Zach Pontz is a Brooklyn based writer and photographer who focuses on what it means to create in a world influx and how creativity is in essence, an act of self-growth and empowerment. Check out Zach on Instagram @ZachPontz, or his website at zachpontz.com.
Just as a reminder, this episode was recorded back when the show was called The Meaning Creators in case you hear that name pop up in the interview.
Ashley: Zach, glad to have you. Let's get into the real deal here. So when we were talking about you, well, before I make any assertions, let's go back and you tell us who you are and what you do, and what's your creative field and how you got there?
Zach: My name is Zach Pontz. I'm in Brooklyn, New York, and I'm a photographer and also a writer. My focus right now is on photography. I got here in a sort of roundabout way. I started in broadcast journalism just by chance. And I transitioned to a more editorially focused version of that. And then slowly but surely I became a photographer through my experiences that I was exposed to. I haven't looked back.
Ashley: But when you say I've become a photographer, what does it mean to you to be a photographer? Because there are as many types of photographers as there are photographers themselves. So for you, what is that?
Zach: Do you mean my focus or my broader concept?
Ashley: Yeah, both.
Zach: I think what it means is that my days, months, years are filled with photography. That's what I do to pass the time. And I'm also fortunate enough to make something working at it. And so, it's what gives me meaning, and now I massage that creative urge.
Ashley: And what about the focus aspect of it? How do you focus your work and your subject matter in the type of photography?
Zach: Yeah, I focus on, I've sort of drilled in on architecture, interior, design, that sort of world. And I think that there are probably some deeper, psychological reasons for that based on the way I've always been influenced by my surroundings. How they made me feel. And so, you know, in a way I am exercising a very sort of visceral form of photography, just responding to my surroundings, but it also goes deeper than that. I'm also exploring my own psychological reasoning.
Ashley: And what is that? What is the reasoning behind it?
Zach: I don't know. I'm still in exploration mode. I think it has to do with the subconscious and a certain type of escapism. Being able to enter a space and escape and to fantasize, put yourself somewhere that you want to be as opposed to where you are.
Ashley: Yeah, I get you. That's interesting. When I think about that, I think about a lot of spaces that for me are part of either Europe or America, but not Israel. Like they're not interior. I mean, there are some here, but I don't come across them or really have access to them. But you know when you see these home interiors and in like Architectural Digest or something. And I personally have this kind of like feeling when you're like, "Ha", that openness, whatever it is, the simplicity of that space, the purity of it. But then I think to myself, like what you're saying, the escapist element to that, because when I think about life and I look at my surroundings and where I live and where the rest of us live we're kind of like, that's not this, you know, so how do you square, how do you bridge the gulf between the reality that we all exist in and those spaces, which are to an extent imagined even when they're real?
Zach: Yeah. And I think it goes deeper than that even if we look back in history. I've recently become very interested in a photographer named Robert Polidori and I was watching him being interviewed and he had mentioned how, you know, he worked in film in his twenties, then in his thirties, he transitioned into photography. And one of the reasons was because he had been exposed to a book called The Art of Memory. When he read The Art of Memory, he learned that ancient memory systems basically revolved around rooms. You know, people would place objects in the rooms and then identify them. And that's because rooms were memorable, basically. I mean, they were spaces that were impactful and, you know, our lives are contained, basically.
Ashley: I read how someone, one of those professional memory people, you know, memory, whatever they are. And he talked about how to memorize a deck of cards. And that's what he says. He said, choose 10 rooms in your house.
Ashley: That's how you are going to actually, or five rooms or whatever it is. And it makes me think about the rooms that have meant so much to me in my life. You know, grandparents, the rooms of a grandparent's home or parents or anything else or the rooms I have existed in. But what's the escapist element for you?
Zach: It's something almost unclear. Like, I can't really put my finger on it, but I think it's when I am inhabiting a space, I'm nowhere else, the outside world sort of fritters away. And I can place myself in a more peaceful environment if I focus on it. Like, you know, I might be in a room where I find the ceilings to be, you know, beautiful and that relaxes me. It takes me to a time where, and again, a lot of it is sort of delusion and escapism where I'm telling myself that, you know, these places are better than where I currently am or a better time in history or whatever. But, you know, there might be architectural elements from a different era and they take me to that era. There might be some sort of signifier within that space that reminds me of a place I've been, that's really what I'm looking for and what influences me.
