This conversation started on January 9, 2018.
How young are you Joe?
I’m 52 years young.
Where do you live? And why?
I live south of Boston in a small town called Hull, Massachusetts. The town is just three square miles, but as a peninsula, it boasts 21 miles of coastline, including Nantasket Beach. I live here because I love the ocean and nature is always part of my day. This place is an inspiration to make things. My studio has space upstairs to write and concept, and downstairs there is room to shoot portraits.
Outside the door is my favorite background, the Atlantic Ocean.
Tell me about your love for Mother Ocean?
The ocean is a source of inspiration for me. It is never the same. I love the sound of the waves breaking on the shore, the way the light bounces off the waves, the feel of being surrounded by salt water and floating weightless. When I go back to the ocean to walk on the beach, take pictures, swim, or sail, it makes me feel like a kid again.
What did crossing the 50-YEAR line mean to you?
To me, turning 50 years old was my declaration of independence. For 25 years of my working life, I was a cog in someone else’s machine. Turning 50 was the opportunity to build my own machine on my own terms. Fifty means there’s still time to do what you were born to do.
But there’s not one second to waste on tomfoolery, corporate politics, negative people, or questions where there is no right answer.
A declaration of independence. I love that. What kind of machine are you building?
My creative machine makes content by any means necessary. I’m happy to write it, shoot it, direct it. If the budget allows me to bring in talented people to help, I’m all for that. I love collaborating with people who want to make something rather than those who sit in stuffy conference rooms talking about making something, but never actually do it. Since I own my company, I can decide to give a small assignment just as much love as a big one.
Why do you think you are creative?
I think I’m creative because I make things. My favorite creative people can make something out of virtually nothing. Creativity is like sport. Every day you go back to zero, back to the starting line, back to nothing. If you’re fortunate, at the end of the day you have a result. Then the next day you start over again.
At 50 you started creating your own path. Was there a moment or an event that inspired your independence?
I declared my independence at age 49 after working for other companies for a long, long time. Being an employee of a big company is fun when you’re in your twenties. “Hey, we’re a family!”
When you’re 50 you realize it’s not a family. It’s a job.
Why did you wait so long?
I did not declare my independence until late in life because for a long time I worked at an agency where I liked my boss. He was good to me. After he left, things changed. Fast. I’ve seen a lot of re-organizations and I felt like if I did my own thing, I would be steering the ship by myself for a change. That said, I met my wife at that big company so no regrets.
You used the expression steering your own ship. Is your life finally in harmony with who you are on the ocean?
My life is in harmony with who I am on the ocean. That means there are calm days, stormy days, and days where everything is just perfect. The sailors I admire, who are far better than I am, do not complain about the wind direction or the tide or the waves, they adjust their attitude and their sails, and make the best of it.
What about independence inspires you so much?
What I enjoy most about being an independent company is anything is possible. You can speak the truth. You can recommend what is right.
You can walk away from shady situations. It’s all on you.
What is your truth?
The words I live by are, “Google it and go for it.” A little bit of gumption goes a long way in this economy. Surround yourself with positive people who care about you and you can do the most amazing things.
What other things inspire you?
I love being around passionate people who are good at what they do. I’ve studied with some amazing photographers, such as Joe McNally, Onne van der Wal, and Peter Hurley. One of the great things about still photographers is how independent they are. They don’t need a crew of 100 people to make an image. Same goes for great writers. One person and a Mac can create an entire world. Compare that with the number of people it takes to make a feature film. Incredible.
Tell me about FEAR and your relationship with it when you ventured outside the cog in the machine role?
Fear is the enemy. When I started my business I didn’t have an office chair so I grabbed a scuzzy old one that was in the garage. My wife said, “you need a new chair.” I said, “what if I don’t get work?” She rolled her eyes. We went to the office supply store and she made me spend $140 on a new chair. Big time investment. I was terrified I would never get work again. But some people gave me a break and I was able to pay off the chair and some camera equipment that helps me do my work. My approach to the work is to go for it. My most recent client said to me, “One thing that’s different about you than the other creative directors I’ve worked with is they were afraid of everything, and you’re not afraid of anything.”
After 50 there is not enough time left to be afraid. You can’t be stupid. But you have to go for it
There is not enough time left to be afraid? Do you feel you lived your life in fear before 50?
