I have had such an awesome response to my last newsletter on volunteering this holiday season, I thought I would let you know how it’s going. But first, a little history on how volunteering became such a big part of who I am.

Snapfinger Road, commonly known as highway 155 in Lithonia, Georgia, was located, as they say, “in the sticks”. There were only a few ways to socialize back in those days. We did not live in a neighborhood, so friends would need to come to visit or I would go on “spend the night” adventures. As I got older friends who had their parents’ cars, there were football games, and jamming with the band in the basement. Those came and went, but one group has always been my core and my heart, and I found them at the Decatur Presbyterian Church.

The DPC Youth Group, when not getting stoned and sending toilet paper rolls flying into our beloved youth leaders’ front yard trees, were required to do some good in the world. Call it payback, call it a grand mistake on our leaders’ part, but the day I visited Whitten Center in Clinton, SC, my life changed.

Whitten Center was advertised as a place for seniors to follow rainbows into the next life, but that was not what we experienced there. I am not positive what happened, maybe we went to the wrong Whitten Center, but when we arrived there were no happy seniors to pinch us on the cheeks. There was, however, a camp filled with extremely disabled young and old people who were out of their minds to see us come rolling-up.


Our leaders huddled like the Rams on the fifty-yard line and weighed out whether we could handle this experience, and even worse, could our new friends handle us driving away in our beautiful rented church bus. The decision, if not a clear one, was made to stay and kick some ass, do some good, and damn the torpedoes if we failed.

My first moment of volunteer service was spent with a lovely young lady who was suffering from hydrocephalus. Her head was so huge that it required a trough-like mechanism to get around. My mission that day was a simple boat ride, nothing more. My new friend was scared stiff, but she was also so excited that she grinned from ear to ear as we paddled out into the deep on a perfect day in South Carolina. She had no idea the lake was only three feet deep, but to her, it was as deep as the freedom she clearly felt that day.

I was young, I did not understand what was happening to me in that moment. I paddled and made silly Robert jokes as we made our way around the lake. It was so lovely. Thinking back, I would’ve liked to have been a bird in a tree watching this. Sixteen-year-old Robert Downs yucking it up with a severely handicapped young lady paddling around a lake enjoying every second. I realized I had the capacity to see past the exterior of a person and stare directly at their heart, even though I did not understand that ability until much later in my life.

Our leaders, as part of their decision to stay, required that we all meet after to decompress and to share our experiences. Meeting together was an excellent gauge to see if anyone in our group was freaking out. The decision to stay was an absolute feather in our leaders’ cap. So we rolled (toilet-papered) their houses when we got home that weekend after a few beers and some wanderlust time in our big field under a midnight sky.

We were kids. We had no business being in this position of responsibility with such severely handicapped individuals, but I am here to tell you it was our proudest moment and it bound us. That day, we grew up a little. Some of us processed the experience by openly weeping, others found incredible strength in providing love to those who received very little.

The kids that provided service to these special people with me that day have been my friends for going on fifty years. I love them now as much as I loved them then.

As my life rolled on I got lost for a while. I found drugs and alcohol and left home way too early. I eventually found my way and when the words “be of service” were spoken to me again, I related. I thought to myself, “I can do that, I know how to do that.” Little did I know the gifts I would receive in return.

The source of my greatest gifts lately have come from the Veterans Hospital here in Long Beach. After weeks of pokes and prods, my official position at the VA is: “Robert Downs: a person who pushes Veterans from one treatment to another. “

It’s no small task, the facility is huge.

I am, by far, the youngest volunteer. I am also the only volunteer that has not served in our armed forces and/or is not under court order to be there. This makes me an extremely odd bird to most of the folks I meet at the VA.

It is also cause for my most rewarding moments.

Sam, an older volunteer, was giving me the “stink-eye” one day, “Ya know you can get a job here if you volunteer long enough, lots of opportunities at the VA.” I calmly say, “I have a job”, and smile. After a few more weird looks, I attempt to explain and even hand him my business card, but he still does not believe me. I move on.

“Robert, you have a pick up at PT.”

The most rewarding experience I have each day happens in a millisecond.