Ashley: I saw, I think it's your photos if I'm not mistaken on Purple Magazine of New York during COVID.
Ashley: And there were a few, but there was one of, I forget the name of the station, the Ground Zero Subway Station they built. Fulton Street?
Zach: Yeah. The Fulton Street. They call it the Oculus, the building.
Ashley: Right. So that, which is in your photos, there are literally two people in a station that probably have thousands of people or hundreds at any given moment in a normal period. And it's completely empty besides those two people. I'm sure it was designed with certain touchpoints in mind, such as the cathedral, which is what it looks like. It looks like a skeletal cathedral. A cathedral that's almost made from like a gigantic whale skeleton, something like that. But it was because there were no people in it, that the photos are not only interesting, but it gives the whole space, a certain kind of feeling. And when I looked at the other photos in the series that you did of New York during COVID, I had the same feeling, even though a lot of those other photos were outdoors. But the fact that you had no people on these streets almost gave it a sense that there were a ceiling and walls to this space. It's like the street became an indoor space in a weird way.
Zach: No, exactly. And I think a space is different without people. I think people activate that space and make it a different experience. So that is one of the elements of a space itself, especially obviously public space is how it's used by people and how that impacts the experience. Really, I was walking down the middle of 5th avenue in rush hour. I couldn't imagine in my life that I ever walked down the middle of fifth avenue in rush hour, FaceTiming with family and friends going, “Look at what's going on right now.”
Zach: So that's an entirely different experience. For me, I wasn't on 5th Avenue, I was on some grand street in the middle of one of the most populous urban areas in the world. And I was just exploring it on my own without, as you say it, the normal sort of touchpoints. So yeah, I mean, there are just so many different ways to explore a space.
Ashley: Yeah. Well, in this case, it's almost as if when it freezes physically and spatially, then you are left standing in time. You're standing in a place that almost could be or feels like it's exactly the way it is physically aside from the absence of cars. But it feels like it's from a different dimension of time, you know, where everything stops for an hour or days or weeks or whatever, something that doesn't occur in our normal space-time reality. But the odd thing for me, when I think about it, living in Israel is that that happens once a year, every year on Yom Kippur, where there's a complete standstill, no cars, the freeway becomes a bicycle grounds. Like kids are just riding the bikes on the highway. And to me, that seems very normal because one day out of the year, it feels like we should stop. It doesn't feel like a street should be continually trafficked, nonstop every minute of every day of every year of every decade of every century. That seems like lunacy in a way.
And that to me was one of the big takeaways and I think for the people from this whole crisis was we are all going way too fast, way too intensely, way too much. We need to slow down in so many ways, politically, environmentally, culturally, socially, personally. So maybe that's a part of it. Maybe that also is connected to what you're saying about photographing a space, you know because you're capturing that space in time and you can exist with it in that little slice of time where otherwise it's constantly in motion.
Zach: Yeah. I mean, first off, let me go back and address one thing you just said, which I agree with, which is, you know, when these spaces empty out, it's almost like time stands still. Well, yeah, it actually does standstill because time is imposed on our world by people and once people aren't there, there really is no such thing as time. Like, I can look at my watch and tell me it's, you know, 1:24 in New York City that's because the human race has developed a system that allows it to create a schedule for itself and bring some order. But the world doesn't care. Like, you know, nature doesn't have any concept of time. And so, yeah. I mean, I think it's really true time does stand still without people around to impose it on a space.
And then what you just said. Yeah. I mean, definitely, there's a calming influence of being in a space that, you know, is sort of inoculated. For one thing, I think we're in sort of like at the end of industrialization in the sense that we're starting to see the effects of non-stop consumption of this current activity and what it is doing to us. I mean coronavirus, the coronavirus comes from an animal and it's from nature. One of the reasons that we've become so susceptible to these slugs is because of the way we are treating nature, not to get into a longer conversation about that.
Ashley: We've become abusive.
Zach: I don't even know that we're abusive. I think it's beyond that. Think we've just become, we become this out of control, like cancer. I don't think cancer doesn't know what it's doing. It's just spread and spreads and until it's...
Ashley: We've become about a virus.
Zach: Oh yeah. Exactly. We become a virus.
