Nobody’s Better Than You

Nobody’s Better Than You

Many years ago, when I was young and things didn’t go my way, my mother used to look at me with a fierce and piteous expression and tell me: “Nobody’s better than you.”

My mother is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. By the time she was born, her people (and my dad’s) were well established throughout the American south. Though early to the great waves of immigration, which began in the late 1800s and continued through the end of World War II, my ancestors were no less stigmatized, seen by their neighbors as part of the influx of unwashed Jews, Poles, Irish, and Italians debarking en mass from ships.

Living in small towns in Virginia, without the community of others of their kind, the Rosenbergs and the Sagers kept their observances confined to the indoors; like cinema’s classic Miss Daisy, in public they practiced fervent assimilation. Their efforts weren’t always successful. Among the few stories of his childhood my father ever told was one about being chased by other boys in his town, who threw rocks and called him a “kike” and “bagel eater.” Later, his entrance into medical school at the University of Virginia was delayed a year because the quota for Jews in the class had already been filled.

My mother remembers being a brunette in a sea of blondes, excluded from the in-crowd, a perpetual outsider in her own milieu, which happened to be a town that saw a lot of action during the Civil War. Everyone in school knew whose parents owned the “Jew store.” And everyone in school shopped there; my mom could sometimes be found working after school, sitting on a low stool, fitting shoes. When she didn’t win the vote for yearbook editor, the teacher appointed her co-editor. Same with the newspaper. The teacher knew my mother would get things done, even if the popular kids wouldn’t vote for her.

And so it was, when I didn’t win the election for middle school vice president, or make the J.V. basketball team, or secure the attentions of the cute and popular girl for whom I was vying—when my achievement was lacking, my performance was underwhelming, my results didn’t match my expectations—my mother would try to let me know I should keep on trying, that I shouldn’t let myself feel undeserving. That I should stand up and demand whatever I felt was rightfully mine.

Nobody’s better than you.

I think what she was meaning to say was, You’re just as good as everyone else. Just as deserving. Just as equal. Just as entitled by God above and the U.S. Constitution to as much opportunity as the next guy, no matter who I was or where I came from.

But of course she was blinded by motherhood. And I was a kid.

Nobody’s better than you.

Those were her exact words. And I believed her.

Despite every indication otherwise.


It took me the balance of my grade school years to figure out that maybe I wasn’t as great as my mother had led me to believe. (I should have gotten a hint when some jokester unplugged my amp during my big guitar solo at a school talent show). With an underachiever’s 2.6 GPA, I barely found my way into college; only two schools would have me. By the end of my senior year of high school, I was starting to get the idea that simply feeling entitled and deserving was not quite enough.

When I got to college I was petrified; I’d never done much homework in the past—I’d never even managed to memorize my multiplication tables. But I guess my fear awakened a slumbering work ethic. I became the guy who never missed a class. I highlighted the textbooks and outlined the highlights, re-copied my notes, even read the books teachers left for reference in the library. Along the way I began to discover that development is exponential. The farther you go, the more you know, the more you can handle. Eventually I branched out into extracurriculars…and found my life’s work—an instrument through which I could try to express all of the greatness my mother insisted I had inside.

By the time I left the small pond of my college—which, at the time, was way more famous for churning out med school students than great writers—I felt like a pretty big fish. Nobody was better than me. Nobody I knew, at least.


Through a convoluted series of events, I found myself, at the age of 21, working at the Washington Post, first as a copy boy, then as a staff writer.

Among my bosses—who themselves were employed by the iconic Post publisher Katharine Graham—were men depicted in movies; they’d helped to bring down a crooked president, inspired several generations of ambitious and idealistic kids like myself to join the Fourth Estate. Among my colleagues were the granddaughter of a president and the son of a poet laureate; the cream of the Ivy League’s writing and journalism programs; the best editing and reportorial talent that could be hired away from other newspapers around the country.

And then there was me: Mike from Baltimore.

In an acre-square newsroom housing 800 other writers, everybody was better than me.


I guess I was too naïve to be deterred.

I had, after all, lied to my parents about the law school’s promise to keep open a slot open for me in the next year’s class.

And maybe the seeds of entitlement planted by my mother were never entirely destroyed.

I may never have been to Cape Cod in summer like the some of the blue bloods in the newsroom, or studied with John McPhee, or palled around with JFK and Jackie. I may not have spoken French or dined regularly with ambassadors or sports heroes—or anyone at all during that first couple of years, when I worked the graveyard shift exclusively.

But I did have a few things going for me. A facility with words. A musical bent. An eye for detail. An empathetic ear. An interest in people who were different than me. A little dab of street wise I’d picked up in my early days as a rebellious junior hippy, and later as a day-tripper through seedier climes. And above all, the knowledge that this was what I had to be doing.

Over time, without thinking too hard about it, I did the best I could with what I had, drawing from my intangible assets to create a style of my own. Some people like it. Some do not. I’m not a household word. But I always try, with every piece that I make, to deliver something different and original, something entertaining that carries the weight of truth, something that people will pay me for—yes, that’s important too. Into everything goes my all.

Along the way I have learned that comparison and competition are enemies of the artist. How did he get that assignment? How could she win that award? How many books did she sell? What’s his hourly rate?

All that should matter is the piece of work that sits before you. There is you. There is your art. At the elemental level, nothing else matters.

Call it my Theory of Originals.

Don’t worry about the competition. Find what you do best. When the room is full or when the lines are long, form a line of your own. Be number one in a class of one.

Once you’re there, nobody will be better than you, either.

from 99U99U

True Grit: How to Build Up Your Resilience

True Grit: How to Build Up Your Resilience

Whether we’re talking about a great novelist like John Irving or an era-defining entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos, it’s natural to conclude that the mega-successful owe their achievements to an almost magical quality that you’re either born with or you’re not: talent.

But according to Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who’s made it her life’s goal to help children thrive, this is mistaken. Yes, the aptitude you bring is important, but few of us ever reach the limits of our natural abilities. Instead what holds us back is a lack of commitment or a lack of focus. “Enthusiasm is common,” Duckworth writes, “endurance is rare.”

Effort counts twice, she explains, because it translates your aptitude into skill. And then it combines with your skill to manifest as achievement. In other words, it takes effort to get good at something, and then it takes effort to apply that skill, to create.

If you look at John Irving’s life story, for instance, it isn’t one that begins with him displaying savant- like brilliance at an early age. Far from it, in fact he struggled at school with English. What distinguishes his lifelong approach to his art is his doggedness. “Rewriting is what I do best as a writer,” says Irving. “I spend more time revising a novel or screenplay than I take to write the first draft.”

But determination isn’t enough, you also need to apply yourself with focus. Rather than chasing a different dream each week or month or year, you need – at least eventually – to settle on a higher calling and never let go. When you have drive and determination combined with single-minded direction, this is what translates into meaningful accomplishment.