Pushing a wheelchair down a long hall, a Marine Crew Chief asks me “So what part of the service were you in, Robert?” as I am wheeling him back from his PT appointment. I reply, “I did not serve in the military.” “So, what are you doing here?” he asks. “I just want to show my support, you guys are the best and I cannot even begin to understand your sacrifices and service, so I do this.”

Then it happens, a millisecond of complete silence in our conversation. I appreciate you. I respect you, but mostly, I am grateful to you, hangs silently in the air for just a moment. I have no reason to be here except to serve you.

“So what’s the craziest thing you ever saw?” I ask, and we wheel on.

These men and women are fascinating to me. I have heard stories about how to smoke pot while on duty. Stories about what happened to a guy when he went face to face with a Bengal tiger in the bush. It is amazing, every day I volunteer, the men and women amaze me.

Sam and the VA have now figured out that I am indeed a working photographer and not in need of a job. They have put me in charge of teaching the photography class. I can’t believe it…


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Immeasurable Life

I’m sitting in building 134 of the Long Beach Veterans Hospital waiting for my next push. I experience what I like to call a “soul strike”. I’m not sure if this just occurs in artsy people such as myself, or if being artsy allows me to recognize that I am approaching feelings. It feels like a shaken can of beer in my brain that needs to pop!


I converse with Veterans with amazing stories, big energy, and wisdom while I push their wheelchairs down a long, cold, abandoned hallway to physical therapy, or worse, chemotherapy. What I’m learning from them, in a big way, is that every decision in life, whether your own, or one forced upon you, leads to immeasurable results.


I take a quick right turn out a side door with my assigned Veteran. He deserves a better experience than this cold hallway. “We’re cutting through the park for some sunshine,” I say to my friend.


I have often thought of how things might have gone if I had made different decisions. As a young person, I was unable to make decisions about my life, a practice that lingered long into adulthood. As I grew stronger, I realized I had a choice. I started rolling the dice with my life.


Rolling the dice requires more than a hair flip and a “come on lucky seven” kind of attitude. Just making the decision to roll the dice can be mentally crippling. Even more terrifying is that after you roll said dice, you have to keep doing it until you crap out or win big! I tend to crap out a lot. But I keep playing until all my chips are gone. It’s the never ending creative process.


As a younger person, I had less to lose, and a lot more chips (or so I thought). I rolled the dice moving to Paris to become “the greatest photographer in the world”. I did not speak French or have a work visa. I didn’t even have a job. I just knew Paris was the spot and had every notion that I would somehow be discovered. I was there for about three months, but I found I enjoyed sitting on Jim Morrison’s grave smoking hashish much more than actually looking for a shoot (a decision I don’t regret).


The next roll of the dice was a move to New York City. This time I had a better plan, fewer drugs, and no language barrier (except in Brooklyn “EHHHH!  I’m walkin’ herrrrre”). I lived in a loft on top of an ice cream factory in Brooklyn (now DUMBO) and worked with some of the greatest photographers in the world. Everything was going great, right up until my Craigslist roommate tried to murder me in my sleep. I tossed my belongings out the window in the middle of the night and somehow found my way back home to Atlanta.


I continued to roll the dice many more times, not necessarily knowing how things would turn out. It wasn’t for many years that I would start to see a pattern within myself. I realized I had little choice over how things were going to work out, but I had an emotional choice about how things were going to work out inside of me. I have stuck close to what feels right over the years and I give that feeling ultimate respect in my world. Respect for my feelings has paid off in my career with two of the most jaw-dropping compliments an artist could ever receive.


Second Best Compliment Ever:


I’m standing in a group of people behind the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, and I can’t get Kenny Aronoff(Drummer: Jon Fogerty) on the phone. Kenny is running an all-star show rehearsal and I am scheduled to shoot him in action. I put the phone down and gaze into the sea of others trying to find their way backstage when I see the production manager of the show walking out the back door toward me. Grabbing my arm he says “follow me”. As we are walking to the backstage door, I explain to the manager that I didn’t have my credentials yet. At that moment, he turned to me and said, “It’s okay man, I can tell you belong here.”


My jaw dropped. It was an incredible compliment to all the work I have done in the music industry.




I walked to the stage slipping by Rick Neilson (Cheap Trick), past John Stamos, and to the stage where Kenny was playing. I gave Slash the “eyebrows up head nod” and greeted Darryl Jones (Rolling Stones) with a smile.