Ashley: Which is what the agent says to, not to Neo, I think the Morpheus in The Matrix where he's trying to explain why they're trying to wipe out humanity is like, you're a virus. I mean not that the machines did a better job on it, but that's kind of the feeling. But you know, it's on the other hand, we have to think, okay, so then what's the way forward for us. How do we find redemption? And I definitely think that there is a rising awareness that we, like you, said, where they were in a corrective phase...
Ashley: After the horrors of the industrial revolution. I mean, it did amazing things, it brought miracles to humanity, but it also came with a heavy price tag because everybody we're greedy, we have hungry mouths.
Zach: Yeah. I think the silver lining would be that you know, and we've seen this in the last few months, the planet has a resounding ability to heal itself quickly and whether or not we allow that process to continue, or we go back to our old ways, remains to be seen. I approach it, pessimistically from what I've seen. I mean, the reality is that people don't like giving up the, you know, pleasures and privileges of life.
Ashley: Yeah. And the ego...
Zach: They don't like a sacrifice.
Ashley: It's all about the pursuit of the self and the self's desires. And most people have no awareness of it. Absolutely not whatsoever, sadly. But in two ways, when I think about Judaism and you look at the story of the Jewish people and that's the pattern, they are given a lot of gifts. They misuse them, abuse them, treat everything like crap. They get a slap across the hand from God and then for two seconds, they behaved better. Then same back to the same habits, back to the same pattern, back into the same...
And the other part of it, when I think about the Jewish commentary on the world in which we live, is that when you think about all the weird esoteric laws and practices that we all do, at the end of the day, the cumulative effect or at least the intention is to rein in the self, put limits on your appetites and your desires. Put limits on how important you are in your own eyes and make it so that you're absolutely not important at all.
Zach: That would be nice but then you would be taking meaning away from a large portion of humanity. I don't think the human brain is meant to be told that it's...
Ashley: No, no. Not that it's worthless. The opposite that your potential as a human being goes so far beyond your ability to get the latest Kanye Limited Edition sneakers. That you have, the ability...
Zach: It has to be satisfying.
Ashley: It's so satisfying as someone who came from that culture and lives in and it loves it. It's so satisfying. But then I limit my own self because Judaism says to you, you could change somebody's life today. You could go out today, right this minute, find someone suffering and alleviate their suffering. Instead of finding those shoes, you can perform a miracle. That's how much worth you have. Whereas the worthless attitude of life is that I'm just a machine who prefer consumption. I'm not even really the consumer, I'm just a cog in the gigantic machine. I don't...
Zach: And that is, unfortunately, a symptom of our culture, but also our politics. We see it right now in the United States. So like get back to work, get back to work, and it's more political than anything. I mean...
Ashley: For sure.
Zach: The governments realize that if the economy is not good, then their political prospects aren't good. And it's a two-way street because the reason for that is because of the societies that we live in, where our expectation is that above all else, we will live in comfort and we will have enough money in our pockets to consume and to have at least the bare necessities. We need basically a systemic change. And I don't know that we're capable of that. It really remains to be seen. I'm skeptical. I'm skeptical that based on what I read and what I see, the type of change that we need to make and quickly. I don't know that it's on a scale that we can address.
Ashley: When you think about yourself as a photographer, an artist or creator or whatever you define it as, in this environment, well I was thinking about this today myself as a writer and I'm thinking, I'm looking at these horrific images and videos, Americans beating each other, literally senseless on the streets. Police beating people senseless, people trying to beat the police. Everyone is just, it's a country, that's run in mud. And I'm thinking to myself, what does it mean to write these stories in this environment? What am I stories going to do for anyone? How can anyone pay attention to a story when this is going on? I don't know what the answer to, I think I might have an answer. I don't fully know, but for you, what does it mean to be a photographer at this moment?
Zach: First off, it is natural to question the meaning of what you're doing in a time like this. I think you have to endure through that. You have to experience it, recognize that uncertainty, that questioning is there, but then you have to get past it and continue creating. Because you realize that the world, I mean, not to sound too pretentious, but the world needs people who are creating things and also people with our mindsets need to continue to create. So yeah, I've had moments where I'm like, what the hell difference does it make if I shoot the exterior of a beautiful architectural home. But then I go, you know what, every time I experience a hurdle or there's some sort of conflict in my world, I can't start questioning what I'm doing with my life. So I think you just have to think deeply and find that part of you that realizes that the most important thing in all of this is survival. And for me to survive, I have to be doing photography not to sound too overwrote about it, but...
