris a few years ago, but it would be great to have another go.

Other highlights this year that spring to mind were interviews with Professor Tim Noakes, a very diverse and interesting group of CEO's, the award-winning architect Etienne Bruwer and Faith Like Potatoes actress Jeanne Wilhelm.

A list of publications that featured my work this year include Car, AbouTime, NewsNow, Financial Mail, Sarie, Cycling Weekly (published in Britain), Country Life, Getaway, Brainstorm, (FHM commissioned a piece but I never bothered to check if they used it) and then the following newspapers: Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, City Press, Saturday Argus, Cape Times and the Free State Times.  Thanks to kind recommendations of some professionals in the industry, I was also hired to do private work for Harmony Gold Mine, the Free State Provincial Government (Premier's Office), and the SKA, amongst others.

Photo shoots this year also reached a new level, with 'Epic Shoots' in Cape Town (Tanya Muller and Suzanne Trautmann), Johannesburg CBD (Kirsty du Toit) and Free State (Maria Bekker).  Epic Shoots were basically shot over a full day or more than one day against multiple 'epic' background settings, often with fairly high degrees of effort, or discomfort.  But the photos in each case were quite awesome.  I've since been commissioned to shoot a winter clothing catalogue, numerous family portraits, weddings, even a pregnancy shoot - all work that I don't consider 'meat and potatoes' photography, but will do if the moment, or the client grabs me.

My photography often gets me the most attention, so people are surprised when I tell them I am not a photographer.  I simply photograph what I find to be beautiful, or inspirational, or at a minimum, interesting.  From roadside raptors taking flight, to the late afternoon sun hitting the tips of a field of grass, to a lonely road... I'm not particularly fond of weddings (too pressured and cliched), or corporate work (clinical, sometimes boring) or catalogues (again, boring).  Although I have some interest in doing fashion/glamour stuff, I'm hesitant to be sucked into the hollow side of the industry - where the girl's are little more than coat hangers.  I enjoy discovering and photographing real (and beautiful) people as nature intended. I enjoy my photography without all the gadgets and gimmicks... I don't use a tripod, I don't use light meters or light boards, or make-up artists, or stylists, I don't even have my own studio (although a few schemes are afoot to possibly change that in the medium term). I do use natural light and I'm pretty good at spontaneously utilising and integrating a natural context and making it work to show the model off in the best light.  I like to paint with my photos, using light, proportions, and perspectives, to tell a story, rather than being simply technically appropriate.

I also don't like to be called a journalist. My rule of thumb is I make my own work, and because I write about what interests me, I enjoy it and can keep up a very high work rate. This year I started on a pet project which scares the crap out of me.  It's essentially a rewrite of something I wrote - something HUGE - between the ages of 15 and 17.  I call it BLOODLINE.  As of now, I'm about 1/3rd through it.  It's quite an exciting piece of writing so far, and a few people close to me who have read the first few sample chapters say it is riveting.  It's definitely different, there's some science fiction, fantasy, history, romance and chivalry, I think.  I hope to have BLOODLINE done within the next 6 months. This is really what I love to do, and if I had complete financial freedom and control over my life, I'd dedicate it 100% to simply writing meaningful fiction.I'm getting there. I also have a project-in-waiting with a local movie studio, and a possible epic trip to the Congo coming up.  In early 2012 I'll be jetting off to an exotic destination just to inject some freshness into my portfolio.  Morocco is one option, Mozambique another, Alaska is also on the cards.

So it's been very exciting, and much of the success has been due to becoming a member of SAFREA (South African Freelancers Association), as well as thanks to the encouragement and support of a very special person I met halfway through the year, and I'm happy to say we're still together, and still very much in love.  (Touch wood).
One aspect that has backslid badly is my personal fitness, and although I did the Two Oceans this year, and two more half marathons shortly after that race, I plan to stick to a much stricter training regimen in 2012 than I did this year.  Train first thing in the morning, then get started on work. I'd love to be ready to compete in the half ironman next year in East London, or improve on my Two Oceans time, but on that score I'm not making any promises.

Finally, I would like to thank my boss, at Sowetan Online, Juliette Saunders.  On my first day on the job Juliette said to me, "Nick, you are not a writer, because you can't write."  Over the next two years Juliette - editor of the highly esteemed Sowetan Online -  published only two pieces of my writing.  The one was called HOW TO MAKE UP FOR BLUNDERS AT WORK, and the other I, using a colleague as a smokescreen, tricked her into publishing.  Skip to today, now,  I publish three magazine articles and 10-12 newspaper articles in an average month.  So either I've upped my game, or Juliette's standards at Sowetan Online are quite impressive.  I remember, she hauled me into one disciplinary hearing after another, first for writing for a publication without her permission, then for writing for our own company's publications.  It was quite a tough time.  You could swear that trying to publish stories at a media company (whose business was publishing) was a crime.  And then I was finally fired for the radical act of trying to offer yet another freelance piece to the company I worked for, but they didn't have a very good case, and I won a settlement, which earned me a little holiday in Australia and launched me on the still happening freelance adventure.

But Juliette taught me a valuable lesson: what to expect in the industry out there.  This year I encountered a number of Juliette's at various publications - people who insist on not using your work, or on bad mouthing you, or who simply never respond to your pitches (which is simply par for the course sometimes, but sometimes, not).  People ask me why I don't try to get published in Men's Health, Sports Illustrated or GQ.  I've actually been paid for work I've sent to Men's Health, and Sports Illustrated, but for some reason, they held it back and didn't use it.  Unfortunately there are folks out there who assure you that they will never use your work, because it's personal.  It's not about the writing (though they claim it is), it's about a power trip.  There's a little club, you see, and some editors decide who they want to be in their club as their friends, who gets to be in the circle, and slap each others backs. I suppose we all do have a right to choose who we work with, in other words, play favoritism.  I'm just not sure we can afford to do that any more.  Just in terms of sheer economics. And I'm naive; I think the work should sell it itself. But I am learning that you've also got to be friendly, even when the editors aren't, and a lot of the time they aren't.  Fact is, in terms of deciding what content to use, it's their way (ultimately) or the highway.  Fortunately, a good editor is always (okay, almost always) tempted by excellent work; it's hard to refuse something that is a pleasure to read, something they know their audience will love.  Sometimes, also, the work is just off the mark.  Take it on the chin and try again. 

Editors come and go, and so when there is a changing of the guard at certain publications, like GQ, I'll get my foot back in the door.  Meanwhile, there is a smorgasbord of alternative local and international publications out there to choose from. Talent is important, but often it is more important to be reliable.  To deliver.  In the same way that editors expect reliable, professional content, editors also have a job to do, and the revolving door turns every so often, and new editors allow new (or unused) freelancers a way in, eventually.  Editors who don't like you tell you there are thousands of other freelancers out there (true, but only a handful are top professionals, and even fewer can write and shoot, and even fewer live it full time, without any other obligations).  I'm sure there will be drama in 2012 just as there was the backstabbing circus this year, featuring Ryk Neethling, Cameron van der Burgh and Sports Illustrated.  It's hell, it's frustrating, but life goes on.

The Freelance Life is nothing if not high octane. If you can't handle uncertainty, or rejection, or truckloads of frustration, don't even try.  Meanwhile, stay tuned here on, on this blog, and on facebook and twitter (@NickVDL) for more inspiration, beautiful scenery and plenty of personal growth in 2012.  There is a lot of trouble ahead, and opportunity for all of us, mark my words.  But if we adapt,work hard, persist, and never give up, we can do more than survive, we can thrive. Please won't you join me on my journey in 2012, and let's learn from each other where, what and how to do exactly that.

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