I used to lead teams on NASA projects that landed things on other planets. I lost faith in our corporate leadership and chose to be my own boss and uncover the incredible people, places and things hiding in plain sight.
Below is my story of how I went from engineer to running a successful professional photography business…
“Are you paying for the airfare?”
This was the coy answer 23 year old me gave to the nasally voice on the other end of the phone during an interview for my first job out of college when he asked me what I thought about rock climbing on Mars.
I heard the phantom voice on the other end of the line say, “get him down here for an interview.”.
That was all she wrote and for the next 15 years I traveled all over the world to deserts, jungles, and the Antarctic working on various NASA and military projects.
So, how did a mechanical engineer from a steel town in western Pennsylvania I end up as a full-time commercial photographer living on the beautiful Delaware coastline?
A birth defect derailed my lifelong dream of being a pilot and soldier, I didn’t’ think too hard about becoming an engineer. It made sense, and it did. Four years of feeling like the dumbest person in the room at Penn State and I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
It was a great ride and fit where I was as a person, which was someone who craved attention and validation but also I feared the attention because I didn’t believe the continual stream of validation because I had such low self-esteem.
I led teams that tested landing system for Mars Rovers, we would conduct tests of protective gear for pilots as jets screamed overhead and artillery tests shook the buildings we worked in. I was suspended from the end of cranes hundreds of feet above the Gulf of Mexico. I was cooked and frozen in thermal chambers while wearing gas masks. I was locked in mission control of our test site after our rocket for our test mission tumbled unexpectedly into the Atlantic. Missions were lost, things exploded, but we always learned from these experiences and that was part of the thrill and rush of working on things that no one had ever attempted, or done successfully. It was a wild ride and we were immensely proud of the work we did.
Half way through my tenure at this job saw radical changes in my personal life with the birth of my first child and a few months later, the suicide of one of my closest childhood friends, Nathan.
I had battled anxiety since I was probably 5 or 6 years old and this put me into an absolute tail spin. Months after Nathan’s passing I couldn’t pull myself together and one day as I was getting ready to get in the shower, I resulted to the “last refuge of a scoundrel”: prayer. I said, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”.
I immediately felt a warm sensation come over me from my head to my toes and I thought, “either I’ve just lost my mind or God is real.”. That day in 2009 is when I began my path to healing, am continuing it on today, as I will be for the rest of my life.
The private company that I started working for had been sold and slowly things changed under the new ownership, with the primary focus being on revenue and steering away from the projects and mission support of inspiring, cutting edge technology that the company had become known for.
The culture became toxic.
It was the only thing I ever knew and never thought about leaving, but my heart kept pulling away and it became a job. After much prayer and discussion with my wife, we decided that the time was right to trust God and follow what was laid on my heart and pursue photography full-time.
I walked away from a six-figure salary in the spring of 2017 and I haven’t looked back.
I, just like everyone else, am merely a steward of the gifts and talents I have been blessed with. Photography is a vehicle. A vehicle, like countless others, to spread love and positivity and remind, perhaps tell for the first time – that THEY matter.
Profile photo by Jeremy Cowart