Ashley: It's kind of what you're saying about digging deep and finding that thing. It's about finding some form of faith. It's not necessarily spiritual metaphysical faith, but it's finding faith in the value and the worth of the thing that you're doing and not to say everything is vain and everything is beautiful and forget all. But to say, no, I don't know what the value is. I can't pinpoint. I definitely can't give you a number on a fight, but I can assert somewhere, even in my gut, that there is a reason that I'm doing this. That it's a value that it will contribute to something. And I think that's, you know, when I was talking about the premise of the interview series of creativity contributes meaning. It gives people meaning not only when they're doing it, but when they're perceiving a creative app. They're seeing something that shows the human potential and the human potential of a beautiful exterior of a building, it's breathtaking. It's beyond our ability to even conceive it. If we hadn't actually built these buildings, you almost wouldn't think we could because some of them the marvel in them is so magnificent. It's so godlike.
Zach: We couldn't manipulate spaces to reflect our tastes and our vision of the world, these spaces that we spend most of our life. And then what are we? We're animals. We live in the wild. But I think the one thing really that binds us together as a species is a search for meaning, right? All of us need some form of meaning, whatever that may be. Some people find it in religion and others find it in creation. I mean, others find it in, you know, consider our president right now, he finds meaning in dominance, in transactions and you know. So it's really, if you want to make that meaning a moral and ethical imperative. I mean, it's all self-satisfying, you know, but it depends on whether or not what you're doing is a benefit to the world or at least innocuous, or if it's harmful. I think that's the first.
Ashley: I don't know that it's all self-satisfying but maybe if most of it is. But I think when you think about some, I mean maybe you're satisfied, some kind of need. If you think of creators or people who have borne witness. Photographers who have borne witness, you know, Brady and civil war. Or I'm sure there are plenty of Holocaust era photographers or writers who didn't really, the writing wasn't, you know, the kind of writing that I might do sitting in a cafe, which I don't do that. But, you know, they did it because they felt they had to because there was that obligation. And I think that we all can't aspire to that noble big deal, but I think if we keep a part of that, like a grain of that notion in us and to say, I'm also here to bear witness. I'm not just here to spin a yarn or to, you know, snap a glitzy Instagram photo, get a lot of clicks or do whatever, is that I think when you do...
Zach: That's pretty satisfying.
Ashley: It is satisfying. But when it's only that, and it's not to say that Instagram is, you can't find meaning or provide meaning on Instagram. It's always about the how, but without that little grain of saying, I'm here to bear witness. I'm here to show something that is worthy of other people's belief. Then I think it just becomes what we see in a lot of, particularly America today, but all over the world.
Zach: Yeah. I think a lot of it is are you willing to engage with what's in front of you with the world or not? And that's one of the things that's always attracted me to Judaism is this idea that you know that the next world can wait, we live in this world and that's our responsibility is to live where we are right now. And there's no shirking the responsibilities of this life with the next.
Ashley: And it goes farther than that to say...
Zach: I think that's the most profound thing of Judaism.
Ashley: For sure.
Zach: Is that it's not offering you any shortcuts. And in fact, in many ways, Judaism makes things tougher.
Ashley: Yeah, but it's a long cut. It's a cosmic long cut. And Judaism goes so far as to say that if you negate somebody's life if you deny their life if you don't save a life when you could have it's as if you're destroying the whole world. That's how far it takes it, the primacy in the value of life right here and right now. Like what you're saying.
Zach: So it always fascinates me when people talk about Catholic guilt. I'm like, Catholics are guilty. If we make one slip up, it's like, we've destroyed the whole world. It even says it.
Ashley: You just go to hell. Okay, so one guy goes to hell. No biggie. It's like, you're killing 7 billion people.
Zach: Exactly. It's a lot of responsibility. So what is the global population of Judaism now? 18 million or something.
Ashley: I think it's less, but I'm not a hundred percent sure.
Zach: It's in that ballpark.
Ashley: Yeah. Something like that. Yeah.