Before the age of 50, I lived within the boundaries of a corporate job. There were things I did that involved risk, such as riding the entire Tour de France route in 2006, but there was always a figure that I answered to. There was a lot of asking for permission.
Do you hear the clock ticking?
The clock is ticking, no doubt. I use that reality as motivation to do something outside of the comfort zone and press the boundaries of what is possible.
You mentioned you rode the entire Tour de France route in 2006. Why did you do that?
In 2006 I rode the entire Tour de France route as a fundraiser for cancer survivors. For me, it was a trip to the edge of the razor. To climb the Alps and the Pyrenees was a tremendous honor. I also gained huge respect for how much stronger professional athletes are than I am.
A trip to the edge of the razor. Can you describe what that trip was like for your emotionally or spiritually?
The Tour de France Challenge took everything I had in me. I thought there was going to be a big revelation when I arrived in Paris after riding 2500 miles or so (we got lost so we rode a few hundred miles extra.) There wasn’t a giant epiphany, but a simple sense of satisfaction.
I rode the best I could with a great group of guys.
Are you still a competitive sailor?
In my spare time I race sailboats. Last summer I won the 110 Nationals with Dr. Linda Epstein, the greatest crew that ever lived. We won the regatta in “Retread,” a boat that a friend of mine, Will Craig, rebuilt. He passed away from ALS. When we sail Retread, Will is with us in spirit. I’m lucky in that I sold Retread in 2006 to pay for the Tour de France Challenge. I was able to buy her back a years later and get her in my life again.
I’m sorry about your friend Will. I’m sure he was with you that day. What did you learn from his life?
My friend Will Craig was a house painter by trade, but he was also one of the most creative people I ever met. Will taught me that you have to live your own life and nothing lasts forever. He was taken from us way too young. His spirit lives on in Retread and she is still a beautiful boat, as fast today as she was the day he finished her.
Why was it important to have her back in your life?
She represented my youth. After years of trying, I finally won the Nationals with Dave McGrath in Retread in 1992. I let her go because I fell in love with the bicycle for a decade and sold her to pay for the Tour de France Challenge. I was lucky to get her back.
What has racing sailboats taught you about yourself?
If I throw myself at something 100%, I can achieve a result, but the effort is usually monumental. Very seldom do I luck into something or just have it all fall into my lap. I was hands down the worst sailor on my high school team and amongst the worst on my college team. But I kept showing up and eventually became competent. I’m not great, and I know it, but I am able to compete.
Do you consider yourself a grinder?
I am a grinder. Nothing ever came to me easily or naturally. It takes a long time, but I do get there eventually. Just once I would love to be a natural at something.
You are a writer by trade. Your career was built around writing. What was the catalyst to start the journey of a photographer?
For 30 years I’ve made a living as a writer and writing will always be my first love. The idea will always be King. I started shooting stills and directing films because my clients couldn’t always afford A-level talent.
William Butler Yeats said, “education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,”
and that is the case with my love of photography. It’s dirty, grimy, difficult, manual labor. I love it. In my spare time I study with the greats like Joe McNally, the most versatile photographer alive and Onne van der Wal, the greatest nautical photographer of all time.
I love dirty, grimy, difficult. I have never heard it attached to the art of photography. Can you explain why it’s like that for you?
For me, photography is a manual labor job. The gear is heavy and I’m usually short-handed. Then I end up rolling around on the ground or some other weird place to get the shot. The hours are long and the work takes its toll upon your body. Nobody hires me to shoot fashion models on exotic beaches. I tend to get the gigs shooting boat builders, printers, car restoration guys. The environments are usually dirty and the days are long.
When I make an image I really like, it’s worth it.
If you could change one thing in your life what would it be?
I would give my mother perfect health. She’s fighting hard for her health, but it is not an easy battle. She’s still strong mentally. Her mind carries her body.
If you could change one thing in the universe what would that be?
The universe would be a better place if kids did not go to bed hungry. I do not like being hungry and my heart goes out to kids who don’t have proper nutrition.
If 52-year young Joe could give 25-year-old Joe one piece of advice what would it be?
Go meet Lisa Borden. We worked at the same agency in NYC and I never met her. Twenty years later I met her at another agency in Boston and we got married.
Together, we live a simple, happy life free of drama and nonsense.
Joe Berkeley Writer, Photographer, Director, Grinder.
Follow him @ joeberkeley.com