Finding Your Calling Through Crisis

Nobody wants devastating medical news. Yet, it can serve as a compass needle to redirect you when you are lost... if you're willing to look.

Los Angeles-based photographer Bill Aron was struck with cancer not once, but three times. The first time, at the age of 50, he underwent surgery and adopted a strict macrobiotic diet. When the cancer reoccurred a year later, he was devastated but refused to do salvage radiation. Finally, after several more years and a large tumor in his abdomen, he succumbed to chemotherapy and radiation. Facing this possibility of death, he explored inward, just as he had done when he was 32, taking a year off to find his purpose. He had already earned a doctorate in Sociology at the University of Chicago studying rebellious students who, he found, identified with the underdog. He then made his career researching drug addiction in California. But that was not where his heart was.

As a 10-year-old kid choosing a Brownie Hawkeye camera as a carnival prize (instead of a stuffed teddy bear), he started an unfocused love affair with the camera interacting with people he met on the street. Orphaned at a young age, his role models were the photographers in the two great magazines of the day, Life and National Geographic. He eventually studied portraiture under one of Life's photographers, Phillippe Halsman. He discovered the joy in interaction with his camera rather than straight observation.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to be a freelance photographer, shooting events and brochures for a variety of organizations. He signed with Leslye Borden, who built her photo editing and stock photo business from her kitchen table into a $20 million dollar a year business.

Through contacts, he was invited to write his first book, From the Corners of the Earth: The Jewish Communities of Russia, Cuba, Jerusalem, New York, and Los Angeles. The book was introduced by Chaim Potok who likened him to Franz Kafka, seeing hidden messages in life. Ten years later, a second book was published, another series of portraits of Jews, this time living in the deep south -- Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, and later South Carolina titled, Shalom Y'all was introduced by a southerner Alfred Uhry, author of Driving Miss Daisy.

A decade later he found himself inspired with a kind of hope he had not thought possible. After his experiences with reoccurring cancer, he joined a support group and was jolted to hear a man say, "Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me." He decided to create a book he wished had existed when he was first diagnosed: breaking free from just enduring suffering to seeing a new perspective on the meaning of life. He interviewed and photographed 120 people diverse in age, race and status, as cancer is colorblind and unprejudiced. The result? An inspiring emotional rollercoaster. I must admit I stayed up all night reading these tales of endurers who each discovered a way to make their lives significant after cancer. And looking at each of them gloriously photographed. The book, New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors is introduced by Jane Brody, New York Times health columnist and cancer survivor herself. She wrote, "Conquering cancer is really not about cure. It's about living - living well for as long and as fully as one can."

In Bill's initial search for his calling, he dismissed his own heart and followed the expectations of the time. But in early midlife he met a crisis of identity, by again picking up his camera -- this time turning his lens outward to discover his world.