I’ve told my story in the past but I’ve never really gone into much detail about how I’ve come to this point in my career. It was one of those things that was never really supposed to happen. I wasn’t a business man who had money to spend on a start up company. Nor was I lucky enough to strike it rich by playing the lottery. I was just a college kid who liked to be creative. With a little luck and a lot of hard work I am here. Looking back on what could have been I am so happy for all the speed bumps and detours along the way. It has been a journey to say the least.
This post will not have any photographs but instead it will have words… many, many words. A lot of words.
I knew at some point in High School that I wanted to become a photographer. During my senior year our BIG project was to write a thesis on what we wanted to do with our lives after graduation. I wanted to be a photographer. Part of the project was to call a professional in the area and interview them. I called Forrest Studio. That was where my senior portraits were taken so it seemed like the natural place for me to do my interview. I was nervous about the call but was pleasantly surprised at how nice they were and how helpful they were. I was SUPER excited and ended up taking the “photography” course offered in my high school. I used quotations because it was a half photography and half screen printing class. Our dark room was a closet that was converted into a lab. The chemicals were so watered down that the prints I made 17 years ago have not finished fixing yet (anyone who worked in a darkroom knows what the fixer does- google it). Also the “cool kids” mainly used it to smoke cigarettes and make out with each other. Which left the few of us that wanted to work knocking on the door for them to hurry up.
Being that photography is not my only creative outlet I somehow took a liking to baking. Throughout the remainder of the year I grew less interested in photography and more interested in becoming a baker. To make this long story short(er) I ended up staying close to home to pursue my new dream of becoming the “Next Great Baker”. Fast forward a few months to graduation and then keep fast forwarding a little further to when I was enrolled in Johnson and Wales… keep fast forwarding through that part since it wasn’t very exciting and you get to the point in my life when I decided that baking wasn’t for me and I made the decision to drop out of college. The drop out conversation with my parents was immediately followed up by “You have to at least go to community college or get a job or move out.” Which wasn’t what I wanted to hear but it was either that or start adulting. So I signed up for classes at Tidewater Community College with absolutely zero direction.
There is a lot of gray area here. I floated around courses for the better part of a year taking, philosophy (failed), poetry (dropped), marine science (passed but too much school), and then it hit me… I’m going to take Photography 101. My parents bought me my camera and I made the 45 minute trek out to Portsmouth for my classes. After a few weeks I started to get inspired again. I started taking more art classes. I took them all. Except painting. No real reason why I just never made it around to it. I took so many classes I was almost able to double major in graphic design too (but I did’t- two classes short). While working on my photography degree I took a studio lighting class. It was in this class that I met (unknowingly) my future (and first) photography employer. Which looking back is weird that he was in my class… more on that later.
College was tough. I had no idea what I was doing. I also had no idea what I was going to do when I got out. I thought maybe Sports Illustrated would hire me or Victoria Secret or Nike or some newspaper or something big because…. you know… thats what happens in the real world. HA! Not so much. I can vividly remember talking to my priest during some random conversation and out of no where he tells me “I don’t think you’re going to make it as a photographer. I know photographers and you don’t have the right personality. You should just consider finding something that would suit you better.” Seriously? No joke- thats what he said to me. Not to go into too much detail and get all political but I didn’t really like him and didn’t hold his advice to a high standard… or any standard at all. But this was certainly fuel for the fire to drive me to succeed. I went back at it with even more drive and fire to get that degree to prove him wrong. Believe it or not he wasn’t only person who told me I shouldn’t be a photographer. Friends would tell me. Family would tell me- my grandma told me “Photography is just a hobby. You should drop out and learn a trade.” hahahaha grandma. Thanks for the motivation. Plus photography is a trade- to me. So now I had to finish school to not only prove all these people wrong but to also accomplish what I set out to do… which was… what? I had no idea but I was going to get that damn degree!!
My First Photography Job
During my final year in school I had a project for one of my courses that I had to spend a day with a photographer and interview them (sounds familiar right?). At the time I was working for a friend who had a auto detailing and landscaping business (I know- weird combo). He told me one of his clients was a photographer and that I should call him and go hang out with him one day. So I did. And he said yes. So I show up and guess who it is? The same dude that was in my studio lighting class. Except now he was running his own business. He had an employee and lots of cool stuff and he was “big time”. Lets’ fast forward again a few weeks. I was now getting paid like $5 to do grunt work and learn photoshop and basically just hang out. Fast forward again to a few months later and I walk in the door first thing in the morning and my employer was frantic. He was on the phone calling a bunch of people. Turns out his photoshop girl never showed up. She never came back. SO now I had a job! YAY! right? My dream is coming true…
As a young person who didn’t know anything about life or business I had a lot to learn. My job consisted of a 40 hour work week that I would photoshop the hell out of everything I saw. I would also assist on shoots and second shoot from time to time. This is where things get dark. The weird thing for me was all the back stabbing and double crossing that went on. I would hear my employer bashing someone in the office and then act like their best buddy in person. It was super odd to me. This “high end” photographer would literally plagiarize other photographer’s work. No joke. He would literally look through a book from the VPPA before a session and copy the images out of it. He also stole some of my ideas and took credit for all the work I did for him as if I was just there to keep the chair warm. Oh yea- he also tried to convince me that I owed him $2000.00 because I filed my taxes incorrectly… Yea… it wasn’t the best place to get my learning experience from. So I quit cold turkey one day and walked out. So this was my very first experience in the industry. Was this how things are? Was this what I was supposed to act like? Is this how everyone is? All these questions going though my head and I had no one to answer them.
Having gone through this experience and not knowing what to expect as a professional in the industry I had NO idea how I should act or what the moral and ethical laws were. What I did know is that I did not want to be shady or back stabbing. It wasn’t and still isn’t in my nature. So I focused more on creating images I was proud of and creating a business I could be proud of. Ah! Back to the warm and fuzzies.