Zach: So I mean, how many Jews do you need, can there being on the planet when they have so much responsibility.
Ashley: We only need 13.
Zach: Yeah. We only need 13.
Ashley: You need the righteous. So what do you see for yourself going forward? You know, is there a goal, is there a sort of path that you want to be on specifically? And how do you even corona aside, how do you think about photography in a world of video, in a world of phone photography? If you want to call it photography, selfies, what is the path to be done?
Zach: That's a long answer. I think the path forward is, well, I mean, obviously it's more so now than it was before, but for me, I think it's just continuing to mature along with it. I mean, for me, I've spent a lot of time during coronavirus thinking about these questions. What is the purpose of photography as an art form today when you know, billions of photographs are taken every day and uploaded and shared? And I think the answer to that is, and it might not be an answer that's ever fully arrived at, is creating an image worth looking at for more than 30 seconds. And whether or not that's a question of scale or subject matter, it's something I'm exploring. I'd like to start photographing or printing in large formats and photographing things that are maybe so, but now, and uninteresting that they become the now and uninteresting.
I think for me, the most powerful thing about photography is that it makes you look in different ways and it expands the world, right? Like I can walk down the street and everything's just sort of like this homogenous block of buildings or I can stop and I can look at that door or those steps or that railing and it becomes tiny little bits that make up the whole and thus it expands the world. You realize this just a gigantic puzzle. And that enables me to breathe a little bit more, I think. It allows me to experience the world a little bit more. And I think that's the power of photography is that it stops a world that's constantly in motion as opposed to video, which just tries to keep up with that world that's constantly in motion. As opposed to painting, which can't literally show the world as it is. It's an interpretation. So I think that is what motivates me to continue picking up a camera and shooting, making images. And I have no interest in just strictly being a photographer. I think photography is something that can mix with other, you know, disciplines.
Ashley: Such as what?
Zach: Writing for one. I think you can present photographs. I don't think photographs just have to be put up onto a gallery wall. I think they can be experienced in different ways. But I think figuring out what photography is beyond just like a language of communication, like the written word is something that motivates me to continue with it. And I think the uncertainty, the questions I have about it, that's part of my practice, so trying to figure out where photography sits in society, what purpose it plays. And I think that the sort of initial answer for me is it makes us look more intensely at things that we otherwise might not notice. And for me personally, as I said, it makes the world feel a little less small. It sort of pushes back on a world that constantly seems like it's falling in on me. So yeah, I'm trying to go forward with an open mind without any expectation or goals per se, but just to keep working harder than the next person and hopefully, that will bear fruit.
Ashley: Nice. I like that. I like the idea that the point is to explore what the point is.
Zach: Yeah, absolutely. I think if I was smarter, if I was more profit-driven, I would worry about the superficial. You know, I would be posting pictures on my Instagram account. Models, but like how many pictures of people posing in outfits who aren't smiling and are acting for the camera, do you need. Like, I don't find that part of photography interesting, whatsoever. Would I get more likes on Instagram and probably get, you know, more profitable jobs? Absolutely. But that's not my concern.
Ashley: Well, it's also very thin in terms of, you know, it's a gold rush. There's a social media gold rush and the gold rush is the gold always dries up quickly. And people are...
Zach: I'm just waiting for that to happen.
Ashley: And it'll happen sooner than we think. And you know, I think what you have to do as a creator, who's involved in some level of meaning is the plan for the long-term. You know, put down deep roots and play that long game hard as it is because you're just out there by yourself. We're creating into a void for all you know, and there's no exact opposite to the Instagram effect where you get the gratification in real time. But that other way, if you take it to a bit more of an extreme, there is no response. There's no feedback mechanism that's built-in. You got to find it, seek it out, and define it for yourself, what it means to have good feedback or to feel like that was the thing, even in the creating of it, not in the response to it. So that's our thing. It takes a lot of discipline and maturity, as you said, and maturity is not a place you arrive at. It's a constant process of becoming, and also in a way of staying childlike, as you deal with more and more shit in life and you become tempted to become the Instagram thing because it's cynical. It's a cynical play to say I'm going to cash in resisting that requires having something to hold onto inside yourself. And I think that's a lot of what we're saying throughout this whole conversation.
Zach: And I think that is the exception, not the rule.
Ashley: For sure, of course.
