You may recognize the name Zack Bowen Photography. A born Texan who moved to Maine to create LL Bean's first in-house photo studio and later co-founded Knack Factory. What you may or may not know: Zack is a runner who often dedicates miles and raises money for charitable organizations. I sat down with Zack to discuss life as a creative and his soon-to-be 40th birthday charity run in support of Full Plates Full Potential.
You've been fortunate that working as a photographer has allowed you to travel, which is another passion of yours. Where is the most inspirational place you've visited, and what's next on your travel bucket list?
So true. I have been especially fortunate, and travel certainly is a driving force in my life. Every destination I've visited has been inspirational regarding its culture and landscape. But if I had to settle on only one, I would say the month I spent in Myanmar was most inspirational. It was creatively inspiring and presented major growths in how I approach communicating and documenting people. I pushed myself outside my comfort zone creatively during my time there, and I feel I came back with some of my strongest portraitures from having pushed. Those same learnings have stuck with me and were especially implemented while documenting a trek up Kilimanjaro earlier this year.
The most immediate trip is Cuba at the end of October, then looking at the Philippines in December. There isn't an inch of this earth I don't want to experience.
What personal and professional challenge are you most proud of facing and overcoming? What advice do you give someone in a similar situation?
I'm not sure this can be narrowed down to one obstacle or one moment of pride within the scope of my career. The biggest feeling of pride IS my career. I went to college on the path to be an occupational therapist, having resigned my desire to be a creative as a hobby for later in life as an "adult." After a few years of college and meeting other creatives who opened my eyes to creative commercial opportunities, I dropped out of college. I bought a computer and a few Adobe programs and taught myself graphic design. I fell flat on my face for the first few freelance gigs but somehow found success.
From there I went to work for a startup dot-com. I took on design freelance work for software startups needing user interface design and continued to grow my skills in the field. Eventually, the dot-com bubble burst, and I took on a position at an agency that happened to have an in-house digital photo studio. One day I walked into the studio manager's office, showed him my limited photo work from college and high school, and asked if I could spend time in the studio to watch and learn, promising "not to bother anyone." After a few weeks of me standing in the shadows and asking questions, they gave me a position as an assistant. Monday through Wednesday, I worked in the photo studio. On Thursdays, I worked in the studio until noon, then walked down the hall to my design position and worked until Sunday.
After completing my shifts at the design position, I would go down to the photo studio in the middle of the night and shoot anything I could get my hands on, to learn lighting, camera software, the cameras, etc.
I worked seven days a week without taking a day off for nearly two years at the company, then I left for South Korea for a reset. When I returned, I threatened to resign from the company unless I could have a full-time photo position. The threat paid off, and I found myself working full-time in the studio, working for a wide variety of commercial clients. I enjoyed being a part of, and learning so many aspects of, commercial photography.
The next thing I know, I was contacted about moving to Maine to open a photo studio for LL Bean, based solely on a reference from a salesperson who was familiar with my work.
I'm most proud of my career because it has been entirely self-made and full of failures. I've been fortunate enough to work for major brands, to be published in wonderful publications, and to meet amazing people. All of my work has come via word of mouth, based on my reputation in the industry. And those learnings and failures continue and will hopefully always continue.
Let's talk running. In 2009, you signed up to run the Maine Marathon the day before the run. You had never run a marathon and didn't train. What were you thinking?!
I simply wasn't, which was the only way I was ever going to run a marathon! I had a few friends training for the marathon, and on occasion, I would join them for a run. They made it sound interesting, and I think one of them dared me to do it. I did a short run with them a few days before the marathon, and it was all they could talk about. So the day before the marathon, I thought "what the ....., why not," ran down to the expo with 30 minutes to spare and registered for the race. I then couldn't sleep because of nerves. I knew nothing about running marathons. I had never learned how or what to eat to fuel the body for that long, didn't know about body glide, or how to pace myself to be able to finish. So I had a bottle of wine to get to sleep and biked to the starting line the next morning and proceeded to devolve from feeling nervous yet confident, to feeling absolutely horrible and hating life. It was a wretched experience, but I finished. And from that point on, I was addicted to seeing how far I could push my body.
You've since trained for ultra marathons, 100 milers, and triathlons. What role does running play in your day-to-day life? Has running changed your relationship with yourself and others?
Running, on a day-to-day basis, is my happy drug, my reset, my frustration relief, and my justification for eating the greasiest, most caloric burger I can find. I can make it what I want it to be, or need it to be, for that day, or that mood. The most powerful lesson has been learning to listen to my body, and realize it's ok if today I can't do what I did yesterday. I need to rest, I need to eat, and I need to self-care. Early on, after my first marathon, my mentality was if you're not broken then get out there and do it. It became unenjoyable, it was work, and seldom did I look forward to work. To be frank, I'm not a runner. I happen to run. I don't track my splits, train according to a schedule of specific miles per week, or even really train at all. I've come to simply enjoy being outside, feeling my body in motion, and feeling strong and confident. And then I ride the wave of endorphins post run until I can get my next fix.