All By Myself
So I should mention that the entire time I was working for this other person I was also getting my own paying jobs. I was shooting events and weddings and families and kids and things were pretty ‘Ok’. When I quit I had no plans. I had nothing else to do and then a job fell into my lap. It had NOTHING to do with photography but it was going to pay my bills. I was going to be a glazier. What’s that you ask? It’s a person who works with glass. I’m not talking glass plates and cups. I’m talking 6 x 12 feet sheets of glass, 400 lb insulated panels, hanging off the sides of buildings in snow storms, large heavy sheets of metal and lots of things that could kill me. I’m surprised I did not die or get seriously injured. It was a high stress job with a tiny paycheck. All the while still doing photography but the work became more and more rare and it was becoming more of a hobby for me.
By this time I had met a new girl. We’ll call her “my wife” to make things easy. And also since that is what I call her now. I’ll save you all the mushy love story about how we met (on myspace) and fell in love and moved in together and bought a house. My dream of becoming a professional photographer was just that- a dream. I far distant unachievable dream. I had a sit down with my dad, who at the time was doing all my book keeping, and he told me I needed to strongly consider my future as a photographer since I wasn’t making enough money to support myself let alone a family. So now it was do or die time.
In a last ditch effort I put out ads on craigslist and started teaching personal photography classes for a whopping $50 per class. It was nothing in terms of overall income but I was getting calls left and right. One came in from a grandmother who wanted a lesson with her grandson. My initial thought was “This is going to be interesting.” So I went and met her and realized she was extremely talented and just needed a few pointers. It was a fantastic lesson and we both had a lot of fun. After the lesson we started chatting about her son’s wedding that was coming up. They ended up hiring me for their day and the wedding couldn’t have gone any smoother. Well it turned out that the bride (Jen) was the manager at Kiln Creek Golf Club and Resort in Newport News. They loved their wedding photos so much they wanted to buy an album. We got to talking about cost of the books. She mentioned the possibility of a trade. I don’t normally like to trade but I was desperate and I would be trading the book for a spot in their bridal show. There were two bridal shows; one in the spring and one in the fall. I was in both.
The Rest is History… or the present… well this is where things got better!
The first show I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect. I showed up with a slideshow on my tv and a small three panel folding frame thingy with 8×10 prints in it. I bought it for $20 on craigslist. (I still have it in my consult room to this day) I printed a few brochures and showed up. I booked 5 weddings that day! FIVE!!! So awesome right? Especially since the year before I had only photographed five weddings total. I got home that night and immediately started googling bridal shows. I found three big ones in this area. Uniquely Yours, VOW and Show Bride. I decided to start off with a couple Show Bride shows. Guess what? Each show I booked weddings. Maybe 2 or 3 on the day and then a couple more in the coming weeks. I went from going out of business to being busier than I ever imagined. That year I ended up with 35 weddings in total. Crazy… one year it was 5 the next was 35. And its been that way ever since.
Standing on the edge and looking down
Now I have these 35 weddings booked and I was rocking and rolling. I was getting more involved in the wedding community and meeting a lot of people. When I would tell them I had been doing this for 6 years (at the time) they would always ask me “Well where have you been?” I was under a rock. If the rock were made of wrongful guidance and insecurity.
So it came time that I was so busy I did not have time to work a full time job anymore. Quite frankly I was at my wit’s end with it and was absolutely miserable. By this time I was engaged and our wedding plans had begun for the early spring. At the start of the year I set a goal to have a certain amount of weddings booked and a certain amount of income by the end of the year. Once I reached that goal I would quit my job and do photography full time. The initial plan was for it to take until December. I reached my goal by April. I ended up quitting my job a week after I was married on June 1. (which was insanely stressful). June 1st will forever be MY independence day.
Now things weren’t all roses and sunshine. I went from a steady pay check to paying myself half of what I was getting at my job. The plan was to be back to paying myself that same amount within a year. It seemed as though my wife and I had a long road of eating spaghetti and peanut butter and jelly in front of us. I ended up hitting my goal and was able to pay myself MORE than what I was making within three months of quitting my job (maybe four months I don’t really remember).
So Now What?
Good question… I’ve been doing this photography thing for about 4 years full time, now going on 5. Regardless it’s been a journey that has spanned over 17 years. Every day I remind myself of what I want to be and what I don’t want to be. It’s so easy to get caught up in drama and negativity and self doubt. I’ve found so much comfort, respect and inspiration from my peers in the industry. It’s important to surround yourself with like minded people. I have so much to thank my family for. Imagine your son telling you he wants to be a photographer and then imagine him telling you he wants you to put him through college for it. It’s kind of amazing that they let it happen. Photography isn’t one of those jobs you are automatically destined for success. Of course my wife gets a lot of credit for kicking me off the ledge and convincing me that if I jumped the fall wouldn’t be too far and I wouldn’t die when I hit the bottom.
Every day I look at what I have. My lovely adorable amazing daughter and a beautiful wife living in a dream home. Business is booming and everything is great. The hustle is still real every day. I work harder than I ever have. I don’t have days off. I take time to spend with my family. I work from home and take care of my daughter during the week while running a full time business.
It’s not easy but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
The moral of the story
I have no idea what the moral of the story here is. I’m not some sappy dude who’s going to tell you to follow your dreams and stuff because dreams come true. I will say that you should always stand up for the things you believe in. Once you discover what is worth fighting for you should fight to the death for those things. Set goals and then crush them. Make friends and surround yourself with positive like minded people. Make your enemies love you and fear you at the same time. Don’t be a follower but instead lead by example. Be original and love what you do.