Crucially, Duckworth, who has written the book on grit, argues that grit isn’t fixed like your height. Rather it’s something that you can cultivate, more like learning a new language. Here are three steps from Duckworth’s book that you can take to make yourself grittier – and dramatically increase your ability to persevere.  

Find your calling

Most high achievers have “an ultimate concern” or what Duckworth calls their “compass” (because it provides a sense of direction) and nothing will stop them in pursuit of this higher goal. How can you find yours if you don’t have one already? The first thing to realize is that you’re not going to find it through introspection. You need to get out there and try things. A relevant misconception is that passions instantly grab us in one magical eureka moment. In reality, the first time you encounter your would-be passion, you likely won’t even realize it. This means you need to expose yourself to as many different pursuits as possible and give any nascent spark a chance to catch.

In time, what overarching passions or concerns have in common is that they have a greater purpose – yes, there is pleasure and fascination in them, but more than that, usually there is a deeper meaning or cause that involves helping other people in some way. In a 2014 study that she conducted with her colleagues Katherine Von Culina at Yale and Eli Tsukayama at The University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth found that people with high levels of grit are as motivated by the pursuit of pleasure as much as anyone else, but what marks them out is their greater interest in meaningful activities that serve a higher purpose.

Of course, we can’t fight every battle. Sometimes it makes sense to change course. If you’re struggling to recognize the difference between your overarching career aim and lesser, more disposable goals, consider visualizing your aims as a pyramid with those at the bottom feeding into your ultimate goal at the top. If they cause you problems, you shouldn’t be afraid to save energy by dispensing with lower-level goals. As you approach mid-level goals and beyond, you should become progressively more dogged. Reserve your never surrender attitude for your ultimate goal or life philosophy that guides all you do.

Practice smart

Once you know what your passion is, you need to hone your craft through unrelenting practice. Duckworth’s research–including a 2010 study into the winners of National Spelling Bee championships–has shown that gritty people devote more time to what psychologists call “deliberate practice” and that they enjoy it more.

This kind of practice involves more than simply putting in the hours. It’s an arduous process that requires pushing yourself to perform outside of your current ability levels (Duckworth recommends setting yourself “stretch goals” – specific areas of performance where you would like to make gains); getting meaningful feedback on how to improve; and then doing it all over again, implementing that feedback to achieve superior performance.

Duckworth quotes dancer Martha Graham’s description of what it feels like to do this kind of training: “Dancing appears glamorous, easy, delightful. But the path to the paradise of that achievement is not easier than any other. There is fatigue so great that the body cries even in its sleep. There are times of complete frustration. There are daily small deaths.

Be it sport, acting or art, when we watch superstars perform, their output often seems effortless, which only serves to fuel the illusion that they were born with a supernatural gift. In fact, the reason their performance is so fluid and graceful is because of all the hours and hours of intense, painstaking practice they’ve completed.

Think like an optimist

 In pursuit of your creative ambitions, it is inevitable that you will experience set backs. As shown in Duckworth’s research involving school teachers working in schools in poor districts, gritty people tend to respond to these setbacks with an optimistic mindset. Optimists see failure as a chance to learn. They consider the changeable aspects of a disappointment that can be addressed and adjusted to make failure less likely next time. Pessimists, by contrast, will tend to blame the failure on a fundamental cause that can’t be changed, such as the belief that they don’t have what it takes. A related concept you’ve probably heard of is whether or not you have a growth mindset. Gritty optimists tend to have a growth mindset, believing that traits like intelligence can be nurtured. Pessimists instead see such things as fixed.

There is a dynamic, interactive nature to these things. Duckworth’s research suggests that encountering adversity–as you surely will–and believing pessimistically that you have no power over events, will encourage you to give up without a fight. You condition yourself to be passive, and you lose your grit. In contrast, responding to challenges with optimism and determination and finding a way through (in Duckworth’s language, this is “adversity plus mastery”), you will nurture your grittiness. Next time you encounter difficulties, you will be even more determined to push on. “To be gritty,” Duckworth writes, “is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”

If you’re a lifelong pessimist, you might be feeling skeptical at this point, but it’s worth noting that a study last year reviewed all the evidence into whether we can train ourselves to be more optimistic and the results were, well, rather upbeat: the researchers concluded that optimism is indeed something we can learn.


By finding your true calling, honing your craft through dedicated deliberate practice, and responding to setbacks with an optimistic, problem-solving approach, you will follow in the footsteps of the many outstanding achievers Duckworth has studied, all of whom are characterized by that mix of passion and perseverance.

To believe that only a lucky few are born with true talent, while the rest of us are not, is demoralizing. You might understandably wonder whether the focus on grit simply shifts this concern to a different trait: that perhaps a rare few are blessed with grit while us lesser mortals are destined to weaker will and an absence of purpose. In fact, twin studies suggest that the “heritability” of grit is between 20 to 40 percent, meaning that less than half the difference in grit between people can be traced to genetic causes. This leaves plenty of room for grit to be influenced by other factors such as life experiences and deliberate cultivation. “Like every aspect of your psychological character,” Duckworth writes, “grit is more plastic than you might think.”




from 99U99U

A Brief History of the Pencil, as told by a Pencil Aficionando

A Brief History of the Pencil, as told by a Pencil Aficionando

Caroline Weaver, the owner of CW Pencil Enterprise, a specialty pencil shop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has managed to make the dream of obsessives come true: What if this thing I love, this strange small thing, could be my job? For Weaver, that strange small thing is the humble pencil, and it has provided not only a business—celebrating its two-year anniversary this March—but a book as well, a history of the pencil entitled The Pencil Perfect. We chatted with Weaver about her store, the birth of the pencil craze, why Japanese pencils are so good, and why people think pencils contain lead. Here are twelve of the most fascinating things we learned.

Pencils do not, and have never, contained lead of any sort.

“It took quite a long time for people to even figure out the chemical composition of graphite,” says Weaver. Graphite was discovered in England in the mid-1600s, and the possibilities of this new material were immediately obvious—but exactly what the stuff was made of, that was a little tricky. “When it was first discovered, people called it black lead, because it kind of resembled lead. And to this day, we still call it lead, and think there’s lead in pencils. But the truth is there was never lead in pencils,” she says.

The first pencils looked pretty weird.

“Graphite was originally used bare as an artist’s material with string wrapped around it, so you had something that wouldn’t get your hand really messy and would also keep the graphite from breaking,” says Weaver. Graphite is quite brittle, but it would take centuries before a process was discovered to mix powdered clay with powdered graphite to make stronger, cheaper pencils. “The Faber-Castell archive has what is believed to be the first pencil. It’s basically two small planks of wood with a piece of graphite stuck inside it, and only three of the four edges are covered. It looks like a super primitive carpenter pencil.


Caroline Weaver in her New York City shop, CW Pencil Enterprise.

In fact, the pencil was a luxury item for centuries.

