2018 Year in Review / by Jessica Lee

Summer 2018, not the sunflower farm that got closed down. Photo: Robbie Lòpez

Summer 2018, not the sunflower farm that got closed down. Photo: Robbie Lòpez

2018 went by in a blur for me. I started the year off, January 1st leaving a new year’s celebration on the joyous streets of Puerto Rico where I had spent the last days of 2017. The old town of San Juan, with its cobblestone streets and old colonial houses was alive with fireworks exploding in the background, the steamy night heat on my skin. I counted down to midnight, and toasted a few shots of whatever we drank that night, then headed off to the airport for a redeye flight back to North America. I spent new year’s day in freezing cold Boston at the famous Maritime Museum with its spirited penguins and sea turtles that swam in the huge aquarium that topped a few stories. Then home.

My year was filled with travels to nine new countries (thirteen in total); mostly by backpacking through Eastern Europe; a lifestyle and work adjustment; and many adventures. I visited my 50th country this year (Romania), read 33 amazing books and feel more in touch with who I am as a person. I have shed the idealism of youth and am more confident in handling novel situations both travelling and at home. I recently came across an article I had saved over five years ago called “Ten trips you need to take in your twenties” and realized I had spent the last couple of years doing most of them.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

The highlight of my year was not the physical places I went to, but the people I met while I was there. I admire the individuals who choose to pursue their own paths; as strange, unpredictable and uncharted as it might be. Usually, you meet these people by going to off-the-beaten path places, like in Macedonia where I met someone from the U.K. who was pursuing a Master’s degree in Albanian Art History. In Lebanon, I met a solo female traveller who had moved to French Guinea to teach math. She was a Parisian girl who traded in city life to move to a jungle where she found a pamphlet in her mailbox one day from the government titled “Living with Jaguars”.

This year brought a lot more commercial photography assignments, which I am grateful for. As I learn more and more about how to make high-quality images, I realized I am just scratching the surface of the nuances of making technically ‘perfect’ images. With commercial assignment work, the client expects perfectly-lit, expertly staged and styled photos, all of which is possible when you can control many elements such as the models you work with, your environment and studio lighting. With documentary or news photojournalism, most of the elements of that make the photo extraordinary are by chance; if the subject steps into the proper place, the lighting conditions that day and if you happen to catch an expression or an action, most of which will likely never be repeated again. Regardless, all of this work makes me a better photographer overall, which is the end goal.

Photographing the mountains at Zakopane, Poland. My friend Kris moved to Krakow in early 2018 and I was visiting him.

Photographing the mountains at Zakopane, Poland. My friend Kris moved to Krakow in early 2018 and I was visiting him.

I’m ending 2018 in great shape mentally, physically and in a good place. I’m typing this up from a beachfront bar on an island in Belize. It is a deserved ending to a hectic year, filled with many blessings but also many new challenges.

For those of you just joining me, every year, I run through a list of key lessons I learned throughout the year as self-reflection with the intent to help others who are reading. 

Experience is the name so many people give their mistakes. - Oscar Wilde

Here is what I learned this year:

Driving a golf cart to get around town in San Pedro, Belize

Driving a golf cart to get around town in San Pedro, Belize

1. Maintenance is a key and important part of life. I spent a significant portion of this year “decluttering” my physical possessions, a project I first started in 2013. I would spend whole days just sorting out old junk I would donate, organizing things that inspired me from high school, sorting through notes I had made during my college days. At the end of those long days, I would wonder how I got myself into this situation with a closet full of odds and ends. The solution is obviously to not create a mess in the first place, which I am working on. In five years, I plan to not have any junk that requires me to spend days of my life to sort through. Life is short, time is precious!

2. Cultivate good habits! At the tail-end of 2017, I went surfing in Puerto Rico and became so tired from paddling to catch the waves, while the locals seemed to have unlimited reserves of arm strength. As someone who has only limited time in warm climates with good surf every year, this was extremely frustrating, as the conditions were perfect but I was physically exhausted. I realized I had let myself become satisfied with easy workouts at home and hadn’t been pushing myself or keeping myself in tiptop surfing shape. I had unconsciously let the status quo of the people I worked with become my lifestyle too. Whenever they ordered take-out, I would do so as well most of the time. One bite of pastry doesn’t hurt. But If you let pastry pass through your lips enough times without going to the gym, soon you will be out of shape.

3. Actively cultivate a good crew who will encourage your good habits. Good habits will become easier when they are modelled by the people around you as “normal”. I am still working on this, but this year I have started surrounding myself with more freelancers who have to support themselves without a steady paycheque. These are some of the hardest-working people you will ever meet and I am grateful to be in their company.

Sailing around Toronto Islands without a crew.

Sailing around Toronto Islands without a crew.