Zach: I could easily, you know, curate an Instagram profile that, you know, it has all of the different parts that would make it popular and successful, but I just don't have any interest in creating a brand. And that's certainly how a lot of my peers approach it. I mean people created photography careers and other careers, obviously out of their Instagram profiles and then becomes like minor celebrities because of it. But I realized that that is a femoral and it's the easy route and I'm just not inclined to take the easier route in life. I've never been that way. So...
Ashley: Why start now.
Zach: Why start now. We'll see what the future brings. So yeah, I mean, it's just a matter of hunkering down and doing the work.
Ashley: So when you're thinking about America, just as a last question or two...
Zach: You can ask me as many as you want.
Ashley: You know, thinking about America and about leaving America and I've left American have kind of different, better or worse, really for better been implanted here. What do you think about when you think about the whole wide world out there and realizing...? So one thing we're talking about Jason and Jason talks a lot about the fact that when you go out of the outside of America, and I know you recognize this because you spend so much time abroad, but you realize there is a world outside of America and things are not actually. It's America that's an insane exception to most of the rest of the world, even when we look at places that are kind of crazy like Israel. And it's not that crazy when you're here, when you go to America, like what hell is, or, you know, France or Italy or other parts of Europe or Asia. Where do you think to go and exist differently?
Zach: Well, to touch on that first is I think you're seeing that play out right now in the United States. Unlike it really ever has, as far as you know, there is a large segment of minority, but because of our electoral system, it has been able to obtain power that doesn't have an idea of the greater world. It doesn't realize that a lot of things that it benefits from are because of globalization. And I'm not saying that globalization is perfect, obviously lots of the [unclear33:12] that. But this idea that America first and we need to become more focused on ourselves, I mean, that's absurd. It's just absurd and wrong. But wait, what was your question?
Ashley: When you look outside of America, where do you see that exploration?
Zach: I mean, there is the fantasy world that I live in where I would go live on like, you know, the South of France or the Upper Coast. Just like, you know, this Gore Vidal life, you know, overlooking terrain. But I don't know I'm in New York because I want to create something for myself here. And then I'll work my way out into the world. So in the near future, unless, you know, things really escalate here and they become the worst-case scenario. I don't imagine that I'll go anywhere. But I mean, for example, I just redid my website and I'm like, Zach Pontz is a photographer. You know, I have one of those stupid third people thought about me pages now. And it's like, just a sentence, but Zach Pontz Photography lives between New York, Philadelphia, and Paris. And so it's like, do I actually live in Paris? No, I haven't been to Paris for like a year and a half, but it's there for me. I'm capable of getting there pretty easily. And once I'm there, there's no commitment. It's not like I'm committing lots of time and money having to be there. I can just hop over and stay with John.
Ashley: But isn't, I mean, this is almost separate from our conversation, but I feel like there is an element of commitment, which isn't a restriction, but an enablement, you know what I mean? When you go and you commit and you pin down that money and that time, and then you really open the place up in a way that you can't when you're just coming and going.
Zach: Yeah, no, exactly. That's why I have come to New York to do that. Do it here because this is where editors and other photographers and most of them are.
Ashley: Which makes a lot of sense.
Zach: It brings a different cliché with it. You're a New York photographer, that's been able to get your work into X, Y, and Z. It's different than if you're a photographer who might be more financially successful, but who lives in, you know, Oklahoma and shoots corporate architecture towers or whatever. So it's a shifting landscape. I don't know what it's going to look like in a month, especially and that was before coronavirus.
Zach: But yeah, obviously photography is a great tool for exploration and I definitely want to use it for that. I want to be able to travel around. I've now gotten to the point where I need an idea in order to really want to photograph something. I'm not one of these people who can just go out onto the street, start photographing stuff because it's interesting and look at all my Instagram feed. I wouldn't say grew out of that but evolved beyond it. Not to say there's anything wrong with it. But I mean, exploration for me is mental, but also physical. And for me, I use photography for both the mental and physical [unclear36:16] that I see. So yeah, I mean, I don't know, if you told me five or 10 years ago that I would be a photographer living in Brooklyn right now. I would have been like, what are you talking about? So I don't know what's going to happen in five years. I don't know what's going to happen in a year, two years.