“They were originally made mostly by cabinet makers, or anybody skilled in woodcraft. It’s not easy to enclose something that small in wood, and they were all made by hand,” says Weaver. The pencil was a huge step up from the then-modern pen, which was a quill, in that you didn’t have to carry around a bottle of ink, which made it ideal for the military as well as artists. But at the time, it was essentially an artisanal sculpture featuring a rare mineral—very expensive.

Legend has it that Napoleon is in large part responsible for the modern pencil.

Weaver was careful to say that this is a legend, and not necessarily completely accurate, but: “Legend has it that during the French Revolution, Napoleon asked Nicholas Conte, who was an engineer who worked mostly with hot air balloons, to make him a better, stronger pencil. All the good pencils were coming from Germany or Britain at the time, and he couldn’t import them because of the war.” Napoleon only had access to crappy graphite, but Conte figured out that even crappy graphite, when powdered, mixed with powdered clay, and fired in a kiln, makes not only a serviceable and inexpensive pencil. It makes a better pencil. Conte also created the mostly-modern method of enclosing the stick of graphite in two half-cylinders of wood, rather than filing out a hole through the middle of a solid stick. And he did this all, according to legend, in eight days.

The eraser came after the pencil—and you won’t believe what predated rubber.

“The erasability of graphite wasn’t a quality that people recognized at first, because erasers didn’t exist,” says Weaver. Rubber, native to the Americas, was both extremely expensive and, until the mid-1800s, perishable. In place of that, pencil-wielding writers used something you might not expect. “People used pieces of bread to erase, slightly stale bread,” she says. “Because it’s still a little absorbent but also a little scratchy, so you can kind of scratch off the graphite.”


The Japanese make some of the most prized modern pencils.

“In Japan, during the mid-20th century, there was almost a race between two pencil companies, Tombow and Mitsubishi, to make the world’s finest pencils. The result is a pencil called the Tombow Mono 100. The Mono 100 is a beautiful pencil. The detailing on its finish—it has this giant white stripe on the end, it has all this gold detailing, it’s so shiny, it’s gotta have at least 14 coats of paint on it, and it has 10 billion particles per cubic mm in its graphite core,” gushes Weaver. These pencils come in fancy plastic boxes with delicate paper sleeves inside. “The packaging is just unbeatable,” says Weaver. “I guess that’s a very Japanese quality, the excessive but beautiful packaging.”

There are still pencils made in the U.S., and they’re actually pretty good.

The U.S. once had a booming pencil industry, in part because the most common wood for casings is cedar, which the country has lots of. Today, there are only three significant manufacturers left in the U.S.—even Dixon’s iconic Ticonderoga is made elsewhere—but they’re not bad! “The General’s Semi-Hex is still manufactured in the U.S., made in its original factory in Jersey City, New Jersey. It’s the most local pencil to us in New York, which we’re very proud of,” says Weaver. “They make a number 2 that’s yellow, with the gold foil, very similar aesthetic to the Ticonderoga, very nostalgic. That, to me, seems to be like the most American pencil.”

What separates a lousy pencil from a great one? How different can they be?

“The first question you have to ask is, is it made out of good quality wood? You have to sharpen your pencil, so if it’s bad, that’s immediately an issue. The other thing that I don’t think people really pay much attention to, unless they know to look for it, is how well-centered the pencil is,” says Weaver. “You can tell that by looking at the unsharpened end of it. There’s so little room for error when it comes to making pencils that even if it’s a millimeter off-center, it gives you trouble when you’re sharpening it. If you sharpen it and find that it’s kind of slanted, that means the core is off-center. That can also lead to the wood splitting, which isn’t good.” Beyond that, things are mostly up to personal preference: Do you like a scratchy pencil or a smoother (but more likely to smudge) one? Do you like lightweight or heavy pencils? How do you like your pencil to look?

There is an online obsession with a particular, long discontinued sharpener.

There are a few different ways of sharpening pencils, but the easiest is the electric sharpener. That said: “Electric sharpeners can be terrible. The best ones were made by Panasonic in the 1980s, but those can be hard to find these days. Believe it or not, there is a resale value for those Panasonic electric sharpeners, because people really love them,” says Weaver. There’s a thriving market on eBay for them; sharpeners in great condition can sell for upwards of $75.00.

But the hottest sharpener isn’t one for amateurs.

“Amongst people in the pencil community, the long-point sharpener is kind of the thing right now,” says Weaver. “It’s a two-step process; it looks like a normal hand-held sharpener, but it has two blades. Blade number one just sharpens the wood of the pencil, and then when you’re done you have to put the pencil into blade number two which very gently refines the blade of the graphite. So the result is a super long point, much longer than you get from any other kind of sharpener. People like it because you don’t have to sharpen your pencil as often. But it’s tricky, it’s kind of hard to use. You have to have a lot of patience.”

“Steinbeck stage” is a term any budding pencil-head might want to learn.

If you frequent pencil message boards—there are some revolving around the Erasable Podcast—you’ll see the term “Steinbeck stage.” “Apparently John Steinbeck discarded his pencils when the barrel of the pencil, the metal part on the end, got to the part of his hand that connected his index finger and his thumb,” says Weaver. So when a pencil gets to that point, it’s referred to as the “Steinbeck stage.” On the other hand, you don’t have to discard a pencil at that point. “I use a pencil extender. We sell so many pencil extenders; I think it’s something that a lot of people have no idea even existed. And you should use your pencils until the end! It feels like a big accomplishment,” says Weaver.

Weaver did, in fact, write her book about pencils with a pencil.

“I did write the book with a pencil,” she says. “I wrote it in a notebook and then transcribed it. I’ll be honest, I cheated a little bit; for a couple sections I just wrote the outline in pencil, not the whole thing, but I tried my best. I ended up using just under 40 pencils for the whole thing, and I saved all the stubs.” Not only that, she tried to match up the pencil she used with the topic at hand. “If I was writing about Faber-Castell, I used a Faber pencil. Or I used vintage pencils for some sections. I kept them all in a jar that had a label on it that said ‘How many pencils does it take to write a book about pencils, in pencil?’”

And that’s part of what Weaver loves so much about pencils. Unlike a pen or mechanical pencil, a classic wood-case pencil fades away with work. “I think that’s something that’s so amazing about this kind of object; it’s something that just disappears when you’re done with it. You’re left with a tiny stub that’s almost a souvenir of all the work you’ve done, and that’s kind of nice,” she says. Plus: Wood pencils smell good.

from 99U99U

Sarah Waiswa: Photographing a New African Identity

Sarah Waiswa: Photographing a New African Identity

Travel is often seen as a privilege afforded to few, but for some people, travel is a necessity. The latter is true for Ugandan photographer Sarah Waiswa who was born during dictator Idi Amin’s era, which forced her family to flee to Kenya shortly after her birth. Although she is Ugandan by blood, she is Kenyan by spirit. This early, formative experience led Waiswa to become a self-described nomad, and exploring one’s connection to place is a central theme in her work. Through Waiswa’s documentary and portrait photography, she also explores the New African Identity, which contrasts times when there was no room for self-expression versus today, where it’s easier to express oneself through art, fashion, film, and photography.