When Kenny finished the song I said, “I don’t have a pass.” Kenny replied, “ Its okay man, you know what to do, that’s why I hang out with you.” Yet another jaw-dropping compliment.


The Best Compliment Of My Career (So Far):


A mid-afternoon call from my friend Miche, from Decatur, Georgia, on no particular day. Miche said over the phone, “I have gotten to the point where I can tell what magazine covers are yours when I pass by the newsstand without looking [at the credits].”


I melted. Goal reached.


Rolling the dice puts energy into motion. Authentic compliments from respected peers are mile markers in your life that remind you that you are on the right path to your dreams, and that others can see it.


It’s impossible to measure the far reaching effects of our decisions, but they are there. So roll the dice and trust that eventually, you will hit the jackpot of your dreams. You can’t win unless you play.

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The Rules Of Your Life

I am back home at “my” beach, it’s early Sunday morning, and my body is still on east coast time. I just returned from New York City where I packed ten days’ worth of work into seven. I am exhausted, but it’s not terrible. The funny thing is exhaustion tears down all the walls that normally block your creative mind and heart.

This morning I was thinking about the rules of our lives.

I grew up in the south, and I was taught early on that if I had faith and I was kind to others, the Universe would deliver me all the happiness and prosperity I could handle. As it turns out, that was only partially true. I’ve learned that I have to participate in my life. If I want to receive prosperity and happiness, there are decisions I have to make to allow those things to be given to me. I have found out that it’s not a one-way street.

What are the rules of your life? Read on for some thoughts about a few of mine.


People have been incredibly patient with me throughout my career. It began when I was thirteen years old and begging my Dad to take me to work with him. My Dad was a forty-year professional photo-journalist with the Atlanta Papers (UPI/AP), and I freaking loved photography.

Unfortunately, (for them), the guys at my Dad’s office were not always keen to have a little kid in the office all weekend. Their attitudes began to change after they taught me everything they knew about developing film and prints. I began to spend my time “at work” helping out in the darkroom “catching” for every photographer who worked there. These photographers also taught me how to carry all the camera gear to professional sporting events, and to run to awaiting helicopters with bags of shoot film so they could take a break.

I owe those guys everything and continue to pass their patience on to every photographer who reaches out to me. I answer questions no matter how mundane they are. When their eyes light up I know I have them because we are sharing information about something we really love.


I recall the day I was out surfing in Malibu alone when the famous big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, pulled up beside me in the three-foot surf. I looked at Laird and immediately said, “Hey man, take whatever waves you want.” It is common surf etiquette to trade waves so everyone gets a chance in a set. Laird said, “No way man, let’s do this!” He paddled into position, caught the wave, stood up, and began flipping his 12′ board in “helicopters”, an inhuman feat of strength.

I grabbed the next wave, knowing Laird was at the end of the line. I faked my best Surfer Magazine cover pose by bending down to tickle my fingers against the wall of my three-foot wave, a right reserved for those who surf monster fifty-foot waves. When I got to the end I clumsily kicked out to find Laird sitting there. Laird looked me right in the eye and said, “Go hard man”, smiled and paddled off.

I am including a link that I really want you to click on to prove the weight of that statement that day.

Laird Surfing Jaws In Hawaii

Laird shared his stoke and it was an unforgettable moment that changed my life instantly.

If you know me personally, you have seen what happens to my face just before I am about to rip into a huge photoshoot. My closest friends would say they don’t even know who I am in those moments. A normally carefree Robert becomes laser-focused.

I am absolutely untouchable. I am hyper-aware of my privilege and wrap myself in it completely. The photo business has its ups and downs, but you won’t find that attitude in my camp.

I know what it is like to be unhappy at work.

In my mid-twenties I gave up on photography and was quickly recruited into a corporate position complete with a cubical, an expense account, and all the free scotch I could drink. I spent four miserable years on a trip to and from my personal hell. The fact that I get to wake up in the morning and do exactly what I love and am still obsessed with is truly a gift. Feeling in sync with my talents is unexplainable and I wish more people could find it within themselves to do what they love, so I encourage it. I share my stoke, my never-ending attitude that your most perfect life is there for the taking if you just reach for it.