Ashley: But then that's the adventure. I mean, it's almost a cheesy term. But I think of in my own life as if you embark on that creative journey in a serious way, you're going on an adventure one way or another because there is so much unknown. I mean, life is always unknown, but in that case, it's even more so because you're just willingly giving up control over so many things and not being able to connect to that.
Zach: Not to mean that I've given up control. If a psychiatrist was to analyze me, they'd probably be like, you're out of your mind, you're doing it totally wrong based on what your needs are. I remember Joan. I read something Joan Didion writes, where she was like, she had like a mental breakdown and her doctor was like, you need to live a sedentary life without a lot of conflicts, which of course she did not end up living, but you know, in order for her to flourish or live a comfortable life, she needed to sort of cut off the exterior world. And I think that a lot of people that need to do that, which counterintuitively actually suffers even more from doing [unclear37:45].
Ashley: Of course, of course, because they sink into that. There's no point of growth. There's no friction to pull against that.
Ashley: And the thing is that's what you want, but it's not what you need. That's what Joan Didion may have wanted is a comfortable life and she probably knew better is not what she needed.
Zach: Yeah. I mean, if I could, I would, you know, sit in my apartment and I don't know, do the doctorates and never leave except to go to like Peter Luger's and buy $200 worth of the steak.
Ashley: Well, you can do that.
Zach: Yeah. Yeah.
Ashley: It's available to you.
Zach: But I'll feel a little out of my price range when I'm there. But the only thing that makes me more anxious than going out into the world is not [unclear 38:26]. I've sort of pinned down this truth, at least in my world where experience is meaning. You know, we give life meaning and for me, we give it meaning through experience and you have to get experience out in the world, like meeting new people and exploring. Like I'm not naturally an outgoing or social person, but I'm seen by people in my social circle as being that type of person, which I always find amusing. They're like, "Oh Zach you know all sorts of random people and you pick your friends all over the world." And I'm like, it's very ironic, you know, and I've done it more so since I've become a photographer. I just reach out to talk and I'm like, Hey, can we meet and talk? And that's just not naturally who I am. It's something that I forced myself to become because it enriches me because it helps me grow and it creates new experiences. I have photographer friends who are very successful in what they do or very interesting. I would never have met or spend time with you if I hadn't taken the initiative to reach out.
You know, when I was living in Rome, I went to a bookstore and right off to the Campo de Fiori, a little photo bookstore, this guy basically had a little room at the corner of Piazza and half the books inside weren't for sale. The other books, you know, didn't necessarily even have prices on them. You know, he was there sometimes, it was sort of his living room. It's where he went to hang out. And the first time I went in there, he was like sitting there with friends, like, you know, drinking wine…
Ashley: Nice. That's cool.
Zach: And you know, we went through some of the books there. He's like, well, what photographers do you like? I told them a couple of photographers at the time I really was into. And so he pulled out a couple of books of Italian photographers. There's one of them I was so intrigued by, I reached out to him like, yeah, next time you're around, let me know, you'll come to see me in my home town. And I ended up going doing that in the fall or that summer, I spent four days with him. I'm still in contact and close with him. I became pretty close with some of his friends. And we spent a day with his mentor who is a very famous photographer, with who I also still have some contact.
We'll WhatsApp that from time to time, you know, so I would have never created those relationships or had that experience if I hadn't just been like, I'm going to email this guy and tell him that I appreciate, enjoy his work and I'd love to be around him. And sometimes, you know, there's a lot of people who find that weird. Like why does someone want to meet me or get to know me? And I think that's the wrong way of it's a very humanistic approach. It's like, what do we have if we don't have each other? So I just want to be around. I want to know what drives people, what inspired them to, and even more, what's the word, I don't know, but it's even more to the point just who they are and why do they do what they do? Why? And it helps me understand who I am and why I do what I do. If I can meet other photographers and be like, Oh, well, that's what they're doing, how they're seeing things and this is what's motivating them. So it helps me reflect on myself and...
Ashley: The thrust behind.
Zach: And it's totally outside my comfort zone, only outside. I mean, but I've decided that you know, I only get one shot at life as far as I know. And so I'm going to step outside of my comfort zone. That for me is what gives life meaning is addressing your fears, trying to overcome them, living a life that not the life that you were given, but the life that you create for yourself.
