This is my story, and I’m grateful and excited to be sharing with you all. It isn’t the prettiest tale… but it’s real. So, my name is John Brown, and I’m a photographer in Nashville, Tennessee.
I was born in Würzburg, Germany, and mostly grew up in Mons, Belgium until I was 8 years old. My father served 25 years in the US Army, so my brother and I were fortunate to have such a unique experience growing up. After my dad retired we moved to Shelbyville, Tennessee. Shelbyville is pretty small, and, at least when I was in high school, there wasn’t much art or music around, which is what I’ve always gravitated towards. I didn’t do very well in high school; I believe my GPA was 2.75 or somewhere close. Looking back it makes sense. There wasn’t any creativity, but when there was I thrived and put forth effort.
After I graduated high school (barely), I went to a small community college called Motlow State, located within a short drive of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. I believe I first majored in Mechanical Engineering because I wanted to build things, but I realized math was not one of my strengths. So I changed to Business Administration the next semester, and I realized math was not one of my strengths… again. My third semester I took a math class, and a guitar theory class, for a whopping total of 4 credit hours. I’m sure my parents were just stuck in a never ending eye roll at the point. But thankfully the next semester I finally took an art class… which completely changed my life.
The art professor was this incredibly talented, quirky, and underpaid genius. I remember him stressing the importance of composition over almost anything else. That really stuck with me. I finished out my 2 year associate degree in art, and transferred to MTSU nearby as an art/music double major, with no idea what I wanted to do afterward. I loved to draw, and play guitar, drums, and sing. But there still wasn’t really a niche standing out to me yet. At the same time, I was a 21 year old college kid that didn’t know anything about anything. Life was really good. I had just moved out on my own for the first time, and I was going to a big college with interesting classes and lots of new people (and girls) to interact with. Life was good. And then… it wasn’t.
Half way through my first semester at MTSU, in fall of 2007, my mom attempted suicide. At the time I thought it was my fault, because I was the youngest son and I had moved out. I wouldn’t learn till later that the truth was something much different. Basically my mom had a migraine for about a year straight, and was actively going to a couple of doctors about it. After some months of not figuring out the cause, they gradually put my mom on a dozen or so prescriptions. And all these drugs literally drove my mom crazy to the point that she tried to take her own life. I thank God every day for having parents that love each other like mine. My dad is the the reason my mom is still around. And just so you know, she’s doing very well now.
I flunked out of school and ended up moving back home. I got a job at a sweet woman’s gift shop down the street, who I’m certain took pity on me. I felt like a failure. I had no direction, no goals in mind, no idea what to do with my life. So of all things, my escape from this small town was truck driving. I became a full blown truck driver.
I traveled the country driving an 18-wheeler, hauling HAZMAT (hazardous material), steel, brake calipers, dry foods… basically anything you could imagine. I was only 22. It was super weird… but it was a much needed adventure, time to think, and a confidence boost. I saw a lot of things good and bad. I witnessed terrible accidents, drugs, sex trafficking, violence… it was an eye opening experience.
I drove full time for about 15 months and finally decided it wasn’t for me. I moved to Nashville two days later, and I was hired as a valet at a high end hotel downtown. Because, hey, “If I can drive a semi, I can park your damn Mercedes.” (Literally the cockiest thing I’ve ever said in my life… to the guy that hired me.) A few months after I’d started working there, luck brought me a camera from the lost and found. I had never used one before, but I just thought it was the coolest thing ever to play with. This was six years ago, and the camera was a Nikon D80.
So this is the part where I feel like most people would maybe gloss over things, or just skip parts because it’s not flattering, or that it’s career suicide to be this open… because what I’m about to share isn’t at all something I’m proud of… but I’m just going to be completely honest with you, because I think it’s important, so here we go. (I used way too many commas and I don’t care.)
I worked at this hotel for nearly 3 years, and I worked my a** off. And you know where it got me? Nowhere. I worked 60+ hours a week valeting, working third shift on Saturday nights, and also at one point shooting the photography and managing social media for this place. I was paying rent, but not making enough to save much. I also wasn’t feeling appreciated. At the same time I felt lots of pressure from family to start figuring out my future by either finding a career or going back to school. I needed to be responsible, and have a savings account, health insurance, 401k, a retirement plan, because I want to have a home and a family one day right?