In 1999, Waiswa moved to the United States to obtain college and graduate degrees, and worked for a few years in higher education. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so when Waiswa returned to Kenya in 2010, she had a newfound appreciation for the county that she didn’t have as a child. By day, Waiswa worked in human resources, and she picked up photography as a way to visually reconnect with the continent.

With an unwavering curiosity to learn the craft and find courage to share her work, Waiswa ditched her corporate career in October 2015 to pursue photography full-time. The risk was worth it. Waiswa recently won the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award, which is given out at the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival in France to a photographer whose work has recently been discovered or deserves to be for her photography project: “Stranger in a Familiar Land.” The series illustrates the life of an albino who is forced to face challenges emanating from both the sun and society. Waiswa is also a Uganda Press Photo Award 2015 category winner, and she has worked with international NGOs and brands including Samsung, Airtel, an Indian global telecommunications company, and Travel Noire, a digital publishing platform produced by black travelers.

We spoke with the self-taught photographer about her inspiration behind personal project, “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” the moment she realized it was time to make the leap to become a full-time artist, and the importance of sharing your work. 

Florence Kisombe, the model in “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

What was your experience like moving to the United States, and what did you study?

I attended Berea College in Kentucky and received my undergraduate degree in sociology. This was my first time in the United States, so it was exciting and nice to have my independence. Then, I attended Eastern Kentucky University and received my master’s in industrial and organizational psychology. My first job out of graduate school was working in the equal opportunity office at my alma mater investigating discrimination claims from students and professors. After a few years, I moved to Chicago, and worked in a similar capacity at Northwestern University looking at their affirmative action plan and hiring practices.

When did you develop an interest in the arts?

I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but being raised in an African home, there was pressure to succeed academically, and obtain a certain position. During my time in the States, I fulfilled this responsibility, and actively saved my money. When I returned to Mombasa, Kenya in 2010, there weren’t any positions in my field, so I began working in human resources. As I continued to set money aside in my savings, I took up photography as a hobby. I started observing everything with a cross between nostalgia and looking for familiar and new things to capture on my Nikon D5000.

How did you teach yourself photography?

First, I began shooting in auto, which is the mode where the camera chooses all the settings for you, and you just point and shoot. I was particularly interested in capturing people. I also studied other people’s work on Tumblr, Instagram, and at photography festivals. I was struck by how people expressed themselves on these platforms without limitations, and it encouraged me not to restrict myself. Africans tend to be more conservative, and express themselves and art in a safe, similar way.

By 2012, I started sharing my images on Tumblr, and received positive feedback. YouTube was another resource, and I’d ask people how to improve photo composition and lighting. I’m still learning, but I’m much better at expressing things visually because I have control of the camera, and can achieve things quicker.

When did you realize you were onto something?

Late 2012, a woman from the States contacted me via Tumblr and said, “I’m from Mombasa and I love how you photograph my city, Muslim culture, and express yourself. Can you photograph my wedding?” This caught me off guard, but I was familiar and deeply interested in this subject because my father was Muslim. I accepted the job, and in 2013, I shot the four-day wedding by myself. The experience was exciting, culturally-rich, and exactly what I envisioned. In retrospect—after editing thousands of photos—I should have charged more. But, it was the first time I realized I could make money in a different way doing what I loved.

I also joined Instagram, started connecting with the Kenyan photography community, and with artists at 32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust. An Instagram competition was held to mark Kenya’s 50 years of independence, and I won the competition. It was awesome to receive recognition, especially since there weren’t many female, Kenya-based Instagrammers sharing their work. Then, in 2014, Instagram featured my work and my following surged!

I started receiving more requests for work and paid influencer opportunities via Tumblr and Instagram, but since l worked full-time, I could only accept jobs on weekends. For example, a South-African hotel chain based in Kenya provided me with a free, weekend stay, and in exchange, I was paid to Instagram my experience. I also love fashion and connected with local designers who hired me to cover their fashion shows. It was thrilling to field a wide range of requests from brands seeking my visual storytelling perspective. However, repeatedly turning down work made it clear that something had to give.

When you left your full-time job and made the leap to photographer, how did you make the financials work, especially at the beginning?

I had six months’ worth of savings and continued putting my work out there. I told myself, “If I can’t create a sustainable career as a photographer in six months, I have my master’s to fall back on, and will get another job.” Up to this point, the majority of my photography gigs were one-off projects, because that’s all I could handle with my schedule! Since I didn’t have clients lined up, I hit the ground running to build a website, print business cards, network and collaborate with other creatives to build my portfolio, and most importantly, shoot personal projects. There wasn’t a moment where I was sitting still. It’s easy to wait for the perfect time to leave your job, but fear will kill your dreams.

Additionally, as influencer requests continued to roll in via Instagram, I became savvier with pricing jobs because my stakes were higher. Your pricing mentality shifts when you move from doing photography as a hobby to doing photography as your full-time profession.

It’s easy to wait for the perfect time to leave your job, but fear will kill your dreams.

You live in an area where the dollar goes much further than a major U.S. city. What impact does living in a more affordable place have on your art?

Affordable is relative. But, having said that, people here are just now starting to value art and are willing to pay for it. Currently, there are so many people who consider themselves photographers and industry-set rates don’t exist. Africa is still a developing nation, so there are rules, and at the same time, rules are broken daily. For example, you can find photographers who charge $100 for a wedding, and others who charge $1,000 or more. Knowing your worth and producing quality work goes a long way towards building your brand, which results in repeat clients.

Although Kenya is my home base, the majority of my recurring and higher paying one-off jobs come from clients and brands who are based in different parts of the world, including South Africa, the United States, and Europe. This allows me to be selective with the local projects I take on, and also helps fund my personal projects.

So how do you set your fee when the range can be so wide?

It’s been critical for me to network with my local photography community and creatives who do influencer work with brands and NGOs. For example, I have a friend who is a talent manager and he has orchestrated influencer campaigns for telecom brands in the Kenyan market. He developed an algorithm for influencers to know how much to charge per post based on content generation, campaign length, and your number of followers. When Huawei, a Chinese global telecommunications company, introduced a new cell phone to the Kenyan market, they tapped me as an influencer for their campaign, and my friend’s algorithm allowed me to price this job more competitively. There are also influencer portal sites like, which help you gauge what to charge brands per Instagram post based on the reach and value of your following.

Finally, as I continue to develop my craft, build out my portfolio, and receive awards for my work, I increase my fees.

How have you built out your freelance photography business, and where do your main sources of income come from? Recurring jobs from certain clients? One-off jobs? Or some combination of both?  