Life is a mix of ingredients, good stuff, bad stuff, and sweet stuff. When that perfect combo finds you through your hard work and commitment, everyone else will sit back and ask you how you did it so easily and you will just laugh, then, share your stoke.


Kenny Aronoff
Drummer for Fogerty, Mellencamp, Smashing Pumpkins.

Kenny made it very clear to me a number of times that there are no secrets to success. “It’s just hard work and kicking ass until it’s all over.” Kenny shares his stoke with me all the time and I am lifted.


Giving back started with my Dad. On any given Friday night the question around the house was, “Where is Dad?”

Dad could always be found shooting on the sidelines at any local football game. It was not like any local team had ever reached out to my Dad for photography, it was just something he loved, and he loved giving back.

On Monday morning, coaches around the County would find a package left at their office door full of the most incredible photographs of their team in action over the weekend. Schools would use those photos in the trophy cases to highlight their sports programs. It was always an anonymous gift.

I am currently working on shoots for ten local bands in my neighborhood. I have completed shoots for three of them so far, for absolutely nothing. I, too, love giving back.


It took me a long time to learn how to write this newsletter. Spelling and grammar were never my strength. I still struggle with it, even as I am writing this now! It has been, and is currently, the most challenging part of my life, but I keep trying.

I have been discouraged by professionals around the world and even my own family as someone who could not put a sentence together, and they were right, so I reached out.

My first editor was Kayla, a Pepperdine graduate student, and friend, who encouraged me to send her this newsletter before I sent it out blindly. Kayla would make corrections, underline things, and ask me questions. At the end of each newsletter, she would always offer me just a little encouragement like, “ you are getting better”, or “this was really easy, not a lot of mistakes”. That small bit of encouragement always meant the world to me.

My current editor, Sonia, is a possible twin that has the ability to finish my sentences and stare into my soul. She helps me say what I really want to say to you, but with my own voice. Sonia would say, “I speak Robert”, and it’s true. Our friendship allows us to speak each other’s language and decode the message behind the words. Sonia is a fierce friend and always offers some kind of encouragement or positive feedback that enables me to continue with this experiment as a writer.

A small bit of encouragement for something that is important to me is rocket fuel. Saying to someone, “You absolutely have this and I am on your side”, is life-changing. At least, it has been for me, it’s so easy and so rarely done.


I think it’s very important to assess your life regularly, decide what is working and what isn’t, and remove the things and people who are not serving your purpose. For me, it is easier said than done.

You have to realize you are important. We all possess the awesome power to change ourselves, but also to change how we affect those around us. We possess the power right now to absolutely make someone’s day, and possibly change their life forever.

Don’t believe me? Call a friend, tell them everything you know about them that makes them awesome, then tell them that you love them with all your heart and are rooting for them.

Pick up your phone right now and change the world.

What are your life rules?


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By Robert Downs

Summer was in full swing at 3376 Snapfinger Road. Atlanta summers are brutal, so water-based chores had been assigned to my brother and I. In the pre-dawn hours, our marching orders were posted to the refrigerator with magnets. Written in Mom’s hand on a 5×7 sheet of paper, they read:

  1. Pull all the weeds in the garden.
  2. Cut the grass.
  3. Clean your room.
  4. Toss laundry into the washroom, then wash it.
  5. Wash the house.

As an adult, I could never understand “wash the house.” It seemed like washing the house was a job for professionals, like being a chimney sweep. That became my very first professional job after seeing Burt do it in Mary Poppins. It seemed much more glamorous and fun watching him dance his way through the dirty job on the big screen at Fox Theater. My days as a chimney sweep did not last long. It was neither glamorous, nor fun, and I found out that you can fall off a roof. Anyway, back to washing the house.

Chores were something I loathed as a kid, but they provided the source of all my entertainment income. My weekly allowance of $3.50 secured my Friday nights at the Rainbow Roller Rink. If I saved up for a few weeks I could buy a new rocket at the Hoppy House in downtown Decatur.

Again, back to washing the house.

The hose lived on the driveway side of the house. We had a dirt and gravel driveway that stretched from HWY 155 to our barn on the back part of the property. After lunch, when the heat and humidity became unbearable, “scrubbers”, aka old brooms, were laid out with a few buckets filled with dish soap.