I’m not quite sure when this started, but I developed an anger problem. I would lash out at people I was close to. Including my own brother, who’s the nicest guy I know. My boss. And at my worst, my own girlfriends. This went on for a few years. The height of which was when during an argument about something I don’t even remember… let’s just say it was something as dumb and trivial as the weather. Yes, during an argument about “the weather,” I shoved my girlfriend of one year, who I loved, on the floor in her own bedroom. I’d never done anything like that before. I instantly realized that this wasn’t because I was “hangry.” We had just had dinner together. This was something real. I stepped towards her to help her off the ground, and she jumped back with this expression of terror. She was literally afraid for her life, because of me. It’s something I will never forget. And as I write this all these years later, it still makes me feel emotional.
The next day I called my pastor and had coffee with him. He chewed me out in the most loving way possible, if that makes any sense at all. And he looked me in the eye and asked me if I’d consider counseling. I instantly remembered back to the time my mom was sick, and I thought it was my fault, and I wasn’t doing well. I’d lost weight, I couldn’t focus on anything, and I wasn’t taking care of myself. At the time I was covered under my parents’ with health insurance, but I didn’t want to bother my dad. I didn’t want to add to his problems. MTSU probably had a free clinic or some sort of resources available as well, but I was too embarrassed to speak about it to anyone on campus. So I got online and tried to find other resources. I remember calling this number and speaking with a very kind woman who had no options available without insurance, or an amount of money I couldn’t pay. She got emotional on the phone with me. I’ll never forget it. So when I heard the word, “counseling,” I just said “yes.” Because I realized I had needed counseling since 2007.
The next week I went to anger counseling with this awesome guy. One of the first things he said to me was that even though he was 50 something years old, he’d been thinking about taking a break from his current work and going to art school. Just because he wanted to. So needless to say we got along well. Over the next few weeks I learned a lot about myself. I realized how miserable I was, how unhealthy I was, how my anger was stemming from things that had nothing to do with anyone except myself. One big reason being that I’m this people loving, extroverted, creative person, but my life was not that at all. So gradually over the next few months, anger left my life for good.
(By the way if you’ve made it this far… I commend you and thank you for your patience. So now… I’ll just cut to the part that matters most.)
Photography grew into something more than a hobby. I quit the hotel and had a variety of jobs afterward, from selling cars to serving tables. Along the way I started pursuing photography more seriously, and ended up with a job at a documentary company. One amazing perk of working there was that I was able to shoot with their secondary camera, which was a 5D Mark II. I worked there for 10 months, and over that time I was able to make my first website, build up a portfolio, and start charging for my work. In August of 2014, I was at the office, and I found out that a very dear friend of mine had been murdered. She was 25 years old. And she had just hired me to make gesture drawings at her sister’s wedding.
A week after that a friend from high school died of cancer.
A month or so later, a family friend died of cancer.
By the end of 2015 I’d lost 10 people, friends and family, that I loved and cared about. Including my first cousin who was in her early 30’s, and my grandmother who was 85.
Around the time my cousin passed, I was no longer working at the documentary company. Which meant no more access to a 5D Mark II. Which meant no more camera because I’d given mine away. At my cousin’s funeral of all places, I was having a conversation with a family friend, whose brother was one of the 10 people I’d lost, asking him for business advice. He then offered me an opportunity I never would have imagined… a business loan.
I came to the realization that I could literally die any day. It could be tomorrow, or when I’m 85. I had just witnessed over the last year and a half how fragile life really was. So I accepted. With no client work ahead of me. No business plan. Fully accepting that I may very well have to sleep in my pickup truck with my camera, and I was completely okay with it. After two weeks of getting my gear, I went to Chicago for 22 days. I took the above photo while I was there, and it ended up going viral in the millions of shares and likes. You can find it on Alicia Keys’, Amy Schumer’s, and even Adriana Lima’s Instagram pages. Which is awesome and super random. (Alicia… let’s do lunch.)
It’s been a year and a half… and I’ve had three nights since May 27th, 2015 where I’ve nearly had to sleep in my truck. Even with such little financial stability at times, something always pops up, and I keep moving forward.
I have a personal project in the works. I’m learning and growing as an artist, and a person. And I’ve never been as happy as I am now. I work 80 hours a week so I don’t have to work 40. And honestly it’s the best decision I ever made. This has been quite the adventure, and it’s incredible to be doing something that makes my friends, family, and parents feel proud. It’s the best feeling in the world.
I’m sorry this has been long, and crazy, and not necessarily fun or flattering… but this is my life. If there’s anything I’d love to pass to you, it’s that life is fragile, short, and way too valuable to live miserably. I encourage you all to seek out things bigger than yourselves, to think of others when the opportunity arises, and not to wait for loved ones to pass before you realize what’s truly important. No matter who you are, no matter your religion, political views, identity, race, or nationality, we can grow every day, we can learn every day, and above all we can love every day. I hope you all are well, and I wish you the very best. Cheers.