My amazing friends, Coco and Breezy have recently inspired me to write my story and keep sharing my journey. They have an amazing one that y’all should follow. Being an artist for a living, even a commercial one is definitely a journey of passion, sacrifice, and joy; and I’ve experienced them all. Someone once said, to really know what it means to be a successful artist, you have to have been able to cook breakfast while sitting on your bed. It’s more hard work than you’d ever think as everyone tells me I live the dream, and I do.. But living the dream also requires extreme drive, motivation, hard work and sacrifice, but most of all passion for the actual craft.
So, lets start here.
Chapter 1: The Early Days & Design Days
Back when I was a kid, I always had some sort of an artistic bone in my body. I started drawing and painting in middle school and did AP art in high school. The only part of those cards that photography played was an intro class in high school and college that were required parts of the programs. I never thought anything about it. I always had a passion for graphic design, and from high school, that’s what I loved and chose as the track to set myself on. I never even knew really, what a professional photographer did, nor really thought about it much through out my design career. After a couple years of working as a book cover designer at a small publishing company in Seattle, I went off on my own to freelance design. I started picking up small projects, but too small to have any sort of photography budget. Around that time, digital cameras started getting to a decent quality so I saved my pennies and bought one. The Sony f707, a glorified point and shoot camera. After shooting a bunch of random abstract images over a few months, I put them up on my design website. At that point, my friend had just returned from Africa because he volunteered to help an organization set up a computer network for them. That made me wonder how I could give back to the world and travel at the same time. The thing with design was you didn’t HAVE to be there. Then I had a thought, what about taking pictures? You kinda have to be there. So I pitched a non-profit client that I was doing design work for, the idea of splitting the expenses on a trip to Africa and Europe to shoot a photo library for them. At that point I had no clue what I was doing, but had the ambition to make something happen with little risk to the client. The trip went well, the client was happy with the images, and my world was rocked. I went to Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya & Burundi, and had never been to the developing world like that before, let alone Africa. It took me months to recover from the contrast of experiencing the 3rd world the first time then jumping back into American life. How could we live like we do when others are starving? Seeing and experiencing it first hand changes your perspective on life, and as an artist.
Chapter 2: The Discovery of my New Passion
As I slowly recovered from my African immersion, I began to keep hobbying around with my camera and was introduced to a photographer, Jim Garner who I began to do website updates for. Over the course of a few months, I began to pester him with questions regarding to photography amidst working on his site. Eventually he invited me on a shoot to see what it was like, and eventually I was helping him out a couple times a week on average. I began grabbing attractive friends and asking to shoot them so I could learn first hand which eventually led to testing models from the local agencies in Seattle in my free time. Jim eventually sat me down one day, explained the economic possibilities of the photography business and told me I need to be a photographer. I remember shortly there after, I made the decision to fully jump in. My problem with graphic design was that I was a bit blazay with it. I enjoyed it, and even loved it, but I wasn’t driven. During those years, I always thought “maybe I’ll have a firm one day.. or something” As soon as I decided to become a photographer, I could where I wanted to be in 5 years and knew I would do everything it took to get there.
Chapter 3: The Tough Transition
This is where the struggle begins. This is the part where I tell people it’s the hardest especially if you are later on in your life and are used to making a good living. THIS is the part where you figure out if you’re cut out for this line of work. It can definitely be a dream job, but it ain’t no easy task. The transition from the past and beginning of the journey is the same to any entrepreneur, a struggle(unless you have a trust fund, but if you have a trust fund it’s hard to really know what it’s like to struggle). The bright side is, if you TRUELY love the craft for what it is, you’ll do what it takes to succeed. It’s all a puzzle that you work backwards from, figuring out the pieces to your life and lifestyle that get you to where you want to be.
As I began to embark on this new found journey, it wasn’t easy. I had to do everything I could to make enough money to pay my bills, while freeing enough time to learn my new craft. I lived in Seattle, in a basement room of a house which my friends called “The Dungeon.” This allowed me to pay a very low rent payment that freed me up to put any money I made into my photography business. I also ate very cheaply and didn’t take on any debt. Overall this also allowed me to not have to work ‘as much’ to cover my expenses which freed up my time to practice shooting, assist and learn. I did everything I could to achieve this balance from shooting tests, assisting, doing a few graphic design projects, and even an occasional wedding to make the ends meet.
Art is a journey, and especially photography. It’s something that only time can take you to where the level you need to be to make money at it. Something I was always a bit impatient to wait for and had to learn. I lived in a city where there’s not much industry in relation to what I do today so I felt like I was stabbing in the dark. it was also before the rise of free information and knowledge was being given away by everyone and their dog on the internet. All I could do is shoot on my own to the imagery I aspired to without guidance. Your portfolio is everything in this business. People hire you based off what they see, and when your work gets to the right level, they will hire you. That takes time and practice. You may think something you shot is the best thing that ever happened since sliced bread, but it may not be the right caliber.