It started out with a squirt here, then a squirt there, but five minutes later my brother and I were soaked and covered in bubbles. Losing interest pretty quickly in the chore of actually washing the house, we played a game called “Save The City”. After building Lego cities and placing Army Men in the dirt driveway, we built elaborate dam systems to divert the water around them, saving our precious cities from destruction as the flood rushed into the street.

My Mom was a genius. She had managed to get us wet and into a creative state of mind on what was a truly sucky day. I don’t ever remember being bored as a child, and we lived in the sticks.

Around sunset you could hear a signal car driving up HWY 155 as it crossed over the Snapfinger Creek Bridge; we knew Dad was home.

With the sounds of “SLOSH, SLOSH” coming up the driveway (ultimately, the cities had not been saved) my Dad had returned home from a day at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Dad needed a Jack and ginger pretty damn quick, and some time to toss the football around with us, his potential University of Georgia star players.

After dinner, Dad asked us to have a look in the back seat of the VW. My father always had a knack for sniffing out deals. These “deals” mostly came from people who wanted to get rid of stuff that had caught fire, or from friends that had passed away.

This time Dad had gotten his hands on a CB radio base station called the Browning Eagle. My brother and I were thrilled. My first reaction was, “Communication with other planets and astronauts!” It was about time, I had some questions for them.

That Saturday morning my Dad climbed up the tree in the front yard with a huge antenna and a giant cable attached to his belt buckle. I honestly thought that was it for my poor Dad. I was absolutely sure he was going to fall to his death as he passed even my record tree climbing heights with a gleam in his eye.

When Dad got to the top of the tree, he nailed the antenna to a limb, then dropped the cable down the opposite side of the tree and slowly (and safely, much to my surprise) made his way back to earth.

Dad picked up the cable and tossed it up to my brother, who was waiting on the roof of the house. Scott then fed the cable through a window screen and under the roof. Then we all ran upstairs to the attic. We were ecstatic. It was our new mission control! Our new base station! My Dad screwed the cable into the waiting Browning Eagle CB radio base station and we were LIVE!

The mic that had come with the base station was huge and gleaming with chrome. There was a long toggle switch on the left side that ran the shaft of the mic. I am not sure who was first to speak into the abyss of the airwaves, and I am not sure exactly what was said, but the door had been opened to some kind of wormhole into the future! The “internet” of my childhood had been revealed.

We had some pretty important conversations with other hobbyists, mostly farmers, as far away as Conyers, GA (a few miles down the road). Most of our conversations went like this:

“Are you receiving our signal?”

“Yes”, a voice would reply on the other end of the radio.

We would go nuts and say “10-4.”

After a time, a huge storm came along and ripped the antenna from its spot in the tree. We found it in the neighbor’s yard dangling from its cable, wrapped up like a cocoon. The CB went silent and we moved on to other things.

My brother, Scott, bought this huge weird box called a personal computer from the electronics store. He spent his lost CB time figuring out this weird box, and later, went on to become a successful Silicon Valley dude.

As for my new hobby, Dad had found some darkroom equipment at a fire sale and began to set up our new black plastic darkroom in the basement. He could build a darkroom anywhere. I took up photography and printing and have reached a few successes of my own.

I wish we had more ability to dream and imagine these days. It seems that dreams have been provided for us via video games, Netflix, and the internet.

EXERCISE: Go buy a lottery ticket for $1. Take the time to dream about everything you would do with your winnings. Set your mind free, no limitations. Then get back to me.

How do you dream? Where do you dream? What is your dream?

Knowing your dreams is the first step to manifesting them. Just like the Browning Eagle Base Station, there are limitless possibilities, even after the storm blows your antenna into the neighbor’s yard.



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Take The Time To Meet Your Heroes.

Memories of a working rock music photographer.
By Robert Downs


“You are only here for a short time.”

This is what my mind keeps telling me over and over in this life, and guess what? My mind is right.

Throughout my life, I have always had heroes. When I was a young man, you would find me riding my bike around the front yard of 3376 Snapfinger Rd., zipping around the homemade dirt track and ramp (a 4×8 board leaned up against my wagon), practicing jumps and landings. I wanted to be Evel Knievel and jump the Snake River Canyon.

