Silly me. I set out to pen a serious career advice piece and was looking for some fresh perspective. My story line originally intended to follow a successful photographer friend whose images were recently showcased in a book featuring the words and ideas of none other than Pope Francis and Friends and Loyola Press, entitled Sharing the Wisdom of Time. Before I sat down to interview Paul Audia, I had my tongue in cheek lead in lines at the ready…..”landing a job interview is like getting an audience with the pope.”…and “it was divine intervention how he got the gig.” Clever lines designed to track with the trajectory of his career and serve as a snappy segue to my topic for job seekers. Moments after our conversation began, I knew I was about to abandon my original story and move on to a much more important one.
As a fashion photographer, Paul spent most of his career on shoots with the “beautiful people.” And, sometimes his work took him well beyond the four walls of a studio to places like the fashion runways of New York where he photographed models in Vera Wang bridal gowns and Carolina Herrera’s latest clothing collection. That sounds like the kind of job most people can only dream of. He confided in me that, reflecting on his professional experiences so far, the collaboration on this book was the most meaningful work of his life. I naturally assumed it was the prestige associated with working on behalf of the Pope and guessed once you reach that inner sanctum, there’s nowhere else to go. Well, that wasn’t exactly it.
We talked about what led up to this moment. As a young boy roaming the hills of West Virginia, he snapped photos of anything and everything; but in his words, they were all “inconsequential things.” Later in life, he met a Jesuit priest who recognized his talent, became his mentor and encouraged him to do work that was important. It wasn’t until years later, while on assignment for the book that he understood this particular path was leading him to the higher ground his mentor always knew he would one day reach.
He embarked on his journey in his usual way, approaching the assignment as a blank canvas. He booked a series of flights and rental cars and headed off for parts unknown in Malta, Italy, Ireland, Poland, England, Spain, Slovenia and the US; savoring the freedom afforded him to simply let his creative juices flow. What he didn’t know was the life changing moments he was about to experience.
He was invited into the lives of a group of elders. They were self-possessed, interesting, wise….all held in high regard by Pope Francis, yet often disenfranchised from younger generations. Paul came to understand why Pope Francis had a mission to give a voice to this often invisible group. Enter Paul, whose visual wizardry afforded another dimension to their life stories by putting a face to a voice. Here are some of those moments that left an indelible mark on him.
Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez, Age 80, Spain
This priest was most remarkable in his ability to be incredibly ordinary; a departure from the pomp and circumstance Paul was accustomed to with “men of the cloth.”
Father Angel’s mission was pure and simple; feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. He accomplished both by converting an abandoned church, offering food and beds for the homeless. He then opened a restaurant, requiring its patrons to pay it forward by buying a meal for people in need. And those meals were served at the restaurant, with the same settings of silver, china and crystal provided the regular patrons. In that spirit, Father Angel was able to not only feed the poor, but also acknowledge their need for human dignity. Paul found himself deeply moved by the ability of this one individual to understand and fill the needs of many through simple rather than grand gestures.
Erwin Froman, Age 89, USA
For Paul, the lessons learned with this encounter were patience and humility. Erwin endured the unimaginable as a Holocaust survivor, whose parents perished in Auschwitz soon after their arrival at the camp. Following the war, he moved to Cleveland, became a butcher and assumed he was on safe ground, only to fall victim years later to a robbery culminating in a gunshot to his jaw.
Now residing in a nursing home, Erwin was contemplating the life he led while eagerly awaiting Paul’s arrival. During the photo shoot, Paul impatiently glanced at his watch as he had a flight to catch later that day. Assuming Paul was losing interest, Erwin admonished him, “You wanted to hear the story….” Paul quickly determined there was nowhere else he needed to be, cancelled his flight and gave full attention to Erwin’s remarkable tale. He left with a greater understanding that just “being there” for someone who has a voice and a desire to be heard will always be time well spent.
Berta Golob, Age 85, Slovenia
This retired teacher taught her adolescent students many lessons, the most important of which were more about life than reading or math. She taught kids with behavioral problems and, for most of them, their Moms were not exactly models of parental care. In fact, they all had deep rooted issues of their own from alcoholism to criminal activity. But in spite of their faults, her students would run to their mothers’ defense and physically knock down anyone who challenged their Mom’s virtue. One of Paul’s greatest takeaways was captured in a phrase Berta used to describe the potential she saw in those kids to love and be loved, “they taught me to recognize the light behind all the shadows.”
Many encounters offered food for the soul, but his project also had perks that balanced the “all work/no play” syndrome. One of the elders of the book, “Marty” as Paul now fondly refers to him, Scorsese, recounted his own brushes with adversity and rejection. Marty gained a different sort of wisdom about perseverance (a la Hollywood style). I’m certain Paul and Marty proved kindred spirits with their implicit understanding that creative work should impact people’s lives no matter if the images are moving or still.
Of course, Paul will always appreciate the distinct honor of contributing to the Pope’s project and considers it a major milestone in his career. However, the most profound thing that happened to him had less to do with the potential for fame and fortune. It was more about how he got out from behind the camera, grew to appreciate how inspiring the stories were and went on to understand life through a different lens. In retrospect, it had previously been a matter of capturing the light in other people’s images; a skill he honed to perfection with his craft. Only this time, he found the light was radiating from inside: a light that had been passed on from all the faces and stories he experienced along his way.
Paul had become immersed in a credo Pope Francis declared as one of the book’s central themes concerning work. According to the Pope, work “always opens us up to dialogue.” The Pope views work as something that, for all people “enables them to engage in the world, with people…so they are not just talking to themselves.” Paul’s talent to completely stir our imagination goes well beyond his technical abilities. The real texture and dimension seen in his work could only have happened because of the dialogue he engaged in and the human connections he made.
Over his career, Paul had encouraged aspiring photographers to be vulnerable in order to be creative. He felt if they weren’t inhibited by structure and opened themselves up to possibilities, then life would lead them in the direction they were meant to follow. While he had adapted this mantra in his professional life to produce beautiful art, he may not have fully understood the need to apply it to his personal life. This time was different. That same vulnerability opened him up to a greater understanding of people and to the most important work of his career.
As for my advice to job seekers (or for that matter… workers), I discovered there was a message to share. Open yourself up to the wisdom that other people have to offer. Like taking a great photo, let the light in from those around you and capture the inspirational frames as they happen. You’ll then have set your sights on the important work and may also find yourself living a more consequential life.
Experience Paul Audia’s extraordinary body of work at: www.audia.net where you can also access his podcasts and soak in the dulcet sounds of his “smooth as silk” storytelling.