My main sources of income come from a combination of recurring clients and one-off jobs from brands, NGOs, and individuals. For example, this year, I’ve been commissioned to shoot four-five group Travel Experiences to destinations in Africa for Travel Noire, and I’ll work on quarterly photography projects for a Finland-based NGO. Travel Noire was drawn to my travel photography aesthetic while the NGO said they were attracted to how I interact with the people I photograph, and convey their stories with dignity and honesty.

Additionally, I’m constantly fielding influencer opportunities and scheduling one-off jobs. I was recently contacted by a Portugal-based woman who is launching an African-inspired yoga clothing line. She will be traveling to Kenya in a few months, and would like me to shoot brand photos of her line. And, a US-based, global NGO reached out to me to discuss creating content for an upcoming Instagram campaign, so I’m starting to find my rhythm attracting work that aligns with my interests. Finally, I sell limited edition prints of select work, including “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”


Does it come naturally for you to put your work out there? And, what was your inspiration behind your photography project, “Stranger in a Familiar Land?”

It took me a while before I felt comfortable sharing my work, but I knew that people connect with something they can feel. When I’m passionate about issues I’m trying to explore, it’s easier to put my work out into the world. For example, in 2015, I came across an article about the atrocities albinos face in Tanzania and throughout Sub-Saharan African. People fear what they do not understand and, because of this fear, people with albinism continue to be at the receiving end of ridicule and persecution. I reached out to the Albinism Society of Kenya to learn more, and to shed light on this issue through photography. I was still working my full-time job, but would volunteer my time at the organization. After a few months, I developed the concept for “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” and asked the organization for an introduction to a woman with albinism.

It took me a while before I felt comfortable sharing my work, but I knew that people connect with something they can feel.

Do you feel like your sociology and psychology degrees influence your work?

Definitely. Through my photography, I’m always looking at how society treats and interacts with people based on their challenges and differences. By operating through this lens, I’ve found that multiple truths exist, and issues are never black or white.

Can you walk us through your process and concept for “Stranger in a Familiar Land?”

For starters, I always have conversations with the people I shoot to highlight their character. When the Albinism Society of Kenya introduced me to Florence Kisombe, I immediately felt her bold personality. She is very outgoing, wants to be a model, and I knew she would be perfect for the project.

The concept of “Stranger in a Familiar Land” groups together various portraits of an albino woman set against the backdrop of the Kibera slums, which are a metaphor for my turbulent vision of the outside world. The series also explores how the sense of non-belonging has led her to wander and exist in a dreamlike state. People notice Kisombe, but at the same time, they don’t.

Another scene from “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

How did you decide to enter “Stranger in a Familiar Land” into the Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award?

I was nominated for the award by Ethiopian photographer, contemporary artist and founder of Addis Foto Fest, Aida Muleneh. She was first introduced to my work as a judge for the Uganda Press Photo Awards 2015. I was unaware that she was also involved with the Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award, but when she asked me if I was working on any special projects, I shared “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

As background, five preeminent figures from the art world each nominate two artists for consideration of the Discovery Award, and the winner receives a €25,000 award during a ceremony at the ancient theatre in Arles, France. I was honored to be selected by Muleneh, and it shows that you never know what opportunities can come your way through grit and sharing your personal projects.

Were you surprised when you claimed the 2016 Discovery Award?

Absolutely—I had no idea that I had a chance of winning. I was up against photographers from Japan, the United States, Europe, and other countries, and was the underdog. No feeling can describe getting up, doing what you love, and being recognized. Before, I struggled with calling myself a photographer, and would always say, “I’m a photographer, but I have a master’s degree.” Today, I proudly call myself a photographer, and believe that regardless of one’s background or education, you can create meaningful work that inspires you and others. There are no limits to what you can achieve with hard work and talent. 

Have you received interesting feedback about the project? 

Yes! People contact me from all over the world about “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” and a mother in France recently shared that her daughter is doing a school report on the project. I believe that even if my work gets two to three people’s attention, it has served its purpose and can ignite change.

Additionally, Kisombe continues to be a spokesperson for albinism, and the photography project has given her another avenue to carry out her advocacy.

The recurring question I get about the project is whether Kisombe’s purple hair was a prop, but it wasn’t! That’s Kisombe’s sense of style, and it’s a great example of the New African Identity where she’s expressing herself no holds barred. Society would expect Kisombe to be soft-spoken and insecure because of her challenges, but she’s the exact opposite.

What’s on the horizon for you in 2017?

I’m looking forward to working on more personal projects around social issues I feel need to be addressed. This gives me life! I also want to give back more through trainings and workshops for youth and adults. Additionally, my friend Joel Lukhovi and I will continue working on our project, African Cityzens, where we travel by road throughout Africa exploring the barriers that arise in attempting to access different border points and navigation within the cities themselves. Our goal is to document as many cities as possible within a span of five to ten years in five legs representing regions of Africa; east, west, north, south and central. We’ve covered eight countries so far, and the plan is to head west this year. There truly is power in Africans telling our own stories and presenting Africa in a non-stereotypical way.

from 99U99U

Speaking the Right Language: How to Communicate to Creators and Sellers

Speaking the Right Language: How to Communicate to Creators and Sellers

It’s not unusual to come home from a once-in-a-lifetime trip—say, a six-month expedition hiking across Spain with your father—with a new perspective on your career. But Marisa Gallagher, who now heads up the digital design and user experience team for Amazon Music, didn’t have the usual revelation. A creative designer who sometimes refers to herself as a “craftsperson,” Gallagher decided to branch out from the creative side and embrace business. Her position now is fantastically tricky: She has to construct a consistent experience across a wide variety of devices, from watches to televisions, some of which are made by her company and some of which are not, in an already-crowded product category.

But her dual background in both the design side and the business side of things—thanks to a late-in-life MBA at the University of California, Berkeley—has allowed her to bridge what often seems an impassable ravine between those two communities. And her success should serve as a beacon to others: It’s both important and fantastically valuable to understand and be able to communicate with both creators and sellers.


Marisa Gallagher, Amazon Music’s Digital Design and User Experience Lead

Tell me about yourself! How did you end up taking a job running design for Amazon Music in June of 2015?

I grew up all around the country, was born in Nevada and lived in Idaho, Missouri, New Jersey, and California. During that time I was a real media junkie: I watched a lot of TV, probably too much TV, took a lot of photographs, was really arts-and-craftsy. As I got into college I studied film and anthropology, as well as ran the campus radio station.

When I look back on it, media and anthropology informed what I do today. When I was studying them people thought I was going to be with a tribe in Africa for ten years, doing a bad [documentary] on Betacam.

When I came out of school, the Internet was going crazy, and I worked at a couple of startups in the Bay Area, where my family ended up. I got into building products and, over the course of ten years, worked my way up to running the UX practice and driving creative strategy.

Then I got a business degree and went to CNN for three-and-a-half years. I helped them transform from a site that was just barely together to one that was built on a completely revamped platform and was responsive, API-driven. We built like 22 apps. Then I decided to take a sabbatical after that.