When my teen years hit, and my drum teacher kicked me out of class for not giving a shit, I immediately decided I was going to be Neil Peart of RUSH and rock the world. I saved up for a real drum kit and practiced every day. The noise was insane. My Mom eventually lost it and moved me to the barn about a football field away. I practiced in the freezing cold, sometimes all day, until I found that “Tom Sawyer” drum roll. Well, as close as I could get to it.

When I began my professional relationship with photography, you could always find me at the local bookstore, sitting on the floor turning the pages of the great photographers’ books. I was planning to be one of those guys and had a lot to learn.

My bookstore trips during art school were very much a date night with myself. Happy Hour had been outlawed in Atlanta, so the local bars would put out a spread of food to attract customers. I would always order the cheapest beer on tap (Pabst Blue Ribbon Dark! Does anyone remember that beer?) and stuff my face, and sometimes my pockets. That meal was breakfast, lunch, and dinner some days. After “feeding” I could walk to the book store and plop down between the rows of photo books for photo story time.

I became very familiar with all the great photographers on a subliminal level.

At school one day our teacher assigned us a project to “Shoot Like Arnold Newman” then report back with images the next day for a stern critique. I was so stoked, Arnold had long been one of my top five shooters so I proceeded to create an amazing portrait.

I spent time looking at Arnold’s lighting techniques and how he used model positioning to draw your eye in and out of the frame. I freaking loved his work and created what I thought to be a very likely candidate for the “Arnold Newnam Copy Shot Of The Year Award”.

On critique day, I found that most of my fellow students had taken the easy way out shooting a copy shot of one of Arnold’s obscure product shots. When I presented my beautiful portrait, I was immediately shot down because I had not presented a shot like my other classmates. I had not taken the easy route. They were trying to save face (and a grade) by giving me the thumbs down.

I was so pissed that after class I stepped out to the hallway pay phone and dialed 212 information. “Yes, I would like the number for Arnold Newman’s studio in New York City, please.” To my delight, I was connected.

I dumped every quarter I could find into that pay phone, even borrowing quarters from passing students as the number dialed and the operator asked for $2. It was a long distance call back then.

“Hello, Arnold Newman’s studio,” was the answer on the other end of the phone line. “Yes, is Arnold available? My name is Robert Downs. I am calling from art school in Atlanta, Georgia and have a few questions for Mr. Newman about his techniques and model choices for portraits.”

Arnold’s wife yelled out, “Arnold, there is some kid on the phone from Atlanta that wants to talk to you!” Then a, click, click and a hardy “HAALLLLLO!” sounded on the other end of the line.

Arnold and I hit it off immediately, and he completely agreed that the process I had gone through to shoot my shot was the same path he would have taken. Right after Arnold said that, my teacher turned the corner of the hall. I handed him the phone and said “someone wants to talk to you”.

With that experience, I moved forward in my life never feeling like my heroes were that far away from me. I went on to meet Neil Peart by absolute chance one day at the DW DRUM factory. I could barely talk to him, I just kept thinking “don’t say anything dumb.” I met Evel Knievel and got to shake his hand and tell him how he inspired me to take the big jumps. I even got to work for some of those photographers I was looking at in the bookstore, like Patrick Demarchelier, Mark Weiss, and Craig Cutler.

Craig has recently moved to Los Angeles. When I saw that Craig had moved here, I hit him up. It was not that difficult, people have websites and list contact information. After some time, Craig finally returned my email. All I could think to say was, “I am not a crazy person, please don’t block me.”

Craig and I met and had a very nice lunch at Delicious Pizza in LA. I was allowed to ask a few questions and receive some knowledge from a person I have based a lot of my creativity on. The experience was priceless.

It is amazing how your heroes often like a lot of the same things you do.

Craig took my portrait with a Leica camera. I shot a quick one of Craig with my iPhone and was on my way.

I received so much in such a small amount of time.

I want to challenge you to reach out to your heroes. With any luck, they will not let you down. If your heart is pure, and your intentions are the truth, you will never be denied. The world is a much smaller place, take advantage of it.

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Memories of a working rock music photographer.

By Robert Downs


Take a right out of the driveway, go over Snapfinger Creek Bridge, take your first left onto Flat Shoals Rd. (HWY 155) past Chapel Hill Elementary down the long straight road where I took the wheel of the station wagon for the first time. Eventually, you’ll cross over the big highway (HWY 285) and reach the South Dekalb Mall. It was a straight shot.