Chapter 4: Just when you think you’ve made it
At the beginning of 2005, I got a pretty big Nike job through a digital agency. Back then digital agencies were a bit different in the fact that they really were a separate world than the traditional print agencies. The job was shooting pro sports players, Brian Urlacher, Ben Roethlesburger, Mariano Rivera, Albert Pujols, and a couple others. The job was insane, and a lot of figuring it out as it unfolded. The shoot was a success, and I thought I was in. The ball was rolling. Oh contrare. The next job I saw of that size wasn’t until 2 years later, and a hell of a lot of work to get. Meanwhile, the juggling hustle continued. Shooting small jobs like model tests, an occasional wedding, and other random jobs. In march I did another travel job for the same non-profit I went to Africa for which helped develop my travel work. I decided to move to Paris that May with the money I had saved. I wanted to live in another country that was photography centric, but a great city. I wanted to experience as much as I could because your work as an artist stems from your life experiences. I took half a year, and explored in Paris, and surrounding countries on the weekends. Moving to a new country, not knowing anyone is a big challenge. It pushes you to go out and make new friends, and learn about yourself. I shot some travel work, and did some test shoots out there. After realizing, although Paris is a wonderful city to hang out and enjoy, it wasn’t a place I wanted to foster my career.
Chapter 5: Another new beginning
Upon returning from Paris, I traveled around for about another 6 months and decided to move to LA more permanently. I realized I would never get to where I wanted to be, living in Seattle. I thought about moving to NYC, but at that point in my life of starting over in a whole new market would have been tough especially in shooting my own portfolio work. LA is way more conducive for that. When I got to LA, I pretty much had to start over from scratch with a higher level of expenses each month which made my lifestyle a bit tighter. Creating a new network takes some time in a new city when you’re trying to pay your bills. I was still taking freelance design jobs to help me sustain while juggling my photography business. Developing your portfolio is a constant thing, and something you should always be doing, and I was doing a lot of that. Later that year, I ended up going to Asia for 2 months for the non-profit and really hit my stride with my travel work. I came back with some amazing images and the next year, those images helped me land another Nike job traveling to Latin America for a couple weeks in 2007. Then to follow, it took me another year to get another big job and I had to juggle through that year.
Chapter 6: Gettin’ Repped
Around mid 2007 I got my first rep in LA, and after about 8 months of a couple smaller jobs, I realized it wasn’t a good fit for me in part of the arena, so I moved on. I learned a lot from that relationship because working with a rep is almost a marriage in your business. Things that work, things that don’t work. They all fit in to how you craft the next relationship, and you learn something new every time. After we parted ways, I slowly began to look for another rep that would be better fitting for what I was looking to do. Through an awesome connection, I was able to connect with five different reps that were interested in me, and applied what I had learned from my last rep relationship into interviewing the new ones, and landed with a great one in New York City. Having a New York presence was important to me as so much business happens here, and I wanted someone on the ground in that could represent. Shortly there after, I landed my first official advertising campaign. I think I was at the right part of my artistic journey at this point.
Chapter 7: Rockin’ and Rollin’
Since that first advertising campaign, the next two years(2009 & 2010) were rockin’. I was so busy, I didn’t even know what to do with myself. It was fun, and a great immersion into the world of a working as well paid photographer. Life was good. Getting hired to do what I do, Traveling every other week to some place new and living the good life. There’s something about these times in life where you have to just take what comes your way, and appreciate it because you never know when it will end, even when it seems like it never will. Those years, I landed so many big new clients like Cosmopolitan Magazine, Miller High Life, Coca-Cola, etc. There’s something about being on the adrenaline of being in so much demand it feels good, especially as an artist. When your living depends on the creation of art, which is such a personal and emotional product, you feel such an emotional high. Towards the end of 2010, I realized I wasn’t doing much shooting of my own that was fulfilling my creative soul.
Chapter 8: Cue Twenty eleven
When you’re on such a roll with certain work, you think it can only get better from there. Especially if the ball’s been rolling for a couple years, and snowballing at that rate. I rolled into 2011 thinking that after a pattern of a snowballing two years, that the ball would keep growing, but it changed. My business actually did quite well, but it was just a different year creatively than 2010. Good thing is, the other jobs kept coming. What was this attributed to? Who knows, but I think it was more of a lesson to me that not every year is going to snowball like it was. It’s just the nature of business. That’s why most businesses take the average of a few years to really see how they’re doing, and I had to learn the lesson of learning how to do this. When you’re used to getting hired often for your own art as I mentioned above, the opposite feeling can emerge when you’re not getting hired as much. It can take a toll on your soul, even though it probably shouldn’t but it’s hard to separate yourself from the personalization of art and commerce. So where does that leave me now? A bit more resolved from within, I still want the world, but one piece at a time. There’s always the constant reminder that this career is always a hustle, now matter how big you are, and whether it’s hustling for the money or hustling for the creative jobs that you want, it never stops. If you stop, you disappear.
Chapter 9: Re-Focusing
I will say this year has shaped up to be a great one. I’ve gotten some really cool assignments, including one of my dream clients, Conde Nast Traveler which I was excited to have the cover and a 10 page story in June. Most of the jobs I’ve gotten this year, I’ve enjoyed a lot more creatively and it’s been exciting. I will continue this track, and will be refining my focus as I go.
Never Stop Dreaming.