Why take a sabbatical? How did that help you in your career?

After being in the business for over 15 years, and having done a lot of different types of media, I wanted to take a step back and really see where the industry was going. My dad is in a good place where he’s really healthy, and he wanted to go on this hike across Spain—there’s a big walk [the Camino de Santiago], about 500 miles, and we did about 325 of it. I was like, I’m in the right place where I can take a break and see what I can see. And to do that, in a place where I’m more disconnected, sort of thinking about different things, about life, a little bit—that was an amazing opportunity.

Coming back from that, I did want to see that advertising side, and think about how you get people to these experiences. I don’t think product people always think enough about that. They just think, ‘we built this awesome thing, and now we’re done.’

I came away with a real sense of the passion I have for building products, and building for people. Because that was something I craved. I love that kind of strategic thinking. Design is this amazing fulcrum point where you can have a big vision and also implement and execute it. There’s something really clear and tangible about that. The efficient part of my mind loves that.

Design is this amazing fulcrum point where you can have a big vision and also implement and execute it.

It seems like the sabbatical really created a desire to learn more about the business side of things.

It did! I think that design has already been in the strategic conversation at some places, but as an entire discipline it’s just knocking at that door. I’m excited for this next wave where designers have that view of it.

There’s often a divide between the business side and the creative side at companies. You have a background in both now. How important is that?

It helps a ton. [My business background] keeps me from getting too precious about things, keeps me out of the desert. I think we’ve all been there as practitioners and craftspeople where we can just get lost in our own ideas for a little while, and business is good in that it can provide that frame: What am I doing? What’s the point? Is it strategically valuable? Is it going to make the difference I want it to make?

I think business learns a lot from design’s empathy, from design being able to consolidate a bunch of ideas without it being a mess. A good designer can coalesce things and create a gestalt that is so much better than the parts. That’s really where design should be leading these strategic conversations and should have a bigger voice.

The interface of a music service seems like an incredibly difficult thing to design. How do you create something that shows off all the features people might use while still being fast and easy enough for everyone from your tech-genius niece to your tech-fearful grandfather to figure out?

What we have in our favor is that we did a lot of ethnographic research, and we’ve thought about the role of music in people’s lives, especially tracking them in terms of day and week, and seeing how music interests change. When you wake up there are certain types of music you want to hear, and when you’re on your commute, or at the gym, or at night cooking with your family, you go into a different mode. Knowing that helps you reduce the complexity; you don’t have to show everything at all points.

We also think about it as a hybrid of a media experience, so you would have a starting point. That’s the idea with the home screen or hub. It’s based on behavior. People want to know what’s popular in the zeitgeist, and then they want to see what they listened to last. People get into these ruts, which is pretty normal, for listening behavior. So we have a lot of recommendations, like you don’t like this but you want something similar, and we go out in concentric circles from that. That universal versus personal perspective is great.

Business learns a lot from design’s empathy, from design being able to consolidate a bunch of ideas without it being a mess.

Has it been a struggle to create a consistent aesthetic and functionality across a wide range of devices, from watches to TVs, Apple to Android, third-party to in-house Amazon hardware?

It’s a tricky piece. Our team has more than nine platforms that we’re going after. What we try to do is think about a pattern library and a style guide that can flow across platforms, and that style guide is really steep in design culture at Amazon—Ember fonts, for example—to help reinforce and echo, as it were, how Amazon design is evolving. Yet we do want to differentiate on those platforms too. I think 80 to 85 percent of the experiences are consistent, and then we try to differentiate in that 15 percent. In iOS there are some unique things you can do with navigation, whereas in Android there are some really cool integrations with Android Auto and other features like SD card support.

On our TV platform, we have some integration with that team so we know where things are going and that lets us do things a little differently. With Echo, we can do some cool innovation. We know how it works and actually took over some of the design work for their music integration. That lets us think about how to evolve voice in a cool way. I don’t think we’ve perfected it, but we’re trying to get to that blend of a cohesive design language and then doubling down on innovations where we can.

You got your MBA later in life. How was that experience?

I would recommend it. Getting it later in life was helpful because I’d had enough life experience to have examples. The school I went to was very much case-study-based, and my experience as a consultant was very similar to that—you’re always kind of getting these briefs and responding to them. That experience helped things seem a little less foreign than if I’d gone earlier.

The MBA program helped me with my future career. If a designer is able to translate something like a creative brief into a business brief, that gives you a huge leg up. It’s a craft, at that point, in that you’re learning how to speak with the right language, how to read financial statements, how to speak up in ways that ensure you’ll be heard. Getting that business background takes some time, and it can be painful, but it definitely is worthwhile.

from 99U99U

The Creative Conundrum: Pursue Your Art or a Get “Real Job”

The Creative Conundrum: Pursue Your Art or a Get “Real Job”

I could have been a lawyer.

I could have been a guy who wakes up early every morning and shaves and wears a tie and commutes; a guy with a regular pay check and cushy benefits who argues for a livinginstead of a guy who works at home in his sweats, filling blank pages with words.

This is what I remind myself. . .

Whenever another one of the countless story ideas I’ve submitted over the past forty years is unceremoniously rejected, “Thanks but no thanks.”

Whenever I’m chasing a client for a check—some multimillion-dollar corporation with a newsstand circ of ten million, which uses my work immediately but takes nine months to pay.

Whenever I’m making rushed, last minute changes to a story I finished months ago because the editor in chief has finally gotten around to reading it.  (They call this a top edit. I always wonder: Does that mean I’m the bottom?)

I could have been a lawyer. I could have been a lawyer. I could have been a lawyer. Instead of a guy who creates.


I guess I always wanted to be an artist. I suffered the early afflictions of being a kid who was loved too much. I felt special. I wanted other people to know. I figured out after a while that it isn’t enough just to tell them. You have to do something. You have to demonstrate. You have to create something that leaves an impression.

When I was in middle school, I thought it was music. I had long hair and a knockoff Les Paul electric guitar. I wrote songs and I sang.  I remember taking an aptitude test, bubbling in any choice that seemed to indicate my innate musicality. Some people said I was a pretty good lead guitarist. I definitely met more girls. But I couldn’t remember the chords to the songs—I had them written down in a notebook on top of my amp. Neither could I read nor transpose music very well—like spelling and remembering multiplication tables, the mathematical, memorization stuff just wouldn’t stick. And frankly, despite endless pleasant hours of practice, my fingers weren’t long or agile enough to spider along the fretboard and make the sounds I was hearing in my head. I wanted to be special, but no matter how hard I worked, this wasn’t my milieu. (Someone made that pretty clear when they unplugged my amp during a solo at the school talent show.)