Lately, I have been thinking about how much the mall actually influenced my life.


When the words “we have to go to the mall” would ring out under the roof of the house at 3376 Snapfinger Rd. it would set off a small explosion. I grew up in the country. If you turned left out of our driveway you would end up at the Monastery (eventually). If you went right, it meant one of two things, either it was time for church or we were going to the mall, and it was not Sunday!


The mall offered me so much as a kid.


The first stop was always The Georgia Trust Bank to see Mrs. Folly, who had been snatching my $3.25 allowance for years. My Passbook savings account donation was not my favorite stop, but not the worst thing in the world. I loved seeing my account grow. At one point I had almost $50 thanks to Grandma’s $10 birthday gift every July 18th.


The Downs family have always been creatures of habit. We always entered the mall from this weird door near Rich’s. I thought it was a weird entrance because nobody parked there. The truth is, this particular entrance had a terrible smell you couldn’t believe. Next to the doors lived the beauty parlor, complete with huge hair drying machines. Chick Filet was next to the beauty parlor. When the smells of hair drying and fresh fried chicken combined, it set forth an absolutely unforgettable odor that always knocked you back a few steps when you opened the door. I can still smell it to this day. There is no smell like it in this world, thankfully.


The good news was, we always parked really close!


In 1976, the mall was a safe place with water fountains and air conditioning. It was a great place to escape from the hot summer days that were 95 degrees with 300% humidity. After the general family shopping for shoes or a stupid church shirt, I was set free to roam the mall. I had a number of haunts I liked to visit and would set off like Magellan to see what I could find.


My first stop was always Spencer’s Gifts. Spencer’s Gifts was the most incredible store in the mall, maybe of all time. Past the ear piercing chair in front, through the weird games and masks, behind the Silly String, lived a back room lit with black lights and strobes lights. It was there my future lay before me, the poster rack.


Racked in their hard wooden black frames I would spend all my time flipping through the amazing photographs I wanted to take when I grew up. The first poster, Led Zeppelin, “who is that?” Second poster, Bad Company, “hmmm sounds familiar.” Third poster, KISS ALIVE!, “Yessssssss!!!!” Fourth poster, Evel Knievel, jumping 20 semi trucks. Suddenly, I found myself digging for change in my pockets to try to come up with the $3.00 to hang that EK poster on my wall. I already had the KISS poster.


Damn Ms. Folly and that Passbook savings account!


The second stop on my mall expedition was Brothers Records. Brothers was located just to the right of the main stage of the mall in the middle and was run by a very kind and real hippie. I would step into his store of sounds and light and leave my body. The kind hippie knew I didn’t have any money and knew I enjoyed just flipping through all the albums to just look at the artwork, we would spend what seemed like hours listening to music together. When that fateful day came for me to buy my first album, I went to Brothers! The kind hippie slowly shook his head as he loaded KISS/KISS into the plastic bag and handed it down to a face beaming with a smile a mile wide. Six months later, I took his advice and scored The Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle”, an awesome record, but a different kind of awesome. It was harder to blow fire, spit blood, and have my air guitar catch fire. Still good though.


There were other shops in the mall that I enjoyed. There was Musicland, the corporate record store, I liked their displays better than Brothers. There was the pet store for hugging puppies, and last but not least, the book store. That’s  where I would find my Mom huddled between a towering stack of books that would move from one side of her bed to the other as the days of my childhood passed out on HWY 155.


In high school, I went to work for the mall. I did not work in a store at the mall. Instead, a few friends and I joined the Promotions Crew. We were responsible for all mall decorations during the holidays. It was my first real job and was second only to bagging groceries at the Kroger in Emory Village for the greatest job of my life.


Think about it friends, who in their right mind would lock four of the most creative kids in all of South Dekalb County in a mall all night to create the Easter Bunny’s House? It was magic. There was one adult (Harold) to make sure we got the job done by morning, but late night industrial flat cart races were epic, not to mention swinging from the top of the mall to put the star on Santa’s Christmas tree. After work (at 8 A.M) Paul would pull the truck around for the beer run and we would ride home to our beds sipping on a cold beer, listening to Genesis, and watching the sun come up.


