I moved my fins and silt filled up the small karst chamber, billowing like a cloud around me, turning gin-clear water into thick milk tea. I could no longer see my limbs. The tight beam of my flashlight made no difference, diffracting uselessly like headlights in dense fog.
A mere eighty feet above me—a world away—thick jungle towered above the idyllic white-sand beach of Malaysia’s only oceanic island, Pulau Sipadan.
I groped around blindly for the line; relief flooding through me when my fingers closed around the millimeter-thin nylon braid that was my only path to cave’s mouth. Painstakingly laid out during the previous dive, it traced its way back through four hundred feet of winding submerged passageways, it’s end conveniently tied off to the warning sign affixed to the crack in the reef I’d entered.
A few deep, slow breaths helped calm my heartbeat. Cautiously, I started kicking my way back along the cave line, a hand grasping it firmly, the other outstretched before my head to ward off any sharp outcroppings of rock.
The water is my home.
My way of telling stories is through photographs. I borrowed my first DSLR camera in August 2010 for a three-week trip hiking in the Andes mountain range of Peru. The pictures were mostly terrible. But the experience was transformative.
Two years later, in April 2012, I had the opportunity to scuba dive on the kaleidoscopic reefs of Balicasag Island in the Philippines. A whole new world opened up to me, and a new course was set. Within the space of three years, I became a recreational scuba diving instructor.
The hardest and most frightening part about changing careers is the uncertainty. Uncertainty about whether I could ever be as good as the photographers and film-makers I admired, uncertainty about where the next pay check will come from (especially as a freelancer just starting out in a very competitive and saturated field) and fear about how friends, family, others I respect, and society as a whole will view my choice and how they will judge me for making it.
Most lawyers I know are quite cautious by nature, and I’m no exception. Giving up an established, well-paid and respectable career to go of on a wild fancy just because you “feel more alive” when you’re in nature, in water–trying to capture beauty–that’s a terrifying step. I was fortunate to have friends that supported me and family members that, if not fully on-board initially, were at least not obstructionist. At the beginning, I also managed the fear by convincing myself that if things didn’t work out, I could always return to law.
That thinking is a bit less persuasive now more than two years out. And I’m not so well established in my new field that I don’t have to deal with all the common concerns of freelancers. So I still often worry about how I will manage in the future, especially as my girlfriend and I discuss starting a family. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that with a career change, the initial fear often doesn’t disappear after the decision is made. But that’s ok. Life isn’t meant to be lived without fear. I just try to remind myself that the “view” from my new office beats the old one any day of the week.
And as jealous as I may sometimes be about the stability and traditional success of my former cohort, I know many of them are just as jealous about the freedom I enjoy and the experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have these past few years.
I don’t really wonder how things would’ve been if I hadn’t chosen this life. The experiences I’ve had over the past two years have shaped who I am today, and I don’t doubt I’m a very different person than I would be had I stayed in San Francisco. Hopefully a wiser, more empathetic and more compassionate person. And braver. I hope.
A recovering lawyer, I am location-independent as of October 2014, traveling extensively in search of awe-inspiring experiences and places lost in time. The adrenaline rush is not just from the dive, but also from how the experience gets re-created over and again through my art.
All photos by Andrei Voinigescu. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Produced in proud partnership with the United States Air Force