In high school I channeled my creativity (and need for recognition) into sports. The expression of one’s artful self through physicality is not limited to dance. Anyone who has played or followed a sport knows about the grace of competitive movement. A drop step and strong move to the basket; a change of direction in the open field, a headfake, a perfectly-executed forearm smash into the corner.  I pushed myself as far as a 5-foot 3-inch, 135-pounder could go. 

Along the way there was a dalliance with photography. I had a good eye for composition. I even won an award in a contest sponsored by the local newspaper. But in those days, photography required a darkroom and a lot of trays full of smelly solutions. The deeper I got into it, the more it started to feel like chemistry. My brain and my heart couldn’t talk to my fingers without going through a whole lot of technical stuff.

And then, during my junior year of college, an older fraternity brother bequeathed to me the editorship of the college literary magazine. He was due to bring out an issue. Soon to graduate, he’d lost interest. If the budget weren’t spent, the money would revert to the university’s coffers. Gathering together a rag-tag bunch of friends, pulling together resources from the English department, my frat, and the newspaper, we brought together an issue.

The night of production remains a Technicolor blur. What I remember is being in the college’s newspaper offices with a room full of novices, each of us equipped with an X-Acto knife, as publishing dictated in those days. Nobody knew what we were doing. I spent the night going from person to person, working with each to solve this problem and that. It was frustrating and difficult, but it was glorious, too. All of us in a room together, stretching our creative muscles, working to make something from nothing. It felt like one of those old movies starring Mickey Rooney and Judi Garland—we were like neighborhood kids who’d decided to put on a musical. Singing and dancing to the music of our own creation, we committed art.

After that I was asked to join the newspaper. I became a columnist and an editor. Almost every night, during the hours after all of my frat brothers had gone to bed, I found myself sitting in a chair at the poker table in the living room, typing my latest piece.

In writing, I’d finally found an outlet for the creativity I wanted to express. My mother always said I was a good bullshitter. Maybe that talent served me well. At any rate, by using words, I found that I was able to say the things I wanted to say—although it would take many years before everything sounded on the page the way I heard it in my head.

More than anything, I loved the process of writing. I loved the building of words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and so on. I loved the rhythms and the sounds. I loved the revisions, killing your darlings to create better ones. Frankly, I loved everything about itplaying the keyboard, reading to myself in a low monotone that is not quite humming and not quite talking about loud. The keys go clicka clack. Twenty-six neutral symbols are willfully recombined. Text appears. It fills the page. And then the next. 

Over time, the accomplishment of output was my demonstration of self worth. Before me were the results of my creative being made whole. Nobody could argue with that.


You might wonder. If I loved writing so much , how did I end up in law school?

Having a profession to fall back on was my parent’s suggestion. It seemed like a logical plan. I had no clue how to become a writer, and nobody around me knew either. The play: Go to law school; get an important high-paying job; branch out into writing in my spare time, work up to making it a vocation. Surely it would be a way to distinguish myself from the hordes of other people who wanted to be writers, too.

Of course, this entailed actually having to show up at law school for three straight years.

I’ve never been good at doing things I don’t love, but I didn’t know this yet. I’d chosen law school not because I liked it or wanted to do it—I’d interned for a lawyer my junior year of college and loathed almost every minute—but because it seemed the mature course of action. I was now an adult, and that’s what adults did, right? Make a plan and stick with it no matter what.

I lasted three weeks.

from 99U99U

Amos Kennedy Jr.: From Corporate Analyst To Modern-Day Artisan

Amos Kennedy Jr.: From Corporate Analyst To Modern-Day Artisan

At age 40, Amos Kennedy Jr. walked into a printing demonstration while on vacation in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and fell in love with a letterpress. Within five minutes, he decided to quit his job as a Chicago-based systems analyst for AT&T and become a printer.

He studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and eventually moved from the Midwest to Alabama and settled for a far less lucrative income—to the tune of $7,000 a year—but what he felt was a more satisfying vocation and lifestyle. Now in his 60s, Kennedy has made a name for himself as a first-rate printer and artist, although he dislikes the word artist and instead says he’s someone who “makes stuff.” But his talent—along with his distinctive uniform of overalls and a pink dress shirt—has made him a leader in his field who can’t be ignored. In 2012, filmmaker Laura Zinger made a documentary, Proceed and Be Bold!, capturing Kennedy’s artistry, activism, and irreverence, as well as serving as a window into the life of an artisan in modern-day America.

Kennedy’s greatest contribution, however, might be his insistence on living a life of his choosing, one with low overhead that enables a healthy balance of work and play. He subscribes to the idea that all humans should do what they can to be happy, and that the “pursuit of happiness” is not an American luxury but a must for humanity. “Following your bliss and being happy is a human trait,” Kennedy says. “I think it being corrupted is a trait of advanced civilization because you have to corrupt it in order for people to submit to advanced civilization—what we call an advanced civilization.” 99U spoke with Kennedy about his dramatic midlife career change, how the issue of race significantly impacts his work, and what it’s like being a craftsman working by hand today.


Kennedy Jr. photographed in his letterpress studio and throughout his Detroit, Michigan neighborhood.

Proceed and Be Bold! is an excellent title for your documentary. Do you suppose you would have inspired a film had you stayed at AT&T?

I would have inspired a performance of Death of a Salesman.

Or Death of a Systems Analyst! Your decision to dedicate yourself to printing is a kind of variation on the American dream—chuck everything, financial security be damned, and do what you love. Was there any fear in that decision or did you feel you had no choice?

I actually think it is the American dream, because the people who originally colonized the United States, they dropped everything and took off someplace where they didn’t know where they were going to live or survive.

Five minutes with a letterpress changed everything, but you could have just as easily found your calling that day in blacksmithing or apothecary. What was it about printing?

I had studied calligraphy for a very long time, about 10 years, but I wasn’t good at it. The letterpress appealed to me because I was attracted to books. I love letters; I love books. It was a way of working with letters, making books, and also the fact that you can make multiple copies.

Can you describe the conversation in your head during those five minutes?

What I was thinking was, I got to find a place in Chicago where I can learn this.

I love what you said at the end of the documentary, that all you have to do to have your life is “declare yourself crazy, and do what you want to do.” Why do you suppose that’s so hard for people?

Because we have been taught all our lives that we have to work for somebody else. We have to have security. Again, I think it was my generation, and even now, we have this model of working forever for somebody and then retiring and going off to play golf. And that’s the good life. We aren’t taught to be independent and free, although we scream that we’re an independent and free nation. We talk about personal responsibility, but personal responsibility is first for your happiness. That happiness comes from finding that internal peace, and I think a lot of people don’t find that. That’s how come you have these substitutions that are accepted by larger society, such as consumerism or the sports fanatic. These sort of things. The people are trying to find a good substitute, but that freedom that we so long for is, basically, an ability to express ourselves and just be happy.

You have—and have had—many admirers and apprentices. Your son Adric prints, too. What are you teaching them besides printing?

