James Balog; Pursuits

"If you define your creativity by what the market wants, you're dead before you start."

When James Balog traveled to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in January, he knew there was little chance of his photographs being picked up by newspapers or magazines. The tsunami, which struck the region on December 26, had been well covered by the media. But as a photographer who has been documenting the power of nature for his entire career, the devastation was something he had to see. "Given the timing," Jim says, "I knew I had a low chance of being published in the short-term press, but I felt a responsibility to the natural experience, to see it and put it on film. I wasn't thinking about clients."

Which brought up a larger issue: balancing mammon and the muse. "You have to pursue your heart and your creative impulses," Jim says, "but as a working professional you're always tempering that and second-guessing yourself. You're always thinking of the market value of what you're doing."

Photos © 2005, James Balog, All Rights Reserved

Lately he finds himself becoming more cynical about that market and its demands. "When I was 32 years old and would meet the older, famous photographers and see how cynical and skeptical they were about the business and the culture, I would think, boy, are those guys old and grumpy. Now I've become one of those guys, beaten up in the school of hard knocks, and I'm afraid I sound just like them."

What's particularly disturbing is the short attention span of the media and the public. What everyone seems to want is what's next. "Fortunately, I don't spend most of my life chasing things that are news stories," Jim says, "but there is no question that the culture is moving at breakneck speed, and it seems to go faster and faster as the attention span seems to get shorter and shorter.
"But if you define your creativity by what the market wants, you're dead before you start. You have to go beyond the market and do what you think is right--and these days, sometimes you just have to do it for yourself."

Jim Balog is a NikonNet "Legends Behind the Lens" featured photographer. The current "Legends" story and an archive of profiled photographers, including Jim, can be found at www.nikonnet.com. Jim's website is www.jamesbalog.com.