4. Extra effort gets noticed. Earlier this year, I went to a tea shop that had a loyalty program for tea rewards. I went expressly to get my free bag of tea – nothing else.  However the employee working that day had a goal of selling me on anything, he mentioned the special of the day, which was a $1 tea. I didn’t need the extra tea (I had my own tumbler of tea in my car) but I was so impressed by his effort that I bought the tea. A $1 sale is not a lot of money. But from a $0 sale to $1, he increased my spending by 100%. If you upsell 10 customers a day, that is still not very significant, however if you do that every single day, that is $3650 – enough for a round trip to anywhere in the world, or an upgrade in camera gear, or whatever it is that your heart desires for $3650. Another example that really inspired me this year was Ami Vitale’s talk on CreativeLive where she described dressing up as a bush to photograph a panda that would be released into the wild. Amongst dozens of other photographers, she was the only one dressed up as a bush so that the panda wouldn’t realize she was there and wouldn’t be scared of her. The scientist in charge of the release noticed how empathetic she was towards her subject and allowed her access to all of the panda babies, which helped immensely with her photo story. I was so inspired by these two that earlier this year, I went the extra mile for a client, giving them much more photo content than they requested. They ended up buying double the images they initially were interested in because of my efforts.

5. Experience comes with time. This year, on my way home from Lebanon, I had a stopover in Casablanca, Morocco – the confronting place where I had travelled to on my own when I was young and overconfident in handling difficult situations. I learned a lot on that trip about what is accepted behaviour in different cultures, but mostly I learned how to survive in a foreign place where travellers are preyed upon, not just scammed (thank you Indonesia for that lesson). Morocco is a place where men routinely follow tourists around the city and harass them for money, to go to their relative’s shop, to sell their services as a guide, etc. It is quite scary when you are a young woman arriving to this for the first time during the night, which is what happened the first time I ended up in Morocco. Coming back to the same city almost five years later, I now knew what to expect and handled the man who followed me down the street, quite well, despite my frustration with him. Five years ago, a similar experience terrified me and I was able to reflect on how far I’d come.

Kids playing in Casablanca, Morocco

Kids playing in Casablanca, Morocco


6.  Think beyond the “pretty” photo and think about storytelling. I spent a large part of the year devouring classic literature and iconic photojournalism in an effort to learn from those sources. In my “studies”, I came across a photo by Andreas Feinenger, who made a photo of oil derricks. He described his thinking behind the photo and how he went far back to find the perspective that shows all the oil derricks close together. He did that deliberately so that people remember what oil stands for. When I read that, a light bulb clicked in my head. In 2019 and beyond, I will spend more time thinking about the meaning behind what I want to convey in a photo, as opposed to just making “pretty” photos, which I have finally started making consistently in difficult lighting situations.

 7. Spend less time fixing mistakes and more time making sure the mistakes don't happen in the first place. This year, due to recklessness, I ended up with a lot more parking tickets than any other year. In the grand scheme of things (compared to irreversible mistakes), parking tickets are a small issue, but I’d rather not make these mistakes in the first place.

On my first wreck dive in Cyprus, this year.

On my first wreck dive in Cyprus, this year.

8. Slow down. Earlier this year, I had a free coffee voucher that I was really excited to use. The ‘free coffee’ ended up not being free however because I had been so excited to get to the coffee shop, I accidentally scraped the side of a larger car I was not used to driving while backing out.

9. Always travel to learn. I went to many new places I had no preconceptions about previously and it filled in gaps in my knowledge, which is why I think travel and first-hand experiences are so important (if you’re not able to travel because of your circumstances, that is okay as long as you’re learning through second-hand sources such as documentaries or books). Prior to visiting Auschwitz, my understanding of the camp was limited to Viktor Frankel’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, Life is Beautiful, X-Men movies, Schindler’s List, Son of Saul, and the Berlin Holocaust Museum. The Auschwitz museum describes so much more of what the victims went through and I am glad I went even though it took great effort to get there.

Malta, 2018

Malta, 2018


10. Be committed. Tom Seaver, a Hall of Fame pitcher, received the highest percentage of votes to the Hall of Fame. In Angela Duckworth’s Grit, I read that he does not go tanning in Florida on vacation if he thinks he might get a sunburn which would affect his ability to pitch the next day. I love his level of commitment to his sport and have also committed myself to photography in the same way.

Bonus: If something is meant to be, it will happen. – At least, this is what I like to believe. One of the books I read, Marilyn Monroe by Donald Spoto described that as an unknown, Marilyn Monroe worked in a factory during the war when she was married to her first husband. From there, she could have “settled down” and led a quiet and conservative life hidden from the public, but a war photographer found her working at the factory and the photos started her career which eventually led to her to being cast in movies. Her dreams of becoming an actress could have ended when she got married and became a house wife at 16, but it didn’t. It’s almost as if that if someone is meant to be something to the world, it will happen.

The best books I read in 2018 (not in order):
1. The Social Animal – David Brooks
2. How Music Got Free – Stephen Witt
3. In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Odaatje
4. The Magic of Thinking Big – David Schwartz
5. Marilyn Monroe – Donald Spoto
6. Grit – Angela Duckworth
7. Swell – Liz Clark
8. Katerina – James Frey
9. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
10. Tender is the Night – Scott. F. Fitzgerald

Thanks for reading, see you all in 2019!

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Larnaka, Cyprus, earlier this summer

Larnaka, Cyprus, earlier this summer