I think I’m just showing them that there’s an alternative lifestyle, that pursuing what makes you happy will do exactly that. With that comes a lifestyle that you can be comfortable with. I will never own a Mercedes-Benz, but that’s okay. I don’t need a Mercedes-Benz. I have something else. Because I think a lot in this nation and civilization… a lot of consumerism, it’s like what they say about a heroin junkie. You get that high. It goes away. You can function for a little bit, but then you got to go get that high again. But each high is just a little less high than the last one. I really think consumerism functions at that level in this society.


I read the paper by Andrew Steeves, “Print! Amos Kennedy, Jr. & the Fine Art of Rabblerousery.” He wrote that “at first your work appears to be chaotic and accidental.” Can you describe what you’re doing?

What I am doing is actually mimicking my world vision. The vision of what I think is the world. It can be very easily summed up in the snowflake. No two snowflakes are the same. No two of my posters are really the same. It speaks to the individuality of each person; the uniqueness. They are unique on their own when you take time to look at just one, but if you look at them collectively, they are equally as beautiful.

What I am doing is actually mimicking my world vision. The vision of what I think is the world.

Your former professor, Walter Hamady at the University of Wisconsin, he’s known for many things, including his book series The Interminable Gabberjabbs, and his use of satire and poking fun. It seems you found in him a kindred spirit.

I did. He is a master craftsperson. He pays great attention to detail, and his work is very intentional. This is one of the things that I’ve learned, and he is a very irreverent person. And that’s part of his talent … people either love him or hate him.

Gabberjabbs influenced your NappygRams [negroes in art collection], right?

They did in one respect, but he just questioned things. He questioned and he explored. The NappygRams started out purely as a political statement, as a manifestation of a frustration I was experiencing [while teaching] at Indiana University. The first NappygRam was “Affirmative Action is a Joke.” I was just tired of it. I was just tired of what we think about affirmative action; the critics of affirmative action. The fact that if it was really working then we wouldn’t be having this discussion 20 years later.

Which brings me to the fact that you don’t shy away from politics in your work. It’s a major part of what you do. Would you say activism was always part of your life, or really only since you started “making stuff”?

I tell people, I’m always a person who will disagree with everybody. Sometimes for fun, but a lot of times because I just saw that there was an injustice somewhere. I would challenge teachers when the normal people would not. Or the way that they would challenge them would be in some rough, traditional way. I would just challenge them on the point.

You play a lot with race, identity, and perception in your work and in yourself, i.e. calling yourself a “humble negro printer,” being “Mr. Overalls” and using racially charged images like Sambo and Aunt Jemima. Are you successful as a provocateur, and what are you hoping to accomplish?

I think I am successful to a point, and what I’m hoping to accomplish is to change people’s perceptions of these things. The racially charged images are actually paying homage to the fact that these were images that were used. We cannot whitewash our history, OK? We have to look at it, and say, “Wow, this is what happened.” One of the most racially charged, hatefully charged images is the swastika, but you see it all the time. But the sun sign is what the swastika was based upon… People say, Oh I can’t put that up because it’s the swastika.” There was once a saying that if you want to sell a book, put the swastika on the cover and you would sell another 10,000.

You go to India, you see it everywhere. It means something entirely different.

Right, right. How is it that one political party can take a sign for less than 50 years and turn it into, we don’t even want to see this anymore. That sign that has been around for millennia. But the swastika we see all the time. This is in one way a racist act. In one way we’re praising the Nazis but damning the Indians who had the sign, and that sign is universal. It’s a very primitive sign. You find it in African cultures. You find it in European cultures. It was everywhere in the United States before WWII.


And you feel you’re making your point?

Yes, it is being made and it’s being made slowly… it’s reclaiming. It is very much like the word black. In the ’50s, people who were descendants of African slaves did not really want to be called black. But in the ’60s, we reclaimed that word and turned it into something beautiful. Black is beautiful.” Black Power.” That is similar to what I’m doing. That’s one reason why I use the term negro, because it is offensive to people. I use the term “ni***r,” and I tell people that’s not my problem that they labeled it that. This is a word, and so I claim it. Right now I say that I am a negro, but technically I am a descendant of the enslaved peoples of this civilization because I want to reclaim my heritage of being enslaved. So when you look at me, you remember that this nation was built on the labor of enslaved people. Honor my ancestors and the sacrifice that they made that you can live in the wealth that you think you have.

And on the flip slide, you’ve eschewed the wealth you could have had in that civilization to go do the work you do.


Your family left the Deep South for Michigan when you were still a kid. When you started printing, you moved to Alabama for a while, and a few years ago you settled in Detroit. Why did you leave the South once again for the Midwest?

I needed an airport. I do a lot of traveling, and so I needed to be close to an airport because my traveling was requiring me get up at two o’clock in the morning, drive 90 miles to the airport, and then take the early flight. Air travel was taking the entire day.

You couldn’t have moved near Atlanta?

Well, Detroit was the only city that I could live in at the lifestyle I had. I could move to Atlanta, but I would have to work harder, and I think that would ruin my relationship with the work that I do. I tell students if what you want to do is print, you find the place where you can afford to print more.

You raised beyond $30,000 to meet your mark for the Detroit Printing Plant, the print shop, the book bindery, and the handmade paper mill that you have wanted to have built in Detroit. What is the status? Is this fully operational at this point?

No. Unfortunately Detroit, I tell people, believe the hype but don’t believe the hype. I thought I could roll in there, three months later have a building and boom—six months it would be up and running. It didn’t work that way. The status now is that we have secured a building. We changed the name of the project to simply the Printing Plant, the Printery of the Americas. We’re a 501(c)(3). We’ve also secured a house for people to live in, and a plot of vacant land for a garden. And now I’m on phase two. Those funds have been depleted, but we are going forward because I found a new source of some funds to allow for the occupation of the building.

Would the occupants be apprentices?

I would not call them apprentices. There will be people who want to explore their relationship with letterpress printing. To have an apprentice means I would have to make money, and I am at the point now where I want to make as little money as possible. I will have to earn money for the renovation of the building. That means I’m going to have to work much harder. That’s a cause I want to do. I don’t want to say, Janice is dependent upon me paying her $2,400 this month so she can have her rent and she can live her life.” I’m willing to make a big capital investment, but the ongoing maintenance should go to the building.

You have said you print because you’re good at it. You have also said that your goal was to be a master printer. Are you there yet?

No. I still have a long way to go. There’s a lot to learn, and I have seen people who move with great fluidity through the print shop, through the whole process. It is almost an effortless motion. It’s like water going down a creek, very slowly, very gently. Like watching a leaf float down the river.

And that’s how you’ll know? How does anyone know when they are that and when they’ve mastered something? Can they see it in themselves?

I believe that they can. I am hoping that I will be able to say, I am now at the point where I can really learn. And let me just add that at this point in my career, I do not believe that I am mastering the craft so much as I am allowing the craft to explain the workings of the universe—the workings of the universe and the connections that make the universe flow.

from 99U99U