We need a new Civilian Conservation Corps

by Stephen Trimble

I'm 59 years old.  I've been a professional photographer for 40 years.  And now I'm done.  Not because I'm retired, but because I've outlived my profession. Technological change has met economic downturn in a perfect storm in which I am sinking.  The same seismic shifts have transformed music, journalism, design and publishing.  This revolution has left many of us underemployed and coping with low-level depression.

I was 9 years old when the first Nikon single-lens reflex camera reached the American market in 1959.  By the time I finished high school, I had moved from a Brownie Starmite to my first single-lens reflex.  By the time I finished college, I had begun selling photos to newspapers and magazines.  In the decades that followed, I earned my income through stock photographs and devoted myself to writing 20 books about the American West.

The digital revolution crept up on me.  In the 1990s, images began flooding the Internet, and calls for submissions from photo editors dwindled.  The role of "professional photographer" -- a role that had defined me for most of my life -- evaporated, along with any prospect of selling my pictures.

The World Wide Web has democratized art.  Now, anyone and everyone can post photos, drawings, doodles, paintings, scans, videos, novels, poems and inventions for the rest of the world to discover.  Photo editors who used to call independent photographers now have millions of images at their fingertips with a flick of the mouse.  Advanced amateurs own camera equipment capable of taking stellar images, and many have mastered the nuances of Photoshop.  They take thousands of digital photos instead of dozens of slides; they post their images on the Web; they are delighted to see their images in print, and they don't expect much in the way of payment.  Those commentaries about the new business paradigm -- describing it as "free" -- have it right.

Without a market, I can no longer call myself a professional photographer. When the light is spectacular, I photograph out of habit, with a sense of joy. But I'm not sure what to do with those images.  I no longer really know why I'm taking them.

I feel like a blacksmith or a wheelwright at the beginning of the Industrial Age.  Millions of us face this same daunting task of reinvention. The disappearance of our 20th-century professions has stunned us, and we aren't quite sure if we are nimble and flexible enough to cope.  We are competing with our children for work, and our wisdom and experience count for little when being a digital native counts the most. America now has a vast and growing reservoir of talent and wisdom that needs new outlets.  We are out here, our potential energy pooling deeper and deeper the longer we are sidelined. Why not take advantage of us and match our old skills with new technology? It would help the economy and also enrich society.

Imagine a Gray Corps, a sort of domestic Peace Corps, designed to place mid-life workers as volunteers to meet the needs of American communities.  Whether retired by choice or by force, millions of smart and hard-working citizens retain the public-spiritedness and idealism of the 1960s.  Create outlets for us to do good work, and we will sign up by the thousands.   The challenges are endless, and every person can make a contribution.

FDR started the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. Imagine a Creative Conservation Corps. Instead of living in CCC barracks tucked away in the remote countryside, the new CCC will grow from dynamic Facebook pages.  Pay beleaguered refugees from creative professions to produce a new series of state guidebooks -- fully interactive guidebooks that are searchable on the Web.  Bring arts into the schools and public squares of the 21st century.

The downside of change has sidetracked many of the creative professionals in my generation.  But there is an upside: We are free to reinvent ourselves.  We love to work, and we are open to anything.  We would rather spend our days immersed in the joy of contributing than in watching our former professions fade to black.

We are fired up and ready to go. Put us to work!

Stephen Trimble is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). An award-winning writer and photographer, he lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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