Ashley: Yeah, that was always my thing when I was younger is finding the life that I would create. That was always the life that I wanted to live.
Zach: And that's not the sound entitled. I understand that I'm very fortunate. I've had opportunities given to me that not a lot of people have.
Ashley: Everybody creates their own life. That was what Viktor Frankl was saying in Man's Search for Meaning is that even in a prison, even in a concentration camp, even a slave can create his own. It's much harder. Much, much, harder, but you can create your life to the positive and for the negative. Because you can create your life even having everything, all the advantages, you can tell yourself a story about failure or unfairness or whatever and that's creating your life as well. We all create our life. We all tell our own stories.
Zach: Vonnegut has a great line in Breakfast of Champ or Mother Night. I think it's in Mother Night where it goes, you are what you pretend to be, so you have to be careful what you pretend to be. And I've never taken that literally, but it does ring true to me in the sense that we are creating ourselves from scratch, right? And so we have to be careful who or what we are creating.
Ashley: It's tough and it's tough especially for people who are sort of in the middle. You know what I mean? It's like you're not diving into a consumer culture or just, you know, devoting your life to making money on the one hand or the other hand, you're not totally in an acidic or spiritual mode and just completely wrapped in that. Being in the middle is a lot harder than either of those two ends.
Zach: Absolutely. And look I recognized that the default mentality of the human race is to find comfort and certainty. I totally understand. I had these same impulses and I also understand that 95% of the world responds to those impulses and only those impulses. And I'm not saying you are brave for or rebelling against per se, I think there's a bravery that goes along with it, for sure, even insanity too.
Ashley: You have to find that bit of courage with anything that takes a little bit of going against the grain. You've got to find that bit of courage to keep going, not to start. To start is pretty easy, but to continue through it, through that roughness of it. But again, you know, that's the dream of being an explorer. That's the dream of all these great explorers in that 18th and 19th centuries of the Americas, exploring new rivers and tributaries. And when they use the word explore, then they're using it as a verb to mean to discover them, to map them, to find unmapped territory, and to create maps of them. That's how you explore a territory. And that's the same thing. You're creating a map of something that's uncharted.
Zach: Exactly. And all those to continue the metaphor, you know, all those explorations were exhausting and terrifying.
Ashley: And ruinous.
Zach: Yeah. But we don't think of them in that way.
Ashley: No, we think of the glory.
Ashley: We tell a wonderful story. It's a great book about Teddy Roosevelt's exploring of, I think it was a tributary of the Orinoco River in the Amazon rainforest. And it's crazy. This is after he was president.
Zach: I just finished reading my friend Mike's book and he has a section in there about Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt went to North Dakota before he became president. And it's sort of [unclear45:43] he worked on a cattle ranch and all this stuff. Only stepped outside of his comfort zone, you know, rich, New York kid.
Ashley: That was his life to push himself beyond his boundaries always. And it was also deadly. It was also ruinous. It was also a hardship, but he loved most of them immensely.
Zach: But I'm sure when he was on his death bed, he's like, I live my life intensely. You know, there's Michel Welbeck and is a book The Map and the Territory, which came out, maybe like, 2012, he inserts himself as a character. And at one point he's Michel Welbeck of the book, he's talking to the main protagonist guy, I think his name was Jed Martin. He was like a conceptual artist. Jed Martin went to see Michel Welbeck at his beautiful house in Ireland that had absolutely no furniture and was falling. Jed Martin says to Michel Welbeck something to the extent of like, "You're sitting around drinking and chain-smoking." He's like, "Yeah, I'm tired. But if I go tomorrow, I'll at least know that I had lived an intense life. That I lived in intensely for whatever period of time." I won't regret it. Basically, it was what he was saying or it's how I read it. And I have the same mentality. Like even if I die...
Ashley: I'm looking for longevity personally. But...
Zach: You're looking for what?
Zach: I thought you said it we're saying, I'm looking for lunch. I was like...
Ashley: Like I usually am looking for lunch, but...
Zach: No, of course, longevity is the goal. I mean, I'm not that self-destructive as Michel Welbeck's character. I'm sure a lot of the public persona of Michel Welbeck was exactly that of a public person, but I recognize the point that he was making.
Ashley: Alright, man. Well, thank you for your time doing this. It's really cool.