Running my first marathon was certainly a test of "I wonder if I can actually do this." But, it was the passing of my aunt in May 2010 from breast cancer that inspired a different modality with running. I was fortunate to be with her in her final days and watch her fight until the end to keep a hold of "Her." Her physical self was ravaged and deteriorating, but her spirit was just as determined and strong and as much of a "smart ass" as she had been before the disease. To say that was inspiring would be a gross understatement. I certainly couldn't relate to the pain she was in, but I knew I couldn't be as strong as she was in that state. After her passing, I decided to run my first 50-mile ultra as a way of: A) testing my limits in hopes of aspiring to be as strong as her (not that the pain of running ANY distance could ever come close to the pain she suffered); and B) raising money in her honor. I set up a donation page for Susan G. Komen and set out to garner support and funds for the cause. I learned, from witnessing my aunt, and pushing my physical self further, that as long as your mental will is strong, your body can go further. Training for anything is mostly mental.
When I was training for my first ultra, the White River 50 miler, running put a strain on my ability to be a good partner in my relationship at the time. I was working 50 hours a week at my studio job and taking on freelance work over the weekend, while also getting in an average of 13 miles per day during the work week and at least one long run of 25-40 miles on the weekend.
I love ultra races and the community of them. Around mile 32 of White River, on the way up to the second peak, I could barely move. Another runner came up, dropped down in front of me, and asked that I focus on his heels and follow him. He chatted away as we did a slow jog up the second mountain. He'd periodically ask a question, and if I didn't respond, he'd stop to make sure I was still with him. He carried me up that mountain! He was in far better shape than me; he could have easily dropped me and shaved off lord knows how much time and been binging on beer before I even finished. But he didn't- he wanted to help. I've been in that same position, hurting and hating my life decisions, numerous times since, and I've always been lucky to have another runner come along and carry me. And I've also been the one to carry others. It has reinforced the value of finding joy in the happiness of others. Seeing others accomplish their goals, test themselves, and push further than they thought they could is more enjoyable than the final time on the clock when you finish.
On October 27th, as a 40th birthday present to yourself, you've decided to run 12 hours on a .75-mile loop around the Eastern Promenade to raise money and awareness for Full Plates Full Potential. Can you tell us what inspired this and about the organization?
I've always felt birthdays are the best excuses to connect with others, to show gratitude for your tribe, and to give in appreciation. As we get older, our responsibilities increase, time is limited, and we lose contact and have to reschedule more often, etc. But on a birthday, people have a harder time coming up with excuses. For some time, I've toyed with the idea of using the "it's my birthday, so you HAVE to show up" explanation to gather people into a community based project (like taking over all volunteer shifts at a soup kitchen for the day with my friends), but I could never settle on what or how. Initially, I was going to organize a charity race for my birthday, with the entrance fee being a donation to FullPlates.org. I've never organized a race and also knew my plate is full of travel and work leading up to my birthday, potentially inhibiting me from pulling it off. Instead of shelving the idea, I decided I would certainly do it if the only person I have to organize is me.
In the spirit of "it's my birthday, so you HAVE to show up," I am hoping that "showing up" comes in the form of support for a wonderful cause via sponsorship per loop, direct donation, coming out and running a few loops with me, or a hi-five along the way to keep me going, and therefore raising more money.
Many causes need our support, and it can be hard to choose! I have recently been learning about food insecurity for children. Maine is a state rich with food resources, has the "Foodiest Town in America," and has been a national leader in support for local farms and sustainable food practices, so why not also be a leader in securing food for those in our community. Many restaurants and food purveyors in the state have gone above and beyond to help with the cause. I work closely with Ilma Lopez and Leslie Oster, and their conviction and passion for the cause was a strong push to choose FullPlates.org.
My long-term goal is to continue the 12-hour birthday charity run until I can't run anymore. And potentially take on 24 hours, 36 hours, and maybe more, in the coming years. If I can grow this to support more runners and raise more money for causes needing our support, locally or nationally, then I feel it's a good use of a birthday!
For anyone who may wish to donate per loop, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know the amount per loop. At the end of the run, I will reply with a final count, and you can go to the donation page and donate the final amount.
What is something uniquely Zack that your friends, and even your family, may not know about you?
This is especially difficult to answer. I feel it is my family and close friends of mine that seem to know me better than I know myself. They're able to point out flaws, strengths, and intricacies about me that I don't realize. Thinking of something that is truly, uniquely me that THEY wouldn't know about is difficult. The only thing I can think of is my insecurity. Not that insecurity is unique, but I feel the depth of my insecurity would be a surprise to those who know me intimately well.
What message would you like me to share with the world on your behalf repeatedly?
To question. To question yourself, your abilities, and your understanding of others and your community in hopes of garnering a better understanding of yourself and others, and to further your ability to push yourself in any form, relate better to others, and have more compassion.
What is your favorite inspirational/motivational quote?
I don't have a quote, but I have a word: Yes. Yes, I can accomplish x,y,z. Yes, I will take this on. Yes, I will fail. Yes, I will learn. For me, it is such a positive, forward moving word. It keeps me open to new possibilities, dialogues, and learnings. I can't say I have always adhered to it, but it is a simple word which I have found that when I do, I am far more successful in my pursuits.
In one word describe yourself:
I chuckle a bit at this question because it is the same question I asked of participants in my first art opening. I wanted people to find that one word that at their core, regardless if it casts them in a positive or negative light, truly conveyed how they saw themselves. My word for the project was "yes" for all the reasons mentioned above. But that was a decade ago, and I can't honestly say I continuously embody the word or its meaning for me. I stumble and falter. I'm human. One constant in my life is "inquisition." I’m always wanting to find out more about the world around me, the people I engage with, what makes me/them tick, and how to accomplish x, y, z.
Please help us share Zack’s charity run by sharing this story. We can use technology and social media for greater good and make a positive difference in the world we coexist.
Thank you for reading. -Jessica