The mall was the center of my universe.


The mall is where I camped out all night for tickets to great shows like Queen, or Aerosmith, or Styx. I even knew the Hostess Fruit Pie truck driver because he would deliver early in the morning and see me sitting in the rain waiting for tickets to go on sale. The Hostess delivery man always tossed me a few of the broken pies to make sure I made it to breakfast.


I am glad I had the mall. I am glad I am not a kid today locked inside of my cell phone relying on likes and waves, or a lewd comment from a stranger for attention.


So it is. Goodbye mall, it was really great to be a part of you and I appreciate all the ways you shaped my life. I only wish Evel was still around to jump you…

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Memories of a working rock music photographer.

By Robert Downs


I have been feeling a lot like poor Jean-Luc Picard these past few months. I realized that I, too, was being assimilated by the Borg and wanted nothing to do with it.

As Starship Commander of my business, it has always been my mission to seek out brave new worlds and clients. It’s a luxury to have clients that pay the bills, but what if they are the Borg and are trying to assimilate you? What if they are trying to fit you in as a piece of their structure instead of treating you as a creative?

I think most business professionals would agree that it is not a good idea to turn your back on a paying job no matter how wretched that client may be. I think it is an ABSOLUTE LIE. There are many good reasons to walk away from a paying client, ESPECIALLY if they are the Borg.

I think it is human nature to be overwhelmed with fear of the unknown, especially when a client is supplying you with a paycheck.

As time rolls on, fear and depression begin to fade, and you start to look around at a much brighter world. Suddenly, you realize you are no longer committed to a brainless uncreative workflow. Your mind begins to roam, free to create at your highest level again. You now understand the relationship was killing you physically and emotionally.

It is great to get a paycheck when/if they decided to pay it, but how much had it really cost you to perform a service for a client poorly matched to your business? How much emotional currency had you lost?

GlassDoor, a workplace review site, described my clients’ working environment as, “A great place to spend the rest of your life committing creative suicide.” It was not until I left that environment did that statement really ring true.

On shoot days, I made a lot of excuses to myself about why this horrible client was worth the paycheck. Excuses like: the day will be over in a short amount of time (it never was), there are not that many shots (there were always more than scheduled), and, at least I get to eat lunch out someplace cool (I never did). At the end of each shoot, I would stand there, broken and exhausted, and think,
“Is THIS the photographer I dreamed I would become?”


As I left the shoot location hours after our scheduled stop time, I always whispered to myself
“never again.”

We have to calculate the emotional currency we are spending on ill-matched clients and ask ourselves if it is worth it.

Days after the shoot I would find myself in a funk lounging around my apartment unmotivated. My brain knew there was a paycheck on the way and would say, “Why get busy?” The paycheck would cover the bills with plenty left over to get to eat out at the cool new Indian restaurant down the street.

Again, is THIS the photographer, the person I had aspired to be? Just a photographer waiting on a paycheck to go eat out?

Frustration set in.

Earlier in my career, I was absolutely fearless in my efforts to market myself to my favorite clients. Thinking back, I was hungry, both mentally and physically. Many people suggested my intentions were far in front of my skill level, and they were correct, but what the fuck, right?

I remember walking into the biggest ad agency in Atlanta with a portfolio full of photos of painted wood backgrounds and marbles that I had spent days creating in the studio. I was rightly and quickly rejected by the agency, but my first thoughts were NOT rejection. I was thinking more along the lines that this advertising agency would just have to come to understand that I was an artist, a visionary, and eventually they would come around to my vision. I should have stuck with that attitude for a lot longer. Instead, I let myself become assimilated.

Jean-Luc Picard never caved in to the Borg. He just got pissed. Jean-Luc was willing to risk the Enterprise and it’s crew to kick some Borg ass, even though he always felt the Borg creeping around in his head reminding him of what was not true.

I fully admit it is not easy to break away from the call of the Borg.

To avoid the Borg and its whispers in my mind, I have to push past my fears, trust in me, my talents, and my crew. A friend noted recently that you can always go back to where you started (I could always go back to bagging groceries), but to be the photographer I want to be I have to reach into the unknown and create past myself. I have to create emotional currency, and most importantly, never lower my shields again.



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